Hebrews: Old covenant fulfilled and eclipsed by the New
The Epistle to the Hebrews is the last in order of the letters that have ever been attributed to St. Paul in the New Testament. But while it has often been attributed to St. Paul, that attribution has never been universally held, even in the Church of Rome. The letter is more widely regarded as coming from an unknown author, which is why the Church does not identify it liturgically as “The letter of St. Paul to the Hebrews”, but just as the “Letter to the Hebrews”. While in some ways the letter imitates the approach of St. Paul, the Greek style is far more polished—less spontaneous, and even less explosive—than St. Paul’s known letters. Moreover, it is not addressed to a typical Pauline Gentile community. Rather, it is addressed to Jewish converts to Christianity who are in danger of growing slack.
Hebrews is a long and detailed single argument about the abrogation of the ritual laws and repeated priestly sacrifices of Old Covenant and the institution of the New Covenant—the perfect sacrifice of Christ through obedience to the Father. We have already seen this problem addressed repeatedly in other New Testament letters, because the question of the continuing validity of ritual and sacrificial practices of the Old Covenant (e.g., circumcision and the sacrifice of animals) was raised and argued again and again by the Judaizers. Hebrews, addressed to those who were well aware of the issue of the covenants, is in effect a sustained exposition designed to prove that the Old Covenant was a shadow of the New, and has found its decisive, permanent and complete fulfillment in the New, and so the New Covenant alone offers the sure hope of salvation.
When we read Hebrews in small sections, or out of order, or in random snippets, the purposeful sweep of the book as a whole may be obscured. This purpose is so consistently brought to fulfillment, and so steadily through each succeeding chapter, that I think the best way to comment on the letter is simply to summarize the argument. For convenience, I will summarize chapter by chapter—but we should remember that there were no chapter or verse numberings in the original Scriptural texts. The effort of subdividing the various books for easier reference was varied, spotty, and inconsistent until it gathered steam in the twelfth century and then rapidly became standardized in the sixteenth century, with the rise of printing.
As expected in an argument, we encounter the thesis right at the start: In former times we had only incomplete and progressive revelation through the prophets, but now we have everything revealed through the Son, the One through whom all that is came to be. The Son is superior even to the angels. One Old Testament passage after another is cited to demonstrate that this must be so.
For this reason, those who live now must pay close attention. Everything has been put into subjection to Christ, and Christ as man died to taste death for all:
For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering. For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified have all one origin. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brethren. [2:10-11]
Indeed, Christ is not concerned with angels but with the descendants of Abraham, for which reason he was made like us in every way, to be a merciful high priest and to make expiation for sin.
Now the author compares Jesus with Moses. Whereas Moses was faithful in God’s house as a servant, Christ is faithful as the builder of the house, the Son and Lord. Therefore, we must not harden our hearts, lest we may never be able to enter into God’s rest. Note again that, throughout the Letter, the author cites many texts from the Old Testament to make his point, indicating that all of this was richly foreshadowed in the law and the prophets.
We also know that the disobedient will not enter God’s rest, but those who believe must make sure of doing so—of entering the Sabbath rest of God. Therefore, since we have a high priest who has passed through the heavens and understands our weakness, “let us with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy” (4:16).
The writer now begins an extended exposition of the similarities and differences between the human high priests under the old law, and the new perfect high priest who is Christ. Every high priest is drawn from among men to deal with God on our behalf. Every high priest, therefore, can sympathize with our human condition. Every high priest is appointed; he does not take the role for himself.
So too with Christ Jesus, also a man who can sympathize, but appointed to an infinitely more perfect high priesthood: “You are my Son, today I have begotten you” (Ps 2:7) and “You are a priest for ever” (Ps 110:4). The writer explains:
Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek. [5:8-10]
The writer notes frankly that there is much to say about this which is very hard to understand. But he chides his readers, for though they ought to be teachers by now, they have become “dull of hearing” and need someone to teach them again the “first principles of God’s word”.
Therefore, he says, we must proceed to sound doctrine,
for it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once…become partakers of the Holy Spirit…, if they then commit apostasy, since they crucify the Son of God on their own account and hold him up to contempt. [6:4-6]
These words are intended as a warning against the dangers of backsliding. (To clarify, most commentators take this as a reference to an unrepented rejection of Christ by one who should know better, and for which there can be no forgiveness.) So the writer desires each one “to show the same earnestness in realizing the full assurance of hope until the end” (6:11). After all, we have a sure hope in Jesus, our high priest.
