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New Testament | Hebrews | Summary

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Summary

  • God used prophets to speak to former generations but has now sent God's son, who "is the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being," who purified sin and then was resurrected (Hebrews 1:3).
  • Jesus viewed all human beings as brothers and sisters, sharing the same Father, and he was willing to share their flesh and blood to destroy the devil and free all human beings from the fear of death.
  • Quoting Psalm 95:7, the author advises the people not to harden their hearts; instead, he urges them to remember they "have become partners of Christ" (Hebrews 3:14).
  • God will discern and judge each person's worthiness.
  • Instead of offering the blood of animals in sacrifice, Jesus gave his own blood on the cross.
  • Because there has been forgiveness of sins in Jesus's unique sacrifice, offerings for sin no longer need to be made.
  • The Hebrews, surrounded by witnesses in the patriarchs and leaders of the Jewish scriptures, should look to Jesus as the model for their faith.
  • The author encourages his readers to be hospitable, protect the integrity of marriage, respect their leaders, and always be willing to suffer like Jesus.

Analysis

Although Hebrews is listed with the letters in the New Testament canon, it does not have usual epistolary features. For example, it lacks a prescript, the opening portion of a letter that identifies the sender(s) and any addressees. Instead, the text begins with a declarative statement about the way God has interacted with God's people in history. This looks more like a theological treatise or sermon.

It also has extensive quotations from the Jewish scriptures, especially Psalms and some prophetic texts, including Jeremiah. While other New Testament letters also cite scripture, Hebrews does so at much greater length and more frequently. This feature of the text makes it seem like an exegetical exercise (exegesis is the process of interpreting and explaining texts).

Hebrews is still grouped with the letters because of its closing. It does have what looks like a typical epistolary farewell and closing in Hebrews 13, especially because it ends with a statement about travel plans (the author says he and Timothy will probably visit soon, in Hebrews 13:23) and asks the readers to greet specific groups (Hebrews 13:24).

The letter's view of Christ focuses on sacrifice and covenant. Many scholars believe that Hebrews must have been written near the end of the 1st century CE in order to allow time for this type of Christology to develop in the years after Jesus's death. By comparing Jesus and Jewish priests, the author offers an interpretation of Jesus's crucifixion as an atoning sacrifice that secures, eternally, forgiveness for human sin. This interpretation is most clearly explained in Hebrews 9, where the author goes into detail about the usual form of sacrifice in Jewish history and cult (religious practices). He describes how the priests perform sacrifices, tracing their work all the way back to the time when the tabernacle was first constructed in the wilderness and the priesthood was established in Moses's brother Aaron. He focuses on the role of animal blood in purification, explaining how the blood was used to sanctify and purify "those who have been defiled" (Hebrews 9:13). By analogy, he explains that Christ's blood, shed in the crucifixion, is an even greater atoning sacrifice that does not need to be repeated every year, but was effective once and for all.

Although Jesus introduces a new covenant and a new, eternal sacrifice, for the author of Hebrews his role in salvation is deeply connected to Jewish history as told in the Jewish scriptures. The author talks about a somewhat minor character, Melchizedek. This figure appears only in Genesis and in Psalm 110, but in Hebrews he represents a tradition of worshipping God that can be traced back even before the priesthood and the tabernacle. Melchizedek therefore foreshadows the priesthood of Jesus, which depends on knowledge of God and not on being born into the priestly tribe of Levites.

As such, all who follow Jesus are now part of the people of God, regardless of their ethnic or racial identity. In Hebrews 11, the author rapidly summarizes the whole of Jewish history and reframes God's people as people united by their shared faith. In Hebrews 12, he encourages the Christ-believers in his audience to be faithful, following the model of all those "witnesses" from Jewish history and the model of Jesus, who forges the connection between Jewish history and the Christ-believing community (Hebrews 12:1).

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