Scripture in Hebrews

This article was originally published as ‘God and Scripture in Hebrews’, in P. Helm & C. Trueman (ed.), The Trustworthiness of God: Perspectives on the Nature of Scripture (Leicester: Apollos, 2002), 118-138.

The central thrust of Hebrews is the challenge to respond appropriately to the voice of God in Scripture and to Christian exhortation derived from Scripture. Although the writer is clearly absorbed with expounding a distinctive Christology, soteriology and eschatology, theology is in the service of exhortation in the structure of this book. For example, the first main section concerning God’s ultimate revelation in the person and work of the Son (1:1-14) concludes with an exhortation to pay closer attention to what has been heard from Christ (2:1-4). The next section, which begins to explore his redemptive achievement (2:5-18), is followed by an exhortation not to miss out on the enjoyment of the inheritance he has secured for those who trust him (3:1 – 4:13). Fundamental to the writer’s theology is the notion of God’s faithfulness to his promises (eg. 6:9-20; 7:20-2; 8:6; 9:15; 10:23; 11:6, 8-16; 13:5-6). These promises are recorded in what we call the Old Testament and are shown to have been fulfilled in Christ. God’s faithfulness becomes the basis for every appeal ‘to realize the full assurance of hope to the very end’ (6:11, NRSV).

Within the framework of alternating exposition and exhortation, the writer’s argument is based on a series of scriptural explications. This is one of several features leading many contemporary scholars to characterise Hebrews as a sermonic discourse or homily in a written form, rather than as an epistle.[1] Thus, for example, George Caird argues that Hebrews falls into four sections, each having as its core an Old Testament passage which declares the ineffectiveness and symbolic or provisional nature of the Old Covenant religious institutions. All other scriptural references are ancillary to these four (Psalms 8, 95, 110 and Jeremiah 31), which control the drift of the argument.[2] Richard Longenecker modifies Caird’s approach by insisting that the catena of quotations in 1:5-13 constitutes a fifth major biblical ‘portion’.[3] William Lane proposes that Habakkuk 2:3-4 and Proverbs 3:11-12 form the basis of two key sections of exhortation at the end of Hebrews, thus extending Caird’s approach in the other direction.[4]

1.            Old Testament citations and allusions in Hebrews

There are many direct quotations from the Old Testament in Hebrews, identified by an introductory formula (as in 1:5), and even more indirect quotations or allusions, without an introductory formula (as in 11:5). There are also summaries of Old Testament material (as in 1:1; 10:1-4) and mere references to an Old Testament name or topic ‘that are as important for understanding and describing the author’s hermeneutics as are quotations and allusions’.[5] Scholars differ on the number of explicit quotations but there are about thirty-eight, based on twenty-seven Old Testament passages (a number of texts are cited more than once).[6] There are eleven quotations from the Pentateuch, one from the historical books, eighteen from the Psalms, one from Proverbs, and seven from the prophetical books, of which three are from Jeremiah 31:31-34. At least fifty-five allusions have been identified: forty-one from the Pentateuch, two from the Psalms one from Proverbs, eleven from the prophetical books (of which seven are from Isaiah).

Longenecker observes that, from the Pentateuch the writer drew ‘the basic structure of his thought regarding redemptive history, quoting some eleven times from ten different passages and alluding to forty-one others’. From the Psalms he derived ‘primary support for his Christology, quoting some eighteen times from eleven different passages and alluding to two others’.[7] Non-canonical texts are not cited but allusions to such material have been detected at certain points in the argument. Although Hebrews cites some Old Testament texts used elsewhere in the New Testament (Ps. 110:1, Hab. 2:4, Ps. 2:7, 2 Sam. 7:14, Gen. 21:12, Deut. 32:35), nineteen or twenty of the passages quoted are not cited elsewhere.

The writer of Hebrews appears to have regarded the Greek Version of the Old Testament as authoritative and some scholars have argued that ‘he nowhere shows any immediate knowledge of the Hebrew text’.[8] Longenecker, who takes this view, acknowledges that six references cannot be explained as originating from the LXX (either A or B texts) and proposes that a now extinct septuagintal version that was based on Hebrew readings also now extinct must have been used.[9] It certainly appears as if Greek translations of the Old Testament were in the process of being standardized in the first century and that New Testament quotations are not always from the Greek translation which eventually formed a part of the official text.[10]

2.            The inspiration and authority of the written word

It is important to observe how distinctive is the manner of introducing Old Testament citations in Hebrews. In the majority of cases God himself is the speaker through the person of the prophet or psalmist (eg. 1:5; 1:6-12; 1:13; 4:3-5; 4:7; 5:5-6; 6:13-14; 7:17; 7:21; 8:5; 8:8-12; 10:30; 12:26; 13:6). In four quotations from three passages the words are attributed to Christ (2:12-13; 10:5-7), suggesting that these verses find their true or ultimate meaning in what he says and does. In three quotations from two passages the Holy Spirit is the speaker (3:7-11, 10:15-17), though the same passages are also more generally attributed to God at 4:7 and 8:8-12 respectively. In four instances the human authors are mentioned: Moses (9:20, 12:21), David (4:7 God ‘saying through David’) and ‘someone’ (2:6, Gk. tis).

