Herbert Bateman and Steven Smith, Hebrews (Kerux)

Bateman, IV Herbert W. and Steven W. Smith. Hebrews: A Commentary for Biblical Preaching and Teaching . Kerux Commentaries. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Ministry, 2021. 389 pp. Hb. $36.99   Link to Kregel Ministry  

This Hebrews commentary is part of Kregel’s new Kerux commentary series. Projected to be a 46-volume series, seven are available at this time. In the preface to the series, Herb Bateman explains the Kerux commentary series attempts to join experts in biblical exegesis with experienced communicators. The commentary intends to provide solid exegesis, the theological focus and preaching strategies (“big idea,” contemporary connections, and success suggestions for creative presentations). Although the commentary is intended to help a busy pastor, the pastor in mind has a knowledge of both Hebrew and Greek and spends a significant amount of time preparing to preach and teach the word of God. Each volume in this new series will have two authors and exegete and a preacher. In this Hebrews commentary, Herb Bateman IV writes the exegetical portion and Steven W. Smith writes the preaching portions.

Hebrews (Kerux)The commentary begins with fifteen pages summarizing the twenty preaching passages (units, pericopes) for the book of Hebrews. Each unit begins with an exegetical idea, theological focus, and preaching ideas and preaching pointers. These units are as few as four verses (Heb 1:1-4) but sometimes as long as an entire chapter (Heb 11:1-40). Although this is not explicit in the commentary, this section is basically a pastor’s preaching outline for a long series in the book of Hebrews.

In the twenty-eight-page introduction to Hebrews, Herb Bateman begins with his view of the authorship of the book. As is well-known, Hebrews is anonymous and there are a bewildering number of suggestions for who the author might be. Bateman argues passionately for Barnabas as the author of Hebrews. He provides several pieces of evidence and provides a two-page chart listing other advocates for Barnabas as the author of the book (from Tertullian in the third century to Albert Vanhoye in 2015). Throughout the introduction, he refers to Barnabas as the author.

The book of Hebrews is a “sermonic-midrash-like letter” written to Jewish followers of Jesus who lived in Rome either just before Nero’s persecutions in A. D. 64 or just before the Jewish war with Rome began in A.D. 66. Given his view on the date for the book of Hebrews, Bateman provides a brief sketch of the history of Jews in Rome.

A common view on the occasion for the writing of Hebrews is the danger of Jewish Christians returning to Judaism to avoid this occasion. For Bateman, the political instability in the Roman Empire and Judea may have caused some Jewish Christians to doubt that Jesus was the Messiah. The book therefore argues Jesus is, in fact, the divine son of God, who has an eternal priesthood and who inaugurated God’s new covenant.

Each unit in the commentary’s body begins with a one-page summary of this section. This begins with a single brief sentence summarizing the exegetical idea, the theological focus, and the preaching idea for the unit. Following these brief notes are two paragraphs of suggestions for taking the exegesis and making it “work” in contemporary preaching. Exposition is verse by verse, often phrase by phrase. Bateman bases his exegesis on the Greek text. Given the constraints of the format of the commentary, Bateman’s exegesis is excellent (as expected from his Epistles of John and Jude commentaries).

Following the exegesis is a brief section entitled preaching ideas. This begins with a brief exegetical and theological synthesis and a repetition of the preaching idea. The next section is “contemporary connections” and asks questions like, “What does it mean?” “Is it true?” “Now what?” Finally, there is a section entitled creativity in presentation. Here, Smith suggests connections to popular cultural artifacts such as films, TV, or contemporary news stories. Following the preaching ideas are a few discussion questions and occasionally a further reading section offering bibliography for the unit. It is unclear why this further reading section does not appear in every section. Given the goals stated for the commentary, it is surprising that the preaching section is so brief. One might have expected a balance between exegesis and homiletics, but that is not the case.

Bateman supplements the commentary with a series of extremely helpful sidebars which deal with issues of historical background or exegetical detail. For example, there are sidebars on the Jewish theology of rest, the theology of Jewish tithes, and the Qumran document Song of the Sabbath Sacrifice (4Q400-407). There is a long excursus of Psalms 2 in the context of Hebrews 1. There are several sidebars defining terms or key people, such as “Who was Philo?” “Who was Ben Sira?” Sidebars include detailed word studies of key Greek terms, and occasionally comments on the syntactical structure of Greek verses. In addition to sidebars, there are a handful of notes entitled “translation analysis,” “textual analysis” and “lexical analysis” scattered throughout the book. These are printed slightly differently than the regular sidebars, although it is difficult to see any difference in the content. I noticed that the number of sidebars diminishes later in the commentary. There are only seven sidebars for Hebrews 10-13, although early in the commentary there seven in the first chapter which on;y covers four verses (Heb 1:1-4)

The commentary includes many charts scattered throughout the volume, offering a convenient summary of key ideas. Bateman loves charts! (See my review of Charts on the Book of Hebrews, Kregel Academic, 2012). On at least one occasion, he cites his earlier book and the charts for Hebrews 11 are also similar to the Chartbook. This is not a problem, of course. Looking back at that book, I notice Bateman collects evidence for several of the potential candidates for the authorship of Hebrews but in the brief introduction to this commentary; he can only advocate for his preference (Barnabas).

