Friday, January 8
Hebrews 7:1-10: One of the most obvious features of the Bible—and most noticeable to its new readers—is the presence of what are called the “begats.” We are told, for instance, that Adam begat Cain and Abel, that Joshua begat Eleazar, that Hezron begat Pheres, and so forth.
These “begats” are not just occasional parts of Holy Scripture. Not only are they sometimes lumped into lost lists, but they likewise appear to provide continuity to the Bible’s narrative structure.
Thus, the uninitiated reader, informed that the Holy Scriptures are very interesting and important, comes to Genesis 5, for instance, rather early in his pursuit of God’s Word. Here he finds his first list of begats. Unaware that this is only the first of many such parts, he plods on and manages to finish chapter 5. Interest in the story picks up for the next four chapters, which deal with Noah and the Flood, but then he arrives at Genesis 10, which is simply one, long, solid list of begats. It is arguable that many a newcomer to the Bible completely breaks down at this point, never getting past chapter 10.
It seems that many such readers, faced with this dilemma, decide to jump ahead to the New Testament, perhaps with the resolve to come back to the Old Testament at a later date. The person who takes this step, however, suddenly finds himself with the first chapter of Matthew, which commences with a list of 42 more begats. Many early efforts to read Holy Scripture simply die and are buried at that point, and the Bible is closed forever.
Fortunately, this pattern among new Bible-readers is not universal, and some brave souls do manage to survive the begats of Genesis 10. For such as these, it must come as something of a relief to arrive at Genesis 14 and discover a character who is not into a list of begats.
His name is Melchizedek, and he appears as though out of nowhere: “Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was the priest of God Most High” (Genesis 14:18). We are not told where Melchizedek came from, nor does he ever again appear in the biblical narrative; there is not a word about his death or his descendents. He shows himself just this brief moment, but in this brief moment he is described as greater than Abraham: “Now consider how great this man was, to whom even the patriarch Abraham gave a tenth of the spoils.” In the person of Abraham, even the Old Testament priesthood of Levi paid tithes to Melchizedek.
Thus, Melchizedek “without father, without mother, without begats, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but made like the Son of God, remains a priest continually.”
Melchizedek’s kingship and priesthood stand outside the begats. The very brevity of his appearance in the biblical story—which forms but an instant in the narrative, and not an element of sequence—becomes a symbol of eternity, inasmuch as eternity is an unending “now,” an instant without sequence. Our experience of eternity in this world is always an instant—a “now”—not a sequence. Thus, the “now-ness” of Melchizedek’s kingship and priesthood represents the eternal “today” of the sonship of Christ: “ You are My Son, / Today I have begotten You” (Psalm 2:7; Hebrews 5:5).
Saturday, January 9
Hebrews 7:11-28: Some eight centuries after Melchizedek, David became his successor on the throne of Jerusalem. David certainly did have begats, and much was written of his ancestry, as well as his death.
David knew, however, that an eternal promise was attached to the throne on which he sat. God had sworn with an oath that the royal house of David would last forever. The Lord had promised that, as long as the sun and moon endure, so would last the throne of David. In a way that David himself could not understand, David’s Son would be the Son of God: I will be to Him a Father,? and He shall be to Me a Son” (2 Samuel 7:14; Hebrews 1:5).
Thus, in the hymn used for the enthronement of the Davidic kings, reference was made to Melchizedek, that everlasting king who had neither beginning of days nor end of life: “The Lord has sworn / And will not repent, / “You are a priest forever / According to the order of Melchizedek” (Psalm 110 :4; Hebrews 5:6; 7:17,21).
In an argument with the scholars of Holy Scripture, Jesus cited this psalm to indicate the greater depth of its meaning: “Then Jesus answered and said, while He taught in the temple, ‘How is it that the scribes say that the Christ is the Son of David? For David himself said by the Holy Spirit: “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at My right hand, / Till I make Your enemies Your footstool.” Therefore David himself calls Him “Lord”; how is He then his Son?’” (Mark 12:35-37). This exegetical question, which was quite lost on those to whom Jesus addressed it, prompted Christians to examine that psalm in the full light of Christ’s full self-revelation. As they grasped the point of the question, this psalm became ever more important in the development of early Christology (cf. Mark 16:19; Acts 2:34-35; 1 Corinthians 15:25; Hebrews 1:3; 8:1; 10:12).
