Historically, Hebrews is thought of as a letter from Paul and is grouped with his other letters in the New Testament. However, this assumption has been questioned from as early as the third century. Equally mysterious is the identity of the audience of this document. It is clear that Hebrews does not follow the form of an early Christian letter; the author calls it a “word of exhortation”. To our ear, it sounds like a homily (or a collection of homilies).
Nevertheless, Hebrews contains a rich message regarding the significance of Christ’ life and death. The way in which the claims of this writing are expressed is not necessarily familiar to twenty-first century ears so some study and discernment is required to “mine the gold”. This study aims to help the learner reflect on each of these distinctive claims, to understand the context in which they were originally presented, and to reflect on the application of their understanding to a Christian life today.
Meet Our Professors
Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament
Harry Attridge has made scholarly contributions to New Testament exegesis and to the study of Hellenistic Judaism and the history of the early Church. He has published numerous books, authored book chapters and articles in scholarly journals, and has edited 11 books, including Hebrews: A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, First-Century Cynicism in the Epistles of Heraclitus, The Interpretation of Biblical History in the Antiquitates Judaicae of Flavius Josephus, Nag Hammadi Codex I: The Jung Codex, and Psalms in Community. Dean Attridge has been an editorial board member of Catholic Biblical Quarterly, the Harvard Theological Review, the Journal of Biblical Literature, and the Hermeneia Commentary Series. Before coming to Yale, Dr. Attridge was Professor of New Testament Studies and Dean of the College of Arts and Letters at Notre Dame. He has served as president of the Society of Biblical Literature since 2001. He holds degrees from Boston College (A.B.), Cambridge University (B.A., M.A.), Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Harvard University (Ph.D.).
David L. Bartlett
David L. Bartlett was the J. Edward and Ruth Cox Lantz Professor Emeritus of Christian Communication at Yale Divinity School and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary. An ordained minister in the American Baptist Churches, USA, Bartlett served as the senior minister of congregations in Minnesota, Illinois, and California. From 1990 to 2005, Bartlett served at YDS on the faculty as well as in administrative roles including Associate Dean of Academic Affairs and Dean of Academic Affairs. Bartlett has published numerous books and scholarly articles. It is with great sadness that we note his passing in late 2017.
Yale Bible Study
The Epistle to the Hebrews
The “Epistle to the Hebrews,” a marvelous piece of early Christian homiletics, is a bit of a mystery among the texts of the New Testament. Since at least the third century it has been included in the epistles of Paul, although it does not name its author and in style and vocabulary it does not display Pauline traits. While labeled an epistle, and resembling an epistle at its conclusion, it does not have the characteristic salutation and thanksgiving sections that begin most Pauline epistles. It is, above all, a homily, a “word of exhortation” as its author calls it (13:22), crafted with considerable rhetorical skill, calling some unidentified Christian community to a renewed faith in Christ.
The identity of the author of Hebrews has puzzled readers from the start. Although some ancient Christians accepted it as Pauline, others, recognizing the stylistic difficulties, thought that it might have been written by companions of Paul such as Luke or Barnabas. Origen, the famous Alexandrian theologian of the third century, thought that Paul was responsible for the content, but that someone else actually penned the text. “God only knows” who that someone was. Ever since the Reformation readers have explored other possibilities. Luther, for example, suggested that Apollos the Alexandrian missionary mentioned in Acts 18 and 1 Corinthians, wrote the piece. Many other names have been proposed, including Priscilla, another collaborator of Paul, who was suggested by the famous German church historian Adolf von Harnack. The suggestion is intriguing but is incompatible with the masculine self reference (11:32), but there is no decisive evidence for any candidates.
Identifying the Christians addressed in this homily is as difficult as naming its author. They apparently had suffered some persecution (10:32-33), and there were signs of disaffection in their midst (10:35). These conditions could have affected people in many parts of the early Christian world. It may be that this homily was meant to be delivered to more than one audience. In any case, as his concluding remarks (13:22-25) indicate, the homilist sent it off perhaps to a church in Rome. The greeting from “Those from Italy” (13:24) sounds as if it is coming from acquaintances to people “back home.” The homily was known in Rome by the end of the first century, when phrases from it appear in a letter, known as 1 Clement, from the Roman church to the church at Corinth.
The situation of the addressees can only be inferred from the homily. Not surprisingly, different modern readers of Hebrews have constructed different settings that the homily might have addressed. The most common scenario is that a group of believers in Jesus had been disappointed by the failure of their hopes for a new era to dawn. These followers of Jesus had come to the movement from a Jewish background, which they relinquished when they came to believe in Jesus. Now they were considering abandoning their commitment to Jesus as the hoped for Messiah and were putting their hope for proper relationship with God in the traditional ritual life of the Jewish Temple and its sacrificial system. Our homilist wants to admonish them that true worship of God is to be found not in ancient ritual, but in the life of the new covenant community, grounded in the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ.
Other scenarios have been proposed that do not presume a prior Jewish affiliation. Non-Jewish adherents of the new Messianic movement may also have expected tangible results from their commitment to be realized in their own lifetime. Our homilist may be counseling them that they need to have faith but that their hopes will indeed be realized. As you read through Hebrews you may well want to imagine for yourselves what situation the homilist was trying to confront.
In order to get some sense of the overall thrust of many of our New Testament texts, it is useful to develop some appreciation of the text’s structure or organization. The homily that is Hebrews organizes its reflection on the significance of Christ in fairly well-defined units, characterized by inclusios, or motifs that mark the beginnings and ends of a section, special vocabulary, that only appears in portions of the text, alternation between exposition and exhortation, i.e., explanation of what a Biblical passage might mean and how it is to be applied. Our homilist uses these structuring devices in complex ways, leading modern interpreters to propose various models of how the homily hangs together. You may want to make your own outline of the text as you hear it. The following is one way of seeing the flow of the text, which emphasizes some of the balanced, coordinated elements within the homily:
A. 1:1–4 Exordium: The Definitive Word
I. Christ exalted and humiliated, a suitable High Priest
1:5–14 A Catena of Scriptural Citations
2:1–4 Transitional Admonition
2:5-9 The Subjection and Glorification of the Son
2:10–18 Christ and his Family
II. Christ faithful and merciful
3:1–4:11 A Homily on Faith
4:14–16 Transitional Exhortation: Approach the Merciful High Priest
5:1–5:10 The Merciful Christ and the High Priests
III. The priestly work of Christ
5:11–6:20 Transitional Admonition
7:1–28 Scriptural Reflection: Christ and Melchizedek
8:1–10:18 Scriptural Reflection: Christ’s Sacrifice and the New Covenant
IV. Exhortation to Faithful Endurance
10:19–39 Transitional Admonition
11:1–12:3 A Celebration of the Faithful
12:4–13 A Homily on Endurance
V. Final Advice about life in the New Covenant
12:14–17 Transitional Admonition
12:18–29 Sinai and the Heavenly Jerusalem
13:1–17 Concluding Exhortations
B. 13:18–25 Benediction and Epistolary Postscript
One can also think about the whole homily as a compilation of smaller homilies, all with a common shape. The clearest example is the section from 3:1 to 4:13, which begins with an introduction (3:1-6), followed by a scriptural quotation (3:7-11), followed by an exposition that picks up on several of the verses being interpreted (3:12-4:11), concluding with a rhetorical flourish (4:12-13). That composition would have made a reasonable sermon in an early Christian (or for that matter in a contemporary Jewish) assembly. A similar pattern appears in the central portion of the homily, an introduction (8:1-6), followed by a citation of scripture (8:7-13), followed by a thematic reflection on the text based upon a distinction between the earthly and the heavenly realms mentioned in the text (9:1-10:10), followed by a summary and application (10:11-18).
On the basis of such little homilies, our preacher weaves together a larger composition, which combines exposition of scripture and exhortation that culminates in a lengthy appeal to his addressees to live lives of faith (10:19-13:17). As you read through Hebrews, you should keep these patterns in mind and think about what the homilist is doing as he develops his larger composition.
Hebrews makes a special contribution to the New Testament because of the way in which it presents the meaning and significance of Christ’s life and death. That presentation uses categories and models foreign to twenty-first century readers, including priesthood, sacrifice, a cosmology that makes a sharp distinction between heaven and earth, etc. It is a critical question for modern readers of Hebrews whether the claims that our homilist advances make sense for readers of the twenty-first century. Our approach is that the homilist, properly understood, does indeed speak to contemporary Christians, but in order to hear his message, it is important first to understand what he does in the environment for which he first wrote, an environment that mingled the thought world of the Hebrew Bible and the world of Hellenistic culture.
The aim of this study will be to reflect on what those abiding claims are. We shall make some suggestions as we read through the text, but, to anticipate, our homilist suggests that God has done something quite special in the life and death of Jesus, fulfilling prophecy and making possible a new way of relating to the Divine. That way of relating to God is in the context of a covenant relationship made possible by the death of Jesus, which also provided an example of how anyone in this relationship is to live. A life in covenant with God is a life grounded in faith, expectant with hope, and lived in love.
A note about non-canonical sources
This study guide will make reference to some literature that is not part of the Bible familiar to many modern readers. These texts include works written by Jewish authors in the Second Temple period (500 BCE – 70 CE) that were not included in the Hebrew Bible, but were preserved in Greek (the “Septuagint”) or Latin (the “Vulgate”) Bibles. At the time of the Renaissance and Reformation, scholars recognized the differences between different forms of sacred scripture. Protestants called these books not found in the Hebrew Bible “apocrypha” and excluded them from their canon of the Old Testament. Catholics called these books “deutero-canonical” and continued to include them in their Old Testament. Orthodox Christians, who have always used the Septuagint as their Bible, also include these works in their collection of sacred scripture. Many ecumenical Bibles today, such as the New Revised Standard Version, include these works in a section labeled “apocrypha.” Among these works is the Wisdom of Solomon, which the author of Hebrews apparently uses in crafting the first verses of his homily.
William Lane, “Social Perspectives on Roman Christianity during the Formative years from Nero to Nerva: Romans, Hebrews, 1 Clement,” in Karl P. Donfried and Peter Richardson, eds., Judaism and Christianity in First-Century Rome (Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Eerdmans, 1998) 196-244.
Thomas H. Olbricht, “Hebrews as Amplification,” in Stanley E. Porter and Thomas H. Olbricht, eds., Rhetoric and the New Testament: Essays from the 1992 Heidelberg Conference (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993) 375-87.
Harold W. Attridge, Hebrews: The Epistle to the Hebrews (Hermeneia: Philadelphia: Fortress, 1989).
DeSilva, David A., Perseverance in Gratitude: a Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000).
Johnson, Luke Timothy, Hebrews: A Commentary (NTL; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006).
Koester, Craig, Hebrews: a new translation with introduction and commentary (AB 36; New York: Doubleday, 2001).
Lane, William, Hebrews (Word Biblical Commentaries 47a, 47B; Waco, TX: Word, 1991).
Long, Thomas, Hebrews (Interpretation; Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1997).
Mitchell, Alan C., Hebrews (Sacra Pagina; Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007).
Thompson, James W., Hebrews (Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008).
Recent Collections of Essays:
Richard Bauckham, et al, eds., A Cloud of Witnesses: The Theology of Hebrews in Its Ancient Context (LNTS 387; London T&T Clark, 2008).
Richard Bauckham et al., eds., The Epistle to the Hebrews and Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009).
Eric F. Mason and Kevin B. McCruden, Reading the Epistle to the Hebrews: A Resource for Students (SBL Resources for Biblical Study; Atlanta: SBL, 2011).
Jewish Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha:
James H. Charlesworth, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (2 vols.; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1985).
H. F. D. Sparks, The Apocryphal Old Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984)
Dead Sea Scrolls
Geza Vermes, The Dead Sea Scrolls in English (3d ed.; London: Penguin, 1987).
Florentino García-Martínez, The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated: The Qumran Texts in English (2d ed.; Leiden/New York/Cologne: Brill: Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996).
