The Purpose of the Book of Hebrews

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.

16 thoughts on “The Purpose of the Book of Hebrews

  1. The first observation I have is a political one. Political forces are at work in the United States much like they have been in Europe. Barring a major upset to a political party and a financial miracle that this nation doesn’t collapse financially under the weight of its massive debt (which would send this nation into crisis mode), Christians in the United States might very well suffer in the near future as have other Christians. I think that many U.S. Christians are also in the same spiritual condition as the writer of Hebrews found his audience in Hebrews 5:12. “In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truth’s of God’s word all over again.” The reasons for this are many. Democracies have been always been followed by a dictatorship after they have failed. I pray against and hope this doesn’t happen, but I think we too should prepare ourselves for possible persecution at a whole new level. That’s what I think the author of Hebrews is trying to do for his readers. The author of Hebrews is sensing the political winds are changing and that things are going to get worse and possibly very dangerous to be a Christian. Some of his readers are already experiencing bias and persecution at a very personal level.

    I think the message of Hebrews is very applicable today as well. I agree a lot with what Lane has to say about the purpose of Hebrews. Lane is quoted in Faithful to the End, the book of Hebrews is “a pastoral response to the sagging faith of . . . weary individuals who were in danger of abandoning their Christian commitments.” (p. 52) Hebrews is a very skillfully written book that lifts up Christ as our “merciful and faithful high priest…” (Hebrews 2:17) We know this to be true: “Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. (Hebrews 11:18.

    This message is needed today. For one example, I’m thinking of college students outside of an insulated Bible college at a secular university. Many Christian college students in secular universities have fallen away from their faith. They grow weary after having their faith assaulted again and again. Some do persevere though. A friend of mine attended Eastern Michigan University. He got involved with one of the campus ministry groups there and found great encouragement and stayed true. He did not “give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing” (Hebrews 10:25a) Today he is serving his church in financial oversight- preparing budgets, reports, and forecasts.

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  2. I think that we are called to suffer for our faith in the midst of a society who rejects us. Christ suffered for his beliefs and asks us to be faithful through it all. I do not think we should get comfortable in our beliefs but we should always be challenging ourselves and pushing to understand more. Christianity is not about blending in or agreeing with what is going on in our world. Rather it is challenging the people around us to want something better for themselves. Comfortable people will resist change…they don’t like to be challenged. We as Christians should be anything but comfortable so get ready to be resisted.

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  3. I do believe that as society looks at us and all they see is shame and humiliation and they wonder what makes us want to go through with that. That adds to the shame from the secular world. Some loose footing because of this. As a Christian to not be a shamed of your faith and to just let everyone know that you are a Christian in today’s society is extremely hard. If you go to a secular university or a public school before heading to college you could be mocked every day of your life. I grew up in a public schools and have watched friends slip away from their faith because of the shame and humiliation they received from the outside world. I found it hard to even read certain books in school because than I would receive a lashing of words about my faith that hurt to the core. They were not just making fun of my faith to me they were making fun of me. I can not see myself not being a Christian. I have made the decision and I would not just give up because of the slight persecution that there is today.

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  4. Though we do not know exactly who Hebrews was written to or who it was written by we do know that whoever wrote it had a challenge. “His challenge was a group of Christians who were considering abandoning their faith” (p. 48). Like Aaron said, ‘the book of Hebrews is “a pastoral response to the sagging faith of . . . weary individuals who were in danger of abandoning their Christian commitments.” (p. 52)’ Why are we surprised when people fail to follow through? It has been a pattern for many, many years. What makes believers willing to claim that we KNOW we have a saving knowledge, yet not be sure enough about it to share it? In the United States right now Christianity is not ‘cool’ anymore. For special education I have a class on diversity and one of my books pointed out that in every area of life the biggest group usually becomes what is ‘normal’ and gets everyone to conform to them. It looks to me like Christianity is no longer the biggest group in the US and is therefore simply getting pushed out. But because of the book of Hebrews we realize that is no excuse. It was not ‘cool’ then either and Christians probably faced much greater persecution than dirty looks and mean comments. Hebrews is a book filled with warnings to be careful of sin and to follow Christ and full of encouragement. We should learn from Hebrews and warn and encourage each other daily without needing any credit in return. Here is mine for you, “…Let us hold firmly to the faith we profess” (Heb 4:14).

