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 6:4-12 – “It is Impossible…” (Part 1)

Hebrews 6:4-12 is one of the difficult in the Bible because it deals with a very sensitive problem: If someone recants their faith and completely turns their back on God, can they still be “saved”?  It does not take very long to find a website attributing the doctrine of Eternal Security (Perseverance of the Saints) to be a doctrine hatched in the pit of Hell, or another website declaring that Eternal Security is the central theme of God’s gospel of Grace.

Part of the emotionalism of this issue is that everybody knows someone who attended church, was involved in the ministry of the church, gave of their money and time, and may have even publicly claimed to be a believer.  But now, for whatever reason, they have walked as far from God as they can get, denying that they were even saved.  Some pastors have been caught in sin and now have left the ministry, perhaps even denying God What about them?  Were they “saved”? Are they now “saved” even if they are in a state of denial?

Presuppositions about theology often drive interpretations about this passage. Once we start talking about heavy doctrines like election, predestination, and preservation of the saints people tend to get antsy. To make a very long theological story short, Armenians tend to believe that a person can lose their salvation if they do not “persevere until the end” while the Calvinists tend to believe that a person who is truly saved will always be saved, regardless of any post-conversion behavior.  There is a lot behind those two historic positions, in fact, they are logical conclusions drawn from some presuppositions in their respective views of salvation.

A real problem for reading this text is that our personal experience clouds our thinking.  We all know someone that seemed saved, but they now appear to have walked away from their faith.  Alternatively, we all know at least one prodigal son who has returned to the father and repented of their time during which they appear to have rejected the faith.  These stories are rather emotional since these are real people whom we love.

While both sides of this “once saved always saved” discussion must deal with this passage, that is not exactly what the author of Hebrews has in mind.  He does not address church discipline or post-reformation theology.  In fact, he is neither Calvinist nor Arminian, nor is he a holiness preacher or a post-Enlightenment liberal. To a large extent our post-Reformation questions might obscure what the writer of Hebrews was trying to communicate to his original readers.

The writer of Hebrews is a Jewish Christian addressing other Jewish Christians who are about to endure a time of terrible persecution.  Does the writer of Hebrews consider it possible that his readers could deny their faith publicly, declare that they are faithful Jews, and still consider themselves Christians in secret?

To the Twelve Tribes in the Dispersion – James 1:1

James 1:1 indicates that he is writing to “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion.” Assuming that this line is to be read literally, we need to understand what a Jewish writer would have meant when he said “twelve tribes” and Diaspora. Simply put, a Jew “living in the Diaspora” was a Jew living outside of “the land.” But things are a bit more complicated than that.

The Judaism of the first century developed the way it did because of the exile. The exile could begin as early as 722 B.C. when Samaria fell to Assyria, but the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. is the usually beginning point for most scholars. The fall of Jerusalem was the event that shaped Jewish religion as we know it in the Second Temple Period because it stripped the Jews of all things which constituted ethnicity. They no longer had land, their language began to shift from Hebrew to Aramaic, and there was a significant threat from intermarriage. The Jews, as a people, were at risk of losing their ethnicity.

Ancient Synagogue in Dura-Europos, Syria

How did the Jews survive the exile? All other peoples of the ancient world integrated and disappeared from history. How many people claim to be Moabites these days? The primary factor is Jewish Religious tradition centered on the Torah. These traditions kept them from assimilating into a host culture. The story of Daniel is only one example of Jews working within a culture yet remaining distinct from it. Centers of Jewish cultures developed in Alexandria and Elephantine in Egypt and in Babylon. These places continued to develop well into the current era. It is likely that Babylon and Alexandria were superior centers of Judaism to Jerusalem for much of the Second Temple period.

Those who chose to live outside of the land rather than return to Jerusalem always face problems in living in accordance with their traditional customs. The main three which are typically identified: monotheism, Sabbath, circumcision, and dietary laws. It is not a surprise to find these as the main points of controversy in the New Testament. While Paul does not shift on monotheism, he does not require gentiles to conform to the other three boundary markers and it is at least possible he may have been open to Jews not practicing food laws or worshiping on a day other than Sabbath.

