by John Owen
Owen is frequently acknowledged as a leading figure of the puritan and nonconformist movements of the seventeenth century. However, while his reputation as a statesman, educator, pastor, polemicist, and theologian is widely recognized, he is not remembered as an exegete of Scripture. Yet throughout his life, Owen engaged in the task of biblical interpretation. His massive commentary on Hebrews in particular represents the apex of his career and exemplifies many of the exegetical methods of Protestants in early modern England. Although often overlooked, Owen's writings on Hebrews are an important resource for understanding his life and thought.
This seven-volume exposition of Hebrews serves as a premiere example of John Owen's scholarship and pastoral spirit. Owen was one of the greatest systematic theologians among the British Puritans, yet he also excelled in pastoral and spiritual theology. In this commentary, Owen shows a familiarity with a wide range of biblical scholarship and the ability to supply careful analysis and interpretation. Also, following the classical Puritan commentary model, the commentary is very concerned with Christian living. Thus, Owen's exposition is valued for both in-depth scholarship and practical application.
THERE are but few things that I shall here detain thee in the consideration of, and those such as are necessary, if thou intendest the perusal of the ensuing Discourses. What principally concerneth this Exposition or Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, as to the design, scope, order, and method of it, was fully declared in a preface unto a former volume of Exercitations, with an exposition of the first two chapters thereof. Such as have there taken notice of them do deserve to be free from the trouble of their repetition in this place; and unto those by whom their consideration hath been omitted or neglected, either with the whole work or in the perusal of it, it is no wrong to suppose either that they need them not, or to leave them under this direction where they may be found. Wherefore I shall not offer thee any thing with respect unto the exposition of the three following chapters, which is now presented unto thee, as to its design, order, and method, which have been all before declared. Only, whereas our apostle in the third chapter digresseth unto a pathetical, rational, argumentative exhortation unto those practical duties of faith, love, constancy, and perseverance, which were the principal end of his doctrinal instructions in the whole Epistle, and indispensably necessary to be diligently attended unto by the Hebrews, under their condition and circumstances, in a singular manner; so, in imitation of and compliance with him who is my pattern and guide, as also finding the same duties, under our present circumstances, no less necessary to be singularly attended unto by all professors of the gospel, I have somewhat more largely than ordinary insisted on them, and consequently on the exposition of the chapter itself. And if any one shall hereon conceive our discourses over long or tedious, or too much diverting from the expository part of our work, I have sundry things to offer towards his satisfaction: as,—
1. The method of the whole is so disposed, as that any one, by the sole guidance of his eye, without further trouble than by turning the leaves of the book, may carry on or continue his reading of any one part of the whole without interruption or mixing any other discourses therewithal. So may he, in the first place, go over our consideration of the original text, with the examination of ancient and modern translations, and the grammatical construction and signification of the words, without diverting unto any thing else that is discoursed on the text. In like manner, if any desire to peruse the exposition of the text and context, with the declaration and vindication of the sense and meaning of the Holy Ghost in them, without the least intermixture of any practical discourses deduced from them, he may, under the same guidance, and with the same labour, confine himself thereunto from the beginning unto the end of the work. And whereas the practical observations with their improvement do virtually contain in them the sense and exposition of the words, and give light unto the intendment of the apostle in his whole design, for ought I know some may be desirous to exercise themselves principally in those discourses; which they may do by following the series and distinct continuation of them from first to last. Wherefore, from the constant observation of the same method as to the principal distinct parts of the whole Exposition, every one is at liberty to use that order in the perusal of it which he judgeth most for his own advantage.
2. There will be relief found against that discouragement which the appearing length of these discourses may give the reader, from the variety of their subject-matter or the things that are contained in them; for there are few of them on any single head that extend themselves beyond a page, or leaf at the most. Wherefore, although all of them together may make an appearance of some tediousness unto the reader, yet he will find it not easy to fix his charge on any one in particular, unless he judge it wholly impertinent; and for those few of them which much exceed the bounds mentioned, their importance will plead an excuse for their taking up so much room in the work itself. As, for instance (to confine myself unto the third chapter, the exposition whereof seems principally, if not solely, liable to this objection), the authority of Christ, as the Son of God, over the church; the nature of faith, as also of unbelief, and the danger of eternal ruin wherewith it is attended; the deceitfulness of sin, with the ways and means of the hardening the hearts of men thereby; the limitation of a day or season of grace; with the use of Old Testament types and examples, which are therein treated of by the apostle,—are things which, in their own nature, deserve a diligent inquiry into them and declaration of them. And however others, who have had only some particular design and aim in the exposition of this Epistle, or any other book of the Scripture, may satisfy themselves in opening the words of the text so far as it suits their design, yet he who professedly undertakes a full and plenary exposition cannot discharge his duty and undertaking without the interpretation and improvement of the things themselves treated of, according to the intention and mind of the Spirit of God. And I could heartily wish that the temptations and sins of the days wherein we live did not render the diligent consideration of the things mentioned more than ordinarily necessary unto all sorts of professors.
