Introduction to Calvin's commentary on Hebrews

by John Owen

No doubt the Epistle next in importance to that to the Romans is this to the Hebrews. The truths explained in it might, indeed, have been deduced from other portions of Scripture; but it is a vast advantage and a great satisfaction to find them expressly set forth, and distinctly stated by an inspired Apostle.

In condescension to our ignorance, it has pleased God, not only to give us what might have been deemed sufficient for our information, but also to add "line upon line," so that there might be every help given to those who have a desire to know the truth, and every reasonable excuse taken away from such a resolve to oppose it, and to follow the guidance of self-will, and the delusions of their own proud minds and depraved hearts. It might then seem strange to us that defect, insufficiency, and obscurity have been ascribed to the Scriptures, did we not know that these charges have been made by such as wish Revelation to be otherwise than it is; they having imbibed errors and adopted superstitions to which it yields no countenance, but which it condemns in terms so plain that they must be represented as defective or obscure in order to be evaded.

There are especially two parties who find this Epistle in no way favorable to them--the Papists and the Socinians. The Sole Priesthood of Christ, and his Sole Sufficient Sacrifice, are here so distinctly stated, that the former cannot resist the evidence except by the subtle arts of the most consummate sophistry; and the latter find it a very difficult task to neutralize the strong and clear testimony here given as to the Divinity of our Saviour and his Atonement. Though these parties are wholly opposed to one another, yet, like Herod and Pilate, they unite in degrading the Saviour--the one indirectly, by substituting others in his place; and the other in open manner, by denying his dignity and the character and efficacy of his death. But by both the Saviour is equally dishonored.

There have been more disputes about this Epistle than any other portion of Scripture; but many of the questions which have been raised have been of a very trifling character, as though learned men were idle and had nothing else to do; and this has been the case, especially with the divines of the German school, not only with regard to this Epistle, but with respect to many other subjects.

Disquisitions, called learned, have been written as to the character of this Epistle, whether it be properly an Epistle, or something that ought to be called by some other name! Then it has been a subject learnedly discussed, to who in particular the Epistle was sent, whether to be dispersed Jews or to those in Palestine--whether to a particular Congregation or to the Hebrews in general? Such questions are comparatively of very little importance; and to spend time and talent in discussing them is a work frivolous and useless; and not only so, but also mischievous, calculated to serve the purposes of Popery and Infidelity; for to render thus apparently important what is not so, and on which no degree of certainty can be obtained, is to involve men in a mist which may lead them astray.

Another subject has been much discussed, which is of no great consequence, as the inspiration of the Epistle is not thereby endangered, and that is the language in which the Epistle was originally written. An opinion prevailed among some of the Early Fathers that it was written in Hebrew, or rather in Syro-Chaldee language, and that it was translated into Greek by Luke, Clement, or Barnabas. It was stated as an opinion, confirmed by no authority, and founded mainly on two circumstances--that it was written to Hebrews, and that its style is different from that of Paul in his other Epistles. Almost all modern divines regard this opinion as not well founded. The Greek language was in Paul's time well known throughout Palestine; and "General Epistles," intended for the Jews as well as the Gentiles, were written in Greek; and there is no record of any copy of this Epistle in Hebrew. As to the style, it differs not more from that of the other Epistles than what may be observed in writers in all ages, or what might be expected in Paul when advanced in years, compared with what he wrote in his younger days. It may be further added, that the Epistle itself contains things which seem to show that it was written in Greek: Hebrew words are interpreted, chap. 7:2; the passages quoted are mostly from the Septuagint, and not from the Hebrew; and there is the use of a word, rendered "Testament," in chap. 9:17, in the sense of a Will, which the Hebrew word never means.

There are only two questions of real importance--the canonicity of the Epistle and its Author.

As to the first, it has never been doubted except by some of the strange heretics in the first ages. There is quite as much external testimony in its favor as most portions of the New Testament. It was from the first received by the Churches, Eastern and Western, as a portion of the Inspired Volume. It is found in the very first versions of the New Testament, the Syriac and the Italic. These versions were made as early as the end of the second century, about 140 years after the date of this Epistle. The testimony of the Fathers from the earliest time is uniformly the same in this respect. The Epistle is acknowledged by them all as a portion of Holy Writ.

But with regard to the Author there has been a diversity of opinion, though, when all things are duly weighed, without reason. From the earliest times, the Eastern Church acknowledged Paul as the Author. Some in the Western Church, in the third and the fourth century, did not regard Paul as the Author, but Luke, or Clement, or Barnabas. Jerome and Augustine in the fifth century, a more enlightened age than the two preceding centuries, ascribed to Paul the authorship; and since their time the same opinion has prevailed in the Western, as it did from the beginning in the Eastern Church. How to account for a different opinion in the Western Church during the third and the fourth century is difficult. Some think it was owing to the Novatian Heresy, which some parts of this Epistle were supposed to favor, though without any good reason.

