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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : CHAPTER XVIII THE EPISTLE TO THE HEBREWS

The Books Of The New Testament by Leighton Pullan

CHAPTER XVIII THE EPISTLE TO THE HEBREWS

[Sidenote: The Author.]

The question of the authorship of this Epistle is one of the most fascinating problems raised by the criticism of the New Testament. It does not in the least involve any charge of forgery, such as is involved in a consideration of St. John's Gospel or of St. Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians. Nor does it involve the fact of an author absorbing the work of a previous writer, such as we find in the case of St. Luke. The work is one complete and original composition of great finish and perfection, and yet this perfect work contains hardly a hint as to its author. The title which is placed above it in our Bibles deserves serious consideration, as it represents an opinion which was held in many parts of Christendom in the 4th century, and in some parts of Christendom even in the 2nd century. But it by no means represents the universal judgment of the Church, and is contradicted by good evidence, both external and internal. A remarkable divergence of opinion on the subject existed between the Churches of the east and those of the west.

Alexandria appears to have been the first centre of the belief that this Epistle was written by St. Paul. We find that about A.D.170, Pantaenus, the head of the catechetical school at Alexandria, attributed it to St. Paul. His successor Clement agrees with this, but states that it was written in Hebrew and translated by St. Luke into Greek -- a statement which implies that scholars were conscious that the style of Hebrews is not {209} the style ordinarily used by St. Paul. In A.D.240, Origen, the successor of Clement, defends the Pauline authorship -- a defence which shows that the authorship was disputed. In A.D.245 Origen had learnt to doubt the validity of his former defence, and states that the writer was a disciple of Paul, but |who wrote the Epistle God only knows.| In A.D.269 the famous heretic Paul of Samosata quoted Hebrews as the work of St. Paul in a letter read at the Synod of Antioch which deposed him from his bishopric. Early in the next century Eusebius quotes the Epistle as by St. Paul, but he shows the same perplexity as Clement of Alexandria, for he thinks that it was translated from the Hebrew, possibly by Clement of Rome. After the time of Eusebius the Greek Fathers all ascribe it to St. Paul. We can therefore sum up the evidence of the Greek Churches by saying that though it mostly favours one theory, it is not so cogent as to remove all our suspicions.

Moreover, the complete absence of references to this Epistle in the extant writings of Irenaeus almost compels us to ask if the Greek Churches of Southern Gaul and Asia Minor regarded this Epistle as Pauline. Irenaeus might naturally omit to quote a short and comparatively unimportant Epistle, but his omission of a long Epistle, well adapted to his arguments, inclines us to place him in a rank opposite to his contemporary, Clement of Alexandria. A Greek writer of the 6th century actually says that Irenaeus, in a passage now lost, denied that St. Paul wrote the Epistle.

The Latin Churches of the west seem to have been for three centuries under the conviction that this Epistle was not by St. Paul. It is quoted by Clement of Rome, A.D.95, a fact which {210} alone is sufficient to prove its early date and its sacred character. But Clement makes no statement as to its authorship. Caius of Rome, A.D.200, excludes it from the list of St. Paul's Epistles, and the same hesitation with regard to it existed in the great Latin-speaking Church of Carthage. St. Cyprian, A.D.250, does not include Hebrews among St. Paul's Epistles. No Latin Father attributes it to St. Paul before Hilary of Poictiers in A.D.368, and Hilary was in close contact with the East. At the end of the 4th century St. Jerome shows distinct hesitation in attributing it to St. Paul, and it was not commonly attributed to him in the west until the time of St. Augustine, who died in 432.

Internal evidence agrees with the external evidence in making it very difficult for us to believe that St. Paul wrote Hebrews.

(1) The Greek is more elegant than that of St. Paul's Epistles. The styles are widely different. That of St. Paul is abrupt and vehement like a mountain-torrent, that of Hebrews is calm and smooth like a river running through a meadow.

(2) The quotations are very unlike St. Paul's. They are all from the Greek version of the Old Testament, with the exception of that in x.30, which occurs in the same form in Rom. xii.19. It had probably taken this shape in popular use. The quotations are introduced by phrases such as |God saith,| or |the Holy Spirit saith.| But St. Paul often shows a knowledge of the Hebrew when he makes quotations, and he uses such phrases as |it is written,| or |the Scripture saith,| or |Moses saith.|

(3) There is no salutation such as is usual in St. Paul's Epistles.

