- Introduction: Hebrews as an Elephant
- How Can Hebrews Affect Our Lives
- Reading Hebrews in the 21st Century
- Finding the Diamonds in the Argument
- Specific Passages in Hebrews
The Book of Hebrews is much like an elephant. At least it appears so in light of the famous Indian tale of the four blind men and the elephant. Here is the story. Four blind men kept hearing of the marvelous qualities of the elephant and how useful it was to so many in their society. However, because they had never seen an elephant, it was difficult for them to imagine this wonder. Therefore, one day, when they heard that an elephant was standing near them, they all eagerly rushed forward to examine the beast and learn. The first blind man felt the elephant’s ear. “Ah!” he said, “I understand now that the elephant is very like a fan, flat and wide.” The second blind man felt the one of the elephant’s legs. “It is clear to me,” he said, “that the elephant is very like a trunk of a great tree.” The third blind man felt the elephant’s tail. “I am surprised,” he said, “that the elephant is just like a rope.” The fourth blind man felt the elephant’s massive side. “Impressive!” he thought, “the elephant is much like a wall.” Each man walked away carrying a very different understanding of the elephant. Each was partially correct but none was complete.
It is in this sense that Hebrews is very like an elephant. If we examine any particular part of this work in isolation, we will come away with a incomplete notion of what kind of writing it is. When we read the powerful statements describing the nature of Christ, it is easy to conclude that Hebrews is like a theological treatise. When we face the intricate and repetitive exposition of scripture, Hebrews appears much like an exegetical exercise. When we encounter the frequent words of guidance and encouragement, Hebrews seems very like a sermon. When we notice the greetings and benediction at the end, Hebrews conforms rather closely to a letter. Yet all these different strains together comprise a single and impressive work. The presence of so many distinct thrusts within Hebrews points to the specific manner in which this work unfolds. Theology pushing beyond “basic teaching” (6:1) is wedded to complex scriptural readings in order to speak a “word of exhortation” (13:22). When we factor these forces together, Hebrews is not unlike a homily. Although it would be much longer and intricate than the homilies we are accustomed to hear today, the use of scripture and basic teaching in an effort to impact people’s lives is similar to the purpose of a homily. The fit, however, is not perfect. Hebrews, like the elephant, is unique. Nevertheless, if pressed to describe this particular work, we could do no better than to call it “a written homily that ends like a letter.”
Who Wrote Hebrews?
We can ask who is responsible for this complex homily which ends like a letter. We can ask, but there is no clear answer. No writing of the Christian scriptures comes to us with a title page or dust jacket. Hebrews is anonymous. There is no reference within the work which allows us to identify its author. However, around the end of the second century this work began appearing in manuscript collections as part of the letters of Paul. Over the centuries the name of Paul made its way into the title. You can still find Hebrews called, “The Letter of Paul to the Hebrews,” in the King James Version of the Bible and in other older translations such as the Catholic Douay-Rheims Version.
Why did later Christians begin to associate this work with Paul? The easiest explanation is that Hebrews ends like a letter, and Paul is the most famous letter writer in the Christian scriptures. Add to this the fact that Heb 13:23 makes a reference to a “brother Timothy.” The name Timothy is found only in Acts and in ten letters of the Pauline corpus. This could have easily been seen by those collecting the scriptures as an indication that Hebrews was written by Paul.
Despite this longstanding association of Hebrews with Paul, few scholars today would see Paul as its author. The style, expressions, and outlook are simply too different from Paul’s. Paul insists that his gospel came to him through no human intermediary: “I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal 1:12). The author of Hebrews tells us that his message was “declared at first through the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard him” (Heb 2:3). How can these two very different statements come from the same person?
If Paul is not the author of Hebrew, who is? Other persons of the early Christian movement have been suggested: Barnabas, Apollos, Silas, and even the Blessed Virgin Mary. None of them are convincing. As much as we would like to have a particular historical person to which this work can be attributed, we will have to settle with a few inferences found within the work which describe some of the author’s characteristics. We have already seen that the author received the message of the gospel from others and therefore was not an eye witness to the ministry of Jesus. The author uses a masculine participle to refer to himself in Heb 11:32. Therefore, it seems he was a man. He was obviously well educated. His Greek is excellent and his writing shows knowledge of rhetorical training. He was likely a Jewish Christian with a good Hellenistic education. Beyond this we can say no more.
When Was Hebrews Written?
When it comes to the date of the writing of Hebrews we must be satisfied with a possible range within which its composition is likely. Since we have already established that the author was not an eyewitness to the ministry of Jesus, it is probable that he was not in the first generation of Christians. Therefore, the earliest likely date is around 60. The latest likely date is set about 100. This is because the early Christian document called 1 Clement seems to be citing a passage from Hebrews. Since most scholars set the date for 1 Clement in the late 90’s but not later than 120, 100 seems about as late as you would want to set a date for a work which 1 Clement is quoting.
Some commentators have argued that since Hebrews uses the present tense to refer to Temple sacrifices, the date of Hebrews should be set before 70 when the Temple was destroyed. However, this argument is undercut by the recognition that the Jewish writer Josephus uses the present tense to describe sacrifices being offered in the Temple, and Josephus is writing twenty years after the temple was destroyed. Therefore we are left with a range from 60 -100 with most scholars opting for a date around 80.
Hebrew’s Structure and Style of Argumentation
If it is true that Hebrews comes to us without a title page or dust jacket, it is also true that it comes without a table of contents. We possess no guide from its author on how he intended the work to be structured. Our only means of perceiving that structure is to note shifts and turns within the text and develop an outline for ourselves. Luckily, dividing the text into smaller units is rather easy. The author usually shifts from one thought to the next in a clearly discernable way. What is problematic is how these smaller sections relate to each other throughout the complete work. This is compounded by the style of our author which is not linear but concentric. Using catchwords, inclusions, announcements of theme, and shifts in genre, the author prefers to move back and forth from one idea to another. The argument constantly foreshadows themes which will be taken up later and offers summaries of what was treated pages before. It is beyond the scope of this Introduction to theorize on outlines which explain the entire work. As we look at specific passages from the letter, we will strive to gather together the themes and ideas of our author without the need of holding them in some larger hypothetical scheme.
Our author does have a favorite method of argumentation which we will see him employ throughout Hebrews. It was a way of arguing which was popular in both Greek philosophical circles and also in rabbinic Judaism. It is the argument “from the lesser to the greater.” It says that if something is true in a small matter it will even be more true in a great one. A modern example would be: If you rejoiced about finding a twenty dollar bill on the sidewalk, how much more joy will you have when you win the lottery. Hebrews argues that all which came before Christ is to be seen as the lesser and, if we had joy and glory then, how much more do we have now.
Hebrew’s Use of Scripture
Perhaps more than any other work of the Christian scriptures, Hebrews grounds its arguments by citing scriptural texts. These texts are of course from the Hebrew scriptures which were the written scripture of the early Christian movement. Many times the author of Hebrews will cite a passage explicitly. At other times he will allude to certain biblical phrases or ideas. He uses Ps 110 in this way. This psalm which speaks of the enthronement of the king, using the famous line “sit at my right hand until I make your enemies my footstool,” runs like a refrain throughout Hebrews. In chapter 11 Hebrews offers a lengthy review of ancestors whose lives demonstrated faith, continually paraphrasing stories from the biblical narratives without citing any particular passages.
We are accustomed to referring to scripture as we make a particular doctrinal or spiritual point. Hebrew’s use of scripture, however, moves in ways which seem foreign to us. Hebrews has no problem with lifting a text from the Hebrew scriptures out of its context and applying it to Christ. For example, in Heb 1:5 our author cites a statement of God from Ps 2:7 “you are my son; this day I have begotten you.” Although the psalm clearly refers to the Israelite king, Hebrews is quick to apply it to Jesus. In Heb 10:5-6, our author cites the Greek translation of Ps 40:7, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me.” Although in their original context these words are those of the psalmist giving thanks to God, our author places them on the lips of Christ describing his incarnation. Psalm 8:5-6 extols the wonder of being human, “what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.” Yet Hebrews takes this description of humanity and applies it in Heb 2:6-8 to Jesus’ humiliation and exaltation.
Our author is even willing to change the wording of the biblical text if it suits his argument. When quoting Jer 31:31 which promises a new covenant between God and the house of Israel, the author of Hebrews in Heb 10:16 changes “the house of Israel” to “them.” In this way a text which originally described a covenant with Israel is now more easily applied to the readers of Hebrews, many of whom could be Gentile.
How can we understand this flexible use of scripture citations? It flows from the belief by interpreters of the first century that the written word of God was a living word. The same Spirit who inspired the text was alive in the believing community. New actions of God could unlock new meanings in the texts and finding those meanings was the role of the interpreter. The author of Hebrews certainly believed that a new action was accomplished by God in Christ. For him, then, Christ was the key through which scriptural passages should be understood.
Our historical inclinations push us to honor the original contexts of the scriptures. Although such an approach is valid and beneficial in many ways, we must also appreciate how the author of Hebrews seeks to make biblical texts speak a new word to his listeners. As we watch him stretch and twist the texts of the Hebrew scriptures, it is obvious that his methods are different from ours. Admitting that truth, we must also admit that his creative re-reading of the scriptures has served to establish the faith tradition in which we stand. It is that common tradition which unites us across the centuries.
