Since the title ‘To the Hebrews’ is not part of the original writing, there is no clear statement in the Bible to indicate to whom the letter to the Hebrews was written. Nevertheless, the title reflects an early and widely held belief that it was written to a group of Hebrew Christians. The contents of the letter itself appear to support this belief.
With the increasing persecution of Christians during the reign of Nero (AD 54-68), tensions and fears arose in the church. This was particularly so among some of the Jewish Christians, who began to wonder if they had done right in giving up their Jewish religion and becoming Christians. These people had believed, from the teaching of Jesus and his followers, that the Jewish religion no longer served God’s purposes. They had been taught that the priesthood and sacrifices would come to an end and that the temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed. But, thirty years after Jesus’ death, the temple was still standing and the Jewish religion was still functioning. Because of the suffering that came through the persecution, some of the discouraged Jewish Christians were doubting Christianity’s claim to be God’s new and triumphant way to the eternal kingdom. It seemed to them that the Jewish religion was as firm as ever, whereas Christianity was heading for disaster. Some had stopped attending Christian meetings, and others had even given up their Christian faith and gone back to Judaism. The letter to the Hebrews was written to correct this backsliding.
The writer and his readers
Although the writer of this letter does not give his name, he must have been a well known Christian preacher of the time. Much of the letter is in the form of a sermon (Heb 13:22). The content of the sermon makes it clear that the writer based his teachings on the same foundational beliefs as taught by other preachers such as Stephen, Peter, Paul and John. He was probably a Jew (Heb 1:1), though he wrote polished Greek and took his Old Testament quotations from the Greek version known as the Septuagint. Both he and his readers heard the gospel from the apostles or others who had personally heard Jesus preach (Heb 2:3). Most likely the people who received the letter were a group of Jewish Christians who were part of a larger church. They may have lived in Italy (perhaps Rome), for a group of Italians who were away from home at the time join the writer in sending greetings to them (Heb 13:24). They knew Timothy and no doubt were pleased to hear that he had just been released from prison and would visit them soon (Heb 13:23). The writer also hoped to visit them soon (Heb 13:19). The writer wanted to show these discouraged Jewish Christians that Christ was the true fulfilment of the Jewish religion. The Old Testament found its completion in him. Christ is far above prophets, angels, leaders and priests, and his sacrifice has done what all the Jewish sacrifices could never do. There is no need for any further developments in God’s plan of salvation, because what Christ has done is final.
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Contents of the letter
God may have used various kinds of people and various rituals to teach people about himself in Old Testament times, but with the coming of Jesus Christ such revelations are no longer needed. God now reveals himself through Christ (1:1-4). Christ is superior to all created things, including angels (1:5-14), and there is no salvation apart from him (2:1-4). In his great humility Christ became a human being, willingly taking a temporarily lower position than angels in order to save human beings (2:5-18). As the God-sent leader of God’s people, Christ is greater than either Moses or Aaron (3:1-6). He leads his people to a better rest than the rest that Joshua led Israel to in Canaan. But, as in the time of Joshua, unbelief will prevent people from enjoying the rest that God provides (3:7-4:13). Christ is the great high priest of his people (4:14-5:10), but unstable Christians cannot appreciate this (5:11-14). They are in danger of forsaking Christ, the sole source of salvation, and going back to a system that is out of date and cannot save anyone (6:1-8). Believers must not lose heart, but persevere in the assurance of the salvation that Christ has obtained for them (6:9-20). The priesthood of Melchizedek was not limited by time or nationality (7:1-10), and the priesthood of Christ is according to that timeless and universal order (7:11-28). He is a new priest and he officiates according to a new covenant (8:1-13). Priestly work under the old covenant was limited in that it could not take away the worshipper’s sins (9:1-10), but the priestly work of Christ under the new covenant removes sins for ever (9:11-14). Likewise sacrifices under the old covenant were imperfect (9:15-22), but Christ’s one sacrifice under the new covenant is perfect, complete and final (9:23-10:18). In view of the perfection and finality of Christ’s work, Christians must be confident.
They must not lose heart (10:19-25). They must not turn back, but persevere in faith (10:26-39). Examples from Old Testament times show that if people had true faith they persevered. This was so even when they could not clearly see how God could fulfil his promises. Many suffered for their faith, but they stood firm regardless of the cost (11:1-40). Christians must therefore face their difficulties with strength and endurance. They should not rebel or grow bitter when God uses their difficulties to test and train them (12:1-17). God is merciful, but he will also judge the rebellious (12:18-29). Christians must demonstrate the practical worth of their faith in the everyday matters of life (13:1-6), and offer the sacrifice of praise, obedience and good works, not the ritual sacrifice of animals (13:7-16). They should take notice of the teaching of their leaders and trust always in the saving power of God (13:17-25).