The epistle to the hebrews

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The Epistle to the Hebrews is one of three Books in the N. T. specially addressed to those who were Jews by descent, the other two being the Gospel according to St Matthew and the Epistle of St James (James 1:1 tai'" dwvdeka fulai'"). To these however 1 Peter, probably addressed to those who had passed through Judaism to Christianity, may be added (1 Pet. 1:1 ejklektoi'" parepidhvmoi" diaspora'" Povntou...).

Each of these books is marked by a characteristic view of the Faith. St Matthew, according to general consent, gives the lineaments of the Davidic King. In St James we have the power of ‘a perfect law’ (James 1:25; 2:8): in St Peter the accomplishment of prophecy (1 Peter 1:10-12): in the Epistle to the Hebrews the efficacy of an eternal priesthood (Heb. 7:23 ff.).

This general connexion indicates the true position of the Epistle, which is that of a final development of the teaching of ‘the three,’ and not of a special application of the teaching of St Paul. It is, so to speak, most truly intelligible as the last voice of the apostles of the circumcision and not as a peculiar utterance of the apostle of the Gentiles (Gal. 2:9 f.). The apostles of the circumcision regarded Judaism naturally with sympathy and even with affection, for it was that through which they had been led little by little to see the meaning of the Gospel. The Apostle of the Gentiles, with all his love for his countrymen and all his reverence for the work wrought through the old Covenant, no less naturally regarded Judaism, as it was, as a system which had made him a persecutor of the Faith. For St Paul the Law is a code of moral ordinances: for the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews it is a scheme of typical provisions for atonement. For the one it is a crushing burden: for the other it is a welcome if imperfect source of consolation. And it is in virtue of this general interpretation of the spirit of the Levitical system that the unknown apostle to whom we owe the Epistle to the Hebrews was fitted to fulfil for the Church the part which was providentially committed to him.

We must indeed regard the Law under these two distinct aspects, in order that we may fully appreciate its character and its office. We must, that is, regard it on the one side as a body of commandments imposed upon man's obedience; and we must regard it on the other side as a system of ritual provided by God's mercy. The one view is, as has been remarked, characteristic of St Paul, and the other of the author of the Epistle. Each when carefully studied reveals the failure of the Law to satisfy man's needs, and so shews its necessary transitoriness. As a legal code it tended to bondage, and was incapable of fulfilment, and so brought a deep knowledge of sin (Rom. 3:20 ejpivgnwsi" aJmartiva"). As an institution for the removal of sin, it was designed only to deal with ceremonial defilement, and was therefore essentially insufficient (Heb. 10:3 f.). Thus the Epistle to the Hebrews completes the teaching of St Paul on the imperfection of the Law. St Paul from the subjective side shews that the individual can be brought near to God only by personal faith and not by any outward works: the author of the Epistle from the objective side shews that purification cannot be gained by any sacrifices ‘of bulls and goats’ but only through the offering of the Blood of Christ.

The difference between St Paul and the writer of the Epistle in their view of the Law may be presented in another light. St Paul regards the Law mainly in relation to the requirements of man's discipline: his fellow-apostle in relation to the fulfilment of God's counsel. For St Paul the Law was an episode, intercalated, as it were, in the course of revelation (Rom. 5:20 pareish'lqen): for the writer of the Epistle it was a shadow of the realities to which the promise pointed. It is closely connected with this fundamental distinctness of the point of vision of the two teachers that St Paul dwells with dominant interest on the individual aspect of the Gospel, the writer of the Epistle on its social aspect: for the one the supreme contrast is between flesh and spirit, for the other between the image and the reality, the imperfect and the perfect: for the one Christ is the direct object of personal faith, for the other the fulfiller of the destiny of man.

But this difference, however real and intelligible, does not issue in any opposition between the two writers. Both views are completely satisfied by the Incarnation; and each writer recognises the truth which the other develops. In the Epistle to the Ephesians St Paul gives the widest possible expression to the social lessons of the Faith; and the writer to the Hebrews emphasises with the most touching solemnity the significance of personal responsibility (e.g., Heb. 6). At the same time the writer to the Hebrews suggests the unity, the harmonious unfolding, of the divine plan, in a way which is foreign to the mode of thought of him who was suddenly changed from a persecutor to an apostle. His eyes rest on one heavenly archetype made known to men as they could bear the sight in various degrees. He presupposes a divine ideal of the phenomenal world and of outward worship. This, he argues, was shadowed forth in the Mosaic system; and found its perfect embodiment under the conditions of earth in the Christian Church. He looks therefore with deep sympathy upon the devotion with which the Hebrews had regarded the provisions made by the Law for dealing with the power and guilt of sin. He enters into their feelings, and points out how Christ satisfied them by His Person and His work.

