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Antonius sat alone in a deteriorating second story apartment located in the slum on the slope of the Esquiline Hill in Rome. As rain pelted the age worn wall outside, a plate of bread and vegetables and cup of sour wine rested on the make-shift table. The room had turned dark with the coming of the storm and Antonius lit a small oil lamp against the gloom. With that light, hungry roaches materialized, scampering to the dark safety of cracks in the wall. In the apartment next door, a baby cried and the infant’s father screamed obscenities at the infant’s mother. An urgent conversation arose and then faded as an unseen pair of business partners walked down the stairs. Somewhere in the muddy street below, a unit of Roman soldiers marched past, driven under sharp orders from its commander. Antonius sat alone thinking; his employer, a rough burly fellow named Brutus, once again turned from the task of pricing fruits and vegetables to ridicule this young Christian. The verbal jabs had become as annoying as the gnats darting to and fro in the shop’s pungent air. Brutus being obnoxious and cruel, Antonius cringed against the man’s emotional blows, wishing he could strike back out of his hurt and embarrassment. Each time, he turned the other cheek; he received a slap in kind. Yet, he bit his lip and nursed his hurts and pride and again he ask the Lord’s forgiveness for his thoughts.
Persecution of the church in Rome had yet to result in martyrdom. Since the expulsion of Jews under the Emperor Claudius, Christians had continued to be harassed to various degrees by both Jews and pagans. Upon the expulsion, some had suffered imprisonment, beatings and seizer of their properties. That was almost fifteen years ago now; Antonius had not been part of the Christian church at that time but had heard about the conflict. In fact, his own grandfather, ruler of the synagogue of the Augustans’s had been one of the most out-spoken opponents of the Christians. At seventeen, when Antonius had converted to Christianity, the old man almost died declaring Antonius dead in a shouting match that ended in tears and a tattered relationship. In recent months, abuse of the church had escalated with the amused approval of the Emperor himself, and now, emotional fatigue was taking its toll. Footsteps in the hall, a scream in the night, meaningless events that nevertheless set Antonius heart racing. He had been told about the cost of following the Messiah, but somehow the experiences were different than he expected. In the beginning, he thought his joy would never be broken; that he would always feel the presence of God. He had been taught that the Lord, the righteous judge would vindicate his New Covenant people. Didn’t the scriptures speaking of the Messiah and say that God had put all things in subjection under his feet? The church had taken a great beating lately and numbers of the various house groups had become discouraged and were questioning whether or not Christ was really in control. In their hearts, they wondered if God had closed his ears against their cries for relief. Some in their disillusionment doubted and left the church altogether, so writes George Guthrie, author of the NIV application and commentary series volume on the Epistle to the Hebrews.
On the first page of Guthrie’s introduction, the characters are fictitious but the events reflect historical fiction, reflecting circumstances as accurately as we can reconstruct the composition of the letter to the Hebrews.
We have already looked at one non-Pauline epistle, the Epistle of James. We now come to our second, when in many respects there are even fewer things that we know for sure about the letter then that of James. But just as with James, there were fewer things that we knew in many of the Epistles of Paul. On our first PowerPoint slide, we see four of the main items that we don’t know for sure. This is the one and only letter of all the epistles that makes no claim for authorship even in the text of the letter itself. All of the others had a name that appeared in the opening verse or verses. In fact the letter to the Hebrews doesn’t even begin like a letter; it begins with a lofty theological prologue, more like we find in the Gospel of John though but not as lengthy. It does end like an epistle with greetings and names, to and from which the letter is sent but, again, no name of the author. Very late medieval manuscripts occasionally did append the name of Paul at the end of the epistles as a kind of a subscript and certain additions of the King James Version of the Bible have followed this, but there is not significant possibility that these reflect what the original manuscripts contained. Nevertheless there was a tradition within the early church that did see Paul as the author of Hebrews; however, there were also a number of other suggestions made. See the accompanying textbook for details; a statement written in 200 AD that said that only God knew for sure who the author was.
Today’s scholars, conservative and liberal alike are virtually unanimous but not quite that whoever the author was, it wasn’t Paul, particularly for two text based reasons as well as others. We see in Hebrews 2:3, the author writes, ‘how shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation and this salvation that was first announced by the Lord was confirmed to us’, presumably meaning the author and whoever were his companions at that moment by those who heard him. This is quite different from Paul who repeatedly stressed that the confirmation of his Gospel, the core theological details, the persuasive convincing power that turned him from non-Christian to Christian Judaism and allowed him to stand fast and firm, even when other apostles contradicted his perspective, was his experience with Christ by direct revelation in the vision from heaven on the Damascus Road. Here, the writer to the Hebrews, equally clearly is saying that he learned the details of the Gospel second hand from those had a first-hand experience of the resurrected Christ. A second textual based reason comes not in Hebrews but in 2nd Thessalonians chapter 3:17, ‘I write this with my own hand which is a distinguishing mark in all my letters.’ Some have taken this to mean that Paul takes pen in hand to write the final closing verses in all of his letters. There are some, where there are textual reasons for suspecting that he may have done this though there are no other epistles that stated as explicitly as 2nd Thessalonians does. More to the point, however, it would appear that what is consistent throughout all of the other letters of the Pauline Epistles is that Paul does include his own name.
