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Volume 1/Issue 2/August 2015
Commentary on Hebrews. Biblical Theology for Christian Proclamation

Book Review

Commentary on Hebrews. Biblical Theology for Christian Proclamation

Thomas R. Schreiner, Nashville, Tennessee: Holman Reference, 2015. 539pp.

Schreiner begins his commentary by rehearsing the storyline of the Bible and contends that since the events of the gospel antedate the writing of the book of Hebrews they thus form the theological backdrop of the letter. He shows that Hebrews picks up key themes from the Bible’s story line. After this he undertakes a verse-by-verse explication of the various literary units of the letter, prefacing each commentary section with a summation of the flow of the argument in each unit. The main point of the first four verses, says Schreiner, is that God has spoken definitively in His Son (p. 52). Schreiner argues that the author of Hebrews takes up this argument again in 1:5-14, but here, the author of Hebrews makes each argument by citing the Old Testament (p. 63). The central theme of 1:5-14 is the Son’s superiority to angels (p. 63) and 1:5-14 forecasts the rest of the letter and may even form a bookend with 12:18-29 (p. 64). The reason for the masterful argument in chapter one is set forth in 2:1-4, namely, that the author warns the readers not to drift away from the message they received, as there is no escape for neglectors of such a great salvation (p. 78). According to Schreiner, God has given dominion over the coming world to humans and not to angels. But, Schreiner underlines, this subjection of the coming world to humans is only realized in Christ (2: 10-18; p. 94).

In Schreiner’s view, 3:1-4:13 teaches that Jesus is superior to Moses and Joshua (p. 112). In 3:1-6, the author presents Jesus as one who was sent by God to accomplish the mission of cleansing his brothers and sisters from sin (hence the appellation high priest in 3:1) and He was faithful in this mission as Moses was in his. Jesus, however, deserves more honor because Moses is in the house and Jesus is over the house: Jesus is the builder of the house (p. 112-113). In 3:7-4:13, Schreiner argues, the author extends what he said in the previous unit by warning the readers that they must not hard- en their hearts as did the wilderness generation (p. 121). The readers must guard against having a sinful and unbelieving heart surface among them. For this reason, the addressees are called upon to encourage each other as long as it is called today (p. 125). Schreiner posits that the main point of 4:1-5 is that the readers should fear with a fear that motivates them to enter the rest of God (p. 133). In 4:6-13, the recipients of the letter are instructed to be diligent to enter God’s rest so that they do not miss out by disobedience (p. 140).

According to Schreiner, 4:14-16 introduces the third major section that runs through 10:18 in which the author argues that the Melchizedekian priesthood of Jesus is better than the Levitical priesthood (p. 150). The titles; great high priest and Son of God glue 1:1-4:13 to 4:14-10:18. While 4:14- 16 enjoined the believers to hold fast their confession and draw near to God to receive grace and mercy, 5:1-10 supplies the ground for that command, by arguing that the recipients have a better high priest, one who is appointed by God. In 5:11-6:20, the author interrupts the flow of his argument and issues a warning with four components to his readers: first he shames them (5:11-6:3), then he states the warning proper (6:4-8), after which he encourages them (6:9-12) and then assures them (6:13-20; p. 168).

In Schreiner’s estimation, chapter 7 presents the superiority of the Melchizedekian priesthood over the levitical from various vantage points. 8:1-6 explores two realities: the relationship of Jesus’ priesthood to the tabernacle and the new covenant. The author demonstrates that Jesus’ priesthood establishes a better covenant, which is itself predicated on better promises and thus grants believers access to God’s true sanctuary (p. 241, 246). 8:7-13 lays out the reason why the new covenant is better than the old. It does this by appealing to Jeremiah 31:31-34 (p. 248). 9:1-10:18 summons the addressees not to fall away because they have a better sacrifice (p. 257). The following unit (10:19-25) is shaped to direct the readers from the high priesthood of Jesus to faithful endurance (p. 313). Perseverance is absolutely crucial. If they turn away, there will be no forgiveness for them because only judgment is reserved for those who fail to persevere (10:26-31).

Chapter 11, Schreiner contends, is inserted into the exhortation section of the letter, not as an exhortation per se, but examples of saving faith that help reinforce the exhortation. Jesus is the ul- timate exemplar of such persevering faith (12:1-3). The readers are called to endure as those who are being disciplined for the sake of their maturity and holiness (12:4-11). Schreiner further argues that the recipients are commanded to strengthen their weak hands, make straight paths for their feet and pursue sanctification so that they are not like Esau who didn’t receive the reward (12:12-17). The author of Hebrews explains in 12:18-24 that the readers have such privileges that they must beware of refusing to heed the voice that came from heaven (12:25-29). Schreiner interprets this section as saying that a Kingdom is coming that cannot be shaken and the addressees (of Hebrews) will do well to diligently guard against facing the wrath of God. Chapter 13 further develops what was introduced in chapter 12. In other words (as Schreiner puts it), “the vital issue of worship or service that is pleasing to God, ... is explicitly developed in 13:1-21.” (p. 409).

