Hebrews Week 8
By Rob Wall
Paul T. Walls Professor of Scripture and Wesleyan Studies
Read this week’s Scripture: Hebrews 8–9
I use the title of this Lectio all the time in my classes to remind students that we always read Scripture in the present tense. Although ancient, biblical texts are never dead — not even past. Rather, they are continually enlivened and made relevant by the Spirit’s inspiration. This famous line comes from William Faulkner’s powerful novel Requiem for a Nun (1951), which works as a fitting tag for this pivotal passage from Hebrews for a couple reasons.
The central characters of Faulkner’s story of redemption are two very different women, one of whom (Nancy Mannigoe) sacrifices herself for the salvation of another (Temple Drake). Faulkner’s work is read as a requiem for Nancy, who is the story’s “nun” not because she belongs to a religious order (she’s Temple’s maid and a former prostitute) but because of her devotion to God that stirs her to save Temple from a self-destructive life. The guilt accumulated from past misdeeds, which threatens the future of Temple’s family, remains ever-present. And it’s this past sin that Temple must fully disclose and for which she must repent before she and her family are restored and her personal maturity realized. Nancy’s horrific act of desperation on Temple’s behalf — the murder of an innocent — has this future in mind, and it’s a future made possible only when the past is dealt with in the present.
The Savior in Hebrews is hardly like the tragic heroine from Faulkner’s narrative world. He is the majestic, exalted Son of God, made perfect through spiritual testing in order to perform without fail the task to which God appoints Him. He is the priestly mediator of a new covenant with a heavenly future. The past of the exalted Jesus, who is living and ever-present for us, is not a résumé of sin and spiritual failure. But the essential similarity between the Jesus of Hebrews and the Nancy of Faulkner’s uncommon imagination is unmistakable: both sacrifice themselves for the salvation of others.
What of the Law?
The idea of a timeless past, common in Faulkner’s religious fiction, deserves special comment because it helps readers understand the Preacher’s ominous (and generally mistaken) conclusion that the first covenant is “obsolete […] old and outdated, [and] close to disappearing” (Hebrews 8:13). Many other interpreters of Hebrews presume the letter’s first readers were Jewish believers on the verge of renouncing their Christian faith to return to their ancestral religion (for different reasons according to different interpreters). To these other interpreters, the function of all the comparisons that populate Hebrews is to show the deficiencies of Judaism’s institutions (e.g., the law) and its practices (e.g., its temple liturgy and holy days) as means of salvation. In the idiom of 8:13, they would say, Judaism is obsolete and about to disappear. Why rejoin any movement, religious or otherwise, on life-support? The incarnation of God’s Son ends conversations since His revelation of God’s Word and His redemption of God’s people is so vastly superior, with a real future.
While this conclusion is surely plausible, it fails to hear the Preacher’s “word of exhortation.” He offers no criticism of the synagogue, no polemic against Judaism. The crisis facing the intended readers of Hebrews, as the Preacher imagines it, is not their religious disaffection — the return of immature, embattled Christians to the safety of their Jewish faith — but rather their lack of theological maturity (cf. 5:11–14). Without this maturity, they aren’t likely to entrust their futures with God to the priestly ministrations of their living Lord. Disobedience and perhaps even apostasy (and so loss of promised blessing) are the effects of ignorance. A rigorous catechism of the Spirit, not a mere confession of Christ, is the practice called for by the Preacher when he exhorts his readers to “go on unto perfection” (6:1; KJV).
In any case, surely the law’s obsolescence doesn’t mean we discard it. We know that the incarnation forces “a change in the Law” (7:12), but the clear emphasis of the letter’s use of Jeremiah 31:31–34 (LXX; Hebrews 8:8–12) is the law’s continuity with Christ, not its discontinuity or demise (cf. Matthew 5:17–18). Note these continuities, which suggest that the incarnation expands or transforms God’s promise of the new covenant to Israel: (1) both Jeremiah and Matthew confirm that the new covenant is eternal; (2) both affirm that the effect of the new covenant is God’s forgiveness and a people’s obedience; (3) both concern the transformation of the individual’s spiritual life; (4) both agree that covenant-keeping is the initiative of God’s unconditional grace; (5) both promise that every member of the covenant-keeping community receives the blessings promised to them; (6) the law in question is God’s self-presentation of the covenant on Mt. Sinai — Torah remains the core content of the covenant between God and God’s people; (7) both agree that “Torah rewritten into the hearts” of the community is superior in results, and thus a divine blessing, when compared to Torah written on tablets [see Author’s Note 1]; and (8) both allow that this “change of heart” is slated for the “last days” when God inaugurates the promised new covenant.
EnlargeThe New Covenant
The new covenant in Hebrews, then, simply can’t be understood as a brand new covenant that God creates from scratch with a non-Israel. This is why Paul calls the Church “God’s Israel” (Galatians 6:16). Nor can “old” or “obsolete” (8:13) refer to something that is discarded and no longer relevant. These ideas are elaborated by the incarnation, the apocalypse of salvation, in which all things — including the promises made by God to Israel — are transformed. God’s promises are never dead. They’re not even past.
Jeremiah’s promise to God’s Israel of a new covenant brings the appearance of God on Mt. Sinai to realization. Its results are ever-present because the priestly work of the living Jesus continues “as long as it’s called ‘today’” (Hebrews 3:13). The spiritual crisis facing the intended readers of Hebrews is a lack of understanding — a failure to know the implications of their confession of Christ. The clear and present danger is lazy learning, which can lead to apostasy. And there is still so much more to learn of Christ.