The Christian understanding of this psalm is of a piece with the Christian understanding of Genesis 13: As the Son of David, Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophecy conveyed in the historical appearance of Melchizedek. He is eternally the king and high priest, God’s very Son, seated at His right hand and living forever. He is the real Melchizedek, not a figure from the past but the everlasting Mediator between God and man.
Sunday, January 10
Hebrews 8:1-6: We are accustomed to thinking of the teaching of Jesus as all of one piece, so to speak. That is to say, we tend to read it as directly addressed to us in our own time and in our own circumstances. Obviously, it is appropriate to do this.
In fact, however, the teaching of Jesus was directed immediately to His contemporaries, who lived in circumstances quite different from our own. For this reason, Christians from the earliest times have sometimes felt obliged to make creative applications of the teachings of Jesus.
An easy example is the Lord’s command regarding sacrifices in the temple. He directed His contemporaries, “Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).
After A.D. 70, however, there was no longer a temple in which the offering could be made. Indeed, during the forty years prior to the temple’s destruction, the original context of this dominical injunction was quite alien to the actual circumstances of those thousands of Christians who lived nowhere near the temple or would ever set eyes on the temple.
For this reason, the Lord’s injunction about reconciliation and offerings was applied to a new context, as we see in the Didache, a Syrian document from probably the late first century. There we read: “But every Lord's day gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. But let no one who is at odds with his fellow come together with you, until they are reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be profaned” (Ch. 14). Indeed, to this very day, we still understand the Holy Eucharist as the appropriate context in which to apply Jesus’ teaching about fraternal reconciliation prior to the offering of sacrifice.
In taking this example, in which the temple is the original context of the Lord’s command, we touch on another theme of His teaching: the coming destruction of the temple. The gospels provide evidence that Jesus spoke on this subject. In fact, the point was raised at His trial before the Sa
nhedrin, albeit from false witnesses (cf. Matthew 26:60-61).
However the Lord’s prophecies about the destruction of the temple were understood prior to the year 70, the context for their understanding altered dramatically after the temple was actually destroyed in that year. We see this change in perspective in the gospels, where the Lord’s predictions of the destruction of the temple are set within His teaching about the Last Times and the end of the world.
During the first decade or so of the Church’s history, nonetheless, what the Lord had to say about the coming destruction of the temple was apparently a point of friction between Jesus’ disciples and the other Jews. We see this in the case of Stephen, about whom his accusers said, “This man does not cease to say things against this holy place and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs which Moses delivered to us” (Acts 6:13-14).
Stephen himself, far from denying the charge, gave it extra weight in the course of his examination, insisting that “the Most High does not dwell in temples made with hands” (7:48).
Rather early, that is to say, what Jesus had to say about the coming destruction of the temple prompted Christians to think more deeply about the transitory nature of any shrine or sanctuary that men might build. In their reflections on this point, they reviewed the biblical teaching that even the tabernacle constructed by Moses had been modeled on a heavenly type revealed to the prophet on Mount Sinai. That sanctuary on high—in the very heavens to which Jesus had ascended—was the authentic model.
These early theological reflections form much of the argument made in the Epistle to the Hebrews, as we see in the present text. Our author describes the Mosaic tabernacle as “the copy and shadow of the heavenly things, as Moses was divinely instructed.” This earthly copy he contrasts with “the sanctuary and . . . the true tabernacle which the Lord erected, and not man.”
The superiority of the Christian dispensation, for the author of Hebrews, has partly to do with its direct relationship to the worship offered directly before God’s heavenly throne. He speaks in this text of Jesus “seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens.”
That is to say, the actual substance of the Christian religion is already radically complete and accomplished. Even while its adherents are still on pilgrimage in this world, its defining element is already “perfect.” That is to say, what is most essential to the Christian religion is already accomplished: Jesus has already entered “heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us.”
Monday, January 11
Hebrews 8:7-13: This passage is almost entirely made up of a quotation from Jeremiah 31:31-34. Indeed, it is the longest Old Testament quotation found in the New Testament.
By using the expression “new covenant” at the Last Supper (1 Corinthians 11:25), Jesus implicitly invited Christians to consult Jeremiah’s description of it. In addition to this long quotation in Hebrews, the passage from Jeremiah was referenced by St. Paul, who wrote that God “made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:6). Paul seems to have had this Jeremian text in mind when he wrote: “You are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read by all men— clearly an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, of the heart” (2 Corinthians 3:2).
