In this sermon, we talk about the author, the audience, the date, and the distinctive features of the book of Hebrews. This is the first in our new series on Hebrews.

Sermon Transcript

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Hebrews is a neglected book I think largely because it is a very difficult book. In fact, I think—this is my own personal opinion, and maybe it’s just because of how I’m wired—I think Hebrews is the most difficult book in the New Testament to interpret and to deal with. It’s the most challenging one. The Gospel of John is the most challenging of all four of the Gospels. The book of Hebrews is the most challenging of all of the Epistles. And you might think that Romans is in that mix, but I think Hebrews is more difficult than Romans. I understand Romans. I get Romans. I can follow the argument of that. Hebrews is a little bit more challenging for me. So by the time we get through the book of Hebrews, I will have preached through the most difficult of the four Gospels, the most difficult of the Old Testament books, and the most difficult of the New Testament Epistles. And I just want you to know that when we’re done with Hebrews, I am coasting all the way to retirement after that. It is all downhill. It is all gravy. I’m phoning it in every Sunday. Right now, you have low expectations of me, and I appreciate that. That is as it should be. But I want you to know, when we’re done with Hebrews, you’re going to have to lower them just a little bit further. It is a difficult book, and it is a challenging book, and we’re going to go into this morning why it is that it is so difficult and so challenging.

Hebrews is one of my favorite books in the New Testament. It’s one of my favorites of the Epistles, even though it is so challenging and so difficult. It is challenging, I think, because of the issues that we have to deal with in the introduction. And that is what I’m doing today. I’m just introducing the book of Hebrews. And introductions are necessary. They’re not my favorite thing to do because in an introduction, we’re talking about the author and the setting and the original audience and the themes and all of that. And I’m really preaching about passages of Scripture; I’m not preaching a passage of Scripture. I would always rather preach a passage of Scripture than to preach about passages of Scripture. And there’s a world of difference between those two things. Those are two entirely different things. So an introduction is a necessary evil, but we have to get these things out of the way. So what we’re doing today is we’re kind of putting a picture frame around our canvas. Then for the next several months, maybe years, maybe a decade, we’re going to be painting the small strokes inside of that. But for right now, we’re just framing the canvas, and that’s what an introduction serves to do. So we’re just introducing the book of Hebrews this morning.

We’re going to talk, first of all, about the author. Who wrote the book of Hebrews? That is a mystery that is just lost to history, and all we can say is we don’t know, and nobody knows for certain who wrote the book of Hebrews. Now, it is argued by some that the fact that we don’t know who wrote the book of Hebrews is an argument against the inspiration of the book and against its canonicity, that it shouldn’t be in our New Testament and we certainly should not regard it as inspired or learn anything from it if we don’t know who wrote it. That is the argument of some critics of the New Testament.

In fact, I ran across this last week a video that is on YouTube, and it is a clip of a debate between Muslim imam Shabir Ally and Christian apologist James White. And it is a discussion between the two of them that they had during some kind of a debate and exchange. It looked like it was a question and answer. And this was on a Muslim YouTube channel called MuslimByChoice, I think, if I remember correctly. And in that interview or in that discussion, Shabir Ally asked James White about the significance of the Christian view of the atonement, why it is that we believe that somebody had to die to pay for our sins and what is the significance of the sacrifice of Christ. Now, that put it right up on a tee for James White, and of course, he knocked it out of the park by going on to explain, mostly using the book of Hebrews, that it was necessary that one present a sacrifice that was perfect, unlike all of the Old Testament sacrifices, that one would present a sacrifice in order to pay for, completely, the sins of people and then to intercede on their behalf. That was the argument that he made. And he quoted much from the book of Hebrews. And when he was done with his two- or three-minute response to that, Shabir Ally asked him—he said, “So you use a lot and reference a lot the book of Hebrews.” And James White said, “Yes, I do, because it is the longest passage in the New Testament that deals with this issue.” And Shabir asked him, “Do we know who wrote the book of Hebrews?” And James White said, “No, we do not.” Now, that’s where it ends. And then up on the screen pops this big, bold red graphic that says, Dr. White admits that the author of Hebrews is UNKNOWN!! This was what? This was intended to prove what? Dr. White admits that? Was that something that was kind of in the bag? Did he let the cat out of the bag when he said that? Is that something that Christians have covered up? I have news for you. That is no scandal. Christians have admitted for eighteen hundred years that we don’t know who wrote the book of Hebrews. And I’m here to tell you it is completely irrelevant.

Now, I can tell you who wrote the book of Hebrews, in one sense. The Holy Spirit wrote the book of Hebrews. The human author that He used to pen those words, we don’t know who that was. We don’t need to know who that was. Because the issue of who wrote Hebrews is completely irrelevant as to the issue of whether or not Hebrews is an inspired book and whether it belongs in our canon.

