Introduction to Hebrews

Written on: October 1, 2022

Article by: Paul Birston

The Sermon on Jesus Our Merciful and Faithful High Priest with Exposition, Exhortations and Warnings

(By Geoffrey Ellis and Paul Birston)

Of the sixty-six books of the Bible, one on its own, Hebrews, is a sermon!

We acknowledge of course that many Bible books contain powerful sermons, notably Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, a formidable opening to His ministry and the New Testament, and Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost opening the door of God’s kingdom to all who obey His gospel.

Lacking an identification of the intended recipient(s), thus removing it from the category of a letter, Hebrews’ careful structure of announcement, instruction, and exhortation qualify it as a homily.

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It is noted that the author identifies his lesson as “my word of exhortation,” i.e. a sermon, “…written to you briefly” (Hebrews 13:22). (This reminds us of the invitation extended to Paul and Barnabas by synagogue officials in Antioch of Pisidia, after the reading from the Law and Prophets, “Brothers, if you have a word of exhortation, deliver it now” (Acts 13:15). And the author of Hebrews refers to “speaking” in his lesson, Hebrews 2:5, 5:11, 6:9, 8:1, 9:5, and 11:32.

However, given our penchant for studying the Bible in bits and pieces, e. g. by chapters and verses (the Bible was divided into chapters in 1227, and verses in 1551), we are at risk of missing the logical thrust, the interwoven majesty, and the compelling demand of its teaching, as a complete sermon.

(I [Geoff] once preached through Hebrews during quarterly visits to the Bayview congregation. It took three years!)

The majesty of Hebrews is supported by its exquisite structure. Hebrews is the longest exposition of a major theme in the New Testament illuminating Old Testament Scriptures on the High Priesthood of Jesus according to the order of Melchizedek (Psalm 110).

Hebrews is the only New Testament book to refer to Jesus specifically as High Priest though His high priestly work is seen throughout the New Testament. Hebrews weaves together several cycles of exposition, exhortation and warning, exalting Jesus through whom God made the world and upon whose sacrifice of His own blood God makes His final offer of “so great a salvation” (Hebrews 2:3) with clear warnings throughout on the consequences of refusing Him.

Hebrews illuminates 1) Jesus’ High Priesthood and His superiority to angels, 2 ) His High Priesthood’s superiority to the First Covenant’s sacrificial system and 3) how we must live since we have such a great High Priest. (For an expanded overview of the exquisite structure of Hebrews’ exposition, exhortations and warnings see: https://app.box.com/s/or3xql9cq4ikg1jfy9hc2blutaatr18v)

We would do well to settle in for a one-hour hearing of this majestic sermon, of the exalted Christ in his saving role, in Hebrews! For through this sermon God speaks and the hearers are constrained to listen: “…God spoke to the fathers…and has spoken to us by his Son…” God is said to speak six more times in Chapter One: “Therefore, we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift from it” (Hebrews 2:1).

Our curiosity remains unrequited as to the author and the intended original recipients of Hebrews. The apostle Paul was identified as its author later in the early church through to the time of the King James Version. Yet Paul identified himself as author in each of his thirteen writings in the New Testament, while the polished style of Hebrews is not found in the writings known to be his. Some suggest Apollos or Barnabas. One who wrote in the literary caliber of the Greek of Hebrews was Luke who was intimately acquainted with Paul and his thought. Some suggest Paul may have preached the sermon in Hebrew and dictated it to Luke for translation and publication.

The final word on the authorship of Hebrews presently remains a mystery in the scholarly world that God may reveal to us when we join “the festal gathering and assembly of the Firstborn who are enrolled in heaven” in His presence (Hebrews 12:23a)

We do know where the sermon was written and where its intended audience was not. Hebrews 13:24: “They in Italy salute you.” Thus, it is believed, Hebrews was written in Italy and forwarded to an audience somewhere outside of Italy. (There are some scholars who give a reverse twist to this reading.)

When Hebrews was written intrigues us. Two dates have the greatest following: the early ‘60s and the late AD 80’s. The earlier date fits with the absence of any hint of the temple’s destruction (AD 70) in the text. The later date fits with the persecution of the church of that time, and persecution is featured in chapters eleven and twelve of Hebrews. However, Chapter 13 again supplies a clue: “…our brother Timothy has been set at liberty, with whom, if he comes shortly, I will see you” (vs. 23). Tradition places Timothy in prison in the early 60’s.

Who is addressed by Hebrews? The title says it all. Or does it? The long-standing consensus that Hebrews was addressed to Jewish Christians is inaccurate and pejorative. The title, “Hebrews,” was not part of the writing of the sermon—it was not added until the third century. The person, priesthood, and sacrifice of Jesus come into full focus in this work, capping the teachings of the Old Testament. This is the genius of Hebrews. The interlocking of the past, the present, and the future is found in this one sermon of the Bible (as it is in Peter’s sufferings and glories theme in 1 Peter). It was preached to Christians in its day, and is the treasure-trove for all Christians in our time. (It is remembered that Abram was promised that through his descendants, “all the families of the earth would be blessed…” (Genesis 12:3b). And the high priesthood of Melchizedek which provides the model for the high priesthood of Jesus, predated the Jews per se, though we note that Abaram was Semitic and known as “Abram the Hebrew” (Genesis 14:13) before he met Melchizedek. That Hebrews, the one sermon of the Bible, has as its subject the majestic Saviour and his sacrifice for the entire world, qualifies it as a premier writing of the Scriptures, to be treasured by all believers. Hebrews is addressed to all believers everywhere, in every age.

Jesus Christ, Son of God, and Saviour, is the focus of this preaching that was intended to be read to a congregation within an hour. The preacher gathered his hearers’ attention with the opening words: “In the past, God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways” (Hebrews 1:1a). He then launches into his sermon which has the elevation of Jesus Christ as its theme: “…in these last days he has spoken unto us by his Son, whom he has appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory, and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven” (Hebrews 1:3).

The superiority of Jesus Christ is the dominant message of this sermon. As the sermon unfolds, Christ is superior to: the angels, chapters one and two; superior to Moses, chapters three and four; superior to the priests, chapters five through seven; whose sacrifice is superior, chapters eight through ten; faithful action, is the appropriate response, as illustrated by God’s heroes of faith, followed by a call to acceptable service, chapter twelve; chapter thirteen follows with twelve miscellaneous admonitions to Christian conduct.

Chapter twelve ends the formal sermon with one of the Bible’s grandest visions of God’s rescue of his people, given in contrast to His earthly blessing granted on Mount Sinai: “…But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable host of angels in joyful assembly, and the church of the first born who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better than that of Abel.” Linked to this blessed vision is the sober warning: “See to it that you refuse not him who speaks… Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (12:25a, 28, 29).

This is one sermon that we as believers should hear, not once but repeatedly, with gratitude, great attention and reverence.

Grimsby and Waterloo, Ontario