A few weeks ago I taught my last inductive lecture of the school year: the Letter to the Hebrews. Although feeling timid in the face of this book, I grew to adore Hebrews as a deeply profound, deliberate and vital part of our Bibles. All that to say, if you fancy listening to one of my teachings from the last nine months, I recommend choosing this one. Have a download of the audios above and let me know what you think.
But what’s so special about Hebrews? Well dear reader, let me tell you. Hebrews is an ancient letter written in the first century by an anonymous author. It is shrouded in mystery as no one truly knows who wrote it, when they did, why they did, and to whose hands this letter was first intended to reach. Despite these critical details being up for discussion for the last two thousand years, Hebrews has endured in our New Testaments as an inspired letter, alongside the likes of Paul’s. Time and again it has come under scrutiny for its ambiguity and yet countless conclusions have always been to keep and preserve this letter. Calvin implored, “Let us therefore not allow ourselves to be deprived of so great a benefit, but firmly defend the possession of it.”
So in this blog post I’m not going to get into the nitty gritty details of who wrote Hebrews (you can listen to the lecture for that), but I do want to convince why Hebrews was and is so relevant to Christian theology. As a letter, Hebrews is highly Jewish. Having an understanding of Old Testament themes (such as the priesthood, sacrificial system and atonement) is important, is as familiarity with certain passages like Leviticus 16, Psalm 110 and Genesis 14. Because of its Jewishness, the letter provides a bridge between the Old and the New Testament, explaining why Jesus' life so specifically fulfilled and superseded all that pointed to it throughout history.
Hebrews was written to Christian Jews who were at a crossroads in their faith, unsure whether to continue living as threatened/persecuted Christians or whether to turn back to Judaism and avoid their sufferings. They were in a lifeboat and lusting after a sinking ship, wondering if returning would solve their problems. To this audience the author outlaid a beautiful sermon to convince that in Jesus, the Jews have everything their ancestors ever hoped for. They have a better mediator, a better rest, a better priest, a better sacrifice, a better covenant and a better atonement. Don't leave the lifeboat and return to the sinking ship! The letter also hosts five major warnings which paint pictures intended to alert the readers that the consequences of turning away from Christ are huge.
One of the most significant contributions of Hebrews is the imagery of Jesus as the High Priest. In fact, it's the only place in the Bible which describes Christ as such. In the Old Testament covenant, kings and High Priests both functioned in significant roles over the Israelites (later called the Jews), but no one person ever fulfilled both roles - that wasn't allowed. The first century Jews understood Jesus' claim to be their King and Messiah (He was killed for those claims), but He never claimed to be their Priest or tried to function in that role. So the bulk of the author's argument is that Jesus is the High Priest of His followers and that this truly changes everything.