Many commentators have observed that Hebrews is more of an oral document than a literary one, more sermon than epistle. Its introduction is not the beginning of a letter but rather a Christological shot across the church’s bow. The argumentation throughout the book is tight and this has wooed many an interpreter down many a rabbit trail to the loss of the coherence of the book and the sermon series.
To avoid such deviation, it is helpful to remind oneself that the author’s goal was the encouragement of his readers, a readership that clearly faced some measure of persecution and was in danger of falling away from the faith. Attending to this one can observe a deft pastoral hand in the first four chapters, in particular.
After the scintillating introduction, the author engages in an extended comparison of Jesus and angels on the basis of several Old Testament texts. As Creator, Son and Sovereign, Jesus is superior to the merely ministerial angels. This comparison, however, is in service of an exhortation made clear in 2:1-4. If falling away from the word brought by angels resulted in severe penalties, how much more so the superior Word that has come through the Son. In short, the ‘application’ of the author’s first ‘sermon’ is a warning: Don’t drift from the Word! We might call this encouragement of a negative sort.
However, the remainder of chapter 2 (5-18) continues themes from chapter 1 concerning sonship, sovereignty, and angels. Once again citing the OT, the author stresses the similarities between his readers and Christ. Christ shared in our fate and our flesh so that we might share in one family and in one future. That future is the fulfillment in Christ of the psalmist’s prophecy that God will put everything under the feet of the s/Son of man (Psalm 8). Whereas the angels compared unfavorably with Christ in chapter 1, humanity compares quite favorably. So much so that one upshot of the passage is that humans are superior to angels (2:16), not just Christ.
But again, this OT exegesis and theologizing is in service of a practical application and encouragement. Because Christ has shared in the full experience of humanity, he can be a faithful high priest for us. That is, Christ understands (2:18). We can call this encouragement of a positive sort.
Putting the two chapters together, we see the author offering a wagging finger of warning followed by a brotherly hand on the shoulder.
The author repeats this one-two punch of warning followed by encouragement in chapters 3 and 4. Having established the pattern, the flow of argumentation in chapter 3 is more cryptic than in chapter 1. Here he compares Christ to Moses rather than to the angels. Though both faithful in their callings, Christ is superior to Moses in a way similar to his superiority over angels: Moses is a faithful servant; Jesus is a faithful Son.
Once again the author turns to the OT and quotes from Psalm 95 concerning the failure of the wilderness generation to enter the promised land. Because they tested God with their faithlessness in times of testing, God swore that they would not enter His rest. The author brings application from this to his readers by pointing out that it was the very generation who had experienced the ‘salvation’ from Egypt that fell away and failed to enter the land. The argument is similar to that in ch. 1: if those who fell away from the faithful servant-leadership of Moses did not enter God’s rest, how much more will we not enter his rest if we fall away from the Son-leadership of Jesus? This is another warning, another negative encouragement.
However, as ch. 2 developed the themes of ch. 1 in a positive direction, so ch. 4 continues the themes of ch. 3 in an encouraging direction. Playing off of the Psalmist’s use of the word “today”, the author makes the case that there is a rest superior to the one offered the Israelites in the promised land. He sets this rest before his readers’ eyes as a motivation. The argument is that while the Israelites were motivated by a good rest in the Promised Land, we are to be motivated by the superior, eternal rest that God offers us in Christ. That greater rest should invite greater obedience. This is a positive encouragement to live into our greater calling.
If one imagines these as a series of sermons, one can appreciate the pastoral concern that the author of Hebrews brings to his listeners by speaking rich, biblically reasoned words of warning rooted in the Old Testament, and following them with even deeper words of encouragement rooted in the person and work of Jesus.