Overview of Hebrews
Before we begin our verse-by-verse study of the Hebrews scripture itself, it’s a good idea to get a high-level view of the book as a whole, and try to answer some important questions –
- Who wrote the book?
- Where was it written?
- When was the book written?
- Who was the original intended audience?
- Why was the book written?
- What are the main topics covered by the book?
Hebrews is a letter (epistle) written to a specific audience. This is apparent from the closing passage which is a conventional farewell similar to those found in the other epistles in the Bible…
20Now may the God of peace who brought up our Lord Jesus from the dead, that great Shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, 21make you complete in every good work to do His will, working in you what is well pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.22And I appeal to you, brethren, bear with the word of exhortation, for I have written to you in few words. 23Know that our brother Timothy has been set free, with whom I shall see you if he comes shortly.24Greet all those who rule over you, and all the saints. Those from Italy greet you.25Grace be with you all. Amen. [Hebrews 13:20-25]
Place of Writing
The text itself identifies the place where Hebrews was written – Italy (Greek – Ἰταλία). Most likely, the letter was written in Rome – probably from the home in which Paul was held under house arrest before his first trial around 59-62 AD, or from the prison in which Paul was held until his martyrdom somewhere around 66-67 AD.
We can establish the earliest and latest possible dates for Hebrews due to its mention of Timothy (Hebrews 13:23). The apostle Paul met and began discipling Timothy – a Gentile believer – during his second missionary journey just prior to the establishment of the church at Philippi about 50 AD (see Acts 16). Timothy then accompanied Paul in his missionary work for over a decade, and was present with Paul during his first house arrest in Rome 59-62 AD. At some point Timothy was released (as we know from Hebrews 13:23), and traveled first to Macedonia and then to Ephesus. We know this from Paul’s two letters to Timothy. Although Paul encouraged Timothy to return to Rome (2 Timothy 4), there is no Biblical record that he was able to do so before Paul himself was martyred around 66-67 AD. Church tradition holds that Timothy became pastor of the church in Ephesus, and was martyred in 97 AD, having been clubbed by a crowd of pagan worshipers after trying to stop their pagan religious procession. Thus Hebrews could not have been written before 50 AD or after 97 AD.
If we assume Paul is the author we may narrow down the time for the writing of Hebrews to one of Paul’s imprisonments in Rome – 59-62 AD and 66-67 AD. Assuming from Hebrews 13:23 that Timothy’s release from imprisonment had been fairly recent at the time of writing, we may assume Hebrews was written toward the end of Paul’s first imprisonment in 62 AD.
It is clear from the text of Hebrews that the letter was written to Christian believers of Jewish heritage. This is apparent from the focus of Hebrews, which as we shall see compares and contrasts salvation by faith in Christ alone with the works-based atonement rituals, sacrifices, priesthood, and temple that are spelled out in God’s Law (Torah) – the first five books of the Bible. Such a discussion would have been of no interest, and in all likelihood largely incomprehensible to most Gentile believers unfamiliar with the Jewish rituals. Clearly the intended audience of Hebrews (as its name implies) was Jews – specifically Jewish believers in Jesus as their promised Messiah.
There is no Biblical basis by which to determine which specific Messianic Jewish church or churches the author was addressing with this letter, but church tradition holds that it was written to the church in Jerusalem, whose members at the time of writing would have almost all been Jews.
We know from the book of Acts and from Paul’s letter to the Galatians among others that by the time Hebrews was written, there was a considerable movement among the early churches to superimpose the requirements of conformity with the Jewish Law upon Christian believers. The so-called Judaizers insisted that salvation depended upon conformity with Jewish ritual practices such as circumcision and with Jewish dietary laws – not solely upon God’s grace through faith in Jesus’ resurrection. The church council in Jerusalem we find detailed in Acts 15 was called to discuss this subject, and consequently Paul, Barnabas, Silas, and Judas were sent out with a letter to the churches in Asia Minor releasing Gentile believers from conformity with Jewish law except that they were to refrain from sexual immorality, and from eating meat offered to idols, blood, or animals that had been strangled (Acts 15:23-29). The focus of this second missionary journey, and indeed the focus of the Judaizers themselves was toward Gentile believers. Paul also addresses the topic in his letters to the churches in Rome, Galatia, Philippi, Ephesus, and Colossi – Gentiles for the most part.
Hebrews accomplishes the same purpose for the Jewish churches whose members had been raised within the traditions and practices of the Jewish laws. Unlike the admonitions against the Judaizers found in the other epistles written mostly for Gentiles, Hebrews makes the same types of arguments not by pointing out false teaching, but by explaining the Jewish traditions of atonement through animal sacrifice and the ministrations of the Aaronic priesthood as being mere models of the final and perfect atonement found in Jesus Christ – the promised Messiah.
As we will soon see in our verse-by-verse study, Hebrews addresses a relatively few main topics –
- The deity of Jesus the Son.
- The need for faith in salvation through Christ.
- Jesus’ role as our eternal High Priest.
- The need for spiritual growth – not stagnation.
- The inadequacy of the Levitical priesthood to provide atonement for sin.
- The earthly sanctuaries (the tabernacle and later the temple) as temporary models of the eternal heavenly sanctuary.
- The inadequacy of animal sacrifices for atonement, and the need for Christ’s sacrifice on the cross for eternal atonement for sin.