The Purpose 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.  Jobes (Letters to the Church) makes the point that the book does not use the destruction of the Temple as a “proof” that the Old Covenant has been replaced by the New.  In addition, the church has “not yet suffered to the point of shedding blood” (12:4).  If the recipients are in Rome, then the letter must refer to a time prior to Nero’s persecution of Christians (A.D.64), but after Caligula Claudius expelled Jews (A.D. 49).

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.  The author does not argue against Judaism nor does he 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 or other agendas.

12 thoughts on “The Purpose of Hebrews

  1. I have read Jobes’ research and opinion on the purpose of Hebrews. From reading the above blog, I get the sense that the purpose of Hebrews is to tell the suffering of Christ and how his death is compared to that of Old Testament sacrifices. The real purpose of Hebrews is to show how Jesus’ death at the cross and resurrection has taken away the sin God’s people had to clean through sacrifice. Jobes (Letters To The Church) makes a good point in her chapter of Hebrews when she talks about the cleansing of the people. When Jews sacrifice animals to clean themselves of sin, they were clean in mind, but not in heart. They would still commit sins and would have to sacrifice again and again. It all changed with the death and shedding of Jesus’s blood. Hebrews 9:12 says that Jesus “entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.” When Jesus sacrificed himself for the sins of mankind, their minds and hearts were cleaned forever. They did not have to sacrifice animals to be clean anymore. All they had to do was believe in Jesus and what he suffered on the cross; the purpose of Hebrews.

  2. Caligula died in 41. You mean Claudius. For that matter, you could tighten your window, as Jews apparently trickled back into Rome quickly following Claudius’ death in 54.

    On the historical clues, it seems the blood shedding comment is more encouraging when the idea is “We made it. You will too.” Therefore, I wonder who else, before 64, could attest bloody persecution? I can’t think of any. Besides that, it seems to me that Roman-Jewish-Christians would me less likely to *need* this advice, and be more likely to give it; vice-versa, it seems the Palestinian-Jewish-Christians would be more likely to need it, and less likely to give it.

    These are just my own thoughts, Phliip. If you’e come across similar thinking before, and/or have any arguments against such, I’d love to be further educated.

    Thanks, as always, for the quality blogpost.

  3. Egads, horrible error. You are correct of course, and I have fixed my error. BTW, good to see you on the blog again, and it is also good to see your blog returning to regular activity.

    You are also correct to emphasize the post-54 date, since I am going to insist on Jewish Christians as the target audience. As for the “who else” question, immediately Paul comes to mind, although I am really not happy with Paul as the author! Silas certainly was persecuted along with Paul, and is sometimes suggested as an author.

    In the end, I think that modern scholarship is much less bothered by an anonymous book in the NT than the first two centuries. We play at identifying the author since that is what we do in our ivory towers, but in the end, the author has to remain unknown.

    • Good to be back around. Thanks, Philip. I wish I could interact more often.

      I’m afraid I was unclear in that my “who else” was an unconsciously *plural* “who”. IOW, I meant to ask – Which *communities* would have been bloodied or nearly bloodied during that era (54-70)? Again, prior to 64, I’m not aware of any whole groups being beaten. Anyway, my question was – which churches more likely fit that bill as the letter’s sending/receiving location.

      To be fair, however, upon further reflection I now see how the author’s personal suffering could have been intended as the comparable reference point. For an unlikely example that makes the point, I suppose if someone like Jason from Thessalonica were the author they could have taken it as a jesting brag. So maybe you’re right that the author’s personal suffering could be

      On your last point I completely agree. Ultimate anonymity for Hebrews is no problem at all. Still, these puzzles sometimes surprise us with the potential relevance of certain solutions, so I also wouldn’t trivialize the pursuit of authorship.

      Thanks again.

  4. I agree with the statement above regarding the time in which the book of Hebrews was written. The Roman recipients seemed to struggle with their faith and trust in God. However, considering the time period of culture and customs, this would be challenging. It must have been difficult to be so horribly persecuted when they thought that Jesus was the ultimate sacrifice and was going to relieve them of their pain and suffering. Therefore, the question of “if Jesus came why are we still suffering?” is still heavy on the residents of Rome minds. I personally believe that many Christian’s still struggle with this concept today. It is like Jobes points out later in the text “did God really say?” The people of God have doubts due to their living conditions on earth. As it states in Hebrews 11:6, “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” Our reward is eternal life through Him.

  5. This article was both helpful in my study of Hebrews and quite intriguing.
    First, understanding the time period sheds a new light on the book. The ESV Study Bible notes that the dating of Hebrews relies heavily on the if the destruction of the temple has occurred or not. It notes that it was mostly likely before 70 A. D. Using this knowledge in conjunction with information in this post – that the recipients were probably in Rome, had faced some persecution, and yet pre-Nero – provides a rich context for the letter. This, in turn, increased my understanding, curiosity, and study of Hebrews.
    Secondly, the topic of suffering and the Jewish culture (paragraph four) gave me more to consider. Throughout the Torah there is a consistent pattern of blessings and curses. The well-known story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4) reflects this; a case could also be made that this would also be true of the account of Adam and Eve’s banishment from the Garden (Genesis 3). Obedience vs. disobedience is central to the Hebrew peoples’ Exodus from Egypt.
    This gives an increasingly helpful perspective of the context of Hebrews.
    The combination of the two observations leads to a third topic: application. Understanding the context provides a broader, better way to apply the content of Hebrews. We see phrases such as “Walk by Faith and not by Sight” attributed to Hebrews on greeting cards, journals and the like. Unfortunately, this is the majority of what we see from the book of Hebrews. Knowing the context – that the Hebrew Christians are struggling and suffering persecution from an unpopular faith – sheds light on the message of Hebrews and what it may offer to Christians facing a similar struggle in the ‘already-but-not yet’ or what may be called a post-Evangelical America.

