Essay / Theology

When to Read Hebrews

(Reposted from 2010)

Hebrews is a book of the Bible for people in hard times. Should you read it now, or later?

In terms of the book’s actual background, we don’t know much for certain about the situation of those who first heard these words. There are dark suggestions of hardship in a few verses of chapter 10:

You endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.

The anonymous author calls his letter a “word of exhortation,” using a Greek word that elsewhere is translated “comfort” or “consolation.” Encouragement under relentless pressure is the keynote of Hebrews. One commentator has noted that “the whole practical thrust of the epistle is to persuade those to whom it is addressed to resist the strong temptation to seek an easing of the hardships attendant on their Christian confession by accommodating.”

So when should you read a word from God that is about hard times?

Option A: Obviously, read it when you’re having hard times. That’s precisely when it is a word in season. But sometimes that doesn’t work. Grief usually blocks us from being able to do hard mental work, and there is some hard thinking to do in Hebrews. Probably by the time you’re in hardship, you should have already read and pondered this book. For example, standing at the graveside is not the most opportune time to work out the details of our theology of death. Grief can make you hard of hearing. Grief immerses you in the felt experience, but processing takes some abstraction or perspective.

But pray for the miracle of hearing God’s word, and maybe you can hear what you need in a difficult season.

Another objection to Option A, by the way, is that not all hard times make a dramatic entrance, or come with a label. Some of them sneak up on you week by week, month by month, until you wake up somewhere in mid-life to find yourself lost in a dark wood with no sign of the pathway. You were in trouble all along, but you didn’t know you were in trouble.

Option B: Read it in the calm, before hard times. Yes, that’s precisely when you should prepare yourself for future affliction. But sometimes we can’t make ourselves attend to difficult words when all is right with the world. Prosperity can make us hard of hearing. Sitting in your home while reading about people losing theirs; digesting a big meal while reading about the hungry; these are not things that give you a felt connection with the reality of hardship. Reading Hebrews with the air conditioning on. It makes perfect sense to do so, but it also gives you too much distance from the speaker’s situation.

But pray for the miracle of hearing God’s word, and maybe you can hear what you need for future hardship, in a time of calm.

It’s no surprise that the solution in both cases is the same: pray for the miracle of hearing God’s word. After all, this hearing is a major theme of the theology of Hebrews: “Today if you hear his voice, don’t harden your heart.”


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