(4) In Hebrews the incarnate Son is called |Jesus,| or |Christ,| or |the Lord.| In St. Paul's Epistles we find fuller titles employed, such as |our Lord Jesus Christ.|

(5) The theological differences are important. The teaching of the author harmonizes with that of St. Paul, but throughout the Epistle we feel that the truths of Christianity are being expounded to us by one whose personal history is different {211} from that of St. Paul. The author starts from the fact of the perfection of Christ's sacrifice, and in his doctrine about the Law he looks at it from that fact. St. Paul, on the other hand, starts from the doctrine of justification by faith, and looks at the Law from the point of that doctrine. Again, the author takes a general view of faith as heroic belief in unseen facts; while St. Paul, though he sometimes does the same, prefers to use the word |faith| in the sense of devoted, personal, adhesion to Christ.

(6) In ii.3, 4 the author seems to imply that he had not personally seen the Lord.

Many conjectures have been made as to the real author. Few of these conjectures deserve serious consideration. Luther suggested Apollos, and the suggestion has been accepted by many writers. In favour of it are: (1) he was a friend of St. Paul; (2) he was |mighty in the Scriptures,| and Hebrews deals with the Old Testament in a masterly way; (3) he was an Alexandrian Jew, and Hebrews was plainly written by a Jew, and apparently by one acquainted with Philo and other Alexandrian authors. Against this theory is the complete absence of traditional support, and the fact that Apollos was taught by Aquila and Priscilla, whereas the author of Hebrews implies that he was taught by a personal disciple of Christ. On the whole, St. Barnabas seems to have the best claim. Tertullian not only speaks of it as the work of Barnabas, but also shows by his words that the Church of North Africa regarded it as his work. He is not, therefore, making a conjecture, but assuming a tradition. His evidence is the more valuable, because the Church of North Africa was important and was in close contact with Rome, where the Epistle was venerated at least as early as A.D.95. In favour {212} of the tradition we can note: (1) St. Barnabas was an influential companion of St. Paul; (2) he was a Levite, and would be interested in Levitical worship; (3) he was a native of Cyprus, which was in close communication with Alexandria; (4) he had been in the regions to which the Epistle was probably addressed.

Against the theory that St. Barnabas was the author, it is said that the author makes surprising errors with regard to the Temple ritual, which St. Barnabas was not likely to do. The so-called |errors| are: (a) the high priest sacrificing daily (vii.27; x.11) -- but the high priest was free to do this; (b) the pot of manna and Aaron's rod placed in the ark (ix.4), though not so described in 1 Kings viii.9 -- but in the tabernacle they were at least close to the ark (Exod. xvi.34; Numb. xvii.10); (c) the altar of incense is said to belong to the holiest place (ix.4) -- but it did belong to it in the sense of sanctifying the approach to it, though it was placed outside it: see 1 Kings vi.22. No one can reasonably say that these statements are of such a nature as to prove that the Epistle was not written by a Levite.

[Sidenote: To whom written.]

The title says |To the Hebrews.| The character of the Epistle suggests this. It was plainly written for Jewish Christians, and apparently for some particular community of them (v.11, 12; vi.9, 10; x.32-34; xiii.1, 7, 19, 23). Which community, it is difficult to say. The Jewish Christians of Rome have been suggested, and in support of this the reference to Italian Christians (xiii.24) has been quoted. It is a strange fact that this theory about the destination of the Epistle is favoured by some critics who assign it to a late date. For if it was really written to Rome, the date must be early. It is almost inconceivable that the author should have said, |Ye have not yet resisted unto blood,| to the Christians of Rome after the persecution of A.D.64-65. Some town in Syria or Palestine is more likely than Rome, and Antioch seems a probable destination for the Epistle. The community must have been {213} familiar with Greek, and at the same time must have been under strong temptations to relapse into Judaism. They had for the sake of Christ left the warm social life of Judaism. They felt isolated and depressed. The splendour of the temple worship and the zeal of Jewish patriotism were luring them back to their old religion. They felt that they had perhaps deserted a magnificent reality for a shadowy hope. Such circumstances fit with the theory that the community dwelt in Palestine or Syria, and the same theory is supported by the fact that these Christians had been converted long ago (v.12), and had heard the apostles (ii.3).

[Sidenote: Where and when written.]

Probably from Italy, as shown by xiii.24. The date may be put about A.D.66. A generation of Christians had passed away (xiii.2). The doom of Jerusalem was approaching (x.25; viii.13; xiii.13). The frequent reference to the Levitical worship, as exerting an attractive force, must imply that the temple was still standing. The Epistle must therefore be earlier than 70.