  6. You mentioned at the end of your post that the possible reasons that christianity is still growing but not as big is because of political careers. which makes sense because the people who are in office now grew up in that era where christianity was on a big incline in the United States. so they are using it to push an agenda with the older generation. But I also have seen within the past couple of months, christian people speak up. chick-fil-a has made the news many times making progress in helping and promoting christian thinking. if I can say the pro-life group is christian and our president of the United States just attended a rally and spoke things that no other president has dared to say. Promoting God and the right to life of a child.

    Each of those groups that I have mentioned suffer everyday. Chick-fil-a has LGBTQ+ members have sit ins at their restaurant to make a statement. Pro-life communities have feminists put them down, scream in their face, and in some cases attack them. Being a christian in this world is not without suffering. But “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds…” James 1:2. You must be doing something right if the devil is trying to tear it down.

    • Zachary,
      I agree with your statement that Christianity is possibly still growing because of political careers. But, going off your comment of non-Christians coming after Christians and their beliefs, I believe that as Christians it is only going to get harder from here going forward. Missionaries are currently being denied access into Ireland, many Irish natives have rejected the Bible and the belief of God and Jesus. It is still common to be a Christian in the country we live in, but it is not necessarily the same in other countries like Ireland and China. 2 Timothy 3:12-13 says, “indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived” (ESV). As much as I wish living as a Christian will get easier as time passes, it will only get harder, especially when the generations that grew up in a society where being a Christian was a way of life leaves, it will continue to worsen. But I also agree with you that being a Christian is not without suffering, if Jesus, the perfect ideal human did not go without suffering, we cannot expect to either.

  7. Determining who the author was, who were the original recipients of these letters and where does the original readers were living escalate a numerous amounts of presuppositions. However, just by reading the book of Hebrew plainly articulate the purpose of the book and why it was written to. I have a strong impression that one view of the purpose of the book could potentially be vary from the other person view since the author addresses a variety of theological topic.

    As for me, I am certian that the recipients of this letter were both audiences (Gentile & Jewish converts ) who were living in Rome, oftentimes he use a phrase ‘us’ (Christian) and ‘them’ ( Judaism ). However, the author primary focus seem on a Jewish convert christianity because of its uses of Hebrew Old Testament scriptures as a reference to argued from a Jewish perspective to assert Jesus was indeed the Messiah (God). But Jobes views this as ‘hypothesis’ because Nero persecution did not happened in this period yet, instead they were being expelled from the city by Claudius as result of disturbance through preaching the gospel.

    To sum this up, one of the many reasons (purpose) was to encourge the Christian in Rome concerning their faith, because as a result from public alienation or persecution. At this point, Christian in Rome begin to question their faith in Christ. Despite of the persecution, heresies teaching were prominent in this period as well, especially ‘gnosticism’ was the main issue concern from the apostles, such as John, Peter and other Church leaders. Therefore, the author purpose of the book was to sent a word of exhortation; reassuring them their faith in Christ, and readdressing Jesus as the final revelation who is greater then Abraham, Moses, King David, prophets and angels who sat right next to the Father in the heavenly throne. As you mentioned above, the book is not apologetics material, but a persuasive (exhortation/encouragement) sermon in attempt to exhort their faith in Christ.

  8. The Purpose of Hebrews

    The book of Hebrews is surrounded in mystery it seems. Endless debates of who the author is and what the meaning or purpose of the book is to continue even to this day. Because we do not know who the author is for sure we do not know the author’s tendencies and personal theology like we do for example with Paul’s books. I really feel that the book of Hebrews was written to both Jewish converts and gentile converts. Throughout the book itself, the author says things like us and them and vice versa. To me, it seems as if the book of Hebrews was written to clarify and encourage the Christians to whom the author was writing.
    The context that the book of Hebrews may have been written under is Christians under persecution as the blog suggests. This makes the most sense to me because as Jobes and this blog indicate as well as the book of Hebrews the people to which the book is being written seem to be trying to motivate or inspire those believers. This is understandable especially if you have fellow believers being burned at the stake simply for what they believe. There would be discouragement and doubt among believers based on what they have witnessed or experienced as they tried to spread the gospel to the world a world that was very hostile to followers of Christ.
    At the very end of this blog post, you touch on the fact that we are losing the population of true believers in Christ in America. I think that many people in America have been hurt by the church and thus they want nothing to do with the church. Still, others have seen others claiming to be Christians and they are not and so they then want nothing to do with Christians then because they have seen what others who claim to be Christ act like and they are not drawn to that in any way.

  9. I agree to the explanation of the time period of which the book of Hebrews was written.
    The Romans seemed to struggle with their faith and trust in God being the recipient. However, considering the customs and the time period of culture, this would turn out challenging. This must have turned out difficult to be so horribly persecuted when they thought that Jesus was the ultimate sacrifice and was going to relieve them of their pain and suffering.
    The question of “if Jesus came why are we still suffering?” is still heavy on the residents of Rome minds. I have come to believe that many Christian’s still struggle with this concept today. Jobes points out later in the text “did God really say?” The people of God doubt due to their living conditions on earth. As it states in Hebrews 11:6, “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” Our reward is eternal life through Him.

  10. I also agree with Zachary Johnson Blog Statement on Christianity because of people political career. I do also believe that it going to get very rough for Christians to succeed in this world because everyone have their opinion on how the world should be ran or how things should go and science and thinking it a higher power than god that running the world. I believe us Christians will have the last laugh because we know that God is the ruler of them all and loves us no matter if we are great and doing good or at our worst when we are not doing too great.

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