The church in the western part of the Roman Empire in the first century was slow to embrace the book of Hebrews as an authoritative apostolic document. The church in the eastern part of the Roman Empire in the first century was very quick to embrace the book of Hebrews as an apostolic and authoritative document because the church in the east believed that it was written by Paul. In fact, the tradition goes back to the idea that Paul wrote it. And so that’s why half of the church, geographically speaking, embraced the book of Hebrews and the other half was slow. And Paul is on the short list of potential authors for the book of Hebrews. I’m going to give you a few of them. I’m going to tell you the arguments that are used to defend Paul’s authorship of the book, and then I’m going to tell you why it is that myself, along with probably most of Christianity, does not believe that Paul wrote the book of Hebrews. But Paul’s on the short list.

So let me give you the reasons why it is believed that the apostle Paul was the author of Hebrews. First of all, because as I mentioned, the idea that it was written by Paul goes back to early tradition, early Christian history. There is a mention by a man named Clement of Alexandria, who lived from AD 150 to 215. So this is early. This means that we’re talking about within one hundred years after the book of Hebrews was written. He believed that Paul was the author of the book. And Eusebius, who was a third- and fourth-century Christian historian, mentions that Clement of Alexandria believed and taught that the apostle Paul wrote the book of Hebrews in Hebrew to Jews, and that Luke translated the book of Hebrews from Hebrew into Greek for Gentiles. And that was Clement’s belief. So the idea that Paul wrote the Epistle goes back to early in Christian history. And this explains why it is that those around the origin area of the book of Hebrews in the east believed that Paul wrote it or taught that Paul wrote it, and that would be Clement of Alexandria, and those in the west didn’t believe it.

The second reason that is given for believing it was the apostle Paul that wrote it is because the book is a difficult book. Remember, there’s a passage in 2 Peter 3 where Peter speaks of Paul’s Epistles and said some of the things that Paul writes to you are very difficult to understand (vv. 15–16). If that phrase, very difficult to understand, does not explain most of the book of Hebrews, I don’t know what phrase would describe most of the book of Hebrews. It is difficult to understand. So because of its difficulty and its high-mindedness—it’s very high theology—and because of its knowledge of the Old Testament and its use of the Old Testament, it’s believed that Paul wrote it, by some, because it’s difficult. And so some people actually think that Peter was describing Hebrews when he wrote about the things, the difficult things, that Paul writes.

Third, because of the pattern of the book of Hebrews. A lot of Paul’s Epistles, if you read through them, you’ll notice that he begins with a doctrinal section, lays out a lot of doctrine. And then how does he end? With some practical applications and some exhortations. That is, generally speaking, the same pattern of the book of Hebrews. Hebrews begins with a very doctrinally heavy section at the beginning, the first eight or nine chapters, and then the last few chapters all deal with practical applications. So it’s very Pauline in its structure.

And the fourth reason that some believe the book of Hebrews was written by Paul comes in chapter 13. Will you turn back there for just a moment? Chapter 13, verse 23, very end of the book: “Take notice that our brother Timothy has been released, with whom, if he comes soon, I will see you.” Timothy was Paul’s protege, so the mention here of Timothy as being a brother and this author’s understanding of who Timothy was and where Timothy was at and what was happening with him, they say that’s evidence of Pauline authorship.

So, number one, because it goes back to early tradition. Two, it’s difficult. The book is very difficult. Third, because of the pattern. And fourth, because of the mention of Timothy.

Now I’ll explain to you why I do not think it was Paul. You think, “Well, you’ve laid out a pretty good case that it’s Paul.” Not actually. I think the case against Pauline authorship is better than the case for Pauline authorship. So here are the reasons I do not think that it was written by Paul. Go back to the beginning of the book of Hebrews. Back and forth, back and forth, I know. Back to chapter 1. You’ll notice at the beginning of the book that there is no author mentioned. What is the pattern in all of Paul’s letters? “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, to the saints who are in . . . ” Where? Ephesus, Corinth, Galatia, Cappadocia, wherever it is. Peter does the same. Peter follows the same pattern. But that is how Paul—that’s how most Epistles begin. This Epistle doesn’t have that. This letter doesn’t have any kind of a designation as to who the author is or even to whom it is written. And this is completely unlike Paul.

