Hebrews – Lesson Four

How Far Did They Fall?

Lesson Aim:       To understand the spiritual level of the Hebrew Christians by examining the author’s suggestive statements about their weaknesses.


In Lessons Two and Three we made a “specific problems” list of the Hebrew Christian’s problems.  This list is needful, in fact, it is a “must do.”  We will use it in our historical analysis of what was going on where this letter was received; however, it does not go quite far enough to fully prepare us to receive (hear, listen to, think about and learn) what the author will say to the recipients in their situation.  We need to know the level, or seriousness, of their problem(s) because it will be on that level the writer will address his exhortations (13:22).

For instance, if someone should suddenly appear at our door and announce a friend had been hurt in an accident, we would want to respond on the level of their hurt.  We would need to gather more information, rather hastily in this case, in order to properly respond.  We know someone has been hurt but our question is, “How badly?”  This is our question about the Hebrews we will need an answer for before we can read this letter as it was written.


The next step in our historical analysis will be to develop our “suggestive problem” list.  Gathering information for this list will not be as simple as it was for the specific list.  First, let us understand what we mean by a suggested problem.  Here is an example.  Think of a teacher in a primary classroom with twenty students where she is giving their next lesson assignment.  During her discourse we hear her say, “Boys pay attention,” and she continues announcing the assignments.  She did not specifically say the boys were not listening but an outsider who overheard her statement could be led to believe, and correctly so, that the boys in her class were not listening to their teacher, or that she suspected that some of them were giving their attention to something other than the assignment.

When the writer of Hebrews said, “We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard,” in Chapter Two, Verse One, we have found a case of a “suggested problem.”  He did not say they were not paying careful attention; however, while we are doing our historical analysis, we will want to put statements like this on our suggestive list for further analysis.

To do this work we will quickly read the document through a couple more times and mark, or list, these suggestive problems.  Later we will compare our two lists of problems for the purpose of developing a tentative hypothesis.  Our specific list takes precedent over the suggestive list.  The suggestive list may help us to understand more clearly the specific problems.  For instance, the author said, “And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons:” 12:5.  Did he mean their memory had been wiped clean of this knowledge?  Probably not.  Again the author said they needed to persevere (10:36).  How impatient were they?  Our suggestive list of problems may help us with these kind of questions.

The bulk of content in the Hebrews document has been arranged around suggestive problems and weaknesses.  There are several suggestive remarks.  To find them we will need to pay “careful attention” to context.  We must hear the content of these suggestive remarks in the context they were presented.

Generally speaking, we interpret the purpose of content in the context in which it is found.  If we found a jar of beans on the counter in a kitchen next to a pan of water, we might interpret the content of the jar as food for the next meal.  The kitchen and pan of water would be the context.  If we found the same jar of beans at the end of a new plowed row in the garden, we would have a different interpretation of their use.  Note, it is the same content but in a different context; therefore, we may come to a different conclusion about the intent, or function, of the content.

In literature of a letter type, the content is what the author wants to convey to the recipients of the letter and to all readers who might want to be benefited by its content.  We understand the usefulness of the content can only be ascertained in the context the writer decides to make his presentation.  If the author wants to present a variety of content in the same or different contexts he must find a way to structure his document. He cannot just throw it on the page.  The structure and the “style of the writer” in a document may be closely related as it is in the Hebrew letter.  As a reader of this document, we must be able to ascertain its structure.  Then we will be able to move from one contextual situation to another while we appreciate the content.

In order to read the Hebrew letter we will want to use the last two principles of Biblical interpretation we learned in Lesson One:

  1. We must find and follow the author’s style.  In simple terms, we want to follow his “train of thought.”  This will involve the structure.  Indeed, it may have developed the structure of the document.
  2. We must know the content of the document the recipients knew.

This latter principle will be extremely important in our reading of the Hebrew letter.  For instance, if we do not know about Abraham we will need to do a thorough study about him; otherwise, we will not be able to read this letter as it has been written.  The Hebrew Christians knew a lot about Abraham and several other Old Testament characters and stories.  We need to know what they knew because the author assumed the Hebrew Christians knew.

The first principle, that is, “following the writer’s style,” will be our path to accomplishing the aim of this lesson.  Nearly all of the suggestive problems of these Christians will be found in the third item of what we will call the “three items or elements” that form the writer’s style.

Early on in this letter the author began to develop the structure with his own unique style.  He repeatedly made use of the same three elements from the fourth verse of chapter one through the end of chapter twelve.  First, he chose a subject or a person from the Old Testament with which these Christians were very familiar.  He followed the good teaching principle of moving his students from the known to the unknown.  Secondly, in most cases, the author eulogized Jesus Christ as a person.  He presented Him as a servant for Christians in His various roles – roles with superior power and glory in contrast to the character the author had chosen for the first element.  The author will “make his case” by showing the finite completeness of Jesus’ ministry in relation to the topic, or person, he chose in the first item.  The third item, or element, that forms the author’s style, will be an appeal to the recipient’s reasoning powers plus exhortations in the form of a warning.  It is in this exhortation we can perceive the level of their weakness.

