By the time his third volume was published in 1680, Owen believed the end of his life was imminent, even speaking of his “near approach unto the grave.” For Owen, there was no time to waste on preliminary matters. The tome consists entirely of an exposition on Hebrews 6–10 and contains some of his most mature thinking on topics such as “the danger of apostacy,” the nature of typology, covenant theology, especially in relation to the Mosaic covenant, and “the duty of believers in hearing the word in times of trial and persecution.”
John Owen is one of the most beloved and widely read, if not easily digested, puritans from the seventeenth century. His rising popularity in recent years stems in part from the wide-ranging topics he addressed throughout the course of his literary career. He not only wrote on major doctrinal themes such as communion with God and justification by faith alone but also on specific pastoral issues such as religious toleration, public worship, and Christian living. As a pastor, statesman, educator, and theologian, he sought to ground his writing endeavors in the biblical text. Throughout his life, Owen was a reader of Scripture.
Locating Owen’s Commentary
Owen’s commitment to the foundational role of Scripture in shaping Christian doctrine and practice is seen perhaps most clearly in his extensive commentary on the New Testament book of Hebrews. The work stands as a remarkable testament to Owen’s persistence as a biblical scholar. Tallying over two million words, his commentary is the product of a lifetime’s reflection on Hebrews. He believed it marked the culmination of his ministry. The result was one of the longest expositions on a single book of the Bible in the history of the church. Yet Owen’s commentary has been largely neglected outside a small cadre of devote readers of the puritan.
The twentieth century Lutheran scholar Gerhard Ebeling famously said that “church history is the history of the exposition of Scripture.” Applied to Owen, his commentary serves as an important resource for understanding his life and theology. From his earliest publications in the 1640s to his last series of works in the 1680s, Owen returned to texts and themes in Hebrews throughout his ministry. It is no surprise then that when Owen was removed by parliament as dean of Christ Church at the University of Oxford in 1660, he almost immediately started writing his commentary. He wouldn’t stop working on it until just before his death in 1683.