When studying the book of Hebrews, there are a lot of questions concerning the details of the book: Who wrote it? Who is the audience? Where was it written? Many theologians have argued over these things through the years. Some of these issues matter more than others. However, I believe one question that needs to be answered to have a mature and useful understanding of the book is the question of why was it written. Only when we understand the purpose of the book can we read and interpret it correctly. Imagine reading the Declaration of Independence without knowing the story of the Boston Tea Party, King George’s taxes, and the English rule of the colonies. When read in context, the line “All men are created equal” jumps off the page when you think of the oppressive English rule that existed during that time.
The same goes for our reading of Scripture and the book of Hebrews. If we do not know what the author is responding to or writing about, it makes little sense to us. So, with that said, the question remains: Why was the book of Hebrews written?
The answer, I believe, lies in what is called the “warning passages.” Throughout the book, the author (of whom I will refer to as A for the continuation of this post) issues warnings to the readers. These warnings seem to summarize and finalize the issues he is talking about. For instance, in Hebrews 1, A quotes from the Psalms, 2 Samuel, Deuteronomy, and 1 Chronicles, suggesting that the audience has a strong familiarity with the Torah, which is referred to as the “message of the angels” in this passage. A claims that the Torah was binding and that Christ is superior to the angles, the delivers of the message. A then warns the readers in 2:1-4 of the danger of drifting away from the salvation of Christ. The argument goes this way: The Torah (message of the angels) was biding; Christ is superior to the angels; Therefore, if one does not follow the salvation of Christ, then punishment is due just as if one disobeyed the Torah. This is the first warning.
We see a couple things in this warning to help us understand why this book was written. First, we see evidence of a largely Jewish audience. To refer to the Torah as the “message of the angels” would speak strongly to the Jews. Second, A is responding to some sort of sin or disobedience (2:2-3). Third, we see that A is encouraging perseverance as a response.
Let us move on. The next warning is found in 3:7-4:16. Leading up to this warning, A makes a strong argument for the humanity of the Messiah. A, again, starts off by quoting from the Torah, this time Psalms (2:6-8) and later Isaiah (2:13). Then, we see a clear reasoning for the incarnation: humanity needed someone from its ranks to present them before God. Just as a High Priest was chosen from the people of Israel, so Jesus was from the people. Then in 3:1-6, A argues that Jesus was greater than Moses. The Priesthood began under the leadership of Moses, whose own brother was the first High Priest. Jesus, being greater than Moses, establishes a superiority similar to one we saw in the previous warning.
Now we get into the warning itself. Moses was faithful. If Jesus is greater than Moses, so then Jesus must be faithful as well. Those who are in Christ must hold strong to this belief. Just as Moses was trusted, so can then the readers trust Jesus. If they don’t, their hearts will be hardened by deceitfulness (3:13). Just as those who didn’t trust Moses were not able to enter the Holy Land, so will be the fate of those who don’t have faith in Christ (3:16-19). If they want to experience the rest represented by the Holy Land, they must persevere (4:11).
So what does this warning tell us about the purpose of Hebrews? First, again we see a Jewish audience because of the quoting of the Torah and the appeal to Jesus’ superiority over Moses. Second, we get a bit clearer idea of the sin that was talked about in the first warning: turning away from the Living God (3:12). Third, again we see a call of perseverance as a response to this sin (3:13, 4:11). Fourth, we begin to see a clear consequence of turning away: being left out of the Eternal Rest (3:18).
The third warning comes in 5:11-6:20. Again, we see a call to the priesthood of Jesus. 5:1-10 talks about how high priests are selected from among the people. The way they are selected is by being called by God, just as Aaron was called. If Jesus is the greatest of priests, then we was called by God as well (5:5). We also see the first reference to Melchizedek here. Melchizedek is a mysterious figure mentioned in Genesis. Abraham encounters him and submits to him, recognizing his authority from God. This is important, for if Jesus is in the order of Melchizedek (5:6), then we see that Jesus is then superior to even Abraham himself, father of Israel. This is basically the trump card. Jesus is the highest of High priests.
Now we get into the warning. Since Jesus is the High Priest in the most absolute sense, he empathizes since all high priests are selected from among the people. Using beautiful language, A challenges the readers to follow in Christ’s footsteps. We also see words of hope here, especially in 6:9-10. A concludes the warning with a reminder of God’s reliability.
What can we gather form this warning about the purpose of Hebrews? First, again we see an audience familiar with Jewish ideas and beliefs. Second, we can affirm that sin that is being approached is one of falling away. Although, here is seems to emphasize that this falling away is a gradual process (6:12). Third, the response is one of perseverance. Fourth, the consequence of not is one of being “left out (6:4-6).
We then come to the fourth warning, which is found in 10:19-39. Again, we see a strong call for perseverance. From 7:1 through 10:18, A gives a very detailed agreement for Christ’s high priesthood status. Going back and forth, A offers examples from Jewish priesthood, then compares Christ to that aspect, demonstrating His superiority over the priesthood of Aaron and the old covenant. Then the warning, which includes some of the most beautiful language found in Scripture. It is a warning laced with encouragement and hope. Starting in 10:19, it states:
19 Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
It goes on in the same way. This warning seems to be the culmination of the other warnings, laying out plainly what was less stated earlier. We must persevere (10:19-25) for if we don’t, we will be “left out” and suffer the consequences (10:25-31.
What conclusions do we draw form this warning? Again, we see a Jewish-familiar audience with the references to the Most Holy Place (10:19). Next, we hear a clear call to perseverance to avoid the sin of falling away so that we don’t suffer the consequences of being left out. This warning seems to affirm the conclusions made in the other warnings.
So why was Hebrews written? Based on the presented evidence, It seems that it was written to a largely Jewish or Jewish-familiar audience, who were at risk of falling away from the faith. The solution to this is perseverance in a moral and contrite life, focused on Christ. If not, the consequence is eternal expulsion from the Kingdom of God.