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The Purpose of Hebrews

John R. Neal, Sr. NT9331A New Testament Text-Hebrews December 2013


I. Contents .. iii II. Introduction .. 1-2 III. Audience Purpose 3-5 A. Evidence of Jewishness of Hebrews .3-4 B. Evidence of a Sub-set of Jewishness .4-5

IV. Discouragement and Persecution Purpose .5-8 V. Christological Purpose 9-12 VI. Soteriological Purpose ...12-14 VII. Conclusion ....14-15 VIII. Bibliography 16


ABBREVIATIONS1 Traditional Acts Apoc. Col. 1 Cor. 2 Cor. Eph. Gal. Heb. James John 1 John 2 John Jude Luke Mark Matt. 1 Pet. 2 Pet. Phil. Philem. Rev. Rom. 1 Thess. 2 Thess.

Shorter --------------Col 1 Cor 2 Cor Eph Gal Heb Jas Jn 1 Jn 2 Jn ------Lk Mk Mt 1 Pt 2 Pt Phil Phlm Rv Rom 1 Thes 2 Thes

Full Name Acts of the Apostles Apocalypse (Revelation) Colossians 1 Corinthians 2 Corinthians Ephesians Galatians Hebrews James John (Gospel) 1 John (Epistle) 2 John (Epistle) Jude Luke Mark Matthew 1 Peter 2 Peter Philippians Philemon Revelation (Apocalypse) Romans 1 Thessalonians 2 Thessalonians

Kate L. Turabian, A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, Chicago Style For Students And Researchers, 7th ed, rev by Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, Joseph M. Williams, and The University of Chicago Press Editorial Staff (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 342-43. This paper will utilize the abbreviations in the Traditional column.


1 Tim. 2 Tim. Titus

1 Tm 2 Tm Ti

1 Timothy 2 Timothy Titus


The Purpose of Hebrews

Introduction The key to understanding the purpose of Hebrews is found in the postscript or conclusion of Hebrews. In Heb 13:22, the author states, But I exhort you, brothers, bear with the word of exhortation, for also on account of this I wrote (have written) to you briefly. Guthrie notes that if this term exhortation is the same ideas as found in Acts 13:5, then the Hebrew writer is saying he wrote a homily to them. If this is what he means by a word of exhortation, a sermon, then this means the structure of the letter originates from a sermon given on a special occasion and later adapted into special occasion and later adapted into letter form by the addition of personal comments at the end.2 Thus Hebrews begins like a speech or sermon and ends like a letter.3 Guthrie notes that there is much in favor of the homily argument for Hebrews.4 While there is much debate about the genre of Hebrews (epistle or homily), perhaps Brown sums up the debate the best when he notes H.E. Danas suggestion that Hebrews begins like a treatise, proceeds like a sermon, and closes like an epistle. The epistle of Hebrews reflects not only a message of exhortation in written form, but also an apologetic purpose to prevent the audience from abandoning faith in Christ in favor of the old law.5 There is a close but complex interplay going on in the book of Hebrews between exposition and

Donald Guthrie, The Letter to the Hebrews: An Introduction and Commentary, The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 31. 3 I. Howard Marshall, New Testament Theology: Many Witnesses, One Gospel (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 605. 4 Guthrie, 31. 5 Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction To The New Testament, The Anchor Bible Reference Library (New York/London: Doubleday, 1997), 690.

exhortation. The exposition component of this epistle aims at the repetition of key Old Testament passages or topics to support the authors claims. The exhortation or hortatory component challenges the readers of hearers of the letter to respond properly to the message of Christ.6 By utilizing words of encouragement, stern warnings, plus the use of positive and negative examples, the Hebrews writer hits home the necessity of remaining faithful until Christians reach that heavenly city. The ones who reject the message of the Son receive condemnation.7 Carson and Moo point out that before any assessment can be made

concerning the purpose of the epistle to the Hebrews, one must understand who the addresses were before one can presuppose anything about the reason for writing this letter.8

Audience Purpose Whomever we believe the audience is in Hebrews, we can all agree upon three things. First, the letter is written to Christians who are encourage to keep the faith and confession they made of Christ (Heb 3:6, 14; 4:14; 10:23). Second, there is real dispute over the ethnic background of the audience (Jewish, Gentile, or other?). Third, the audience of Hebrews is steeped in Old Testament allusions and Levitical ritual. This does not imply Jewish Christians, however, for even Jewish proselytes (former Gentiles converted to Judaism or Gentile converts to Christianity) had a good knowledge of the Greek Old Testament (LXX).9

Peter Thomas OBrien, The Letter to the Hebrews, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 35. 7 Ibid. 8 D.A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, Introduction To The New Testament, 2nd Ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 609. 9 Ibid., 609-10.

