Hebrews and Biblical Theology


©David Peterson (2009)[1]

It is widely recognised that a major aim of Hebrews is the interpretation and application of Old Testament Scripture to the person and work of Jesus Christ and to the life-situation of the community of Christians originally addressed. Indeed, it has been argued that ‘the writer of Hebrews is the theologian who, more diligently and successfully than any other of the New Testament writers, has worked at what we now describe as hermeneutics.’[2] Some have certainly proposed that the use of the Old Testament in Hebrews is far-fetched, artificial, and not at all to be copied by modem Christians. However, recent scholarship has opposed this judgment, G B Caird for one declaring that ‘Hebrews is one of the earliest and most successful attempts to define the relation between the Old and New Testaments’, and insisting that ‘a large part of the value of the book is to be found in the method of exegesis which was formerly dismissed with contempt.’[3]

Caird’s particular insight was that the argument of Hebrews falls into four distinct sections, each having as its core an Old Testament passage which declares the ineffectiveness and symbolic or provisional nature of the Old Testament religious institutions. Slightly modifying this thesis, R N Longenecker suggested that the argument of Hebrews is built around five biblical portions:

(1) a catena of verses drawn from the Psalms, 2 Sam 7 and Dt 32 (LXX), upon which Heb 1:3-2:4 is based; (2) Ps 8:4-6, upon which Heb 2:5-18 is based; (3) Ps 95:7-11, upon which Heb 3:1-4:13 is based; (4) Ps 110:4, upon which Heb 4:14-7:28 is based and (5) Jer 31:31-34, upon which Heb 8:1-10:39 is based. All the exhortations of Heb 11-13 depend upon the exposition of these five biblical portions and all other verses quoted in the letter are ancillary to these.[4]

Detailed examination of the writer’s exegetical method suggests that he is working from the assumption that ‘the Old Testament is not only an incomplete book but an avowedly incomplete book, which taught and teaches men to live by faith in the good things that were to come.’[5]

Accepting the validity and helpfulness of the Caird-Longenecker approach, I want to ask whether there is not a deeper theological substructure to the argument of Hebrews, which is based on the writer’s understanding of the Old Testament as a totality. To put it simply, how does Hebrews convey something of the broad sweep of biblical revelation and the different stages in God’s redemptive plan? To what extent does the writer select and apply Old Testament texts to illustrate the progressive revelation of God’s character and purposes within the Old Testament itself? In particular, I want to develop an insight from Longenecker, who observes that the writer of Hebrews drew from the Pentateuch ‘the basic structure of his thought regarding redemptive history, quoting some eleven times from ten different passages and alluding to forty-one others.’[6]

Creation and God’s Purposes in Christ

Hebrews 11:3 expresses in simple terms the distinctive teaching of Genesis 1, that ‘the aeons’ or ‘the spheres that comprise the universe’ (tous aiōnas) were fashioned or prepared (katērtisthai) ‘by God’s word’ (rhēmati theou).[7] The result of God’s creative work is that ‘from things invisible what is seen has come to be.’ When the writer asserts that we understand this ‘by faith’, he develops the theme announced in 11:1, that the task of faith is to ‘prove the unseen.’ To put it another way, ‘the faith that issues in endurance is grounded in a fundamental conviction about the nature of reality.’[8] From our writer’s point of view, the doctrine of creation ‘by God’s word’ is foundational for persevering faith. The hope of sharing in the promised new creation, which is variously represented in Hebrews 11 as the goal of all the faithful, depends on the belief that God is the architect and builder of all things.

Most significantly, the teaching of Genesis 1 is echoed in the opening statements of the first chapter of Hebrews, linked to the person and work of Christ. When it is said that the ‘heir of all things’ (klēronomon pantōn) is also the one ‘through whom’ (di’ hou) God created the universe (tous aiōnas), a profound statement about the pre-existence of the Son and his personal agency in the work of creation is clearly being made (1:2). However, in the context this affirmation also confirms the universality of the Son’s inheritance.[9] Christ is heir of everything which he, as God’s agent, created. Indeed it could be concluded that God’s purpose in creation was to bring all things into submission to his Son (cf. 2:5; 10:12-13; 1 Cor 15:24-8; Eph 1:9-10).

