In the First Century AD, the claim that “God has spoken” was the conviction of every true Jew. If any Jew had been asked how he knew that God had spoken, he would have produced several key pieces of evidence.
He would have pointed to the sky, that is, to God’s message through creation. Did not King David famously say, “The heavens declare the glory of God . . . day unto day utters speech and night unto night reveals knowledge” (Psalm 19:1,2)? God had spoken mightily in the creation of the universe.
Most probably, this same Jew would have then recounted the history of his nation from the time of its founding fathers –Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – onwards. The LORD God had made glorious covenantal promises to this particular human family, beginning with Abraham, and had kept His word to them in utterly miraculous ways. He had promised Abraham an offspring, a land and a unique blessing. (Read Genesis chapters 12 to 50). The subsequent lives of the Patriarchs and the history of this remarkable “family-nation” was still more historical evidence that God had spoken.
He might then tell you of their first great leader, Moses, who, having received a direct message from the LORD, had taken the children of Israel – now a nation – out of Egypt by the blood of the Passover lamb, and through the opened Red Sea, until they came to Mount Sinai. Moses himself had then spoken to God face-to-face and received from Him the Ten Commandments. These tablets of stone were etched by the finger of God (Exodus 32:16)!
Yes, of all people in the world, the Jewish people knew that the living God had spoken, and spoken loudly, in the history of their own special nation.
The Hebrews who received this particular letter are further identified as Christians. They did not just believe that God had spoken in the past through great prophets and men of God, but that this same God had spoken again, in recent times, in an epoch-defining way. God had spoken in His Son.
These Hebrew Christians had signalled their allegiance to Jesus as the Messiah. They had said that they were followers of Him. They claimed to have heard His message. In effect, they said: “God has spoken . . . we have heard.”
Who is listening?
The Hebrew writer – who has been anonymous since ancient times – has almost nothing to say about himself, but he has much to say about Jesus. What he said about the Lord will prove to be life-transforming for those who listen to him, ancient or modern.
As you read through the Hebrew epistle it becomes clear that the Hebrews were not a completely homogenous group. Like the ancient children of Israel who came out of Egypt many centuries earlier, there were various shades of commitment to the Lord among them.
The writer tells us that he is persuaded that the majority of them have truly trusted the Lord and have experienced salvation (see Hebrews 6:9). However, it becomes clear from his warnings, that he is worried that there are some who have not yet exercised faith in the Messiah in a personal and transformative way (see Hebrews 4:2). These “Christians” may have intellectually assented to, and recognised as true, the message of the Christ – however, as yet, they were not truly “in Christ”.
He sees this group as on the verge of commitment to Christ, just as their own nation Israel once was on the verge of entering the land of Canaan (see Numbers chapters 13 and 14). However, as the story of Kadesh-Barnea teaches, it is a dangerous thing to come so far and then turn back. The nation lost a generation who did not enter into blessing because of unbelief. So the writer is deeply concerned that some from this First Century generation will not enter into the blessing of being “in Christ” but will turn back to judgement.
Why is he writing?
The recognition that the first Century letter recipients were in a similar position to their ancient counterparts lends urgency to the writer. He is trying to fully win these Hebrew Christians away from Judaism to Christ.
This transition away from Judaism was by no means easy for the readers. Judaism had been their whole life – their very identity.
In their minds would be childhood memories of their excitement as they went up for the great Jewish festivals in Jerusalem. They would remember the awe they had felt as they approached the massive temple, the enchantment of the liturgy, the colour of the high priestly robes, and even the smell of the incense. All these sights, sounds and smells would conjure up happy memories of community and togetherness. Did they not belong to the best nation on God’s earth?
They didn’t just have a culture and national identity, they also had a history to match. God had spoken in their past and had particularly chosen their nation. He had committed the very oracles of God (the Hebrew Scriptures) to them for safekeeping. He had sent to them bona fide prophets and of course had promised to send them a Messiah. This gave them a deep bond with their Jewish faith.
With these deep ties, there was a very real danger that even the true believers in Christ among the readers would not discern the risks of staying close to Judaism. The writer’s appeal is that they must move forward from Judaism to Christianity and his warning is that they can’t look back. He will agree that God did speak in the Old Testament, but that it wasn’t His complete revelation. In Christ, he argues, we have an answer to the questions of the Old Testament, the substance to every shadow, and the antitype of every type.
In order that these Hebrews would fully grasp the importance of this transition away from Judaism the Hebrew writer turns their gaze upon Jesus, and argues how much greater He is than everything they had previously experienced in Judaism (chapters 1-10). He explains that the nature of faith is unchanged since the days of their forefathers (chapter 11), and emphasizes the amazing grace they have been brought into in Christ (chapter 12). He finally exhorts them to follow their Saviour outside the camp of Judaism, just as Christ Himself was crucified outside the gate, and to completely disassociate themselves from apostate, Christ-rejecting Judaism (chapter 13).
As we journey through these chapters, we must never forget to place ourselves in the sandals of these original readers if we are to understand what is being communicated by God in this letter. Hebrews has majestic peaks, and very deep valleys, but it will be worth it all for a glimpse of the Lord Jesus.
 In recent years the ‘identity’ issue has come up again with regard to certain communities that fundamentally disagree with the message of Christianity. For example, in the LGBT+ movement, sexuality and gender preference have morphed into the defining identity of certain people. They don’t view themselves as those who have simply adopted the LGBT+ lifestyle and preferences by their own choice, but rather as those who have discovered who they really are. This is a claim of ‘identity’ and self-discovery. Those who identify in such ways often then form tight-knit loyal communities. As Christians we are called away from our cultural backgrounds and close communities to supreme loyalty to Christ Himself and the community which He is building – the church which is His body (Matthew 16:18; Ephesians 5:25,29,30).