HebrewsTesting Christian's Faith Part IIby Jon Sedlak
March 22, 2011
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.
- Hebrews 1:1-2 (ESV)
Here are some questions I have:
1) Who are the recipients of this letter?
2) What are some popular beliefs from modern scholars about the audience of this letter?
3) Are there any textual indicators which imply a specific audience?
4) Are there any theological indicators mentioned that imply a specific reason for writing this letter to this audience?
#1: Most modern scholars suggest that this letter was written to an exclusively gentile audience. Other scholars suggest that this letter was written to the "spiritual Israel," which includes Christian Jews and Gentiles of the early Church. Others suggest that this letter is addressed to a specific audience of Christian Jews, particularly the Christian Jews of Acts 8:1-4 and Acts 11:19 who were "scattered abroad" (i.e. dispersed).
#2: Most modern scholars believe that it was written in the early-to-mid 2nd century A.D. or later and that it's style of writing appears to be structured so that Jews and Gentiles alike could become better acquainted with Judaical misunderstandings that influenced the early Church, and therefore this audience couldn't be as specific as Christian Jews of the early Church's dispersion (Acts 8:1-4; 11:19) because they are assumed to be, in advance of exegesis, a wide ranging audience of Christians learning spiritual truths from past accomplished events. Among those who believe the author's primary audience was exclusively Gentile, and living in early-to-mid 2nd century A.D., the meaning and purpose of this letter is commonly interpreted in a more esoteric fashion, that to understand how all of the Old Testament language applies to the New Testament believer is to mature into some kind of "inner circle" of the Christian faith. Those who believe in neither of these propositions, but rather that the audience is specifically addressing a Christian-Jewish audience, they see the entire letter of Hebrews as an authoritative plea to warn and encourage the persecuted Christian Jews prior to God's visitation of his covenant-people (i.e Israel) in 70 A.D.
#3: If this letter is not addressed to a specific audience of Christian Jews, every scholar agrees that it is at least appealing to the rich heritage of God's self-revelation to man prior to the incarnation of Jesus. And that necessarily implies God's plan of revealing himself to the world through the descendants of Abraham, and eventually the Hebrews. If it is believed that this letter is addressed to an audience of the 2nd century or later (or any time after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.) then the author's intentions might simply be to point out that God intended to work out his plan for the world in a wide variety of ways, but now God wants us to know that He has decided to speak to us in his Son, Jesus. For those who do believe the letter is addressing a specific audience of Christian Jews prior to the destruction of the Old Covenant administration (especially it's central Temple for worshiping their promised Messiah, Jesus), an understanding of these opening words would have been natural. The author addresses his audience as though they are very familiar with who "our fathers" are. To Christian Jews dispersed throughout the surrounding nations, this makes perfect sense. The author also says that God spoke to "our fathers through the prophets," which implies that this audience is familiar with God speaking to them in a particular way - "through the prophets." Again, to Christian Jews, statements like these are taken for granted as being understood from the days of their early childhood when they would attend passover seders. Following this statment, the author then addresses himself as one of those among his own audience. The author addresses his audience, saying that "God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us." God had spoken to "us" (i.e. he's including himself as one of "them"), he says, through his Son.
#4: In our current theological climate, the scholarly tide tends to sweep important theological evidence away from the shore. Most scholars are predisposed in their interpretive framework to believe that the audience addressed in this letter is not as specific as Christian Jews dispersed throughout the nations prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. The major theological indicators in favor of this view are the claims about "the Son" who is said to be the one who inherits "all things," not simply the Hebrew people; and also, it has been interpreted by scholars that the emphasis upon God's creation of the world implies an audience who is ignorant of the truth that the Hebrew Messiah is also the Creator of the world. Of course, if one were to view this evidence exclusively through the lens of a gentile convert and a gentile audience, of course Jesus "the Son" of God is the Messiah of the Hebrews! Apparently this revelation of Jesus to the Gentiles is what makes this statement so profound (or so it has been argued). For those who believe the audience is specifically the Christian Jews "scattered abroad" prior to 70 A.D., this statement is one which reinforces encouragement and faith in times of known persecution and temptation to revert back to Judaism. God had revealed himself in a wide variety of ways over a long period of time, and those ways were designed to point to Jesus the Son of God and his Messianic reign over the world which He created and rightfully inherited. And this is precisely what the author is stating in the opening verses of this letter.
