Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Bible in a Year: Hebrews

My favorite Bible, which I've used since
purchasing it new for a Spring 1977 semester college class. 
In 2017 and into Lent 2018, I’m reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

This post is about the Epistle to the Hebrews. I left off with Acts, so what happened to Paul? I’m still reading about the Jewish background of Paul’s letters, so I’m putting Paul on hold at the moment and skipping over to the non-Pauline, final epistles of the New Testament. Paul will make a good project for Lenten devotion, and then I'll have studied the whole Bible in a little over a year.

Parts of this post are based on my lessons “Encouraged to Be Faithful” in the June-July-August 2004 issue of Daily Bible Study. Many thanks to the editor at the time, Eleanor Moore, who retired with that issue after 41 years with the United Methodist Publishing House.

Hebrews is a fascinating book that assumes knowledge of certain Torah traditions like the Temple, priesthood, and sacrificial system. I’m always interested in ways that the New Testament connects to and depends on the Old Testament, and Hebrews has a wealth of connections.

Hebrews is one of the more supersessionist writings of the New Testament: that is, it contends that Christianity has superseded Judaism. We still (and always) must remember that the New Testament authors were not Gentiles who disdain Jews who don't believe in Jesus, but rather they were (except for Luke) Jews writing among other Jews, struggling with Jewish belief and identity, and thinking of Jesus Belief as a new kind of Judaism.

Hebrews was likely written in the 60s, prior to the destruction of the Temple in 70 and the end of its priesthood and “cultus.” The author writes about those things as if they still existed, and surely would’ve written differently had they already been destroyed. Thus the author urges his congregation to keep looking to Christ who himself is priesthood and sacrifice.

Early church traditions are not unanimous about the author, perhaps (but likely not) Paul, or Apollos, and another possibility. Nor do we know to whom the letter was written. “Hebrews” is a title added by scribes because of its many Old Testament references. The audience seems to be Jews, living in a now unknown location (perhaps Italy) who have converted to Christianity and are second-generation Christians who are experiencing serious but not yet life-threatening persecution. Thus the author’s alternately encouraging and stern admonitions to stay faithful in their belief in Christ.

Hebrews begins like a sermon but ends like a letter. The opening sentence in the original Greek makes skillful use of alliteration (verse 1, transliterated, is Polymerōs kai polytropōs palai ho Theos lalēsas tois patrasin en tois prophētais), and all the letter is a well-written and rhetorically effective writing. The author affirms that God has spoken through forebears and prophets but now speaks through a Son, who is the “exact imprint of God’s very being.” Throughout the letter, the author uses a midrashic arguments for his point: in this case, setting Psalm 2:7, 2 Samuel 7:14, Deut. 32:43, Ps. 104:4, Ps. 45:6-7, Ps. 102:25-27, and Ps. 110-13 together to prove Christ as king and eternal son.

The letter alternates between deeply Jewish theological reflection and those stern admonitions. An interesting rhetorical device is the announcement of a theme prior to the author’s exposition: e.g., the reference to Melchizedek in 5:6 and 5:10 and then the main connection of Jesus to Melchizedek in chapter 7.

Here is an outline:

Introduction: Christ is God’s final revelation (1:1-3).

Jesus is Son of God and thus better than the angels (1:4-2:18). There must have been some discussion in the congregation about Jesus’ connection to the angels or to the power of angels, but Christ is true man, true sacrifice, and the Davidic King who has power to help us (2:18), none of which are true of angels.

Christ is superior to Moses and Joshua (chapters 3 and 4). This is not to disparage either man, but they were servants while Jesus is a Son. The author makes a sometimes difficult to follow, midrashic connection of Jesus to the Promised Land; while the first generation of the Israelites lost the chance to gain the “rest” of the Land (that is, the peace and prosperity of living there, also connected to the rest and worship of the Sabbath), because of their hard hearts and rebellion, Christ now provides a lasting “rest” for those who believe. The author uses the rebellion and later regret of the Israelites to admonish the congregation to stay faithful (e.g., 3:12, 4:11-13).

Suddenly the author calls Jesus the great high priest (4:14-16), in one of my favorite passages of Scripture:

Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Thus changing the subject from Sabbath and land to priesthood, Hebrews 4:14-7:28 concerns the priesthood of Christ. As the Temple priests sacrifice for the people through concern and compassion, so Christ intercedes for people through his divine compassion. A problem with the Aaronic priesthood, though, is that the priests were mortal and must be replaced periodically. The Hebrews author makes a connection to Melchizedek (Genesis 10), who appears in scripture without a genealogy, giving him a symbolic kind of immortality—plus, Melchizedek’s greatness is displayed in the fact that even father Abraham deferred to him and paid him a tithe. For the Hebrews author, Jesus’ priesthood is of the order of the "eternal" Melchizedek rather than of Aaron. (Perhaps someone in the congregation wondered how Jesus could be a priest if he was of the tribe of Judah rather than of Levi.) The author also uses Psalm 110:1-3 to make this connection. Of course, typical of the letter, this section also contains warnings and encouragements to the congregation.

Hebrews 9:1-10:18 concern the old and new covenants, drawing from prophetic promises (Second Isaiah and Jeremiah in particular) for a new covenant for the future. The author also connects Jesus to the sacrifices themselves. The sacrifices had to be done over and over again—because people always sin—as the blood was laid upon the sanctuary altar. But Jesus offered his own blood, and because he is the eternal Son and priest, his blood is an offering that is eternal, once for all.

Hebrews 10:19-12:29 follows on that: the author reminds the congregation that Christ is the foundation of our faith and hope, and they must endure in order to gain Christ’s benefits and blessings. Chapter 11 is a famous reiteration of heroes of faith who did remain faithful to God even in terrible circumstances. With this great “cloud of witnesses” in mind and heart, we must “run with perseverance” and keep our eyes on “Jesus the pioneer and perfecto of our faith” who know sits at God’s right hand (position of power) (12:1-2).

The author reminds the congregation that they have not yet been persecuted in ways that involve bodily harm (12:3) and encourages them about God’s discipline. I don’t believe that one should consider all hardship as correction and discipline sent by God; some hardships are just awful things that God does not want us to suffer. But opportunities for faith and strength can be found in hard circumstances. In 12:18-29, the author makes a penultimate warning against giving up faith, for the benefits of Christ are too wonderful to lose.

13:1-25 is the epistolary conclusion, warning them one more time (12:7-17) but also asking for prayers (13:18-19), asking them to be actively faithful, as well as empathetic and helpful to those who are suffering (13:3). The next to last verse, “Those from Italy send you greetings,” may or may not suggest that the congregation is in Italy and the author, who is elsewhere, knows believers who are also from Italy.

Here is another summary and discussion of the epistle, which has a good concluding reminder: "In a changing world, where the old landmarks disappear and old standards are no longer recognized, the only constant point of reference is the unchanging, onward-moving Christ, 'the same yesterday and today and for ever' (13:8); the path of wisdom is to face the unknown with Him. Our author anticipates Herbert Butterfield in finding here 'a principle which both gives us a firm Rock and leaves us the maximum elasticity for our minds; the principle: Hold to Christ, and for the rest be totally uncommitted' (Christianity and History [1950], 146)."

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