Hebrews Week 9
By Rob Wall
Paul T. Walls Professor of Scripture and Wesleyan Studies
Read this week’s Scripture: Hebrews 9:11–10:39
EnlargeThe Death of God
When I was an impressionable college student, one of the most controversial books on religion (even featured on a TIME cover!) was Thomas Altizer’s Radical Theology and the Death of God. It was all the talk among the theology geeks on my campus. This read wasn’t anything like the intellectually vapid but similarly titled books published these days by the so-called “new atheists,” who contend that God doesn’t exist. Altizer proposed an interpretation of Jesus’s death contrary to orthodox faith: that Jesus didn’t die on the cross for our salvation, but for God’s. That is, Jesus’s death put to death those traditional beliefs about an untouchable, unknowable, transcendent God that — he argued — produced a lifeless, irrelevant faith and lifeless, irrelevant churches. “God is dead, thank God!” is how Altizer memorably put it.
Decades before Altizer’s blockbuster book, Dietrich Bonhoeffer had criticized his own Lutheran church as practicing a form of “religionless Christianity.” Speaking as the courageous pastor and leader of Germany’s Confessing Church, he condemned its gutlessness in failing Christ because it tolerated the evils of Nazism and anti-Semitism. Bonhoeffer knew that Christian faith demands more than pious beliefs that cheapen God’s saving grace.
Biblical faith boldly declares Jesus as Lord over every nook and cranny of human existence, including the public square. As such, Christian discipleship practiced in real world terms, according to Jesus’s life and teaching, is cruciformed existence (i.e., shaped by the Cross). It’s costly and demanding. If we truly own the belief that Jesus is the incarnate Lord over all things, then the public practices of His followers, even when risky and costly, are the hallmark of true religion (cf. James 1:27–2:1). Bonhoeffer was executed by Hitler because of his radical obedience to this living Lord.
Bonhoeffer’s example brings us face to face with the centerpiece teaching of Hebrews. Bible students both ancient and modern generally agree that this passage provides one of Scripture’s most illuminating and distinctive interpretations of Jesus’s death. The overarching contribution this letter makes to Scripture’s understanding of Jesus is that He is sui generis, a savior-priest like none other (Hebrews 2:11; cf. Acts 4:12), precisely because He is God’s Son incarnate. His death, then, is God’s death, and gods don’t die! While this belief is surely counterintuitive, why is it of eternal significance for Jesus’s followers? Why might it unsettle and upend some of our traditional ways of thinking about God?
Remember that in introducing his sermon the Preacher makes three large-scale claims that secure Jesus’s credentials as our “merciful and faithful high priest in things relating to God” (2:17). First and most significantly, He is the incarnate Son of God. As such, the Son’s appearance in human history as Jesus of Nazareth is an apocalypse — a definitive, decisive, stunning, even surprising revelation of God’s truth about the way of salvation [see Author’s Note 1].
Second, Jesus is the exalted Lord who returns to His heavenly home to continue the work of salvation, but now with an expanded understanding of human existence. His human experience of temptation, spiritual testing, suffering, and death now enables Him to empathize with and care for God’s people during their own wilderness journeys. That is, the incarnation makes God known to humanity, while the Son’s incarnation also makes the human condition known to God in a deeper, more intimate way.
Third, He is the promised Messiah from David’s tribe (Judah) and therefore an eternal high priest according to the order of Melchizedek, rather than from Levi’s tribe of the law. The pattern of priestly service prescribed by the law is not overturned. Rather, it is transformed to accommodate the exalted Son’s priestly ministry — past, present, and future — in order to fulfill the redemptive terms of God’s “new covenant.”
All three credentials are in play in the Preacher’s artful commentary on Jesus’s atoning death. According to Hebrews 9, God’s Christ “has now appeared once at the end of the ages” (9:26) to rid the world of sin “for all time” (9:12; cf. 10:10). The heavenly pattern of His priestly ministry is prefigured by the rituals and routines of the Day of Atonement, prescribed by Old Testament law (9:18–22; cf. Leviticus 16). However, its heavenly (yet bodily) performance sanctifies God’s people “once for all,” thereby establishing their complete transformation, by which they are “perfected” into conformity with God’s will, as promised by the new covenant (Hebrews 10:9–10, 14–18).