During the time of Martin Luther, Apollos was a suggestion for a variety of reasons but there is no evidence for that predating Luther. We still do best to say, we don’t know who the writer is, but all of the suggestions, ancient and modern, even though not Paul, were associates of Paul so the apostolicity of this letter remains as secure as it does for example, the books of Mark or Luke, which were likewise not written by apostles but close friends of them during the Apostolic Era. Neither do we know the date of this letter, suggestions seems to cluster around pre and post 70 AD ranging in particular, based on how to explain the lack of significant references to the Temple and quite a bit of interest in the Tabernacle in the Epistle to the Hebrews that porta temple that predated the construction by Solomon, the glorious permanent building that was the most holy building in Jerusalem, the center of Jewish worship. Does that point to a post AD 70 date when the temple was no longer standing so it need not be referred to? Or does it point to the corruption of the existing temple in the years immediately before AD 70, leaving the author to speak of ancient history and the less corrupted Tabernacle? Neither argument is ultimately conclusive though we will see from what we are told that different kinds of evidence probably suggests but by no means conclusively a pre-seventy date.
Neither, are we sure of the audience; here the most direct textually based evidence at the end of Hebrews, we read in 13:24, ‘those from Italy send you their greetings’. Does that suggest that the writer is in Italy with other Christians from Italy? Greeting people from someplace else in the Empire, perhaps Jerusalem where there are sporadic early church traditions that the letter was either written from or written to or is it perhaps more likely that this language would be used if the author and his companions were outside of Rome and therefore outside of Italy and sending greetings back to a community like Rome with perhaps a handful of other Italians with him. On either setting, we likely however have a Jewish Christian audience, not only because of the title that became affixed to the letter but because of the cluster of Old Testament quotations and allusions and the entire theme of the book, demonstrating the superiority of Jesus over virtually all things Jewish. And as we will see in a moment, perhaps a little more evidence for the audience as being in Rome and the author also being there.
What are we told then? Chapter 12:4 reads, ‘in your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.’ This is an odd expression, if you stop to think about it, there aren’t very many personal sins that we would struggle against. A pathological murderer, I suppose could be said to shed blood by means of his sins and someone who was regularly thinking of committing murder but never quite doing it, might fall into this category. There aren’t very many other ways or a temptation to sin by an individual person. On the other hand, if the sin that the congregation Hebrews is addressing was struggling against was the sin of others, such as the sin of those who would persecute them, perhaps even to the point of martyrdom and then verse 4 makes a lot of sense as saying against your struggle against your persecutors and oppressors, if you have not yet reached the point of anyone of you being martyrs, precisely the way George Guthrie took it in the little introduction that we read. That this church has experienced persecution is confirmed in chapter 10:32-34 which reads, ‘remember those earlier days after you had received the light when you endured in a great conflict, full of suffering. Sometimes you were publically exposed to insults and persecution. At other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property because you knew yourselves had better and lasting possessions.’
The only event that we know of in the first century from any historical sources, Christian or otherwise that closely matches the description of these verses is the expulsion of the Jews from Rome, including the confiscation of many properties under Emperor Claudius in AD 49. If that is what this passage is referring to, then, 12:4 would suggest that we must be at a time prior to the point in the year 64 under the Emperor Nero when Christians began to be martyred for their faith. And perhaps the reason for 12:4 saying you haven’t yet resisted to the point of shedding blood is because circumstance were growing worse and it looked like such an event could actually happen. In which case, we may be able to date the letter reasonably precisely to about 63 or 64 AD, itself.
The other verse most relevant to the kinds of issues typical discussed in the introduction to Biblical books is 13:22, which reads, ‘brothers and sisters, I urge you to bear with my word of exhortation; for in fact, I have written to you quite briefly.’ The only other place in the New Testament where this exact Greek expression rendered word of exhortation appears is in Acts 13 when Paul and company enter the synagogue in Presidion Antioch and they are invited to speak on any word of exhortation they had to bring. And what Paul does is preach a sermon. Many scholars therefore interpret Hebrews as being a kind of sermon in written form sent by mail; because the author was too far from the audience to whom he was preaching to give it directly by word of mouth. That would account for the fact that about the only feature that makes this ‘epistle resemble a letter,’ is the ending. The letter body doesn’t alternate between one large block of theological information and smaller but equally discrete block of ethical exhortation. But in fact, it goes back and forth between the two throughout the book, precisely the way good preaches, ancient and modern, have often done.
II. Hebrews Outline and Themes
If we then go back through the outline and unpack it in more detail, we can see how each of the theological sections explain in a way how Christ is superior to a significant person or element or ritual of the Jewish tradition and this is followed by a warning passage containing strong admonitions not to commit apostasy. Sometimes there is a single section, sometimes there are multiple sections, but overall, Hebrews is characterized by five particularly prominent warning passages. This leaves us with a more detailed outline after the prologue in reference to the section of Christ’s Superiority to Angels. Chapters 1:5-2:18 can first be subdivided into the section in which Jesus demonstrates his superiority to angels in terms of his sovereignty. The results of this section is provided in chapter 2:1-4 with the injunction to follow him closely or more specifically, to pay more careful attention to this message, to Christ; since the message spoken to angels that is the law was solidly binding in and of itself in its own age. But it would not be surprising to a Hebrew audience to hear affirmation that the Messiah was superior to angels in sovereignty, but what is striking is the second part of this segment in 2:5-13 which the Messiah is likewise a superior in suffering. Here is where that aspect of the Old Testament suffering servant tradition was largely lost on pre-Christian Judaism thus creating the surprise when New Testament authors confirmed it. Then after the theological affirmation, comes the so-what section, but this time instead of a warning passage, we simply have the theological consequences in chapter 2:14-18, namely that because of Christ atoning Cross work, we have been set free from sin.
