In explaining the importance of Jesus as priest and sacrifice, the section of Hebrews that is provided by the lectionary for this coming Sunday (Heb 9:24–28) articulates an uncompromising criticism of the Jewish sacrificial system. There are four components to this criticism, drawn through a series of contrasts.
The first contrast drawn relates to the nature of the sanctuary in which the priest operates: “Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf”.
The second contrast deals with matters of time and repetition: “Nor was it to offer himself again and again, as the high priest enters the Holy Place year after year with blood that is not his own; for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world.”
The third point is made in a simple, direct affirmation: “But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself.”
And then, another contrast, relating to judgment: “And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.”
The author considers that the law “has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the true form of these realities” and therefore cannot provide those who seek to approach God with “perfection” (10:1; the Greek is teleiōsai).
The technique of typology is used to interpret scripture throughout this sermon. In this technique, the words of the text are considered to provide a pattern for a greater truth or a spiritual meaning which is not immediately evident in the literal words. Heb 8:5 cites Exod 25:40, a passage including the Greek word typos (literally, the mark made by a hammer in a soft piece of wood) which the NRSV translates “pattern”. Finding a key to unlocking the interpretation of the text is thus essential.
For the author of this sermon, the key lies in the superiority of Jesus (1:4; 7:7). This is worked out in a series of passages which take a scriptural text as the basis for claims made about Jesus. The scripture passages point to various aspects of Jesus; but more than this, the belief in the superiority of Jesus is the key which unlocks the true meaning of the scripture passages which are cited. We can see this interlocking hermeneutic at work in a series of teaching sections in this sermon “to the Hebrews”.
❖ Heb 1:5–13 cites seven passages, mostly from the Psalms, to support the claim of the superiority of Jesus, for he is God’s son, worshipped by angels, place over all, seated at God’s right hand.
❖ Heb 2:5–18 reinforces this claim, drawing on further passages, of which Ps 8:5–7 is prominent, asking “what are human beings that you are mindful of them?” Jesus is pictured as “now crowned with honour and glory” over the angels, who themselves rule over humanity (2:9).
❖ A brief exegesis of Num 12:7 (Heb 3:1–6), concerning the faithfulness of Moses, leads into a forceful exhortation (Heb 3:7–4:13) which revolves around the key scriptural text of Ps 95:7–8 (quoted at Heb 3:7, 3:15 and 4:7), “today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts”. Obedience is crucial.
❖ Heb 4:14–5:10 combines two psalms (Ps 2:7 and 110:4) to identify Jesus as “designated by God as a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek” (5:10). Jesus is of a different, higher order.
❖ After an excursus in which the hearers are reminded of the importance of seeking perfection (5:11–6:12), the sermon to the Hebrews turns its attention back to the mysterious scriptural figure of Melchizedek (6:13–7:28). Melchizedek was not a Levite, but he received tithes from Abraham (Gen 14:18–20), as Heb 7:1–2 reports; this priestly role may explain why he provides a model for interpreting Jesus (another non-Levite) as a priest. This extended discussion returns to Ps 110:4 (at Heb 7:17 and 7:21) as it is the key text undergirding this section.
❖ A lengthy discussion of the priestly role of Jesus follows (8:1–9:28). This section deals with the inadequacies of the first covenant, revolving around the prophetic text about the gift of a “new covenant” (Jer 31:31–34, cited in full at Heb 8:8–12). The author builds an aggressive case against the first covenant, in order to persuade the audience of the many virtues of Jesus, the new priest who is “mediator of a new covenant” (9:15).
Part of this discussion contrasts the ritual of the Day of Atonement (described in Lev 26) with the sacrifice offered by Jesus (9:1–14). The former took place in “an earthly sanctuary” (9:1), but the latter takes place in “the greater and perfect tent” (9:11). The argument continues (9:15–28) by claiming that the sacrifices of priests must be offered “again and again” (9:25), but Jesus “has appeared once for all” (9:26) and thereby “entered into heaven itself” (9:24).
❖ Yet another extended discussion (10:1–39) continues this polemic by arguing that the sacrifices of the first covenant fail to achieve their goal, as Ps 40:6–8 claims (cited at Heb 10:5–6). What Jesus has done, in offering a single sacrifice through his death (10:12), is to enact the new covenant (Jer 31:31, cited at Heb 10:16) and thus provide believers with confident access to God (10:19–23).
This claim is, in turn, reinforced by another series of scripture citations (10:26–39), culminating in a famous prophetic assertion, “my righteous one will live by faith” (Hab 2:3–4, cited at Heb 10:37–38; we find it also at Rom 1:17 and Gal 3:11).
❖ Such faith is then expounded in another long section of the sermon (11:1–12:2). This faith is introduced by a concise and complex definition of “faith” (“the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”, 11:1–3) and concludes with an inspiring vision of Jesus as “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (12:1–2). The bulk of this section of the sermon refers to numerous “witnesses” to this faith, drawn from a plethora of scriptural stories.
❖ Further exhortations in the sermon derive their motivation from scriptural texts. Prov 3:11–12 is the focal point for Heb 12:3–11; and a cluster of reassuring words from scripture, cited at 13:5–6, fuel the string of exhortations in Heb 13:1–17.
From this survey, we can see that the argument of the sermon, as a whole, is intricately bound up with “the word of God”, as given expression in the Hebrew Scriptures. Both teaching and exhortation gain momentum from scriptural citations and allusions.
As well, it is clear that the author of this sermon has a definite and unbending perspective on the relative value of old and new covenants. The author is in no doubt that Jesus is the one who shows the way to God, and must therefore be followed as the supreme example for people of faith. It’s a clear, direct, confronting message.
This language in Hebrews can lead from a sense of superiority in Christianity, to an attitude of supersessionism with regard to Judaism—“Jesus came to replace the old covenant; all of that is now obsolete, superseded, irrelevant”. By such an attitude, the living faith of Judaism is summarily dismissed. Of course, this is not the only text that provides warrant for such an interpretation; other parts of the New Testament can be, and have been, read in this manner.
For myself, I don’t see this as a valid way of interpreting these passages—taking a strand of the argument, isolating it from the literary and historical context in which it was written, and using it for ideological purposes in today’s context.
In my own denomination, the Uniting Church in Australia, we have adopted a statement concerning our relationships with Jewish people (see https://assembly.uca.org.au/rof/resources/learn-more/item/2658-jews-and-judaism)
This statement affirms that “Judaism is a living faith today, and was at the time of Jesus, possessed of its own integrity and vitality within its own developing traditions” (2), and that “historically, understandings of Judaism have been imposed from without, and that Judaism should be understood on its own terms” (3).
It goes on to assert that “antisemitism in all its expressions is an affront to the gospel of Jesus Christ” (8) and that “the Uniting Church does not accept Christian teaching that is derogatory towards Jews and Judaism; that belief that God has abolished the covenant with the Jewish people; [and] supersessionism, the belief that Christians have replaced Jews in the love and purpose of God” (16–18).
So that invites us to read Hebrews carefully, in context, with sensitivity to Jewish brothers and sisters , within our current context.