IVP New Testament Commentary Series
by Ray C. Stedman
Dr. E. M. Blaiklock, a longtime professor of classics at the University
of New Zealand and a noted biblical historian, made the startling statement:
"Of all the centuries, the twentieth is most like the first."
If that is true, it is evident that twentieth-century Christians should
thoroughly understand first-century Christianity. All the New Testament
books help us in this regard, but perhaps none so practically as Acts and
Hebrews Preeminently in these two books appear flesh-and-blood believers
struggling to overcome the stranglehold of past traditions and adjust to
the fresh movements of God in their fast-changing world. Readers of Hebrewsin the twentieth century (and the twenty-first) will identify quickly with
the first recipients of this letter when they see how they struggled to
hold on to their faith in Jesus in the midst of growing world chaos and
powerful cultural pressures to return to a more comfortable past.
It seems to me that issues usually handled in an introduction, such as authorship,
place of origin, identity and locality of the readers, canonical acceptance,
and so forth are best dealt with after, rather than before, the epistle
has been studied. Let the letter speak for itself first, and then deal with
the questions which reading the letter naturally raise. Presumably, interest
in such matters is much higher then, and judgment on the weight of arguments
is more precise. Hence my preference would be to put this introduction at
the close of the commentary. But some readers may be helped by background
information before the letter is read. In deference, then, to long-standing
custom this introduction will seek to deal now with the questions of authorship,
reader identity and so forth.
It was a standing joke at the seminary I attended for students to ask one
another: "Who wrote the epistle of Paul to the Hebrews " It was
admittedly weak humor---on a par with "Who is buried in Grant's Tomb?"
But it served to raise a primary question about Hebrews who actually wrote
this brilliant treatise on the person and work of Christ that has been a
part of our New Testament from the beginning?
Even the ancient church was uncertain about the authorship of Hebrews It
is not an anonymous letter, since its original recipients dearly knew the
writer, but nowhere does he divulge his name. Tertullian (d. 225) reported
that current tradition held that Barnabas was the author. Clement of Alexandria
(d. 215) thought Paul had written it in Hebrew and Luke had translated it,
though the Greek of Hebrewsseems too elegant to be a translation. Clement's
successor, Origen (d. 254), wrote, "Men of old time have handed it
down as Paul's, but who wrote the Epistle God only knows certainly."
As we shall see in the commentary the internal evidence of Hebrewsargues
strongly against Paul's authorship (2:3), but the theology and thinking
of Paul are everywhere in the letter. This suggests some close associate
of Paul who reflects Paul's theology but brings his own gifts of eloquence
and thorough knowledge of Judaism to the writing of this letter.
Four candidates for authorship come to mind: Barnabas, Silas, Luke and Apollos.
The first three traveled with Paul extensively and were godly men, well
known to many throughout the early church. But neither Barnabas nor Silas
appears in the New Testament as capable of writing such a treatise as Hebrews
Barnabas wavered theologically at Antioch under the pressure of Judaists
(Galatians 2:13) and is seen in Acts as a warm, loving encourager of many, but
not as a spokesman or teacher (Acts 14:12). Little is known of Silas, but
such silence does not argue well for him being the author of such an outstanding
epistle, and the suggestion that he is the author of the letter has gained
little support Luke also has been proposed by Calvin and Delitzsch, and
though he surely knew Paul's thinking well, he too does not appear in Scripture
as a doctrinal teacher or pastor but rather as a historian. The possibility
that he was a Gentile would not explain the intimate knowledge of Judaism
which the writer of Hebrewspossessed.
That leaves Apollos as the most likely author. He knew Paul well, having
taught with him at Corinth. Luke, in Acts 18:24, calls him "mighty
in the Scriptures," and his reputation in the church was that of an
eloquent orator, well able to marshal arguments in an orderly fashion, gust
as the writer of Hebrewsdoes. Further, he was a Jew from Alexandria, where
the Septuagint originated and was widely employed, and where the religious
philosopher Philippianso had lived and taught. As we shall see, Hebrewsquotes
the Septuagint without exception, and several scholars have seen the influence
of Philippianso's thought upon some of the Ideas presented in the letter (see Spicq
1952). Luther felt that Apollos wrote Hebrews as do more modern scholars
such as Manson, Spicq, Alford, Moulton, Farrar and A. T. Robertson. One
argument against Apollos is that the Alexandrian church never credits him
with authorship. Even though philosophical and exegetical evidence points
to an Alexandrian author, doubt still lingers about Apollos being the one.
The question remains open for debate and will probably never be settled
till the writer himself in glory makes it certain.
