There are so many “unknowns” about the “Letter to the Hebrews” that the best we can do is surmise its context and audience from the actual document itself. The document is anonymous and its intended audience is unidentified. For so many questions, we must honestly answer, “We don’t know.”
But this does not render the “letter” meaningless or irrelevant. In fact, its major purpose serves a perpetual need. When faced with the hardships of life (whatever their origin), we all need encouragement. We all need to be challenged to persevere and hang on to our confession of faith.
This “letter” points us to the finality of Jesus Christ as the revelation and work of God. It offers Jesus as the anchor of hope, which is rooted in the faithfulness of God and God’s gracious intent in the world. Whether one is wearied by the trials of life or excited by a recent experience of divine redemption, this letter grounds faith, encourages hope and testifies to God’s faithfulness.
As Origen (died from wounds as a confessor in 254 C.E.) commented, only God knows who wrote Hebrews. We should respect the document’s anonymity, though surely the original readers knew the author.
While we do not know who the author is, we do know some particulars about him (the author uses the masculine gender to refer to himself in 11:32). He is well acquainted with his audience. He plans to visit them again in the near future (13:19) and they have mutual friends (including Timothy; cf. 13:23). We may assume that he lived and ministered among them for a period of time. He speaks to this community with passion and urgency.
He is well versed in the Old Testament and apparently highly educated. His Greek is perhaps the finest in the New Testament and his use of rhetoric (specific oratory forms and structures) reflects a classical education.
He was not one of the original “hearers” of Jesus, but learned the message himself from others (Hebrews 2:3-4). His language, style and theological conceptions indicate that he was familiar with Judaism in its Hellenistic expressions. It seems likely that he was not a Palestinian, but one who was at home in the Jewish world of the synagogues scattered across the Mediterranean basin.
Ultimately, we do not know who wrote Hebrews. Most probably believe that the best educated guess is Apollos, but others have been suggested as well (from Paul to Priscilla, including Luke, Barnabas, and Silas).
Date and Geographical Setting of the Audience.
While traditionally it was believed that Hebrews was addressed to Palestinian Jews in Jerusalem, most now believe it was intended for the Christian community in Rome. There are several reasons for this.
The author sends greetings to his audience from a group who was lately from Italy (Hebrews 13:24; cf. Acts 18:2 for the same Greek expression). Presumably, then, he is addressing a group in Italy. Further, Hebrews was first known and used (as far as surviving documents go) in Rome. Indeed, it is quoted extensively in a letter the Roman leader Clement wrote to Corinth in 96 A.D. (1 Clement). Also, the visions and the theology of the Shepherd of Hermas, a prophet in Rome in the early second century, is dependent upon Hebrews. In addition, the term that Hebrews uses for its “leaders” (Hebrews 13:7, 17, 24) is what both Clement and the Shepherd of Hermas use to describe leaders in the Roman church.
The “letter” is not dated, of course. The mention of Timothy locates the document in the second half of the first century, and most would date it between 60-90 A.D. It could not be later than 1 Clement (ca. 96 A.D.) since that letter depends on Hebrews. If this is a Roman audience, then 60-64 seems the most likely date since it was written at a time when the Roman church had not yet experienced “blood” (martyrdom; cf. Hebrews 12:4).
Social Setting of the Audience.
The social setting of the audience is probably the most important point to appreciate as we read Hebrews. The document is anonymous and undated, but it addresses a particular community of believers whose social context has endangered their faith. If we assume a Roman context for the letter, then several significant hermeneutical factors emerge.
The Roman church had experienced an earlier persecution in 49 A.D. In that year, the Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome due to riots that were instigated by one named “Chrestus” (as Suetonius, a Roman historian, tells us). Acts 18:1-4 refers to this expulsion. “Chrestus” probably means “Christus” (a common misspelling), and Suetonius probably refers to Jewish-Christian riots in Rome. This would not be surprising since the introduction of Christianity in Asia Minor had similar effects (e.g., Ephesus in Acts 19). Hebrews 10:32-34 probably refers to this time of persecution or expulsion.