Hebrews 8 begins with yet another theological summary: “the main point of what we are saying is this: We have this kind of high priest” (8:1). The Preacher is fully aware of the complexity of the letter’s exposition of the exalted Lord’s majesty and its importance for the maturity of believers. Having complete understanding of Jesus’s priestly ministry is the best prevention against spiritual failure. Hebrews 8–9 elaborates on this “main point” with inspired commentary on Jeremiah 31:31–34 [see Author’s Note 2].
The rhetorical design of the Preacher’s exposition is familiar to us. The new idea is first introduced by comparing God’s Son to the Old Testament antecedents who prefigure His incarnation. In this case, Jesus’s ministerial appointment [see Author’s Note 3] is favorably compared to the “pattern” (typos) of priestly ministry in the tradition of Aaron, to “offer gifts and sacrifices” in the “holy place” to mediate the “first covenant” between God and Israel (8:1–7). The transformation of this ministry into something “better” because of Jesus (“But now,” 8:6) is disclosed as God’s intention by Scripture (8:6–7). That is, had God not intended this upgrade in the pattern of priestly ministry, the prophet’s oracle would not have promised a “new covenant” that is unlike (in results, not pattern) “the covenant that I made with [Israel’s] ancestors” (8:8–9).
The Heavenly Meeting Tent
The spatial location of the exalted Lord’s priestly service is also important: His service takes place at a heavenly, not earthly, address and in a heavenly, not earthly, meeting tent. Some detect an allusion to Plato’s cosmology in 8:5, which divides reality into the transient, imperfect material world and the unseen, perfect spiritual world. The Aaronic priesthood’s service of worship located in an earthly tent is but an imperfect material “shadow” or representation of its perfect, transcendent, eternal reality. But the other word used, “copy,” has in mind not Plato but divine revelation: God revealed the type of acceptable worship on Mt. Sinai (Hebrews 8:5b; cf. Exodus 25:40) that discloses heaven’s eternal order of holy worship, with God’s Son as the officiant and the “heavenly meeting tent” (8:5) as the sanctuary.
The use of “meeting tent” recalls the center of worship for the wilderness people, and so continues the exodus/wilderness/Promised Land typology of salvation that orders the Preacher’s entire sermon. His “word of exhortation” addresses a redeemed people who now encounter the spiritual tests and daily suffering of their present wilderness, which they must faithfully endure on the way to the Promised Land. The “main point” of Hebrews is that we have an activist high priest, the majestic Son of God, who offers us heaven’s effective help along the way.
The Promise for House of Israel
This most excellent future, when God will enact the “better promises” of a “better covenant,” is specifically for “the house of Israel” (8:6, 8). While the “fault” is on Israel (8:7), made very clear by Scripture’s story of Israel’s repeated spiritual failures, so too is the prophetic promise of restoration for Israel. Throughout salvation’s history, some Jewish and Christian communities have understood themselves to be the real “house of Israel.” Worse still are those supersessionists who suppose, against Scripture’s teaching, that the Church has replaced the synagogue with promises and practices that belong only to Christians.
We should be deeply suspicious of any religious group that claims their theology is the only correct theology, and that their religious experiences and moral practices are those that God privileges in the economy of grace. One of the most essential lessons learned from Hebrews is that the central character in Scripture’s narrative of salvation is not some earthly religious institution, but the majestic Son, whose service of heavenly worship orders the way of salvation (cf. Hebrews 8:2) [see Author’s Note 4].
The variety of dualisms — heaven and earth, old and new, past and future, temporary and permanent — introduced in chapter 8 frame the Preacher’s bold exposition of Christ’s priestly service in heaven’s sanctified “tent,” the topic of Hebrews 9. Several Old Testament texts from Exodus are gathered together to present an elaborate yet coherent picture of the two tents (9:2–3) that serve the wilderness people as the “holy place on earth” (9:1). The Preacher’s aside that he can’t discuss the details of this snapshot (9:5) may be yet another reminder of his readers’ immaturity (cf. 5:11), which not only prevents a more thorough explanation of his Christological commentary of Jeremiah’s prophecy, but also perpetuates an “ignorance” that leads to sin (9:7), and sin to apostasy (cf. 6:4).
Nonetheless, the routine gifts and sacrifices of the priests (9:6), especially those of the high priest on the annual Day of Atonement (9:7), enable a Spirit-inspired interpretation of these ancient rituals that clarifies the importance of Christ for today (9:8) and His inauguration of a “new order” (9:9–10). In fact, the very repetition of these priestly routines, whether daily or annually, is the fault-line of the first covenant (cf. 8:7): they “can’t perfect the conscience” even of the high priest who offers them to a holy God (9:9; cf. 7:11; 10:1–2). A better way of doing business with God is needed.
This conclusion prepares readers for the sweet spot of the Preacher’s exposition, which he introduces with the dramatic announcement, “But Christ has appeared as the high priest of the good things that have happened” (9:11). While His arrival at heaven’s more perfect tent at His exaltation is prefigured by the annual Day of Atonement ritual, its lasting and definitive effect is vastly different.
Questions for Further Discussion
- These two chapters make several comparisons between the “first covenant” (i.e., the Old Testament law and promises) and the new covenant in Christ. What comparisons do you see in this week’s passage? According to the biblical text, why is the new covenant a better covenant?
- How has your church or denomination typically related itself to Israel and the “first covenant”? Does Dr. Wall’s Lectio change your perspective on this relationship? If so, how? If not, why not?
- What does the repeated phrase/concept of “the past is not even past” mean to you? How does it affect your understanding of how to read the Bible, particularly the promises of God?
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