Bentley Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures (Mew York: Doubleday, 1987).
James M. Robinson, The Nag Hammadi Library in English (2d. ed.; San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1987).
Yale Bible Study
The Epistle to the Hebrews
I. Hebrews 1-2: Jesus, The Exalted and Incarnate Son
Hebrews begins with a remarkable rhetorical flourish. Alliteration, the repetition of consonants, and assonance, the repetition of vowels, mark the carefully balanced opening lines. You can hear some of those effects by reading aloud the first verse and half in Greek: polumerôs kai polutropôs palai ho theos lalêsas tois patrasin en tois profhêtais ep’ eschatou tôn hêmerôn toutôn elalêsen hêmin in huiô). The verbal pyrotechnics signals that a serious piece of oratory is underway. The opening paragraph also announces the subject of the homily, the Son, through whom God has now definitively spoken to “us” at the “end of these days.” The homilist tells us that he is going to be celebrating God’s revelation in Jesus, a revelation that stands in continuity with prophetic literature of old. In fact, that the Christ event fulfills the promise by Jeremiah of a new covenant will be a central claim of the homily.
The opening goes on to sketch a brief summary of who this Son is. V 3 uses language that comes from the Wisdom of Solomon, a Jewish text written in Greek probably early in the first century CE. The Wisdom of Solomon 7:25-26 celebrated the figure of God’s Divine Wisdom, something that Jewish authors had been doing since the book of Proverbs 8:22-31 started the trend. Associating Jesus with the figure of Divine Wisdom was a move that other early Christians made, particularly the author of the Gospel of John who refers to Wisdom using the language of the Logos or “Word” of God. Making that connection enabled followers of Jesus to think about Jesus as part of the reality of God from the moment of creation, and our homilist will do so here in making the claim that the Son was the one through whom the “ages” were made (v 2), and who “bears all things by his powerful word” (v 3). Our homilist will come back on several occasions to that understanding of Jesus as a preexistent being who became incarnate to do God’s will. But the focus of the homily is not primarily on the moment of incarnation. It highlights rather the death and exaltation of Jesus. The opening lines signal that focus in referring to Jesus’ act of “making purification for sins” and “taking a seat at the right hand of the power on high.” That last verse uses biblical language, from Psalm 110:1, a text used by many early Christians to describe what they understood happened to Jesus after his death, events that we usually refer to as resurrection and ascension. The Psalm’s image of heavenly enthronement will reappear at several key points in the homily and one of the boldest moves that the preacher will make, the comparison of Jesus and Melchizedek, is connected with verse 4 of that same psalm.
Another theme that the homilist sounds is “inheritance.” He begins his description of the Son as the one who is the “heir of all things” (v 2) and he will introduce the next section of his homily by picking up that motif. At the heart of the comparison of Christ and the high priest on the Day of Atonement (9:15-22), the preacher will make another bold move using the motif of inheritance in order to suggest how it is that Christ’s death has its salutary effects.
A Scriptural Catena Hebrews 1:5-13
After the introductory paragraph, the preacher continues his celebration of the Son by comparing him to angels. Ancient rhetoric that celebrated people or institutions often made such a comparative move (called in Greek synkrisis). Our preacher will use the device repeatedly, comparing Christ explicitly to angels, (1:4-14), to Moses (3:1-6), to Joshua (4:8), to ordinary high priests (4:14-5:4), and implicitly to Melchizedek (7:1-28).
In order to make the comparative point, the homilist cites a catena (“chain”) or series of scriptural verses. Such catenas appear elsewhere in the New Testament, e.g., in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (10:25-33; 11:26-36; 15:9-12). Catenas of scriptural texts are also found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, where they illustrate an understanding of the character of the Messiah. The texts in this catena make several points, all reading Scriptures as witnesses to Jesus as the Messiah. The first in v 5, from Ps 2:7, is from a “royal Psalm” in which God is portrayed as addressing an Israelite king as his son. The son here is understood to be not just any Israelite king, but Jesus. The homilist will cite other scriptural texts understood to be part of a dialogue between Father and Son. The Son will respond to this address in Heb 2:12-13. Ps 2:7 will reappear in Heb 5:5, followed by Ps 110:4, again addressed to Christ as Son and High Priest. Christ will answer in the words of Ps 40:6-8 at Heb 10:5-7. The scriptural dialogue that begins with God and Jesus concludes with “us,” the addressees of the homily (Heb 13:6), responding to God in the words of a psalm (Ps 118:6), in effect moving into Christ’s place.
2 Samuel 7:14, also cited in v 5, originally a text about the relationship of God and David, reinforces Jesus’ status as Son. The homilist then cites (v 6) a passage from Deuteronomy 32:43 that calls on heavenly beings, in Hebrew “all you gods,” in the Greek translation which our homilist uses, “all angels of God” to worship “him.” The pronoun in the original referred to Yahweh, the Lord. Our homilist understands the referent in fact to be the Son. His introductory comment suggests that he has in mind the moment of Christ’s entry into the world at his incarnation, although some interpreters suggest that “the world” here refers to the heavenly realm where Christ is enthroned. In any case, the scripture’s call to angels to “worship” suggests that they are in an inferior position to the Son. That inferiority is enhanced by the next citation (v 7) from Ps 104:4. The original Psalmist celebrated God’s use of natural elements as his messengers. The Psalm in Greek, however, is best understood to say that God turns his angels into winds and his servants into flames of fire. Angels are thus simply elements of the created order, not enthroned above it. The next passage, cited in vv 8 and 9, from Ps 45:6-7, originally celebrated a royal wedding in ancient Israel. With the characteristic understanding that the scriptures refer to Christ, our homilist takes this text to celebrate Christ’s post-resurrection enthronement, already mentioned in v 3. As an address to Christ, the Psalm also calls him “God,” something congenial to the homilist whose high estimation of Christ was already made clear. The next passage cited in vv 10-12, Psalm 102:25-27 continues to emphasize the lofty position of Christ, who “remains” (v 11) and is “the same” for years without end (v 12). The homilist will return to this theme in his concluding comments (13:8) celebrating Christ as “the same, yesterday, today and forever.” The catena ends (v 13) with Ps 110:1, which, as already noted, is much cited by other early Christians as a reference to Christ’s ascension and position at God’s right hand.
A Brief Warning: Hebrews 2:1–4
Our homilist pauses to issue a word of warning (2:1-4), which he will do at key points later in his homily (6:1-12; 10:26-31). The rhetorical devices of alliteration and assonance are again prominent. The language of the “signs and wonders” (v 4) that accompanied the proclamation of the gospel evokes the account of Acts about the Christian community in Jerusalem and the miracles that accompanied the preaching of the apostles.
Another Psalm Reread: Hebrews 2:5–9
Our homilist is not through with interpreting Psalms and he now turns to Ps 8:4-6 to recall another part of the story of Jesus. The original Psalm celebrated the status in God’s creation of mankind, “human beings” and “mortals” as the NRSV translates the Greek. Human beings were “just a little lower” than angels, characterized by “glory and honor,” because God had given them dominion over the earth (Genesis 1:26-27). Our homilist read the text differently. Perhaps he took a cue from the Greek words for “human beings” and “mortals.” The word in Greek is actually in the singular, “man” (anthropos) and “son of man” (huios anthropou). The latter term is indeed in Hebrew a simple idiom for “human being,” but it came to have a special set of connotations after it was used in Daniel 7:13, the prophet’s vision of the Son of Man who came to the divine figure of the Ancient of Days to be invested with royal power. The gospels report that Jesus used “Son of Man” about himself and that usage may have prompted our homilist to read this psalm as a story not of the high position of humankind in the created order, but of Christ’s humiliation and death, as a result of which he was “crowned with glory and honor.” This is the reading of the psalm that he gives in vv 8-9.
A Reflection on Christ’s Salvific Mission: Hebrews 2:10–18
The homilist’s reading of Psalm 8 sketched out a brief story about Christ’s life, death, and exaltation to heavenly glory. He probably assumes that everyone in his audience knows that story. His goal is to try to show how important and relevant for their lives that story is. He begins that process in the next passage (2:10-18). He begins with a general principle that outlines another dimension of who Jesus is, the “pioneer” of their path to salvation. The word that the homilist uses here, in Greek archegos, will also appear later in the homily (12:2), with slightly different connotations. The fundamental point that the homilist scores in both passages is that Jesus is somehow the model for anyone who would follow in his footsteps and that following that model leads to heavenly “glory.” The homilist also introduces a motif that he will develop throughout the homily, in saying that God took care to “make perfect” Christ through suffering (v 10). Perfection functions for our homilist in a way similar to the notion of “justification” in Paul, a condition made possible by God’s grace that makes possible relationship to God and leads to a final consummation of salvific unity with God. In both cases the source of all of this is “the one” whom our homilist celebrates in v 11.
The homilist then develops the notion that Jesus and his followers are all from the same source by deploying scriptural passages that continue the dialogue between Son and Father. The first text is Ps 22:22, a sufferer’s lament, the first verses of which appear in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew on the lips of the crucified Jesus (Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46). The verse that appeals to our homilist (Ps 22:22) points not to that moment of suffering, but to the speaker’s mission, to “proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters.” The second half of the verse, “in the midst of the congregation I will praise you,” would have special resonance for people who thought of themselves as members of a “congregation” of believers: The word for “congregation” in Greek is ekklesia, often translated “church” and often used, especially in Pauline texts, to refer to groups of followers of Christ. The psalm thus suggests that Christ came to reveal God’s “name” to humankind and to begin a hymn of praise in a special “congregation.”
The exemplary character of Christ’s action is further in evidence in the next two scriptural passages, cited in vv 12 and 13. The verses come from Isaiah 8:17 and 18, where the speaker, now understood to be Jesus, professes his faith or “trust” in God, an act that he does “with the children God has given me.” These verses neatly encapsulate what Hebrews as a whole tries to say about the significance of Christ: that the example of his life and death provides a model for people to follow that puts them in touch with the reality of God.
Before concluding his reflection on Jesus’ exemplary life and death, the homilist strikes one more note (vv 14-15), that Jesus’ acceptance of death as a fully human being defeats the Satanic force that oversees death and liberates those subject to that force. The imagery in this compact verse is evocative and powerful, calling to mind ancient myths of Satan as well as contemporary philosophical notions of overcoming the fear of death by virtue of one’s resolute commitment to truth and virtue. Jesus is sketched here as something like the philosophical interpretation of figures like Heracles, who confronted and overcame the powers of Hades. The most important theological point that the homilist stresses appears in v 16. The point of Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and exaltation had something to do not with angels, but with human beings. The heart of the homily will try to show how that is true.
The concluding verses (2:17-18) summarize the point of this reflection by emphasizing Christ’s solidarity with his “brothers and sisters.” At the same time, they introduce a new idea, which will become a major motif, that Christ is a “faithful” and “merciful” high priest. The verses, in effect, say, “stay tuned, you who have not thought about Christ in priestly terms, I have something new and interesting to say about how Christ is really relevant to your lives.”
One version of Christ enthroned in heavenly glory is the widespread icon of Byzantine Christianity of Christ “Pantocrator” or “All Powerful.” This version was created in the 14th century in Cefalu, Sicily.
H. W. Attridge., “Giving Voice to Jesus,” in Harold W. Attridge and Margot Fassler, eds., Psalms in Community (Atlanta: SBL; Leiden: Brill, 2004) 101-112, repr. in Essays on John and Hebrews (WUNT 264; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012) 320–330.
C. K. Barrett, “The Christology of Hebrews,” in Mark Allan Powell and David R. Bauer, eds., Who Do You Say That I Am? Essays on Christology (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1999).
Lincoln D. Hurst, “The Christology of Hebrews 1 and 2,” in Lincoln D. Hurst and N. T. Wright, eds., The Glory of Christ in the New Testament (New York: Clarendon, 1987) 151-64.
