The assurance of hope in “the word of exhortation” (Hebrews 10: Pentecost 25B)

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.

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See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/29/the-word-of-exhortation-that-exults-jesus-as-superior-hebrews-1-pentecost-19b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/05/a-great-high-priest-who-has-passed-through-the-heavens-hebrews-4-pentecost-20b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/12/a-priest-forever-after-the-order-of-melchizedek-hebrews-5-pentecost-21b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/27/the-perfect-high-priest-who-mediates-a-better-covenant-hebrews-9-pentecost-23b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/11/02/the-superior-high-priest-who-provides-the-better-sacrifices-hebrews-9-pentecost-24b/

The superior high priest who provides “the better sacrifices” (Hebrews 9; Pentecost 24B)

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.

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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.

*****

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/29/the-word-of-exhortation-that-exults-jesus-as-superior-hebrews-1-pentecost-19b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/05/a-great-high-priest-who-has-passed-through-the-heavens-hebrews-4-pentecost-20b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/12/a-priest-forever-after-the-order-of-melchizedek-hebrews-5-pentecost-21b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/27/the-perfect-high-priest-who-mediates-a-better-covenant-hebrews-9-pentecost-23b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/11/02/the-superior-high-priest-who-provides-the-better-sacrifices-hebrews-9-pentecost-24b/

The perfect high priest who mediates “a better covenant” (Hebrews 9; Pentecost 23B)

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”?

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/29/the-word-of-exhortation-that-exults-jesus-as-superior-hebrews-1-pentecost-19b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/05/a-great-high-priest-who-has-passed-through-the-heavens-hebrews-4-pentecost-20b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/12/a-priest-forever-after-the-order-of-melchizedek-hebrews-5-pentecost-21b/

The assurance of hope in “the word of exhortation” (Hebrews 10: Pentecost 25B)

A great high priest who “has passed through the heavens” (Hebrews 4; Pentecost 20B)

“We have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, so let us hold fast to our confession; for we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (Heb 4:14–15).

In this way, the anonymous author of the word of encouragement written to the Hebrews highlights what will be come the overriding image, the dominating theme, of the whole book. (On the nature of this book, see https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/29/the-word-of-exhortation-that-exults-jesus-as-superior-hebrews-1-pentecost-19b/)

The author has already identified Jesus as “a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people” (2:17), the “apostle and high priest of our confession” (3:1). The claim that Jesus was a sinless high priest (4:15) is striking. He is being placed at a level above and beyond the already high level of the Jewish high priest. This is the foundation for the argument that is proposed and developed in subsequent chapters

When Jesus is designated high priest according to “the order of Melchizedek” (5:10; 6:20), he is understood to be the high priest who has “passed through the heavens” (4:14) and is “holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens” (7:26). We will come back to the mysterious Melchizedek next week.

As Jesus is seated at God’s right hand (8:1), he is able to enter into the holy place of “the greater and perfect tent” (9:11–12) to offer the sacrifice which “makes perfect those who approach” (10:1, 14). The comparison is made using the long-existing system of offerings and sacrifices which were integral to the Israelite practice of religion.

The Temple was the central point of faith for the people; it was the focus of pilgrimage at festival times, the place where priests mediated between the people and God through the offerings and sacrifices, the place where the rich liturgical life of ancient Israel was developed (as we see in the psalms).

The comparison that is made is stark: the earlier Jewish system of offering sacrifices is exposed as flawed, insufficient, and now rendered redundant. We will return to this element of the comparison in a later post, when we consider again the picture of Jesus as priest in this word of exhortation (the letter to the Hebrews).

The purpose of using the imagery of sacrifice and priesthood in this book is not intentionally negative towards the Jewish sacrificial system. The 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 work is not unique in drawing on the language of the sacrificial cult. The death of Jesus is interpreted in language drawn from the sacrificial practices of Israel. He is the one “who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age” (Gal 1:4), who “loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph 5:2), who “gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds” (Titus 2:14).

