Since the title of this letter, ‘To the Hebrews’, is not part of the original writing, the Bible contains no direct statement to indicate to whom the letter was written. The title reflects an early and widely held belief that it was written to a group of Hebrew (i.e. Jewish) Christians. The contents of the letter support this belief.
Effects of persecution
During the reign of Nero (AD 54-68), persecution of Christians increased considerably. This caused some Jewish Christians to wonder if they had done right in giving up their Jewish religion and becoming Christians. They had believed, as Jesus and his followers taught, that the Jewish religion no longer served God’s purposes, that the priesthood and the sacrifices would come to an end, and that the temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed. Yet, thirty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the temple was still standing and the Jewish religion was still functioning.
With the increasing persecution, some of the Jewish Christians became discouraged. They began to doubt whether Christianity really was God’s new and victorious way to the eternal kingdom. In their view, Judaism appeared to be as firm as ever, whereas Christianity appeared to be heading for disaster. Some had stopped attending Christian meetings and even given up their Christian faith and gone back to Judaism (Heb 10:25-31). The letter to the Hebrews was written to reassure the Jewish believers and prevent them from slipping back to their former religious practices (Heb 2:1-3).
The writer and his readers
Although the writer of this letter has not recorded his name, he was probably a well known Christian preacher of the time. Much of the letter is in the form of a sermon (Heb 13:22), and the beliefs that form its basis are the same as those taught by Stephen, Peter, Paul, John and other prominent preachers of the apostolic era. The writer was 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 those who had personally heard Jesus teach (Heb 2:3).
The Jewish Christians who received this letter seem to have been a group within a larger church.
There is little to indicate where their church was located, and suggestions vary from Jerusalem to Rome. They apparently knew Timothy, and may also have known the group of Italian Christians who sent them greetings by means of this letter (Heb 13:23-24). The writer hoped that he and Timothy would visit them soon (Heb 13:19,23).
In the meantime the writer wanted to reassure these discouraged Jewish believers that Jesus Christ was the true fulfilment of the Jewish religion. The Old Testament finds its completion in him. He is far above all prophets, angels, leaders and priests, and his sacrifice has done what all the Israelite sacrifices could never do. Nothing of human initiative or effort can add to God’s way of salvation, for what Christ has done is final (Heb 10:12-13).
OLD TESTAMENT RELIGIOUS PRACTICES
Present-day readers sometimes find the book of Hebrews difficult to understand, because the writer refers repeatedly to the regulations and ceremonies of the ancient Israelite religion. His readers were familiar with what he was talking about, but readers today will find it helpful to refresh their knowledge of the Israelite religious system before starting to read Hebrews.
The old covenant
A covenant was an agreement between two people that carried with it obligations, and possibly benefits or penalties, depending on whether a person kept or broke it. But covenants between God and people differed from everyday covenants in that they were not agreements between equals. God was always the giver and people the receivers. Mere human beings could never negotiate an agreement with the almighty God or place conditions upon him. God’s promises originated in his sovereign grace, and the people of his creation could do nothing but accept his favour and submit to his directions (Gen 15:18; 17:7-9).
These features are clearly seen in the covenant ceremony at Mount Sinai when the nation Israel formally became God’s people. God, in his grace, had chosen Israel to belong to him, even though Israel had done nothing to deserve such favour. But if the people were to enjoy the blessings of the covenant relationship, they needed to do God’s will. The people readily acknowledged this and promised to keep the law that God gave them through Moses. They swore that they would keep their part of the covenant (Exod 24:3,8; cf. 6:7; 19:4-6; Lev 26:3-13).
On account of this connection between the covenant and the law, people commonly speak of ‘the old covenant’ as a general term for the law of Moses. In some cases the expression is used to refer to Israel’s entire religious system.
Though given by God, this old covenant was never intended to be permanent. Its purpose was to prepare the way for Jesus Christ (Heb 8:6-9,13). The writer of Hebrews wants to show that once Christ came, the old covenant was of no further use. His death on the cross did what all Israel’s laws and ceremonies could not do. It brought cleansing from sin and the right to enter God’s presence. Christ’s death established a new covenant, one that is perfect and lasts for ever (Heb 9:15; 13:20).
Salvation under the old covenant
If the old covenant could not bring cleansing, how were people under that covenant saved? The answer is that they were saved by God’s grace through their faith in him, which is the only way sinners have ever been saved. No one can be saved by keeping the law (Rom 3:20,27-28; Eph 2:8-9). Abraham lived before the old covenant was established, whereas David lived under the old covenant, but both were saved in the same way, by faith (Rom 4:1-16; Gal 3:17-18).