Unpacking the next major segment of the outline, ‘Christ’s Superiority to Moses’ in 3:1-4:13 leads to a quite different relative proportion between the theological and ethical segments; a comparatively short section of the first six verses of chapter 3 describes Jesus superiority to Moses just as the builder of a house is superior to the house built. Then all of the rest of chapter 3 along with the first thirteen verses of chapter 4 constitute the next major warning passage of Hebrews. In a simply contrast, some don’t rebel as the Israelites did in the wilderness, but unlike them do persevere in faithfulness and therefore enter God’s rest. This time that rest is depicted as resting in Christ with all of the eschatological blessings yet to come rather than merely the rest from one’s physical enemies in safety and security in the promise land as was blessing offered to the Israelites of old.
The third major comparison in the Hebrew’s outline is the longest so we shouldn’t be surprised to see it subdivided into the most complex set of subsections. Christ’s Superiority to the Priesthood, begins in 4:14 with the basic injunction to accept God’s grace on the basis of that superior priesthood. The writer then introduces the first of two major comparisons with the literal Jewish Priesthood, those who were descendants of Aaron, the brother of Moses and going back further, descendants of Levi, the son of Jacob and father/ancestor of that tribe of the twelve tribes associated with the twelve sons of Jacob which did not inherit land but which produced a linage of priests and temple ministering. The major comparisons in 5:1-10 and 7:1-28 brackets the third and central warning passage in Hebrews 5:11-6:20. This chapter is filled with exegetical conundrum to which we will return but warning against the eternal dangers against apostasy in a stronger language as anywhere in Scripture. Although the contrast is not hard and fast, there does appear to be more reference to the human priesthood with reference to its Levitical heritage in chapter 7 than in chapter 5 because here is where Hebrews introduces the comparison between Jesus and priesthood of Melchizedek. We will return and unpack this theme like all the others being surveyed here.
The fourth major contrasts spanning chapters 8-10 of Hebrews is Christ’s Superiority to the Old Covenant. The later part of chapter 10 brings us to the fourth warning passage where once again, perseverance is curial. The final comparison between Jesus and Old Testament figures is with the so-called heroes of the faith in chapters 11-12 which leads the bulk of chapter 12 to the 5th and final warning passage, an injunction to focus exclusively on Jesus, however great previous human models of faith may have been. Chapter 13 rounds out the book with a more miscellaneous section of largely exhortation material more akin to the kind of exhortation conclusions to the body of a letter that we come accustomed to in the Epistles of Paul.
III. Exegetical Highlights of Hebrews 1-5
We now go back through Hebrews, a third time; this time in more detailed, commenting on selected verses and important interpretative issues in route. We begin with chapter 1:1-4, the so-called prologue, noting here the remarkable high Christology comparable to that which we saw in Colossians 1 or Philippians 2, comparable even to that found in the Gospel of John in his prologue. We read, for example, in verse 3 of Hebrews 1 that the Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. Thus the comparison between the partial past revelation of the prophets to the final revelation in Christ is fully worthy of the emphasis put on it because of the full deity of Jesus. As verses 5-14 of chapter 1 unpack the first subsection comparing Christ to the angels and demonstrating his superiority and sovereignty, we come across a chain-link of all Old Testament quotations. What is striking here, are the variety of approaches to Old Testament fulfillment that are seen. In some cases, we have a text for which we have evidence that pre-Christian Judaism did indeed interpret it in a messianic fashion, particularly in the two texts cited in Hebrews 1:5-2:7 and 2nd Samuel 7:14. In other instances, we have a text that we can understand when read in their larger context, why they would be taken as messianic even though we don’t have evidence for such interpretation in pre-Christian Judaism. We find examples of this in Hebrews 1:8 with its reference to Psalm 45:6-7 where God, himself, apparently addresses one, to whom he says, ‘your throne, oh God, will last forever and forever.’ In other cases, it would appear that we have pure typology as text which originally referred to God the Father, but in his creative or redemptive activities now are reinterpreted of speaking of Christ because the first Christians came to conclusion that Jesus, as the Messiah, was vice regent and key participant in helping God, indeed as part of the Godhead in those creative and redemptive activities. Such is the lengthy quote in Hebrews 1:10-12 and Psalm 102:25-27.
As we turn to chapter 2; we’ve already commented briefly on the first warning passages; so we proceed to 2:5-9 where the superiority of Jesus to angels is now unpacked in respect to his suffering. Here is a section that pays close attention, particularly in light of some recent debates over inclusive language translations for humanity. The writer to the Hebrews in 2:6-8 quotes Psalm 8 which was not and should not be taken as a direct messianic prophecy of any kind. It is rather a Psalm that marvels how puny frail mortal man was the object of lavish love, created in God’s image, even though hierarchically in the universe, made a little lower than the angels. It’s fully appropriate in a text like this to translate man and the synonymous expression, ‘Son of Man,’ which doesn’t have any overtones of an exalted being in Psalm 8 in inclusive language such as moral humanity. Thus Hebrews 2:6-8 in the NIV reads, ‘there’s a place where someone has testified where you are mere mortals that you are mindful of them, human beings, that you care for them. You made them a little lower than the angels; you’ve crowned them with glory and honor and put everything under their feet.’ Then the writer to the Hebrews comments on the significance of this reference to the creation of humanity and its creation in God’s image with its charge to have dominion over the rest of creation, all as outlined in Genesis. The writer to the Hebrews continues, ‘in putting everything under them that is the first human beings and derivatively their descendants, God left nothing that is subject to them. Yet at present, we do not see everything in subject to them.’ Here is the illusion to the fall, the sin of Adam and Eve and its consequences for the entire cosmos that humanity doesn’t exist with the entire universe in rightful subjection to it.
