Early Christian Eschatological Experience in the Warnings and Exhortations of Hebrews

The Epistle to the Hebrews is one of the most eschatologically oriented books in the NT. The author repeatedly expresses his conviction that the Christ event had inaugurated the eschaton (1:2; 9:26), thus signaling the imminent end of both the earthly realm and the present age (9:28; 10:12-13, 25, 37-39; 12:25-29; 13:14), and the present accessibility by faith of the heavenly realm and future age (4:14-16; 10:19-23). Perhaps the most conspicuous indication of the imminent “end of the ages” was the miracles and profound spiritual experiences that were apparently occurring in the community addressed by Hebrews. The author considers these manifestations of the “powers of the age to come” (6:5) to be divinely sent “testimonies” to the truth of the gospel (2:4). Though accounts of these eschatological experiences are found throughout Hebrews, they are particularly concentrated within the most rhetorically charged contexts: the warnings against apostasy (2:1-4; 6:4-6; 10:26-31), and the exhortations to persevere (3:6, 14; 4:1-11, 14-16; 10:19-23; 12:5-17), where they perform a similar testimonial function. This paper examines both the nature of the eschatological experiences as well as their rhetorical function in the warnings and exhortations of Hebrews. In these two contexts, warnings and exhortations, nearly every aspect of the community’s eschatological experiences is vitally connected to the author’s hortatory strategy. His warnings of the dire consequences of forsaking the community are almost entirely substantiated by appeals to the community’s eschatological experiences. The severity of the warnings may also have been conditioned by his perception of their import. Similarly, the author’s exhortations to persevere, offered in response to societal opposition the community was probably facing, are largely supported and empowered by both reminders of their past and present supernatural experiences and promises of future eschatological blessings. This analysis of the eschatological experiential elements and their rhetorical function in the warnings and exhortations of Hebrews therefore contends they be considered integral to the author’s hortatory effort.