Now, those who would defend Pauline authorship would say, “Yeah, it’s unlike Paul, but listen, here’s why Paul did it. Paul was writing to Jews, and the Jews hated Paul because Paul was once a rabbi who persecuted Christians and then he got saved and converted and he was a turncoat, and the Jews believed him to be a turncoat. And so Paul is—though he wrote it, he hides the fact that he wrote it so as not to offend the Jews and so as to make his letter more readily accepted in the Jewish community.” Now, I would ask you this question. Does that sound like something that the apostle Paul would do? Do something intentionally, sort of mischievous or just a little sleight of hand, in order to make something he says more palatable to a certain community? If Paul was anything, it was unpalatable to almost everybody. And it’s not that he was purposefully offensive. It’s just that he didn’t care if it offended somebody. If it was the truth, he would speak it. Not to say that he was brash or arrogant or unnecessarily bold, but I cannot imagine the apostle Paul doing something like that just to make it more palatable to a Jewish community. So that, I think, is an argument against apostolic authorship.

Second, because of what we read in chapter 2, verses 3 and 4. Look at chapter 2, verses 3–4: “How will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? After it was [What is this? After the salvation was] at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard, God also testifying with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will.” In that passage, the author of Hebrews places himself amongst a group of people who received the message of salvation secondhand. In other words, he said, we, including himself, have heard the message of salvation, which was first spoken by the Lord, and then it was confirmed to us by those who heard the Lord. The author is among a group of people who had not received this directly from Christ but instead had received it from apostles, those who were the first generation, as it were, who heard the Lord, and they proclaimed that message to this author and the group that he is writing to. And that message of salvation was confirmed by signs and wonders.

Now, in those words, the writer of Hebrews does two things that Paul would never do. Number one, Paul would never say that he had received the message of salvation secondhand. He would never say that. And you know why he never said that? Because there was a group of Jews who hated Paul who went everywhere he went trying to undermine his ministry, and their claim was that Paul was a Johnny-come-lately to the apostolic band and that he had received his message secondhand from the rest of the apostles. And Paul vehemently denied that. In Galatians chapter 1, he said, “I did not receive my gospel from men. It did not come to me through man. I received it by a personal revelation from Jesus Christ.” Paul always affirmed the fact that he was a firsthand recipient of the gospel message from the Lord Himself. He would never put himself in a group of people who had heard it from others who heard it from the Lord.

Second, Paul would never put himself in a group of people who witnessed signs and wonders at the hands of others. He himself was somebody who was given certain miraculous abilities during that early testamental period. He had a certain ability to do certain miracles. And this author then describes those who did the miracles among them, and he was a witness to them. Paul would never use language like that because he himself testified of the gospel that he had received firsthand, and he authenticated that with the ability to do signs and wonders.

So the third reason why I don’t think that this is Paul’s Epistle is because of the stylistic differences. The language, the grammar, the wording, the style of Hebrews is entirely different than anything you read in Paul’s Epistles. And I don’t say this because I am an expert in Greek. I’m not, and I don’t claim to be an expert in Greek, but I am telling you the universal opinion, nearly universal opinion, of those who are experts in Greek and in the languages. The style is entirely different. And you even get that in the English. You read through the English of Hebrews, does it really feel like Romans? Does it really feel like Ephesians and Colossians? It doesn’t. It doesn’t have the same feel as that which Paul wrote.

So who are the others? If we say that it’s not Paul, who are the others who would be on that short list of potential authors? One, I think probably the most convincing one as far as guesstimates go, and keep in mind these are all guesses—one of the most convincing ones is Apollos. We encounter Apollos in Acts chapter 18, and what Luke says of Apollos is that Apollos was a man mighty in the Scriptures—right?—that he was articulate and that he was powerful in using the Scriptures to refute the Jews and to prove that Jesus was the Christ. Now, if that describes Apollos, then of all the people that we would meet in the new Testament that are not apostles, Apollos would have to be at the top of the list of potential authors for the book of Hebrews because the author of Hebrews was mighty in the old Testament Scriptures. He knew them and he knew them well, and he could obviously demonstrate from the old Testament that Jesus was the Christ. So it’s possible that it was Apollos.

Second, some have suggested that it was Barnabas. And the only argument used for Barnabas being the author, and you might enjoy this, is again at the very end of the book. The writer says, I have written to you briefly and you have borne with this “word of encouragement.” What does the name Barnabas mean? Son of encouragement, right? So it is suggested that Barnabas was using a little play on his own name. That was kind of his way of signing the Epistle without really signing the Epistle. He talks about the Epistle being a word of encouragement because he was the son of encouragement. That’s pretty thin. It’s weak sauce. I don’t think that that’s a good argument for Barnabas being the author of it.

And some have suggested it’s Luke. But as with the case with Paul, there is a radical difference in style and language between Hebrews and Luke/Acts, which are written by Luke. I don’t think that Luke—so of all the suggestions, Apollos is the most credible, I think. But after all, it’s only a guess. Ultimately, if God wanted us to know who wrote the book of Hebrews, what would He have done? He would have told us who wrote the book of Hebrews. We would know that. But we don’t know it.