In Hebrews, verse 9, we do see Jesus who is made a little lower than the angels while now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death so that by the grace of God, he might taste death before everyone. The contrast between verses 8 and 9 is crucial to capture. We do not see everything subjective to humanity, therefore the new human, the second Adam, the one who re-established that Jesus is the one who because of his willingness to die an atoning death on a cross has been placed in a position where all creation can be and one day will be subject to him.
The second half of Hebrews 2, perhaps the most significant verses for additional commentary here are 17 and 18 in which goes along very closely of what we will see in chapter 4:14-16. ‘For this reason he had to be made like his brothers and sisters in every way in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.’ Here, again, critics have complained that since Jesus was male, he was not made like his brothers and sisters in every way. This is obviously true but then there are plenty of ways he wasn’t made like even just his brothers in every way. He didn’t have the identical physical characteristics of every man since every man doesn’t have the identical characteristics and emotions and walk of life. But none of that is the point; he had to be made human in every way, in everything that is essentially human, which would appear to include the ability to be tempted, but not necessarily to be sinful. Adam and Eve were likewise created fully human even before they chose to sin. His temptation led him even to suffer, resisting the temptation to come down off the Cross in his dying moments, led to the greatest suffering of all. His atoning sacrifice therefore enabled him now to help those who were being tempted. Thus if we tie that passage into 4:14-16, we read, ‘therefore, since we have a great high priest who has accented into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess, for we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s grace with confidence so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
IV. Rest in Hebrews
Whether a person is studying to be a professional counselor or a pastoral counselor or simply is a faithful professional lay minister of any kind. One will have numerous opportunities, formally or informally, to counsel people. One of the most precious trues of the Christian faith is to encourage people going through very difficult times, is remind them they are not alone, that others have experienced similar things. Jesus has and he understands and he sympathizes and he empathizes and he can provide help. And one of the key and central to that help is to move people directly into the presence of God and an intimate access of presence that was never possible when the temple reflected gradations of holiness and priests had to function as intermediaries. The final item on the exegetical highlights of Hebrews 1-5 actually begins with transitional material at the end of chapter 3 but then it hits head on in what called the stages of Sabbath rest in chapter 4:1-11. Because of the story in Genesis 1 that finds God resting at the end of his six days of creative activity on what is called the seventh day.
This tradition that became codified in the Mosaic Law of celebrating a Sabbath, resting from work on the seventh day of the week, Saturday in the Hebrew calendar developed and became so important and central that it became one of the ten commandments given to Moses on Mount Sinai as described in Exodus 20. Humans were to rest one day in seven in imitation of God’s rest. But the concept of rest was applied again, much more broadly; metaphorically for entrance into Canaan, into the Promised Land where God’s people would rest from their wilderness wonderings and the hardships of desert life and the Egyptian life of slavery, decades earlier, and to the extent that they were more obedient than not to God law. They would experience the land of milk and honey and peace from their enemies and prosperity that God wanted them to enjoy in Canaan which would be renamed the Land of Israel. Yet there is another Psalm attributed to David, this time in Psalms 95:7-8 which contains an interesting appeal today, if you hear his voice, do not hardened your hearts as you and your fore-fathered did in rebellion. Then that is unpacked and the reference in chapter 4:3, which cites the same Psalm a little further along in 95:11. It talks about how God in his anger declared on oath against those rebellious Israelites, ‘they shall never enter my rest.’ As opposed to those who did enter that rest. But if David could still see these promises and commands and warnings as applicable in his day then the complete concept of the kind of rest that God wanted to offer Israel was not complete, that the Sabbath was not complete with the entrance into the Promised Land and its conquest was not even complete in David’s day. It apparently was something at a spiritual level that could be entered in any era and thus the author of Hebrews sees it as a relevant promise/warning to make even in the first century as well. Verse 9 explains, there remains then a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for those who enters God’s rest, also rest from their own work just as God did from his, now referring back to the creation. Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience. Hebrews sees life in Christ as yet another further higher form of rest, but a fulfillment of the promise of rest that is not completely fulfilled in any point in this life but only through perseverance to the end as we move into the life to come.
V. Can a Christian Lose Salvation?
The most central and perhaps controversial message of all is Hebrews 6:4-8. It’s impossible, the writer claims that those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift to have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the Word of God and the powers of the coming age and have fallen away to be brought back to repentance. To their lost, they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace. The land drinks the rain falling on it and it produces a crop useful to those, to whom it is farmed, receives the blessings of God, but land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and endanger of being cursed and in the end it will be burned.
The next PowerPoint slide presents in schematic fashion what George Guthrie very clearly lays out in more conventional pose, six main approaches throughout the history of the church to understanding this passage. Four of them fall on a spectrum from Calvinism to Armenianism. Calvin and Armenian being the two reformation era writers whose lives follows each other, roughly, back to back in the 15th & 16th century who took opposite perspectives on a number of key doctrines. These included the question of the security of the believer, also known as the perseverance of the saints or more popularly, can a Christian lose their salvation or forfeit it through apostasy might be a more accurate way of explaining it. At one of the spectrum are two views that are very similar to each other and which can arguably be derived from passages in Calvin’s aluminous writings. Both seem to describe the Christian experience as being seen associated with people of the Christian house churches in Rome who perhaps have participated in many ways and close associates, partners sharing because they have been close associates and partners with true believers whom the Spirit lives. But, though they have been enlightened and have a measure of knowledge though they have tasted experiences related to Christianity, they’ve never truly made a serious commitment for themselves. Or rather than those who are perhaps on the verge of making a serious commitment, though they would tell anyone who ask that they hadn’t yet. It’s an analogical view, those who phenomenologically, outwardly to all appearances, perhaps even by virtue of their own claims pretend to be believers but at root, they lack genuine faith.