Questions for Reflection:
- Which of the many images that the homilist uses in these two chapters most appeals to you? Why?
- What is most important to you about Jesus Christ, his connection with God, however you understand that, or his character as a human being?
- Do you find the way in which Hebrews interprets scripture to be appealing or is it rather strange? Why?
Yale Bible Study
The Epistle to the Hebrews
II. Hebrews 3:1-4:13: Moses, Wandering Israel and the Promised Rest
We noticed that the Epistle to the Hebrews works like a great symphony. There are several themes, motifs that recur in different combinations and with variations of harmony and rhythm. In this section alone we find the motif of priesthood, picked up from the previous portion of the homily and expanded here and even further in the chapters that come.
We have the interpretation of Psalm 95, an interpretation that uses two key words to set themes here introduced but further elaborated as we follow the preacher through his homily: The first word is “Today,” which means the “today” of the Psalm but also the “today” in which the hearer of Hebrews is called to listen to the voice of God. The second word is “rest”—which calls us back to the Sabbath rest of Genesis, then to the rest that awaited the wandering children of Israel on their journey toward the promised land and finally the “rest” that awaits those who receive this letter, hear this sermon, as the end of their own life of faithfulness.
Hebrews relies heavily on two strategies of biblical interpretation. First our homily assumes that the words of Scripture can and should be applied directly to the present time of his listeners. Second the preacher relies heavily on typology—the assumption that characters and situations in the Old Testament prefigure figures and situations in the story of Jesus and in the time of the people who hear this letter. (Our author is by no means unique in this. For Matthew’s gospel, Moses typologically prefigures Jesus; for Paul Abraham typologically prefigures the Christian believer.)
Typology can be used to show a similarity, as Joseph in Genesis is similar to Joseph the righteous dreamer who married Jesus’ mother in Matthew 1 and 2. Typology can be used to argue from a less important example of life to a more important one—Moses to Jesus in Matthew 5 and Moses to Jesus in Hebrews 3:3-6. Or the first Joshua (named Jesus in Greek) to the second Joshua/Jesus who is pioneer and high priest. Typology can also be used to show a stark contrast—Adam to Jesus in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15. The writer draws another contrast that he hopes will be persuasive—between the disobedient children of Israel in the wilderness and the obedient believers who hear this sermon (3:13-14).
As we suggested in our introduction, Hebrews is not only a homily, it is a collection of homilies. Many of its subsections have their own integrity and coherence; at the same time one subsection relates to another so that the distinct parts are woven into a whole tapestry. One such smaller homily is contained in our passage, Hebrews 3:1-4:13.
The writer signals that he is beginning a new section with the transitional term “Therefore,” which always means that we are turning to something new, but that the new was implied and prepared by what we read before. What we have read before is the story of the faithfulness, suffering and exaltation of Jesus. Now the “Therefore” tells the listeners how they are to live in the light of that story. A second “therefore” in 3:7 provides the text that our preacher will explicate—Psalm 95:7b-11.
Jesus and Moses: Hebrews 3:1-6
There is no evidence that the distinction our author draws between Moses and Jesus responds to any particular dispute in the community he addresses, or indeed any particular dispute with the synagogue. As he contrasts Jesus with the angels in the previous chapters, here he contrasts Jesus with Moses. The language is metaphorical and perhaps a bit confusing but the general implications are clear.
The builder of the house is greater than the house itself (v 3). Jesus is connected with God the builder of the universe; Moses represents the house. The house also represents the community of faith, and Moses was a servant to that community while Jesus as son is faithful guardian of the household. (See Numbers 12:7, which understands Moses’ status as servant quite differently).
It may also be that our homilist and his audience are aware that Moses was the great mediator between God and the people—and that as a mere servant. How much greater a mediator is the son and priest.
Interpreting a Biblical Challenge: Hebrews 3:7-19
Now our homily has its central text, Psalm 95:7b-11. The comparison between Moses’ time and the author’s time continues, only now the people of the Exodus serve as an example and warning to the people of the church.
Psalm 95 is quoted again in this section in Hebrews 3:15 and the Psalm recurs in Hebrews 4:1-5 and again in 4:6-11. The portion of the letter from Hebrews 3:7-4:11 is a kind of exposition of the Psalm, comparing and contrasting the audience to the children of Israel in the wilderness. Behind both the Psalm and these portions of Hebrews lies the narrative of Numbers 14, which finds echoes particularly in vv 18 and 19.
The children of Israel fell into disobedience. Those who hear this homily are exhorted to obedience. These Christians are not only God’s house; they are partners with Christ or participants in Christ (4:14). In the description of disobedience we hear echoes of 1 Corinthians 10:1–13; in the picture of participation, echoes of 1 Corinthians 12, though there is no reason to believe that our author knew that epistle.
While we have no idea what specific circumstances may have inspired our letter, there seems considerable evidence here that the possibility of disobedience was not posed only rhetorically. Here and elsewhere in Hebrews we sense the real danger that believers would fall away from their faith.
Strikingly, there are at least two remedies for the temptation of obedience: the first remedy, much stressed in our epistle, is to look firmly at Jesus. The second remedy, not so much stressed but unmistakable, is to look toward one another: “But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today” (Hebrews 3:13).
Redefining “Rest”: Hebrews 4:1-11
The text for this homily within the homily recurs in 4:5. It becomes clear that Sabbath is not only a gift from the past; it is a promise for the future. Sabbath is what God celebrated at the beginning, and Sabbath is what God promises in the end.
We also see that the creation story moves quickly to the wilderness wanderings. Now the promised rest is not only temporal—it is geographical, the promised land. The children of Israel in Numbers 14 and Psalm 95 did not enter into God’s promised rest because they did not enter into God’s promised land. Hebrews shows the way to enduring Rest and to a Promised Land far richer than Canaan, a heavenly destination. He makes that point by associating two Biblical verses Psalm 95:11 and Genesis 2:2, cited in 4:5. They are connected by the use of similar words, at least in the Greek version of the Bible, “he rested” (katepausen) and my “rest” or “resting place” (katapausin). Interpreting scripture by associating verses connected in this way is a technique found in Rabbinic Biblical interpretation.
Whether the promise of rest (and the danger of failing to enter into that rest) refers to the promised land that awaits each believer at his or her death or refers to a final consummation of human history at the hand of God is not clear, at least not in these verses.
Joshua fails to lead his people into the promised land (v 8), a fact which for the author confirms his reading of the Psalm. David, writing of a “today” after the events of Exodus and conquest, was looking to a future rest. Jesus, the new Joshua, will certainly lead his people there. The test, however, remains the same. God speaks and the faithful are to listen to God’s voice, today, every today.
The Word as a Sword: Hebrews 4:12-13
Here we have what seems a kind of rhetorical set piece, but it grows out of the homilist’s insistence that God’s voice speaks and that the faithful are called to listen. Each believer learns in her own life what the community of believers learned in the wilderness—God’s word is both an invitation and a judgment. (There are similar depictions of the Word of God in the book of Wisdom 18:14-16, in the book of Revelation, and in the works of the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria.) God’s word reveals and discerns the division between obedience and disobedience that runs through each human. All are exposed before that God unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known and from whom no secrets are hid, in this context, a rather frightening claim. The good news in the midst of this warning and exhortation is that the invitation to the Sabbath remains, and the gate to the promised land has not yet slammed shut.
P. E. Enns, “Creation and Re-Creation: Psalm 95 and its Interpretation in Hebrews 3:1-4:13,” Westminster Theological Journal 55 (1993) 255-80.
Andrew T., Lincoln, “Sabbath, Rest, Eschatology in the New Testament,” in Donald A. Carson, ed., From Sabbath to Lord’s Day: A Biblical, Historical and Theological Investigation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982) 197-220.
Smilie, G. R., “‘The Other Logos’ at the End of Heb. 4:13,” Novum Testamentum 47 (2005) 19-25.
Questions for Reflection:
- Does the image of Moses depicted at the beginning of chapter 3 resonate with you or does it strike you as somewhat off?
- The homilist makes a great effort to let Scripture speak to the “today” of his addressees. Do you think he is effective? Does his method work in a twenty-first century context?
- Does the example of the Exodus generation resonate with a contemporary audience? How might the warning against disobedience be understood helpfully in our time?
Yale Bible Study
The Epistle to the Hebrews
III. Hebrews 4:14-6:20: Jesus, the High Priest, and a Word of Warning
Jesus, a Merciful High Priest
After the little sermon on Psalm 95, the homilist returns to the theme that he had announced at 2:17, that Jesus is, in some sense yet to be defined, a “high priest.” He advances the theme by exhorting his addressees to take advantage of the fact that they have such a high priest. The exhortation (4:14-16) is filled with the usual rhetorical special effects of alliteration and assonance (repetition of vowel sounds), and other figures of speech, such as litotes (double negative) in v15.
Pastoral concerns are evident. The homilist encourages his addressees to “hold fast to our confession.” It is not clear exactly what he has in mind. In the second century Christians developed lengthy creedal statements about essentials of the faith, such as the Apostles’ Creed. Something more simple may be in view here, perhaps a proclamation recognizing the status of Jesus as Christ or Messiah. Formulas of this sort appear in Paul’s letters, for instance, in the “Christ hymn” of Philippians, which ends by referring to the “name above every name,” acclaiming that Jesus is “Lord.” Another confessional formula appears in Romans 10:9. We also hear in the sayings of Jesus the summons to “acknowledge” him publically (Matthew 10:32; Luke 12:8). Our homilist probably has such professions of loyalty in mind.
He reminds (4:15) his audience that the high priest enthroned on high is able to sympathize with them, a point he had insisted on in his description of Jesus’ suffering humanity in 2:14-18. He urges (4:16) the addressees to “approach the throne,” as if coming to an imperial governor or judge, but to do so with “boldness,” literally, “bold freedom of speech,” knowing that they will find in Christ, a positive welcome, characterized by “grace”, “mercy,” and “help.” The language is consoling and encouraging, which is important to keep in mind as we hear the homilist issues his starker warnings.
Priests in General – Jesus as Priest
The case that Jesus is a High Priest has still to be made. The homilist begins by offering a reflection on what Biblical priests are supposed to do (5:1-4). The job description evokes Leviticus, where Aaron, mentioned in v 4, is installed as the first High Priest. The “things pertaining to God” are the various sacrifices for atonement that Aaron is instructed to perform (Leviticus 9:7-24). Our homilist adds a touch to the job description not explicit in the Biblical account, but which supports his reason for describing Christ as a priest, namely the requirement that a high priest be able to “deal gently with the ignorant and wayward,” since he is beset with the same weakness as are they. The final point about high priests is that they do not take the honor upon themselves, but are “called by God.” This point reflects the fact that in the Biblical account, Aaron and his sons were ordained to the priesthood by divine command (Exodus 28:1). But where was the divine call to Jesus to become a priest?
The homilist answers that question by returning to his favorite tool, Scripture. He recalls (v 5) the verse from Psalm 2:7 cited at the start of the scriptural catena in the first chapter (1:5), then cites another passage from the Psalm that had concluded the catena (1:13), Psalm 110. Unlike the first verse of that Psalm, which is often used in a similar way by early Christian authors, our homilist is the only early Christian author to make use of Psalm 110:4, “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” The meaning of the verse in the original Psalm is debated. One plausible scenario is that Psalm is indeed a very old one, composed at the time when the Davidic monarchy was establishing itself in the Jebusite city of Jerusalem. The Psalm, celebrating the king’s relationship to Yahweh, affirms that he is not only a king, but a priest. The sharp division between priestly and kingly offices did not yet obtain. The mysterious name “Melchizedek” follows the pattern of other ancient Semitic names. Despite the etymology that our author will deploy in 7:1-3, the name means “My king is Zedek,” where Zedek is probably the name of an ancient Canaanite deity. Interpreters of the Psalm and Genesis 14:17-20, the other Biblical text mentioning Melchizedek, puzzled over this mysterious figure, as will be clear in chapter 7. What counts for our homilist is that the verse is addressed to the same person mentioned in v 1 of the Psalm, the one who has taken a seat at God’s right hand, for him, Jesus.
