Theme and Content.
The theme of the letter to the Hebrews is the supremacy of Christ. The letter opens with the assertion that God, who spoke through the prophets in varied ways, has in this last age spoken his final word in the person of his Son. This immediately introduces an emphasis that remains prominent throughout, namely, the uniqueness and perfection of the Son in comparison with the multiplicity and imperfection of all others. The contrast is between the many and the One, between expectation and fulfillment, between shadow and reality. Thus, the many priests of the old order, themselves sinful and temporary, are superseded by the single person of Christ, who is without sin and whose priesthood is forever; and their innumerable sacrifices, endlessly repeated because they were unable to achieve the redemption they portended, are replaced by Christ's one perfect sacrifice of himself, which is ever‐more effective for purging sins.
It is apparent from the content of the letter that there was need to insist on the supremacy of Christ by demonstrating his superiority to angels (1.4–2.18) and to Moses (3.1–4.13), as well as to Aaron (4.14–10.18), the first of the high priests of the old order. At the same time, this involved instruction regarding the superiority of the new covenant, of which Christ is the mediator, to the old covenant under which the Mosaic system operated (8.1–9.10).
Apparently, those to whom this letter was addressed were being tempted not only to assign to angels, or to some angelic being, a position above that of Christ, but also to revert to the structure of the Mosaic dispensation with its regulations and sacrifices. The readers are solemnly warned, accordingly, of the great peril of losing hold of salvation in Christ (2.1–4), of imitating the unbelieving Israelites in the wilderness (3.6b–4.2), of spiritual stagnation and apostasy (5.11–6.8), of despising the gospel (10.26–31), and of copying Esau, who bartered his birthright to satisfy the whim of a moment (12.15–17).
Recipients and Date.
The content of the letter suggests that those to whom it was addressed were Jewish Christians, that is, Jews who had recognized Jesus as the Messiah. This accords with the traditional designation of the letter, present in the earliest manuscripts as “to the Hebrews.”
The date of the letter may confidently be placed before the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple, because of the many indications that the Levitical priesthood was still performing its sacerdotal duties. Furthermore, it is impossible to believe that, had the Temple already been destroyed and its sacrifices ended, no mention of so significant a development would have been made by the author. The occurrence would have been interpreted as confirming his contention that with the coming of Christ the old order had given way to the new. The letter may therefore be dated some time, perhaps a few years, perhaps a few months (depending on how one may discern or interpret other possible indications in the text), prior to 70 CE.
The identity of the author of Hebrews is not known. Allusions in Clement of Rome's letter to the Corinthians attest to the authoritative status of Hebrews before the end of the first century. Presumably Clement knew who the author was. Later on, however, questions regarding the authorship of the letter contributed to the general neglect it suffered in western or Latin Christianity. Jerome's acceptance of the work as coming from the pen of Paul, and in particular the title Essenism, whose adherents were to be found throughout Palestine, and there is no need to suppose that the recipients of the letter were converts from the Qumran community. They could have been ex‐Essenes or simply Jewish Christians who, attracted by Essene glamorization of a past age, were tempted to compromise the perfection of their salvation in Christ.
At least we now have a clue as to why the writer of Hebrews felt compelled to demonstrate the superiority of Christ to angels, insisting that “God did not subject the coming world … to angels” (2.5), and to warn that to return to the Mosaic system with its priesthood would be to lose the gospel. We can also appreciate the need for instruction regarding the true significance of Melchizedek, who as king of Salem and priest of the Most High God portended the union of eternal kingship and eternal priesthood in the single person of Christ. The postulation of two messiahs reflected the inability of combining in one person a priest of the line of Levi with a king of the line of David. Christ, however, was both the son of David and also a priest forever after the order not of Aaron but of Melchizedek (chap. 7; Ps. 110.4).
The Old and the New.
A major purpose of the letter to the Hebrews was to explain the contrast between the old sanctuary and the new and the absolute superiority of the new order over the old. Particularly prominent is the typology of the Day of Atonement, which was when annual atonement would be made for the sins of the people (see Lev. 16). Since the high priest too was a sinner, he first offered up a sacrifice for his own sins. Then he killed a goat as a sin offering for the people, and while the people waited outside he disappeared from their view as he went through to the innermost sanctuary of the tabernacle (the holy of holies), and there sprinkled the animal's blood on the mercy seat. But according to the author of the letter, the old system was unable to achieve the reality that it foreshadowed (10.1–4). The earthly sanctuary also was but “a sketch and shadow of the heavenly one” (8.5). Consequently, the same sacrifices had to be offered over and over again, and the way into the innermost chamber of God's presence was barred to the people. All this served to arouse the longing expectation of the coming of the perfect high priest who would offer up the perfect sacrifice once and for all.
This expectation was made a reality by the coming of Christ, the uniquely great high priest (4.14; 7.4), who, being entirely holy and free from sin (4.15; 7.26), had no need, like the Levitical priests, to offer any sacrifice first for his own sins (7.27), and who offered up not an animal but himself, making atonement for sin by his own blood. His sacrifice avails once for all and need never be repeated (10.10–14). This means, further, that the people, not just the Israelites but now the whole of humankind, are no longer excluded from access to God's presence. This was dramatically indicated by the rending of the curtain that blocked the way into the holy of holies at the moment of Christ's death (10.20; Mark 15.37–38). But it is not a mere earthly sanctuary that has been opened to all, but the true heavenly sanctuary of God's presence (8.2), access to which has been made possible by the triumphant ascension of the risen Lord into heaven itself (4.14; 9.24), whence his waiting people eagerly look for his glorious reappearance (9.28).
The recipients of the letter are reminded that it is by faith that they must live and die, and that hardship and affliction should never cause them to throw away their confidence and give up the struggle (10.32–39). Chap. 11 is an encomium of faith that sets before them the saints of old, both men and women. But above all they are to set their eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith, whose humiliation has become glory (12.1–3). And so they are urged to stand firm under persecution, to strive after holiness, and to associate themselves with Jesus and his cross, remembering always that their true homeland is not here but hereafter (12; 13.12–14; cf. 11.10, 13–16).
Philip Edgcumbe Hughes