In many cases the words of Scripture are introduced by the writer as being spoken in the present (eg. 3:7-11, 8:8-12, 12:5-6). He makes no distinction between the word written and the word spoken, and treats the words of human authors as the words of God. In this way the writer expresses his belief in the divine inspiration of the Old Testament documents and God’s intention to continue speaking through them to his people. For example, God can use Psalm 95 to sustain faith in Christ and the promise of sharing in his ‘rest’ (Heb. 3:7 – 4:13). Through Proverbs 3:11-12, God can teach his children under the New Covenant how to respond to the discipline of suffering, literally addressing each one as ‘my son’ (Heb. 12:5-6). The same Spirit who inspired the human authors to write the words of God in the first place, continues to illuminate, challenge, encourage and warn through those definitive words once given. For all generations of believers, the written record is the voice of God, and ‘as a necessary consequence the record is itself living. It is not a book merely. It has a vital connexion with our circumstances and must be considered in connexion with them’.[11]

There is nothing really parallel to this general mode of quotation in the other books of the New Testament. The apostle Paul, for example, prefers to introduce citations with an expression like ‘as it is written’ (eg. Rom. 1:17; 2:24; 1 Cor. 1:19; 2:9, Gk. gegraptai), but Hebrews never follows this pattern. The writer characteristically uses some form of the verb ‘to speak’ (Gk. legein) with God as subject.[12] When the verb ‘to speak’ is used in introductory formulae by other New Testament writers, it is usually combined either with the name of the prophet (eg. ‘Isaiah says’, Rom. 10:16; ‘David says’, Rom. 11:9) or with ‘Scripture’ (‘Scripture says’, Rom. 4:3; 9:17). When God is the subject, as is rarely the case, the reference is to words spoken to someone like Moses (eg. Rom. 9:15) or to Israel in a specific context (eg. Rom. 9:25). The closest parallel to Hebrews would be a passage like 2 Corinthians 6:2, where God’s words to Israel in Isaiah 49:8 are taken to be directly applicable to the Corinthians, as if they were written to the Corinthians.[13]

Bishop Westcott, whose commentary contains a valuable excursus on this topic, notices that in connection with this belief in the present, personal voice of God in the Old Testament, ‘there is no indication of any anticipation of a written N.T.’.[14] However, the issue is not as simple as he makes out. The message that was ‘declared at first through the Lord’ and was ‘attested to us by those who heard him’ (2:3) may have come to the writer of Hebrews and his readers in some written form.[15] Even more significantly, it appears that the writer expects his readers to respond to his own message with as much care and diligence as to the Scriptures (compare 5:11 – 6:12 with 3:7 – 4:13). Hebrews itself is a ‘word of exhortation’ based on the Scriptures, drawing out their meaning in the light of the Christ-event and applying them to the situation of the readers. It is a document which calls upon the readers to hear the voice of God, warning and encouraging them in the present, and to respond (cf. 12:25-9). The writer apparently had some confidence that God would use his efforts to transform the situation he addressed (cf. 6:1-3).


3.            Listening to the voice of God: the writer’s sustained appeal

Revelation and redemption in Christ

Hebrews begins with the claim that the God who spoke long ago ‘to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets’ has ‘in these last days’ spoken to us again ‘by a Son’ (1:1-2 NRSV). God is not silent or unknowable. He has spoken definitively through his chosen agents, ‘in many and various ways’, suggesting that his self-communication was in multiple portions and in diverse forms. It is clear from what follows that the writer of Hebrews identified these portions and forms of revelation with the Jewish Scriptures and that he viewed the whole as ‘one vast prophecy, in the record of national fortunes, in the ordinances of a national Law, in the expression of a national hope’.[16]

Whatever unity of purpose or content there was in this revelation ‘long ago’, Hebrews implies a contrast with the singularity and finality of God’s eschatological speech ‘in one who is Son’.[17] Nevertheless, it is the same God who speaks in both dispensations and the salvation which he accomplishes through the Son is said to have been anticipated or foreshadowed in the provisions of the former revelation (8:5; 9:8-10; 10:1). Hebrews will allow no differentiation of authenticity or trustworthiness between the revelation in the prophetic Scriptures and the revelation in the Son.[18] Indeed, the Scriptures are regularly used to illuminate and explain the full significance of Christ and his work.

The superiority of God’s revelation in the Son has to do with his identity and role in God’s redemptive plan (1:2-4). God speaks through his Son not only in word but also in deed, ‘in the entirety of the Christ-event, providing for humanity atonement for sin and an enduring covenant relationship’.[19] There is also a finality about the revelation through the Son since it comes (literally) ‘at the end of these days’, inaugurating the eschatological era towards which the prophetic Scriptures pointed. The character of Christ as Son, which is first proclaimed in 1:2b-3a, is then expounded by means of a series of citations which compare him to the angels and their role in God’s plan (1:5-13).[20] The nature of his redemptive work, which is first announced in 1:3:b, is not explored until 2:5-18.

The climax of this first section of the argument is a warning to ‘pay greater attention to what we have heard so that we do not drift away from it’ (2:1). The reference here is to the message ‘declared at first through the Lord’ and then attested to the writer and his readers ‘by those who heard him’, ‘while God added his testimony by signs and wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit, distributed according to his will’ (2:3-4). In some extra-canonical Jewish writings, angels were portrayed as intermediaries in the giving of the Law at Sinai.[21] This tradition is appropriated by the writer to make the point that the revelation delivered by the Son is even more significant. The salvation proclaimed and effected by the Son enables believers to experience in advance ‘the powers of the age to come’ (6:4-5), by being sanctified, cleansed and perfected as beneficiaries of the New Covenant (10:10-18). But failure to hold fast to the message which brings the messianic salvation can only mean experiencing the eschatological judgement of God (cf. 10:26-31).

