Sacred Scripture Deep Dive: Letter to the Hebrews

John Kubasak

Sacred Scripture Deep Dive: Letter to the Hebrews

In the Letter to the Hebrews, we have a unique work that focuses singularly on Christ as the fulfillment of the old covenants. Salvation is a single story, and Christianity did not materialize from nothing. Jesus came as savior and redeemer within the contexts of the covenants and promises that God made with the Chosen People. When speaking with the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus expressed this by saying, “salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22).  The author of the letter spoke exclusively to Jewish Christians, seeking to bolster their faith in Jesus. For those of us that do not fit that description, we still have a gifted teaching on the unity of the Old and New Covenants.  


Mystery Author

Out of all the epistles in the New Testament, the Letter to the Hebrews is the only one that has no stated author at the beginning.  It can be easy to assume that St. Paul wrote it—he wrote so many other letters, why not this one?  Theologians have debated the authorship of this letter since the earliest days of the Church. While scripture scholars from Origen (185-283 A.D.) to the present day seem to agree that there are influences from St. Paul, it does not read like St. Paul’s other letters. In terms of style, whoever wrote it had the most elegantly written Greek in the entire New Testament. Was the author Apollos, an eloquent man from Alexandria (see Acts 18:24-28)? Perhaps Barnabas or Silas, partners with Paul on his missions? Biblical scholars have all sorts of opinions, but we likely will not find a definitive answer this side of heaven. 


Something Greater

Our Blessed Lord was no stranger to shocking an audience. In Matthew 12, He refers to Himself, states a few times that “something greater” is here. Looking back with two millennia of dogmatic definitions, these are rather obvious to the modern Catholic. To 1st century Jews, hearing Jesus claim to be something greater than the Temple (12:6), Jonah (12:41), and Solomon (12:42) was nothing short of stunning.  

So when the author of the Letter to the Hebrews begins by talking about angels and Jesus being above them, we should read this in the same vein as Matthew 12. In the Old Testament, angels were sometimes called sons of God.  The Chosen People/Israel was similarly called a son of God. In describing the sonship of Jesus, the author delves into the psalms. Jesus is not only the preeminent Son but the begotten of God (Hebrews 1:5/Psalm 2:7), the one who made the angels and is worshipped by them (Hebrews 1:6-7/Deuteronomy 32:43, Psalms 97:7, 104:4), and the anointed one (Hebrews 1:9/Psalm 45:6-7). 

Not only is Jesus above the angels, but He is greater than any earthly figure as well. For the Jews, Moses was on the short list of highly esteemed figures. Prophet, lawgiver, deliverer (all by the grace of God)—he was one of the few earthly figures upon which Jewish history hinged. For all the wonderous things he did by the power of God, Moses was but a servant: 

“Yet Jesus has been counted worthy of as much more glory than Moses as the builder of a house has more honor than the house… Now Moses was faithful in all God’s house as a servant, to testify to the things that were to be spoken later, but Christ was faithful over God’s house as a son.  And we are his house if we hold fast our confidence and pride in our hope.” (3:3-6)

For the first three chapters of the letter, the author goes heavy on the identity of Jesus. Perhaps the Jewish audience had reservations or unsettled faith on the matter. Whatever the case, our faith cannot progress without a correct understanding of Jesus. If He is not the divine Son of God risen from the dead, then St. Paul is right: our faith is completely in vain and we are fools to be pitied (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:12-19). 


The Name of Jesus

The author of Hebrews mentions the great name of Jesus in the first few sentences of the letter (1:4). When Moses encountered God in the burning bush, he asked for His name. God responded with His great, holy name (see Exodus 3). This name is so sacred and precious that some orthodox Jews will not say it, even to this day.    

Take that as the background of why the author brings up the excellence of the name of Jesus. We see in the gospels that Jesus healed; He did not keep that power to Himself, however. “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father” (John 14:12). Peter and John demonstrated this early in the Acts of the Apostles. A beggar asked for money; Peter responded, “I have no silver and gold, but I give you what I have; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk” (3:1-10).  The name of Jesus is the Word spoken by the Father to humanity (John 1). And akin to the language of Hebrews, Philippians 2 also speaks of the name of Jesus being above every other name. In the fullness of time, “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2: 9-11). 

Jesus continued to heal wounds after ascending into heaven. Implore the Holy Name of Jesus! Your interior wounds are no match for his grace. Check out Sr. Miriam James Heidland on Pints with Aquinas and the John Paul II Healing Center for more help and information.


The Order of Melchizedek

As Jesus was appointed the great high priest, the author of Hebrews made sure to highlight the uniqueness of Jesus’ ministry. To make the point, he shows Jesus in the line of Melchizedek—the priest/king of Salem who made offerings of bread and wine to the “most High God” (Genesis 14:17-20). Melchizedek serves as a precedent, the author argues, for ‘something greater’ than the Old Covenant and its priesthood.   


The New Covenant

Melchizedek sets the stage for the author’s teaching on the New Covenant. The next step is one of the key Old Testament passages that prophesies the New Covenant: Jeremiah 31:31-34. The author of Hebrews cites this passage twice: first in 8:8-12 and again in 10:16-17. Just as Jesus superabundantly fulfilled the role of the high priest, so too doe the New Covenant surpass the Old. “For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion for a second… In speaking of a new covenant he treats the first as obsolete” (8:7, 13).

The “love language” of the Old Covenant was sacrifice. Animals of various kinds were sacrificed for various reasons and occasions. Blood is spilled on the altar and also used in special cases. After Moses came down from Mt. Sinai with the ten commandments, the people of Israel ratified the covenant; Moses then sprinkled the blood of the sacrifice on them (Exodus 24:8). The author of Hebrews had this use of sacrificial blood in mind: if the old sacrifices had spiritual effects, “how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify your conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (Hebrews 9:14).  Jesus was the priest and victim: “he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:26).

The author of Hebrews sought to use what was familiar to his audience to prove that the covenant established by Jesus surpasses the old in every way.  


The Hallmark of Faith

We get a great definition of faith: it is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (11:1).  For the rest of the chapter, the author extols the faith of figures from the Old Testament.  To Jewish eyes, this does read as a Hall of Fame.  Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Rahab are held up as examples. Giving credence that this letter reads like a homily, the author wishes he could go on and on—“time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets” (11:33). 

For Christians, a fruitful exercise is to read all the figures of the Old Testament as types of Jesus Christ.  In this sense, a “type” of a figure, event, or thing prefigures something about the New Covenant. Each of these figures foreshadows something about the future messiah. Seeing Jesus as the New Isaac, for example, is to look at the only, beloved son who carries wood up Mount Moriah to be sacrificed. Moses spoke to God face to face; the patriarch Joseph was rejected by his people, but through that rejection, ended up saving his people. The earliest Christians often read the Bible this way, as the sermons of the early Church Fathers attest.  


Crescendo to the Cloud of Witnesses

With the all-star lineup listed in ch. 11, the next chapter carries that forward. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses”—that is, the author asks us to remember all the figures of the Old Testament (12:1). Imagine being surrounded by the legendary heroes, kings, prophets, and patriarchs, cheering us on in the path of holiness. The author of Hebrews steps into the shoes of a coach motivating his players.  Be numbered among these same heroes!  How?  “Let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with the perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfector of our faith” (12:1-2).



Take a step back and look at the Letter to the Hebrews as a whole. The author starts with the person of Jesus and reviews how the entire Old Testament led to Him. That has implications for how we live our life. The epistle concludes with a great exhortation to holiness in every walk of life. There is rich theology as well as practical advice within this letter. Take some time to read it today and be inspired!