Studies in the Epistle to the Hebrews
These studies appeared serially in the monthly expository magazine, REVELATION, during 1931 and 1932, and are now reproduced in book form by kind permission from the original publishers. In preparing for their re-publication all the papers have been carefully edited and occasionally revised for the sake of greater clearness, though they are substantially unchanged.
H. A. Ironside.
Chicago, III., April, 1932.
Introduction. Authorship, Scope and Outline of the Epistle
Who wrote Hebrews? Is it for us to be certain in regard to its human author, and is it of any importance that we should know, since the letter comes to us anonymously? If God meant us to know the author’s name would He not have told us? These are questions properly raised, and I desire to try to answer them in all fairness.
I write for those who believe in the inspiration of this Epistle, as of all Scripture, and by that term I mean all that was accepted as Scripture in our Lord’s day, that is, the entire Old Testament; and also the books regarded as canonical by the Christians of the first century. Hebrews belongs to this latter collection. This is evidently an integral part of the Word of God. Cut from our Bibles, it would leave a great gap that nothing else could fill. In its own place, it fills that gap admirably and forms in a most marvellous way the connecting link between the economy of the Old and the New Testaments.
It is accredited to Paul the apostle in our English Bibles, as also in many manuscripts, yet from the latter part of the second century there have not been wanting those who have denied its Pauline authorship. It has been variously ascribed to Apollos, Barnabas, and even to Priscilla, the wife of Aquila! It is strange, if Apollos were the author, that the Alexandrian church never seems to have heard of it, and yet Apollos was of Alexandria. Were he the author, how natural that this church should have had a holy pride in the recognition of his work, and never have permitted his name to be forgotten as the chosen instrument. So far as Barnabas is concerned, there is not a scintilla of evidence that he was its author. If it should be proved that Barnabas were the author of the properly spurious epistle ascribed to him, the difference in style between it and the Epistle to the Hebrews is too marked to admit of the thought that both could have been written by the same person. As to Priscilla’s authorship, in spite of “certain dainty feminine touches” which a lady expositor thinks she has seen in it, the supposition may be rejected as utterly absurd, and without any foundation in fact.
But does it really make any difference as to who the human author was? I think it does, at least in our understanding of its scope and timeliness. As I have before pointed out,[i] this letter is the last of a series of three epistles forming together a divinely inspired commentary on one Old Testament text, namely Habakkuk 2:4, “The just shall live by faith.” Romans expounds the first two words and shows who alone are “the just” before God. Galatians continues the wondrous story and explains how the just “shall live.” Having begun in the Spirit they are not to be made perfect by the flesh, but they live by the same faith that justifies. Now Hebrews completes the story, expounding the last two words, showing that it is “by faith” God’s pilgrim people walk through this world to His praise and glory. Is it likely that He who is a God of order chose Paul to write Romans and Galatians, but selected some unknown writer to give us Hebrews? Is it not very much more probable that the same servant wrote all three epistles?
Now our second question: May we be certain as to its human authorship, or is it merely a matter of intellectual speculation at best? I believe God has given us definite information on this point: First, we have the well-known statement of the apostle Peter, which would seem conclusive as to the Pauline authorship. “And account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given unto him hath written unto you; as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction” (2Peter 3:15-16). It should be noted that the apostle Peter writes to the Jewish believers scattered abroad, as his first epistle makes evident. Therefore, of course, he writes to Hebrews. His second epistle was written to the same people. “This second epistle, beloved, I now write unto you; in both which I stir up your pure minds by way of remembrance” (2Peter 3:1). He declares that “our beloved brother Paul” had written an epistle unto them. Now if he is not referring to this letter to the Hebrews, then there is no such letter preserved, as all Paul’s other epistles, written to companies of saints, were addressed to churches of the Gentiles. Then again in this Hebrew letter to which Peter refers, Paul has written “some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest to their own destruction.” How true is this of the Epistle to the Hebrews! How many thousands of unstable souls have been thrown into greatest agony of mind and perturbation of spirit because of misunderstandings and utterly false interpretations of parts of chapters six and ten. It would seem that Peter could not have indicated more definitely than he has done that he referred to this letter. Further, in the Epistle to the Thessalonians we read, “The salutation of Paul with mine own hand, which is the token in every letter; so I write. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all” (2Thessalonians 3:17-18). Here the apostle Paul tells us of the secret mark, if we may so say, placed at the end of every one of his letters, thus guarding saints from deception by forgery. Remember the warning in 2Thessalonians 2:2, “That ye be not soon shaken in mind or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand.” What is this secret mark? It is a message that characterizes his entire ministry, a salutation that emphasizes the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Let us notice how this secret mark is found at the close of all his genuine letters.