As far then as the testimony of history goes, almost the whole weight of evidence is in favor of Paul being the Author.

With regard to modern times, the prevailing opinion has been that it is the epistle of Paul. Luther, indeed, ascribed it to Apollos--a mere conjecture. Calvin, as we find, supposed that either Luke or Clement was the author; for which there are no satisfactory reasons. Beza differed from his illustrious predecessor and regarded Paul as the writer; and such has been the opinion entertained by most of the successors of the Reformers, both in this country and on the Continent, as proved by their confessions of Faith.

About the middle of the seventeenth century there seems to have been a revival of the controversy; for in the year 1658 the younger Spanheim wrote an elaborate treatise on the subject, in which he canvasses the whole evidence, both historical and internal, and affords the strongest ground for the conclusion that Paul was the writer of this Epistle. Since that time, till late years, his arguments were regarded by most as conclusive. But some of the German divines, who seem to have a taste for exploded opinions, have again revived the question, produced afresh the old arguments, and added some new ones to them. But a second Spanheim has appeared in the person of Professor Stuart, of America, who has published a learned Commentary on this Epistle, and prefixed to it a long Introduction, in which he has fully entered into the subject, and more fully than his predecessor. The labor and toil which this Introduction must have cost its author were no doubt very great; for every argument, however frivolous, (and some of the arguments are very frivolous indeed,) is noticed, and everything plausible is most clearly exposed.

The evidence both external and internal is so satisfactory that an impression is left on the mind that Paul was the author of this Epistle, nearly equal to what his very name prefixed to it would have produced. Indeed the writer can truly say, that he now entertains no more doubt on the subject than if it had the Apostle's own superscription.

As to the date of this Epistle, it is commonly supposed to have been written late in 62 or early in 63, about the time that Paul was released from his first imprisonment at Rome.

There seem to be especially two reasons why Paul did not commence this Epistle in his usual manner: first, because he was not specifically an Apostle to the Jews but to the Gentiles; and second, because the contents of the Epistle are such that it was not necessary for him to assume his Apostolic character; for the arguments are founded on testimonies found in the Old Testament, and not on his authority as a commissioned Apostle. His main object appears to have been to show and prove that the Gospel is but a fulfilment of the ancient Scriptures, which the Jews themselves received as divine. His arguments and his examples are throughout borrowed from the Old Testament. This is a fact that is too often overlooked, to which MacKnight, in an especial manner, very justly refers.

The Epistle begins by indicating a connection between the Old and the New Testament: both are revelations from the same God; He who spoke by the Prophets in the Old speaks by His Son in the New. Then the obvious and inevitable conclusion is, that the New is but the Old completed. It is on this ground that the whole argument of the Epistle proceeds.

Having thus clearly intimated the connection between the two Testaments, the Apostle immediately enters on his great subject--the superiority of Him who introduced the perfected dispensation over all connected with the previous incomplete, elementary, and, in a great measure, symbolical dispensation, even over angels and Moses and the Levitical high-priest. And this subject occupies the largest portion of the Epistle, extending from the first chapter to the 19th verse of the tenth chapter. From that verse to the end of the Epistle we have exhortations, warnings, examples of faith and patience, admonitions, directions, and salutations.

Then the Epistle divides itself into two main parts:--1. The didactic, including the ten first chapters, with the exception of the latter part of the tenth. 2. The parainetic or hortative, from the 19th verse of the tenth chapter to the end of the Epistle.

The first part may be thus divided:

1. Christ's superiority over angels--warnings--objections answered, ch. 1 and 2.

2. Christ's superiority over Moses--warnings as to faith and the promised rest, ch. 3 and 4:13.

3. Christ's superiority over the Levitical high-priest, as to his appointment, the perpetuity of his office, his covenant, and the efficacy of his atonement, ch. 4:14 to 10:19.

The second part admits of these divisions:

1. Exhortation to persevere, derived from the free access in a new way to God; from the awful fate of apostates; and from their own past example, ch. 10:19-37.

2. Exhortation to faith and patience, derived from the example of the ancient saints, ch. 10:38 to the end of ch. 11.

3. Exhortation to encounter trials and afflictions, derived from the example of Christ; and from the love of God, as manifested by afflictions, ch. 12:1-13.

4. Exhortation to peace and holiness, derived from our superior privileges, and the aggravated guilt of neglecting Him who speaks to us from heaven, ch. 12:14-29.

