The Father William Most Collection
Commentary on the Letter to the Hebrews
[Published electronically for use in classes taught by Fr. Most and for private theological study.]
Authorship: It is one thing to see that the Council of Trent (DS 1503) declared this Letter is inspired or canonical; another thing to say it is by St. Paul.
In the first centuries there were doubts about the authorship. The churches of Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Cappadocia considered it Pauline, but there were doubts in the Latin church. The Muratorian Canon, St. Irenaeus, St. Hippolytus and Gaius of Rome did not consider it Pauline; Eusebius says it is clearly by Paul. A bit later Ambrosiaster did not include Hebrews among the Pauline Epistles on which he wrote commentaries.
St. Jerome and St. Augustine seem to have swayed opinion in the west to considering it was by Paul. Augustine said he was influenced by the prestige of the Eastern churches. After the 6th Synod of Carthage in 419, it became usual in the west to consider it by Paul.
Many today would favor the view of Origen, who notes that the Greek is more literary than is usual for Paul, and that the style and composition differs from Paul's though the teaching is Paul's. We know at least often Paul dictated his Letters. For certain he would have had to do that with 2 Timothy, if we consider it his, for then Paul was in prison with no facilities for writing. But Popes and Presidents and other important people have often, in our time and before, used others to write documents for them, after telling them what content they want. Then they would go over it, perhaps make changes, and sign it. The names of Jude, Luke, Silvanus (Silas), Barnabas, and Apollo have been suggested as actual writers.
Recipients: If it was originally intended for Hebrew Christians, it should have been written before the fall of Jerusalem, especially since the writer speaks of the Temple ritual as still in effect -- though later rabbinic writings also do make rules as if the temple were at hand. It also presupposes that the first readers were familiar with the temple and its rituals.
In view of the fact that 13. 24 says those in Italy send greetings, it may have been written in Rome.
Genre of writing: It is very important to note that the literary genre, the pattern of writing, of this Letter is homiletic, that is, preaching style. In that style, many speakers will allow themselves some freedom, exaggeration, and lack of exactness. The Letter itself gives an indication, since it calls itself "a word of exhortation (in 13. 22). Also, it makes considerable use of a device common in Greek and Roman rhetoric called synkrisis, that is placing one person along side of another in order to praise the first one. So Jesus is compared to Moses and to angels. Also, when the Letter says that Jesus was tempted or tried in all things as we are, we should not conclude He had various diseases, nor that He was ignorant of many things. The Second General Council of Constantinople (DS 424) in 553 condemned "wicked Theodore of Mopsuestia" for "insanely" saying Jesus had disorderly emotions. The Church has repeatedly taught that Jesus was not ignorant in His human mind: DS 3812, 3905, 3924, and AAS 58 (1966) 659-60. And in 5:8 we read that Jesus "learned obedience from the things He suffered." Of course this cannot mean He had been disobedient before. We will explain this line in the course of our comments below.
Also the way the Epistle comments on Melchizedek as being without father or mother or end of days, is homiletic freedom. And the comments on Esau in chapter 12 lean heavily on some loose rabbinic writings. These things are of course permissible in the homiletic genre, would not be likely to be used otherwise. We will notice these and other features in the course of our comments.
Summary: 1. 1-4
In many ways, in many places, God in the past spoke to the Fathers by the prophets. But in the end of ages, He spoke to us by His Son, whom He made the heir of all things. Through Him the Father created the ages. This Son shows us the glory, Father's glory: He is as it were the impression, as if from a seal, of the Father's nature. He is the bearer of authority, through His powerful word. Now that He has made purification for sins, He has taken His seat at the right hand of the Majesty on high. He is as much greater than the angels, as He has inherited a nature higher than theirs.
Comments on 1:1-4
Ancient literary writers commonly used an elaborate and beautifully worded introduction to their works, in a loftiness of language they did not sustain, or intend to sustain throughout the whole of their work. Our author here does the same. the words "in many ways, in many places" stand for adverbs in the Greek, polymeros and polytropos, for which English has no precise equivalent. But the sense is a contrast between the old and the new regimes.
Formerly the Father did speak to our race through the prophets. They gave us some information about the Father, without ever clearly telling us the Father had a Son. But they foretold the Messiah would come when at last a ruler had failed from the tribe of Judah (cf. Gen 49. 10), that He would appear at Bethlehem, would be born of a virgin, would, though Himself divine, have the fullness of the Holy Spirit, would suffer and die for the purification of all, and would rise after being slain.