By this point in his homily, our preacher has no doubt intrigued his audience. They know he is going to defend a claim that, on the surface, seems pretty outlandish, that Jesus was a priest, indeed a high priest. They now know that he is going to do so with the use of Psalm 110:4, but how the argument will work remains for the moment an intriguing mystery.
Before developing the theme, the homilist reminds his audience of the human reality on which he is ultimately focused, Jesus in the days of his flesh (5:7-10). The image of Jesus in heartfelt prayer to the God who could save him is reminiscent of the Gethsemane story (Matthew 26:36-46; Mark 14:32-42; Luke 22:39-46), although here his prayer is heard, “because of his reverent submission.” Our homilist may know other traditions about Jesus’ praying and he definitely wants to set Jesus up as a model. In this case what he models is “sonship,” since he “learned obedience through what he suffered” (v 8). That claim evokes a well-known saying in Greek that connects learning (mathos) and suffering (pathos). The homilist also reminds his audience that the experience of Jesus affects his followers. Here he phrases that claim in unusual language, that Jesus was “perfected” and thereby became a “cause of eternal salvation” for those who obey him. “Perfection” here connotes not moral development but qualification, i.e., to be the kind of high priest just described, one who can sympathize with weak and suffering human beings. How he will be the “cause of salvation” remains to be seen, but that function is associated with his high-priestly status, of which v 10 and its allusion to Psalm 110:4 reminds us.
Some words of Warning and Encouragement
Before explaining how Jesus might be a “priest according to the order of Melchizedek,” the homilist engages in exhortation. He begins by challenging his addressees, thereby making sure he gets their attention (5:11-14). “Are they ready for the difficult discourse that follows?” he asks. No, he says, with a hint of irony, they are dullards (v 11), simply children, used to milk, not “solid food” (vv 12-13). Here the homilist uses a common ancient image for levels of teaching, one that appears in Paul (1 Corinthians 3:1-2). By “milk” he refers to basic Christian catechesis, the “elements of the oracles of God” (v 12).
The tone or ironic challenge shifts in 6:1-3 to a more positive exhortation to move ahead and engage the more serious teaching. The homilist notes what he will not cover as he enumerates several items that function as the “foundation” of life as a follower of Jesus. The list sounds familiar, except when it discusses “baptisms,” which may be a reference to the difference between Christian initiation and other types of ritual cleansing. The movement between these two passages is worth noting because it will be repeated in what follows. The rather negative sound of the challenge is balanced by a more positive and hopeful bit of encouragement.
The next sections evenly balance challenge and encouragement. The homilist first (6:1-6) warns sternly that there is no possibility of renewal for one who has fallen away “crucifying again the Son of God and holding him up to contempt” (v 6). The sentiment here resembles the admonition of Jesus about the “sin against the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 12:32; Mark 3:29; Luke 12:10). Some early Christians doubted the possibility of forgiveness for any serious post-baptismal sin. Many modern interpreters have tried to reconcile this passage with the teaching about abundant forgiveness that characterizes the teaching of Jesus by suggesting that the homilist is describing a tautology: one cannot be forgiven if one rejects the possibility of accepting forgiveness. That solution may be neater than the homilist’s formulation, but he is certainly sketching an extreme case that he hopes does not obtain with his addressees.
An image connects with word of warning with the more positive exhortation that follows (6:7-8). The homilist contrast, in inverse order, the positive image of a land nurtured by rain (v 7) with the negative image of a parched land which produces only thorns and thistles and is fit for nothing but fire (v 8).
Picking up the more positive image, the homilist then expresses confidence in his audience (6:9-12), in the “work and love” that they have shown in “serving the saints” (v 10). He brings his exhortation to a close sounding a note that resembles the start. His initial challenge in 5:11 had been that the audience had become “sluggish.” He now tells them that his hope for them is that they not be so (v 12), but be “imitators of those who … inherit the promises.” Here he sounds a theme that will dominate the final exhortation of his homily, the importance of imitating the examples of the faithful of old.
One other feature of this brief positive exhortation is the way in which the homilist builds on the three cardinal virtues so often celebrated by early Christians (e.g., 1 Thessalonians 1:3; 1 Corinthians 13:13). Here he celebrates the “love” that his audience has shown (v 10), he desires that they show zeal for the consummation of their “hope” and that they imitate examples of “faith.” The triad will reappear in 10:22-24.
As he prepares to return to his argument about the high priesthood of Jesus, our homilist reflects on a Scriptural detail relevant to his use of Psalm 110:4. Though the passage (6:13-20) seems to be an odd digression, its relevance will become clear at 7:21. The detail is the fact that God is sometimes portrayed as swearing, which already appeared in the citation of Psalm 95 at Hebrews 3:11. Why God would do so was a question many ancient interpreters asked and the answer given by such interpreters as Philo, a Jewish philosopher and Biblical interpreter of the early first century CE, was that he did so to give us extra assurance. Our homilist focuses on God’s sworn promise to Abraham to “bless” and “multiply” him (Genesis 12:1-3) and states that in doing so God was confirming his hope by “two unchangeable things” (6:18).
The reference to God’s immutability introduces a framework that our homilist will exploit in the chapters that follow. Although the affirmation that God is unchanging has Biblical roots, it was celebrated by thinkers such as Philo, who interpreted their Biblical heritage in terms of Platonic philosophy. That philosophical tradition grounded all that is and can be known in the changeless realm of eternal ideas or forms. Our homilist knows of that way of thinking about the reality of God and will be appealing to it in the chapters that follow, although he will make a surprising move in identifying the location of the ideal form that is unchangeable and that undergirds all else.
For now he hints at where he is going concluding this bit of reflection with another marvelous image (6:19-20), of Christ as an anchor. Early Christians in fact used the image of an anchor in the decoration of their catacombs and on their tombs, to evoke the cross, and perhaps to express the hope of which this passage speaks. Yet there is something daring about the way in which the author deploys this image. Anchors are supposed hold boats to the sea bottom. They are stable and firm. This anchor “of the soul” is one that moves, as a hope that “enters the inner shrine behind the curtain.” There is a paradoxical quality to this anchor, but it is precisely in such paradox that the homilist’s vision of the importance of Christ resides. At one level, Jesus is being assimilated to the high priest, whose major cultic action is to “enter behind the curtain” into the inner sanctuary on the Day of Atonement. The daring image poses the questions of how Jesus can in fact do such a thing, and how in doing so he does serve as an “anchor.” The following chapters will try to explain precisely those things.
The homilist concludes with a reference to where he needs to go, to explain how it is that Jesus has become a “high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek” (v 20).
From the Catacomb of St. Sebastian in Rome, images of an anchor and a Chi Rho, from the first two Greek letters of the name Christ, a fish, which was read an acronym for the name Jesus.
McCormack, Bruce L., “‘With Loud Cries and Tears’: The Humanity of the Son in the Epistle to the Hebrews,” in Richard Bauckham et al., eds., The Epistle to the Hebrews and Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009) 37-68.
Dave Mathewson, “Reading Heb 6:4-6 in Light of the Old Testament,” WTJ 61 (1999) 209-25.
Kevin B. McCruden, “The Conception of Perfection in the Epistle to the Hebrews,” Eric F. Mason and Kevin B. McCruden, Reading the Epistle to the Hebrews: A Resource for Students (SBL Resources for Biblical Study; Atlanta: SBL, 2011) 209–230.
Questions for Reflection:
- Does the image of Christ in anguished prayer appeal to you?
- How do you understand the notion of “perfection” in Hebrews?
- What do you make of the stern warning of chapter 6?
- Do you find the homilist’s use of metaphors, often mixed, to be enlightening or distracting?
Yale Bible Study
The Epistle to the Hebrews
IV. Hebrews 7: A Priest “in the order of Melchizedek”
We have noted that our homilist consistently bases his exhortation on his interpretations of scripture, and that in particular he often uses one scriptural text to explain and expand on another. We have noted that our homilist frequently draws on the interpretive strategy of typology—finding in a figure in the Old Testament a foreshadowing of Jesus or of the first century Christian community to whom the author writes. Now, having introduced Melchizedek in his exposition of Psalm 110:4 our author expands on who this Melchizedek is by his interpretation of Genesis 14:17-20. Melchizedek, the early priest, is a type—a foreshadowing—of Jesus the true High Priest forever.
There is also a more negative use of contrast between the old covenant and the new. The old, inadequate priests of the order of Levi are contrasted with the new perfect priesthood of Christ. Again it is not clear whether our homilist is trying to persuade Christians of Jewish background of the superiority of their newfound faith or whether he draws on his extensive knowledge of the Old Testament as a rhetorical device to exhort them to a more persistent faith.
In this chapter the earlier exposition of the importance of God’s oath is expanded and deepened. The author complements the stress on Christ’s exalted priesthood with emerging attention to Christ as suffering priest.
Jewish interpreters of the figure of Melchizedek, such as the sectarians who wrote a text called The Coming of Melchizedek, 11Q, found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Philo, the Alexandrian philosopher, speculated on who this strange figure might have been. For the sectarians, he seems to be a kind of angel; for Philo he is more a symbol of spiritual reality. We have no evidence that our author drew on any of this speculation about Melchizedek and then applied it to Jesus. Far more likely the preacher uses the figure of Jesus as the lens through which to view the story of Melchizedek. (Paul seems to do the same kind of thing when he reads the story of Abraham through the experience of Christian believers (Romans 4, Galatians 4) and views Adam’s death through the lens of Christ’s resurrection (1 Corinthians 15).
Who Was Melchizedek?: Hebrews 7:1-10
The brief text in Genesis 14:17-20 follows a narrative about Abraham, the story of that patriarch’s routing of Chedorlaomer, the King of Elam, who had captured his nephew Lot. When Lot has been released he returns to his camp along with his kingly allies. The story continues:
“And King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine: he was priest of God Most High. He blessed (Abraham) and said:
‘Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
Maker of heaven and earth,
And blessed be God Most High,
Who has delivered your enemies into your hand’
“And Abraham gave him one tenth of everything.”
Our author then proceeds to tell his audience a good deal about Melchizedek, not based on any explicit description in Genesis but based on the interpretation of two Hebrew words and on Genesis’ conspicuous silence about Melchizedek’s origins and his fate.
We have already seen that the name “Melchizedek” probably has its origin in the very early claim “My king is Zedek,” where “Zedek” is the name of an old Canaanite deity, but our author finds a more imaginative and useful interpretation, paralleled in Philo. He takes the first part of the name and probably rightly derives it from the Hebrew melek. The second part of this mysterious figure’s name he derives from the Hebrew tzedekah, righteousness. As King of Righteousness, of course, Melchizedek becomes a type of the King of all righteousness, Jesus.
Genesis tells us that Melchizedek is King of Salem, and our author is not content to see Salem as an earthly kingdom. The word Salem is derived, he claims, from the Hebrew Shalom, the word used in Hebrew to this day as a greeting, a word that meant—and means—peace. Whether or not our author remembers that Isaiah has called the Messiah Prince of Peace or knows that Christians can claim that title for Jesus, in Melchizedek he sees the prototype of the true King of Peace.
Our author is not unique in assuming that what the Bible leaves out is left out for good reason. Here what the Bible leaves out is any indication of who Melchizedek’s father and mother were. This suggests that he had no parentage and therefore no beginning. What the Bible also leaves out is any account of Melchizedek’s death. This suggests that indeed he has not died. Put these two conspicuous silences together and we find our Melchizedek, “without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life.”
Then comes the obvious punch line, a reminder that our author probably did not start with the silence of Genesis 14 but with the affirmation of Psalm 110 to understand Melchizedek: “resembling the Son of God he remains a priest forever.”