Equally perplexing as to the author of the book of Hebrews is the original audience of the book of Hebrews. We know absolutely nothing, virtually nothing. I shouldn’t say absolutely nothing. We know virtually nothing about these people. Were they Jews? Most likely. Were they Gentiles? Possibly. Where were they located? How many of them were there? What was the occasion that prompted the writing of this Epistle? We don’t know that. We don’t know where they were at. We don’t know how many of them there were. We don’t know who they were. We know a little bit about what they were going through. But who these original recipients are is entirely unknown to us. We know that Corinthians was written to the Church of Corinth with mixed Jews and Gentiles. And we know within a year as to when Corinthians was written, and 2 Corinthians. And we can say the same thing about the book of Galatians and 1 Thessalonians and 2 Thessalonians and on and on it goes. We can nail those things down pretty easily because they tell us, but with Hebrews not only do we not know who wrote it, we don’t really know much about the original audience that received this book.

Some people suggest, and I think that this is valid, that the book of Hebrews was written to a congregation of Jewish Christians. Jewish Christians. Hebrew Christians. Why would we say that? Because of the use of the Old Testament in the book of Hebrews. Because of the way the Old Testament is used. It is so rich in Old Testament imagery. The author doesn’t bother explaining concepts from the Old Testament like he would to a Gentile audience. And so it seems as if he is writing to people who are familiar with the Old Testament Jewish ritual system, who had come out of that and then they had become Christians, and he is writing to Jewish Christians. Interestingly—this is interesting—the word Jew, the word Gentile, and the word Hebrew do not occur anywhere in the book of Hebrews. Isn’t that weird? You would think that you would read something about Jews or Gentiles somewhere in the book, but those words don’t appear anywhere in the book.

So what do we know about this group of people? We have some clues, and I’ll give you a few clues. First, they were very familiar with the Old Testament. As we said, the author doesn’t explain things from the Old Testament to the recipients, almost as if he is assuming that they would be familiar with the background of the book. You read other Epistles and you have a reference to something that had to do with the Jewish religious worship and the temple worship, a lot of times the author will explain it with just a little quick note in the text just to explain to the Gentile audience a little bit about what’s going on. You don’t have that in the book of Hebrews. He almost assumes that his readers are going to be intimately familiar with all of the Old Testament, and he offers up his explanations of the Old Testament and his expositions of the Old Testament almost as if they would have been intimately familiar with all these details. So they were very familiar with the Old Testament.

Second, they seem to be a persecuted group of believers. I want you to turn over to chapter 10. Turn back to chapter 10 to verse 32. They seem to have been suffering some form of mild persecution for their Christian faith. Chapter 10, verse 32:

32 But remember the former days, when, after being enlightened, you endured a great conflict of sufferings,

33 partly by being made a public spectacle through reproaches and tribulations, and partly by becoming sharers with those who were so treated.

34 For you showed sympathy to the prisoners and accepted joyfully the seizure of your property, knowing you have for yourselves a better possession and a lasting one.

35 Therefore, do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward.

36 For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised. (Heb. 10:32–36 NASB)

So this is a people who had been publicly reproached, publicly humiliated and shamed. They had accepted joyfully the seizure of their property by somebody who was persecuting them. So this is a persecuted group who had gone through some sort of a mild persecution for their Christian faith.

Third, I would suggest they are a diverse group. In this church or to this group of people, they had amongst them, like in any church gathering, people who were solid, mature Christians. They had people who were immature, possibly wavering Christians. And among those were people who were considering going back to their old Jewish roots to avoid the persecution and to escape the suffering that they were enduring, and so they were kind of wavering a little bit and thinking about turning and going back and abandoning the faith. And they needed to be encouraged to persevere and to endure to the end. Then there was probably a group of people who were intellectually committed to the Christian faith but had not yet trusted Christ and believed upon Him and been born again. These would be people who intellectually said, “I believe that what the Scripture says is true, and I know in my head that Jesus is the Messiah, but I haven’t yet joyfully reached out and embraced that.” And so the author is writing, and there are certain passages where he is seeking to push them toward a full embrace of Jesus Christ with all of its benefits and all of its costs. And then there is a group of people in this original audience who were not believers at all. They were on the fringes. They were sitting there; they were listening. They had not only not believed, they had not yet been intellectually convinced. And some of the argument of the book of Hebrews is to say to those people who were just looking at what was going on and unconvinced as to the truth of Scripture, “Look, this Jesus is the Messiah promised in the Old Testament, and here are all the reasons to believe that that is the case.” So that is, I think, what we can discern about the original audience. They were a very diverse group.