The text of Psalm 102:25-7 is then used in Hebrews 1:10-12 to insist that the one who founded the heavens and the earth will one day roll them up like a cloak and ‘like clothing they will be changed’. Hebrews later affirms that God will remove the created things ‘so that what cannot be shaken may remain’ (12:26-28). Thus, it is implied that the Son’s inheritance is actually a new or renewed creation, elsewhere described as ‘the coming world’ (tēn oikoumenēn tēn mellousan, 2:5), a better or heavenly ‘country’ (11:16), ‘a kingdom which cannot be shaken’ (12:28), and ‘the city that is to come’ (13:14; cf. 11:10, 16). Part of the Son’s task as the inheritor of this eschatological reality is to wind up the present world order, which he now sustains ‘by his powerful word’ (tō rhēmati tēs dynameōs, 1:3). When this happens, the unshakeable heavenly reality where he now reigns (1:6-9) will be all that remains (12:27).[10]

Reference to the doctrine of creation is also made in 2:10, where God as the initiator of our salvation is described as the one ‘for whom and through whom all things exist’. This epithet points to the freedom of God in his sovereignty as creator to do what is ‘fitting’, both with respect to his own character and plans for creation and with respect to the needs of humanity. Here there is no mention of the Son as the agent of creation but rather he is the one through whose sufferings God brings ‘many sons to glory’. However, in the next chapter Jesus is described as the founder of ‘the house’ or ‘household’ of God in which Moses served (3:3; cf. Num 12:7) and over which he, as the exalted Son, now rules (3:5-6). The reference to God as the builder or fashioner of all things in 3:4 (ho panta kataskeuasas) is parenthetical and affirms that God as creator is ‘ultimately responsible for the House which, under him, Jesus founded and supervises.’[11] It was through his Son that God brought into being all things in general (1:2) and through his Son that he created the community of salvation in particular (3:3-4).

Thus, Hebrews closely links the doctrine of creation with the promise of a new creation and views the salvation of the household of God as a central feature of God’s creative work. The concept of a new creation is blended with that of a new country or city as an inheritance for the people of God. But the focus is not so much on the particular environment as on the life that he makes possible within that context.

The Central Role and Significance of Humanity in God’s Creative Purposes

The teaching of Genesis 1:26-31; 2:4-25 is assumed in Hebrews 2:5-18 by the use of Psalm 8.4-6 (LXX 8:5-7) as the key text in the argument. The psalmist observes that God has set humanity in a lofty position in his creation, ‘a little lower than the heavenly beings’ (LXX, ‘angels’). Crowning us ‘with glory and honour’, he has subjected all things to us, calling upon us to exercise dominion in a responsible way, as his representative or image. However, the psalmist appears to be reflecting on the divine ideal, without taking into account the effects of sin, as set forth in Genesis 3. In reality, as Hebrews goes on to argue, we do not exercise unhindered dominion, but are subject to the power of sin and death and the devil (2:14-18). We need to be rescued from this situation and brought to ‘glory’ (2:10).

For Hebrews, the psalm actually becomes an oracle that describes the humiliation and exaltation of Jesus, as ‘the pioneer of our salvation’ (2:10). Jesus is the one who truly bears the image of God and exercises the dominion promised to humanity. Our destiny can only be fulfilled in and through him. The writer does not introduce a new contrast between mankind and the angels in 2:5 but resumes the contrast between Christ and the angels, begun in chapter 1 and interrupted by the exhortation in 2:1-4. The statement about the coming world not being subject to angels (2:5) recalls the promise of absolute dominion to Christ in Psalm 110:1 (cf. Heb 1:13). It then provides the link to Psalm 8:4-6 as a second scriptural testimony to Christ, which explains how that promised dominion is to be obtained by him.[12]

Such an interpretation does not ignore the anthropological significance of the psalmist’s words but shows how humanity benefits from the achievement of Christ as representative Man. Being ‘less than the angels’ for the Son of God was not the equivalent of being ‘crowned with glory and honour’, but refers to the period of his incarnation. Only because of his suffering of death for others was he crowned with glory and honour (2:9). That took place by means of his heavenly exaltation. While it is true that ‘we do not yet see everything in subjection to him (autō)’, his crowning with glory and honour at his ascension is the guarantee that nothing will eventually be left outside his control (anypotakton, 2:9; cf. 10:12-13).[13] Thus, Psalm 8 is used to assure the readers of Christ’s ultimate triumph and of their victory together with him.