Another Calvinistic view but not one Calvin himself ever supported is that, these are in fact two believers as the verbs: enlightened, tasted, and shared easily suggest; but the threat is not a loss of salvation, just a loss of reward in heaven and much like the passage 1st Corinthians 3 that we discussed earlier getting into heaven, as it were, just by the skin of their teeth, seeing the works of this life burn up on judgement day. The trouble there is the language of being worthless and danger of being cursed and then in the end to be burned in verse 8, seems too harsh for anyone who does, however, barely made it to heaven. There are many who view that both outwardly and in reality these were true believers but that a believer not through some unforgivable sin nor through some accidental oversight but by the repeated conscience straight forward absolute renunciation of Jesus and everything to do with him. A decision which is consistently held to until that person’s death without any claim, sign, effort or desire for repentance is a choice that God by allowing people free will, will honor. And that a person can truly be a Christian at one point and not at a later point.
Two other approaches that don’t fit neatly onto the spectrum have been the hypothetical view associated with Luther and held by a variety of other people throughout church history. The first being that this is an impossible, hypothetically; anyone could act along the lines of what the Armenians understand the passage to describe and they would be loss but in fact no one can. But then it is hard not to see the author of Hebrews as being deceptive or manipulative by warning, indeed, frightening or scaring people into behaving a certain way with a threat they don’t know but God knows, cannot come to pass. Perhaps the least commonly held view is that this warning passage is not about an individual’s destiny but a given churches destiny, whether it will last in this life or not. But again, it is hard to see the warnings about cruses and burning referring to anything other than hell in which individuals as individuals are judged and consigned, not churches as groups. But like many other topics that we have surveyed, whether the entire range of the gifts of the Spirit are still in existence today, eschatological debates on the nature of the millennium and the timing of the rapture etc. It’s my conviction, it’s our conviction at Denver Seminary that while Christians need to study the issues and desire for themselves which perspective seems strongest to them and how best to understand texts like the one in Hebrews. The evidence is ambiguous enough that we should never divide fellowship over the topic. We should never accuse people who hold different views than ours of being mature Christians or sub-Christian or not Christian at all. While we will say a little more about the topic after going further into the Book of Hebrews; for now we encourage students to read widely on both sides, including the footnotes and resources that are cited in the accompanying textbook and decide for themselves which perspective makes a more compelling case in their minds.
VI. The Superior Priesthood of Christ
As we continue on in the segment of Hebrews on Christ, the Superior Priesthood and before we deal with that enigmatic figure of Melchizedek in just a little more detail. The next chart summarizes in reading Hebrews straight through, we would discover a litany of ways which Christ is superior to the Levitical priesthood of the Old Testament. Priests were many in number, to take care of sins; Jesus could do it as only one individual. The former priesthood involved a finite period of forgiveness, to finite sacrifices offered by finite human beings, hence Jesus’ priesthood was eternal by one who lived eternally and offered an eternal sacrifice. The sacrifices of the Old Covenant foreshadowed future salvation, Jesus’ sacrifice brought that complete salvation. Levitical priests were themselves sinners and therefore their sacrifices had to be offered for their own sins as well as for others. But Jesus’ sacrifice was not for himself because it was offered by one who was without sin. For those same reasons the Old Testament sacrifices repeated, Jesus’ sacrifice was once and for all. The Old Covenant was temporary but the New Covenant would be permanent. The sacrifices under the Laws of Moses were offered in the earthly temple in Jerusalem, Christ’s was offered in the heavenly sanctuary. The old sacrifices were mediated by increasing barriers limiting more and more greatly to who had access to the increasing holy places and segments of the temple. Christ’s sacrifice identify with all people who identify with him, they have direct access to God himself and perfect intimacy with God. The Old Testament sacrifices were offered by the blood of goats and bulls but could not ever fully atone for human sins because they were not offered by humans, but Christ’s was through his own blood. Outward cleansing gave way to full inward cleansing, consciences remaining guilty, not because they didn’t feel that their previous sins had been atoned for but because they knew they would commit future sins which would require future sacrifices in order to receive further forgiveness, now gives way to the potential for an utterly clean conscience because Jesus’ sacrifice forgives all our past, present and future sins fully. To summarize most of that: an incomplete sacrifice for incomplete sanctification at any point in a person’s life gives way to complete sacrifice for complete sanctification, even though our subsequent sins made destroy our fellowship with God, no further offerings or sacrifices need to be made but merely repentance and turning to Christ.
