- Its Addressees
- Its Purpose
- Its Theme
- Its Divisions
- Its Characteristics
- Its Value
- Its Writer
Before taking up the study of this important Epistle let writer and reader humbly bow before its Divine Inspirer, and earnestly seek from Him that preparation of heart which is needed to bring us into fellowship with that One whose person, offices, and glories are here so sublimely displayed. Let us personally and definitely seek the help of that blessed Spirit who has been given to the holy ones of God for the purpose of guiding them into all truth, and taking of the things of Christ to show unto them. In Luke 24:45 we learn that Christ opened the understanding of the disciples “that they might understand the Scriptures.” May He graciously do so with us, then the entrance of His words will “give light” (Ps. 119:130), and in His light we shall “see light.”
In this opening article we shall confine ourselves to things of an introductory character, things which it is necessary to weigh ere we take up the details of the Epistle. We shall consider its addressees, its purpose, its theme, its divisions, its characteristics, its value, and its writer. Before doing so, let us say that we expect to quote freely from other expositors, and where possible name them. In some cases we shall not be able to do so owing to the fact that extensive and long-distance traveling has obliged the writer to break up five libraries during the last twenty years. During those years he has read (and owned most of them) between thirty and forty commentaries on Hebrews, from which he has made notes in his Bible and taken helpful extracts for his own use when lecturing on this Epistle. As most of these commentaries have been disposed of, we can now do no more than make a general acknowledgement of help received from those written by Drs. John Owen, John Gill, Moses Stewart, Andrew Bonar, Griffith-Thomas, and Messrs. Pridham, Ridout, and Tucker. Let us now consider:—
- Its Addressees
In our English Bibles we find the words “The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews” as the address. Perhaps some of our readers are not aware that the titles found at the head of the different books of the Bible are not Divinely inspired, and therefore are not accounted canonical as are the contents. No doubt these titles were originated by the early scribes, when making copies of the original manuscripts—manuscripts, all traces of which have long since disappeared. In some instances these titles are unsatisfactory; in a few, grossly erroneous. As an example of the latter, we may refer to the final book of Scripture. Here the title is “The Revelation of St. John the Divine,” whereas the opening sentence of the book itself designates it “The Revelation of Jesus Christ!”
While treating in general with the titles of the books of Scripture, we may note that in almost all of the Epistles there is a Divinely-named addressee in the opening verses. But we may add, the contents of each Epistle are not to be restricted to those immediately and locally addressed. It is important that the young Christian should grasp this firmly, so that he may be fortified against ultra-dispensational teaching. There are some, claiming to have great light, who would rob the saints today of the Epistle of James because it is addressed to “the Twelve Tribes which are scattered abroad.” With equal propriety they might take from us the Epistles to the Philippians and Colossians because they were addressed only to the saints in those cities! The truth is that what Christ said to the apostles in Mark 13:37—“What I say unto you, I say unto all”—may well be applied to the whole of the Bible. All Scripture is needed by us (2 Tim. 3:16, 17), and all Scripture is God’s word to us. Note carefully that while at the beginning of his Epistle to Titus Paul only addresses Titus himself (Titus 1:4), yet at the close of this letter he expressly says, “Grace be with you all!” (Titus 3:15)
Ignoring then the man-made title at the head of our Epistle, we are at once struck by the absence of any Divinely-given one in the opening verses. Nevertheless, its first sentence enables us to identify at once those to whom the Epistle was originally sent: see Hebrews 1:1, 2. They to whom God spake through the prophets were the children of Israel, and it was also unto them He had spoken through His Son. In Hebrews 3:1, we find a word which, however, narrows the circle to which this Epistle was first sent. It was not the Jewish nation at large which was addressed, but the “holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling” among them. Clear confirmation of this is supplied in the Epistles of Peter. His first was addressed, locally, to “the elect sojourners of the Dispersion (Heb. 1:1—Gk., “eklektois parepidenois diasporas”). His second Epistle (see Hebrews 3:1) was addressed, locally and immediately, to the same company. Now in 2 Peter 3:15 the apostle makes specific reference to “our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given unto him hath written unto you.” Thus all doubt is removed as to whom our Epistle was first sent.
The Epistle itself contains further details which serve to identify the addressees. That it was written to saints who were by no means young in the faith is clear from Hebrews 5:12. That it was sent to those who had suffered severe persecutions (cf. Acts 8:1) is plain from what we read in Hebrews 10:32. That it was addressed to a Christian community of considerable size is evident from Hebrews 13:24. From this last reference we are inclined to conclude that this Epistle was first delivered to the church in Jerusalem (Acts 11:22), or to the churches in Judea (Acts 9:31), copies of which would be made and forwarded to Jewish Christians in foreign lands. Thus, our Epistle was first addressed to those descendants of Abraham who, by grace, had believed on their Savior-Messiah.
- Its Purpose
This, in a word, was to instruct Jewish believers that Judaism had been superceded by Christianity. It must be borne in mind that a very considerable proportion of the earliest converts to Christ were Jews by natural birth, who continued to labor under Jewish prejudices. In his early Epistles the apostle had touched several times on this point, and sought to wean them from an undue and now untimely attachment to the Mosaic institutions. But only in this Epistle does he deal fully and systematically with the subject.
It is difficult for us to appreciate the position, at the time this Epistle was written, of those in Israel who had believed on the Lord Jesus. Unlike the Gentiles, who, for long centuries past, had lost all knowledge of the true God, and, in consequence, worshipped idols, the Jews had a Divine religion, and a Divinely-appointed place of worship. To be called upon to forsake these, which had been venerated by their fathers for over a thousand years, was to make a big demand upon them. It was natural that even those among them who had savingly believed on Christ should want to retain the forms and ceremonies amid which they had been brought up; the more so, seeing that the Temple still stood and the Levitical priesthood still functioned. An endeavor had been made to link Christianity on to Judaism, and as Acts 21:20 tells us there were many thousands of the early Jewish Christians who were “zealous of the law”—as the next verses clearly show the ceremonial law.
“Instead of perceiving that under the new economy of things, there was neither Jew nor Gentile, but, that, without reference to external distinctions, all believers in Christ Jesus were now to live together in the closest bonds of spiritual attachment in holy society, they dreamed of the Gentiles being admitted to the participation of the Jewish Church through means of the Messiah, and, that its external economy was to remain unaltered to the end of the world” (Dr. J. Brown).
In addition to their natural prejudices, the temporal circumstances of the believing Jews became increasingly discouraging, yea, presented a sore temptation for them to abandon the profession of Christianity. Following the persecution spoken of in Acts 8:1, that eminent scholar, Adolph Saphir—himself a converted Jew—tells us: “Then arose another persecution of the believers, especially directed against the apostle Paul. Festus died about the year 63, and under the high priest Ananias, who favored the Sadducees, the Christian Hebrews were persecuted as transgressors of the law. Some of them were stoned to death; and though this extreme punishment could not be frequently inflicted by the Sanhedrim, they were able to subject their brethren to sufferings and reproaches which they felt keenly. It was a small thing that they confiscated their goods; but they banished them from the holy places. Hitherto they had enjoyed the privileges of devout Israelites: they could take part in the beautiful and God-appointed services of the sanctuary; but now they were treated as unclean and apostates. Unless they gave up faith in Jesus, and forsook the assembling of themselves together, they were not allowed to enter the Temple, they were banished from the altar, the sacrifice, the high priest, the house of Jehovah.
“We can scarcely realize the piercing sword which thus wounded their inmost heart. That by clinging to the Messiah they were to be severed from Messiah’s people, was, indeed, a great and perplexing trial; that for the hope of Israel’s glory they were banished from the place which God had chosen, and where the divine Presence was revealed, and the symbols and ordinances had been the joy and strength of their fathers; that they were to be no longer children of the covenant and of the house, but worse than Gentiles, excluded from the outer court, cut off from the commonwealth of Israel. This was indeed a sore and mysterious trial. Cleaving to the promises made unto their fathers, cherishing the hope in constant prayer that their nation would yet accept the Messiah, it was the severest test to which their faith could be put, when their loyalty to Jesus involved separation from all the sacred rights and privileges of Jerusalem.”
Thus the need for an authoritative, lucid, and systematic setting forth of the real relation of Christianity to Judaism was a pressing one. Satan would not miss the opportunity of seeking to persuade these Hebrews that their faith in Jesus of Nazareth was a mistake, a delusion, a sin. Were they right, while the vast majority of their brethren, according to the flesh, among whom were almost all the respected members of the Sanhedrim and the priesthood, wrong? Had God prospered them since they had become followers of the crucified One? or, did not their temporal circumstances evidence that He was most displeased with them? Moreover, the believing remnant of Israel had looked for a speedy return of Christ to the earth, but thirty years had now passed and He had not come! Yes, their situation was critical, and there was an urgent need that their faith should be strengthened, their understanding enlightened, and a fuller explanation be given them of Christianity in the light of the Old Testament. It was to meet this need that God, in His tender mercy, moved His servant to write this Epistle to them.
- Its Theme
This is, the super-abounding excellence of Christianity over Judaism. The sum and substance, the center and circumference, the light and life of Christianity, is Christ. Therefore, the method followed by the Holy Spirit in this Epistle, in developing its dominant theme, is to show the immeasurable superiority of Christ over all that had gone before. One by one the various objects in which the Jews boasted are taken up, and in the presence of the superlative glory of the Son of God they pale into utter insignificance. We are shown First, His superiority over the prophets, Hebrews 1:1–3. Second, His superiority over angels in Hebrews 1:4 to Hebrews 2:18. Third, His superiority over Moses in Hebrews 3:1–19. Fourth, His superiority over Joshua, Hebrews 4:1–13. Fifth, His superiority over Aaron in 5:14 to 7:18. Sixth, His superiority over the whole ritual of Judaism, which is developed by showing the surpassing excellency of the new covenant over the old, in Hebrews 7:19 to Hebrews 10:39. Seventh, His superiority over each and all of the Old Testament saints, in 11:1 to 12:3. In the Lord Jesus, Christians have the substance and reality, of which Judaism contained but the shadows and figures.
If the Lord permits us to go through this Epistle—Oh that He may come for us before—many illustrations and exemplifications of our definition of its theme will come before us. At the moment, we may note how frequently the comparative term “better” is used, thus showing the superiority of what we have in Christianity over what the saints of old had in Judaism. In Hebrews 1:4, Christ is “better than angels;” in Hebrews 7:19, mention is made of a “better hope;” in Hebrews 7:22, of a “better testament” or “covenant; in Hebrews 8:6, of “better promises;” in Hebrews 9:23, of “better sacrifices;” in Hebrews 10:34 of a “better substance;” in Hebrews 11:16, of a “better country;” in Hebrews 11:35, of a “better resurrection,” and in Hebrews 11:40, of the “better thing.” So, too, we may observe the seven great things mentioned therein, namely: the “great salvation” (Heb. 2:3), the “great High Priest” (Heb. 4:14), the “great Tabernacle” (Heb. 9:11), the “great fight of afflictions” (Heb. 10:32), the “great recompense” (Heb. 10:35), the “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1), the “great Shepherd of the sheep” (Heb. 13:20).
Again; in contrast from what the believing Hebrews were called upon to give up, they were reminded of what they had gained. Note how frequently occurs the “we have”—a great High Priest (Heb. 4:14, 8:1), an anchor of the soul (Heb. 6:19), a better and enduring substance (Heb. 10:34), an altar (Heb. 13:10). Once more, we may note how these Hebrews were encouraged to forget the things which were behind and to press toward those which were before. All through this Epistle the forward look is prominent. In Hebrews 1:6 and Hebrews 2:5, mention is made of a “world (or ‘habitable earth’) to come;” in Hebrews 6:5, of an “age to come;” in Hebrews 8:10, of a “new covenant,” yet to be made with the house of Israel; in Hebrews 9:11 and Hebrews 10:1, of “good things” to come; in Hebrews 9:28, of a “salvation” to be revealed; in Hebrews 10:37, of the coming Redeemer, in Hebrews 11:14 and Hebrews 13:14, of a “city” yet to be manifested.
Throughout this Epistle great prominence is given to the Priesthood of Christ. The center of Judaism was its temple and the priesthood. Hence the Holy Spirit has here shown at length how that believers now have in Christ the substance of which these supplied but the shadows. The following passages should be carefully weighed:—Hebrews 2:17; 3:1; 4:14, 15; 5:6, 10; 6:20; 7:26; 8:1; 9:11; 10:21. “Though deprived of the temple, with its priesthood and altar and sacrifice, the apostle reminds the Hebrews, ‘we have’ the real and substantial temple, the great High Priest, the true altar, the one sacrifice, and with it all offerings, the true access into the very presence of the Most Holy” (Adolph Saphir).
- Its Divisions
These have been set forth so simply by Dr. J. Brown we cannot do better than quote from him: “The Epistle divides itself into two parts—the first, doctrinal; the second, practice—though the division is not so accurately (closely, A.W.P.) observed, that there are no duties enjoined or urged in the first part, and no doctrines stated in the second. The first is by far the larger division, reaching from the beginning of the Epistle down to the 18th verse of the 10th chapter. The second commences with the 19th verse of the 10th chapter, and extends to the end of the Epistle. The superiority of Christianity to Judaism is the great doctrine which the Epistle teaches; and constancy in the faith and profession of that religion, is the great duty which it enjoins.”
- Its Characteristics
In several noticeable respects Hebrews differs from all the other Epistles of the New Testament. The name of the writer is omitted, there is no opening salutation, the ones to whom it was first specifically and locally sent are not mentioned. On the positive side we may note, that the typical teachings of the Old Testament are expounded here at greater length than elsewhere; the priesthood of Christ is opened up, fully, only in this Epistle; the warnings against apostasy are more frequent and more solemn, and the calls to steadfastness and perseverance are more emphatic and numerous than in any other New Testament book. All of these things are accounted for by the fleshly nationality of those addressed, and the circumstances they were then in. Unless we keep these features steadily in mind, not a little in this Epistle will necessarily remain obscure and dark. Much of the language used, the figures employed, the references made, are only intelligible in the light of the Old Testament Scriptures, on which Judaism was based. Except this be kept before us, such expressions as “purged our sins” (Heb. 1:3), “there remaineth therefore a Sabbath-keeping to the people of God” (Heb. 4:9), “leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection” (Heb. 6:1), “our bodies washed with pure water” (Heb. 10:22), “we have an altar” (Heb. 13:10), etc., will remain unintelligible.
The first time that Christ is referred to in this Epistle it is as seated at “the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Heb. 1:3), for it is with a heavenly Christ that Christianity has to ‘do: note the other reference in this Epistle to the same fact—Hebrews 1:13, 8:1, 10:12, 12:2. In perfect accord with Hebrews 1:3, which strikes the keynote of the Epistle, in addition to the heavenly Christ, reference is made to “the heavenly calling” (Heb. 3:1), to “the heavenly gift” (Heb. 6:4), to “heavenly things” (Heb. 8:5), to “the heavenly Country” (Heb. 11:16), to the “heavenly Jerusalem” (Heb. 12:22), and to “the church of the First-born, whose names are written in Heaven” (Heb. 12:23). This emphasis is easily understood when we remember that our Epistle is addressed to those whose inheritance, religious relationships, and hopes, had been all earthly.
In Hebrews 13:22 there is a striking word which defines the character of this Epistle: “And I beseech you, brethren, suffer the word of exhortation, for I have written a letter unto you in few words.” Upon this verse Saphir has well said, “The central idea of the Epistle is the glory of the New Covenant, contrasted with and excelling the glory of the old covenant; and while this idea is developed in a systematic manner, yet the aim of the writer throughout is eminently and directly practical. Everywhere his object is exhortation. He never loses sight of the dangers and wants of his brethren. The application to conscience and life is never forgotten. It is rather a sermon than an exposition.… In all his arguments, in every doctrine, in every illustration, the central aim of the Epistle is kept prominent—the exhortation to steadfastness.” This is, indeed, a peculiarity about Hebrews. In his other Epistles, the apostle rarely breaks in on an argument to utter an admonition or exhortation; instead, his well-nigh uniform method was to open with doctrinal exposition, and then base upon this a series of practical exhortations. But the unusual situation which the Hebrews were in, and the peculiar love that the writer bore to them (cf. Romans 9:3) explains this exception.
What has just been said above accounts for what we find in Hebrews 11. Nowhere else in the Bible do we find such a lengthy and complete description of the life of faith. But here a whole chapter, the longest in the Epistle, is devoted to it. The reason for this is not far to seek. Brought up in a system with an elaborate ritual, whose worship was primarily a matter of outward symbols and ceremonies; tempted as few ever have been to walk by sight, there was a special and most pressing need for a clear and detailed analysis and description of what it means to “walk by faith.” Inasmuch as “example is better than precept,” better because more easily grasped and because making a more powerful appeal to the heart, the Holy Spirit saw well to develop this important theme by an appeal to the history of saints recorded in the Scriptures of the Hebrews.
But it is most important that we recognize the fullness of the term faith. As Saphir well said, “Throughout Scripture faith means more than trust in Jesus for personal safety. This is the central point, but we must take care that we understand it in a true and deep manner. Faith, as the apostle explains in the Epistle to the Corinthians, is looking at the things which are not seen and temporal: it is preferring spiritual and eternal realities to the things of time, sense, and sin; it is leaning on God and realizing His Word; it is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Thus every doctrine and illustration of this Epistle goes straight to the heart and conscience, appeals to life, addresses itself to faith. It is one continued and sustained fervent and intense appeal to cleave to Jesus, the High Priest; to the substantial, true, and real worship. A most urgent and loving exhortation to be steadfast, patient, hopeful, in the presence of God, in the love and sympathy of the Lord Jesus, in the fellowship of the great cloud of witnesses.”
Another prominent characteristic, concerning which there is no need for us now to enlarge upon, is the repeated warnings in this Epistle against apostasy. The most solemn and searching exhortations against the danger of falling away to be found anywhere in Holy Writ were given to these, Hebrews 2:1–3, most of the third and fourth chapters, Hebrews 6:4–6, 10:26–29, 12:15–17, will at once occur to all who are familiar with the contents of this Epistle. The occasion for and the need of them has already been pointed out: the disappointing of the hopes the Hebrews had cherished, the persecutions they were then enduring, and the Divine judgment which was on the very eve of falling on Jerusalem (in a.d. 70) made them imperative.
- Its Value
Let us mention first its evidential value. The Epistle is particularly rich in proofs of the verbal inspiration of Scripture. This is seen in the way the apostle refers to the Old Testament, and the use he makes of it. Mark how in Hebrews 1:5–9 when quoting from the Psalms, 2nd Samuel, Deuteronomy, he refers these utterances to God Himself—“He saith,” Hebrews 10:6–8. So in Hebrews 3:7 “the Holy Spirit saith.” Observe how when quoting from the Old Testament the apostle attentively weighs every word, and often builds a fundamental truth on a single expression. Let us cite a few from the many examples of this:
See how in Hebrews 2:8 the apostle argues from the authority of the word “all.” In Hebrews 2:11, when quoting from Psalm 22, he deduces the conclusion from the expression “My brethren” that the Son of God took to Himself human nature. Observe that in Hebrews 3:7–19 and Hebrews 4:2–11, when quoting from Psalm 95, he builds on the words “Today,” “I have sworn.” and “My rest;” also in Hebrews 3:2–6 how his conclusions there are drawn from the words “servant,” and “My house” in Numbers 12:7. His whole argument in chapter 8 is based on the word “new” found in Jeremiah 31:31. How blessedly he makes use of the words “My son” from Proverbs 3:11 in Hebrews 12:5–9! How emphatically he appeals in Hebrews 12:26, 27 to the words “once more” in Haggai 2:6, 7. Is it not abundantly clear that in the judgment of the apostle Paul the Scriptures were Divinely inspired even to the most minute expression?
The evangelical value of this Epistle has been recognized by Christians of all schools of thought. Here is set forth with sunlight clearness the preciousness, design, efficacy and effects of the great Sacrifice offered once and for all. Christ has Himself purged our sins (Heb. 1:3); He is able to save “to the uttermost” (Heb. 7:25); by His one offering He has “perfected forever the sanctified” (Heb. 10:14); by His blood a new and living way has been opened for His people into the Holiest (Heb. 10:19, 20): such are some of its wondrous declarations. Emphasizing the inestimable worth of His redemptive work, it is here that we read of an “eternal salvation” (Heb. 5:9), “eternal redemption” (Heb. 9:12), and of the “eternal inheritance” (Heb. 9:15).
The doctrinal importance of this book is exceeded by none, not even by the Roman Epistle. Where its teachings are believed, understood, and embodied in the life, ritualism and legalism (the two chief enemies of Christianity) receive their death blow. In no other book of Scripture are the sophistries and deceptions of Romanism so clearly and systematically exposed. So fully and pointedly are the errors of Popery refuted, it might well have been written since that satanic system became established. Well did one of the Puritans say, “God foreseeing what poisonous heresies would be hatched by the Papacy, prepared this antidote against them.”
But perhaps its chief distinctive value lies in its exposition of the Old Testament types. It is here we are taught that the Tabernacle and its furniture, the priesthood and their service, the various sacrifices and offerings, all pointed to the person, offices, and glories of the Lord Jesus. Of Israel’s priests it is said, “who served unto the example and shadow of heavenly things” (Heb. 8:5); the first tabernacle was “a figure for the time then present” (Heb. 9:9); the ceremonial law had “a shadow of good things to come” (Heb. 10:1). Melchizedec was a type of Christ (Heb. 7:15), Isaac was a figure of Him (Heb. 11:9), and so on. The details of these will be considered, D.V., in due course.
