COMPANION TO THE NEW TESTAMENT - The New English Bible. By A E Harvey. - © The Delegates of the Oxford University Press, The Syndics of the Cambridge University Press. 1970. - Prepared for katapi by Paul Ingram 2014.

A LETTER TO HEBREWS

HOME | << | introduction | the centre of christian belief | interactive & searchable map of the roman world (default: rome & italia) | introduction | christ divine & human | the shadow and the real | a call to faith | >> |
P46. f41r. Hebrews 1.1-7.

top

As early as the second century A.D. this writing was referred to by ancient authors under the title, "To Hebrews". If, at that date, they knew any more about it—who was its author, why it was written—they have not told us. Indeed, even the title tells us nothing we could not have inferred for ourselves. Whoever was originally intended to read this letter must have been thoroughly familiar, not only with the Jewish religion, but with current Jewish techniques of interpreting the Old Testament: without a thoroughly "Hebrew" background, no one could possibly have followed the argument. It would seem to follow that the first readers were therefore "Hebrews"— that is, Jews or proselytes—who had been converted to Christianity. This conclusion is by no means certain: they could equally well have been Gentiles who had spent many years attending a Jewish synagogue before they became Christians (like the recipients of Paul's letter to the Galatians: see above, pp. 599-600). The traditional title, TO HEBREWS, is therefore not certainly correct. But, so far as it goes, it represents a reasonable guess.

It is less obviously appropriate to call the work A LETTER. It is true that it ends, as letters should, with some personal greetings; but at the beginning, where one normally looks for at least some indication of who is writing and to whom, there is nothing of the kind. The work begins like a treatise, and there are only a few moments in the course of it when the tone is sufficiently personal to give the impression of a man writing to his friends. If it is a "letter" at all, it is only a letter in that rather special sense (more familiar in antiquity than it is now) of a literary work intended for general circulation but adopting the conventional form of a letter. At most one might say that the treatise may have been inspired by particular circumstances, and was perhaps sent to a particular congregation after a personal conclusion had been added to serve as a kind of cover note.

Who wrote it? Until the fourth century A.D. many people were ready to confess that they did not know. It was perhaps by way of taking the line of least resistance that the church began to attribute it to Paul. The only other letters in the New Testament as extended as this one were by Paul, and the argument in Hebrews is on a scale that would have been worthy of the author of Romans. Nevertheless, there are great differences, in both style and content, between this and the authentic letters of Paul, and it is only the somewhat uncritical tradition of the church (which in any case has not always been in agreement on the matter) which provides any basis for continuing to regard Paul as the author. Other candidates have been proposed: Barnabas was suggested in the third century, Apollos in more recent times. But there is virtually no evidence, and one can do little more than guess.

The letter itself gives little away. The recipients have already undergone persecution and have the prospect of more coming to them; and they are warned several times of the danger of falling away from the faith. But this was a situation which must have been characteristic of many Christian congregations during the first few decades of their existence. As for the author, perhaps the most distinctive thing about him is his approach to the Old Testament. He uses a method of interpretation which we know to have been particularly highly developed among Jewish scholars at Alexandria. But even this is not sufficient to identify him as an Alexandrian; for he had considerably more respect for the literal meaning of Old Testament texts than did Philo (the only Alexandrian Jew who has left us extensive examples of this method), and in any case this kind of interpretation was by no means confined to Alexandria. Even Paul, who was educated in Jerusalem, occasionally made use of it. For all we know, he could have been a Jewish Christian who lived in any city of the empire where the dominant language was Greek.

Around A.D. 96 the letter was quoted by Clement of Rome. Can we say how much earlier than this it was written? Much of it consists of a discussion of the Jewish sacrificial system, and the light it throws upon the sacrifice of Christ. On the face of it, this should make it easy to tell whether the author wrote before or after A.D. 70, when the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and the Jewish sacrificial system came to an end. But even this clue leads nowhere. The author had an academic mind. If he wished to know the details of the work of the priests in Jerusalem, he did not for a moment consider the ritual which was performed in his own day in the temple there: he simply went to his library and consulted the Law of Moses, which laid down the pattern of priestly service which still regulated all that was done in Herod's temple. The actual continuance of this ritual in his own day seems to have held not the smallest interest for him (in this respect he was a typical Jew of the Dispersion). Even if he was writing shortly after it came to an abrupt end with the fall of Jerusalem, it is quite possible that he would not have referred to the fact. We can draw no conclusions from his silence. He drew the entire inspiration for his argument from his study of the Old Testament. From the narrative in the Book of Exodus he gained his overpowering sense of the seriousness and awesomeness of the presence of God; and out of the detailed regulations in the Law of Moses concerning the arrangement of the sanctuary, and the office and function of the high priest, he developed his doctrine—the most systematic and suggestive in the New Testament—of Christ divine and human.


Christ divine and human

| << | god has spoken by his son | the son is superior to the angels | the great liberation | the pioneer of liberation | jesus is superior to moses | a rest for the people of god | jesus the great high priest | >> |

Chapter 1.

When in former times God spoke to our forefathers (1). The opening paragraph is a carefully composed piece of Greek. The details of its style and vocabulary show that the author was by ng means merely a Jew who happened to write in Greek, but a man well educated in Greek culture. Nevertheless, he took for granted in his readers a number of distinctively Jewish presuppositions. The most fundamental of these was an understanding of world history entirely conditioned by the Old Testament: at a certain time in the past, God had revealed himself to men by means of the Law given to Moses on Sinai. This Law, which was the unique possession of the Jewish people, guaranteed to them a significant role in history. It gave them a detailed moral and religious code by which to regulate their lives; and it contained the promise of a glorious destiny for those who observed it. The perfect keeping or "fulfilment" of this Law was the state of affairs for the sake of which the world was created, the final age (2) towards which all history was tending.

But the empirical facts of history and human psychology made it impossible to think of this Law in isolation. The Jewish people down the centuries had failed to observe it; and the individual Jew was well aware that it demanded of him a standard of moral and ritual correctness to which he could not easily aspire. He needed some indication of how the divine imperatives of the historic Law of Moses could be accommodated to the actual circumstances of a Jew living many centuries later. He looked, in short, for God's guidance on the way the Law was to be observed, and on the sense in which it could still be understood as giving the clue to the history of mankind and the meaning of the universe.

Such guidance had in fact been given. God had not been silent since the time of Moses. It was true that people differed about the way in which God had spoken. The Pharisees, for example, believed that God himself inspired that learned tradition of interpreting Scripture which they practised themselves ; in Alexandria, on the other hand, it was through the insight of Greek philosophy that thoughtful Jews sought to discern the contemporary meaning of their ancient Law. But on one aspect of the question they were mostly agreed. There had been a period in Jewish history (roughly, from the establishment of the monarchy to the return from exile, the tenth to the sixth centuries B.C.) when the divine guidance had been clothed in a particularly challenging form. God spoke through the prophets (1) who, by the oracles they uttered, and by the example of their lives, demonstrated the kind of religion and the kind of morality which the Law was intended to evoke.

It is to this stage in God's dealings with his people that the writer refers in his opening words. After the Law itself, the prophets had represented the most powerful and important phase in God's revelation. But it had taken place (all would agree) in fragmentary and varied fashion. Nobody could claim that it had been final and exhaustive. By contrast, Christians could now point to a revelation which, though it by no means superseded the original Law of Moses (for this too was the authentic word of God), gave a new and decisive turn to the relationship between man and God, and showed for the first time the true meaning of much in Scripture which had previously been indeterminate or obscure. Old truths could now be seen in a new light.

This the final age (2). The present age was at some time to give place to a a more glorious future age—this was the usual Jewish way of looking at history. But the coming of Christ seemed to Christians to be an event of such a decisive kind that they could only think it marked the transition between the two ages. They must now stand at least at the threshold of the final age. For there was no longer anything partial or fragmentary in the revelation of Christ. The Son was heir to the whole universe. Until you know who the heir is to be, you cannot understand why the father shapes the inheritance as he does; but as soon as the heir is known, you can see the purpose of each detail of what he is to inherit. Now that we know who is to be heir to the universe we can, for the first time, understand the purpose of the universe itself, a purpose which has in fact been there from the beginning, since it was through Christ—that is to say, with reference to him as to the guiding principle of creation—that God created all orders of existence.

To be so completely involved in the nature of all created things, this Son must be almost indistinguishable from God himself—and the writer uses a metaphor of light and a metaphor from the minting of coins to express this near-identity. Yet he was distinct: he brought about the purgation of sins (3), a highly individual act, which this writer will go on to explain in terms of the function of a priest; and at a definite moment in time he took his seat at the right hand of Majesty on high—a clear allusion to the first verse of Psalm no, a verse which this writer, along with the early church as a whole, regarded as an inspired description of the destiny which Jesus fulfilled after his resurrection from the dead: "The Lord said unto my Lord, 'Sit at my right hand until I make thy enemies thy footstool' ".

One point in this sketch of the destiny and status of Christ is taken up for special treatment: raised as far above the angels, as the title he has inherited is superior to theirs (4). Why is Christ's superiority to the angels so important? We can only suppose that among the readers of this letter were some who were inclined to place angels too high on the scale of heavenly beings, and who failed to see that Christ was far superior to all such intermediaries between man and God. We know that in some sections of Judaism people went so far as to worship angels and had to be rebuked for it by the orthodox; and such people, when they became Christians, may have been tempted to think of Christ as just "another angel". Alternatively, it was an accepted doctrine among Pharisaic Jews that God might send 'an angel or spirit' (Acts 23.9) in order to reveal or to endorse a new interpretation of Scripture; and it may have been suggested that the particular revelation which Christians had received, having been given to them by one, Jesus, who was probably an angel, was only one of the, many such fragmentary revelations which pious men had received since the close of the period of the prophets. Whatever the reason, the writer now devotes the first part of his argument to proving that Christ is immeasurably superior to any angel.

