The Cost of Discipleship: How the Historical Context of Hebrews Teaches Us How to Read This Book

hebrewsTonight we begin our verse-by-verse study of Hebrews in our weekly Bible study. Last week we looked at the book as a whole. You can find the audio and introductory notes here.

This week we will consider the first four verses, which introduce Hebrew’s “word of exhortation” (13:25) to a people suffering oppression (10:32–34) and tempted to shrink back from their Great High Priest. Indeed, as the book unfolds we become quite aware that the author of this book has a great concern for the enduring faith of these afflicted disciples. To understand, therefore, the pastoral intent of Hebrews we need to know something of the historical context.

And while many particulars about Hebrews are impossible to discern (like who wrote the book), we can put together a fairly accurate picture of who is addressed, where, and when. In fact, in his short commentary on Hebrews (A Call to Commitment), William Lane provides a clear picture of the letter’s background from the available content of Hebrews and the history of Rome in the first century. Here’s what he finds,

The description of the sufferings endured is appropriate to the hardships borne by Jewish Christians who were expelled from Rome by the emperor Claudius in AD 49. We know of this experience through Suetonius, a Roman writer of the early second century AD who prepared biographies of the Julian emperors. In his biography of Claudius he mentions an incident of social disturbance in Rome: “There were riots in the Jewish quarter at the instigation of Chrestus. As a result, Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome” (Life of the Deified Claudius, 25.4). “Chrestus” is a common slave name, meaning “the good one.” Suetonius appears to have thought that an individual of that name was responsible for the riots. Historians, however, believe that he confused the facts. His source had mentioned not “Chrestus,’ but “Christus,” the Christ, or the Messiah. There were riots in the Jewish quarter which centered in the Messiah, and as a result Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome. Jewish Christians apparently had been evangelizing among the Jewish quarter. When they affirmed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, who had suffered death on the Cross, disputes had deteriorated to riots. The disturbance of the peace invited police action, and Claudius banished the synagogue and church leaders responsible for the commotion. Insult, persecution, and especially the seizure of property are normal under the conditions of a decree of expulsion. If this reading of the evidence is correct, the writer prepared his sermon for some of the Jewish Christians who had shared the expulsion from Rome with Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18:1-2), They had first-hand experience of the cost of discipleship. Now, however, it is about fifteen years later. These Christians are fifteen years older. When a new crisis emerges, confronting them with the threat of a fresh experience of suffering, they are compelled to face the cost of discipleship all over again. The situation now facing the community appears more serious than the earlier one under Claudius. The pastor’s declaration that

The description of the sufferings endured is appropriate to the hardships borne by Jewish Christians who were expelled from Rome by the emperor Claudius in AD 49. We know of this experience through Suetonius, a Roman writer of the early second century AD who prepared biographies of the Julian emperors. In his biography of Claudius he mentions an incident of social disturbance in Rome: “There were riots in the Jewish quarter at the instigation of Chrestus. As a result, Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome” (Life of the Detfied Claudius, 25.4). “Chrestus” is a common slave name, meaning “the good one.” Suetonius appears to have thought that an individual of that name was responsible for the riots. Historians, however, believe that he confused the facts. His source had mentioned not “Chrestus,’ but “Christus,” the Christ, or the Messiah. There were riots in the Jewish quarter which centered in the Messiah, and as a result Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome.

Jewish Christians apparently had been evangelizing among the Jewish quarter. When they affirmed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, who had suffered death on the Cross, disputes had deteriorated to riots. The disturbance of the peace invited police action, and Claudius banished the synagogue and church leaders responsible for the commotion. Insult, persecution, and especially the seizure of property are normal under the conditions of a decree of expulsion. If this reading of the evidence is correct, the writer prepared his sermon for some of the Jewish Christians who had shared the expulsion from Rome with Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18:1-2), They had first-hand experience of the cost of discipleship.

Now, however, it is about fifteen years later. These Christians are fifteen years older. When a new crisis emerges, confronting them with the threat of a fresh experience of suffering, they are compelled to face the cost of discipleship all over again. The situation now facing the community appears more serious than the earlier one under Claudius. The pastor’s declaration that “in your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (12:4) suggests that martyrdom may become a fact of Christian experience in the immediate future. This sober statement climaxes a section summarizing the experiences of men and women who were faithful to God under the circumstances of torture, flogging, chains, and execution (11:35—12:3). The pastor urges his friends to fix their gaze upon Jesus, who “endured the cross, scorning its shame,’ so that they will not “grow weary and lose heart” (12:2-3). (William Lane, A Call toCommitment22–23)

With this background in view, we get a better understanding of why the word of exhortation is given, how it might be applied to suffering saints today, and how the priestly ministry of Christ is meant to encourage the believer. In fact as Lane goes on to apply the book, he says that when he and we are faced with “the cost of discipleship,” Hebrews is the book we can and should turn to (23).

Indeed, the priestly ministry of Christ, which Hebrews described with exquisite detail, is not just a word given for theological reflection. It is given to saints who struggling to hang on. And thus, when we read and study this glorious book, we should remember its original setting and purpose—it is meant to strengthen the enfeebled believer to endure suffering with patience and faith.

May we remember Hebrews historical context and may that context encourage us to study this book and bolster our faith in Jesus Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

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