Who was the book of Hebrews written to?

Q. A friend and I recently read out loud through the book of Hebrews using The Books of the Bible.  I can definitely recommend this way of experiencing the Bible.

We do have a question, though.  Your introduction says that the recipients of this letter “seem to have lived in Italy.” But as we read through Hebrews, it seemed to us that it was addressing instead a pre-70 A.D. Jerusalem audience—people who needed encouragement to stand strong while on the receiving end of persecution from temple-observant Jews.  This seemed to us to account better for the letter’s encouragement to persevere and endure persecution.

We thought that the reference in the letter to people “from Italy” sending their greetings was actually describing people who were in Italy at the time, and not, as you say, people who used to live there who were now sending greetings back to their friends in Rome.

We don’t know any Greek and we haven’t looked in any commentaries; this is simply two reasonable laymen looking at each other and reflecting on what we’ve read—both in the text, as well as in the preceding intro.

It strikes me that the questions you’re asking are the kind of broad and comprehensive ones that arise naturally from the consideration of an entire book. You and your friend clearly got the big picture as you read through and listened to the book of Hebrews.  All the more reason to present the Bible in a format that encourages that kind of experience!

Questions like yours, about the background to a whole book, won’t necessarily lead you to a “gem of the day” devotional thought that you can carry around with you.  But they still matter tremendously.  As Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart write in their book How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth, we can never really recognize what the Bible is saying to “us now” until we appreciate what it was saying to “them then.”  All of the biblical documents arise out of real-life experiences of communities of believers.  The better we can understand those situations, the more clearly we can hear how the word of God was speaking into them, and so into our situation as well.  Anything less does not do justice to the believers whose faith and courage in following Jesus brought us the New Testament in the first place.

You’ve raised an interesting question about the book of Hebrews that other readers and interpreters have also posed.  Why couldn’t the audience of this book have been in Jerusalem, where we would expect the strongest opposition from those who wanted to maintain temple observances and sacrifices?  Why couldn’t the greetings of “those from Italy” be from people who were actually living in Italy, meaning that the book was sent from there, not to there?

The answers to these questions don’t depend on knowing Greek.  The Greek phrase translated as “those from Italy” could mean either people who live in Italy or people who came from Italy.  But there are some other things in the epistle that suggest it wasn’t written to people living in Jerusalem:

– The writer says near the beginning, “This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him.”  So neither the writer nor the audience were eyewitnesses of the ministry of Jesus.  If this letter was addressed to believers in Jerusalem before AD 70, it’s almost certain that some of them would have seen and heard Jesus when he was alive on earth.

– From the rest of the New Testament we know that the believers in Jerusalem were very poor.  (This is why, for example, Paul took up a collection from wealthier believers elsewhere in the empire to help them.)  But the writer to the Hebrews notes, “You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you had better and lasting possessions.”  This would fit the wealthy situation in Italy much better.

–  The writer also says, “In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.”  This also wouldn’t fit the situation of the Jerusalem believers, who had already seen some of their number killed for their faith.  But there was a large and strong Jewish community in Rome, and Hebrews could be reflecting the threat that was beginning to be perceived from them.

–  Finally, as I note in the introductory session to Hebrews in my Deuteronomy/Hebrews study guide, “At the end the author calls the whole work a ‘word of exhortation,’ the technical term for a sermon or homily in the Jewish synagogue.”  There were, of course, synagogues in Palestine as in other parts of the empire, but if the question is whether the letter arises out of Diaspora Judaism or temple observance in Jerusalem, the synagogue language points more naturally towards the Diaspora.

None of these considerations are, of course, absolutely conclusive, but they are the kind of things that lead me to believe that Hebrews was written to the community of Jesus’ followers in Rome, not in Jerusalem.

Ancient Rome, the likely location of the people addressed in the book of Hebrews.

If God says no, can we appeal?

Why did God tell Balaam he could go with Balak’s men but then get mad at him for going? Was Balaam not supposed to ask a second time after God said no the first time, and God said “fine, go!” but really didn’t want him to?

The story of Balaam in the book of Numbers raises many perplexing questions, and you’ve highlighted one of the main ones.  God seems to say no to Balaam at first.  But he asks again, and God says yes.  But then God opposes him.  So can we really appeal a decision from God or not?

Balaam is one of those enigmatic figures in the Old Testament who’s outside the nation of Israel but who seems nevertheless to have a relationship with the true God.

Balak, king of Moab, feels threatened by the Israelites.  He knows that Balaam is a diviner and so, in league with the Midianites, he sends messengers to bring him from Mesopotamia to curse the nation of Israel.

