On Sunday, August 12, 2019, as part of my Forbidden Bible Verses series, I plan to begin a study of the verses from the Book of Hebrews that are not in the three-year Lectionary.

Why Hebrews?

I have always enjoyed this great book from the New Testament and have read it several times, because, as an essay on Cross Examined puts it:

The book of Hebrews ties together the Old and New Testaments better than any other in the New Testament.

And:

The book of Hebrews exalts Jesus and shows that he is superior to the sacrifices of old. The term “kreitton” (literally, “more excellent” or “better”) permeates the book.

Zondervan Academic states:

Hebrews is the only New Testament writing to expound on Jesus as the Great High Priest and final sacrifice.

Matthew Henry‘s commentary says of the original Greek, which, sadly, I am unfamiliar with:

… the divine original of it shines forth with such strong and unclouded rays that he who runs may read it is an eminent part of the canon of scripture. The divinity of the matter, the sublimity of the style, the excellency of the design, the harmony of this with other parts of scripture, and its general reception in the church of God in all ages–these are the evidences of its divine authority.

Biblica says:

Like a sermon, Hebrews is full of encouragement, exhortations and stern warnings. It is likely that the author used sermonic materials and sent them out in a modified letter form.

John MacArthur tells us:

This is a tremendous book. It is a difficult book. It is a book that has many, many deep truths, difficult to understand lest we really be diligent and faithful in our study. There are things here that are beyond the understanding apart from a deep knowledge of the Spirit of God and a commitment to understand the Word of God in total.

The book’s original intended audience

Hebrews was originally intended for Jews, especially those who became Christians.

They struggled with civil and Jewish persecution as well as maintaining religious traditions, giving them reason to wonder if they should become legalistic Christians.

John MacArthur believes that they were Jews who were not from Galilee or Jerusalem. Those who had converted did so before the destruction of the temple in 70 AD (emphases mine below):

Now, unlike Jerusalem Jews or Galilee Jews, they had never met Jesus. Everything they knew about him, they got secondhand. They really didn’t even have any New Testament writings, as such, for it hadn’t been put together. Obviously, the book of Hebrews wasn’t even a part of yet. And so whatever they knew, they knew directly from the mouths of the apostles and the prophets – and by prophets, I mean New Testament prophets. So they were kind of second generation Christians as a result of apostolic missionaries.

You say, “Well, when was the letter written?” Well, it had to be written sometime after Christ’s ascension, which would have been about 30 A.D., and sometime before the destruction of Jerusalem, which would have been 70 A.D., because Jerusalem is still standing at this point in the letter. So it’s got to be between 30 and 70. Now, I believe it’s probably pretty close to the 70’s, somewhere between 60 and 69, likely about 65, because there had to be time for the apostolic missionaries to get going, and we know that there weren’t really any apostolic missionaries from Jerusalem until at least seven years after the church had been founded there. And likely it was sometime later that they would have reached this little Jewish community.

He says the book would have had three Jewish audiences:

Now, here is the very critical basis for understanding the book, and this is where people get all messed up, especially interpreting Hebrews chapter 6. We must understand that there were three basic types of people in view throughout this epistle. Three basic types of people. If you do not understand these three basic types of people, then it becomes very confusing. If, for example, as some have said, it was all written to Christians, the entire thing was written to Christians, then you have monstrous problems. It cannot be written to unbelievers because it talks about the believers too much, so it must be written to a combination.

And indeed there are evidently three basic types in this little Jewish community to which the writer of the epistle writes. Group one, Hebrew Christians. There was in this little community a legitimate congregation of true believers in Jesus Christ. They had come out of Judaism. They had been founded and raised in it. They were born again. They had received Jesus Christ as their personal Savior. They had become followers of Jesus Christ, and naturally the result of that was a tremendous hostility from their own people. Ostracized from their family, persecuted and suffering, though they never died – Hebrews points that out – they still suffered greatly.

