An Introduction to Hebrews

Part 1 in the series Hebrews Survey
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This lesson series on Hebrews contains notes and assignments for an 8 week class taught at Northword Church in Monument, Colorado in 2016 by Pastor Jim McDaniel. Have you had a class or read a commentary on the book of Hebrews before? If so, there is a likelihood that some of what is presented here will be different from what you’ve already heard. Hopefully that’s a good thing; thinking things through again is usually beneficial. Either way I hope these lessons will unleash this portion of God’s Word to challenge you to Christian maturity. These lessons will only survey Hebrews. The goal is to familiarize you with the book’s purpose, show how the structure and the author’s series of arguments accomplish that purpose, teach principles of good Bible study, explore the more difficult passages and expose some of its rich teaching so that each time you read the book you will gain more insights and appreciation for this author’s powerful message. Here is the marked-up version of Hebrews we will be using: Hebrews_NASB95_Highlighted. Either print it or put it on your mobile device so it’s available as you work on each lesson. You will appreciate Hebrews much more by learning the significance of the highlights on your own, though we will discuss them in class.

A muddied message

The powerful message contained in this book has been under-appreciated and under-used because it has often been clouded in misunderstanding. That’s why it’s important to start by reviewing a few of the reasons for misunderstandings before we dig into the book.

Disagreements about the warning passages

Hebrews contains 5 warning passages that contain very difficult wording like “it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, in Heb 6:6 and “For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries” in Hebrews 10:26–27. It may not seem like it at first, but who you take the “them” and the “we” to be will form a lens through which you will interpret the whole book. Get it wrong and you will obscure the central theme and purpose for which Hebrews was written. Unfortunately there has been a serious and long-standing disagreement over who these passages address. There are four main views: The Loss of Salvation View. A group called Arminians (not be confused with people from the nation of Armenia!) have been adamantly arguing for 4 centuries that these 5 passages address Christians and are proof that a saved individual can lose their salvation in this life. Those who deny this possibility have proposed 3 other ways to explain who these sometimes very dire warnings are addressed to. The Hypothetical View states that the warnings are addressed to Christians, but the consequences Hebrews warns that they will face, will never actually happen. The reasoning is that while the author seems to say that if you did “x”,  “y” would happen, “y” will not actually happen because having heard the severity of the warning people will be motivated to never do “x”. Thus the author can almost seem to say that a saved individual will loose their salvation, but it will in fact never happen. It’s just God’s way of shepherding people into the right course of action. The Mixed Audience View, commonly held by Reformed [1]Reformed theology is Five Point Calvanists. Here is a link to a set of lectures by R.C. Sproul defining it. and many conservative teachers declares that the author’s audience contained both saved people and some who may seem to have been saved, but for various reasons were not. This view claims the 5 warnings are addressed to these unsaved individuals alone while the inclusiveness implied by the use of “we” is a politeness meant to draw them in rather than drive them away. This is an attractive view because we all know that modern, and probably most past congregations likely contain people who have not yet fully embraced the Gospel of Jesus Christ even if they outwardly appear to. If the threats of Hebrews are taken to refer to issues of eternal salvation, this view makes sense. However we need to carefully examine the text to see if this is what the author intended. While the Loss of Rewards View sees the the warnings of severe consequences for certain actions applying to saved individuals it does not see them addressing issues of salvation. The consequences are seen as physical discipline in this life and loss of rewards in the future kingdom of God [2]1 Cor 3:14; Rev 22:12. I’ve over-simplified these views which are very logically and thoroughly argued by numerous and sincere Bible teachers. It’s important to survey them so you will be aware that there are passages in Hebrews that have been debated by scholars for centuries, that they are important to your understanding of Hebrews and so you will appreciate why we will go into so much detail when we examine the more difficult ones. [3] A resource for examining these views is Bateman, Herbert W., IV, ed. Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic & Professional, 2007.

The book’s complexity and literary style is underestimated

Since this letter is very, very carefully constructed, unpacking it requires a level of attention to details of literary structure, Greek grammar, word-meaning and Old Testament history that many teachers can easily underestimate. It is also easy to underestimate the extent to which some commentaries view the text through a lens of western literary forms and modern theological controversies rather than through the lenses of first century Jewish and Greek concerns and forms. My personal feeling is that the default teaching model is to mine the book for its theological nuggets rather than seeing it as a sermon intending to shepherd a Jewish-Christian community that is struggling in ways applicable to modern Christian experience.

Importance of Jewish history is underestimated

Hebrews’ author assumes his audience is intimately familiar with the Jewish Exodus and the Psalms.
One of the most intriguing areas of research on Hebrews concerns the author’s use of the Old Testament. In addition to approximately 38 quotations in Hebrews, there are many allusions—perhaps as many as 55—and echoes of Old Testament passages. There are 11 quotations from the Pentateuch and only one from the historical books. There is one quotation from Proverbs and seven from the prophetic books, with three from Jer 31:31–34. Most striking is that the author quotes from the Psalms 18 times. A good case can be made for understanding Ps 110:1, 4 as the key text that the author interpreted in the epistle. G. B. Caird’s ground-breaking work identified four key Old Testament passages as the work’s core quotations: Psalms 8; 95; 110; and Jeremiah 31. [4]David L. Allen, Hebrews, The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing Group, 2010), 84.

The traditional path

For all the reasons I’ve presented, teachers often follow a venerable approach of accenting the uncontroversial parts of Hebrews. This results in the book being primarily characterized as an argument for the superiority of Christ and/or The New Covenant over the ritualistic Mosaic System. Whether you look on the web or pick up any of a number of books written on Hebrews you will commonly find titles and outlines that reveal this focus. There is no doubt the author has done a superb job at presenting the superiority of Christ and His New Covenant, but careful examination reveals that this teaching is a foundation for his main purpose rather than being that purpose. In recent years, as scholars have reexamined Hebrews’ style and flow of thought, the warning passages are being seen as playing a much more central role in exposing the author’s purpose leading to the conclusion that they they play a crucial role in the message of the book. Use Go To Page below to continue reading

References

References
1 Reformed theology is Five Point Calvanists. Here is a link to a set of lectures by R.C. Sproul defining it.
2 1 Cor 3:14; Rev 22:12
3 A resource for examining these views is Bateman, Herbert W., IV, ed. Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic & Professional, 2007.
4 David L. Allen, Hebrews, The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing Group, 2010), 84.

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