Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a good conscience, desiring to conduct ourselves honorably in all things. And I urge you all the more to do this, so that I may be restored to you the sooner.
–Hebrews 13:18-19 (NASB)
In this second sermon on the Epistle to the Hebrews, Beth Immanuel Sabbath Fellowship teacher D. Thomas Lancaster thrusts his audience into a Biblical mystery and casts us all in the role of detectives who are trying to solve that mystery. What is the mystery? We have to answer a series of questions. We should attempt to answer these questions each time we study and analyze any book of the Bible.
The questions are:
- To Whom
In other words, when considering any book of the Bible, we must try to discover what sort of literary genre it is, when was it written, by whom was it written, to whom was it written, and why was it written.
Lancaster prefaces his attempt to address this mystery by saying that some of his audience, the congregation at Beth Immanuel, might find this presentation long, tedious, and boring. Not the best way to introduce a topic and certainly he was risking alienating his audience. On the other hand, before you paint a masterpiece or write a classic symphony, you must learn the very basics of art or music. So too with Biblical studies.
What, When, Who, To Whom, and Why.
First off, while the Book of Hebrews is assumed to be an epistle, the title “The Epistle to the Hebrews” is traditional and probably wasn’t the original title of the document, if it had a title at all. It doesn’t come with a superscription, that is, it doesn’t say, from so and so to the community of such and thus at this place or that, the way most of Paul’s letters began. Also, according to Lancaster, it doesn’t even sound like an epistle until you get to chapters 12 and 13, especially chapter 13, part of which I quoted above.
If it doesn’t read like a letter until nearly the very end of the document, then what else could it be?
But I urge you, brethren, bear with this word of exhortation, for I have written to you briefly. Take notice that our brother Timothy has been released, with whom, if he comes soon, I will see you. Greet all of your leaders and all the saints. Those from Italy greet you. (emph. mine)
–Hebrews 13:22-24 (NASB)
The words I put in bold in the above-quoted scripture are the answer, but what exactly is a “word of exhortation?” What sort of literary genre is that?
But going on from Perga, they arrived at Pisidian Antioch, and on the Sabbath day they went into the synagogue and sat down. After the reading of the Law and the Prophets the synagogue officials sent to them, saying, “Brethren, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, say it.” (emph. mine)
–Acts 13:14-15 (NASB)
In Acts 13, we see a traditional example of a Sabbath service in a synagogue in the diaspora (and probably in Israel) in the first century. Prayer services were conducted on every day of the week, but on Shabbat, there was also a Torah service which added a reading from the Torah, a reading from the Prophets (haftarah), and finally a sermon or drasha (Rabbinic commentary) on the Torah reading. When Paul stood up (v 16) and began to speak, he was starting to deliver his sermon, his drasha, his discourse, his teaching on Yeshua the Messiah based on the Torah portion that had just been read.
According to Lancaster, that’s how the vast majority of the Book of Hebrews reads. It’s not a classic epistle, it’s a sermon, probably delivered by the author, perhaps to whatever synagogue community to which the author belonged, or maybe a sermon the writer wanted to deliver to the intended recipients of this document, and then transcribed into a letter and sent to the remotely located recipients who were most likely very far away from where the author and his community were located.
I should say at this point that Lancaster told his own audience that we can’t really answer any of the “What, When, Who, To Whom, and Why” questions very well, and each opinion Lancaster offers resides firmly in the realm of educated guesses. Please keep in mind that neither Lancaster or I are saying that any suggestions offered in his sermon or in this blog post are definite facts. They aren’t. But they are attempts to address the mystery with some sort of credible hypothesis.
So, the suggested answer to “What is it” is, “a Drasha or Sermon”. The “word of exhortation” is a sermon.
Does it matter? Yes. Imagine, as Lancaster suggested, you were reading Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, but you thought it was delivered by an American President in 1963 rather than 1863. It would sure give a different meaning to what “four score and seven years ago” meant and thus change much or all of the meaning of this address.
The same is true of any Biblical document including Hebrews. Lancaster offered various proofs establishing that Hebrews must have been written earlier than the year 95 CE, and probably before 70 CE.
