I could post something from every page of David Pawson’s wonderful overview of the Bible: Unlocking the Bible. Today I’ve chosen a passage which has helped me to read the book of Hebrews with more understanding and emotional connection.
I’ve always loved Hebrews because it is so centred on Jesus but it wasn’t originally written for people like me. It was written to Jewish people, explaining how Jesus fulfills and is vastly better than all aspects of Jewish history and faith. Pawson narrows the time period of its writing to sometime between AD 55 and 70. He says it was written to Jewish believers who had returned to Rome after the death of the emperor Claudius (who had banished the Jews from Rome), to find the young church mostly Gentile with Gentile leadership. If the letter to the Romans was to reconcile these two parts of the church, the letter to the Hebrews was to urge the Jewish Christians to stay in the church. Why were they tempted to leave? Because Nero’s persecution was beginning. It was becoming very tough to be Christian and would before long be life-threatening. Here is how David Pawson continues:
Of course, this was happening to all the believers, whether they were Gentiles or Jews, so why was this letter written only to the Jewish believers? The answer is very simple and explains the whole letter. The Jews had a way of escape from suffering that was not open to the Gentile believers. The Jewish believers could get out of trouble by going back to the synagogue. At this time Christianity was illegal, but Judaism was still legal, with synagogues officially ‘registered’…
So the Jewish believers could return to the synagogue and claim to be going back to the same God. But the cost of doing it – indeed, the only way for them to get back into the Jewish synagogue – was to publicly deny their faith in Jesus. It was a great dilemma… They knew that if they took their families back into the synagogue they would be safe. But they would have to say in front of the synagogue, ‘I deny that Jesus is the Messiah.’
… At the end he says he has written a ‘short letter of exhortation’. It is certainly a letter of exhortation, but it is not very short! An exhortation is very practical. He is not trying to teach them doctrine, but is trying to stop this drift back to the synagogue. Everything he says from beginning to end is aimed at that problem. He throws everything at them. He appeals to them, warns them, speaks tenderly yet strongly. He uses every argument he can, because he fears they will lose their salvation if they go back to Judaism.
I have just read through Hebrews again with all this in mind. Now every chapter is a dramatic cliff-hanger. Will they take the easier way out at the eternal cost of their salvation? Or will they continue and endure, avoiding apostasy, possibly at the cost of their lives but maintaining their hope for eternity. We don’t know how many made either choice.
Hebrews is an emotional letter because the stakes couldn’t be higher. Do we face the same choices now?