Chapter 13:<B> </B>The Epistle to the Hebrews
Of all the early centers of Christianity the church at Rome went through the most significant and dramatic experiences. Founded by unknown persons about the middle of the first century, it entertained Paul and Peter, Luke and Mark, witnessed the martyrdom of the chief apostles and piously tended their graves, in a single generation withstood the fires of two persecutions, and served in short as the focus of Christian life in the capital of the world.
All this was not effected without sacrifice and devotion. It is the Christians of Rome who first appear in the pages of the history of the Empire, and it was the extraordinary sufferings they endured that led the historian to mention them. Hardly a dozen years after the Roman church had been established there burst upon it the storm of Nero’s persecution, of brief duration but of frightful severity. Many of the Christians of Rome suffered agonizing martyrdom, and all of them faced it with a heroism that wrung sympathy even from the callous populace of that brutal city. In that dreadful August of 64 A.D. the Roman Christians learned what it was to have their dearest friends and leaders torn from them, to attend these friends to prison and to cruel and mocking deaths, to lose their little savings by capricious confiscation, and so to be brought by the events of a single month to the very verge of ruin and despair.
From such a baptism of fire the Roman Christians emerged reduced in property and numbers, but more than ever convinced that they were pilgrims upon the earth and that their citizenship was in heaven. They were sustained in this by the hope in which Paul and Peter had confirmed them, that Jesus would soon return to set up his messianic kingdom, and that then their troubles would be over. Their immediate troubles did soon pass and gave way to a reasonable degree of security and peace, but the hope of Jesus’ coming remained unfulfilled.
Years went by. The churches settled down from their first exuberant spiritual enthusiasm into a partial accommodation to a work-a-day world. They had their officers, their meetings, their institutions. They still expected the return of Jesus, but only as people might who had been expecting it all their lives. The expectation could hardly play the part in their religious lives that it had in their fathers’. But evidences were beginning to appear that they were in turn to be put to the test to which Nero had put their predecessors. Domitian was emperor. Conspiracies and losses had embittered and frightened him. He had begun in Rome that reign of terror which so horrified high-minded Romans like Tacitus who had to witness it.
What first led Domitian to threaten the Roman church is not clear. It may have been his insistence upon divine honors for himself, as it was in Asia. It may have been the collection for the benefit of Jupiter Capitolinus, of the temple tax from the Jews, and the incidental confusing of Christians with the latter. Or perhaps the inability of a Christian magistrate to perform the religious duties his office imposed upon him first brought the Christians again under attack. At any rate, toward the very end of Domitian’s life, he made a series of attacks upon the Christians of Rome which left a deep impression upon them.
The Roman church had more than made up the losses Nero had inflicted upon it. It had continued to practice that duty of Christian hospitality which its location imposed upon it, and to attend to the needs of Christian prisoners who were brought to Rome as Paul had been. It had not, however, developed any outstanding Christian teachers, nor as yet taken the place of leadership among the churches for which its position at Rome naturally marked it out. It was a practical church, but a church without imagination. The fact that Jesus had been executed like a slave or a criminal was hard for it to understand and to harmonize with the messiahship he claimed. And with the passing of time the expectation of Jesus’ return to the earth had declined in eagerness and confidence, leaving the Roman Christians far less ready to withstand the shock of persecution than their fathers had been thirty years before.
But persecution and apostasy were not the only dangers that threatened the Roman church. The very age of the church now exposed it to a peril of apathy and indifference which could never have menaced it in its youth, when enthusiasm was new and hope high. While some might continue to hold in a mild way their expectation of Jesus’ coming, others, now that the generation that had known Jesus in Galilee had passed away and Jesus had not returned, felt that the expectation so long disappointed had been vain, and that the Christian movement was played out.
It was to this situation that some Christian teacher, unknown to us but well known at Rome, addressed the letter which from its strongly Jewish tone has come to be called the Epistle to the Hebrews. The writer was not in Italy, though other Christians from Italy were with him when he wrote, and perhaps from what they had told him, or from what he had himself observed in Rome, the perilous situation of the Roman community was clear to him. But the Roman church must not go down. Its noble traditions of devotion and service must not sink into oblivion. Above all the great task for which it was in the writer’s mind so clearly marked out must be performed. The church must not only survive but rise to higher forms of service, that should eclipse all that it had yet done. This is the kindling ideal that this great unknown of the first century puts before the wavering line of Roman Christians. Seeing them unequal to their present task, he nerves them for a greater.