This text, often described as the best lines of Jeremiah, is also one of the most emphatic passages to come from his pen. It is emphatic in the sense of its repeated insistence that God is the one who speaks. Four times this text affirms, “says the Lord.”
The significance of this repetition become clear in a consideration of its context: the fall and destruction of Jerusalem. Jeremiah, like the others citizens of the Holy City, saw the obliteration of everything connected with it: the temple, the priesthood, the worship, and so forth. What was left? Nothing but the covenant of the heart. Jeremiah still knew God in the heart.
This heart-knowledge of God, Jeremiah believed, would become the substance of a new covenant with the people of God. The Torah would be written in the heart, not on tables of stone. God would be known immediately, not as the content of someone else’s teaching. God would act with the sovereignty of His grace: “I will make . . . I will put . . . I will write . . .I will be . . . I will forgive.”
This new covenant is contrasted with the old: “not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers.” This contrast appealed to the author of Hebrews, who often uses the vocabulary of contrast when he speaks of Christ’s relationship to the Old Testament. He stresses this contrast here: “In that He says, ‘A new covenant,’ He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.”
In context, this final comment apparently refers to the coming destruction of the temple by the Romans in the year 70. The prescribed worship in that temple was becoming obsolete and would soon be gone. Meanwhile, the God of the covenant had already fulfilled His promise to unite His people in a new covenant of the heart. This was the gift of the Holy Spirit, poured out on all believers, who knew the Lord in the forgiveness of their sins.
Tuesday, January 12
Hebrews 9:1–10: Of the appointments of the ancient Sanctuary, the author says, “we cannot now speak particularly.” In fact, however, I do want to speak about three of these things in particular.
First, let us speak about the sanctuary itself. A cultured people, a civilized people, builds its entire life around its sanctuary. This is as it should be, for the simple reason that human beings are made to worship. And those who do not worship are living lives seriously less than human.
Worship is not simply one of the things we do. It is the most important thing we do. It is the activity that best defines us. Indeed, according to Holy Scripture, if we are pleasing to God, then we will spend all eternity in worship.
On the other hand, those who are not pleasing to God need not worry about it. Those who do not like to worship need not concern themselves. No one can force them to worship, either in this life or the next. If they don’t want to worship, no one will compel them. They will never have to worship again.
Since all human beings are designed—constructed—in order to worship, God sent His only Son into the world to make true worship possible, and it is only in this Son that we are able to offer to God that true worship for which we were created.
The Old Testament sanctuary, about which we read today, was constructed on a heavenly model, and it is in that heavenly sanctuary that the Son enables us to worship. Indeed, we already have access to that heavenly sanctuary. This same author says to us: “ye have come unto Mount Zion and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn, who are written in Heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel.”
He does not say, “Ye will come.” He says, rather, “Ye have come.” In Jesus our Mediator we stand already among the innumerable company of angels. It is already a fact. Because of His eloquent blood, we take our place already among the spirits of just men made perfect. This is why we invoke the saints in our worship of God: we are already in their presence, standing before the same Throne at
which they worship.
The Church of Jesus Christ does not offer a “worship service” distinct from the eternal worship already in progress. Eternity is now. Heaven is here. We have already come to Mount Zion.
Second, let us speak of the Bread that is central to biblical worship. In today’s reading there are two types, or pre-figurations, of this Bread: “the showbread . . . and . . . the golden pot that had manna.” These two forms of bread in the Old Testament sanctuary, the miraculous manna and the bread of the Presence, foreshadow the living Bread which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.
In both the Old Testament and the New, some form of bread is central to the act of worship. Biblical worship is constructed around the Bread. Indeed, the central act of worship prescribed in the New Testament is called simply “the breaking of the Bread.” It did not have to be defined further. Everyone knew what was meant.
Without this Bread, there is no Church. It is this Bread that makes the Church: “The bread which we break: is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, being many, are one bread and one body, for we are all partakers of that one Bread.” The bread that Jesus gives, He tells us, is His flesh, given for the life of the world. In our worship the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, comes in power upon a loaf of bread—bread baked in an oven in a kitchen in a home in the local church—and the Holy Spirit transforms that bread into a type of the eternal manna, on which the servants of God will feed forever.
It is of this bread that Jesus said, “Your fathers ate manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the Bread which cometh down from Heaven, that a man may eat thereof and not die.” Our worship, then, is a foretaste of the mysterious bread which will sustain us for all eternity.