Conclusion. When I first saw volumes of this commentary series, I was reminded of the venerable Pulpit Commentary. The goals are similar: to provide solid exegesis from leading scholars and teaching ideas for pastors. This volume of the Kerux series achieves the goal of solid exposition of the text and it does offer help for busy pastors preparing to teach Hebrews from the pulpit, Sunday School classes or small group setting.

 

NB: Thanks to Kregel for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Book Review: Adrio König, Christ Above All: The Book of Hebrews

König, Adrio. Christ Above All: The Book of Hebrews (Transformative Word). Bellingham, Wash.: Lexham, 2019. 100 pp.; Pb; $12.99.  Link to Lexham

This short book is the third in a new series of Bible study books from Lexham. The Transformative Word series is edited by Craig Bartholonew and David Beldman and intends “identify a key theme in each book of the Bible, and each volume provides careful Biblical exegesis centered on that gripping theme.” Lexham has published Carolyn Custis James, Finding God in the Margins: The Book of Ruth and Dru Johnson, The Universal Story: Genesis 1–11.

König begins with a short overview of the book of Hebrews and an outline of the main themes of the book (the magnificence of and humanity of Christ, chapters 2-4). This first chapter also briefly introduces a few problems for the reader of Hebrews, namely the use of the Old Testament (chapter 5), the six warning passages (chapter 6) and the unforgiveable sin (chapter 7).

He begins his three chapters on Christ with a close look at the first three verse of Hebrews, followed by a chapter on the humanity and sinlessness of Christ. The longest chapter in the book is devoted to the magnificence of Christ (ch. 4). Here König tracks how Hebrews describes Jesus as “greater than” a wide range of things from the Old Testament. He concludes this section by suggesting the recipients of this message were Jewish Christians in danger of returning to the synagogue as a result of persecution.

König then examines both the positive and negative uses of the Old Testament in Hebrews (ch. 5). Even a cursory reading of Hebrews will demonstrate the writer’s knowledge of the Old Testament. In many places his argument hinges on a particular detail, such as his allusion to Melchizedek. To illustrate the negative, he points to the several statements in the book in which “it is impossible” for a sacrifice to take away sin, etc.

One of the more difficult aspects of Hebrews are the warning passages. König deals with these in two separate chapters, the first asking if grace can be lost. After a short survey of the six warning passages, he offers evidence for both yes and no. He includes short lists of biblical support for both sides of this troubling issue and concludes “we have to accept this open situation” (80). He then focuses specifically on the warnings in 6:4-6, 10:26-27 and 12:14-17 as “The Unforgivable Sin.” He draws the analogy to Matthew 12 (where the language is “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit) and suggests “we have more or less the same depiction of this sin” in Hebrews (88). I am not convinced the sin in Matthew 12 is what the writer of Hebrews has in mind. König does not take into account real possibility the readers of Hebrews are warned against recanting their faith in the face of persecution. In addition, there is more exegesis to be done in Hebrews 6 to decide whether this is “unforgiveable sin” is a real possibility. This is impossible given the limits on this brief book.

Within each chapter are short sidebars explaining some detail in the text (Marcion, the Historical Trustworthiness of the Gospel) or a list of Scripture on a theological point (Christ Called God; Jesus is Greater Than, etc.) Each chapter ends with a collection of parallel biblical texts for further study and a set of reflection questions. These questions are designed to facilitate a small group Bible study. In addition, König introduces a discussion without necessarily answering all the questions. This should lead to a lively discussion.

 

NB: Thanks to Lexham Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Hebrews 12:1-3 – Running the Race

In Hebrews 11 the writer explained what he meant by faith, and then gave numerous examples of faith.  Based on these examples, Hebrews 12:1 exhorts the reader to “run the race marked out for us.”  This is possible because we are surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses.” They are spectators at a sports event, watching present believers “run the race.” But more than that, they are also people who have already run the race and know what must be done in order to win the race.

