Background on Hebrews


The author of Hebrews is anonymous, and unlike the Gospels (which are also anonymously written), there is no longstanding tradition that supports any particular figure. This has left theologians throughout church history to make their guesses. The most popular suggestion is Paul, which is why Hebrews is placed alongside Paul’s epistles, and despite what some argue regarding stylistic differences, Paul still ought to be a candidate for authorship, since the audience and intent of this letter are significantly different from Romans through Philemon. Barnabas, Apollos, and Luke are commonly presented possibilities as well. Priscilla became popular suggestion in the 19th and 20th centuries but has generally lost traction since the grammar of the letter’s personal sections suggest a male author. The simple truth is that we do not know who the human author of this letter is, but like all of Scripture, it was breathed out by God.


Jesus is better than every element of the old covenant.


As with the author, the audience of this letter is unknown. From the context of the letter, we can gather a few general assumptions. The title Hebrews reflects the predominate belief that this epistle was written to Jewish Christians. Given the detailed explanations about how Christ is superior to the various elements of the old covenant, that is certainly an easy assumption to make.

Some, such as John Brown, suggest that it was written to the church in Jerusalem, but the most common theory today is that it was written to Jewish Christians in Rome. Since the author has a thorough knowledge of the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), it is also assumed that these were Hellenistic Jews rather than Hebraic Jews.

Also, given the epistle’s lengthy discussions on the priesthood and sacrificial system without any mention of the destruction of the temple in AD 70, it was very likely written before that date.

Thus, when considering the references to persecution throughout, many scholars propose that the author was writing to Jewish Christians living under the persecution of Nero and “may have found it appealing to retreat back under the protective umbrella of Judaism.”[1]


Even a first-time reader of the New Testament’s epistles can notice that Hebrews uniquely does not follow the traditional structure of an epistle. Rather than beginning with his name, recipients, and greeting, the author simply dives directly into his subject. Only the final greeting in 13:22-25 reads like a traditional New Testament letter. Instead, as many have noted, Hebrews is more of a sermon. Indeed, the author directly calls this letter a “word of exhortation” in 13:22, and it certainly is.

I believe this explains the lack of identification quite well. In the other epistles, we find the apostles addressing various issues to various churches and persons throughout the world. Some they knew personally; others they did not. Hebrews, however, feels different and less distant. Indeed, I believe that it reads like a sermon carefully written by a pastor for his congregation while he has been away from them. The whole tone of the letter is that the author knows his readers and they know him. He knows them well enough to give them sharp warnings and to give them tender comfort. When reading Hebrews, we are privileged to peak into this deeply personal and powerful word of exhortation.

Thus, while many structures have been proposed for best understanding Hebrews, I find Dennis Johnson’s to be the most compelling:

This sermon is structured by six contrasts between aspects of God’s means of relating to Israel under the old covenant, on the one hand, and the superiority of engagement with God that Christ has effected under the new covenant, on the other (cf. Outline). Each section expounds one primary OT passage, argues that Christ’s mediatorial mission transcends old covenant institutions, and leads to a specific exhortation. The flow of thought moves from God’s speech (revelation) to his provision for our atonement and forgiveness (reconciliation) and finally to the goal of our worship in his holy presence (rest). The author skillfully interlocks sections, unifying the sermon’s movement from theme to theme. As a result, the boundaries between the sermon’s sections are not always sharply defined.[2]

Keeping in mind that Hebrews is fundamentally a sermon helps to make sense of what we are reading. Hebrews is not the kind of theological treatise on the nature of the gospel that Romans is. Nor is it a wholistic snapshot on the Christian worldview that Ephesians is. It is not even primarily denouncing circumcision and the outward keeping of Old Testament law as a false gospel like we see in Galatians. Instead, Hebrews is an expositional and pastoral warning not to return to the shadows of Judaism now that Christ the substance has come and to look fully upon the beauty of Christ and remain faithful through trial and persecutions. The fact that it also provides us with some of the clearest theology for how the New Testament now relates to the Old Testament is gracious gift from the Holy Spirit to all of Christ’s church throughout the world and time.

[1] The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown, 771.

[2] ESV Expository Commentary Vol 12 (Hebrews-Revelation) (Kindle Locations 333-339). Kindle Edition.


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