But now, in the new age, the new regime, He has spoken no longer through the images the prophets gave us as in an imperfect mirror in a dark manner. In Isaiah 55. 9 God said His ways are as far above ours as the heavens are above the earth. How then could we know Him? (cf. 1 Cor 13:12). But now He has spoken through His own Son. Hence the message is now immeasurably greater and clearer.
This does not mean that inasmuch as the Son fully reveals the Father, there is nothing more to learn. Some foolish catechists have argued that since the Son fully reveals the Father, there is no need of doctrinal formulations! No, the Son comes as a Person, who only gradually, in His public life, revealed His true nature and character. Had He said on the first day of His public life the sort of things He said later, e.g., "I and the Father are one", or "before Moses was I AM" - the Jews would have stoned Him at once. So He revealed Himself only gradually. Further although the substance of the revelation He brings is now complete, so that after the death of the last Apostle and the completion of the New Testament, there is no more public revelation to be expected until He returns at the end, yet, thanks to the Holy Spirit, whom He promised to send, His Church is led gradually to an ever deepening understanding and penetration of that original deposit of revelation. Thus, for example, the Immaculate Conception was not seen clearly until many centuries after His ascension; the Sacrament of Penance, given the first day after His Resurrection, in John 20, can be traced clearly only from the middle of the second century, although it was around earlier. (We know it was at hand before, since when we do get the first fully clear mention of it, there was no storm or strife, which would have been the case had it been invented at that time).
This Son is called the heir of all: for a Son as son does have a right to inherit. And this Son is more than any ordinary Son. He, as John 1 said, is the one through whom the Father made the ages. We know (DS 800) that all the works done by the Three Divine Persons outside the divine nature are common work to all three. Yet we suitably attribute certain things to one rather than to the others. Even the ages, time, is His creation. For in the Father there is no time, since there is no change. Time is a unceasing succession of future moments, changing to present moments, changing to past moments. But as one grows older and approaches the goal, these changes come faster and faster, as if anticipating passage into the realm in which there is longer any such change to come.
Colossians 1:15-20 beautifully expresses the same truth of the greatness of the Son, saying that He is the firstborn of all creation, the image of the invisible God, that is, the one through whom we can get to know what the Father is like ("He who sees me, sees the Father: 1 John 14:9). Here Hebrews says He like a gleaming mirror, that reflects the glory of the Father, and is as it were the impression in wax made by the seal, the Father: the impression is complete and perfectly faithful. So through this impression, the Son, we can perfectly know even the invisible Father.
In the OT Wisdom is finally personified, as in Proverbs 8. 22-31. In St. Paul, the Messiah is called the wisdom of the Father (1 Cor 1. 24). In the OT book of Wisdom 7. 25-26 wisdom is called "the breath of God's power, a pure emanation (aporroia: "outflowing") of the glory of the All-powerful, a reflection (apaugasma) of eternal light, the spotless mirror of the divine working (energeia) of God, and the image of His goodness". It is easy to see the echo of these words in Hebrews 1. 2-3. (In passing, sophia, wisdom, is grammatically feminine in Greek, as is also Hebrew hochmah. But to anyone with even a slight knowledge of the languages, these are purely artificial grammatical genders, and have nothing whatever to do with sex or gender. Further, Christ is the wisdom of the Father, and He is not feminine).
This Son is before all things in rank (cf. Col 1. 15-20), and in time (though he is not as God in time), He is above every imaginable spirit power, whether thrones, dominations, principalities and powers (these seem to be terms used by the opponents of St. Paul against whom he writes in Colossians).
As will be explained later, He was sent to make, and has made the full and complete purification for sins, and now that that is accomplished once for all, He has taken His seat at the right hand of the Divine Majesty, the Father. (Majesty is one of several words used by the Hebrews to avoid saying the ineffable word, Yahweh). Even though angels are around that throne, this Son has inherited -for Sons do inherit from parents -- a name greater than theirs. In Hebrew ways of speech, the name was often practically identified with the person or nature.
So this introduction gives us the first of the multiple contrasts we will see in the course of this letter: The Son is greater than the angels (1:5 to 2:18), is greater than Moses (3:1 to 4:16), is the only perfect High Priest, offering the only perfect Sacrifice (5:1 to 10:39) in a new covenant greater than the old covenant. After these contrasts, the author will speak of faith, first that of those who waited through ages for the coming of the Son, and then the faith we should have, upon whom the fullness of ages has come (1 Cor 10. 11), who have been privileged to know that Son.