God never said (5). All Jewish scholars took it for granted that the whole of the Old Testament was inspired, and that any individual passage, whatever its original context, could be regarded as an authentic utterance of God through the Holy Spirit. Among Greek-speaking Jews, the version used was almost always the Septuagint, that is, the Greek translation of the Hebrew text which had been made in Alexandria in the third century B.C. This translation was not regarded as in any way less inspired or authoritative than the original Hebrew. It was believed to have been made under divine guidance, and every syllable of it was revered as a vehicle of the word of God. Interpreters therefore felt fully justified in concentrating on minute points of the Greek text, and in using the same techniques of interpretation as were used on the Hebrew text by scholars in Palestine. When this writer expounds his own deeply serious and original understanding of the nature of Christ by means of what seems to us a highly artificial approach to Scripture, he is only following a method widely accepted among his Jewish contemporaries.

God never said to any angel, 'Thou art my Son' (5). This is the pattern of the following argument. Words spoken to angels are compared with words spoken to the Son, and the difference between them shows the inherent superiority of the Son. This procedure was quite straightforward so far as angels were concerned: there were a number of texts explicitly about angels. But what about the Son, the Christ? This was more difficult; for the Old Testament writers did not directly foretell the Christ whom Christians worshipped; they merely used language—sometimes about God, sometimes about particular persons known to them—which later generations came to regard as prophetic of a Messiah who was still to come in the future, and which Christians now saw to be completely fulfilled and explained by the person of Jesus Christ. It is to such passages as these that the writer-appeals. His readers must have been already accustomed to reading these texts as prophecies about the Messiah, even if they had not yet taken the further step of applying them to Jesus Christ. Without this clue, they could hardly have followed the argument.

'Thou art my Son; today I have begotten thee' (Psalm 2.7). The words are echoed in the gospel account of Jesus' baptism, and the whole psalm is one of those which seemed to the early church to have been most startlingly fulfilled by Jesus. The fact that it was originally addressed to an actual king of Israel was not important: its real meaning was now finally disclosed by Christ.

'I will be father to him, and he shall be my son' (2 Samuel 7.14). This was part of God's promise to King David, transmitted by the prophet Nathan. On the face of it, the promise was no more than a metaphor: God intended to show particular favour to one of David's immediate descendants. But we know (from the Dead Sea Scrolls) that at least one Jewish sect had no hesitation in reading the text as a prophecy about the "son of David" whom the Jewish race still awaited, the Messiah, the Christ. This writer evidently assumed that his readers were used to taking it in the same way.

'Let all the angels of God pay him homage' (6) (Psalm 97.7). In the original Hebrew, this verse reads "Bow down, all gods, before him"—the poem is about the absolute supremacy of God compared with the worthless idols of the pagans. In the Greek version, the Septuagint translators, bothered perhaps by the implication that there exist such things as other "gods", rephrased the verse in the form given here. But in both versions it is God himself whom angels (or gods) must worship—there is nothing whatever about the Son. To see the force of the argument here, we have to read on. Verse 11 of the same psalm runs (in the Greek), "Light dawns for the righteous". This was regarded in many Jewish circles as almost a technical expression for the coming of the Messiah. Therefore (so the argument must have ran) if the end of the psalm was about the Messiah, so were the earlier verses. 'Let all the angels of God pay him homage' was a prophecy about Christ. If so, there could be no question about Christ's superiority to the angels.

Of the angels he says (7)—and the verse quoted (Psalm 104.4) needs no commentary. But of the Son (8)—and another psalm-text follows (45.6-7) that was again, like Psalm 2, originally addressed to an actual king. This was court poetry: the king was literally praised to the skies, so much so that it appears he was actually given the terrific title "God". ← Whether this is really so has been uncertain almost since the psalm was written. Ultimately, it is a question of punctuation (and there was no punctuation to speak of before the time of Christ), A different punctuation yields the meaning given in the NEB footnote. But the kings of Israel had never lived up to this high vocation; and these words of Scripture were therefore believed to refer to a figure of the future. Who this figure was is given away by the last line of the quotation. 'By anointing' (9)—who was anointed? Why, the Messiah, the Christ (which literally means The Anointed One). Christ, therefore, was given the highest title of all: God.

'By thee, Lord, were earth's foundations laid of old' (10) (Psalm 102.25-7). This, to us, is the most puzzling of the series. The original psalm speaks of God the creator the context and the language leave no possible doubt about this. But for Christians, the word "Lord" was ambiguous. God was Lord, but so was Jesus Christ. There is slight evidence to be found in small details of the Septuagint translation of the psalm that this part of it was already, in the century or so before Christ, being interpreted as a prophecy about the coming Messiah. If so, it is a little easier to understand how the Christians felt able to take the "Lord" of these verses as referring to Christ instead of to God the creator. This, at any rate, must have been the interpretation held in common between this writer and his readers. On the basis of this interpretation, he could use the quotation to prove the superiority of Christ to the angels.

'Sit at my right hand until I make thy enemies thy footstool' (Psalm 110.1). There was no doubt in the minds of Christians that this referred to Christ. Had not Jesus himself used it of the Messiah (Mark 12.35-7) And did it not explain where Christ had gone to be after the resurrection? With this quotation, already alluded to in verse 3 above, the series of proof texts is rounded off. They all show (given a certain method of interpretation) the decisive superiority of Christ. The angels, by comparison, are but ministrant spirits (14)—this follows from Psalm 104 already quoted; and possibly the experiences of the earliest Christians, such as those described in the first chapters of Acts, caused the writer to add that these angels are sent out to serve, for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation.

Chapter 2.

Thus we are bound to pay all the more heed (1). It is characteristic of this author frequently to bring his argument round to a point where it bears directly upon the way of life of his readers. Angels, it has been shown, are far inferior to Christ. But there was a word spoken through angels, which was none other than the Law of Moses itself (a tradition, later than the Old Testament, held it to have been transmitted to Moses by means of angels). This was a law which had to be obeyed: any transgression or disobedience met with due retribution (2). How much more binding, therefore, was a word announced through the lips of the Lord himself? (3)—a word of deliverance, certainly, but still to be obeyed with all the submission due to a divine command. Of course, it could be said that the angels, through whom the original law was spoken, were also witnesses to it: this gave it high authority. But here again the Gospel was not at all inferior: to it too God added his testimony (4) through the remarkable events which marked the early years of the Christian church.

But it was not sufficient to demonstrate the superiority of Christ to all powers under God. This Christ was also the Jesus who suffered and died on earth. The two aspects are held together in a quotation from another psalm (Psalm 8.4-6). 'What is man, that thou rememberest him?' (6) The psalm is in praise of the dignity given by God to man: this is its clear meaning. But to our author it was open to question whether a passage of Scripture meant only what it appeared to mean on the surface. Any curious inconsistency in the language could be regarded as a clue which might lead to discovering a deeper meaning underneath. And so here: 'Thou didst put all things in subjection beneath his feet' (7). If by "man" were meant human beings in general, this would be simply untrue. In fact we do not yet see all things in subjection to man (9). Therefore a particular "man", or "son of man", must be meant. Who was this? The psalm offered a further clue: it was someone who was 'for a short while lower than the angels' (7) (the original probably meant "a little lower", but for a short while lower was a possible translation). This sounds a hard riddle—but not for Christians. In Jesus ... we do see one (9) who both had his moment of suffering and death (lower than the angels) and then went on to be crowned now with glory and honour at the right hand of God; since his tasting of death took place, not by way of a tragedy or a defeat, but by God's gracious will. ← The variant, "apart from God", is found in some manuscripts. It may have been hard lor some copyists to accept that the crucifixion happened by God's gracious will, and this would explain the change. Yet "apart from God" also makes good sense. Christ went to his death deliberately, of his own personal will, even if it was in fact God's will that he should die.

Jesus, then, was superior to the angels; yet there was a period when he was lower than they, a period which involved suffering and death. This much has been proved from Scripture. But it has still to be shown what was the meaning and purpose of this suffering. The clue was that he should stand for us all. The image that is now to be elaborated, and which will give the key to this part of Jesus' work, is the image of a priest.

To perform the function of a priest at the temple in Jerusalem did not demand any qualities of character or spirituality: it was only necessary to be a member of the appropriate family, and to be without any physical deformity. The purpose of the priesthood was to perform all the rites connected with the sacrifices in the temple. This the priests did on behalf of the people as a whole, and in order to do it they underwent ablutions and rites of cleansing, so that, when they performed their ritual duties, they would be ritually pure, or "perfect".

If Jesus was to be likened to such a priest, he must be shown to have fulfilled similar conditions. First, he must have been able to represent others, to stand for us all. This he could do only if he had as much solidarity with the people whom he represented as the Jewish priestly families had with the rest of the Jewish race. It was axiomatic that a consecrating priest and those whom he consecrates are all of one stock (11). Did Jesus, a being ' far above the angels', have this solidarity with men? He did; and this is proved again by some quotations from Scripture. The force of these quotations depended on knowing the Christian interpretation of them. The first, 'I will proclaim thy name to my brothers' (Psalm 22.22), is from a psalm which was actually quoted by Jesus on the cross, and contained many exact prophecies of the passion. No Christian could doubt that the speaker in the whole of the psalm was Christ. Therefore the psalm proved that Christ had human brothers. In much the same way, several of the verses in the eighth chapter of Isaiah seemed to contain clear allusions to the Christ who was to come ("Emmanuel", "the rock of stumbling"). Therefore, if verses 17 and 18 of that same chapter included the words' I will wait for the Lord ... I will keep my trust fixed on him ... Here am I, and the children whom God has given me' (13), it could be inferred that Christ was the speaker, that his relationship with God was based, like that of any man, on trust, and that his relationship with other men was as close as that of children in the same family. All this showed that his solidarity with men was at least as great as that of a priest with his people.

