The Letter to the Hebrews is a singular spiritual work, one of the most unique books in the Christian Scriptures. For centuries church fathers believed Hebrews to have been written by the Apostle Paul, the great epistoleer of the New Testament, though modern scholarship has convincingly called this into question.
Hebrews defies categorization. In my estimation it is a sermon, “a word of encouragement,” addressed to former Jews who converted to Christianity then changed their minds because they feared persecution. I picture the anonymous author (Barnabas maybe, Luke, or even Priscilla and Aquila, friends and coworkers of Paul—scholars throw these names around) delivering their sermon to rows of Judeo-Christian priests at the Temple in Jerusalem or in synagogues, a kind of seminar. Hebrews is a corporate document, not unlike an editorial that expresses the views espoused by a community of believers, learned Jews from the city of Alexandria. A university crowd.
Members of the audience are encouraged to remain loyal to their confession of faith in Christ, to not ‘drift away’ from the message of salvation (2:1), or to lose their enthusiasm for Christianity. Written toward the end of the Apostolic Age, Hebrews speaks to generations of Catholic Christians throughout the millennia.
The work is confessional in nature. It refers to the depth of Jesus’s suffering, the lesson that he learned by his passion and death on the cross, and the salvific role he played upon being resurrected.
Jesus was the good Son. His redemptive suffering was the very reason for his incarnation. “For this reason have I come,” he says (Jn 12:12). In the Letter to the Romans, the Apostle writes that Jesus is “established as Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness through the resurrection of the dead” (1:4).
Whoever wrote Hebrews was highly educated, deeply versed in the Hebrew Scriptures, and a stylistic wordsmith—the sermon is the best-written work in the New Testament, in terms of language, vivid imagery, and rhetorical prowess. With these talents the author composed a highly effective work that no doubt rescued the souls of many men and women who feared for their lives because of their faith in Christ.
In the gospel Christ’s redemptive suffering is a right of passage to obtain the fullness of his glory. “Because he remains forever, he has a priesthood that does not pass away. Therefore, he is able to save those who approach God through him, since he lives forever and prays for them” (Heb 7:24-25). Not only did he come to earth to die for us but he prayed for us the entire time he lived “in the flesh.”
“Flesh” is synonymous with mortal life, as is written in the prologue of Saint John’s gospel: “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). Jesus’s human nature, his “days in the flesh,” is quite different from his divine nature. Saint Thomas Aquinas, commenting on Hebrews, wrote: “It must be said that the word ‘flesh’ is used to refer to the weakness of human beings—‘flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God’ (1 Cor 15:50).” That is, until Jesus, who suffered bodily disgrace, opened the gates of heaven.
The suffering of Christ, the great high priest, befits the ministry of the priest who prays for the people and looks after them as though they were his children. “The prayers of the righteous man are great,” St James wrote (Jas 5:16).
But didn’t Jesus’s prayers to his Father go unheeded? God did not save his Son from death—he had to drink his cup—nor were all that he prayed for converted. The reality of dying terrified him, because, being human, he possessed the instinct to live. Yet he submitted to his Father and prayed, “Father, to you all things are possible. Take this cup from me. But your will, not mine, be done” (Lk 22:42).
“Sufferings are lessons,” a Greek proverb says. Jesus’s agony on the cross perfected his humanity, which is why the writer of Hebrews tells us that Jesus “learned obedience through suffering.” By no means did his submission to his Father’s plan diminish his majesty as Son of God.
Christ learned what every human being has to learn: acceptance of God’s will in every circumstance. The surest way to learn is perhaps the hardest: through suffering. This truth is not meant to cast doubt on Jesus’s divine Sonship. Rather, it points to his willingness to assume every aspect of humanity, even the most difficult to bear. His example of obedience is something that we should imitate.