The author identified neither himself nor the people to whom he was writing. However, the content of the book, including the frequent references to the Hebrew Scriptures, makes it clear that he was writing to Jewish Christians who were sorely tempted to leave the Christian church and revert to Jewish worship.
There were a number of reasons why these Jewish Christians might have been tempted to return to Judaism:
• Families and friends surely pressured them. This could have taken many forms––expressions of disapproval, shunning, disinheritance, etc.
• They would have missed the elaborate rituals and furnishings of the Jewish Temple and the synagogues. Christians didn’t have church buildings in those days, but met in the homes of fellow Christians. Compared to Jewish worship, Christian worship must have seemed spare––even poor.
• Those who had enjoyed special status in Judaism would miss the prestige and influence that they once enjoyed. Luke tells us that “a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7). Whether they could have become Jewish priests again is open to question, but some would likely be tempted to return if they thought that would be a possibility.
The author spends the first ten and a half chapters of this thirteen chapter book (1:1 – 10:18) emphasizing the superiority of Christ and the new covenant to Moses and the old covenant. In chapters 1-2, he focuses specifically on the superiority of Christ to angels.
HEBREWS 2:14-15. HE PARTOOK OF OUR FLESH AND BLOOD
14 Since then the children have shared in flesh and blood, he also himself in the same way partook of the same, that through death he might bring to nothing him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and might deliver all of them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.
“Since then the children have shared in flesh and blood, (the Son) also himself in the same way partook of the same” (v. 14a). A more literal translation would be, “Now since the children have flesh and blood in common.” I prefer the literal translation because, for me, it speaks of the commonality of the human condition. We share the strengths and weaknesses inherent in our flesh and blood bodies. In the end, we share death––the great leveler.
Jesus shared our human condition, beginning with his birth in a stable and the manger that cradled him as a newborn. Born before the advent of modern medicine, he had no access to a trained obstetrician or a well-equipped hospital. His parents had to bundle him up in the middle of the night to flee to Egypt to escape murderous Herod. During his ministry, he walked many dusty roads––no limousines or private jets for the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. No indoor plumbing. No air conditioning. No bodyguards.
And his death was terrible––as terrible as death can be. Death is never pretty, and is seldom painless––but Jesus suffered a cruel death that put him on a par with the worst that anyone else has experienced.
“that through death he might bring to nothing him who had the power of death, that is, the devil” (v. 14b). A more literal translation would be, “…so that through his death he might destroy the one holding the power of death, that is, the devil.”
I mention the literal translation, because “destroy” is not only a more faithful translation, but it is also more graphic. Jesus didn’t come just to take the devil down a notch or two. He didn’t come just to sap the devil’s power. He came to destroy the devil, the one “who had the power of death.”
“and might deliver all of them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” (v. 15). Jesus came to deliver us from the fear of death and the bondage that fear and death impose.
We still die, of course. At last count, the death rate hovered at 100 percent. But through Christ we have the hope of resurrection and life eternal––life with God––an eternal life which we begin in the here and now. As Jesus said in his High Priestly Prayer, “This is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and him whom you sent, Jesus Christ” (John 17:3).
HEBREWS 2:16-17. MADE LIKE HIS BROTHERS
16 For most certainly, he doesn’t give help to angels, but he gives help to the seed of Abraham. 17 Therefore he was obligated in all things to be made like his brothers, that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make atonement for the sins of the people.
“For most certainly, he doesn’t give help to angels” (v. 16a). As noted above, the author emphasizes throughout chapters 1-2 that the Son is superior to angels. In this verse, the author is emphasizing that the Son didn’t come to earth and die on the cross to help angels. He came to save people.
“but he gives help to the seed of Abraham” (v. 16b). The allusion is to Isaiah 41:8-11, where God, through the prophet, speaks of “Abraham my friend,” and promises, “‘You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you away. Don’t you be afraid, for I am with you.”
Keep in mind that the author is writing to Jewish Christians, so they would identify with “the seed of Abraham.” They would consider themselves sons and daughters of Abraham.
But Christ came to save, not just those who are descendants of Abraham by blood. As Paul says elsewhere, “Know therefore that those who are of faith, the same are children of Abraham” (Galatians 3:7).
• Jesus’ genealogy includes two Gentiles, Ruth and Rahab (Matthew 1:1-17).
• He ministered to Gentiles (Matthew 4:25; 8:28ff; 15:28).
• He spoke of the Kingdom of Heaven being “like a dragnet, that was cast into the sea, and gathered some fish of every kind”––a veiled reference to Gentiles (Matthew 13:47).
