One of the problems with reading Hebrews is identifying the date and recipient of the letter. I am fairly well convinced that the recipients were in Rome, living just before the Neroian persecutions. I think the standard arguments for this position are solid (see Faithful to the End, for example).
Given this context, the recipients struggle with the promises of Christian faith. If Jesus is the true sacrifice and the fulfillment of the promises of the Hebrew Bible, why have they suffered so much? As J. W. Thompson says in his Hebrews commentary, the book is written to “reorient a community that has been disoriented by the chasm between Christian confession of triumph and the reality of suffering it has experienced.”
This is not apologetics in the modern sense, it does not argue against Judaism, nor does it state that Judaism was bad or wrong in any way. Rather, the writer constructs a positive argument for Jesus’ superiority to various elements of Judaism; he is superior because he is the fulfillment of these things. (He is the substance to which the shadow pointed). If I am right about the context of the book and the recipients have suffered for their faith already (and are about to suffer even more so under Nero), then the readers may very well have struggled with the shame of suffering in a culture which did not see suffering as a virtue.
- Within a Jewish context, suffering is sometimes seen as a result of sin, or at the very least, a lack of blessing from God. We only need to look at the discussion in the book of Job to see that there was a lively discussion of why humans suffer. If Christians are right and Jesus has triumphed, then why are his followers not blessed? Why are they suffering?
- Within a Greco-Roman context, Christians were not seen as successful because they suffered. Roman thinking was very much based on honor and shame, of one suffered shame and humiliation in public, one cannot be described as successful!
The book therefore addresses a very real problem. If Jesus is already seated at the right hand of the Father, why is it that Christians suffer shame and persecution? Christians are not “of this world,” they are part of the real, unshakeable reality which is not of this world at all.
The theological dissonance which the book of Hebrews addresses is certainly applicable to the church today, especially in America. Evangelical American Christian can be described as “triumphant,” especially in the last half of the 20th century. Evangelical churches expanded greatly and had a greater impact on culture than at any time in history.
We very well may be past that now. Studies indicate that the church is still growing, but at a pace which is slower than the general population. We are beginning to lose ground and we have in many ways lost our voice in the public square. Perhaps this is due to Christians who have humiliated themselves and brought shame to the cause of Christ, or because some very bad people chose to use evangelical Christianity as a way to advance political careers.
Whatever the reason, the tide is turning in America and we may face a time when we can ask, like the recipients of Hebrews, “what good is being faithful”? We think we have been faithful and we continue to suffer shame and humiliation. We are in fact losing ground to the secular world. Certainly this has already happened in Europe, Christian is a minority voice, evangelical Christianity has virtually no impact on culture in Europe.