We explored many of the circumstances which surrounded the writing of The Book of Hebrews: author, date of composition, and style of writing. As interesting as these questions might be, they do not greatly influence the reason that most of us read Hebrews. As believers we turn to scripture in order to strengthen our faith and deepen our lives. We want this book to speak to us.
When we turn to Hebrews for such meaning, there are several obstacles to overcome. Hebrews, as all the books of the Bible, originated in a culture that was very different from our own. Thousands of year separate us from the world of its author. Yet we turn to this book looking for inspiration and guidance. How can such an ancient and foreign text convey to us a contemporary message?
One possible way to discover present meaning in this text is to proceed in two steps. First, we can examine indications within the work which reveal the situation of the original readers of Hebrews. We can try to locate what were the issues that concerned the addressees of Hebrews and what did our author say to them in their own time. Second, we can look for similar or parallel issues and circumstances in our time and then hear what Hebrews says to us.
The Situation of the Original Readers of Hebrews
An important clue to the original situation of Hebrews is given to us by the author himself. In Heb 13:22 our author describes his own work: “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, bear with my word of exhortation, for I have written to you briefly.” The author of Hebrews sees his work as a word of exhortation or encouragement.
Why do his original readers need encouragement? Let us gather some clues concerning their circumstances. Initially, the title of the work appears to provide a helpful piece of information. “To the Hebrews” points to a Jewish congregation. Yet it is very likely that the title was not supplied by the author but was rather an ancient conjecture that became attached to the book after its composition.
A more secure characteristic of the community is that they had been converted to Christ for some time. When the author directs his readers in 6:1 to “go on toward perfection, leaving behind the basic teaching about Christ, and not laying again the foundation,” it certainly implies that his audience had already received the basic catechesis in the faith.
In one of the longest descriptions of the community, we learn that its history was not easy:
Recall those earlier days when, after you had been enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to abuse and persecution, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion for those who were in prison, and you cheerfully accepted the plundering of your possessions, knowing that you yourselves possessed something better and more lasting (10:32-34).
Here is a community which has endured hardships. These were probably in the form of some public ridicule or rejection. They do not seem to involve the ultimate experience of martyrdom, because in 12:4 our author reveals that “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.”
This resistence to persecution implies a strong faith on the part of the community who received Hebrews. Yet that strength appears to be a gift of the past.
Now our author can describe his readers as “dull” (5:11) and “sluggish” (6:12). Now he must encourage them to “lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees” (12:12). Now there is even a concern that some members of the community have stopped coming together to pray (10:24-25). This once strong community has now lost its fervor and is in danger of losing its faith. That is why it needs encouragement. That is why our author writes Hebrews.
As we try to focus in more precisely as to the exact manner in which the community has fallen, our clues dry up. Various theories have been suggested by commentators to describe why the community was in peril. Rather than presenting all of these possibilities, allow me to identify three characteristics which have often been used to explain the problems which our author is addressing.
A Loss of Hope
It is very possible that the community to which Hebrews is addressed has been shocked into despair. This possibility is supported when emphasis is placed on the persecution which was mentioned in 10:32-34. Perhaps they began impressed with all the beauties of the gospel, all the promises of joy and life, and then persecution hit. It was not what they were prepared for. It was harder than they imagined. People they trusted betrayed them. Bad things happened to them. Their faith was deflated. Their hope was gone. When evil attacks us, it throws us. It is often impossible to explain its presence or its meaning. It is easy to give up and despair. The presence of persecution could have been the reason the addressees of Hebrews needed encouragement.
It is possible that the problem for Hebrews’ addressees did not come from an exterior attack but rather from an inner doubt. Having chosen to be followers of Christ and having lived that life for a while, it could well be that their initial enthusiasm began to fade. A certain nostalgia could have set in regarding those things which were more familiar. If we understand that the addressees of Hebrews were those who left behind certain kinds of Jewish practice, this nostalgia might express itself in a desire to return to their former religious customs, perhaps even a longing for the temple and its cult.
With the passage of time, a certain amount of second-guessing could have begun to erode the community’s faith: “It seemed like such a clear choice when I made it. But there are disadvantages that I didn’t see and there are aspects of my former life which now I miss. Did I make the right choice?” Knowing that members of the community were struggling with the rightness of their initial decision, the author of Hebrews could have decided to offer them his exhortation.
It is possible that the problem our author addresses does not result from external persecution or inner doubt but simply a depletion of energy. The community started strong but they did not pace themselves. Now they are running out of steam. Because they were so motivated and so energized by the gospel, they threw themselves into service, worship, and the pursuit of wisdom. Now their knees are weak and their heads droop. They are tired, tired of faith, tired of life. Worn down and worn out, they are losing perspective and begin to question the value of what they are doing and what they are believing.
Although the problem is not persecution or doubt, exhaustion is still a serious problem. Without energy, the life of the community will slip away. Without energy faith will die. Recognizing this deadly drain on the community, the author of Hebrews writes to offer his encouragement.
An Encouragement in Two Directions
Whether we imagine the problem in Hebrews to be one of losing hope, second-guessing, or exhaustion, the exhortation which our author offers pulls in two different directions: one static and one active. Note his approach in 4:14-16:
4:14 Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. 4:15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. 4:16 Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
In verse 14 our author offers a static exhortation: we should “hold fast.” In many places throughout Hebrews we will find similar admonitions: do not “drift away” (2:1); “hold firm” (3:6); “hold fast” (10:23). These static exhortations called the community to stability and endurance. In verse 4:16 we can identify an active exhortation: we should “approach.” This corresponds with many other active admonitions throughout the work: strive to “enter” (4:11); “run” the race (12:1); “go” to meet Jesus (13:13). These active exhortations call the community to movement and service.
As we read Hebrews we should be prepared to find our author calling his addressees at times to hold fast and at other times to move forward. It seems that both static and active admonitions had a place in providing encouragement. We should not be surprised to find that these dual exhortations can also provide a parallel to our situation today.
What Hebrews Can Say to Us
We have located three possibilities which may have been responsible for Hebrew’s addressees to fall from faith and two kinds of admonitions which our author uses to offer encouragement. Now we can move on to the second step of our method and suggest parallels to our own lives.
Like the original readers of Hebrews, we can lose hope when evil attacks us. Whether that evil comes in the form of a sudden death of someone we love, a betrayal by a friend, or the onset of a serious illness. When despair threatens we should seek both static and active encouragement. In the presence of such evil we need to hold on to the good things which remain in our lives. Family and friends who love us, prayers and places which give us peace are invaluable. Holding on to the good which is still ours is our best shield against the evil which assaults us.
Yet there is also an active response to evil. Overcome as we are with the power and at times senseless presence of evil, we still need to act. Often this is no more than simply taking the next step: being attentive at the wake, following the prescribed medical treatment. The movement may seem small or routine, yet it is movement. Doing the next thing with as much courage as we can find is a bulwark against despair.
It is also easy to find situations where, like the original readers of Hebrews, we second-guess our life’s decisions. We may have been moved by a deep religious experience: a personal retreat, a parish renewal, a revelation of grace. It may have changed our life fundamentally. Yet with the passing of time inner doubts emerge: “Was that experience less than I thought? Have I become too religious, too extreme? Perhaps it was not wise to cut myself off from my life before the experience.”
In the midst of second-guessing, we require both static and active encouragement. Deep experiences are complex. We need to hold fast to those aspects of such experiences which are good and life giving. Even though there may have been unbalanced statements and over reactions, there was a gift, a blessing, which should be preserved. At the same time we cannot allow a deep experience to freeze us in the past. We must be willing to move and grow. We need to add new people and experiences to our lives and integrate them with what has gone before. We can deal with second-guessing when we preserve what was good and take it with as we move forward into life.
Finally, like the original readers of Hebrews, our faith can be threatened by exhaustion. It is easy to over extend ourselves. There is work and family, errands and soccer games, jobs around the house and surfing on the net. We can live in the midst of a constant whir of activity. Soon there is no energy left for anything and our faith falters. Here too we need both static and active encouragement. We must actively prioritize what comes first in our life. What are the things which really matter and which things can be let go. Once that priority is clear, we must hold fast to what we value most and protect ourselves from responding to every request and opportunity. Exhaustion is defeated when we know what is most important and we dig in our heels to protect it at all costs.
Many more parallels could be drawn between our own lives and Hebrews. Imagining the struggles which the first readers of Hebrews experienced and drawing connections to our own is an on-going process. Yet these have been presented here as a starting point for further reflection. They demonstrate that an ancient text can still speak to a new generation of believers.
Vast differences in language, thought, and culture separate us from world in which Hebrews was written. Yet useful parallels can be drawn between the situation of the addressees of the letter and our own lives. That is what we tried to do above. Some differences, however, are too wide to bridge. Some of the gaps between our world and the world of Hebrews must be recognized for what they are: divergences that will not or should not be translated from that culture into our own. In this article I would like to discuss two of them. One has to do with the philosophical categories which anchor Hebrews’ view of the world. The other concerns our author’s judgment on the value of the Jewish people and their covenant with God.