For every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices; so it is necessary that this high priest also have something to offer. Now if He were on earth, He would not be a priest at all, since there are those who offer the gifts according to the Law; who serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things, just as Moses was warned by God when he was about to erect the tabernacle; for, “See,” He says, “that you make all things according to the pattern which was shown you on the mountain.”
–Hebrews 8:3-5 (NASB)
Notice that the references to the high priest, the sacrifices, and the Temple are in the present tense (in Greek as well as in this English translation). Although there are detractors, Lancaster believes this is firm evidence that the Temple had to still exist when the letter, uh…sermon was written. He further places it in the mid-60s, maybe before 64 CE but not too much earlier, however you’ll have to listen to the recording to get the details.
Who wrote the letter, uh…sermon to the Hebrews? No one knows. It’s a mystery. The letter/sermon has no superscription (if it’s a sermon and not a letter, this is probably why it’s absent). The author is anonymous. Not that the intended audience thought the author was anonymous. They probably knew who wrote this missive.
Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a good conscience, desiring to conduct ourselves honorably in all things.
–Hebrews 13:18 (NASB)
If the author said “Pray for us,” that likely indicates that the audience knew who to pray for and who “us” included.
I won’t go into the details about Lancaster’s proofs, but he’s really sure it couldn’t have been Paul. The style and theology are wrong and the Greek is a lot better than Paul’s. In fact, it shows no signs of having originally been written in Hebrew or Aramaic, and looks like it was written by a native Greek-speaker and probably to native-Greek speakers (more on that last part in a minute). The bottom line though, in Lancaster’s opinion, is that it wasn’t written by Paul or any of the apostles, but probably by someone close to Paul, someone who probably knew how Paul thought, perhaps someone close to other apostles, like the “number one disciple” to an apostle, like the role Peter fulfilled for Jesus or the role Timothy fulfilled for Paul.
But we just don’t know who wrote Hebrews. Please listen to the recording though to hear some of Lancaster’s rather intriguing suggestions for authors and the evidence that exists supporting each possible writer.
Who was the intended audience? Not us, that’s for sure. In fact, as Lancaster says, not one word in the Bible was written primarily for any person, Christian or Jew, in the 21st century. That doesn’t mean the Bible doesn’t apply to us, but a lot of believers read the Bible as if it were written directly to them (us). It wasn’t, and that makes a great deal of difference when we try to understand the Bible, including Hebrews.
The language and the contents provide the answer, or at least a good guess as to the answer.
The language was written (in all likelihood) by a native Greek speaker since the Greek is so much better than Paul’s. That indicates it must have been written to native Greek speakers. On the surface, that would seem to say that the audience was in the diaspora, but the sermon reads more like a Rabbinic commentary with lots of references to the Temple, to the sacrifices, and to the Torah, so it seems reasonable that the audience should be Jewish (to the Hebrews). But the present-tense references to the sacrifices present a problem.
Some people think the author was in Jerusalem or Judea and writing to Jews in the diaspora, perhaps in Rome, but Lancaster’s theory is that the intended audience was a group of Greek-speaking Jews in Jerusalem or Judea. The references to the Temple would have made much more sense to an audience who had direct and frequent access to the Temple and the sacrifices.
But was there a large group of Greek-speaking Jews in or around Jerusalem when Hebrews was written?
Now at this time while the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food. So the twelve summoned the congregation of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” The statement found approval with the whole congregation; and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch. And these they brought before the apostles; and after praying, they laid their hands on them.
–Acts 6:1-6 (NASB)
There could be a problem with Lancaster’s theory here. After the stoning of the Greek-speaking Jew Stephen (Acts 7:54-60), there was a great persecution of the believing Jewish community in Jerusalem and except for the apostles, the Messianic Jews were “scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1-3) so the question here is, did the “synagogue of the Freemen” (for the Greek-speaking Jews in Jerusalem) exist when this sermon/letter was written?
As far as I’m aware, no one knows. Perhaps after the “heat” died down, a number of Hellenistic Jews returned to Jerusalem. The text above also says that the persecuted Hellenistic Jews were “scattered” to Judea, so if they remained in that area, Lancaster’s theory still makes sense.
According to Lancaster, the contents of Hebrews also answers this question. The letter is full of exhortations, that is, words of encouragement.