Third, there was a candlestick in the sanctuary. Why? Because the area would otherwise be dark. The worship of God is an exercise of light. Worship, according to the Bible, begins with light.
In our eternal worship, according to St. John, there will be no night. The difference between heaven and hell is a matter of light. Everlasting loss is described as darkness, but eternal life is described as light.
The lamp in the sanctuary has seven branches, which symbolizes the perfection of light. That is to say, it symbolizes the divine light, of which St. John said, “This then is the message which we have heard from Him and declare unto you: that God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all.”
We worship God in order to remain in the light and to drive all darkness from our minds and hearts. “If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth. But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth us from all sin.”
The light is also the first of God’s creatures, which is a good reason for worshipping on Sunday, the first day of creation. This is the day on which the Lord said, “Let there be light.” This original light was not only a fact; it was also a promise, because it pointed toward a greater Sunday and a more glorious light.
Wednesday, January 13
Hebrews 9:11-15: There is no proper understanding of this text without some appreciation of its Old Testament imagery, particularly the significance of the blood. There are three points to be made here:
First, let us speak of the blood and soul. In the year 65 the Emperor Nero ordered the philosopher Seneca to take his own life. (Non-philosophers have a disposition to treat philosophers this way; one recalls the execution of Socrates by suicide.)
Seneca, given some discretion in the matter, decided to do it in the easiest way possible. No painful hanging for him, no bullet to the brain, and certainly nothing exotic, like jumping from a bridge or flinging himself under a subway train. Nothing violent. As a philosopher, Seneca hated violence, and he wanted to make it as easy as possible.
As there was no need to rush, Seneca decided to enjoy the experience: a little quiet supper with some friends invited over for his leave-taking. Seneca simply had a vein opened in his arm, so that he could die as peacefully as possible. Without a lot of undo trouble and stress, it was just a matter of getting his flesh and his blood separated from one another. The separation of the blood from the body was the equivalent of the separation of the soul from the body.
Seneca would not have identified the soul with the blood. Indeed, he wrote a treatise On the Tranquility of the Soul, where he doesn’t say anything about blood. Yet, he knew that an infallible way of separating the soul from the body was to separate the blood from the body. There was no special theory involved, it was just a little practical application of hemadrometry.
Holy Scripture takes an even more explicit view of the matter: “the soul of the flesh is in the blood”—nephesh habbasar baddam (Leviticus 17:11). In the Bible, the blood was not just one of the “bodily fluids.” It was the medium of life.
The blood, consequently, was the inner being of a living animal. This is the reason why the Old Testament prohibits the consumption of blood.
As the body’s medium of life, the blood contained the inner being of the living animal, including man. To shed one’s blood was to give one’s life.
Second, let us speak of sin and sacrifice. Because the blood represented life at its deepest contact with God, all of the Old Testament sacrifices prescribed for sin were blood sacrifices. Other sorts of sacrifices were offered, but for the sin offering only blood would suffice. As Hebrews will say a little later on, “without the shedding of blood is no remission” (9:22).
The shedding of the blood of the sacrificial victim was the symbolic gift of self to God on the part of the sinner. He was reconciled to God—found atonement with God—through the symbolic shedding of the animal’s blood in place of his own. Whenever the relationship between God and man was disrupted by sin, it was required that that disruption be mended by the total gift of self, symbolized in the mactation of the sacrificed animal.
Third, let us speak of the blood of Christ. Because the sacrifices of the Old Testament were only symbolic, it was “not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins” (10:4). As we read here, “if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (verses 13-14)
It is in this sense that the blood of Christ is the price of our redemption: Jesus poured out His inner being in loving adoration to His Father on our behalf. The image of Christ’s blood in the New Testament always implies the understanding of the blood in the sacrificial system of the Old Testament, in which the shedding of the blood means the restoration of the sinner to friendship with God.
This imagery of the blood, which is ubiquitous in the New Testament, began with Jesus himself, who told His disciples, on the night before His death, “this is My covenant blood which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Matthew 26:28).
Because Jesus used this language within the liturgical ceremony at the center of the Christian religion, it is not surprising that we find it everywhere in the New Testament.
Thus, St. Peter wrote, “You were not redeemed with corruptible things, . . . but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (1 Peter 1:18-19).
And St. John wrote, "The blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).
And St. Paul wr
ote, “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins” (Ephesians 1:7).