Persecuted not only by their own countrymen, the Jews, but evidently also perhaps by gentiles. They should have known better. They should have been mature, they weren’t. They had no confidence. They were in danger of going back into the patterns of Judaism. Not in danger of losing their salvation but in danger of confusing their salvation with legalism, you see? They couldn’t make a clear-cut break between the New Testament and the new covenant in Christ and all the forms and ceremonies and patterns and methods of their old life in Judaism.

And they were having a hard time with this problem. They were still hung up, for example, on the temple ritual and temple worship. And that’s why Jesus keeps talking to them about a new priesthood and a new kind of temple and a new kind of sacrifice and a new kind of sanctuary that’s better than the old one, because they were still hung up on that old one. They had gone beyond Judaism in receiving Jesus Christ, but they were still hanging on to many of the Judaistic habits that had been so much a part of their life, and it’s understandable.

And especially when their own friends and their own countrymen began to really persecute them and let them have it, they tended to feel the pressure of this and to hold even tighter to some of the old Jewish traditions to at least have a foothold on their relationships to their own people. It was a very hard thing to make a clean break. And so with all of that pressure and their weak faith and their spiritual ignorance, they were in great danger of mixing the new with the old. They were in great danger of coming up with a ritualistic, ceremonial, legalistic Christianity. They were a whole congregation of Romans 14 weaker brothers

Second group, Hebrew non-Christians who are intellectually convinced. You know those kind? People who know the truth but have never committed themselves to it. You’ve met many people like that, haven’t you? Who’ve heard the truth of Jesus Christ, they believe it, they’re intellectually convinced that Christ is indeed who He claimed to be, but they’re not willing to make a commitment of faith to Him. And so in this little particular group, there are some of those Hebrew non-Christians, as there are in every group. These are just common to every kind of group. There are those people who are here tonight. People who are convinced that Jesus is the Christ but have never committed themselves to Him.

And so these Hebrew non-Christians intellectually convinced are the object of some of the things that the writer has to say. They believed that Jesus was the Messiah but they had not been willing to receive Him personally. Why? Just like those in the Gospel of John. It says, “They believed on Him, but they loved the praise of men” – what? – “more than the praise of God.” They weren’t willing to make the sacrifice. And so these particular ones are exhorted by the Holy Spirit in the book of Hebrews to go all the way to saving faith. To go all the way to commitment …

The third group in view in the book of Hebrews – and you can look at chapter 9 for the illustration, as long as you’re at the end of the book – are Hebrew non-Christians who weren’t convinced, just the nation Israel in general. The Holy Spirit also in this book, not only does He want to speak to the Christians and strengthen their faith, but He wants to speak to intellectually convinced and push them over the line to faith, but He also wants to speak to those who haven’t believed at all yet who aren’t convinced of anything and give them enough information to show them that Jesus is in fact who He claimed to be, and that’s what happens in chapter 9.

In chapter 9, he speaks directly to those. For example, in verse 11 he says, “But Christ being come an high priest of good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands” that is to say, not of this building. Then he goes on down to explain Christ’s new priesthood. Verse 14: “How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? And for this cause he is the mediator of the new testament, that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament, they who are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance.”

Verse 27. “And as it is appointed after – unto men once to die, but after this the judgment so Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many, and unto them that look for Him shall He appear the second time without sin unto salvation.”

Now, those are messages given to one who is an unbeliever, not to a Christian and not to one who is necessarily convinced intellectually, but to that one who needs to know who Christ really is, and there are many other such illustrations. So there are three groups, then, in view in the epistle. And the key to interpreting Hebrews, my friend, is to understand to which group he is speaking. And if we don’t understand that, then we mess everything up because we confuse the issue. He is not saying to believers it is appointed unto men once to die and after that the judgment, is he?

Biblica agrees with the timeline of authorship:

Hebrews must have been written before the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in a.d. 70 because: (1) If it had been written after this date, the author surely would have mentioned the temple’s destruction and the end of the Jewish sacrificial system; and (2) the author consistently uses the Greek present tense when speaking of the temple and the priestly activities connected with it (see5:1–3; 7:23,27; 8:3–5; 9:6–9,13,25; 10:1,3–4,8,11; 13:10–11).