The identity of the recipients of this letter is also difficult to determine
precisely. The title "To the Hebrewsquot; was not a part of the Greek
text, and certain modem commentators (James Moffat, E. F. Scott, Gerhardus
Vos) have even concluded that the letter is addressed to Gentiles. But the
constant comparison between Judaism and Christianity found in the letter
strongly argues against this. There is also no reference to pagan practices
or philosophies which were widespread in the Roman world.
But if the readers were Jewish Christians, where and when did they live?
Some expositors favor Palestine and even Jerusalem, but the internal evidence
does not support this. The writer admits in 12:4 that they had not yet resisted
to the point of shedding blood. This could not be said of Christians in
Jerusalem or Palestine, as Acts makes clear. Their obvious interest in and
respect for the office of high priest and for the temple, though patently
to be expected of Palestinians of Jewish background, would also be characteristic
of Jews in the diaspora. The enormous number of pilgrims to Jerusalem during
high holy days made this abundantly evident.
The links with Paul's letter to the Colossians, which we will note at several
points in our commentary, indicate the readers may be a colony of Jewish
Christians in the Lycus valley of provincial Asia. Their geographical nearness
to Ephesus would support extensive contact with Apollos and Timothy and
help explain the references in Hebrewsto Sabbath observance, new moon festivals,
food restrictions and especially the worship of angels, which are also treated
Arguments that the readers of Hebrewslived in Rome are based on extensive
quotations of the letter by Clement of Rome and the reference of the writer
to "those from Italy" in 13:24. As we shall see, the latter reference
is so ambiguously put that it can refer to any group of Italian Christians
found living anywhere in the empire. Priscilla and Aquila could be a case
in point for they are seen in Rome, in Corinth and in Ephesus within the
New Testament records. Incidentally, the use of a masculine participle
referring to the author, in 11:32, rules out Priscilla as a possible author
of the letter as a few scholars have proposed The quotations from Clement
merely show that a copy of Hebrewsreached him soon after it was written,
but the slowness of the churches of the West to accept the epistle as genuine
would argue against a Roman origin.
Wherever the readers lived it is clear that they were largely second generation
Christians; their first leaders had already passed away (13:7). They had
professed Christ for some time (5:12) and had once shown great evidences
of sturdy faith (10:32-34). But when the letter was written they had reached
a state of discouragement and spiritual lethargy. Some had given up meeting
with other believers (10:25); many found have increasing opposition to their
faith in Jesus among their Jewish families and friends, while they also
faced sharpening hostility from gentile authorities and citizens.
These conditions indicate a date for the letter toward the close of the
sixties of the first century, probability in A D. 67 or 68. The temple was
still standing in Jerusalem, and Jewish rituals were performed there as
they had been for centuries. But evidence was increasing that Romans and
Jews were headed for a bloody clash. The long-expected return of Jesus to
set things aright seemed delayed beyond endurance. Faced with these difficulties
some were wavering and wondering if perhaps they had made a terrible mistake;
perhaps Jesus was not the Son of God as they had been taught but was only
a creature, though perhaps the highest of the angels. He certainly was not
what the apostles had claimed him to be. Should they continue to follow
the uncertain hope of seeing again one who may have been at best an archangel,
or at worst, an impostor? (1)
Certainly such doubts might shake true Christians for a while, and the uncertainty
raised by these questions would almost surely turn mere professors away
from Christ back to their old faith. It must be made apparent to both that
there can be no compromise---it is one or the other, Christ or judgment!
So, tenderly, lovingly, with great pastoral concern and care, the writer
of Hebrewsbrings his readers face to face with the central issue: Is Jesus
the Son of God or is he not? Is he the great Antitype of all Jewish ritual
and sacrifice and the high-priestly Mediator of the new covenant whom the
prophets had predicted? Or is he only a man? The choice is plainly stated
in 10:39: "But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed,
but of those who believe and are saved."
Despite the uncertainties that still linger around aspects of the epistle,
there is little doubt of its early acceptance within the canon of Scripture.
Clement of Rome used it in writing to the Corinthians within the first century.
The rest of the West was slower in receiving it, perhaps due to its use
by the Montanists who were in disfavor as a heretical group It was not till
late in the fourth century that Western churches gave it full acceptance.
The Eastern churches had viewed it early as Pauline and received it readily.
Polycarp and Justin Martyr both allude to it in their writings, and Irenaeus
and Hippolytus seem acquainted with it, though they denied Paul's authorship.
In Reformation times, Luther had some misgivings about its content but Calvin
regarded it highly, saying, "There is, indeed, no book in Holy Scripture
which speaks so clearly of the priesthood of Christ, which so highly exalts
the virtue and dignity of that only true sacrifice which He offered by His
death, which so abundantly deals with the use of ceremonies as well as their
abrogation, and, in a word, so fully explains that Christ is the end of
the Law" (Bruce 1964:xlvii).