The old covenant was never intended to be a way of salvation. The law of Moses was not a means by which people could earn forgiveness. However, it helped them see their sin and God’s holiness, and so encouraged them to turn in faith to God and ask for mercy (Rom 3:19; 5:20; Gal 3:19). When Christ came, he did what the law could not do, for by paying sin’s penalty he made forgiveness possible for the repentant (Rom 8:3-4; Gal 3:23-25).
Although God saved people freely by his grace, the ceremonies of the law helped people see how it was possible for him to do so. They were a further stage in the revelation of God’s purposes. God, before whom all things are eternally present, saw that those purposes would be fulfilled in Christ. It was on the basis of Christ’s death that God was able to put sinners right with himself, even those who lived in Old Testament times (Rom 3:25-26; Heb 9:15).
God’s appointed place for the performance of Israel’s religious duties was the tabernacle, or tent of meeting. The structure was of simple design, so that it could be easily put together, taken apart and transported. It was a mobile sanctuary, carried by the migrating Israelites on their journey from Mount Sinai to Canaan. Simply described, it consisted of a wooden box-like frame covered with a cloth and protected from the weather by a tent that covered the whole. All that people saw from the outside was a tent (Exod 26:1-30).
The wooden-framed structure under the tent had two rooms. The front room, which was entered through a curtain, was called the Holy Place and contained three pieces of furniture – a seven-headed lampstand, a table of sacred bread, and an altar for burning incense (Exod 25:23-40; 26:36-37; 30:1-10). A second curtain separated the Holy Place from the smaller rear room, which was known as the Most Holy Place or Holy of Holies. This room was the symbolic dwelling place of God. It contained the ark of the covenant (or covenant box), whose richly ornamented lid was the symbolic throne of God, known as the mercy seat (or grace throne) (Exod 25:10-22; 26:31-35).
Surrounding this tabernacle-tent was a rectangular court, whose perimeter was marked by a tall fence.
In this court was an altar on which the priests offered all the animal and food sacrifices, and a laver (or large basin) in which the priests washed (Exod 27:1-19; 30:17-21). Outside the court were the tents of the Israelites, pitched in an orderly arrangement on the four sides, so that the tabernacle was in the centre of the camp (Num 2:1-34).
Priests and Levites
One tribe of Israel, the tribe of Levi, was responsible for the erection, maintenance and transport of the tabernacle. One man in this tribe, Aaron, the older brother of Moses, was Israel’s first high priest, and his sons were the priests who assisted him (Exod 28:1; Num 8:14-19). The Old Testament priesthood is therefore sometimes called the Aaronic priesthood, sometimes the Levitical priesthood. Only the descendants of Aaron could be priests, and only members of the tribe of Levi could assist in the service and maintenance of the tabernacle (Exod 29:9; Num 3:1-10).
Priests were responsible to teach the law and to see that the Israelite people maintained God’s standards of morality, holiness, cleanliness and justice (Lev 10:10-11; Deut 17:8-9; 24:8; 33:10). They offered sacrifices on behalf of those who brought them, and therefore were mediators between the people and God (Lev 1:4-9; 6:25-26). They also carried out daily functions in the tabernacle, such as tending the lamps and offering incense (Exod 27:20-21; 30:7-8).
Only priests could enter the Holy Place (Num 18:1-7; Heb 9:6), and only the high priest could enter the Most Holy Place. Even then he could do so only once a year, on the Day of Atonement. On that day he sprinkled the blood of the sacrificial animal on the mercy seat and approached God on behalf of the people to ask his mercy and forgiveness for their sins (Lev 16:2-3,11-15; Heb 9:7).
People offered sacrifices (or offerings) to God as expressions of their devotion to him. Different sacrifices were appointed for different purposes, but all contained some element of atonement; that is,
some part of the ritual symbolically dealt with sin’s penalty so that the offerer could be restored to a right relationship with God.
In the sacrifice of an animal, for example, the worshipper may have presented it as a personal substitute, and, on the basis of the animal’s death, asked God’s forgiveness. The person knew that because death was the penalty for sin, there could be no forgiveness of sin apart from death. The sacrifice was the God-given means of expressing faith (Lev 17:11).
The sacrificial animal had to be healthy and free from defects. This was to symbolize perfection, as if the animal was not under condemnation and so was fit to be the substitute for the sinner (Lev 1:3,10).
Forgiveness through blood meant, in other words, forgiveness through the death of a guiltless substitute (Heb 9:22).
Yet animal sacrifices could not take away sins (Heb 10:4). They were a temporary arrangement for Old Testament times that gave people a way to demonstrate their repentance, faith and obedience. They also taught people what their atonement involved. But whether people knew it or not, the sacrifice of Christ was the means by which God forgave them when they turned to him in faith (Rom 3:21-26).
The writer of Hebrews has a special concern for Jewish Christians who at one time had participated in the various rituals of Israel’s religious system. He wants to impress upon them that although Israel’s religious system prepared the way for Christ, it could never save guilty sinners. Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation.