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Authorship of the book of Hebrews

The author of the book of Hebrews has been disputed nearly from the beginning. But Clement of Alexandria (c.155-c.220 A.D.) provides us with some information on its authorship. His full name was Titus Flavius Clement, and he succeeded Pantaenus as head of the Church school at Alexandria in 190 A.D.

In his Ecclesiastical History, the Bishop of Caesarea of the fourth century tells us of the writings of Clement, quoting from one of his books (now lost),

“And in the Hypotyposes, in a word, he [Clement] has made abbreviated narratives of the whole testamentary Scripture; and has not passed over the disputed books—I mean Jude and the rest of the Catholic Epistles and Barnabas, and what is called the Revelation of Peter. And he says that the Epistle to the Hebrews is Paul’s, and was written to the Hebrews in the Hebrew language; but that Luke, having carefully translated it, gave it to the Greeks, and hence the same colouring in the expression is discoverable in this Epistle and the Acts; and that the name ‘Paul an Apostle’ was very properly not prefixed, for, he says, that writing to the Hebrews, who were prejudiced against him and suspected, he with great wisdom did not repel them in the beginning by putting down his name. . . .

“And now, as the blessed Presbyter used to say, since the Lord, as the Apostle of the Almighty, was sent to the Hebrews, Paul, as having been sent to the Gentiles, did not subscribe himself apostle of the Hebrews, out of modesty and reverence for the Lord, and because, being the herald and apostle of the Gentiles, his writing to the Hebrews was something over and above [his assigned function].” (Vol. VI, 14)

It was Clement’s educated belief, then, that the book of Hebrews was written by the Apostle Paul, but because he was writing to people outside of his direct ministerial calling, he omitted his name from the epistle. It is well known to Church historians that Paul was an enemy to those Jewish Christians who desired to append Christ to their Judaism. Paul’s gospel to the Galatians had already contended with these “Judaizers” who wanted to remain as a branch, or sect, of Judaism, rather than as a separate group. Many Hebrew Christians still reverenced the old temple, its sacrificial system, its Levitical priests, and the traditions of men. They did not understand that God was in the process of destroying these religious elements that had been established under the Old Covenant.

Hence, the Apostle Paul was not popular among the Christians in Judea who had remained there, subservient to the temple and its priesthood. Many misunderstood Paul, thinking that he was abrogating the entire law of God, when, in fact, he often gave honor to the law in his writings. The only parts of the law that Paul claimed had been changed were those forms that found their fulfillment in Christ—that is to say, the sacrifices, the old temple, the Levitical priesthood, and the Old Covenant itself. The book of Hebrews, therefore, makes it very clear that we now have a better Sacrifice, a better temple, a better priesthood with a better covenant. Indeed, the word “better” describes the theme of the entire book of Hebrews.

The book of Hebrews certainly expressed the view of the Apostle Paul as evidenced in his other writings. Yet because many Christians in the land of Judea—who had chosen to remain under the authority of the Levitical priesthood and continue making sacrifices in the Old Testament manner—thought Paul to be a false apostle, it is very reasonable to conclude that this is the reason why he omitted his name from the book. Many in those days wrote books under the name of some famous person in the past in hopes of giving the book credibility; but why would anyone write a book anonymously? Paul had every reason to do so.

And so, while there is no direct proof of the book’s authorship, we believe Clement’s view is likely to be true. Clement lived just a little more than a century after the book was written and was much closer to the historical setting than we are today.

Toward the end of the book of Hebrews, we find further evidence of Pauline authorship of the book. Hebrews 13:23 tells us that the author was well acquainted with Timothy, as we know Paul was. In fact, the author speaks of Timothy’s “release” from prison and then sends greetings from Italy (13:24). We know that Paul was imprisoned in Italy when he was taken to Rome for trial, as we read in the latter part of Acts. This considerably narrows down the number of candidates for authorship for Hebrews.

What is a Hebrew?

The book of Hebrews is addressed, not to the Israelites, nor even to the Judeans (or Jews), but rather to “Hebrews.” The word literally means an immigrant, one who crosses over to the other side. In Abraham’s day, there were many who emigrated from the Tigris-Euphrates Valley to the West toward Canaan and to other places. When Abraham went to Canaan, the idea was not unique to him, though his reason for immigration was certainly unique.

In that general sense, Abraham was a Hebrew. But Abraham was also a Hebrew, on account of his descent from Heber, the fourth generation after Noah (Gen. 11:14). Abraham was a Hebrew by descent, and in this he had no choice. But he also was a Hebrew by choice when he immigrated to Canaan. We read in Genesis 12:1-4,

1 Now the Lord said to Abram, Go forth from your country, and from your relatives, and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you; 2 And I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing; And I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. 4 So Abram went forth as the Lord had spoken to him. . . .

God told Abram to leave his Chaldean roots and even to leave his father’s house and to go by faith into a new land. When he stepped out in faith, he became an immigrant, a Hebrew by personal decision, as opposed to being born a Hebrew.

The book of Hebrews was not entitled “The Epistle to the Jews” or “The Epistle to the Israelites.” The use of the term “Hebrews” has special significance, considering the theme of this book. It was written to fellow immigrants in the first century Church, who, like Abraham, had left their father’s house and crossed over into a new way, the way of Jesus Christ. They had left their so-called “Jewish roots,” the culture that surrounded the Old Covenant with its temple, its priests, and its sacrificial system. The author of Hebrews was exhorting them NOT to succumb to the pressures of family and priesthood to go back to the Old Covenant with its sacrifices and dependence upon the temple in Jerusalem. Christians were a new “Hebrew” migration, patterned after Abraham.

Let us remember, then, that our spiritual heritage is in those who by faith crossed over from Moses to Christ. The early Church migrated away from the Old Covenant of Moses into the New Covenant of Jesus Christ. They migrated away from the old order of the Aaronic priesthood into the Melchisedec priesthood of Jesus Christ. They migrated away from the temple in Jerusalem with its animal sacrifices into a true and final Sacrifice for sin that came through Jesus Christ—who alone could remove sin once for all.

To leave our father’s house, those Old Covenant roots, is how one becomes a true Hebrew. This is the exhortation of the book of Hebrews.

Many do not comprehend the influence that the temple in Jerusalem exerted on the lives of the people living in Judea—including the earliest Christians. Perhaps that temple could best be compared to the influence and importance of the Vatican upon Roman Catholics today. Further, the importance of the high priest in Jerusalem can be compared to the importance of the Roman Pontiff. The book of Hebrews told the people to leave it all behind and go by faith into an unknown land. In the same way there are books today that ask Roman Catholics to leave it all behind and go by faith into an unknown land.

This is a very difficult thing to do. No one can feasibly take such a step unless they know they have heard from God, for only hearing produces true faith. If one is merely persuaded by the eloquence of men’s words, they will not have the inner strength to finish the course, endure to the end, and inherit the promise.

The book of Hebrews dives headlong into its discussion from the first verse without giving us much warning or background. It assumes that the readers are familiar with the temple ritual and the Scriptural passages that had long been recognized as applying to the Messiah. Today’s Christians, however, are often unprepared to read this book, because they do not enjoy the same background from which the original readers came. And so we offer this brief introduction to prepare the reader to understand the book.

The 40- Year Transition

Any time there is a religious division, there is an inevitable dispute as to which group is the heir of God’s calling or blessing. In the first 40 years of transition in the early Church, many considered these “Nazarenes” to be just another sect of Judaism, like the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes. But the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. destroyed their center of worship and shattered the foundations of their belief system. They were forced to reconcile their deep faith in the temple with the obvious fact that God had allowed or caused its destruction.

What sin had brought about these events? To the Jews who had rejected Jesus as the Messiah, the explanation was that somehow they must have left some ritual undone. Many blamed the fanatics (the Sicarii) among them for their murderous policies. But this situation forced the Nazarenes to the conclusion that the temple was judged because of the national and priestly rejection of Jesus as the Messiah.

The destruction of the temple was difficult for these Judean Nazarenes, because they had been unwilling to make a clean break with the temple. They were attempting to Christianize Judaism from within, whereas it was obvious that God had given the nation just 40 years in which to repent of its rejection of Jesus. Then came judgment. And in that judgment, their dependence upon the temple and its old system was shattered.

From that time on, the Nazarene view lost most of its credibility, for it was clear that God had destroyed the temple, even as Jesus had prophesied in his parable in Matthew 22:1-7, where it speaks of a certain king (God) sending his slaves (i.e., the prophets) to invite people to the wedding of his son (Jesus). Verses 5-7 say,

5 But they paid no attention and went their way, one to his own farm, another to his business, 6 and the rest seized his slaves and mistreated them and killed them. 7 But the king was enraged and sent his armies and destroyed those murderers and se their city on fire.

It was clear that the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. fulfilled this prophetic parable—at least in part, for we believe that there is yet another occasion when Jerusalem will be destroyed and never again be rebuilt (Jer. 19:10, 11). The Nazarenes could not help but recognize this fact after 70 A.D.

If the book of Hebrews was truly written by the Apostle Paul, then it must have been written between 60 and 64 A.D. in anticipation of Jerusalem’s destruction. Perhaps Paul saw the end coming and knew how this had the potential of shattering the faith of those Judean Nazarenes. We suggest that this could well have been Paul’s reason for stepping outside of his primary calling to write such a book. After all, no epistle had yet been written to fully explain why the Christians ought to separate from the old order of the temple in Jerusalem.

Which Mother Can Bring Forth the Heir?

In many ways the book of Hebrews is an extension of Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians. Paul tells us in Galatians 4:22-26,

22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the bondwoman and one by the freewoman. 23 But the son by the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and the son by the freewoman through the promise. 24 This is allegorically speaking: for these women are two covenants, one proceeding from Mount Sinai bearing children who are to be slaves; she is Hagar. 25 Now this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. 26 But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother.

Paul’s interpretation of the historical allegory is that Hagar represents the Old Covenant. This is shown by the fact that Sinai was in Arabia, the inheritance of Ishmael. Since Jerusalem had chosen to remain under the jurisdiction of the Old Covenant made at Mount Sinai in Arabia, they had proven themselves to be of Hagar, not of Sarah. And Hagar’s son, Ishmael, represented by the temple priests and all the adherents of Judaism, were not the heirs of the promise.

By way of contrast, Sarah represents the New Jerusalem with its New Covenant, and the children of Sarah are those who believe in its Mediator, Jesus Christ. Paul’s admonition is given in Gal. 4:28-31,

28 And you brethren, like Isaac, are children of promise. 29 But as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now also. 30 But what does the Scripture say? Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be an heir with the son of the free woman. 31 So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman, but of the free woman.

It was difficult for the Judean Nazarenes to break their religious, cultural, and family ties with the temple and its religious system. Yet it was necessary. It was just as difficult for Abraham to forsake his roots in Ur of the Chaldees and go to an unknown land. It took real faith for him to do that. In both Galatians and Hebrews, the Apostle Paul was challenging the Nazarenes to follow Abraham’s example. He knew it was not easy, but he knew it was the only way to inherit the promise.

With the establishment of the Israeli state in 1948 and the prospect of a new Jewish temple being built upon the old site in Jerusalem, many Christians have begun to think of the early Nazarenes as being right after all. Many are looking for their “Jewish roots.” Many once again think of Christianity as a sect of Judaism. They look to the old city of Jerusalem as Sarah, rather than as Hagar. They think of the adherents of Judaism as being the heirs of the promise, the chosen seed, the “Isaac” company. They believe that the Jews as a whole will soon come to believe that Jesus really was the Messiah. Then they envision the Jews adding Jesus to their Judaism in precisely the same manner as the early Nazarenes attempted in the first century.

They envision another physical temple being built out of wood and stone on the old temple site in the old Jerusalem. They envision another Levitical priesthood being established, complete with animal sacrifices. Years ago, I was astonished to hear this view from the lips of a Baptist minister. He obviously did not understand Paul’s letter to the Galatians or the book of Hebrews.

To return to the “Jewish roots” of the Church is comparable to welcoming Hagar back to the household and establishing Ishmael as the heir. Will God take as His heir the very one who persecuted Isaac? Never. The only way to be chosen is through Jesus Christ. When the Jews as a nation and as a religion rejected the Mediator of the New Covenant, they opted to remain under the Old Covenant, which is in Arabia (Gal. 4:25). Arabia was the inheritance of Ishmael. In rejecting Jesus, they placed Jerusalem and its temple under the legal jurisdiction of Mount Sinai in Arabia—and hence, without realizing it, they gave that place to Ishmael. As a consequence, God expelled them and ultimately gave that place to the children of Ishmael.

To return to “Jewish roots” is also comparable to Abraham returning to Ur of the Chaldees, rejecting the promise that God had for him outside of his father’s house. It may seem harsh to “cast out the bondwoman and her son,” but we must know that we cannot have one foot in Judaism and the other foot in Christianity. Only one mother can bring forth the promised seed. It is either the Old Jerusalem or the New. Only one covenant can save men—and it is NOT the Old Covenant. Ishmael and Isaac cannot long coexist in the same household. Only one child can be the heir. Jews who reject Jesus Christ are NOT the heirs. They are NOT chosen, for Jesus specifically said of them in Matthew 21:43,

43 Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you, and be given to a nation producing the fruit of it.

Like the tribes of Israel eight centuries earlier, God rejected Judah and removed His glory from among them. All of them were cast off. And the only way to be re-instated in the covenant with God is through faith in Jesus Christ. No one will be saved apart from Him, whether Jew, Israelite, or any other on the face of the earth. It is a fallacy to say that a Jew who rejects Jesus Christ is “chosen” or that he remains in a covenant relationship with God. The Old Covenant was broken and was legally abrogated. Only the New Covenant now has any force in the sight of God. In Heb. 8, after describing the New Covenant, we read in verse 13,

13 When He said, A new covenant, He has made the first obsolete. But whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear.

An Overview of the Book of Hebrews

The book of Hebrews was written first to present Jesus as the Son of God, showing His superiority to the angels and His headship over all creation. Hebrews 1:2 presents Him as the Heir of all things.

Secondly, in chapter 3 this book presents Jesus as having glory greater than that given to Moses. Moses was unable to bring Israel into the Promised Land, and so the Israelites who left Egypt all died in the wilderness with the exception of Caleb and Joshua.

Thirdly, in chapter 4 this book presents Jesus as being one greater than Joshua, for Joshua did not give Israel the true Sabbath rest as God had promised them. True “rest” comes only through Jesus Christ. Jesus’ Hebrew name was Yeshua, or Joshua.

Next, Jesus is presented as being greater than Aaron, the high priest. Aaron’s priesthood was of the Order of Levi, whereas Jesus’ priesthood was of the Order of Melchizedek. On this particular point the author of Hebrews spends most of his time, showing in great detail the superiority of Christ’s office as well as the superiority of His sacrifice. His exposition ends in Hebrews 10:18, and then Part Two of this book begins with the statement in verses 19-22,

19 Since therefore, brethren, we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.

This begins a new section. The author then gives exhortation and application of the truth that has already been established in Part One. Perhaps the climax of the book, which goes directly to the purpose of the book, is found toward the end in Hebrews 13:12-14,

12 Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people through His own blood, suffered outside the gate. 13 Hence, let us go out to Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach. 14 For here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come.

It is a call to forsake the house of their fathers and go to a new land of promise. It states that the city of Jerusalem was not “a lasting city,” but only a temporary abode for the glory of God until the New Jerusalem should come. Even as Jesus Himself had to die “outside the camp” so also are we to go outside the camp of Judaism, outside the old Jerusalem, outside the old temple, in order to worship God.

This is a call to leave the old order, to forsake their “roots” even as Abraham did. This is also a direct reference to what Moses did in Exodus 33 after the people had been found worshipping the golden calf. Exodus 33:7 reads,

7 Now Moses used to take [laqah, “to take”] the tent and pitch it outside the camp, a good distance from the camp, and he called it the tent of meeting. And it came about, that everyone who sought the Lord would go out to the tent of meeting which was outside the camp.

The NASB says “Moses used to take the tent and pitch it outside the camp,” as if he would often have it moved outside the camp. But the word laqah seldom (if at all) means “used to take.” The KJV never translates it in that manner. In fact, the NASB Concordance itself says the word means “to take,” and also tells us that it translated the word “used to take” just this one time in the entire Bible. There seems to be no explanation for this, except that the translators did not understand or disagreed with its prophetic significance. It should read simply that “Moses took the tent and pitched it outside the camp, a good distance from the camp.”

The significance of this passage is that it shows that God had no problem leaving the place where He was supposed to be worshipped, when the people were in rebellion against Him. We have already seen how He left Shiloh and then Jerusalem for the same reason. Here, though, we have a third witness, and it is to this third witness that the writer of the book of Hebrews appeals. It is a plain appeal for the people of Judah to leave their “Jewish roots” and to leave the house of their fathers and go by faith outside the camp to the Cross where Jesus made His ultimate sacrifice for them. Moses’ example tells us that even in his day, “everyone who sought the Lord [Jesus] would go out to the tent of meeting which was outside the camp.”

In other words, God is no longer found in a physical temple in Jerusalem. He forsook that place as He did Shiloh (Jer. 7:12-14), because they had made that temple a den of robbers (7:11). Jesus made the same statement about the temple in His day in Matthew 21:13. This statement meant that the glory of God, which had begun to move away in Jeremiah’s day, was about to be completed when He ascended in Acts 1:9-12.

The old location has been forsaken in favor of a new location. We are now the only Temple that God has chosen to indwell. It is a temple “outside the camp.” If anyone wants to hear the voice of God, he must do so outside the camp, for he must go where God has chosen to place His name (Rev. 22:4).

We must also go outside the old city of Jerusalem to a new city set on a hill. In a sense it is the hill of Golgotha, where Jesus was crucified. That new City is an extension of the new Temple, of which we are living stones. When that full temple is completed and all the stones are put into place in the current age, then that corporate temple will be seen in the New Jerusalem that comes down from heaven (Rev. 21:2).

While in many ways the New Temple and the New Jerusalem can be viewed as the same body of people, it seems to me that the New Jerusalem has a more extensive application than the Temple that is in it. In my view, the New Jerusalem will consist of the believers from future ages, including the time after the first resurrection (barley harvest). Even so, the only ones who have access to the New Jerusalem (both now and in the future) are believers in Christ. The Bible is very clear on this point. No one can come to the Father except through Jesus Christ.

Yet it is also clear that in the end every knee will bow to Him when He becomes all in all. His glory will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea—and yet this will not be complete until all have come to manifest His glory through the three steps prophesied by the feast days: Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. So while the Bible is in one sense very exclusive about who may enter the City, it is also very inclusive in that the goal of history is to bring all men to salvation. This goal is discussed more fully in our book, The Restoration of All Things.

So with this overview in mind that shows us the purpose of the book of Hebrews, we can now proceed to study each chapter of the book in detail.