- Its Writer
This, we are fully assured, was the apostle Paul. Though he was distinctively and essentially the “apostle of the Gentiles” (Rom. 11:13), yet his ministry was by no means confined to them, as the book of Acts clearly shows. At the time of his apprehension the Lord said, “He is a chosen vessel unto Me, to bear My Name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15). It is significant that Israel is there mentioned last, in harmony with the fact that his Epistle to the Hebrews was written after most of his others to Gentile saints. That this Epistle was written by Paul is clear from 2 Peter 3:15. Peter was writing to saved Jews as the opening verses of his first Epistle intimates; 2 Peter 3:1 informs us that this letter was addressed to the same people as his former one had been. Then, in Hebrews 10:15, he declares that his beloved brother Paul “also according to the wisdom given unto him hath written unto you.” If the Epistle to the Hebrews be not that writing, where is it?
Before studying the opening verses of our Epistle, let us adduce further evidence that the apostle Paul was the writer of it. To begin with, note its Pauline characteristics. First, a numerical one. There is a striking parallel between his enumeration in Romans 8:35–39 and in Hebrews 12:18–24. In the former he draws up a list of the things which shall not separate the saint from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus. If the reader will count them, he will find they are seventeen in number, but divided into a seven and a ten. The first seven are given in verse 35, the second ten in 8:38, 39. In Hebrews 12:18–23 he draws a contrast between Mount Sinai and Mount Sion, and he mentions seventeen details, and again the seventeen is divided into a seven and a ten. In Hebrews 10:18, 19, he names seven things which the saints are not “come unto”; while in Hebrews 10:22–24 he mentions ten things they have “come unto,” viz., to Mount Sion, the City of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, an innumerable company of angels, the general Assembly, the Church of the Firstborn, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator, to the Blood of sprinkling. Compare also Galatians 5:19–21, where the apostle, when describing the “works of the flesh,” enumerates seventeen. So far as we are aware, no other Epistle writer of the New Testament used this number seventeen in such a manner.
Again; the terms which he used. We single out one only. In Hebrews 2:10 he speaks of the many sons which Christ is bringing to glory. Now Paul is the only New Testament writer that employs the term “sons.” The others used a different Greek word meaning “children.”
For doctrinal parallelisms compare Romans 8:16, with Hebrews 10:15, and 1 Corinthians 3:13 with Hebrews 5:12–14, and who can doubt that the Holy Spirit used the same penman in both cases?
Note a devotional correspondency. In Hebrews 13:18, the writer of this Epistle says, “Pray for us.” In his other Epistles we find Paul, more than once, making a similar request; but no other Epistle-writer is placed on record as soliciting prayer!
Finally, it is to be noted that Timothy was the companion of the writer of this Epistle, see Hebrews 13:23. We know of no hint anywhere that Timothy was the fellow-worker of anyone else but the apostle Paul: that he companied with him is clear from 2 Corinthians 1:1, Colossians 1:1, 1 Thessalonians 3:1, 2.
In addition to the many Pauline characteristics stamped on this Epistle, we may further observe that it was written by one who had been in “bonds” (see Hebrews 10:34); by one who was now sundered from Jewish believers (Heb. 13:19)—would not this indicate that Paul wrote this Epistle while in his hired house in Rome (Acts 28:30)? Again; here is a striking fact, which will have more force with some readers than others: if the Epistle to the Hebrews was not written by the apostle Paul, then the New Testament contains only thirteen Epistles from his pen—a number which, in Scripture, is ever associated with evil! But if Hebrews was also written by him, this brings the total number of his Epistles to fourteen, i.e., 7 × 2—seven being the number of perfection and two of witness. Thus, a perfect witness was given by this beloved servant of the Lord to Jew and Gentile!
In the last place, there is one other evidence that the apostle Paul penned the Hebrews’ Epistle which is still more conclusive. In 2 Thessalonians 3:17, 18 we read, “The salutation of Paul with mine own hand, which is the token in every Epistle, so I write, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.” Now, if the reader will turn to the closing verse of each of the first thirteen Epistles of this apostle, it will be found that this “token” is given in each one. Then, if he will refer to the close of the Epistles of James, Peter, John and Jude, he will discover a noticeable absence of it. Thus it was a distinctive “token” of the apostle Paul. It served to identify his writings. When, then at the close of Hebrews we read “grace be with you all” the proof is conclusive and complete that none other than Paul’s hand originally wrote this Epistle.
Ere passing from this point a word should be added concerning the distinctive suitability of Paul as the penman of this Epistle. In our little work “Why Four Gospels” (pages 20–22), we have called attention to the wisdom of God displayed in the selection of the four men He employed to write the Gospels. In each one we may clearly perceive a special personal fitness for the task before him. Thus it is here. All through the Epistle of Hebrews Christ is presented as the glorified One in Heaven. Now, it was there the apostle Paul first saw the Lord (Acts 26:19); who, then, was so well suited, so experimentally equipped, to present to the Hebrews the rejected Messiah at God’s right hand! He had seen Him there; and with the exceptions of Stephen, and later, John of Patmos, he was the only one who had or has!
Should it be asked, Why is the apostle Paul’s name omitted from the preface to this Epistle? a threefold answer may be suggested. First, it is addressed, primarily, to converted “Hebrews,” and Paul was not characteristically or essentially an apostle to them: he was the apostle to the Gentiles. Second, the inscribing of his name at the beginning of this Epistle would, probably, have prejudiced many Jewish readers against it (cf. Acts 21:27, 28; 22:17–22). Third, the supreme purpose of the Epistle is to exalt Christ, and in this Epistle He is the “Apostle,” see Hebrews 3:1. Therefore the impropriety of Paul making mention of his own apostleship. But let us now turn to the contents of the Epistle:
Vv. 1–3. These verses are not only a preface, but they contain a summary of the doctrinal section of the Epistle. The keynote is struck at once. Here we are shown, briefly but conclusively, the superiority of Christianity over Judaism. The apostle introduces his theme in a manner least calculated to provoke the antipathy of his Jewish readers. He begins by acknowledging that Judaism was of Divine authority: it was God who had spoken to their fathers. “He confirms and seals the doctrine which was held by the Hebrews, that unto them had been committed the oracles of God; and that in the writings of Moses and the prophets they possessed the Scripture which could not be broken, in which God had displayed unto them His will” (Adolph Saphir). It is worthy of note that the Gospels open with a summary of Old Testament history from Abraham to David, from David to the Captivity, and from the Captivity to Jesus, the Immanuel predicted by Isaiah (see Matthew 1), and that the Epistles also begin by telling us that the Gospel expounded by the prophets had been “promised afore by God’s prophets in the Holy Scriptures” (Rom. 1:1–3).