In vv 4-10 we find an exposition of the fact that Abraham gave a tenth of his spoils, a tithe, to Melchizedek. From this fact Hebrews draws the conclusion that Melchizedek is superior to Abraham—it is the inferior who pays tribute to the superior, of course. The King demands, the subject provides. More than that, it is Melchizedek who blesses Abraham, not Abraham who blesses Melchizedek. Here again it is the superior who blesses and the inferior who receives blessing (v 7). The conclusion is obvious: Melchizedek is greater than Abraham.
The next conclusion (vv 9–10) is perhaps slightly less obvious. The Levitical priests, the priests who have served at the temple in Jerusalem, are descendants of Abraham—the relatively inferior patriarch. Therefore, their priesthood is also inferior to the priesthood that is somehow associated with Melchizedek. And though Levi and his priests have for centuries received tithes from the children of Israel, back in Genesis 14, when Levi was still “in the loins” of his ancestor Abraham, he paid tithes to Melchizedek. “See how great he is!” (7:4). The “he” is Melchizedek, but of course “he” is Jesus too.
Law and Priesthood: Hebrews 7:11-19
Now our author makes two related claims.
1) With the coming of Jesus, the old priesthood (associated with Aaron and Levi) has passed away in favor of a new heavenly priesthood
2) With the coming of Jesus, the old law, tied to the old priesthood, has therefore also passed away in favor of a new law.
In the chapters that follow we will learn more both about the new High Priest and about the law under which Christians are to live.
We have in these verses another tricky exegetical argument. Jesus came from the tribe of Judah. Nowhere in the Old Testament does it indicate that any priest shall be appointed from the tribe of Judah, so Jesus Christ—who obviously is now our priest—does not derive his priesthood from the traditional orders of Israel (but from Melchizedek).
Furthermore, the priests of the old order all died off, each in his own time. The new priest, because he is of the order of the eternal Melchizedek, described in Psalm 110:4 as a “priest forever,” is indestructible (v 16).
Finally the old law, associated with the old priesthood, has to pass away because it failed to do what was needed: “for the law made nothing perfect” (v 19). That law was literally hopeless because it provided no hope of perfection. The new law through Christ, who is the great perfecter, is the anchor of our hope. And because he alone provides access to God, he is our true priest.
God’s Oath about the High Priest: Hebrews 7:20-28
We have noted more than once that themes, motifs, and keywords appear and reappear throughout this homily like motifs in a symphony or images in a poem. We return now to the “oath,” a topic discussed in 6:13–18. We know that Christ’s priesthood is confirmed by an oath because Psalm 110 tells us that an oath goes with the priesthood of Melchizedek. We know that no oath accompanies the appointment of Levitical priests because no oath is ever mentioned in connection with their priesthood. Furthermore we know that there must be many Levitical priests, because such priests die off one by on and must be replaced (6:23). We rejoice that Jesus, appointed in Psalm 110, like his forerunner Melchizedek has neither beginning nor end of days. He is a priest forever. And therefore in Christ we need only one priest; no need for successors. How superior he is!
The preacher finally (vv 26–28) moves into an appropriately homiletical affirmation, which turns almost into a doxology. In the doxology we hear two great themes of this composition—one already established, the other to be developed more fully in the next chapters. The first theme is that Christ is the great priest enthroned in the heavens forever. The second theme, equally central to our author, is that he offers himself as sacrifice for the sins of others. By doing so he provides what the old priesthood and the old law could never provide—he is made perfect, a notion that we have already encountered at 5:9.
Peter Paul Rubens, Abraham Meets Melchizedek, painted around 1625
Gareth Lee Cockerill, “Melchizedek without Speculation: Hebrews 7:1-25 and Genesis 14:14-24,” in Richard Bauckham, et al, eds., A Cloud of Witnesses: The Theology of Hebrews in Its Ancient Context (LNTS 387; London T&T Clark, 2008) 128–44.
Joseph A. Fitzmyer, “Melchizedek in the MT, LXX, and the NT,” Biblica 81 (2000) 63-69.
Eric F. Mason, “Cosmology, Messianism, and Melchizedek: Apocalkyptic Jewish Traditions and Hebrews,” in Eric F. Mason and Kevin B. McCruden, Reading the Epistle to the Hebrews: A Resource for Students (SBL Resources for Biblical Study; Atlanta: SBL, 2011) 53-76.
Questions for Reflection:
- The interpretation of the relationship with Jesus’ to Melchizedek probably seems unduly imaginative to us, but can we see in the homilist’s discussion claims and promises appropriate to our faith and hope in Jesus?
- If Jesus is the great and only high priest how do we understand the priesthood of Christians today toward each other, both in relation to ordination and in relation to the ministry of all people?
- If Hebrews tells us that we are not bound by the old law found in the Old Testament, how do we understand law and obligation for our communities today?
Yale Bible Study
The Epistle to the Hebrews
V. Hebrews 8:1-9:22: Yom Kippur and a New Covenant
The Work of the Great High Priest: Overview
Having established that Jesus is a high priest of a different “order” from Aaron’s lineage, our homilist next turns to an exposition of the work peculiar to the high priest and shows how Jesus, through his death and exaltation, does something analogous to the high-priestly action on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The development of the idea takes up a major portion of Hebrews, from 8:1 to 10:18. The structure of the section resembles that of the sermon on Psalm 95 at Hebrews 3:1-4:13. The homilist begins with a preface 8:1-6, summarizing the argument so far and sounding themes that will run through the rest of the exposition. Then he cites (8:7-13) a scriptural text, Jeremiah 31:31-34, that seems unrelated to his theme. His exposition develops in five balanced parts. He first describes the Tabernacle and the Yom Kippur ritual ordained in scripture (9:1-10), then recounts the corresponding action of Christ in heaven (9:11). At the center of the exposition (9:15-22) he ties the death of Christ it to the passage from Jeremiah. He then reflects further on Christ’s “heavenly” action (9:23-28), before decisively turning to earth again (10:1-10). He concludes with a summary (10:11-18) involving the passage from Jeremiah and its central affirmations. Like the similarly structured section on Psalm 95, this whole composition has the flavor of a homily in its own right, reflecting Jewish homiletic conventions.
The Introduction: Hebrews 8:1-6
The opening verse, with its motif of Christ’s session “at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty” recalls Psalm 110, which has appeared at crucial points in Hebrews (1:13; 4:16; 5:6; 7:21). The evocation of the verse recalls the preacher’s fundamental affirmation that Jesus is enthroned in heaven with God. Since Jesus is a “heavenly” high priest, the place where he functions is not the earthly tabernacle, but the tent pitched by God in heaven (v 2). The reference to the “Tabernacle” is deliberate; the homilist consistently talks about not the Temple build by Solomon or the Herodian Temple of Jesus’ time, but the tent that accompanied the Israelites in their years of wandering in the desert. It is not that tent in which Jesus works as high priest, but in its heavenly counterpart. The homilist’s warrant for speaking about the counterpart is Exodus 25:40, where Yahweh refers to the “pattern” of the tabernacle and its furnishings that Moses is shown on Mt. Sinai. What the Biblical author had in mind is not totally clear. It could have been more of an architectural plan or design than a model or archetype, but our homilist seems to understand it in the latter way. The dichotomy between heaven and earth established by Exodus is framed in terms that evoke the Platonic distinction between the reality of the ideal world of stable forms and shadowy reflection of that reality in the sensible world. This is particularly the case with the description of the earthly tabernacle as “sketch and shadow” (or perhaps better “copy and shadow”) of the heavenly one (v 5). As we shall see, our homilist is hardly committed to a Platonic view of things, but he gestures toward or evokes it here for a purpose. He wants his audience, like those who might be enamored of a Platonic world view, to seek for what is most real and true. Defining where that is to be found will be a critical move.
The concluding sentence of the introductory paragraph (v 6) strikes an unexpected note. Sounding the comparative theme that he had used in the early chapters of Hebrews, the homilist says that Jesus is involved in a “more excellent ministry” (or “worship,” Greek leitourgia, the source of our word “liturgy”), to the extent that he is the “mediator of a better covenant.” The theme of “covenant” had been casually introduced in 7:22, where Jesus was called a “guarantor” of a greater covenant. The development of the theme now begins in earnest. The “better promises” on which the covenant is based recalls the theme of divine “rest” from 4:1-11 and anticipates the eschatological hopes that the homilist will highlight later in Hebrews (12:18-29)
The Citation of Jeremiah: Hebrews 8:7-13
The introductory paragraph was built on the antithesis of heavenly and earthly. The citation from Jeremiah, the longest quotation of the Old Testament in the New, introduces another antithesis, “first” and “second” (v 7) or “old” and “new” (v 8, 13). Jeremiah’s prophecy (Jeremiah 31:31-34) foresaw a time when the covenantal relationship between God and Israel would be renewed and the people’s sin that had led to the Babylonian exile would be removed. The means for doing so would be Israel’s heartfelt acceptance of God’s laws. God promised, “I will put my laws in their minds, and write them on their hearts and I will be their God and they shall be my people” (v 10). Other heirs of the heritage of ancient Israel, such as the sectarians who produced many of the Dead Sea Scrolls, read this passage and understood their community to be its fulfillment. Our homilist was not alone in finding it to be a text of hope, but the key issue for him is how that “writing on the heart” would take place.
The passage from Jeremiah also makes a promise, that God would be “merciful toward their iniquities” and would “remember their sins no more.” The covenant involves forgiveness for sin, but what is the relationship between forgiveness and the law on the heart?
After citing the passage from Jeremiah, the homilist remarks that the designation of a new covenant makes the old obsolete (v 13), which is not exactly what Jeremiah seems to have had in mind. Later the homilist will make some disparaging comments about traditional Jewish observances (13:9), which he definitely does not favor for his audience. The sharp antithesis here anticipates his later critical stance.
The Earthly Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement): Hebrews 9:1-10
The first stage of the exposition of Christ’s work as high priest offers a summary of the structure of the Tabernacle (9:1-5) and of the high priest’s action on Yom Kippur. The details of the structure and furnishing of the Tabernacle are largely familiar, derived primarily from Exodus 25 and 26, but there are some oddities. The readings of some manuscripts in vv 2 and 3 suggest that the homilist may have reversed the designations of what we know as the Holy, i.e., the outer segment of the Tabernacle, and the Holy of Holies, the inner segment, “behind the second curtain” (v 3). The variant readings may simply be scribal errors, but the homilist may already be hinting that his audience would not find what was most sacred in the usual place. The homilist also seems to place the altar of incense in the inner portion of the Tabernacle (v 4), although it belongs in the outer. Is this a mistake or a deliberate signal? Within the inner portion sits the “Mercy Seat” overshadowed by the Cherubim (v 5). The technical term for “Mercy Seat” (hilasterion) had been used by Paul in his reference to the death of Christ (Romans 3:25, translated in the NRSV as “sacrifice of atonement”).
The homilist now describes the priestly actions in the Tabernacle (9:6-10), relying primarily on Leviticus 16. Ordinary priests performed their rituals in the Holy place, outside the “second veil.” Action within the Holy of Holies was reserved for the High Priest who entered the space once a year, on Yom Kippur, sprinkling the blood of the sacrificial animals on the Mercy Seat, cleansing it of impurity and thus expiating the sin of the people. Our homilist does not worry about how ancient Israelites understood the ritual to work. He interprets the arrangement and action as a pointer, or as he puts it a “symbol” (NRSV) or “parable” (v 9) indicating the future that is now being realized. The arrangement, which keeps ordinary priests from access to the inner portion of the Tabernacle, is a sign of exclusion. The “way into the (inner, true) sanctuary has not yet been disclosed” (v 8). The homilist will later celebrate the opening of a “way” through Christ to what is holy (10:19). The sacrificial actions done daily by the priests and repeated yearly by the High Priest constitute a negative pointer to a different reality. They are weak and ineffective, unable to “perfect the conscience of the worshipper” (v 9). They deal only with realities of the flesh, anticipating a “time … to set things right” (v 10).
