Hebrews – Introduction – Part 2

The doctrinal argument of Hebrews

The writer presents his basic doctrinal argument in the first two chapters of the letter, but at the same time provides us with several themes that will be developed by him later. He starts his letter by reflecting upon how God had previously communicated to His people in various ways through the prophets, 1. 1-3. We should notice how the prophets are almost dismissed in one single verse whereas the revelation of the Son takes up the whole of the rest of the letter. The question then arises as to why the Son is so fitted to be the final and definitive message of God?1The answer is simply because He is uniquely the Son of God, the heir of all things, the agent of creation, the very effulgence of God’s glory, the exact representation of God, and the One who purifies us from sin.

His subsequent enthronement on the right hand of God marks Him out as superior to the angels, and this superiority is then explored in chapter 1 verse 4 into chapter 2 verse 18.2The writer uses a series of texts from the Old Testament in support of his argument that the Son being the final message of God must be greater than angelic mediation. It is during this lengthy and detailed argument that the writer includes the first of several warnings to the Hebrews, 2. 1-4.

Two new themes are introduced in chapter 2 that will be further developed later in the letter, but flow out of the first chapter, namely sovereignty and priesthood. Although man was given complete sovereignty over the earth, what the writer emphasizes is the seeming disparity between the sovereignty that God intended for man and the reality on the ground. Ultimately, this sovereignty will be realized through the true Son of Man who the writer now names as ‘Jesus’, 2. 9.3His manhood also fits Him perfectly for His role as a High Priest, and this now becomes one of the dominant themes of the letter.4 Without the letter to the Hebrews, we would have little, if any, understanding of the high priesthood of Christ.

The heroes of the Jewish Commonwealth are introduced to us in chapters 3 to 7. They are all shown, in their differing ways, to be inferior to the Apostle and High Priest whom Christians acknowledge and hold allegiance to, namely Jesus.5 The faithfulness of Christ is then compared with that of Moses in chapter 3. Moses led the people of God, but through unbelief many failed to enter the Promised Land. Belief in Christ will mean that God’s people, His household, will continue to the end, provided they stand fast in their allegiance to Him, 3. 6. It is at this point of the argument that the second warning is pronounced by the writer, 3. 7 - 4. 13.

The writer quickly moves on from establishing the superiority of the high priesthood of Christ, and, in chapter 8 verse 1 to chapter 9 verse 28, he argues that His ministry is not linked to earthly sacrifices and an earthly tabernacle. The superiority of Christ’s sacrifice and present ministry is highlighted by the fact that the old covenant introduced by Moses had been ratified by animal blood, and was simply a copy of the heavenly reality. If the old covenant had been effective there would have been no need for a new one. The death of Christ has ratified the new covenant, which is superior to the old one.

Chapter 10 verses 1 to 18 are, to some extent, a summary of the previous two chapters, but also explain the fundamental difference between the temporary nature of the Levitical offerings and the finality of the sacrifice of Christ. The practical implications of Christ’s sacrifice and priesthood are then given in chapter 10 verses 19 to 25. The freedom of access that the believer has into the presence of God is contrasted with the prescriptive regulations of Judaism that prevented such access. Believers are therefore invited to approach God boldly, and, additionally, encourage and strengthen one another in the faith.

Chapter 11 of this letter is probably one of the most famous passages in the whole of the Bible. It brings together a great number of named and unnamed individuals who, despite their failings, exhibited the meaning of faith in their lives. The perfecting of and the fulfilment of the promises made to these Old Testament heroes of faith was only possible with the advent of Christ, 1. 2, and with those who belonged to Him, 11. 39, 40. The challenge then to the Hebrews was if they lived in the age where God’s promises were being realized in Christ, how much greater should their faith have been?