In 2:5-18, attention turns to the nature of the salvation which was accomplished by Christ. His actual words are not quoted but his teaching about ‘the time’ being fulfilled and the kingdom of God being ‘at hand’ (Mark 1:15 par.) finds expression in the eschatological framework which Hebrews provides in this passage. The writer’s subject is ‘the world to come’ (2:5) and the way Christ brings ‘many children to glory’ (2:10). This happens when the Son of God fulfils Psalm 8:4-6, becoming ‘for a little while lower than the angels’ but then ‘crowned with glory and honour because of the suffering of death’ (2:9). The way in which Christ’s death and heavenly exaltation benefit believers begins to be explored (2:10-18), though much more remains to be said as the writer’s argument unfolds in chapters 5-10.

The danger of missing out on the inheritance promised by God

In Psalm 95:7-11, David warned his own generation against hardening their hearts in unbelief and rebellion against God, taking 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 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 viewed in the Old Testament as the ‘rest’ granted to Israel by God (eg. Exod 33:14; Deut 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. Our writer reasons that David’s warning about missing out on God’s rest must refer to something beyond the 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 (Gk. katapausin) in terms of Genesis 2:2, where the related verb ‘rested’ is found (katepausen).[22]

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. 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 ‘unshakeable 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’.[23]

It is significant that the writer’s most explicit theology of ‘the word of God’ is set forth in this context (4:12-13). His reference could be to the gospel, which is described in v. 2 as ‘the message they heard’ (Gk. ho logos tés akoués). The gospel brings the promise of salvation as well as the warning of judgement (cf. 2:1-4). However, since Psalm 95 functions as the voice of God in the immediate context, calling the readers to faith and warning them about hardening their hearts, the word of God written in Scripture is more likely to be the reference in 4:12-13 (Gk. ho logos tou Theou).[24] In language recalling Isaiah 55:11, the word of God is said to be ‘living and active’, implying that it achieves the purpose for which it is uttered by God. The metaphor of the ‘two-edged sword’ is used to paint what initially appears to be a rather frightening picture. God’s word penetrates to the deepest recesses of our being, opening us up and judging ‘the thoughts and intentions of the heart’. It is the ‘critic’ (Gk. kritikos) by which all are judged. Indeed, confronted by the word of God, we are confronted by God himself, and ‘before him no creature is hidden’. When the writer says ‘all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account’, the image is that of an animal with its head thrown back and neck bare, ready to be sacrificed! The final day of reckoning is anticipated when the word of God exposes us. In the final analysis, then, this passage suggests that God can use the negative or judging function of his word to help us in pursuing the journey of faith, since it can deliver us from hardness of heart and unbelief.

Holding fast to our confession

As the writer moves towards the central section of his argument, he introduces an exhortation in 4:14-16 which finds its echo in 10:19-25, in an expanded form. These exhortations stress the importance of holding fast to the ‘confession’ (Gk. homologia) about Jesus as Son of God, who is also the high priest who has ‘passed through the heavens’ (4:14; 10:23; cf. 3:1).[25] In the flow of the argument, this is necessary if believers are not to fall by the wayside and miss out on the final rest of God. Allied to this continued confession of Christ and his saving work, the readers are urged to keep on drawing near to God through Christ as heavenly high priest, to receive ‘mercy’ and find ‘grace to help in time of need’ (4:16; 10:19-22). In the inclusion formed by these parallel exhortations, the exposition of Christ’s priestly and sacrificial work offers the greatest possible encouragement to persevere in faith, hope and love (cf. 6:9-20; 10:24-39).

Aaron’s high priestly work under the Mosaic Law is then compared with the role given to the Messiah in Scripture and carried out by Jesus in his earthly ministry and heavenly exaltation (Heb. 5:1-10). Here the importance of Psalm 110:4 is first signalled, but its full significance is not disclosed until chapter seven. Meanwhile, there is serious warning about paying attention to what the writer is about to teach and a challenge to receive the ‘solid food’ that will lead them to maturity and faithful perseverance, instead of apostasy (5:11 – 6:12). As the readers are urged to respond to the writer’s word with as much diligence as they are challenged to respond to Scripture in 3:1 – 4:13, the impression is given that he sees himself to have an authority from God which can only be ignored at their peril. In effect, this is a claim to be writing New Testament Scripture.

The basis of Christian hope is not wishful thinking about the future but the solemn promise of God. As far as Hebrews is concerned, there is fundamentally only one divine promise in Scripture. It was first given to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3 and then repeated at various stages to the forefathers of Israel in different forms (eg. Gen. 15:1-21; 26:2-4; 28:13-15; Exod. 3:6-10). God promised to multiply the descendants of Abraham, making them into a great nation, establishing them in their own land, and blessing them so that they might become a source of blessing to all nations. On one particular occasion, God confirmed the truthfulness of this promise with an oath (cf. Gen. 22:16). Hebrews notes that Abraham was encouraged by this to wait patiently for what was promised. God began to fulfil his promise in Abraham’s lifetime, but the ultimate blessing came in the person of Jesus the Messiah.

