How to read Hebrews


    • Content: a "word of exhortation" ( 13:22) sent in letter form, encouraging faithful perseverance in light of the superlative final word God has spoken in Christ

  • Author: unknown; a second-generation believer (2:3), who was a skilled preacher and interpreter of Scripture, with an excellent command of Greek (it came,into the canon among Paul's letters, but definitely not by him)

    • Date: unknown; guesses range from A.D. 50 to 90; probably before 70 (since the author gives no hint that the Jewish temple has been destroyed)

    • Recipients: an unknown but specific group of (predominantly) Jewish Christians; perhaps a house church in Rome (13 :24) that is opting out of relationships with the larger Christian community (10:25; l3:7,17)

    • Occasion: the community is discouraged because of suffering (10:35-39) and perhaps from doubts about whether Jesus really took care of sin; the author writes to convince them to "not throw away your confidence" (10:35; cf. 2:1; 4:14)

    • Emphases: God has spoken his absolutely final word in his Son; to abandon Christ is to abandon God altogether; Christ is superior to everything that went before-the old revelation, its angelic mediators, the first exodus (Moses and Joshua), and the whole priestly system; God's people can have full confidence in God's Son, the perfect high priest, who gives all people ready access to God


Hebrews is a long, sustained argument, in which the author moves back and forth between an argument (based on Scripture) and exhortation. What drives the argument from beginning to end is the absolute superiority of the Son of God to everything that has gone before; this is what his exposition of Scripture is all about. What concerns the author is the possibility that some believers under present distress will let go of Christ and thus lose out on the Son's saving work and high priestly intercession, and thus their own experience of God's presence; this is what the interspersed exhortations are all about.

The introduction ( 1 : 1 -3) sets the pattern with a sevenfold description of the Son and his work that makes him God's last word. This is followed by a series of two major arguments (1:4-4:1 3; 4:14-10:18), each with several subsets, and a final major application and exhortation (10:19- 13:.21), in this case interlaced with some further biblical arguments.

Part I is all about the Son-his superiority to angels despite (and because of'!) his humanity (1:4-2:18), to Moses (3:1-19), and to Joshua (4:1-13). Here the author also sets the stage for part 2: Christ's effective high priestly ministry is made possible through the preexistent and now exalted Son's having become incarnate. And the failure of the first exodus lay not with Moses and Joshua, but with the people's failure to faithfully persevere; the readers are urged not to follow in their footsteps.

Part 2 is all about the Son as the perfect high priest. After a transitional exhortation (4:14-16), the author then introduces Jesus as high priest (5:1-10), followed by a series of two warnings and an encouragement (5:11-6:3 [slacking off]; 6:4-8 [apostasy]; 6:9-20 [God's sure promises]). Then, drawing on the royal messianic Psalm 110, he uses Melchizedek as a pattern for a priesthood of a higher order (7:1-28). Based on a new, thus superior, covenant, the perfect priest offered the perfect (once-for-all) sacrifice in the perfect sanctuary (8:1-10:18). Part 3 is all about faithful perseverance. It begins with an appeal-in light of all this, "let us . . ." ( 10:19-25)-followed by warning (10:26- 31), encouragement (10:32-39), example (1 1:1-12:3), instruction (12:4-13), and another warning (12:14-17). Finally, using marvelous imagery that contrasts Mount Sinai with the heavenly Mount Zion, the author affirms their future certainty (12:18-29), then concludes with very practical exhortations about life in the present (13:1-25).

You will want to watch how the author makes this work-by a series of seven expositions of key Old Testament texts, while making the transition between each by way of exhortation: (1) Psalm 8:4-6 in Hebrews 2:5- 18; (2) Psalm 95:7 -11 in 3:7 -4:13; (3) Psalm 110:4 in 4: 16-7:28; (4) Jeremiah 31:31-34 in 8:1-10:18; (5) Habakkuk 2:3-4 in 10:32-12:3; (6) Proverbs 3:11 - I 2 in 12:4-13; and (7) the Sinai theophany (Exod 19) in 12:18-29.


Most contemporary Christians do not find Hebrews an easy read, for at least two reasons: (1) its structure (just noted) of a single, sustained argument, interlaced with application and exhortations, and (2) the author's thought-world (basic ways of perceiving reality), which is so foreign to ours. Thus there are two keys to a good reading.