Lay AsideSince we have this great crowd of witnesses, the writer urges his readers to run the race with perseverance. There are two ways in which the runner might not finish the race – by being hindered or entangled.  “Everything that hinders…” refers to weight or bulk. A runner in training would want to lose every extra pound that might hinder then from winning the race. Greek athletes competed naked, just as modern runners will wear very little clothing and shoes designed to be as lightweight as possible.

But the Christian is not simply training to compete, but is running the race already. If this is the case, there is an urgency to the writer’s encouragement to dispense with the things we do not need to run the race properly.

He calls the things which slow us down “the sin that so easily entangles.” Easily entangles is a single word and is only used here in the New Testament. The word has the sense of something which is tight or constricting. If the weight of life hindered us, sin can so entangle us that running the race is no longer possible. Think of a runner that instead of a 100 pound bag of potatoes has his shoes laces tied together.  They cannot walk, let alone run the race!

In order to run the race, the writer also tells his readers to “throw off” hindrances and sin. The word here is used most often for taking off one’s clothes, an apt metaphor here since runners will try to wear as little clothing as possible. The writer is saying if you are going to run the race, run it in the proper equipment.  Imagine that marathon runner dressed in the clothes used for Arctic exploration, a huge parka, heavy gloves, snow shoes, goggles, etc. He will not compete well because he is entangled with things that he does not need, he needs to throw all that stuff off and compete in running shorts. Anything that slows you down should be tossed.

The writer says that the race is “marked out for us.” This is not a sprint, this is a race that has a course marked out, a long race like a marathon. Sprinters, though very athletic, do not usually run in marathons.  There are too many differences between sprinting and marathons that people don’t usually excel at both. (Before I get hate mail from people who run in decathlons, I get it, work with my metaphor. Yes you are special.)

Finally, the writer tells us to run with perseverance. This fits the metaphor of a marathon better than a sprint.  A sprint is a short distance, and the runner gives it all he has, in 5 seconds it’s over. Not much perseverance. The marathon runner runs much slower, he is much more methodical about how he runs, pacing himself so he can finish the race.  As the race progresses, it takes determination to keep going.  Even the best runners have to be mentally fit to run the race all the way, they have to be running with the goal of finishing, and finishing requires perseverance.

If the Christian life is like competing in a marathon, what are other ways Hebrews 12 (or the whole book of Hebrews) exhorts the reader to “compete”?

Hebrews 8-9 – Old Israel, New Church?

Hebrews 8-9 are theologically more controversial than the rest of Hebrews because it appears the writer of Hebrews says the Jewish people have been replaced by the Church. The New Covenant has replaced the Old just as Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is superior to the old sacrifice in the Temple. As such, chapters 8 and 9 have been used to teach that the Jewish people are no longer God’s people and the church replaces them completely. This would therefore imply that any promises made to Israel in the Hebrew Bible are either cancelled or to be reinterpreted as applying to the Church.

Star CrossThe theological term for this is supersessionism, the view that church supersedes the Jews as the people of God. For some types of theology, the idea that the Jews were replaced by the Church is an assumption, the proof for which is found in Hebrews, especially chapters 8-9. This historic view argues the church is a new Israel and the promises of the Hebrew Bible are fulfilled in the church, often in a spiritual sense.

For example, Jeremiah 31 seems to indicate that at some point in the future, the city of Jerusalem would be rebuilt. Possibly this is fulfilled when some Jews return after the exile, but it may point to a future restoration of the Jews as well. But since this prediction is in the context of the New Covenant, older writers therefore re-interpreted spiritually.

The “wall great and high” is of no earthly material; the extension is not one of yards on miles, but of nations and ages; the consecration of the unclean places is but typical of the regenerative force of Christianity, which reclaims the moral wastes of the world, and purifies the carnal affections and sinful tendencies of human nature; and no material city could ever “stand for aye.” Only the kingdom and Church of Christ could satisfy the conditions of such a prophecy. A. F. Muir, in The Pulpit Commentary on Jeremiah 2:28.

However, when one reads Hebrews without the modern church in mind, the book does not argue Israel has been replaced and all, but that the promises made to Israel, including the New Covenant, have their fulfillment in Jesus the Messiah. Here I am following Richard Hays (“We Have No Lasting City,” pages 151-173 in The Epistle to the Hebrews and Christian Theology, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009). Hays looks back at his work on Hebrews which indicates the book is supersessionist, but he then shows how a proper reading of Hebrews will show the book is not actually teaching the Christian Church has replaced Israel.

In fact, to put the question this way is a modern theological question which Hebrews does not really address. The writer is interested in demonstrating a proper understanding of the Hebrew Bible in the light of Jesus’ work on the cross will result in Christian faith. And that faith, according to the writer of Hebrews, is a kind of natural development out of Judaism to something new and different.

