The epistle to the hebrews


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Two Epistles, as has been already noticed, were circulated in the third century under the name of Barnabas. Both were for some time on the verge of the Canon of the N. T., and at last, a century later, one was by common consent included in it and the other excluded. Both deal with a question which was of momentous importance at the close of the apostolic age, and the manner in which they respectively deal with it illuminates the idea of inspiration, and reveals a little of the divine action in the life of the Church.

The question arose of necessity from the progress of the Faith. As the Gentile churches grew in importance, Christians could not but ask how they were to regard the Scriptures and the institutions of Judaism?

The destruction of Jerusalem forced this inquiry upon believers with a fresh power. There was an apparent chasm opened in the line of divine revelation. All that had been held sacred for centuries was swept away, and yet the books of the Old Testament, which appeared to find an outward embodiment in the Jewish services, were still the authoritative Bible of Christians.

Could the Old Testament be thus kept? And if so, how were Christians to explain the contradiction between the hallowing of the writings, and the apparent neglect of their contents? The ordinances of the Law had not been formally abrogated: what then were the limits of their obligation? In what sense could writings, in which the ordinances were laid down, still be regarded as inspired by the Spirit of God, if the ordinances themselves were set aside?

A little reflection will shew that the difficulties, involved in these questions which the early Christians had to face, were very real and very urgent. The pregnant thoughts of the Epistle to the Hebrews—all that is contained in the words polumerw'" kai; polutrovpw" pavlai oJ qeo;" lalhvsa" toi'" patravsin ejn toi'" profhvtai"—have indeed passed so completely into our estimate of the method of the divine education of ‘the nations’ and of ‘the people,’ that some effort is required now in order that we may feel the elements of the problem with which they deal. But we can realise the situation by removing this book from the New Testament, and substituting in imagination the Epistle of Barnabas for it.

Two opposite solutions of the difficulties obtained partial currency. It was said on the one side that the Old Testament must be surrendered: that Judaism and Christianity were essentially antagonistic: that Christ really came to abolish the work of an opposing power: that the separation of the Gospel from the Law and the Prophets must be final and complete. This view, represented in its most formidable shape by Marcion, was opposed to the whole spirit of the apostolic teaching and to the instinct of the Christian Society. It isolated Christianity from the fulness of human life, and it is needless to dwell upon it.

On the other side it was said, as in the Epistle of Barnabas, that God had spoken only one message and made one Covenant, and that message, that Covenant, was the Gospel; but that the message had been misunderstood from the first by the Jews to whom it was addressed, and that the Covenant in consequence had not been carried into effect till Christ came (Barn. 4:6).

This view is not in its essence less unhistorical than the other, or less fatal to a right apprehension of the conditions and course of the divine revelation. But it had a certain attractiveness from the symbolic interpretation of Scripture which it involved, and it seemed to guard in some sense the continuity of God's dealing with men. So it was that, if the Epistle to the Hebrews had not already provided help before the crisis of the trial came, and silently directed the current of Christian thought into the true channel, it would be hard to say how great the peril and loss would have been for later time.

For the Epistle to the Hebrews and the Epistle of Barnabas present a complete and instructive contrast in their treatment of the Old Testament Scriptures and of the Mosaic institutions. Both agree in regarding these as ordained by God, and instinct with spiritual truth, but their agreement extends no farther either in principles or in method.

(a) Barnabas sets forth what he holds to be the spiritual meaning of the Old Testament without principle or self-restraint. He is satisfied if he can give an edifying meaning to the letter in any way. He offers his explanations to all; and in the main deals with trivial details (e.g., ch. 9, the explanation of IHT).

The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews on the other hand exercises a careful reserve. He recognises a due relation between the scholar and his lesson; and the examples by which he illustrates his leading thoughts are all of representative force: the idea of rest (the Sabbath-rest, the rest of Canaan, the rest of Christ): the idea of priesthood (the priest of men, the priest of the chosen people): the idea of access to God (the High-priest in the Holy of holies, Christ seated on the right-hand of God).

The one example which the two Epistles have in common, the rest of God after creation, offers a characteristic contrast. In the Epistle to the Hebrews it suggests the thought of the spiritual destiny of man: in Barnabas it supplies a chronological measure of the duration of the world (Heb. 4; Barn. xv.).

(b) Barnabas again treats the Mosaic legislation as having only a symbolic meaning. It had no historical, no disciplinary value whatever. The outward embodiment of the enigmatic ordinances was a pernicious delusion. As a mere fleshly observance circumcision was the work of an evil power (Barn. 9.4) But the evil power apparently gave a wrong interpretation to the command on which it was based and did not originate the command (comp. Just. M. Dial. 16).

In the Epistle to the Hebrews on the other hand the Mosaic system is treated as a salutary discipline, suited for the training of those to whom it was given, fashioned after a heavenly pattern (Heb. 7:5; 10:1), preparatory and not final, and yet possessing throughout an educational value. The Levitical sacrifices, for example, were fitted to keep alive in the Jews a sense of sin and to lead thought forward to some true deliverance from its power. The priesthood, again, and high-priesthood suggested thoughts which they did not satisfy, and exactly in proportion as they were felt to be divine institutions, they sustained the hope of some complete satisfaction. The purpose of God is indeed fulfilled from the first, though to us the fulfilment is shewn in fragments. Hence the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews goes beyond the Law, and in the gentile Melchizedek finds the fullest type of the King-priest to come.

(c) There is another point of resemblance and contrast between the Epistle of Barnabas and the Epistle to the Hebrews which specially deserves to be noticed. Barnabas (c. xvi.) dwells on the perils and the failures of the external Law fashioned under the later Temple into a shape which affected permanence. In this he marks a real declension in the development of Judaism. The Temple, like the Kingdom, was a falling away from the divine ideal. The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews recognises the same fact, but he places the original divine order apart from the results of man's weakness. He goes back to the Tabernacle for all his illustrations, in which the transitoriness of the whole system was clearly signified.

In a word, in the Epistle of Barnabas there is no sense of the continuity of the divine discipline of men, of an education of the world corresponding to the growth of humanity: no recognition of the importance of outward circumstances, of rules and observances, as factors in religious life: no acknowledgment of a relation of proportion between spiritual lessons and a people's capacity. It is an illustration of the same fundamental fault that we find in the Epistle not only a complete rejection of the letter of the Levitical system, but also an imperfect and inadequate view of Christian institutions.

On the other hand we have in Heb. 1:1-4 a view of the unfolding and infolding of the divine counsel in creation of infinite fulness. The end is there seen to be the true consummation of the beginning. We discern that one message is conveyed by the different modes of God's communication to His people: that one Voice speaks through many envoys: that at last the spoken word is gathered up and fulfilled in the present Son.

We have not yet mastered all the teaching of the pregnant words; yet even now we can perceive how the thoughts which they convey characterise the whole Epistle: how they arose naturally out of the circumstances of the early Church; and, by comparison with the Epistle of Barnabas, how far they transcended the common judgment of the time. Under this aspect the Epistle to the Hebrews, by its composition and its history, throws light upon the ideas of Inspiration and a Canon of Scripture. On the one side we see how the Spirit of God uses special powers, tendencies and conditions, things personal and things social, for the expression of a particular aspect of the Truth; and on the other side we see how the enlightened consciousness of the Church was in due time led to recognise that teaching as authoritative which was at first least in harmony with prevailing forms of thought.

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