The Epistle to the Hebrews

by Ed Gallagher

And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power. When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.

Hebrews 1:3
Christ the Saviour (Pantokrator), a 6th-century encaustic icon from Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai. Wikimedia Commons

Read 1:1–4. Hebrews opens with a bang, exalting the Son to the highest place, but what do you notice about the form of this opening? Or, rather, what do you not notice? What is missing? Especially in comparison to the documents we’ve been looking at over the last few weeks—Paul’s letters—Hebrews is striking in its omission of the common elements of letter openings. There is no author mentioned. There are no recipients. There are no greetings. In fact, it doesn’t seem very much like a letter at all. Why do you think it opens this way? It may be that we’re not looking at a letter at all. The opening reads more like the introduction to a sermon. Near the end, the author says that he has been delivering a “word of exhortation” (13:22), the same term used for a sermon in Acts 13:15. (The entirety of Hebrews can be read aloud in about 45 minutes.) Also, on a few occasions the author refers to himself as speaking (Heb 2:5; 5:11) or as if he is running out of time (11:32), statements that make more sense in a sermon than a letter. Hebrews ends with brief greetings (13:23–24), like a letter. Possibly, Hebrews is an early Christian sermon that was written down and sent to a group of Christians. 

We have already mentioned that the author did not name himself. (This issue has its own Wikipedia page.) Why do you think the tradition developed to ascribe Hebrews to Paul? Some parts of the the document sound like Paul: the mention of Timothy (13:23), the metaphor of milk and meat (5:11–14; cf. 1 Cor 3:2). Is there anything you’re aware of that sounds unlike Paul? Read 2:3, and then read Galatians 1:11–12. What’s the difference between these two passages? In Hebrews 2:3, the author classes himself among those who did not hear the Lord directly but received the message from those who heard the Lord, whereas at Galatians 1:11–12, Paul insists on the opposite, that he heard the Lord directly and did not receive his message from any man. How likely is it, do you think, that Paul would have said what we find in Hebrews 2:3? Most scholars have found it very unlikely; few scholars believe Paul wrote Hebrews. Various guesses have been proposed about the author’s identity, ranging from Barnabas, to Apollos, to possibly a woman like Priscilla. Ultimately we don’t know, and any suggestion is just a guess, though we can say that the author was likely a man, since the author refers to himself with a masculine term in 11:32 (the phrase “if I tell of…” translates a Greek masculine participle). There are plenty of anonymous books in the Bible (Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, etc.). The Holy Spirit can inspire people even if we don’t know their names. 

To whom was this ‘word of exhortation’ originally sent? We don’t know that either. The traditional title “To the Hebrews” may have been a guess about the recipients created by a later scribe. The document itself reveals that the recipients had suffered some relatively light persecution (12:4), some of them had apparently given up meeting together (10:25), the author assumes that they are very familiar with the Old Testament, and they know some Italians (13:24). These generic descriptions do not provide much help in determining a specific group of recipients. 

Probably the most famous passage in Hebrews is the “Hall of Faith” chapter (ch. 11), which magnifies the role of faith in the great Old Testament heroes, from Abel (v. 4) to Rahab (v. 31). The author mentions that “all these died in faith, without receiving the promises” (v. 13), a point he reiterates at the end of the chapter (vv. 39–40). What is the author getting at? The author is arguing that the promises recorded in Jewish scripture were not fulfilled, that the Old Testament is fundamentally incomplete, and that the OT testifies to this incompleteness and so points beyond itself. 

At 4:1–11 (really beginning at 3:7), the author is interacting with Psalm 95:7–11 and its promise of rest. What point is the author making by pointing out that David spoke the words of Psalm 95 “after so long a time” (v. 7)? The conquest of the Promised Land under Joshua could not have been the ‘rest’ that God promised, or at most it was provisional, because a long time after that conquest, David (in the Promised Land) spoke about another day, ‘today’, on which there was still the promise of entering God’s rest. The point, again, is that the Old Testament attests its own incompleteness. 

Perhaps the most influential aspect of Hebrews is its presentation of Jesus as a priest (chs. 5–7). It is the only New Testament document that calls Jesus a priest. Why do you think that other New Testament authors didn’t develop the concept of Jesus’ priesthood? What’s the problem with calling Jesus a priest? Jesus was descended from Judah and not Levi. How does Hebrews overcome this difficulty? The author recognizes that Judah is not the priestly tribe (7:14), but his priesthood is not in the order of Aaron but in the order of Melchizedek, a character mentioned briefly in the Old Testament, once in Genesis (14:17–24) and once in a psalm (110:4). This psalm had been important in Christianity already as a messianic text; Jesus himself quotes its first verse to demonstrate the superiority of the Messiah to David (Mark 12:35–37). Psalm 110:1 became the most quoted verse in the New Testament, especially valuable as locating Jesus at God’s right hand and as speaking of his enemies as under his feet. But only Hebrews quotes the fourth verse, demonstrating the priestly nature of the Messiah. Here again the point is that the priesthood of Aaron was earlier and set aside by the later statement (Psalm 110:4) about the Melchizedekian priesthood (Heb 7:18). The Old Testament attests to a change in priesthood. 

The same sort of argument—i.e., what comes later replaces what had come before—is used in ch. 8 to show that the New Covenant prophesied by Jeremiah (31:31–34) makes the other covenant “old” (Heb 8:13), and in ch. 10 to establish that the sacrifice of Jesus’s own body fulfills and replaces the older sacrificial system (10:1–10, here quoting Psalm 40:6–8 in support). 

The author also develops the idea that the earthly altar was merely a shadow of the heavenly altar (8:5; cf. Exod 25:40; Philo, Moses 2.XV.74), and that the shadowy sacrifices could not be as effective as true sacrifice (of Jesus’s blood) at the heavenly altar (9:23–24; 10:1). 


Hebrews offers a unique voice within the New Testament, explaining how the Old Testament testifies to the preliminary character of its covenant, its priesthood, and its sacrificial system and pointing forward to a time when the Messiah would renew all these things. 

Additional Questions for Discussion

What is the point that Hebrews is making in its opening section (1:1–4)? How does that opening passage introduce the themes of the first chapter? 

What does Hebrews mean by describing scripture as “living and active” (4:12)? How does that statement relate to the point just made previously in ch. 4? 

Why does Hebrews say that “it is impossible to renew” those who have fallen away from the faith (6:1–8)? 

What does Hebrews mean that Melchizedek had no father or mother, no beginning or end (7:3)? See also Genesis 14:17–24 and Psalm 110:4. 

Hebrews mentions that some things are shadows or copies of other things. See 8:5; 9:23–24; 10:1. What point is being made with such expressions? 

Additional Resources

There are two podcasts (here and here) of Duke University professor Mark Goodacre discussing Hebrews. And here is the Bible Project video.

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