Hebrews is, first and foremost, a letter. Though it is anonymous, he writer knows his audience and they know him. He knows their circumstances, and hopes to see them soon. Both the writer, and the readers, know Timothy. Both the writer and the readers are at home with the Greek translation of the Old Testament – for the writer quotes from it extensively and exclusively.
The first readers had gone through some difficult times because of their faith. The writer says they had been publicly exposed to insult and persecution,” and had had their property confiscated (Hebrews 10:33-34). Tough times and lots of temptation had led the first readers of Hebrews to lose confidence in their faith, become less interested in one another, more concerned with self, and more susceptible to sin.
Surely, they thought, there had to be an easier religion!
I’ve got one for them! What about a religion that’s mostly ritual? You know the sort: one where you can pray, go through some religious motions, pretty much do your own thing and yet still be considered “faithful.” A religion where there’s a heavy emphasis on self satisfaction, not a lot of accountability, and certainly not a lot of obligation.
It would also need a mixture of “tradition” to give it respectability.
It was this kind of religion, heavily dosed with Old Testament roots, that was being embraced by the first recipients of Hebrews.
The book of Hebrews presents two realities: The first is in heaven. The second is on the earth. The earth is but a shadow or reflection of heaven. “Religion,” as presented in the Old Testament, was but a shadow of what God intended. God, according to the writer of Hebrews, bridged the distance between those two realities in Jesus, his son. Jesus, though he was God, came to earth and lived as a human. In doing so, he experienced first-hand what we all experience – yet without sinning. He offered himself as a sacrifice for our sins, and made possible an agreement between us and God. He became our eternal High Priest and opened the way for us to confidently come before God and find help in difficult times. What Jesus provides is better than tradition, and better than ritual. In Jesus, we have a secure promise of rest with God: rest from all that tears our current lives apart. This is the message of the first ten chapters of the book.
In chapters eleven and twelve, the writer lists an honor roll of people who were traditionally held in high esteem because of their trust in God. The writer says they didn’t have near the access to God Christians have, but they hung on to God in trying times anyway. That’s what made these heroes memorable and venerable. If they could hold on, why couldn’t the readers of this book?
Throughout Hebrews, the writer warns of the dangers of not holding on, of listening to themselves rather than to God, and of trusting in ritual and what seems religious rather than what really is religious (there is a difference). The consequences, according to Hebrews, are eternally fatal. As much as any New Testament book, perhaps more than most, the inspired writer underscores the important and inseparable connection between faith in and obedience to God. What that obedience entails, for the first readers of Hebrews, is specifically spelled out in the final two chapters.
God has spoken. One would be foolish to ignore Him.
Making religion more palatable to our own tastes is not new. Neither is God’s distaste for the result. Our age and temptations are not new. God has not changed. The message of Hebrews remains relevant for our time.