And the Christian Church chants to Jesus our Lord: “To Him who loved us and freed us from our sins in His own blood, and has made us a kingdom and priests to His God and Father, to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen” (Revelation 1:5).
Thursday, January 14
Hebrews 9:16-22: These verses refer to the scene of the ratification of the Sinai Covenant in Exodus 24. According to this passage in Exodus (verses 8,11), the ratification of that covenant was marked by both a sacrificial meal and by the sprinkling of sacrificial blood:
“And Moses took the blood, sprinkled it on the people, and said, “Behold, the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you according to all these words. . . . So they [Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel] saw God, and they ate and drank.”
The prophet Zechariah later refers to this: “As for you also, / Because of the blood of your covenant, / I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit” (9:11).
Our earliest Christian reflection on this scene in Exodus is found in this text in Hebrews (verses 16-23), in a context emphasizing that the deep significance of the sacrificial blood in the Old Testament is its prophetic reference to the redeeming blood of Jesus, shed on the cross for the salvation of mankind. The blood of Jesus is called the “blood of the covenant” here in verse 29 and in Mark 14:24.
Moreover, in quoting Exodus 24:8, this passage in Hebrews (verse 20) slightly, but very significantly, alters the wording of it. Whereas Exodus reads “Behold (idou) the blood of the covenant,” the author of Hebrews wrote: “This [touto, Hebrew hinneh] is the blood of the covenant.” There is no doubt that his wording here reflects the traditional words of Jesus with respect to the cup of His blood at the Last Supper (cf. Matthew 26:28).
Both in the Old Testament and the New, the sacrificial blood is the medium of consecration—It is consecrated life poured out in devotion to God. It is, therefore, “covenant blood,” through which God and man are joined in atonement. The blood of Christ means the “life” of Christ. The image in the Book of Revelation is “washed” in His blood.
Friday, January 15
Hebrews 9:23-28: According to Leviticus, the altar and the curtain fronting the Holy of Holies were consecrated with the blood of the sin offering: “He shall bring the bull to the door of the tabernacle of meeting before the Lord, lay his hand on the bull’s head, and kill the bull before the Lord. Then the anointed priest shall take some of the bull’s blood and bring it to the tabernacle of meeting. The priest shall dip his finger in the blood and sprinkle some of the blood seven times before the Lord, in front of the veil of the sanctuary. . . . The anointed priest shall bring some of the bull’s blood to the tabernacle of meeting. Then the priest shall dip his finger in the blood and sprinkle it seven times before the Lord, in front of the veil. And he shall put some of the blood on the horns of the altar which is before the Lord, which is in the tabernacle of meeting; and he shall pour the remaining blood at the base of the altar of burnt offering, which is at the door of the tabernacle of meeting”(4:4-7,16-18).
That is to say, the physical place of the worship—the place where God and man were reconciled—needed to be sanctified by this expiatory blood.
If this was true of the Tabernacle in the time of Moses, says the author of Hebrews, why should we imagine it not to be true of the true Tabernacle, the eternal model in heaven? Consequently, as the blood of the ancient sin offering purified and consecrated the ancient Tabernacle, so the sacrificial blood of Jesus had to purify and consecrate the heavenly sanctuary, that which was made without hands: “Therefore was it necessary that the copies of the things in the heavens should be purified with these, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these.”
The application of this imagery, to elaborate the theology of redemption, is based on the prior understanding of Jesus’ death as a “sin offering.” This term, in Hebrew, is ’attata’t, literally “sin.” The LXX translation is literal: hamartia.
In Leviticus the verb used to “make” this sin offering is ‘asah (three times in Leviticus 4:8-9), which is a normal verb connoting the performance of many sacrifices (cf. 5:10; 6:15; 8:34; 9:7,16,22; 14:19; 15:15,30; 16:9,15,24; 19:9; 22:23; 23:12,19). In the Greek text of the Septuagint this ‘asah was translated as poiein. This is the same verb used by St. Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:21, where he says that God “made [Jesus] a sin offering” (hamartian epoiesen).
This latter text is concerned with man’s reconciliation with God through the sacrifice of Christ: “Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ . . . God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them” (5:18-19). This is the context in which Paul wrote, “He made Him, who knew no sin, a sin offering for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (5:21).
That is to say, while St. Paul used the theology of the sin offering to interpret the sacrificial death of Christ, the Epistle to the Hebrews extends that theology to describe the glorification of Christ in the heavenly sanctuary.