In human affairs, ‘an oath given as confirmation puts an end to all dispute’ (6:16). So God inspired the use of this pattern of speech in Scripture to make the unchanging nature of his promise abundantly clear (6:17). He accommodated himself to human weakness by employing ‘two unchangeable things in which it is impossible that God would prove false’ (6:18). His promise and his oath give the greatest possible encouragement to his people to put their trust in him. It is clear from what follows that Christians who have fled to take hold of the hope offered to them in Jesus are the ultimate heirs of what was promised to Abraham (cf. Gal. 3:26-29). With this argument, Hebrews shows how much the Christian hope and the motivation for godly living (6:9-12) is tied to a belief in the faithfulness of God as expressed in Scripture (6:13-20). There is no other way of knowing the divine promises apart from God’s word written. To impugn that revelation, with its assurances of divine inspiration and authority, is to deny the trustworthiness of God. According to Hebrews, God stands by what has been written in his name and he expects his people to do the same.

In 6:18-20 the writer anticipates 7:20-22, where it is argued that the promise of Psalm 110:4 (‘you are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek’) establishes the eternal validity of the Messiah’s priesthood. Like the foundational promise to Abraham and his offspring, this promise is prefixed by a divine oath (‘The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind’). These two promises are closely linked in form but also in their intention. With the provision of the eternal priesthood ‘according to the order of Melchizedek’, God reveals how he will secure for his people an inheritance where they may enjoy his presence forever. To put it another way, the promise to Abraham finds its ultimate fulfilment in the saving work of Christ (cf. 11:13-16, 39-40).

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’ (6:18) to seize the hope set before them. Jesus’ sacrifice and entrance into the ‘inner shrine behind the curtain’ guarantee 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 realized 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’ (Gk. aphômoiômenos) the Son of God (7:3).[26] To some extent, the significance of Genesis 14 was noted by the author of Psalm 110, who linked together David’s inheritance of Jerusalem with the promise of a share in the royal priesthood of Melchizedek. As far as Hebrews is concerned, Psalm 110 is a prediction about the Messiah (cf. 1:13; 5:5-6), with verse 4 signifying such imperfection in the whole system of priesthood descended from Aaron that there is need for ‘a better hope through which we approach God’ (7:11-19).

The rest of Hebrews 7:20 – 10:19 is designed to show how the high-priestly work of Jesus provides that ‘better hope’. The eternity of his priesthood is established by his resurrection and heavenly exaltation: ‘he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues for ever’ (7:24). This is really ‘the main point’ of the promise about a royal priesthood ‘according to the order of Melchizedek’ (cf. 8:1). The practical implications of the writer’s use of Psalm 110:4 are then revealed in 7:25. Jesus is able ‘for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them’. The idea of ‘approaching’, ‘drawing near’, or ‘coming’ to God is prominent in Hebrews (cf. 4:16; 7:19; 10:1; 10:22; 11:6; 12:18; 12:22). It is a cultic way of expressing what it means to be in a genuine relationship with God. The Old Testament priesthood and sacrificial system only imperfectly provided for such a relationship (8:1-5; 9:1-10; 10:1-4), but Jesus is able to ‘perfect’ those who would draw near to God by inaugurating the New Covenant way of approach (10:14-18).[27] Christians can look to Jesus for help at every stage in their earthly pilgrimage, because ‘he always lives to make intercession for them’ (cf. Rom. 8:34; 1 Jn. 2:1-2). The image of the heavenly intercessor is used to emphasize Christ’s willingness and ability to go on applying the benefits of his once-for-all sacrifice (cf. 2:18; 4:14-16; 10:19-22).

In 7:26-28, the claim is made that, as a faultless high priest, Jesus sacrificed for the sins of God’s people ‘once for all, when he offered himself’ (7:27; cf. 9:12; 10:10 [Gk. ephapax]; 9:26, 28 [Gk. hapax]). Unlike the high priests of Judaism, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people. The perfection of his sacrifice is associated with the perfection of the victim. Jesus himself was ‘perfected’ as high priest (7:28; cf. 2:10; 5:9) by means of his obedient life, his sacrificial death and his entrance into the heavenly presence of God (as vv. 26-27 suggest).[28]

The foundational promise of the New Covenant

The oath confirming the eternal priesthood of the Messiah in Psalm 110:4 makes Jesus ‘the guarantee of a better covenant’ (7:22). This introduces the next main section of the argument, where Jeremiah 31:31-4 is the key text. It is quoted in full in Hebrews 8:8-12 and quoted again in an abbreviated form when the section is ended (10:15-17). The writer has already linked the promise to Abraham with the promise to the Messiah in Psalm 110:4 (Heb. 6:13-20). By means of his sacrifice and heavenly exaltation, Jesus is now shown to be the ‘mediator’ of a new covenant (Gk. mesités, 8:6; 9:15; 12:24), making possible the ultimate fulfilment of the promise to Abraham. As ‘guarantee’ of the New Covenant (Gk. engyos, 7:22), Christ’s eternal priesthood vouches for the fact that the blessings of that covenant are readily available. The ‘better covenant’ (7:22) is the basis for the Christian’s ‘better hope’ (7:19).

