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Who Wrote Hebrews?

Sunday, April 14, 2024

The authorship of Hebrews has been debated almost since it was written.  Among the 27 books of the New Testament it is the lone work that fails to name its author internally, or to have been overwhelmingly attributed to a particular author within a generation or two of the Apostles.  It is appropriate to ask who wrote this book because, while “All Scripture is breathed out by God” (2Ti 3.16), God has not given us stone tablets with a definitive and explicit list of the works that qualify as Scripture.  We trust those written by Apostles and their close associates; but who is behind Hebrews?  Is the author trustworthy?

Paul

This is the most common answer, since Paul wrote thirteen other New Testament letters.  In fact, the 1611 first edition of the King James Bible gave this letter the title, The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrewes.  However, whereas the first word of each of Paul’s letters is “Paul,” in Hebrews his name is never mentioned!  It is organized nothing like Paul’s letters, and finer points of the style also cast doubt on Pauline authorship.  Worst of all, the author writes that the gospel

was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders…

(Hebrews 2.3)

But Paul told the Galatians,

I did not receive [the gospel] from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

(Galatians 1.12) 

Reconciling these statements is a tough job.

Timothy

The same first edition KJV included a contradictory note following the text of Hebrews: “Written to the Hebrewes, from Italy, by Timothie.”  Presumably, this theory grew from mentions of Timothy and Italy in the final sentences of the book; but those hardly describe Timothy as the the author! 

You should know that our brother Timothy has been released, with whom I shall see you if he comes soon.

(Hebrews 13.23)

This clearly distinguishes Timothy from the author—of this portion, at least.  Perhaps this was seen as an add-on to the main body of Timothy’s letter, by Paul or someone else; but this is just one of many scenarios we could concoct to explain the facts, and nothing recommends it above other theories.

Apollos

We know very little of Apollos, except that he was “an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures” (Ac 18.24).  While the author of Hebrews is both eloquent and Scripturally competent, these characteristics are hardly unique.  Nothing points clearly to Apollos.

Luke

The Greek of Luke’s Gospel and Acts is the most refined of all the New Testament books—with the exception of Hebrews.  Hebrews displays excellent articulation, and so Luke’s name has been thrown into the ring.  Again, nothing in the letter specifically points to Luke.  He hardly had a monopoly on diction.

Clement of Rome

Clement was a leader in the church at the end of the first century.  Paul mentions him in Philippians 4.3, but the Bible says nothing else of him.  Later sources relate traditions about his life and work, and a letter he sent has survived, called 1 Clement.  This letter contains several passages that bear a striking resemblance to passages in Hebrews, and this is taken by some as evidence that the author of the former must be the author of the latter.  But a more plausible explanation is that Clement was deliberately referring to Hebrews, because he considered it more authoritative than his own words.

Priscilla

The theory that Priscilla wrote Hebrews rests on the fact that she was a woman.  This may sound glib, but it’s a fair assessment of the theory.  As with most of the others, there is no actual evidence to tie Priscilla to this book; but it gets worse.  When the author says, “time would fail me to tell of Gideon” and so forth (11.32), the genderless pronoun me (με) is linked to a participle telling (διηγούμενον), which is masculine, making it clear that the speaker is male.  Yet this hypothesis persists, even among ostensibly well educated theologians and ministry professionals, based on an animating ideology foreign to Christ.

We Don’t Know

This is an unsatisfying answer.  Even by the second century AD Christian authors were fumbling with this question, unable to reach a consensus.  Does it really matter?  As noted above, from the beginning the author’s goal is to reinforce what “was declared at first by the Lord, and…attested to us by those who heard” (He 2.3).  His purpose was not to reveal new things, but to rely on what the Spirit of God had already revealed.  In this pursuit, he spent more time directly quoting the Old Testament than we see in any other New Testament book.  Therefore, although we don’t know the name of the man who wrote Hebrews, a more important answer is obvious.  The author of Hebrews is God.

See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.

(Hebrews 12.25-29)

Jeremy Nettles

Meek, or Weak?

Sunday, April 07, 2024

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

(Matthew 5.5)

Jesus said this, and so it’s clearly worth remembering and applying.  But what does it mean?  Meek is not a word that gets much use today.  But the Greek word behind it, πραύς-praus, refers to a realistic opinion of oneself.  Synonyms include lowly and humble.  Inasmuch as it pertains to a lack of arrogance or self-importance, it’s easy to understand, and clearly a good quality!  Paul sums up the attitude, as well as the resultant behavior, although without using the word itself:

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.