Balaam waits on God for guidance overnight and God tells him, “Do not go with them.  You must not put a curse on those people, because they are blessed.”  So Balaam refuses to go.

Undaunted, Balak sends a more impressive delegation and now, instead of offering the standard fee for divination, he promises, “I will reward you handsomely.”  Still, there’s no reason why Balaam should even consider this offer.  God has already told him the people of Israel are blessed and not to be cursed.  But Balaam once again goes before God for guidance.

So why does God tell him this second time that he can go?  The reasons seem not to have to do with Balaam, but with Balak.  God says, “Since these men have come to summon you” (that is, the large delegation of Balak’s high officials), “go with them, but do only what I tell you.”  My suspicion is that God is seeing an opportunity to declare his purposes and his glory before a large audience, the leaders and people of two nations, Moab and Midian.  God is prepared to work through Balaam to do that.

I believe that God sovereignly accomplishes his purposes through the free choices, good and bad, of human moral agents.  (This is how I relate divine sovereignty to human moral responsibility.)  I think that despite Balaam’s bad motives for wanting to go—he was clearly after the reward and renown—God felt he could work through him in the situation.

But the next day, as Balaam is on his way, God angrily opposes him, in the person of the “angel of the LORD.”  Now the reasons don’t have to do with Balak, but with Balaam.  God explains (translating literally), “I have come out as an adversary because the way plunges [into destruction] before me.”  In other words, I can see that your way is leading right into destruction, and so I’ve come to stop you, even if I have to kill you to do it.”

Rembrandt’s rendition of the scene in which Balaam’s donkey lies down to avoid the angel of the LORD’s drawn sword

Balaam is so chastened by this that he offers to return home, forsaking the hoped-for reward.  In view of this, God allows him to continue instead, but after a repeated warning:  “Go with the men, but speak only what I tell you.”  Hopefully the experience of seeing the angel of the LORD blocking the road with his sword drawn will stay with Balaam and keep him from doing anything foolish.

At first it seems to.  Balak gives Balaam three chances to curse Israel, but he blesses them three times instead.  Balak then refuses to pay Balaam, who delivers four oracles of judgment against Moab and other enemies of Israel.  God’s mission accomplished, right?

Unfortunately not.  In the very next scene, women from Moab and Midian seduce the Israelite men into worshipping idols, and in a divine judgment for this, thousands and thousands of Israelites are killed in a plague.  It’s as devastating as any defeat they might have suffered in battle against these enemies.  And who thought of this strategy?  Balaam.

We learn shortly afterwards in the book of Numbers that the Moabites and Midianites “followed Balaam’s advice and enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful to the LORD . . . so that a plague struck the LORD’s people.”  The book of Jude, still using Balaam as a negative object lesson many centuries later, notes what his motive was:  “for profit.”

But the Israelites fought back against the Midianites, and when they defeated them, “they also killed Balaam son of Beor with the sword.”  He hadn’t gone back to Mesopotamia.  He was still living with Balak and his allies, enjoying (briefly) the reward he’d received for finding a way to help them oppose Israel, even though God had told him only to bless Israel.

God saw accurately that Balaam’s way was plunging into destruction and tried to warn him.  But God didn’t take away Balaam’s freedom to choose.  And since Balaam was an available agent, God worked through his choices to ensure that his purposes were publicly proclaimed.  Balaam could have and should have taken warning from his near-death experience at the hands of the angel of the LORD.  But in the end, his greed overcame him, he opposed God’s purposes, and he was destroyed.

All of this leads me to conclude that while it might be possible to appeal when God says no, it’s a risky proposition, and not a very good idea.

Does God change over the course of the Bible?

What you make of the argument that God is not a stable or consistent character in the Bible, that He is shown to change and grow over time?

I guess the question is really twofold:

1) Does your reading of the books of the Bible see any inconsistency in the way God is presented over time?

2) If yes, does that inconsistency show a change in God, a change in our understanding of God, a gradual revelation of who God is (culminating in Jesus), or something else?

If we’re talking about God as a character who features in each book in the biblical collection, and if we’re thinking of that collection as organized by an overall story, then I’d say yes, God as a character definitely does change over the course of the Bible.

For example, in the early accounts in Genesis, God doesn’t seem to be omniscient or omnipresent.  God has to come down to the earth to investigate what the builders of the Tower of Babel are doing.  God doesn’t realize that Adam and Eve have sinned until he takes his customary evening walk in the Garden of Eden and he can’t find them–because they’re hiding among the trees.