It is not difficult to see how the circumstances in which the ‘Hebrews’ were placed gave a peculiar importance to the thought of priestly atonement with which they had been familiar. The Hebrews were necessarily distressed by two main trials. They had met with a double disappointment. They were disappointed at the nature of Christianity. They were disappointed specially as to the attitude of Israel towards it.

1. The early expectations of a triumphant Return of Christ had not been fulfilled. His sufferings were not (as some at least had hoped) a mere transient phase of His work, quickly forgotten in the glory which followed. The difficulties therefore which the apostles met at the first preaching recorded in the Acts had to be met in a new form. The apostles had shewn that the Death of Christ was no obstacle to His Messiahship in view of His Resurrection and implied Return (Acts 2, 3, 5). It had to be shewn now that suffering was essential to His work. A suffering Messiah had to be accepted in His earthly reproach (Heb. 13:13; comp. 1 Cor. 1:23), while the prospect of visible triumph was withdrawn from view.

2. This was one trial. There was another also not less grievous. It became more and more clear that the Jews as a people would not receive Jesus as the Christ. Their national unbelief, apart from all direct persecution, brought with it a growing alienation of the Synagogue from the Church. It was more and more difficult to hold to both. The right of participation in the ministrations of the Temple was in process of time necessarily withdrawn from Christians if they held their faith, and they were forced to look elsewhere for that which might supply their place.

These trials from the point of sight of a Jewish Christian were most real. He could not but ask, Was there to be no Kingdom for Israel? Had God cast away His people? Were Christians to be deprived of the manifold consolations of sacrificial worship and priestly atonement? And we must at least in some degree understand their bearing before we can enter into the spirit of the Epistle.

To this end it is necessary to realise distinctly the sharp contrast between the early popular expectations of what Christianity should be, especially among Jewish converts, and what it proved to be. And it is necessary also to realise the incompleteness with which the significance of the Lord's sufferings was at first apprehended. When these points are placed in proper relief then the importance and the power of the argument in the Epistle to the Hebrews become evident. For the writer shews that the difficulty which arises from the sufferings of the Son of man (Jesus) includes the answer to the difficulty which was felt in exclusion from the Temple. The humiliation of Christ a little below the angels, over whom in essence He is supreme, gives efficacy to His continuous intercession based upon the atonement, and is for men a pledge of His unfailing sympathy. Faith in Him therefore made the outward consolations of the Temple wholly superfluous. At the same time this apprehension of Christ's redemptive and priestly work made it evident that those who clung to an external system, such as that of the Law, could not truly embrace the Gospel. The Judaism which was not in due time taken up and transfigured by the Gospel of necessity became antagonistic to it. He who remained a Jew outwardly could not but miss in the end the message of Christ, just as the Christian, who understands his position, is essentially independent of every support of the old Covenant.

By emphasising these thoughts the writer of the Epistle shews the essential transitoriness of the Law. But he recognises no less clearly its positive teachings. This also belonged to his office. For Judaism

proclaimed most impressively three fundamental facts with which it dealt provisionally; and a sympathetic intelligence of that to which it witnessed and of that which it offered leads to the true understanding of Christianity as the divine accomplishment of the education of the world.

Judaism affirmed that the destiny of humanity is the attainment of likeness to God, an end to be reached under the actual conditions of life only through restrictions and painful effort. The holiness of God, to which man has to be conformed, is on the one side love and on the other side righteousness.

Judaism again affirmed that man as he is cannot at his own pleasure or in his own right draw near to God. The ceremonial law in all its parts deepened the consciousness of sin.

And yet again Judaism affirmed that it was the good pleasure of God to enter into Covenant with man, of which external institutions were the abiding sign and seal, a testimony at once and a promise.

The writer of the Epistle shews from the position of the believing Jew how the revelation of the Son of God deals with these facts finally. ‘Jesus, the Son of God’ (Heb. 4:14; comp. Acts 9:20), fulfilled the destiny of man, Himself true man, by bringing humanity to the throne of heaven. He fulfilled this destiny through suffering and death, bearing Himself the last consequences of sin and overcoming death through death. And yet more, He communicates through all time the virtue of His life to those who come to God through and in Him.

Under this aspect the significant emphasis which the writer lays upon the prae-Judaic form of Revelation becomes fully intelligible. The Gospel, as he presents it, is the fulfilment of the purpose of creation and not only of the Mosaic system. Melchizedek is a more prominent figure in his treatment of the O. T. than Abraham. Thus the work of Judaism is made to appear as a stage in the advance towards a wider work which could not be achieved without a preparatory discipline. So regarded the provisions of the Law can be seen in their full meaning, and by the help of their typical teaching a suffering Messiah can be acknowledged in His Majesty by the true Jew.

