It’s called apostasy, and the book of Hebrews is written to keep its readers from it. It’s not a warm and fuzzy message. The warnings of Hebrews (2:1-4; 6:4-8; 10:26-31; 12:25-29) are intended to scare the hell out of its readers, or, rather, to scare them out of hell. Unfortunately, preachers commonly avoid these warnings, opting to focus on the book’s lofty teaching about Jesus (e.g. Heb 1:1-4), or on the heroes and heroines who have been inducted into God’s Hall of Faithfulness (Heb 11). Cherry-picking these elements loses sight of the real message of Hebrews, resulting in potential spiritual catastrophe.
Another problem with preaching Hebrews is its lonnnnnnnggggggg, dense argument, which ranges from 1:5 all the way to 12:29. It’s easy to get lost in the details and, as the old saying goes, miss the forest for the trees. Many Christians today, influenced by various media, have short attention spans, and they’re not very familiar with the Old Testament events, characters, and institutions the writer expounds. Many of us simply don’t know that much about Israel’s wilderness wanderings, or its lawgiver Moses, or its levitical priesthood. As we stressed in our previous post, Hebrews alludes to all of these Old Testament features in order to point us to Jesus, who perfectly modeled faithfulness to God, all the way to the cross..
I think the best way to preach Hebrews is to preach it the way Hebrews preaches, by explaining how the Old Testament teaches us about faithfulness, encouraging people to take these lessons to heart, warning them of the eternal consequences of turning away from Jesus, and reassuring them of God’s loving faithfulness.
Preaches like Hebrews preaches begins with understanding rhetoric in general and the rhetorical pattern of Hebrews in particular.
Hebrews and Rhetoric
Very broadly speaking, Plato distinguished rhetoric, the art of persuasion, from philosophy, the pursuit of truth. Aristotle viewed rhetoric as a matter of discerning the potential persuasiveness of various ingredients of speech. Persuasion could be achieved by the speaker’s credibility, by appealing to the hearers’ emotions, or by the power of the speaker’s ideas and argument. We’re concerned here with this final means of persuasion, and how the unknown author of Hebrews (AH) persuades the audience by telling them the truth about Jesus, God’s final revelation.
Although it’s often called a letter, Hebrews doesn’t fit the typical pattern of ancient letters. It reads more like a sermon or homily. AH himself/herself calls it a “word of exhortation,” perhaps linking it to the sort of speech Paul was asked to give to the synagogue at Antioch of Pisidia (compare Heb 13:22 to Acts 13:15). The book reads like a homily or sermon; maybe it was written to be circulated and read to local congregations in Italy (Heb 13:24). Its readers were people who were familiar with the Old Testament and the history of Israel, most likely Jews and Gentile God-fearers who had become followers of Jesus (Acts 10:1-2; 13:16; 16:14; 17:4, 17; 18:4, 7; 19:10).
Many scholars have carefully analyzed the rhetoric of the book of Hebrews. You can get in touch with the details by looking at this summary by Ben Witherington. In this post we’re looking at the overall pattern of AH’s rhetoric so that we can see how Hebrews fits together. Here it is:
Exposition —> Exhortation —> Warning —> Reassurance
- Exposition: AH is a teacher who consistently builds the message of Jesus’ greatness on the foundation of the Old Testament.
- Exhortation: AH is an encourager who urges the readers to stop being sluggish and persevere in faithfulness to Jesus.
- Warning: AH is a watchman, admonishing the readers that turning away from Jesus leads to even greater peril than their ancestors faced when they turned away from Moses (Ezekiel 3:16-21; 33:1-9; Acts 20:26-27).
- Reassurance: AH is a comforter, compassionately reminding the readers of God’s loving faithfulness to his people Israel.
AH repeats this rhetorical pattern in five movements, omitting the final step of reassurance in the first and last movements. The table below helps us visualize these movements, giving us a helicopter fly-over view of Hebrews:
So, how does the rhetorical pattern of Hebrews impact our preaching?
Preaching like Hebrews Preaches
Granted, Hebrews was written to be preached, not to teach us how to preach. That shouldn’t keep us from using it as a sound model of persuasive preaching. Preaching Hebrews means preaching like AH preaches. Modeling our preaching on the pattern of Hebrews will help us teach the whole counsel of God with accuracy and unction from above. It will guard us from preaching only what the “amen corner” wants to hear. It will keep us from focusing on our own idiosyncracies. It will enable us to lead God’s sheep into the green pastures of wholesome spiritual nourishment.
Preaching like AH preaches means (1) we expound the biblical text, (2) we exhort our hearers to obey it, (2) we warn them of the consequences of disobedience, and (4) we reassure them of God’s grace, lest they lose heart. As the Spirit leads, we avoid one-sided preaching by blending these four rhetorical strategies to meet the needs of individual congregations.
- Exposition without exhortation simply rehearses obscure ancient details, as if preaching were only about providing information to the curious. This leads to a church that is biblically literate, yet disengaged from the mission of God in the world. This is mere intellectualism.
- Exhortation without exposition turns preaching into a powerless motivational pep talk. It produces a shallow church that is not equipped to engage the world. This is hollow emotionalism.
- Warning without reassurance only leads people into deeper despair. This sort of preaching results in a pessimistic church, one so preoccupied with its own weakness that it is impotent in outreach. This is spiritual negativism.
- Reassurance without warning provides counterfeit comfort, helping people think warm fuzzy thoughts on their way to hell. “Don’t worry—be happy” preaching deceives the church and numbs it to the needs of the world. This is antinomianism.
Though the cultural pressures are different, Christians today are just as prone to walk away from Jesus as the ancient Hebrews were. The issues may be different, but the danger remains the same. God’s flock desperately needs faithful shepherds. May the Spirit of God guide us, and help us provide wholesome preaching that will guide the church that Jesus is building, equipping it for mission for the glory of God alone!
May all who come behind us find us faithful.
• • • • • • •
I urge you, dear brothers and sisters, to pay attention to what I have written in this brief exhortation. (Heb 13:22 NLT)
Everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures, and the encouragement they provide, we might have hope. (Rom 15:4 NIV)
These things happened to them as examples for us. They were written down to warn us who live at the end of the age. (1 Cor 10:11 NLT)
All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work . . . . I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. (2 Tim 3:16-17; 4:1-2 NLT)