VII. Jesus as a Priest Like Melchizedek
With that striking barrage of parallels between the imperfect and the incomplete and the perfect and the complete; is it likely that the lack of eternal security inherent in the old sacrificial system would not also given way to the full security of the believer? This writer finds that a strongly heuristic factor for believing in the Calvinist doctrine of perseverance of the saints but I leave it as a question mark for students’ further reflection. The other part of Jesus’ priesthood is this comparison with Melchizedek to which we have alluded some already, but unpacking the gist of chapter 7 may be helped by understanding schematically that Abraham by tithing his spoils of war to Melchizedek acknowledged the spiritual role of Melchizedek as superior to him. But the Levitical priesthood from the tribe of Levi, one of Abraham’s great grandson’s and one of the twelve sons of Jacob, one of the two sons of Isaac; Abraham as the great grandfather of the Levi, therefore is humanly speaking on the same level of the same bloodline, the same qualifications. Levi is collectively present in Abraham’s seed, so to speak. But if Jesus can be shown in some way to be a priest after the order of Melchizedek, then the dotted line shows the conclusion from the previous prominences that must follow the Levitical priesthood, no greater than Abraham must be subordinate to Jesus who is on the level of Melchizedek, if not, even higher than Melchizedek.
But how to make this equation; Psalm 110:1 had already done it for the author in verse 4 as the one in verse 1 who says, thy Lord says to my Lord, I will make your enemies your footstool as said in verse 4 to be a priest after the order of Melchizedek. But who is that second Lord besides the Lord Yahweh, to whom David, the author of Psalm 110, according to the superscript can call my Lord. Unless a messianic king higher than the fully and exclusively human King David and all of his nearly human offspring’s and somehow one therefore divine himself. Does that mean that Melchizedek was in some way a pre-incarnate appearance of Christ? Not necessarily, in fact, perhaps not even likely because Hebrews chapter 7 says that Christ is made like the priesthood that is after the order of Melchizedek. Or more explicitly in the words of verse 3, without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning or end of days or beginning of days and end of life, resembling the Son of God, made like the Son of God. Why not just say, being the Son of God or made as the Son of God. The language suggests that the two are not equivalent but there is a significant parallel enabling both to be declared priests forever in a way that could never have been said in the Levitical priesthood.
But how could Melchizedek be a priest forever if he was not a pre-incarnate Christ? How could he be without a father or mother? For that matter, Jesus wasn’t without a human mother. And Jesus had two genealogies, one in Mathew and one in Luke. The language can mean, without any record, a father or mother or genealogy or put more mosaic, Melchizedek’s priesthood was not derived from his ancestral credentials or passed on to any other heir. In that sense, he remains a priest forever and so does Jesus.
VIII. A Duel of Dualisms
Chapters 8-10 contrast the Old and New Covenant and do so with what commentators regularly speak of as dualistic language. Not the moral dualism, so well-known from an era of international popularity of six films in the Star Wars series of good and evil equally balanced, God and Satan or the good and bad side of the force or however you want to imagine it, locked in mortal combat; equal but opposing forces with the outcome uncertain. That is not a concept that either the Old or the New Testament ever enshrines, for Satan is always nothing more than a created being subordinate to God and dependent upon God’s permissive will for what he is allowed to do. There are some similarities in Hebrews 8-10, to what has been called cosmological dualism, particularly well-known from Plato’s famous allegory of the caves; that all seemingly earthly reality is but a shallow of the true reality which is in heaven. In chapter 10 and first part of verse 1 is one of the clearest places where we see echoes of that language. The law is only a shallow of the good things that are coming, not the realities themselves; the Old and New Covenants are like earthly temporary shallows of heavenly eternal realities. But even in that verse, not to mention the more dominant theme of these chapters is what we should turn eschatological or perhaps a temporal dualism for it is the law being contracted with the good things that are coming, past and future. What in Hebrew thought was simply the point in which the Messiah as the Davidic king would arrive in this age would give way to the age to come; the age of prophecy, the age of fulfillment, the arrival of King and Messiah represented in the next PowerPoint slide by the star of David being the dividing point between the ages. Christianity preserved this division but makes it more complex as Paul and the Gospel writers have already done in the Canonical sequence of the New Testament by describing an overlap of the ages such that Christ’s first coming depicted on the same but bottom half of the PowerPoint with the Cross, inaugurates the new age but not all promises of the old age are fulfilled until the second coming of Christ on the clouds of heaven at which point then will the old age give way entirely to nothing but the new age. And nothing in Hebrews suggest anything to contradict this or suggest that the author in any way believes fundamentally in any other form of dualism or any other form eschatology.
IX. Exegetical Highlights of Hebrews 6-13
Our final slide accompanying this lecture, selects a last flurry of exegetical highlights from those chapters not covered in the first such slide, namely Hebrew 6-13. The first bulleted point, again, fleshed out in more detail in our accompanying notes but suggests that already in the chapters we’ve looked at and continuing on into those that we haven’t. There are several texts in the warning passages of Hebrews, that perhaps 3 and 4 are more of a view like that of Calvin himself, of how to explain those who appear to have believed and utterly renounced all faith in Christ and never desire to repent from that in any way. Some of the texts are clearer than others; 2:3 talks about, ‘how shall we escape if we ignore such great a salvation?’ And that verb ignore seems more appropriate for never having truly embraced something but not paying adequate attention to it when it is offered to a person. But the word can also be translated ‘reject’, which can be taken in the same identical way but perhaps need not be quite as clearly. Chapter 3:19 seems somewhat more straight forward, speaking of the Israelites who were destroyed in the wilderness. We see that they were not able to answer because of their unbelief, apistia or lack of faith, which seems very strongly to hint that what Hebrews is afraid that some in his audience will be shown not have faith and not be able to enter.
