Overview to the Letter to the Hebrews
In a Nutshell
Although this is the only Letter in the new testament canon written specifically for Jewish and Hebraic believers, it has a decisive message for all followers of "the way", for all times and in all places.
So, how should we read the book known to us as "The Letter to the Hebrews"?
What questions should guide us as we listen to this letter? How should we understand the writer's intention as we work our way through this ancient book? And further, how does it speak to us today in ways that truly benefit us?
These are the questions we bring to this ancient letter which we read today as part of the New Testament canon. Firstly, however, let me explain, how I came to compose the discussion you will read in the pages that follow. This account continues a project I have been working on over the past decade. That has involved writing Hunches about Mark's account of Jesus, Hints of the Holy Spirit's work in Acts, a study of the confirmed Hope of John's Gospel, and an examination of the Harmony for all believers brought about by the good news of Jesus Christ as proclaimed by Paul in Galatians. Overall, the project is one of writing down in clear English the good news which the books of the Bible, the New Testament, bring to us.
With the discussion of the "harmony" established between Paul and Peter by the Holy Spirit, and documented in both Acts and Galatians, that an important question is raised. Paul has written his letter to refute the presumption that the Judaean churches had priority among all Christians, and churches, at all times and in all places. That presumption, Paul said, threatened to displace the Gospel in the lives of the Christian people he addresses in that letter. When he penned that Epistle Paul had already been involved in a wide-ranging project to collect money to keep the Judaean churches alive at a time of great privation and famine.
Presumably it had also been assumed by some that Paul's famine-relief collection for these churches confirmed the priority of these Judaean Christians among the community of faith. The famine therefore would have been read as a threat to the coming of God's Kingdom. But, in Paul's terms, the famine only highlighted a deeper threat to the experience of unity among Jesus' disciples when one part of it is suffering. What that famine put at risk was not the Kingdom of God, but the unity of faith of those called into the Kingdom's work. It was to maintain the unity in Christ that the collection was initiated. It was in fact to offset any presumed priority by those who were not suffering.
But in the Letter to the Galatians, Paul was concerned to point out, in no uncertain terms, that any claim of Judaean priority was a radical departure, a completely false gospel. The view had taken hold that these churches had the task of leading the way in re-establishing and maintaining Old Testament customs and standards which were to be adopted by all Christians everywhere. That, it was presumed, was the path which Christian discipleship should take. And when that view took hold then the collection which Paul had organised was re-interpreted as Paul's effort to insist upon the established priority of these churches in the proclamation of the good news. Otherwise, God's rule in history will be undermined. Wrong!
Paul refutes this as a fundamental error. He explains how the harmony established by the Holy Spirit between himself and Peter, is the very same harmony that binds Jew and Gentile together in Christ. This unity points in another direction altogether. Gentiles who believe are called to follow Jesus Christ; they are not required to become second-class believers, assuming a social status which assumes a spiritual subservience, or worse enslavement, to their Jewish brothers and sisters and their customs. Jew and Gentile are called to serve one another as the Lord's restored image-bearers.
That's clear enough. This seems to accord with centuries of subsequent Christian practise although we may wonder whether the Christian church has always kept to the path of God's way of maintaining Christ's rule over His household (see 1:6 OIKOUMENEN), WHICH MEANS FOLLOWING Christ, which Jesus explained involved taking up the cross and following in His footsteps. And still today, Christians the world over struggle with the ongoing temptation of arguing among themselves as to who has historical priority and authority, just as Jesus' disciples did before they drew His sharp critique (Mark 9:33-37 and elsewhere e.g. Matt 20:25-28).
By approaching Paul's letter to the Galatians in this way, some of its difficult and maybe obscure passages, can be read in a new light. But as we do so another set of questions presents itself. It may be right to refrain from any approach which implies the subservience or enslavement of Gentile believers to what we would now call "Old Testament Judaism". But what about the subsequent life of Jewish believers, now that the Messiah has come? How now were they to live in these years and decades immediately after the appearance of the Messiah?
To put it more precisely: How were Jewish, and more generally Hebrew, believers in Christ, born with "Old Testament" ancestry and ethnicity, and having received the Redeemer of Israel with believing faith, to understand themselves as people of the "new covenant"? How were they to view their family past? How were they, embracing Israel's redeemer, to live? How were they to understand the rule of the Davidic King who, they had been told by the prophets, was indeed the Ruler of the Princes of the Earth? How now to exercise their priestly service in the global, and largely Gentile, domains of the earth, domains that the Lord Himself had said were now given over to His rule as their Ascended King? ("All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me…" Matthew 28:18).
