As a college freshman, I got interested with photography. These were the old days before digital cameras. I purchased a single lens reflex camera and a variety of lenses and filters for different types of shots. For instance, a polarized filter would cut glare and enhance colors. It was especially good for landscapes and water shots. There were color balance filters. There were close-up filters and lenses for photographing things like a honey bee on a flower. Often, I would change lenses for a specific shot.
Similarly, in understanding the Bible we often need to change our lenses in order to study a particular book of the Bible more effectively. Here I am speaking about changing our cultural and historical lenses. Our failure to do so is a significant issue as we study the Bible by looking through a 21st Century American church culture and historical lenses.
Therefore, before we begin to go through the book of Hebrews, I thought it best to give a brief overview of what I believe to be the most significant cultural and historical distinctives of those receiving the letter. This is so we can, to some extent, change the lenses through which we understand the writing.
There are certain things we do not know regarding the book of Hebrews. We do not know the author or the specific church to which it was written. The writing points to a conclusion that the book was written to a Jewish church community, probably outside of Judea. This would be a community of Jewish people who professed a belief that Jesus was their promised Messiah. They would have been well versed in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament, having practiced Judaism with all its precepts.
As a church made up of Jewish people who professed faith in Jesus, they obviously had a rich Jewish cultural heritage. As such they would see things through a much different lens than the gentiles, than we do. Thus, the writer of Hebrews uses extensive imagery from the books of the Law. Therefore, to understand the book we will need to understand in particular the first five books of the Bible.
Moreover, as you read the book, you will see various type of church people addressed, much the same as we see in our modern-day churches. There are those that have experienced true saving faith, having experienced the Holy Spirit’s work of regeneration. There are also some who have been intellectually enlightened as to Jesus being Israel’s Messiah, but have not experienced true saving faith but only intellectual assent to the truth of who Jesus is. Last, there were seekers, who had an interest but have not yet put all the pieces together.
Next, we need to consider the social and historical climate of this Jewish community. These who professed Jesus as the Messiah were likely undergoing some type of religious persecution from their fellow Jews. They would have been removed from the synagogue, prohibited from participating in the Temple, and likely ostracized by family and friends.
I imagine that very few of us if any can fully relate to the folks in this Jewish community to whom the book of Hebrews was written. However, there are definitely parts of this letter where we will have to put on a different lens to grasp the authors main point.
Monday we will begin with chapter one.