(Philippians 2.3-4)

However, Jesus did not speak his blessing into a void.  He was talking to an audience of Jews, God’s chosen people whose culture strongly encouraged devotion to God and the study of his word.  Of all the beatitudes, this one most clearly refers to a passage in previously revealed Scripture: “But the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace” (Ps 37.11).  It’s fine to notice that Jesus is quoting Scripture, but it would be a mistake not to tug that thread any further.  As the incarnate Word, he has a unique relationship with the written word of God, and he has always taken that very seriously.  So, what was the point of this verse in the Old Testament?  Was it merely a warning against self-importance?  Well, what does the context say?

Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him;

        fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way,

        over the man who carries out evil devices!

Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath!

        Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.

For the evildoers shall be cut off,

        but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land.

In just a little while, the wicked will be no more;

        though you look carefully at his place, he will not be there.

But the meek shall inherit the land

        and delight themselves in abundant peace.

The wicked plots against the righteous

        and gnashes his teeth at him,

but the Lord laughs at the wicked,

        for he sees that his day is coming.

(Psalm 37.7-13)

This Psalm addresses people in difficult circumstances, suffering harm at the hands of the wicked, and tempted to give in to anger and commit evil themselves, in retribution.  Rather than encouraging them to lash out, it reminds them that God sees, and knows, and will see to it that everyone gets what he deserves; so wait for him.

To the victims of evildoers, the temptation is strong, and this sort of assurance may seem like a hollow coping mechanism.  The meekness we’re considering is seen as weakness, and scorned.  To be clear, being too weak to act in your own interests is not virtue.  But possessing both power and the discipline to use it properly does not diminish a person’s claim on meekness.

Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth.

(Numbers 12.3)

Moses’ meekness was mistaken for pride covering up weakness, when Korah, Dathan, Abiram led a rebellion.  They asked Moses and Aaron, “Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” (Nu 16.3).  But they had it backward!  Moses exercised authority, because God had given it to him!  He was far from arrogant, as he demonstrated then and there, falling on his face before his challengers in a submissive posture (v4).  He left the judgment in God’s hands, and was quickly vindicated when the earth opened and swallow the rebels whole.

Take note, also, of the author of the Psalm we’ve considered—David.  Not only did he have extensive experience in victimhood, but he also kept his temper under a tight rein, to the extent that his closest friends couldn’t understand why he didn’t lash out, as they would have done.

So David and Abishai went to the army by night. And there lay Saul sleeping within the encampment, with his spear stuck in the ground at his head, and Abner and the army lay around him. Then Abishai said to David, “God has given your enemy into your hand this day. Now please let me pin him to the earth with one stroke of the spear, and I will not strike him twice.” But David said to Abishai, “Do not destroy him, for who can put out his hand against the Lord’s anointed and be guiltless?”

(1 Samuel 26.7-9)

We’ve seen that strength can be combined with self-control, constituting a virtue called meekness.  Our impulse to retaliate against those who harm us, while natural, does not lead to God’s justice.  There are times when violence is not only acceptable, but good— rescuing an innocent person being subjected to great harm, for example.  But most of the time, the right choice is to wait for the Lord, who provides the clearest example of power kept under righteous control.

Then they came up and laid hands on Jesus and seized him. And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?”

(Matthew 26.50-54)

The meekest of all shall, indeed, inherit the earth.

Jeremy Nettles

Christian Culture?

Sunday, March 31, 2024

Christianity has shaped the West for the past two thousand years.  As the church grew and Apostles died out, heresies and perversions were introduced; and yet, in name at least, Christianity came to dominate the Roman Empire.  In AD 380, Emperor Theodosius I issued the Edict of Thessalonica, which made Christianity the official religion of Rome—essentially making it compulsory to the whole  Empire.  Alongside this stunning reversal—it had been outlawed and ruthlessly persecuted just a few decades prior—came a host of new problems, as the church began, more and more, to mirror the government.  Was this really what Jesus had in mind?

Today, we’ve inherited a country founded by Christians seeking freedom to live and worship as their consciences demanded.  The government they established has taken the church quite seriously.  Yet, as in the Roman Empire, this has led to a host of problems.  As the church influences the world, so also the world—all too often—influences the church.  When public figures make displays of Christianity, it often gets…dicey.

Among those sounding the alarm on this are many who simply like to find fault with everything.  It’s far easier to tear down, than to build up, and some take perverse pleasure in society’s degradation, so that they themselves stand out more proudly.  Others are afraid that they will be lumped in with some unserious pop star or politician who says something vaguely pro-Jesus, while living in a manner more in keeping with Satan’s will.  Of these, most are worried that it damages Christ’s reputation, as Paul warned, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (Ro 2.24).  Finally, there’s a danger to Christ’s body itself.  Peter echoes the warning, but adds an interesting tidbit: “And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed” (2Pe 2.2).  Even before the world latches on, he predicted the advent of “false teachers” within the church (v1), who pretend to follow Christ, but have turned back to behave like the world (vv2-22), like a dog returning to its own vomit.  Rather than being immediately recognized and removed, Peter said they would lead many Christians astray.