How were these people of the Book to understand their past in the light of the coming of the Christ, the Lord's Anointed? And then, for us today, as the spiritual descendents of the in-grafted branches into the Vine it comes down not merely to what we understand about our ethnic past, our ancestors, but to what we understand by these "latter days", the days in which we, in our own lifetime, have been gripped by God's purpose for all ages (1:1-2).
This set of seemingly perplexing questions seems to indicate a need for us to re-read the New Testament, particularly the Gospels. We need to sharpen our awareness and understanding of how Jesus went about teaching and speaking with His own kith and kin, His own ethnicity, fellow children of Abraham. These were a people who followed the Torah of Moses, the people of the nation that David had ruled. Although the Gospels were obviously written with non-Jewish believers in mind, it is still hard at many places in the Gospel to understand how Jesus' fellow Jews understood themselves and their heritage. And then the penny drops. The Messiah is the One who definitively assists Jewish believers to understand their heritage! He is the One in whom their life makes sense.
And this is how it is that the Letter to the Hebrews, written specifically to Jewish Christians, can assist Gentile Christians in their understanding of God's covenanting with the human race. And indeed, as we delve into its account, its colourful, historical discussion, we will see that it was obviously initially composed for fellow Jewish or Hebraic Christians, those who had been schooled in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint (LXX), who, as dispersed Jewish Christians, spoke Greek in their everyday lives. It was sent to school these believers in a fresh appreciation of themselves and their own ancestry, an ethnicity that had been decisively oriented and formed by
….repeated episodes and in various styles when, through the prophets, God had spoken to their ancestors
and which now had been just as decisively fulfilled in the coming of God's own Son.
In God's own time and by His own way of speaking as the Sovereign Lord, His Son has been sent to us. This is the One through whom and for whom He indeed made the whole lot, everything now past and everything future. As the writer of this Letter tells us, explaining the priestly service believers are now to take up, "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and for ever."
In this sense the message of "The Letter to the Hebrews", as an explanation of how God has now fulfilled His ancient covenant promises to Abraham, Moses and David, not only sets Jewish Christians right with respect to their special background, it unfolds a message of Divine power of vital interest to all those who believe in Christ. They now stand as "a kingdom and priests" serving our God in a life of service on this earth until the Kingly Rule of Christ is completed. Then, with all of its climactic finality, we will finally enter God's Sabbath Rest.
The opening sentences (1:1-4) remind us of the opening lines of John's Gospel. We are told what God has done
In various episodes, and with various genres, from times long since past, God, having spoken by the prophets to our fathers, has in these latter days spoken to us in a Son…
and then Who God has designated heir
Whom He has designated to be heir of all, for it was by this One that He indeed made the lot, epochs past, the current epoch and epochs to come.
and further we are informed about the standing with which this One has been endowed.
Who, being the dawning of His true (and hallowed) status and the true, spitting image of Himself, while openly carrying (forward) all things, by the public declaration of His power, after having performed the Priestly duty which included the cleansing of our sins, He has now assumed His place (office) at the right hand of the Almighty, (truly and well) named as the One who oversees everything.
But then, the question comes, what now? How is the memory of things done in Israel's past to be a living and dynamic inspiration to those living for the lord as servants in His Kingdom? Now that the Messiah of Israel has come - completed the work He had to do - according to a long preparation and a greatly anticipated hope - how are we all to see ourselves? Is it to relate to Him as someone who has come - done what He had to do - and then left us? Is our task now to forever look back in order to gain inspiration from the accounts of those who were first-hand witnesses of His (now past) Glory? [Is it like watching a film like Amazing Grace, or even consulting the diaries and works of William Wilberforce, to gain inspiration for our present work as Christians seeking to free people from oppression?]
Let's not fudge this question. It is most important.
That, I suspect, is the way the writer of this letter, would view the disposition we take to any angel, or messenger, or indeed any servant of the Living God, filled with the Spirit who has walked in the way of cross. So are we to then take this way of looking at things past when we retrospectively consider the accounts of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus? Is that hindsight to be the way ahead for us? Is that hindsight what living as Christians is primarily about? Is the record of Jesus' life, as it has been committed to the Gospel accounts, something like a sacrament, a means of God's communication to us for our ongoing encouragement in this world? And therefore, are we to consider His departure as "goodbye and good luck!"? Jesus told His disciples that His departure was necessary, in order that, by the sending of the Spirit (the parakletos), those who believe might live in the sure knowledge of His ascension to His Rightful Place at the right-hand of power.