Evidence readers may not be Jewish. First, some argue that the author of Hebrews and his readers only have a literary knowledge of the Old Testament as well as the Levitical sacrificial system (common argument among German critics of late 19th/early 20th century). Having a literary knowledge of the old law does not mean that they either observed or participated in the sacrificial temple ritual. Second, the phrase, Turning away from the living God, in Heb 3:12, may be for Gentile readers rather than Jewish. Why state living God when Jews know that God lives? Third, the readers may be Gentile Christians who are in danger of abandoning the exclusive claims of Christ and seeking a deeper way in Judaism. Some would compare the situation going on in this community with what one finds among the Pauling churches, Judaizers trying to pull Gentiles away from the church.10

Evidence of the Jewishness of Hebrews The traditional interpretation is that Hebrews is addressing a Jewish audience. 11 In response to those who see the readership of Hebrews as Gentile, the argument that Heb 3:12 (turning away from the living God) refers to Gentile readers needs to remember the context of chapter three; here the author refers to Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness who lacked faith and thus did not get to enter the promise land. From this perspective, this would appeal to first century Jewish Christian audience more than a Gentile Christian community. The

elementary teaching in Heb 6:1 also seems to presuppose a background in Judaism rather than Gentile. The old covenant being replaced by the new only makes sense to a culturally Jewish perspective. Specifically, the lack of any mention about circumcision (in the

10 11

Ibid., 610. Guthrie, 31-32.

Jewish/Gentile controversy of Galatians) only makes sense if this epistle is directed to a Jewish Christian community. One would think circumcision would be mentioned if the readers are Gentile believers in danger of being swayed by Judaizing teachers. The author of Hebrews quotes the Greek translation of the Old Testament as if the audience recognizes this Bible as authoritative. That would even be true of Hellenistic Jews who had converted to

Christianity.12 Pagans who are forsaking Christianity are more likely to go back to a pagan life rather than to Judaism. Many of the Hebrews writers arguments for the superiority of Jesus turns on challenging the assumption that the cultic regulations of the Sinai Code were final (e.g., 7:11). Gentile Christians would not be tempted to go back to the Mosaic Law and Levitical sacrifices. Christians from a Jewish background would be in danger of reverting to Judaism.13

Evidence of a Sub-set of Jewishness Some claim that the readers of this epistle are not just ordinary Jewish-Christians, but a great number of temple priests who were obedient to the faith (see Acts 6:7). This might explain the emphasis upon the sacrificial system that Christ fulfills. Then there is the view that the audience is formerly from the Qumran community or the so-called Essene-Christian theory. This approach (popularized by Spicq) is that some of the Christian community is on the verge of going back to Qumran. The most than anyone can reasonably say is that the Jewish

background of this audience is probably not so much in the conservative rabbinic traditions of Palestine as in Hellenistic Judaism influenced by various nonconformist Jewish sects, of whom the Qumran community is just one of many. Another line of thought suggests that this

12 13

Carson and Moo, 610. Ibid., 611.

community has been attracted to not just a form of Jewish faith and practice independent of Christianity, but to a form of Jewish Christianity more conservative than what the author himself approves.14 Carson and Moo may be correct in stating that the readers did not consider themselves as apostates. They probably did not intend on abandoning the Christian gospel and return to Judaism. In this sense the group may be turning to some form of Jewish Christianity which is in fact more conservative than what the author approves. Yet the point the writer of Hebrews is trying to make is that his audience is in danger of adopting something that is not Christianity at all. They are indeed headed for apostasy and thus they need these parenetic passages. Going back to the old law or covenant puts them in a worse state than they were before they accepted Christ.15

Discouragement and Persecution Purpose Ellingworth finds three ways in which the Christian community the book of Hebrews addresses. First, there are the numerous passive expressions that suggest on the part of the Christians a weariness in their Christian walk or making progress on the road of Christian discipleship.16 The author encourages them no to drift away from what they have heard (2:1) or to neglect salvation (2:3). They are not to fail to reach ( , to miss or fail to reach,

perfect active infinitive) the goal of the Christian life which is the spiritual promise land (4:1). They are not to let go of the faith they confessed (let us hold fast,

