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Thinking about Hebrews

Hebrews can be a challenging read. It’s a bit like Revelation—it’s definitely not a narrative (like the Gospels or Acts), but it’s not exactly a letter like Philippians either (although like Revelation, it has some elements of a letter in it). Commentators agree it’s best to think of Hebrews as a first-century sermon. In 13:22 the writer speaks of what he has written as “a word of exhortation,”—a phrase used in the synagogue for the messages given there (Acts 13:15).

This is helpful because it lets us know we need to adjust our approach to Hebrews. After all, who would read a preacher’s message the same way they read a letter or an email?  Therefore, approaching Hebrews like we do 1 Corinthians isn’t going to result in the understanding we’re looking for. We need to see it as a little less personalized and quite a bit more systematized. It's  highly organized proclamation concerning Jesus. 

Having said that, let me to quickly add that this doesn’t mean that Hebrews is written primarily to supply information—it’s inspiration the writer wishes to provide his readers. In keeping with this, he employs the phrase “let us” a dozen times to implore them to continue moving in the direction of Christ. So if we see Hebrews as a dull, dry, theological treatise that would be of interest primarily to people of a Jewish background, we need to look a little deeper and see it as a wake-up call to a community wavering in their commitment to Jesus.

Unpacking the content of Hebrews can also be a bit of a challenge because the flow of thought is not always obvious or developed in a way we’re familiar with in 21st century America. Just as every culture has unique methods and elements of persuasive speech (e.g., just sayin’, it is what it is, you think?, etc.), so Hebrews employs what James Thompson identifies as “Greco-Roman rhetoric.” This means the letter is structured along the lines of a first-century persuasive speech and uses some elements we’re familiar with (such as comparison), and some we’re not as well acquainted with (inclusio/bracketing, chiasm, and amplification).

In practical terms, all this really means is that we have to think a little outside the box when we read Hebrews. Following its train of thought is not unlike reading the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution—it takes a little work but it’s more than worth the effort.

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