5. Various directions and cautions, requests and salutations, ch. 13.

The former part, the didactic, has many digressions, and hence the difficulty sometimes of tracing the course of the Apostle's reasoning. But it was his practice, as appears from his other epistles, to apply, as it were, the subject as he proceeds. Having in the first chapter proved the superiority of Christ over angels, he points out at the beginning of the second the great danger of disregarding his doctrine and of neglecting his salvation, an inference drawn from what had been previously proved. He then proceeds with the same subject, Christ's superiority over angels, answers an objection derived from his human nature, and shows the necessity there was that he should become man; as he could not otherwise have sympathized with lost creatures nor have atoned for their sins. Here he first refers to him in express terms as a priest.

Then in ch. 3 he proceeds to show Christ's superiority over Moses; and having done so, he goes on in ver. 7 to warn the Hebrews against following the example of their forefathers, who through unbelief lost the land of promise; and he pursues this subject to the end of the 13th verse of ch. 4.

The last section of the didactic part commences at ch. 4 and extends to ver. 19 of the tenth chapter; it occupies nearly six chapters and contains several episodes, so that it is sometimes no easy matter to trace the connection.

He begins this portion by calling attention to Christ as a high-priest, whom he had before represented as such at the end of ch. 2; where he mentions two things respecting him--that he became man, in order that he might atone for sin, and in order that he might be capable of sympathizing with his people. But here he refers mainly to the last, to his sufferings; and in order to anticipate an objection from the fact that he was a suffering Saviour, he mentions his appointment, which, according to the testimony of David in the Book of Psalms, was to be according to the order of Melchisedec. Without going on with this subject, he makes a digression, and evidently for the purpose of making them more attentive to the explanation he was going to give of Melchisedec as a type of Christ in his priesthood.

This digression contains several particulars. To arouse their attention and stimulate them, he blames them for their ignorance, mentions the danger of continuing satisfied with the knowledge of first principles, and the impossibility of restoration in case of apostasy; he gives an illustration of this from unproductive land after culture and rain; reminds them of their past commendable conduct, and encourages them to activity and zeal by an assurance respecting the certainty of God's promises, ch. 5:12 to the end of ch. 6.

In chap. 7 he proceeds with Melchisedec as the type of Christ in his priestly office. Christ is a priest according to his order, not according to that of Aaron; then Aaron must have been superseded. According to the testimony of David, Christ's priesthood excelled that of Aaron in two things--it was established by an oath, and it was to be perpetuated "forever," ch. 7 to the end of the 25th verse.

He now goes on to the other part of this subject, to speak of Christ as making an atonement for sin, ch. 7:26, having before spoken of him as a sympathizing priest from the circumstance of having been a sufferer. While speaking of his expiation, he refers to the covenant of which he was the Mediator, for expiation depended on the covenant. Respecting the new covenant, he quotes the express words of Jeremiah; and it included the remission of sins, and remissions of sins necessarily implies an expiation. Then in the ninth chapter he refers to the old covenant, the tabernacle, and its services, and proves the insufficiency of these services, they being only typical of what was to come. From the tenth chapter to the 19th verse he pursues the same subject and shows that the sacrifices under the Law were insufficient for the remission of sins, and that this could only be obtained through the Mediator of the new covenant promised by God through his prophet Jeremiah, ch. 7:26 to ch. 10:19.

Here the Apostle completes the first part, having stated at large in the last portion of it the claims of Christ as a high-priest, and these claims are fully confirmed by the testimonies of the ancient Scriptures. His arguments are such that it is impossible really to understand and believe the Old Testament and to deny the New; the latter being most evidently the fulfilment of the former. The Old Testament distinctly speaks of another priesthood different from that of Aaron, and of another covenant different from that made with the children of Israel, and of one which would confer the remission of sins, which the other could not do. Now these are the testimonies not of the New but of the Old Testament; and the New exhibits a priest and a covenant exactly answerable to the priest and the covenant which the Old Testament refers to and describes. Nothing can be more plain and more conclusive than the Apostle's arguments on this subject.

The parainetic or hortative portion of the Epistle, extending from chap. 10:19 to the end, requires no further explanation.

We especially learn from this Epistle that the distinctive character of the old dispensation was symbolical, and of the new spiritual. The old abounded in forms, rituals, and ceremonies; the new exhibits what these things signified and typified. To have recourse again to symbols and rituals is to prefer darkness to light, to reverse the order of things, and to disregard a favor which kings and prophets in ancient times desired to enjoy. This is not only an evidence of fatuity, but it is also ingratitude and sin, and it ought never to be deemed as innocent or harmless. Having the glorious light of the Gospel, let us walk in the light, and never regard "beggarly elements" as things to be perpetuated and admired.

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