Hebrews and the Shame of Suffering

One of the problems with reading Hebrews is identifying the date and recipient of the letter. I am convinced the recipients were in Rome, living just before the Neroian persecutions.  I think the standard arguments for this position are solid, although I realize there are other possibilities.   Karen Jobes (Letters to the Church) argues the book does not capitalize on the destruction of the Temple as a “proof” that the Old Covenant has been replaced by the New, implying a pre-A.D. 70 date. In addition, the church has “not yet suffered to the point of shedding blood” (12:4).  If the recipients are in Rome, then the letter must refer to a time prior to Nero’s persecution of Christians (A.D.64), but after Caligula expelled Jews (A.D. 49).

Given this context, the recipients struggle with the promises of Christian faith.  If Jesus is the true sacrifice and the fulfillment of the promises of the Hebrew Bible, why have they suffered so much?   As J. W. Thompson says in his Hebrews commentary, the book is written to “reorient a community that has been disoriented by the chasm between Christian confession of triumph and the reality of suffering it has experienced.”

Coptic Christians protest against the killings of people during clashes in Cairo between Christian protesters and military police, and what the demonstrators say is persecution of Christians, in Los Angeles, California October 16, 2011. Egyptians detained in connection with clashes between Christian protesters and military police that left 25 people dead should be tried in civilian not military courts, presidential candidate Mohamed ElBaradei said on Sunday. The former U.N. diplomat's comments reflect public frustration at the army's handling of clashes on Oct. 9, when protesters said they were attacked by unidentified "thugs" and then said military police used excessive force against them. The authorities have detained 28 people on suspicion of attacking soldiers during the protest. Trials will be held before a military court. Rights groups have criticised the use of such courts by Egypt's ruling army council. The demonstrators are rallying for Barack Obama's administration to intervene. REUTERS/David McNew (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST RELIGION)

This is not apologetics in the modern sense, it does not argue against Judaism, nor does it state that Judaism was bad or wrong in any way.  Rather, the writer constructs a positive argument for Jesus’ superiority to various elements of Judaism; he is superior because he is the fulfillment of these things. (He is the substance to which the shadow pointed).

If I am right about the context of the book and the recipients have suffered for their faith already (and are about to suffer even more so under Nero), then the readers may very well have struggled with the shame of suffering in a culture which did not see suffering as a virtue. Within a Jewish context, suffering is sometimes seen as a result of sin, or at the very least, a lack of blessing from God.  We only need to look at the discussion in the book of Job to see that there was a lively discussion of why humans suffer.  If Christians are right and Jesus has triumphed, then why are his followers not blessed?  Why are they suffering?

Within a Greco-Roman context, Christians were not seen as successful because they suffered.  Roman thinking was very much based on honor and shame, of one suffered shame and humiliation in public, one cannot be described as successful!

The book therefore addresses a very real problem.  If Jesus is already seated at the right hand of the Father, why is it that Christians suffer shame and persecution?  Christians are not “of this world,” they are part of the real, unshakeable reality which is not of this world at all.

The theological dissonance which the book of Hebrews addresses is certainly applicable to Christians living in the persecuted world. They may ask, like the recipients of Hebrews, “what good is being faithful”? There are many examples of faithful Christians who suffer frequent shame and humiliation. I am not sure it has come to this in American, where we considered a Red Cup oppressive. But it is true Christianity is becoming a minority voice in American and evangelical Christianity may soon have little or no impact on culture.

How does Hebrews help the Christian who suffers in an anti-Christian world?

7 thoughts on “Hebrews and the Shame of Suffering

  1. The book of Hebrews has no known author, but one suggestion was Barnabas whose name meant “Son of encouragement,” because that is what the original audience needed with their pain and shame. Hebrews 12: 4 says there has not yet been suffering to the point of shedding blood, but then offers an encouraging reminder that although those times will come, it is because of God’s love for us that it must happen. Hebrews 12: 7-11 speaks of discipline and hardship being a mark of a child of God. It gives encouragement that these things mean that God is treating us as His children. My interpretation is that God is not punishing or rebuking us because of some evil that we did. Rather, we freely chose sin, and in doing that we rejected God. Because of that, choosing God over sin will never be easy and will always result in persecution from others. We have distanced ourselves from God and now persecution is the result of choosing God. It was not like this in the beginning but a result of our fall. God loves us so much and wanted us to be with Him that He offered us a way back, but that way is a way of persecution. So then the way to God is lined with suffering but because it is the price of choosing God based on our previous rejection of Him. Encouragement comes in the form that suffering for God means that you are choosing the right path, because the right path is the only one lined with suffering.