Jesus as the Blood Sacrifice
Hebrews shares with other New Testament witnesses the core belief that Jesus’s death secures humanity’s deliverance from sin’s slavery “for all time” (9:12). But this core belief is wrapped up in the Preacher’s priestly images of a heavenly temple not “made with human hands” (9:11, 24), where the exalted Son offers Himself as a blood sacrifice in the “holy of holies” to deliver us from sin’s slavery (9:12). This then completes His priestly ministry: He not only offers pastoral care for those in spiritual need, He also makes offerings to purify them of those “dead works” (i.e., sins, 9:14) that subvert the prospects of their heavenly inheritance (cf. 6:1).
The analogy between Christ’s death and the Day of Atonement is clearest in 9:14, where the metaphor of a life-giving, sin-cleansing blood sacrifice applies to “the blood of Jesus.” This is thematic of New Testament teaching about Christ’s messianic death (cf. John 1:29; Romans 3:21–26; 1 Peter 1:19; Revelation 5:9). What is keenly emphasized here, however, is the spiritual effect of Christ’s self-sacrifice, which coheres with His priestly service to God’s people in their wilderness struggle toward perfection (6:1). The blood of His bodily sacrifice purifies and so “perfect[s] the conscience” (cf. 9:9), which on evidence of Israel’s faithlessness did not occur during the old order of things [see Author’s Note 2].
The “Will” of God
To emphasize his point, the Preacher plays with the Greek word diathēke, which the CEB translates as “covenant” (9:15; et. al.) but also as “a will” (9:16–17). God’s covenant with Israel is a kind of legal contract that includes the promise of an inheritance or blessing (cf. 1:14; 6:12; 12:17). As with any last will and testament, the death of the benefactor is necessary before those named in the will may inherit what is promised them (9:16–17). In the case of Sinai’s covenant, the blood sacrifice of animals is required for Israel to inherit what is promised them: forgiveness from sin and a righted covenant relationship with their holy God (cf. Exodus 24:8, quoted in 9:20). Because this is stipulated by God’s revelatory word (and Jewish tradition), this same pattern must be maintained in the new covenant in order for Christ’s disciples to inherit what is promised them (9:23). But the new covenant promises eternity, and so requires nothing less than the blood of God’s Son offered “for us” in a heavenly place not “made by human hands,” once for all time (9:24–26).
What Christ did in the past for us in the present has implications for our future with God. His death in the presence of God (9:24) rids us of sin (9:26) to secure our inheritance, as stipulated under the terms of God’s “will” (covenant), which will be distributed at Christ’s second coming (9:28). When the exalted Son returns to complete His messianic work on earth, He doesn’t come again to judge sinners (9:27) but to save those who trust God with their lives (9:28; cf. John 3:17–21).
The phrase “at the end of the ages” (9:26) locates Jesus’s death at the climax of salvation’s history — the moment when the promises of God’s Word are realized by God’s Son. This phrase is reminiscent of “the days are coming,” the phrase that opens Jeremiah’s prophecy of the “new covenant” (see Hebrews 8:8–12). The full importance of Jesus’s death will only be realized at His return, when what is promised but “not yet” will become “the already.” What the Preacher understands, however, is that the death of God’s Son makes God’s promised future inevitable. It’s just a matter of time.
To complete his commentary on Jeremiah’s prophecy, the Preacher recalls his pivotal word of exhortation, “go on unto perfection” (6:1 KJV), but here he draws out a second dimension of God’s sanctifying grace. He encourages his readers not only to pursue a perfect or complete understanding of Christ’s priestly ministry, but also to complete or perfect their relationship with God because of His ministry.
