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The Access Bible New Revised Standard Bible, written and edited with first-time Bible readers in mind.

Reading Guide

Hebrews, which claims to be a “word of exhortation” ( 13.22 ) in the form of a letter ( 13.18–25 ), resembles ancient philosophical essay letters. That is, it is more like an extended presentation of a position or idea than it is like a piece of personal correspondence. It interweaves two themes: (1) the need to remain faithful and (2) the basis for steadfast faith as found in the description of Jesus' death as victim and priest. Jesus' faithfulness, his sharing of our mortal nature, and his obedience learned through suffering qualify him as the ideal model of perseverance and faithfulness. The structure of the document, then, consists of alternating presentation of the themes: (1) the examination of Jesus' death ( 2.10–18; 5.1–10; 7.1–10.18 ), and (2) the exhortation to faithfulness ( 2.1–4; 3.1–4.16; 5.11–6.19; 10.19–39; 12.1–29; 13.1–17 ). Overall, the argument goes as follows:

  • 1. Comparison: superiority of Jesus to angels ( 1.1–14 )

  • 2. Exhortation: the example of Jesus ( 2.1–18 )

  • 3. Exhortation to faithfulness: the example of ancient Israel ( 3.1–4.13 )

  • 4. Main thesis: Jesus as suffering but faithful high priest ( 4.14–5.14 )

  • 5. Exhortation to mature understanding and faithfulness ( 6.1–20 )

  • 6. Comparison: superiority of Jesus' priesthood to that of Levites

  • 7. Comparison: superiority of the new covenant * through Jesus ( 8.1–13 )

  • 8. Comparison: superiority of Jesus' sacrifice ( 9.1–22 )

  • 9. Comparison: superiority of Jesus' new temple ( 9.23–28 )

  • 10. Comparison: superiority of Jesus' obedience to material sacrifices ( 10.1–18 )

  • 11. Exhortation to faithfulness: hope in the promise

    • A. Holding fast to the confession ( 10.19–39 )
    • B. Witnesses of faith and steadfastness and hope ( 11.1–39 )
  • 12. Exhortation to more general virtues

    • A. Difficulties and discipline require courage ( 12.1–29 )
    • B. Community issues: love, marriage, and authority ( 13.1–19 )
  • 13. Letter closing: blessing and greetings ( 13.20–25 )

Hebrews regularly uses the scriptures to interpret the role and status of Jesus and to encourage the believers. It cites individual verses of psalms as well as lengthy quotations, and is familiar with narrative * as well as legal materials. Scripture serves as the best argument to clarify Jesus' priesthood and to exhort to faithfulness (see chart below). While most New Testament documents understand the Bible as prophecy, Hebrews takes this process one step further by using the Bible to outline a religious system superior to any other.

Furthermore, the author regularly argues that Jesus is “better than” the most important and exalted persons or things in the Judean tradition. Jesus is superior to heavenly angels ( 1.5–14 ) and earthly worthies, such as Moses ( 3.1–6 ) and Aaron ( 5.1–10 ). His priesthood surpasses that of Levi ( 7.1–28 ), and his sacrifice that of the old order ( 9.1–14 ). The covenant he mediates is better than that of Israel ( 8.7–13; 9.15–22; 12.24 ).

The author applies to Jesus traditional concepts used to speak about a true deity. Gods in antiquity were named “immortals” in contrast to mortal men and women; they never die, but we do. Moreover, a true god must be both uncreated in the past and imperishable in the future. Just this sort of language is used of Jesus in two places. The author begins by describing Jesus as the one “through whom God created the worlds” ( 1.2 ). Because Jesus is not himself created, he must be “eternal in the past.” Then, citing Ps 102.25 , he affirms Jesus as the heavenly figure who “in the beginning … founded the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands” ( 1.10 ); this echoes the sense of Jesus as uncreated or eternal in the past. Juxtaposed are statements proclaiming Jesus' imperishability. The earth and the heavens will perish and grow old like garments ( 1.10–11 / Ps 102.26–27 ); but Jesus will “remain … the same” and “your years will never

Chart

Passage in Hebrews Scripture cited Topic
1.5–14 Ps 2.7; 97.7; 104.4; 102.25–27 descriptions of Christ's high status
2.6–8 Ps 8 scandal of the cross
3.7–11 Ps 95 exhortation to faithfulness
5.6; 6.20; 7.11, 17, 21 Ps 110.4 priest like Melchizedek
7.1–10 Gen 14.17–20 Abraham and Melchizedek
8.6–13 Jer 31.31–34 new covenant in Jesus
9.6–22 Lev 16–17 day of atonement
end” ( 1.11–12 ). Because Jesus is both eternal in the past and imperishable in the future, he is rightly called “God” ( 1.8 / Ps 45.6 ).

This same claim is made for Jesus when Melchizedek is declared as a type of Jesus' priesthood. Melchizedek is the priest who blessed Abraham (Gen 14; 18–20 ); he not only represents a different kind of priesthood in Israel, but his name indicates that he was also a king, both of which become important in understanding Jesus' exalted role and status. Levitical priests die and so do not continue in the priesthood; Jesus' priesthood is superior because he “continues forever” ( 7.24 ). What can be known about Melchizedek is understood to describe Jesus, the true priest. Of Melchizedek the author says: “Without father, without mother, without genealogy, * having neither beginning of days nor end of life” ( 7.3 ). When applied to Jesus (“[Melchizedek] resembling the Son of God, he remains a priest forever,” 7.3b ), this claims that the Son of God truly is uncreated in the past (“without father, mother, genealogy”) and imperishable in the future (“neither beginning of days nor end of life”). Thus Jesus is indescribably superior to all other creatures, angels, Moses, Aaron, and Levi: He shares the qualities of the Deity.

Readers should expect two types of materials, both exhortation to faithfulness and celebration of Jesus' death. In reading chs. 7–10 , we profit by consulting the notes to see what biblical document is cited or alluded to in regard to Jesus' death as priestly sacrifice. This material should be seen in combination with the comparison motif * in which Jesus is better than or superior to heavenly angels and earthly heroes. If Christ is so exalted and noble, then his death is less a scandal to his disciples ( 12.2 ) and more a model of obedience and faithfulness to follow.

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