The Book of Hebrews has been notorious in the field of Biblical scholarship for being difficult to pin down in modern language. Entrenched in the language of it’s ancient Jewish culture, the anonymity of both it’s author and it’s audience ends up being both a blessing and a curse (if I can borrow the Biblical language of ancient Israel). In some ways it allows us as readers to apply a degree of imagination to the book on a contextual level. On the other hand, the heavy language can make it feel a bit distanced and anchored in a time and place foreign to modern ears.
There are New Testament books that I read more often than others, and with the above in mind, Hebrews is one that I sometimes pass over (in my rush to get to something like Paul’s letter to the Philippians). That is probably why I left this to near last on my journey through the New Testament (with James and the Gospel of Matthew, two other books I tend to not come back to as often for similar reasons). I’m really happy I found space for it again though. My prayer going into it was that God would help me to see it afresh, and I found the book coming alive to me in ways that it hasn’t in the past.
In terms of the book’s anonymity, there are two distinctives that help set Hebrews apart- it’s high Christology, and it’s intimate understanding of the Jewish sacrificial system, two things that the author is trying to bring together. The book was likely written to a group of Jewish Christians, although all we really know is that both author and audience shared a mutual friend in Timothy. In terms of this interest in the marriage of this high Christology and the Jewish sacrificial system, the author is looking to help the readers understand both their heritage and how Christ fits into this heritage. The book wants to establish Jesus, not the Temple (or the Priestly Law), as the founder of their faith. It reads, “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil”, going on to say “he had to be made like the brothers in every respect, so that he (we) might have a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people (2:14-18).” Propitiation carries with it this notion of “giving” and affording something to us, which is God’s mercy and his faithfulness in the midst of our shared suffering (which comes by way of Jesus sharing in our suffering), which, after being given to us (for the purification of sins 1:3), reveals these grand “Christ is” statements (our confidence):
Christ “is” the superior name (1:4), the beginning and the end (1:8-12), God’s saving work (1:13), the exact imprint of God’s nature (1:3).
This is the concern for the witness that the author of Hebrews is interested in establishing (of the work of Jesus) within their Jewish Heritage, beginning his letter with “long ago”, “at many time and in many ways” God spoke by the prophets, and now Jesus (1:1-2)”, leading up to the grand witnesses of Jewish history in Chapter 11 which “received” this propitiation (11:2) by faith. “Therefore”, the author says, “since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith.”
After all, the Priests give gifts (propitiate) according to the Law (according to the covenant promise 9:4), but they “serve a copy and a shadow of the heavenly things (9:5).” What Christ has “obtained” (9:6), that which he looks to give (propitiate to us), is a much more excellent covenant than the old one. Evoking Jeremiah, the author recognizes something similar as the Apostle Paul (albeit with a slightly different edge), which is that the Law was given to expose Sin (Israel’s failure to live into the promise of God in the rejection of the prophets) and reveal Christ (God’s giving of the promise in their failure). Instead of the shadow, they will have this covenant promise written on their minds and hearts (9:8-12).
This is the truth the author wants them to hear, to pay close attention to (2:1), the truth that the angels, God’s servants (1:14) have born witness to as well. If all we see is the shadow, how can we live into the promise of the full revealing? If the Law only reveals Sin (as the just retribution of every transgression or disobedience), how then can we escape the shadow if we neglect what has been given (Christ’s propitiation, which is the full revealing of God’s mercy and faithfulness written on our hearts and minds 2:2-3)?
What I really love about Hebrews is how it brings in a necessary theology of Creation as well. Christ is Lord of the whole of the created world, and the world, which has been swept up into the same covenant promise, is under the same bondage (Sin and Death). The author then uses Psalm 8:4-6 to unfold a contrasting image of the shadow (the Law) and the light (Christ) within this created order. The contrast is one of question (doubt) and control (faith). Like we see elsewhere in the New Testament, one of the struggles of Jewish Christians was the struggle they faced looking back on their history and their ongoing struggle. Their failure, in their eyes, also meant the they would not find God’s covenant promise. The promise for their liberation as Gods children had failed. And yet, in their suffering, in their failure, God has left nothing outside of his control (2:8), even if we only see the failure of this promise in our present struggle. Rather than the shadow, we can now see Him (Jesus), who entered into our suffering to reveal the new covenant to them in their suffering (failed) reality, which is the promise that they are being made new and will be made new in their suffering. It is Christ’s suffering, then, that is the “perfection”, not the letter of the “Law” (2:10). In setting himself under the Power of Sin (in subjection to), the Power of Sin and Death was defeated (2:14) and those in bondage (in question and wait of God’s promise to liberate their situation) were and are being liberated (2:15) . The shame that the Hebrew audience feels in their failure gives way to Jesus’ declaration that they are in fact God’s children (2:11-13), because Jesus understands the suffering, the same suffering we face, under the Power of Sin and Death (2:18
What we have been given, what has been propitiated to us, is a heavenly calling, one which we share in Jesus (3:1). That is why the Hebrews authors call them to consider Jesus (3:1), the one they find in their confession as “Jewish Christians”. If Moses is a witness to God’s building project (the spiritual house), then Jesus is the builder. (3:3-4). Moses was a servant, Christ is God’s Son, and as Sons and Daughters of God we are all God’s house (3:5-6). This is our hope. This is the New Covenant.
