Saturday, November 04, 2006

A Covenantal Reading of 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 walk in light of the Kingdom’s accomplished reality so that we will be found worthy to inherit its blessings.

The message of Hebrews is that what Jesus accomplished on earth and continues to do in heaven has metaphysical ramifications for the life of the world. That is, the underlying basis for God’s relationship to the world has been transformed. 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.

Jesus offered a real sacrifice, which was his life of complete submission to the Father’s will. He has been endowed with an actual high priestly office, of a royal-sacerdotal order, exemplified in the priest-king 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 and intercedes for the world authoritatively, providentially, and spiritually as Lord and Christ.

Hebrews begins with the assertion of Jesus’ divine origin, the high place from which he came (chapter 1). It goes on to describe the true meaning of his descent to the lower earthly regions (Cf. Eph. 4:8-10). The second pericope (2:5-3:6) is concerned with explaining the necessity for why Christ came in the flesh to live and die. By contrasting prophecies of Christ with the angels in the first section of the book (1:5-14), the author demonstrated that Jesus shared an equality with God that was fully realized (in a sense) at his resurrection-ascension (Cf. Phil. 2:6ff.).

The Son of God became man. The author of Hebrews 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 glory 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 royal glory. While Jesus was always fully God and fully man due to the hypostatic union, Scripture teaches that it was at his resurrection-ascension that his humanity was glorified, that is, completely and permanently suffused with divine glory.

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 liturgy). 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; C.f., 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; C.f., Jer. 31:31-34).

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.

Studying how Hebrews interprets the Old Testament gives rise to what I call a hermeneutic of covenantal realism, as opposed to one that spiritualizes away the content of prophetic expectation.

A covenant is a solemn commitment divinely sanctioned (by blessings and curses), testified to by witnesses, and enacted by swearing an oath. A covenant defines the responsibilities one undertakes when entering into a sacred bond.
The New Covenant that was established by the Lord Jesus is unlike all previous covenants, even those established by God in the Old Testament era. This new and better covenant cannot be broken and cannot fail of its purpose. It is revealed in Jesus, who brings together the two covenanting parties (God and man) in one person. It is as indestructible as the hypostatic union of Christ’s two natures. The Son of God is the New Covenant. By virtue of our union with him through the Holy Spirit, we share in a divine life that vivifies and transforms us into a holy people for God’s own possession. The Epistle to the Hebrews calls us to live in light of this reality.

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