Warnings and Exhortations in Hebrews: Introduction

In this series of articles, we will consider five warnings and selected exhortations in the letter to the Hebrews. The series is not intended to be a thorough exposition of the letter, and so some precious truths will be left aside or handled in an introductory way. To the end that we appreciate the purpose of the warnings, the series will begin with a two-part introduction that reviews the circumstances of the people to whom the letter was written and the evident reasons for writing to them. Recognising there are differing views on these warnings, we trust that whatever view one takes, this series will invoke prayerful study, personal application and a closer walk with the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Penman of God

Great effort has been given to identifying the unnamed writer of the letter to the Hebrews. Tradition, speculation and opinion down through the centuries have led to a lengthy list of candidates. However, we do not have sufficient evidence to fix with any certainty who the writer was. At best, pursuing it is a matter of conjecture. For this reason, we are content to ascribe authorship to God, as the opening verses in the letter affirm. Our contentment is strengthened by the fact that all Old Testament quotations are cited without referencing the book or its writer. That both the writer of the letter and its OT quotations are anonymous simply emphasise that God is speaking (cf. 12:25). Accordingly, may we be content and willing to hear “his voice” – today (3:7,15; 4:7).

The People in Mind

As with the writer, the location and identity of the recipients of the letter cannot be determined. However, it is evident the recipients were known to the writer and vice versa. For example, the writer asks the recipients to “pray for us” (13:18). Specifically, he urges them earnestly to pray that he might “be restored” to them speedily (v19). This may indicate that he was once one of their members or had enjoyed close fellowship with them. From 13:23, we learn that the writer had a common fellowship with “brother Timothy,” who he announces has just been released from prison, and with whom he hopes to visit them very soon. In his closing salutations, the writer sends them greetings from believers “of Italy” (v24). A similar expression with the preposition apo (“of” or, lit. “away from”) in Acts 18:2 may indicate the writer was among Italian believers, not living in Italy, who also knew them. Recognising that most OT quotations are from the Septuagint, it is plausible the recipients were Jews who had settled in a Greek-speaking (or Hellenist) country.

Earlier in the letter, the writer assures them of his confidence in their salvation, despite having to warn them so solemnly. His confidence is based on his knowledge of their “work and labour of love” which they showed toward “his [God’s] name” in serving “the saints” and were continuing to do so (6:9,10). The writer appears to have knowledge of the time they were saved (i.e., “illuminated,” 10:32), and potentially heard the message of salvation through the same band of witnesses (i.e., “us” and “them,” 2:3) who heard the Lord Jesus, and through whom God confirmed His word by “signs and wonders, and with divers miracles, and gifts of the Holy Ghost” (2:4).[1] The writer is also aware of their endurance in the face of great persecution, affliction and suffering (10:32,33). In this context, he gratefully acknowledges that they had “compassion” of him in his imprisonment (despite having to suffer persecution), and “joyfully” allowed their goods to be plundered in the process (10:34).

Although the letter lacks a specific greeting, there is little doubt the recipients were a company of believers. While much of the letter could be taken as for a broader audience, the writer’s intentions “that I may be restored to you the sooner” (13:19) and “I will see you” (v23) imply he has a local assembly in mind. A specific company can also be seen from the writer addressing them as “dull of hearing” and needing someone to teach them “again” (5:11,12). Consider also the three injunctions concerning their attitude towards their leaders in chapter 13 (vv7,17,24). Verse 17 says they are to “obey them.” The reason is that “they watch for your souls, as they that must give account.” This injunction is not intended to transcend beyond the autonomous government and functioning of a local assembly. It is also a clear reference to a group of elders who are responsible for feeding and overseeing a specific flock (Act 20:28; 1Pe 5:2,3). But as to the exact location of the assembly, we do not know.

Their Pedigree in Israel

The title pros ebraious (“To the Hebrews”) appears on one of the oldest surviving Greek manuscripts, P46. Although the title isn’t part of the inspired text, it succinctly describes the national and religious heritage of Jews who had received Jesus of Nazareth as Lord and Christ. When considering the salvation and distribution of many Jews in the book of the Acts (e.g., 2:41; 4:4; 5:14; 6:1,7; 8:12; 9:26; 10:45), one can easily see how various companies of Jews who had accepted Jesus of Nazareth as both Lord and Christ would have formed throughout Israel or in Roman or Hellenistic lands. This was but one of them.

The strongest argument for their Hebrew origin is the sheer volume of OT references relating to God’s dealings with Israel. Such references include the seed of Abraham, the fathers, Israel’s redemption from the land of Egypt, the Red Sea, the covenant God made with Israel and the blood of the covenant, covenant promises, experiences at Sinai, the Law of Moses, the tabernacle and its furniture, the Levitical priesthood, the system of sacrifices, tithing, the day of atonement, the Sabbath and its rest, Israel in the wilderness, Jericho, Jerusalem, Zion, the judges of Israel, the prophets, and numerous OT figures (such as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Melchisedec, Moses, Joshua, David, etc.). It is indeed an impressive portrait of the old economy.

References to Messiah also abound – His eternal Sonship, His creatorial power, His first coming, His sufferings, His second coming, His judgement, His millennial kingdom, His throne, His rule and His eternal being. Throughout, passages are cited, either directly or abstractly, from each book of the Pentateuch, Joshua, Judges, 2 Samuel, Psalms (several), Proverbs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Habakkuk, Haggai and Zechariah. If the recipients were not Jews, what purpose would there be in traversing the full landscape of Judaism to prove that Christ is better?

Note also the writer’s reference to “signs and wonders” (2:4). While it is possible Gentiles were among the recipients, the truth that “Jews require a sign” (1Co 1:22) seems to underscore their Jewish heritage and the intention for which signs were manifest by the Holy Spirit in apostolic days (e.g., Act 2:4,43; 3:7-8; 5:12,16,19; etc.).

[1] Bible quotations in this article are from the KJV.