Secondly, Jesus must have been made ritually pure or perfect (10). Was he so prepared? He was—not by any ritual act, but through sufferings, an idea which breaks out of the conventional priest-imagery altogether. No such experience was demanded of the Jewish priest, indeed rather the opposite. The difference can be seen most clearly in the case of the high priest on the annual Day of Atonement. For a week before this day, the high priest had to isolate himself from all social contacts lest any chance meeting should make him ritually "unclean". He had to be, so far as possible, totally insensitive to personal or family ties, so that no private concerns should interfere with his performance of the great ritual act upon which, once a year, the whole Jewish people depended for its sense of the continuing favour of God. Jesus' priesthood was totally different. Instead of being dispassionate and aloof, he was merciful and faithful (17). His solidarity with his brothers involved entering into the darkest corners of their experience; he was not just their priest, he was also their leader who delivers them (10), by treading the path of human life and death, and so breaking the power of him who had death at his command, that is, the devil (14) (this is the author's one major excursion into the mythological manner of speech which is exemplified in Romans 6.12-19). His solidarity with men meant far more than being-able to stand, before God (17) on their behalf: it meant that he could help those who are meeting their test now (18), up to, and even through, the moment of death. It was true, his function could be defined like that of the high priest, as being to expiate the sins of the people (17). But the means by which he did this were such as to give new content altogether to the concept of priesthood.

Chapter 3.

This high priest was faithful (1)—a new idea, and one that plays an important part in the letter. For an illustration of what this means, the reader is referred to a passage in Numbers (12.7-8), where God is speaking of Moses: "Not so my servant Moses: he is faithful in my whole household. I will speak to him mouth to mouth." But here the passage is quoted in indirect speech, which makes the pronouns look ambiguous: "Not so his servant Moses: he was faithful in his whole household. He would speak to him mouth to mouth." Quoted thus, "faithful in his household" might be misunderstood to mean that Moses was faithful in his own household; so the writer has first to dispose of this possible misunderstanding. Every house (or household: the Greek word is the same) has its owner, and "his house" could certainly mean "the owner's house", i.e. (in this case) "Moses' house". But it is also true that every house has its founder (4). "His house" can therefore mean "the founder's house", and since the founder of all is God, "his house" in this case must mean God's house, God's household (2) (which is how the NEB translation renders it in the first place; but the Greek has the slightly ambiguous "his household", and it is essential to know this in order to follow the argument of verse 4).

This little misunderstanding disposed of, it is possible to use Moses' "faithfulness in God's household" as a pointer to the nature of Jesus' faithfulness. Jesus of course was superior to Moses, both as the founder of a house is superior to its owner, and also as a son (6) is superior to a servitor (5). But Jesus also has a household (we are that household of his (6)), and this household is the setting, so to speak, in which he exercises his faithfulness, just as God's household was the setting in which Moses exercised his own (lesser) faithfulness. This gives some idea (though more about this will follow) of the sense in which Jesus, the High Priest, is faithful.


Therefore. In the Greek, the connection (7) is emphatic: Christ is faithful; we have become Christ's partners (14) (this follows from what has been said about his solidarity with us); therefore we must not be faithless. Characteristically, the writer turns the argument into a moral one; and he marks the transition by means of a long quotation from Psalm 95 (7-11). The second line of this yields an immediate moral lesson: 'do not grow stubborn' (8). But the bearing of the rest of it on Christian belief and conduct depends, again, on a detailed and technical process of interpretation.

Who, I ask, were those who heard and rebelled? (16) It was essential to fix exactly who was referred to in each of the verses of the quotation before the passage could be interpreted. It was obvious enough that those who ... rebelled were the whole of the desert generation, whose various "rebellions" are described in the Book of Exodus. But to whom, then, were the verses addressed? This was a more difficult question, and could be answered only when the whole passage was considered. The key was in the last words: 'they shall never enter my rest' (11). This implied, surely, that someone else would. The obvious candidates were the very next generation, those whom Joshua had brought into the promised land (which was often described by the same word, rest (4.8)).

Chapter 4.

But the psalm under consideration implied that the "rest" still had not been entered when the psalm was written, and the psalm was spoken through the lips of David after many long years (7), that is, some centuries after the time of Joshua. The rest referred to, therefore (3), must have meant something other than the historical possession of the promised land. What it meant could be shown from another passage of Scripture, 'God rested from all his work on the seventh day' (4) (Genesis 2.2). It might be thought that this referred only to God's own "rest" which he had 3,5 been enjoying ever since the world was created (3). But the words, 'They shall never enter my rest' (5), showed that this "rest" did not belong only to God, but was also a future reality intended as a kind of sabbath rest for the people of God (9). The psalm, therefore, was addressed to the future inheritors of this "rest". The option to enter it was still open.

It only remained to ask, what were the qualifications for entering? This could be answered from the psalm itself. It was said of the desert generation,

'Their hearts are for ever astray;
They would not discern my ways'.
(3.10)

In other words, we perceive that it was unbelief which prevented their entering (19). The opposite, belief (or faith, the same word), was the particular attribute of those who believe in Christ, who are partners with the faithful high priest. This faith would guarantee their entering so long as they held fast to it, and did not fall by following this evil example of unbelief (4.11). Once again, the writer brings his argument round to a point of direct moral exhortation.

For the word of God is alive and active (12). The word, in this brief poem (12-13), may be taken to embrace the whole of the divine revelation: the original Law given to Moses, the sporadic guidance given by the prophets, and the definitive revelation given in the Son. As such, it is of the strongest moral force and penetration. Any kind of failure to conform to it is still as serious as it ever was.

Since therefore we have a great high priest (14). Once a year the Jewish high priest passed through the outer sanctuary which any priest could enter, on through the curtain beyond it, and into the Holy of Holies itself. This "passing through" was the great moment of his priesthood, it was the act for which the high priesthood existed. The high priest of Christians has similarly passed through—but further still, through the heavens, to the is throne of God himself. Yet he is still in contact with men, because of his likeness to us (15). Both by the measure of his sympathy with those who are tested every way, and also by his perfect access to God, he fulfils all the functions of an ideal priesthood. Let us therefore boldly approach the throne of our gracious God.


The shadow and the real

| << | jesus the great high priest (conclusion) | warning against apostasy | god's sure promise | the priestly order of melchizedek | the high priest of a new covenant | the earthly & heavenly sanctuaries | sin absolved by christ's sacrifice | exhortation & warning | >> |

Chapter 5.

It has been shown that the category of the actual Jewish high priest was far transcended by Jesus; but there were still one or two more points of correspondence to be brought out. The high priest was taken from among men and appointed their representative before God (1). That is to say, every candidate for the high-priesthood had to belong to a particular family, and was duly appointed: no one could seize the office for himself. Now it was known that Jesus did not belong to the high-priestly family (which traced its descent back to Aaron (4)). Did he therefore seize the high-priesthood, instead of being called by God, as Aaron and his descendants were? On the contrary, the two psalm verses (5, 6) which form the basis of the whole argument (2.7 and 110.4) show that he became both Son and priest by direct appointment from God. Secondly, the high priest was very much a man like other men, beset by weakness (2), and therefore bringing his prayers and sacrifices before God out of the same situation as that of those whom he represented. Was there anything to correspond to this in Jesus' life? The writer tells us that there was. In the days of his earthly life he offered up prayers and petitions, with loud cries and tears, to God (7). The image is still that of a priest, "offering up" his prayers for himself and others, but it is filled out here with what seems to be a historical reminiscence. The gospels do not report any episode in Jesus' life which exactly fits this description. Jesus prays in a general way in the manner of a high priest in John 17, and in Luke 22.32 he refers to a prayer which he has offered for one of his disciples. But the only place where an actual struggle in prayer is described is in the episode at Gethsemane. There, we can well imagine that he prayed with loud cries and tears; and there are a number of points of contact between Luke's account of this episode (22.39-46) and these verses in Hebrews. But the natural meaning of the statement in Hebrews that his prayer was heard is that, being threatened with death, Jesus prayed, and was delivered in answer to his prayer. In Gethsemane, on the other hand, his prayer was not answered in this sense: he was not delivered "from death". It is only by assuming that the prayer alluded to here was a prayer to be delivered, not from death itself, but from the consequences of death (as the NEB suggests by taking "from death" to mean from the grave) that the two descriptions can be made to match. Possibly some other episode was in the writer's mind, which happens not to be recorded in the gospels; or possibly he was thinking of Jesus' humble submission on the cross, and of the prayers which Jesus offered up just before his death. But this uncertainty does not affect the point being made: he learned obedience in the school of suffering (8), a jingle of Greek words which had become something of a cliché, but which throws light on an apparently paradoxical point made earlier: it was not by ritual ablutions, but by suffering, that Jesus was perfected (9) as a priest.

About Melchizedek we have much to say (11). This mysterious figure who suddenly appears and as suddenly disappears in the narrative of Genesis 14, provoked much speculation among Jewish scholars, and the writer is to devote a substantial section of his work to him. But first, he breaks off in order to ask whether his readers are any longer fit for a lesson of this kind. The deeper meaning of Scripture (so at least it soon came to be held among Christian scholars in Alexandria) could only be known to those who had advanced some distance in the knowledge of God. Mere beginners had to remain at the level of the literal meaning of the text, the ABC of God's oracles (12). ← This phrase, like much in this section, is ambiguous. It might equally well mean the elementary truths of the Christian gospel. But it is very similar to a phrase used by Paul of the Old Testament (Romans 3.2), and at this date the basic document of the Christian faith, as of the Jewish faith, was still the Old Testament. Jewish boys, for example, were not expected to understand and obey God's Law until they were 13 years old. Under that age, they could not be expected to discriminate between good and evil. Were the readers of this letter in danger of reverting to a similar moral infancy?