Romans 16:24: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.” (Observe Romans 16:25-27 are in the nature of a postscript. The epistle properly ends with Romans 16:24).
1Corinthians 16:23-24: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. My love be with you all in Christ Jesus. Amen.”
2Corinthians 13:14: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost be with you all. Amen.”
Galatians 6:18: “Brethren, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.”
Ephesians 6:24: “Grace be with all them that love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity. Amen.”
Philippians 4:23: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.”
Colossians 4:18: “The salutation by the hand of me, Paul. Remember my bonds. Grace be with you. Amen.”
1Thessalonians 5:28: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. Amen.”
2Thessalonians 3:18: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.”
1Timothy 6:21: “Grace be with thee. Amen.”
2Timothy 4:22: “The Lord Jesus Christ be with thy spirit. Grace be with you. Amen.”
Titus 3:15: “All that are with me salute thee. Greet them that love us in the faith. Grace be with you all. Amen.”
Philemon 1:25: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.”
Now look at Hebrews 13:25: “Grace be with you all. Amen.”
Can there be any question but that here we have Paul’s authentication of this letter as written by himself? The proof becomes stronger when we turn to the general epistles, and notice how different are all the endings. Never once is the word grace used excepting in 2Peter 3:18. There it is “grow in grace,” which is, of course, experience, and not the grace that saves. The book of Revelation which is of an altogether different character does use the grace salutation which is quite in keeping with the closing of the New Testament, and we need to remember that it is not an epistle, but a great prophetic treatise.
But why then is the Epistle to the Hebrews given anonymously? For this, I think there is a very clear answer. Paul is here writing to his own brethren after the flesh. They were greatly prejudiced against him and his ministry, though he yearned after them with all the fervor of a devoted brotherly love. Yet many of them repudiated his apostleship and feared his attitude toward their ancient ritual. He had tried to overcome this opposition. Upon the occasion of his last visit to Jerusalem, he went so far, in accordance with the suggestion of James, as to pay for the sacrificial offerings of certain brethren about to be released from Nazarite vows. But God would not permit this, for it would have been a virtual denial of the sufficiency of the one offering of the Lord Jesus Christ upon the cross, and so the divinely permitted insurrection against Paul saved him from this apparent inconsistency. Probably during the time of his release, after his first imprisonment and before his second arrest (Cf. Hebrews 13:23), he was chosen of God to write this letter calling upon believers in the Lord Jesus to separate completely from Judaism, as the entire system was about to be definitely rejected with the destruction of the Jewish temple so soon to take place. Paul therefore acts in accordance with the principle laid down elsewhere, “Unto the Jews I became a Jew that I might gain the Jews” (1Corinthians 9:20). And so he hides his identity for the time being and does not insist upon his own apostolic authority, but rather makes his appeal to the Old Testament Scriptures, in the light, of course, of the new revelation.
Hebrews, then, is the New Testament Leviticus. What Augustine thought of the two Testaments may be very properly limited to these two books. Hebrews is in Leviticus concealed; Leviticus by Hebrews is revealed. This New Testament letter opens up in a marvellous way the typical teaching of the third book of the law. As that book was given to the people of Israel while still in the wilderness, so this is a letter for wilderness saints; for believers who have left this Egypt world behind, and are a pilgrim host journeying on to the rest that remains to the people of God. It is the “Pilgrim’s Progress” from the cross to the coming glory, and therefore it is a call to separation. These believers are called upon to leave:
(a) The shadows for the substance.
(b) The types for the anti-types. (Or rather, the anti-type for the reality, for in this Epistle what we generally call the types are actually designated anti-types, and their fulfilment becomes a reality.)
(c) The good things of Judaism for the “better” things of Christianity.
(d) The incompleteness of the old dispensation for the perfection of the new.
(e)The carnal ordinances serving a temporary purpose for the eternal spiritual verities of the fuller revelation.
(f)The earthly sanctuary and all its passing ceremonies for the heavenly sanctuary and its abiding realities.
(g) The conditional promises of the old covenant for the unconditional promises of the new. (For although the new covenant has not yet actually been made with Israel and Judah, believers now come under its spiritual blessings.)
