Hebrews – Lesson One

Introduction to Hebrews

Brothers, I urge you to bear with my word of exhortation, for I have written you only a short letter.  Hebrews 13:22

This letter preceded a visit planned by the writer; therefore, we can conclude the recipients lived in a specific location.  He would come to them from Italy as soon as Timothy arrived. Timothy had recently been released, we assume, from prison.  See Hebrews 13:23.  The author had spent time with the recipients for he said, “I particularly urge you to pray so that I may be restored to you soon.”  Hebrews 13:19.   He was probably neither an Apostle, nor had he been taught directly by Jesus for he said, “This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard Him.”  Hebrews 2:3.  And that is about all we know about the author of what has been traditionally, but not divinely, called “Hebrews.”

The use of Old Testament content throughout the letter would cause us to agree with this title if it is referring to the original nationality of the recipients.  The Christians who received this document, which the author called a letter, probably had a Jewish background.  Still the author wrote to them in the Greek language.  This could mean they lived outside Judea.

The fact is that all we have said in the foregoing has little to do with our interpretation of this letter.  Since the proper reading and interpretation of this letter does not require our understanding of the relationship of the writer and the receivers, this information is not included in the letter.  The author’s name was not included and we know nothing of the details of their previous relationship.  Understanding the relationship of the author of the Corinthian letters with the recipients is critical, as well as other New Testament documents, but not so with Hebrews.

Please let it be noted that all students of the Bible are, of necessity, interpreters.  The only question is, will we do good or bad interpretation of the Scriptures?  The aim of good interpretation is to get at the “plain meaning” of the text.  Enlightened common sense is the most important ingredient; however, we should know that interpretation is influenced by the nature of the reader and the nature of the Scripture.*

The nature of the Hebrew epistle is that it was written to Christians who lived in a different culture and spoke a different language from our own.  Consequently, we must depend on translation unless we are Greek language scholars.  Our nature, as the reader, is that we are prone to be influenced in our reading and interpretation of Scripture by our previous understanding of the document and our own culture.  For this reason we need to control our study by diligently applying a few Biblical principles of interpretation.  The following principles are the minimal:

1.  Read the Hebrew letter as a letter; that is, read it from beginning to end – and more than once.  We want to strive to see the recipients as the author viewed them in their situation and condition at the time he wrote.  The questions we will be asking of the text are:

Did the recipients have a problem?  If so, what was their main problem?  Did it involve a doctrinal issue or was it a spiritual growth problem?  Naturally, we can say one kind of problem will lead to the other but we will want to understand which one the author is striving to solve – that will be the main problem.  If it was doctrinal then what was its origin?  Did it come from outside or from within the church?  Finally, what was the depth of their problem(s)?  For our answers to these questions we begin and end our search in the letter itself.

We would not want to “turn to” commentaries until after we have formed our own hypothesis.  Commentaries may help us broaden our view of the problem but the solution must come from the Scriptures only; therefore, we must attain the same view of the recipients the author possessed.  Christian theology, ethic and practice are understood in the “task solving” context of the letters “along side” the other documents in the New Testament.  We have division in the Christian community.  This division, for the most part, has its root in bad interpretation.

2.  What did the author say to the recipient’s situation?  If they had a problem, how did he seek to help them solve it?  What were his tools and methods?  We must understand the problem in order to properly understand the author’s divine solution.  If we conclude they had a specific problem but the author appears to be giving the solution to a different problem, we need to rethink our hypothesis.  A divinely inspired author will always be struggling to solve the problem(s) he perceives exist with the recipients.  By the grace of God’s word both the problem and the answer is presented for our application to our own Christian development.

In the case of these Christians who may have been reared in a Hebrew culture, the writer’s main purpose was to exhort them in what he called “this short letter.”  He exhorted by writing, “So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded.”  Then he said, “You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what God has promised.”  Heb. 10:35, 36.  It was not a case of their not knowing or understanding God’s will, they just needed to be confident enough to do it and then be patient while they waited for the Lord’s rewards.  In spite of the fact that many commentaries suggest the recipients had the doctrinal problem of “falling back to Judaism,” the Hebrew author saw a very different kind of problem.  The Hebrew letter reveals many spiritual growth problems and the document works out the solutions for them and us.  The Hebrew epistle has eternal relevance, that is, it works for all similar Christian spiritual growth problems in all ages.

