The Book of Hebrews
By Roger Hahn (Part 3)

Literary Form

Hebrews has traditionally been described as an epistle or letter. It appears in the New Testament in the middle of the collection of letters. It functions as a hinge connecting the 13 Pauline letters and the 7 general or Catholic epistles. However, Hebrews lacks the basic ingredients that identified ancient letters. There is no mention of author, no mention of addressees, no greeting, no thanksgiving section and no prayer for the readers in the opening lines. The closing verses of Hebrews 13 do reflect the traditional way in which a letter should close.

If Hebrews was not a letter, what was it? Various kinds of spoken and written discourses have been suggested. But the most common (and most likely) suggestion has been that Hebrews follows the form of a sermon or homily developed for the Hellenistic Jewish synagogues. The writer describes his work in Hebrews 13:22 as a "word of exhortation." The exact same phrase was used in Acts 13:15 to describe Paul's sermon to the synagogue at Antioch of Pisidia. Though some scholars argue that we do not know the exact structure of Hellenistic Jewish sermons, the book of Hebrews fits all the criteria that are commonly suggested. It is most likely, then, that the original literary form of the book was a sermon or homily.

This is an important conclusion. It means that the author of Hebrews believed that his interpretation of the Scripture would produce a message that could be especially helpful to those readers needing to persevere under the pressure of persecution. It means that the book was not for the purpose of speculative theology, but was a practical approach to a serious problem. People who were facing persecution, perhaps death, for their faith needed encouragement and reinforcement of their faith.

Modern Christian readers differ from the first readers in a couple of ways. First, most modern readers are not Jewish in background. This means that the constant references and allusions to the Old Testament are not always understood. Second, most modern Christianity are not facing the same kind of persecution as the first readers of Hebrews faced. Though in some parts of the world the threat of death because of one's Christian faith is very real, most Western Christians face temptation and pressure to return to the secular world rather than to a previous religious haven like Judaism. The sermon that is the book of Hebrews urged the first readers to stay true to the Messiah and not return to Judaism. Part of the power of the sermon is that it still speaks words of encouragement. The message of Hebrews is still a call to persevere under pressure. That message is just as pertinent today as it ever was.

The Role of the Old Testament

It does not take long before one discovers that the Old Testament plays an extremely significant role in Hebrews. A major part of the technical analysis of Hebrews is now devoted to the way in which the author made use of the Old Testament. Every chapter of Hebrews makes either a direct quotation from the Old Testament or refers to an Old Testament person or concept that the author assumes the reader will immediately recognize.

Part of the difficulty for modern Christians in understanding Hebrews is the lack of an adequate Old Testament background to recognize the way it constantly shapes the author's argument. Scholars are beginning to recognize that the very outline of Hebrews is built around quotations from the Old Testament. Quotations from Psalms 8, 95, 110, Jeremiah 31, Habakkuk 2, and Proverbs 3 form the anchor points for the major sections of the book of Hebrews.

The author used a variety of techniques for interpreting the Old Testament passages that were so influential in his book. Several Jewish techniques of exegesis appear on the pages of Hebrews. This is part of the evidence that the author is a highly trained scholar. Like most New Testament writers, however, the author will frequently "see" Yahshua in an Old Testament passage. When that happens the author immediately interprets the passage in light of the purpose of Yahweh to reveal the Messiah. It is an important model for us to be aware of when we attempt to interpret the Old Testament.

The Message Of Hebrews

The message of Hebrews can be summed up in three words, "the Messiah is better." The book seems to un-fold the message in a crescendo of arguments. The Messiah is better than the angels who revealed the first covenant (Hebrews 1:1-2:18). The Messiah is better than Moses who was the mediator of the first covenant (Hebrews 3:1-19). The Messiah was better than Joshua (Hebrews 4:1-13).

But the heart of the argument comes in Hebrews 4:14-10:18. There the language of the priesthood, altar, and sacrifice comes to the forefront. The Messiah is a better priest that the Aaronic priests of Judaism. The Messiah offers a better sacrifice. He is a better tabernacle. He is a better altar. His priestly work is superior to that of the Old Testament. One is left with the conclusion that a decision to abandon faith in the Messiah and to return to Judaism would be the worst mistake a person could make. This was obviously the conclusion the author of Hebrews hoped his readers would draw.

Exhortation is another common element in the message of Hebrews. Exhortations not to slip or not to neglect the superiority of the Messiah appear regularly in the opening nine chapters. However, it is in the final four chapters that exhortation becomes the dominant motif. The great faith chapter in Hebrews 11 lists numerous examples of Jewish heroes who had looked forward to their Messiah. The author reacts in horror to the idea that their descendants would turn their backs on the long-hoped-for Messiah to return to the security the heroes had hoped to escape.

Another theme that moves through the book of Hebrews is the concept of a pilgrim people. Recent scholars have emphasized the fact that Hebrews understands both the Old Testament community of Israel and the new community of the church as people on the journey of faith. The model of Israel in the Old Testament is foundational. Israel was on a two-fold journey. The first and most obvious journey was the journey out of Egypt and into the promised land. The climax of that journey was the conquest of the land under Joshua. However, there was a second pilgrimage for Israel and that was the journey through history toward the coming of the Messiah.

The pilgrimage motif offers the author of Hebrews several exciting possibilities for spiritual instruction. He is able to challenge them to understand their own spiritual experiences in terms of a journey. This provides a way of explaining the persecution. There are always difficult times as well as the easier times on a journey. The persecution that they were experiencing represented the difficult portions of a pilgrimage. Even if the pressure the readers were feeling was guilt rather than persecution (as Barnabas Lindars argues), the pilgrimage motif holds.

However, in a true pilgrimage (as opposed to just a trip) the goal is the most important thing. Here, the author is able to play the second pilgrimage, the journey through history toward the coming of the Messiah, against the present experiences of his readers. Just as old Israel continued on through thick and thin hoping for the Messiah, the readers of Hebrews must press on, persevering under pressure because the Messiah has already come. The final perfection of heaven must become their goal. They have many more resources for their journey than old Israel had.

It is the coming together of these three themes that gives the book of Hebrews its great strength and ability to be used throughout the history of the church. The modern world in which we live is very capable of understanding life as a journey. We understand a little bit of the sweep of history and the idea of progress always influences the way we think. We are aware that those who have gone before us overcame tremendous obstacles.

But the obstacles we face intimidate us. We are overwhelmed by uncertainty. The journey was easy enough long enough that we don't know how to handle the pressures and choices that lie in front of us on the journey. Our generation especially needs to hear the basic message of Hebrews again. We need a word of exhortation, a word of encouragement, even a word of prodding that tells us to keep on the journey. We need constant reminders of the superiority of the Messiah. Few of us are tempted to turn back to Old Testament style Judaism. We are tempted to combine the Messiah with a system of psychology or a theory of economics. We are tempted to believe that faith is easy when life is easy and faith is hard when life is hard. We need to be reminded that life is a journey toward the final goal of heavenly and perfect relationship with Yahweh in the Messiah. We need to be reminded that no price is too expensive to pay; no effort is too much to give in order to gain the final goal. ~