The Influence of Plato upon Hebrews
Five hundred years before Hebrews was written the Greek philosopher, Plato, shaped a view of the world. Plato taught that the things in the world which surround us have only the appearance of reality. All the things which we know through our senses are mere shadows of a greater and truer world. What is ultimately real and valuable exists in an ideal world and cannot be known through the senses but only through the mind. Plato’s ideas posited a great gulf between this ideal world and the material world. In order to attain the goal of life humans must escape the material world and go to their true home in the world of the spirit.
When Alexander the Great established his empire throughout the Mediterranean world, he brought Greek philosophy with him. When the Romans replaced Alexander’s empire with their own, they retained Greek thought patterns and the philosophical categories of Plato. The view that the material world is a mere shadow of the real world beyond our senses permeated the culture of the Roman empire and influenced in a particular way the author of Hebrews.
It is necessary to appreciate Platonic categories if we are to understand many of the images which Hebrews places before us. For example, when our author wishes to demonstrate the true value of Christ, he does so by distancing Christ from the material world and associating him with the heavenly one:
8:1 Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, 8:2 a minister in the sanctuary and the true tent which is set up not by man but by the Lord. . . . 8:4 Now if he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all, since there are priests who offer gifts according to the law. 8:5 They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly sanctuary; for when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, “See that you make everything according to the pattern which was shown you on the mountain.”
According to Hebrews, Christ’s ministry is important because he ministers not in an earthly sanctuary or tent but in the “true tent which is set up not by man but by the Lord.” All the priests and sacrifices in this world which we can see with our senses are not genuine, because all material reality is only a shadow, “a copy and shadow of the heavenly sanctuary.”
When Hebrews seeks to describe Christ’s exaltation and why Christ is able to intercede to God on our behalf, it presents Christ as entering the only real sanctuary, a sanctuary not formed by human hands: “For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf” (9:24). Consistent with Platonic thought, any sanctuary made by human hands, any sanctuary which is in this world, is only a copy of the true one.
To his original audience the association of Jesus with what is heavenly and real as opposed to what was earthly and only a shadow must have been a powerful argument. Platonic thought was so pervasive throughout first century culture that using its categories instilled authority and validity to Hebrew’s assertions. Today the situation is different. We are not Platonists. In some ways we are at the other extreme. Material things are seen as a good in a way unprecedented in history. We hardly see the comforts and luxuries of the material world as shadows from which we must escape. Because we are much more likely to recognize the value of material things, the categories of Platonic thought do not work for us. Jesus entering the real sanctuary of heaven would have struck the addressees of Hebrews as the final blow of a convincing argument. It strikes us as beautiful language. Pretty, but not powerful.
How can we deal with the gap between the Platonic categories of Hebrews and our own and very different way of thinking? The answer comes in two steps: 1) own the difference; 2) salvage the good. It is no use to pretend that we can understand the power of Hebrew’s original impact. We can’t imagine what it would be like to live within a Platonic worldview. The best we can do is own the difference and recognize we can never fully close the gap. Once we do this it is possible to salvage much that is valuable from Hebrews. We can accept Hebrews’ contention that Jesus is the ultimate High Priest without seeing every earthly sanctuary as a shadow of a heavenly one. We can believe in Jesus’ ability to intercede for us without concluding that the prayers offered in this material world are of little value. Even though Hebrews’ arguments pull against the grain of our own way of thinking, we can respect its conclusions. As different as its way of thinking is from our own, we can honor its assertion of the importance of Christ and claim that truth in our own categories of thought.
Hebrew’s Judgment on the Jewish Covenant
Another gap which exists between our world and that of Hebrews carries more troubling ramifications. It concerns our author’s view of the Jewish people and their covenant with God. As we have already established, Hebrews seeks to be a word of encouragement to those whose faith is failing. Our author wishes to rally his readers’ commitment by extolling the supreme value of Christ.
Our author’s strategy for establishing the excellence of Christ is to compare him to what came before. This contrast is set forth in the first two verses of the work: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds” (1:1-2). What happened “long ago” is now compared to what has happened through “a Son.” It will, of course, be argued that “the Son” is superior. Although our author clearly sees a continuity between the events of the past and his own circumstances, his primary aim is to convince his readers that what they have in Christ far surpasses what came before. To do this he employs the Platonic categories we examined above, declaring that what came before was only a shadow and that what they now have in Christ is alone what is real.
Here is where the problem emerges. The author of Hebrews is so anxious to establish the superiority of Christ that he insists that the covenant with the Jewish people has been annulled, set aside, and indeed canceled:
There is, on the one hand, the abrogation of an earlier commandment because it was weak and ineffectual (for the law made nothing perfect); there is, on the other hand, the introduction of a better hope, through which we approach God (7:18-19).
But Jesus has now obtained a more excellent ministry, and to that degree he is the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted through better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no need to look for a second one (8:6-7).
Not only does our author believe that the covenant with the Jewish people has been canceled, in 8:13 he asserts that it will soon vanish: “In speaking of ‘a new covenant,’ he has made the first one obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear.”
This conviction by the author of Hebrews that Christian believers have replaced Jews as God’s chosen people is often called “supersessionism.” Such thinking has had a tremendous influence upon Christian history. It was adopted by many of the Fathers of the Church and shaped Christian theology and practice for centuries. However, events in the 20th century have motivated a different understanding of Jews and their covenant with God. At the Second Vatican Council (Nostra Aetate #4) the Catholic bishops of the world declared that the Jewish people could not be seen as repudiated or cursed by God. The 1993 statement of the Pontifical Biblical Commission guides it readers:
Particular attention is necessary . . . to avoid absolutely any actualization of certain texts of the New Testament which could provoke or reinforce unfavorable attitudes toward the Jewish people. The tragic events of the past must, on the contrary, impel all to keep unceasingly in mind that, according to the New Testament, the Jews remain “beloved” of God, “since the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom 11:28-29).
Many other Christian Churches today would concur with the views expressed in these Catholic documents. In the 21st century we live in communities which reject supersessionism. We are called to interpret the New Testament in ways which blunt its supersessionistic assertions.
The gap between the thought of Hebrews and the commitment of the Christian churches of our time is clear. Whereas Hebrews would grant no lasting value to God’s covenant with the Jewish people, we today feel impelled to recognize that Jews continue as partners “in a covenant of eternal love which was never revoked” [Pope John Paul II, “Address to Jewish leaders in Miami,” 11 Sept 1987].
How are we to deal with this gap in our interpretation of Hebrews? I would suggest the same two steps which were employed in dealing with Hebrews’ Platonic categories of thought: 1) own the difference; 2) salvage the good. We can never know for sure why the author of Hebrews concluded that the Jewish covenant had no lasting value. It may have well been because his Platonic categories pushed him into making a contrast which ascribed reality to one side and only a shadow to the other. Whatever the reason, it is clear to us today that his valuation of Jews and their covenant is at odds with our own. The first step to understanding Hebrews is to admit this difference. It took centuries for the Spirit of God, working through the events of history and the hearts of believers, to reveal the danger of supresessionism. We do no service to the gospel when we refuse to repudiate the supersessionistic tendencies that are found in Hebrews.
Once it is clear that those attitudes of our author are not to be promoted as good news, we are free to salvage the good which is found throughout Hebrews. We can accept and affirm the many ways in which Hebrews finds continuity between the Jewish covenant and God’s action in Christ. The faith and trust of our Jewish ancestors, which is illustrated so extensively in chapter 11 of Hebrews, can validly be seen as a model for our own faith. The deep respect which our author has for the Hebrew scriptures reminds us how those sacred writings remain a “Shared Testament” between Christians and Jews to this day.
We can fully affirm the strong assertions of Hebrews on the importance of Christ and his role as High Priest. We are Christians and by definition we accept Christ as our mediator and way to God. Hebrews provides us with some of the most powerful expressions of Christ’s humanity and exaltation. Yet even as we claim this central role for Christ, we need not believe that his presence erases what has come before. Even as we rejoice in the gift that has been given to us in Christ, we need not assert that the gift given to Israel is worthless or obsolete. The author of Hebrews believes that the glory of Christ annuls the validity of Israel. We can embrace his view of Christ without adopting his judgement against God’s chosen people.
As we have already discussed, Hebrews’ style of argumentation is complex and concentric. At times the reader will find the thrust of the argument repetitive and difficult to follow. In the specific passages treated below, I will attempt to offer direction in making the connections which will allow the author’s point to emerge.
Yet, even in the midst of dense argumentation, the author of Hebrews possesses a technique which offers immense potential to any reader. He has the ability to create succinct images of great power and beauty. These statements, shining as carefully polished diamonds, are easily detachable from their context. The reader has only to notice their power and lift them out.
Among these memorable gems can be found a description of the power of the scriptures: “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (4:12). Hebrews 4:15 offers a striking image of Jesus’ power and full humanity, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” A thumbnail definition of faith is given in 11:1, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” The admonition to hospitality in 13:2 should be inscribed on our hearts, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” One would be hard pressed to find a better description of worship than the one presented in 13:15, “Through him [Jesus], then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name.”
As you read through the verses of Hebrews, do not be frustrated if at times you cannot follow the more complex twists and turns of the argument. Keep your eye and ear open to locate our author’s short and artful expressions of wisdom. Finding one is like finding a diamond, a jewel to be treasured and admired over many years as it rivets our attention and deepens our faith.
