We will be spending the majority of this year studying this incredibly challenging, yet rich, letter in Hebrews. We don’t know who the author of this letter was. It’s not mentioned anywhere in the letter. However, we do know quite a bit about who the recipients are. Knowing about them helps us see why this letter is relevant for our times and our lives. Here’s just a few things that we know about the group of believers in Rome that this letter was written to.
These believers Had Never Met Jesus Before. The letter was written in about 65 AD. About 30 years have passed since Jesus died and resurrected. By this time, most of the Apostles who had seen Jesus face-to-face had died, but they had spread the Gospel wherever they went. The letter was written to “second-generation” believers. Many of them grew up in the church their entire lives. Most had never met the Apostles. They believed because they had heard the message, and the Gospel began working in their lives.
Often times, I read the Bible and see the faith of individuals, and a part of me feels like that it was easy for them. They saw Jesus. They heard the voice of God. They saw miracles happen. No wonder they could have such great faith. But I am 2000 years separated from that time. Knowing that this group of people were trying to live for Jesus, even though they had never seen Him, is a source of encouragement for me.
They were part of a small church in a huge urban city. The Church in Rome was a very small church. However, Rome was the largest city in the entire world at that time. The book of Hebrews is filled with references to the city. Consider:
- For he was looking forward to that city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. (Hebrews 11:10)
- But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city. (Hebrews 11:16)
- But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, (Hebrews 12:22)
- For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. (Hebrews 13:14)
The writer is writing to the believers to remind them to keep looking forward to another city. They lived in the middle of an urban city that was broken and full of injustice and poverty – a city that was difficult for believers to live in. They were longing for the day when Jesus would return and create a new city for them to live in.
They were part of a pluralistic culture that accepted everything but Christianity. The city of Rome was an incredibly diverse city. It was diverse in many ways – ethnically, culturally, and in terms of language and religion. The society accepted everything but Christianity.
The believers in Rome were first rejected by the Jews. Judaism was one of the accepted religions of the state. Initially the believers would gather in the synagogues to worship Jesus. However, when the Jews rejected them, they were no longer welcome to come back into the synagogues. Then there was a fire in the Jewish section of the city. The Jews blamed the Christians for the fire. This caused the Emperor Claudius to banish the Christians from Rome. To be identified as a Christian meant ridicule, prosecution, and even imprisonment. After Claudius, there came an emperor by the name of Nero. He hated Christianity. He would find Christians and burn them at the stake, throw them to the wild animals, and use them in the games. Christianity was tough for these group of believers.
I don’t think we are at the point of dying for our faith in our nation. However, I think the Christian voice is slowly being pushed aside and rejected in our nation. Just last week CNN had a poll that basically asked the question, “Should evangelical pastors who don’t support same-sex marriage be allowed in the public square?” Regardless of what your opinion is on the same-sex marriage topic, the fact that this very question is brought up means that evangelical questions are slowly being pushed out of the public square and we will be faced with ridicule, opposition, and eventually persecution. There is a reason why it will get even tougher for us as believers. “The basis of authority definitely differs. An evangelical’s ultimate authority to truth isn’t the President, public opinion, or any other person – it is the Bible, and what it says” (Bob Roberts).
The Believers in Rome were tempted to give up and quit. The author is writing to two groups of people. The first group is comprised of people that have grown up in the church, heard the message of the Gospel, and been a part of the community; but they haven’t fully devoted their lives to Jesus. You couldn’t blame them. It’s hard living for Jesus. It’s so much more “fun” out there. There’s more freedom out there. But the church is being rejected, isolated, and persecuted. Their family members are in jail. They have heard of people losing their lives. Why would they want to commit to Jesus?
So they have one foot in the door of the church but another foot out. Isn’t that true even in our day and time? The process of backsliding or leaving isn’t something that just happens overnight. I don’t think I have ever met someone that just plainly rejected Jesus outright. The process starts slow. You slowly start drifting away and getting more involved in what the world offers. What the world offers is so much more enticing, appealing, and easier than the command of Jesus to take up your cross and die. To this group, the author is writing and showing them that Jesus is worth it. He’s so much better than anything the world has to offer. He’s better than the life that you used to live. He’s better than what is being shown out there as the “good life.”
There is another group that the author is writing to. These are the people that have committed their lives to Jesus no matter what. They have counted the cost. They have realized that Jesus is so much better than anything else. The author writes to encourage them. He tells them to keep going and not to give up.
He closes the book by reminding them of an incredible promise. “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” What an incredible promise.
Is life hard? Is it hard being a Christian? Is it going to get harder as we try to live out our faith? Is it hard fighting sin? Is it hard being a witness for Jesus? Yes, it is hard and difficult. However, He will never leave us nor forsake us. He will never let you go. He will never abandon you. You are in His arms, and He isn’t dropping you or letting you slip through His fingers.
I’m excited to begin this book and I pray that you will be challenged to see Jesus as so much better than anything else that the world has. I pray that you will be encouraged by the promise that He will never leave you and never forsake you.
Photo courtesy of ©JD Hancock under the Creative Commons License 3.0