There is a strong sense of hope that permeates the word of exhortation that we know as the letter to the Hebrews. The section we are offered by the lectionary this coming Sunday focusses this theme: “let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful” (10:23).
There are earlier references to “the full assurance of hope” (6:11), the “sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain” (6:19)”. (There are further references to hope at 3:6; 6:18; 11:1.) It is the work of the high priest which brings believers “a better hope” (7:19) and assures them of their salvation—“without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (9:22).
This hope is the catalyst for the behaviour that is expected of believers: “let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds”(10:24). Throughout the book, the author of of this word of exhortation presses his audience to live a moral life in response to this message. This is sounded in an opening exhortation, which warns of penalties if the message is not heeded (2:1– 4). This warning is intensified by references to God’s anger in response to “an evil, unbelieving heart” (3:7–12), leading to the directive to “exhort one another every day” (3:13).
In his capacity as high priest, Jesus has “passed through the heavens”, resulting in a further encouragement, “let us approach the throne of grace with boldness” (4:14–16). See https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/05/a-great-high-priest-who-has-passed-through-the-heavens-hebrews-4-pentecost-20b/
More practical guidance regarding the behaviour which is expected of believers is set out in succinct commands: “let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another’ (10:24– 25); “pursue peace with everyone…see to it…that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble” (12:14–17).
A more extensive list of instructions appears in the final series of exhortations which close the sermon: “let mutual love continue…do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers…remember those who are in prison…let marriage be held in honour by all…keep your lives free from the love of money… remember your leaders…do not neglect to do good and to share what you have… obey your leaders and submit to them” (13:1–19).
The staccato style of these exhortations is reminiscent of that found in sections of Paul’s letters (Rom 12:9–21; 13:8–14; Gal 5:16–6:10; Phil 4:4–9; 1 Thess 5:12–22). Some scholars have used this observation to argue that Paul wrote Hebrews, but this holds no water, since this style appears also in James, Proverbs, and a number of pagan writers as well.
By contrast, a distinctive and well-loved feature of Hebrews is the lengthy exordium in praise of “so great a cloud of witnesses” (11:1–12:1), in which each attest to a vibrant faith in God. (Why, oh why, is a passage from this wonderful section of the work not included in the lectionary?)
The author begins with a tightly-worded definition of faith, using complex technical terms (11:1– 3), language most unlike Paul’s usual terminology. Then follows a lyrical description of the faith of numerous scriptural figures—Abel, Enoch and Noah (11:4–7), Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (11:8–12, 17–21), Moses, the people at the Red Sea, and Rahab (11:22–31), and many others (11:32– 38). Each of these figures shared the same fate: “they were strangers and foreigners on the earth” who “desired a better country, that is, a heavenly one”, and yet they each “died in faith without having received the promises” (11:13–16; see also 11:39).
These witnesses occupy a strategic place in the rhetoric of this sermon, as precursors to the actions of Jesus, through whom “God provided something better” (11:40). By his entrance into the heavenly realm, Jesus has been proven “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (12:2), an exalted status similar to earlier descriptions of him as “the apostle and high priest of our confession” (3:1), “a great high priest who has passed through the heavens” (4:14), “the mediator of a new covenant” which offers “the promised eternal inheritance” (9:15).
The hope of these witnesses points to the deeds of Jesus, which provide the motivation for the lyrical exhortation which draws this section to a close: “therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed” (12:12–13).
The deeds of Jesus also underlie the dramatic contrast which is drawn in the ensuing section; a contrast between the scene on Sinai, “something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet”, and the events on Mount Zion in “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem”, in the company of “innumerable angels in festal gathering…the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven…God the judge of all…the spirits of the righteous made perfect”, as Jesus sheds his blood as “the mediator of a new covenant” (12:18–24).
This event ensures that believers will receive “a kingdom that cannot be shaken” (12:28), in fulfilment of all that the witnesses of chapter 11 had hoped for. It leads once again to a concluding exhortation: “therefore…let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship” (12:28).
The sermon addressed to the Hebrews is a distinctive voice within the New Testament. It attests to an ongoing Jewish presence within the Jesus movement, whilst at the same time providing some of the data for forcing a separation between differing groups within this movement.
Not far beyond this sermon lies the partings of the ways, as rabbinic Judaism and catholic Christianity set out on their own pathways, leaving behind their shared origins and common concerns for moral living based on the revelation of scripture. It is the figure of Jesus which plays a crucial role as the catalyst for these partings.