The prophecy of Jeremiah is initially cited in Hebrews for a negative purpose. The writer’s introductory and concluding remarks (8:7-8a; 8:13) stress the imperfect and provisional character of the covenant made with Israel at the time of the exodus from Egypt. Although Scripture speaks about God making a covenant with Abraham (eg. Gen. 15:18; 17:2), Hebrews restricts the notion of covenant to the disposition made at Sinai (Exodus 19-24) and the New Covenant of Jeremiah 31:31-4. Attention is first drawn to the blame contained within the prophetic oracle (8:9), which finds fault with the recipients. However, our writer also suggests that the very prediction of a second or ‘new’ covenant would not have been made ‘if that first covenant had been faultless’ (8:7). In speaking of a new covenant through Jeremiah, God ‘has made the first one obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear.’ (8:13)

Hebrews does not simply argue that what is new must be superior to what is old. The contrasts in 8:1-6 show that the writer viewed the Old Covenant largely in terms of its provisions for worship. The levitical priesthood served in a sanctuary that was only ‘a sketch and shadow of the heavenly one’ (8:5; cf. 10:1). This claim, which is backed up with a citation from Exodus 25:40, assumes that everything prescribed by God in the Mosaic law was intended to be a ‘pattern’ or model (Gk. typos) of what was to come with the work of Christ. Consequently, he is ‘a minister in the sanctuary and the true tent that the Lord, and not any mortal, has set up’ (8:2). Although this perspective has sometimes been described as a modified form of Platonic idealism, our writer’s distinction between the earthly and the heavenly is eschatologically controlled, rather than philosophically inspired.[29]

The negative evaluation of the Old Covenant is continued in 9:1-10. The writer stresses the earthly nature of the Mosaic sanctuary and its ritual (vv. 2-5) and goes on to describe its weakness as a means of relating to God (vv. 6-10). The very existence of such a sanctuary, with its two divisions and rigid regulations of approach, ‘witnessed constantly to the aim of man and to the fact that he could not as yet attain it. He could not penetrate to that innermost sanctuary to which he necessarily looked, and from which blessing flowed.’[30] A particular weakness of the Old Covenant is then emphasized in 9:9-10. In the worship of the earthly sanctuary, gifts and sacrifices are offered which are not able to (lit.) ‘perfect the worshipper with respect to conscience’ (Gk. kata syneidésin teleiôsai ton latreuonta). The following verse explains this failure in terms of the external operation of the cultus – they are ‘regulations for the body’ – and in terms of its provisional status – being in force ‘until the time comes to set things right’. Those who sought to draw near to God through the provisions of the Mosaic Law were not ‘perfected’ because the system was unable to deal effectively with the problem of a guilty conscience (9:9) or ‘consciousness of sin’ (10:2, Gk. syneidésin hamartiôn).

The writer’s positive use of the promises of Jeremiah 31:31-4 must be understood in this context. Jeremiah predicted a profound transformation of the members of the chosen people, issuing in an authentic knowledge of the Lord. The basis of this change would be a divine act of mercy towards them: ‘for I will be merciful towards their iniquities and I will remember their sins no more’. Hebrews notes the foundational importance of this last promise to the whole notion of a new covenant.[31] When the passage from Jeremiah is quoted again in 10:16-17, the focus is on the last verse of the oracle and this interpretative comment is added, ‘where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin’ (10:18). The fulfilment is proclaimed in priestly and sacrificial terms because Hebrews sees the work of Christ as the reality towards which the Old Testament cult and Jeremiah’s prophecy were both pointing.

From 9:11 to 10:18, the writer’s purpose is to show how that definitive offer of forgiveness is made possible by the shedding of Christ’s ‘blood’. Against the background of Mosaic regulations, this terminology indicates that his death is a sacrifice for sins and the means by which the New Covenant is inaugurated (9:12, 14, 15; 10:19-22, 29; 12:24; 13:20; cf. 9:18-22). By a single act of obedience, he fulfils and replaces the entire sacrificial system of the Old Covenant, as envisaged in Psalm 40:6-8 (Heb. 10:1-10). It is his unblemished self-offering in death that makes his sacrificial blood so effective (7:27; 9:14). The Day of Atonement ritual is particularly in view in Hebrews 9:11-14, as the writer seeks to show how the weaknesses of the Mosaic system have been overcome by the work of Christ. His death and heavenly exaltation accomplish what the yearly activity of the high priest could not, since they achieve ‘an eternal redemption’ (9:12) and can ‘purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God’ (9:14). The writer can thus declare that ‘by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified’ (10:14).

Believers can now draw near to God in the heavenly sanctuary, ‘with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water’ (10:22; cf. 4:16; 7:25; 12:22-4). With such language, Hebrews appears to proclaim the fulfilment of the promise of Jeremiah 31:33 about the renewal of the heart of God’s people, with all that flows from such a miracle. The writer’s presentation may also have been coloured by the prophecy of Ezekiel 36:25-7, with its expectation of ‘a new heart’ and ‘a new spirit’, made possible by God sprinkling his people with clean water to purify them from all their idols. Only when the heart is set free from the burden of unforgiven sin can it be renewed in faith and sincerity towards God, thus providing the immediate and spontaneous fidelity to God that was foretold by these prophets.[32] The fulfilment of Jeremiah’s promise about a definitive forgiveness of sins is therefore central to the exposition of God’s faithfulness in Hebrews.

