About: this paper was delivered to Dr. Lincoln Hurst at Fuller Theological Seminary during my first year for a class on Hebrews. Paper below the jump.
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Warning passages in the letter to the Hebrews have generated much discussion in Christian circles. The author of this sermonic letter warned his recipients against apostasy several times, which are found in 2:1-4; 3:12-14; 4:1-11; 6:4-12; 10:26-31; 12:14-17; 12:25-29. In order to understand the warning passages in Hebrews, we must first understand the historical context for the sermonic letter before we look at the dynamics of the texts. In terms of the historical context, we need to briefly consider the date, the destination, the recipients and the purpose of the letter.
The exact date of the letter to the Hebrews is not certain, but we do know Hebrews was written before 70 AD (Guthrie 1983, 28). Donald Hagner is certain that this letter was written in the 60s (2002, 25). We know it was not written after 95 AD because it is quoted by Clement at that time (Guthrie 1983, 28). However, since the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple would have been the clinching argument for the author of Hebrews, the fact that it is unmentioned in the letter strongly encourages a time of writing before 70 AD (Hagner 2002, 25). The most logical time for the letter to have been written is sometime in 64-70 AD, but where was it sent?
The destination of the letter is unknown, although we do have a few important clues that point us to Rome. Guthrie boldly writes that Rome is the best choice based on internal and external evidence as the destination of the letter to the Hebrews (1983, 27). Hagner agrees, based on the fact that 1 Clement, written in Rome in 95 AD, quotes from Hebrews extensively, and because the recipients of the letter are identified as generous (6:10; 10:32-34), which we know was characteristic of the church in Rome (2002, 25). If in fact it was written to people in Rome, exactly to whom in Rome was Hebrews written?
The recipients of the letter are not completely certain, but it is very likely to be Jewish Christians who were being written to (Hagner 2002, 23). Hebrews indicates that these Jewish Christians in Rome were contemplating going back to Judaism for whatever reason (Guthrie 1983, 32). The question is, “Why would the Jewish Christians in Rome contemplate going back to Judaism?” It has been suggested that they were feeling a greater benefit from Judaism than from Christianity, and had thus lost confidence in the church, that is, the Christian assembly (Lindars 1991, 12). But the question remains—“Why?” The Jewish Christians were facing persecution, and they were on the point of falling away from Christ so that they might not have to endure the persecution (Ladd 1993, 632). Robert Gundry suggests the possibility that the recipients “are a Jewish Christian group or house-church who have broken away from the main body of Christians in their locality and who stand in danger of lapsing back into Judaism to avoid persecution” (2003, 460-1). Therefore, the situation at hand is a group of Jewish Christians who are facing persecution, but in order to keep from being persecuted it seems as though this group is seriously considering returning back to Judaism and abandoning their commitment to Christ. We find the purpose of Hebrews out of this proposed situation.
The purpose Hebrews is to prevent abandonment of Christ for Judaism. Gundry writes, “The main purpose of the letter is to prevent such apostasy and restore them into mainstream Christian fellowship” (2003, 461). In writing to warn his recipients against apostasy (Ladd 1993, 618), the writer of the letter encourages them to remain in their faith in Christ even though they will not be free or exempt from persecution (632). Ladd writes, “Those who have embraced the gospel and entered the Christian life and the fellowship of the Christian church may become disillusioned because God is not protecting them from evil and suffering” (632). Therefore, they very well may turn their backs on Christ for Judaism (632).
The letter to the Hebrews was probably written around 64-70 AD to a Jewish Christian group in Rome that was facing persecution for being Christians and was very likely to be contemplating giving up their Christianity. For this reason the author writes to encourage against apostasy in the warning passages throughout the letter, to which we now turn.
In Hebrews 2:1-4, the author warns against drifting away from Christ. The author asks a rhetorical question, “How can we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?” The answer is clear. It is not possible to escape judgment when the message is being brought and spoken by Christ because his message is superior to that of the angels, yet even their message brought judgment when neglected. The tone of this warning passage is strong, yet not too forceful. It identifies the need to not drift away, but it does not directly point to the severity of falling away as other warning passages do later in the letter.
In Hebrews 3:12-14, a little more severity is evident. While 2:1-4 may be viewed as an unintentional drifting away, Hebrews 3:12-14 certainly has in view an intentional turning away. Furthermore, the responsibility of remaining in Christ is placed on the shoulders of the community when the author exhorts, “But exhort one another every day” (v. 13). The recipients are to be responsible for each other and to keep each other from apostasy so that not even one turns away from the living God (v. 12).
In Hebrews 4:1-11, the author gives an exhortation to take hold of the rest that God has intended for them to receive. This warning passage is not nearly as strong as the others, but it is a warning nonetheless. Hebrews 4:1-11 warns against being judged or seeming to have failed to reach the rest God intended. Hebrews 2:1-4 warns the recipients against drifting away, 3:12-14 warns against turning away, and 4:1-11 warns the recipients against failing to reach the rest God has intended for them.
Hebrews 6:4-12 talks about apostasy in a harsh and severe tone. One who apostatizes is completely unable to be restored to repentance if he or she has been enlightened in the knowledge of Christ and has been a believer—i.e., tasted the heavenly gift, shared in the Holy Spirit, and tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come. For such a believer to fall away is a tragedy, because that apostate has crucified Christ all over again. Such a person can never be restored to repentance. This warning passage is severe, but most of all it is absolute. If there was any uncertainty about the effects of apostasy, Hebrews 6:4-12 functions to clearly identify the dire consequences of apostasy in direct, harsh and final statements.
Similarly, Hebrews 10:26-31 speaks of apostasy with perilous words. Hebrews 10:26-31 not only speaks of apostasy in a harsh and severe tone, but now it attributes a fiery judgment as its consequence. The apostate is one who willfully persists in sin and places himself or herself under God’s judgment—a consuming fire (v. 27).
In Hebrews 12:14-17 and 12:25-29, more exhortations are given to warn against failing to obtain the grace of God (v. 15) and reject Christ lest they place themselves under God’s judgment (vv. 25, 29). These warnings carry on the punishment element from Hebrews 10:26-31 and return to the responsibility to press on from 3:12-14, but they are much less severe and alarming as 6:4-12 and 10:26-31.
The warning passages in Hebrews must be read in light of the letter’s historical context. Because it is most probable that the author of Hebrews was writing to warn against those Jewish Christians in Rome that were facing persecution and seriously considering forsaking Christ in order to follow Judaism in order to evade the persecution, we must understand the warning passages in this letter as an appeal against a deliberate forsaking of Christ. These warning passages functioned to convince the Jewish Christians to not shrink back like cowards, but rather to prove themselves as true disciples of Christ. They must be read in light of their intended use, and they were intended to convince the readers against apostasy. If we fail to understand these passages in light of the historical context, we miss their point, function and intended meaning, thereby misunderstanding what the author is saying. The historical context is crucial, and we cannot escape it if we are to come to a proper understanding of the warning passages in Hebrews.
Gundry, Robert. 2003. A Survey of the New Testament. 4th ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
Guthrie, Donald. 1983. The Letter to the Hebrews. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Leon
Morris, ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Cambridge, U.K.: Wm. B. Eerdmans
Publishing Company and InterVarsity Press.
Hagner, Donald. 2002. Encountering the Book of Hebrews: an exposition. Grand Rapids: Baker
Ladd, George. 1993. A Theology of the New Testament. Revised ed. Donald Hagner, ed. Grand
Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Lindars, Barnabas. 1991. The Theology of the Letter to the Hebrews. New Testament Theology.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.