, present active

Ibid. Ibid., 611-12. 16 Paul Ellingworth, The Epistle to the Hebrews, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 78.

subjunctive, 4:14), nor to lose their confidence, (

, assurance, boldness, 10:19) or

the confession of the hope (10:23).17 They should not become hard of hearing (5:11) lest they become sluggish (6:12). They are to move towards spiritual maturity in Christ (5:12-14). There is a warning against being unproductive (6:7f.), but they are to continue doing good works (6:10), unshackle the weight of sin (1:21), and not to lose heart (12:3). They are admonished not to be carried away by strange teaching (113:9). Beside all of these negative warnings, there are exhortations to mutual help and d love within the Christian community (3:13; 10:24f; 13:1-3) and to submit to her spiritual leaders (13:7, 17).18 Since the references to the threat facing the Christian community are not more specific, then perhaps the author of Hebrews is more concerned with the communitys abandonment of the faith than with any alternative they might take.19 In the second place, some passages in Hebrews list the possibility of active, even permanent rebellion against the will of God. There is the danger of possessing an evil heart of unbelief in turning away from God (3:12). We can be disobedient like those in the wilderness (4:11). According to Heb. 6:6, we can fall away ( , second aorist active

participle, the idea here meaning to commit apostasy) and crucify the Son again (here can mean to crucify again, but with , either a dative of disadvantage

meaning to their own hurt or ethical dative, in their own eyes).20 Willful sin not repented of (10:26) means no more sacrifice remains (


Barbara Aland, Kurt Aland, Johannes Karavidopoulos, Carlo M. Martini, and Bruce M. Metzger, The Greek New Testament, 4th Rev. Ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsch Bibelgesellchaft/United Bible Socities, 1994), 767. Ellingworth, 78. 18 Ibid., 79 19 James W. Thompson, Hebrews, Paideai Commentary On The New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 10. 20 Ellingworth, 78. . The Greek New Testament, 769.

29). We should fear God (

, fearful, terrible, or frightful, 10:31). There is the defiling

bitterness which springs up in the Christian community (12:15). Danger also exists in refusing to heed Gods voice (12:25).21 Third, there is also the real outward pressure amounting to persecution. The audience, like Jesus during his earthly life, are being severely tested or tempted ( , present

middle participle, dative masculine plural, 2:18; perfect passive participle, 4:15, perfect indicates past action with abiding results).22 Just as the Christian community had struggled during earlier times (10:32), the trials would get more severe to the point of death (12:4).23 There are other allusions in Hebrews that may help us understand the situation that is going on in this community and help us realize the authors purpose of the book. The writer in 2:8 states that we do not yet see all things in subjection to him. Here the author is probably speaking for the community that struggles with the dissonance between its confession and the realities of alienation. The emphasis placed upon Jesus participation with human suffering (2:10-18) undoubtedly reflects the authors desire to address the communitys painful situation. The Old Testament imagery of the Israelites being tested while en route to the land of Canaan (promised land) in 3:7-4:11 also suggests that the readers are tempted to abandon their faith. The expression in Heb 11 that these Christians are strangers ( ( ) and foreigners or aliens ) reflects the

) who roam the earth (11:13-16) looking for a homeland (

reality of their situation; many of them are homeless in this life because of their faith and subject to abuse (11:26). The author reminds this community that Jesus likewise experienced

21 22

Ellingworth, 78. Ibid. The Greek New Testament, 751, 755. 23 Ellingworth, 78.

shame while enduring the cross (12:2).

This suggests that the author is addressing a

community that has a history of alienation and shame.24 There are other allusions in Hebrews that may help us understand the situation the readers are in and thus the purpose of the book. The writer in 2:8 states that we do not yet see all things in subjection to him ( ).25

Here the author is probably speaking for the community that struggles with the dissonance between its confession and the realities of alienation. The emphasis placed upon Jesus

participation with human suffering (2:10-18) undoubtedly reflects the authors desire to address the communitys painful situation. The Old Testament imagery of the Hebrew children or Israelites being tested en route to the promised land in 3:7-4:11 also suggest "that the readers are tempted to abandon their faith. The expression in Heb 11 that these Christians are

sojourners and aliens (cf. 11:13-16, 38) reflects the reality of the situation they are in; many of them are homeless in this life because of their faith and subject to abuse (11:26). They author reminds this community that Jesus likewise experienced shame and endured the cross (12:2), which suggests that the author is addressing a community that has a history of alienation and shame.26

24 25

Thompson, 10. The Greek New Testament, 4th Rev. Ed, 771. The Greek New Testament, 750. 26 Ibid.