Summary of 1. 5 to 1. 14: Superior to angels
The Father never said to any one of the angels: "You are my Son. Today I have begotten you." Rather, when He led His first born Son into the world, the Father said: "Let all the angels of God prostrate themselves before him". In speaking of the angels He said: "He makes winds his messengers, and his ministers, flames of fire." But to His Son: "Your throne, O God, is forever". The staff of righteousness is the staff of His kingdom. You loved all that is right and hated iniquity. So God, your God, anointed you with the oil of joy, more than all others around you." And again, the Father said to Him: "You, Lord, in the beginning laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They indeed will perish, but you endure. They will grow old, and like a robe, you will roll them up, and they will be changed. But you are the same, your years will not end."
The Father never told one of the angels: "Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool". For the angels are all ministering spirits who are sent to serve those who are to attain eternal salvation.
Comments on 1. 4-14.
Hebrews here uses seven OT texts, most of them from the Psalms.
The first text, "You are my son, today I have begotten you," is from Psalm 2. 7. Angels could be called, in a group, sons of God (elohim) but never was an individual angel called a son of God as the Messiah was. This Messiah was eagerly prayed for in the century just before his coming, in the Psalms of Solomon. 21-26, In that same Psalm 2, in verse 9 the son is said to be going to rule the nations with an iron rod. That same expression,"iron rod" marks the child of Apocalypse/ Revelation 12. 5 as the Messiah, and so His Mother must be Our Lady, even though the mother in Apoc 12 is said to have birth pains, which Our Lady did not. The reason seems to be a telescoping of images in Apoc 12 - common enough in Hebrew writing, in which an individual stands for and even embodies a group. Hence St. Pius X (ASS 36. 458-59; cf. John Paul II, Mother of the Redeemer #24) wrote: "No one of us does not know that that woman signifies the Virgin Mary... . John saw [her] already enjoying eternal happiness, and yet laboring from some hidden birth. With what birth? Surely ours, we who, being yet detained in exile, are still to be brought forth to ... eternal happiness."
Interestingly, the first Christian community of Jerusalem, after Peter and John were released by the Sanhedrin, spoke (Acts 4. 25-27) these lines to refer to the Messiah as well as to the leaders of the Church: "Why do then nations rage?" And they added that in that very city Herod, Pilate and the people of Israel had raged against Jesus.
The word today, have I begotten you most likely refers to the never beginning, never ending day of eternity, the day on which the Father eternally begets His eternal Son.
The second text; "I will be his Father and he shall be my son" comes from 2 Samuel 7:14. There David had considered building a house, a temple for the Lord. But the Lord told him through Nathan that He, the Lord, would build a house, a dynasty for David. He said that if the son was wicked-- which could not refer, of course to the messiah, but did refer most fully to so many later kings-- God would correct him, with the rod of men, but God said he would not take his hesed His faithfulness to the king's appointment as son of David, as He had taken it from Saul - whose dynasty was rejected after he sinned twice against God's commands.
Still more interestingly, Nathan said God would raise up a descendant for David,"after you have slept with your fathers." But, as St. Augustine keenly observed (City of God 17. 8) an indication was given that the son thus foretold was not Solomon, but a future son. For Solomon began to reign before the death of David, not after it. This promise was recalled in the Dead Sea Scrolls (4Q 174, Florilegium), and is celebrated in the words of the Archangel to the Virgin Mary: "He will reign over the house of Jacob forever".
We can see, God's plans without effort span the centuries. A thousand years with Him is as one day, and one day as a thousand years: 2 Peter 3. 8.
Our third OT quotation said that when He brought His first born into the world He said: "Let all the angels of God worship Him." The text resembles somewhat Psalm 97. 7. Very interestingly in the intertestamental work, Life of Adam and Eve 12-17 (in: J. H. Charlesworth, ed. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Doubleday, 1985. The work dates from 100 BC to 200 AD, p. 262) we read that satan told Adam that God had ordered him and the other angels to worship Adam, as the image of God. Some refused, and fell and became devils. However, that story refers to the first Adam, not to the second, Christ. And that Life does not speak of a Messiah.
The fourth quotation is clearly from Psalm 104. 4. In regard to angels He says: " He makes His messengers [angels] winds [as fast as winds], and He makes His ministers flames of fire." Hebrews here seems to be following the understanding shown by the Septuagint of this line. The Hebrew text of the OT would seem to turn things around: "He makes winds His messengers, flames of fire He makes His ministers."
The Hebrew for wind is ruach , which can mean either the spirit, of God, or the wind, as in Genesis 1, where the spirit moved over the primeval waters. Now of course here Hebrews does not mean to compare the angels to the Spirit of God as a Divine Person, but may have in mind the spirit that moved over the waters.
The fifth quote is from Psalm 45. Commentators often say this as a song to celebrate a royal wedding. However, the Targum takes it to refer to the Messiah, e. g, in verse 2: "You, O King Messiah, are fairer than the children of men."