The point for us, now, is that we are not the eye-witnesses of the events of Jesus' life, death, resurrection and departure. And to respond to the Gospel in this way would be, in effect, to focus our attention upon the messengers, the angels, the Bible, and in particular the New Testament when, in fact, these canonical documents, in these pages and everywhere else in their pages, enjoin us to focus our complete attention, loyalty, life and energy upon Jesus the one who is now in charge of our salvation (ARCHOON), the A & Z of our hope! So how are we expected do that? How are we to pay attention to Jesus as He is now, at God's right hand? How does He want us to heed His work for us and in us and His word to us?
Again, these questions not only give expression to the general situation faced by this group of Jewish Christians, but have to be faced by believers in every age since then. This is why the writer of this letter felt that it had to be written. He is not only telling us who Jesus is; He is explaining to us (1:1) that what Jesus has now completed is of continuing effect upon us, and that it has definitive effect upon whom we are. He is explaining to us - those who find ourselves asking how we, as believers in Jesus Christ, Israel's Messiah, should live - who we are and how we are to live.
As we have said, for Jewish and Hebraic believers, this posed a somewhat different problem to the past than that confronted by the Gentiles who before their "in-grafting" had been outsiders to this "sacred" history. Now, in Christ, they had been incorporated into the people of God, the Body of Christ, as branches in the one vine of the One Vinedresser (see Romans 11:17-24), as living stones into the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Peter 2:4-5).
Clearly, it is a very important question; for the way Jewish believers resolved the questions of their earthly inheritance from the fathers (1:1), now that Israel's saviour had come, must have an impact upon the way Gentiles - their brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus - come to understand themselves with their fellow Jewish believers as "all one in Christ Jesus."
But now, consider, the writer's initial concern with angels, messengers of God! Why, having told us about God's speaking to us in His Son, who now sits in Heaven as our Priest and the Lord's designated ruler of the princes of the earth, would he launch into a discussion of "angels"? Could it be that his readers - inheritors of the ancient way of life proclaimed to, and passed down from, the fathers - and us latter-day (Gentile) Christians who live out of Jesus' definitive fulfillment of God's covenant with Abraham - are prone to tell the story of the Lord in a way that makes the Lord Almighty subservient to our creaturely telling of the story. Is it that we are prone to refer to the Lord as simply another character in the plot that we compose? Is it all down to our imagination then? In this case is it, perhaps, that the writer is concerned that the Jewish believers will, if they are not put on the right path, slip behind, and view this Jesus - now that He has left them in order that they will live out His life on earth - as an Angel, even if they then make Him out to be The Angel of Angels?
The writer is telling his readers that the story they tell, the story they are part of, is not ultimately their story at all. The entire story is the story of the One for whom everything was set up in the first place.
[The strong tendency for evangelicals who have been born in an Enlightened humanistic culture is to presume an imagined Jesus, a mnemonic icon kept fresh by biblical studies, by which they (we) reassure themselves (ourselves) that they the complete canvas of their (our) sentiments can be re-arranged. This imaginative reconstruction then, provides the basis for a world-and-life-view that corresponds to, and strengthens, a wavering and secularised biblical faith. And so, with this as their (our) aim, they (we) then assume that if they (we) pray hard enough, then faith will be strengthened. They (we) need such strengthening, they (we) tell them-(our)-selves, because their (our) faith is so weak, not realizing that the inner weakness of their (our) faith is due to the fact that it has been rooted in a presumptive trust in imaginative constructions, whether sold in plastic in church foyers as holy relics, or in books written by worthy scholars which are presumed to fire holy imaginations. The imagined icon is then confused with the response of a faith that desperately wants imagined ideas about Jesus to make Jesus more real.]
But our writer here has something of vital interest to his first readers - and to us if we also pay close attention (2:1, 3:12, 4:1, 4:11, 5:11ff, 10:35-36, 12:12-13) - because they (too) were disposed to viewing the Coming of the Messiah in terms they could grasp by the themes that had developed in their own ethnic understanding of the long history of God's merciful dealings with the sons and daughters of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Angels, the messengers of God, are an integral part of the story they told - and the story of Jesus is also not without references to such messengers of Divine favour - but they had not been called to put their trust in an Angel, nor even in a battalion of God's mighty rulers (Psalm 103). In fact when Jesus explains His parable of the wheat and the tares to His inquiring disciples, He emphasizes that they are to concentrate on their own tasks as children of the Kingdom. Thus it is left to the "reapers" to sort it. They would be sent by the Son of Man at the end of the age (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43).