Christological Purpose The Hebrew epistle definitely has an Christological purpose. The object of Hebrews is to show that Christ is superior ( ) to any other being.27 The author argues that Jesus

Christ is greater than all of the servants and prophets of the Lord in all the Old Testament, even greater than Moses himself. The Sons ministry is even superior to that of angels and the Levitical priesthood. This is the only book in the New Testament that expressly calls him a priest, although his priesthood is implied in others.28 He is superior ( ) to Moses the

great law giver (3:1-6a).29 One passage in particular that the author uses to support a priestly Christology of the Son is Psalm 110. If the ruler of Psalm 110 is the Messiah who is acclaimed in Psalm 110:4 (the pries forever after the order of Melchizedek), then the image is of the Son as the prefect priest-king.30 The priesthood of Christ surpasses that of Aaron (4:145:10). As our High Priest, he is the Mediator of a better ( ) covenant ( ) than

the one given by Moses and the one under which Aaron served under (7-8). Christ is the perfect sacrifice (9:1-10:18).31 Thus Hebrews has a definite Christological purpose. Another key passage that expresses the Christology in this epistle is Heb 12:1-2. This passage serves as a bridge to tie chapter eleven and chapter twelve together, both of which focus upon the themes of faith and faithfulness. ( In Heb 11, the author describes faith

, dative of means or instrument) and gives examples of the faithful witnesses in the

James Moffatt, The Epistle to the Hebrews (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1924), xxiii. F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 29. 29 Moffatt, xxiii. 30 Bruce, 29. 31 Moffatt, xxiii.


Old Testament, from creation" to the time of the Maccabees. Both the Old Testament witness and the church today await the ultimate fulfillment of that eternal, heavenly rest.32 Here in Hebrews 12, the author is calling for endurance (12:1-2), extolling the meaning and value of discipline (12:3-13), exhorting the saints to peace and holiness (12:1417), giving assurance that we have access to God (12:18-24), but also warning us that God is not to be trifled with. He is a God who shakes the heaven and earth, he is an all consuming fire. We have received a kingdom that cannot be shaken.33 Here in this paraenetic passage, we are exhorted to fix our eyes upon Jesus ( ... ).34 We focus our

attention upon the Son because of his superiority over angels (Heb. 1-2), over Moses (Heb 3:16), over the Levitical priesthood (Heb 4-7), over the Levitical offerings (Heb 9:11-10:31), and also superior to the great examples of faith in the Old Testament.35 From a syntactical analysis of this passage, Heb 12:1-2 consists of one sentence with one participle verb and object. Then the rest of this sentence consists of participial phrases, prepositional phrases, dependent and relative clauses.36 The verb, let us run, is a hortatory subjunctive, which brings into focus the paraenetic nature of the passage. Then the structure sets in relief the nature of 2b as creedal formula.37 The metaphorical language is one of a

Greek-Roman stadium filled with the faithful winners of the past who endured and overcame trials, and passed the finish line.38 The Christian community which the author is addressing is

Estella B. Horning, Chiasmus, Creedal Structure, and Christology in Hebrews 12:1 -2, Biblical Research 23 (1978): 38. 33 Ibid. 34 The Greek New Testament, 773. 35 Horning, 38. 36 Ibid., 38-39. 37 Ibid., 39. 38 Ibid., 37-38.



on the field and this is their turn to run. Our goal is to keep our eyes glued on the one sitting in the judges box, Jesus.39 Here is the chiasm of Heb 12:1-2:

A B C D * D1 C1 B1 A1

There is also inverted parallelism that consists of nine lines in which the center line stands alone, lines D and D1 have the same participle parallel, and C and C1 have endurance in parallel.41 The parallelism in lines B and B1 are not as obvious to the reader. The writer makes an admonishment for Christians to unshackle themselves from sin which is set in parallel to the description of Jesus as being unconcerned about, or unafraid of, shame. The term shame is the correct parallel to that of sin. Then lines A and A1 hold in parallel the idea of session. Also in line A these witnesses are seated around us, while in line A1 the Son, Jesus,
Ibid., 38. Ibid., 41. The Greek New Testament, 4th Rev. Ed., 773. There is another chiasmus in the final exhortation of the first section (4:16). 41 Ibid., 40.
40 39


