Just last week I had a chance to reread Barnabas Lindars’ Theology of the Letter to the Hebrews and was reminded of how helpful I’d originally found his synthetic picture of Hebrews’ message. Now that I’ve worked through Hebrews more thoroughly, there are some bits of the sketch I’d draw differently. Still, its usefulness outweighs any niggling adjustments I’d want to make. Here I want to offer a snapshot of Lindars’ proposal. I suspect you’ll find it helpful, especially if you’re presently working through Hebrews or, even better, planning a series on the letter in the near future. If you’d like a slightly fuller picture but aren’t quite ready to read his entire Theology—which is, in any case, a pretty short read (149 easy-to-read pp.)—then you might find his shorter sketch here useful in the meantime.
Lindars argues that Hebrews is, from first to last, an eminently practical letter (Heb 13:18–19 and, esp., 22), addressed to a small, dissident group of Jewish-Christians within a larger, Christian community (Heb 13:17–18; also 13:1 and 10:25). The letter, written by a trusted, though temporarily absent, member of the community (Heb 13:18–19) attempts to persuade these dissidents that their Christian confession (Heb 13:8) is sufficient to deal with post-baptismal sins (Heb 13:9–10; cf. 9:9, 14; 10:2) and, related, that the Christian liturgy is sufficiently practical to meet their psychological need to “do” something about their sin (Heb 13:10–16; also vv. 1–6). “Christ died for our sins” (1 Cor 15:3; cf. Heb 13:8; also 1:1–4, esp. v. 3) refers to all sins, not simply those committed prior to conversion and, moreover, reflection on this confession is at the very center of Christian worship and practice. The letter insists on all this so urgently due to the audience’s contemplated secession and, thus, apostasy, which is precisely what their (growing) preference for the synagogue over the Christian assembly implies (Heb 13:9–10), whether they perceived their behavior this way or not. Participating in the synagogue and, specifically, in its meals, offered during Jewish festival seasons, was the dangerously-wrong way to go about dealing with lingering sin. While it may appear practical and, therefore, satisfying, it was also deadly. In short, Hebrews is a pastoral letter, showing in a fresh and original way that the Christian confession can accommodate a delayed parousia and, therefore, the sin this interim period inevitably implies (cf. Paul’s response to a similar dilemma—i.e., a delayed parousia and Christian death—in 1 Thess 4:13–18).
Note: For an imaginative—and, frankly, moving—narrative of what all this may have looked like for one of these Jewish-Christians, I’d encourage you to read the first two pages of George Guthrie’s commentary on Hebrews (avail. here).