The Letter to the Hebrews

The author reshapes our perspectives through his images. One is of Jesus as pioneer, a first century Daniel Boone, but instead of blazing a path through the American forests, Jesus’ life experiences, his ministry, denial, suffering and torturous death, resurrection and ultimate ascension is able to help those who are meeting their test now. The idea is that a pioneer goes where others have not yet traveled for the purpose of opening a way through a spiritual Cumberland gap through which others might follow. …

I have always wondered how The Letter to the Hebrews was ever accepted into the New Testament Canon of scriptures.  Its name suggests that it’s a letter.  It isn’t.   Some have described it as a tract.  Its name also suggests that it was written to ‘the Hebrews.’ We don’t exactly who that is.  We don’t know who wrote it. Attribution to Paul has long since been denied.  While it is an exhortation to keep the faith it isn’t very encouraging to ‘backsliders’ for whom there is no second chance for salvation.  I’ve gotten sidetracked by some of the imagery the author uses and found myself arguing with the metaphor rather than trying to understand what the author was trying to communicate.  Matter of fact, initial impressions of Hebrews might suggest that the writer is detached from any context.

The opening chapter takes us into the heavenly realm of the angels. Then the author seems to live in the world of the Old Testament rather than the Hellenism of his Roman culture. He quotes passage after passage from the Psalms, ponders the relationship of Jesus to Aaron, then takes us on a tour of the tabernacle that is described in Exodus. One might wonder: What’s the point?

The fact is that the writer is addressing issues facing his congregation. He gives us glimpses into three moments in the congregation’s life.  First, his readers began their faith journey on a high point. They had a vivid sense of the goodness of the gospel and the power of God’s Spirit working in the people’s (2:2-4). It was declared at first through the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard him, 4while God added his testimony by signs and wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit, distributed according to his will.

Second, their newfound faith created tension with others who did not share their beliefs. They found others marginalizing them and acting with hostility. 32But recall those earlier days when, after you had been enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, 33sometimes being publicly exposed to abuse and persecution, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. 34For you had compassion for those who were in prison, and you cheerfully accepted the plundering of your possessions, knowing that you yourselves possessed something better and more lasting.  Suffering for the faith made community of the faithful all the more important, and the congregation pulled together (10:32-34).

But third, over time that sense of community faded. The gospel initially seemed glorious, but congregational life fell far short of the kingdom of God. The biggest challenge the congregation faced was that of indifference. Things grew “dull” (5:11) and “sluggish” (6:12). The congregation was declining — not because of a major crisis but out of neglect. So he urges the congregation to come to life: 10:24-25 24And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, 25not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another. 6:12 And we want each one of you to show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope to the very end, 12so that you may not become sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises. The challenge he gives is to reinvigorate a congregation that is faltering and discouraged. And the writer does this through writing that rekindles the imagination.  The congregation began with a vivid sense of the goodness of the Word. If it is to have a future, the Word must rekindle their faith.

The author tells of the many ways in which God has communicated with his people. He speaks of Israel’s prophets, but then says that God communicated through an embodied Word: the Son. The writer will not let the readers’ imaginations remain impoverished with a Christ who is too small. The opening lines encompass the Son’s inheritance of all things and his activity at the very moment of creation. The writer uses words like “radiance” to evoke a sense of divine light entering human sight.

He then sketches out a journey.  He follows Jesus from death to glorious life. For a moment readers are taken out of the ordinariness of their situation, as they follow Christ into the presence of God. As readers then and now are drawn into the presence of God in worship, we too go on a journey. It reorients our perception of the situation in which life is lived.

The author reshapes our perspectives through his images. One is of Jesus as pioneer, a first century Daniel Boone, but instead of blazing a path through the American forests, Jesus’ life experiences, his ministry, denial, suffering and torturous death, resurrection and ultimate ascension is able to help those who are meeting their test now. The idea is that a pioneer goes where others have not yet traveled for the purpose of opening a way through a spiritual Cumberland gap through which others might follow. This is the way Hebrews portrays Jesus’ way. Jesus enters fully into the reality of human suffering, in order to open a way to life.

