Introduction to the Book of Hebrews

10 Aug

In this space I am planning to begin a regular series on the book of Hebrews, providing verse-by-verse commentary on this great New Testament letter.

Introducing Hebrews

 Hebrews is a rich and rewarding book. John Owen, the Puritan, studied Hebrews so thoroughly that his works on Hebrews are now contained in seven hardback volumes. There is much that could be said about this book. So let’s survey the lay of the land so that as we study the text in the coming chapters we will be able to see the big themes the author is laying out for us. The goal of this study is that we would know, believe, be shaped by and live the truths of this great book.

Hebrews is a beautiful book but also a difficult book. Most of the time the most worthwhile things, the most beautiful things, are difficult. The real payoff of a symphony is probably deeper and richer than a pop song. The value of a great novel more often than not is greater than an article in Car and Driver. Hebrews is like the novel, like the symphony.

But Hebrews is difficult. It is difficult because we don’t know much about the setting in which it was written. We don’t quite know exactly how to take some of the things written there because we don’t quite know in what situation they were originally written. In addition, Hebrews is written in complex and beautiful Greek. It is hard to pigeonhole what type of writing it is. Is it an epistle? It lacks some of the normal aspects of an epistle. Is it a sermon? What is the argument of the book? These things are not entirely clear. Also unclear is its author. Many have insisted that it is Paul, but there are strong reasons to believe this is not so. But who?

Hebrews then is a difficult book. We don’t know the author or its setting or precisely what type of writing it is. And I haven’t said a word yet about the contents of the book. The spectacular things written herein strain our thinking and yet they are presented to us as ultimate reality. Luke Timothy Johnson says, “Hebrews challenges our imagination to enter a universe that is not defined by quantitative measure but by qualitative difference, to ponder a world in which the unseen is more real, more powerful and more attractive than that which can be seen and touched and counted. In a word, Hebrews proposes as real a world that most of us consider imaginary.”

Hebrews gives us a more complex Christology than any other NT book. Hebrews gives us a portrait of Jesus which is, as Jonathan Edwards said, “a diverse conjunction of divine excellencies.”

Hebrews is difficult because it calls believers to a high standard. William Lane’s short commentary on Hebrews is named Call to Commitment. This is what he sees Hebrews doing, calling every believer to commitment.

Finally, Hebrews is difficult because it requires from its readers background information which most readers today don’t have. An understanding of the Old Testament, an understanding of priesthood and sacrifice, these sorts of things are truly difficult for modern readers to grasp. There is great reward in pressing through to understand these truths but most readers give up and move on. This study gives us the time to dig deep for understanding that changes us.

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