Lenten Reading Challenge: Hebrews 1-7
• When and Where
I’m going to deal with dating and why Borg places Hebrews here tomorrow. Today I want to root us in the worldview of the author, as it helps us hear the depth, power and beauty of the faith claims and encouragement found in this text.
In the Hellenistic / Platonic philosophy of the time, the material world is characterized by movement, change and corruption. Therefore, it offers only partial knowledge and a mere reflection of reality. What is “real” in this understanding is the changeless and incorruptible world of “forms” or “ideas.” What is ultimately real is not currently fully seen. In short, about 180 degrees different from our world focused on measuring and matter. Thus passages like the claim that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” are proclaiming his divinity and perfection, even as his humanity is celebrated.
While it reflects a Greek Platonic worldview, Hebrews is deeply rooted in the stories of what we call the Old Testament. Today’s reading talks powerfully of hope, faith and conviction and then gives a litany of heroes of faith dating back to Abraham, and further to the creation itself.
• Key Insights
This is an exceptionally rich and beautiful text. The longest sustained argument in the NT, its central metaphor is Jesus as the “great high priest” who offers himself as a “once for all” sacrifice. It emphasizes both Jesus’ humanity (suffering and learning obedience) and divinity (present at creation).
Jesus as Great High Priest is announced in 2:17 and 3:1, then become the focus in chapters 4 through 10. In Temple Judaism, the temple in Jerusalem was the dwelling place of God on earth. It was only there that sacrifices could be offered appropriately. Note that not all sacrifices in ancient Judaism had to do with forgiveness of sin. Some were about hosting God and sharing table fellowship, some were for thanksgiving, petition and purification. Sacrifices that did involve sin were primarily about reconciliation and making peace, not about substitutionary punishment. Within this system, the High Priest represented (and re-presented) God to the people and the people to God. Only he could enter the “Holy of Holies” – the innermost chamber of the temple, and then only on the Day of Atonement (once a year!)
Melchizedek is a rather mysterious figure mentioned in Genesis 14. He is the “King of Salem” and gives Abraham food and a (priestly) blessing in the name of “God Most High, creator of heaven and earth” and Abraham responds by giving Melchizedek “a tenth of everything.” Melchizedek is mentioned again in Psalm 110, which is in turn quoted by Mark, Matthew and Luke. The ideal ruler of Israel is one who would combine the Priestly and Kingly roles, as Melchizedek did. The ancient story is used to make a Christological claim.
• Big Picture
The text of Hebrews is clearly not literal. The author knows Jesus was not a Levite (the tribe from which High Priest were chosen) and did not actually serve as High Priest. Rather it is a faith claim. A metaphor making use of that well-known and important role to make a greater claim about who Jesus, the risen Christ, is.
The author of Hebrews powerfully conveys that Jesus understands us as we really are.
Without diminishing his supremacy, Jesus became like us that we might become like him,
Notice the frequent exhortation and encouragement to spiritual growth and depth.
Blessings on your reading!