THE GRAND PURPOSE OF THE BOOK OF HEBREWS
There is no need for any to be in any doubt as to WHY the Book of Hebrews was written; Its purpose stands crystal clear!
I once started to completely lose confidence in a man whom I had previously looked upon with respect, as a Christian minister, when I heard this man state that,
“The book of Hebrews is really all about tithing...”
That was the start of a process in my mind which eventually led me to see that this man was not as knowledgeable about the Bible as I had been led to believe. Even at the time that I heard this comment (probably around 18-20 years ago), I knew enough about the New Testament book of Hebrews to know that it is perilously close to nonsensical to claim that this great book is “all about tithing”! True, the book does refer to tithing at one point (but certainly not to the practise of 'tithing' as a modern-day practise in which some Christians choose to support their congregations), but that is all. The purpose of this book is a grand purpose which we will shortly consider, but first of all let us eradicate any concept which a few may still hold that this book is 'about tithing.'
First of all, the word 'tithing' NEVER occurs in the New Testament and only occurs ONCE even in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 26:12).
The Greek word translated 'tithe' is best transliterated as 'apodekatoo' (Strong's Gk. word '586') and only occurs in the New Testament in Matthew 23:23 and Luke 11:42. The word never occurs in Hebrews.
That just leaves 'tithes' - in the plural. This is best transliterated as either 'dekatee' or 'dekatoo' (two versions of it), these are Strong's Gk. Words '1181' and '1183' respectively. The use of these Gk. Words are confined to Hebrews 7:5,6,8,9. Our inset article considers this Hebrews reference to 'tithes.'
But I think we should be able to see at once that if the word 'tithes' can only be found in 4 verses out of Hebrews grand total of 303 verses, this book is very definitely not “about tithing.” So what is this New Testament book all about?
The Book's Grand Purpose
We are now going to consider the grand purpose of this outstanding New Testament book.
This book was written, and primarily addressed to, Jewish Christians who had a background of Old Covenant observance to explain to them how Christ now super-ceded all the old regulations which they will have been accustomed to and quite familiar with. The NIV Study Bible nicely sums it up this way,
“The letter was addressed primarily to Jewish converts who were familiar with the OT (Old Testament) and who were being tempted to revert to Judaism or to Judaise the gospel...”
(The NIV Study Bible, Hodder and Stoughton, 1993, article 'Hebrews' – page 1817).
Far from being "all about tithing" this great book actually has a very clear and distinctive theme:
The Supremacy and Sufficiency of Jesus Christ as Revelator and as Mediator of God's grace!
That is the theme of this book and this tells us what this book is all about. No Bible commentator of any note has ever seriously disagreed with this assessment of Hebrews. The book plainly outlines how the promises and prophecies of the Old Testament are fulfilled in the New Covenant (or, if you prefer, in the New Testament), and shows the reader how Christ is superior to the angels, the prophets, and even to Moses and Aaron. Moreover, it explains that Christ is even far superior to the earlier divine revelation which Moses had received at Mount Sinai. As the NIV Study Bible also points out, this book could well be subtitled, 'The Book of Better Things' since the Greek words for 'better' and 'superior' occur fifteen times in Hebrews.
Hebrews, without doubt, is often somewhat corrective and there is no doubt that the writer is somewhat disappointed with the tendency for certain Jewish Christians to sometimes be too readily led astray with legalistic subverters of the true Gospel message. The writer contrasts the state in which his readers currently are with the state in which they ought to be. He complains about a slothful attitude (5:11. 6:12), about them being despondent (12:3,12), and about their tendency to lose their original commitment and enthusiasm for the gospel of Christ (3:6, 12-14. 4:14. 10:23-25,35-39). There is also a warning about the failure of many of them to grow in knowledge and understanding as they should have done by the stage that this letter was being penned (5:11-14. 6:1-3). The book was almost certainly written somewhere between AD 60-70 and, without doubt, some of these Jewish believers will have been around for many years.
Does Hebrews 7:1-28 Support Modern Tithing in Any Meaningful Way at all?
The Hebrews reference refers back to the story of Abraham and Melchisedec. Of course, the central message of the Book of Hebrews is how the New Covenant is immeasurably greater than the Old Covenant. A few will say that since Abraham was the 'father of the faithful,' then Christians of today should therefore follow "his example" and tithe as he did. But this Scripture is not even saying that Abraham normally tithed; it refers to a specific occasion which was not even a tithe in the sense the word is usually used today (referring to normal earned income). If - on the basis of this - it is proposed that Christians should tithe, I could propose that on the basis of Abraham's life we should also be circumcised, or go out into the desert and wait for God's instructions as to where He will have us go!!
Christians really need to understand that the Bible contains different genres of writing and that discretion needs to be used when assessing correct interpretation.
In order to get the full sense of this Scripture it is vital to continue right to the end of Hebrews 7. Obviously, the chapter is not about tithing at all but about the greatness of the New Covenant compared to the Old. Just reading as far as the tithing verses 4-9, as many tithing enthusiasts like to do, will not give a full sense of the Chapter's meaning. This Scripture is saying that Abraham recognised Melchisedec as a great man so gave him a 'tenth', symbolic of recognising a greater authority than oneself, and of giving offering/tribute to him.