“In these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.” (Hebrews 1:1-4)
Like the opening notes of a great symphony, these first four verses of Hebrews build into a crescendo of sound. The setting is vast — all of history. A contrast is made between how God has dealt with us in the past as compared to the present. Much of the argument of Hebrews is to draw such contrasts which are continually used to demonstrate the importance of Christ. Here on the stage of time, our author states that in the past God spoke to us in “many and various ways” (1:1). The Greek word which is here translated as “many,” carries the sense of partial, something which was given bit by bit. The contrast then begins with the partial and varied signs of grace which typified earlier history. Then comes the crescendo. Now what is partial fades, what is scattered comes together. In a full blast of sound what is complete and perfect arrives: in these last days God has spoken to us by a Son!
With a glorious cord of harmony the Son steps onto the stage of time showing us the glory of God. The Son is compared to the personified Wisdom of the Hebrew Scriptures. He is heir of all things, the one through whom the worlds were created, the reflection of God’s glory, the imprint of God being, the one who sustains all things. How times have changed! The perfect expression of God has arrived.
These opening verses of Hebrews are intended to make us thankful. We are privileged to live when God’s voice has been clarified in the fulness of God’s Son.
Reflection: At What times in my life have I experienced a full display of God’s glory? Have those experiences helped me to recognized the more partial and scattered glimpses of God?
Prayer: Loving God, at times your presence in my life is difficult to find. Help me believe that in my time the full glory of your Son is available to me.
“Let all God’s angels worship him.” (Hebrews 1:5-14)
Who doesn’t love angels? It is easy to find images of them in statuettes, lapel pins, and holy cards. People are comforted by understanding their presence as a sign of God’s care. In the ancient world they were held in even higher esteem. They were not only a sign of God’s care but also of cosmic power. Angels were presumed to be God’s administrators within a hierarchical bureaucracy which directed the universe. In fact there are indications within the Christian scriptures that the high estimation of angels began to cause problems when some people began to worship them, giving them a status which was God’s alone (Col 2:18).
In these verses our author uses this high estimation of angels to elevate the position of Christ. Seven quotations from the Hebrew scriptures are interwoven to demonstrate the superiority of Christ. The central contrast is expressed in verses 7-8. There our author shows that angels are God’s “servants,” but the throne of God’s Son stands firm forever and ever.
It is likely that the purpose of the comparison is to address an underestimation of the position of Christ. Because Jesus lived a life of service within the bounds of our own world, because he endured suffering and death, it could have seemed to many within Hebrews’ community that his status was less important than the glorious and spiritual nature of the angels. Our author argues here that the exact opposite is true. This is the first indication within the letter of a theme which will be frequently stressed: Jesus sits at God’s right hand not because he escaped suffering but because he willingly accepted it.
Reflection: Has suffering or disappointment ever led me to a deeper appreciation of the presence of God? What has helped me in facing the trials of life?
Prayer: Glorified Lord, it is comforting to view life through the soft and beautiful images of angels. Allow me to recognize that your glory was won through the power of the cross.
“Pay greater attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.” (Hebrews 2:1-4)
From angels to ethics — that is the shift which our author now makes before our eyes. We were wrapped in the glory of Christ, outshining the power of the heavenly host. Suddenly we are being addressed on how to act. This is a technique of Hebrews which we will see over and over again. Our author regularly jumps from a highly involved discussion of doctrine to specific moral admonitions. In fact it is this interplay between theology and lived life which reveals the true aim of this work: the doctrine of our faith is used to admonish us on how to live.
What is the admonition which our author offers in these particular verses? He addresses a loss of fervor on the part of his readers. Sometimes the loss of faith results not from some outward attack or tragedy but from a lack of attention. Therefore in verse 1 our author invites his readers to pay attention because he fears they will “drift away.” The action which the Greek verb expresses can be effectively imaged as a boat floating in calm waters. As the sailor allows his mind to turn elsewhere, the gentle but steady current carries the boat beyond its destination. Concentration has wandered and the goal of the journey is lost as the boat drifts away.
This is why our author wants us to pay attention. He wants us to pay attention to the word of salvation which we have heard. Hebrews is supremely confident in this regard. If only we would attend to the true power of the good news, we would know how to live, we could never lose our way.
Reflection: Can I think of times when my relationship to Christ became routine or devoid of power? Did it result from a sudden shock or a lack of attention?
Prayer: Lord may I never take your gifts for granted. For once I allow my mind and heart to wander from your goodness, the currents of life can draw me away.
“We do not yet see everything in subjection to them.” (Hebrews 2:5-9)
In these next verses our author says something about Jesus and something about us, and in both of his statements there is the possibility of being scandalized.
What he says about Jesus has to do with his suffering. This is the first time in the letter that our author seriously raises Christ’s humiliation. Up to now he has been emphasizing his exaltation and his superiority to the angels. Now he admits that “for a little while” (verse 9) Jesus was lower than the angels. What begins to emerge here is Hebrews’ view of Christ’s saving mission. It does not exclude suffering. Our author will continue to discuss Jesus’ suffering in the next section. But already he is preparing us for the scandalous message which is to come.
What he says about us is also scandalous. For in verse 8 he admits that, although Jesus is already in full glory, that glory is not yet apparent. This is a daring admission on the part of our author. More than anything he wants to encourage his readers that the superiority and power of Christ are real. But he has to admit that evil and injustice still exist. The author of Hebrews cannot make his argument in some dreamworld. If his message is to have effect, it must speak the truth. Christ is exalted, but the power of his reign has not touched every time and place.
His admission calls us then to stand firm even when the victory of Christ is not apparent. Because we cannot see his glory, it does not mean it is not there. Because evil touches us, it does not mean there is not also a greater good.
Reflection: When has the power of evil weakened my faith? When has it challenged me to grow?
Prayer: Lord, you know the things which rest heavily on my soul. Do not allow the troubles of my life lead me to doubt your love. Fortify me to stand firm in hope.
“Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.” (Hebrews 2:10-18)
Here our author takes up again the humiliation of Christ which could well have been a scandal to his readers. He starts his argument boldly by insisting that “it was fitting” that God should allow Jesus to suffer. We can imagine the readers of Hebrews reacting: “Fitting in what way! Why would anyone want a leader who suffered?”
Our author is ready with the answer. Although he speaks in his normal complex patterns of scriptural quotations and diverse images, his message is clear. Jesus had to suffer because we have to suffer. God wanted our leader to have a close identity with us. Jesus and we have one Father (verse 11). Together we share flesh and blood (verse 14). Jesus shared in our human condition so that he could free us from the power of death (verse 15).
In a brilliant shift of argumentation, our author turns an objection into an asset. He tells his readers not to consider Jesus a less effective leader because he suffered but a better one. By suffering he drew closer to us. Who wouldn’t want a leader who was like us in every respect (verse 17)? Precisely because he suffered he is able to help us who suffer (verse 18).
Hebrews’ view of Jesus is still relevant today when we turn to Christ for help. Do we want a leader who is above us or one who is with us. The answer, of course, is that we want both. This is what we have in Jesus: One who is enthroned with God in glory and One who knows what it is to endure human suffering and pain.
Reflection: Do I fully appreciate Jesus’ true humanity? Do I realize that he knows what it is to love, to rejoice, to endure as I do?
Prayer: Jesus, you are my God. I accept your power and your divinity. Allow me also to wonder at the mystery of your humanity and your willingness to call us your brothers and sisters.
“We are his house if we hold firm the confidence and pride that belong to hope.” (Hebrews 3:1- 6)
When you begin reading these verses, you think that you know where our author is going. By bringing up the figure of Moses it seems likely that he is readying us to insist that Jesus is superior to Moses. He certainly does that by contrasting their functions within the house of God. Moses served in the house as a servant, but Jesus was set over God’s house as a son (verses 5-6).
Then, however, there is a surprising turn. The focus shifts from Moses and Jesus to us. For this house around which Moses and Jesus are compared is us. We are the house of God. It is to us that Jesus has been sent. To make his point our author has no reservation in calling Jesus an “apostle” (verse 1). This is the only place in the scriptures where the title, apostle, is ascribed to Jesus. But the title is appropriate here because “apostle” means “one who is sent” and it is Jesus who has been sent to be faithful over the house of God.
It is possible to discuss the significance of Moses and Jesus in some abstract and removed sense. This is not, however, our author’s intention. He wants us to know and appreciate that all the glorious things he has and will say about Jesus are meant for our good. We will hear this point several more times before we finish Hebrews, and it is worth hearing again. The saving action of God connects us closely to Jesus and closely to each other. We are “brothers and sisters, heavenly partners in a holy calling” (verse 1).
Reflection: When has it been clear to me that my own faith is nourished by the men and women who share faith with me? Have I ever told them I was thankful?
Prayer: Jesus, my apostle, you were sent by God to bring us life. Allow me to receive your message more deeply and rejoice with those who believe it together with me.
“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” (Hebrews 3: 7-18)
Having turned the focus on us as the house of God, our author now begins to advise what we as the house of God must do. We need to take care lest we turn away (verse 12), to exhort one another (verse 13), to hold firm to the end (verse 14). This is one of the passages of Hebrews where our author’s concern about his readers’ condition comes clearly into view. He is worried that they will give up. He draws upon the experience of Israel and the unfaithfulness of those who gave up during the wandering in the desert. He does not want his readers to make the same mistake.