  2. PLong- I feel that Christians have not really changed that much from the writing of Hebrews, we are still very well aware that we should rejoice in our sufferings and our triumphs, but really how many people actually take joy in suffering. The majority cultural at the time viewed shame as a consequence of wrongdoing and not much has changed since that time, which is just another thing that Christians had going against them during the struggle in Hebrews and even today. I feel that the author of Hebrews encourages the recipients of the letter in two main way, through proving the superiority of Jesus compared the angels, and past Patriarchs, he also exhorts through reminding Christians of the hope of eternity spent with God in heaven. The author of Hebrews argues that Jesus is superiors to angels, and that angels are the servants of Jesus(Hebrews 1:7). Jesus is once again proven superior to patriarchs such as Moses; Moses is such a huge deal because he is connected to the Law, which governed the Jewish population for many of years(Hebrew 3:3). There are also many passages in Hebrews that allude to Christians hope for a eternity in heaven. For example Hebrews 1:9 and Hebrews 1:10-12 describe the eternity of God’s reign and His unchangeable nature.

  3. I think that there are a lot of helpful tips in the book of Hebrews in regards to how Christians should see suffering in this anti-Christian world. Hebrews 12:4-11 talks about God disciplining us in order to make us more righteous. For a good parent disciplines his child when the child does something wrong, and while not pleasant should be used to grow and be an encouragement in order to keep progressing in your faith. Speaking of faith, Hebrews 11, known as the faith chapter, speaks of the people who had faith in the promise that God gave them but never saw it fulfilled. It was these people that are placed in the lineage of those with great faith, for they believed, and suffered, in something that was never seen or fulfilled. Hebrews also specifically says that those who endure suffering will be richly rewarded, even beyond that which is already promised them (Hebrews 10:34-35). Also a warning and an encouragement from the writer of Hebrews says that when we endure and do not shrink away we will be given that which was promised to us (Hebrews 10:39), while those who shrink away from the faith due to suffering will be destroyed (Hebrews 10:39). Yet again God encourages the audience of Hebrews with the truth that God will not forget the work and the suffering that they are enduring, and so to continue the struggle in order to glorify God even more (Hebrews 6:10-11). I believe that these a couple of key points about how Christians should live in an anti-Christian world that the writer of Hebrews worked into the book.

    • Your beginning phrase reminds me of a conversation about fundraising that was brought up during the Romania Mission trip meeting this afternoon. The brother and sister who are going hosted a craft sale at the church to raise money. Well all those hours and efforts felt like a waste because no one showed up. They and their mom at first thought it was a failure, but then their mom brought up a point in the discussion that is not thought of most likely or at least thought of first. She said, after thinking about it is all in God’s plan and maybe they were not suppose to get money from it because He wants to provide from an alternate source. I thought that was interesting. Things appear how you perceive them, but when we take a step back there can be a reason we went through some unpleasantness.
      Discipline has such a negative connotation these days. The purpose of discipline is to train the one getting disciplined to behave properly. So as you mentioned before about regards to how Christians see suffering, if discipline gives a bad vibe, think of what is going on as God is training you. Training is meant to build you up and not tear you down. Some times training needs to get harder or else we just become complacent and never really grow.
      Rewards never really seem that great unless you work for it. If God just rewarded us instead of rewarding those who are enduring suffering as mentioned in Hebrews 10:34-35, then it is not as meaningful.There is this pride or good feeling of accomplishing something and getting the reward over just getting rewarded for nothing. Rewarded for nothing grows old after awhile.
      As you mentioned that in Hebrews it talks about the rewards and the results of turning away. I think that is important to have because it is encouraging to strive for the rewards, but after a while it sometimes may seem unreachable and we grow complacent and turn away to easier achievable things. I think mentioning the results of turning away, keeps people in line and remember why you are going after this reward over the easier rewards.
      I think your first line is crucial to getting through hard times which is it depends on how you perceive the hard times. Is it hardship or is it training for something in the future.

  4. Hebrews 12:2 says, “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (12:2). We live this life or are supposed to, because of Jesus. We look to him and how he lived in order to strengthen our walk and belief. Messiah suffered shame and endured the cross because there was joy set before him. He didn’t rejoice that he was suffering, he even asked that the cup pass from him, but he rejoiced rather in the future promise he was given. We can’t expect life to be easy, although if the red cup is our biggest problem I think we are fine, but when it’s hard and we are suffering we have to remember to run the race and put aside anything that weighs us down whether sin, persecution, or whatever else we are prone to putting before our God. Shame and suffering mean nothing, what matters is where we place God when dealing with it.

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