I recently interviewed one of my new colleagues, Jon Laansma, associate professor of ancient languages and New Testament at Wheaton College, and author of the new book The Letter to the Hebrews: A Commentary for Preaching, Teaching, and Bible Study. The book was recently released, and is helpful for those communicating the book of Hebrews to others.
Ed: OK, you can’t start an interview on the Book of Hebrews without asking: who wrote the Book of Hebrews?
Jon: This is an interesting question, but the debate over names points us away from where the author wants us to look. The writer was a highly literate individual who cared deeply about this faltering community; he (probably “he”) wrote during the time the apostles were active (A.D. 60-80, probably) and was deeply plugged into their teaching, yet boldly went where they had not explicitly gone. He wants us to look to the throne of grace, where our Brother is seated as our sympathetic High Priest.
He wants us to see that we’re part of God’s story, whether we know it or not, and that faith is the only sound course to follow. Arguments over authorship have their place and can aid our reading, but they can also become an evasion.
Focusing on the human author can be doing precisely what the author did not want us to do.
Ed: So, I can’t know the author… so, then, why did you write this commentary? What niche does it fill today?
Jon: I wrote this for the kinds of readers Hebrews itself is after (5:11-6:3). The commentary pays close attention to what specialists say and speaks to many of their questions, but it is written above all for anyone who has a serious interest in understanding the scriptures whether or not they have formal training.
It dispenses with technical asides and goes straight to what will be most helpful for those trying to understand the text in its historical, literary, and theological settings. I don’t see my role as writing a script for sermons, but as supplying prompts for those more specially gifted for witnessing to these things.
In its own way, Hebrews is the keystone in the arch of the New Testament’s presentation of Jesus Christ. It has been something of a mystery and outlier for both Christian historians and theologians, but the truth is that it would be hard to imagine the history of the Christian teaching without this brief word of exhortation.
It brings to expression conceptions of divine speech, Jesus Christ, and God’s salvation that are everywhere assumed elsewhere in both the NT and OT. Even if we don’t recognize it, Hebrews catalyzes our understanding of the rest of scripture. This is not accidental. It was the intention of Hebrews to retell the whole story of scripture, with a view to exhorting us to find our place in it. Its work is not to translate the gospel for our lives, but to translate our lives into God’s drama.
Ed: What are some of the most compelling themes you found in Hebrews, and how can they be used today?
Jon: There are major and minor themes that pop out at any reader (priesthood, rest, anchor, angels), but drawing them together coherently is the story for humanity of how the promise delivered to Abraham leads us, God’s family, on the path behind our leader, Jesus, to the place He entered on our behalf, the presence of the holy God of Israel. Moderns tend to locate the story of the covenants of God within the larger story of the world, the cosmos. Hebrews does the opposite, and it turns out that Hebrews is right—because Jesus is the heir of all things, and the one through whom all things were made.
That’s a view of the world that faith adopts, and everything else turns on it. That needs to be faith’s modern view. When we get that far, we see how it is wrong-headed to try to translate the language of priesthood and sacrifice into ideas that make more sense to moderns, and how necessary it is for us to inhabit their world as the true one.
Ed: What advice would you give for non-academics and non-theologians on how to wrestle through some of the more difficult passages of Hebrews (like Heb. 6:4-6)?
Jon: Soak yourself in scripture and soak yourself in obedience. That’s the preamble (5:11-6:3) to 6:4-6. There’s no getting around the call to serious thinking, to “going the way the words run” in God’s story, but the thinking is stale, hollow, speculative, and without promise if it is not walking the way of the word, giving to and drawing from that life. It’s only in the context of that communal faith-obedience on the great pilgrimage to the promised city that there is hope of understanding and then arrival at what was promised. A commentary is merely part of that communal activity of faith, love, and hope (3:13; 10:19-25; 13:22).
Ed: What do you love most about the Book of Hebrews? And, related, what do you hope your commentary will do related to that love?
Jon: In my earliest years of faith, Hebrews’ exhortations spoke so directly to me that I worked at memorizing them. Later, the way its larger argument made sense of the whole Bible as a single, coherent story was endlessly compelling. Closely following on that was a growing appreciation for how much the Church’s faith owes to this short exposition of the OT as the gospel of Christ. Finally, it was the realization that accepting Hebrews’ vision less in the sense of translating it than of inhabiting it is key for the survival of the modern Church.
The aim of all my work could be crystalized in the desire to understand the scriptures and to help others understand them—to understand what it means to be a Christian and to help others with the same in the interest of faith, love, and hope. Hebrews, in fact, does that better than I do, so this commentary hopes to remove the obstacles that block off that experience and to facilitate a faithful reception of this vision.
Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, is Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group.