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  5. Nice points.
    Humans, in general, do not like persecution. We have whole systems of churches that thrive off the lie, “If you follow Jesus, you will be blessed with riches, wealth, nice things, health…” But when we look at the Scriptures, we know this is not the case. Even by looking at Hebrews, we know that we, as Christians, will suffer. Thus the themes of faith, perseverance, and endurance. Since the tide is turning in America and Christianity is becoming more unpopular, I think the true Christians will be sifted from the false… Those who seek to know God will continue being faithful to him, even through hardships and difficulties. In “Faithful to the End” the author speaks of the theme of faith in Hebrews: “Faith, to the writer is a response of faithfully persevering through hardship. This persevering faith is rooted in hope and promise, and thus, in the trustworthiness of God’s character” (15). We discover, through God’s word, that will will have to endure hardships and suffer, but we also know that God is merciful. “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).

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  6. The problem with comparing American Christians with the Christian Jewish population of the first century is that though religion may have been united with the state in that time, Christians, or Jews for that matter, were not united with the government. I would argue that even though there is some kind of separation of Church and state in the U.S. government, the U.S. government’s policies and practices have been very influenced by the Christian movement. Look how many past and present presidents claim to be of the Christian faith. Probably a better way to understand what is going on in the book of Hebrews is to understand how the muslim population feels in America. But I do agree with P.Long that Christians are on their way to becoming like the audience of the book of Hebrews.

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  7. I agree that schools can be one of the hardest places to be strong in your faith. Most of those who are in school are working out what they believe in and so it can be hard to stand strong in the face of adversity. I believe though that Christ wants us to go through adversity so that we do not depend on ourselves. It is only through leaning on the Lord that we are going to make it through the shame that the world hands out. I am glad Kristin that you have made the choice to stand strong in your faith! :o)

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  8. I agree that schools can be one of the hardest places to be strong in your faith. Most of those who are in school are working out what they believe in and so it can be hard to stand strong in the face of adversity. I believe though that Christ wants us to go through adversity so that we do not depend on ourselves. It is only through leaning on the Lord that we are going to make it through the shame that the world hands out. I am glad Kristin that you have made the choice to stand strong in your faith! 🙂

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  9. I think the question needs to be asked: on what level did the recipients of the letter to the Hebrews suffer? Was there suffering in part due to external, societal, political causes or was it more on personal level, i.e. temptation to sin? I think it would be right to say that both are probably true, but we should probably address them individually.

    The Evangelical American church is experiencing decline, decline in influence, numbers, and authenticity. It should be a fair assessment that the American church can be broadly observed as rather apathetic. Ethical convictions make dramatic shifts in a person’s life depending on if they are within the walls of a church or are outside amongst the secular world. More so, the foundations of Christian doctrine, thought, understanding (however you would prefer to term theology) has seemingly become muddled and weak. So is there any surprise that the church in America is in decline?

    However, I would be less apt to say that in the social realm Christianity is facing much persecution. Perhaps it is not widely accepted, but it has seemed to me that it is at large tolerated (though this could be a problem of the church’s authenticity).

    Perseverance in the book of Hebrews is a major theme, or rather “a strong emphasis on sin and turning away” (FttE, 21). In today’s context, this seems to be predominantly the major area where perseverance of the Christian is most tested. The decline of the American church probably has a good deal to do with the lack of concrete morals and the “fortitude to do what is known to be right” (FttE, 23). It days ahead, the church in America may start to experience further and more severe external opposition, that is not far off to believe or expect, but I don’t necessarily see it as being the contemporary issue for the whole American church. For now, I believe the Church needs to adopt a more feverish moral conviction and needs to seriously consider the words: “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (Heb. 12:4). Besides, if such a mindset can be regained throughout the church, we may be better prepared to persevere and endure when Christianity’s decline worsens.

    Specifically on suffering, shame and humiliation; Christians seem to make heroic examples of martyrs and martyrdom seems to be something of worthy recognition. But martyrdom is sketchy term because there are several examples, small and great, of suffering on account on one’s faith and in the home front of America, suffering shame and humiliation is very un-American and counter-cultural. This is a land of independence, of strength. And the cultural norm is to stand up against, even retaliate against volatile acts that disgrace us as individuals. But Christ says to lover your enemies, to be humble, to pick up your cross; these are a few of a variety of examples where all self-rights are more or less pushed aside or ignored which has put many American evangelicals in a paradoxical ethic that leans toward being American maybe as much as it is toward being Biblical.

