“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb 12:1-2)
Romans is the book that best explains what the gospel of Jesus Christ is. Hebrews does a great job of theologically and systematically explaining Jesus’ ministry and who He is.
The four authors of the gospels organized Jesus’ life, teachings, and ministries from His birth to His death and resurrection. Through this, readers are able to know that He was the Messiah and the Son of God who came from heaven to save us from our sins.
But the book of Hebrews is different from the gospels. The authors of the gospels didn’t add their personal interpretations or opinions about Jesus but simply described His life chronologically. However, the author of Hebrews theologically explained the meaning of Jesus’ coming, death, and resurrection with regard to the Old Testament in order to prove that Jesus is superior to all things and that salvation is found only in Him.
It’s important to know why the author explained who Jesus is in detail in this book. Why did the author write it? Answering these questions will help us understand the book better.
Unfortunately, unlike most other books in the Bible, Hebrews doesn’t reveal who the author was. But, even though we don’t know his name, we at least know that the author was a Jew who was very familiar with the Old Testament and Judaic tradition.
Hebrews 1:1 says,
“In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways” (Heb 1:1)
Here, when talking about the Israelites, he used the word ‘our ancestors,’ not ‘their ancestors,’ from which we can infer that he was a Jew. And, as I said earlier, the book of Hebrews is filled with all kinds of important concepts, symbols, events, and figures from the Old Testament.
The author not only had a deep understanding of the Old Testament, but was able to interpret Jesus’ ministries based on it.
Original Readers: Jewish Christians
There are a few clues in the book that indicate who the original readers were and what situation they were in when this letter was written.
First, we know that they were Jews based on the fact that the author called the Israelites in the Old Testament “our ancestors.” We can also infer this from the fact that the author didn’t add further explanations of Old Testament concepts he used, as if he knew that they would understand them.
Second, they were not beginners in faith who had just started to believe in Jesus. They had converted to Christianity long before this letter was delivered to them.
Hebrews 5:12 says,
“In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food!” (Heb 5:12)
Third, they were faithful Christians who tried to live according to God’s word. Heb 6:10 says,
“God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them.” (Heb 6:10)
Fourth, we know that they underwent persecution because of their faith in Jesus but kept their faith. Hebrews 10:32-34 says,
“Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you endured in a great conflict full of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions.” (Heb 10:32-34)
In summary, the original readers were Jewish Christians who had kept their faith in Jesus in the midst of persecution, and they helped people in need through God’s love. So, they were not just so-called “Sunday Christians,” or “nominal Christians,” but true Christians.
Then why did the author feel the need to explain who Jesus is to them, despite the fact that they seemed to already be good Christians?
That’s because some of them tried to go back to their former religion, Judaism, because of the severe Christian persecution they faced.
The author pointed out the fact that they had already undergone hardships and had endured them very well. In the past, they were exposed to insult and imprisonment, and their possessions were confiscated because of their faith in Jesus. Those persecutions were not easy to withstand, yet they joyfully endured and tolerated them.
However, the persecution they were going through now was on another level. They were facing torture and death because of their faith in Jesus.
Even though the author didn’t reveal what specific persecution those Christians were undergoing at that time, many theologians consider it to be the one led by Nero, the fifth emperor of Rome who reigned from 52 to 68 A.D.
Nero is well-known as the worst emperor in Roman history. You might have heard about Nero’s cruel persecution toward Christians during his reign, which began with a fire in Rome.
On the night of June 18, 64 A.D., a great fire broke out in Rome. The fire lasted for six days, but on the seventh night it began to flare up again for three more days due to strong wind. As a result, three of the fourteen sections of the city were destroyed, and seven others were severely damaged.
Many people lost everything, including their family members and houses. In the midst of their suffering, they were angry and wanted to know who set the fire.
Soon, a rumor arose that Nero had ordered the city destroyed so that he could expand his palace. Historians agree that he was involved in the fire in some way behind the scenes.
The Romans began to suspect the emperor. So, Nero tried to calm them down by choosing a group of scapegoats. And, the group he chose to blame was the Christians.
He said that Christians set the fire because of their hatred of humankind. Many intellectual people didn’t believe that Christians actually did it, but the general population believed it, likely because they needed someone to blame and take their anger out on.
So, cruel persecution began. Nero commanded Roman soldiers to arrest all Christians, torture them and kill them. According to historical records, before killing the Christians, Nero used them to amuse people.
Nero opened his gardens for shows and games. Some Christians were dressed in furs to be killed by starved animals. Others were crucified. Still others were set on fire early in the night, so that they would illuminate the streets all night long, like street lamps.
Many Christians died because of this persecution. It’s likely that both Peter and Paul were also executed during that time.
Hebrews 13:7 implies that many great leaders were caught and killed, saying, “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” (Heb 13:7)
Even though many Christians kept their faith and died, still many others betrayed Jesus because of the persecution. And, among them were Jewish Christians. They were heavily tempted to betray their fatih and go back to their former religion, Judaism, since Nero only persecuted ‘Christians,’ not ‘Jews.’
Historians imply that this was because of Nero’s wife, Poppaea Sabina. She was close to the Jews, so she may have suggested that Nero blame Christians rather than all Jews. At that time, the Jews hated the Christians.
Roman soldiers were unable to distinguish between Jews and Christians because they both believed in the God of Israel. The only thing that distinguished them was the name of Jesus Christ.
The Jews believed in God but denied Jesus as His son. But, Christians believed in both God and Jesus. So, when Roman soldiers captured alleged Christians, they didn’t ask, “Do you believe in the God of Israel?”, but “do you believe in Jesus?”
If they said yes, they were tortured and killed. But, it was easy to avoid. They only had to say, “I don’t believe in Jesus.”
That’s what many Jewish Christians did. When facing this severe persecution, they abandoned their faith in Jesus and reverted to Judaism.
It’s believed that three letters were sent to Christians during those difficult times: the gospel of Mark, first Peter, and the book of Hebrews.
So, Hebrews was originally sent to Jewish Christians who were heavily tempted to go back to Judaism and deny Christ due to great persecution. Therefore, in this letter, the author of Hebrews strongly warned them not to turn away from Christ, but to firmly hold on to their faith, fixing their eyes on Jesus.
That’s why the author explained who Jesus really is in this letter. He focused on proving the superiority of Jesus compared to all the symbols and historical figures of Judaism.
The author wanted to prove that there’s no salvation apart from Jesus so that they wouldn’t go back to Judaism. So, the key points of the book of Hebrews are faith, suffering, and Jesus’ superiority.