• Matthew reports a Roman centurion saying, “Truly this was the Son of God” (Matthew 27:54).
• Jesus concluded his ministry by telling his disciples, “Go, and make disciples of all nations” (28:19).
“Therefore he was obligated in all things to be made like his brothers” (v. 17a). See the comments on verse 14 above.
“that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make atonement for the sins of the people” (v. 17b). Jewish law established an elaborate sacrificial system to atone for the sins of the people. The high priest was responsible for the administration of the sacrifices. He alone was permitted in the Holy of Holies (the dwelling place of God)––and only on the Day of Atonement.
Christ assumed the role of “a merciful and faithful high priest”––the ultimate high priest.
“to make atonement (Greek: hilaskesthai) for the sins of the people” (v. 17b). In my study for this verse, I found that hilaskesthai (translated “atonement” in this translation) is also translated “propitiation” or “expiation”––words calculated to put people sleep––but the distinctions among them are worth noting.
ATONEMENT has to do with making amends for sins or repairing the spiritual damage caused by sins. It also has to do with restoring relationships that were broken by sin––in particular the relationship that we enjoyed with God prior to the introduction of sin into the world. Our sin (our failure to do God’s will––our willful disobedience) broke that relationship, because God is holy (morally and spiritually perfect) and expects us to be holy as well (Leviticus 19:2; 1 Peter 1:15).
Our sin, therefore, creates a conflict for God. On the one hand, God is repulsed by our sin, but on the other hand, he loves us. On the one hand, he cannot bring himself to invite us into full fellowship while we are tainted with sin, but on the other hand, he cannot bring himself to dismiss us totally.
So, in keeping with God’s holiness (which demands that we be punished) and his love (which demands that we be reconciled), God devised a process by which he can make us holy once again so that he might receive us into full fellowship. This process is known as substitutionary atonement––”substitutionary” meaning that God will accept a substitute to absorb the punishment for our sins and “atonement” meaning that we can be restored to full fellowship with God. Christ’s death on the cross became the ultimate sacrifice.
Some people interpret PROPITIATION to mean appeasing the wrath of God by offering a sacrifice. They believe that it inappropriate to use the word propitiation in relationship to God, because they understand God as gracious and loving ––not wrathful––not requiring sacrifices to appease his anger.
However, I also learned that propitious means “favorably disposed” or “gracious”––and hilaskesthai is derived from hileos, which means kind or gracious. While propitiation can involve appeasement, it is difficult to see how propitious (which means favorably disposed) and propitiation (often thought to mean requiring a sacrifice) came to be used in such different ways.
EXPIATION, on the other hand, involves the removal of sin––or the forgiveness of sin.
Most Christian scholars today favor the words atonement or expiation rather than propitiation.
HEBREWS 2:18. BECAUSE HE SUFFERED TEMPTATION, HE CAN HELP US
18 For in that he himself has suffered being tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted.
“For in that he himself has suffered being tempted” (v. 18a). We find the story of Jesus’ temptation following his baptism in all three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13). However, we should regard those as accounts of his initial temptation. If he was tempted as we are, Satan must have tempted him on a regular basis. Luke seems to confirm that, saying, “When the devil had completed every temptation, he departed from him until another time” (Luke 4:13).
“he is able to help those who are tempted” (v. 18b). For me, this brings to mind Alcoholics Anonymous, whose recovering members (those not currently drinking) reach out on a regular basis to help struggling alcoholics (those who are currently drinking). The recovering members are able to relate to the struggling alcoholics, because they have been there and done that. They know the temptations, the excuses, and the deceptions––and aren’t easily taken in by the things that alcoholics say in their own defense or the promises that they make.
I wouldn’t want to press that metaphor too far, however, because AA involves drunks helping drunks. The situation with Jesus is different. He has been tempted as we have been tempted, but he didn’t succumb. He is a sinless man helping sinful people.
But though Jesus didn’t succumb, he has the kind of sympathy that comes with having suffered temptation. That doesn’t mean that Jesus can’t be critical––witness his opinions of the scribes and Pharisees. But he is ready and willing to help––and to forgive––the repentant sinner.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Holladay, Carl R., Preaching Through the Christian Year C (Valley Forge, Trinity Press, 1994).
Lane, William L., Word Biblical Commentary: Hebrews 9-13, Vol. 47b (Dallas: Word Books, 1991)
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MacArthur, John, Jr., The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Hebrews (Chicago: The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, 1983)
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Copyright 2016, Richard Niell Donovan