Melchisedec was very mysterious, many believe that he must have been the Angel of the Lord, still others feel that Jesus revealed Himself directly to Abraham through this person who was our Saviour Himself! (This seems a little harder to accept. For a much closer consideration of just who this mysterious 'King of Salem' was, find the link at the bottom of this page).
But nothing here is saying that Christians today should give a tenth as a legal (or even an optional) practice, and one can only arrive at such a conclusion by suspending all logical reasoning. Despite this, on about three occasions in my life I have either read or actually heard Christian ministers (who really should know their Bibles better!), claim that Abraham's example means that modern Christians should tithe.
Of course - we would hardly expect to see such an instruction since - elsewhere in the New Testament - both Jesus and Paul show us that this would simply be inappropriate. The New Covenant offers a freedom which was just not available to those who lived under the Old Covenant. Only we are to use this freedom to serve God and our neighbour - not to sin. For a much fuller study of tithing please read Tithes and Tithing. Can We Face Up to the Truth? (link at the bottom of this page). This article shows that New Covenant Christians are pointed to a far better manner of Giving than tithing.
Particular Problems for Jewish Christians
We need to understand that there were particular problems for Jewish Christians which Gentile Christians did not have to face. There is no doubt that many of them would have expected an earthly kingdom to have been quickly established based on their misunderstanding of the prophets – did not certain Scriptures appear to suggest that the coming of the Messiah would be followed by a kingdom? - and, in addition to this, they had to continually live with the knowledge that the huge majority of their fellow Jews continued to reject Christ. As A. M. Stibbs has well written,
“...Continued attachment to it (belief in the Gospel) seemed only to involve them in sharing the offensive reproach of a suffering and crucified Messiah and in having to face the increasing prospect of violent anti-Christian persecution. It may well be, therefore, that they were being seriously tempted to disown Jesus as the Messiah and to go back to re-embrace the visible and preferable good which Judaism still seemed to offer to them. That it was Judaism (or even a syncretistic neo-Judaism) which thus attracted them afresh as preferable to Christianity seems confirmed by the obvious way in which the writer sets himself from the first to demonstrate the superiority of the new covenant over the old, and to set forth particularly the outstanding excellence of Jesus, the Son of God, as compared with the prophets and angels, leaders and High Priests, who functioned in the old economy. So he shows that, while the old order was imperfect and provisional, Christianity brings perfection (7:19), and perfection which is eternal (5:9. 9:12,15. 13:20).”
(A.M. Stibbs, The Epistle to the Hebrews; Introduction. The New Bible Commentary, Inter-Varsity Fellowship, 1962. Pages 1089-90).
So the grand purpose of the book of Hebrews was to correct, persuade, encourage and reassure Jewish Christians not to lose heart but to stay on course for the full eternal realisation of a kingdom which they had already entered in Christ. Indeed, the book continually refers to theological concepts which Gentile believers – especially unstudied ones – would not even have began to understand! In the eighth chapter the author picks up quotes from Exodus, Isaiah and Jeremiah to show that the New Covenant is not some strange new teaching but was clearly testified to in the Hebrew Scriptures. Then the chapter is concluded with the 'bottom line' that the old covenant no longer even has any authority or force in heaven!
'By calling this covenant “new”, he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and ageing will soon disappear.' (Hebrews 8:13, NIV throughout).
Christ, of course, was the inaugurator of the New Covenant which came into force with His sacrifice (perfectly typified by the torn curtain making direct access to the throne of God the Father now possible for those in Christ). But the question has been asked: Okay, the old covenant is now obviously obsolete but what did the writer mean by saying that it would “soon disappear”? In this very way: the old covenant was inextricably bound up - firstly with a portable tabernacle - then with a temple system based in Jerusalem. Without a temple, it is impossible for the regulations of that covenant to function according to the divine prescription! Hebrews was written somewhere between 60 and 70 AD. In 70 AD God allowed both Jerusalem to be destroyed and for the temple to be razed. From that point onwards it is not even possible for the old covenant to function. Frankly, to see orthodox Jews at the 'wailing wall' in Jerusalem is, for me, one of the most pathetic sights one can ever behold. I say this with respect for them, but I have to honestly say that it is as though they cling to all that might be left of the original temple in a futile attempt to continue to cling to a covenant which is – in any case -now passed and is without any force or divine authority.
So the book of Hebrews demonstrates to Jewish Christians that – in Christ – they must now put the former things aside. Jews and Gentiles are now ONE in Christ – race no longer matters for those in Christ, and regulation based on the old covenant has now become meaningless. Jesus Christ is now Fully Supreme and Fully Sufficient as Revelator and as the only Mediator of God's grace.
'Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise – the fruit of lips that confess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.' (Hebrews 13:15-16).
Robin A. Brace, 2006.
Did the Early Jewish Church Live Under Two Covenants?
The Law and the Prophets Were Until John
Who Was 'Melchizedek'?
The Law and the Gospel
Tithes and Tithing. Can We Face Up to the Truth?
WITNESS TO THE WORD