All of these concerns are, of course, valid.  Even the cynical critics, who’ll never be satisfied, have a point.  We’ll always be beset by human imperfection, and we ought to recognize sin and name it properly.  But there is a limit.  “For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment” (Ja 2.13).  Jesus elaborates on this in Matthew 7.1-5, and every harsh critic must take what he says to heart.

Likewise, we ought to walk carefully in this world, considering not only how to keep a list of commandments, but also how our behavior and associations look, and the effect they will have on observers.

For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died.

(1 Corinthians 8.10)

Paul’s point is that eating meat that had been used in idolatrous worship was not—in and of itself—sinful.  But he strongly discouraged it, because of how it looked, going so far as to call deliberate refusal to consider a brother’s conscience “sin against Christ” (v12).  So, even on a personal level, it is wise to distance oneself from public figures who profess Christ and yet walk in blatant sin.

Similarly, we should be zealous to guard Jesus’ reputation.  He told us,

“let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

(Matthew 5.16)

The goal is more than our own righteousness; it’s for God’s glory.  Similarly, Peter writes,

Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.

(1 Peter 2.11-12)

Finally, it is good to guard the church from worldly influence, and worldly people who profess Christ are just as dangerous as those who are openly hostile.  There exists today a wide range of fake Christians worshiping the spirit of the age.  Many have given in with regard to sexual sin of all kinds.  Many have taken Jesus’ commandments to give to the poor (e.g. Lk 14.13), and turned them into an impersonal, political ideology involving little or no personal sacrifice, but lots of forcing others to contribute.  Many have abused scripture to make it conform to their own ideas about the roles of men and women—or to erase the distinction entirely!  They have used it to justify greed, lies, theft, murder, carving up people’s bodies—even children’s!—and all manner of lawlessness.

In the face of all this, it’s understandable for Christians to want to retreat—as it is written:

“Come out of her, my people,

lest you take part in her sins,

lest you share in her plagues…”

(Revelation 19.4)

However, while Christians are not to be of the world, we still have to live in the world.  In fact, it’s part of our job.

“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.”

(Matthew 5.13)

Jeremy Nettles

Be Not Afraid

Sunday, March 24, 2024

“And you, son of man, be not afraid of them, nor be afraid of their words, though briers and thorns are with you and you sit on scorpions. Be not afraid of their words, nor be dismayed at their looks, for they are a rebellious house.”

(Ezekiel 2.6)

God frequently tells his people not to fear evil.  A healthy regard for Satan’s schemes is not only understandable, but good; however, God expects us to take courage, shelter ourselves in his mighty hand, and confidently face those grave, spiritual dangers.  Jesus exemplified this divine courage for us.

Several episodes of his Galilean ministry demonstrate this, in sequence.

And behold, some men were bringing on a bed a man who was paralyzed, and they were seeking to bring him in and lay him before Jesus.… And when he saw their faith, he said, “Man, your sins are forgiven you.” And the scribes and the Pharisees began to question, saying, “Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” When Jesus perceived their thoughts, he answered them, “Why do you question in your hearts? Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the man who was paralyzed—“I say to you, rise, pick up your bed and go home.”

(Luke 5.18-24)

He knew that proclaiming the paralytic’s sins forgiven would rile the religious gatekeepers.  He knew that they immediately judged him a blasphemer—a capital offense (Le 24.16).  Yet, he sympathized with the paralytic, and appreciated his faith.  He saw an opportunity to do good, and did it, regardless of how the religious authorities would respond.

And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”

(Luke 5.30-32)

This same gaggle of self-righteous Pharisees considered Jesus’ association with people they hated to be unclean and tantamount to sin.  But they were wrong!  Of course, Jesus did not approve of the sinners’ sin, but reached out to them in love, offering a better way.  He knew some would misrepresent his actions and paint him as evil.  He was not swayed by the threat to his reputation, and offered salvation, even to the undeserving.

And they said to him, “The disciples of John fast often and offer prayers, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours eat and drink.” And Jesus said to them, “Can you make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days.”

(Luke 5.33-35)

Jesus upheld the value of fasting, but he did not require it of his followers.  This practice was a major part of his culture, and his refusal to participate caused a stir.  How hard would it have been, to just go along with it?  Was this really a hill worth defending?  Well, yes!  It’s not that Jesus deliberately sought to raise a fuss.  But circumstances made the cultural practice inappropriate, at that time.  Even knowing it would ruffle feathers, he therefore took a stand against the dogma.

In the very next episode, some of Jesus’ disciples took advantage of the provisions for the poor in the Law of Moses, and were accused by the Pharisees of desecrating the Sabbath.  How did Jesus respond?

And he said to them, “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”

(Luke 6.5)

He’s the lawgiver, and his judgment trumped theirs.  Of course, he knew that wouldn’t  satisfy them.  So, what?  He was unwilling to make his disciples go hungry for the day, purely to avoid irritating the religious elite.

