Introduction To The Book Of Hebrews
This morning I woke up with Hebrews 12:28 in my thoughts. It says, “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear. For our God is a consuming fire.” (NKJV) The English Standard Version translates these verses in this way, “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.”
Over the last few weeks as I have read this book of Hebrews I have often remembered a prayer that I once heard Dr. James Gerstner pray. His prayer went like this, “We do tremble in holy awe of thee, O God. We worship in reverential fear, not a fear of coming to thee but a fear of straying from thee.”1
Holy awe of God promotes proper worship of God.
Such worship is characterized by a reverential fear.
This godly type of fear does not pull away from God but draws close to Him.
One of the goals of the book of Hebrews to promote the continual and proper worship of God. True believers are to draw near to God by faith and identify with Him despite the hardship, suffering, persecution or any challenge that they might encounter. Consider the following verses:
In Hebrews 5:16 we are exhorted, “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
Or consider Hebrews 13:14-15, “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. Through Him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips that acknowledges his name.”
In Hebrews 10:39 we read, “But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.”
If we would desire to draw near to the LORD we must continually keep the gospel in mind and receive its promises by faith.
Like these Hebrew believers, we are all prone to ignore the Gospel, to become dull of hearing, and to wander away from the truths that we have recieved.
We too are prone to set Christ aside and turn away to other things.
We often need the exhortation to come to us to us and tell us to back to the LORD.
What a tragedy it is to turn from Christ rather than to draw close to Him. Yet, if we will draw near to the LORD we receive from Him His goodness and every healing virtue which proceeds from Him.2
As we introduce the book of Hebrews this morning I would like to briefly speak about three things.
First, what do we know about the author of Hebrews?
Secondly, what can we know about the people who received this letter?
Thirdly, what type of person do we need to be to benefit from this letter?
What Can We Know About The Author Of Hebrews?
Let me make a simple statement about the authorship of this letter. We do not know who wrote this letter because the author did not give a typical greeting. The author of this letter was known to the recipients but it is not so clear to you and I. Having said this, however, there are a lot of good commentators who are quite confident that they know who wrote this letter.
Some have suggested that this letter may have been written by someone like Apollos, Barnabas, Luke or Clement. Many have attributed this letter to Paul. In fact, many of the commentaries that I have looked at often refer to Paul as the author throughout.
I will admit that I do not know for sure who wrote this letter because we are not told. Personally, I have found it more fruitful to ask a different question regarding the author of this letter. I ask, “What type of person could have written a letter like this?”
Let me begin by stating the obvious. We know that the LORD is ultimately behind the writing of all scripture (2 Timothy 3:16-17). The New Hampshire confession begins by saying, “We believe that the holy bible was written by men divinely inspired, and is a perfect treasure of heavenly instruction…”.3
Community Churches statement of faith says, “We believe that the Bible, consisting of the 66 commonly accepted books of the Old and New Testaments, is the Word of God, and not merely of man…”.4
I have often asked, “What type of person could have written a letter like this?”
As we go through this letter we will find that this author speaks differently than most of the people that we so often hear speaking today. He is willing to speak to these readers in any number of ways if it will promote their growth and maturity in the faith.
In doing this his desire is that his readers to remember the Word of God and that they will begin to speak differently as a result. So do not be surprised if you speak differently than you do now by this time next year. Let me give you three examples.
In Hebrews 11:13-14 he mentions how the holy people of faith spoke and encourages us to be like them. He says, “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.” The author wants these people to speak like the faithful men of old. He wants them to speak as though they are seeking a homeland other than the homeland that they now live in.
In Hebrews 13:5-6 we see another example of this when the author gives the readers an exhortation saying, “Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have, for He has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ So we can confidently say, ‘The LORD is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?’” He wants their hearts to be so saturated with biblical truth that they speak with confidence of the realities of how this truth changes them. Again, the author wants biblical truths to shape the language of this people.
Consider Hebrews 13:7 which exhorts us to, “Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you, whose faith follow, considering the outcome of their conduct.” Consider the blessings of these people who had leaders among them who spoke the Word of God and they also get this inspired letter from the LORD!
As we go through this letter we will see that the author of Hebrews knows the Old Testament scriptures and how these scriptures have been fulfilled in Christ. Scripture is best interpreted by the other Scriptures and he does a masterful job at doing this very thing. In this letter he quotes from the Old Testament 35 times in 13 chapters! If your wanting to know the Old Testament better the book of Hebrews will help you do that.
The author writes this letter to encourage persecuted believers and to exhort them to remain faithful to Christ. He will use every possible argument at hand. Throughout this letter we will find that he will speak of the promises of God, then he will remind them of the commands of God, and he will also frequently give these believers some of Scriptures most fearsome threats and warnings. Often he will do all of this within close contexts. Because of this, as we study this letter we will find that we will be more apt to appreciate the diversity of the exhortations in scripture. We will not choose one over the other, but we will want to receive the whole counsel of the Word of God.
Consistent with the overall teaching within the New Testament this author will exhort believers to live godly lives on the basis of sound theology which establishes us in God’s grace and mercy. We spoke of this often as we went through the book of Ephesians when we said, ‘The imperatives (Gospel commands) flow from the indicatives (facts about the Good News).’5
We see this as we come to the closing of this letter when we are given this benediction (good word), “Now may the God of peace, who brought again from the dead the Lord Jesus, the great Shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do His will, working in us that which is pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.” (Hebrews 13:20-21)
Again, I find myself asking, ‘What kind of man could have written a letter like this?’ I will argue at times throughout our study that whoever wrote this letter was ‘a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith’.
Let me give you an example of someone that typifies the author of this letter.
