New Sermon Series: Epistle to the Hebrews
First of all, who wrote this book? Unlike the letters of Paul and other New Testament writers, the author of Hebrews does not mention his name. From the earliest days, the names suggested include Paul, Clement of Rome, Luke, even Apollos, but no one really knows. What we know is that the author was very knowledgeable of the Old Testament, especially the temple, the priesthood and the sacrifices. We also know that the author was highly educated, using sophisticated Greek language and style and a mastery of rhetoric. From hereon, we will call the author “the Preacher.”
Who were the audience of the book? The term “Hebrews” was used by the Philistines to refer to the Israelites in 1 Samuel 4:6. The word literally means “descendants of Eber” (Gen. 10:21–25). However, during the reign of King David, the nation was referred to as “Israel” rather than “the Hebrews.”
The author assumes that the readers have good knowledge of the Old Testament, so his audience were Jews, or even Gentiles who were converts to Judaism. Of all New Testament writings, no one surpasses Hebrews in its 31 direct quotations of Old Testament texts. Near the end of the book (Heb 13:24), the writer sends greetings to “those who come from Italy,” and Rome had the biggest Jewish population in Italy. So most likely, his readers were Jewish Christians living in Rome. These believers were also immature and weak in their faith, the author saying to them, “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God.” (Heb 5:12).
What was the occasion or purpose of the writing? In A.D. 49, when Claudius was the Roman emperor, he expelled Jews from Rome because they incited trouble against fellow Jews who converted to Christianity. This persecution reached its height when Nero blamed Christians for the burning of Rome in A.D. 64. So it was most likely written during that time to encourage Christians to persevere and not go back to the old covenant institutions in the midst of persecution (Heb 10:32-35; 13:3).
What is the most important theme of this epistle? This epistle develops the contrast between the old covenant and the new covenant in their laws, institutions, and people. The old covenant was but a foreshadow of “better things” to come. These better things are all in Christ. He is greater than all: angels, prophets, and old covenant temple, priesthood and ceremonies. Therefore, Christ has fulfilled all Old Testament institutions which were mere foreshadows of his Person and his atoning work on the cross. He is the better and final High Priest, Prophet and King.
The author actually calls his writing as “a word of exhortation” (Heb 13:22), which is another word for a sermon (Acts 13:15). Because of this, combined with the lack of the usual opening words of a letter, most interpreters conclude that Hebrews is actually a sermon.