Friday, January 17
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 (thrice 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.
Saturday, January 18
Hebrews 10:1-10: This interpretation of Psalm 40 (39) comes in the center of the major argument of the Epistle to the Hebrews: the heavenly significance of the Lord’s death on the Cross. As we have seen, the author appeals to the Mosaic prescriptions about the ancient Tabernacle to elaborate that significance. These prescriptions of the Mosaic Law, he says, possessed only “a shadow of the good things to come.” Offered “continually year by year,” they were not able to “make those who approach perfect” (10:1). That is to say, those sacrifices did not really take away sins, and their effectiveness depended entirely on the Sacrifice of the Cross, of which they were only a foreshadowing. Indeed, “it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins” (v. 4).
In support of this thesis, the author of Hebrews quotes Psalm 40: “Sacrifice and offering You did not desire / . . . In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin / You had no pleasure” (vv. 5, 6). In fact, this theme appears rather often in the Old Testament itself. Isaiah, for example, and other prophets frequently attempted to disillusion those of their countrymen who imagined that the mere offering of cultic worship, with no faith, no obedience, no change of heart, could be acceptable to God.
The author of Hebrews, therefore, is simply drawing the proper theological conclusion when he writes: “And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins” (v. 11). What God seeks, rather, is the perfect obedience of faith, and such an obedience means the total gift of self, not the mere sacrificial slaughter of some beast.
This obedience of Christ our Lord is a matter of considerable importance in the New Testament. He Himself declared that He came, not to seek His own will, but the will of the Father who sent Him (John 5:30). This doing of the Father’s will had particular reference to His Passion, in which “He . . . became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:8). This was the obedience manifested in our Lord’s prayer at the very beginning of the Passion: “Take this cup away from Me; nevertheless, not what I will, but what You will” (Mark 14:36).
Christ’s own obedience to God’s will is also the key to Palm 40, and Hebrews goes on to quote the pertinent verses, referring them explicitly to the Incarnation and Sacrifice of Jesus the Lord:
Sacrifice and offering You did not desire, / But a body You have prepared for Me. / In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin / You had no pleasure. / Then I said, “Behold, I have come— / In the volume of the book it is written of Me— / To do Your will, O God” (vv. 5–7).
The body “prepared” for Christ in the Incarnation became the instrument of His obedience to that “will” of God by which we are redeemed and rendered holy: “By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. . . . For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified” (vv. 10, 14).
The various sacrifices of the Old Testament have now found their perfection in the one self-offering of Jesus the Lord. Again the author of Hebrews comments:
Previously saying, “Sacrifice and offering, burnt offerings, and offerings for sin You did not desire, nor had pleasure in them” (which are offered according to the law), then He said, “Behold, I have come to do Your will, O God” (vv. 8, 9).
The “He” of this psalm, then, according to the New Testament, is Christ the Lord. We pray it properly when we pray it as His own words to the Father. The “will” of God to which He was obedient was that “will” to which He referred when in the Garden He prayed: “Not my will, but Yours be done.”
This self-oblation of our Lord’s obedience to God is not simply a feature of this particular psalm; it is the interpretive door through which we pray all of the psalms. The “Your will be done” of the Lord’s Prayer is likewise the summation of the entire Book of Psalms, and what ultimately makes Christian sense of the Psalter.
Sunday, January 19
Hebrews 10:11-18: Citing Jeremiah 31, which he quoted at greater length in chapter 8, the author contrasts the sacrifices of the Mosaic Law with the sacrifice offered in the Passion of Jesus.
There are several points of contrast:
First, the Old Testament priest “stands,” whereas Jesus is enthroned: “And every priest stands ministering daily . . . But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God.” From the very beginning of this work, Jesus is portrayed as “seated” in glory: “when He had purged sins, [He] sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (1:3). Later on the author will say of Jesus that He “for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (12:2).
This image of Jesus seated in glory is drawn mainly from Psalm 109 (110), cited at the beginning of this work (1:13) and obviously much favored in the early Church (cf. Mark 16:10; Ephesians 1:20; Colossians 3:1; Revelation 3:21).
Second, the Old Testament sacrifices were many, whereas the New Testament sacrifice is unique: “And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices . . . But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God.” In the previous chapter we read that “Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many” (9:28). This word “once” (hapachs) is found in Hebrews 8 times, more than all the other New Testament books put together.
This hapachs, “once,” is contrasted with pollakis, “many times” (9:25-26).
This “once” contrasted with “many” is related to the “seated” contrasted with “standing.” The “once” and “seated” indicate finality and fulfillment—the end of history—whereas the “standing” and “many” suggest an ongoing process.