He then goes on to explain the superiority of the priesthood of Melchizedek, in whose line, without beginning or end, Christ is made priest. It is Melchizedek, in fact, who blessed Abraham, the father of Israel and the covenant of the Law. The one who blesses is the superior, and this is a foreshadowing of Christ. It indicates that Christ comes from a different “tribe” than the Levitical priests. He is a priest forever of another order. For Christ does not need to offer sacrifice repeatedly, but offers the perfect sacrifice of Himself, once for all.
The point, then, is that we have a high priest at the right hand of God, and that the earthly high priests are only a copy and a shadow of the heavenly. Thus God told Moses “See that you make everything according to the pattern which was shown you on the mountain” (8:5; Ex 25:40). This new covenant has better promises, just as Christ’s priestly ministry is more excellent. All of this was foretold by the prophet Jeremiah:
“The days will come, says the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant.... I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts”, for “all shall know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will be merciful…and will remember their sins no more.” [8:10-12, Jer 31:31-34]
Thus Jeremiah speaks of the Old Covenant as obsolete, and “what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away” (8:13). (I note to avoid confusion that this does not make the Decalogue obsolete as it is a summary of the Natural Law, nor does it negate God’s promises under the Old Covenant, for He cannot be untrue to Himself. But the ritual law and the Levitical priesthood as an expiation for sins is no longer relevant. It was a copy and a shadow of what is more excellent and has now come: For only Christ saves.)
Now the author of Hebrews compares the old and new covenants in more detail. Under the first covenant, the high priest entered the inner tent only once a year after a blood sacrifice for the errors and sins of the people. In effect, the way into the sanctuary was not opened as long as the outer tent was still in place. The old way—metaphorically, the old outer tent—was a series of bodily things, not spiritual, which were “imposed until the time of reformation” (9:10). But now Christ offers himself through the Holy Spirit to purify the conscience from dead works in order to serve the living God.
Christ, then, is the mediator of a new covenant. Moses ratified the old covenant with the blood of animals, but Christ ratified the new with his own blood, entering the holy place of heaven itself once and for all. Thus:
[J]ust as it is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him. [9:28]
Moreover, since the law is a shadow and repeated sacrifices could not make men perfect, Christ said:
Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body have you prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, “Behold, I have come to do your will, O God”. [10:5-7; Ps 40:6-8]
Thus “He abolishes the first [burnt offerings and sin offerings] in order to establish the second [Christ’s obedience to the Father]” (10:9). By a single offering he has perfected us. So let us hold fast to Christ. If we sin deliberately after this, we can expect a fearful judgment. So we must not lose confidence; we must live by faith.
And what is faith? “The assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (11:1). To illustrate the importance of faith, the writer once again canvases the Old Testament as an inspired Scriptural witness. Those who did things by faith include Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, the people at the Red Sea, Joshua and the people at Jericho, and even Rahab the harlot. All these and many more suffered and triumphed by faith. But:
[A]ll these, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect. [11:39, emphasis added]
(Again I will offer a word of explanation: In what sense “apart from us”? Clearly in the sense of becoming grafted onto the vine of Christ, that is, becoming one body with Him, through the fulfillment that is the Church. But this aspect of the mystery, so beautifully proclaimed in several letters of St. Paul, especially Ephesians, is not further explored in our anonymous letter to the Hebrews.)
After having given such a catalogue of those who triumphed through faith, the writer insists that, as we are surrounded by “so great a cloud of witnesses”, we must not falter, we must persevere. We must accept the Lord’s discipline as sons. We must be strong and avoid sin. Indeed, we must not…
…be immoral or irreligious like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears. [12:16-17]
(A final note on the letter’s strong statements of the hopelessness of falling away, that is, rejecting our calling once we have recognized it: We know that we can be healed through the Church in the Sacrament of Penance—that there is forgiveness of sins beyond our initial baptism. This is mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament, and was certainly practiced in the early Church, though it was not yet fully developed theologically and ritually in the first century. Eventually, lack of a proper awareness of this truth led some—Constantine is a famous example—to postpone baptism to the last second, to ensure that all sin would be forgiven. This was an abuse that had to be corrected. But the point of emphasizing the danger of falling away is that we must not do so with the foolish expectation that we can “always come back later”. This is presumption. We know neither the day nor the hour.)
The letter closes, then, with an extended exhortation to live in faithfulness and love, giving a number of more specific instances of how Christians are to behave. Jesus Christ is both our Lord and our example. This conclusion includes one of the most memorable passages of sacred Scripture:
For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come. Through him let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. [13:14-15]
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Posted by: nix898049 -
Mar. 27, 2020 7:08 PM ET USA
Mary Healy's commentary on Hebrews is my Lenten reading choice. Thank you for adding your usual clarity to this fascinating book of Scripture.
Posted by: winnie -
Mar. 27, 2020 10:03 AM ET USA
Thank you for clarifying Hebrews 13:14-15 and putting it into context.