And [fourth], the only detail we have about where the audience might have been located is at the back of the book of Hebrews. So flip back to chapter 13. You say, Jim, couldn’t we have covered this back when we were already in Chapter 13? No, we couldn’t have because then it would have messed up everything I had planned. Chapter 13, verse 24, the very second to last verse of the book: “Greet all your leaders and all the saints. Those from Italy greet you.” That is the only geographic clue in the entire book. Those from Italy greet you. What does that mean? Well, it is debated whether or not this person was in Italy, writing from Italy to someplace else, maybe the eastern part of the Roman Empire, or whether this is somebody who is over in the eastern part of the Roman Empire writing to those who are out in the west. And the debate comes down to the use of a preposition: those from Italy versus those in Italy. So if he had been in Italy writing and he wanted to send greetings from those who are in Italy, he would have said those in Italy greet you. But instead he describes those who were from Italy, and this suggests to some that he was writing—that some folks from Italy had come to the author and he is writing a book to them, knowing what they were going through back home in Italy, and he sends from him and those who are from Italy back to those who are in Italy his greetings and this entire book. That’s the only geographic clue we have in the whole book as to where they might have been. And I would suggest that I think that that is a good suggestion, though, again, like with most everything else, we just can’t know for sure.

Now you say, Jim, what is it that we can know for sure? Well, let’s look at the date and we’ll see that you really can’t know much about the date for sure either. You thought I was going to give you something to hang your hat on, and I’m not going to. When was the book of Hebrews written? Back in ancient times, they didn’t put dates at the top of their letters, right? They didn’t put—what is today?—December 3, 2017 at the top of their letters. They didn’t put any kind of a dating—there was no kind of a dating mechanism at all. In fact, they didn’t even put a title. When you read at the beginning of Hebrews The Epistle to the Hebrews, that’s something the publishers added. That’s not something that was in the original autographs. They didn’t have dates. So we’re left to kind of deduce from the clues.

So here is a major clue of when Hebrews was written. Turn to chapter 9. Turn to chapter 9. And I’m just giving you a couple of examples. You’re going to see this all the way through the book consistently. And I’m just giving you a couple of concentrated examples of the language that is used. Throughout the book of Hebrews, the language that is used concerning the temple, the priesthood, the sacrifices, the offerings, the worship inside the temple, and the nature of the priesthood, all of the language is in the present tense. The present tense. Like chapter 9, verse 6:

6 Now when these things have been so prepared, the priests are [notice the present tense throughout the passage] continually entering the outer tabernacle, performing the divine worship,

7 but into the second, only the high priest enters once a year, not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the sins of the people committed in ignorance.

8 The Holy Spirit is signifying this, that the way into the holy place has not yet been disclosed while the outer tabernacle is still standing,

9 which is a symbol for the present time. Accordingly both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make the worshiper perfect in conscience,

10 since they relate only to food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation. (Heb. 9:6–10 NASB)

Now, what would you say about those activities, the offering of the priest, the sacrifice, the worship of the temple? Would you say it was past tense or would you say it was present tense? You say it was present tense from the language, right? Now, how does that help us out? Well, because there was a little dust up at AD 70 inside the city of Jerusalem. And by dust up I mean that the Roman Emperor Titus came in and destroyed the temple and destroyed the city and killed a lot of people. That’s what I mean by dust up. And in AD 70 when Titus did that, it ended completely all of the functions, all of the sacrifices, the entire priesthood, everything that went on in the temple. It was all done, and it has never been resumed to this day. It all stopped entirely in AD 70. So what does that tell us? That the book was written prior to AD 70. While those things were still going on inside the temple, on the Temple Mount, Hebrews makes reference to those things which were taking place at that time.

Now, one of the arguments of the book of Hebrews is that the old covenant, the priesthood, the sacrifices, all of the stuff that was part of that ritual stuff that went on at the temple—Hebrews makes the argument that all of that is empty, it is passing away, it is over, it’s done, it’s old, it’s inferior, and a new thing has arrived. If the temple were destroyed when the author wrote the book of Hebrews, do you not think that he would have mentioned that as a proof of his argument, that everything at the temple was over, that God was done with that? That would have been the linchpin of his argument. But the fact that he doesn’t mention it is evidence of the fact that this book was written prior to AD 70.

Now you say between AD 33 and AD 70, that’s still a big window. I think we can narrow it down a little bit more because there was another event in AD 64. So we can go back just a little bit further. That event in AD 64 was the persecution of Christians by the emperor Nero. That is when the persecution of the Christian church on a government-sanctioned, government-sponsored level began in earnest. There was a lot of bloodshed. Thousands of people were killed by Nero in that persecution of Christians. That started in AD 64. Now, that persecution doesn’t—the details of it don’t seem to match what we read in the book back in chapter 10 regarding the persecution that they had suffered because the author doesn’t describe any kind of martyrdom or the shedding of their blood or the sacrifice of their life for being Christians. In chapter 10, it describes the public shaming, the seizure of their property, and their various afflictions, but it does not seem at all as if the persecution that they were suffering was the kind that happened after AD 64. Beyond that, in chapter 12 the author says, “You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin” (v. 4). “Not yet,” indicating that the author may be thinking that the shedding of blood for these Christians could be on the horizon, but up until that point, their Christian life had not cost them their blood or their lives. That would be the point that he is making. Which means that Hebrews would have to be written when? Prior to AD 64.