Behind the argument of Hebrews 2:5-10, 14-15 lies also the perspective of Genesis 3-11 and the teaching of prophetic and apocalyptic writers about the need for death, sin and the devil to be defeated in the end time, so that paradise might be restored and God’s purpose for humanity fulfilled. The Son came to ‘taste death for everyone’ (hyper pantos, v. 9), to break the power of the devil over death and liberate his prisoners (2:14-15), and thus bring ‘many sons to glory’ (v. 10). The proposition that the devil has the power of death belongs to a Palestinian tradition, in which there was a tendency to identify Satan and the angel of death in the Old Testament.[14]

Implicit in this context is the assumption that death is the divine punishment for sin, which Satan wields as a power over human life within the divine economy. The devil is deprived of his power over death when Christ provides forgiveness for sin through his atoning sacrifice (2:17; 10:15-18). His death provides a redemption from sin that makes it possible for ‘those who are called’ to receive ‘the promised eternal inheritance’ (9:15). This is another way of talking about the new creation or paradise restored. Only Jesus as Son of God and high priest can open the way to life in God’s new world order.

The Sabbath Rest of God

Strictly speaking, this theme ought to be treated before the preceding one, following the order of the Pentateuch. However, when the writer makes use of Genesis 2:2 in Hebrews 4:4, he is concerned with the consequences of sin and only views entrance into God’s ‘rest’ as a possibility resulting from Christ’s redemptive work. The primary focus in Hebrews 3-4 is on the meaning and application of Psalm 95:7-11 (LXX 94:7-11), with the text from Genesis being used in a supportive and explanatory role.

David warned his own generation against hardening their hearts in unbelief and rebellion against God, using as an example the behaviour of those Israelites who left Egypt under the leadership of Moses. The writer of Hebrews expounds these verses at some length (3:7-4:13) because he views Christians as being in a somewhat similar situation. Redeemed by Christ, we have been promised an inheritance or ‘rest’ at the end of our spiritual pilgrimage. Nothing must be allowed to weaken our faith in this promise and cause us to turn away from God as the Israelites did in the wilderness.

The land of Canaan, or the situation of being free from enemy oppression in that land, was regularly viewed as the ‘rest’ granted to Israel by God (e.g., Ex 33:14; Dt 3:20; 12:9-10; Josh 21:43-4; 1 Kings 8:56). Yet, when Psalm 95 was written, the Israelites were already established in Canaan. David’s warning about missing out on God’s rest must refer to something beyond that material inheritance outlined in the Mosaic covenant (Heb 4:6-8)! Using the Jewish hermeneutical principle called gezerah shawah, Hebrews interprets the ‘rest’ of Psalm 95:11 (katapausin, LXX 94:11) in terms of Genesis 2:2, where the related verb is found (katepausen).[15]

The rest that God promises his people is a share in the ‘sabbath’ of his own rest. This rest was the sequel to his ‘works’ in creation, according to Genesis 2:2 (ta erga autou). By implication, the fall made it impossible for those cast out of the Garden of Eden to share in God’s rest. However, God’s redemptive ‘works’ in the time of Moses (cf. Ps 95:9) allowed Israel to enjoy an earthly inheritance that was an anticipation of the ultimate, eschatological rest. The true rest was achieved by Jesus Christ, when he entered into the divine presence, as a consequence of his sacrificial death, and opened the way for us to follow (cf. 6:20; 9:11-12; 10:19-21).

