“Hebrews” was the name given to the Jews who lived in Palestine, unlike the majority who had emigrated to other countries. This letter is addressed to the first Christian communities of Palestine, formed by Jews – by race – who had been persecuted and punished and whose possessions had even been confiscated, all because they had become followers of Christ. They no longer had anything in this world and they had to encourage one another with the assurance that, at the conclusion of their exile, they would find the true Home where Jesus went after his suffering. In this way they were like their Hebrew ancestors who had lived in the desert, hoping and searching for the Promised Land.
It is helpful to know that this letter is addressed to people familiar with the Old Testament: they may well have been Jewish priests who had believed in Jesus and now were going through a serious crisis. Indeed, up until then the Temple had been their whole lives, since they were priests: they would offer sacrifices and would receive part of the sacrificed animals in payment. Now, not only had they been excluded and removed from the temple by the Jews, but Christ had replaced them. For he had come as the New Temple and the perfect victim pleasing to God, as the only Priest capable of putting people in touch with God.
He had relegated the Temple of Jerusalem and its cult to the rank of the out-moded. He, a layman had organized his Church, disregarding the priesthood of the “sons of Aaron,” the Jewish priests. The priest, he who is the link between humans and the all-holy God, was he and he alone.
So Christ had taken their work away from them, as well as their reason for being. At times, these men who had known Jesus, the man, had their doubts: was it certain that everything had changed because of him?
To confirm their faith, this letter shows them that the Jewish religion with its imposing ceremonies in the Temple of Jerusalem, was but the image of something greater. The pardon of sin and the spirit of religion – the aspiration of the entire Old Testament – was to be the work of the authentic priest of all humanity, Jesus, the Son of God. There is now no other sacrifice but his, which begins on the cross and ends in glory.
Are there not many “Hebrews” in today’s world? The sick who no longer have hope, the persecuted Christians, the people who do not accept the injustice and mediocrity of the society in which we live. Although many of them may not understand all the premises and biblical quotations in this letter, they will feel encouraged in the faith.
Besides, the word “priest” has become so important in the Church that it is useful to find here the biblical text which has gone deeper into the meaning of priesthood and its reorientation through the very fact of the sacrifice of Jesus.
This letter was written in Rome, perhaps in the year 66, when the war in which Jerusalem was destroyed was approaching. These were the last months of Paul’s life; he was imprisoned in Rome for the second time. This letter reflects Paul’s thoughts, but he did not write it. It is quite possible that the author is Apollos, mentioned in Acts 18:24-28, “a man well-versed in Scriptures” and who “proved from the Scriptures (the Old Testament) that Jesus is the Messiah.”