By David Janssen
Because the epistle to the Hebrews is a challenging book to understand, many believers today don’t take the time and effort to mine its rich truths. One reason it has become difficult to understand is the debate concerning whom Hebrews was written to.1 Many view Hebrews as a message that was written to a combination of “true” believers and “professing” believers, i.e., unbelievers. With the mixed-audience view, the five warning passages (Heb 2:1-4; 3:1–4:16; 5:11–6:12; 10:1939; 12:14-29) are typically regarded as being addressed to “professing” believers (= unbelievers), with the rest of the book addressing “true” believers. However, if the entire book of Hebrews was in fact written to “true” believers, then all of it becomes beneficial to believers today. In this way a believer today doesn’t have to dismiss parts of Hebrews because those parts were not written to him.
Why We Know Hebrews Was Written to Believers
There are eight reasons to believe the entire book of Hebrews was written to believers (i.e., to those who have eternal life):
First, the writer calls the audience “holy brethren” (Heb 3:1).
Second, the writer describes himself and his readers (“we”) as ones who “have faith” (Heb 10:39). This would be true only of believers.
Third, readers are referred to as “sons” who have a relationship with God the Father (Heb 12:5, 7, 8). Unbelievers, professing to believe or otherwise, do not have a “son” relationship with God the Father until they are adopted and have eternal life (Gal 4:5).
Fourth, the author did not exhort readers to “believe in Jesus for eternal life” anywhere in Hebrews. The starting point for unbelievers is to place their faith in Jesus Christ for the gift of eternal life (John 3:16; Rom 6:23).
Fifth, the author did exhort (Heb 13:22) readers to “press on to maturity” (Heb 6:1) in the faith they already possessed (Heb 6:4-5). To exhort unbelievers to “press on to maturity” makes no sense. Without faith in Christ there is no life to be matured!
Sixth, the readers went through sufferings, reproaches, and tribulations for their faith (Heb 10:32-33). They even “accepted joyfully the seizure of [their] property” (10:34 NASB). It seems unlikely that unbelievers would be willing to go through these things for a nonexistent faith.
Seventh, in each of the five warning passages, the writer uses first person plural pronouns (us or we); he includes himself with the readers. Because the author was a believer in Jesus Christ, this is noteworthy. He views the warnings as applicable to both himself, as a believer, and to his readers, also believers. Had the warnings been for “professing” believers/unbelievers, he would not have included himself. For example, Heb 10:26 says, “For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins.” The writer sees “sinning willfully”— a return to animal sacrifices as a means for atonement, Heb 10:29— as something which he, as a believer, could commit, as could the believers he is writing to. After the five warning passages below are the verses containing “us” and/or “we” demonstrating the author included himself in the warning.
First warning (Heb 2:1-4): 2:1, 3
Second warning (Heb 3:1-4:16): 3:6, 14; 4:14
Third warning (Heb 5:11-6:12): 6:1
Fourth warning (Heb 10:19-39): 10:19-24, 26
Fifth warning (Heb 12:14-29): 12:25
Because the warning passages in Hebrews include the author, it does not stand to reason that these sections are addressed to unbelievers.
Eighth, there are no clear signs in the text to indicate switching of the audience between “true” believers and “professing” believers. The burden of proof for a spiritually-mixed readership rests on those who propose this view. This is not simply an argument from silence. It is logical to assume that the writer is addressing one consistent group of Jewish believers unless a change is clearly indicated by the text. The idea that the readership switches back and forth between believers and unbelievers seems to be governed by its proponents’ need to support their theological position rather than by evidence from the text.
Why It Matters
Hebrews is a “word of exhortation” (Heb 13:22) written to Jewish believers who were experiencing persecution and considering returning to the external practices of Judaism, including animal sacrifices for sins. The writer encourages these believers to persevere in their faith, even in a hostile world. This encouragement includes five warnings about the consequences of not holding fast to their faith.