It is true that the references to the Levitical worship are sometimes more appropriate to the ancient tabernacle than to the temple, and this fact is urged by those who maintain that the temple was already destroyed when the Epistle was written. But this is no answer to the fact that the Jewish worship is throughout assumed to be in existence. The author is not opposing the propaganda of Jewish rabbis or the attractions of synagogues which were connected with the temple by tradition only. He is opposing a great living system with its priesthood and its ritual. And in order to criticize Judaism he deals with the tabernacle, concerning which the Old Testament gave definite directions. This was a more effective method than discussing the temple which superseded the tabernacle.

[Sidenote: Character and contents.]

Hebrews is marked by a complete unity of argument. Though the thread of the argument is sometimes dropped for the sake of practical exhortation, it is soon resumed and logically carried on.

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Christ as the Son of God is a manifestation of God superior to all other manifestations. He is far above the prophets, and above the angels, who neither created the material world nor have the |world to come| subject unto them. He towers above Moses, who was only a servant and a stone in the house of God, for He is the Son, and built the house. He is above Joshua; for He has won a rest for the people of God, of which the rest of Canaan was a mere type. Neither under Joshua nor under David did the people of God reach the ideal sabbath rest which God has promised (i.-iv.13).

Christ as High Priest is above the Aaronic priesthood, for He is |after the order of Melchizedek| (Ps. ex.4) (iv.14-v.10). Then the writer, before giving the full interpretation of Christ's high priesthood, makes a digression to urge the need of greater spiritual insight on the part of his readers (v.11-vi.12). They can be sure of God's blessing if they have faith and patience (vi.13-20). The unique position of Melchizedek is then expounded. In Gen. xiv. nothing is said of Melchizedek's descent or of his death. Thus he stands forth in contrast to the Levitical priests whose descent is described, and who die and are succeeded by others. He was also superior to those priests, because Levi, in the person of his father Abraham, paid tithes to Melchizedek. Since Melchizedek's priesthood is superior to that of the Levitical priests, much more is that of Christ, of whom Melchizedek, great as he was, is only a type. Then the author shows that the rise of a new priesthood must imply the birth of a new religious system. Christ |hath His priesthood unchangeable,| but needs not to repeat His sacrifice (vii.).

Then the author shows that the new liturgy and the new sanctuary of the Christian Church are superior to the liturgy and the sanctuary of Judaism. Though Christ's blood was shed only once, He retains the character of Priest (viii.3); He hath |somewhat to offer,| viz. Himself in His sacred manhood in heaven. He thus acts as a Mediator of the new covenant {215} promised in the Old Testament (viii.6-13). The tabernacle was only a temporary parable; Christ acts as High Priest in the holy of holies, the actual presence of God typified by the tabernacle; He has consecrated the new covenant between man and God by His own blood (ix.). The repetition of the Levitical sacrifices proves their impotence. But that of Christ is adequate. It is an offering of inherent value, being the offering of the will of Christ, instead of the offering of unconscious beasts. And we need no other atonement, for His unique offering has a perpetual value (x.1-18).

The writer then proceeds to insist upon the appropriation and application of the truths which he has expounded. It is our privilege to have full confidence, and our duty to assemble for worship: apostasy is most serious (x.19-39). The writer next describes the nature of faith, which is a faculty which makes the future as if it were present, and the unseen as if it were visible. It is illustrated by a magnificent roll-call of heroes from Abel to the Incarnation. These heroes, who saw both worlds, and realized how petty the material world is compared with the spiritual, had real insight (xi.). Emulate their example, enduring persecution, knowing that our Mount Zion is superior to Sinai, and our coming to church a reunion with angels and saints (xii.).

The Epistle closes with a practical exhortation concerning brotherly love, hospitality, prisoners, marriage, and contentment. The ministers who had formerly had rule over the readers are to be remembered. We are not to be unsettled by strange teachings. |We have an altar| of which the Jewish priests may not partake. Our sin offering, Jesus, is given to us as food. We must go to Him outside the camp of Judaism. After an injunction to obey the clergy and a request for prayers, the Epistle concludes. Just before the end it is stated that |our brother Timothy hath been set at liberty| (xiii.).

The whole Epistle is peculiarly dignified, eloquent, and {216} persuasive, and its elegant Greek and delicate Alexandrian philosophy make it a literary treasure.

We may conclude with some further remarks on the writer's doctrine of Christ's Person and of the Jewish Law.

Knowing that these Christians were in danger of drifting away from Christ, the writer calls their special attention to His Person, in order that they may carefully consider who He is before deciding to part from Him. The doctrine corresponds most exactly with that which we find in Colossians and in John. It is declared in the most positive manner that Christ is essentially divine. He reflects His Father's glory, is the expression of His essence, and the Sustainer of the universe (i.3). He is the God whose throne is eternal, and the Lord who made the earth (i.8, 10). Yet He became |a little lower than the angels| (ii.9), and, though entirely sinless, He was so truly human as to become the pattern of obedience (x.7), humility (v.5), reverent piety (v.7), and fidelity (iii.2). By the discipline of suffering He was made perfect for His redeeming work (v.8, 9). It is made evident that this process of perfection did not consist in the diminution of sin, but in the development of goodness. Nowhere do we find a more profound view of suffering and virtue, or a more pathetic delineation of the character of Jesus.