Since the writer is concerned to show how the original promises to Abraham find their fulfilment and since the notion of an inheritance for God’s people is critical to the provisions of the Old Covenant, it is not surprising to find the New Covenant linked to the prospect of an ‘eternal inheritance’. Christ is the mediator of a new covenant ‘so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, because a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant’ (9:15). Redemption from sin is necessary if we are to enjoy the ultimate inheritance promised by God. Even though the Old Covenant provided a system of cleansing and renewal for those who lived in the earthly inheritance of Canaan, it was only the sacrifice of Christ that secured the redemption necessary for life in God’s presence for ever (cf. 12:22-4).

A final call to faithfulness

With the exposition of Christ’s work in cultic terms completed, the need to respond to such teaching with persevering faith dominates the argument from 10:19 to the end of the book. In 10:23 the encouragement to ‘hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering’ is explicitly based on the conviction that ‘he who has promised is faithful’. The writer has done everything to demonstrate the trustworthiness of God, specifically as it is related to the fulfilment of Scripture, and wants his readers to live in the light of this belief. A number of key texts are quoted and expounded in these chapters (eg. 10:30, 31, 37-8; 12:5-6, 26; 13:5, 6) and allusions to other texts abound. Hebrews 11 stands in the middle of this section, with its catalogue of examples from the Old Testament. These are not merely designed to demonstrate the faith that pleases God but to show how God’s saving purposes for his people were actually advanced by those who believed his promises. Here, the promise to Abraham and the patriarchs returns to centre-stage (11:8-22). Either side of this chapter is the call to express faith in terms of patient endurance (10:32-9; 12:1-12).

The writer appears to allegorize 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.[33] 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’.[34]

In 12:18-29 there is a climactic appeal to heed the one who ‘warns from heaven’. This passage also highlights the eschatological tension in the argument of Hebrews.[35] When Israel gathered at Mount Sinai, to hear the voice of God, it was a terrifying occasion (12:18-21; cf. Exodus 19), moving the people to beg that ‘not another word be spoken to them’. Christians, on the other hand, have come by faith to ‘Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem’, where God ‘the judge of all’ is in the midst of ‘a festal gathering’, comprising angels and the perfected saints of all generations (12:22-4). The scene is one of covenant conclusion, ‘modelled on the Sinai definitive pattern’.[36] But the locus is actually the final encounter with God in the new Jerusalem, which is the hope of the eschatological prophets in the Old Testament. The emphasis is on acceptance because of Jesus ‘the mediator of a new covenant’ and his ‘sprinkled blood’, that ‘speaks a better word than the blood of Abel’.

With the words ‘you have come’ in 12:22,[37] the writer implies that believers are now already part of that heavenly scene. This is a vivid way of saying that we have secured the promised eternal inheritance through faith in Jesus and his work. To some extent we can enjoy its benefits in advance of literally coming into God’s presence. In view of this assurance, the stern warning in 12:25-9 is rather unexpected. But the writer’s point is that the God who spoke at Sinai (‘who warned them on earth’) continues to call us from the heavenly Jerusalem (‘who warns us from heaven’).

No artificial distinction is to be made between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New! Since God continually speaks to us of forgiveness and acceptance through the gospel about his Son, we must not refuse him. If the Israelites did not escape God’s condemnation when they turned away from him, how much less will we (cf. 2:1-4)? When God spoke from Sinai, the whole mountain trembled violently (Ex. 19:18). Haggai 2:6 promises that, when it is time for the final judgement and the end of this world-order, God will shake ‘not only the earth but also the heavens’ (12:26). All that will remain is ‘what cannot be shaken’ (12:27), namely the kingdom that Christ shares with those who continue to trust in him (12:28).

The writer’s assurance about sharing in God’s unshakeable kingdom is coupled with a further warning about apostasy, to challenge the readers to go on heading the voice of God through the gospel and the Old Testament Scriptures (cf. 3:7 – 4:13), and thus to live a life of gratitude and acceptable worship (12:28-29).

4.            The hermeneutical achievement of Hebrews

Much more could be said about the writer’s particular use of key texts or the eschatological framework through which he interprets Old Testament narratives or legal material. His underlying conviction about the inspiration of Scripture leads him to believe that God was preparing his people for the person and work of Christ in all that he said to Israel and did on their behalf. The God who speaks so powerfully today through the gospel and calls people to share with him in his eternal kingdom and presence is the same God who spoke to the patriarchs and made them promises long ago. Everything else in Scripture, including the cultic provisions of the Mosaic Law, is seen to have had an immediate application to the original recipients, as well as having an ultimate application to Christ and to those whom he has ‘perfected’, ‘in these last days’. There is a unity and shape to Scripture that gives point and purpose to the various sections within it. But the aim of this ‘word of exhortation’ is not simply to develop a Christian hermeneutic or to develop an integrated biblical theology. The writer’s abiding concern is to urge his readers to discern and heed the voice of God in Scripture appropriately.

