Although anonymous, Hebrews was considered a letter of Paul for much of the history of the church. However, beginning during the time of the Protestant Reformation, this came to be disputed on the basis of the Greek style of the book as well as a revealing comment in 2:3, where the author speaks as one who received the gospel from others who had first heard Christ. In his letters, Paul was adamant that he was a direct recipient of the Good News from the risen Christ himself.
The letter was written to Jewish converts in an effort to convince them that Jesus surpasses that which Jews by their tradition would naturally have held in high regard. It is possible that the recipients were tempted to revert to Judaism or to maintain key Jewish traditions that are incompatible with the gospel.
The letter begins by making the case that Christ is the way God has now chosen to speak, and no longer through prophets as in the Old Testament. The Son is the “radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word” (1:3). In other words, Jesus is the focus of the recipients of Hebrews, because he is the final word that God has spoken. Nothing else can fill that role, including Old Testament institutions. The remainder of the letter supports this assertion.
The author begins by saying that Jesus is more exalted than angels, which suggests that unhealthy reverence of angels was an issue for the audience. He also argues that God has subjected the world to come to humanity, not angels, and that Christ’s humanity, therefore, does not fall under the angels in the hierarchy but above them.
Most of the letter lays out how what Jesus did on the cross was the final expression of what the Old Testament was pointing toward, and so those older ways must now be abandoned. Jesus is presented as the new and better Moses who led his people out of slavery to sin to a different Promised Land. Jesus is the great high priest who has direct access to God and is able to sympathize without weaknesses. Israel’s religious observations were merely a shadow of what is in heaven, and Jesus is the true substance. Jesus is also the final sacrifice so that sacrifices no longer need to be offered again and again.
Interspersed through the book of Hebrews are warnings to the recipients about falling away from the faith they were taught and the need to persevere in the practice of that faith. Chapter 11 is a long litany of Israel’s own heroes whom the author commends for their faith. He begins with Abel and ends with the prophets. All of these received God’s blessings by faith, ultimately, the author argues, by faith in Christ, albeit in shadow form. The letter concludes with various exhortations about remaining steadfast in the faith. The repeated warnings and exhortations suggest that pressure to conform to old ways may have come from outside as well, not only from within.
– Peter Enns