Third Mill agrees that the Jews are Hellenistic rather than those from Galilee and/or Jerusalem:

The content of Hebrews indicates that the audience was familiar with theological teachings that were more common among Jews living outside of Palestine than among more traditional Jewish circles within Palestine.

A number of interpreters have tried to determine where the audience may have lived outside of Palestine. The fact that the first epistle of Clement of Rome referred to the book as early as A.D. 95 has led some to suggest that the audience was in Rome. Hebrews 13:24 has been used to support this point of view because it mentions “those from Italy.” These suggestions are interesting, but the most we can say, with any degree of confidence, is that the original audience consisted in large part of Hellenistic Jews who lived outside of Palestine

There were two well-known times of persecution for Christians during the first century A.D. that may have impacted Hebrews’ original audience, at least indirectly. In A.D. 49, the Roman Emperor Claudius expelled Jews from the city of Rome. And around A.D. 64, Emperor Nero persecuted Christians in the vicinity of Rome.

As we read through the book of Hebrews, it becomes evident that the original audience had already faced persecution in the past, some of them were suffering in the present, and the author’s expectation was that more of them would suffer, perhaps even more severely, in the future.

Authorship unknown

For years, I believed that St Paul wrote Hebrews.

Then, around 15 years ago, a fundamentalist Baptist told me that no one knows who wrote the book.

That said, when I reread Hebrews in June whilst in Cannes, the four-language translation of the New Testament in the hotel room clearly stated that Paul was the author.

And it does read like a Pauline book in many ways, especially theologically.

Below are the possible authors, including Paul.

Paul

Zondervan Academic has a table of comparisons between Paul’s letters and Hebrews, summarised as follows:

The soteriology of Hebrews is quite consistent with Paul’s own teaching. For instance, the statement in Hebrews 10:14 that those who have been “made perfect” are in the process of being “made holy” sounds very much like Paul’s teaching on justification (e.g., Rom. 3:21 – 5:9) and sanctification (e.g., Rom. 8:1 – 17). Moreover, both Paul and the author of Hebrews thought of Abraham as the spiritual father of Christians in similar ways.

Matthew Henry says that it is possible that Paul omitted his name and traditional greeting so that Jews hearing the text would listen to it in an unbiased manner. If you’ve read my study of Acts, you’ll know how resistant some were to Paul, to put it mildly:

it is generally assigned to the apostle Paul; and some later copies and translations have put Paul’s name in the title. In the primitive times it was generally ascribed to him, and the style and scope of it very well agree with his spirit, who was a person of a clear head and a warm heart, whose main end and endeavour it was to exalt Christ. Some think that the apostle Peter refers to this epistle, and proves Paul to be the penman of it, by telling the Hebrews, to whom he wrote, of Paul’s having written to them, 2 Peter 3:15. We read of no other epistle that he ever wrote to them but this. And though it has been objected that, since Paul put his name to all his other epistles, he would not have omitted it here; yet others have well answered that he, being the apostle of the Gentiles, who were odious to the Jews, might think fit to conceal his name, lest their prejudices against him might hinder them from reading and weighing it as they ought to do.

And yet, around two centuries before Henry’s time, Martin Luther then John Calvin both said that Paul was not the author of Hebrews. Third Mill explains the timeline of thinking from the early Church to the Reformation:

Identifying the author of Hebrews is not as simple as it is with many other New Testament books because the author never identified himself. As early as the patristic period, Clement of Alexandria, who lived from approximately A.D. 150 to 215, and Origen of Alexandria, who lived from around A.D. 185 to 254, acknowledged that there was a variety of opinions on the authorship of Hebrews in their day. Early on, the apostle Paul was the candidate named most frequently, but scholars also suggested Barnabas, Luke, Apollos, and even Clement of Rome.

Around A.D. 325 the church historian Eusebius in his History of the Church referred to Origen’s outlook on the authorship of Hebrews in book 6, chapter 25, section 14. As we read there:

But as to who wrote the epistle [of Hebrews], God knows the truth of the matter.