God’s rest is equivalent to the ‘heavenly homeland’ (11:16), the ‘heavenly Jerusalem’ (12:22), the ‘unshakable kingdom’ (12:28), and other descriptions of the Christian’s inheritance in this book. From one point of view, that rest already exists for us in the heavenlies and can be ‘entered’ now, by faith (4:3; 12:22). From another point of view, we seek ‘the city that is to come’ (13:14; cf. 2:5). Thus, the imagery of the rest is best understood as ‘a complex symbol for the whole soteriological process that Hebrews never fully articulates, but which involves both personal and corporate dimensions.’[16]

The Promise to Abraham and the Patriarchs of Israel

In Hebrews 2:16 it is mentioned that the purpose of the Son’s incarnation, suffering, and exaltation was to rescue those who are the true ‘descendants of Abraham’ (spermatos Abraam epilambanetai).[17] The reference in this context will not be to humanity in general, nor to national Israel in particular. Those on view must be ‘the children’ given to Christ by God (ta paidia, 2:13, citing Is 8:18), the true ‘brothers’ of Christ (tois adelphois, 2:11-12, citing Ps 22:22) and the ‘many sons’ led by Christ to glory (pollous huious, 2:10). It is ultimately clear that all who have ‘taken refuge’ in Jesus are ‘the heirs of the promise’ made to Abraham (6:17-18).

Hebrews views the multifaceted promise made to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3, and repeated in various forms to the patriarchs of Israel (Gen 12-50), as foundational to the whole message of Scripture.[18] Indeed, it could be said that the writer knows of fundamentally one divine promise: it comes to God’s people at various stages in their history and in various forms, but it is only consummated in and through the person and work of Jesus Christ (4:1; 6:12-17; 9:15; 10:36; 11:9, 13, 17, 33). God’s confirmation of the covenant promise to Abraham by means of an oath is particularly stressed in 6:13-15 (cf. Gen 22:17). That sworn promise enabled Abraham to endure patiently and ‘obtain the promise’. Clearly, the writer wishes his readers to respond with exactly the same perseverance to the word they have received (4:1-13; 6:1-12; 11:1-12:17).

Applying the paradigm of Abraham’s situation more closely to that of the readers, Hebrews insists that, ‘when God desired to show even more clearly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it by an oath’ (6:17). From 7:20-22 it is clear that the writer has in mind the promise of Psalm 110:4 (‘you are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek’), establishing the eternal validity of the Messiah’s priesthood. This promise is prefixed by a divine oath (‘The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind’). The notion of Christ’s high-priestly work is progressively drawn into the argument from the end of Hebrews 6, to explain how Christians can have ‘strong encouragement’ (ischyran paraklēsin, 6:18) to seize the hope set before them. Jesus’ sacrifice and entrance into the ‘inner shrine behind the curtain’ guarantees our acceptance and entrance into God’s presence (6:19-20; cf. 9:11-15, 24; 10:19-23). Living with God in his heavenly sanctuary is another way of expressing the hope of an eschatological inheritance. Cultic imagery is used in the central section of Hebrews to show how Jesus Christ has already realised that hope for us.

Abraham’s encounter with Melchizedek, the priest-king of Salem (Gen 14:18-20), is briefly analysed in Hebrews 7:1-10, in preparation for the exposition of Psalm 110:4 and its application to Jesus in the rest of that chapter. Once again, a text from Genesis is used in a supportive and explanatory way, this time to assist in outlining the writer’s Christology. The writer perceives that the biblical representation of Melchizedek corresponds in certain decisive ways to the person and work of Christ, so that in the record of Scripture he is ‘made to resemble (aphōmoiōmenos) the Son of God’ (7:3).’[19]

When the exposition of Christ’s work in cultic terms is completed, the need to respond to such teaching with persevering faith dominates the argument from 10:19 to the end of the book. Here, the promise to Abraham and the patriarchs returns to centre-stage (11:8-22). Linked to that promise is the call to faith, which is to be expressed in obedience and patient endurance. The incidents recorded in Hebrews 11 are not merely designed to exemplify the faith that pleases God but to show how God’s saving purposes for his people were actually advanced by those who believed his foundational promise.

The writer appears to allegorise when he notes that Abraham ‘looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God’ (11:10). The expansion of this idea in 11:13-16, with reference to all the patriarchs, makes it clear that our writer had in mind a heavenly homeland or inheritance. In other words, he claims that the true goal of the faithful, even in patriarchal times, was the heavenly Jerusalem, ‘the city of the living God’ (12:22). This notion has its parallels in Jewish apocalyptic expectations of a new Jerusalem, prepared from the creation of the world.[20] Hebrews has already anticipated such a claim with the teaching about entering into the ‘rest’ which God established ‘at the foundation of the world’ (4:3). So, as with the doctrine of creation, the teaching of Genesis on the subject of an inheritance for God’s people is interpreted in the light of its fulfilment in Christ.

