Reproclaiming the Everlasting Gospel
An aside into Hebrews
It has been some time since I made a post to this blog. I have had subjects for at least three separate posts swirling inside and it is time to publish again.
My intent for this post was to take a look at the non-Pauline epistles in the New Testament (not already touched on in prior posts) before tackling Paul directly in the next. In the writing my focus has narrowed. My family has been reading the book of Hebrews together. As I have pondered the passages we are reading, it seems that I am not just admiring old treasures but being shown new ones as well.
Hebrews does not explicitly refer to Jesus as a prophet, let alone identify him directly as the prophet foretold in Deuteronomy 18. So this may seem a strange aside, but I ask that you bear with me a bit. A primary or perhaps The Primary intent of this epistle is to lift up another office of Jesus, i.e. as priest. And he is not just any priest; he is the High Priest of our faith.
I won’t speculate about the authorship of the letter, but some closer reflection on its intent is of value. The writer is keen to establish the primacy of Jesus and his work. In fact, the writer seems to have had a list of things to set Christ above. I will note some of them as I go along. The prologue (ch. 1:1-4) reminds me of the beginning of the book of John. Both introductions are about God speaking to us. And Jesus is the final and best Word. Verse 1 acknowledges that prior to Jesus’ coming, God spoke to the community through the prophets. 1:2, “But in these last days he has spoken to us by his son …”
Beyond these first verses, the letter does not have a lot to say about prophets. But I point out what looks to me like the foundation assumption of the writer, i.e. God speaks to us through the Prophetic Office. I also read in this that the author begins to address his readers with a shared understanding. More about this in a bit.
The writing has a sense of urgency; dilution of the message threatens. The writer takes on a rising misunderstanding about angels. The Scriptures we have do record God speaking to people through angels. The early church (or part of it) seems to have agreed with the Pharisees that God used angels to speak to Moses and give him the law to promulgate to the people (cf. 2:3. also see Acts 7:30). In later Jewish writing, angels assume greater roles (cf. Daniel, the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha). There was danger of confusing spirits, elevating the good (or worse) rather than the best.
Consider this passage from Revelation 19:9b-10. “And he [the angel} added, ‘These are the true words of God!’ At this, I fell at his feet to worship him. But he said to me, ‘Do not do it! I am a fellow servant with you and your brothers who hold to the testimony of Jesus. Worship God! For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.’” Also check out the similar but subtly different passages in Rev. 22:6, 8 and 9. John was not to turn his attention away from the Word. Likewise the writer of Hebrews points to a better mediator and messenger. (cf. 1:2 and 4; see also 12:24).
I believe this passage about the subordination of angels is one of the reasons the epistle to the Hebrews was beloved of early Friends. What they found written matched their experience of God’s working in and among them. All distractions and accretions, no matter how good and powerful they are, must give way to Jesus, the primary speaker, the primary mediator.
When we are paying attention to this speaker, we are living in the faith of the apostles and prophets (cf. 2:1, 2). In summary, the writer starts with God speaking through the prophets and Jesus and asserts that Jesus is superior to the angels, in his prophetic role.
Conservative theologians (and indeed much of Christian teaching) have focused on the past tense of some of the verbs in this passage. 1:2 “In these last days God has spoken to us by his son.” 2:1 “We must pay more careful attention therefore to what we have heard.” 2:3 “This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him.” The commentator in the study Bible I have jumps on these passages to ‘prove’ his point: prophetic utterance has ceased. The Scriptural writings we have are sufficient. God does not need to speak to us directly anymore… The commentator falls silent when the verb tense is present. It appears that he does not even have eyes to see this.
Early Friends boldly claimed these same passages. 2:2 “in these last days [God] has spoken to us by his Son.” This must rate among the Scriptural texts most often quoted, or alluded to, by George Fox. And Friends also found that ch 2:1-4 spoke to their experience. When we don’t pay attention to what we hear and drift away, we feel the inward rod knocking and poking to get it back. And we feel the inward staff drawing us back to where we belong. Where is that? It is in the great salvation Jesus writes among us when we are paying attention; when we are living in the faith of the apostles and prophets. (cf. also 1 John 1:7).
The rest of chapter 2 is one of the battlegrounds between those who argue for imputed rather than imparted faith. The theology of imputed faith focuses on Jesus’ death and resurrection. Those acts, according to this doctrine, give God blinders. God only sees red (the blood) or white (Christ’s purity). God no longer sees us as we are. Fox had no time for “imputed” faith. It was the very doctrine he disparaged when he declared repeatedly, “They preach up sin to the grave!” This is a miserable gospel and its foundation is death, rather than Life.
Friends loved this same passage. Jesus conquered death! And he destroys the purveyor of fear! Though the battle may not be done, the victory is assured. Jesus’ work within and among us cleanses us from the filth of death. It can be a harsh work when heavy duty cleanser is needed. But it is also a gentle work. Our wounds are bound by the One who suffered before us. And healing comes when we walk in trust (cf. 2:13), when we pay attention to what we have heard and obey the Voice.
In chapter 3 things get even more interesting. The first part of the chapter (3:1-6) compares Jesus to Moses. Moses is not derided. In fact, the writer’s summary of him is from God’s description in Numbers 12. I discussed this passage in the third post when considering what a Prophet-like-Moses would look like. 3:5 “Moses was faithful as a servant in all God’s house …” Moses was the apostle of the first covenant, the leader of the people, the intermediary. And he acted as God’s priest in investing the priesthood of Aaron. But Jesus is greater. He rules God’s house and is the apostle and high priest we confess.
As soon as the author identifies his readers as the house that Jesus rules, he quotes from Psalm 95:
Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion …
The rest of chapter 3 and much of chapter 4 are an exhortation for the readers not to behave as the people did who were given the first covenant. The quotation from Psalm 95 is repeated twice more. Then in 4:14, the writer picks up his main theme in earnest:
How does this aside relate the theme of this blog?
In Deuteronomy 18, Moses describes himself as a prophet. In other posts, I have looked at various NT passages which would indicate that Jesus, the apostles and the writers themselves identified Jesus as the prophet Moses expected. I believe that the writer of Hebrews also knew this identification and that it was a common belief in the early church, at least among Jewish believers. So, though the writer does not explicitly reference Deut 18, I believe it is implied in 3:5, “Moses was faithful as a servant in all God’s house, testifying to what would be said in the future.”
I go back to the beginning of chapter 2 to build on my case for this interpretation. 2:3 declares that the writer and the readers all heard the message from the apostles. Let’s look at what they might already been taught. Chapter 6:1-3 lists some these:
So where are these recorded in what was said before? Things stack up rather nicely in the Acts accounts:
All of these matters are recorded either in the teaching or the practice of the earliest church. My contention is that the other major themes from the teaching and experience in the earliest church were also known to the audience of the epistle to the Hebrews. Note these other themes in Peter’s sermons:
I have not found in those early Acts accounts the proclamation of Jesus as Priest. It appears to me that the writer of Hebrews is taking the community further in their belief of Jesus as central. He is not only the prophet like Moses to be heard and the King to rule, but he is the Priest to intercede. And our experience of that Office is similar to what they already knew. He is how God speaks to us, 1:2, 3:7, 15 and 4:7 and the priest of the new covenant proclaimed in Jeremiah 31 (see Heb 8:7-13). Intercession is not only speaking to God on our behalf but speaking to us on God’s behalf.
In conclusion, the prophetic understanding of the early church is in place. The writer attacks the accretions and builds on the message that Jesus is central and sufficient.
The next post will look at the account of Paul’s work as recorded in Acts.
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