Saturday, March 29, 2008

Hebrews 7

Hebrews 7:1-10: Here we being the longest discursive section of Hebrews. Exhortation will not come again until chapter 10. In this section the writer develops the image of Jesus Christ as high priest.

The writer of Hebrews comes now to an earlier delayed subject: the high-priestly ministry of Christ. Nothing in the Gospel traditions of the preacher, teacher, exorcist Jesus provided a basis adequate to support a high-priestly Christology [“Christology” is the technical word used for a theology about Jesus as the Christ]. After all, Jesus was not a Levite, and never in his visit or visits to the temple in Jerusalem is he in the role of a priest. The writer looks, then, not to those accounts but to Psalm 110:4 for an exegetical foundation. The author goes back to the priesthood of Melchizedek to ground a priestly Christology in Jewish Scriptures and, most importantly, in the plan of God before there ever was a tabernacle or a Levitical priest. (People’s New Testament Commentary)

Again, what we have is an attempt to try and explain the meaning and significance of Jesus to a particular group of people – Jewish Christians, many tempted to return to some form of the Judaism they had moved away from. This is creative work on the part of a writer. We can learn from these images and be inspired by them for our own faith. We should also look to example of the writer himself and be creative in our own theological understanding of the meaning of Jesus for our lives and our relationship to God. Part of the creative genius in these chapters is the way the writer grounds the priesthood of Jesus in an image that existed before the Temple. If the Judaism to which some were tempted to return was a Judaism centered in Temple sacrifice, the writer here reminds the readers that a priesthood faithful to God preceded the Temple. He then argues that Jesus is a high priest of this type.

King Melchizedek of Salem – obscure figures of the Old Testament whose portraits are very briefly sketched or whose stories contain elements of mystery attracted great interest in subsequent generations…. The shadowy and mysterious Melchizedek belongs in this company. (People’s New Testament Commentary) If we think this strange or primitive, all we need do to remind ourselves of this continuing phenomenon is utter the name “Jabez.” His two verses in I Chronicles 4 have spawned a small cottage industry.

King Melchizidek was king of righteousness and king of peace – titles also appropriate for Christ. That we know nothing of his parents or his death makes him a mysterious forerunner of Jesus as the Christ. Because his death is not recorded, he remains a priest forever. As a priest he blesses Abraham – and the one who blesses is greater than the one who is blessed. The writer even claims that Levi, to whom all priest trace their beginning, paid a tithe to Melchizedek in the tithe given by Abraham. These are fascinating rhetorical flourishes. Jesus inspired and inspires wonderful creativity.

Hebrews 7:11-28: The writer continues to compare the Levitical/Temple priesthood with the priesthood of Melchizedek. He argues that the Levitical priesthood must have been lacking in some way for their to be another order of priests – a reference to Psalm 110. Jesus descended from Judah and not from Levi, but he is a priest in this other order, the order of Melchizedek, and became a priest not because of his genealogy but because of “the power of an indestructible life” (verse 16). This is probably a reference to the resurrection. This forever priesthood of Jesus is better than the Levitical priesthood, according to the writer – it introduces a better hope “through which we approach God” (verse 19). In Jesus we have a “better covenant.” Jesus priesthood is forever and continuous – he lives. Furthermore, he need not offer sacrifices again and again, but has already made the ultimate sacrifice in giving his own life.

Hebrews 8

Hebrews 8:1-13: The writer continues to develop the theme of Jesus as a high priest in the order of Melchizedek and continues to argue for the superiority of this priestly ministry over the Temple priesthood. Keep in mind the polemic context of these writings, where the author is encouraging Jewish Christians to continue on in their Jewish Christian faith. It is also helpful to remember that other forms of Judaism were developing forms of that faith that were significantly less focused on sacrifice and the Temple, e.g. Pharisaical Judaism which formed the basis for rabbinical Judaism.

The main point, the author says, is that in Christian faith, we have a high priest, a high priest like he has been describing. You want a high priest in your faith – it's in there with Christianity. He further argues that the tent this high priest serves is better than the earthly Temple – it is the heavenly tent made by God. This is metaphoric language, again comparing the superiority of Jesus Christ as a high priest to the Levitical priesthood. The ministry of Jesus is a more excellent ministry. Jesus is the mediator of a better covenant, one that was needed. The writer refers to prophetic literature to make this point (Jeremiah 31:31-34). The writer argues that this new covenant has made the first one obsolete – “and what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear.” We should be careful not to make this statement the definitive judgment of Christianity on Judaism. Much of what the writer is arguing against disappeared within rabbinic Judaism as well. The author’s point is to encourage a community of faith to keep the faith.

