John Calvin loved the book of Hebrews. “There is indeed, no book in Holy Scripture which . . . so fully explains that Christ is the end of the Law,” said the great Reformer. But it’s that very connection to the Old Testament that makes the epistle so perplexing to the modern Christian. The only New Testament book to quote the Old Testament more is the Gospel of Matthew; its many references to Old Testament prophecies and commandments can be difficult enough to untangle. But Hebrews’ focus on the complex rituals of priesthood and tabernacle present an even greater challenge.
Combine this with the letter’s ambiguous authorship and warnings of apostasy, and we’re left with an intimidating interpretive puzzle. To learn how to put those pieces together, I spoke with New Testament scholar Dr. David de Silva, whose new Mobile Ed course, Exegetical Study: Letter to the Hebrews, is currently available on Community Pricing.
You take a socio-rhetorical approach to Scripture. What unique insights does this approach yield when studying Hebrews?
I am interested in how this sermon—for that is probably the best way to classify Hebrews—persuades its hearers to make the difficult choice to persevere in their loyalty to Christ and their commitment to his group, knowing that this will mean continued marginalization and disappointment in this life.
Socio-rhetorical interpretation keeps one focused on how the sermon is strategically constructed as an instrument for changing how people look at the circumstances and choices around them with the result that this continued perseverance and commitment actually appear enormously advantageous. In other words, it saves the study of Hebrews from become an exercise in abstract theology by preserving before our eyes what Hebrews really is—a deeply situational sermon wholly invested in shaping the hearers’ next steps in discipleship.
Central to your understanding of the book of Hebrews are the themes of grace and gratitude. How do these themes come out in Hebrews?
A great deal of Hebrews focuses the hearers on how much Christ has done for them and gained for them, the incredible benefits and advantageous that the hearers now enjoy that are beyond the benefits or advantages ever before enjoyed in the history of God’s dealings with the people who recognized him as God. A good deal more focuses on the benefits and advantages in store. All of this is “grace” in the sense of the kindness of God and Christ manifested in the gifts, privileges, and promises of more showered upon the hearers.
Much of what remains in Hebrews focuses on how these hearers ought to be responding to such grace—the deep gratitude that ought to characterize every step, every decision, such that they should be willing to endure their current displacement in society and a whole lot more out of grateful loyalty and obedience to the Christ who gave his all to give them so much. Acting in the present, however, in such a way as bears witness to their hostile neighbors that Christ’s gifts aren’t worth what it costs to keep them is an unthinkable insult to the Son of God, an insult that cannot help but have terrible consequences.
There’s a lot of speculation concerning the author of Hebrews. Where do you fall on this issue, and why?
The evidence points to this: Paul did not write Hebrews, but someone who was a part of his ministry team did. The author of Hebrews admits to having been converted through hearing the testimony of Christ’s apostles (2:3-4), whereas Paul adamantly asserts that he came to faith by God’s direct intervention and not through any human being’s mediation (Gal 1:1, 11-12; 1 Cor 15:3-10). Paul distanced himself from rhetorical polish, so that people would be persuaded by God’s Spirit confirming his words and not by his art (1 Cor 2:1), whereas the author of Hebrews gives significant attention to rhetorical style and ornament.
But, on the other hand, the author knows and tries to coordinate his own movements with those of Timothy (Heb 13:23) and his recollection of his and the addressees’ conversion experience (Heb 2:3-4) resembles the effects of Paul’s own evangelism efforts (Gal 3:1-5; 1 Cor 2:1-5), so the author is likely part of Paul’s larger team. But beyond that, “who wrote the epistle God knows,” to quote Origen’s sage opinion.
Some of the most controversial issues raised by the epistle spring from its many “warning passages” (2:1-4; 3:7-4:13; 5:11-6:12; 10:19-39; 12:14-29). What should Christians make of these passages? What does it mean to apostatize according to the author of Hebrews?
These are indeed historic hotbeds of debate. I think one perspective that is often lost in these debates is that Hebrews is, indeed, a sermon and not an abstract theological tract. It addresses people, some of whom are in danger of throwing in the towel on this Christian venture because they feel the cost far more keenly than the promise. The author uses many different Scriptural and rhetorical framing devices in these warning passages to get such people to take a fresh look at everything they would be losing (and relinquishing for the future) by trying to get back a piece of thex life they left behind, and at whom they would be affronting for the sake of ceasing to affront their neighbors.
A second perspective that is also often lost comes from recognizing that reciprocity—returning grace (gratitude) for grace—was a cardinal value in the Greco-Roman world (which included the Jewish communities living in that world). People were taught, rightly I believe, never to take grace for granted, never to presume upon grace. I do not want to make it easier for myself (or anyone else) to act against God today by presuming that God will still be gracious tomorrow, and neither did the author of Hebrews. Addressing those who have not yet taken that step, however, allows for different rhetorical constraints than addressing those who had, but now realize their stupidity and find themselves looking for a way back.
The author of Hebrews cites the Old Testament more than any other New Testament writer except for Matthew. But the author also employs interpretive techniques that may feel unfamiliar to many Christians. (For instance, there is a strong emphasis on typology.) What tips do you have for Christians seeking to understand Hebrews’ use of the Old Testament?
First, the author gives us an important clue in the opening sentence (Heb 1:1-4): the many words God has spoken throughout the Old Testament come together in kaleidoscopic fashion in the word God has spoken in a Son. The author demonstrates this throughout the sermon as he considers how particular OT texts find their meaning when understood to speak about the Son, to the Son, or even to be spoken by the Son.
Second, yes, the typological approach is foundational for this author. It is through his exegesis of the architecture of the tabernacle and the particulars of key rituals performed therein (most notably the Day of Atonement) that he can speak with any authority about Jesus’ post-ascension activity (the unseen realm of God’s holy places in heaven and the Son’s activity there).
Third, the author is still no maverick. He is committed to the authority of the OT and committed to grounding every claim he makes about the new covenant, its new priesthood, and its new rites upon the authority of particular OT texts, even to the point of the Scriptural authorization of a human sacrifice (Heb 10:6-8). Analogies are always imperfect, but this author strikes me as one who has studied the pieces of a puzzle for decades, but who had come at some point to the conviction that Jesus was the picture on the box. In Hebrews, he lays out where many of the puzzle pieces are now seen to fit.
NT362 Exegetical Study: Letter to the Hebrews is now available on Community Pricing! With Community Pricing, you name the price you’re willing to pay. Once enough bids come in to cover the cost of production, we’ll place your order at the lowest possible price. Place your bid today!
Also check out David deSilva’s commentary Perseverance in Gratitude: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Epistle “to the Hebrews”