3. The reader may observe, that most of those discourses themselves do, if not consist in the exposition of other places of Scripture, suggested by their analogy unto that under consideration, yet have such expositions, with a suitable application of them, everywhere intermixed with them. Unto them to whom these things are not satisfactory with respect unto the length of these discourses, I have no more to offer, but that if they think meet, on this or any other consideration, to spare their charge in buying or their labour in reading the book itself, they will have no reason to complain with respect unto any thing contained in it or the manner of its handling.
There is one thing also peculiarly respecting the exposition of the fourth chapter, which the reader is to be acquainted withal. The doctrine of the original, confirmation, translation or change of a sabbatical day of divine worship, being declared therein, I had in its exposition continual respect unto those Exercitations on that subject which I had published about two years ago. And indeed those Exercitations were both prepared and designed to be a part of the preliminary Discourses unto this part of our Exposition, but were forced from me by the importunate desires of some and the challenges of others to prove the divine institution of the Lord's-day sabbath. But now, finding that two editions of that book of Exercitations are dispersed, I would not consent unto the reprinting of them in this treatise, although peculiarly belonging unto the doctrine of the apostle in this chapter, that the charge of those readers who had them already might not be increased. Yet I cannot but mind the reader, that in the exposition of that passage or discourse of the apostle about the several rests mentioned in the Scripture, I will not absolutely stand to his censure and judgment upon the perusal of the Exposition alone (though I will maintain it to be true, and hope it to be clear and perspicuous), without regard unto those Exercitations, wherein the truth of the Exposition itself is largely discussed and vindicated.
Unto the whole there are tables added,—collected, I confess, in too much haste, and not digested into so convenient a method as might be desired; but those who are acquainted with my manifold infirmities, not to mention other occasions, employments, and diversions, will not, perhaps, too severely charge upon me such failures in accuracy, and other effects of strength and leisure, as might otherwise be expected. And as for those unto whom my circumstances are unknown, I shall not concern myself in their censures any further than I am convinced of the weight of those reasons whereon they are grounded, and the importance of the matter about which they are exercised: for if such censures be either rash and precipitate, without a due examination of all that belongs unto what they reflect upon; if they openly savour of malevolence or envy; if they are about things of small moment, such as wherein neither the truth, nor reasonableness, nor soundness of the discourses themselves are concerned, or be such as might possibly, in a work of this nature and length, escape a commendable diligence,—let them be expressed in words of the highest disdain, the design of their authors will be utterly frustrate, if they intend the least disquietment unto my mind or thoughts about them, nor will, I suppose, be very successful with any persons of learning or ingenuity whom they shall endeavour to leaven thereby. Much less shall I be moved with the vain reproaches of any, however expressed in words suited to expose either my person, or endeavours in this kind to serve the church of Christ, unto contempt and scorn; not only because I am forewarned to look for such entertainment in the world, and instructed how to deport myself under it, but also because I have had a full experience of an absolute contrary event unto what hath been designed in them.
I have not more to add concerning the ensuing Exposition; for to give the reader a particular account either of my travail therein or of the means used in its carrying on, beyond what I have mentioned in the preface unto the preceding volume, I judge not convenient, as not willing to give the least appearance of any satisfaction, much less glorying, in any thing of my own but my infirmities, as I neither do, nor desire, nor dare to do. This only duty binds me to declare, that as I used the utmost sincerity whereof I am capable in the investigation and declaration of the mind of the Spirit of God in the text, without the least respect unto any parties of men, opinions, ways of worship, or other differences that are amongst us in and about the affairs of religion, because I feared God; so in the issue and product of my endeavours, the reader will find nothing savouring of an itch after novelty or curiosity, nothing that will divert him from that sound doctrine and form of wholesome words wherein the professors of this nation have been educated and instructed.
For the Exercitations premised unto the Exposition, I must acknowledge that I have not been able to compass the whole of what I did design. Not only continued indisposition as to health, but frequent relapses into dangerous distempers, forced the utmost of my endeavours to give place unto them for a season, and to take off my hand from that work before I had finished the whole of what I aimed at: for it was in my purpose to have pursued the tradition, and given an account of sacrifices with priests for their offering; as also the occasions, rise, and discharge of the office of the priesthood among the principal nations of the world during the state of Gentilism, and their apostasy from God therein. Moreover, what doth concern the person and priesthood of Melchizedek I had designed as a part of this work and undertaking; and I had also purposed an historical account of the succession and actings of the high priests among the Jews from the institution of their office unto its dissolution: all which belong unto the illustration of that office which, as vested in Jesus Christ, is the subject of these discourses. These things, with others of the like nature, I have been forced, for the reasons mentioned, to reserve unto another part of this work, if God shall be pleased to give life, strength, and opportunity for the finishing of it, which may be no less seasonable; for although they do all, as was said, belong unto the illustration of the priestly office and its administration, yet the doctrine of the priesthood of Christ is complete without them. Let not, therefore, the reader suppose that on this occasion our Exercitations concerning the priesthood of Christ are imperfect or defective as to the subject-matter of them, as though any thing materially belonging thereunto were left undiscussed; although other imperfections and defects, it is most probable, they may be justly charged withal. And I shall only say concerning them, that as it is wholly without the compass of my knowledge and conjecture, if the reader can find any by whom the doctrine of the priesthood of Christ hath been so handled, in its proper order and method, as to its original, causes, nature, and effects; so for the truth that is taught concerning it, and its discharge unto the benefit and salvation of the church, I shall, God assisting, be accountable for it unto any by whom it shall be called into question.