Other interpreters of traditional Biblical rituals during the Second Temple period also found them to be somewhat mysterious and turned to allegory to make sense of them. The Jewish philosopher and Biblical interpreter, Philo, for instance, when treating texts about sacrifice, reads them in terms of mental and moral processes (On the Sacrifices of Cain and Abel). Our homilist does not turn to allegory, but finds the traditional rituals and their inadequacies a sign of something to come.
An image of the Desert Tabernacle, courtesy of Wikimedia
The Heavenly Yom Kippur: Hebrews 9:11-14
Contrasting with the old and earthly Yom Kippur is the action of the heavenly High Priest. Like the earthly high priest, he entered into a very holy place, heaven itself. And like the earthly high priest, he brought with him “blood” to effect a cleansing. The image of Jesus entering heaven, or God’s heavenly dwelling, carrying his blood, sounds naively mythical. It is certainly based on early Christian traditions about Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. It is unclear whether the homilist assumes, like Acts, that there were two different events, resurrection and ascension, that happened at different times, or, like the Gospels of Luke and John, Jesus moved directly from tomb to heaven. Our homilist is not interested in chronology but significance, noting that Christ’s action was done “through the eternal Spirit” (v 14). The object of the cleansing is also not a physical or even metaphysical space, but “our conscience” (v 14). Here he hints at his final theological synthesis.
A Covenant Inaugurating Death: Hebrews 9:15-22
The next section hinges on the fact that one word in Greek, diatheke, used in the prophecy of Jeremiah, can refer to two kinds of legal documents, a contract or “covenant” between two parties, and a testament or will. Paul exploits this ambiguity in Galatians 3:17-18. Our homilist clearly has a testament in mind (v 16) and interprets the diatheke promised by Jeremiah as a situation where a testator, whose “death has occurred” (v 15) and been legally “established” (v 16), has left something behind, in this case a “promised eternal inheritance” (v 15). The homilist wraps together the death of Christ with the covenants of old by recalling first in vv 18-19 the ceremony with which Moses inaugurated the covenant at Sinai (Exodus 24:3-8). That ceremony concluded with Moses sprinkling sacrificial blood on the people, and his words (Exodus 24:8) are quoted in v 20. The homilist also recalls another ceremony in which cleansing blood was sprinkled (Leviticus 8:15, 19). He concludes by citing a general principle, that just about everything was cleansed with blood according to the Law (v 22), evoking a fundamental principle of the priestly code, Leviticus 17:11, “for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement.” The evocation of that famous verse is a crucial move; the blood that atones stands for life and the life of Jesus has been handed down as an eternal inheritance by the testament that he has left.
It is also interesting that the object of the “sprinkling” in the inauguration of the “old covenant was not simply the ritual apparatus, but the people themselves (Exodus 24:8). The “blood of the covenant” in effect cleanses as it identifies them as covenant people. The inauguration of the New Covenant works in a similar manner. It identifies a people who “inherit” what the covenant promises: heartfelt obedience to God and forgiveness of sin.
H. W. Attridge, “The Use of Antithesis in Hebrews 8-10,” Harvard Theological Review 76 (1986) 1-9, reprinted in idem, Essays in John and Hebrews (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012) 273-80.
Gareth Lee Cockerill, “Structure and Interpretation in Hebrews 8:1-10:18: A Symphony in Three Movements,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 11 (2001) 179-201.
Richard B. Hays, “‘Here We Have No Lasting City’: New Covenantentalism in Hebrews,” in Richard Bauckham et al., eds., The Epistle to the Hebrews and Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009) 151-73.
Questions for Reflection:
- Is it possible for the symbolic rhetoric of Hebrews to speak to a twenty-first century audience?
- How important is the notion of “covenant” in your understanding of religious commitment?
- Is the language of “sacrifice” valuable for understanding the Christ event? Our own lives?
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The Epistle to the Hebrews
VI. Hebrews 9:23-10:30: The New and Living Way of Christ’s Fidelity
One Again “Heavenly” Cleansing: Hebrews 9:23-28
The homilist has laid the groundwork for connecting in a new way the death and resurrection of Christ with the life of his followers. That death, and the shedding of Jesus’ blood, is somehow linked to the forgiveness of sin, but that connection remains to be explored. The next section of the exposition of the Yom Kippur analogy returns to the scene sketched at 9:11-14, Christ’s entry into the heavenly sanctuary to effect a “cleansing” better than that of earthly altars and vessels. What needed cleansing were “heavenly things themselves” (v 23). That claim seems paradoxical. How can there be anything in heaven, as conventionally conceived, that would need to be cleansed? The paradox is pressed further as the homilist describes Christ’s entry to “heaven itself,” the “true” heaven, not some copy. The Platonic framework again seems clear, even to the extent of using the phrasing that Plato used to talk about the forms, such as “Goodness itself” “Beauty itself.” Another mark of the ideal character of this event is that it is unique and unrepeatable (vv 25-27).
But what are these “heavenly things” that were to be cleansed? Our homilist has already answered that question in referring to the cleansing of “conscience” (9:14). Christ has entered into heaven “on our behalf” (v 24). By his action he has undertaken to “bear the sins of many” (v 28). The heavenly realities that have been cleansed by Christ’s priestly action are our hearts and minds, the places where Jeremiah’s prophecy foresaw the writing of a new covenant. What awaits is the consummation of the “inheritance” that comes from Christ’s will, an inheritance of salvation for “those who are eagerly waiting for him” (v 28).
Concluding the Exposition: Hebrews 10:1-18
In Hebrews 10:1-10 he returns to the earthly work of Jesus as High Priest, and in Hebrews 10:11-18 he brings the sermon to its stirring conclusion, returning to the citation from Jeremiah where he began in chapter 8.
Heaven and Earth come together: Hebrews 10:1-10
Now the contrast between shadow and reality takes a somewhat different turn. It is not the earthly tabernacle which is the shadow of the heavenly, it is the old covenant that is the shadow of the new. The homilist thus shifts from the vertical antithesis between earth and heaven that had dominated his exposition so far, and reads the contrast in terms of horizontal, and temporal axis defined by the terms “new” and “old” in the quotation from Jeremiah. What casts a “shadow” (v 1) is no longer a heavenly reality, as in the heavenly model of the tabernacle mentioned at 8:5, but the present “bodily” (vv 5, 10) reality of Christ, “foreshadowed” in the rituals of old. The homilist here uses a common image of a body and its shadow (as in Colossians 2:17) to point to the reality of Christ’s example.
Continuing his interpretation of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the homilist contrasts the penitential rituals of Israel’s high priest with the far more effective atonement accomplished by Christ (vv 1-4). There are at least two ways in which the sacrifice of Jesus is superior to that of the former priests. First, under the old covenant the Day of Atonement was celebrated every year, because the sacrifices performed by the high priest were not sufficient to accomplish real atonement. God’s reconciling act toward humankind should not need an annual renewal.
Second, the sacrifices of the old covenant involved the blood of sacrificial animals. The sacrifice of the new covenant was accomplished by the blood of Christ himself. We have hints here not only of the distinction between the inferior shadow and the superior reality, but of the traditional homiletical device: if the ancient sacrifices accomplished a little, how much more will the sacrifice of Christ achieve.
As he does so often our author turns again to Scripture (vv 5–7), here Psalm 40:6-8, as we find it in the Greek version of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, which differs dramatically from the Hebrew. Instead of “you have given me an open ear” the Septuagint reads, “A body you have prepared for me.” As he has with Psalm 110 in Hebrews 1:5 and Psalm 8 in Hebrews 2:6, the homilist applies the words of the psalm directly to Jesus, and those words provide him the warrant for the body-shadow image that structures this section.
The author uses the Psalm to indicate that Jesus’ sacrifice not only surpasses the former sacrifices, it abolishes them. In this way he prepares the way for the discussion later in Hebrews of the abrogation of the rituals of the old covenant in favor of participation in the new.
The affirmation of the Psalmist, that he has come to do God’s will, includes another important claim. The previous chapter, with its play on what a “covenant” is, suggested that the members of a new covenant were “heirs” to something. One of the essential elements of that package of inheritance is the example of the “inaugurator and perfecter” (12:2). It is his example, as a “new and living way” (10:20) that his followers “inherit.” The example is defined by the words of this Psalm, in which Jesus, in effect, answers the Father’s call to be a “priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek” (5:6; 6:20; 7:21).
Here our author for the first time uses the full formula for naming the Great High Priest “Jesus Christ.” If “Jesus” in some fashion is the most appropriate way of referring to his full humanity and “Christ” is the most appropriate way of referring to his exalted divine status, the two names together serve as a reminder that the earthly Jesus is also the Christ enthroned in the heavenly places, and conversely that the exalted heavenly being is who and what he is because of his very human act of obedience to God’s will. The heavenly ideal is incarnate.
The reminder that this happens once and for all (that the readers’ redemption is accomplished once and for all) echoes Hebrews 7:27 and 9:12.
A Preliminary Peroration: 10:11-18
These verses serve as both the culmination and the summary of everything our author has said in this long exposition of Jeremiah 31, beginning with 8:1.
The new covenant is superior to the old because it is accomplished once and for all, not renewed annually. The new covenant is ratified by the enthronement of Jesus at the right hand of God. The new covenant is not written on tablets of stone but on the hearts of believers. At the same time that the believers’ hearts are inscribed with righteousness, God’s memory is wiped clean of the believers’ former sins. True amnesty.
There is also a foreshadowing here of a theme that will be more fully developed toward the end of Hebrews. Christ, who is seated at the right hand of God, has yet one more triumph to accomplish: “Since (sitting at the right hand he) has been waiting ‘until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet.’” Here Hebrews alludes again to Psalm 110, but points ahead to a consummation even beyond the consummation of the great Yom Kippur. (Similarly, see 1 Corinthians 15.)
The peroration returns to the citation of Jeremiah, calling attention to two of its promises that have emerged as absolutely central to our homilist, the writing of God’s laws on the hearts of the people (v 16), and the forgiveness of sins (v 17). It should be clear now how these two things are related. The “sacrifice” of Christ, which combines actions resembling Yom Kippur and the inauguration of the first covenant (Exodus 24), creates a new covenantal reality, promised by Jeremiah. In that reality those who are marked by Christ’s blood/life have received the example of his obedience to God to guide their lives and have heard the assurance that God simply does not remember sin any more. The “sacrifice” is not one in which a ransom or a debt is paid, nor is it one in which one suffers for another. The sacrifice simply marks the recipients of God’s gracious forgiveness.
The Implications of this Great Sacrifice: Hebrews 10:19-39
The strong “Therefore” with which this subsection begins indicates both that the exhortations that follow are related to the assurances that precede this section, and that the exposition of the nature of the new covenant has practical consequences in the life of the community. The whole section marks a transition to the admonitions that are central to the final third of our letter.
Holding Fast in Community: Hebrews 10:19-25
In a striking way our author combines rhetorically powerful exhortation to faithfulness with a nicely concrete reminder: Don’t forget to come to church. The exhortation also embodies the three “theological virtues,” faith (v 22), hope (v 23), and love (v 24), which will be prominent in the following chapters, faith in 11, hope in 12 and love in 13.
The good news that Christ has entered the sanctuary by the sacrifice of his blood now means that believers, too, may boldly and with confidence enter into the presence of God. The claim that Christ has entered this sanctuary “through the curtain, that is through his flesh” (v 20) is a little puzzling. It is possible that we have here one of the occasional hints of the kind of Platonic philosophy that some of Hebrews’ readers may have known. Believers enter into the sanctuary by passing through, giving up, the impediment of the flesh. More likely we have one more reference to the way in which Christ’s own sacrifice as true High Priest has made possible both his access to the Holy of Holies, but the access of believers as well. His sacrificed body is the new and living way.