The opening word ‘Therefore’ in chapter 12 indicates a clear link with the preceding chapter. It is often suggested that the ‘cloud of witnesses’ in verse 1 are simply spectators in an arena watching and urging on their successors to complete their race of faith. Such an interpretation seems to miss the point though, because it is not so much that they look to encourage us, but, rather, that we look to them for inspiration and encouragement. From verses 4 to 13, another aspect of faith is explained, relating to the question of why God disciplines His children. The Hebrews experience of hardship was not an end per se, but a means to an end that God employed to discipline His children and prove that they were legitimate. Discipline may be unpleasant at the time, but, long term, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace, v. 11. With a final exhortation taken from two Old Testament texts, Prov. 4. 26; Isa. 35. 3, 4, the writer again defers to the metaphor of the athlete and encourages his readers to get back into shape so that they can continue in the race set before them, vv. 11-13. The fifth and last warning in the letter comes in the remainder of this chapter, vv. 14-29. This admonition is a warning to the Hebrews to avoid immorality and not to reject God, as seen in the life of Esau, vv. 16, 17. This warning will be dealt with again in more detail in a later article.

Chapter 13 of this letter contains several concluding exhortations, a prayer request, a doxology, a news update, and a closing farewell. While some scholars have argued that this chapter is an appendix, or a later supplement to the letter, in our view O’Brien is right when he states, ‘But Hebrews 13 is “far from an afterthought”. Its essential message cannot be separated from the concerns and themes of the first twelve chapters’.6 The doxology in verse 20 reminds the readers that it is through the eternal covenant, ratified by the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus, that God is enabled to equip them to do His will and bring pleasure to Him. In his news update, the writer refers to the release of a certain individual named Timothy, v. 23. This may be the Apostle Paul’s companion, although there is no real way of knowing this to be the case, and, in any event, it is not a strong indication of Pauline authorship.

The closing benediction in verse 25 includes the word ‘grace’, which is somewhat of a loaded term in respect of the argument of this letter. Even though the Greek word for ‘grace’ only occurs seven times7in this letter, on each occasion it is used to encourage the Hebrews to persist in their faith. It would therefore have been extremely disappointing to the writer if the Hebrews had rejected the grace of God in favour of Judaism again, a system of works righteousness. His desire for them was that they might go on to maturity, with the wonderful example of Christ set before them. This is the ongoing challenge of this New Testament letter for us as well.



Notice that the actual name of the Son (‘Jesus’) is not disclosed until chapter 2 verse 9.


The idea of being seated at God’s right hand is an indication not only of a finished work but also the enthronement of Christ, Ps. 110. 1. Andrew Lincoln suggests that Psalm 110 verses 1 and 4 contain the major theme of Hebrews - the exaltation of Christ at God’s right hand, v. 1, and specifically His exaltation as Priest after the order of Melchizedek according to God’s oath, v. 4. (Hebrews - A Guide, Bloomsbury, pg. 69.)


The title ‘son of man’ in Psalm 8 was not interpreted by Jewish scholars as Messianic. It is, however, the Messianic interpretation of this title by the writer to the Hebrews that completely changes the approach to Psalm 8.


2. 17, 18; 3. 1; 4. 14-16; 5. 1-10; 6. 20; 7. 1-28; 8. 1-4; 9. 11-14, 24, 26; 10. 11, 12, 21; 13. 15. This represents just under a quarter of the entire letter.


The word ‘apostle’ is used of Christ being the representative of God sent out to be the final message to man, Heb. 3. 1. This is alluded to in chapter 2 verse 12 where the writer cites from Psalm 22 verse 22 and earlier as the pioneer of salvation, Heb. 2. 10. These themes are then further developed in chapters 3 and 4 in relationship to Moses and Joshua. As High Priest, He represents His people before the throne of God, and the writer provides two ways in which this representation is superior by comparison with the Aaronic priesthood in chapters 5 and 7.


Peter O’Brien, The Letter to the Hebrews (Pillar New Testament Commentary), Apollos, 2010, pg. 502.


See 2. 9; 4. 16; 10. 29; 12. 15, 28; 13. 9, 25.


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