The greatest opposition that ever was made among Christians unto the doctrine of the priesthood of Christ, or rather unto the office itself, is that which at this day is managed by the Socinians. It is therefore manifest, and, as I suppose, will be confessed by all who inquire into these things, that I could not answer my design, of the full declaration of it, unto the edification of the present church, without an accurate discussion of their sentiments about it, and opposition unto it. This, therefore, was so necessary unto the occasion, that my undertaking an express examination and refutation of their principles in this matter is no way liable unto any just exception. Only, it may seem inconvenient unto some, that, in a discourse of this nature, the discussion of the writings of particular men, as Enjedinus, Socinus, Smalcius, Crellius, and others, should be so much insisted on; and I must acknowledge that at first it seemed unto myself not altogether suited unto the nature of my design. But second thoughts inclined me unto this course; for it is known unto them who are any way exercised in these things, with how many artifices this sort of men do palliate their opinions, endeavouring to insinuate contrary and adverse principles under and by those words, phrases of speech, and expressions, whereby the truth is declared. Wherefore, if any one shall charge them with what is indeed their mind and judgment in these things, he may sometimes be thought unduly to impose upon them what they do not own, yea, what their words seem expressly to free them from. For instance, suppose that it should be reflected as a crime on them, that they deny the priestly office of Christ itself,—deny that he was ever a priest on earth, or yet is so in heaven,—deny that he offered himself a perfect expiatory sacrifice unto God, or that he maketh intercession for us; those who are less wary and circumspect, or less exercised in these controversies, might possibly, on the consideration of their words and profession, suspect that this charge must needs be very severe, if not highly injurious: for nothing occurs more frequently in their writings, than a fair mention of the sacerdotal office of Christ and his expiatory sacrifice. What way, therefore, remained in this case, to state a right judgment in this controversy, but a particular discussion of what their principal authors and leaders, with great agreement among themselves, do teach in this matter? And if from thence it do appear, that what they call the sacerdotal office of Christ is indeed no such office, nor any thing that holds the least analogy with what is properly so called; and that what they term his expiatory sacrifice and his intercession is neither sacrifice nor intercession, nor hath the least resemblance of what is so indeed; the principal difficulty which lieth in our contest with them is despatched out of our way. And herein,—that none might suspect that advantages have been sought against them, by undue collections of passages out of their writings, or a misrepresentation of their sense and intentions,—it was necessary they should be heard to speak for themselves, and their own words at large, without alteration or diminution, be represented unto the reader; and this is done so fully, out of their principal authors, as that I dare say with some confidence, there is nothing in the writings of the whole party, of any importance in this cause, which is not strictly examined. And the reader is desired to observe, that if the truth which we profess concerning this office of Christ, and his discharge thereof, be sufficiently confirmed and vindicated, all the other notions of these men, concerning a metaphorical redemption, a metaphorical sacrifice, and the like, do vanish and disappear. So that although I intend, if God will, and I live, a full declaration of the true nature of the sacrifice of Christ, and the vindication of the doctrine of the church of God concerning it, I must take it for granted, that, whilst what we have asserted and confirmed concerning his priesthood remains unshaken, the whole truth relating thereunto will not only easily but necessarily follow: and what in these discourses is effected towards that end, is left to the judgment of the learned and candid reader. Besides, I thought it not unmeet to give a specimen of the way and manner whereby this sort of men do manage their opposition unto the principal truths and mysteries of the gospel, that such as are less conversant and exercised in their writings, may be cautioned against those sophistical artifices whereby they endeavour to inveigle and infect the minds or imaginations of men; for this is their peculiar excellency (or call it what you will), that, under an appearance and pretence of perspicuity, clearness, and reason, they couch the most uncouth senses, and most alien from the common reason of mankind, that can possibly fall under the imagination of persons pretending to the least sobriety. Instances hereof, and those undeniable, the reader will find in the ensuing discourses plentifully produced and discovered.
I have only further to advertise the reader, that whereas, by reason of my absence from it, many mistakes and errors have escaped the press, especially in the Exercitations, and those the most of them corrupting the sense of the words or places which they have befallen,—some whereof I have, in a cursory view of the whole, collected,—I must entreat his favour, that the failure of others may not be imputed unto me, nor any thing be interpreted to be my neglect, which, being duly considered, gives its own account to have been the effect of the want of skill or diligence in others.