While the stress in this epistle has been on the power of Christ’s sacrifice to accomplish the cleansing of sin, which finally is simply a matter of divine grace (v 17), we see in these verses (v 22) the clear evidence that baptism was an essential part of the worship life of the community that hears this homily. There may be a more developed theology of the relationship between Christ’s death and the believer’s baptism behind this passage, but it is not nearly as explicit as it is in Romans 6.
For the first time we see clearly that life in the new covenant has implications for the community of faith, the community of the baptized. They are to stir each other up to good works v 24); faithful obedience is the responsibility of the Christian community not only (or even primarily) of the individual believer.
The exhortation not to miss church (v 25) is probably in part just as simple and familiar as that. But as we shall see, there is a larger issue at stake. Our author is afraid not only that some of his audience may neglect church going but that they may forsake the community of faith altogether.
Steadfast against Sin: Hebrews 10:26-31
The larger context of the exhortation becomes abundantly clear in these verses. The author’s fear is that some believers will fall away from life in the New Covenant. Now our author’s familiar reminder of “how much more” effective the new covenant is than the old, takes on an ominous tone. If you could be put to death for violating the old and inferior covenant, how much more should you expect judgment when you desert the new and superior covenant ratified by the blood of Christ. A passing reference reminds us that even in Hebrews there is not only concern with blaspheming against Christ but with offending ”the spirit of grace.” This is the same spirit who has testified through the Psalms and through Jeremiah to the sufficiency and finality of Christ’s sacrifice.
As is his wont, our author bolsters his somewhat terrifying admonition by quoting scripture, Deuteronomy 32 and Psalm 135. The final admonition may have scriptural background but provides for us the author’s own equally ominous eschatological warning: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
Remembrance and Hope: 10:31-39
Rather like the apostle Paul, and like effective preachers from the first century to the twenty first, our author moves from his exposition of scripture to a kind of exegesis of the experience of his hearers. Their own story validates the gospel promises. They have run the race faithfully; God forbid they should abandon it now.
There is no way of knowing whether the homilist has particular incidents in the life of the community in mind or whether this is a more general exhortation based on the common experiences of first century Christians.
One senses in these verses two claims. Perseverance is itself a kind of reward; the fruits of a faithful life. And perseverance will assure the reward promised to the faithful on the last day. The author draws on Habbakuk and Isaiah to validate his claim and to underline his promise. We are again drawn forward into consideration of what remains to be consummated in God’s will for believers and for the world.
We are immediately drawn forward into the powerful description of the believers’ appropriate attitude and action in the light of what Christ has already accomplished and in light of the judgment and mercy yet to come: “But we are not among those who shrink back and are lost, but among those who have faith and are saved.”
P. J. Leithart, “Womb of the World: Baptism and the Priesthood of the New Covenant in Hebrews 10.19-22,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 70 (2000) 49-65.
J. Proctor, “Judgement or Vindication? Deuteronomy 32 in Hebrews 10:30,” Tyndale Bulletin 55 (2004) 65-80
Questions for Reflection:
- How does the image of the “new and living way” relate to what the homilist has been doing in his reflection on the death and exaltation of Christ?
- In our pluralistic world, what might be other ways of explaining and honoring the gifts of our own Christian faith tradition without insisting that it is always better than everybody else’s (perhaps especially better than Judaism)?
- Hebrews suggests that we already have a taste of God’s promises with a High Priest who intercedes for us. We also have hope of a fuller consummation yet to come, in the gift of God’s rest. How do you understand the relationship between the gifts we already enjoy as Christians and the gifts for which we hope—even beyond our own history?
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The Epistle to the Hebrews
VII. Hebrews 11: Men and Women of Faith
Our homilist continues his exhortation with a summons with a focus on the first element of the faith – hope – love triad that he outlined in 10:22-24. The chapter consists of what he will later (12:1) call a “great cloud of witnesses,” all taken from Israel’s sacred past. After an evocative definition of “faith” (v 1), he builds his witness list using the rhetorical figure of anaphora, beginning verse after verse with the same expression, “by faith.” He may have been inspired by a similar device in the Wisdom of Solomon 10, which celebrates the role of Wisdom in Israel’s life. The structure things done “by faith” takes him to v 31 and, in terms of Israel’s history, to the point of entry to the promised land, the focal point of his earlier interpretation of Psalm 95 in chapters 3 and 4. In those verses he identified specific Biblical figures and recounted elements of their stories. He then paints with a broader brush. He first names a group of judges, kings and prophets (v 32), but says no more about them individually. Instead he refers to episodes from the Biblical accounts of their stories with generalized statements about what they did (vv 33-38). He concludes (vv 38-40) by linking the whole list to his audience.
A Definition: Hebrews 11:1-2
The initial definition of faith is deceptively simple. It is in fact difficult to translate because it evokes many of the dimensions of the reality that our homilist wants to foster. The NRSV translates the first verse as “the assurance of things hoped for.” That faith has something to do with hope is clear enough and the reference to “things hoped for” reminds us of the theme of expected hopes or promises that has run through the homily (e.g., 4:3; 6:17; 9:15; 10:25) and hope of final salvation, a final homecoming to God’s holy city will be the focus of the next chapter (12:18-24). Faith, in any case, has a forward-looking dimension. “Assurance” might connote a subjective disposition, such as confidence, but the Greek term hypostasis, has a range of meaning that moves in another direction. The word appeared earlier in Hebrews, at 1:3 for the fundamental reality of God’s “very being,” and at 3:14, where it has an ethical sense, of “resolution” or “resolve.” The philosophical sense will play a large role in the theological discussions of the fourth century when it will often refer to the “persons” of the Trinity, but that is a later development. In this verse our homilist seems to play on the two tenses of the word in evidence earlier. Faith, which is in touch with the fundamental realities of God and Christ, is the “fundamental reality” on which hope is based, and on which the faithful take their stand.
Faith is also the “conviction” of “things not seen.” Similar complexity surrounds these apparently simple words. The “things not seen” could be equivalent to the hoped for future realities just mentioned, but in two verses, the homilist will refer to the “unseen” realities from which the world was created. The things unseen therefore probably looks as much to the “heavenly” realities mentioned in the exposition of Christ’s priesthood (chapters 9-10) as to future hopes. Faith therefore points upward as well as forward. The Greek word translated as “conviction” (elenchos), like hypostasis in the first clause, also has a range of meaning that is less subjective than the translation suggests. Closer to the mark would be “test” or “proof.” The point, to be amply illustrated in what follows, is that the “faith” of ancient heroes is itself the way in which the truth of their hopes is tested and proved, a bold and somewhat paradoxical claim.
Part of the paradoxical quality of the formulation results from a tension built into many of the examples of ancient faithful men and women. Their faith is often exemplary because it enables them to achieve something, but in many cases the core of their hopes is not realized, and cannot be until the coming of the “inaugurator and perfecter” of faith (12:2). The homilist will make this point explicitly in 11:40.
Another way of reflecting on the tension involved in the initial definition is to think about the connection between faith and Jesus. In this chapter our homilist adapts a form of retelling Biblical history with a moralizing intent, highlighting a particular aspect of that history. Something similar is done in the Wisdom of Ben Sirach 44-50, the Hymn to Famous Men, and moralists often held up to ancient examples of virtue. Our homilist can cite all of these examples of “faith” because Jesus is not simply the object of faith. He does not ask his audience to “believe in Jesus.” Jesus is, however, the epitome of faith, the incarnate, quasi-Platonic ideal of faith (cf. 10:1-10). Because he is that ideal, the story of faith cannot be told without him. He is the “inaugurator,” even though he comes last in the list of faithful ones (12:1-3). And, for our author, without him the future hopes that faith points to cannot be realized.
Following the definition, the homilist mentions that the people of old “received approval” (NRSV) or, more literally, “received testimony,” i.e., their stories were told in Scripture, which will be the basis for the chapter.
The Heroes of Faith before Abraham: Hebrews 11:3-7
What the homilist means by “faith” emerges gradually through the list of its examples. The first case (v 3), unlike the rest, is not the story of a Biblical figure, but it is our story when “we” read and “understand” the account of creation in Genesis. Exactly what kind of cosmology the author has in mind is unclear. By saying that the visible was made from the invisible he could simply be referring to creation by the “word” of God. He may have in mind a more elaborate scenario, where the “unseen” is that realm of Platonic ideals in the mind of God. Precisely such a combination of Genesis and Platonic philosophy was made by Philo and it is probably presupposed here. Whatever the cosmological presuppositions, faith is here seen to involve a cognitive dimension, an understanding of some fundamental principle.
Some of the examples of faith refer to elements of the Biblical that are explicitly identified as acts of trust, fidelity, or belief. Sometimes the rational for the example is not immediately transparent. Thus Abel (v 4) seems to an example of “faith” because according to Genesis 4:4 God “had regard for his offering,” which our homilist takes to be equivalent to being judged “righteous.” The homilist also calls attention to the detail that Abel’s blood “is crying out to me from the ground” (Genesis 4:10) as emanating from his faith. He will call attention to that detail again in thinking about the way in which the blood of Jesus speaks (12:24).
The key point of the Enoch story (11:5–6) is the testimony that “God took him” (Genesis 5:24), which Jewish tradition understood to be a translation to heaven. Legendary expansions of the brief Biblical account underlie our homilist’s other comments, that Enoch “pleased God” (Sirach 44:16; Wisdom of Solomon 4:10). On that basis, our homilist infers Enoch believed that God is and that He rewards those who seek him (11:6). Faith again has a cognitive dimension.
The Noah story exemplifies trust in the divine oracle about “things as yet unseen,” i.e., the flood. Noah is also an example of resolute action, building the ark, which made him an “heir of righteousness that is in accordance with faith” (11:7). It is interesting to compare this very Pauline sounding formula with the way in which Paul treats “righteousness according to faith,” especially in his Epistle to the Romans. Where Paul emphasizes divine grace, our homilist focuses on the resolute action.
Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob: Hebrews 11:8-22
The figure of Abraham (vv 8-10), who also played a large role in Paul’s discussion of faith in Galatians 3 and Romans 4, looms large here in part because he fits so nicely as a model for the addressees. Like them he is “called” (3:1), for an inheritance (9:15), lives in hostile environment (10:32-34), in expectation of a “city” (12:18-24). The account is based on Genesis 12-13, but the detail about Abraham’s expectation seems to be our homilist’s adaptation. Sarah receives equal prominence, a fact obscured by the common translation of v 11. She is the subject of the sentence, not a parenthetical remark and according to one school of Greek medicine at the time, she would have had the “power of procreation.” That she “trusted that the promiser was faithful” may reflect a tradition of interpretation of Sarah’s laughter (Genesis 18:9-15) as a sign of her joy, not her skepticism. In the accounts of Abraham and Sarah “faith” involves trust in divine promises and action consistent with that trust.
The homilist drives home the connection of the patriarchal examples of faith (vv 13-16). Although he had earlier (6:15) said that Abraham received the promise (of progeny), he now highlights another feature of the Genesis story, that Abraham did not receive the promise (of “the land”). This gives him the opportunity to reinterpret the “promised land” in familiar ways, as something “heavenly” (v 16), like the heavenly “rest” (4:3) and as the “city” that God was preparing (12:18-24). Faith that trusts and acts is intimately bound up with hope for the fulfillment of God’s promises.
The treatment of the patriarchs continues with an allusion to the Aqedah, or “Binding” of Isaac (Genesis 22). Our homilist offers a rationale for Abraham’s action, and at the same time highlights another important element of faith. He suggests that Abraham inferred from God’s promise that his descendants would come through Isaac (Genesis 21:12, cited in v 18), that God could raise Isaac from the dead if Abraham did indeed kill him. Isaac was then “figuratively” raised (v 19). Faith then is trust in the power of God to raise from the dead. The cases of Isaac, Jacob and Joseph (vv 20-22) all suggest that they looked to the future, in blessing their offspring and thinking about the exodus from Egypt and, in the case of Joseph, the transferal of his bones (Genesis 50:24-25).
The Aqedah is a dramatic scene that fascinated many artists. This version was painted by Caravaggio in 1603.