First, keep in sight the two foci that concern the author throughout: (1) the overwhelming majesty of Jesus, the Son of God, who stands at the beginning and the end of all things and whose suffering in his incarnation made him a perfect high priest on their behalf (he both dealt with sin finally and perfectly and is also a merciful and empathetic intercessor), and (2) all of this is spoken into the present despondency of the people to whom he writes, who have had a long siege of hardship (10:32-39) and who are beginning to wonder whether Jesus really is God's final answer. Try to put yourself in their shoes: Jews who had long ago put their trust in Christ, believing that at long last the fulfillment of their messianic hopes had come-only to have suffering (and sin) continue long after they had first believed.

Second since everything for him (and them) hinges on his exposition of Scripture as pointing to Christ, it is especially important for you to have a sense of how the writer of Hebrews uses Scripture and what Scriptures he actually uses.

Four things are important about his use of Scripture: (1) His and their only Bible was the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. This means at times that his citations, which are very exact, do not always read as does your Old Testament, and sometimes his point is made from the wording in the Greek Bible. (2) He regularly uses a very common rabbinic way of arguing, namely, "from the lesser to the greater" (= if something is true of a, how much more so of z). (3) He reads the entire Old Testament through the lens of Christ, understanding well that the royal psalms point to David's greater son, the Messiah. (4) His form of scriptural argument is to cite his text and then show how other texts and the event of Christ support his reading of these texts.

It is especially important for you to be aware of what Scripture the author actually cites and then argues from. For example, even though he alludes to the sacrificial system in 9:1-10:18, he never cites from Leviticus. Rather, he focuses his argument almost altogether on Jesus as fulfilling a key royal psalm-Psalm 110. At the same time he presupposes that Jesus also fulfills the first royal psalm-Psalm 2. The latter declares that the Messiah is God's Son (Ps 2:7), which is the very first thing the author says in his introduction (Heb l:2). He then elaborates in terms of the Son's being heir (as well as the Creator and Sustainer) of the universe, and of his being "the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being." Psalm 2:7, joined with the Davidic covenant (2 Sam 7:14), is then the first citation (Heb 1:5) in the series of proof texts that follow. You will find it cited again-for the final time-in 5:5, where it is joined with a citation from Psalm 110:4.

Observe next how the last thing said in the introduction of the Son (Heb 1:1-3) is that he "provided purification for sins" and "sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven." These allusions to Psalm I l0 (w. 4, 1) are then picked up as the final citation in the following series (Heb 1: 13). Thus in this one messianic psalm, you find two crucial matters: (1) the Son, now called "Lord" is seated at the right hand of God (Ps 110:1), the place of his high priestly ministry (see Heb 8:1; 10:12; l2:2), and (2) God by oath promised that the exalted King/Son will also be a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek (Ps I l0:4). So after the author joins Psalm 110:4 to Psalm 2:7 in5:5-6, the rest of the argument from that point on will be about Christ's fulfilling this promise.

Now add to these points the following: (1) the failure of Israel to enter into rest (Heb 3-4, based on Ps 95); (2) the fact that God promised a new covenant (Jer 31:31-34, cited in full in Heb 8:8-12); (3) the fact that Christ's death effected both that new covenant and a perfect, once-for-all sacrifice for sins (9:1 - l0: 18, thus bringing the old order to an end); (4) the long list (ch. 11) of those who faithfully persevered as they awaited the future promise; and (5) the concluding analogy in 12:18-29 of the superiority of heavenly Zion to Mount Sinai-and you should be able to see not only where the whole argument is going but also how persuasive it should have been for these early Jewish Christians. So read and enjoy!




Watch how these verses offer a true introduction to the argument: The Son, who is superior to the prophets, is the heir of all things; he also stands at the beginning of all things. Moreover, he who is God's glory, being his exact representation, also presently sustains all things; and it is he who dealt with sin and now sits at the place of authority at God's right hand.


The Supremacy of God's Son

Here you enter at once into the author's way of arguing, as he begins with a series of Old Testament quotations (1:4-14) that do two things simultaneously-show the Son's superiority to angels and support the affirmations of verses 2-3.

After an initial warning(2:1-4), he expounds Psalm 8:4-6 to argue for the significance of the Incarnation: The Son was made "lower than the angels" for a brief time so that he could (1) fully identity with us, (2) through his sufferings effect salvation for us, and (3) thus also become a merciful high priest for us-and therefore be better than the angels.

