untangling Hebrews

knots

I’ve heard Hebrews preached on more times than I can remember. I’ve been in countless Bible study groups that have wrestled with it.

And yet I’m not sure I’ve ever really ‘got’ it. You know? Figured out how it hangs together, why the argument takes the twists and turns that it does, what unites the exhortations and exposition.

But as I’ve been preparing for exams this past week, I feel like I’ve started to get somewhere. Let me share a couple of hunches I’ve got about Hebrews which might help untangle the knot:

To begin with, people often say that Hebrews aims to prevent its readers ‘going back to Judaism’.

However, it’s not at all obvious to me that such a sharp distinction between Christianity and Judaism could have been presupposed by the letter’s writer. A solid case can be made for seeing Hebrews as part of a process that resulted in the distinction.

I think this sheds light on how the Old Testament is handled in the letter. There’s something more complex is going on than either ‘Jesus has come, so forget all that junk’ or ‘Actually, the OT was all really about Jesus anyway — e.g., because He’s its deep, spiritual meaning’. It’s neither Marcionite not allegorical.

Along these lines it’s worth noting that while the letter is full of exposition about who Jesus is and what He has done, it doesn’t contain a ‘Christology’ in the narrow sense of an argument that Jesus is the promised Messiah. Rather, the fact that Jesus is the Messiah is assumed — sort of like the backbone of whatever else is said about Him.

So its argument kind of works like this:

WRITER: ‘Jesus is the great High Priest’.

READERS: ‘Really?’

WRITER: ‘Yeah. Because he’s the Messiah’.

Again, this is important in terms of its reading of the OT. While it won’t spiritualise Israel’s experience and say ‘They were actually all about Jesus’, what it will do is pick up the loose ends of the OT story and pulls! And, of course, foremost among these loose ends is the expectation of the Messiah…

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3 comments

  1. Chris

    I think reading it in the light of the events leading up to AD70 is a great help. That was the “Day” that was approaching, and the reason to press forward in faith.

    1. Thanks, Mike.

      I’m aware of the huge debate about just what situation the letter presupposes the readers were in — e.g., whether pre- or post-AD70. I read a great little article by Morna Hooker on this over the weekend (‘Hebrews and The “End” of the Cult”). But as far as I can see, the jury’s still out on that one!

  2. Chris

    Thanks – I’ll look it up. It does amaze me how so many commentators minimise the importance for the apostles of the end of Temple worship – especially concerning a book written to Jews.

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