There are certain striking emphases in Hebrewswhich mark its uniqueness
in the canon of Scripture. No other New Testament book deals as fully as
Hebrewswith the present priesthood of Jesus. No other book traces both
the comparisons and contrasts of that Melchizedek priesthood with the ancient
Aaronic or Levitical priesthood. None other urges believers with such passion
and confidence to call upon their great high priest for help in daily pressures
No other letter focuses as fully on the present greatness of Christ as Hebrews
except for the book of Revelation. Passages in Paul, notably in Ephesians
and Colossians, briefly extol his exaltation "far above all rule and
authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only
in the present age but also in the one to come" (Ephesians 1:21), but only
in Hebrewsis this developed to contrast with the great human leaders of
the past (Abraham, Moses, Aaron, Joshua) as well as angelic authorities,
leaving Jesus as alone occupying the place of ultimate authority in the
universe. He shares the very throne of God by right and conquest.
There is also a unique eschatological orientation to Hebrews Except for
Revelation, no other book describes a city of God coming to earth and answering
the petition of the Lord's Prayer, "thy kingdom come, thy will be done
on earth as it is in heaven." Abraham was the first to see it approach,
and Hebrewstraces that hope through the centuries by listing the lives
of many heroes and heroines of faith (Hebrews 11), ending with the time of his
readers (including us) who "are looking for the city that is to come"
(Hebrews13:14). That coming city is linked here with "the age to come"
which is not put under the authority of angels but of men who share with
the Son of Man dominion over all the earth (Hebrews 2:5-10). In their redeemed
spirits believers already live in that city (Hebrews12:22-24), but they await
its physical appearance upon the earth, as promised to Abraham long before.
Without this epistle in our Bibles today, the people of God would be greatly
impoverished. Modern readers may lack the Jewish background which the original
recipients possessed, yet the letter forces all Christians of any age to
face certain issues. Do we believe that Jesus is God the Son, infinitely
higher than any angel, who is both the creator of all things and the final
arbiter of ail human events? Are we trusting in his death on the cross and
his subsequent bodily resurrection as the full and complete ground of our
salvation, or are we still looking to some act by us or some ritual or sacrament
performed for us to bring us safely to heaven? Do we habitually turn to
Jesus as our great high priest, to find inner strengthening to face pressures,
resist temptations, conquer guilt, or achieve self-control in daily situations?
Are we permitting our cultural context to lure us into practices or deeds
that are inconsistent with the new life we have been given in Christ? Do
we count it a high privilege to take up our cross daily and glory in bearing
his reproach in the midst of a confused and immoral world? Is the expectation
of the return of Jesus as King over the whole earth a bright and shining
reality to us, frequently renewing our vision and outlook? Do we recognize
the loving hand of God upon us in the midst of hardships, disappointments
and trials, as strengthening us and also giving us opportunity to display
his character to those who are near us?
These are the concerns of the writer of HebrewsThese are the "things
that accompany salvation" to which he refers in Hebrews6:9 They must
all become our daily concern if we are to lay full hold of the "better
things" which Jesus' birth in Bethlehem's manger introduced The central
thrust of this great letter is summed up in the words of an old hymn:
Rise up, O Church of God
Have done with lesser things;
Give heart and mind and soul and strength
To serve the King of kings.
1. David Gooding in "An Unshakeable Kingdom" captures well the
line of rabbinic persuasion that former Jews would have faced when their
Christian faith began to waver:
To think that you---you who as Jews have heard the oneness of
God proclaimed ten thousand times in your home, in the synagogue, in the
temple, ever since you were childrento think that you could be taken in
by this fanatical sect who worship the man Jesus as if he were God!
And who are you to say that our high priest and Sanhedrin were wrong to
have Jesus crucified? . . . Just because you have heard stories of the miracles
Jesus is supposed to done and have been impressed by his popular religious
propaganda, you imagine he must have been more than human. But our high
priest and rabbis knew what they were doing. They saw through his deceptions
and had the courage to do what the Bible commands to be done with such deceivershave
So be sensible. Stop imagining you know better than your rabbis. Show some
respect and gratitude to your father and mother for your upbringing. Come
back to the faith of your fathers, and don't ruin your lives and break your
parents' heart and disgrace your family by abandoning everything you were
brought up to believe by running off with this fanatical sect.
From HEBREWS (IVP New Testament Commentary Series) by Ray C. Stedman.
(c) 1992 by Ray C. Stedman. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.
O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, Illinois 60515. All rights reserved. No part
of this excerpt may be reproduced, sorted in a retrieval system or transmitted
in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopied, recorded
or otherwise without prior permission from InterVarsity Press.