Third, the Old Testament sacrifices were unable, of themselves, to atone for sins and purify the heart: “And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins, and “by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified.”
Implied in the development of this theme is an underlying judgment on the Jewish religion itself: Now that the fulfillment of its history has come in Christ and His redeeming work, the Jewish religion no longer represents God’s will for history. This is why it is called “the old covenant: “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” (8:13). The continued existence of a “Jewish religion” alongside the Christian Gospel remains an anomaly yet to be resolved.
Monday, January 20
Hebrews 10:19-25: What the Jewish high priest could do only once a year—enter the Holy of Holies—the Christian can do everyday, by reason of the blood of Christ. It is the blood of Christ that gives the believer intimate access to God.
The author begins by speaking of boldness—parresia, an expression of which he is fond: “having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus.”
In context, this boldness comes from the full certainty of faith: en plerophoria pisteos: “having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, . . . let us draw near with a true heart in full certainty of faith.”
This word, plerophoria is found four times in the New Testament, two of them in Hebrews. The other place is 6:11—“and we desire that each one of you show the same diligence to the full certainty of hope [plerophoria elpidos] until the end.”
And what does “full certainty” bring? Boldness—parresia. The full certainty of faith finds expression in boldness of the heart.
Whereas the Acts of the Apostles had used this word, parresia, to describe the proper tone in Christian preaching (Acts 4:13,28,29,31), St. Paul used the expression to speak of our relationship to God. He wrote that in Christ, “we have boldness [parresia] and access with confidence by the faith of Him” (Ephesians 3:12).
This is the normal sense of the word also in Hebrews, which is similar, in this respect, to Ephesians. Thus, our author says that we are the house of Christ, “if we hold fast the boldness [parresia] and the rejoicing of the hope firm to the end” (3:6). Again, he exhorts his readers, “Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (4:16). And somewhat later in the present chapter, he further exhorts, “Therefore do not cast away your boldness [parresia, which has great reward” (10:35).
This attitude of boldness in the Epistle to the Hebrews is not limited to the four times when the word is used in this book. The boldness of the Christian soul in approaching God is, rather, a presupposition of the whole book. We find it later, in chapter 12, where the author contrasts Mount Sinai with Mount Zion. Mount Sinai, he says, “burned with fire, and . . . blackness and gloom and tempest, and the sound of a trumpet” (12:18). It was a very scary place, of which Moses said, “I am exceedingly afraid and trembling” (12:21). This was the kind of place where no one could safely feel bold.
It is not to Mount Sinai, however, that Christians are called, but to a gentler mountain: “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks more eloquently than that of Abel” (12:22).
Tuesday, January 21
Hebrews 10:26-31: Here we find one of Holy Scripture’s most solemn declarations of judgment. Having exhorted his readers to boldness in their access to God (verses 19-22), our author now describes the alternative in frightening terms.
In both instances—the exhortation to confidence and the warning of judgment—he uses the description “living, declaring that we have a new and living way,” and then reminding his readers, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” In both cases the modifier serves to put the reader on notice that these things are not matters of theory and abstraction. “Living,” in each of these contexts, indicates real, actual, existential. It means that both salvation and damnation are worthy of our most serious attention.
These verses depict the gravity of falling away from God. The author recalls that such falling away, even at the time of Moses, was dealt with in a radical manner—namely, those who rejected the rule of Moses were devoured with fiery indignation (verses 27-28). Our author, who has been at pains to emphasize the superiority of Jesus over Moses, argues here that this superiority implies a greater severity in those who fall away: “Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be deemed worthy who has trampled underfoot the Son of God” (verse 29). He had earlier contrasted Moses and Jesus, call the first God’s servant and the second God’s Son (3:5-6). How, he asks, which of them is it more dangerous to abandon?
Our author used this same argument in chapter 2, where he contrasted the word given by angels to the message given by Christ: “For if the word spoken through angels proved steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just reward, how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by those who heard Him?” (2:2-3)
In chapter 2, and again here, our author treats such apostasy as a sin against the Holy Spirit. Here he speaks of insulting the Spirit of grace (verse 29), and in chapter 2 he spoke of “the gifts of the Holy Spirit” as pertinent to the message of salvation (2:4).
When our text describes the just recompense of apostasy as “a certain fearful expectation of judgment and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries” (verse 37), the reader is put in mind of the rebellion against Moses, narrated in Numbers 16. According to that account, certain of the Reubenites—including Korah, Dathan, and Abiram—revolted against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Their punishment, we recall, consisted in being devoured by the earth, as fire from heaven descended upon them (Numbers 16:31-35).
