A few thoughts on the Letter to the Hebrews
As some of you know (and we’re getting on to it eventually) I have a few problems with some bits of the Bible. Possibly it’s mutual. But anyway, I thought I would use today’s post to say something about the Letter to the Hebrews.
(By the way, Rob Bell talks in passing on page 10 of “Love Wins” about “the woman who wrote the Letter to the Hebrews”. I had not heard this confident thesis before. According to Wikipedia, the style of Hebrews is considered “the most polished and eloquent” of the New Testament, and some people theorise that it was written by Paul’s friend Priscilla, whose name was then expunged. But there is definitely not a consensus on this.)
What we all know about Hebrews (I suggest) is that: it was written as a fairly tough-love encouragement to Christians to persevere; it’s about Jesus being greater than Moses or angels; it’s the one with Melchizedek and the heroes of faith list; it has good sound-bites like 4:12:“the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword”; 4:15: “we have not a high priest unable to sympathise with our weaknesses”; and my personal favourite 13:8: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today, and forever.” But it also has the scary bit that says “for it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened… if they then commit apostasy” (6:4-6), which I suspect has caused a lot of grief in the church.
It’s generally presented as quite stern. But I tend to miss the sternness, and even perhaps the substance, because I’m so fascinated by the presentation, especially its use of the Old Testament.
Chapter 1 begins somewhat abruptly, with none of this “grace and peace to you” that Paul likes to say – is there a bit missing? – anyway it begins by saying how Jesus, God’s Son, is God’s final revelation, and better than an angelic one. This is backed up by a host of quotations from the OT. When I look these up, I am a bit concerned. The writer of the Hebrews had obviously never heard of reading things in context (or if they had, this was an idea with which they had no sympathy.)
For example, Hebrews 1:6: “And again, when He [God] brings the firstborn into the world, He says, ‘Let all God’s angels worship him’.” My trusty RSV translation gives two references for this. The first is Psalm 97:7 – “All worshippers of images are put to shame, who make their boast in worthless idols; all gods bow down before him.” There is no indication whatever that the psalmist is talking of “him” as God’s Son, or as anyone other than God. The second is Deuteronomy 32:43 (Septuagint). I don’t know what this verse says in the Septuagint, but in my translation it is part of Moses’ song of praise to God and bears no resemblance to the quote, nor does it mention a son of God.
(The Septuagint is the translation from Hebrew into Greek of the Old Testament, and it was the translation which the New Testament writers used. Let’s leave that can of worms for today.)
Again, Hebrews 1:10-12 is a quote from Psalm 102, which appears to be talking about the Lord, but not noticeably about His Son.
So far, so tut. Of course, we should remember that probably the writers of the New Testament did not have the texts they were quoting from in front of them, or accessible via Google. They were quoting from memory what they had previously learned by heart. (Hebrews 4:4: “He [God] has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way…” is rather endearing.)
Then we get on to the main sermon. The central chunk of Hebrews (3:7 – 10.18) seems to me to consist of three points (like all good sermons), all using the Old Testament in a very distinctive way.
First, we have the quote from Psalm 95 in Hebrews 3:7 – “Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, today, when you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts…” followed by an explanation of the earlier (hard-hearted) rebellion in Numbers, which the Psalmist is referring to, and how this relates to now.
Second, we have the quote from Psalm 110 in Hebrews 5:5-6 and again in 7:17, – “You are a priest for ever, after the line of Melchizedek”, followed by an explanation of the mysterious (and very brief) passage in Genesis about Melchizedek. I think I’m right in saying that these are the only references to Melchizedek in the Bible.
Third, we have the quote from Jeremiah 31 – “I will establish a new covenant…” in Hebrews 8:8-12, followed by details from the Torah about the old covenant, and an explanation of how it is now superseded by the new covenant in Christ.
What I find fascinating, especially in the first two examples, is the way the writer doesn’t just quote the Old Testament and say it’s fulfilled in Christ. He/she quotes the OT as it was later interpreted in other parts of the OT, and says it’s fulfilled in Christ. Three time periods coming together.
You can almost hear his/her squeals of awe. Something like this: “Look what I’ve just seen! You know that bit in the Psalms talking about entering rest, going back to Moses and Joshua? It’s all about Jesus! And you know that really strange bit in the Torah about Melchi-what’s-his-name that we’ve never understood, and how bizarre it is when he’s mentioned again in Psalm 110? Well, I’ve just realised! It’s all about Jesus! All of it! Even when the Psalmists didn’t know themselves! Wow! I wonder if there are any other bits of the Scriptures like that?”
I wonder this too. When I look at the Old Testament and think how spiritually uplifting the Psalms are, and how beautiful the visions of Isaiah 6 and 53 and 61, and how powerful and thought-provoking the stories in Genesis and Kings… and when I also look at the gruesome ending of Judges, and the frankly nasty bits of Ezekiel, and the boring descriptions of the Temple in Chronicles… I wonder if all of Scripture really does hang together, and if it’s all about Jesus.
The writer to the Hebrews thinks it is. How many more bits like the reference to Melchizedek have we still to find?
What a terrific sermon. What a terrific letter.
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