Adam and Eve hiding from God in the Garden of Eden

Later in the Bible, God is portrayed as aware of what people on earth are doing, but as relying on the help of various agents to accomplish his purposes.  For example, God knows that wicked King Ahab is contemplating attacking Ramoth Gilead and that he’s likely to get killed if he does.  So God asks the heavenly hosts around him who will go and entice Ahab to do this.  The Bible says that “one suggested this, and another that,” and “finally a spirit came forward” and offered a plan. God felt it would succeed, and so sent the spirit on its way.

By the time of the New Testament, God comes to be portrayed with all of the attributes we usually associate with him, such as omniscience and omnipresence.  Peter says on the day of Pentecost that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus were events accomplished by “God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge.”  Paul tells the Greeks in Athens that God “is not far from any one of us.”

So how do we explain this change in God as a character?  I think it’s the last two things you suggested:  a change in our understanding of God, as collective human knowledge develops; and a greater revelation of who God is, culminating in Jesus, as God continues to relate to humanity through the covenants that shape his redemptive-historical work.  As a result, the early anthropomorphic (that is, God-as-human) portrayals are recognized to belong to an immature phase of the human understanding of God—but fascinatingly, they’re allowed to remain in the Bible.  We still hear the various parts of the story as they were first told by those who experienced them.

But to say that God as a character changes over the course of the Bible is not to say that the character of God changes.  From the start we see that God is consistent in his character qualities:  creative, loving, generous, merciful even in judgment, and so forth.

But these qualities do seem to get expressed in different ways as the divine-human relationship unfolds over the course of the Bible.  It’s fascinating for me to consider whether God himself actually changes in terms of how much relational experience he has with humans.

For example, when humans turn out to be so wicked, God regrets making them and destroys almost all of them through the flood.  But afterwards, recognizing that “every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood,” he resolves never to destroy them all again.  Is this just another anthropomorphic portrayal?  Or has God actually learned something about how to relate to humans that could only come from experience, as that portrayal suggests?

All of us learn and grow in the context of our relationships.  That’s how relationships work.  So has this happened to God, too?

Are deathbed conversions really fair?

Q. I’ve been told that if even the worst criminal repents on his deathbed and prays for Jesus to be his Lord and Savior, he can be forgiven and spend eternity as a “good and faithful servant.”  But many, if not all, of his innocent victims might never have understood the need for redemption, such as young children who never got the chance to learn right from wrong.  The criminal goes to heaven while the victims suffer in hell.  How is this a moral system?

I sympathize with your sense that this would be a great injustice.  So we need to ask some important questions about the idea of a deathbed conversion.

It’s often used as a hypothetical example to illustrate how salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone.  We can do nothing to earn or deserve salvation, so even the worst offender who truly repents can be saved.

But it’s an extreme example.  Could this really happen?  Would someone who had pursued a course of evil over a lifetime really abandon it right at the end, out of truly genuine motives?  Wouldn’t their conscience be so hardened that any show of religion would actually be just a desire to escape the consequences?

The actor and comedian W.C. Fields was a lifelong atheist.  Shortly before he died he was seen reading the Bible.  When asked what he was doing, he replied, “Looking for a loophole.”  Whether he was serious or making a joke, his example illustrates what the motive might be for a deathbed conversion.  Divine justice has no obligation to open the gates of heaven to people who think they’ve found a loophole just by praying to receive Christ.

We can reasonably expect that a sincere commitment to Christ will be accompanied by the “fruits of repentance,” as John the Baptist insisted to the crowds who were trying to escape the “coming wrath.”  These fruits, which can only be confirmed over time, must include a newly sensitive conscience, a full admission of guilt and acceptance of responsibility, and a sincere effort to make restitution to victims and their families.  If any any of these things were missing, we couldn’t say confidently that the criminal had genuinely been saved.  “By their fruits you shall know them,” Jesus insisted.

Another important point to make about deathbed conversions is that we shouldn’t equate being saved by grace alone, through faith alone, with simply “praying the prayer.”  I believe that to be saved a person does need to make a definite commitment to Christ in response to God’s gracious overtures, and we often encourage people to do this by praying and asking Jesus into their hearts as Lord and Savior.  But such prayers are only words if they don’t express a genuine, heartfelt intention to follow Christ at any cost.  I’ve heard great emphasis placed on being able to say exactly when and where you “prayed the prayer.”  I’m actually more interested in what this really meant, and what happened next.