This is not an arbitrary way of treating the Old Testament. The writer discerns that the oft-repeated promise of an inheritance, with the challenge to live by faith until it is realized, establishes a pattern of relationship between God and his people. This is also the pattern for Christians under the New Covenant. The patriarchs function more effectively as exemplars of faith for Christians when this similarity of life-situation is observed. Moreover, Hebrews wants to stress that all those who died in faith, without receiving what was promised, are ‘perfected’ together with us through Christ (11:39-40; cf. 9:15; 12:23). So, ‘if the New Testament writers are not misguided in portraying them as the ancestors of the family of faith, their essential blessings must be of the same order as the blessings enjoyed by their spiritual children under the new covenant.’[21]

As elsewhere, the writer regards the Old Testament as characteristically pointing forward to something ‘better’.[22] In one sense, ‘having patiently endured’, Abraham ‘obtained the promise’ in the birth of his son (6:15), but none of the patriarchs ‘received the promises’ (11:13) in the sense of having innumerable offspring or acquiring possession of Canaan. Instead, they regularly confessed themselves to be ‘strangers and foreigners on the earth’ (xenoi kai parepidēmoi epi tēs gēs, 11:13; cf. Gen 23:4; 47:4, 9). They could only see from a distance what was promised and rejoice in it by faith (11:13). The writer discerns from the attitude they express in the pages of Genesis that they were seeking ‘a better country, that is, a heavenly one’ (11:16). This is precisely the attitude that is appropriate to believers on the other side of the Christ event, even though they have the ‘better hope’ (7:19) that is based on ‘a better covenant’ (7:22; 8:6).

The Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant

Moses is first mentioned in Hebrews in a comparison with Jesus as ‘apostle and high priest of our confession’ (3:1-6). Taking his cue from Numbers 12:7, the writer notes that Moses was ‘faithful in all God’s house’ (pistos en holō tō oikō autou) as a ‘servant’ (therapon).[23] According to Numbers 12, the key role of Moses as God’s servant was to be the unique recipient of direct revelation from God. With such revelation he was able to lead God’s people faithfully and establish them in their relationship with God at a critical moment in their history. Hebrews focuses on Moses’ achievement in this particular ministry without drawing attention to his priestly role or making much of his part in the exodus redemption. However, even as the writer uses the language of the Pentateuch to exalt Moses, he points to the greater glory of the Son. Jesus was faithful as the ultimate ‘apostle’ or messenger of God (cf. 1:1-4; 2:1-4) and as the eschatological ‘high priest’ (2:17) or saviour figure.

Fundamentally, the role of Moses was ‘to testify to the things that would be spoken later’ (eis martyrion tōn lalēthēsomenōn, 3:5).[24] The revelation given to Moses pointed to the need for a future and higher revelation. This statement corresponds to the claim that ‘the law has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the true form of these realities’ (10:1). Elsewhere, the writer draws special attention to the revelation of the plan for the tabernacle to Moses, which was to correspond to the pattern’ (typon, 8:5; cf. Ex 25:40) of the heavenly sanctuary. It is not possible within the limits of this essay to discuss the complexities of the writer’s use of Scripture in this connection. Suffice it to say that his distinction between earthly and heavenly realities is eschatologically controlled, rather than philosophically inspired.[25] By implication, all the ‘regulations for worship’ (dikaiōmata latreias, 9:1) were given at the same time to Moses, as a revelation from God.