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    • Hmm…

      Suffering. Justin, I think you are COMPLETELY right in saying we need to define in what way we use suffering, or even looking to see how the recipients in Hebrew “suffered” or “were suffering”. We HAVE to look at that from the reality that Jesus was made the founder of our salvation perfect through suffering [Hebrews 2:10]. Another verse that comes to mind is this reality that “because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” [Hebrews 2:18]. In light of Jesus, what is considered suffering? What should be considered suffering? Seems as if this idea of perseverance is a call for all walks of life, at every point of the journey [Christian walk].

      Thoughts?

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      • I agree, Justin is right. how do we define suffering? How is our suffering today different?

        What does our middle/upper middle class american christian society see as suffering? I think that is something we should be asking ourselves very often. Honestly, What do we suffer? In all reality… we don’t really. Especially here at grace where we are in our little bubble. What kind of suffering are we talking about too. Like Justin said the recipients could be experiencing suffering in external, societal, or political realms, or it could be personal to each individual.

        Another question I think we need to ask is how do we apply it to our society today as a whole, as a christian society, and as individuals? Hannah talked about the idea of being comfortable, we can’t let ourselves become comfortable as Christians because when we are comfortable we are not doing anything special that calls us to suffer for the name of Jesus. again… just some thoughts. sorry if they dont make sense… i’m kinda tired.

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  10. As I argued in the other class, I really do not understand why it makes a different when the letter is written. For someone like me, it does not affect me if the letter is written 100 years ago or 200 years ago. Also, for me, it really does not matter who the author is. When I read the book, it does not affect who wrote the book or when it was written or who it was written to. But that is because I may not be spending enough time studying the Bible.
    I think that Christians are loosing ground in the secular world. I think that there has been many stupid people who have either claimed to be Christians or are and are really stupid and smash the Christian name. I think that because people that are Christians are not acting like Christians, so the secular world does not treat them nice and they do not pay attention to them. I think there are a lot of stupid Christians out there. But yes, I do think that Christians may start to get persecuted. I do think there may be a point when Christians will have to be careful. It will have to get bad before we will be able to one day never have suffering again. But even though Jesus does sit at the right had of God, He is not going to stop everything bad from happening. I wish that He would though. But going through hard times brings us closer to Him

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    • As far as the writing of the letter goes, we had a similar discussion in our theology class on Thursday. The discussion basically consisted of ‘Can’t we all just get along?’ And the answer was, not if we truly want to grow as Christians. Granted, a new Christian will not give a hoot when the book was written, to whom, or by whom, but for people in an upper division Bible class, the who and when can give a good sense of context to the situation. Knowing who wrote the book, who received the book, and under what circumstances brings a greater sense of understanding, and helps in an accurate interpretation of what the author is saying and the progression of the letter.

      That being said, it is interesting to hear the stories of others. I grew up in a public school where many students were Christians, and were outspoken for it. Not only were these students outspoken, but they were looked up to and held in high esteem. As far as persecution goes for me, the worst I ever got was a boy in one of my classes scratching out the ‘Jesus Loves You’ writing on a super ball i dropped.

      To be completely honest, persecution is something that I have often contemplated in my life. I grew up in a Christian home, with Christian parents, and Christian siblings, and Christian friends (for the most part), and a great pastor and youth pastor who cared about me, and I never experienced anything that I would consider ‘persecution.’ In fact, I was often worried that I would not be able to withstand ‘tough times’ when it came to continuing to keep my trust in Christ. Persecution is one of those things that you never know how you will do until you are presented with the circumstance, and I pray that if the nation becomes hostile towards Christianity, I will continue to persevere as the recipients of Hebrews were challenged to do.

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      • I haven’t experienced true “persecution” either, but I have experienced many hardships and tough times… I grew up in a school where Christianity was kind of “blah”. It wasn’t unpopular, but it wasn’t the best thing either. (A year after I left, a “gay-straight” alliance and a feminist woman’s club were both formed) I think it is going to become more challenging for Christians to be Christians in my old high school and all around the country. We are already seen as “intolerant” because we serve a God who claims to be “the only way”. I’ve had many discussions with others about God, telling them why I believe what I believe. I’ve been put down for my beliefs…

        But I pray, also, that I will be able to remain faithful if I experience persecution. I imagine I will one day when I remove myself from the GBC bubble and am thrown into the real world of missions. Christianity is not always a popular thing! I’ve been wondering… Do you think that persecution is a necessary part of the Christian life?

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