Good morning! Today we begin reading through the book of Hebrews, which is called a letter in its title but is much closer to a sermon in form. Its writer (not Paul) uses highly developed rhetoric and quotes from many parts of scripture, as though he has a concordance at his fingertips. This writer thinks nothing of taking passages out of their original context (like the Psalms, for instance) and putting them to different uses. The main emphasis here is on the power of faith to lead to salvation throughout biblical history, and especially in Jesus Christ. Hebrews contends that Jewish spirituality and theology lends itself to Christian belief, such that Jesus is the “great high priest” whose once-for-all-time sacrifice satisfies the need to atone for sins and please God.
The book opens with a highly exalted vision of Jesus as so close to God that he is superior even to angels. Moses too is less than Christ, because while Moses is the best “house” (meaning a faithful servant for God), Christ was faithful as the master and creator of the house itself—that is, humankind. In a move similar to the “Christ hymn” in Philippians, the writer here emphasizes Jesus’ “descent” into human form, temporarily surrendering supernatural powers to become a God-man veiled in flesh. (This has much more in common with the gospel-writer John’s depiction of Jesus. Contrast this with the very-human Jesus depicted in Mark and the other synoptic gospels.) Christ’s death Christ liberates those who believe from their own death, and from living perpetually afraid of death.
Therefore, Hebrews exhorts is readers to be faithful, unlike the Hebrews in the wilderness who doubted and tested God in many ways. Through scriptural wordplay, the book suggests that God’s essentially holding the door of “today” open for those who believe to slip into eternal rest, and not be left out in the cold. Those who have heard about this possibility mustn’t neglect obedience to Jesus, because knowledge of his salvation entails culpability for the failure to follow.
The metaphor of Jesus as a “great high priest” comes near the end of today’s reading. The writer plays on the idea of a high priest like those described in Leviticus and Numbers, who once a year enters the “holy of holies” and makes an atonement offering for the whole nation’s sins. Christ is a human like us, but unlike us in the respect that he doesn’t sin. Jesus can show mercy and kindness like human high priests because he can relate to humanity, yet needs to make no sacrifice for his own shortcomings. This means that he was the perfect intermediary between God and humanity, satisfying the former’s call for blamelessness and the latter’s need for merciful compassion. This metaphor makes little sense to Jews or Christians today without a temple or tabernacle mentality, but I suspect that our reading at the beginning of the year will help us make more sense in this part of the Bible. Happy reading!
Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. The passage for tomorrow is Hebrews 6-10. Thanks for reading!