3.  The reader must know something about what the recipients knew.  In the case of reading and understanding Hebrews we will need to have a good knowledge of what God was doing in the narratives called the Old Testament.  For instance, if we do not know about Moses we can not properly read and understand chapter three in Hebrews. If we do not understand angels we will not understand many points in this letter.  See Heb. 1:4 – 2:16; 12:22, 23; 13:1.

4.  We must follow the style of the writer.  The author’s style or train of thought in Hebrews is as follows:

First he will introduce a topic the recipients were thoroughly familiar with from their cultural background.  Because the Hebrew Christians grew up in a Jewish culture based on a knowledge of the Old Testament Scriptures, they knew about angels (chapter one), Moses (three), the “rest” God promised for His people (four), that priests had to be called by God (five), the Levitical priesthood (seven and following).

Secondly, the author will remind them of what they had been taught about Jesus Christ.  In regard to the Old Testament topic the author decided to use, he would show how Jesus’ role as king and high priest is so much greater than angels and Moses’ roles.  They were once enlightened (Heb. 2:3, 4; 4:2; 10:32); however, at the time of the writing they appeared to have forgotten what God had done, and was doing, for them “in Christ.”  They were losing their faith in God’s program to nurture their spiritual growth by the discipline of tribulation.  They were in danger of losing their personal identity as sons of God (Heb.12:4-13).

Thirdly, following the presentation of the Old Testament topic and what they had been taught about Jesus, the author gave them a very stern exhortation.  He used the foregoing three steps through out the first twelve chapters in Hebrews.  Example:

Step one.  They knew about angels (1:4) and they believed “the message spoken by angels was binding.” 2:2.

Step two.  They had once been enlightened about all of the Scriptures the author quoted in chapter one about how Jesus was greater than angels.

Step three.  The author’s exhortation in the form of a warning:  You believed you should obey the words God spoke via angels.  Jesus is so much greater, so then should you not “pay more careful attention?” Think about it!  See 2:1-4.

The solution to their spiritual growth problem, as in all Christians’ growth, had to be solved by them “from the inside out.”  Jesus is ready and will help but God gave mankind choice.  The use of the “three step” strategy suggests that the author wanted the recipients to evaluate their situation for themselves.  They were in dire spiritual danger; therefore, they needed to understand how far they had slipped from “those earlier days after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering.”  Heb. 10:32. Apparently, the writer did not believe it would be enough just to tell them they had a spiritual growth problem.  They needed more than a “Sunday morning” sermon. They needed to examine themselves (II Cor. 13:5).  He tried to help them by using his three-point style.

In our next lesson we will begin an exegetical approach in our study of the Hebrew letter.  An exegetical approach means we will make use of the four principles of interpretation listed above in order to understand the situation to which the Hebrew letter speaks.  We will do this work in Lessons Two through Eight.

The aim of exegesis is to understand the “then and there” situation.  Our main aim will be to understand what the author meant as he gave divine solutions to the Hebrew Christians’ problem(s).  The discipline of exegesis is concerned with historical and literary analysis.

After we arrive at some understanding of what the Scriptures meant we should be capable of doing our own personal study of what the same Scriptures mean.  We will begin to think in terms of the “here and now” – what the Scriptures mean for us.  The discipline of hermeneutics is concerned with the “here and now,” that is, the meaning part of Scripture study.  We seek to understand the principles of life and graces of God revealed to us in the Hebrew letter.

Please note:  A Scripture cannot mean what it never meant. *

Our decisions about what a block of Scripture means should always be controlled by what the Scripture meant in its original context.

In technical terms: Our hermeneutics should be controlled by good exegesis.

Although the aim of this series of lessons is confined to an exegetical approach of Hebrews, some suggestive comments about the meaning of a text may be offered.  This will be done only to clarify the exegetical hypothesis that is being presented.  This is not a commentary on Hebrews.  It is a “help study” course to enable the readers to make their own commentary about the meaning of Hebrews.

* From the book written by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, “How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth.”  Academic Books Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Zondervan Publishing House, 1982.


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