The Christian scholar who undertook to meet this situation took as his theme the complete and final character of the revelation made in Christ. As compared with the beings, men or angels, through whom the old Jewish revelation was made, Christ is immeasurably superior. They were at best God’s servants; he is God’s son. How shall anyone escape who neglects a salvation so supremely authoritative? The Romans must learn the awful lesson of the Israelites in the wilderness. Like them they have had good news and set forth for a better country; let them not like the Israelites, through unbelief and disobedience, fall short of the heavenly rest.
Christ is not only far above the old mediums of revelation; he is far superior to the old priests. This is a difficult matter to explain to the Romans, who for all their long experience as Christians, in view of which they ought to be teaching and leading the churches, are still no better than infants as far as intellectual or spiritual development is concerned. Only let them remember that persons who have once had the Christian experience and who then give it up can never recover it. It is impossible to renew them again unto repentance. Surely none of the Christians at Rome will make this irreparable mistake. Their faithful service of helpfulness to their needy brethren has long commended them to God; they must not give up now, but hold fast to the end.
To show his readers the extraordinary value of what they are in danger of throwing away, the writer proceeds to explain to them the messianic priesthood of Christ and its superiority to the old Jewish priesthood. In doing this he uses the Old Testament in the fanciful Alexandrian manner, treating it allegorically and typically. This enables him to find in the Old Testament evidence that Jesus is the final and eternal high priest, of an order older than Aaron and even than Abraham. His ministry is correspondingly superior to that of the Jewish priests. They had to offer over and over again, in a tent that was at best only a copy of the heavenly sanctuary, the same material and ineffectual sacrifices. But Christ as messianic high priest has offered once for all in the heavenly sanctuary the supreme sacrifice of himself and taken his seat at the right hand of God.
With this novel and ingenious interpretation of Jesus’ religious significance the writer couples the practical lesson of drawing near to God through the new and living way which Jesus has opened. He again exhorts the Romans to keep fast hold of their Christian hope. He who has promised is faithful; already they can see the Day drawing near. To return to a life of sin after having once experienced the Christian salvation is to forfeit that salvation forever and to incur penalties too dreadful to utter. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. They must remember the heroic devotion they showed in former days, when in its infancy their church endured a cruel persecution at Nero’s hands. That same boldness and endurance they must still show.
Through all the history of God’s dealings with men, that faculty of faith by which men have laid firm hold on the unseen realities has kept patriarchs, prophets, and martyrs steadfast to the end. These veterans of faith are now looking down upon their successors at Rome to see them run with endurance the race upon which they have started. Christ himself has set the supreme example of faith. In all the trials and hardships that they are enduring the Romans must learn to see God’s paternal discipline, by which the lives and characters of his sons are to be perfected.
In a final impassioned utterance the writer returns to the thought with which he began. The new covenant and mediator are far above their old Jewish prototypes, and disloyalty to them is attended with proportionately greater peril. Our God is a consuming fire.
Exhortations and warnings conclude the letter. The Romans must not forget the noble example of their first martyr-teachers. Considering the issue of their lives, they must imitate their faith. They must avoid false teachings and practices, and be thankful and beneficent. The writer closes his hortatory discourse, as he calls it, with the news of Timothy’s release from prison, promises to visit them soon, and sends salutations from himself and the Italian brethren who are with him.
The language of Hebrews shows more elegance and finish than that of any other book of the New Testament. Its author was a trained student and thinker. What he wrote is so eloquent as to be more like an oration than a letter, and the absence of any superscription such as letters usually have makes it seem all the more oratorical. It is worth noting that the Judaism which the writer has in mind is always that of the tabernacle in the wilderness, never that of the temple in Jerusalem. In showing the superiority of Christ’s covenant and revelation, he first among Christian writers makes free use of that allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament which has had such grave consequences in Christian history. Hebrews may be regarded as the supreme effort of early Christianity to state the religious significance of Jesus in Jewish terms -- "mediator," "high priest," "Messiah." It is interesting to observe that the Roman church bravely withstood the attack of Domitian and in the century that followed made an earnest effort to teach and lead its sister churches in a way worthy of its opportunities and its history.