4:3 is perhaps more clear as now Hebrews makes that jump to the application of his community. In verse 2, we read, ‘for we also had the good News proclaimed to us’, not every last detail of the Gospel but the message of salvation by faith which both covenants share. Just as they did but the message they heard was of no value to them because they didn’t share the faith of those who obeyed or some manuscripts say, ‘for those who heard it, did not combine it with faith.’ And again on either of those renderings, it seems more natural that Hebrews was saying that there was never any true initial faith to begin with. Just as verse 3 continues without any manuscript variance, to contrast, ‘we, who have believed,’ enter that rest. The implications here are that the others never did or so it seems. In 10:39, Hebrews declares, ‘but we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed but of those who believed and are saved.’ This verse may help shed light on the language in Hebrews 6 about not being able to bring back to repentance those who commit other apostasies. At first glance, that would seem to confirm the argument for the Armenian perspective, that they had once repented and been forgiven and now will be brought back to that point again. But the language could also suggest being brought to the point of repentance, to the threshold, to the situation where they realize that was the step they had to take to cross over to full fledge Christianity. If the contrast in 10:39 is between those who believe and are saved and the opposite, then the natural way of understanding those who shrink back and are destroyed are those who have not believed, though they know what the Gospel is in full understanding and with every opportunity to take the step of faith, but they shrink back.
And then finally, in 12:25, the text reads, ‘see to it that you do not refuse him who speaks, if they do not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth. How much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven?’ In context, it’s still talking about approaching Mount Sinai at the time of Moses receiving the law when the Israelites rebelled by erecting the golden calf. Again, if the analogy is those who we have already read about, did not truly believe in Old Testament times, then those who refuse him who speaks in New Testament times are presumably those who have not ever truly embraced the Gospel. David Mathewson has unpacked this later theme of the various Old Testament parallels and his opinion swings the balance in this direction. David DaSilva also in a recent journal article like Mathewson’s but also in an entire commentary on Hebrews has stressed how much like James though only occasionally like Paul, Hebrews views salvation from the global perspective as something where the entire process from start to finish describe a birds eye view as it were and thus it is truly the only as Ben Withernton, a thorough going Armenian likes to say in a number of his writings that we are eternally secure when we are secure in eternity. But only because, it is only in eternity when anyone, including ourselves will have an absolutely perfect and untainted understanding of who and where we are. We will see when we get to the Epistles of John in 1st John 5:13, which say very forcefully that while we are continuing in belief, we can have assurance, securely and strongly.
The next bulleted point, not just a way to win a hand out of Bible Trivia, though the question might appear in one; what is the longest uninterrupted quotation from Old Testament in the New Testament? What is the longest Old Testament prophecy said to have been fulfilled in the New Testament? The answer is Jeramiah 31:31-34. (‘Indeed, a time is coming,’ says the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. It will not be like the old covenant that I made with their ancestors when I delivered them from Egypt. For they violated that covenant, even though I was like a faithful husband to them,’ says the Lord. ‘But I will make a new covenant with the whole nation of Israel after I plant them back in the land,’ says the Lord. ‘I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts and minds. I will be their God and they will be my people. People will no longer need to teach their neighbors and relatives to know me. For all of them, from the least important to the most important, will know me,’ says the Lord. ‘For I will forgive their sin and will no longer call to mind the wrong they have done.’) This makes it very clear those elements of both continuity and discontinuity with the old. It’s called a New Covenant (Hebrews 8:8) so it is clearly a second and different one. Verse 9, not like the Mosaic Covenant, but in verse 10, it involves the same laws, now internalized implanted fully in people’s minds and written on their hearts and yet we know from the remainder of Hebrews that the author doesn’t think that Christians need to bring sacrificial animals to any holy place and slaughter them so that it involves the same laws but only once they are understood as how they do or don’t apply in light of the Christ event. Verse 11 claims that they will no longer teach their neighbors and say to one another to know the Lord because they will all know me, that it is the people with whom this covenant is established. And yet of course, teaching goes on in the Christian church but not in the sense that it did when full forgiveness was never securable and therefore people’s identity was truly in danger depending on whether they remain faithful to the Law and sacrificial system. Thus in verse 13 in some of the strongest language of obsolescence of the Old Covenant, we dare not forget the points of continuity as well as the points of discontinuity.
Chapter 9, a central crucial verse appears in verse 27, ‘And just as people are appointed to die once, and then to face judgment, so also, after Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many, to those who eagerly await him, he will appear a second time, not to bear sin but to bring salvation.’ Verse 27 by itself, even without finishing the sentence, strongly suggests that there is not a second opportunity for salvation after this life is complete. And the remainder of verse 28 seems to close the argument that when Christ returns, it will not be this time for forgiving sins but to bring salvation for those who are waiting for him and by implication, judgement on those who are not. An important key text against all systems of thought, including some throughout history that have claimed to be Christian that give people a chance to hear the message of salvation after death. In 10:29 next only to Hebrews 6:4-6 would seem to once again throw the weight of the debate back into the direction of Armenianism on the question of eternal security. It reads, ‘how much greater punishment do you think that person deserves who has contempt for the Son of God, and profanes the blood of the covenant that made him holy, and insults the Spirit of grace?’ If we recall from what we learned from Paul who consistently used the term ‘sanctification’ for believers and specifically their growth in grace and yet even Paul in 1st Corinthians 7:14, if we didn’t discuss in our lecture but do in our accompanying textbook, can use the language of sanctification in a way that is not salvific to speak of those who are set apart by association with at least one Christian parent in a family, though a spouse or children may not be believers themselves. Set apart for the spin off blessings of holiness associated by that believing parent, but clearly not saved by simply being the spouse or child of one Christian parent. The root meaning of sanctification is simply, ‘set apart.’ And it’s interesting that the very preceding use of the sanctification word group in Hebrews comes back in chapter 9:13 where it says that the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonial unclear, sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean; explicitly referring only to outward appearances and not necessarily the inward realities. Is it perhaps not likely then in light of all the other texts that we have looked at that is what 10:29 is referring to as well.