is sitting at Gods right hand.42 The first half of the chiasm focuses upon us, while the second half draws our attention to Jesus.43 This type of inverted parallelism is Semitic in flavor and presents numerous examples from both testaments. The center (between D and D1) is always the turning point. This middle thought is an antithetic idea which is a shift of center in some form. These are typically identical terms or ideas that distribute outward from the center, and the use of titles or name for God gravitates towards the center.44 What is the authors point here? He shows that the focus is to be taken off ourselves, or even the faithful in the Old Testament, and look to Jesus as our ultimate example of overcoming temptation, suffering, and death.45

Soteriological Purpose Much has been written on the Christology in the book of Hebrews, but very little attention is given to soteriology. The basis for soteriology, or study of salvation, in Hebrews begins by God revealing his salvation through the Son, according to 1:1-3. Jesus first

proclaimed this good news and was confirmed to the writer and audience by eyewitnesses (2:3). Signs and miracles from the Holy Spirit supported the message of salvation. The book of Hebrews does not set out, like Paul does in Romans, to show that mankind is in need of salvation. The audience already knows this from the Old Testament.46

Ibid. Ibid., 40-41. 44 Ibid., 41. 45 Ibid., 41-42. 46 Brenda B. Collin, Let Us Approach: Soteriology In The Epistle To The Hebrews, JETS 39/4 (December 1996): 571.



The Hebrew writer mentions the high priests duty under the old law to offer sacrifice for his own sins and then for those of the people (5:1-3). The Christian community needs their consciences to be purified from dead works (6:1; 9:13-14) and are encouraged to do good woks (6:10; 10:24). This is not possible under the old covenant. The old sacrificial order is no t sufficient to totally remove sin ( worshipper perfect ( , to take away, 10:4). The old law could not make the , 10:1). If possible, the old law would require ceaseless

sacrifices that serve to remind people of sin even as they attempt to deal with sin (10:1-3).47 The Hebrew writer, like Paul, shows the promise for this new and better covenant are meant for Christians. These promises are made possible by the incarnation and ministry of Christ (11:13, 39-40). Believers in Christ are heirs of Gods promises under the old covenant and of even better promises under the new (6:17; 8:6).48 Salvation through Christ is made possible through Gods grace. While there is not a detailed doctrine of atonement in Hebrews, yet the writer does emphasize the suffering of the Son in the flesh and this his deity is superior to any other being, period.49 Christs death frees us from slavery to sin and releases us from Satans power (2:14-15).50 Jesus death is once for all, for all mankind and for all time. One, however, must remain faithful to their confession in order to receive forgiveness. 51 Salvation is Hebrews is also eschatological, that is, there is the yet, but not yet, aspect to salvation. While we wait for the consummation in the spiritual promise land yet to come, still as Christians we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken (12:28). The age to come is a new order (9:10,

47 48

Ibid, 572. The Greek New Testament, 765. Collin, 572. 49 Ibid. 50 Ibid., 572-73. 51 Ibid., 574.


not like the present world. In the age to come, all things will be subjected to the Son, even angels.52

Conclusion The Hebrew writer definitely has a theological purpose in penning this homily. He sent his word of exhortation in letter form to remind them to remain faithful to Christ. He is writing to a Jewish-Christian audience to show the futility of going back to the old covenant. Only Christ and the new covenant can save. Going back to the old law leads to apostasy and separation from God. Whoever this community is and wherever they are from, the evidence seems clear that their background is Judaism. There is also an Christological purpose, to show that Christ is superior to everyone under the old covenant, including the angels of heaven. This community is undergoing discouragement and persecution. While they may not be on the brink of death, being a martyr may not be too far removed. There is no hope if they fall into apostasy. They will end up dying in the desert like their forefathers and not reaching the spiritual land of Canaan. There is hope only if they remain faithful to the Son. We can endure human suffering and persecution because our Savior endured. The book of Hebrews stresses the humanity of the Son in order to show that he can relate to our needs and our struggles. He is a High Priest who can understand because he walked in our shoes. Hebrews does seem to have, as some would argue, an apologetic aspect. Hebrews can be utilized to prove Christ is the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy for our non-believing




friends. Ultimately, the epistle to the Hebrews reminds Christians that to turn away from the church is to turn away from Christ. Without being in the community of faith, one is lost and without hope.


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