We have seen in an earlier post that the letter to the Hebrews—the anonymous word of exhortation—has drawn on language and ideas that would have been very familiar to the Jewish people to whom the exhortation was addressed. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/29/the-word-of-exhortation-that-exults-jesus-as-superior-hebrews-1-pentecost-19b/
The notion of a high priest, offering sacrifices for the sake of the people, was central to the religious practices of the people of Israel for many centuries, as the collection of laws in much of the Torah (Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus and Deuteronomy) reflect.
This is clearly summarised in the section of the letter offered for consideration in worship this coming Sunday (Heb 9:11-14); Jesus “entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption” (9:12). This is fully consistent with the ancient Israelite understanding that “the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified” (9:13).
We have also noted that constructive purpose of this language is to demonstrate that Jesus brings the process of sanctification to a head (13:12; see also 2:11; 9:13–14; 10:10, 14, 29) and enables believers to “approach [God] with a true heart in full assurance of faith” (10:19–22). This is “the eternal redemption” (9:12) that is celebrated in the excerpt offered for this Sunday by the lectionary (9:11–14). See
Nevertheless, it is clear that the way this understanding is developed in this book is argumentative and tendentious. The analysis of Jewish concepts of sacrifice provided serves to render Judaism as a whole as obsolete. The earlier Jewish system of offering sacrifices is now exposed as flawed, insufficient, and rendered redundant, through the argument that is prosecuted relentlessly throughout this book. This is a disturbing rhetorical trajectory.
To discern what constructive relevance this may have for us today, we need to understand the standpoint of the author of this word of exhortation in his own context.
It is clear that this word of exhortation has an underlying polemic running throughout. This is signalled in the opening exhortation of the work, which urges the audience to “pay greater attention” to teachings already delivered (2:1); the closing section reminds them not to be carried away “by all kinds of strange teachings” (13:9). This is reinforced when the writer asserts that the audience still needs basic teaching: “you need milk, not solid food” (5:12). The polemic is clear.
The imagery associated with this saying links the audience with infants, in contrast to others who are “the mature” (5:13–14; the Greek is teleiōn). The most urgent task they face is to “go on towards perfection” (6:1; the Greek is teleiotēta) in advanced teachings. There is no need to replicate what has already been given in the “the basic teaching about Christ” (6:1), “the basic elements of the oracles of God” (5:12), which are summarised in three pairs: “repentance from dead works and faith toward God, instruction about baptisms and laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment” (6:1–2). More is needed than this.
Underlying these teachings is a belief that God remains faithful to what has already been promised (10:23). The audience is reminded that these promises can be known from God’s “powerful word” (1:3), which is described as being “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (4:12), a “word of righteousness” (5:13) which contains an inherent goodness (6:5) and which has already been spoken to them by their leaders (13:7). The interpretation of scripture is thus of fundamental significance in this sermon. It is a right understanding of scripture that clarifies matters for the readers.
The central element in the teaching provided in this sermon is the establishment of a “new covenant” (8:8–13, citing Jer 31:31–34). Jesus is the mediator of this “new covenant” (12:24) who opens a “new and living way … through the curtain” (10:20) and offers an “eternal inheritance” (9:15). There is much of positive value in this teaching, particularly in its Christological aspects.
(And it is a puzzle to me to note that the main substantive sections of this argument about the new covenant are omitted from the selection of passages included in the Revised Common Lectionary!)
However, there are also highly problematic elements in the line of argument advanced in Hebrews. The teaching is developed by means of a comparison between the first and second covenants which degrades the former at the expense of the latter. Particularly difficult is the direct assertion that Jesus “has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear” (8:13).
Also problematic is the assertion that, as the “Son who has been made perfect forever” (7:28), Jesus has “has now obtained a more excellent ministry, and to that degree he is the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted through better promises” (8:6).
This assertion appears to legitimise the view that Judaism has been superseded—a teaching which flourished in later Christian history and was used to validate numerous pogroms and persecutions against Jews. This must not, however, be taken as the definitive stance of all Christians towards Jewish believers. Whilst this is the view which is espoused in this particular New Testament book, for the people who first received it, it is not determinative for all time.
What do we make of the word of exhortation that we encounter in this sermon to the Hebrews? The book spends a lot of time on the process of sacrifice, presenting it as a transaction undertaken between God and humanity. We might ponder the relevance of the terminology of sacrifice in the contemporary world; is it still a valid way to conceive the way that humans can relate to God?
We might choose to think about the different elements of sacrifice seen in the ancient world, which we no longer practice today. We might also give some thought to the way we talk about deaths in war in the contemporary world, as sacrifices for the sake of the country. The imagery still has a potency.
The focus on death, the shedding of blood, and the sacrifice of a human life, also raises ethical questions. What is the value of focussing on the necessity of death as the centrepoint of the divine-human transaction? Is this a helpful thing to do? Does it place cold-blooded murder and innocent suffering at the heart of this important relationship? Is this how I want to portray my relationship with God?
It is clear that Hebrews has provided something of the basis for the development of the classical doctrine of atonement. The above concerns, however, raise questions as to its importance within the canon, and within Christian doctrine. Is it still a book to be valued as “scripture”?