In shaping his admonition, our author draws upon a lengthy citation from Psalm 95. His favorite verse from this psalm is “Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.” The emphasis in this verse is found in the word “today.” If we are to persevere we must begin today. There is no question that the journey of a disciple is long and often difficult. However, the key to finishing the journey is to listen to God’s voice, and to listen now. If we can be in touch with what God is saying to us today, we will find direction and strength. If we worry about yesterday or tomorrow, our focus and our energies will be wasted and we may lose the courage to go on. God knows what we require each day of our lives and is willing to provide it. But to accept what God wants to give us demands that we do not harden our hearts but rather open them to hear God’s voice.
Reflection: Where should I look in my own life today to hear the voice of God? Is there a recurrent issue or problem in which God might be speaking to me?
Prayer: Word of God, in the swirl of my daily activity you attempt to communicate with me. Help me to remember that you can touch me in any person or event. You use whatever seizes my attention to lead me to you.
“The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.” (Hebrews: 4:1-13)
Our author again draws a comparison between Israel and his audience. The land was promised to Israel but because of their disobedience many failed to enter it (verse 6). We have been promised a place of rest just as Israel was, and our author wants us to reach it (verse 9). Even though our author believes that the invitation of Christ is more noble than the invitation of Joshua, the example of Israel’s failure is not offered here to show that the church is superior to Israel but rather to warn us not to be unfaithful ourselves.
Having made that warning, our author presents to us one of the jewels of Hebrews: a brief hymn on the word of God (verses 12-13). The hymn serves a function within the argument, for it makes the point that the word of God brings judgement to those who are unfaithful. Yet the poetry of these verses is so vivid that they can stand on their own as a focus for meditation. The word of God can be understood as the written scriptures but its reference is certainly wider. The word of God refers to the person of the living Christ who dwells in the church and indeed the many ways that God communicates to us.
What our author wants to make clear is that God can and does step into our lives with power. God’s action can judge, shape, and recreate our existence. As a sword cuts through joints and marrow, God uses divine power to call us to the truth and redirect our lives to goodness. We do not control our relationship with God. God has the power to seize us and change us.
Reflection: Can I remember a time when I experienced the tangible power of God in my life? How did I respond? How has that power made me different today?
Prayer: All Powerful One, you know me completely and you desire to give me life. Even before I know my own need, you are working to set things right. Open me to your power. Open me to your love.
“We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness.” (Hebrews 4:14 to 5:10)
With these verses the image of Jesus as our high priest comes into view. Our author had mentioned the role of the high priest in 3:1, but now he seriously takes up the theme and will continue to develop it through chapter 10. The job of every high priest is to minister between God and us. Therefore, a truly effective high priest bridges the gap between the human and the divine.
This is what makes the image of the high priest so attractive to our author. When seen as our high priest, Jesus’ full humanity does not detract from his saving ministry. It enables it. We saw how the first two chapters of Hebrews exalted the position of Christ. Without lessening that glorious status, our author now adds that Jesus’ suffering made him perfect and the source of eternal salvation (5:9). How does Jesus’ suffering equip him to be the means of salvation? By allowing Jesus to sympathize with our weakness (4:15). Because Jesus can so effectively span the space between human suffering and divine exaltation, he is the prefect high priest for us. He can bring our weakness, our pain, our cries for justice, our fears and dreams and place them before the very throne of God.
And all this supports Hebrews aim to encourage us. If this perfect high priest is ours, if Jesus can so flawlessly bring our needs to God, we should approach the throne of grace with boldness (4:16). With Jesus as our high priest there is no need to hold back or despair. Our prayers will be answered; our salvation is secure.
Reflection: Is it helpful to me to realize that Jesus dealt with the same human problems that I must face? What are the struggles in my life which Jesus would understand?
Prayer: Jesus, I need you to be my Lord. I need you to lift me up by your glorious power. Allow me, Lord, to also realize that I need you know my weakness and sympathize with my pain.
“Let us go on to perfection, leaving behind the basic teaching about Christ.” (Hebrews 5:11 to 6:12)
We now begin the central section of Hebrews. Our author’s first note is one of disappointment. He laments that his readers have grown “dull in understanding” (5:11) and that they need the milk of infants rather than solid food (5:12). One would expect that our author would now begin to re-teach the basics that he believes his audience is lacking. He chooses, however, another strategy. In the first verse of chapter six, he announces that he intends to pass over in silence the basic teaching and move forward to what is more advanced.
At first this seems like a foolish approach, for how can one appreciate more complex things if the basic foundation is not secure. Upon further reflection, however, two truths validate his procedure. First, our author understands that all the truths of revelation are interconnected. The basics can be clarified and reaffirmed even as the more complex realities are explained. Second, and most importantly, he believes that it is essential to keep moving forward. There may be deficiencies in our faith, but we cannot wait still until each and every one has been addressed. We need to continue to learn and continue to grow. Perfection is not achieved by pretending we can remove every fault and weakness from our lives, as if we were picking lint off a sweater. Perfection is attained by the courage to press forward, seeking the larger vision and energized by a glory we will never control. We could certainly be better prepared, but we cannot wait. Ready or not our author launches us into deeper waters.
Reflection: Are there inadequacies in my own life which I feel are holding me back from progress? Is it possible to change them or better to simply press forward in faith?
Prayer: Dear Lord, I desire to be a better person. Despite my faults, help me to move. Allow me to see that perfection lies not in lamenting over the past but in embracing the future.
“We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul.” (Hebrews 6:13- 2)
In an oral culture which had few written contracts, the trustworthiness of a promise was assured through swearing by the divine name. Calling upon the name of God was a way of saying, “you can trust me; I have not lied.” Our author uses this custom to underline the trustworthiness of God. Finding the passage in Genesis (22:16) where God made the promise to Abraham, our author notes that God not only made a promise but sealed it with an oath. Since God was God, God could only swear by God’s own name (verse 13). This gives us “two unchangeable things, in which it was impossible that God could prove false” (verse 18). The two things are the promise itself and the oath which guarantees it — a double assurance that God’s word must be trusted. For it is impossible for God to lie.
Our author is about to enter upon an extended exposition of Jesus as the high priest. The purpose of that teaching is not, however, some abstract curiosity. All that he will say about Jesus is meant to give us encouragement. Jesus is the one through whom we are saved. Yet the power of that salvation is dissipated unless we can rely on the truth of God’s word. This is why our author devotes these verses to insure doubly God’s faithfulness. We may doubt it. We may deny it. We may reject it. But it nevertheless stands firm. God has made the promise. God has secured it with an oath. It is right to give ourselves completely to that Word. It is the sure and steadfast anchor which grounds our lives.
Reflection: Have I ever doubted God’s faithfulness to me? If so, have I been able to restore the trust which I need to believe?
Prayer: God, my rock, my life goes up and down. My faith is alternately strong and weak. Help me to find hope in the truth that as much as I fluctuate, you remain steadfast in your love for me.
“He holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever.” (Hebrews 7:1- 28)
Back in 5:11 our author promised us that he would have much more to say about Jesus as the high priest. In these verses he begins to do just that. These are some of the most complex verses in Hebrews. Therefore, it is important to remember that our author’s fundamental purpose is to show the superiority of Jesus, so that his readers will recognize the value of the faith in which they stand.
To show the superiority of Jesus’ priesthood, he finds the passage in Gen 14:17-20 when Abraham meets a king and priest named Melchizedek. This is the only place in the scriptures where Melchizedek appears, and we know nothing more about him. Our author uses the lack of knowledge to his advantage. The ancient rabbis had a principle: “What is not in the scriptures is not in the world.” Since nothing is mentioned of Melchizedek’s parents or origin, our author uses this principle to conclude that Melchizedek did not have a human origin but was a timeless and eternal figure. Once this step is made, Melchizedek is said to resemble Christ (verse 3), for we already know that Jesus reigns eternally at the throne of God.
Now our author adds that since Abraham offered gifts to him, Melchizedek was greater than Abraham, and thus by inference Christ who Melchizedek resembles is greater than Abraham or any priesthood which flows from Abraham’s line. Yes, the argument is involved and may not appear very convincing to us. However, our author’s conclusion is clear. Jesus performs his priesthood through the power of indestructible life (verse 16). He offers to us a better hope, through which we approach God (verse 19).
Reflection: When have I needed to find my hope in the promises of Christ? Was the hope that I placed in Jesus vindicated?
Prayer: Jesus, my high priest, I turn to you this day. Bring my life and my needs before the throne of God. Allow me to believe that your power and your love are without limit.
“They offer worship in a sanctuary that is a sketch and shadow of the heavenly one.” (Hebrews 8:1- 6)
In this section our author draws strongly upon the categories of Platonic thought to argue to the superiority of Christ. As has been discussed in the introductory article above, Platonic thought envisioned true reality in a heavenly sphere and saw all earthly entities as shadows of their heavenly counterparts. Our author now connects Jesus’ priesthood to Platonic categories, insisting that every priest who offers worship on earth is doing so in a sanctuary which is only a sketch and shadow of the real sanctuary in the heavens. It is Jesus alone who sits at the right hand of God who can offer worship in the heavens and thus in a sanctuary which is real (verses 1-2). Thus Jesus’ priesthood is unique and superior to any other.
The argument in this section of Hebrews functions by leading its readers to understand that the priests which they can see on earth should not be accepted as truly real. That is reserved to Jesus alone.