Having affirmed that God had spoken to the fathers by the prophets, the apostle at once points out that God has now spoken to us by His Son. “The great object of the Epistle is to describe the contrast between the old and new covenants. But this contrast is based upon their unity. It is impossible for us rightly to understand the contrast unless we know first the resemblance. The new covenant is contrasted with the old covenant, not in the way in which the light of the knowledge of God is contrasted with the darkness and ignorance of heathenism, for the old covenant is also of God, and is therefore possessed of Divine glory. Beautiful is the night in which the moon and the stars of prophecy and types are shining; but when the sun arises then we forget the hours of watchfulness and expectancy, and in the clear and joyous light of day there is revealed to us the reality and substance of the eternal and heavenly sanctuary” (Adolph Saphir). Let us now examine these opening verses word by word.
“God” (v. 1). The particular reference is to the Father, as the words “by (His) Son” in v. 2 intimate. Yet the other Persons of the Trinity are not excluded. In Old Testament times the Godhead spoke by the Son, see Exodus 3:2, 5; 1 Corinthians 10:9; and by the Holy Spirit, see Acts 28:26, Hebrews 3:7, etc. Being a Trinity in Unity, one Person is often said to work by Another. A striking example of this is found in Genesis 19:24, where Jehovah the Son is said to have rained down fire from Jehovah the Father.
“God … spake.” (v. 1). Deity is not speechless. The true and living God, unlike the idols of the heathen, is no dumb Being. The God of Scripture, unlike that absolute and impersonal “first Cause” of philosophers and evolutionists, is not silent. At the beginning of earth’s history we find Him speaking: “God said, Let there be light: and there was light” (Genesis 1:4). “He spake and it was done, He commanded and it stood fast” (Psalm 33:9). To men He spake, and still speaks. For this we can never be sufficiently thankful.
“God who at sundry times … spake” (v. 1). Not once or twice, but many times, did God speak. The Greek for “at sundry times” literally means “by many parts,” which necessarily implies, some at one time, some at another. From Abraham to Malachi was a period of fifteen hundred years, and during that time God spake frequently: to some a few words, to others many. The apostle was here paving the way for making manifest the superiority of Christianity. The Divine revelation vouchsafed under the Mosaic economy was but fragmentary. The Jew desired to set Moses against Christ (John 9:28). The apostle acknowledges that God had spoken to Israel. But how? Had He communicated to them the fullness of His mind? Nay. The Old Testament revelation was but the refracted rays, not the light unbroken and complete. As illustrations of this we may refer to the gradual making known of the Divine character through His different titles, or to the prophesies concerning the coming Messiah. It was “here a little and there a little.”
“God who … in divers manner spake” (v. 1). The majority of the commentators regard these words as referring to the various ways in which God revealed Himself to the prophets—sometimes directly, at others indirectly—through an angel (Genesis 19:1, etc.); sometimes audibly, at others in dreams and visions. But, with Dr. J. Brown, we believe that the particular point here is how God spake to the fathers by the prophets, and not how He has made known His mind to the prophets themselves. “The revelation was sometimes communicated by typical representations and emblematical actions, sometimes in a continued parable, at other times by separate figures, at other times—though comparatively rarely—in plain explicit language. The revelation has sometimes the form of a narrative, at other times that of a prediction, at other times that of an argumentative discourse; sometimes it is given in prose, at other times in poetry” (Dr. J. B.). Thus we may see here an illustration of the sovereignty of God: He did not act uniformly or confine Himself to any one method of speaking to the fathers. He spake by way of promise and prediction, by types and symbols, by commandments and precepts, by warnings and exhortations.
“God … spake in times past unto the fathers by the prophets” (v. 1). Thus the apostle sets his seal upon the Divine inspiration and authority of the Old Testament Scriptures. The “fathers” here goes right back to the beginning of God’s dealings with the Hebrews—cf. Luke 1:55. To “the fathers” God spake “by,” or more literally and precisely, “in” the prophets. This denotes that God possessed their hearts, controlled their minds, ordered their tongues, so that they spake not their own words, but His words—see 2 Peter 1:21. At times the prophets were themselves conscious of this, see 2 Samuel 23:2, etc. We may add that the word “prophet” signifies the mouthpiece of God: see Genesis 20:7, Exodus 7:1, John 4:19—she recognized God was speaking to her; Acts 3:21!
“God … hath in these last days spoken unto us by”—better “in (His) Son” (v. 2). “Having thus described the Jewish revelation he goes on to give an account of the Christians, and begins it in an antithetical form. The God who spake to ‘the fathers’ now speaks to ‘us.’ The God who spake in ‘times past,’ now speaks in these ‘last days.’ The God who spake ‘by the prophets,’ now speaks ‘by His Son.’ There is nothing in the description of the Gospel revelation that answers to the two phrases ‘at sundry times,’ and ‘in divers manners’; but the ideas which they necessarily suggest to the mind are, the completeness of the Gospel revelation compared with the imperfection of the Jewish, and the simplicity and clearness of the Gospel revelation compared with the multi-formity and obscurity of the Jewish” (Dr. J. Brown).
