We are moving into and completing Hebrews this week.
There is much about Hebrews that is unique. It is one of the few books of the Bible that start with a prologue rather than a greeting or statement of purpose (the others are John and 1 John). It is the only New Testament book whose author is unknown; I think it was Paul, but we don’t know for sure and so have to refer to this person as “the author of Hebrews”. It is longer that most of the New Testament epistles, being roughly the size of Romans and 1 & 2 Corinthians. It is the only book whose title refers to an ethnicity rather than a residence or author or recipient.
The most unique thing about it, though, is its audience. The original audience of this book is Christians of Hebrew or Israelite descent, that is, those Jews who chose to follow Jesus in the early days of the Gospel.
This is something I have seemingly known all my life. I’m not sure where I learned it nor how I learned it. I’m not even sure I learned it correctly; I think I originally thought it was written not as an encouragement for Hebrew Christians but as an apology for Hebrew opponents of Christ. But I learned it somewhere very early on. And it affected the way I saw this book. When I learned that Hebrews was written for Hebrew Christians, I concluded that it was not for me, a non-Hebrew Christian. I concluded that Hebrews was for Hebrews and only Hebrews and nobody else but Hebrews.
The Hebrewishness of Hebrews
There were a few factors besides the title of the book that seemed to support this conclusion. Hebrews does have a “Hebrewishness” about it. There are clearly elements of this book that were intentionally included to speak to readers with a Hebrew heritage. These include Old Testament quotations, references to priests and the priesthood, discussions of the Temple or Tabernacle and their worship practices, and appeals to Joshua and David.
To be fair, it is not like any of these things are foreign to the other New Testament books. They certainly are not. I can find examples of each of these things in just about every other epistle or Gospel. But they are presented in a way that is somehow different in this epistle. I’m tempted to say they are “concentrated” in this epistle. While the other epistles are supported by these things, this epistle is largely based on these things. That makes it different. In my younger mind, that made it very Hebrew. And while I didn’t see that as “wrong”, I did see it as “not me”. I didn’t have anything against the book, but I felt justified in skipping the book. I thought I could leave this one to the Hebrew believers and spend my time with the other 26 New Testament books.
The Core Appeal
I’m not sure this changed when I learned the “core appeal”, that is, the one thing this book was trying to do. But it might have.
I think I learned this core appeal in Bible college. I don’t remember learning it there, but I know I didn’t learn it in my home church, so Bible college is my next best guess. In any case, I eventually learned that Hebrews was not just written to the early Hebrew believers but was further written to encourage them not to abandon the faith. These Hebrew believers were being persecuted for their belief in Jesus and were thus considering escaping that persecution by abandoning their belief. The “unknown author of Hebrews” discovers this and writes this letter to prevent it, encouraging them to continue believing despite this persecution.
That is a very important addition to my understanding of this book. But even after learning it, I still kept my distance from Hebrews to some degree. Yeah, I respected it a little more, but I still didn’t think it was for me.
The Big Change
This changed eventually. I’m not sure where or how, but it eventually did. I eventually began to see that Hebrews is for me even though I’m not a Hebrew Christian.
The reason why it is for me is stated in the book itself. In Hebrews 4:12, one of the most quoted passages from the book, we’re told:
“Alive and active”. This means the word of God (which Hebrews is) has the ability to transcend its “original intent” (if the word of God can be said to have a truly original intent, that is; being living and active, it may not) and make modern applications.
This alive and active quality is particularly obvious when it comes to Hebrew’s main message. Yes, it is true that I am not a Hebrew believer tempted to leave the faith because of persecution from Hebrew non-believers. And it is also true that appeals to Moses and the Temple and other things from the Jewish world won’t resonate with me as powerfully as the do Jewish readers. But it is further true that I can be tempted to leave The Faith for reasons of my own, and that I shouldn’t leave The Faith, and that the motivation the author of Hebrews gives to encourage his original leaders to remain in The Faith can likewise encourage me.
The Greatest Common Denominator
What we’re talking about here is a Bible reading technique that is very important for hearing God today but for which I don’t have a good name. I sometimes call it “looking for the big picture” or “working with general themes”, but another way to think about it is “greatest common denominator”. The mathematical term “least common denominator” refers to finding the small things that a fraction share: 4/8 and 6/12 have 2 as their least common denominator, and thus can be thought of not as what they are but what they could be (that is, ½).
In the same but somewhat opposite way, the living and active word of God has “greatest common denominators”, that is, bigger truths that apply to more people than just the original audiences and original situations.
In Hebrew’s case, some of those greatest common denominators are faith (both The Faith as this thing we are part of and faith as in fully trusting in God), overcoming persecution, and the superiority of Jesus. When you look at it this way, seeing these greatest common denominators rather then the specific details, it becomes easy to see how this word applies to us today.
A Book For Us
And apply to us it does. Are we Hebrew believers? Most of us aren’t. Will the things that resonate with Hebrew believers ever resonate as well with us. Probably not. But are there still greatly encouraging truths for all of us in this book? Absolutely so.
Despite its title, original audience, and original situation, Hebrews is still very much a book for us today. And I hope reading it this week blesses you greatly.