The important thing to remember when discuss the Diaspora is that it was not as much geographical as cultural. Paul might encounter strongly traditional Jews in Ephesus or Rome, and relatively “liberal” Jews in Jerusalem. In fact, I suggest that the Jews who ran the Temple in the first century were far less traditional than the Jews who worshiped in the Greek-speaking synagogues in and around Jerusalem. The fact that the first violent persecution of the followers of Jesus came out of the Greek-speaking synagogue (Acts 7) is an indication that at least those Diaspora Jews were “conservative” with respect to the Temple.

So back to James. I think that he is certainly writing to Jews who are Christians, but they are people who may very well represent the more conservative form of Judaism before accepting Jesus as Lord. If this is true, it may explain James’ insistence on good works, for example, as a sign of true faith.

If this is the case, how should the “Jewishness” of the letter change the way we read James?

Is it Really Impossible? – Hebrews 6

Hebrews 6:4-6 says that it is impossible for those who have “once been enlightened” to be restored to repentance if they should fall away. The key to understanding this verse is the word “fall away.” The verb παραπίπτω refers to someone who has not followed through on a commitment. It only appears here in the New Testament and is rare in the LXX, occurring 5 times in Ezekiel where it refers to the apostasy of Judah that led to the exile. This verb is cognate to παράπτωμα, the noun Paul uses to describe Adam’s sin in Romans 5:15. There writer does not have in mind some small offense against God, but rather a conscious defection from the truth.

Like the verbs used to describe salvation, this verb points to a decisive moment when an individual, having experienced “such a great salvation as this” stopped “being enlightened.”  The person in view has moved from the light back into the darkness, intentionally. Louw and Nida 34.26 gloss the verb as “to abandon a former relationship or association, or to dissociate (a type of reversal of beginning to associate).”  The word appears to focus on the initial disassociation, a reversal of the process of joining a group.

Reject ChristFor example: there have been several congressmen who have “switched parties” in the last few years.  Arlen Specter for example switched parties in 1965, from the Democratic party to the Republican party, and in then in 2009 switched back. In fact, since 1890 there have been 21 senators who switched parties (according to the US Senate website). What do you suppose the chances of someone that switched parties and backed the opponent’s candidacy being accepted unconditionally back into the old party?  Likely it is impossible that someone who has once been an enlightened member of “our party” and has gone over to the “enemy” should return to their original party.  Whatever the motive, their life as a Democrat or Republican is over; they will never completely win the trust of their party back.

The actions of the person in view in Hebrews 6 are more than simply quitting a church or shifting to another (more liberal) denomination. In fact, in the context of the first century Roman world, it is more than ceasing to believe in God or the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is a conscious decision to turn ones back on God at a time of persecution. They are “switching sides” in order to avoid persecution as Christians.  Given the context of Rome in the first century, the possibility of persecution makes this sort of reversal much easier to understand.  This is not someone that is upset at God for their own miserable life, but a person that is standing before a man that can take his life and recanting, even perhaps causing the death of other believers by his reversal.

The death of Jesus is set before us as a pattern: he is not asking us to do anything he did not. The writer of Hebrews is clear that Jesus died on a cross for the sins of the world.  For a person to participate in the blessings of God and recant under the pain of death is to not live up to the calling of Christ.

If this is the case, the writer is offering a strong encouragement to “suffer well” when persecution comes. This is immediately applicable in many parts of the world today, but perhaps not in the West – how should western readers of Hebrews use this text?

Hebrews 6 and Eternal Security

Hebrews 6:4-12 is one of the difficult in the Bible because it deals with a very sensitive problem: If someone recants their faith and completely turns their back on God, can they still be “saved”?  It does not take very long to find a website attributing the doctrine of Eternal Security (Perseverance of the Saints) to be a doctrine hatched in the pit of Hell, or another website declaring that Eternal Security is the central theme of God’s gospel of Grace.

CalvinPart of the emotionalism of this issue is that everybody knows someone who attended church, was involved in the ministry of the church, gave of their money and time, and may have even publicly claimed to be a believer.  But now, for whatever reason, they have walked as far from God as they can get, denying that they were even saved.  Some pastors have been caught in sin and now have left the ministry, perhaps even denying God What about them?  Were they “saved”? Are they now “saved” even if they are in a state of denial?

Presuppositions about theology often drive interpretations about this passage. Once we start talking about heavy doctrines like election, predestination, and preservation of the saints people tend to get antsy. To make a very long theological story short, Arminians tend to believe that a person can lose their salvation if they do not “persevere until the end” while the Calvinists tend to believe that a person who is truly saved will always be saved, regardless of any post-conversion behavior.  There is a lot behind those two historic positions, in fact, they are logical conclusions drawn from some presuppositions in their respective views of salvation.

ArminianA real problem for reading this text is that our personal experience clouds our thinking.  We all know someone that seemed saved, but they now appear to have walked away from their faith.  Alternatively, we all know at least one prodigal son who has returned to the father and repented of their time during which they appear to have rejected the faith.  These stories are rather emotional since these are real people whom we love.

While both sides of this “once saved always saved” discussion must deal with this passage, that is not exactly what the author of Hebrews has in mind.  He does not address church discipline or post-reformation theology.  In fact, he is neither Calvinist nor Arminian, nor is he a holiness preacher or a post-Enlightenment liberal. To a large extent our post-Reformation questions might obscure what the writer of Hebrews was trying to communicate to his original readers.

The writer of Hebrews is a Jewish Christian addressing other Jewish Christians who are about to endure a time of terrible persecution.  Does the writer of Hebrews consider it possible that his readers could deny their faith publicly, declare that they are faithful Jews, and still consider themselves Christians in secret?

Is it possible to check our Reformation Theology at the door before reading Hebrews? Or is that something we should even attempt?

N. T. Wright – Paul: A Fresh Perspective, More on Election

In the last post I was more concerned with the validity of Wright’s view of Election in the Hebrew Bible.  It is in fact true that Israel believed themselves to be the chosen people, and all the literature of this period struggles to explain why the chosen people are not being blessed as they might expect.  These attempts to define election range from a denial of Israel’s special place (Sirach, perhaps) to a radical condemnation of the status quo in Israel as corrupt and about to be judged by God (Qumran).

Wright places Paul into this discussion of what it means to be the chosen people of God.  Paul redefines the people of God which leads to a redefinition of election. Wright is clear that this is a redefinition, not a repudiation of the definition of election as found in the Hebrew Bible.  Paul remains within Judaism (128).  What is remarkable to me is that Wright states that Paul would have been appalled with scholars who see him as breaking away from Judaism and starting a new religion.  (Recall our discussion earlier about whether Paul was converted or not?)  He specifically denies “supersessionism,” the belief that Christianity has replaced Judaism completely and that the “people of God” are no longer Jewish.  He is thinking specifically here of the fact that Paul describes the church as the true descendants of Abraham in the faith and his discussion centers on Moses and the Law.  I think this opens up some eschatological questions, but he waits on those until the next chapter.

So far so good.  I think Wright is correct in his observations about first century Jewish thinking on their election, and I think that he is correct that Paul re-defines many Jewish ideas and practices for the Church in the light of the death and resurrection of Jesus.  I especially like his discussion Paul re-orienting the people of God around the idea of grace.

What could be potentially troublesome is Wright’s discussion of Gal 2:11-21, a critical text for the New Perspective on Paul, and a text that is at the heart of Pauline theology since it touches on justification and law in the context of practice – how do we behave since se have the belief that Jesus is the messiah?  Wright correctly comments that the discussion in Gal 2 concerns “what does it mean to be a Jew,” then deals extremely briefly with the “faith of Christ.”  This is a huge exegetical issue, but the gist of the problem concerns who “does” this faith, Jesus or us?  Is this the faith which Jesus demonstrated (the “faithfulness of the messiah”) or is this faith which we have “in the messiah?”  Wright says this verse ought to be understood as referring to the messiah’s faithfulness rather than our faith in Jesus which makes us saved?  Most modern translations add “in” to the line to indicate that Jesus is the object of our faith (the KJV does not, but that is simply because it is brutally literal and not aware of this modern exegetical issue.)  Does this phrase mean that the Messiah was faithful and therefore we are justified, or that we are justified because of what Jesus has already done on the cross?  Wright states that Gal 2:15 is not a statement about how one becomes a Christian (112).  This is highly controversial, but this does not mean that Wright denies justification by faith categorically, it only this text in Galatians which is under discussion.

If Wright reads Galatians correctly (and his other comments applying this understanding to Romans are correct), then there are some problems for the standard reformation view of justification – but I am not convinced they are as foundation-shattering as the more dramatic articles and books have claimed.

N. T. Wright – Paul: A Fresh Perspective (6)

Yet out of the whole human race He chose as of special merit and judged worthy of pre-eminence over all, those who are in a true sense men, and called them to the service of Himself, the perennial fountain of things excellent.  (Phil, Spec. Laws 1.303)

I will give my light to the world and illume their dwelling places and establish my covenant with the sons of men and glorify my people above all the nations (Pseudo-Philo, Bibl. Antiq. 11.1f).

The two quotes at the head of this blog are typical of statements in the Second Temple period concerning the election of the Jewish people.  As Wright correctly observes, the idea of Israel’s election is “everywhere apparent in the Old Testament” (109), and I would add, almost every present in the literature of the  Second Temple period.  Israel was specially called by God out of all of the nations of the world.  They are given the privilege of receiving God’s Law and the responsibility of being God’s light to the entire world.  It is little wonder many other nations thought Israel was exclusivist.  They were, to some extent, separate from the nations because they alone were the elect of God.  Monotheism alone requires exclusivism.  But his exclusivism was not snobbery (or at least ought not be snobbery).  Election ought to have been a solemn honor which produces humility rather than

Wright is developing ideas which first found expression in W. D. Davis Sanders (Paul and Rabbinic Judaism) and E. P. Sanders (Paul and Palestinian Judaism).  Sanders’ work was so influential that the position he created quickly became known as the “new perspective” on Paul.  Sanders’ major point is that scholarship has misunderstood the Judaism of the first century.  It was not a “works for salvation” religion as is often stated, but rather the works of the law are a proper response to God’s election to salvation.  Like Wright, Sanders is adamant that the proto-Pelagianism that is often associated with the Pharisees of the first century is a mis-reading of the data because of the imposed Lutheran / Augustinian “justification by faith” grid.  By actually reading the data from the first century, one finds that there were no Jews who thought the earned their salvation by keeping the Torah.

The important elements of first century Judaism were what “got you in” and what “kept you in” (this catch-phrase has almost become a mantra in Pauline studies.)  For Sanders, Jews believed that election of God “got them into” the covenant (i.e. salvation) and that good works were required to keep you in the covenant – but they were not saved by works of the law at all.   For this reason Sanders describes the Jews of the first century as believing in “covenantal nomism.” Both the election of God into the Covenant and the keeping of the  Law are important. Paul the Jewish rabbi found salvation outside of Judaism, and because of this he was forced to re-think his religion.

Why is this re-thinking of election so controversial?  For many post-reformation theological systems, “salvation by faith” in Pauline theology requires that the Jew, the Pharisee, is the mirror opposite of Paul, and therefore a “salvation by works” theology.  Paul’s argument only works if the Jews are trying to earn their salvation like Pelagius or the medieval church attacked by Luther.  Sanders (and Dunn, Wright and others) challenge that assumption and shake the foundations of justification by faith.  If this “new perspective” is correct, does that necessarily that the classic reformation faith is based upon a fiction?  Possibly, but it may not be as bad as some of Wright’s detractors make it out to be.