The writer employs images of family life, portraying Jesus as the readers’ brother. He touches on a theme that is all too real in family life: being ashamed. When growing up, one might experience momentary embarrassment when we are trying to impress others, and would rather not be associated with a particular brother or sister.  But there are also the deeper senses of shame that reflect perceptions of failure in relationships. Here the author claims that Jesus is “not ashamed” to call others his brothers and sisters. In positive terms that means being valued by Jesus, who himself felt the shame of crucifixion (cf. 12:2). And to those who feel a sense of shame, being valued is a powerfully transformative moment.

Then Hebrews portrays Jesus as liberator. He uses language reminiscent of the exodus, but transforms it from the deliverance out of slavery in Egypt to liberation from slavery to fear of death. The imagery recognizes that people are held captive by fears that can close off the future. The exodus is replayed on a personal level when fear is overcome so people can more fully embrace life.

In 4:14-5:10 the writer uses an odd pair of words: sympathy and boldness. To use the term “sympathy” to describe Christ’s role as a priest can seem superficial. When someone says “I’m sympathetic” in casual conversation, it can mean that the person is more or less inclined to see things your way, but is not ready to go beyond that. In Hebrews, however, sympathy conveys Jesus’ depth of feeling for those who are weak. He enters into the struggle.

The writer recognizes that weakness can include moral failing. People in ministry are flawed human beings. They understand human sin because they share in it, and being honest about that is important for ministry. It allows people to minister as one flawed human being attending to another. But the writer explains that when he speaks of Jesus’ sympathizing with weakness, it is about the weakness involved in suffering. He portrays Jesus’ anguished prayer in the face of death. He can sympathize or “feel with” people who suffer, because he has suffered, and that experience empowers his ministry.  I’m still moved when I recall visiting in a hospital room with a cancer patient who was is serious pain and having her point to the crucifix on the wall across from her bed and saying ‘he understands’.

What is odd is that we might assume that sympathy encourages passivity.  According the  author of Hebrews, the human response to Jesus is boldness” (4:16). If we are objects of sympathy, we might assume that everyone agrees that things are unfortunate but nothing can change. Yet Jesus’ sympathy is designed to awaken a sense of boldness to approach him in prayer. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. 16Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.  He enters into suffering in order to empower people to move through the suffering to renewed life in grace.

By the time we get to the ninth chapter, where the author describes the sanctuary of ancient Israel with its outer court, the curtain that marked its limit, and the place of God’s presence beyond it we need to be thinking spatially. Jesus is characterized by movement from the outer court to the inner one. The point is to open the way into the presence of God.

The physical barrier reflects a relational barrier. In human experience a graphic example is an argument in which someone walks out and slams the door behind them. The question is how the relationship can continue when the door is closed. To bring change, a mediator might be needed. One might ask a friend to seek access through the closed door in order to speak with the other person, to open up possibilities for relationship.

That notion of opening the door is vividly depicted here in a surprising way. It is God who wants the door to be opened to us. It is God who sends Christ as the mediator, who conveys the divine love that overcomes the barrier.  This is about God’s action to restore relationships, which we have closed off. The imagery of the sanctuary and liturgical movement in the text demonstrates God’s action in transforming relationships.

The final section is about the power of the Word of God to evoke faith. The Word is unseen, but its power is palpable in its peculiar effects on people.  The idea is that if there is to be faith, something beyond our senses must pull it into being.

Examples from the past include Noah, who ordinarily would have seen no good reason to build an ark. Why expend the effort if it is not raining? The Word evoked Noah’s willingness to trust and act faithfully for the sake of an unseen future. Abraham and Sarah were called from their home toward a land they could not see. It was the promise of God that moved them to do this.

Nothing the readers of this Letter to the Hebrews can see warrants hope.  Yet the author seeks to draw them and us into the race by fixing our eyes on Jesus, who summons us to engagement.  We are being called from despair to hope. There is no reason for this congregation to persevere without the Word. But they continue to be called into Christ’s future, which they may not see but only know through the living and present Word.

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