Some fifteen years later the Roman Christian community is about to experience another persecution. However, this one will be more severe and result in martyrdom for many believers. This is the renowned persecution instigated by Nero (64-65 A.D.).
The Roman church, as Romans 16 indicates, consisted of many “house” churches scattered throughout the city. Archeological evidence points us to areas of town where merchants lived in tenement housing. The ground floor was their shop and the upper two or three floors were living quarters. We might imagine groups of 30-50 Christians gathering in these upper floors in various places throughout the city, just as they did in the home of Aquila and Priscilla (Romans 16:3-5).
The Roman church was originally Jewish in character, but the expulsion of the Jews in 49 A.D. and the emergence of a Gentile leadership in the intervening years before the return of the Jews meant that it was a mixed group in Roman. Consequently, one of the major issues in Paul’s letter to the Romans was how Jews and Gentiles might worship together as one people of God (Romans 14-15).
No doubt some of that tension still remained, but the primary tension reflected in the “letter” to the Hebrews is the external pressure the church felt. While they weathered the expulsion in A.D. 49 well, the constant social hostility and antagonism—which was no doubt reaching a crescendo—was creating apathy, neglect and discouragement in the church.
It is unlikely that the Christians in Rome were considering a return to Judaism (though this is possible for some). It is more likely that they were quitting the God of Israel altogether as the result of pressure from their pagan Roman neighbors. Many perhaps feared the coming persecution. Perhaps many were simply fed up with the persistent haranguing of their neighbors. Perhaps many were fearful of occasional mob action against them (as we see perhaps in 1 Peter).
If the problem is not a return to Judaism, how do we understand all the references to the tabernacle (note—the temple is never mentioned, only the tabernacle) and the priestly ministry in Hebrews? These are used to point us to Christ, the final revelation of God. The point is not, “Don’t go back to Judaism” (though that is certainly implied), but rather “The reality has come in Christ; he is the heir—if you lose him, you have nothing.”
Genre of the Document.
This “letter” was probably intended to speak to the whole Roman church as the house churches shared it with each other. Consequently, the letter was originally intended to be heard. It was designed as a sermon or homily. Indeed, the writer identifies his document as a “word of exhortation” (Hebrews 13:22). The only other time that expression is used in the New Testament it refers to a synagogue sermon (Acts 13:15).
The language of the document reflects this homiletical or sermonic form. The writer never refers to what he is writing, but only to what he is saying (2:5; 5:11; 6:9; 8:1; 9:5) or what they are hearing (2:1). He does not refer to his lack of space, but his lack of time (11:32).
Consequently, the form is oral, though it is written. It was intended to be heard. It was an exhortation to encourage and provoke a response, not a theological treatise to be debated. It is exhortation, not systematic, rigorous theological debate.
It is an exhortation to persevere; to keep the faith; to hang on despite the trials and tribulations.
Structure of the Sermon
I have attached a separate document, which contains an outline of Hebrews. Your books also contain some help along this line, especially Guthrie (pp. 39-40) who has earned some respect among scholars for his work on the structure of Hebrews. My outline differs from his in that I think Hebrews 10:19-12:29 is Part III rather than an overlap of Part II. Hopefully, both will be helpful to you in some way.
In general, I think Hebrews has three major “thesis” statements: Hebrews 1:1-4; 4:14-16; and 10:19-25. This breaks Hebrews into a three-point sermon, which is a unique idea! The material following each thesis is support for the thesis and an exhortation to action based upon the thesis. I also tend to think that chapter 13 is the epistolary addition to the sermon, that is, something added to the original sermon as it was sent as a letter to the Roman Christians. Consequently, the sermon is basically 1:1-12:29.
