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This introductory course is designed to provide key insights into the book of Hebrews by pulling together a number of key resources: overview videos from Fast Facts and The Bible Project, helpful contextual information from The ESV Study Bible, commentary recommendations from The Gospel Coalition, a single sermon that sums up the book from beginning to end by Mark Dever, and much more. By watching, listening to, and reading these resources, you’ll be better prepared to read, study, teach, or preach the book of Hebrews.
As noted in Themes & Background, the book of Hebrews has affinities with the genres of both the epistle and the sermon. The first 12 chapters conduct a sustained theological argument about the superiority of Christ over a number of rivals and about the need to persevere in following this vastly superior Messiah. While following many ancient customs of rhetorical argumentation, these chapters can remind the modern reader of an essay with a thesis, a series of subordinate generalizations, and supporting proof consisting of data and commentary on that data.
The book of Hebrews is one of the most stylistically polished books in the NT. The writer is a master of imagery and metaphor, allusions to the OT, comparison and analogy, contrast, and long, flowing sentences that build to a climax and often use parallel construction of clauses.
The rhetoric of the book is partly argumentative, as the author conducts a sustained theological exposition such as modern readers might expect in a debate or in a theology book. The persuasive strategy adheres to one of the classical ways of arguing a thesis, which is to repeat the main idea often and from a variety of angles. In addition to the rhetoric of argument and debate, readers will find in the book of Hebrews a persuasive rhetoric of exhortation in which the writer appeals to his readers not to abandon their faith.
The central motif of the book is the formula “better,” with the cluster of words “better,” “more,” and “greater” appearing a combined total of 25 times. The comparative motif, in which one thing is declared superior to another thing, is the main rhetorical strategy of the book. A common rhetorical form by which the comparison is conducted is analogy, with something in the OT being declared similar to the person and work of Christ. But the analogies are not between two equal things; rather, the author argues from the lesser to the greater.
Christ is greater than any angel, priest, or old covenant institution; thus each reader, rather than leaving such a great salvation, is summoned to hold on by faith to the true rest found in Christ and to encourage others in the church to persevere.
Hebrews 1:1–14; 2:5–18
Hebrews 1:3; 2:10–18; 4:15–16; 9:11–10:19
Hebrews 1:4–2:18; 3:1–6; 5:1–10; 7:1–10:18
Hebrews 4:12–13; 9:27–28; 10:26–31
Hebrews 4:2–3; 6:1, 12; 10:22, 38–39; 11:1–40
Hebrews 2:1–4; 3:7–4:13; 5:11–6:12; 10:19–39; 12:1–29
Hebrews 1:2; 2:5; 4:9–11; 9:9–28; 12:22–29
The genre of Hebrews is unusual. The book is without an introduction or other early indications that it is a letter. Yet the final verses do pass on greetings and blessings (Heb. 13:23–25), and the author speaks of having “written to you” (Heb. 13:22). However, the author also identifies his work as a “word of exhortation” (Heb. 13:22). The careful rhetorical progression of the book, along with its frequent practical exhortations, has led many to consider it a single sermon. Perhaps Hebrews is best understood as a sermonic letter.
Hebrews frequently encourages the audience to endure and warns against leaving Christ (Heb. 2:1–4; 3:7–4:13; 5:11–6:12; 10:19–39; 12:1–29). These warning passages are interspersed throughout the book (see chart in the ESV Study Bible, p. 2366) and have noticeable structural similarities (esp. in terms of exhortation and threatened consequence). Around these passages the argument of the book progresses carefully. Moreover, these specific exhortations themselves flow out of the surrounding material. Thus the book is unified in both structure and intent.
The warning passages exhort church participants to remain faithful. The more expository sections of the epistle show the superiority of Christ and his new covenant work to angels, Moses, the tabernacle priesthood, and the sacrificial system. The implication is that these are so inferior to Christ that it is futile to return to them (or to go anywhere else). Thus the book encourages the church to hold fast to its faith, because that faith is grounded in the most superior revelation.
The background of such exhortations must have been the audience’s need to continue enduring through persecution and the trials of life (e.g., ch. 12). They appear to have grown less attentive to Christian instruction (Heb. 5:11–14); and some apparently have ceased regular attendance at their meetings (Heb. 10:25). Nonetheless, the author reminds them of their past faithfulness and communal love in the midst of persecution (Heb. 10:32–34). He encourages their faithfulness by careful exposition of the OT in light of the revelation in Jesus Christ.
The soteriology (salvation teaching) of Hebrews is rooted in its Christology—the Son of God became the heavenly high priest, who offered himself as a sacrifice once for all. Christ obtained salvation for all who approach in faith (Heb. 6:1; 11:6; cf. 4:2), and such faith perseveres until it receives the promised eternal reward (Heb. 6:12; 10:22, 38–39).
Christ has accomplished final salvation, has brought the final word of God, and has become the final priest and the one atoning sacrifice to which the OT pointed.
Nancy Guthrie interviews Sam Storms
The following recommendations are from D. A. Carson, New Testament Commentary Survey. 7th ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2013.