Now, there was another event going back to AD 49 under the emperor Claudius. And in AD 49, Claudius expelled all the Jews from the city of Rome, which, keep in mind, is in Italy. He expelled all the Jews from the city of Rome because there had been riots in the city of Rome and it was blamed upon the Christians. Now, if it was blamed upon the Christians, then they were probably publicly shamed and scorned and humiliated before people. Not only that, but expelling Jews and Christians from the city of Rome would have resulted in the seizure of their property for that to happen. So if we are to put a window to the book of Hebrews, it would be before AD 70, before AD 64, and sometime after, I think, AD 49 because that persecution matches with the details that we read in the book of Hebrews. So we’re probably looking at a date somewhere between mid–AD 50s and AD 63/64 for the book of Hebrews. Does that make sense? That’s a window. It’s a little window of about a few years after the resurrection of Christ.

Now, keep in mind, that’s significant. We can date the book of Hebrews to that window, that window of time. This is significant because people who are critics of Christianity say the idea that Jesus was God was something invented by Constantine at the Council of Nicaea three hundred years after Jesus was born. Really? Because I read in the book of Hebrews, which was written about twenty years after Jesus died, that He is the exact representation of the nature of God, that He’s God in human flesh. So we have an early testimony going back to the middle of the first century of who Jesus is and what He has done.

All right, so that’s all we can say for the date. Now, let’s talk a little bit about some of the distinctive features of the book of Hebrews. Some distinctive features. Hebrews is a letter, though we recognize that it is unlike any other letter in the New Testament. It is, among all of the Epistles, very unique. It doesn’t have the introduction in the letter like we have come to expect from other letters—Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God to those saints who are in, etc. We don’t read that and a greeting at the beginning. The author of Hebrews just steps off the cliff of theology right into some very deep stuff in the first sentence. No introduction, no buildup to it, no, “Hey, prepare yourself, it’s going to get rough for a little bit.” Nothing like that. He just dives right into it. But the end of the book is very much like a letter because he talks about writing a word of encouragement, and there are personal greetings at the end of the book. Though nothing that would indicate who the author is, there are some personal things at the end of the book, so it has sort of the feel of a letter at the end, but not at the beginning.

And in terms of being a letter, it has kind of the feel of a sermon, and this has led some to speculate as to how Hebrews was originally formed. It has some of the marks of a sermon in this: you’ll notice the first four verses—Is it four? Let me flip back here, make sure I’m not lying to you. Yeah, the first four verses. The first four verses of the book have the structure of an introduction to a sermon. In other words, in the first four verses, the author lays out his entire argument and all of the high points that he then hits on for the rest of the message. So it’s like he is introducing here in an oral sense what he is about to tell them, and then he goes right into it. And as you read through the book, you’ll notice words like speak and say and hear. You have heard, I testify to you, we speak these things, you hear these things—that auditory language is used throughout the book.

And that has led some to speculate that Hebrews was originally a sermon that was preached and then was transcribed and sent to a group of Christians. That I think is one of the best explanations for the book of Hebrews. And I think, going back to what James White said earlier, I think I have heard James White suggest that the book of Hebrews was a sermon preached by someone within Paul’s circle of influence. That sermon was preached to Hebrew Christians in the Hebrew language and then translated into Greek from the Hebrew language for Gentiles, and then it was sent to Hebrew Christian in other parts of the Roman Empire. That would explain everything I have described to you thus far. It would explain why it is that Paul was originally viewed early in the Christian history as the author of the book if it came from somebody in the Pauline circle. It would explain why it is that the language is so unique because it bears the marks of being spoken in one language and translated into another language. It would also explain why it is that it’s in the Hebrew language in the earliest documents instead of the Hebrew. What did I say? It would also explain why we see it in Greek early instead of Hebrew early in our earliest manuscript. So I think it’s one of the best explanations for the book of Hebrews. That would explain why it is that people thought it came from Paul. It was originally preached or written by somebody who’s very close to Paul. That would explain why he calls Timothy a brother and why he knew what was going on with Timothy and why it was accepted as apostolic and Pauline from the earliest times if it came from somebody in Paul’s circle.