With all of this said, we must still acknowledge that a genuine deathbed conversion is a possibility.  When the thief on the cross, a convicted criminal, acknowledged Jesus as the innocent Savior, Jesus promised he would be with him in Paradise.  The approach of death and judgment can lead a person to examine their life in light of eternity and make a commitment to Christ, recognizing a need they hadn’t taken seriously before.  But we should expect this to be the culmination of a process that was already leading the person visibly to a more sincere faith in God and a more generous love for others.  The thief who was promised paradise wasn’t demanding “Save yourself and us!” like the other thief.  He was concerned for Jesus’ reputation, not his own escape from the judgment he admitted he deserved.

I would add, in conclusion, that I believe God looks upon the victims of crimes with mercy and compassion, and that God doesn’t punish people endlessly just because they never got the chance to understand or believe.

I hope these thoughts are helpful.

Why isn’t Galatians Paul’s first letter in The Books of the Bible?

Q. If you’re trying to place Paul’s letters in chronological order in The Books of the Bible, why isn’t Galatians first?  I was taught it was the earliest of Paul’s epistles, written around AD 49

Actually, scholars disagree about when Galatians was written.  The date depends on how the visits to Galatia and Jerusalem that Paul describes in the letter correlate with the ones described in the book of Acts.  A related issue is what Paul means by “Galatia.” If he’s speaking of Galatia simply as a province, the letter was probably written to people he visited in the southern part of the province on his first journey, or even from Tarsus before going on any of his journeys.  But if he’s referring to Galatia as the home of an ethnic group, the Galatians or Gauls, who lived in the center and north of the province, then the letter was likely written later, to people he visited on his second journey (when, as Luke tells us in Acts, “Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia“).

After considering all of the evidence and arguments, our Bible Design Group, which created The Books of the Bible, agreed that a date towards the end of Paul’s second journey made the most sense to us.  Our “Invitation to Galatians” explains:

“It’s difficult to know exactly when and where Paul wrote his letter to the churches in Galatia. He doesn’t say where he’s writing from, as he does in his letters to Thessalonica and Corinth. And while he says he’s writing on behalf of all the brothers and sisters with me, he doesn’t say who these ‘brothers and sisters’ are. Many interpreters believe that Galatians may actually be the earliest of Paul’s letters. However, its themes and language are so close to the letter he sent to the church in Rome that it is quite probable Galatians was written about the same time as Romans. This would mean he wrote it from Corinth around 56–57 AD while arranging for the offering to be sent to the poor in Judea.”

In my study guide to Paul’s Journey Letters, I offer this fuller explanation:

“The scholarly conversation about when Paul wrote this letter continues. But this study guide will follow the interpretation that it was written in Corinth, when Paul was preparing to travel to Jerusalem with the collection. Many interpreters believe that Galatians was actually written several years before this. However, certain details in the letter arguably correspond best with this particular moment in Paul’s life:
• Paul writes in Galatians that the apostles in Jerusalem asked him to ‘remember the poor,’ and that he was ‘eager’ to do this. It’s unlikely he would bring this up years before he’d actually done anything about it, but it makes sense for him to mention it in the middle of the collection.
• Paul’s language of being ‘eager’ is identical to his reference in 2 Corinthians to the ‘earnestness’ [‘eagerness’] of the Macedonians in their giving.
• Paul’s encouragement to ‘do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers’ may similarly refer to the collection.  (The Galatians were taking a collection of their own at this time.)”

The study guide also notes the similarity between the language and themes of Galatians and those of Romans—for example, the discussions of what it means to be dikaios (righteous or justified) by faith; the appeals to the example of Abraham; and the believer’s relationship to the law.

While it is possible that Galatians was written at an earlier time (this is a respected position among scholars), a setting in Corinth while Paul was arranging for the offering provides a reasonable and cohesive account of the letter that is consistent with its contents.  This is what persuaded me and my fellow editors of The Books of the Bible to place Galatians just before Romans as we worked to put Paul’s letters in their likely chronological order.

The Roman province of Galatia stretched from near the Black Sea almost to the Mediterranean Sea. One issue in dating Paul’s letter to the Galatians is whether he was writing to people in the south or the center/north of the province.  Image courtesy Wikipedia.

A conversation about “Why did God create Satan?”

SixDividedByZero

The following exchange with a reader of this post is shared with permission.