Although this is similar to Paul (the church is not new Israel but something new entirely), the problem of the status of the Gentile in the present age is absent from the book of Hebrews. Although this is a common theme in the Pauline letters, is entirely absent in this book since the writer is concerned with the status of Jewish believers in Christ.

Hebrews 6:1-3 – Leaving Elementary Teachings Behind

Open BibleThe context of the notoriously difficult “falling away” passing in Hebrews 6:4 is critically important.  In Hebrews 6:1-3 the author of Hebrews implies his readers are immature and have failed to grow at an expected pace. They need to “build again” on the foundation and re-learn the basics of the faith. In all of the Jewish Christian literature, there is a struggle to integration Judaism and Christianity. How much of the “old covenant” ought to be brought over to the new faith?  Hebrews 6:1-3 lists six foundational items (three pairs), all of which fit into the Jewish Christian world of the original authors, but need to be considered in the light of the New Covenant.

Repentance from Sin. Both Peter (Acts 2:38) and Paul (Acts 17:30-31, 26:20) preach repentance from sin in the book of Acts. Although turning to God is turning away from sin, the phrase “acts which lead to death” is unique to Hebrews 6:1. It is similar to James 2:17, “dead faith.” The original readers of Hebrews were not pagans converted from a sinful life, but faithful Jews who may have been (from an Old Covenant perspective), not all that sinful. The emphasis is on unproductive works vs. faith. So what exactly needs to be confessed and repented of when one comes to Christ? Perhaps the readers are overly concerned with outlining the exact nature of that repentance rather than repenting and then maturing!

Faith in God. Perhaps this is simply the natural partner of “works which lead to death,” the active sense of repentance. Since the audience is Jewish, it is unlikely that they worshiped idols.  The acts that lead to death and faith in God have to do with their participation in salvation, two sides of the same coin.

Instruction on Baptisms. The word “teaching” here may be an introduction to the final four items since they are all under the heading of “teaching.” This is a fairly difficult exegetical problem; the noun didach'” was used at the end of the first century of a body of instruction on these sorts of things (Didache, for example). That the noun for baptism is plural is a strong indication the readers were still practicing Jewish ceremonial washings in mikvoth.  If this is so, then either this is evidence Jews in Rome practiced ritual purity at a much higher level than we might have thought, or that the book of Hebrews was sent to Jerusalem, where there is clear evidence of mikvoth and ritual washing. In either event, plural “baptisms” likely does not refer to Christian baptism as we understand it, an “initiation ritual.”

Laying on of Hands. Like baptisms, it is tempting to read this in terms of later Christian practice, but “laying on of hands” was practiced in Judaism before it was taken over by Christians (Gen 48:14, Num 27:15-23, Deut 34:9). Since this is paired with baptisms, it is possible that laying on of hands was associated with the beginning of Christian life in the Jewish churches (Cf. Acts 8:16-17, 19:5-7).

Resurrection of the Dead. The final pair in this list are not practices but doctrines which were subject to strong (and perhaps emotional) debates among first century Jews.  One only needs to recall the division between Sadducees and Pharisees to know that the resurrection was a controversial issue (both for Jesus, Mt 22:23-33) and Paul, Acts 23:6).

Eternal Judgment.  A related theological problem in first century Judaism was the final judgment.  If there is a resurrection in the future, what will happen to those who are raised from the dead and condemned?  Is there “eternal torment”?  There are a number of texts from the Second Temple period which describe eternal torment of the unrighteous dead.  2 Enoch and 3 Enoch, for example, seem to indicate that at least some Jews of the first century did think that the dead would face eternal (and sometimes ironic) punishment.

The author does not say these “foundational items” are unimportant, but that these ought to be settled by now to that the readers are ready to move on to more mature doctrines. The “deeper” things in this case is next section of Hebrews, the teaching on Melchizedek and the Tabernacle.  The readers are fretting over foundational issues (who is in/out, details of theology which are not critical), and they are therefore unprepared for the difficulty of the argument which he is about to make.

But more important for the writer of Hebrews, the readers are unprepared for the possibility of persecution. If they have not progressed beyond the first things of the faith, will they be willing and able to endure physical persecution in the near future? Are the mature enough to continue in their faith in Jesus?

It is fairly easy to draw some analogies to Christian maturity in the western church. Although there are some large and wealthy churches, it is possible most members of those congregations have not moved much beyond the basics (an initiation ritual and when to stand for worship, basic teachings or what political party to support). Just as for the audience of Hebrews, when persecution comes, these will not be enough to ensure loyalty to Jesus Christ.