Their deliverance had not been brought about by an Angel. At most an angel had only ever led the way or showed the path. And their Priestly Intercessor is no Angel. So, if they are prone to engage in talk which too easily construes their Interceding Deliverer as yet another angelic messenger, their confusion needs to be averted. A fresh explanation of His status in God's scheme of things is called for. He is also the One the Father sends to definitively establish the identities of those who believe in Him, as His own children (1 John 3:1), along with all whose calling it is to praise the Lord, including the angels. How then does Jesus Christ do His work in those who believe and how is that work effective in their lives? That is what this letter explores and as such this letter gives an answer to the question: who are we? Who are we that we have been caught up in this Word, this culminating chapter spoken to us in these latter-days by the Son of God Himself?
There is no internal evidence in this letter to suggest that it had been written after the sacking of the temple. It may have been. But clearly, the subsequent sacking of the temple (i.e. 72 A.D.) came to be understood by Christians in relation to the coming of the Christ. What is important to note here is that the writer assumes that the temple sacrifices, and all that the priestly services claimed to represent, had been well and truly superseded by the coming of the Messiah, God's Son.
There was something else that Jesus had told His disciples would result from His subsequent ascension: "Greater works than these will you do because I go to the Father!" Believers of Jewish background, then dispersed throughout the eastern Mediterranean and beyond, would be filled with great hope having heard news about the spiritual unity that had been manifest among those who believed in the Messiah in Samaria, Galilee and Judaea (Acts 8:14-25). Those who followed "the way" were indeed filled with the hope that they were to become the living temple of the living God. Now the Body of Christ, a throng that no man could number, would manifest God's purposes for humankind the world over. His promise is to dwell with them forever was further confirmed (Psalm 23:6).
The work in famine relief, whereby Gentiles kept the Judaean churches alive, together with the earlier reception to Philip's preaching in Samaria and the warm Samaritan hospitality to Peter and John, meant that the region was blessed with the Hope of All Ages in a way that had not been experienced for so long, since the division of the Royal Davidic kingdom hundreds of years before.
In this respect, it seems quite feasible, that the Letter to the Hebrews tells us of a way, an altar from which those priests who now serve have no right to eat, a hope that goes far beyond the cultic religion of Israel which had in times past been mandated to fire the imagination of all Israel concerning their belief in God's Messiah. This now had been superseded by the One designated "a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek".
We now can begin to see why the sacking of Jerusalem in 72 AD and the destruction of the temple - cataclysmic events that would have been experienced as such by the Jewish Christians at the time - were not the destructive disaster of their faith. Not at all. That act of Roman imperial vandalism did not break the church of Israel's Messiah, Jesus Christ. The letter tells us of a firm hope that holds "as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain" (6:19).
In being directed to the One who assumes the heavenly Throne, with the dual Melchizedekian office and title, as Priest and King, the company of the Jewish faithful, along with their Gentiles fellows, are encouraged to "keep going". This is just what Abraham did (Jn 8:30), continuing in God's word, as the word of emancipation, the word of freedom to fulfill a Divine Mandate that goes all the way back to the creation of those who were formed specially to be bearers of God's earthly Image. They are to take the good news with them and proclaim it as they go into all the world, resuming the historical task of being the generation-by-generation "strangers and pilgrims", sojourners and stewards, as those who are in the service of the One who owns it all, and who is ruler over all princes and kings. This is the true miracle of miracles in these "latter days". God Himself has been at work in our lives giving liberally the gift of faith to those who receive what He is doing in restoring the world, His creation, to Himself.
Here then are the "greater works" that those who follow the One who for a while was "a little lower than the angels". But now, He has entered into God's rest at the Right Hand of Power (ref Stephen's address in Acts 7). Here is the "better" way (the term is used 12 times throughout the letter), the culminating path of sojourning service, in which every fibre of our common life is strained to enter into that rest that Jesus has won for us. We are His co-workers, co-workers thereby of the Lord God Himself, and so we call on all to participate in the full reconciliation and restoration of God's creation purposes for the earth in the time to come (the oikoumenhn).