Moses, Joshua and Rahab: Hebrews 11:23-31
Moses ranks with Abraham as a major figure in this catalogue of the faithful. Not his faith, but the faith of his parents, who disobeyed Pharaoh’s command (Exodus 2:1-10), constitutes the first case (v 23). Resistance to an ungodly ruler is also exemplified by Moses himself who renounced being called Pharaoh’s son, probably a reference to his flight to Midian (Exodus 2:11-15). As our homilist had explained Abraham’s motives, he does so here with Moses arguing that he chose to side with God’s people (v 25), a simple reading of Exodus 2:11, but also suggesting that his motivation was and preferred “abuse suffered for the Christ (or Messiah)” over Egyptian treasure (v 26). The Messianic reference may simply be an allusion to Moses’ role as leader of the Israelites, with all the resistance that entailed, beginning with the sharp question of a Hebrew in Exodus 2:14. Or our homilist may have a sense that Moses as a visionary prophet had a notion that his role was connected with that of Jesus the Messiah. Moses’ role as a visionary is mentioned in v 27, in connection with his departure from Egypt. Our homilist is no doubt recalling the vision of the burning bush in Exodus 3:1-6. Moses exemplifies faith in action by his celebration of the Passover (v 28) and the Exodus (v 29).
Joshua, who appeared at 4:8, is not named, here, but his action in bringing down Jericho’s walls (v 30), like Rahab the harlot’s hospitality (v 31), both stories from Judges 6:14-25, are further examples of faith as resolute action looking to the future.
Judges, Kings, Prophets: Hebrews 11:32-38
The next section consists of allusions to numerous Biblical stories, falling into two blocks. The first consists of heroic accomplishments (vv 33-35a); the second to sufferings of various sorts (vv 35b-38). Most of the allusions are from Biblical stories in Judges, and the historical books of the Old Testament. The first of the stories of suffering, however, coming at the center of this list, refers to the account of the Maccabean martyrs, told in 2 Maccabees 6:18-7:42. An important feature of that story is highlighted here in the reference to the hope for “a better resurrection,” a hope that Abraham’s story also embodied (v 19). The faith that the homilist wants to foster in his audience is very much in view here.
Finale: Hebrews 11:39-40
In concluding his catalogue of the faith, who exemplified right belief, firm hope and resolute action, defying authority and accepting suffering, the homilist emphasizes continuity between his audience and this sacred past. There is certainly continuity in the way “faith” is structured, but he is concerned here to make another point. The continuity between the faithful of old and his audience lies primarily in the promise that they all share. The faithful of old, aliens and sojourners in lands not their own, were, he claims, striving for the same thing as the faithful today, a reality now made available by the Great High Priest.
François Bovon, “Christ, the Faith and Wisdom in the Epistle to the Hebrews (Hebrews 11 and 1),” in idem, New Testament Traditions and Apocryphal Narratives (PTMS 36; Allison Park, PA: Pickwick, 1995) 119–31.
Pamela Eisenbaum, “Heroes and History in Hebrews 11,” in Craig A. Evans and James A. Sanders, eds., Early Christian Interpretation of the Scriptures of Israel: Investigations and Proposals (JSNTSup 148; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997) 380-96.
William G., Johnson, “The Pilgrimage Motif in the Book of Hebrews,” Journal of Biblical Literature 97 (1978) 239-51.
Questions for Reflection:
- What are the principal characteristics of “faith” as define in chapter 11?
- How does the initial definition of “faith” help to clarify what the homilist is trying to describe?
- How important is it for Christians today to be in touch with the history of the people of Israel?
Yale Bible Study
The Epistle to the Hebrews
VIII. Hebrews 12:1-13:24: Approaching the Heavenly Zion with Hope and Love
The Inaugurator of Patient Faith: Hebrews 12:1-13
Once again our section begins with the resounding “Therefore.” Everything that follows is built on what has gone before. Most immediately the readers discover that the host of forerunners in the faith not only depend on the present Christians to complete their task, they surround the company of the faithful as they run their race.
The first language of this section is drawn largely from the world of athletics—races, prizes. This most imagistic of New Testament writers finds a whole new set of images to illumine the shape of the faithful pilgrimage. Jesus is pioneer and perfecter of faith because he has first of all entered into the heavenly places (pioneer) and because he brings and will bring the faithful into that blessed realm with him. This may be one other place where our author implicitly compares the new Jesus/Joshua to the old, who also led the way into the Promised Land and then brought his people to dwell with him there.
Again we are not certain what the actual circumstances of the readers may have been in relationship to suffering and persecution. The suggestion of 12:4 is that while there have been struggles aplenty no Christian from this community has become a martyr. The catena of martyred forebears in Hebrews 11:32-38 must surely serve as a warning that present persecution may turn worse yet.
In the quotation from Proverbs 3:11-12 our homilist again finds an Old Testament verse which he believes directly addresses the new covenant. Here, however the passage is not read as pertaining to Jesus but as pertaining to Christian believers. The citation from Proverbs leads to a typical rhetorical device in Hebrews—if this, then how much more that. Here the claim is that if earthly parents use discipline for the strengthening of their children, how much more does God as parent provide the chastisements that discipline God’s children toward maturity. Indeed, suggests our author, the very trials that the people undergo is proof that they are truly God’s own children. They will have their reward, perhaps in the full enjoyment of their status as God’s children, certainly in their place in the world to come.
The final exhortation of this little homily in 12:12-13 seems to draw somewhat obliquely on the metaphor of the race again. Christians are exhorted to muster strength enough to follow Jesus, pioneer, first runner in the sacred race.
A Final Warning: Hebrews 12:14-29
Three biblical allusions underline our author’s exhortation to his readers/hearers to persevere in faithfulness. The first provides a warning example; the second allusions, by way of contrast, illustrate and illumine the great promise of Christian hope.
The first allusion is to the story of Esau (Genesis 25, 27) who sold his birthright, and according to our author, despite great remorse was not allowed to repent and be reconciled to his brother or to God. We have no idea what particular examples of immorality and greed our homilist may have in mind, but he makes clear enough that like Esau those who follow these practices stand in danger of losing the inheritance of faith.
The next two allusions point out what the inheritance of faith looks like for Hebrews. It is not like Sinai; it is like Zion.
Our homilist has treated Moses somewhat ambivalently throughout our epistle. In the preceding chapter Moses is a great example of faith. In another other passage, 3:1-6 Moses is contrasted to Jesus as his inferior. Throughout our letter Moses is implicitly associated with the old and inadequate covenant, which is passing away. Here (vv 18–21), drawing on passages from Deuteronomy our preacher does not deny that Moses had true access to God on Mount Sinai. But the God Moses represented was a fearful God; to see his face was to risk death.
Contrasted to the fearful Sinai is the joyful Zion (vv 22–24). The contrast between the wilderness and the city, between wandering and home, between Moses and Jesus is a contrast between the God who terrifies and the God who blesses. Zion is probably here because it provides another mountain in contrast to Sinai. It is here because it is the home of the Davidic King, and Hebrews has several times used royal imagery to portray Jesus (Psalm 110 in particular.) Zion is perhaps also because the earthly Zion is the home of the temple where the High Priest enters through the veil on Yom Kippur, year after year after year. The heavenly Zion is home of the temple where Jesus, the High Priest according to the order of Mechizedek, enters once and for all, bringing his own self as sacrifice.
Hebrews always lives both under the sign of a Godly realm that is both spatial and temporal. At this time, in God’s place, the heavenly Christ has gone to sit in triumph. In some future time that same Christ will establish the New Jerusalem on earth (compare Revelation 21).
Note that both the story of Esau and the contrast between Sinai and Zion are drawn in the service of exhortation. Those who hear this sermon are to pursue peace with one another and to persevere in faithfulness despite trials and tribulations. For such faithful people God has prepared a city.
Final exhortations and greetings: Hebrews 13:1-25
Rather like Paul at the end of 1 Thessalonians (5:12-22) our author piles on a list of ethical commandments for the readers/hearers. In a large sense these exhortations surely suggest specific ways in which to encourage the brothers and sisters to hold fast in the face of tribulation. Yet the list seems more helpful as a clue to the ideal life of early Christians than as a careful explication of the moral implications of the great celebration of Christ and the Christian pilgrimage that has marked our letter: faithfulness in marriage, integrity in the managing of money, loyalty to true faith, and a warning against heresy. As is so often the case in early Christian writings, the content of the dangerous teachings that Christians are to avoid is never made precisely clear—and the exhortation may be more in the line of good advice than of specific correction.
However, in another context and with new connotations, the readers are invited to look to Jesus, the pioneer of their faith, in vv 12-13. Now Jesus leads not to the promised land nor to the Sabbath rest nor to the heavenly temple. He leads outside the camp. The first century import of the exhortation is not altogether clear. At the very least, it encourages members of this faith community to accept their status as “aliens and sojourners,” people who have a critical distance from familiar but inimical social networks. The twenty-first century import may be that it is by engaging in the sufferings of Christ at the hands of a godless world (Dieterich Bonhoeffer) that we finally enter into his peace and his rest. Even the heavenly sanctuary does not provide service enough.
In 13:14-16, however, the readers are called again to a kind of liturgical service, inside the gate. But the gate that counts is the gate of the heavenly Jerusalem, and the sacrifices that count start with prayerful confession of faith in the Son of God, the True High Priest. The sacrifices then include mutual care and generosity in the community.
Beginning with Hebrews 13:17 our letter sounds more and more like a letter and less like a sermon. There is the plea for church order without any specificity about what that order looked like. There is the appeal for mutual prayer and concern between readers and writer, and the hope that he (whoever he may be) may be restored to them soon.
The benediction is rich in liturgical nuance but also reprises some of the themes of our letter and homily. The blood of the eternal covenant, a people complete in faith, working out the will of God.
The final exhortations and greetings suggest how the author understands his work, “a word of exhortation.” The term can refer to consolation, to calls to obedience, and to instruction. Our letter has provided all three. The phrase may also indicate that our author affirms what we have suspected, that this is more a homily than an epistle. That it is “brief” perhaps suggests the lengths to which our author could have gone, given world enough and time.
There is no reason to doubt that the Timothy our author mentions is the Timothy of the Pauline letters. Those from Italy who send greetings may now be in Italy (with our author?) or may be Italian expatriates elsewhere.
Though the final salutation, “grace” may not sum up adequately the rich and varied comforts of the book of Hebrews, it suggests quite rightly that in his own unique combination of exposition, imagery and exhortation our author has presented gospel, good news.
H. W. Attridge, “God in Hebrews: Urging Children to Heavenly Glory,” in Richard Bauckham, Daniel Driver, Trevor A. Hart, Nathan MacDonald, eds., The Epistle to the Hebrews and Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009) 95–110; repr. in Essays, 308-28.
Marie E., Isaacs, “Hebrews 13.9-16 Revisited,” New Testament Studies 43 (1997) 268-84.
Wedderburn, A. J. M., “The ‘Letter’ to the Hebrews and Its Thirteenth Chapter,” New Testament Studies 50 (2004) 390-405.
Young, Norman H., “‘Bearing His Reproach’ (Heb 13:9-14),” New Testament Studies 48 (2002) 243-61.
Questions for Reflection:
- The question of suffering for Christian people has been with us from the first century until now. Does Hebrews stress on distress as a kind of discipline help us understand our own difficulties today? If so, how?
- We have seen that our homilist believes both that God’s realm is above us, in heaven, and ahead of us in a future fulfillment of promise. Christian writers today sometimes seem to choose between these two versions of God’s transcendence. Is the choice necessary or is there still a way to hold them together?
- In a letter remarkably rich with imagery our author closes with a particularly poignant picture. As Christ suffered “outside the camp” we are to share in his suffering, “outside the camp.” Most Christians in North America seem fairly firmly ensconced inside the camp of respectability and comfort. What might Hebrews’ challenge mean for you and for your community of faith?