Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith (Hebrews 11–12; Pentecost 10C)

The excerpt from chapters 11 and 12 of the letter to the Hebrews, offered by the lectionary this coming Sunday, concludes a long chapter of forty verses, providing a long list of the many witnesses who have lived their lives by faith. There was is a reference to Abraham and Sarah in the section we heard last week, but there is also mention of Abel and Enoch, Isaac and Jacob, Moses, Joshua and Rahab, Gideon and Barak, Samson and Jephthah, David and Samuel and the prophets—people who lived through many adventures, women who were faithful throughout their lives, martyrs who met an early death and rulers who bore responsibility for leading a nation.

These people are all drawn from the pages of our shared scriptures, the “heroes of the faith” from the stories of the Hebrew people. The excerpt offered this coming Sunday by the lectionary (Heb 11:29–12:2) canvasses many examples of faith, culminating in the opening verses of chapter 12, where the final example of faith which we are offered is the most familiar figure: “Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (12:2).

Faith, it is stated, is about what we cannot see, and what is not immediately evident in tangible ways when we look around us. We cannot point to an object, and claim: “there it is”. We cannot hold up a particular item, and say: “look at it ..? do you see it?” Because faith, in the end, is about what we value inside ourselves; it is about the qualities we hold dear, the principles by which we live.

And yet, in the stories offered in this reading, we are invited to consider what the writer of the letter to the Hebrews described as something which is “hoped for, but not seen”. This is a real thing, there is no doubt about it; but it cannot be documented or measured in specific, physical, tangible ways. It points us to something different, something other, than the obvious reality in front of our eyes. Faith, in the understanding of the author of this letter, invites us to look at the world in a different way; to perceive reality in a new fashion; to consider the evidence from an unfamiliar angle.

And in the story of Jesus, that faith becomes tangible, visible, knowable—a story filled with many details, a multitude of scenes, encounters, teachings, travels—all providing material that enable us to perceive of Jesus as a real, tangible human being, a fine example of faith.

*****

Three images of Jesus dominate the extended sermon which we know as the epistle to the Hebrews: Jesus as the pioneer of salvation, the great high priest, and the perfecter of faith.

These images are combined at key points (2:8b–11a; 5:7–10; 12:1–2), as they are developed in an interconnected fashion throughout the book. Their common point is the author’s focus on the death of Jesus on the cross (2:9; 5:7–8; 12:2). It is this “suffering of death” which transforms Jesus from his state of being “lower than the angels” to being “crowned with glory and honour” (2:9).

In his death, Jesus is the “pioneer of salvation” (2:10) who “endured the cross, disregarding its shame” (12:2). Through his death, Jesus “brings many children to glory” and is made “perfect through sufferings” (2:10). This image recurs in the claim that Jesus was made perfect after “he learned obedience through what he suffered” (5:8–9; see also 7:28; 12:2). It is this claim which undergirds the call for believers to “go on toward perfection” (6:1; see also 10:14; 11:40; 12:23).

The image of Jesus as the perfecter of faith is also related to the third image, of Jesus as the great high priest (4:14; 7:11). This image is firmly grounded in his humanity. Jesus shares “flesh and blood” with God’s children (2:14) and became like these humans “in every respect” (2:17). He has been “tested as we are” (4:15) and is chosen to be priest from among mortals (5:1, 5).

Yet this image also allows a place for the transcendent nature of Jesus. When he is designated high priest according to “the order of Melchizedek” (5:10; 6:20), Jesus 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).

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). This sacrifice 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 with a true heart in full assurance of faith” (10:19–22).

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).

A sense of hope thus permeates the sermon, with 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), “the confession of our hope” (10:23) which is undergirded with the assurance that it is offered by God, for “he who has promised is faithful”. (See other 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).

*****

Throughout the sermon, the author of Hebrews presses his audience to live a moral life in response to this message, beginning with 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).

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 (13:1–19). These exhortations are delivered in a sharp, staccato style, one after the other, in short, sharp bursts.

By contrast, a distinctive and well-loved feature of Hebrews is the lengthy paean in praise of “so great a cloud of witnesses” (11:1–12:1), in which each attest to a vibrant faith in God. The poem, as we have noted, offers many examples of faith from amongst this cloud of witnesses, culminating in

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).