The following is another way of stating the author’s “train of thought,” or style.  This may make it easier to remember.  (Item or step 1). He introduced – “What they knew.”  (Item or step 2).  He exhorted them with – “What they should have known about Jesus.”  Or, to put it another way – “What they forgot.”  (Item or step 3).  “The exhortation and, or, warning.”

The material for our suggestive list of problems will be found in “item three” of the writer’s style.  With the exception of a very short opening statement (1:1-3) and a list of exhortations in chapter thirteen, the continuous repetition of the “three element” style becomes the structure (some may want to call this an outline) of the Hebrew letter.  The writer placed the content in this structure.  Outline work may help compartmentalize a large document for the ease of mental processing; however, we will still need to be careful to follow the style of the author lest we fail to catch the emotion of his letter.  A simple outline of Hebrews could run like this:

Hebrews  1:1 – 4:13.  In this last period of time, God speaks through His Son, Jesus Christ. These four chapters end with an invitation to approach the throne of God with confidence via the priesthood of His Son.

5:1 – 10:25.  The priesthood of Jesus Christ on the Melchizedek order is presented.  Again, at the end of this long discourse, Christians find an invitation to come boldly into the presence of God, our Father, through Jesus.

10:26 – 12:28.  The core of the Hebrew Christians’ spiritual growth problem is presented. At the end of this discourse Christians are invited to worship God.

13:1 – 13:25.  General exhortations and the close of the letter.

We believe the content in this letter came from God.  He has chosen to put the content He wants conveyed to us from heaven in historical settings – thus a particular context.  We must discover the historical setting and understand it.  Then we can hear what the Holy Spirit is saying to them through the author.  At the same time we hear what God is saying to us.  We read on two levels, simultaneously:  What the Scriptures meant to them and what they mean to us.  This is how we can be benefactors of the content – along with the original recipients. We read the letters in the New Testament as co-benefactors.

We will now look at an example of the author’s three element style.

Item or step one.  He chose angels for his first subject, a familiar subject for the recipients (1:4).  The writer will continue to make use of “what they knew” about angels up to chapter two, verse eighteen.

Item two.  In the remainder of the first chapter the author will work on his eulogy of Jesus by quoting one Scripture after another from the Old Testament, the Hebrew children’s Bible.  He will show how Jesus is king; therefore, He is much greater than angels.  Remember the church had been taught about Jesus as king previously – when they were first enlightened.

We will find the third element, item or step, in Hebrews 1:14 – 2:4.  Please note verse fourteen is a rhetorical question.  The author believes they knew the answer; consequently, he is appealing to their power to reason.  He knew they knew the answer.  They knew how angels serve faithful Christians but he wanted them to affirm what they knew.  Jesus and angels minister to Abraham’s descendants, who presently are heirs of salvation and members of the church.  See 1:14 and 2:16.  These Christians, who most likely had a Jewish background, felt strongly that a “message spoken by angels was binding and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment.”  2:2.  He also put this to them in the form of a question as he continued in verse three.  Did they know the answer?  Sure, they knew it.  They had seen the light and had walked by faith for some time in their earlier days as Christians.

So we can begin to see how this writer is doing his job.  Watch him work in 2:3.  The author has already proven by several quotes from the Old Testament that Jesus, the Son of God, is superior to angels.  He is the king.  Now the writer can drive home his point of exhortation by appealing to their power to reason.  Should they, or should they not, obey the words of the One who is greater than angels?  Their answer could only be, “Yes, yes, we know what you are saying.”  Again, another question, and this time we see the hint of a warning.  “How shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?”

We could spend a lot of “good time” hearing this writer as he labors to restore those Christians to the level of confidence they had in their earlier days (10:19, 35).  This was back when they bore witness with themselves that they were sons of God and the Holy Spirit bore witness with their spirits that this was their true identity (Rom. 8:16; Heb. 2:11).  This was who they were.  This was back before they became “slow to learn.”  5:11.  The author had a big challenge as he wrote this letter.  We will not be ready to clearly hear him meet this challenge until we understand how far they had fallen.

We must keep looking to see if there are more “suggestive problems.”  We probably have one right here in 2:1 where he said, “We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard.”  This is the kind of statement we will want to put on our list.  But look again at this verse.  Did the author think they were in a drifting situation, when he said, “so that we do not drift away?”  Is the author suggesting they are in a “drifting mode” because they were not paying careful attention to the word of God?

We will continue to glean the author’s suggestions about these Christians as we move with his “train of thought” in this document.  Can you find the next three elements, or steps, the author has used to form the structure for this letter?  I will give you a clue.  The character he selected for “element one” walked across the Red Sea on dry land.

The point we may want to use from this lesson for our own exhortation is the author’s suggestion to the Hebrews.  Are we as a church, or as an individual Christian, moving full steam ahead in the Christian race with Jesus leading us (12:2)?  Or, are we drifting away from the word we have heard (2:1)?   We are running the race, or we are in a drifting mode.  If the latter is our case, then let us accept the challenge.  Let us pay more careful attention to our Bible study.  Let us hear the Hebrew epistle as though God is speaking to us so we too can be exhorted in our weaknesses.

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