I think the argument of the sermon proceeds something like this. Part I grounds confidence and boldness in the finality of God's act of revelation through his Son. The Son is God's final "prophet"; he is the climatic revelation. He is the revelation of God in the last days. This is ultimately expressed in the incarnational presence of God through the Son. Part II grounds confidence and boldness in the reality of God's act of redemption through his Son. He is God's final "high priest;" he is the climatic act of atonement and redemption. This is ultimately expressed by our entrance into the presence of God through the curtain of the Son's flesh (the cross). Part III is the preacher's exhortation based upon our priviledge of entrance into the throneroom of God. Since we have fellowship with God, we should not give up. He encourages them by their own past experience, past witnesses of faith, the model of Jesus himself and the fact that they have come to the city of God itself by the blood of Jesus.
Teaching Options for the First Week
You may feel the need to give some defense of studying Hebrews. It seems obscure with its references to ancient ceremonies and structures. It makes obscure arguments about Melchizedek and the Levitical priesthood.
I think the best defense is that it addresses a discouraged group of believers and reminds them of how God worked in Jesus for their redemption and eternal inheritance. I think we can learn something from that.
If you need another piece of information, you might suggest that this was probably the most important book of the New Testament for the early years of the Stone-Campbell Movement (the beginnings of the Churches of Christ). Hebrews was Alexander Campbell’s “canon-within-the-canon,” that is, he read the New Testament through the lens of this particular book (Eugene Boring argues this in his Disciples and the Bible, pp. 75-77). The most obvious expression of this is how we have historically thought about the Mosaic covenant and divided the history of God’s people into three dispensations (Patriarchs, Mosaic and Christian).
Everyone should give his or her class some idea about the context in which this sermon is delivered. As readers, we need to enter the experience of the first readers as best we can. We need to hear this sermon against the background of past persecution, persistent social antagonism, and an anticipated renewal of persecution. Some of the original readers were on the verge of giving up. They were not necessarily returning to Judaism, but they were tired of the constant social friction. It was easier to give up than to persevere. Life within a pagan world is simplified when faith in Jesus is no longer our lifestyle. Consequently, try to set the tone of the letter and seek to convey to your class the urgency of its message. One of the most convenient texts for providing this setting is to mull over Hebrews 10:32-34 and 12:1-4.
Given that context, several options are available to you. There may be many more, of course, but I will offer some suggestions. You are not, of course, limited to these. Rather, do what you think is best for your class while remaining connected to the text we are studying this fall.
Given the need for encouragement, you can acquaint your class with several exhortation sections of the sermon. You can read these and discuss them generally. No need to go into great detail, but rather simply introduce them.
1. Hebrews 2:1-4
2. Hebrews 3:12-15
3. Hebrews 4:14-16.
4. Hebrews 6:9-12.
5. Hebrews 10:19-25.
6. Hebrews 12:12-13.
7. Hebrews 12:24-28.
What is encouraging about these sections? What is the warning? How do the exhortations and warnings reflect the situation of these Christians? What can you learn from these exhortations about their problems and how the writer calls them to regain their perspective?
You can introduce the book to your class by concentrating on Hebrews 13:18-25. What do we learn about the author from this text? What do we learn about the readers? What key theological ideas are present in this text that ground the faith and hope of believers in Rome? How is the “pastoral” passion of the writer evidenced in this section? How is the power of prayer reflected in this text? Why does prayer emerge so strongly here and what does it tell us about the author and his relationship with his readers?
You can also extend the discussion of Hebrews 10:32-34 into verses 35-39. You can concentrate your whole class on this text, though we will come back to it later in coming weeks. But your discussion can turn more personal here. For example, after appreciating the circumstance of the original readers, you could ask your class to appreciate their own circumstance. What are the sources of discouragement in our setting? What hinders our faith today? Just as this preacher addressed the source of discouragement by pointing to Jesus, how do we point to Jesus today? The coming weeks will unveil how Hebrews helps us do just that, even in our own setting today.
In particular, suppose you were to write a letter or to deliver a lesson to a discouraged group of believers today? What could you say? How would you approach it? While it would depend upon the source and nature of their discouragement, what themes would generally emerge? What themes might we always use to encourage other believers?
How has God brought encouragement to you in your personal struggles and in times of discouragement? What themes, people or events encouraged you so that you kept the faith?