Now, our author contends, if such was the retribution allotted to those who fell away from Moses’ Law, what should we expect for him who has “trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace?” This is the sustained threat, he says, against anyone who sins willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth.”
Wednesday, January 22
Hebrews 10:32-39: In a sense this section of Hebrews is a synopsis of the whole, or at least a summary of its thesis. That is to say, it is an exhortation to patience.
An initial motive for patience, says our author, is the active recollection of those things endured immediately after conversion and baptism (verse 32). This is not simply a remembrance, but an intentional recollection: anamimneskesthe.
In those earlier days, he goes on, his readers experienced an áthlesis. This noun, obviously the root of the English “athletics,” is perhaps best translated as “struggle.” The present text is the only place where this word appears in the New Testament, though St. Paul uses similar metaphors drawn from sporting competition. Athlesis suggests that the Christian life carries within itself the character of contention, in the sense that either victory or defeat is still possible.
That struggle, says Hebrews, came in the aftermath of baptism: photisthentes—“you were enlightened.” We recall the same metaphor for baptism was used in 6:4.
It is important to recognize the relationship between baptism and struggle, such as we see here. Indeed, the three accounts of our Lord’s contention with the demon all come right after the story of His baptism.
In what was were these Christians tried after their baptism? They “were made a spectacle both by reproaches and tribulations,” and they joined themselves to those “who were so treated” (verse 33). They suffered both psychologically and financially (verse 34), and they endured each thing in view of the greater treasure awaiting them in heaven.
The remembrance of these things—the active recollection of the many sufferings they had already endured—would strengthen the readers to brace themselves for whatever lay ahead. The message is clear: “Don’t give up now! Don’t waste the great investment already made.”
This passage is concerned with what I have called an “aftermath,” a term that literally means “what is learned (mathein) afterwards.” This word testifies that education is existential. In the present context it refers to the period after baptism. One does not learn to be a Christian until one has already become a Christian. The real study of the Christian life is post-baptismal. The life in Christ does not commence until a person is in Christ. Baptism is called “illumination,” because it is the introductory step. Only then can there be an “aftermath.
And this, says our author, is learned through patience, which is an exercise of faith. It is at this point that he quotes that famous line from Habakkuk, so dear to Paul: “The just shall live by faith” (verse 38; Habakkuk 2:4; Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11). This prophetic citation about faith lays the basis for the long account of the heroes of faith in the following chapter.
Thursday, January 23
Hebrews 11:1-7: To begin his history of the heroes of faith, our author goes to Creation itself. More specifically, he commences his consideration of history by appealing to a principle transcendent to history, supported by an experience common throughout history—to wit, the strong sense that the concrete, physical world, the world subject to experiential verification, is not self-explanatory. To put this thesis in other words, the world around us testifies to a spiritual domain beyond itself, a spiritual domain on which the physical world is dependent for its very existence. In our author’s own words; me ek phainoménon to blepómenon gegonénai—“what is seen does not come from visible things.”
All the saints of old, he says, bore witness to this: en tavte gar emartyrethesan hoi presbyteroi. This conviction of things unseen is the feature held in common by the sundry believers listed throughout the present chapter—from saints as learned as Moses (verse 24) o saints as simple as Samson (verse 32). They all lived their lives in the conviction that the present world presupposes a better one. This was true of the ancient patriarchs, who “looked for a city that has foundation” (verse 10), as well as those later saints who “were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection” (verse 35).
Man’s adherence to the world’s invisible source, says our author, is called faith; specifically it is faith in God’s creating word: “by faith we know [nooumen] the world were framed by the word of God [rhémati Theou].”
In speaking of the word of God in Creation, this author puts a great gulf between himself and Platonic philosophy, even when he uses words characteristic of Platonism (such as demiourgos in verse 10). The single link between the invisible and visible world is the word (rhema) of God. In making this assertion, the author of Hebrews relies entirely on the narrative in Genesis 1—Day by day during the first week of history, God spoke, and various creatures came into being. Over and over, the Lord said, “let there be,” and each time something visible—to blepomenon—suddenly appeared.”
In speaking of faith in these terms, the author is describing, rather than defining, his subject. He especially relates it to hope, or, more accurately, to “things hope for” (elpizoménon). That is to say, it looks to the future and, especially, the end of history.
The Epistle to the Hebrews speaks twice about Abel, the second son born of woman. In addition to the present passage, Abel appears likewise in 12:24, which refers “to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling more eloquent than that of Abel.” The latter reference points to the blood shed by Cain, of which blood God said to Cain, “The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground.” The author of Hebrews contemplates the sacrificial death of Jesus in the context of that first death, which was also a death of violence and a test of faith.