As Sarah and Abraham travelled this journey, as pilgrim people; as Moses and the people escaped slavery and trod the long wilderness path to Canaan; as people conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, quenched raging fire, endured so, so many battles; as people were tortured, suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment, were stoned to death and were killed by the sword; as others were persecuted and tormented; and as Jesus “endured the cross, disregarding its shame”, so we also are invited to travel in similar manner – on a journey into the future, a journey infused with hope, a journey grounded in faith, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”, which was their fundamental resource for life. And so may it be for us.

*****

See also

And

Strangers and foreigners on the earth (Hebrews 11; Pentecost 9C)

This week and next, the lectionary leads us into distinctive and well-loved feature of Hebrews: a lengthy paean in praise of “so great a cloud of witnesses” (11:1–12:1), in which each witness attests to a vibrant faith in God.

The author begins this paean (a song of praise) with a tightly-worded definition of faith, using complex technical terms which were used in philosophical discussions: “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen … what is seen was made from things that are not visible” (11:1–3); after the consideration of numerous instances of such faith, the section moves to a climactic vision of Jesus as “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (12:1–2).

The language of 11:1–3 is most unlike Paul’s usual terminology—one of the clear clues that undermine the claim that Paul wrote this letter. That claim, made by some patristic writers, debunked by others, cannot be substantiated. This is an anonymous work by an unknown writer. See

Whoever wrote this letter—described at the end as a word of exhortation (13:22)—accorded great value to scripture (the works that we have collected as the Old Testament in our Bibles). In arguing the case for Jesus to be seen “as much superior to the angels as the name he inherited is more excellent than theirs [the prophets]” (1:3), the author initially draws from a number of psalms to make the point (1:5–13).

In subsequent sections, we find that the author discusses Ps 8 (Heb 2:5–18); compares Jesus with Moses using Num 12 and Ps 95 (Heb 3:1–19); combines two psalms (Ps 2:7 and 110:4) to identify Jesus as “high priest according to the order of Melchizedek” (Heb 4:14–5:10); and then returns to the story of Melchizedek from Gen 14, linked with Ps 110 (Heb 6:13–7:28).

In a lengthy discussion of the priestly role of Jesus (Heb 8:1–9:28), Lev 26 and Jer 31 are considered; in a further discussion (Heb 10:1–39), Ps 40 is canvassed, along with Jer 31 once again, and the 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). See emails at

Such faith is expounded with a series of lyrical descriptions 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), judges, prophets and kings (11:32–34), and many others (11:35–38). 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).

Two pages from Papyrus 13 (dated 225–250 CE),
containing Hebrew 2:14–5:5; 10:8–22; 10:29–11:13; 11:28–12:17

Faith is described as something which is “hoped for, but not seen” (11:1). Such faith is a real thing, there is no doubt about it; but it cannot be documented or measured in specific, physical, tangible ways. It points us to something different, something other, than the obvious reality in front of our eyes. Faith, in the understanding of the author of this letter, invites us to look at the world in a different way; to perceive reality in a new fashion; to consider the evidence from an unfamiliar angle.

The portrayal of the figures of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Jacob in this reading is striking: “they confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth … they made it clear that they were seeking a homeland” (11:13–14).

In other words, as they looked at the people and the places where they were living, these ancient people of faith held out a firm hope for the ultimate goal that lay beyond where they found themselves at that time. In the end, they were not going to be bound by the restraints and demands of the immediate, observable present. They had a faith which swept beyond the immediate; for their faith was in the promise that God had extended to them.

Sarah, Jacob, Isaac, Abraham: each could look at their neighbours, and see the dislocation, hurts, and needs of their society. But as they looked at their neighbours, they were able to grasp the ways in which they might change those situations; they sensed the ways in which they might offer compassionate hope, and begin to transform their companions.

In other words, they looked with the eyes of faith; what they saw was far more than the flesh and bones, the tents and animals, in front of their eyes. They were able to see what might be; they were able to live in faith because of their belief in what was to be. They held fast to the belief that there was “a heavenly country”, and that God had “prepared a city for them” (11:16). It was this faith, in what God was calling them to do, and to be, which motivated and sustained them in their journeys through life. They were future-oriented people, partifipating in a pilgrimage towards a future goal.