At the close of the commentary, Schreiner examines theological themes in the book of Hebrews, which he judges to be key and central to the message of the book. The first central theme he handles is God. Schreiner contends that Peeler’s suggestion that “God’s standing as Jesus’ Father makes his status as Father of humanity a reality” is a fitting summary of the epistle’s teaching on God. Next, Schreiner affirms that the humanity and divinity of Jesus are clearly central and major themes to the author (p. 441). Following this he deals with the priesthood of Jesus and Jesus’ better sacrifice.

Schreiner moves on to deal with the theme of perfection and assurance. On this he argues that the theme of perfection in Hebrews has two foci, namely, “the perfection of Jesus and the perfec- tion of human beings” (p. 466). He further argues that perfection in Hebrews is closely associated with the new covenant and assurance of salvation. On Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation, Schreiner claims that contrary to the assessment of others, resurrection and exaltation play a major role in the letter. Regarding the new covenant, he submits that Jesus is better than the levitical priests because he inaugurates a better covenant (p. 474). Apropos of the Spirit, Schreiner notes that, though sparse, the references to the Spirit bespeak a vibrant view of the Spirit.

On the warnings and exhortations in Hebrews, Schreiner summarizes the four main views and argues that these warnings are addressed to Christians. The sin warned against is apostasy and the result of not heeding is loss of salvation. However, in consonance with the designation of his position (means of salvation view) he argues that the warnings are always effective, as the means by which those who are elected and chosen are kept. In his treatment of the theme of sojourners and exiles, Schreiner claims that the status of the recipients as sojourners dovetails with the dire warnings in the letter. Faith, obedience and the situation of the readers form the elements of another theme, which Schreiner discusses. Also, he argues that there is a clear presence of the theme of assurance as the author does not only warn his readers but emphasizes the assurance they have in Christ. The last but not least of the themes he deals with is the theme of future reward. He notes that future reward in Hebrews is married to the promise of salvation and that the author of Hebrews uses metaphors such as rest and a city to refer to future reward.

Critique

One general remark that can be made about Schreiner’s commentary is that he greatly succeeds in achieving his (and the series’) goal of being deliberately oriented toward Christian proclamation. He is obviously “brief and nontechnical” but is not disconnected from scholarship on the book of Hebrews. He engages the text seriously and labors to give other interpreters a fair representation, making sure that he leaves no ambiguity about his own views.

Schreiner’s commentary upholds the organic unity between the Old and New Testaments. He does well to draw the attention of his readers to the countless Old Testament allusions with which Hebrews abounds. His submission on Hebrews 2:16 and 18 is typical example of this. He argues that the author’s use of specific Greek words in Hebrews 2:16 and 2:18 hearkens back to Isaiah 41:8-10 where Yahweh references the fact that He took Jacob from the ends of the earth and pledges to help him. Summarily, Schreiner subtly makes the case that the OT, rather than the Greco-Roman background, is the dominant theological and literary matrix from which Hebrews emerged.

Another admirable trait of Schreiner’s commentary is that he is not in a hurry to make biblical theological connections. He practices the kind of biblical theology that meticulously attends to the exegetical features of the text before showing his readers how the biblical theological themes he proposes emerge from the text of Hebrews. For example in Schreiner’s discussion of the superiority of Jesus over Moses, he makes sure to point out that when the author of Hebrews refers to Moses as a servant, he is using an exalted title as Numbers 12 bears out. Therefore, Hebrews does not argue for the superiority of the new covenant by denigrating Moses as the mediator of the old covenant. On the contrary he is praised as God’s servant. Yet despite Moses’ greatness we look forward to something better.

It should be pointed out that for those with an interest in technical discussions on text critical questions concerning specific texts in Hebrews and extensive discussions on how the cultural set- ting of the letter could be a factor in the interpretation of various sections of the letter, Schreiner’s commentary is not the place to go. He keeps such discussions at the barest minimum. Another thing to note is that Schreiner’s argument concerning the Greek word rendered covenant in 9:16-17 by some translators is liable to being controverted by interpreters of the opposite persuasion. Even though Schreiner mounts a significant case for the view that in 9:16-17 the word should be translated will or testament and not covenant, one wonders if his contention fails to answer all the cogent argu- ments that other scholars have presented for the alternative view.[1] All in all, Schreiner’s commentary on Hebrews helps its readers to read the epistle with their eyes on the whole Bible. 


[1] Peter T. O’Brien, The Letter to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids, Mich. : Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), 329-32. Gareth Lee Cockerill, The Epistle to the Hebrews, The New International Commentary on the New Testa- ment (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2012), 405-7 etc. 

 

Review By: Jones Ngeh Ndzi

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