Yet, Cross Examined gives us another Origen quote, which contradicts that:

Origen writes, “However, some one hard pressed by this argument may have recourse to the opinion of those who reject this Epistle as not being Paul’s; against whom I must at some other time use other arguments to prove that it is Paul’s.” Origen, A Letter from Origen to Africanus, 9.

Back to Third Mill’s explanation:

Origen’s comment reflects how uncertain he and many others were in his day. And most biblical scholars today concur. Only God knows for certain who wrote this book.

Unfortunately, questions about authorship and the ways some heretical groups misused the book of Hebrews, led some people during the patristic period to doubt if Hebrews should be included in the New Testament Canon. Of course, notable scholars like Clement of Rome, who died sometime around A.D. 99, treated Hebrews as equal to other New Testament books. And Justin Martyr, who lived from A.D. 100 to 165, did the same. But Hebrews was omitted from both the Marcionite Canon, written around A.D. 144, and the Muratorian Canon, written around A.D. 170. By the end of the patristic period, however, the majority of influential interpreters in the eastern and western church came to recognize Hebrews as part of the Canon. And they generally agreed that the apostle Paul was the author.

Throughout the medieval period, most leading scholars continued to believe that Paul wrote Hebrews. But during the Reformation, Protestant Reformers questioned many ecclesiastical traditions, including the traditional view of Pauline authorship. Martin Luther suggested that Apollos was the author. John Calvin didn’t suggest an alternative, but he insisted that the book could not have come from Paul.

Today, the majority of interpreters reject Pauline authorship. We’ll touch on three reasons for this stance. First, as we’ve already mentioned, this book is anonymous, and it was Paul’s practice to name himself in his epistles. In fact, as 2 Thessalonians 2:2 makes clear, Paul was deeply concerned that forgeries had spread under his name. So, it seems unlikely that he would have failed to identify himself had he written Hebrews.

Second, the book of Hebrews emphasizes subjects that don’t receive much, if any, attention in Paul’s letters. For instance, the author of Hebrews mentioned Melchizedek three times. He drew attention to the Old Testament tabernacle. And he dealt at length with Christ as the high priest. Taken together, these themes distinguish the book of Hebrews from books that we know were written by Paul.

Third, the strongest reason for doubting Pauline authorship is the way the writer of Hebrews distanced himself from the first generation of Jesus’ followers. Listen to the words of Hebrews 2:3:

This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him (Hebrews 2:3).

Notice here that the author of Hebrews mentioned how salvation was “first announced by the Lord” — in other words, by Jesus himself — and “was confirmed to us by those who heard him.” That is, the author and his audience had the gospel verified for them by people who had heard Jesus directly. The author’s admission that he received his Christian faith secondarily contrasts with passages like Galatians 1:1, 11 and 12, and 1 Corinthians 11:23 where Paul insisted that he received the gospel directly from Jesus.

That would have been during his Damascene conversion, when Jesus appeared to him in blinding light.

John MacArthur does not think Paul is the author, either. He sides with Origen.

Zondervan Academic posits that the author probably knew Paul:

But it is possible—even likely—that because of some of the parallels with Paul’s epistles, we know the following things about the author:

    1. The author was likely a close associate of Paul
    2. The author was able to write in a rhetorically ornate Greek style
    3. The author had become a Christian out of Judaism
    4. The author’s understanding of the doctrine of salvation was highly compatible with what the apostle Paul taught, though creatively distinctive.

Other possible authors

This leads us to look at other possibilities.

Cross Examined offers the following, refuting each one:

There is one certainty pertaining to the author of Hebrews and that is that the author was someone who was known in the ranks of Paul’s cohorts. The author knew Timothy and referred to him as “our brother” (Hebrews 13:23, CSB) rather than “my son” as Paul did in (1 Timothy 1:2). Thus, it would seem as though the writer is a cohort of Paul, perhaps even a second-generation Christian as the writer notes that “salvation had its beginning when it was spoken of by the Lord, and it was confirmed to us by those who heard him” (Hebrews 2:3). Scholars have proposed Luke, Clement of Rome, Barnabas, Apollos, Timothy, Philip, Peter, Silas, Jude, and Aristion as the authors.