In Acts 11:19-24Barnabas is described in that way. He was ‘a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith’. Barnabas was able to discern the if the grace of God was present in someone's life and that he had the boldness to exhort them to continue in the faith and grace of God.
He was a good man who was able to discern things wisely.
He was full of the Holy Spirit and able to minister effectively by the Spirit of God.
He was full of faith and able to act and speak as a man who had an unshakable hope in the LORD.
Like Barnabas, I would argue that the author of Hebrews is a good man, filled with the Holy Spirit and full of faith. Like Barnabas, he will exhort these believers by teaching the commands of God, by reminding them of the promises of God, and by speaking about the threatening’s of God. Like Barnabas, the author of Hebrews is able to discern the spiritual maturity of these believers and speak appropriately to them for their eternal benefit.
What Can We Know About the Audience That Received This Letter?
Again, we do not know for sure who the author of Hebrews is writing too. There are typically two options put forward.
They could be Jews in Jerusalem or they could be Jews who are living in Rome.
What we know for certain is that these believers found that their faith in Christ had alienated them from both Jews and Gentiles. They found themselves being persecuted, imprisoned, their possessions were confiscated and some had possibly been martyred already.
As a result, these believers were inwardly and outwardly distancing themselves from the Gospel and from Jesus Christ Himself. These believers were seriously being tempted to turn away from the Lord Jesus Christ so that they could avoid all of these things.
Because of these things the author of Hebrews will remind them of the eternal kingdom that is yet to come.
He will remind them that Jesus is better and the New Covenant that He established is far better than the things of this world. For example, we see in Hebrews 11:26 that he reminds them to consider Moses who “...considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward.”
The threat of turning from Christ is real and it needs to be taken seriously so the author of Hebrews will often write some of the strongest warnings that we see in Scripture about turning away from Christ.
I like what Thomas Brooks said, “Where the disease is strong, the remedy must be strong, or else the cure will never be wrought. God is a wise physician, and He would never give strong medicine if weaker could effect the cure.” He continues by saying, “The more rusty the nail is, the oftener we put it into the fire to purify it; and the more crooked it is, the more blows and the harder blows, we give to straighten it; therefore, Christian, if thou hast long been gathering rust, thou hast no cause to complain if God deal thus with thee.”6
As severe as some of these warnings are to these believers the author has great hope in the fact that they will display the things that are associated with salvation (Hebrews 6). Therefore he often reminds them that they need to display faith and patience as they are waiting for the promises to be fulfilled.
What type of person do we need to be to benefit from this letter?
First, we will need to be able to receive the Word of God with faith. And we need to honor the Living Word, Jesus Christ, through whom God has spoken in these last days. We should seek to have the same view of the scriptures as Martin Luther who said, ‘I would not live in Paradise, if he might, with out the Word; but with the Word he could live in hell itself.’”7
If we will cultivate a high view of the Scriptures we will not drift away from the Good News that we have heard. We will not become lazy, sluggish and dull of hearing the Word of God.
Secondly, we need to approach this book with real genuine faith.
Imitation faith will not receive the Word of God into its heart.
A false faith will not persevere to the end.
A false faith will not draw near to the LORD; rather, it will shrink back and be destroyed.
A false faith will not receive the promises, the commands, or the threatening's of the Word of God.
Consider what the Westminster Confession of Faith says regarding such faith. It says, “By this faith (saving faith), a Christian believes to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word, for the authority of God Himself speaking therein; and acts differently upon that which each particular passage contains; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life and the life to come. But the principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace.”8
Thirdly, if we are going to profit from spending a year in this letter we will need to hear this authors appeal to us and bear with the exhortation that he gives to us throughout. He ends the letter by saying, “I appeal to you, brothers, bear with my word of exhortation, for I have written to you briefly.” (13:22)
That word ‘appeal’ literally means ‘to call to ones side’. The author of Hebrews will be calling us to come alongside Christ, His Word, and His people. In the Greek this is a strong appeal and not merely making a suggestion that they can consider. He is giving an authoritative exhortation that they must obey for their own benefit and the benefit of others.
Therefore he tells them to bear with this word of exhortation. The word ‘bear’ means to endure and to hold up under. Wouldn’t you agree with me that when the Word of God is preached accurately there is often the need to bear up under it. The Word of God comes with a weight that only those with genuine faith can long bear up under. This is why so many with weak, immature or a counterfeit faith will seek out the words of false teachers that can tickle their ears rather than cause them to endure up under its teaching.9
The author reminds them that this is a word of ‘exhortation’. The author of Hebrews is encouraging them to respond to the ‘Good News’. He exhorts believers to godly living on the theological basis of God’s grace and mercy which they are given freely in Christ. They are to draw near to God by faith and receive the grace they need to continue faithfully until Christ comes.. The imperatives (Gospel commands) flow from the indicatives (facts about the Good News).10
1WCF Lecture Series, WCF25.3. opening prayer
2Paraphrase of Charles Spurgeon, Flowers from a Puritans Garden, p. 217-218
3New Hampshire Statement of Faith, Scripture, article 1
4Community Church Constitution, Affirmation Of Our Faith, ‘The Bible’ p.3
5Mounce’s Complete Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, Exhortation ‘parakaleo’, p.227
6 Charles Spurgeon, Smooth Stones From Ancient Brooks, p. 54
7Smooth Stones From Ancient Brooks, Charles Spurgeon, p. 54
8Westminster Confession Of Faith, Chapter 14 section 2, Saving faith.
9Stuart Olyott, I Wish Someone Would Explain Hebrews To Me, p. 22
10Mounce’s Complete Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, Exhortation ‘parakaleo’, p.227