Hebrews quotes, as referring to the Son, the Messiah: "Your throne , O God, is ever and ever. A rod of righteousness is the rod of your reign. You have loved what is right, and hated evil, therefore God your God has anointed you with the oil of rejoicing." The word used for God in the Hebrew text is elohim, which could have been used merely for angels, or even human judges, but from the context here the author of Hebrews clearly intends the divine sense.
The rod of his reign brings to mind Psalm 2. 9, part of which was cited at the start of this chapter (let us recall the comments given there), which says the Messiah will rule the nations with an iron rod .
Samson Levey (The Messiah: An Aramaic Interpretation, Hebrew Union College, 1974) said that the word for king, melech, in verses 2, 6, 12, 15 and 16, is understood as God. Quite an insight for a major Jew!
Hebrews continues, in v 10, with the sixth quotation, taken from Psalm 102. 25-27: "You, O Lord, in the beginning did found the earth, and the skies are the works of your hands. They will perish, but you will go on. All will grow old as a garment that wears out... but you are [ever] the same, and your years will not fail [run out].
The Psalmist is moved by the brevity of his life, or any human life, and contrasts this with the unending years of God. Really, God has no years: all is present to Him. We say, not wrongly, that He made the world -- a past statement. Yet to His eye, that is present. Similarly we say: Christ will return at the end - a future statement - but again, that is simply present to His eye.
We often wonder how it is that time picks up speed, that a year which in childhood seemed almost unending, seems little now. Could the reason be that we are approaching entry into a different kind of duration, called in Latin aevum (there is no English equivalent) in which the restless movement from future to present to past ceases. There will be no end, yet in a sense all is present to the soul. St. Augustine says well (City of God 10. 7) that those in heaven "participate" [a Platonic framework of thought] in the eternity of God, the duration in which all is present, no past, no future. The souls there have a future only in the sense that it will never end. And they have had a past. But their status with God is like His. He told Moses His name was "I AM", indicating He simply IS. The blessed simply ARE unspeakably filled with all the happiness their finite soul can take in of the bliss of God Himself.
Finally the last quote of this beautiful chapter is from Psalm 110, where the Father says to the Son: "Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool." The NT generally took this Psalm as messianic: cf. Mk 12. 35-37 in which Jesus Himself used the opening words, "The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand... ." He then asked: How could David call Him Lord if He was David's son? The reason was that that Son, the Messiah, was and is divine, God Himself.
The chapter rounds off with the words: Are not all, the angels, administering spirits, sent to minister to those who will receive the inheritance of salvation? -- The word inheritance is significant: Sons as such have a claim to inherit. By grace we are adopted by God as His sons. So if we reach the house of our Father, we reach it not by earning it, but as an inheritance; not because we are or have been good enough to earn it - impossible -but because He is good, and wished to give it to us. We on our part must refrain from earning to lose it, as Romans 6:23 tells us: "The wages of sin [what we earn] is death; the free gift of God [what we do not earn] is eternal life."
Chapter 2: Obey this Son and His Higher Salvation
Summary 2. 1-9
This Son is so much higher than the angels, and the salvation He brought is so much more perfect than that which came through angels, hence, since the old law was strongly binding, all the more must we avoid slipping away from that which the Son brought us, given to us with such guarantees, first being told us by that Son, and confirmed with God as witness through various mighty works, as He willed.
It was not to angels that God made the world to come subject; His Son Himself did not take on an angel's nature, but a human nature in respect to which He was made a little less than the angels. Yet the Father has made all things without exception subject to this Son who even suffered death for us all.
It was fitting that the One for whom all things exist, through whom all are to be led to salvation, should be made perfect through suffering and so become the leader to salvation through suffering. He, the Son, who sanctifies, and those whom He sanctifies, are all from the one race. Hence He is not ashamed to call them brothers. In becoming like us even in suffering that conquered the devil and made true atonement for sins, He delivered those who all their life long were in the servitude of fear of death. For He did not take hold of angels, but of the seed of Abraham. Hence He needed to be like His brothers in all things, to become a faithful high priest, to make atonement for the sins of His people. For in that He Himself suffered and was tried, He is able to help those who are being tried.
Comments 2. 1-9
This is a passage both simple and yet loaded with rich thought. The basic idea is that He who brought our salvation is so much higher and brought so much higher a salvation than that which the angels had brought became one of us, and suffered, so as to be a high priest able to know how to help us. All the more we must take care not to drift away from that salvation.
But now it is good to take a bit of time to put together into a sort of synthesis the chief points of Hebrews on this matter, to make it easier to follow individual things as they will come up later on.