Even though we do not think in Platonic categories, the contrast between what is real and what is only a shadow still carries a truth. In our lives, it is easy to become overly concerned and overly involved with problems and issues that are really not that important. We can begin to live on a shadow level where the real matters of life are lost from view. In those circumstances, the advice of Hebrews is valuable. Don’t accept a copy for the real thing. Look beyond what is immediate and demanding. Find and believe in the people and truths which ultimately matter.
Reflection: What is really important in my life? What things distract me from devoting time and energy to what is really valuable?
Prayer: God, center of life, demands come at me from all sides. Too often I give myself to what is next rather than what is important. Allow your Spirit to guide me away from what is merely an illusion and towards what is real.
“I will put my laws in their minds, and write them on their hearts.” (Hebrews 8:7-13)
There is no question that our author in his desire to establish the superiority of Jesus has concluded that the covenant which was established with Israel is now obsolete (verse 13). As was discussed in the introductory articles, this poses a problem for Catholics today whose church teaches that the covenant with Israel is still in effect.
In making his claim that the covenant of which Jesus is the minister renders the former covenant obsolete, our author cites the passage in Jeremiah 31:31-34 which speaks of a “new covenant.” From this passage Hebrews concludes not only that the new replaces the old but also that the old will “soon disappear” (verse 13). It is important to note that one does not have to read these verses of Jeremiah in the same way our author does. Jeremiah says nothing about the first covenant becoming obsolete. He speaks of a new covenant through which the first covenant can be deepened. What characterizes this new covenant is the willingness of the people to respond to it. It will be written on their hearts (verse 10). The new covenant in Jeremiah can be understood as being built upon the old covenant, deepening it by a more genuine response. This is certainly the way Jews read Jeremiah to this day.
Writers of the Christian scripture show a great flexibility in interpreting passages of the Hebrew scriptures in light of Christ. Our author uses that flexibility to conclude that the covenant with Israel is obsolete. Yet in light of our appreciation of religious freedom and our continuity with our Jewish brothers and sisters, it is appropriate for us to read Jeremiah differently.
Reflection: What is my attitude to the Jewish faith? Have I ever met Jews who have shared their faith with me? Have I found points of contact between our two faith traditions?
Prayer: God of Abraham, you called the Jewish people to be your own and formed with them a lasting covenant. Even as I proclaim the unique value of Jesus as your son, let me remember that you remain the God of Israel.
“Now even the first covenant had regulations for worship.” (Hebrews 9:1-10)
It is possible that some of the first readers of Hebrews carried a nostalgia for Jewish worship. Perhaps they missed the beauty of the temple services and the glory of the ark of the covenant and the altar of incense. In these verses our author seems to tempt and tease them with a guided tour of the desert sanctuary. He describes in some detail the golden implements of worship and the activity of the priests. In the midst of this tour, however, he abruptly stops: “Of these things we cannot speak now in detail” (verse 5).
Why does our author present the implements of worship then suddenly drop them? Why tease his readers and then frustrate them? Our author may be emphasizing what is at the core of worship. True worship does not depend upon vessels and tabernacles. It is concerned with the relationship between God and us, with what “perfects the conscience of the worshiper” (verse 10).
We can be distracted from the heart of worship by many of its accidentals. Too much attention to rubrics, rules, and rituals can draw us away from the holy encounter with God. Worrying about what other people are doing or wearing, how well or poorly they are singing, can mislead us into thinking that worship occurs only when every visible criterion is met. Beautiful spaces, good music, solid preaching are all components of true worship. But our author’s blunt disavowal of the implements of Jewish worship should invite us to look deeper into our own prayer. Even when some desirable aspects of worship are missing, it is still possible to encounter the living God.
Reflection: How important is public worship to my own relationship with God? What is at the heart of true worship?
Prayer: God of Glory, you call me to worship you in the presence of my brothers and sisters in faith. Guide my heart to perceive what is essential. Allow me to center on your presence in our midst.
“A death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant.” (Hebrews 9:11-15)
Our author is still engaged in demonstrating the superiority of Jesus’ sacrifice over that of other priests. He has already shown that superiority through the place in which worship takes place (8:1-13). Here he begins to compare the differences in the way the sacrifices are offered. In the Jewish temple, priests used the death of goats and calves and through their blood sanctified those who had been defiled (verse 13). Christ uses his own death and his own blood to purify us (verse 14).
Although our author does not state it specifically, there is an implied dimension to his argument. Jesus’ sacrifice is superior because he is more personally involved in the sacrifice than other priests. It is his own blood which seals the sacrifice.
Even though the practice of bloody sacrifice is both foreign and distasteful to us today, the personal aspect of Jesus’ sacrifice remains relevant. Jesus did not remain aloof from the sacrifice which established the new covenant. He did not as high priest distance himself from what was offered. He was the victim. He placed his life on the line. If Jesus’ did not hold back from offering his very self, we can have confidence that he will not hold back as we turn to him today in our need. His priesthood has always been one deeply involved in the action of giving and saving us. It is, therefore, justified for us to expect his attention to us in our pain. Despite the truth that he is the glorified Lord, his care for us is constant. He has already given himself to us completely. He will not turn away when we call to him.
Reflection: How close do I feel to the glorified Jesus? Does his gift of his own life encourage me to trust him more deeply?
Prayer: Jesus, your love for me is complete. You were not afraid to shed your blood for my life. You did not hold back from giving your life. Let me never hold back from trusting in you.
“He has appeared once and for all at the end of the age.” (Hebrews 9:16-28)
Our author continues to examine the manner of Jesus’ sacrifice and to find new meaning in it. In reflecting upon the nature of death, he discovers another reason his readers should trust in Jesus alone.
His logic begins with the obvious. It is appointed that human beings die once (verse 27). This is simply a fact of life. Yet since it is true and since Jesus’ sacrifice was through his own death, Jesus’ sacrifice was a singular event. It was once and for all. There is no possibility and no need for it to ever be repeated (verse 26).
This insight is yet another step in our author’s grand scheme of encouragement. Jesus singular sacrifice is complete and final. Therefore we should have no doubt that our salvation has been won. There can be a variety of reasons to doubt whether salvation is real: personal loss, national tragedy, the betrayal of a friend, the suffering of the innocent. When any of these evils touch our lives, we can begin to wonder whether the power of God’s goodness is real. When what is painful or senseless attacks us, doubt can erode our faith. Against all this hesitation and questioning, Hebrews sets up a strong defense. Salvation is won! The deed is done! The one who has died now sits at the throne of God and he will never have to die again. We might wonder and waver, but Jesus’ once and for all victory is secure. The perfect sacrifice has been made. It is now up to us to believe and accept it.
Reflection: When have I doubted that the victory of Christ over evil was real? Have I found anything which is helpful to say or do in those times of doubt?
Prayer: Jesus, I believe in your victory. Once and completely you offered yourself for my salvation. Allow me to claim the completeness of your action even as I deal with the imperfections of life.
“By a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.” (Hebrews 10:1-18)
Our author continues to assert that Jesus’ sacrifice was once and for all. Yet in the midst of his argument he makes an important admission. In verse 14 he states that Jesus “has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.” The present participle in Greek carries the sense of ongoing action. Therefore this verse could be better translated that Jesus “has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” How can you both “be perfected for all time” and also be in the process of “being sanctified”?
There is an important insight to be found in this tension. It concerns the two poles of the divine-human relationship. From Christ’s side, his action is definitive. From our side, its effects are still unfolding. The gift of salvation has been given in a way which never needs repeating. It is, however, still our responsibility to receive the gift. The process of accepting that gift is the work of a lifetime.
The tension between being already perfected and still needing to be sanctified leads us to a stance of both confidence and patience. We are confident because the victory of Christ is decisive. Its certainty gives us strength when we are challenged to give up. But even in this confidence we must also be patient, patient with ourselves and with others. Our flaws still remain. The people in our lives are not always the selfless people we wish them to be. We all need time to grow. The situation is complex but hopeful. With confidence in Christ and patience with ourselves we will find our way.
Reflection: Is it more difficult for me to be confident or patient? What are the challenges for me in believing in Christ and in myself?
Prayer: God, I know my weaknesses and how they trip me up. I want to put them behind me, but they stay close to my side. Give me patience, that I will not become tired of moving towards you.
“Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.” (Hebrews 10:19- 25)
Having examined in complex detail the nature of Jesus’ priesthood, our author suddenly turns — as is his custom — to exhortation. All that he has been saying in terms of Christ has been meant to motivate his readers to a deeper sense of faith. In these verses he insists that the faith which we have received is communal.
Our author is convinced that no one believer will be able to accept the sacrifice of Christ alone. The very promise of Christ is given so that we can encourage one another to love and good deeds (verse 24). Nor is it possible to make progress as a disciple if we withdraw from the life of the community of disciples. Some in the group to which Hebrews was addressed were neglecting to attend the worship of the community (verse 25). Our author recognizes this as a foolish move. He is convinced that we all need the support of others as we attempt to live the Christian life.
Because our society places so much value on individualism, these verses of Hebrews are a challenge to us. We need to worship with others. We benefit when faith is shared. We grow through united acts of service. Holding back and trying to find our way alone is counterproductive. Hebrews associates this kind of withdrawal with a lessening of faith and a loss of hope. Those who think they can make it on their own often fail to reach the goal they seek. Jesus is not simply high priest for me, but for us all. Our way is a shared way. We are called to reach out to one another and then follow after Christ.