Paul draws on the sacrificial system of the Temple when he encourages the followers of Jesus “to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1-2). He points to his own life as an example, saying that “I am being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and the offering of your faith” (Phil 2:17), and then encouraging the Philippians that, “in the same way, you also must be glad and rejoice with me” (Phil 2:18).

In another letter attributed to him, but more likely written at a later time by one of his followers, invoking his name to claim his authority, this line of instruction recurs. The saints addressed in the letter allegedly written to the Ephesians directs that they are to “live in love, as Christ loved us”, following the author’s example of living as “a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph 5:2).

The Gospel writers use language drawn from the sacrificial cult describe Jesus; most obviously, in the description of Jesus as “the lamb of God” (John 1:29, 36)—there was an unblemished lamb offered daily at the Temple in sacrifice (Exod 29:38–46). The saying that the Son of Man came “to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45) uses the language of the cult (Exod 21:30); that language is used to describe the effect of the death of Jesus in later letters (Eph 1:17; 1 Tim 2:6; 1 Pet 1:18–19).

The language of covenant, used in the accounts of the last meal that Jesus shared with his followers (Mark 14:24; Matt 26:28; Luke 22:20; 1 Cor 11:25) itself draws from the foundational understanding of the people of Israel. This covenant was the very heart of their relationship with God that undergirded the sacrificial system of the people of Israel (Exod 24:1–8; Lev 26, see verses 9, 15, 25, 40–45). At its heart, the remembrance of the body broken and the blood shed at the final meal of Jesus—the central enduring ritual within the Christian church—continues to evoke the sacrificial practices of ancient Israel.

The way that the idea is developed in Hebrews, however, is curious. Paradoxically, Jesus both stands in the place of the priest slaughtering the sacrificial beast (2:17; 3:1; 5:1–6; 6:20; 7:26–28; 8:3; 10:12) and simultaneously lies on the altar as the one whose blood is being shed (9:11–14; 9:26; 10:19; 12:24; 13:20). Although the details of the imagery are confused, there is a consistently firm assertion developed through this image: Jesus is the assurance of salvation (2:10; 5:9; 10:22).

The use of this idea throughout the book is a piece of contextual theology. It makes use of ideas and practices well-known in the world of the time, to explain the significance of Jesus and to interpret the meaning of his death.

Portraying Jesus as priest is intended to provide comfort to the readers. As the great High Priest, Jesus is now able to broker the relationship between believers and God, in the way that the High Priest did for centuries. That Jesus is the high priest who has “passed through the heavens” (Heb 4:14) provides strong assurance.

Portraying him as victim, however, seeks to make sense of the brutal death of Jesus, suffocating to death of the cross, his dead body laid in a tomb. This death was not in vain; it is effective in securing God’s forgiveness and grace, just as the victims sacrificed in the temple cult removed the sins and provided forgiveness to those who brought those sacrifices. The sacrifice of Jesus “makes perfect those who approach” (Heb 10:1). And because the one who is sacrificed is the same one as the perfect priest making the sacrifice, “by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified” (Heb 10:14).

The logic is strange, to us; to the author of Hebrews, it obviously made perfect sense.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/29/the-word-of-exhortation-that-exults-jesus-as-superior-hebrews-1-pentecost-19b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/05/a-great-high-priest-who-has-passed-through-the-heavens-hebrews-4-pentecost-20b/

A priest forever, “after the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 5; Pentecost 21B)

https://johntsquires.com/2021/11/02/the-superior-high-priest-who-provides-the-better-sacrifices-hebrews-9-pentecost-24b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/11/08/the-assurance-of-hope-in-the-word-of-exhortation-hebrews-10-pentecost-25b/

The ‘word of exhortation’ that exults Jesus as superior (Hebrews 1; Pentecost 19B)

This week, the lectionary takes us into the book of Hebrews—by tradition, considered to be a letter to Jewish believers. Yet this book does not show any clear formal signs of being a letter until right at the very end. There is no opening address; throughout the work, neither author nor recipients are ever identified. The “letter” contains no thanksgiving, no sharing of news at its start, as letters normally did at that time.