Here the author connects Jesus’ resisting temptation in the suffering he faced under the Power of Sin and Death (in the wilderness and on the Cross) to the Israelites in the wilderness with Moses, thus bringing his readers together in Moses and Jesus (3:7-11). This becomes a continued exposition of Psalm 95:7-11 (3:15 and 4:3; 4:5; 4:7), with the call to not fall away (as the Prophets did) and be given to a different confession (3:14). Instead, rest (from their worries about where God is in their midst) in the promise that they find in Jesus (3:18). This rest has a sweeping force, reaching back into those who died (rest), and applied to their present situation (4:7) in the hope of what Christ is doing and bringing to fruition, His works (the building of thos house) which were finished from the “foundation of the world” (4:3). For, if Joshua had given them rest, Jesus could not have come for the world (4:8).
Moving to apply this to their life in Christ, the author of Hebrews then moves to say, let us (therefore) work “now” for the sake of all (4:11), knowing that the word of God is “living” and “active” (still at work) healing the division that Sin and Death creates (4:12). After all, coming back to that theology of creation, no creature is hidden from his sight (all are naked and exposed to him to whom we must give account 4:13), so this then becomes our confidence. God saw us in our suffering and in our temptation, and suffered with us. There is, therefore, no shame. We have been called sons and daughters of Christ, since he (bringing together both Priest and High Priest) is beset with weakness (5:2), and therefore can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward. Just as Jesus prayed for the Power of God to defeat Death and “learned the obedience” of suffering (5:7-10), hear and listen (don’t be dull of hearing). The milk is the basic truth of our salvation, don’t double back on it. Rest in it so that you can then work for the sake of others, because solid food is for those who can distinguish (in the power of the Spirit) good and evil. That is what they have been called for. Let’s not dwell on our salvation then, but move on to maturity, for maturity (the sanctified life) cannot redo what Christ has already done (6:3-7). It is for maturity (confidence; 6:11-12 and our confidence) that we have been raised (6:7-8), a maturity that rests in the confidence that finds in a suffering world a God who is not unjust (6:16). This distinguishing between good and evil, and in the same way in which Christ is made perfect in suffering, pushes back against this idea that perfection is what makes the suffering worthwhile. Christ’s work on the Cross was not a demonstration of the perfect life as the way to salvation, but rather the perfection, “under Sin and Death”, came through suffering. That was the hope the Hebrews author wanted to instill into his readers.
What is their confidence (as Jewish Christians)? Their confidence is the covenant promise (6:14). This leads to a piece that is likely to confuse modern readers, a section that talks about the order of Melchizedek and Jesus. In the history of the Israelites, Melchizedek symbolizes the bringing together of both King and Priest (the name literally means “King of Righteousness”, and he was the first to be named Priest), establishing him in the Book of Genesis as the beginning of an order of Priests related to Abraham (and the covenant promise), in whom we see him giving bread and wine (Genesis 14:18) as a blessing for this salvation (God’s saving work for the world) and a foreshadow of the New Covenant. This contrasts with another Priestly Order, that which was established later with the Order of Aaron in the Law of Moses (the Levitical Preisthood, or the Law). The reason for this comparison was to emphasize this old and new Covenant promise. In Melchizedek, it says the inferior is blessed by the superior, in that the blessing of the Priest is given (propitiated) to Abraham. In the same way, Jesus does not arrive out of the Law, but rather arrives according to the order of Malchizedek (7:11-18). He gives his promise to us. So what then distinguishes Jesus from Melchizedek and all prophets, priests and kings who have died? The fact that he is alive. He was resurrected from the grave. Jesus lives forever (7:23-24), and in the weakness (suffering) of the Cross is making perfect our suffering in Him (7:28). In this, God is building the true tent 8:2, a new covenant which we find (in their place of suffering and exile) in Jeremiah, one that is built not on the sacrifice of the Law, but a sacrifice on the Cross (8:3-5). As he is made perfect in suffering, this suffering leads the way to the liberty we long for (8:8-12), becoming the model and basis for our hope.
