Summary: Introduction to the book of Hebrews: Jesus exceeds all the Old Testament types and shadows and is the fulfillment of all to which the OT was pointing. Mission accomplished!
Today we are beginning a new journey together in our worship services at Grace. Lord willing, we are going to travel through the book of Hebrews in the coming months. Some of you may have started your mental calculators. “Let’s see, it took about nine months for us to go through the five chapters of 1 John. Hebrews is about two and half times as long, so what’s that … Oh no, almost two years!” Well, I don’t intend for us to necessarily cover each verse or passage at the same speed. We’ll zip through some of the countryside of Hebrews, while stopping to sink a mine shaft here and there at other places.
But today, we get an overview from the pen of the author himself. These opening verses of the book are the introduction, the beginning of the entire book. But they also set before us, in seed form, the author’s great subject and focus, and that is nothing less than the Lord Jesus Christ: who he is and what he has accomplished. Here is the Savior of mankind, the Messiah, our great Prophet, Priest and King.
This letter is not addressed to a particular group of believers located in a particular church. And, due to all the language drawn from the Old Testament, it is very probably that most of those to whom this letter was first written were converts from Judaism. Although the title of this book, “To the Hebrews,” was probably added later, it demonstrates that from very early on this letter was recognized as being written to Hebrew converts, to Jewish converts to Christianity.
The occasion or reason for this letter, however, wasn’t simply to set forth an exposition that contrasted the earlier dispensation or economy of redemption with the work of Christ. The reason was the fact that these believers, by and large converts from Judaism, were being sorely tempted to leave Christianity and return to the types and shadows of Judaism. These believers were being tempted to let go of their confession, to let go of their faith in Jesus, because they were facing persecution. They had already suffered much for their faith. Beginning at verse 32 of chapter we read about what they had already suffered:
But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. (Heb 10:32-34)
It had been a hard struggle with sufferings, including, among other things, the plundering of (their) property. They had not drawn back from those who had been arrested, but rather stood side-by-side with them as partners together in the fellowship of the gospel.
And this author, this pastor to the Hebrew Christians, was himself writing as a prisoner for the sake of Christ. We read in verses 18 and 19 of chapter 13 that he urged his readers to pray for him and others in order that he might be restored to (them) the sooner. And at verse 23 he tells them that Timothy had recently been released. So this was a letter written from prison. The author knew these people, and he understood what they were facing, what he had in all likelihood had faced with them at an earlier time, and which he himself was undergoing even as he wrote to them. This was no academic exercise for either the pastor who wrote the letter or for the Christians who read the letter.
This group of believers was now wavering, considering returning to Judaism. Why? Because Judaism promised to bring relief and protection from persecution. And who was persecuting these believers?
This raises the question of the date of this epistle: when was it written? We know that this book was alluded to in the letter of Clement of Rome written to believers in Corinth in the year 95 A.D. So that’s the very latest it could have been written.
Another point of information that is often pointed to as helping establish a date is the fact that the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 A.D. is not mentioned. Usually, this argument from silence is taken to mean that the Temple was still standing. But we must recognize that this is an argument from silence. In fact, the Temple is not mentioned at all, and it could be argued that the reason is the fact that it was already destroyed. In short, we simply don’t know if the Temple was still standing or not.
Yet another point bearing on the date of this letter is the identity of the author. There is a long tradition that Paul is the author, and if he was, then the letter was probably composed prior to 68 A.D., which is when Nero died, and tradition has it that Paul was executed by Nero. But verse 3 of chapter 2 speaks strongly against this tradition: