Hebrews 10:32-39 – Recall the Former Days

In Hebrews 10:32-39 the writer invites his readers to “recall the former days,” likely a reference to the time just after the accepted Christ.  The writer wants the readers to recall what they have already suffered so that they might continue to endure in the present.

They endured struggle with suffering.  Whenever people in the Roman world accepted Christ, they necessarily rejected the culture of the Roman World – their gods associated practices.  For this they suffered some level of persecution.  The book of Acts demonstrates that the Greco-Roman world did in fact “fight back” against the Pauline mission in Philippi, Thessalonica, and Ephesus.

They were publicly exposed to reproach and affliction.  While some commentators have connected this with the persecution of Nero, this does not seem to be the case.  It may refer to the Claudius’ decree expelling Jews from Rome; or it is a general comment that describes the experience of many Christians in the first century.

  • The noun used for reproach (ὀνειδισμός) is used only a few time sin the New Testament, most importantly for the suffering of Jesus in Rom 15:3 (citing Ps 68:10), and similarly in Heb 11:26 (Moses’ reproach in Egypt).
  • The word-group has the connotation of “loss of standing connected to disparaging speech” (BDAG), perhaps a reference to rumors and lies spread about Christians which led to their loss of property in the community.
  • The verb translated “be shamed” (θεατρίζω) is only used here in the New Testament and includes a public shaming, the related noun has to do with a theater or public spectacle.  The suffering described is not “behind closed doors,” but rather in front of the whole community. Christians were easy targets since they refused to worship the gods of Rome; they could be accused of atheism at the very least.

They had compassion on those in prison.  Those who have been arrested and placed in prison must be cared for by friends and family.  The Roman world did not usually imprison people for punishment, so they were in prison until they face trial.   Compassion on the prisoner is part of the duty of a disciple of Jesus (Mt 25, for example, Philippians).

They joyfully accepted plundering of their possessions.  The readers “welcomed” the loss of their property, with the connotation of friendliness.  Imagine if someone was losing their home to a creditor and their property was being repossessed, and they helped carry their stuff to the trucks and served the workers coffee!  We cannot know how the readers were joyful or if they acted in this way to the ones who were attacking them, but the idea here is that they did not fight the loss of property because they know where their treasure truly is.

These people who lost property could do so because they knew they had a “better possession” which is real, abiding. This word will also re-appear in 11:26 describing Moses loss of position in Egypt.  In fact, this verse anticipates Moses as an example of one who suffered great loss for the cause of Christ. All of this suffering is not simply in the past (when they were first enlightened). They are suffering now, and perhaps the writer is concerned that their ongoing suffering will cause some of the readers to become discouraged to the point of “shrinking back.”

For most Christians in the western world, suffering is an abstract idea or something Christians in other countries do. American Christians occasionally experience minor inconveniences or imagined insults (like those Starbucks holiday cups). How would the American church be different if it suffered like the readers of Hebrews, or the Christians in Nigeria?

Hebrews 9:11-22 – The Christ, the Unblemished Sacrifice

The writer of Hebrews has argued throughout the book that various elements of the Old Covenant were shadows or hints at the reality fully realized in Jesus Christ. Perhaps the most important of these comparisons is the assertion in chapter 9 that the Day of Atonement foreshadowed the work of Christ. Only some of the aspects of the Day of Atonement are important for the comparison, others are not mentioned. Entry into the Holy of Holies to make atonement is featured, but some of the other rituals are omitted.

Passover LambThe Tabernacle Jesus entered was not the earthly one, but rather the real heavenly one. This may not mean that someplace in heaven is a “perfect” tabernacle, physically similar to the tabernacle of the Old Testament.  The tabernacle servers as a metaphor for the separateness of God in heaven. God is within the holy of holies and only those who are without sin may approach his altar. This does not mean Jesus had more work to do after his death on the cross in order to complete salvation. The cross is the provision of blood in the holy place and is completely sufficient for salvation. The writer of Hebrews nowhere implies Jesus had to perform some ritual in heaven to complete the atonement.

Jesus can be the perfect sacrifice because he is “unblemished.” This is a deliberate allusion to the Old Testament law which required a worshiper to bring a lamb from the flock which was “unblemished” or “without defect.” The animal to be sacrificed was to be the best member of the flock, not a sick, unhealthy animal that was not of any value. The sacrifices were never really perfect since there was not truly perfect lamb or goat. It was only in the person of Jesus that there was a possibility of perfection because he was the God-Man, perfectly unified and perfectly fulfilling all of the law.

As the perfect Sacrifice, Christ can provide a ransom for sin committed under the first covenant (9:15).  Christ is the mediator of the New Covenant, the one that administers the new salvation.  The High Priest was the mediator of the Old Covenant, administering salvation to the people.

The concept of a “ransom” is introduced here for the first time in Hebrews. “Ransom” has a different meaning in modern English that perhaps was intended by the Greek word.  A ransom is a price paid to a criminal to get them to release a person they have kidnaped.  There might be other connotations of ransom, but we tend to think forest of a bad guy getting paid off, and somehow true justice is not served.

The Greek here does not have that connotation at all.  This is the concept of buying a slave out of bondage, “to release or set free, with the implied analogy to the process of freeing a slave. This is the concept of redemption in the New Testament, God buying us out of the slave market of sin and giving us a new master, himself.  It is wrong to think of the death of Jesus as a payment to Satan in order to “ransom” us back to God.

In Hebrews, the ransom for sin is the shedding of blood (9:16-22). The often quoted verse “without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins” is based on a common principle in the Old Testament of God requires the shedding of blood, a death, for sin.  This is not because God is some maniac in heaven that demands death and enjoys killing.  The only penalty for sin is death.  One single sin does spoil the whole soul, and the sinner must die.

The “shedding of blood” is actually the mercy of God, allowing a substitute in our place.  Even in the garden, Adam and Eve were covered with animal skins after the first sin.  There was a shedding of blood to cover their sins.  This principle runs through scripture, leading up to the cross, which was a “once for all” shedding of blood.

Hebrews 8-9 – Old Israel, New Church?

Hebrews 8-9 are theologically more controversial than the rest of Hebrews because it appears the writer of Hebrews says the Jewish people have been replaced by the Church. The New Covenant has replaced the Old just as Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is superior to the old sacrifice in the Temple. As such, chapters 8 and 9 have been used to teach that the Jewish people are no longer God’s people and the church replaces them completely. This would therefore imply that any promises made to Israel in the Hebrew Bible are either cancelled or to be reinterpreted as applying to the Church.

Star CrossThe theological term for this is supersessionism, the view that church supersedes the Jews as the people of God. For some types of theology, the idea that the Jews were replaced by the Church is an assumption, the proof for which is found in Hebrews, especially chapters 8-9. This historic view argues the church is a new Israel and the promises of the Hebrew Bible are fulfilled in the church, often in a spiritual sense.

For example, Jeremiah 31 seems to indicate that at some point in the future, the city of Jerusalem would be rebuilt. Possibly this is fulfilled when some Jews return after the exile, but it may point to a future restoration of the Jews as well. But since this prediction is in the context of the New Covenant, older writers therefore re-interpreted spiritually.

The “wall great and high” is of no earthly material; the extension is not one of yards on miles, but of nations and ages; the consecration of the unclean places is but typical of the regenerative force of Christianity, which reclaims the moral wastes of the world, and purifies the carnal affections and sinful tendencies of human nature; and no material city could ever “stand for aye.” Only the kingdom and Church of Christ could satisfy the conditions of such a prophecy. A. F. Muir, in The Pulpit Commentary on Jeremiah 2:28.

However, when one reads Hebrews without the modern church in mind, the book does not argue Israel has been replaced and all, but that the promises made to Israel, including the New Covenant, have their fulfillment in Jesus the Messiah. Here I am following Richard Hays (“We Have No Lasting City,” pages 151-173 in The Epistle to the Hebrews and Christian Theology, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009). Hays looks back at his work on Hebrews which indicates the book is supersessionist, but he then shows how a proper reading of Hebrews will show the book is not actually teaching the Christian Church has replaced Israel.

In fact, to put the question this way is a modern theological question which Hebrews does not really address. The writer is interested in demonstrating a proper understanding of the Hebrew Bible in the light of Jesus’ work on the cross will result in Christian faith. And that faith, according to the writer of Hebrews, is a kind of natural development out of Judaism to something new and different.

Although this is similar to Paul (the church is not new Israel but something new entirely), the problem of the status of the Gentile in the present age is absent from the book of Hebrews. Although this is a common theme in the Pauline letters, is entirely absent in this book since the writer is concerned with the status of Jewish believers in Christ.

Hebrews 7:1-3 – Who Was Melchizedek?

In Hebrews 5:1-10 the writer of Hebrews discussed the high priesthood of Christ. Jesus is the superior High Priest because he was a human, like us, yet he was also God.  Because of this unique combination, Jesus is able to be the perfect high priest forever, a priest that is not like the line of earthly priests descended from Aaron and the tribe of Levi, but a priest in the order of Melchizedek, the mysterious priest from Genesis 14. But because this was a difficult concept, the writer digresses into a warning to his readers not to be lazy in their spiritual development.  They ought to be interested in the difficult “meat” of the Word of God.

11Q Melchizedek

In chapter 7, the writer of Hebrews argues Jesus is the Perfect High Priest, in the order of Melchizedek, who serves as a “type” of Jesus Christ. Because Jesus is the Perfect High Priest, he is able to meet our needs in a way that no human priest ever could.

Melchizedek is identified by the writer of Hebrews as both a priest and a king. While he is mentioned in Genesis 14 and Psalm 110, there is a great deal of interest in him in the Second Temple period.  Genesis 14 describes Abram’s rescue of Lot from the hands of invaders from the east. Lot was living in Sodom when it was captured by five kings from the east. Abram rallies a small army and pursues the invaders, and routs their army.  While returning from the battle, Abram is met by Melchizedek, who greets him and blesses him.  Genesis 14:18-20 describes Abram worshiping the most High God with Melchizedek and offering a tithe to God through this mysterious priest.

Psalm 110 also refers to  Melchizedek.  This psalm is perhaps the most cited messianic Psalm in the New Testament.  The author of Hebrews used it in chapter 1 and it appears in Acts and Paul as well.  What is important for our reading of Heb 7 is that the Psalm connects the davidic ruler to “the priesthood of Melchizedek.”

There were a number of interpretations of Melchizedek current in the first century, perhaps explaining why the author of Hebrews used this rather obscure character as an analogy for Jesus.

  • The Dead Sea scrolls make Melchizedek into a paradigm for the righteous remnant, awaiting the return of the Messiah.  He functions very much like Michael in Daniel 12.  He is a defender of Israel who will return to punish those who opposed the righteous remnant.
  • The Targum Jonathan argued that Melchizedek was Shem, the son of Noah.  In the genealogies of Genesis, Shem would outlived Abraham by 35 years.  The Jews sought to find a way to explain the great Abraham giving honor to Melchizedek, they did this by making him one of Abraham’s great ancestors.
  • The philosopher Philo described Melchizedek as the “divine logos,” not God but God’s representative in this world

The reason for all this speculation is that there is not much said in Gen 14 about who Melchizedek.  That he worships the God Most High and was the king of Salem (presumably Jerusalem) is remarkable indeed.  Perhaps the motivation is that Melchizedek was the king of Jerusalem in the age prior to the Davidic Kingdom.  Since David captured Jerusalem as his capitol, he became a king in the line of Melchizedek.  As the son of David, Jesus is both a king (in the line of David) and a priest (in the line of Melchizedek).

Hebrews 6:4-12 – “It is Impossible…” (Part 2)

Have some in the congregation actually drifted away to the point of apostasy? Chapter 6 and chapter 10 both have strong words of warning against apostasy.  It is possible that some have, but the writer’s intention may be to drive the point home well enough that the readers do not recant their faith when the difficult persecution comes.  This is a rhetorical strategy, to describe the worst case imaginable, then show how the reader has not gone quite that far yet.

Thanks, Derri

For example, I might tell my students, “you will fail Greek if you do not study for the exam!” to encourage them to study, although I know that none of them will fail the exam because I have fully equipped them for success.  Some might struggle more than others, but I have given them the necessary tools to pass the exam.

Does the text say that it is impossible for them to repent?  Perhaps, but perhaps not.  The word “impossible” does mean “not able,” but it can also mean “not capable.” Louw and Nida gloss the word, “pertaining to being impossible, presumably because of a lack of power to alter or control circumstances.”  I might use this word to describe my chances of breaking the world record in the pole vault.  It is so unlikely, so out of the range of my capabilities (not to mention the principles of science!) that I can call it “impossible.”

As we work through the passage this will become more clear, but what we seem to read here is that those that do recant and reject Jesus in a public way are not able to repent, because they are no longer capable of repenting. This is not necessarily the “unpardonable sin,” but it is a sin that is so deep and so destructive to the person who commits it that they are no longer capable of making act honest act of repentance and be restored to fellowship.

The reason that it is impossible is that the individual has “once for all” been enlightened, the same phrase used to describe Jesus’ “once for all” sacrifice for sin.  Just because it is impossible for a man, it does not mean that God cannot move that person to repentance and bring them back.  He very well may let a person go, but if He wills he can bring them back.

The two most powerful words in the Christian faith are …”but God.”