Next you come to the author's contrast with Moses (Heb 3: 1 -6; note the form of argument, from the lesser to the greater). The mention of Christ's superiority to Moses leads to exhortation and warning, based on Psalm 95:7-11, that those who are Christ's must not follow in the unbelief (= lack of faithful obedience) of those who belonged to Moses (Heb 3:7- 19). Watch how this in turn leads to a further exposition on the theme of entering God's rest (4:1-10; from Ps 95:11), which the first Joshua ("Jesus" in Greek) did not secure, and which now awaits those who persevere. The transitional exhortation (Heb 4:11-13) serves to remind the Jewish Christians of the certainty of God's word.


The Supremacy of the Son's Priesthood

In this section you will encounter the author's long, sustained argument about Jesus as the ultimate high priest. The theme is introduced by way of a transitional exhortation (4:14-16), which picks up the theme from 2:17-3:1 and urges that Christ as high priest makes it possible for all people, not just priests, to "approach God's throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy"-because Christ also shared our humanity, with all of its suffering.

The sustained argument then begins in 5:1-10 with an exposition of Psalm 110:1 and 4, emphasizing first the humanity and duties of priests and their divine appointment, before citing the two royal psalms and showing how Jesus' humanity and suffering qualified him for priestly service but now of a new and higher order, namely, that of Melchizedek.

Before the author elaborates this point, he feels constrained to remonstrate with them over their slowness to become mature (Heb 5:1 1 -6:3), which leads to a warning against apostasy (6:4-8), but note that he concludes with encouragement (6:9-12).As he begins to move back to the exposition about Melchizedek, he argues that God's promise (Ps 110:4, about the Messiah's priesthood) is confirmed by his oath in the same verse, thus making his promise absolutely guaranteed (Heb 6:13-20).

The exposition about Melchizedek is in two parts: First (7:1-10), the author draws on the Genesis account (Gen 14:18-20) and glories in Melchizedek's lack of a genealogy (no predecessor or human successor) and in the fact that Levi (understood to be present in Abraham's loins) is already foreshadowed as inferior to the greater; second (Heb 7:11-28), the author shows that, by fitting the Melchizedek order, Christ's priesthood is both legitimate and superior to that of Aaron.

Not only so, but (8:1-6) Christ's priesthood takes place in a superior sanctuary (heaven itself; note the allusion to Ps 110:1 in Heb 8:1) and is based on the new (and thus superior) covenant promised in Jeremiah (Heb 8:7-13). Watch how the exposition that follows shows how Christ, the perfect "sacrificer," is also the superior (perfect) sacrifice (9:1- 10:18). After describing the old (9:1-10), he shows how Christ's sacrifice of himself both obtained eternal redemption (9: 1 1- 14) and mediated the new covenant through his death (9:15-22). He then summarizes the argument and brings it to a conclusion (9:23-10:18) by emphasizing the eternal, "once for all time" nature of Christ's sacrifice (no condemnation for past or present sins!).


Final Exhortation to Perseverance

Note how the author's concerns emerge in the five "let us" exhortations in 10:22-25, based on the sure work of Christ (w. 19-21): Let us draw near to God (we now have access to the Most Holy Place!); let us hold fast to our hope; let us spur one another on toward love and good deeds; let us not forsake meeting together with others; and let us encourage one another. After a strong warning against deliberate sin (grace does not mean license ; vv. 26-31), he urges perseverance (vv. 32-39), citing Habakkuk 2:3-4.

The exposition of the Habakkuk text that follows (Heb 11 : 1 - 12 :3) is so well known that it is easy to miss what is going on. Note that the author's singular point is the faith (faithful perseverance) of many who did not "shrink back" (10:39)-despite adversity and not obtaining the promised future; at the same time he insists that we are in continuity with these believers and they with us, since the promise has now been realized as we all await the glorious future. He concludes by pointing his readers once more to Jesus as an example of endurance in suffering (12: 1 -3).

Besides, he goes on (with an exposition of Prov 3: 11 - 12), there is an educative dimension to suffering. After a final exhortation to holy living in community (Heb 12:14- 17), he concludes with the analogy of the two mountains (12:18-24), including both warning and encouragement (12:25-29).


Concluding Practical Exhortation and Greetings

Watch for the ways these exhortations emphasize his readers' need to love others in the community and to submit to their leaders, all the while still contrasting Christ with what has preceded him (thus, e.g., the sacrificial system is out, but a sacrifice of praise and of doing good to others is in [w. 15-16]).

This is an especially important document in the biblical story in that

it shows both the continuity of the new with the old (Christ has fulfilled

the old, thus completing its purpose) and the nature of discontinuity (the

people of God are now newly constituted through God's royal Son and

the Spirit)-all of this by the one and only living God.