“This manifesting of God’s will by parts (‘at sundry times,’ etc.), is here (v. 1) noted by way of distinction and difference from God’s revealing His will under the Gospel; which was all at one time, viz., the times of His Son’s being on earth; for then the whole counsel of God was made known so far as was meet for the Church to know it while this world continueth. In this respect Christ said, ‘All things that I have heard of My Father, I have made known to you’ (John 15:15), and ‘the Comforter shall teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance whatsoever I have said unto you’ (John 14:26). The woman of Samaria understood this much: ‘When the Messiah is come, He will tell us all things’ (John 4:25). Objection: the apostles had many things revealed to them later. Answer: those were no other things than what Christ had revealed before, while He lived” (Dr. Gouge).
The central point of contrast here is between the Old Testament “prophets” and Christ “the Son.” Though the Holy Spirit has not here developed the details of this contrast, we can ourselves, by going back to the Old Testament, supply them. Mr. Saphir has strikingly summarized them under seven heads. “First, they were many: one succeeded another: they lived in different periods. Second, they gave out God’s revelation in ‘divers manners’—similitudes, visions, symbols. Each prophet had his peculiar gift and character. Their stature and capacity varied. Third, they were sinful men—Isaiah 6:5, Daniel 10:8. Fourth, they did not possess the Spirit constantly. The ‘word’ came to them, but they did not possess the Word! Fifth, they did not understand the heights and depths of their own message—1 Peter 1:10. Sixth, still less did they comprehend the whole of God’s revelation in Old Testament times. Seventh, like John the Baptist they had to testify ‘I am not the Light, I am only sent to bear witness of the Light.’ ” Now, the very opposite was the case in all these respects with the “Son.” Though the revelation which God gave the prophets is equally inspired and authoritative, yet that through His Son possesses a greater dignity and value, for He has revealed all the secrets of the Father’s heart, the fullness of His counsel, and the riches of His grace.
“In these last days” (v. 2). This expression is not to be taken absolutely, but is a contrast from “in time past.” The ministry of Christ marked “the last days.” That which the Holy Spirit was pressing upon the Hebrews was the finality of the Gospel revelation. Through the “prophets” God had given predictions and foreshadowings; in the Son, the fulfillment and substance. The “fullness of time” had come when God sent forth His Son (Gal. 4:4). He has nothing now in reserve. He has no further revelation to make. Christ is the final Spokesman of Deity. The written Word is now complete. In conclusion, note how Christ divides history: everything before pointed toward Him, everything since points back to Him; He is the Center of all God’s counsels.
“Spoken unto us” (v. 2). “The pronoun us refers directly to the Jews of that age, to which class belonged both the writer and his readers; but the statement is equally true in reference to all, in every succeeding age, to whom the word of this salvation comes. God, in the completed revelation of His will, respecting the salvation of men through Christ Jesus, is still speaking to all who have an opportunity of reading the New Testament or of hearing the Gospel” (Dr. J. Brown).
“In (His) Son” (v. 2). Christ is the “Son of God” in two respects. First, eternally so, as the second Person in the Trinity, very God of very God. Second, He is also the “Son as incarnate.” When He took upon Him sinless human nature He did not cease to be God, nor did He (as some blasphemously teach) “empty” Himself of His Divine attributes, which are inseparable from the Divine Being. “God was manifest in flesh” (1 Timothy 3:16). Before His Birth, God sent an angel to Mary, saying, “He (the Word become flesh) shall be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). The One born in Bethlehem’s manger was the same Divine Person as had subsisted from all eternity, though He had now taken unto Him another, an additional nature, the human. But so perfect is the union between the Divine and the human natures in Christ that, in some instances, the properties of the one are ascribed to the other: see John 3:13, Romans 5:10. It is in the second of these respects that our blessed Savior is viewed in our present passage—as the Mediator, the God-man, God “spake” in and through Him: see John 17:8, 14, etc.
Summarizing what has been said, we may note how that this opening sentence of our Epistle points a threefold contrast between the communications which God has made through Judaism and through Christianity. First, in their respective characters: the one was fragmentary and incomplete; the other perfect and final. Second, in the instruments which He employed: in the former, it was sinful men; in the latter, His holy Son. Third, in the periods selected: the one was “in time past,” the other in “these last days,” intimating that God has now fully expressed Himself, that He has nothing in reserve. But is there not here something deeper and more blessed? We believe there is. Let us endeavor to set it forth.
That which is central and vital in these opening verses is God speaking. A silent God is an unknown God: God “speaking” is God expressing, revealing Himself. All that we know or can now know of God is what He has revealed of Himself through His Word. But the opening verse of Hebrews presents a contrast between God’s “speakings.” To Israel He gave a revelation of Himself in “time past”; to them He also gave another in “these last days.” What, then, was the character of these two distinct revelations?
As we all know, God’s Word is divided into two main sections, the Old and the New Testaments. Now, it is instructive to note that the distinctive character in which God is revealed in them strikingly corresponds to those two words about Him recorded in the first Epistle of John; “God is light” (Heb. 1:5); “God is love” (Heb. 4:8). Mark attentively the order of these two statements which make known to us what God actually is in Himself.