Hebrews proceeds on the assumption that the earthly sanctuary and all the cultic provisions of the Mosaic law were necessary for sustaining the people of God in their relationship with God, until the realities which they anticipated should be revealed in the person and work of Jesus Christ (e.g. 5:1-10; 8:1-7; 9:11­10:18). As the Pentateuch indicates, these institutions had a significant function in the life of historic Israel. However, the Holy Spirit now indicates the symbolic and ‘prophetic’ value of the divine ordinances, since the time of fulfilment and ‘reformation’ has dawned (9:8-10).[26]

The word ‘covenant’ (diathēkē) is regularly used to describe the commandments given by God to regulate his relationship with Israel from the time of the exodus (8:9; 9:4, 15-17, 20). This is called ‘the first covenant’ in 9:15 (cf. 9:18, hē prōtē), to distinguish it from the ‘new’ or ‘better’ or ‘eternal’ covenant inaugurated by Jesus Christ in his death and heavenly exaltation (7:22; 8:6, 8, 10; 9:15; 10:16, 29; 12:24; 13:20; cf. Jer 31:31-34). ‘The promised eternal inheritance’ (9:15), which has been the goal of the faithful from patriarchal times, was not made possible by ‘the first covenant’. Despite the provision of the priesthood and the sacrificial system, people needed to be redeemed from ‘transgressions under the first covenant’ by the sacrifice of Christ.

The prophecy of Jeremiah 31:31-34 is cited fully in Hebrews 8:8-12 and in an abbreviated form in 10:16-17, and is foundational to the argument in these central chapters.[27] In the first place it is used for a negative purpose, to stress the failure of Israel and the imperfect and provisional character of ‘the first covenant’ (8:7-9, 13). The negative evaluation of the Mosiac covenant continues in 9:1-10, where the focus is on its inability to deal with the problem of human guilt and to provide unhindered access to God (cf. also 10:1-4). However, the high-priestly work of Jesus Christ secures everything that could not be achieved by these former ‘regulations for worship’ and makes it possible for those who are called to receive the promised eternal inheritance (9:11-28; 10:5-18).

On the positive side, Hebrews indicates that the forgiveness made available through the death of Christ is the fulfilment of Jeremiah 31:34. Such forgiveness makes possible the immediate and spontaneous fidelity to God that was foretold in Jeremiah 31:33 (cf. Heb 9:14; 10:17-23).[28] Our writer interprets this fulfilment in priestly and sacrificial terms because he views the Mosaic covenant in those terms and sees the work of Christ as the reality towards which the Law and the Prophets were both pointing. The climax of the writer’s emphasis on the realisation of the eschatological covenant by Jesus Christ occurs in the vision of the heavenly Jerusalem (12:22-28). Here the scene is one of ‘covenant conclusion, modelled on the Sinai definitive pattern’.[29] As in the books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles, the city of Jerusalem becomes the focus of attention, for here the covenant purposes of God appear to reach their consummation.

Although Jeremiah 31:31-34 says nothing about the enjoyment of a heavenly city, in its context this passage gives the prospect of a renewed people in a renewed inheritance (Jer 31:16-25). Hebrews similarly teaches that the New Covenant provides the ultimate fulfilment of the promises first enunciated to the patriarchs in the book of Genesis. However, like the prophets of Israel, the writer can only interpret that fulfilment in terms of the various stages of redemptive history set forth in the earlier chapters of Scripture (Mount Sinai, the inheritance of Canaan, Mount Zion). The pattern of fulfilment outlined in the Old Testament is repeated in a transformed way in the work of the Messiah.

Conclusion

In the perspective of Hebrews, the promise to Abraham and his offspring is foundational for understanding God’s purposes for his people. The realisation of an earthly inheritance for Israel in the time of Moses and Joshua was only an anticipation of the ultimate ‘sabbath rest’, now secured for God’s people throughout the ages by Jesus Christ. The covenant with Moses provided for Israel’s special relationship with God in that earthly anticipation of ‘the promised eternal inheritance’. However, that ‘first covenant’ also functioned to illustrate the need for the sacrifice of Christ and his heavenly rule as ‘a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek’.

Even more foundational than the promise to the patriarchs for our writer is the teaching about the Son’s role in creation and his work in restoring humanity to its proper place and function within the divine plan. This work of restoration is necessary because of the fall and its disastrous consequences for life in our world. The promise to the patriarchs and the Mosaic covenant are to be viewed within this broader framework. God’s ultimate purpose of perfecting humanity in an eternal relationship with himself is consummated in a new creation with the establishment of a new covenant by Jesus, the Son of .God.