EnlargeA New and Necessary Sacrifice
By now the letter’s outline is familiar. A comparison is used to explain why something new is made necessary by the failure of something old. In this case, another priestly apparatus to mediate between God and God’s people is called for because the sacrificial system used annually by Israel’s priests repeatedly failed to secure a permanent solution to sin. Instead, the Day of Atonement only reminded Israel of its continuing spiritual failures rather than God’s final victory over sin (cf. Numbers 5:15). The permanent solution is sounded first by Psalm 40:6–7 (Hebrews 10:5–7).
This quotation calls for a Lectio parenthesis for a between-the-lines explanation. The Bible that the Preacher uses is the Old Testament in Greek, which is used in different versions by all New Testament writers [see Author’s Note 3]. It differs sometimes in significant ways from the synagogue’s Hebrew Bible that is used as the basis for most modern English translations of the Old Testament. For example, a quick comparison between the CEB’s translation of the Hebrew Psalm 40:6–7 and its quotation in Hebrews 10:5–7 discloses a significant difference that is key to the Preacher’s reading of Scripture in support of his conception of the new covenant.
Both versions of the Psalm, Hebrew and Greek, vocalize Christ’s own intention for coming into the world, and both suggest a different approach to God than ritual sacrifice. But notice that the Psalm in Hebrew (in English translation) offers the supplicant’s ears (“but you have given me ears;” Psalm 40:6), while the Greek text (quoted in Hebrews 10:5) offers instead Christ’s own body (“but you prepared a body for me”). Critically, the Preacher’s Greek version of the Psalm enables him to interpret Christ’s bodily death as a function of His incarnation: it is the Son’s death that makes all the difference for heaven’s sake. In fact, the Son’s obedience to the Father in offering His body “once for all” (10:10) has the stunning effect of conforming His followers to God’s will, which enables our perfection and preparation for eternity (10:14) [see Author’s Note 4].
The attribution of Jeremiah’s prophecy to the Holy Spirit (10:15; cf. 3:7) has the effect of sounding “God’s loud amen,” as my dad often said after quoting Scripture. Hebrews takes Scripture as a medium of God’s Word, and therefore its referent is always the incarnate Word. But whenever the terms of the new or renewed covenant take effect between God and God’s people, there is no longer a need for forgiveness. Spiritual failure is a thing of the past, as is Scripture, in a sense, since its promises are all fulfilled because of Christ and its instruction is written on the people’s minds made perfect by God’s grace.
The Preacher’s Exhortation
The literary genre of Hebrews is a pastor’s exhortation (see 13:22). The Preacher’s exhortations to live into a Christ-like faithfulness in the mess and muck of the wilderness are scattered throughout the letter, and are always reasonably grounded in his prior expositions of Christ. They form his catechism of Christ — instruction for the faithful to learn all of what the apostles witnessed and proclaimed of the incarnate “word of life” (1 John 1:1–2; cf. Hebrews 2:3). The goal of this instruction is Christ-like (or saving) responses to the heartbreaks, headaches, and hardships of the community’s sojourn through the wilderness of “this world” (Romans 12:2).
With this literary architecture in mind, the Preacher once again exhorts his readers (“brothers and sisters,” 10:19; cf. 3:1) to own with boldness “the certainty that our faith gives us” (10:22). The Greek noun translated “certainty” is elsewhere translated “assurance.” The noun is actually prefixed by a word that means “complete” or “full measure.” The Preacher’s appeal is not rooted in a spiritual disposition or an experience of forgiveness (as Wesley would argue) but in the apostolic witness and proclamation of the truth about the priestly Christ (cf. Romans 1:16). The Preacher’s exposition enables the congregation to “hold on to the confession of our hope without wavering” (10:23; cf. 3:6; 4:14–16). Faithfulness requires an intellectual fortitude that is utterly convinced of the redemptive effect of the death of God’s Son.
The congregation’s faithfulness is witnessed in the Pauline triad of Christian virtues (or habits): faith (10:22), hope (10:23), and love (10:24). These are congregational practices, not the inward dispositions of private religion. Whether or not our confession of Christ has really transformed our lives is measured by the public performances of these practices for all to see. Thus the congregation’s “brothers and sisters” gather together in worship and fellowship to encourage one another (10:25; cf. Acts 2:42–47). In this setting, the cleansing of our hearts is performed liturgically by the sprinkling and washing with baptismal water (Hebrews 10:22); the hope Christians share in fulfilled promises is performed by our confessions of faith (10:23); and the love of God we practice is performed by “good deeds” (10:24).