Moreover, the author also begins this letter with a peculiar phrase, a phrase which seems to indicate a certain time-frame in which his audience could listen and respond favorably. The peculiar phrase is "these last days." What exactly is meant by "these last days"? In Matthew 3:2 Jeus said "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!" (ESV). James, who was writing to a Jewish audience, also said "You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand" (James 5:8, ESV). Jesus had spoken to his people - his Hebrew brethren - in Matthew 24:34 prophesying that he would visit his people in judgment before that generation passed away. Perhaps this time period, between the revelation of God to the Hebrews (in Jesus his Son) and the destruction of Jerusalem (with it's central place of worshipping God) is what the author of Hebrews is refferring to as "these last days." "These last days" would then be referring to a limited time period of grace (approximately 40 years) prophesied against those who crucified their Messiah and rejected His covenant. During this limited time-period of grace, Israelite brethren were called to repent and believe in the name of Jesus and to build his kingdom on earth. For all practical purposes, the idea of "nearness" and "coming judgment" upon Israel does seem to be consistent with the promises of the Old Covenant that God would cut off all those who refuse to hear His Son (Deut. 18:15-19; Acts 3:22-23; 7:37; John 5:45-47).
In Matthew 24:33-34, after a terrifying description of judgment, Jesus says that "When you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place" (ESV). The world-renowned Greek scholar and historian, A. T. Robertson, comments on Matthew 24:33-34 and this entire prophecy of Jesus to his disciples:
"This generation (he genea haute). The problem is whether Jesus is here referring to the destruction of Jerusalem or to the second coming and the end of the world. If to the destruction of Jerusalem, there was a literal fulfillement. In the Old Testament a generation was reckoned as forty years. This is the natural way to take Matt. 24:34 as of Matt. 24:33 (Bruce), "all things" meaning the same in both verses." (A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, [Baker Book House; Grand Rapids, Michigan; 1930] Volume 1, pp. 193-194)
Interestingly enough, this language of a "soon-coming" visitation from the Lord and a limited time-period of temptation for the early Christian church is not an uncommon theme taught by Jesus' apostles or the prophets through whom God spoke to Israel in the past (e.g. Jer. 31:31-37). In I Peter 4:7, which is addressed to the Christian Jews who were "scattered abroad" (i.e. dispersed, I Pet. 1:1) throughout the gentile nations, says "The end of all things is at hand; therefore, be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers." Elsewhere in the same book, Peter reminds his audience that "Christ, a lamb without spot; He was foreknown before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in the last times for the sake of you" (I Pet. 1:19-20, ESV). The apostle John mentions the time in which his audience lives as being the "last hour" (I John 2:18). I John 2:18-22 also fits in to the unique context of early Christian history when Christian Jews were persecuted by their anti-Christian brethren that deny "the Father and the Son" together as one and "that Jesus is the Christ" (i.e. the promised Messiah). Jude also warns his brethren that "In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions" (Jude 1:18, ESV). Paul, in both of his pastoral letters to Timothy, also seems to be referring to this narrow time-frame before the abolition of the Old Covenant world. In the closer context of I Timothy 3:14-4:6 Paul reminds Timothy that "the Spirit expressly says that in the later times some will depart from the faith" (I Tim. 4:1, ESV); and he follows this comment with a description of idolatrous practices mentioned in the scriptural history of Israel. In other words, the early Christian Church leaders like Timothy were to be especially watchful for seducing, devilish "brethren" who are already in a covenant relationship with God, i.e. those described by Paul as already being in "the faith." Timothy is warned to guard against such false brethren not just because Paul says so, but because the Scriptures expressly talk about the "latter times" in which Israel would be cut off by God. Again, A. T. Robertson comments on this passage by saying that these "later times" mentioned in I Tim. 4:1 refers to a relative time from a past prediction, now coming true (i.e. a present danger). Likewise, in the context of II Timothy 2:15-3:1 which describes the internal schism of the Christian body by false-brethren, Paul assures Timothy that "in the last days grievous times will be at hand" (II Tim. 3:1, MKJV), and therefore he (Timothy) is to be comforted by this information during that time.
Of course, not everyone interprets "these last days" as a reference to God's covenant curse upon Israel and the abolition of the Old Covenant administration. Most commentators over the centuries have interpreted the evidence as though "these last days" mentioned in Hebrews 1:2 refers to the general time period before Christ's first coming and the literal end of the world when Jesus returns bodily a second time. That is a reasonable interpretation as well, within a certain framework of interpretation. As we go through this letter, we'll explore that option whenever possible to see how that assumption helps the case the author of Hebrews appears to be settling once and for all.
To be continued....