In a manner that grips the heart and stirs the mind to its deepest depths, this Epistle points out Christ’s glories as Son of God and Son of Man. It brings before us in the fullest possible way, His marvellous Person as the Apostle and High Priest of our confession. It presents Him as the One who is far superior to angels through whom the law was given; to prophets through whom God gave partial revelations of His mind; to Moses, the apostle of the old dispensation; to Aaron and his successors, the high priests of the earthly sanctuary; and to Joshua who led them into their temporal inheritance. All these are superseded and surpassed by our Lord Jesus Christ. Then His work is shown to be the fulfilment of all the former shadows. This work comes before us as partially executed on earth, and now going on in heaven. His sacrifice upon the cross is absolutely perfect and cancels every other, having settled forever the sin question. His intercession in the heavens above sustains His people through all their wilderness journey, and will be carried on continuously until He comes again.
Although written particularly for the enlightenment of believers who had come out of Judaism, it is, of course, for all Christians to the end of the dispensation, for in Christ Jesus there is neither Jew nor Greek. What is true for one is now true for all. How sad to undervalue so precious a portion of the Word (as some, alas, do, who should know better), on the plea that it is “Jewish,” and does not give the full Christian position; whereas, the fact of the matter is, it was written to deliver Christians from being Jewish, and to bring them into the full light of the glory shining through the rent veil.
In this dispensation of the grace of God, when “in Christ Jesus there is neither Greek nor Jew,” it ought to be evident that all the New Testament epistles are for all the Church of God, to whomsoever they may have been first addressed. This does not make it necessary to overlook the fact that there may be in some of them special applications to local conditions now passed away. But all are for the guidance and instruction of those who belong to Christ and are waiting for His return from heaven.
Outline of the Epistle
In studying any book of the Bible, it is most important to have a clear outline in mind. In this, as in doctrinal matters, we may well give heed to the apostle’s admonition in 2Timothy 1:13, “Hold fast the form of sound words,” or, as it has been otherwise translated, “having an outline of sound words.” This will save from many incongruous interpretations and applications. He who selects a text at random from a given book with little or no regard to the context, failing utterly to grasp the theme and its unfolding, is almost certain to be misled and to mislead his ignorant hearers, at the same time arousing the pity or contempt of those better instructed. For our present study, I submit the following outline. We have already seen that the theme is the superiority of the New Testament realities to the types and shadows of the former dispensation. In unfolding this theme we find that the Spirit of God apparently divides the Epistle into five parts. These may be displayed as follows:[ii]
Division I. Hebrews 1:1-14; Hebrews 2:1-4: The Glories of the Son of God.
Section A. Hebrews 1:1-4: God Speaking in the Son.
Section B. Hebrews 1:5-14: The Son Greater than the Angels.
Section C. Hebrews 2:1-4: Importance of Receiving and Holding Fast the Truth as to the Person of the Son.
Division II. 2:5-4:13: The Glories and Humiliation of the Son of Man.
Section A. Hebrews 2:5-9: The Glory of the Son of Man and His Authority.
Section B. Hebrews 2:10-18: The Perfecting of the Captain of our Salvation through Suffering.
Section C. Hebrews 3:1-6: The Glory of the Son over the House of God.
Section D. Hebrews 3:7-19; Hebrews 4:1-13: The Perfected Saviour Leading His People through the Wilderness to the Eternal Sabbath of God: Warning as to Coming Short.
Division III. Chaps. 4:14-10:39: The Priesthood of the Heavenly Sanctuary Superior to that of Aaron, Resting on the Better Sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
Subdivision 1. Chaps. 4:14-7:28: The Enthroned Priest after the Order of Melchisedec, though of the Pattern of Aaron.
Section A. Hebrews 4:14-16; Hebrews 5:1-10: The Man in the Glory, our Great High Priest.
Section B. Hebrews 5:11-14; Hebrews 6:1-20: Warning Against Apostasy. Safety Only in Resting upon the Word of God.
Section C. Chap. 7: The Melchisedec Priesthood Superior to that of Aaron.
Subdivision 2. Chap. 8: The Mediator of the New Covenant.
Section A. Hebrews 8:1-6: The Ascended Priest.
Section B. Hebrews 8:7-13: The Better Covenant Supersedes the Old.
Subdivision 3. Chaps. 9, 10: The Perfection of Christ’s Work.
Section A. Hebrews 9:1-10: The Earthly Sanctuary a Shadow of the Heavenly.