Indeed, this view of things has been at the heart of the identity of the Uniting Church, over the four decades since it was formed. In the Basis of Union, the Uniting Church is described as “a pilgrim people, always on the way towards a promised goal; here the Church does not have a continuing city but seeks one to come.” This attitude of openness and expectation towards the future is one that runs throughout many of the paragraphs of the Basis of Union. It is at the heart of who were are as a church; it is the essence of our DNA as a community of faith.

The same attitude of openness towards the future is also articulated at the very end of the Basis of Union, in the final paragraph: “The Uniting Church affirms that it belongs to the people of God on the way to the promised end. The Uniting Church prays that, through the gift of the Spirit, God will constantly correct that which is erroneous in its life, will bring it into deeper unity with other Churches, and will use its worship, witness and service to God’s eternal glory through Jesus Christ the Lord. Amen.”

This positive and hopeful orientation towards the future resonates with what we read in the word of exhortation of Hebrews, concerning the people of faith from past eras. To return to Sarah and Abraham: “If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return” (11:15), the writer warns. But they were not fixated onto the past; rather, they were oriented towards the future. It was not the land they had left, which motivated them; it was the promise of what was to come, that guided them. That was the essence of their faith.

As Sarah and Abraham travelled this journey, as pilgrim people, so we also are invited to travel in similar manner – on a journey into the future, a journey infused with hope, a journey grounded in faith, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”, which was their fundamental resource for life. And so may it be for us.

*****

See also

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.

*****

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

“You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek” (Heb 5:6 and 7:17, quoting Psalm 110:4). This is a distinctive teaching, found only here in the New Testament. What are we to make of it? Who is Melchizedek? How is he relevant to Jesus? Why is this relevant for us today?

The book we know as “the letter to the Hebrews” is a most distinctive work. It is regularly described as a letter, but it doesn’t follow many of the conventions of a Hellenistic letter. It claims to be a word of exhortation, but many long sections in the work are in fact didactic expositions, not pastoral encouragements.

Alone amongst the twenty one letters in the New Testament, this book makes no claim as to its author. It sits oddly amongst the thirteen letters of Paul, the three letters of John, the two letters of Peter, and the single letters of James and Jude. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/29/the-word-of-exhortation-that-exults-jesus-as-superior-hebrews-1-pentecost-19b/

Whilst Paul describes Jesus as a sacrifice, whose death offers us forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God, only Hebrews portrays Jesus as the priest who makes the sacrifice, slaughtering the sacrificial beast (2:17; 3:1; 5:1–6; 6:20; 7:26–28; 8:3; 10:12) and simultaneously as the victim, lying on the altar as the one whose blood is being shed (9:11–14; 9:26; 10:19; 12:24; 13:20). And only Hebrews makes the declaration noted above, that the nature of the priesthood of Jesus is that he is priest “according to the order of Melchizedek”.

Melchizedek is a Semitic name which is comprised of two separate words: melek, meaning king, and zedek, from tsedeqa, the Hebrew word for righteousness. These terms bring together two key aspects of life and faith for the ancient Israelites. The king was the ruler and leader, through whom the people were in covenant with God (2 Sam 7). Righteousness was the central characteristic of God, which was to be the central commitment of the people of Israel (Gen 18:19). So the king was to rule by righteousness (Psalm 72:1-4).

We meet Melchizedek, the king of righteousness, early in Genesis, when Abram is making his way from Egypt, where he went during the famine (Gen 12:10), through the Negev (Gen 13:1). Abram meets Melchizedek in a place named as The King’s Valley (Gen 14:17). It occurs after God had called Abram and Sarai from their life in Ur of the Chaldees (Gen 11:31) and before God makes a covenant with Abram (Gen 15), which Abram (at the ripe old age of 99 years) seals through the rite of circumcision (Gen 17).

The encounter with Melchizedek is a short interlude in the saga, immediately after Abram has recused his son Lot from a coalition of kings in the Mesopotamian region (Gen 14). Salem, of which he is said to be king (Gen 13:18), is very probably Jerusalem—Psalm 76:2 places Salem in parallel with Zion, pointing to this identification. And Jerusalem was the seat for King David and his descendants, so it makes sense that The King’s Valley would be in this area.

Melchizedek offers Abram bread and wine, and prays over him, conferring a blessing on him (Gen 14:19–20). It is the blessing of “El ʿElyon,” which is a name of Canaanite origin, probably designating the high god of their pantheon. Abram responds by offering Melchizedek a tithe (Gen 14:21), and is insistent that Melchizedek accept all that is offered.