“By faith,” says the Epistle to the Hebrews, “Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain,” at which point, says the Book of Genesis, “Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.” Consumed with rage, he at last “rose up against his brother Abel and killed him” (Hebrews 11:4; Genesis 4:5,8). The first man to die, therefore, perished in testimony to his faith, and it was an angry unbeliever who took his life.
While we easily perceive that Cain killed because he was a bad man, it is important to see also that Abel was slain precisely because he was a good man. His goodness was the very reason that Cain took his life. St. John affirms it: “And why did he murder him? Because his works were evil and his brother’s righteous” (1 John 3:12). While it is said of Cain that “he perished in the fury wherewith he murdered his brother” (Wisdom 10:3), of Abel we are told that “he obtained witness that he was righteous” (Hebrews 11:4).
Thus commences the Bible’s reading of history as a prolonged chronicle of “all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel” (Matthew 23:35). The saga of persecution begins with “The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground” and ends with “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Genesis 4:10; Revelation 6:10)
If Adam is the Old Testament’s first type (typos) of the Christ to come (Romans 5:14; 1 Corinthians 15:45), the death of Abel is rightly regarded as the first foreshadowing sign of Christ’s death on the Cross. Jesus Himself laid the foundation for this symbolism by declaring that “all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel,” would come upon the generation of those who crucified Him (Matthew 23:35). For this reason, St. Augustine believed that the death of Christ was represented in the figure of Abel (The City of God 15.18).
Friday, January 24
Hebrews 11:8-16: Among the numerous and varied characters of the Old Testament, Abraham is perhaps the one most mentioned as a model for the Christian life. This theme is prominent in the Epistle to the Romans, where Abraham, described as “the father of us all” (4:16) is presented as the outstanding example of the life of faith (chapter 4 passim). For St. Paul, Abraham’s faith was manifest in his adherence to God’s promises against all contrary evidence: “contrary to hope, in hope he believed, so that he became the father of many nations” (4:18).
The Epistle to the Hebrews, though not neglecting that aspect of the Abraham story (11:11-12), emphasizes two other aspects of Abraham’s faith: his wandering and the summons he received to offer Isaac in sacrifice.
The former theme is considered in the present verses: “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country.” This aspect of Abraham’s faith is consistent with the theme of pilgrimage in the Epistle to the Hebrews: “For here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come’ (13:14). Indeed, with respect to all the Old Testament saints, we are told, “they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (11:13).
This was preeminently the situation of Abraham, who obeyed the Lord’s command, “Get out of your country, / From your family / And from your father’s house, / To a land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). In other words, Abraham will see that land only if he obeys the command of the Lord. “I will show you” is in the future tense.
In addition to the author of Hebrews, St. Stephen also emphasized this aspect of Abraham’s faith: “The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Haran, and said to him, ‘Get out of your country and from your relatives, and come to a land that I will show you’” (Acts 7:3).
This feature of Abraham’s faith—his obedient wandering to pursue the future—corresponded very much to the experience of the early Christians. They, too, had no clear idea where they were going—at least in respect to their future in this world. Like Abraham, they were content to follow God’s leadership wherever He would guide them. From a human perspective, they were just as vulnerable as any pilgrims in this world. This was especially the case, one suspects, as the social ties between the Church and the Jews began to be severed. What did the future hold? Those early Christians really had no idea, so Abraham became their model, “dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise; for he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.”
Abraham trusted the Lord, placing his life and destiny in the hands of the God who will not lie nor deceive. He did not try to work out his life for himself. He made no endeavor to base his future on his own theories. He trusted in God in the face of insuperable obstacles. He gave up every pursuit or goal not compatible with trust in God.
Such trust renders a person pleasing to God. Such faith is the only thing that justifies a man in God’s sight. Faith is not some benign component that enables a man to live a humanly “normal life.” On the contrary, faith compels a man to live a life that those without faith will say is foolish.
When Abraham left Ur, it was a great city—one of the greatest in history. This great commercial center on the Persian Gulf was the place where writing had been invented. Abraham’s departure from there represented the move that every man of faith must make. Faith means giving up and moving on. It is the very opposite of an established and secure life. It always means “living in tents with Isaac and Jacob.”
Our author has nothing but good to say about Sarah, stressing the importance of her faith: “By faith Sarah herself also received strength to conceive seed, when she was past the age, because she judged Him faithful who had promised.”
We should be glad that Hebrews makes this point, because if we had only the Old Testament by which to reflect on the matter, we might doubt that Sarah had much faith. After all, she laughed when she heard God’s promise of a child.