Monday, October 02, 2006

Unpopular Eschatology: Hebrews

The Book of Hebrews is an orderly work, broken into five doctrinal sections. Each section, or pericope, is followed by a word of exhortation, an imperative of active effort, in light of what had just been taught. The exhortations build upon each other, calling us to ascend into heaven by faith, as layers of significance are added to the author’s presentation. Hebrews contains one essential argument: we must live in light of the Kingdom’s reality so that we will be worthy to inherit its blessings.

Due to the many allusions to verbal communication throughout the book, many scholars believe Hebrews was adapted from a sermon or series of homilies. See, for example, the following references: 2:5; 5:11; 6:9; 8:1; 9:5; 11:32. William Lane writes:

The writer was clearly a gifted preacher. Hebrews is characterized by a skillful use of alliteration, of oratorical imperatives, of euphonic phrases, of unusual word order calculated to arouse the attention, and of literary devices to enhance rhetorical effectiveness. The alternation between exposition and exhortation characteristic of the literary structure of Hebrews provides an effective vehicle for oral impact. Hebrews was prepared for oral delivery to a specific community…The writer expressly declares in 13:22 that his “word of exhortation” has been reduced to writing.

The first pericope (chapter 1) is concerned with establishing the sublime dignity of Jesus’ Sonship. By contrasting prophecies of Christ with the angels, the author demonstrated that Jesus shared an equality with God that was fully realized (in some sense) at his resurrection-ascension (see Phil. 2:6ff.).

Please consider the following excellent remarks by Bible teacher A.W.Pink:

It is striking to note that these same seven quotations from the Old Testament also furnish proof of the sevenfold glory of the Mediator affirmed in verses 2, 3. There He is spoken of, first as the "Son:" proof of this is supplied in verse 5, by a quotation from the 2nd Psalm. Second, He is denominated the "Heir:" proof of this is given in verse 6, where He is owned as the "Firstborn." Third, it is said in verse 2 that He "made the worlds:" proof of this is given in verse 10 by a quotation from the 104th Psalm. Fourth, He is called "the Brightness of God’s glory:" in verse 9 an Old Testament Scripture is quoted to show that He has been "anointed with the oil of gladness above His fellows." Fifth, He is the "express Image" of God’s person: in verse 8, Scripture is quoted to show that the Father owned Him as "God." Sixth, in verse 3 it is said that He has "purged our sins": in verse 14 we have mention of "the heirs of salvation." Seventh, in verse 3 it is affirmed that He has "sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high"; in verse 13 the 110th Psalm is quoted in proof of this. What an example is this of "proving all things" (1 Thessalonians 5:21), and that, by the Word of God itself!

In this, I think Pink is essentially correct. The first verses of Chapter 1 serve not so much to introduce the entire work, but to set the program for the first doctrinal pericope. The argument is that Jesus received an inheritance higher than that of the angels. It is on the basis of this inheritance, unattainable by any mere man, that we are prepared to apprehend that Jesus is more than human.

But Jesus is also human. The second pericope (2:5-3:6) is concerned with establishing Jesus’ solidarity with his people, the redeemed humanity. Here we find a compelling parallel in the great Kenotic passage, Philippians 2:6-11, where the Son emptied himself of his divine royalty in order to become the humble servant of God at the Incarnation. His humble service involved representing humanity through divinely inflicted suffering and judgment. By passing through this trial, the man Jesus achieved a perfection that was graced by the endowment of divine glory. While Jesus was always fully God and fully man due to the hypostatic union, Scripture teaches it was at his resurrection-ascension that his humanity was glorified, that is, completely and permanently suffused with divine glory.

Hebrews begins with the assertion of Jesus’ divine origin, the high place from which he came. It goes on to describe the true meaning of his descent to the lower earthly regions (Cf. Eph. 4:8-10). This descent presupposes the deity of Jesus when it compares the difference between Moses and Jesus to the difference between the builder of a house and a servant that belongs to it (Heb. 3:3-6). The third doctrinal pericope (4:16-5:10) contrasts the superiority of Jesus’ accomplished deliverance to that of Joshua. Joshua’s accomplishment was only as good as its priestly foundation (the Tabernacle cult). The greater deliverance is rooted in Jesus’ high priestly work (4:14).

The fourth and largest section of the book (6:13-10:18), demonstrates that Jesus’ royal-priestly office and sacrifice are the essence of a new covenant. The establishment of this covenant was guaranteed beforehand by God, being based upon better promises that were confirmed by a divine oath (7:20-22; Ps. 110:4). The inherently efficacious ministry of Jesus Christ actually accomplishes and bestows the blessings of the new covenant that had been prophesied by Jeremiah long ago (10:14-18).

The fifth and final pericope (chapter 11) describes the solidarity of faith that New Testament believers have with the Old Testament saints. However, while the OT saints did not formerly receive the Kingdom under the provisions of the old covenant, they have now been blessed together with us. Hebrews 12:18-24 makes clear that the city sought (but not attained) by the OT saints has been established. It exists. This is the fruit of the royal-priestly work of Jesus, the foundation of the newer and better covenant. The epistle concludes with direction on how to live in light of this already present (through faith) and coming reality.

As we proceed through our study of Hebrews we will ask the following questions of the text: What covenant did Jesus claim to inaugurate? What was the prophetic expectation of this covenant as recorded in the pages of the Old Testament? What events does Hebrews attribute to be the fulfillments of these prophecies?

The questions above flesh out how we are to understand the person and work of the Lord Jesus: Jesus offered a real sacrifice and has been endowed with an actual high priestly office, of a real sacerdotal order, exemplified in the royal priest Melchizedek. He ascended in a real resurrected body to a real place, the heavenly Mount Zion. He sits on a real throne in the midst of all the angels and saints. He actually rules the world authoritatively, politically, providentially, spiritually, and morally as Lord and Christ.

A hermeneutic of covenantal realism expresses the worldview of Hebrews that what happens in heaven has cosmic metaphysical ramifications for the life of the world. Nothing would ever be the same once Jesus came bringing a new covenant, a new commandment, and a new life. There can be no return to the pre-Incarnation phase of history.

Check back to UO to explore together with me how the teaching of Hebrews opens our eyes to the reality of Christ's Kingdom.

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