In Roman Catholic tradition, the offering of bread and wine by Melchizedek is regarded as a “pre-presentation of the Mass”—a prefiguring of the sacrifice of Jesus celebrated in their liturgy. He is mentioned in the First Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass, and is remembered as a martyr each year on 26 August. However, the offering of a meal to troops returning from battle was simply a common practice at the time; see, for instance, the lavish meal provided for the returning troops of David at 2 Sam 17:27–29.

The portrayal of Abram as the leader of an army (Gen 14:13–16) which was able to defeat the forces of a coalition of many kings (Gen 14:8–9) is recognised as an anomaly; elsewhere in the section of Genesis recounting the saga of Abraham (Gen 12–25), there is no indication at all that Abram had any any warmongering tendency or any capacity to fight battles.

Because of this, Old Testament scholar Joseph Blenkinsopp has suggested that the story of Melchizedek was inserted into the narrative about Abram to give validity to the priesthood and tithes connected with the Second Temple, after the Exile (which was the period when the book of Genesis was compiled). The links are made in that the King of Salem blesses and breaks bread with the ancestor of David, king in Jerusalem, and confers a priestly blessing from one of the gods of the land on the ancestor, Abram, from whom the Levites descended and amongst whom the sacrificial system and tithing requirements evolved.

The story has a clear validating purpose for the patterns that are being (re)established amongst the returned exiles in Jerusalem. It explains why David set up his headquarters in Jerusalem, and established a priesthood there which would receive offerings from all the people under his control. That validated the claims of the priests as the administered and oversaw the sacrificial system of the Temple cult, for they were seen to be adhering to the pattern established long ago under David—and, indeed, demonstrated long before that, by Abram.

There is nothing else known about Melchizedek, either in the Hebrew Bible, or in other ancient texts. We have no genealogy of Melchizedek; he simply appears, blesses Abram, and disappears from the story. He serves his single purpose, and then is heard of no more.

Certainly, the unique role and distinctive character of Melchizedek—and perhaps his mysterious origins—have made him a character of fascination. And that has been intensified within Christianity, because of the way that the book of Hebrews equates Jesus with Melchizedek and puts them into parallel with each other.

The word of exhortation encourages those who received this “letter” to “hold fast to [their] confession” that they have “a great high priest who has passed through the heavens” (Heb 4:14; see https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/05/a-great-high-priest-who-has-passed-through-the-heavens-hebrews-4-pentecost-20b/)

Thus, Jesus is decreed to be son of God (Psalm 2:7, cited at Heb 5:5) and then “a priest forever” (Psalm 110:4, cited at Heb 5:6). Both psalms which are cited are royal psalms, considered to provide messianic indicators, and thus are picked up within New Testament writings to claim the significance of Jesus, son of God, priest of the new covenant.

These psalms feed into the line of interpretation which sees Jesus in exalted terms—in this book, at least—as the great high priest, the superior high priest, the perfect high priest, the one who is pioneer and perfecter of our faith. And that line runs on beyond the New Testament, into other sects and cults that accord prominence to Melchizedek.

Viewed in this light, some interpreters press the point, making the analogy claim that, “just as Abraham, the ancestor of the Levites, paid a tithe to Melchizedek and was therefore his inferior, so the Melchizedek-like priesthood of Christ is superior to that of the Levites. Furthermore, just as the Old Testament assigns no birth or death date to Melchizedek, so is the priesthood of Christ eternal.” See https://www.britannica.com/biography/Melchizedek

But for myself, that is pressing the point too far, and wringing every tiny drop of significance out of something that I see more as an exotic reference to an ancient tale—a story that is not historical, but was crafted for its own apologetic purposes amongst the returned exiles in Jerusalem. It’s a little bit of New Testament exotica. Thanks, Hebrews!!

*****

See also ten facts about Melchizedek:

1. Only three books of the Bible mention Melchizedek

2. The New Testament says more about Melchizedek than the Old Testament

3. Melchizedek is a contemporary of Abraham’s

4. Melchizedek has no recorded family

5. Melchizedek was a priest of God Most High

6. Melchizedek gives blessings (or at least one)

7. Melchizedek is the king of Salem

8. Melchizedek’s name means “king of righteousness”

9. The order of Melchizedek is royal and everlasting

10. Melchizedek was greater than Abraham and Aaron

https://overviewbible.com/melchizedek-facts/

See