The Letter to the Hebrews

The writer to the Hebrews does not identify himself, although his reference in 1:1 to "our forefathers" is an indication that he was a Jew, or Hebrew, like those to whom he was writing.  The writer is usually thought to have been Paul who calls himself "Hebrew of the Hebrews" (Philippians 3:5), but Apollos born in Alexandria and Barnabas a Levite have also been suggested, both were also Jews (Acts 18:24; 4:6).

Knowing who wrote the letter is not nearly as important for us as the teaching it contains.  At the end (13:22) the writer describes what he has written as a "short letter" containing "my word of exhortation."  What is his "exhortation" or encouragement? We must remember that the original readers of this letter had been born Jews and all their lives had very carefully followed the Law of Moses (Genesis to Deuteronomy) and regularly read the books of the Old Testament.  Even after they believed in Jesus Christ and were baptised, many continued to follow the regulations of the Law (Acts 21:20-25).  Some demanded that Gentiles must be circumcised (Acts 15:1; Galatians 6:12).  This letter to Jewish Christians was written to explain very clearly how Jesus Christ was superior to all aspects of the Law of Moses in which they had previously trusted.  As Paul told the Jews in Antioch. "Through him (Jesus) everyone who believes is justified (made righteous) from everything you could not be justified from by the Law of Moses" (Acts 13:39).

Firstly (chapter 1) Jesus is "superior" (better - KJV) to the angels and he has been given a "better" name (1:4).  Believers in Jesus have been given a better hope and better covenant (7:19,20-22) than was provided through the priesthood of Aaron.  The tabernacle built in the wilderness was a copy of a heavenly vision given to Moses on Mount Sinai (8:5), this tabernacle was cleansed by the blood of animals, but the entry into the true dwelling place of God must be purified by the better sacrifice of Jesus (9:23-26).  As a result of his sacrifice the faithful can look forward to a better country, and a better resurrection (to eternal life) (11:16,35).  The death of Jesus speaks of better things than the blood of Abel (12:24), even though by faith he still speaks to us long after his death (11:4).

It is a blessing for us to understand how our Lord Jesus fulfilled so much of what God had previously required the Jews to do in the time of the Old Testament.  It is also a blessing that Jesus has "redeemed us from the curse of the Law" (Galatians 3:10-14) that we might receive the adoption as sons of God (Galatians 4:4,5).  But throughout the letter to the Hebrews the writer uses his explanations about the superiority of Jesus as a basis for encouragement and warning.  After he has explained in chapter 1 that Jesus is greater than the angels he warns us in 2:1-4 that, since the Israelites who rejected the message given to Moses by angels were punished, we will receive greater punishment if we reject the message received from Jesus who is greater that the angels.  In 3:7-18 we are told about the disobedience of Israel after they came out of Egypt and that God said "They shall never enter my rest".  We are exhorted in 4:1,2 to be careful not to miss the "rest" (kingdom) that God has promised, by being disobedient like the Israelites.  "Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest so that no-one will fall by following their example of disobedience" (4:11).  Several times we read the word "therefore" (4:14;6:1;10:19;12:1,2,28) meaning that we must learn from what we have just been told in the letter and do something positive:

            "Let us hold firm to the faith we profess" (4:14)

            "Leave the elementary teachings" (6:1)

            "Draw near to God" (10:22)

            "Fix our eyes on Jesus" (12:2)

            "Be thankful and worship God acceptably" (12:28)

            "Do not give up meeting together" (10:25)

Although this letter to the Jews was written firstly to show them that the Law of Moses was past, there is a lot to teach us about holding fast to the faith, the understanding that Jesus has for our weaknesses, the examples of faith in the past; the reason for our trials and difficulties and the certainty of our hope.  It also contains frequent warnings against departing from the faith through unbelief - warnings that we must take seriously for ourselves. The writer ends with a request to God (13:20,21) to which we can all say "Amen".

Sis Savannah Nuwagaba (Mbarara, Uganda)

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