Interviewed by Andy Naselli
Peter O’Brien is senior research fellow in New Testament at Moore Theological College in Sydney, Australia. He recently finished a commentary on Hebrews , and he has written three other commentaries on Paul’s letters that are among the finest available on those letters:
Don’t miss Jared Compton’s forthcoming review of O’Brien’s Hebrews commentary in Themelios 35.2, which should be published online soon. (Most of the below questions are ones that Jared kindly suggested that I ask for this interview.)
1. How would you summarize the message of Hebrews?
Hebrews is a “word of exhortation” (Hebrews 13:22) sent as a letter to Christians, probably from a Jewish background, urging them to maintain their confession of Jesus Christ, the Son of God and perfect high priest (3:6, 14; 4:14; 10:23).
Through exposition the author uses the Old Testament to show the Son’s place in God’s saving plan, his superiority to angels (1:5–14), the purpose of the incarnation (2:10–18), the superiority of Jesus’ priesthood (5:1–7:28), and his high priestly offering by which he inaugurated the new covenant (8:1–10:18).
Through exhortation, which includes words of encouragement and stern warnings, as well as positive and negative examples, the author repeatedly urges his listeners to persevere faithfully in order to reach their eternal rest in the heavenly city.
2. Why did the audience of Hebrews need this message?
The members of the community had previously suffered persecution, imprisonment, public abuse, and the loss of their property (10:32–34). Now they were being called upon to endure suffering again.
They had grown weary as believers and were in danger of drifting away or, worse, willfully persisting in sin and rejecting the Son of God. Although the author does not say that they have actually committed apostasy, some are in great danger. In order to prevent such a disaster he addresses his powerful “word of exhortation” to them.
3. What NT book(s) does Hebrews share the most in common with? Why?
In relation to Christology, Hebrews’ “Son” language has close links with John and Paul in the NT, as does the high Christology of Hebrews 1:1–3. The author of Hebrews shows a clear interest in the historical Jesus (cf. 5:7–10), which is consistent with the four Gospels. Both Hebrews (7:25) and Paul (Rom. 8:34) speak of Christ’s present intercession, although Hebrews’ exposition of his high priestly work on earth and in heaven has many distinctive features.
Themes that Hebrews shares in common with other NT books, even if they are specifically nuanced by the author, include “rest” (Matthew 11), “faith” (in Paul), and the “new covenant” (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Paul).
Hebrews is also vitally concerned, as are other New Testament books (such as 1 John), about the perseverance of Christians and the nature and danger of apostasy.
4. How does Hebrews view the relationship between the old and new covenants (esp. in Heb 8:13; 9:9-10)?
Although many regard Hebrews’ approach to the new covenant in terms of “renewal” of the old, it is better to speak of it as “replacement.” Hebrews draws attention to several fundamental differences between the two covenants, emphasizing the superiority of the promises, sacrifice, mediator, blessing, and inheritance of the new covenant.
While the first covenant was based on promises (namely, that Israel would be God’s people: Exod. 6:7), the new covenant is established on “better promises.” These appear in the quotation from Jeremiah 31:31–34 (Heb. 8:8–12). They include God’s implanting his laws in his people’s hearts (v. 10), which implies their receiving a new heart (Ezek. 11:19–20; 36:26–27), the knowledge of God as a matter of personal experience (v. 11), and an announcement within the new covenant itself that the Lord will forgive his people’s sins (v. 12). Indeed, a profound weakness of the old covenant was that neither it nor the priesthood associated with it could attain “perfection” (7:11, 19), that is, the definitive cleansing of the conscience (cf. 9:9–10). By contrast, the sacrifice of Christ, the guarantor and mediator of the new covenant (7:22; 8:6), achieves this cleansing so that we may serve the living God (9:14; 10:16–18).
The contrast between the covenants in Hebrews is similar to that in Paul; it is not between something evil and what is good, but between what is good and what is better.
5. Why does the author Hebrews cite Psalm 110:4?
Psalm 110 is the most widely cited text of the OT in the NT, where it is interpreted messianically. Verse 1 of the psalm is quoted by the author at Hebrews 1:13 (“Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”; cf. v. 3) to refer to Jesus’ enthronement. He in exalted and seated in the place of honor, thus guaranteeing his superiority to the whole of creation.
The author of Hebrews, who is apparently the first to do so, later brings out the implications of ascribing this psalm to Jesus by linking the divine utterance of v. 1, “Sit at my right hand . . . ,” with God’s further declaration of v. 4, “You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek” (5:6; 6:20; 7:17, 21). These citations in chapters 5–7 are central to the author’s argument that Jesus was a priest of a different order than the Levitical priesthood. He is a priest in the order of Melchizedek who offered himself as the perfect sacrifice once for all time and is now seated at the right hand of God.
The conjunction of Psalms 2:7 and 110:4 (at Heb. 1:5 with 13; and 5:5 with 6) indicates the vital connection between Jesus as Son and as high priest for the Christology of Hebrews. He who is the perfect Son of God became the perfect high priest for his people.
I am currently working on a Biblical Theology of Hebrews and planning to co-author a volume on the doctrine of justification in the Bible and the church.
Thanks, Peter, for serving the readers of Justin Taylor’s blog by answer these questions!