“God is light.” It was in this character that He was revealed in Old Testament times. What is the very first thing we hear Him saying in His Word? This: “Let there be light” (Gen. 1:3). In what character does He appear to our fallen first parents in Genesis 3? As “light,” as the holy One, uncompromisingly judging sin. In what character was He revealed at the flood? As the “light,” unsparingly dealing with that which was evil. How ‘did He make Himself known to Israel at Sinai? As the One who is “light.” And so we might go on through the whole Old Testament. We do not say that His love was entirely unknown, but most assuredly it was not fully revealed. That which was characteristic of the revelation of the Divine character in the Mosaic dispensation was God as light.
“God is love.” It is in this character that He stands revealed in New Testament times. To make known His love. God sent forth the Son of His love. It is only in Christ that love is fully unveiled. Not that the light was absent; that could not be, seeing that He was and is God Himself. The love which he exercised and manifested was ever an holy love. But just as “God is light” was the characteristic revelation in Old Testament times, so “God is love” is characteristic of the New Testament revelation. In the final analysis, this is the contrast pointed to in the opening verses of Hebrews. In the prophets God “spoke” (revealed Himself) as light: the requirements, claims, demands of his holiness being insisted upon. But in the Son it is the sweet accents of love that we hear. It is the affections of God which the Son has expressed, appealing to ours; hence, it is by the heart, and not the head, that God can be known.
“God … hath in these last days spoken unto us by (His) Son.” It will be noted that the word “His” is in italics, which means there is no corresponding word in the original. But the omission of this word makes the sentence obscure; nor are we helped very much when we learn that the preposition “by” should be “in.” “God hath spoken in Son.” Yet really, this is not so obscure as at first it seems. Were a friend to tell you that he had visited a certain church, and that the preacher “spoke in Latin,” you would have no difficulty in understanding what he meant: “spoke in Latin would intimate that that particular language marked his utterance. Such is the thought here. “In Son” has reference to that which characterized God’s revelation. The thought of the contrast is that God, who of old had spoken prophet-wise, now speaks son-wise. The thought is similar to that expressed in 1 Timothy 3:16, “God was manifest in flesh,” the words “in flesh” referring to that which characterized the Divine manifestation. God was not manifested in intangible and invisible ether, nor did He appear in angelic form; but “in flesh.” So He has now spoken “in Son,” Son-wisely.
The whole revelation and manifestation of God is now in Christ; He alone reveals the Father’s heart. It is not only that Christ declared or delivered God’s message, but that He himself was and is God’s message. All that God has to say to us is in His Son: all His thoughts, counsels, promises, gifts, are to be found in the Lord Jesus. Take the perfect life of Christ, His deportment, His ways; that is God “speaking”—revealing Himself—to us. Take His miracles, revealing His tender compassion, displaying His mighty power; they are God “speaking” to us. Take His death, commending to us the love of God, in that while we were yet sinners, He died for us; that is God “speaking” to us. Take His resurrection, triumphing over the grave, vanquishing him who had the power of death, coming forth as the “first fruits of them that slept”—the “earnest” of the “harvest” to follow; that is God “speaking” to us.
That which is so blessed in this opening sentence of the Hebrews’ Epistle, and which it is so important that our hearts should lay hold of, is, that God has come out in an entirely new character—Son-wise. It is not so much that God speaks to us in the Son, but God addresses Himself to us in Son-like character, that is, in the character of love. God might have spoken “Almighty-wise,” as He did at Sinai; but that would have terrified and overwhelmed us. God might have spoken “Judge-wise,” as He will at the great white Throne; but that would have condemned us, and forever banished us from His presence. But, blessed be His name, He has spoken “Son-wise,” in the tenderest relation which He could possibly assume.
What was the announcement from Heaven as soon as the Son was revealed? “Unto you is
What was the announcement from Heaven as soon as the Son was revealed? “Unto you is born”—what? Not a “Judge,” or even a “Teacher,” but “a Savior, which is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). There we have the heart of God revealed.
It is the character in which God “spoke” or revealed Himself which this opening sentence of our Epistle emphasizes. He has appeared before us in the person of His beloved Son, to bring us a knowledge of the Divine affections, and this in order to engage our affections. In the very nature of the case there can be nothing higher. Through Christ, God is now fully, perfectly, finally revealed.
We lose much if we fail to keep constantly in mind the fact that Christ is God—”God manliest in flesh.” We profess to believe that He is Divine, the second person of the blessed Trinity. But it is to be feared that often we forget this when reading the record of His earthly life or when pondering the words which fell from His lips. How necessary it is when taking up a passage in the Gospels to realize that there it is God “speaking” to us “Son-wise,” God’s affections made known.
Take the familiar words of Luke 19:10, “The Son of man is come to seek and to save that which is lost.” But who was this “Son of man?” It was God “manifested in flesh”; it was God revealing Himself in His “Son” character. Thus, this well-known verse shows us the heart of God, yearning over His fallen creatures. Take, again, that precious word of Matthew 11:28, “Come unto Me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” Those words were uttered by “Jesus of Nazareth,” yet they illustrate what is said in Hebrews 1:2: it was God “speaking” Son-wisely, i.e., bringing to poor sinners a knowledge of Divine affections. Let us re-read the four Gospels with this glorious truth before us.
Cannot we now discern the wondrous and blessed contrast pointed in the opening verses of Hebrews? How different are the two revelations which God has made of His character. In Old Testament times God “spoke,” revealed Himself, according to what He is as light; and this, in keeping with the fact that it was “in the prophets”—those who made known His mind. In New Testament times, God has “spoken,” revealed Himself, according to what He is as love; and this, in keeping with the fact that it was “in Son” He is now made known. May we not only bow before Him in reverence and godly fear but may our hearts be drawn out to Him in fervent love and adoration.
by Arthur Walkington Pink
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