1. Recipients, Author and Time of Writing
The Epistle to the Hebrews is one of the most beautiful ones of the NT. The Lord Jesus occupies the central place in it. At the same time this epistle is also one of the most difficult ones. To rightly understand this epistle one needs a thorough knowledge of the Jewish divine service in the Old Testament.
The epistle starts off as a written sermon and closes in the form of an epistle. Neither author nor addressee is mentioned in it.
The title “to the Hebrews” only appears in the 2nd century with Clemens of Alexandria (around 150 – 215 AC). As there is no other name known for the epistle it probably goes back to a very old tradition. But who were these Hebrews, and where did they live?
“Hebrews” is a name for the Israelites and for the descendants of Abraham (compare Gen. 14:13; Phil. 3:5). And yet the epistle cannot have received its name for the fact only that there are so many references to the OT in it. The addressees must not only have been very familiar with the OT but they are also frequently addressed as originating from the people of Israel. To this fact such expressions as “the fathers”, “the prophets” (Heb. 1:1), “the elders” (Heb. 11:2) would point. Also the mention of Moses, Joshua and Aaron, who all belonged to the chosen people of God, confirm the same.
The addressees however had come to the conclusion that God's way of salvation was not the divine service of the OT but faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (Heb. 2:1-4; 3:1.6; 4:1.2.14-16; 6:1-3; 10:13-25). The apostle Paul calls such Christians “a remnant according to the election of grace” in Romans 11:1-5. These Christians however were partially in danger to withdraw from Christendom and to go back to Judaism because of the heavy outward pressure of persecution (Heb. 6:4-8; 10:26-31). These were in particular people who had professed to be Christians but had no true faith in the Saviour Jesus Christ.
In contrast to “the scattered strangers” that are the converted Jews of the Diaspora (see 1 Pet. 1:1) the addressees of the epistle to the Hebrews lived in Palestine. This is seen in Heb. 10:11.34 (compare Acts 8:1). They were taught, admonished and encouraged by this epistle.
The author of the epistle does not mention his name. Many a supposition has been made as to who the author might have been: Paul, Luke, Barnabas (so says Tertullian), Apollos (so says Martin Luther), Silas or even Aquila and Priscilla have been suggested.
Most of the modern scientists refuse to accept Paul as the author because contents, structure and language of the epistle are not typical for him. And yet the old Alexandrian tradition ascribes this epistle to the apostle Paul. The fact that the author knew Timothy well (Heb. 13:23) and that Peter who also wrote to Jewish Christians mentions an epistle of Paul to them (2 Pet. 3:15) speak for the Alexandrian tradition. However the addressees of the epistle were Jewish Christians in Palestine whereas Peter wrote to the scattered strangers (1 Pet. 1:1) who lived outside Palestine. If Paul was the author one reason for not mentioning his name might be that he was an apostle to the nations whereas Peter was an apostle to the Jews (Gal. 2:7-8).
As a matter of fact the author of the epistle remains unknown. The Holy Spirit who inspired this epistle deliberately wanted to introduce the Lord Jesus only as apostle and high priest of our profession (Heb. 3:1). The church father Origines (around 185 to 254 AC) appropriately wrote: Only God knows in truth who the author is.
Time of Writing
Rregarding the time of writing the opinions of the scientists differ as much as they do in respect to the authorship of the epistle. It is certain though that a writing of Clemens of Rome (around 95 AC) shows many references from the epistle to the Hebrews.
From Hebrews itself we see that the Old Testament service of offerings in the temple was still in existence (chap. 9:6-7; 10:11). The temple and the city of Jerusalem were destroyed by the Roman general and later emperor Titus in the year 70 AC. Hebrews does not mention this destruction. This is why many scientists believe the epistle was written during the years 60 to 70 AC. Many who refuse Paul's authorship conclude for reason of Heb. 2:3 and 13:7 that the epistle must have been written for some time after the apostles' death. Saying this, the scientists obviously overlook the fact that the apostle Paul himself did not belong to the apostles who had seen and heard the Lord Jesus on earth. Acts 7:59 and 12:1-2 tell us of Stephen the deacon and James the apostle. Their deaths were a witness for the Lord.
2. Subject and purpose of writing
The Hebrews were Jews in Palestine who had got converted upon the preaching of the apostles. The first chapters of Acts describe that thousands of Jews came to believe. But soon after persecutions started through their unbelieving, hardened compatriots (Acts 8:1-3; 11:19; 12:1-3; compare 1 Thess. 2:14). The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews writes of these persecutions also.
Besides the Hebrews had become dull of hearing and slothful (Heb. 5:11; 6:12). This was followed by a certain spiritual decline (Heb. 5:12-14). This is why the author reminds them several times of their faith and devotion to God which they had shown in the beginning (Heb. 6:10; 10:32; 13:7).
The Hebrews had not only become discouraged and weak by the experiences in their Christian faith, but some had thought of going back to Judaism. This is why they are admonished several times in this epistle to keep to their faith and to endure (Heb. 2:1; 3:6.14; 4:11.14; 6:11; 10:23.35.36; 13:7). But the author also tells them very severely what it means if someone who professed his faith in the gospel apostatizes to his former life in Judaism. There will be no grace for such a soul (Heb. 6:4-8; 10:26-31).
The great subject of the epistle is Christ however! The sublimity of the full revelation of God in Christ the Son of God, the high priest and mediator of the new covenant, all revelations of the Old Testament, precepts and people are the main thoughts going through the whole epistle. Christ is greater than the prophets and the angels and higher than Moses, Joshua and Aaron. The Jewish divine service with its many offerings was only a shadow of reality of the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. The many OT references are mainly referred to, to proof the contrast between old and new covenant and the fulfilment in Christ. This is why one can see the Epistle to the Hebrews as a “fifth gospel” and as sequel of the Gospel by Matthew. The Gospel according to Matthew presents Christ as fulfiller of every OT prophecy to the Jewish people. And Hebrews presents Christ and His service in the heavens as antitype and fulfilment of the Old Testament instructions of service.
Hebrews differs in some respect with the other epistles of the NT. God is not called father of the believers (Heb. 12:7 + 9 are figurative only) and the position of the believer in Christ is not considered. The believers are seen as men on earth having free entrance to God and a heavenly calling by the work of Christ. Thus the epistle is a “wilderness epistle” finding its equivalent in Leviticus where we see the redeemed people of Israel in the desert being able to approach God. The central chapter of Leviticus 16 (Day of Atonement) is explained in Heb. 9 and 10 as fulfilled by the work of Christ on Calvary. The temple in Jerusalem is not mentioned whereas the tabernacle is well mentioned. The tabernacle in Hebrews means either the tent of meeting in the wilderness (Heb. 9:2.21) or in a pictorial way the Jewish order of service (Heb. 9:8; 13:10). In Heb. 8:2 and 9.11 the word tabernacle however means the heavenly sanctuary.
a) To See Christ
No other epistle of the New Testament points us to the Lord Jesus so often.
b.) Important Terms in the Epistle to the Hebrews
In the following we mention some of the important and frequently appearing expressions to a better understanding of the epistle.
Eternal; For Ever and Ever; For Evermore; Everlasting
Sanctified, Holy, Saints, Holiness
Sanctuary, Holiest of All, Holy Place, Holiest
4. Overview of Contents
I. Hebrews 1:1-7:28 Exalted Person of Christ
II. Hebrews 8:1-10:18 Exalted Ministry of Christ
III. Hebrews 10:19-13:25 Practical Part – Life of Faith