Broadly speaking, Hebrews moves as the Old Testament does, from creation to new creation, via the parthway of covenant and redemption. The writer of Hebrews obviously considered that his readers, as beneficiaries of the New Covenant, would be greatly encouraged to ‘seize the hope’ set before them by learning to understand the gospel in such terms. His ‘word of exhortation’ continues to provide a unique and valuable perspective on the person and work of Christ as a basis for godly living. Jesus, the Son of God and high priest of the New Covenant, is the goal and fulfilment of all the promises and provisions of the Old Testament. Indeed, Hebrews provides us with a helpful way of looking at the Old Testament as a whole, as well as some clues for the interpretation of key passages from a Christian point of view, and guidelines for understanding the relationship between the two divisions of the canon of Scripture.


[1] Originally published in D. Peterson & J. Pryor (ed.), In the Fullness of Time: Biblical Studies in Honour of Archbishop Donald Robinson (Homebush West: Lancer, 1992). This article was offered with gratitude to Donald Robinson, who showed me the value of a biblical theological approach to the study of the New Testament.

[2] G Hughes, Hebrews and Hermeneutics The Epistle to the Hebrews as a New Testament example of biblical interpretation, SNTSMS 36 (Cambridge: CUP, 1979), 3

[3] G B Caird, ‘The Exegetical Method of the Epistle to the Hebrews’, Canadian Journal of Theology 5, 1959, 44-51 (45). In addition to the works cited by Caird, note M Barth, ‘The Old Testament in Hebrews An Essay in Biblical Hermeneutics’, in W Klassen and G F Snyder (ed.), Current Issues in New Testament Interpretation (London: SCM, 1962), 53-78; R N Longenecker, Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 158-85; R E Clements, ‘The Use of the Old Testament in Hebrews’, Southwestern Journal of Theology 28, 1985, 36-45.

[4] Longenecker, Biblical Exegesis, 175. Cf. Caird, ‘Exegetical Method’, 47-49.

[5] Caird, ‘Exegetical Method’, 49

[6] Longenecker, Biblical Exegesis, 167

[7] Note the helpful assessment of scholarly opinion about the meaning of tous aiōnas in Heb 1:2; 11:3 by H W Attridge, The Epistle to the Hebrews (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1989), 41.

[8] Attridge, Hebrews, 315. Compare the pattern of exhortation in 2 Macc. 7:28-9

[9] God’s appointment of the Son as ‘heir of all things’ is introduced first in 1:2, reflecting Jewish expectations about the re-establishment of an inheritance for God’s people through the End-time rule of his designated vice-regent (e.g., Ps 2:8; 110:1; Is 9:7; 53:12; Dan 7:14, 27; Ps Sol 17:23). Jesus’ exaltation to ‘the right hand of the Majesty on high’ (1:3) is the guarantee to those who are trusting in him that they will share in his glory and his kingdom (e.g., 2:5-10; 12:22-8).

[10] eis tēn oikoumenēn in 1:6 is best taken as a reference to ‘the world to come’ (2:5), which has been ‘inaugurated by Christ’s enthronement, although it is not yet present in its fullness’ (F F Bruce, Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (London:Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1964), 17 note 78, 33). Cf. G Johnson, ‘Oikoumenē and kosmos in the New Testament’, NTS 10, 1964, 352, and A Vanhoye, ‘L’Oikouméne dans L’épître aux Hébreux’, Biblica 45, 1964, 248-53.

[11] J Moffatt, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, ICC (Edinburgh: Clark, 1924), 42. Cf. Bruce, Hebrews, 57.

[12] In Hebrews and Perfection, SNTSMS 47 (Cambridge: CUP, 1982), 51-4, I have argued this case more fully, noting in particular an established Christological association of Ps 110:1 and Ps 8:6 in early Christian teaching. Cf. also Attridge, Hebrews, 72.

[13] If the words ‘we do not yet see everything in subjection to him’ apply to Christ, the writer is reflecting ‘the anguish, if not the discouragement, of the despised and persecuted Christians’, awaiting the consummation of God’s purposes (C Spicq, L’Épître aux Hebreux, Vol. II (Paris: Études Bibliques, 1952), 32. This would give special point to the exhortations of 10:35-9; 12:12-13.

