Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Importance of the Epistle to the Hebrews

The following paragraphs were adapted from the last of six lessons I recently completed for my parish's Sunday School:

I chose Hebrews for this study because I believe it is the most important book in the NT. For me, it is the key to interpreting the Person and Work of our Savior as found in the Gospels. The Gospels are chronological histories of Jesus’ life on earth. When taking them at face value, it is easy to be lulled into the impression they are just stories about Jesus’ miracles and records of his parables and sayings cobbled haphazardly together. Until we get to Hebrews, we don’t really know that Jesus is the ultimate Priest as well as the perfect Sacrifice. We don’t really know he is a Priest as well as a King in Heaven, or that these offices are combined in the single inheritance he rightfully received as the only begotten Son of God.[1]

The Epistle’s Place in the NT

Along with the Gospels, Hebrews stands as the Christological[2] foundation of the NT. The great epistles that expound the doctrine of Justification (Romans, Galatians and Ephesians) all presuppose the past, present and on-going mediatorial work of the Son. The other epistles, excepting perhaps I John, are all primarily devoted to pastoral or other secondary matters. Acts is, of course, a history of the early Church, a history of the activity of the Holy Spirit sent forth from Christ’s heavenly throne. Revelation is a series of visions of the liturgy of Heaven, of royal judgments and priestly intercessions. Hebrews forms a bridge between the Gospels and Revelation by moving us from cross to throne, from altar to sanctuary, from sacrifice to blessing, and from suffering to glory. It accomplishes this by explaining the logic behind Jesus' filial obedience, humiliation, and subsequent exaltation as the glorified Christ.

The Themes of Hebrews

Furthermore, Hebrews provides the key for understanding how the Christian interpretation of the OT works. The Gospels give many examples of fulfilled prophecy, but Hebrews combines many OT passages together to show not only that but how Jesus fulfills the whole OT history: which includes but is not limited to the sonship of Adam[3], the sonship of Israel (Israel was God’s chosen “son”)[4], the royal sonship of David[5], the Sabbath[6], the ancient priesthoods[7], the covenants[8], the sacrifices[9], and the faith of all preceding generations[10]. Hebrews contains the interpretive key to unlocking all Scripture’s mysteries.

A Spiritual Journey

Finally, to read Hebrews as it is meant to be read is to embark on a spiritual journey, an encounter with God's living word. This journey begins when we realize Jesus is the complete and final revelation of God’s word and the ultimate meaning behind creation (vv. 1:1-2, 10-12). With this understanding we are prepared to perceive the divine Son at the center of God’s Heaven, attended and served by angelic beings (vv. 1:5-2:9). We see also that he shares our human nature with us in order to be a merciful and faithful High Priest on our behalf (1:10-18).

As God’s faithful and obedient Son, Jesus acquired the Sabbath inheritance, the final rest that even such saints as Moses and Joshua were unable to achieve, since they had been mere servants (3:1-4:10). At 4:11ff., the epistle encourages us to “strive to enter the rest” by passing through the double-edged sword (the word of God) that guards the way to Paradise. For, as it says earlier, “those who believe are in the process of entering the rest.”[11]

In the Anglican communion liturgy (1662) after the Absolution and Comfortable Words and before the Proper Preface, we recite the Sursum Corda: “Lift up your hearts! We lift them up to the Lord!” By faith, we ascend to join the angels and archangels to “laud and magnify” the glorious Name. And then, all the prayers are offered to prepare and sanctify the elements of the Eucharistic feast. Spiritually, we are in the heavenly Temple eating the meat of the sacrifices as the priests did long ago in Solomon’s Temple and in Moses’ Tabernacle before that.

Our great High Priest, Jesus, is with us. As Priest after the order of Melchizedek, his priesthood is founded on better promises (than the Levitical order)[12], confirmed with a divine oath[13], and perpetuated in a single immortal life.[14] This new Royal High Priesthood entails a change of covenant (or law), the establishment of the better covenant anticipated by the prophets, the New Covenant.[15] After Jesus offered his all-sufficient and unrepeatable sacrifice, he entered the true Tabernacle of which the earthly Tabernacle was a copy.[16] By contemplating Jesus’ priestly ministry we come to the true meaning of sacrifice. We learn that the Lord is not interested in the blood of bulls and goats, but in faithful obedience to his will. This is the obedience that Christ rendered—complete obedience unto death.[17] In reading the epistle we come to the understanding that the obedience of faith (final perseverance) is required of his followers also.[18] It is only by pursuing the path of faith (for without it, it is impossible to please God[19]) that we will be able to take our place among the cloud of witnesses surrounding the throne of God.

The Epistle to the Hebrews presents a magnificent vision of the divine-human Son and the liturgy of Heaven of which he is the center, exhorting us to press on in faith and obedience in order that we too may inherit the blessing appointed for God's sons.

[1] Cf. Zech. 6:12-13.
[2] I.e., pertaining to the doctrine of Christ
[3] 1:3; 2:5-18; cf. Gen. 1:26; Lk. 3:23-38.
[4] 3:1-5; cf. Ex. 4:21-23, Hos. 11:1; Matt. 2:15.
[5] 1:5; cf. 2 Sam. 7:12-16; Ps. 2:7ff.
[6] 3:7-4:16.
[7] 5:1-10; 7:1-28.
[8] 7:12; 8:6-13; 9:15-17.
[9] 9:23-10:18.
[10] 2:13; 3:6; 5:7; 10:5-9; 12:2.
[11] 4:3.
[12] 6:13-18.
[13] 7:20-22.
[14] 7:23-25.
[15] 7:12; 8:6-13; 9:15-17; cf. Jer. 31:31-37; Ezek. 11:17-20; 36:23-38; 37:21-28.
[16] 10:14-18; 8:2,5; 9:23-25.
[17] 10:5-9; cf. Phil. 2:5-8.
[18] 6:11-12; 10:35-39; 11:6; 12:3-17.
[19] 11:6.

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