I read your post about “Why did God create Satan?” and I like your comparison to the question about whether God can create a rock so big He can’t move it. That part of the post is understandable.  But I still don’t see why omniscience isn’t lessened by a lack of knowledge of the outcome of an event or a decision.  And even if God truly didn’t know that His greatest angel would turn against Him, why wouldn’t he just squash Satan like a bug after he did rebel?  He’s going to be punished in the end, so why let him cause so much trouble on the earth in the meantime?  

The following illustration might help explain what I mean when I say that it’s not a failure of omniscience not to know what cannot be known.

Someone might say, “I know all of my division tables.”  So another person tests them:

“What’s 35 divided by 7?”
“5.”
“Very good.”

“What’s 12 divided by 4?”
“3.”
“Very good.”

“What’s 6 divided by 0?”
“There’s no answer to that question, because division by 0 is impossible.”
“Then you don’t really know your division tables.”

Actually, the person does know their tables.  It’s not a failure for them not to know what can’t be known.

Does that make sense?

Your example about division by zero seems just like the impossibly big rock scenario.  I don’t see how these logical fallacies apply to the concept of omniscience.  These situations could never happen anyway.  They can only be thought up. 

If you mean that God created us, including the angels, with the ability to think and make decisions without His knowledge, and now, because of this, it becomes one of the impossible things for anyone to do, I think I understand your point.  I just think God would have this ability.
 
There is still one more point:  Why doesn’t God destroy Satan now because of his incessant meddling?  Why must God wait until the end of the ages? 

You have understood what I was trying to say:  I do believe that that God created intelligent beings, including humans and angels, with the ability to think and make decisions so freely that He wouldn’t know in advance what they were going to decide, and that, because of this, knowing these outcomes in advance becomes one of the things that are impossible for anyone to do.  Of course someone might believe something else, but because I believe this, I don’t think God knowingly created a being, Satan, who would inevitably cause massive destruction and evil on a planet-wide scale.

As for why Satan hasn’t already been judged, like human individuals and civilizations that have done great evil, I honestly don’t know.  I can’t really come up with a scenario where this is better for us than having Satan dealt with already.  But from what I do know of the character of God, by faith I consider this mystery consistent with an all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving God.

OK, I do get your point now.  But I’ll have to work on the all-knowing, but creating “non-readable” creatures concept. 

I’d have no problem with these exchanges being posted on the blog.  Others may have the same questions, and I agree with what you do in your book studies: the brontosaurus-sized elephants in the room need to be acknowledged sooner rather than later.

“I do not permit a woman to give a man a white feather”


One concern may remain from my argument (developed starting with this post) that Paul’s apparently broadly restrictive comments in 1 Timothy actually have a narrower, local focus—that women representing a false teaching are not to argue with or authoritatively “correct” someone who is presenting the true teaching.  While this may be the original context, Paul still says that women, as women, aren’t to relate to men, as men, in a particular way.  So aren’t his restrictive comments universally applicable?  If he had really only wanted to stop the spread of a false teaching, wouldn’t he just have said that no one (meaning either man or woman) was to advocate this specific false teaching?

An analogy from history may be helpful here.  During the First World War, the “Order of the White Feather” was founded with the aim of shaming men into enlisting for military service by getting women to present them with a white feather, symbolic of cowardice, if they were not wearing a uniform.  While the concern was local (context-specific in time and place), this was still an exercise in encouraging women, as women, to relate to men, as men, in a particular way.  The women considered themselves to be acting on behalf of their sex in appealing to the bravery and chivalry of men to protect them and their country.

The “Order of the White Feather” soon became controversial and unpopular.  Government officials who were actively promoting the war effort, civilians in military employ, and even soldiers who were out of uniform because they were home on leave were publicly accused of cowardice by being handed white feathers.  Men who were not suited for military service may well have been shamed into enlisting and ultimately killed in situations where others might have survived.  Vital industries were deprived of needed workers.

So we can easily imagine a factory owner, for example, issuing an order applicable on the factory premises such as, “I do not permit a woman to give a man a white feather.”  Even though a local situation is in view, the order needs to be stated in such general terms because it concerns something that women are doing, as women, in relation to men, as men.

I believe the same thing was going on in first-century Ephesus.  If the belief was that women were the physical origin and source of spiritual enlightenment for men, it makes sense that they were being encouraged, as women, to re-enact the role of Zoe/Eve in bringing spiritual enlightenment to men, as men, by correcting their supposedly mistaken view of the creation order.  This explains why Paul would speak to a local situation in such general terms.  And it shows that his statement does have a limited local focus, even though it is worded this way.

My conclusion, once again, is that the Bible does not say women can’t be in church-wide positions of teaching and authority.