So, the second distinctive feature of the book of Hebrews is the use of the Old Testament. You’ll notice this in the first chapter. You get to chapter 5, and all of a sudden we’re quoting Old Testament passages. You notice that? Most of the first chapter is quotations from the Old Testament. Look at chapter 2, verse 5, 6, 7, 8. Those are quotations from the Old Testament. Look at chapter 2, verse 12 and 13, quotations from the Old Testament. Chapter 3, verses 7–11 is a quotation from the Old Testament. There are, according to somebody who counted this, thirty quotations from the Old Testament in the book of Hebrews and seventy allusions to Old Testament passages in the book of Hebrews. This is a book, this is an Epistle, that is birthed out of the Old Testament. The background for the book of Hebrews is the book of Leviticus. Now, I would bet that unless you are somebody who diligently goes through your entire Bible on some sort of a schedule, every year, a year and a half or two years, or whatever it is, that you have probably not spent a lot of time recently in the book of Leviticus. And I’m not going to ask for a show of hands because I wouldn’t want to embarrass those of you who would be honest enough to answer that question—when was the last time you were in the book of Leviticus?

As Christians, we tend to stay out of the left-hand side of the book, don’t we? Yeah, unless we’re suffering through a series in Ecclesiastes or we are cherry-picking some comfort from the Psalms after a series in Ecclesiastes to salve our wounded soul—unless we’re doing that, we kind of stay out of the Old Testament, and we’re not really familiar with that. That is to the detriment of our own soul because our entire faith is rooted and grounded and based upon what is in the Old Testament, and we ought to become more familiar with that.

And so here would be my challenge to you as we go through the book of Hebrews. Here’s my challenge. This is not a law, and I’m not going to hold you accountable for this, but this is what I would suggest. Make it a point to read through the book of Leviticus two, three times a year for as long as we’re in the book of Hebrews. Man, that’s a commitment. It could be, I understand that. But just two or three times a year. It’s twenty-seven chapters. If you read five chapters a day, which is not that bad—it’s fifteen or twenty minutes of reading for most folks. Five chapters a day—it would take you a week to go through that. Just put it on the schedule and plan to do it. And here’s what’s going to happen. If you’re not familiar with that Old Testament stuff, you’re going to read through the book of Leviticus, and it’s going to seem very mysterious and weird. There’s going to be a lot of stuff in there that you’re not going to understand the first, second, third, fifth, or nineteenth time through. But then as we’re studying Hebrews, there are going to be points where we are talking about what is happening in the book of Leviticus and referencing those foundational issues and you’re going to say, “Oh, yeah, I remember reading about that. Now I make a connection between what I’m reading in Leviticus or read in Leviticus and what we’re looking at in Hebrews.” And so Hebrews will come alive to you in light of Leviticus, and Leviticus will come alive to you in light of Hebrews. And so it will be mutually beneficial as we work our way through Hebrews for you to familiarize yourself with what’s in the book of Leviticus. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t understand all of it the first time through, but just be diligent and read it anyway. It is inspired Scripture. Seek to understand what you can. And as we work our way through this, some of that will be explained.

Now, I read through the book of Hebrews, and I just took note of all of the Old Testament people that are mentioned in the book. I’ll just list to you the ones that I found. Abraham, Joshua, Levi, Enoch, Jacob, Joseph, Gideon, Jephthah, Moses, Aaron, Abel, Noah, Esau, Pharaoh, Barack, Samuel, David, Melchizedek, Cain, Isaac, Sarah, Rahab, and Samson. He’s familiar with the Old Testament, isn’t he? Now, here are the different Old Testament—and by the way, those are just the ones that are mentioned by name. Those are not the ones that are alluded to, for instance, by their works of faith in Hebrews 11, where he says things like some of them shut the mouths of lions by faith and underwent the sawing in two of their bodies, etc. He refers to a lot of them just by their deeds, their acts of faith, and not by name only.

Here are the different places, things, and items from the Old Testament that are mentioned in Hebrews: the fathers, the prophets, the purification, the high priest, creation, wilderness, Egypt, sacrifices, Sabbath, the temple veil, the law, the offerings, Salem, the altar, Judah, sanctuary, tabernacle, covenant, lampstand, table, sacred bread, holy place, holy of holies, golden altar, incense, ark of the covenant, the golden jar, Aaron’s rod, manna, the tablets of the covenant, the cherubim, the mercy seat, the Day of atonement, ceremonial regulations, scarlet wool, hyssop, burnt offerings, ceremonial cleansing, Noah’s ark, exodus, the Passover, the Red Sea, Jericho, and Zion. Those are just the ones that I noticed on the first reading through. This guy is familiar with his Old Testament, isn’t he? It sounds like something that Apollos would write.