Chapter 6.

We ought not to be laying over again the foundations (1). It is tantalizing to try to discover from this passage exactly what the foundations consisted of, and how new converts to Christianity were given their first instruction. The difficulty is that we do not know whether these particular converts were Jews or Gentiles before they became Christians. If they were Jews, then the foundations were presumably distinctive Christian doctrines—but although laying-on-of-hands (2) sounds sufficiently like the rite by which Christians received the Holy Spirit, cleansing rites is a curious way to describe Christian baptism. If they were Gentiles, then much of the initial instruction must have been indistinguishable from the teaching that was given to any Gentile interested in Judaism—and nothing in the list is so obviously Christian that it could not also describe a course in the elements of the Jewish faith. To either faith, most of these things were fundamental. But the writer is concerned for a maturity which took all this for granted and pressed on to a higher stage of knowledge.

It is not that his readers have never reached this stage. On the contrary, having once been enlightened (4), there is a risk they may have fallen away (5). How could you tell whether in fact a Christian had fallen away? Not, usually, by anything he said about his own faith or lack of faith (for this kind of introspective reflection on religious belief was less common in antiquity than it is now), but by his moral conduct, which might suddenly seem not to square with the beliefs he professed, or even (the real danger which seems to be constantly at the back of the writer's mind) by the fact that he had actually repudiated his allegiance to the church. In the early days of the church, such lapses posed a problem. Christians were people who, having been baptized, had been forgiven their sins and had entered a new life. It made no sense for them to start sinning again. Yet Christians did sin, and it was hard to know what to do about it. After their baptism, was further repentance and forgiveness possible? Should the offender be expelled from the church, or should he be pleaded with until he repented? Different answers to these questions are given by different New Testament writers, and it was some time before it became generally accepted that the pattern of inevitably sinning and repeatedly being forgiven is inherent in the Christian life, even after baptism. It was perhaps natural that the question should have presented itself somewhat differently in the early years of Christianity, when the end of the world was expected to come within most people's lifetime, and when the church was thought of as the community of those who would automatically enter the promised new age. At any rate, this writer adopts (both here and elsewhere in the letter) an attitude that is more stringent than is to be found anywhere else in the New Testament: it is impossible to bring them again to repentance (6). Moreover, he does not seem to feel it necessary to argue the point. He merely supports it with an illustration somewhat in the manner of a parable of Jesus. Earth that does not bear a crop is worthless and God's curse hangs over it (8).

The warning is a strong one; and the writer mitigates it a little by pointing to the good things in his readers' record. (All this is very general: it could be a recollection of specific acts on the part of certain Christians, or it could be merely a general compliment such as any writer might have paid to any church. It helps us very little as we try to picture the Christians to whom the letter was written.) It is a matter of, through faith and patience ... inheriting the promises (12) and this leads on to a more positive kind of encouragement. Can God's promise be relied on? Obviously, yes. But to make assurance doubly sure, God ... guaranteed it by an oath (17) (the words of the oath are from Genesis 22.16-17). Admittedly it was an unusual oath (14), for it did not say what it was that it was being sworn by. But this was because there is nothing greater than God, and therefore nothing other than himself by which God can swear. Here, then, are two irrevocable acts (18)—both a promise and an oath ← This is an unusual rendering. The Greek could also mean, "two unalterable things", i.e. God's oath, and that by which God swore, God himself.in which God could not possibly play us false. This hope is like an anchor (19)—an obvious enough metaphor; but it becomes startling when it is combined with another that is drawn from the image of the high priest on the Day of Atonement entering the Most Holy Place. It—the anchor (20), the priest, Jesus himself—enters in through the veil.

Chapter 7.

This Melchizedek (1). The relevant verses of Genesis are as follows: "After Abram's return from the rout of Kedorlaomer and his confederate kings ... Melchizedek King of Salem brought out food and wine. He was priest of God Most High. And he blessed him . . . And Abram gave him a tithe of all the spoil." (14.17-20.) Nothing is known about Melchizedek beyond what is stated in these verses, which seem to preserve some recollection of an ancient pre-Israelite king of "Salem" (probably Jerusalem), whose religion included the worship of a "God most high" (and so was not too far removed from that of the Jews) and who was permitted by custom to be both king and priest. This enigmatic figure gave Jewish interpreters some trouble. It was almost an axiom of many Old Testament writers that the same person could not be both priest and king: the priesthood went back to Aaron himself, and was instituted in the Law of Moses; but the kingship was a later creation, and the king must not presume to claim the rights of a priest. The appearance of this Melchizedek, who was both a king and "priest of God Most High", was therefore something of an embarrassment to them. To this writer, on the other hand, he was a godsend. He wished to present Jesus under the image of a priest. But Jesus did not come from a priestly family (our Lord is sprung from Judah, a tribe to which Moses made no reference in speaking of priests (14)), and he was also in some sense a king. How could he be a priest? The answer was given by the precedent of Melchizedek.

The point is made by means of a careful commentary on the text in Genesis. First, what could be gathered about Melchizedek himself?

(i) He was certainly a king: this was proved, both by his name (which, in Hebrew, suggested 'king of righteousness' (2)), and by his title, king of Salem (which was also suggestive, since salem was a form of the word shalom, meaning peace).

(ii) Nothing is said anywhere in the Old Testament about his ancestors, his birth or his death. At least, that is how we would put it. But to interpreters accustomed to seeing significance in the smallest details of the sacred text, another principle suggested itself: there must have been some reason for not mentioning these things, and the reason could only be that they did not exist. By this principle, Melchizedek had no father, no mother, no lineage; his years have no beginning, his life no end (3). In short, a unique and exceptional king-priest, whose function in the Old Testament narrative could now at last be understood: he pointed forward to Christ (He is like the Son of God).

Secondly, two actions of Melchizedek are recorded: he received a tithe from Abraham, and he gave Abraham his blessing. Each of these was significant.

(i) The priests and the Levites—all those who served the sanctuary in Jerusalem—were entitled to receive a tenth part of all agricultural produce. This tithe was laid down in the Law: it was a right which certain of the descendants of Abraham (5) had over the rest. Melchizedck was certainly not one of these privileged descendants; yet he apparently had the right to tithe Abraham (who represented the entire Jewish people that was to come, including the Levites). This demonstrated a greatness far exceeding that of any regular priest.

(ii) A similar greatness was proved by the blessing he gave Abraham; for beyond all dispute the lesser is always blessed by the greater (7). Melchizedek was greater than Abraham himself! Moreover, as we have seen, Genesis says nothing about Melchizedek's death; from this it could be inferred (by the same principle as before) that Scripture affirms him to be alive (8). This put him in a different class altogether from men who must die.

This commentary on the text of Genesis had proved that being a king, and having no priestly ancestry, did not disqualify Melchizedek from being a priest of exceptional dignity. But could this be applied to Jesus? Would there ever be such a priest again? The answer was given by the one other text (17) in the Old Testament which mentions Melchizedek (Psalm 110.4):

"The Lord has sworn and will not go back on his word,
'Thou art a priest for ever, in the succession of Melchizedek'."

This text had apparently been spoken by the Holy Spirit to some successor of King David, long after the promulgation of the Law of Moses. It proved, therefore, that a priest of this exceptional type was to be expected in the future. In other words, the precedent of Melchizedek was valid for Jesus. But this text had another implication: the new priesthood would supersede the existing one. And, since the existing Levitical priesthood was an integral part of the Law of Moses, this could only mean that the Law itself was to be superseded. In fact, however, this was bound to happen anyway: for the Law (like the Levitical priesthood) brought nothing to perfection (18).

Two more phrases in the psalm are significant, (i) 'A priest for ever (17)'—that is, no longer a series of men succeeding one after the other to the office according to a system of earth-bound rules (16), but a perpetual priest, with all that the phrase implies in terms of effectual representation of men before God: Jesus is always living to plead on their behalf (25), (ii) 'The Lord has sworn' (21). An oath was given to the successor of Melchizedek, but not when those others were made priests: another proof of the superiority of Jesus' priesthood and therefore of the new covenant of which he is the guarantor (22).

Such a high priest does indeed fit our condition (26)—and here it is not a question of Jesus' "qualifications" (these—his suffering, his solidarity with human beings—can now be taken for granted), but of his present status. Just as the high priest in Jerusalem was separated from all possible contact with "sinners" for a week before he was called on to perform the great ritual of the Day of Atonement, ← There was a daily ritual at which the ordinary priests offered sacrifices for the people, and an annual ritual atl which the high priest offered sacrifices first for his own sins and then for those of the people (verse 27). Both these rituals seem to be in mind when the writer says that Jesus has no need to offer sacrifices daily. so Jesus is separated—in the sense that his place is now in heaven, far away from all that might profane the presence of God. This might seem a fatal separation from those whom Jesus' priesthood was intended to save. But no, Jesus offered up himself (27), his great act was a priestly act, making him perfect now for ever (28), and setting him in heaven as the representative of mankind.

Chapter 8.

Now this is my main point (1). The difficulty in the idea that one person could be both priest and king has been resolved by means of the figure of Melchizedek. But a further difficulty remains. The same psalm which contains the reference to Melchizedek begins with the words, "Sit at my right hand until I make thy enemies thy footstool" (110.1). Since all the verses of the psalm must be addressed to the same person, it follows that Christ, the Melchizedek-type priest-king, is now in heaven, with a role that looks more kingly than priestly. In what sense is he still a priest? Priests surely belong to the sanctuary on earth (whether the Tent of the Book of Exodus, or the actual temple in Jerusalem which was its successor). But Jesus cannot belong there—there are already priests who offer the gifts which the Law prescribes (4)—and in any case his place is now in heaven. He is certainly still a priest: for the condition of priesthood, that one must have ← Or "must have had". The Greek is ambiguous, and does not make it clear whether the writer is thinking of the offering of himself which he once made on the cross, or the offering of prayers he still makes as a priest. something to offer (3), was certainly fulfilled in his case. What kind of "sanctuary" can there possibly be in heaven for this new high priest to be able to exercise his priesthood there?