It is sometimes argued that the writer’s use of the Old Testament is too much influenced by the Alexandrian school of Jewish Platonists and more particularly by Philo. The assumption is that this approach should not be imitated by Christians today! However, at the end of a massive comparison of the two, Ronald Williamson concludes that Hebrews differs radically from the outlook and attitude of Philo. ‘Neither in his basic judgement about the essential character of the Old Testament, nor in his chief method of scriptural exegesis does the Writer of Hebrews appear to owe anything to Philo.’[38] Caird has also insisted that Hebrews was in reality ‘one of the earliest and most successful attempts to define the relations between the Old and New Testaments, and 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’.[39] The writer believed that the Old Covenant had been ‘superseded and fulfilled but not abrogated. It contained a genuine foreshadowing of the good things to come, not a Platonic illusion of ultimate reality’.[40]

However, Caird rightly points out that in Hebrews ‘part of the validity of the Old order is its constant disclaimer of finality’: the writer’s interest is in the confessed inadequacy of the old order. ‘The epistle seeks to establish its main thesis, 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’.[41] As noted earlier in this chapter, Caird argues that Hebrews falls into four sections, each having as its core an Old Testament passage which declares the ineffectiveness and symbolic or provisional nature of the Old Covenant religious institutions. All other scriptural references are ancillary to these four (Psalms 8, 95, 110 and Jeremiah 31), which control the drift of the argument. Other scholars such as Longenecker and Lane have endorsed this approach and developed it in various ways.

Graham Hughes has investigated more extensively the hermeneutical method of Hebrews and related this to the situation of the original recipients, particularly as this is portrayed in 5:11 – 6:20. The writer addresses them as he does because they ‘have not attained the level of Christian maturity at which deep and sustained reflection on the meaning of the Word of God takes place’.[42] He is concerned that they should be motivated to press on in their Christian lives by hearing correctly the Word of God. Hughes makes the interesting observation that in the theological-Christological sections where the meaning of the death of Jesus is explored, the eschatological viewpoint is a realized one, but in the paraenetic passages, Hebrews assumes a futurist aspect. Thus, ‘in the theologically oriented passages (“realized eschatology”) the discontinuity with the old covenant is written large: in the exhortatory passages (“futurist eschatology”) the continuity between old and new covenant is such that one might almost think the Christian era had never dawned’.[43] The bipolarity of Christian existence has become ‘a hermeneutical screen which has been placed across the O.T. Scriptures’ by the writer of Hebrews ‘to let them speak to different elements within the Christian experience’. This is described as ‘the hermeneutic of eschatological existence’, and in the concluding chapter of his book Hughes relates this hermeneutical technique to modern problems in the field of biblical interpretation.

The aim of this chapter has been to build on the insights of such scholars and to show more precisely how the various sections of Hebrews and their underlying scriptural themes link together. The hortatory thrust of Hebrews is grounded in the writer’s presentation of the faithfulness of God in Scripture and its outcome in the person and work of Christ. Readers are urged to respond to God’s faithfulness with persevering faith, sincere expressions of love and grateful obedience.


[1] Cf. W.L., Lane, Word Biblical Commentary Volume 47A Hebrews 1-8 (Dallas: Word, 1991), lxix-lxxv.

[2] G.B., Caird, ‘The Exegetical Method of the Epistle to the Hebrews’, Canadian Journal of Theology 5 (1959), 44-51. S. Kistemaker (The Psalm Citations in the Epistle to the Hebrews [Amsterdam: van Soerst, 1961], 101) insists that the argument of Hebrews 8-10 is based on Psalm 40:6-8, rather than Jeremiah 31:31-34. However, the latter is more central to the argument of the section and the former is used in a supportive role.

[3] R.N., Longenecker, Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 174-185

[4] Lane, Hebrews 1-8, cxiv-cxv, citing the unpublished work of J. Walters.

[5] M. Barth, ‘The Old Testament in Hebrews An Essay in Biblical Hermeneutics’, in W. Klassen, W. and G.F. Snyder, (ed.), Current Issues in New Testament Interpretation (London : SCM, 1962), 54.

[6] Longenecker, Biblical Exegesis,164-170. Lane, Hebrews 1-8, cxvi, counts 31 explicit quotations and 4 implicit quotations, a minimum of 37 allusions, 19 instances where OT material is summarized, and 13 more where a biblical name or topic is cited without reference to a specific context.

[7] Longenecker, Biblical Exegesis, 167. 2 Sam. 7:14, Deut. 32:43 (LXX) and Is. 8:17-18 are the only portions apart from Psalms used to explicate the person of Christ.

[8] B.F. Westcott, The Epistle to the Hebrews (3rd edition; London: MacMillan, 1914), 481.

[9]  Longenecker, Biblical Exegesis, 169.

[10] Cf. G. Howard, ‘Hebrews and Old Testament Quotations’, NovT 10 (1968), 208-21, who argues that the quotations in Heb. 1:6, 2:17, 2:13a, 5:6 and 13:5 agree with the Hebrew against the Greek version. Lane, Hebrews 1-8, cxvii-cxviii, highlights the issues in this debate.

[11] Westcott, Hebrews,  477.

[12] Cf. Westcott, Hebrews, 477-8; Lane, Hebrews 1-8, cxvii. Westcott notes a partial correspondence with Hebrews in the way Scripture is quoted in the epistles of Clement and Barnabas.

[13] Cf. The discussion of Paul’s usage in the contribution to this volume by Drake Williams.