The author of Hebrews finds in this distinction between the Priestly Orders some imagery to apply to the Temple itself, something that fits with his emphasis on the building of the Spiritual house, which is the work of Jesus. Under the old Covenant, the Order of Aaron, a Priest offers himself in the temple (and in his weakness) for the “unintentional sins of the people” (9:7). The Hebrews author sees the tradition of the two sections of the temple as symbolic of the old and new covenant, using it to help his Jewish audience understand the hope they have in Christ. There was no way for them to get into the second section. The age of the Old Covenant is then placed alongside the first section of the Temple. The New Covenant established in Christ becomes symbolic for the second section. In Christ’s weakness, just as it was in the priests weakness, the blood which represents his being made perfect in suffering brings about their liberation (eternal redemption), establishing this second section in us (written on our minds and hearts). We are the building, and this truth is “purifying our conscious” from the Law (dead works) so that we are free, in our rest, to serve God in Christ’s resurrection (9:14).
In the Cross, the author of Hebrews sees in the metaphor of the Covenant (a legally bound document of will) the idea that death is what makes a covenant (life will) good. That is when it is established, is when someone dies. This is what the Cross does. In Jesus death, the New Covenant, not as an abolishment of the old covenant but as its fulfillment, is enacted. This is how suffering makes Jesus perfect, is that the greater sacrifice (9:23) is the sacrifice of God Himself (9:23-28). Sin (the Powers of Sin and Death) has been dealt with, so death need not be feared. God’s work is bringing about liberation
This idea of “one” who did something “once and for all” is a reoccurring theme in Hebrews, and it pushes us towards this idea of confidence. Going back to the Priestly Order, the Temple tradition as part of the “Law” reminds us of sin and death every year (10:1-3). Jesus reminds us of life and hope (10:5-7). If all we had was the Law, all we would see is death, which is something God takes no pleasure in. This is why, in Jesus, God remembers sin no more (10:17), and we are called to do the same. Rather than be reminded of death, His death reminds us of life.
Therefore (as the author applies this reasoning to the building argument), draw near in confidence (10:22). Move to maturity by stirring one another up in love and good works (10:24), and fellowship (10:25). For if we go on sinning (sin being the contrasting image of this division), all we will have is the old covenant, a reminder of death and judgment, and a need to enact justice (10:26-27) in futile ways. And yet, as 10:26-31 suggests, if we have fearful expectation rather than rest (in our confidence), how much more will this judgment fall on you who have rejected Jesus? (10:26-31) This is the nature of our way of thinking and seeing this hope within our present circumstance. If all we have is the Law, we are reminded of death, bringing judgment (of Israel’s failure) ultimately back on us. If they have confidence in Christ, they see and find a reminder of the life that is already theirs, what has been given (propitiated). So then, the author says, recall the former days, when you held to the confidence of Christ in your sufferings, and don’t throw away that confidence (10:32-36). Hold onto it so that you can witness to Jesus assurance of liberation (10:39), because “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (11:1).” Just as Gods creation of the world happened by faith, so is the hoped for liberation of their Covenant promise. And should they question this, just look to their own long history of God working in faith through the Israelites failure (chapter 11). Dont consider their heritage as shame, because God is not ashamed of them. They all (who have died) desired a better country (11:31), and God is in fact making that for them (11:16). God is not ashamed of them, and they are his sons ame daughters. If in all the past earthly pursuits accomplished “in faith” (for the sake of justice and liberation) they feel that they did not recieve what was promised (everyone died rather than finding liberation), rest in the truth that God has provided something even better than they could imagine (11:40). So if they recieved the promise before, how much more will they (and we) receive it in the joy of the cross (12:2), being made perfect in their suffering.
It is for discipline, “maturity”, that they endure (12:7), so make straight paths (for your feet) (12:12), paths built on peace and for holiness. See to it that “no one fails to obtain the grace of God” and that no division happens between you, this rest, and the witness this brings to the world (12:15). If the two covenants and the two sections of the temple can be seen in terms of the kingdom that is being built by God (12:19-24), the author says that “once more” the kingdom will be shaken (12:26-27), only this time all of creation is being shaken for the purpose of Gods liberating work, to bring hope in the midst of their suffering, their division, and their despair living under the bondage of Sin and Death. Where brotherly love and hospitality reigns, this will bring remembrance of those suffering and oppressed and divided by way of the Cross, the suffering (fire) that is making us new, the consuming fire (of the one who was made perfect in suffering) setting things right in his righteousness (Chapter 12; 13:1-2). So in remembrance, and in their own suffering, enter into the suffering of others bearing witness to the new life they have in Christ. In this way, dont forget Jesus. Remember the witness that brought him to you, and remember the witness of your long heritage. These are working together for your sake and the sake of the world (Chapter 13). Be content and rest in what you have, because this is what Christ propitiated to you. That is the confidence they hold, the good news that pushes them forward on the straight path.