Reflection: What value do I see to living my faith as a part of a church community? When have members of that community challenged, supported, or comforted me?
Prayer: Saving God, you call us as a people. You save us as a people. Lead me to love your people and see in them a reflection of your love.
“After you had been enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings.” (Hebrews 10:26- 39)
In these verses our author suddenly turns stern. For several chapters he has been describing the beauty and the glory of Christ the high priest. Now he emphasizes that rejecting the ministry of Christ will have consequences. Using his argument “from the lesser to the greater,” he argues that if the punishment was great for those who violated the law of Moses, how much worse will it be for those who have spurned the Son of God (verse 29)?
However, our author is so bent on encouragement that he cannot maintain his judgmental tone for long. To lighten the discourse he turns to a sports image. Verse 32 might be more literally translated “you endured a contest of suffering.” Our author uses this metaphor to interpret his audience’s past struggles as a kind of athletic event. As difficult as their sufferings were, they were not aimless or random. They were directed towards a goal. Like the athletes who win a prize in the arena, their endurance can allow them to reach the goal of what was promised (verse 36).
By pointing to these past sufferings and how well they dealt with them, our author wants to lift the energy of his audience so that they can persevere in their present trials. In the past their struggles led them to compassion for those who were imprisoned and joy even when their possessions were taken away (verse 34). He now assures them that their present troubles can also lead to a good conclusion. There is a victory to be won, if they remember that they strive towards a great reward (verse 35).
Reflection: Can I locate some difficult struggles in my past which have resulted in benefits which I now treasure? What do I need to remember in order to build up my endurance?
Prayer: Lord, I want to avoid struggle and pain. I desire an easy and peaceful life. However, when suffering invariably comes, let me see that holding on to my faith will lead to a blessed conclusion.
“Abel. . . died, but through his faith he still speaks.” (Hebrews 11:1-7)
We are now presented with a survey of the great characters of the Hebrew bible. A similar list of heroes can be found in the Book of Sirach (44:1 — 51:21). Our author’s purpose here is to stimulate his readers’ faith through the example of those believers who preceded them. The first to be presented are Abel, Enoch, and Noah.
Noah acted with “the conviction of things not seen” (verse 1), because he believed in God’s warning of the approaching deluge, even though he could not see it coming (verse 7). The book of Genesis mentions Enoch in only one place. Yet because it says that “Enoch walked with God; then was no more, because God took him” (Gen 5:24), our author concludes that Enoch was taken directly to heaven without experiencing death (verse 5). This was a sure sign that he too was a person of faith.
No actual words of Able are recorded in the scriptures. Yet our author not only sees him as a person of faith but one who still speaks to us (verse 4). The reference is to Gen 4:10 where God tells Cain that his brother’s blood is crying out from the ground. Abel’s cry is a cry for justice in light of his wrongful death at the hands of his brother. Hebrews imagines that the voice of Abel still speaks to us, calling out against all the injustices which still characterize our world. When we listen to Abel’s cry, we identify with all wrongful human suffering and commit ourselves to work for a world in which human dignity is respected.
Reflection: When have I been touched by the injustice in our society or in our world? How does my faith motivate me to respond?
Prayer: Just Judge of the Universe, the world is not as it should be. Sensitize me to the pain of others, so that aware of what is wrong I might act to promote what is good.
“All these died in faith without having received the promises.” (Hebrews 11:8-16)
Hebrews now presents the figure of Abraham as a pioneer journeying through the wilderness to find a homeland. It was by faith that Abraham set forth from his own country believing that he was to receive an inheritance (verse 8). Our author states that Abraham died before obtaining his inheritance (verse 13). In a literal sense this is true. For Abraham died before he could enter the promised land.
Hebrews, however, has an even greater inheritance in mind. Our author uses Abraham as a model for all the incomplete promises of life: those things which we try to achieve but never quite finish, those hopes which we never realize, those dreams which never materialize. All of these limitations lead us to conclude that we are strangers and foreigners on earth (verse 14).
This reflection upon the incompleteness of life plays directly into our author’s argument. For he now believes that in Christ we have access to what Abraham sought. He will soon encourage us to claim that inheritance through the intercession of our great high priest. But even as we claim our fulfillment in Christ, we can still identify with the human journey to find a lasting homeland. For we know that we will never completely attain the joy we seek until we can enter that city which God has prepared for us. In the words of St. Augustine, “Our hearts, O Lord, are restless until they rest in You.” In faith we believe that God will be faithful and bring us to our lasting city. However, until that arrival, we must travel with Abraham seeking a better homeland.
Reflection: How aware am I of the incompleteness of life? Have I ever seen someone I love die before being able to finish something important in life? How does facing the limitations of life affect me?
Prayer: Almighty God, you alone are complete and perfect. My life is conditioned by so many limits and constraints. Give me the courage to do my best and then believe that you will have the power and love to do the rest.
“It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.” (Hebrews 11:17-22)
Our author continues his review of our ancestors and their example of faith. The testing of Abraham begins the reflection. God asks Abraham to offer his son, Isaac, as a sacrifice. Many questions flood our minds as we face this troubling story: What kind of God would ask for such a sacrifice? How could complying to such a violent request be an act of faith? Our author seems unconcerned over such issues. Rather he accepts Abraham’s obedience as a sign of faith that believes in God’s promise even in the face of death. Because God had promised Abraham that his line would flow from Isaac (verse 18), Abraham believed that God would find a way to honor that promise even if Isaac were to be sacrificed. Faith, then, believes in God’s word no matter what circumstances seem to render it hopeless.
But the story of Abraham’s faith does not end with him. We are told how Abraham’s son, Isaac, also believed when he blessed his sons at the end of his life (verse 20). Then it is further shown that Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, believed in God and blessed his grandchildren in his final days (verse 21). Abraham’s great grandson, Joseph, also acted in faith when he foresaw the Exodus of his people as he approached his own death (verse 22). These few verses demonstrate how faith is passed on from generation to generation. Abraham’s faith influences his entire family, even his great grandchildren who he has never seen. God’s promises have proven true. Not only is Abraham’s name remembered through his descendants, his faith is as well.
Reflection: Can you trace the lineage of faith within your own family? Who are the people whose belief in God has led you to believe?
Prayer: Faithful God, my belief in you is always your gift. Yet you do not give me faith in isolation, but hand it to me though the love of other people. Let me be thankful for my belief in you and for the people who made it possible.
“They were not afraid of the king’s edict.” (Hebrews 11:23-31)
Our author now turns to the story of Moses. Within this narrative another aspect of faith emerges. Those who have faith can look evil in the eye and not be afraid. The example begins with Moses’ parents. Because they had faith, they were not afraid of the king’s edict to destroy the Jewish children in Egypt. They took steps to conceal their son and save his life (verse 23).
Moses becomes an adult with a fearless faith similar to that of his parents. He could have enjoyed all the pleasures of Egypt, but chose to identify with his own oppressed people. Through his faith he was able to lead his people out of Egypt, unafraid of the king’s anger (verse 27). This led to the Passover, the crossing of the Red Sea, and the fall of Jericho (verses 28-30). Through all of these events, our author keeps emphasizing that real faith drives out fear. He does not pretend that the reasons for fear are groundless. The king of Egypt has real power which can oppress and destroy life. Yet faith in God is even stronger.
In our lives evil is also real. We face the threat of terrorism, the reality of cancer or heart disease, the scars which result from physical of verbal abuse. Faith does not deny the power of any of these forces, but it holds fast to the greater power of God. What Hebrews aims to show us is that faith is much more than believing in the Creed or in the hope of a heavenly afterlife. Faith gives us the power to overcome our fear and continue to live.
Reflection: What are the circumstances in my own life which cause me to be afraid? Has my faith in God proven helpful in coping with my fear?
Prayer: Almighty God, the presence of evil is real. There are many reasons for me to be afraid. In faith allow me to see that there are many evils over which I have no control, but that your promises of life give me strength for living.
“They would not, apart from us, be made perfect.” (Hebrews 11:32-40)
Now our author picks up his pace. Realizing the wealth of examples which he could draw from the history of Israel, he scatters a few more names as he rushes forward to the present time (verse 32). He mentions a number of incidents whose heroes are unnamed and difficult to identify. The shutting of lions’ mouths in verse 33 certainly refers to Daniel. Women who received their dead through resurrection (verse 35) most likely refers to the widow of Zarephath (1Kgs 17:17-24) and the Shunammite woman (2Kgs 4:8-37). He then recounts a variety of sufferings which seem to refer to the trials of Israel during the Maccabean revolt (verses 35-38).
By the time we reach the end of this section, however, our author’s ultimate strategy is clear. All these true and wonderful examples of faith are being used to emphasize the superior value of Christ. It is the gift of Christ in the present time which completes and makes perfect all the faith which came before (verses 39-40). This returns us again to the basic argument of Hebrews. What we now have in Christ, what we hold in the present is incredibly precious. Hebrews’ readers should be encouraged. They should not turn away from the gift which is theirs.
Without denigrating in any way the faith of the men and women who came before us, we as Christians should not overlook the gift we have been given. More wonderful than the courage and faith of our ancestors, God has come close to us in the person of God’s own Son.