“Let love of the brethren continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it,” (Hebrews 13:1) “Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith,” (v. 7), “Do not be carried away by varied and strange teachings; for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, through which those who were so occupied were not benefited.” (v. 9)
According to Lancaster, he believes that the author wrote this sermon/letter to encourage and support a group of Greek-speaking Jewish believers who were in dire danger of apostasy; of falling away from faith in Yeshua of Nazareth as the Messiah, and abandoning the specific stream of Jewish faith once known as “the Way”.
Lancaster concluded his lengthy sermon (just over forty-four minutes) with some interesting applications.
The first is that, even though he dates the letter/sermon at about 64 C.E, before the Jewish revolt against Rome, before the destruction of the Temple, and before the horrible exile from Israel and into the diaspora, the letter functions very much as a warning and a lesson of how Jewish believers were to continue to survive as Jewish believers in exile, without the Temple, the sacrifices, the priesthood, and without Jerusalem.
“Before the Holy One, Blessed be He, inflicts the wound, He prepares the remedy.”
A quick Google search didn’t render the source for that piece of Rabbinic commentary, but it is a principle, says Lancaster, that applies to Hebrews. Even though the original audience and probably the author, could not have known what was coming in the next few years, Hebrews, nevertheless, speaks to the believing Jewish population about how to survive faithfully in exile. Hebrews is the remedy for all future generations of Jews in the galut and across the long centuries, even into the present age.
The other issue Lancaster came up with is the danger of apostasy right here and now. I know there’s been a lot of concern about apostasy in my little corner of the blogosphere recently. Certainly, there have been believing Jews and Gentiles who have abandoned Yeshua-faith for more “normative” Judaism. But according to Lancaster, the anti-missionaries aren’t the “boogeyman” we should be afraid of.
It’s apostasy into secularism, into agnosticism, into materialism, modernism, hedonism, and “me-ism” that’s the real danger.
You must not turn aside, for then you would go after futile things which can not profit or deliver, because they are futile.
–1 Samuel 12:21 (NASB)
The Prophet said this in response to the Israelites’ request for a human King, rather than serve Hashem as their King, and even as he called this “evil,” Samuel granted their wish, only to adjure them to continue to “serve the Lord with all your heart.” (v. 20)
Biblical history tells us that Israel’s first King, Saul, did not obey and neither did generations of Israelites, and yet God has always kept a remnant for Himself. (see 1 Kings 19:18)
What Did I Learn?
Everything. To be more precise, I have never taken up a serious study of Hebrews before, so I really didn’t have a context in which to approach it. The text, as Christian tradition renders it, is very anti-Jewish people/Judaism, anti-Torah, anti-Temple, and probably anti-Israel. As I said in my previous review, the Book of Hebrews, along with Galatians, is among the weapons in the Church’s arsenal to be used to destroy any suggestion or hint that anything “Jewish” survived the first century and continued into the historic progression of Christianity after the leveling of the Holy Temple and the razing of Jerusalem.
It is such Christian traditions that allow men like John MacArthur to say that Jesus “obliterated the sacrificial system because He brought an end to Judaism with all its ceremonies, all its rituals, all its sacrifices, all of its external trappings, the Temple, the Holy of Holies, all of it.”
I personally believe nothing could be further from the truth, and I also believe that in order to make such an offensive and outrageous statement, Christian scholars, theologians, clergy, and laity have to not just tweak Biblical interpretation, but fold, spindle, and mutilate the original meaning of many portions of the Bible, deforming the intent of the Biblical authors (both the human ones and the Holy Spirit) in order to make a Jewish square peg fit with exceptional discomfort into a Gentile Christian round hole.
Every time I read, watch, or listen to a modern Messianic commentary on books like Galatians or Hebrews, I realize those writings don’t belong in a Christian “weapons depot” to be used against the Jewish people, Judaism, and a Jewish-oriented faith in Moshiach, but rather, they are to be an encouragement to Jewish and Gentile believers that the Gospel message is indeed first to the Jews as good news, and thereafter good news also to the Gentiles of the nations who are called by His Name.
Right now, based on this sermon of Lancaster’s, I have a working theory with which to approach the Book of Hebrews that doesn’t drive me crazy. Lancaster said the next sermon will go into more detail about the “Why” of this letter/sermon. I’m looking forward to hearing this lesson and reviewing it.