The answer is in another verse of Exodus (25.40). On Sinai, Moses had been given detailed instructions about the construction and furnishing of the Tent in which God was to be worshipped. The instructions ended with these words: 'See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain' (5). The literal-minded reader would take these words at their face value: Moses was to follow carefully the instructions he had just been given. But Jewish scholars, brooding on the word 'pattern', found a great deal more in it than that. Moses, they felt, must have been "shown the pattern" of an ideal sanctuary, of which the earthly sanctuary which he actually constructed was no more than an imperfect copy. Scholars whose background was Greek and philosophical imagined this ideal sanctuary to be a kind of microcosm of the universe, and in the actual details of Moses' Tent (and subsequently of the temple) they found symbols of the great principles underlying the physical world; while those whose culture was more narrowly Jewish assumed that the ideal sanctuary was one which God would institute on earth in the new age, the present sanctuary being but a kind of rough draft of that which was to come.

This writer comes somewhere between the two. The terms he uses to describe the relationship between the earthly and the heavenly sanctuaries are terms borrowed from Greek philosophy—copy and shadow (5), symbol and reality (9.24), shadow and no true image (10.1): this kind of distinction between appearance and reality goes back ultimately to Plato. But the realities he describes in these terms are not philosophical at all. For him, the heavenly sanctuary is not an abstraction, but a real sanctuary with a real priesthood. And this answers the question how Jesus can be thought of as a "priest" in heaven.

Before this answer is worked out in detail, there is one more point to be made. It has been said already that a new priesthood involved a new code of law (for the old Law included the regulations for the old priesthood). But the Law was only an expression of the "covenant" made between God and men. It followed that the new priesthood of Christ implied a new covenant, to replace the old—and this too could be confirmed by Scripture (8-12). Jeremiah had spoken of a 'new covenant' (31.31-4). This phrase alone proved that the original covenant was never intended to last for ever.

Chapter 9.

Like the temple in Jerusalem, and indeed like many ancient sanctuaries in the Middle East, the sacred Tent described in Exodus consisted essentially of two rooms, separated by a curtain (the second curtain (3)). The outer room—the Holy Place (2)—was entered directly (again through a curtain) from the courtyard outside. The inner room—the Most Holy Place (3)—had no outside door, and could be entered only from the outer room. The outer room contained the articles necessary for the regular services during the year (including the golden altar of incense (4): it is strange that this writer seems to think of this altar in the inner room—unless he is speaking of it as a necessary adjunct of the inner room, though not actually inside it). The contents of the inner room were more mysterious, for they were seldom seen. Originally they were trophies of Israel's earliest history. By the time of the Jerusalem temple they had mostly disappeared.

On these we cannot now enlarge (5). For many Jewish thinkers, each of these objects had a deeper meaning. But this writer has no time for such detailed interpretations. Instead, he concentrates upon just one feature of the material sanctuary (1), its arrangement in the form of an outer room and an 1 inner room, a first tent and a second tent. It is this which he describes as symbolic, pointing to the present time (9). The Most Holy Place, where God was believed especially to dwell, was separated from the faithful by an outer sanctuary given over to the ritual of offerings and sacrifices. But this ritual brought people no closer to the presence of God: it concerned only ritual cleansing and outward ordinances (10). It constituted, in effect, a permanent barrier between the inner sanctuary and the people: so long as the old priestly system remained in force, it merely kept people at a distance from God. If it was intended that there should be freer access to the divine presence, then it could be said that the way into the sanctuary remained still unrevealed. If at all, it was trodden only by the high priest, once a year, after sacrifices that were incapable of effecting lasting reconciliation with God.

But now Christ has come (11). The question from which this discussion started was, in what way could Christ be thought of as a "high priest" in heaven? The answer has been suggested by an appraisal of the existing temple-arrangements (described rather as they are laid down in the Book of Exodus than as they may actually have existed at Jerusalem in the writer's own day). These arrangements were defective—they could not give the worshipper inward perfection (9). But then, they were only a copy of the 'pattern' shown to Moses on the mountain (8.5). This meant that they pointed forward to a new and better kind of sanctuary altogether. This was the sanctuary where Christ would exercise his high-priesthood; and the fact that this new high priest had now come showed that the old sanctuary was obsolete, and the new one in operation.

Yet there were important analogies between the old and the new. The old functioned by means of animal sacrifices. In the new, Christ sacrificed himself: the blood of his sacrifice is his own blood (12). A priest sacrificing himself is of course a paradoxical idea—it almost tears apart the whole priest-metaphor. But there are three ways in which this paradox can be shown to be significant.

(i) The sacrifices of the old sanctuary were not by any means useless: they did at least restore external purity (the sprinkled ashes of a heifer (13) were the means of cleansing what was thought to be the most serious "impurity" of all, that caused by contact with a dead body). Christ's sacrifice was clearly something far more potent than this. If animal sacrifices cleansed the body, Christ's sacrifice must cleanse our conscience (14).

(ii) Some sacrifice was necessary for the new covenant (15). This argument (like that of Paul in Galatians 3.15-18) depends on a kind of pun. The covenant made by God with his people was rendered into Greek by the word which usually meant "will" or testament. This made it appear as though the covenant, like a will, could only come into force after a death (17). Now of course God does not die. But the original covenant was in fact sealed by death—the death of sacrifices: to this extent it was like a "testament". In which case the new covenant must also be established by a death. Here was another way of expressing the meaning of the death of Christ.

(iii) The sacrifices which took place in the earthly sanctuary were not meaningless: they presupposed better sacrifices (23) in the sanctuary in heaven, they cleanse the copies of heavenly things. The heavenly sanctuary, therefore, is still a real sanctuary with a real sacrifice; but that sacrifice, the sacrifice of Christ himself, is able to do all that the high priest's sacrifice could never do.

The old realities remain: it is the lot of men to die once, and after death comes judgement (27). But that which before made death and judgement to be feared—men's sins (28)—has now been cancelled by Christ's offering (just as acts causing ritual impurity were cancelled by the offerings of the Levitical priests); and the judgement itself will be transformed, for it will be the moment when Christ himself will appear a second time ... to bring salvation to those who are watching for him.

Chapter 10.

For the Law contains but a shadow, and no true image (1). The argument so far has not borne directly upon the Law: it has merely suggested that a new kind of priesthood itself implies a new Law and the end of the old. But now it can be shown that the Law, of its own nature, belongs to the world of shadows, not of reality (to make use once again of the familiar philosophical distinction). The Law provides for the same sacrifices year after year. What clearer proof could there be that these sacrifices are useless? Each time they are offered, prayers of confession are said in which, year after year, the same sins are brought to mind (3), as if the sacrifice of the previous year had had no effect at all. Clearly this could not be the ultimate state of things— and the proof, once again, is found in Scripture itself: Psalm 40.6-8.

At his coming into the world, he says (5). Who says? This enigmatic introduction belongs, once again, to the kind of private language which scholars like this writer, whether Jewish or Christian, felt able to use when interpreting Scripture. Psalm 40 was originally the utterance of a pious worshipper who had been mercifully delivered from misfortune, and who saw that his sense of gratitude to God must be expressed in the form of something more personal and demanding than the prescribed ritual of sacrifices and offerings. But to those accustomed to find deeper meanings in Scripture the psalm was full of suggestive phrases. 'Here am I ... I have come'. Who had come? Why, he who "was to come", the Messiah. But the Messiah had not yet come. Therefore the psalm must be a prophecy, it contained the words he would say when he finally did come. All this chain of reasoning is presupposed in the highly condensed phrase, at his coming into the world, he says.

(Traces of this reasoning are to be seen in the Septuagint translation of the psalm into Greek, which is the version always used by this writer. The original Hebrew version was probably intended to mean: "as it is written for me (to do) in the scroll (the Law), I have come to do thy will". But by rendering this, 'as it is written of me' (7), the Septuagint translators implicitly identified the speaker with one whose coming was foretold in Scripture. They seem also to have frankly misunderstood the sentence they rendered 'But thou hast prepared a body for me' (5). The original meant something like, "thou hast given me attentive ears". However, this mistranslation yielded a valuable point to the Christian interpreter.)

Many of thie prophetic writings protested against undue importance being attached to the ritual of sacrifice—Jesus himself quoted Hosea 6.6, 'I require mercy, not sacrifice' (Matthew 9.13). But taken as an authoritative utterance of him "who was to come into the world", these verses of Psalm 40 were more than a protest: they actually "annulled" the former Law with its system of sacrifices, and established a new dispensation, under which the one sacrifice was the offering of the body of Jesus Christ (10). In that offering, the will of God took the form of an obedient self-sacrifice; and the effects of this sacrifice were such that by it we too have been consecrated.

This offering, unlike its shadowy counterparts in the old system, was once and for all. This finally removes the difficulty of conceiving of a single person being both priest and king at the same time. A priest's place is at the altar, a king's is on his throne: how could Christ be both? The answer is now quite simple. First, Christ offered for all time one sacrifice for sins (12); then, he took his seat at the right hand of God. The two acts followed each other, and we do not have to try to imagine them taking place simultaneously. Now at last we know how to put together the two verses of Psalm no which have been running right through the letter: "Sit at my right hand, until I make thy enemies thy footstool" and "Thou art a priest for ever, in the succession of Melchizedek".

