Who the friend of the Apostle Paul is that wrote this letter will be unknown until Jesus returns! (Hebrews 13:23). The letter ‘to the Hebrews’ is obviously written to Jewish Christians but we don’t know where they were situated. But the more pressing issue is the reason for the letter – it seems clear from reading the whole letter that these Jewish Christians had faced troubled times of persecution from other Jews and more was to come.
They were under pressure about Jesus. False teaching or social pressure was pressing them to claim that Jesus was somehow less than God the Son and sent Messiah (Christ). If they proclaimed Jesus as no more than an angel the persecution would subside and life would be much easier. But they cannot do that, says this letter in many different ways. The Christians have many reasons to press on in faith and must not sin against what they know to be true.
Jesus is not an angel, He is the Son of God who became human to save humans (Hebrews 1-2)! Jesus is greater than Moses and these Christians need to be careful that they don’t fail to listen to God like their ancestors failed to listen to God through Moses (Hebrews 3:1-4:14). There is no point for them to turn back to Jewish religion because Jesus is the Great High Priest and he is the fulfilment of what the Old Testament priesthood pointed to (Hebrews 4:14-7:28). Jesus is also the one who mediates a new and better covenant than the previous covenant, the very way of relating to God that they had always hoped would come (Hebrews 8-10:18). The Christians have every reason to continue in faith. They need to take courage from each other, previous heroes of the faith, and from Jesus himself. He is the same yesterday, today and forever, and he will be faithful to them. They are to seek the city to come while God gives them grace and peace to keep going in their tough times (Hebrews 10:19-13:25).
The common stumbling point for readers of Hebrews comes mostly in two areas – (1) the overall Jewishness of the letter, and (2) the strength of the warnings.
We’re not immediately familiar with Jewish tradition and way of life. You may need to brush up on your Old Testament to understand Hebrews better. The strength of the warnings is sometimes hard to interpret especially in the face of seemingly equally strong encouragements: “He has secured an eternal redemption” and “impossible to renew to repentance” seem to be contradictory.
It would be foolish for us to glibly answer these intensely debated questions in one small intro. The encouragement to you is make sure that you understand carefully what the warning is warning and what the promise is promising. Is the warning about blessing in this life or about ultimately going to heaven? Is the promise about blessing in this life or about ultimately going to heaven? Read carefully and follow the interpretative rules that hopefully you have learned up to now. If you do this, you will find Hebrews the deep encouragement that its original readers must have found it to be.
Pic: Adoration of the Lamb, by Jan van Eyck (1432), oil on wood, Ghent altarpiece, Cathedral of St. Bavo, Ghent.