Rosemarie Matlak’s summary relates the overall message of Hebrews to believers today:
As modern day Christians, we are also beguiled and pressured to distance ourselves from Christ through false teachers, worldly philosophies, discouraging circumstances, social pressure, and even persecution. As believers we all experience times of spiritual defeat…in our walk with God. It can be tempting to return to our old way of life where we felt accepted and admired…and to the pursuit of wealth and comfort rewarded us with immediate gratification.”2
Many of today’s believers are not Jewish and none of us live in the First Century, but we all still face similar challenges. Over the past twenty years many born-again people have left Bible-teaching churches for the liturgical practices of Catholicism or Orthodoxy. Many believers have departed from the teachings of God’s Word to practice counterfeit means to spiritual maturity like transcendental meditation, centering prayer, lectio divina, and prayer labyrinths. Sadly many believers have been duped into ceasing to believe that everlasting life is everlasting and thus they have begun trying to give and work so as to retain that life. Legalism both for justification and sanctification is quite alluring today. When a believer in Jesus Christ returns to a religious system or perspective that denies the sufficient work of Christ on the cross, they are making the mistake the book of Hebrews warns against.
Here in Utah when an active Mormon comes to faith in Christ apart from their works he is contradicting the teachings of the church of his family and friends. The result is that he will face very real pressure to stop saying he knows he has everlasting life simply by faith alone in Christ alone. If this new believer continues to confess his belief in justification by faith alone, the result is often complete rejection by all his friends and family. New believers from a Mormon background face a very real temptation to return to Mormonism at least in some external way to restore relationships with their relatives in particular.
Of course, leaving a Bible-teaching church and returning to the works-based system of Mormonism will prevent the new believer from going on to spiritual maturity and puts him in danger of being disciplined by the Lord.
Even someone who has no religious background may be tempted and/or pressured to return to their previous lifestyle without God instead of following Jesus more closely and continuing on to spiritual maturity. Old friends may hound the believer to come back and party like the old days. These “friends” and their lifestyle may hamper the believer from growing spiritually. But Hebrews is warning against more than just returning to a sinful lifestyle. The warning is against denying the sufficient sacrifice of Jesus Christ in their life. This might take the form of verbally rejecting or denying critical truths about Jesus including his death, resurrection, or ability to forgive our sins. Such a change in beliefs is what Hebrews warns against.
The writer of Hebrews was deeply concerned because he knew that the believer who departs from the faith reaps fiery judgment in this life (Heb 6:7-8; 10:27-31). Worse, the believer who apostatizes will not be one of those chosen to be Christ’s partners (metochoi), His co-rulers, in the life to come (Heb 1:9; 3:14). Instead of hearing the Lord’s “Well done, good servant” at the Judgment Seat of Christ (Luke 19:17), he will experience rebuke and shame before His Lord and Savior (Luke 19:20-26; 1 John 2:28). That’s why this matters. Departure from the faith is a terrible thing.
Knowing that the entire book of Hebrews was written to believers in Jesus Christ is vital to understanding God’s message in Hebrews. Because it was written to believers, the entire book is relevant for today’s Christians. The message is not that “professing” believers must prove their faith by commitment and perseverance, but rather that “true” believers are to move on to spiritual maturity despite difficulties. The dangers are clearly described in the five warning passages in Hebrews: negligence, unbelief, immaturity, willful sinning, and unresponsiveness.3 A believer today who “neglects” their spiritual life, remains “immature” and “unresponsive” to the Lord Jesus is not at a spiritually neutral place. These warnings remind us that not going on to maturity has negative consequences, and we must guard against these dangers if we are to press on to maturity.
David Janssen is Equipping Pastor at Grace Community Bible Church in Sandy, UT.
1. Another reason Hebrews can be difficult to understand is the overall Jewish orientation of the book. The writer expects the readers to have a detailed understanding of the Jewish priesthood, tabernacle, and sacrificial system. Modern Gentiles, like myself, do not have any firsthand experience with the Jewish sacrificial system, which makes Hebrews more difficult to understand.
2. Rosemarie Matlak, Hebrews Study Guide (2010), p. 6.
3. Mark Bailey and Tom Constable, The New Testament Explorer (Nashville: Word Publishing, 1999), pp. 506-507.