- Jesus Christ, the better Messenger (1:1 - 2:18)
- Jesus Christ, the better Apostle (3:1 - 4:13)
- Jesus Christ, the better Priest (4:14 - 7:28)
- Christ's better covenant (8:1 - 9:28)
- Christ's better sacrifice (10:1-39)
- Faith, the better way (11:1 - 12:29)
- Conclusion (13:1-25)
Authorship, date, and background
We do not know with any certainty who the author of Hebrews was. No name is given, nor does the letter supply details which would enable anyone to make a positive identification. For these reasons, a number of different people have been suggested as the author; for example the, the apostle Paul, Barnabas and Apollos. We do know that the letter was not written by Timothy, for the author names him as just having been released from jail. If he knew Timothy, he must have known Paul, and if Paul was the author the book, he would hardly have spoken of Timothy as "brother" when he usually called him "son". Apparently the author was a Jew. He was familiar with the Old Testament, was a man of literary skills, and was fully acquainted with the Old Testament of the Greek Septuagint.
The letter came from the second generation era of Christians (see 5:12, 13; 10:32). Since persecution was seen as imminent but had not yet come, and since the author wrote as though the temple was still standing, it appears that the letter can probably be dated before the sack of Jerusalem (A.D. 70), and after the death of Paul. That would make it late sixties.
The book of Hebrews does not state to whom it was written. But a reconstruction of the history of the times leads to the conclusion that the Christian church was moving away from the synagogue, and that questions were being asked about the relation of the gospel to the new developments and about how Jesus Christ fit into the picture of the Old Testament sacrificial system. The gap between the Christian faith and Judaism would have been widened when Christ's prophetic word about the destruction of the temple was fulfilled. This, accompanied by the dispersion of the Jews along with the loss of their political state and the absence of the temple, would bring all sorts of questions into their minds. Indeed, there was a need for a book like Hebrews to explain more fully the plan of God and how Jesus Christ was the fulfilment of the Old Testament prophetic word.
Characteristics and content
Hebrews centers around the use of the word "better". The Son, Jesus Christ, is better than the angels, whom the Jews greatly appreciated and feared. He is better than Moses, and his priesthood is better than that of Aaron, the founding father of the priesthood. Jesus is linked to the Melchizedek priesthood, which existed before the Aaronic priesthood, and to Father Abraham, who paid tithes to Melchizedek. Jesus is the center of the new covenant which is better than the old covenant, for the old one was temporary and the new one is eternal. Christ is the better sacrifice since the blood of bulls and goats could never take away sin forever. These sacrifices had to be repeated again and again. The sacrifice of Jesus, however, is a once-for-all sacrifice which never needs to be repeated. And it took away sin. Moreover, the writer shows that faith is the better way. No man can faultlessly keep the whole law of God. All the law can do is condemn men as Paul also says in Galatians. But faith is the excellent way in which God makes it possible for men to come to him for salvation and life everlasting. Nowhere else in the New Testament is the new covenant explained more fully. The atonement and its vicarious aspect is fully revealed in this treatment of the person and work of Christ.
Typology finds a large place in this letter. Here the reader finds how the Old Testament promises by way of type are finally and forever fulfilled in the New Testament in the person of Jesus. The author speaks of all three persons of the Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, in a way which advances the doctrine noticeably.
The author defines faith succinctly (11:1) and then illustrates it profusely in the lives of the Old Testament saints, all of whom were saved by faith and not by works. The roster of believers includes some whose works indeed were but who, despite some of the actions they performed, nevertheless were saved by their faith. Deliverance is picture as historical and miraculous interventions of God in some instances; in others, the deliverance came through death after great suffering. But whichever way it comes, the writer makes plain that deliverance is the end result of faith. He closes the letter with admonitions and sounds forth the divine promise of a kingdom which cannot be destroyed (12:28). In the last chapter, he reiterates the eternal nature of Jesus Christ who is the same yesterday, today, and forever (13:8), and concludes with the magnificent benediction in which Christ, the Great Shepherd of the sheep, has risen fro the dead, and the news and everlasting agreement between God and man by virtue of Christ's atonement on the cross is available to all who will come.