Here we have also the testimony of the Holy Spirit (15). One more text ties up the argument (Jeremiah 31.33-4). This text has already been quoted to prove that there will be a new covenant (8.7-13). It ends, 'and their sins and wicked deeds I will remember no more at all' (17). The promise of a new covenant has now been fulfilled, in which case this last line must have been fulfilled also. It follows that the old system of making sacrificial offerings for sin (18) no longer has any function.


Take a final glance at the old system. What you see in the outer room are the arrangements for ritual cleansing by sprinkled blood and water ablutions. Beyond that is the curtain through which, once a year, the high priest enters the inner sanctuary. All this is now superseded: the sprinkling is in the heart, the ablutions are the pure water of baptism (22) (presumably), and the way through the curtain (20) has been opened by the blood of Jesus (19). ← It is not clear, in this rush of metaphor, whether it is the way or the curtain which is described as the flesh of Jesus. In solidarity with him, we either burst through the limitations of flesh to the life beyond (in which case his flesh is the curtain); or else, united with him, we come to be where he now is (in which case his flesh is the way). So let us make our approach in sincerity of heart (22)—the metaphor is still that of the sanctuary, but here the writer characteristically changes his tone of voice: no longer doctrinal teaching, but moral exhortation. And without so much as a pause for breath, he comes straight to a particular point where his readers had been at fault—staying away from our meetings (25). There is probably more to this than mere slovenliness in attendance at church. Staying away suggests (in the Greek, if not in the English) a failure to stand firm with fellow-Christians in times of adversity—and a sketch of such times follows a few lines further on. This was serious, not least in view of the Day drawing near: for, while those within the church would undoubtedly be saved, those outside must expect the full severity of God's judgement.

The seriousness of this judgement is a fixed point in both the Jewish and the Christian faith. A fierce fire which will consume God's enemies (27) is a typical Jewish phrase for it, but both the idea and the imagery were taken over unchanged into Christianity. For the Christian, as for the Jew, a terrifying expectation of judgement remains if he falls away from his faith or his obedience. The author of this letter differs from other New Testament writers only in the greater stringency with which he regards any such apostasy or moral laxity in Christians. If we wilfully persist in sin ... (26) no sacrifice for sins remains. In other parts of the New Testament a distinction is made between (for instance) the sin against the Holy Spirit and all other sins (Mark 3.29), or between sins that are and are not deadly (1 John 5.16-17). Does this writer attach the same condemnation to all sins? His language, here and elsewhere, suggests that he does. Nevertheless, the sins which he actually mentions here are of a particular kind. They consist of having trampled under foot the Son of God, profaned the blood of the covenant ... and affronted God's gracious Spirit (29). We might today be inclined to give these words a psychological meaning, and to interpret them as a kind of secret and interior disloyalty to the faith. But they were probably originally intended in a much more exterior sense. Under conditions of persecution (such as are about to be described) one had to be visibly either in the church or out of it; and if one stood away from it, one would be forced to renounce it altogether in words that amounted to blasphemy and sacrilege. For such apostasy, God remained as severe a judge as he had ever been under the old system of the Law of Moses. There were plenty of texts in the Old Testament to underline this severity. Two are quoted here (30), from Deuteronomy 32.35-6. ← The first is quoted also in Romans 12.19 for a rather different purpose. In each case the quotation is something of a paraphrase of the original: perhaps it had become almost a proverb.

Remember the days gone by (32). The Christian churches did not escape persecution for long—the description here is presumably typical of what they suffered. Under persecution, Christians needed endurance (36)and faith (39). Faith is one of the themes of the letter, and is about to receive fuller treatment: it is a deep and many-sided attitude. But the easiest way for an early (Christian writer to encourage it was to point to the imminence (as it was then believed) of the end of the world and of the vindication of the righteous. This suggested a text which was in fact often appealed to in Jewish circles to encourage those who were tempted to doubt the promises of God (Habakkuk 2.3-4). This text (37-8) also contained some suggestive words about faith—words which (somewhat differently understood) played an important part in the reasoning of Paul (see above on Romans 1.17).


A call to faith

| << | faith | discipline & a warning | service | benediction & final greetings |
P46. Heb.10.32-11.3

Chapter 11.

And what is faith? For us, the word has become very technical. We feel forced to ask, faith in what? And the answer will usually be expressed in specifically religious terms—faith in God, faith in Christ. So, indeed, the word is used by Paul: for him, it takes on its full meaning only when it denotes the relationship which should exist between a Christian and Christ. But for this writer, the word is much more general. He does not reflect on all the different kinds or objects of "faith" which are open to man. He reduces the question to a choice between clear alternatives. One alternative is thoroughgoing materialism: you base your life entirely on conditions as you see them here and now; you do not concern yourself with any metaphysical realities lying behind appearances, nor with any expectations of a future state of affairs better than the present; everything you do is a calculated response to the tangible world around you. The other alternative is simply faith: for the sake of hopes, which you believe to have substance, and of realities you do not see, but of which you are certain, you live a totally different kind of life from that of the materialist. Because you believe that there will be some ultimate, other-worldly reward, you are prepared to endure exile, suffering, even death. Your decisions are no longer made on the basis of material advantage in this world; you set your heart on realities which are known only to faith.

In some circles these basic questions presented themselves rather differently. The alternative to materialism was not always thought of as faith in a future heaven or an underlying reality. The most widely followed philosophy of the time—Stoicism—taught a complete detachment from worldly things, and offered the philosopher an inner peace and security far superior to anything that could be gained from the comfort and enjoyment of the senses. Here, the antithesis was not between materialism and faith, but between materialism and detachment. Similarly, Paul's experiences as a Christian led him to discover that the reason for present sufferings was not merely the promised reward in heaven, but rather the sense of intimacy with Christ, the inner transformation of the person, which was effected by the suffering itself. Here again, the issue was not so much between materialism and faith, as between the values of this world and the values of an experience which embraced both this world and the next.

But for less sophisticated Jewish thinkers the choice was quite simple. Either the visible world is all that is, or else God exists, God makes demands on men, and God rewards the men who are faithful to his demands. There were only the two alternatives, materialism or faith. Not that faith was an easy alternative. It was all very well to say that God rewards those who are faithful to his demands: was this borne out by the facts? The Old Testament was full of stories of men and women who had made great sacrifices rather than disobey the will of God; and every Jew felt inspired by the example of the heroes and martyrs of the Maccabean period, who had steadfastly faced torture and death rather than abandon the religion of their forefathers. But had these people received their vindication and their reward? The answer was no—not yet. The alternative to materialism was the persistent faith of the Jewish people that the promises made by God would ultimately be fulfilled, that God would pronounce his universal judgement and vindicate his elect, and that the men of faith would then receive their rightful reward. The present was the time when this faith was tested: the time of ultimate vindication and reward still lay in the future.

Christians inherited the same view of the alternative between material rewards and faith. If they were being persecuted, they would have the same temptation to opt for the easier way out. But no, they must have "endurance" and "faith", and the classic examples of this faith were all those great figures in the history of the Jewish race who had unswervingly adhered to the will of God in the face of all the discouragements that materialistic common sense or ruthless enemies could devise. It is for their faith that the men of old stand on record (2). But there was a difference. For the Jewish heroes the reward lay still in the future: they did not enter upon the promised inheritance (39). But for Christians the period of reward had come so close that it had already partly begun. They still needed faith—that is the point of this whole section—but whereas previous generations could only see a distant prospect of reward, Christians stood on the very threshold.

Accordingly, this writer did not have to look for his examples of faith in the fresh annals of the Christian church. He could point to any of the great figures of the past who had consistently obeyed the commands of God rather than the promptings of expediency. He could search the Old Testament for them; or he could read a lesson from that more recent period when Jewish history seemed to have attained its summit of nobility and glory, the Maccabean resistance to the paganizing oppression of Antiochus Epiphanes. In point of fact, he probably did not need to work out his own list of heroes. Jewish writers were fond of singing the praises of the great names of their history, and he could borrow from the work of others. This list happens to be far the longest example in the New Testament (the letter of James, in a somewhat similar passage (2.21-6), mentions only Abraham and Rahab), but it is less ambitious than that, for example, in Ecclesiasticus 44-50.

Open the Bible at the beginning, and you find these men of faith on almost every page. As the story progresses, their faith becomes more explicit: it is a positive response to a particular command or promise of God. But at the beginning it is simply the recognition that behind the created world stands God. The first words of the whole Bible are a statement of this faith: "In the beginning God created heaven and earth". This is the ultimate and basic faith held in common by all those men of old who are about to be mentioned and by their successors down to the present day. To put it in slightly more
philosophical terms: By faith we perceive that the universe was fashioned by the word of God, so that the visible came forth from the invisible (3).

The list begins with Abel (4). "The Lord received Abel and his gift with favour; but Cain and his gift he did not receive" (Genesis 4.4-5). Genesis gives no explanation of God's preference; a certain arbitrariness seemed characteristic of God's dealings with men at this early stage in human history. But later Jewish thinkers were not content to leave it at that. There must have been something about Abel and his offering which made God accept Abel without accepting Cain. Our author assumes without question that this something was faith: through faith his goodness was attested. In the Genesis narrative, God subsequently says to Cain, "Your brother's blood that has been shed is crying out to me from the ground". This may explain the choice of words here: through faith he continued to speak after his death.

"Having walked with God, Enoch was seen no more, because God had taken him away" (Genesis 5.24). This enigmatic verse gave rise to much legend and speculation. Evidently Enoch, like Elijah, did not die. Why was he spared the normal fate of men? Genesis said only that he "walked with
God"—or pleased God (5), as it appeared in the Greek version always used by this writer. What exceptional character or quality was there here to explain such a prodigious exception to the general rule? Differing answers were given; but our author again takes it for granted that it was faith, for without faith it is impossible to please him.