The God of Abraham and the God of Moses is, in other words, ‘a living God.’ His revelation of Himself answers to the progress of life (Heb. 3:12). His worship is realised in a personal revelation (9:14). His action corresponds with an individual judgment (10:31). His reward lies in the manifestation of His Presence (12:22 ff.).

We can now see more clearly than before how the general aim of the writer to present Christianity as the absolute revelation of God, the absolute satisfaction of man's needs, was furthered by his desire to deal with the peculiar trials of the Hebrews who felt keenly not only the shame and sufferings of the Messiah, but their own shame and sufferings from national hostility. These trials in fact served as an occasion for developing the new thoughts which the Book adds to the apostolic presentation of the Truth. They placed in a clear light the need which men have for a continuous assurance of present help in the actual difficulties of life. And so the opportunity was given in the order of Providence for developing the truth of Christ's High-priestly work, towards which the aboriginal religion, represented by Melchizedek, and the Mosaic system, had both pointed. For while the writer labours to establish the absolute Majesty of the new dispensation in comparison with the old, he does so especially by connecting its power with the self-sacrifice of Christ. That which seemed to be the weakness of the Gospel is revealed upon a closer vision to be its strength. In proportion as men can feel what Christ is (such is the writer's argument) they can feel also how His death and His advocacy more than supply the place of all sacrifices and priestly intercessions, how they lay open the victory of humanity in the Son of man over sin and death. In other words, under this light the Death of Christ becomes intelligible in itself without regard to the thought of a Return. The sense of His present priestly action gains a new force. The paradox of a suffering Messiah is disclosed in its own glory.

Through such a view of Christ's work, illuminated in the fuller view of His Person, the Hebrew believer, in short, found his disappointments unexpectedly transformed. He recognised the majesty of Christ's spiritual triumph. He perceived the divine significance of Christ's sufferings, and through that he perceived also the interpretation of the sufferings of men. Thus the immediate purpose of the writer was fulfilled; and that which was an answer to the difficulties of the Hebrew Christian has been made the endowment of the whole Church. For in this Epistle we have what is found in no other Book of the N. T., that which may be called a philosophy of religion, of worship, of priesthood, centred in the Person of Christ. The form of the doctrine is determined by the O. T. foundations, but the doctrine itself is essentially new. In the light of the Gospel the whole teaching of the O. T. is seen to be a prophecy, unquestionable in the breadth and fulness of its scope.

But while the thoughts of the absolute value of Christ's sufferings and of the application of their virtue to men are brought out with prevailing force, it is not argued that all difficulty is removed from the present prospect of Christianity. There are still, the writer implies, difficulties in the state of things which we see. We cannot escape from them. But enough can be discerned to enable men to wait patiently for the appointed end. There is a triumph to come; and, in looking forward to this, Christians occupy the position which the Saints have always occupied, the position of faith, of faith under trials. The heroic records of ch. 11 lead up to the practical charge of Heb. 12:1 ff.

Meanwhile the writer calls upon his readers to make their choice boldly. Judaism was becoming, if it had not already become, anti-Christian. It must be given up (13:13). It was ‘near vanishing away’ (8:13). It was no longer debated whether a Gentile Church could stand beside the Jewish Church, as in the first period of conflict in the apostolic age; or whether a Jewish Church should stand beside the Gentile Church, as in the next period. The Christian Church must be one and independent. And thus the Epistle is a monument of the last crisis of conflict out of which the Catholic Church rose.

This view is the more impressive from the prominence which is assigned in the Epistle to the Old Testament, both to the writings and to the institutions which it hallows. There is not the least tendency towards disparagement of the one or the other.

From first to last it is maintained that God spoke to the fathers in the prophets. The message through the Son takes up and crowns all that had gone before. In each respect the New is the consummation of the Old. It offers a more perfect and absolute Revelation, carrying with it a more perfect and absolute Mediation, and establishing a more perfect and absolute Covenant, embodying finally the connexion of God and man. There is nothing in the Old which is not taken up and transfigured in the New.

For it is assumed throughout the Epistle that all visible theocratic institutions answer to a divine antitype (archetype). They are (so to speak) a translation into a particular dialect of eternal truths: a representation under special conditions of an absolute ideal.

In some sense, which we can feel rather than define, the eternal is declared to lie beneath the temporal (12:27). In virtue of this truth the work of Christ and the hope of the Christian are both described under Jewish imagery, without the least admixture of the millenarian extravagances which gained currency in the second century. There is for the believer a priestly consecration (10:22 note), an altar (13:10 note), a sabbath-rest (4:9).

It follows therefore that in studying the Levitical ritual we must recognise that there is a true correspondence of the seen with the unseen, a correspondence which extends to the fulness of life, and not simply a correspondence of a world of ideas (kovsmo" nohtov"), as Philo supposed, to a world of phenomena.

The same principle holds still under the Christian dispensation. We see the reality but only in figures (e.g., Apoc. 21:16). Judaism was the shadow, and Christianity is the substance; yet both are regarded under the conditions of earth. But the figures have an abiding significance. There is a heavenly city in the spiritual world, an organised body of rational beings; ‘a congregation’ (ejkklhsiva) which answers to the full enjoyment of the privileges of social life: Heb. 11:10 (hJ tou;" qem. e[c. povli"); 11:16; 12:22 f. (comp. 8:11; 13:14; and Addit. Note on 11:10). There is also a heavenly sanctuary there, which was the pattern of the earthly, to confirm the eternal duty and joy of worship: 8:2, 5.

In this aspect the Epistle fulfils a universal work. It is addressed to Hebrews, and meets, as we have seen, their peculiar difficulties, but at the same time it deals with the largest views of the Faith. This it does not by digression or contrast. It discloses the catholicity of the Gospel by the simple interpretation of its scope. It does not insist on the fact as anything new or strange. It does not dwell on ‘the breaking down of the middle wall of partition’ (Eph. 2:14), or on ‘the mystery which in other ages was not made known...that the Gentiles are...fellow-partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus’ (Eph. 3:4 ff.; Rom. 16:25 f.). The equality of men as men in the sight of God is implied in the declaration which is made of the Person and the Work of Christ. Faith is the condition of a divine fellowship, and that is essentially universal. The truth that there is no difference between Jew and Gentile has passed beyond the stage of keen controversy. It is acknowledged in the conception which has been gained of the Incarnation.

Viewed in this light, the Epistle to the Hebrews forms a complement to the Gospel of St John. Both Books assume the universality of Christianity as the one religion of humanity, without special argument (comp. John 1:12). Both regard ‘the Jews’—the men who clung to that which was transitory as if it were absolute and eternal—as enemies of Christ. Both recognise completely the provisional office of the Old Dispensation (John 4:22 ff.). But they do this from different sides. The Epistle to the Hebrews enables us to see how Christianity is the absolute fulfilment of the idea of the positive institutions of the Law through which it was the good pleasure of God to discipline men, while the Fourth Gospel shews us in the Word become flesh the absolute fulfilment of the idea of creation which underlies the whole of the Old Testament.

It is also not without interest that the foundation of the characteristic teaching of the Epistle to the Hebrews on the High-priesthood of Christ is found in the Lord's words preserved by St John more distinctly than in the other Gospels, though the Evangelist himself does not develop the truth. Thus, in the discourse which defines the nature of the new Society in relation to its Head (John 10:1-21), the Lord reveals His victory through death: He shews Himself in a figure as Victim at once and Priest (vv. 17 f.). Elsewhere He proclaims that He will draw all men to Himself when He is lifted up from the earth (12:32 ejk th'" gh'"), that His removal from the limitations of our present bodily existence is the condition of His spiritual gift (16:7), that He hallows His people in Himself (ch. 17). Compare Matt. 20:28; Luke 22:37.

In these revelations we have the thoughts which are wrought into a concrete whole in the Epistle to the Hebrews under the imagery of the Levitical system. But it will be noticed that the teaching which St John has preserved offers the final form of the Truth. St John's theory (if we may so speak) of the work of Christ is less developed in detail than that which is found in the Epistles of St Paul and in the Epistle to the Hebrews; but his revelation of Christ's Person is more complete. He concentrates our attention, as it were, upon Him, Son of God and Son of man, and leaves us in the contemplation of facts which we can only understand in part.

One further observation must still be made. The style of the Book is characteristically Hellenistic, perhaps we may say, as far as our scanty evidence goes, Alexandrine; but the teaching itself is, like that of St John, characteristically Palestinian. This is shewn not only by the teaching on details, on the heavenly Jerusalem, and the heavenly Sanctuary, on Satan as the king of death, on angels, on the two ages (comp. Riehm, Lehrbegriff ss. 248, 652 ff.), but still more by its whole form. The writer holds firmly to the true historical sense of the ancient history and the ancient legislation. Jewish ordinances are not for him, as for Philo, symbols of transcendental ideas, but elements in a preparatory discipline for a divine manifestation upon earth. Christ is High-priest not as the eternal Word, but as the Incarnate Son who has lived and suffered and conquered as true man. At the same time the Apostle teaches us to recognise the divine method in the education of the world. He shews how God has used (and, as we are led to conclude, how He uses still) transitory institutions to awaken, to develop, to chasten, our thoughts of spiritual things. The Epistle is, to sum up all most briefly, the seal of the divine significance of all life. The interpretation, given in its salient points, of the record of the O. T., and of the training of Israel, is a prophetic light for the interpretation of the history of mankind.

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