Instead, this book begins with a poetic preface, elegantly balancing a series of affirmations; first, about God (long ago God spoke … in these last days God has spoken), and then, about God’s Son (appointed heir … the reflection of God’s glory … the exact imprint of God’s very being). Each of these sections ends with a further affirmation about this Son (he is the agent of God’s creation … he sustains all things). The final section offers more about the Son (he made purification … he sat down at the right hand of the Most High … he became superior to the angels).

This poetic preface (1:1–4) provides a compact statement of the significance of Jesus. This is part of this Sunday’s lectionary passage (1:1–4, 2:5–12). It sets out the position of the author of this book quite clearly: the Son—soon to be identified with Jesus (2:9)—is superior to the angels, with a name more excellent than theirs (1:4). The motif of superiority and greater excellence permeates this work.

After this poetic opening, the work plunges into a didactic string of scripture citations (1:5–14), supporting the claim of the superiority of the Son. This is followed by the first of many direct exhortations (2:1–4), encouraging the readers to “pay greater attention to what we have heard” (2:1). The pattern of alternating teaching and exhortation continues for thirteen chapters, until the final appeal brings the work to an end with a benediction (13:20–21) and a rapid sequence of news, greetings and a final blessing (13:22–25). Finally, right at the very end, the work looks like a letter!

Like the “letter” of Jude, the “letter” to the Hebrews is actually much closer in form and function to a sermon; but it does not share the sectarian aggression of Jude. Like the “letter” of James, the “letter” to the Hebrews provides numerous exhortations and encouragements; indeed, at its end, its author identifies it simply as “a word of exhortation” (13:22).

The author is most certainly not Paul, as some ancient church writers maintained. Despite claims that the work was written by various individuals mentioned in other New Testament books (Apollos? Priscilla? Silvanus?), it is not possible to be absolutely certain about the identity of the author. The single reference to a known individual, Timothy, in the closing greetings (13:23), does not guarantee that the work came from Paul, an associate of Paul, or even a Pauline circle.

Three suggestions for the author of the word of exhortation to the Hebrews: Apollos, Priscilla, and Silvanus. But none of them can be proven
to have been the author.

The use of a refined Greek style, the intense engagement with Hebrew scripture, and the use of typological interpretation (for instance, 8:1–7, 13; 10:1, 11–13) together suggest an educated Hellenistic Jew who had come to faith in Jesus as Messiah and was a powerful preacher of the Gospel.

Somebody like Apollos would be quite apposite to be named as author—he was “an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures … he spoke with burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus” (Acts 18:24–25). Indeed, we learn further that “he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the scriptures that the Messiah is Jesus” (Acts 18:28).

I would love for Apollos to be proven as the author of this word of exhortation. However, apart from the similarity of rhetorical style and interpretive method in Hebrews, there is nothing explicit that will allow us to pin the authorship on the powerful rhetorician, Apollos of Alexandria.

The writer of Hebrews, whoever they are, notes that the message of salvation was “declared at first through the Lord, [then] attested by those who heard him” (2:3), thus acknowledging a chain of tradition lying behind the work. This indicates that it was probably written towards the end of the first century (and thus, a few decades later than when Apollos was active). But by whom, exactly, remains speculation.

Likewise, the precise identity of the recipients cannot be known, although some things can be said about them in rather general terms. The reference to “city” (13:14) might suggest an urban context, whilst notes of the good works carried out by the recipients (10:34; 13:16) and a warning to avoid “the love of money” (13:5) might point to a group with a degree of wealth. But these are fragile links, which can’t be definitive in identifying the audience.