[14] E.g., Wis 2:23-4. Cf. 0 Michel, Der Brief an die Hebräer, Meyer Kommentar, 13th ed. (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1975), 160.

[15] For Jewish Hermeneutics in the first century see Longenecker, Biblical Exegesis, 19-50. Gezerah shawah means ‘verbal analogy from one verse to another; where the same words are applied to two separate cases it follows that the same considerations apply to both’ (p. 34).

[16] Attridge, Hebrews, 128. Attridge, 126-130, helpfully compares the exegesis of Hebrews with Jewish applications of the notion of sabbath rest to the new creation or to the state of the dead.

[17] It is possible that 2:16 alludes to Is. 41:8-9, though the verb used there is antelabomēn. Epilambanetai in 2:16 should not be rendered ‘help’ (NRSV, NIV). Even less satisfactory is the old RSV rendering ‘concerned’. As in the quotation from Jer. 31:32 (LXX) in Heb. 8:9, this verb means ‘take hold of (NEB has ‘he takes to himself’ at 2:16). Cf. Attridge, Hebrews, 94

[18] The writer notes that the promise involved a land or an inheritance (11:8-10, 20-2) and innumerable offspring (11:11-12, 17-19), without directly taking up the notion that the children of Abraham would be a blessing to the nations (Gen 12:3; 17:5-6).

[19] It is appropriate to read the passive in the strict sense here and to understand that, in the Genesis narrative, ‘God is the sculptor who lets a sign of primitive times correspond to the event of the End time’ (Michel, Hebräer, 263).

[20] Attridge, Hebrews, 324, especially note 38. He observes that the imagery in 11:13-16 is rooted in the patriarchal narratives, ‘but it clearly bears the imprint of their metaphorical application in Hellenistic Judaism and early Christianity’ (p. 328).

[21] Bruce, Hebrews, p. 299. Bruce, 297-9, compares the way Philo treats the patriarchal narratives.

[22]Some form of the comparative adjective ‘better’ (kreittōn) is regularly used in Hebrews to designate the new, heavenly order inaugurated by the Lord Jesus Christ (1:4; 2:9; 7:19, 22; 8:6; 9:23; 10:34; 11:35, 40; 12:24).

[23] The faith of Moses and others of the exodus generation is also the focus of Heb 11:23-31. Those with whom Moses chose to share his lot are described as the suffering ‘people of God’ (rather than ‘the sons of Israel’, Ex 2:11), making it easier to portray Moses as a paradigm of faith for Christian readers. Influenced, perhaps, by the wording of Ps 89 (LXX 88):51-2, our writer then depicts Moses as accepting the insults and disgrace that came from being the forerunner of Christ (cf. 12:2).

[24] This translation of the NRSV rightly suggests that Moses’ ministry was anticipatory of the revelation that would come with Christ (so also NIV ‘testifying to what would be said in the future’). NEB (‘to bear witness to the words that God would speak’) reads as though Moses was called to bear witness generally to what God would say to him but was not himself the channel of that revelation. Cf. Moffatt, Hebrews, 43.

[25] I have discussed this in Hebrews and Perfection, 131-2, and would draw attention to the literature cited in the footnotes there. Cf. Attridge, Hebrews, 216-224.

[26] The way into the true, heavenly sanctuary has now been disclosed and opened by Jesus in his death and heavenly exaltation (9:11-12). So, at a symbolic level, the outer tent of the tabernacle represents for our writer the whole system of Jewish worship, which actually stood in the way of direct and permanent access to God.

[27] S Kistemaker, The Psalm Citations in the Epistle to the Hebrews (Amsterdam: Van Soest, 1961), 101, argues that Ps 40:6-8 (cited in Heb 10:5-9) is the key text in Hebrews 8-10, but this passage is best regarded as subsidiary to the prophecy of Jeremiah in the progress of the argument.

[28]I have argued this case more fully in ‘The Prophecy of the New Covenant in the Argument of Hebrews’, RTR 38, 1979, 74-81.

[29] W J Dumbrell, ‘The Spirits of Just Men Made Perfect’, Evangelical Quarterly 48, 1976, 158.

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