It has already been hinted that the author regards the Jewish Law differently from St. Paul. The latter had lived under the goad of a Pharisaic interpretation of the Law of Moses, which laid down so many regulations as to what ought to be done, and gave so little assistance towards doing it, that escape from such a system was like an escape from penal servitude. When he speaks of the Law, he regards it primarily as a system of stern moral requirements. But the author of Hebrews regards the Law as primarily a system of worship. He implies that it was in some sense a |good tidings| (iv.2). He teaches that the Law was a |shadow| of those real |good things| which constitute the world of truth in heaven, while the Gospel is the {217} |image| or adequate representation of those holy realities. The Law is therefore a rough unsubstantial outline of truth, while the Gospel is exact and solid. Both writers regard the Law as divine in origin, and both regard it as insufficient and rudimentary (vii.16; cf. Gal. iv.3, 9). But St. Paul thinks of the Law as weak |through the flesh,| unable to overcome the resistance which it encounters from man's lower instincts, while the author of Hebrews thinks of it as unable to cleanse and make perfect the human conscience.

ANALYSIS

The subject of the Epistle: CHRISTIANITY AS THE FINAL RELIGION. The contrast of the Old Revelation and the New in method, time, and messengers; the divine personality and incarnation of the Son (i.1-4).

A. The superiority of the Son, the Mediator of the New Revelation, to the angels, and to the human founders of the Jewish polity: i.5-iv.13.

a. Scripture shows the Son to be above the angels (i.5-14).

b. The danger of rejecting the Son's revelation (ii.1-4).

c. The Son of Man through suffering fulfils the high destiny of mankind (ii.5-18).

d. The dignity of Jesus is far above that of Moses, He is the Maker and Son, Moses represents the house in which he is a servant (iii.1-6).

e. Faith is necessary if we would enter the promised land of rest (iii.7-19).

f. Encouragement as well as warning can be based on the failure of the Israelites. Under Joshua they did not reach their rest. The promise of it remains for us (iv.1-13).

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B. The high-priesthood of Christ, superior to that of Aaron's line, universal and royal: iv.14-vii.28.

a. Transition to the doctrine of Christ's high priesthood (iv.14-16).

b. The characteristics of a high priest, human sympathy and divine appointment, fulfilled in Christ (v.1-10).

c. A digression to urge the readers to advance; the writer's hope for the Hebrews, God's blessing is assured (v.11-vi.20).

d. The characteristics of Christ, as perfect and universal High Priest, shadowed forth by Melchizedek (vii.).

C. The liturgy and sanctuary of Christ superior to those of Judaism: viii. i-x.18.

a. Christ offers sacrifice in heaven (viii.1-6).

b. Thus He maintains the New Covenant between God and man promised in the Old Testament (viii.7-13).

c. The sanctuary and priests of the Old Covenant (ix.1-10).

d. Fuller explanation of the atoning work of Christ under the New Covenant (ix.11-28).

e. The inadequacy of the old sacrifices, the abiding efficacy of Christ's one sacrifice (x.1-18).

D. The appropriation and application of the above truths: x.19-xiii.25.

a. The privilege of entering the holy place with confidence, the duty of public worship (x.19-39).

b. The past triumphs of heroes of the faith (xi.).

c. Exhortation to energy, endurance, fidelity to our Mount Zion and its divine utterances (xii.).

d. Detailed instructions (xiii.).

Eusebius, H. E. v.26, says that Irenaeus |mentions the Epistle to the Hebrews and the so-called Wisdom of Solomon, comparing certain expressions from them.| Eusebius does not say that Irenaeus attributed it to St. Paul. We can compare words in Heb. i.1 with Wisd. vii.22; Heb. i.3 with Wisd. xvi.21; Heb. xii.17 with Wisd. xii.10; Heb. xiii.7 with Wisd. ii.17.

Stephen Gobar, in a passage preserved by Photius, Cod.232.

The word |effulgence| (Heb. i.3) is a favourite word with Philo. The interpretation of |King of Salem| as |King of peace| (Heb. vii.2) occurs in Philo, and Heb. xiii.5 has a quotation from Josh. i.5 exactly resembling in form a quotation in Philo, De conf. ling., 33.

De Pudic, 20.

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