The heroes of the faith chapter in Hebrews 11 is worthy of detail and scrutiny but time prevents us from all but a couple of brief comments. 11:1 is a little misleading and varying additions of the NIV, faith as being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see, which probably is an impossibility for finite humans. And not the most literal translation either, which in fact is rendered by the King James that, faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen’; though in modern English, it’s hard to understand how the word substance is being used there. My paraphrase, hopefully a little easier to understand, faith is about believing in God’s promises about the future, not necessarily apart from all doubt. Remember the man in Mark 9 who confessed his belief, enough belief that Jesus healed his son as his request, but at the same time, cried out, ‘help my unbelief.’ But basic faith has to do with believing God’s promises for the future despite the appearances of the present, and that’s what all of the character’s in Hebrews 11 exemplify. Some who receive magnificent but still partial fulfillment of God’s prophecies and promises to them, while others who receive very little and then climatically the chapter ends with those still in this life have the worst experiences of all, beginning in the middle of verse 35; those who were tortured. In 26, those who faced floggings, chained and imprisonment and in 37, stoned and put to death by the sword and persecuted and mistreated, etc.
Why? Why would God grant some of his people so little? Why defer prophecy until later? Why not fulfill all prophecy now to end the Old Testament age? Why not adopt that Jewish scheme of the old age, simply giving fully away to the new age rather than the period of overlap that is frustratingly joyful and bitter for most all of us. And the astonishing answer is in verses 39-40, these were all commented for their faith but yet none of them received all that had been promised. Why? God had planned something better for us. As only together with us that they would be made perfect. Had he brought the full fulfillment, all of the Old Testament promises at once, we would be living in the new heavens and the new earth. Well, his people would be because you and I would have never been born. We would never have had a chance to live. And others would have been born would never have had a longer enough chance to repent and become part of God’s people. This should say something about what we should be about in this life.
12:1-3 introduces us to that beautiful metaphor or so most readers take it: ’therefore, since we are surrounded by such cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hindered and the sin that is so easily entangled. Let us run with perseverance the race marked out before us.’ And Hebrews may well have the ancient Olympic Games or their less competitive equivalent in mind where spectators in the stadium cheered on the competitors in the race. But the term is used for witnesses here, is the word regularly used throughout the New Testament from which eventually the English word martyr was arrived. Namely those who gave testimony, who testified to her faith, even in the context of Hebrews, it might mean putting their lives in danger for the faith. That’s the most important role that the heroes of faith in chapter 11 play. Whether or not they are up there seeing us, hearing us, cheering us on from heaven as we look to them and read their stories. It is the way they remain faithful in life and in word to God, despite the horrible suffering that sometimes meant.
It should greatly encourage us to persevere and yet as we mentioned already, the only perfectly trustworthy model on whom our gage should ultimately be fixed. And thus the perfect witness, testifier is Jesus, the author and protector of our faith, who for the joy set before him, life beyond death, resurrection life, endured the Cross scorning its shame and then was exalted right back to the right hand of the throne of God. Considering that one endured such opposition from sinners. This is interesting language, perhaps confirming one verse later, the struggle against sin in verse 4 that we talked about at the beginning of this lecture. There is indeed the sin of others, opponents, those sinners. Consider Jesus so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. Consider another good chunk of text in the middle of chapter 12 introduces the metaphor of discipline. Just as parents and particularly though not exclusively in Biblical times, fathers exercised discipline on their children, not always for the right motives, not always in good ways but in best case scenarios following the image of God and planted in them, whether they recognized it or not, modeling somewhat the way after God disciplines. This is for the children’s own benefit though they don’t recognize it at the time. So too God, our heavenly father; another reason for suffering and another theological datum to enter into our databases as it were when we wrestle with the question as we did so much in 2nd Corinthians of why suffering and how to respond to it.
And then finally in 13:17, have confidence in your leaders and admit to their authority because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so their work will be a joy and not a burden for that would be of no benefit to you as with all the other submission passages that we have looked at in the Pauline Epistles. It’s always potentially overruled when human authorities conflict with God’s laws and tragically church leaders at times disobey God’s direct commands and tell others to do so. It’s our responsibility to resist and disobey, but short of that as counter cultural as it is today in any walk of life, the theme of submission returns again. So that leaders can do whatever they want? No, they will give an account and if they abuse your submission, they will be judged severely. To those much is given, much will be required. Even when leaders, trying their best, make mistakes and don’t fully understand situations can be helped so much by people who are by nature in most instances cooperative and helpful and eager to participate and back their leaders and what a burden it is for those to constantly seem to want to challenge and rebel and go their own way and not be team players and complain, nag, make plays for power, etc. So hopefully fewer people will be like that with you. Yet another marvelous epistle and despite it authorship and the uncertainties surrounding it. It’s fairly easy to see why the church eventually accepted it, eagerly as canonical, as inspired. It seems not to get the attention as many other New Testament books, perhaps not even much as the general epistles, not doubt because it is at times a difficult book because of the intricacies of Old Testament text and practices that are assumed that Christian people today often do not understand. It probably requires the teacher or preacher to do more homework and do more teaching before he or she does preaching, to do more background with original meaning before moving to contemporary significance. But it is well worth the effort.