A Warning of Judgment
But with every exhortation to act upon the certainty of what is learned of Christ, there comes a warning. The warnings are sharp and terrifying because the threat of spiritual failure is real and persistent (cf. 6:4–8). After all, the exalted Lord’s promised return and His people’s eternal inheritance are hopes confessed “without wavering” (10:23) that still lie in the future. At present we are making our way toward the Promised Land through a wilderness of temptation and suffering. In this case, the Preacher emphasizes the believer’s “decision to sin” (10:26). Unfortunately, the CEB blunts the force of the Greek text, which speaks about the believer’s deliberate or premeditated decision to sin in complete awareness of what he ought to do (or not). In context, these are those ignoble practices, contrary to Christian virtue, which subvert the congregation’s confidence in the victory of God because of Christ’s sacrifice (cf. 10:19–25).
The Preacher cites biblical precedents for the “scary expectation of judgment” in response to such behavior (10:27; cf. 10:30–31). Violators of Sinai’s Torah, for example, who had experienced God’s liberating mercy in the exodus, were subject to death for certain offenses witnessed by others in the public square (10:28). Remember that the Torah was revealed by God’s Word, consistent with the incarnation and Scripture. Included in these offenses is blasphemy (Leviticus 24:14–16), which is the evil implied by the vivid images of 10:29. The kind of sinning that threatens salvation calls into question the Preacher’s exposition of the transforming effects of Christ’s death (including its cleansing of sin). The insults registered against “the Spirit of grace” (10:29) may allude to the Gospel tradition’s “blasphem[y] against the Holy Spirit” (Luke 12:10, NRSV).
The Song of Moses in Hebrews
The extensive use of Deuteronomy 32 (“Song of Moses”) in Hebrews is well studied. It surely ranks as one of Scripture’s most majestic and important passages about God. Its lyrics vocalize the prophetic Moses at his fiercest; its deep logic supplies the structure of the Preacher’s word of exhortation. Two images of God in particular create the very tension (or theodicy) evinced in this passage of Hebrews.
On the one hand, God’s actions, even if mysterious to us, are ever perfect and always have our backs. God’s ways are righteous, never deceitful, and always faithful and true. This God has been routinely experienced throughout Israel’s salvation history (i.e., the exodus). To reject such a God (especially, Moses says, for “no-gods,” Deuteronomy 32:21) can only be understood as stupid, senseless, and reckless. God is understandably upset and scary in just response: “A fire burns in me […] I’ll throw on them disaster after disaster” (Deuteronomy 32:22–23).
On the other hand, this same avenging God is also compassionate (32:36–38; cf. Exodus 34:6–7). God is the one and only God — “Look here: I myself, I’m the one; there are no other gods with me. I’m the one who deals death and gives life” (Deuteronomy 32:39). Finally, then, what the Son’s incarnation teaches us about God’s way of salvation is that endurance in the face of public abuse (Hebrews 10:33), when possessions are lost and imprisonment is accepted (10:34), will bring great and eternal reward in the coming kingdom (10:35). The Son made perfect in His suffering and exalted for His obedience models that pattern of salvation.
If we are persuaded by the Preacher’s exposition of Christ, then doubt is assuaged and certainty is cultivated. The congregation’s catechesis into perfect knowledge of Christ is indispensable for life because it will enable us to resist “shrink[ing] back” from the faith (i.e., apostasy; 10:38; cf. 6:4–6). Thus we become “the sort of people who have faith so that our whole beings are preserved” (Hebrews 10:39) for “the one who is coming” (10:37; cf. Habakkuk 2:4).
Questions for Further Discussion
- How does this exposition of the death of Jesus Christ differ from what you may have been taught previously?
- If Christ’s death is a function of His incarnation, what does that mean for us in the present? What does that mean for our future?
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