A third distinctive feature of the book of Hebrews is the use of typology and symbols. It’s a lot of typology, and this is what makes Hebrews so challenging. And I will warn you at the front, it’s not going to be as bad as Ecclesiastes, but there are going to be some periods in Hebrews where we have to stop for a second and say, “Here are the interpretive issues that come up right here, and here is how the text is abused, and here is what we think the text means.” We’re going to have to get academic at some point if we’re going to wring everything out of this book that we want to wring out of it as we work our way through because of the typology. One thing is a type or a symbol or a shadow of something else. How do we determine what is a type and a shadow and what is not? And how do we use those types and shadows and recognize types and shadows? We have to deal with that.

And then the fourth distinctive feature, and this is the last one, are the warning passages in the book of Hebrews. The warning passages. There are five of them, one in chapter 2, one in chapter 3 that goes into chapter 4, one in chapter 5 that continues into chapter 6, one in chapter 10, and one in chapter 12. Five warning passages where the author warns the Christians that he’s writing to about the danger of falling away or the danger of turning back. And so if you have ever met somebody who believes that you can lose your salvation, you have probably heard one of these warning passages. In fact, typically they will turn to the one that starts in chapter 5 and continues into chapter 6. Look at chapter 6 for just a moment. I want you to see what we’re talking about. This is typical of one of the five warning passages. We read in verse 4, for instance, of chapter 6:

4 For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit,

5 and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come,

6 and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame.

7 For ground that drinks the rain which often falls on it and brings forth vegetation useful to those for whose sake it is also tilled, receives a blessing from God;

8 but if it yields thorns and thistles, it is worthless and close to being cursed, and it ends up being burned. (Heb. 6:4–8 NASB)

See, they would quote that and they would say, “Look at that language. That describes somebody who was once saved, and then they have fallen away, and now it is impossible to renew them again to repentance.”

If you believe that you can be saved today and lost tomorrow, I would submit to you that you do not understand the message of the entire book of Hebrews. You don’t understand what the whole book of Hebrews is about. It is common to find people who are experts in the warning passages who have no clue whatsoever what the rest of the book says. So when somebody who believes that you can lose your salvation comes to me and says, “Hey, what do you do with the sixth chapter of Hebrews?” my response is, “What do you do with the other twelve?” Because you want to know what the message of the book of Hebrews is? Here it is. Jesus Christ is the perfect God, fully God. He is manifested perfectly in human flesh, so He is perfect man. He is both of those things at the same time. And He is a perfect high priest who has offered a sacrifice that is better than all of the Old Testament sacrifices, every last one of them. He has provided a sacrifice that was unlike any of the sacrifices of the Old Testament high priest because He sacrificed not an animal, but Himself. And the sacrifice that He offered was a perfect sacrifice. And the sacrifice that He offers is a perfectly righteous sacrifice. And He offered a sacrifice for all of those whom the Father gave to Him. And He will not lose any of them because He did something the Old Testament priest could not do. He gave Himself. He offered Himself, His own blood, not the blood of bulls and goats.

That sacrifice did something that Old Testament sacrifices could never do: cleanse the conscience and not just cover over sin but to completely remove sin. Not just to temporarily dismiss sin but to actually pay the full price of that sin. That’s what His sacrifice did. And not only that, not only did He offer a sacrifice nobody else could offer, a sacrifice which did what no other sacrifice can do, but even right now, as you and I sit here in this place, He is at the right hand of the Father interceding for us continually. He, by His work, because of His blood and what He has done, intercedes for us and forever, right now, at this moment, works to keep us secure. That is His work.

Now, I ask you this: what did you have to do with any of that? Anything at all? Other than the sin that you contributed to make it necessary, did you have anything to do with any of that? You had nothing to do with any of that. So who do you think that you are then to suggest that the efficacy of His perfect work depends at all upon you and what you have done or what you’re striving to keep or maintain or what you’re able to do for Him? It doesn’t depend upon you at all.

The message of the book of Hebrews is summed up, I think, in John 6: All that the Father gives Him will come to Him. Those who come to Him, He will not cast out. He will give to them eternal life, and He will raise them up at the last day, and He will not lose one of them. All of those for whom Christ died will be saved. All of those for whom He made an atonement will be saved. He will not lose any of them because He cannot fail. Nothing that you do can undo His work which He did because it is perfect. And the work is not yours to complete. The work was His to complete, and He completed it, and He did it, and it’s done. One sacrifice for all time. And by that sacrifice, Hebrews 10 says, “He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified” (v. 14). It is complete and it is total. Every last one who has been set apart for Him, He has perfected them forever through that one sacrifice. Nothing else needs to be done. Nothing else can be done to undo it. He is the perfect God. He is the perfect man. He is the perfect high priest. He offered a perfect sacrifice to provide a perfect salvation and to perfect forever all those for whom He died. It’s done.

What do you do with Hebrews 6? You can wait till Hebrews 6 to figure out what we’re going to do with it. But in the meantime, the entire argument of the book of Hebrews is that you are secure in Jesus Christ.