Noah (7): again there has been a shift of emphasis. In Genesis (6-9) Noah represents the means by which God allowed the world of living things to survive the punishment that was to be inflicted on the entire human race. But later thinkers began to reflect on the response of Noah himself. He had been given the apparently absurd command to build a huge ship in the middle of dry land. That he did so was proof of amazing faith in God's command. And as it turned out, he was right and the whole world was wrong.

Abraham (8): it was traditional to think of Abraham as the subject of a whole series of "tests", by means of which God made him the perfect progenitor of the Jewish race. The last and most demanding of these was the command to sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22), of whom he had been told, (17) 'Through the line of Isaac your descendants shall be traced' (18) (Gen. 21.12). This was the supreme test of faith: Abraham passed it, and was rewarded with promises of a unique destiny. Besides this, our author mentions two more of Abraham's acts of faith: his obedience when called to leave his native country (Genesis 12.1, 4), and his acceptance of a nomadic existence (8). This acceptance (9), which characterized not only Abraham but the whole of his family and his people, was a clear sign of living by faith and not by self-interest. If their hearts had been in the country they had left, they could have found opportunity to return (15). But in fact they were sustained by God's promise of a land of their own in the future. Indeed our author goes further and spiritualizes this promise: ultimately their faith was not even in something as tangible as that part of the earth's surface they were to inherit, but in the remote vision of a perfect society, the city with firm foundations, whose architect and builder is God (10).

(One more Abraham example is given: both Sarah (11) and Abraham were past the age for begetting and bearing children when Isaac was born; nevertheless God promised them a tremendous posterity (numerous as the stars etc., Genesis 22.17 and elsewhere). In point of fact, Genesis records that both Abraham and Sarah laughed at this promise instead of believing it (17.17; 18.12). But what Jewish thinkers remembered was that their race was the result of a supernatural promise made to Abraham and Sarah, who in the end accepted their responsibility, and thereby gave another example of faith.)

Isaac (20): the interest of Isaac's two blessings in Genesis 27 depends upon the deception that had been played upon him by Jacob: this is the dramatic climax of the scene. But it could still be said that Isaac could not have given his blessing at all unless he had believed in his vision of the future.

Jacob (21): the same goes for Jacob's blessing of each of Joseph's sons (Genesis 48). (The detail that he was leaning on the top of his staff is an echo of a different incident (Genesis 47.31), where in fact the word staff is a misreading by the Septuagint translators: the correct Hebrew word means "bed".)

Joseph (22): every man wishes to be buried in the place where his own people live. Joseph's desire to be buried in Palestine (Genesis 50.24-5) was a clear proof of his faith in God's promise to Abraham that his people would one day return there.

Moses' parents (23): in the Hebrew version of Exodus only his mother is Credited with defying the king's edict (2.1-3). But in the Greek version of the Septuagint, and in subsequent tradition, both parents take the credit.

Moses (24) is cited for three acts of faith. It is true that he soon abandoned his status as the son of Pharaoh's daughter, in order to take up the cause of the Hebrews; but according to Exodus, the immediate cause of this was the fear of being caught after killing an Egyptian (2.11-15). However, this writer takes a longer view. Ultimately, Moses preferred to share the still obscure destiny of his own people rather than enjoy the transient pleasures of sin (25); and this was a typical decision of faith. The choice was a sharp one: the treasures of Egypt (26) were proverbial; the stigma that rests on God's Anointed had now been sensationally exemplified in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, but was an idea with a long history: Psalm 69.9 and Psalm 89.51 were both passages which recognized that a righteous man—even one whom God has chosen and Anointed—might have to bear a stigma; and the destiny which lay before Moses could be regarded in the same light. Seeing the invisible God (27) is of course a contradiction in terms. Moses, it is true, was spoken to by God "face to face" (Exodus 33.11); but the Bible hardly concedes that he could actually have seen God—at most he could have seen God's "back", but certainly not his "face" (Ex. 33.23). God is invisible— this was an axiom to Jewish saints and Greek philosophers alike. None of Moses' experiences fundamentally altered the fact that he acted on the evidence, not of sight, but of faith.

Three more episodes from the saga of national history are adduced as examples of faith (28, 29): the Passover, the crossing of the Red Sea, and the fall of Jericho. Last in the list of individuals (30)—and somewhat surprisingly—comes Rahab. The story of Rahab is in Joshua 2. She was a prostitute and a heathen —two serious disqualifications for appearing in a list of the honourable figures of Jewish history. But again, later speculation fastened upon the fact that she, alone of the unbelievers of that time, had made a true confession of faith: "the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on earth below" (Joshua 2.11). Rahab became the prototype of all who turned to the Jewish faith from paganism; she began to appear in the ancestry of King David himself (Matthew 1.5), and to be revered as the mother of prophets and priests. Her popularity in Jewish tradition sufficiently explains her appearance in the series here.

The stories of Gideon, Barak, Samson, and Jephthah (32) are in the Book of Judges; those of David and Samuel in 1-2 Samuel. In the earliest period their exploits were mainly in the form of achievements against overwhelming odds: through faith they overthrew kingdoms ... their weakness was turned to strength (33). (An allusion to two notable miracles, one of Elijah (1 Kings 17), one of Elisha (2 Kings 4), seems to be slipped in with the words, women received back their dead raised to life. (35)) Later, faith was more characteristically shown in the resistance of the pious to all threats and tortures which might have made them abandon their ancestral faith. The literature of this later period began with the Book of Daniel: Daniel himself muzzled ravening lions (33) (Daniel 6), Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego quenched the fury of fire (Daniel 3). In the Maccabean wars, there were countless heroes of the faith whose fortitude became enshrined in history and legend, and who soon inspired a whole literature of martyrdom. Even the great prophets of the Old Testament began to be credited with feats of endurance and martyrs' deaths (like Isaiah, who, legend said, was sawn in two (37)). With so many examples to choose from, the writer could do no more than summarize: Time is too short ... to tell the stories (32).

The author of one of the psalms, appalled and bewildered by the fact that so often the wicked appear to flourish, had been tempted to abandon his faith. A sudden thought brought him up short:

"Yet had I let myself go on talking in this fashion,
I should have betrayed the family of God." (Psalm 73.15)

top

Chapter 12.

The fact that so many people in the past had chosen God, not the world—that is, had shown faith—was one of the strongest supports an individual could have in making the same choice himself. All these figures of the past had "witnessed" to the decision of faith being the right one. And so now: with all these witnesses to faith around us like a cloud (1), we Christians should not falter for a moment in choosing the way of faith rather than the way of compromise.

But then the metaphor changes. The "witnesses" become a dense crowd of spectators seated round a stadium, while the athlete throws off every encumbrance and stands straining at the starting line, inspired by the example of one who has run the race with surpassing resolution: Jesus, on whom faith depends from start to finish (2). The witnesses (1) have not yet received the prize, their faith has not yet been vindicated. But Jesus inspires, not merely as one of those who had the resolution to make the choice of faith, but as one whose faith has now been triumphantly justified. It was for the sake of what lay ahead ← The Greek of this sentence can be taken in two ways. Some will feel that Christ can hardly be said to have suffered for the sake of the joy that lay ahead of him, and that the rendering given in the NEB footnote is preferable.—which could be grasped only by faith and hope— that he took the bitter alternative and endured the cross, making light of its disgrace. But (unlike all previous witnesses) he has already taken possession of what lay ahead. To quote Psalm 110.1 again, he has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

For Christ, the cost of this steadfast and uncompromising faith in the face of such opposition from sinners (3) was death. The Christians' struggle against sin (4)—which probably means both the struggle against their persecutors and the struggle within themselves against the impulse to betray their faith—is not yet so serious: you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. Their endurance has not yet had to be anything out of the ordinary. There are places in the New Testament where the problem of suffering is tackled in a deep and original way: Christian suffering is a sharing of Christ's suffering, a renewal of the inner man, an element of true discipleship. But this author is content to use an old and familiar argument to explain the relatively mild suffering which his readers have undergone. Can anyone be a son, who is not disciplined by his father? (7) But we are God's sons: therefore we must expect discipline (5-6). The argument makes use of proverbial Hebrew wisdom (Proverbs 3.11-12) and Greek moralizing (Discipline, no doubt, is never pleasant (11)); it ends (12,13) with some vivid biblical imagery (Isaiah 35.3 and elsewhere) and allows us perhaps a glimpse of a typical situation within the church. There was a disabled limb—temptation had already been at least partly yielded to by some; but this did not concern only individuals. A single renegade could be a bitter, noxious weed growing up to poison the whole (15) (the phrase is taken from Deuteronomy 29.18). The health and peace of the whole church was at stake.

No middle position was possible. To abandon the church was to relapse into paganism and to join the society of Gentiles which was proverbially (at least in Jewish eyes) immoral and worldly-minded (16) (a word which, in the original, includes the idea of profanity and idolatry). Where, in the Bible, could one find an example of such a lapse? The figure of Esau suggested itself. He sold his birthright (17) (Genesis 25.31-4)—which was tantamount to renouncing his membership of the people of God—and later tradition painted him in the colours of the most persistent immorality. Moreover, he found no way open for second thoughts, his apostasy was irrevocable; in this too he could serve as a warning to the Christian apostate, for whom likewise (as this writer has already twice insisted) there was no possibility of repentance.
top

Remember where you stand (18). The fact of God is to be taken seriously. No matter who you are—Jew or Christian—you stand exposed to the majesty of his presence and the clarity of his justice. Our God is a devouring fire (29), and there is no escaping from him. How then is man to stand at all in this terrifying neighbourhood of the divine? Hear first the answer of Judaism. God gave his Law on Sinai: obey that, and you need not fear God's judgement. But this hardly removes the terror. Read the description of that tremendous law-giving (Exodus 19.12-13,16; Deuteronomy 4.11): even Moses said, 'I shudder with fear' (21) (Deuteronomy 9.19).

