In this study, we will focus on a broader understanding of the book of Hebrews. Although we will, as far as possible, address the various passages in the same chronological order as they appear in the Bible, we are mainly dividing the book into various themes.
The only external source used is John MacArthur’s New Testament Commentary on the book of Hebrews. Although the Commentary book contains more that 500 pages, the total pages of our study material will be approximately 80 pages long and each individual part will be about 10 pages long.
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BACKGROUND ON THE BOOK OF HEBREWS
Nobody knows for certain who the author of the book of Hebrews was. There are no references to Gentiles in the book and the congregation being addressed was strictly Jewish. They are being taught about the Lord Jesus Christ and the New Covenant, in contrast to the Old Covenant, under which they had so long lived and worshiped.
The Christian Hebrews must have been Christians for some time before the letter was written, but still had to come to maturity. “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for some one to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food.” (5:12)
Although the primary message is addressed to believers, the key to interpreting any part of Hebrews is to understand that three different groups are being addressed. If we do not understand that, it is easy to confuse issues addressed.
GROUP I: TRUE HEBREW CHRISTIANS
They had come out of Judaism, in which they had been born and raised and were born again. They were treated with great hostility from their own people, though not yet martyrdom (10:32-34; 12:4). They lacked full confidence in the gospel and were tempted to return to many of the Judaistic traditions that previously formed much a part of their lives, although they would not lose their salvation. This letter had the purpose of assuring them that they do not need the old Aaronic-Levitical priesthood and daily sacrifices.
GROUP II: HEBREW NON-CHRISTIANS WHO WERE INTELLECTUALLY CONVINCED
These Hebrews heard about Jesus Christ and were intellectually convinced, but not willing to make a commitment of faith in Him and were not willing to make the sacrifice required. “For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God, and put Him to open shame.” (6:4-6)
They were thus without excuse and without hope, while setting themselves up for God’s judgement. “For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins.” (10:26) “How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace?” (10:29) “For you know that even afterwards, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought for it with tears.” (12:17)
GROUP III: HEBREW NON-CHRISTIANS WHO WERE NOT CONVINCED
These Hebrews did not believe in the gospel of Christ at all. For example, the Spirit is surely not saying to believers, “It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment” (9:27).
The overall theme of the Book of Hebrews is the superiority, or the pre-eminence, of Christ. He is superior to the angels, to Moses, to Joshua, to Aaron and his priesthood, and to the Old Covenant and to old sacrifices.
A few things worthy to take note of:
- The Jews previously never approached God directly. Only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies, and that happened once a year during the great Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur).
- God then instituted a system of sacrifices as outward acts of inner repentance and through the Levitical priesthood, sacrifices were made to symbolize atonement for sin. God gave His covenant, which included His law, and thereby offered the people access to Him. This whole system however never removed sin fully and finally.
- Jesus Christ then came as the Mediator of a better covenant, because His sacrificed once and for all and removes every sin ever committed. He is the Perfect Priest and the Perfect Sacrifice. “But He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God.” (10:12)
- The idea of a new covenant was not easy for Jews to accept. Part of the purpose of the book of Hebrews, therefore, was to confront the born-again Jew with the fact that he could, and should, let go of all his Judaistic traditions. In addition, they experienced intense persecution and were now considered unclean. While in God’s eyes they were the only true Jews (Rom. 2:28-29), they were considered by fellow Jews to be worse than Gentiles.
THE CONTRAST BETWEEN CHRISTIANITY AND JUDAISM
Throughout the book of Hebrews, there are many comparisons and contrasts between Christianity and Judaism. Understanding this truth is essential to proper interpretation of the epistle.
One of the first rules of sound biblical hermeneutics (interpretation) is to discover the central theme and to render all other interpretations in light of it. The central theme and message of the book of Hebrews is the superiority of the New Covenant to the Old, that is, of Christianity to Judaism. The Holy Spirit is contrasting Judaism and Christianity, the unsaved Jew in Judaism and the redeemed Jew in Christianity. The Old Testament essentially is God’s revelation of pictures and types, which are fulfilled in Christ in the New Testament.
LAYOUT OF THE BOOK OF HEBREWS
The first eleven chapters of Hebrews do not emphasize specific commands to Christians. There is an obvious lack of practical explanations or exhortations. The section is pure doctrine and is almost entirely directed to Jews who have received the gospel but need to be affirmed in the superiority of the New Covenant.
The exhortations in chapter 12 that apply to Christians are general, encouraging them to run the race of faith with patience and to follow peace and holiness.
The specific practical exhortations for Christians are in chapter 13. The standards of Christian behaviour set forth in Hebrews 13 presuppose two basic realities: that these standards are based on the doctrinal foundation of chapters 1 through 12, and that they apply to Christian believers.
Although the book of Hebrews does not mention any Gentiles, we can all still learn a lot from this rich book.