Because the author is a second-generation Christian, I do not think Barnabas, Peter, Silas or Jude (if referencing the Lord’s brother) would be candidates. Because the author references Timothy as a brother, I do not think Timothy is a likely candidate either. I used to think Barnabas was the author, but since Barnabas was an early Christian and the author of Hebrews is a second-generation Christian, I no longer think that is the case. In all likelihood, I believe Luke to have been the author of the book. In the end, though, God knows. The author, whomever it may be, had the backing of the apostle Paul and that is why the book was established as canonical as far as apostolic authority is concerned.

Amazing Bible Timeline adds another possibility — Priscilla:

The author had to have been Priscilla, and the name was taken out to conceal its female origins or to prevent the writing from being suppressed. “The lack of any firm data concerning the identity of the author in the extant writings of the church suggests a deliberate blackout more than a case of collective loss of memory.” Gilbert Bilezikian

Again, no one knows.

Making Life Count Ministries says that the strongest possibilities are Barnabas or Apollos, although their overall verdict is ‘anonymous’:

Barnabas was an apostle (1 Cor. 9:5-6, Acts 14:4, 14) who could have written it.

    • The early church father Tertullian (160-220 AD) quoted from Hebrews and assigned the quotation to the Epistle of Barnabas.
    • In the Western manuscript called Codex Claremontanus, the Book of Hebrews went under the name of the Epistle of Barnabas.
    • Barnabas was a Levite (Acts 4:36) and had an interest in the Levitical system which is referenced many times in the Book of Hebrews.
    • Barnabas had a close relationship with Paul and most likely knew Timothy.

Apollos has found favor with some modern scholars.

    • Martin Luther believed Apollos was the author.
    • Apollos was “mighty in the Scriptures” and he “refuted the Jews in public, demonstrating by the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ” (Acts 18:24-28). This seems to be a description of the Book of Hebrews.
    • In Titus 3:13 Paul mentions Apollos.

For whatever reason, the Lord wanted the author to remain anonymous but it is clear that whoever wrote it was inspired by the Holy Spirit.

What we can expect

In closing, here is John MacArthur’s summary of Hebrews, giving us an idea of what we can expect:

everything presented is presented as a better thing, and you’ll find these phrases in the book of Hebrews: a better hope, a better testament, a better promise, better sacrifice, better substance, better country, better resurrection, and the better thing. And Jesus Christ is presented there and we are presented as being in Him, dwelling in a new kind of dimension, the heavenlies. And so we read in Hebrews a heavenly Christ, a heavenly calling, the heavenly gift, the heavenly country, the heavenly Jerusalem, and our names are written in the heavenlies.

Everything is new. Everything is better. We don’t need the old. And if you want to get a summary of the book of Hebrews, it’s chapter 8, verse 1 – and it even tells us it’s a summary – says this: “Now, of the things which we have spoken, this is the sum.” Here is the whole summary of Hebrews in one verse. In one sentence, for that matter. “We have such an high priest, who is seated on the right hand of the throne of the majesty in the heavens.” There’s the wrap-up on Hebrews right there. We have some kind of high priest. Who needs that old economy at all? And the significance of it is a high priest who’s seated means his work is what? Is done. It’s done.

All right now, those are some scattered footnotes to introduce you to the book. Just keep in mind the three groups and that the point is to show all three groups that Christ is better than anything in the Old Testament, that the new covenant is better than the old, and that they can let the rest go because everything they have in Christ is infinitely sufficient. Now, this writer doesn’t fool around getting to his point. He hits it – bang – in the first chapter in the first verse.

And we’ll look at these three verses, and they’re very simple, we’ll consider them. They tell us that Christ is superior to everyone and everything. He starts out at the top. He doesn’t build up to it. He just bangs away right at the beginning. And this is kind of a – really gathers the theme of the whole epistle. Now, I want you to see three features here: the preparation for Christ, the presentation of Christ, and the preeminence of Christ.

I’m really looking forward to writing about the Book of Hebrews in my Forbidden Bible Verses series and hope you will want to read about it, beginning on Sunday.

First verses — Hebrews 1:13-14