[14] Westcott, Hebrews, 478

[15] Cf. Attridge, Hebrews, 66-7. There is certainly scholarly debate about the meaning of ‘the basic teaching about Christ’ in 6:1 (Gk. ton tés archés tou Christou logon). In its context, does this expression refer to certain basic credal statements about Christ or to something more? Was this transmitted in an oral or written form?

[16] Westcott, Hebrews, 493.

[17] Paraphrase of the Greek expression in 1:2 without an article (en huiÜ) suggested by Westcott, Hebrews, 7

[18] It is true that the writer characterises God as speaking formerly ‘on earth’ and now ‘from heaven’ (12:25), but in both cases the words are God’s.  Moreover, there is a common purpose in this speech, namely to motivate his people to offer ‘an acceptable worship with reverence and awe’ (12:26-29).

[19] Attridge, H.W., The Epistle to the Hebrews (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1989), 39.

[20] Cf. J.W. Thompson, ‘The Structure and Purpose of the Catena in Hebrews 1:5-13’, CBQ 38 (1976), 352-363; S. Motyer, ‘The Psalm quotations of Hebrews 1: a hermeneutic-free zone?’, Tyndale Bulletin 50 (1999), 3-22.

[21] Eg., Jubilees 1:27, 29; 2:1; 5:1-2; Josephus, Ant. 15.5.3. Cf. Gal. 3:19; Acts 7:30, 38, 53.

[22] For Jewish Hermeneutics in the first century note 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’ (34).

[23] 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.

[24] Cf. Lane, Hebrews 1-8, 102-3. Of course it is true that the Psalm actually offers in a written form the promise of rest and a warning of judgement that the gospel gives in an oral form.

[25] It is possible that this confession is ‘a firmly outlined, liturgically set tradition by which the community must abide’ (O. Michel, TDNT 5:215). More cautiously, V.H. Neufeld, The Earliest Christian Confessions (Leiden: Brill, 1963), 134-5, argues that the confession known to the readers was essentially that ‘Jesus is the Son of God’ and that the words ‘apostle’ and ‘high priest’ (3:1) are ‘not part of the content of the homologia but refer to offices mentioned in the author’s comparison between Jesus and Moses’.

[26] It is appropriate to read the passive in the strict sense here and to understand that ‘God is the sculptor who lets a sign of primitive times correspond to the event of the End time’ (O. Michel, Der Brief an die Hebräer, 13th ed. Meyer Kommentar [GØttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1975], 263).

[27] Cf. D.G. Peterson, Hebrews and Perfection (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1982), 126-167.

[28] For a ‘vocational’ reading of the perfecting of Christ in Hebrews cf. Peterson, Hebrews and Perfection, 1-125.

[29] Cf. Lane, Hebrews 1-8, 206-8. Contra Attridge, Hebrews, 219-24.

[30] Westcott, Hebrews, 252.

[31] This is clear from the structure of Jer. 31:31-4 itself, in which the last promise of v. 34 is linked to the preceding promises by ‘for, because’ (Heb. kÐ, Gk. hoti). Cf. Heb. 8:12. This point is made in a different syntactic manner in Heb. 10:15-17, with the preface in v. 15 highlighting the importance of what follows in v. 17.

[32] I have argued this case more fully in ‘The Prophecy of the New Covenant in the Argument of Hebrews’, Reformed Theological Review 38 (1979), 74-81.

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

[34] F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews (London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1964), 299. Bruce (297-9) compares the way Philo treats the patriarchal narratives.

[35] Cf. C.K. Barrett, ‘The Eschatology of the Epistle to the Hebrews’, in W.D. Davies and D. Daube (ed.), The Background of the New Testament and it s Eschatology (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1954), 363-93.

[36] Cf. W.J. Dumbrell, ‘’The Spirits of Just Men Made Perfect’, Evangelical Quarterly XLVIII (1976), 154-9.

[37] proselélythate in 12:22 is the perfect tense of the verb which is used in the present tense in 4:16; 7:25; 10:22. The perfect stresses the idea of having already arrived, whereas the present tense stresses the need to keep on approaching God in his heavenly sanctuary through Christ by faith. In other words, there is need to realize continually through prayer the benefits of having drawn near to God definitively in Christ.

[38] R. Williamson, Philo and the Epistle to the Hebrews (Leiden: Brill, 1979), 538.

[39] Caird, ‘Exegetical Method’, 45. Longenecker (Biblical Exegesis, 164) proposes that Hebrews ‘should not automatically be classed as an example of hellenistic Christian argumentation and hermeneutics, but is to be viewed in continuity with early Christian exegetical procedures and in conformity with common Jewish exegetical practices, even though it employs these in its own highly individualized fashion’.

[40] Caird, ‘Exegetical Method’, 46. Cf. F.F. Bruce, The Time is Fulfilled (Exeter: Paternoster, 1978), 77-94.

[41] Caird, ‘Exegetical Method’, 49; Motyer, ‘The Psalm quotations’, 21, similarly concludes that the writer looks for the tensions, even the contradictions, between texts, which allow him to assert that ‘Jesus is the fulfilment, the answer to the puzzle’, and paradoxically, ‘to reinstate the Old Testament as “the word of God” witnessing in its “partial and fragmentary” way (1:1) to the Son who is the final Word.’

[42] G. Hughes, Hebrews and Hermeneutics (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1979), 50.

[43] Hughes, Hermeneutics, 70.


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