Throughout this blog series, we’ve been exploring introductory matters related to the book of Hebrews. Thus far, we’ve tried to detect clues within the letter as it pertains to the identity of the author and the central message of the book. In the final post of this series, we’ll turn our attention to the question of audience.
Who Were the Readers?
(1) Let’s start with the most obvious clue, the title: “To the Hebrews.” It doesn’t take a Sherlock Holmes to figure out that the letter was written to Jews, to a Jewish congregation. Consequently, the author is quoting extensively from the OT (the citation of Jeremiah 31 in 8:8–12 is the longest OT quotation in the entire NT) and expects his readers to know the minutiae of the OT sacrificial system. In addition, it’s intriguing to speculate that the audience may have included some of the “great many of the priests” who “became obedient to the faith” mentioned in Acts 6:7, which would explain the unique emphasis on Jesus’ priesthood in Hebrews.
(2) In addition, there are several clues scattered throughout the book to suggest that the author addressed himself to a Jewish-Christian congregation and its leaders who had come to believe that Jesus was the Messiah—at least in considerable numbers—but who had later been tempted to revert to Judaism because of increasing persecution. You see, while Judaism was a recognized religion in the Roman Empire—a religio licita—Christianity was not. What this meant was that as long you were a pious Jew, you were protected; but if you converted to Christianity, and professed faith in Christ, you became the target of persecution, not only by the Romans, but even by non-messianic Jews. We see this clearly in the book of Acts where typically non-messianic Jews were the primary forces behind the persecution of Christians while the Roman authorities were mostly just trying to keep the peace.
You can see how it would be easy to think you could still be a good Jew and keep the Law and avoid persecution if you didn’t publicly come out as a Christian. Such was the temptation the readers faced. In the climactic exhortation in 10:23–25, as we’ve seen, the author urged his readers, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” This verse is often quoted out of context to encourage people to go to church on Sunday (which is obviously what they should do); but in the original context, the specific problem was that some who had previously gathered with other believers for worship were now wavering because of persecution. So here the author is telling those people not to neglect meeting together, and adds ominously, “as is the habit of some.”
Then, a few verses later in 10:32–36, the author writes, “But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. Therefore, do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised.” So, we see how this congregation had previously suffered persecution but apparently now some were having second thoughts.
For this reason, the author includes several “warning passages” throughout the book in which he argues that now that Jesus had come, and died, and risen, going back to keeping the Law was no longer an option (e.g., 2:3–4; 6:1–6; etc.). I think this is important for us to realize today as well, because it means is that Christians need to evangelize non-Christian Jews. I believe non-Christian Jews who are alive today and who die without believing in Christ will go to hell, and so we need to preach the gospel to them and urge them to believe in Jesus as Messiah, so they can be saved. I know this is controversial and won’t be received well by either the media or non-messianic Jews, but I submit to you that this is the clear implication from the message of the book of Hebrews and the rest of the NT.
(3) One final observation, and then we’re done. Can we determine from clues in the book where the readers were located? I think we can; based on a concluding reference in the book, we have good reason to believe that the letter was addressed to a Christian congregation or group of house churches in the city of Rome, which at the time of writing was the epicenter of persecution of Christians under Emperor Nero who reigned AD 54–68. At 13:24, the author mentions “those who come from Italy” who “send you greetings.” Most likely, this refers to people who came from Italy (whose capital was Rome) and who sent greetings to their friends back in Rome from wherever the letter was written (we don’t really know where that was).
I’ve already mentioned that because of the lack of reference to the destruction of the Temple, the letter was almost certainly written prior to AD 70, and thus during the reign of Nero. We know that when in the year 64 a massive fire broke out in Rome, Nero famously played the fiddle while Rome burnt—and then blamed the Christians. In the aftermath, many believers were fed to the lions in the Roman Coliseum, and unspeakable atrocities were committed against our ancestors in the faith. (Incidentally, that’s why I think it’s rather insensitive for people today, including even some Christians, to pose in front of the Coliseum and have pictures taken of their smiling faces and then post those pictures on Facebook or other social media sites.)
In any case, from the internal clues in the book of Hebrews, it appears that the letter was likely written to a Jewish-Christian congregation, possibly including some converted priests, where some were tempted to revert to Judaism shortly before conditions strongly deteriorated for believers in Rome.
We’ve come to the end of our series on the book of Hebrews. We’ve discovered a surprising number of clues strewn throughout the book regarding the author, the text, and its first readers. Based on these clues, we’ve concluded that the author was a man, a second-generation believer, who most likely chose to remain anonymous on purpose. The letter was almost certainly written prior to the destruction of the Temple in AD 70 and most likely originated as a series of oral messages (possibly 3). In these sermons, the author forcefully argues that Jesus is the climax of God’s revelation and redemption. He is the greatest in a series of spokespersons God sent and the great high priest who established the new covenant, rendering the old covenant obsolete. The readers were Jewish Christians in Rome who were tempted to shrink back from their Christian confession because of increasing persecution.
Finally, how is the letter relevant today? I believe what we can see here is that Christianity is not for the faint-hearted. It takes courage to be a follower of Christ. Like the Hebrews, Jewish Christians living in first-century Rome, we must hold fast to our confession in a culture that is increasingly hostile to our faith. As Jesus said, we need to enter the narrow gate, for broad is the way to destruction. And we need to remember that following Christ involves a life of committed discipleship and a willingness to suffer for our faith. The book of Hebrews is therefore an important book that can challenge us to be serious followers of Christ amid a Christian subculture that is often rather shallow and where there is much nominal or lukewarm Christianity that is at best a watered-down version of the biblical, historic faith. May God help us to be those kinds of Christians and to be those kinds of churches who practice our faith in a way that is vibrant, committed, and unafraid.