And the scribes and the Pharisees watched him, to see whether he would heal on the Sabbath, so that they might find a reason to accuse him. But he knew their thoughts, and he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come and stand here.” And he rose and stood there. And Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?” And after looking around at them all he said to him, “Stretch out your hand.” And he did so, and his hand was restored.

(Luke 6.7-10)

We don’t often think to characterize Jesus as defiant, but it’s an apt description in this case!  Surely Jesus could have waited until the next day to seek out and heal this man; or simply done it later the same day, but out of view.  In fact, he would soon demonstrate (Lk 7.7-10) that he could have healed the man at any time, without being physically present with him!  Instead, he took the opportunity to show these arrogant snobs the meaning of compassion, not only in spite of their disapproval, but in a sense because of it!

If this seems to rub against the grain, there’s a reason for that, too.  God tells us to “pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Ro 14.19).  But in none of these cases did Jesus stir up needless conflict for selfish reasons.  Rather, he refused to defer to the common perception of what was nice or agreeable, and insisted on doing what was good, instead—over the objections of the most respected members of his society.  Their reaction should not surprise us.

But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.

(Luke 6.11)

We should expect no less, when we follow his example today.  Don’t stir up trouble for trouble’s sake; but stand firm in what God has commanded, no matter who opposes it.

Jeremy Nettles

The Ten Commandments

Sunday, March 17, 2024

And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”

(Luke 10.25-28)

Jesus affirmed that the Law of Moses could be summed up in these two commandments.  Both he and the lawyer were speaking about the Law of Moses in particular, but many of its same commandments are repeated in the New Testament, applied to Christians.  There is much to learn from the Israelites’ Law, and the easiest place to start is at the Ten Commandments—the first and most basic set of instructions God gave to his chosen people.

“You shall have no other gods before me.”

(Exodus 20.3)

This does not mean that a pantheon is acceptable, as long as the Lord God stands at its head.  God continually demands that his people worship him exclusively, as the next few verses bear out.  What kinds of idols cause Christians to stumble?

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God…”

(Exodus 20.4-5)

The silly, uneducated people of the past bowed before images they’d created.  In contrast, the New Testament associates idolatry with less overt things—covetousness (Co 3.5) and distorted representations of Jesus (1Jn 5.20-21).  But it’s really both.  How many Christians today are slavishly devoted to the smartphones that hold their attention and blind them to God’s creation?

“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.”

(Exodus 20.7)

This is often thought to mean, “don’t use God’s name as an expletive,” but while that’s certainly an application, it’s not really the point.  Genuine faith in God means putting him first in all things, and being conformed to his image.  How many today wear the name, “Christian,” as an empty label that does not affect their manner of life?

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates.”

(Exodus 20.8-10)

The New Testament assures us (e.g. Co 2.16) that Christians are not bound to observe the Sabbath day, but it still can teach us.  God told his people to observe a holy rest, in his honor, that would extend down even to the livestock.  This was a gift, not a curse!  Do you set aside time to enjoy God’s blessings, and to honor God himself?

“Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.”

(Exodus 20.12)

It is fitting to revere those who brought you into the world and supplied your needs when you were unable to care for yourself.  Do you also honor the Father who created you and gives blessings both physical and spiritual?

“You shall not murder.”

(Exodus 20.13)

All human life carries a spark of the divine (cf. Ge 1.27), and God is protective of his image.

“You shall not commit adultery.”

(Exodus 20.14)

Our culture has just about emptied this one of its meaning, by continually assaulting the divine institution of marriage.  Why does God care so much about it?  To answer that question, consider the following: on what relationship is marriage modeled?  See Ephesians 5.31-32 for the answer.

“You shall not steal.”

(Exodus 20.15)

Here’s another that is becoming less obvious to our culture.  But even when people create schemes to redistribute wealth in a way that sounds compassionate, it’s easy to see that it’s wrong.  Simply ask yourself, how do you like it, when someone waltzes up and takes away something you worked hard to acquire?

“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”

(Exodus 20.16)

This has to do with deliberately distorting the truth, in order to harm someone—or even to help them, unjustly.  But “don’t tell lies” is a perfectly good generalization.  Like most of the others, this seems obvious; and yet, what are you tempted to do, when you’re in trouble and want the problem to go away?

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”

(Exodus 20.17)

The others are external, but this one focuses on the heart.  It’s not just about desiring the things that you see—we all do that, to varying degrees (1Jn 2.16).  But when that desire is fanned into flame and coupled with malice, it transforms into a hideous spirit that, even if it can’t get you to steal, murder, or commit adultery, will still damage your soul and harm your relationship with God.  True obedience—to all of God’s commandments!—begins in the heart.

Jeremy Nettles

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