Section B. Hebrews 9:11-23: The Superiority of the Sacrifice of Christ to all those Offered under the Old Dispensation.
Section C. Hebrews 9:24-28; Hebrews 10:1-22: The Way into the Holiest through the Blood of Jesus. His Entrance the Pledge of Ours.
Section D. Hebrews 10:23-39: Warning Against Apostasy; Evidences of Reality.
Division IV. Chap. 11: The Path of Faith and the Heroes of Faith in all Dispensations.
Section A. Hebrews 11:1-3: The Nature of Faith.
Section B. Hebrews 11:4-7: Faith Exemplified in Antediluvian Times.
Section C. Hebrews 11:8-16: Faith in View of the Promised Seed.
Section D. Hebrews 11:17-22: Faith Exemplified in the Patriarchs from Abraham to Joseph.
Section E. Hebrews 11:23-40: Varied Experiences of Faith from Moses to the Later Prophets.
Division V. Chaps. 12, 13: Life in Accordance with the Truth of the New Dispensation.
Section A. Hebrews 12:1-17: Warning and Encouragement to Go On.
Section B. Hebrews 12:18-24: Vivid Contrasts of the Two Dispensations.
Section C. Hebrews 12:25-29: Intensive Warning lest the Present Truth be Refused.
Section D. Hebrews 13:1-6: Sundry Exhortations.
Section E. Hebrews 13:7-21: The Call to Absolute Separation from the Old System, Judaism.
Section F. Hebrews 13:22-25: Concluding Salutations, Paul’s Secret Mark.
According to this, then, in the first division the great truth that is emphasized is that the One in whom God has now spoken is infinitely superior to all the prophets whose writings compose the Old Testament, though it is the same God who speaks in both. But He speaks in fulness in His Son, which was impossible through merely human instruments. The Son is also seen as superior to all angels, for however great their power and might, they are still creatures, but He is the Creator of all things. Throughout this division He is viewed as the Son who has come into the world as Man, but who is nevertheless truly God. For it was not until He became incarnate that God could be said to have spoken in Him. He was the Word from all Eternity, but the Word was uttered in Time when He came into the world as the virgin-born Son of God. It is of all importance to believe and to hold fast the revelation that has been given concerning His glorious Person.
In the second division it is rather the Manhood of Christ that is in view. He who is God has become Man, and as Man He is the prototype of what all men should be and of what all shall yet be who are saved through Him. He became Man in order that He might tread the path of faith before us, entering sinlessly into all human experiences, in which He ever sought the glory of the Father. But this alone would not have fitted Him to be the Captain of our salvation. As such, He must be perfected through the suffering of the cross. Ever perfect in Himself as to His character, He nevertheless had to go through the process of perfecting as Saviour. In other words, He could not have delivered us from the judgment due to our sins without bearing that judgment Himself. In this division, He is seen to be vastly superior to Moses, the great apostle of the Old Dispensation, and to Aaron, its high priest. Moreover, it is evident that the house built by Moses, the tabernacle in the wilderness in which Moses himself was but a servant, was designed of God to picture both the universe and the people of God as the habitation of the Spirit, over which the Man Christ Jesus, now glorified, is set in authority as Son.
Though now forever beyond the reach of pain and suffering, His tenderness and sympathy are with all His people in the trials they are called upon to endure, and as the Good Shepherd He leads them on through the wilderness to the rest that remains and will remain unbroken through eternity, into which even now the trusting soul enters by faith.
In the third division, which is by far the longest, we have the very heart of this wonderful Epistle. The heavenly sanctuary is here opened to the eye of faith, and there within the veil our Lord Jesus Christ is seen officiating as our Great High Priest, touched with the feeling of our infirmities, ministering to all the needs of His saints on earth, and yet ever giving them a perfect representation before the Throne of God. His priesthood is unchangeable because, properly-speaking, it begins on the resurrection side of death. Having died for our sins upon the cross, He now lives to die no more, so He will never be superseded by another priest. Nor is His priesthood after the Aaronic or Levitical order. He is both King and Priest at one time after the order of Melchisedec; but be it carefully observed, after the pattern of Aaron. The instruction given in the Old Testament concerning the Aaronic Priesthood was all designed to picture His glorious Person and wondrous work.
