Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Hebrews 3

Hebrews 3:1-6: In 2:17, the writer has called Jesus a “merciful and faithful high priest.” In the coming sections of this work he will elaborate on these themes. Here the focus is on Jesus as a faithful one. The readers – “holy partners in a heavenly calling” (the terms are endearing as well as inviting – the writer wants to keep his readers in the partnership) – are to consider Jesus, “the apostle and high priest of our confession.” Just as Hebrews is the only work to call Jesus a high priest, so it is also the only work in which Jesus is called “apostle” (one sent).

Jesus was faithful to his calling from God, just as Moses was faithful. The writer does not denigrate the Jewish tradition, but he does argue for the superiority of Christian faith. We need to remember the context, a group of Jewish Christians who have suffered for their faith are tempted to abandon it for a more traditional understanding of Judaism than the one they adopted when they became Christian. We need to be careful, then, in our own context. I am not sure these arguments should be used to argue the absolute superiority of Christianity to Judaism. It strikes me that doing so would be to de-contextualize them dramatically. Rather, I prefer a reading which allows that the writer is encouraging people to stay true to Jesus because in Jesus that already have everything they would have by returning to a previous Judaic understanding of their relationship with God. The writer argues for the superiority of Jesus to Moses by using an analogy of a house and its builder. God is viewed as the ultimate builder of all, and Jesus is associated with this work. Moses is seen as part of that which is built. Moses was a servant and Jesus a son, to use another analogy. The primary point of these comparisons, which don’t grab me as much as they may have grabbed the original readers is found in verse 6: “if we hold firm the confidence and the pride the belong to hope” (“keep a firm grip on this bold confidence” The Message).

Hebrews 3:7-19: To make his case stronger, the writer quotes Psalm 95:7b-11 in verses 7-11. He begins by asserting that the Holy Spirit speaks through these words to the readers. That view of Scripture, that God uses its words to speak to the community of faith, remain important to all Christians. While Christians disagree on the nature of Scripture and how precisely to read it, we agree that God’s Spirit can continue to speak to us through these words. Why else spend all this time reading through the New Testament?

Psalm 95 begins as a Psalm of praise but concludes with a call to pay attention and a warning from Biblical history about the cost of not paying attention. The Psalm recalls the wilderness wandering of the Hebrew people. With verse 12, the author of Hebrews begins his sermonic commentary on the Psalm passage he has just quoted. The point remains the same as that made in verse 6 – hold firm. If the readers abandon Christianity and return to their former Judaism, they will be turning “away from the living God.” This is part of the author’s urgent admonition and does not mean that God was no longer to be found in Judaism. (New Interpreter’s Study Bible) Hold on, don’t let your heart become hard. The author refers back to the Psalm and the story behind it of the wilderness wandering. “Unbelief is here unfaithfulness rather than intellectual doubt” (New Interpreter’s Study Bible)

Many Christians today were raised in homes that were Christian to one extent or another. We may find these arguments about not reverting to a previous faith a little distant from our reality. Maybe there is something to be learned even in our circumstances. Sometimes we find teachings or practices from other religious traditions attractive to some degree. I find a great deal of wisdom in certain Buddhist writings, for instance. What would happen if I were to abandon my Christian faith for Buddhism? It would mean starting over again in another tradition. I might hop from faith to faith, and in so doing never plumb the depths of any tradition’s teachings about life and relationship to God. Instead, by staying faithful to my Christian faith, and finding within it some of the things I find attractive in Buddhist writings, a different kind of growth is possible. In engaging in this thought experiment, I am not trying to be a complete religious relativist. As a Christian, I witness to the profundities of my faith and how I encounter God as a Christian. I believe there are things in my faith which commend it to others, especially to others who have not been practicing within their own tradition. So I seek to remain a faithful Christian. I witness to my faith. I exhort others.

Hebrews 4

Hebrews 4:1-11: Continuing to refer to the Psalm and the story behind the Psalm (entering the rest is a reference to the Hebrew people entering the promised land), the writer asserts that a rest is available even now. “Rest” here becomes synonymous with being a part of God’s people, a part of God’s work in the world, being a part of God’s saving work. This has both present and future dimensions. The readers are encouraged to “take care” so they do not fail to reach it. The rest, is, in part, “a deeper kind of spiritual rest intended to be the possession of Christians” (New Interpreter’s Study Bible).

The Israelites had received good news, but did not receive it with faith. To “take care” seems to mean to have faith, and faith is demonstrated in remaining faithful. The “rest” image is taken in a new direction, now referring to God’s rest at the conclusion of creation. The writer flips back and forth between Scripture references and images, sometimes in a confusing manner. The basic point remains – have faith, keep the faith, hold firm with bold confidence.

Hebrews 4:12-13: The writer has been interpreting the Scriptures, and pauses to make a point about these sacred writings, but also about the Spirit of God which speaks through these writings. The focus is not the writings but the activity of God’s Spirit – alive and active, penetrating to the depth of the human heart and mind. The writer is encouraging the reader to listen, to take care, to pay attention – and that includes attentiveness to the inner life. Faith and faithfulness are intended to reach deep into the human heart and mind, and God’s active Spirit reaches us there. These are justly famous words that can be Spirit words to us, as well.

Hebrews 4:14-16: The writer now returns to an image he left back in chapter 2 – Jesus as high priest. There he referred to Jesus as a merciful and faithful high priest, and he has been exploring the meaning of “faithfulness.” This high priest is Son of God and has been in the presence of God, like the high priest in the Temple – but as a son. Again the message – hold on. Not only has Jesus “passed through the heavens” an allusion to the work of a priest in the Temple, but he is also sympathetic to our plight. The result of the combination of these images is not only the exhortation to keep the faith, but also an invitation to approach God boldly, to receive mercy and grace. Significant elements of the Christian faith are found in these few verses. Our faith always includes the encouragement to keep living it out, to keep at it, to let all that we do be done in love. It also always includes the invitation to find forgiveness, mercy and grace. In the fullness of the Christian faith there is rest and there is effort (v. 11: “make every effort to enter that rest”), there is doing and there is being. Combining these in the right way at the right time in our lives is the on-going adventure of living as God’s people in Jesus Christ.

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