The author indicates that the recipients had experienced “a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to abuse and persecution” (10:32–33)—although not to the point of sacrificing their lives (12:4). As a result of this, some may have “drifted away” (2:1) or “fallen away” (6:4–6) from their faith.

There are occasional flashes of scathing rhetoric in referring to these people: they are in danger of having an “evil, unbelieving heart” and “hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (3:12–13), or they are “crucifying again the Son of God and are holding him up to contempt” (6:6), or they have “spurned the Son of God, profaned the blood of the covenant by which they were sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of grace” (10:29). This is powerful rhetoric.

Elsewhere, however, the author describes such people in more subdued tones, as being “dull in understanding” (5:11) and needing someone to teach them (5:12). This is the task that is undertaken in this word of exhortation.

So this anonymous work to the Hebrews, as we have noted, opens with a soaring poetic description which sets out the hermeneutical stance of the author, as well as the centrality of Jesus in the schema which is to be expounded (1:1–4). Images in these verses are drawn consistently from Hebrew Scripture.

The verses portray a continuing relationship between God and humanity, which has come to a point of fulfilment in “a Son”. What is claimed of this Son has an all-encompassing scope. A number of images are used, pointing to other sections of New Testament texts where traditional Jewish ideas are pressed into the service of proclaiming Jesus.

The imagery of word is central in 1:1–4; this image derives from the prophetic figure of Israel and from the seminal text of Gen 1, and is also prominent at John 1:1–18. Jesus is claimed to be God’s word “in these last days” who “sustains all things” (1:3). As God’s word, Jesus is the one who “created the worlds”, in the same way that Wisdom is the co-worker with God in the process of creation in Proverbs 8, the Wisdom of Solomon, and Sirach 24.

A second image depicts the Son as reflecting the divine glory, the physical manifestation of God’s presence. This image hearkens back to wilderness stories in Exodus and Numbers and receives its clearest New Testament expression at Col 1:15–20. More than this, it is claimed that the Son is “the exact imprint of God’s very being” (1:3), terminology similar to that used in Jewish wisdom literature such as the Wisdom of Solomon 7.

A third term uses cultic imagery to assert that the Son has “made purification for sins” (1:3); the need for purity is familiar from Leviticus and Deuteronomy and runs through the ethical exhortations of Paul. The cultic dimension of understanding the role of Jesus will assume huge proportions as the word of exhortation develops. The image of Jesus as the great high priest will provide the dominant framework for understanding the person and work of Jesus.

A fourth image refers to the Son as having been “appointed heir of all things” (1:2). The language of inheritance reflects a concern of the patriarchal narratives of Genesis—where expected and surprising lines of inheritance are narrated—as well as language picked up by Paul at Rom 8:12–17.

Finally, the superiority of this Son is explicitly asserted, insofar as he has inherited a name “more excellent” than the names of the angels (1:4). He now rests at the right hand of God, a location recognised as a position of power in Exodus 15 and the Psalms, as well as in sayings of Jesus. This motif of superiority—indeed, even supercession—runs throughout the book, and provides both a central element of its theology, and a disturbing dimension of its rhetoric.

This collection of imagery strongly suggests that the author of this book was located within a strongly Jewish sector of the ongoing movement of the followers of Jesus. The arguments advanced in this book reflect the growing tensions and disagreements within the Jewish arena, as the followers of Jesus clash with the teachers of Judaism. We’ll explore those arguments in posts in subsequent weeks.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/05/a-great-high-priest-who-has-passed-through-the-heavens-hebrews-4-pentecost-20b/

A priest forever, “after the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 5; Pentecost 21B)

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/27/the-perfect-high-priest-who-mediates-a-better-covenant-hebrews-9-pentecost-23b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/11/02/the-superior-high-priest-who-provides-the-better-sacrifices-hebrews-9-pentecost-24b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/11/08/the-assurance-of-hope-in-the-word-of-exhortation-hebrews-10-pentecost-25b/