Having settled the sin question on earth, He has passed through the created heavens into the Holiest, the immediate dwelling-place of God, and there has taken His seat as our Forerunner, our Intercessor, and as the Mediator of the New Covenant. The veil which of old separated the Holy Place from the Holiest of all, picturing the flesh of Christ, was rent in His death, and now the way is open for God to come out to man and for man to go in to God. In Christ, man has already entered in, for He is the archetypal Man, the first-born among many brethren who shall all eventually be conformed to His blessed image, having the same title to enter in as He Himself has, namely, His personal perfection and His finished work.
Solemn are the warnings given in this great division, in chapters 6 and 10, against the terrible possibility of apostasy, to which many from among the Jews who professed faith in Jesus as their Messiah, but had never really trusted Him as their Saviour, were especially liable. Any one who has had much experience in dealing with troubled souls knows that Satan has often used these passages to the sore distraction of uninstructed people of sensitive conscience, who have not learned to distinguish between apostasy and backsliding. And the attempted explanations that some, who should know better, have given of these warnings have only made confusion worse confounded. We shall examine them all in detail in their proper connection. But here it may be well to say that no born again person will ever become an apostate, for the indwelling Holy Spirit will guard him from that dreadful state. Backsliding is another thing altogether, and probably few of us realize how often we are guilty of it. Any Christian who is not at the present time enjoying Christ as much as he did in a past day, or living for God as devotedly as he once did, is just to that extent a backslider. The word itself is, of course, not a New Testament term at all. We find it only once in the Bible, in Proverbs 14:14. There we read, “The backslider in heart shall be filled with his own ways.” The word “backsliding” is found many times, though only in Jeremiah and Hosea. But while these terms are not found in the New Testament, we have many warnings against the state of soul to which they apply, and it is only too evident that the experience of backsliding is most common. How great the mercy of God that bears with our manners in the wilderness and restores our souls when we wander from Him!
When we come to the fourth division, what a delight it is to see how God discerns the least evidence of faith working in the souls of His people. In this wonderful honor roll of the 11th chapter, what lessons are unfolded, designed by God to spur us on to tread the same path of faith in the power of the Holy Spirit, looking unto Jesus.
And this is what the fifth division really emphasizes, for it gives us the practical ways that should characterize those who have believed the truth set forth in this Epistle. It makes it clear too, that the great object in writing it was to separate those who believed in the Lord Jesus from the temple and the synagogue, leading them outside the camp of a religious system that God had set to one side, to find in Christ alone the satisfying portion of their souls.
It will be observed that after each unfolding of truth, the Spirit of God gives a special warning lest having heard with the outward ear, the truth may not have entered the heart, and there may be a slipping away from it and a drifting back to a religious system that has nothing to offer a sinner seeking a purged conscience and desiring to enter into the presence of God in peace. These warnings had special application to the Hebrews of apostolic days who had heard the gospel and were intellectually convinced that Jesus was the promised Messiah, but who were ever in danger of mistaking outward adherence to His cause for heart-acceptance of Christ as their Saviour, as, alas, many do today. It is quite possible to believe the Scripture records, accept their historicity and acknowledge the Messiahship of Jesus, with the conscience unexercised and no evidence of repentance unto life whatsoever; therefore the importance of giving heed to the warnings as well as to the truth unfolded here.
Professing Christians today are in no real sense in exactly the same position as those who in the first Christian centuries had turned away from Judaism and declared themselves followers of Jesus, the Messiah, and were sorely tempted, because of the severe persecutions to which they were exposed, to recant and go back to the ancient religious system. Yet how many there are in Christendom who take the place of being followers of our Lord and Saviour, but who in the hour of testing are in grave peril lest through undervaluing the great truths of the gospel they never go further than a mere, intellectual acquiescence in the ethical precepts of Christianity, knowing nothing of the new birth and the saving power of the blood of Christ. It is easy for such to profess to hold what they are pleased to denominate “The Religion of Jesus” while repudiating the atoning work of the cross and His High Priestly intercession, both of which are of no value whatever unless He be what the Scriptures declare Him to be, the Son of God in all reality, as well as Son of Man. “What think ye of Christ?” is still the great and abiding test.
As we study this Epistle together, may we indeed see in Him the One who has fulfilled all the shadows of the legal dispensation and is the satisfying portion of all who turn to Him as repentant sinners, trusting Him alone for their eternal redemption.
[i] See “Lectures on the Epistle to the Romans,” by the same author, paper, 50c.; cloth, $1.
[ii] This outline corresponds very closely to that of F. W. Grant in the “Numerical Bible” to which the reader is referred for further help.-H.A.I.