Hebrews 9

Hebrews 9:1-22: The author has shifted slightly from a focus on Jesus as high priest to the worship requirements of the Levitical priesthood and the Temple – elements of the “first covenant.” The writer rehearses some of the requirements of the Temple system. The writer then uses the “two tent” set up of the Temple to make an analogy. In the first tent, sacrifices and rituals take place continuously to maintain ritual purity – and this is symbol to the writer of “the present time” – an imperfect time, a not-yet time. Christ is a priest of the perfect time, of the time when the promise is fulfilled. He goes into the Holy of holies and remains there, unlike the Levitical high priest who goes in once a year. He offers his own life as the sacrifice. This is metaphoric language for trying to grasp the significance of Jesus and of his shameful and painful death. It is one lens for viewing Jesus death, but it need not be the only such lens. Too often we in the Christian community have let this language become dominant, failing to understand that this language had a context. For most moderns, the entire notion of a sacrificial system as a way to relate to God is difficult to comprehend. The most important point is that through his life and death and resurrection, Jesus has purified our conscience so that we can worship and live for the living God (verse 14).

The writer not shifts imagery again, discussing the legalities of a will. An inheritance can only be granted once it is established that the person who has issued a will has died. He makes the conceptual leap from this to argue that the eternal inheritance that belongs to those of Christian faith required a death. Could it be that this language of blood sacrifice was already losing some of its grip, so that the writer feels the need to use the analogy of a will and argue that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins”? This is not a statement of “fact” but symbolic language. In the gospels, Jesus forgave persons and there was not blood shed at that moment. Too much unfortunate use of this language has been made in the Christian tradition. We should see the creativity in the use of this language on the part of the author of Hebrews without being slavishly tied to it. Understanding Hebrews requires placing oneself within a cultus in which the above-mentioned vocabulary and actions were integral to rituals of cleansing, renewal, approaching God, and community forming. The writer presents the benefits of Christ for believers in these same images, obviously with hope for the same effects: cleansing, renewal, approaching God, and community formation. (People’s New Testament Commentary)

Hebrews 9:23-28: These verses offer a summary of the argument to this point – Christ as high priest enters the ultimate sanctuary (the heavenly sanctuary) in the presence of God, and need not offer continuous sacrifice, but has already, in his life and death, given the ultimate sacrifice. Christ will come again to consummate this work of salvation, to make everything right.

Hebrews 10

Hebrews 10:1-18: The writer uses the on-going nature of the Temple sacrificial system to argue that it is deficient. If you have to keep doing something, how effective is it? The author then turns to another Psalm, Psalm 40:6-8, which he puts into the mouth of Christ. Words that were used to relativize the sacrificial system itself are now used to push it even further back in importance. Jesus life devoted to God, a life that led to death, becomes the life that gives life to others. This single offering of a life ended the need for Temple sacrifices. It is almost as if the writer were saying, “Look, you can return to a Temple-based, sacrifice-based faith, but why would you?” The author ends his argument by quoting Jeremiah 31 again.

Hebrews 10:19-39: As in other sections of this work, the writer now draws lessons for encouragement from all that has come before, beginning with chapter 7 – “therefore, my friends…”

Jesus has opened a new a living way for us in relationship to God. Enter it, enjoy it, revel in it. Hold fast. “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds” (verse 24). “Let’s see how inventive we can be in encouraging love and helping out” (verse 24, The Message). They are encouraged to meet together – apparently some have drifted away from the meetings. Doing good and gathering together are both important aspects of Christian life.

These positive encouragements are followed by words of warning – to persist in sin willfully negates forgiveness and opens up the prospect of judgment in a fury of fire. The writer uses metaphoric language that would have been common in his milieu. At its best, this language reminds us that our lives will be judged by God – that is, all that we do either contributes to God’s dream for the world or becomes something that gets in the way of that dream and has to be overcome. What we do either gives God something good to work with or becomes something that has to be discarded as useless in building God’s dream, something for the burning garbage pit. The writer encourages a life of love and good deeds.

The appeal to threatening language is short-lived. The writer now appeals to the community memory. Remember how you have already suffered for being “enlightened.” Don’t give it up now. Endure. He does not encourage in the end but speaks with distinct hope – “We are not among those who shrink back and so are lost, but among those who have faith and so are saved.” The meaning of faith is explored in the next chapter.

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