Hear now the answer of Christianity. Instead of Sinai, Mount Zion and the city of the living God, heavenly Jerusalem (22), a symbol of the ultimate and glorious society which God will one day bring into being. God is no longer an awesome presence, keeping all creatures at their distance by the blazing fire of his sovereignty. He now holds court in heaven, surrounded first by myriads of angels (22) (his dedicated worshippers since the beginning of time), then by the first-born citizens of heaven (23) (again, perhaps, angelic beings, or else the great Old Testament recipients of God's first promises to men), then by the spirits of good men made perfect (for some, in more recent times, had lived in such perfect obedience that they could surely hold up their heads before God). But is this heavenly and holy society, this great symphony of consecrated worship, any more accessible to the ordinary human being than the blazing fire of Sinai? (18) Yes, because of Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant (24). Sinai, and the Law proclaimed there, has been superseded. Jesus has been killed, and his blood, instead of crying for vengeance like Abel's, is a means (like the sprinkled blood of the old ritual) of making others pure and admitting them to the presence of God.

Is this really so? Does this ideal state of affairs exist? Scripture gives no explicit promise of it, but there are many texts which prove it by implication. Haggai 2.6 is one: 'Yet once again I will shake not earth alone, but the heavens also' (26). If heaven and earth—the whole world of appearance—can be "shaken" in a final cosmic catastrophe, there must be some reality which endures, a kingdom which is unshakable (28): it only makes sense to talk of transience if somewhere there is permanence to measure it by.

Let us therefore give thanks to God—yes, but God is still to be taken seriously, he is to be worshipped with reverence and awe. The old covenant may have gone, but there is a new one; the old Law may have been superseded but there is still One who speaks from heaven (25). We may have new privileges in the face of the realities of majesty and judgement, but those realities still remain. It is still awesomely true, as it was when Moses spoke the words (Deuteronomy 4.24), that our God is a devouring fire (29).
top

Chapter 13.

Never cease to love your fellow-Christians (1). A series of more or less unconnected moral injunctions occurs towards the end of several New Testament letters. Those in this letter are not specifically Christian: they belong to the common stock of the moral teaching of antiquity. Remember to show hospitality (2). This was a virtue highly esteemed by both Jews and Greeks, and there were stories in the literature of both which showed how dangerous it might be to neglect it: in Genesis 18-19 Abraham and Lot offered solicitous hospitality to their mysterious visitors, who did indeed turn out to be angels; and in Homer it was a commonplace that a stranger from over the mountains might always be a god in disguise. Remember those in prison (3): again, this was a duty taken for granted in popular Stoic ethics, and for much the same reasons as are given here; and it features in the list of "acts of kindness" which Christians must do for each other in Matthew 25.31-46. Marriage is honourable (4). Adultery and unnatural affections were regarded by all Jews as among the most crying sins of the pagan world: they never felt any doubt that God's judgement will fall on fornicators and adulterers (5). Do not live for money: this again was a philosophical ideal—be content with what you have is a phrase that owes something to the Stoic principle of "self sufficiency". It was also strongly endorsed by Jesus on the grounds that God provides all that is needful (6). The two quotations here make much the same point. The first is a paraphrase of a passage like Joshua 1.5; the second is from Psalm 118.6. Remember your leaders (7). This again seems to have been one of the regular topics of Christian ethics. It occurs in similar contexts elsewhere (Galatians 6.6; 1 Thessalonians 5.12) and is developed further in verse 17 below.

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and for ever (8). This sounds like the kind of phrase that Christians must have used in church. It was perhaps more natural to make this affirmation about God: so, in Revelation (1.8), God is he 'who was and who is and who is to come'. Here it is boldly transferred to Jesus Christ, perhaps with the difference that yesterday means not "existing from eternity", but "he who was among us on earth such a short time ago".

The series of unconnected ← The NEB implies that in this instance there is a connection by inserting the word so (which is not in the Greek). But there is little logical progression from verse 8 to verse 9, unless it is that, if Jesus Christ is unchanging, Christian doctrine must also be protected from outlandish teachings. injunctions continues. Do not be swept off your course by all sorts of outlandish teachings (9). Here we have no idea what the writer was attacking. Outlandish teachings, from the point of view of people steeped in Jewish and Christian traditions, must refer either to a fringe sect of Judaism or to some frankly pagan cult or philosophy; and scruples about what we eat must refer to a particular kind of abstinence ← This is the NEB interpretation. But the original Greek is still less precise. Literally, it means "from the grace of God, and not from things eaten". The exponents of these outlandish teachings could have been recommending, not abstinence, but eating a certain kind of food, or even consuming a certain kind of sacrifice. practised by such people. More we cannot say: though these "teachings" sound a little like movements which we hear of elsewhere in the New Testament (see above on 1 Timothy 4.3).

Our altar (10). The moral tone is suddenly supported by a piece of argument. During much of the letter, the writer has had in mind, as an image of Christ's sacrifice, the ritual of the Day of Atonement, performed once a year by the Jewish high priest in the Holy of Holies. Part of the ordinance of this ritual runs as follows (Leviticus 16.27): "The two sin-offerings, the bull and the goat, the blood of which was brought within the veil to make expiation in the sanctuary, shall be taken outside the camp and destroyed by fire ... "Here was another respect in which the old ritual foreshadowed the new spiritual reality: like the sacrificial victims in that ceremony, Jesus also suffered outside the gate (12). It might seem more natural to say "outside the city" or "outside the walls", where Jesus was in fact crucified. But this writer is meditating all the time, not on the actual sacrifices as they took place in the temple at Jerusalem, but on the description of the ritual as it stands in the Law of Moses. That description presupposed a nomadic people, whose sanctuary was still a tent and whose dwelling was still an encampment; the temple and city of Jerusalem lay in the future. It was that original ritual which Jesus fulfilled; and so this writer goes on, Let us then go to him outside the camp (13). Indeed, the picture of those early worshippers living under canvas, their possession of lands and cities still a promise for the future, suggested another point of comparison: Christians too have no permanent home, but we are seekers after the city which is to come (14). Our Jerusalem is a heavenly one. The exhortation may be a perfectly general one: to follow Christ, to share his stigma (13), and renounce attachment to material things; but if in fact these Christians were Jews who were now finding themselves excluded from the Jewish community to which they had always belonged, there would be a sharper point in the words, Let us then go to him outside the camp.

It may be, indeed, that these Christians were under attack from non-Christian Jews, on the grounds that, in their new religion, they had no temple, no priesthood and no sacrifices. Their answer would have been, they had these things, only in a different sense from the Jews (and this answer would have been greatly strengthened by much of the argument of this letter): they had a definitive high priest in Jesus, they had a sanctuary, not in the world of appearances, but in the reality of heaven, and their sacrifices were such as the prophets ← There is an echo here of Hosea 14.2 and Psalm 50,14 (a psalm which expresses a criticism of reliance on ritual sacrifices very much in the manner of the prophets). had so often recommended (15), not living victims, but praise, kindness and sharing one's possessions—for such are the sacrifices which God approves (16). It could even be said that they had an altar of another kind from that used by the priests of the sacred tent (10). On the other hand, it is far from certain that these particular Christians were under attack from the Jewish side, and the paragraph reads just as well as an elaboration of the symbolism which the writer found in the biblical description of the worship of the desert generation. To the sacrificial victims slaughtered by those worshippers corresponds the sacrifice of praise of the Christians; and in so far as it can be said that Christians have an altar, the prototype is not the daily altar-sacrifice of the old rite (which the priests were permitted to eat afterwards), but that one sacrifice in the year—on the Day of Atonement—from which the priests of the sacred tent have no right to eat, since the victims were carried outside to be burnt—a clear symbol of Jesus, who also suffered outside the gate (12). ← This is the interpretation implied by the NEB footnote.

Obey your leaders (17). Obedience within the church was another regular topic in the group of moral exhortations which tended to be gathered at the end of New Testament letters (compare 1 Corinthians 16.16; 1 Thessalonians 5.12; Romans 16.19). The tireless concern and sense of ultimate responsibility of Christian leaders comes vividly out of Paul's letters (compare especially 2 Corinthians 11.28; 1 Thessalonians 2.19-20).

Pray for us (18). These words are perfectly conventional, and bring us little closer to the personality of the author.
top

May the God of peace (20). Some kind of prayer, again, belongs to the end of such a letter. This one is strong and solemn: the Amen at the end of it was probably echoed by those who heard it read. It uses ideas that have been worked out earlier in the letter—blood of the eternal covenant, making perfect—but also introduces a new one—the great Shepherd of the sheep—which was perhaps already familiar to the readers: it occurs again in 1 Peter 5.4.

I beg you, brothers (22). These final verses are the only ones written in the style of a personal letter. They tell us nothing about the author, and very little about the time and place at which he wrote. Indeed they are so general that it would not have been difficult for a later editor to add them to the original treatise in order to give it the appearance of a letter, so that we cannot even be sure that the little they tell us is authentic. Bear with this exhortation. This reads like a conventional apology for length. But the word exhortation is somewhat technical: it often means a demonstration of the bearing of certain passages of Scripture on contemporary events (see above on Acts 13.15). This is exactly what the foregoing letter has consisted of. Doubtless it was intended, like other New Testament letters, to be read during the worship of the church: perhaps it was not exactly what the worshippers expected! Our friend Timothy has been released (23). There is a famous Timothy in the New Testament, the friend of Paul. If this is the same one, it is news to us that he was ever in prison. But there may well have been other people called Timothy.

Greetings to you from our Italian friends (24). Again, this means nothing to us. But there is one frail link by which this letter can be attached to a known fact of history. Clement of Rome, writing to the church in Corinth in about the year A.D. 96, quoted the Letter to Hebrews. This makes it seem likely that the letter was written to Christians in Rome; in which case it would have been natural for the writer, wherever he was, to convey the greetings of Italian friends to their kinsmen.
top