Reflection: When have I recognized the power of my faith in Christ? How has the gift of Christ made me a different person?
Prayer: God of all, there are many good people in the world who are your children. They believe; they show courage; they love. Let me join them in their acts of living and always be thankful that my acts are motivated by the knowledge of your Son.
“In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.” (Hebrews 12:1-11)
Having finished the review of the heroes of faith, our author now moves full swing into encouragement. Since we are surrounded with “so great a cloud of witnesses,” we must “run with perseverance the race which is set before us” (verse 1). Clearly the aim of this section is to prevent its readers from growing weary or losing heart (verse 3). To reach this goal our author offers a lengthy section describing trials as a form of discipline which could produce valuable results (verses 5-11).
Before taking up that theme, however, he presents one verse which is even more effective. In verse 4 he reminds his readers that they have not as yet shed their blood in the cause of their faith. Said in light of the previous chapter and especially the suffering of the Maccabean martyrs, this verse gives voice to a common but powerful wisdom saying: “Others have had it more difficult than you.”
Comparing our sufferings to those of others can provide a powerful perspective. “I used to complain that I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet.” It is understandable that our own pains and troubles zoom immediately into focus. Unless we try to temper them, they can easily fill our entire world. Realizing that others have to deal with issues which are much more serious, can give us pause and give us strength. Suddenly the burdens which loomed so large can be lifted and carried. Much may be asked of us, but others have been asked for more. Knowing that, we can take up our cross and follow Jesus.
Reflection: When have I been impressed by the pain which others must endure? How has their faith and courage strengthened my own?
Prayer: Master of Life, I recognize that the trials of my life are different from those of others. Some must bear greater burdens than I. Allow me to be inspired by their example so that I can accept the pain that is my own.
“Make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.” (Hebrews 12:12-17)
Our author continues his exhortation by urging his readers to avoid the attitude of Esau. The story is from Gen 25:29-34. Esau was Jacob’s elder brother. One day coming in from the field, he was famished. Jacob was cooking stew and bargained to share it, if Esau would sell him his birthright. Esau agreed. He thus became famous in Jewish tradition as a character who placed no value on spiritual realities. Our author reminds us that Esau sold his birthright for a single meal (verse 16). He is warning his readers not to devalue the spiritual reality which they have in Jesus. He recognizes that their hands droop and their knees are weak (verse 12). But these afflictions, like the hunger of Esau, are not reason to give up on their birthright.
As our author makes this point he presents a evocative image. He talks about a lameness in his readers (verse 13). He admits that they have been wounded either by some exterior attack or by an inner weariness. But then he insists that such a lameness can move in two possible directions. It might worsen and pull the joint apart, or it might improve and be healed. Lameness is, in fact, a point of decision. What will we choose? Will we allow pain and discouragement to break our spirit and totally immobilize us? Or will we turn to the power which is present in our great high priest and be healed. Hebrews wants us to know that the choice is ours. Our wounds can lead us to despair or, with Christ’s healing, we can leap and run again.
Reflection: Do I realize that the wounds in my own life are an opportunity to choose between paralysis and healing? Can I recall a choice, made in pain, which led to life?
Prayer: Lord, it is easy when life disappoints me to give in to discouragement and despair. Allow me to see in such troubled moments the opportunity to turn to you and be healed.
“You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.” (Hebrews 12:18-24)
This is one of the most beautiful and stirring passages in Hebrews. It contrasts two great assemblies of God’s people. The first assemblage is that of Israel gathered around Mount Sinai to receive the promulgation of the Mosaic law. The second gathering is the followers of Jesus standing at Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem. As part of our author’s ongoing argument, he strives to show the superiority of what has been given to us in Jesus. The first gathering is characterized by gloom and fear. Drawing from Exod 19:12, our author reminds his readers that those who approached that first mountain were told not to touch it lest they die (verse 20). By contrast, the followers of Jesus who are gathered around Mount Zion see angels dressed in festal display and the spirits of the righteous made perfect (verses 22-23).
In this stark contrast between the two assemblies, we can see reflected our author’s belief that the Jewish covenant with God has been invalidated (see “Reading Hebrews in the 21st Century). Knowing that this conviction runs contrary to our present estimation of the Jewish people, we desire to find another way of reading this passage. Verse 23 is helpful. It speaks of the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven. These “firstborn” may well refer to the heroes of Israel who were used as examples to us in chapter 11. This small connection gives to us a foothold in the text to establish a connection between ourselves and our Jewish brothers and sisters. With us, they share a place in the heavenly celebration of God’s love.
Reflection: Is my approach to God primarily one of fear or joy? What holds me back from taking my place in the celebration to which God has invited me?
Prayer: Living God, you call me to yourself not out of terror or fear but with encouragement and love. Lift my spirit. Heal my wounds. Allow me to raise my voice in joyful praise of your name.
“For indeed our God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:25-29)
Having touted the superiority of the assembly gathered around Mount Zion, our author now turns his attention in another direction. As he has done several times earlier in Hebrews, he uses the excellence of his readers’ position to warn them against falling away from Christ. If they have been called to the festal celebration of Zion, there are still exacting expectations for those who have been given the kingdom. Using his usual “from the lesser to the greater” approach, our author reminds his readers that if those who were given less were punished, how much more should they who have been given more fear God’s justice (verse 25)?
The warning that our author provides contributes significantly to the image of God which emerges from Hebrews. There is no question that the God of Hebrews is a generous God who grants us salvation. Yet the God of Hebrews retains the majesty and power which only God can own. God remains One who judges us as well as loves us. Even in grace and mercy, God remains transcendent, and must be approached with reverence and awe (verse 28).
The awesome and even fearful presentation of God in Hebrews reminds us that in the end we do not really want a God who is our equal or our buddy. We need a God who has power, who can and does make demands, and who can lift us up in love. Our God is not One we turn to when it is convenient and ignore when we are indisposed. Our God is light, power, and life. Our God is a consuming fire!
Reflection: When have I sensed awe and greatness in the presence of God? Has recognizing God’s complete otherness ever been a help in my spiritual life?
Prayer: Ever-present God, I seek you as a God of love and comfort, and I believe you to be so. Yet never allow my desire for your love lessen my appreciation of your strength, nor my yearning for your comfort blind me to the demands of your service.
“Let us go to him outside the camp.” (Hebrews 13:1-19)
It is at this point of Hebrews that it becomes much like a letter. Similar to the endings of many of Paul’s letters, we now enter a section in which a variety of admonitions are presented to its readers. They are encouraged to hospitality (verses 1-2), to ministry towards the wounded (verse 3), and to the proper attitudes regarding sex and money (verses 4-6). Then the advice turns more directly to the main thrust of Hebrews: the encouragement that its readers hold fast to their faith. Using the metaphor of “going outside the camp,” our author emphasizes that real discipleship involves moving beyond the comfortable confines of the community. Just as Israel burned the bodies of its sacrificial victims outside the camp (Lev 16:27) and just as Jesus died outside the city walls (verse 12), our author insists that his readers must witness to their faith in the world outside of their community.
To give such challenging advice to a community who is struggling with their faith only demonstrates how essential public witness is to the life of a Christian. Letting our faith be seen by others is not something extra or something we do only when we feel strong. Proclaiming the good news is a constitutive component of the gospel. Moreover, there is a wisdom to our author’s approach. He knows that if he allows his readers to cower in doubt and fear their faith will soon fade away. But if they speak out, if they boldly tell others of the wonders of their great high priest, then their faltering faith will rally and their weakness will be bolstered by the power of the Spirit.
Reflection: How can I deal with the fear of proclaiming what I believe? Have I ever found that sharing my faith with another has deepened my own commitment to Christ?
Prayer: Jesus, my Lord, you have indeed saved and strengthened me. Allow me to see that I who have been so blessed by your love must pass your good news on to others.
“May God . . . make you complete in everything good.” (Hebrews 13:20-25)
In a style typical of a letter’s closing, Hebrews ends with a blessing. It is truly one of the most beautiful blessings of the Christian scriptures. Addressing God as the God of peace and reminding us that this same God brought Jesus back from the dead, our author then asks that God would make his readers complete in everything good (verses 20-21). Implicit in this blessing is the recognition that the weakness of faith which has concerned our author throughout the letter can only be strengthened by the power of God. Any success and every success is only possible because God supports it and brings it to pass.
God’s preeminence applies as well to the efforts our author has made in writing Hebrews. He describes his work as a brief exhortation (verse 22). For those of us who have spent a month reflecting upon his words, his brevity may be questioned, but certainly not his sincerity and skill. Yet our author ends his work as a believer. All that he has done is of value only if it is congruent with the will of God which is working among us and is pleasing in God’s sight (verse 21).
It is a perfect ending for one of the most challenging and erudite writings of the Christian scriptures. After all the encouragement, after all the scriptural argumentation, after all the eloquence, our author recognizes that the only part that matters is that which supports God’s will. The author of Hebrews ends with the attitude of his Master. Having given his best effort, he submits his writing to his God and prays with Jesus, “Your will be done.”
Reflection: How often do I submit my efforts to the will of God? When have I experienced freedom and joy by doing so?
Prayer: God of peace, all too often I imagine that the work of the kingdom is my work and that its success depends upon me alone. In every success and failure may I give my best but realize that it is your will alone which matters.