Temporal salvation though the law was given through angels. There was even a rabbinic tradition that the angels were almost mediators of the old law. An echo of this appears in Galatians 3. 19, which spoke of a law "ordered through angels by the hand of a mediator," Moses. Josephus (Antiquities 15. 5. 136) spoke of the law as coming through angels. That law was strictly binding. Those who violated it "with a high hand" were "cut off from the people": Numbers 14. 30. Deuteronomy 27. 26 pronounced: "Cursed is everyone who does not keep all the things written in the book of the Law". (Hence St. Paul even boldly says that Christ "became a curse for us" (Gal 3. 13) by deliberately coming under the curse (Dt. 21. 23) so that in His overcoming the curse we too might overcome it. Atonement in that ancient regime was only for things not done with a high hand (Numbers 15. 30), but for sins of ignorance, sheggagah, of which Leviticus 4 speaks. Yet God's Holiness, which is His love of all that is right, insisted on reparation of the moral order when it was violated even in ignorance.
Hence Hebrews concludes: If that ancient law , even though given only through angels, had such force and power, what shall we say of the salvation given us through the Son? We must be careful not to "flow away" to even gradually depart from it.
The salvation He brought was first testified to by the Son Himself, and then through other witnesses, and mighty works. The mighty works were not only miracles- they were such- but also signs, that pointed further to the full meaning.
Hebrews does not at this point make clear the sense in which that word salvation is used. Since the genre of Hebrews is homiletic, we cannot and should not expect a systematic presentation of the full range of the idea. But we in the light of later and full revelation - to borrow an expression used by Vatican II (Lumen gentium §55) in speaking of the Church's higher understanding now of Genesis 3. 15 and Isaiah 7. 14 - can fill in what a homiletic presentation could not be expected to give. It will help us to understand many things that lie further ahead in this Epistle if we take time at this point to make a more systematic picture than what the homiletic presentation of our Epistle gives.
At first sight, there seems to be a contradiction. 1) On the one hand, Hebrews 9. 28 and 10. 14 will say that the death of Jesus made atonement and sanctified us once for all. That one sacrifice made us perfect. 2) Yet on the other hand, we read in this chapter than we must take care not to drift away. The warning is given even more strongly in 3. 12 and 4. 1. In fact, in 10. 26 we read that now there is no further sacrifice for sin.
How solve the contradiction? First, we know there can be no contradiction, for the Holy Spirit is the chief Author of all of this Epistle and of all of Scripture. So we must find a way to make sense of all passages together.
But the solution to the seeming contradiction is simple: there must be two phases as it were. In the first, Jesus earns, and makes available final salvation. In the second, we need to avoid making ourselves unable, by repeated sin, to receive what He has earned. (This involves the syn Christo theme of St. Paul, of which we will speak later. Further, in our comments on 13. 10 we will see that there is still, in the second phrase, an altar of sacrifice, even though Jesus has made atonement once for all).
In the first phase, then, Jesus paid, once for all, the debt of sin. That concept, that sin is a debt, which the Holiness of God wants repaid -- that concept of debt runs all over the Old Testament, Intertestamental Literature, the New Testament, the Rabbis and the Fathers: Cf. Wm. Most The Thought of St. Paul, pp. 289-301. As for that payment, Jesus had made it once for all, infinitely.
The Mass, in the second phase, is indeed a sacrifice since it contains the two elements of a sacrifice: outward sign, and interior dispositions (from Isaiah 29. 13 we easily see that the two elements are needed, for God there complained that they honored Him with their lips -- outward sign - but that their hearts - interior dispositions - were far from Him). The outward sign on Holy Thursday was the seeming separation of body and blood, standing for death; on Friday the outward sign was the physical separation of body and blood. In the Mass the outward sign goes back to that of Holy Thursday. But the interior disposition in all of these is simply obedience, with which He entered into this world (10. 7) and which He continued through all His life on earth, and which disposition He still retains now in the glory of heaven - for death makes permanent the attitude of heart with which one leaves this world. So it is not His interior disposition that is repeated or multiplied, but the outward sign is multiplied in the Mass.
The admonition of Hebrews shows the force of the warnings about the second phase, of not sinning further. If we do, we, as it were logically call on Him to die all over again. If the penalties for violating the ancient law, given only through angels, were so strong and severe, we must not expect to be able to sin "with a high hand" now, and get away with it.
But suppose someone does sin? Later in this Epistle we will read that there is no hope if one falls away. Yet the Church has understood from the beginning that she has the divinely given authority to forgive sins. Some of the earliest texts, such as those from the Shepherd by Hermas, seem to say we can get forgiveness only once if we sin again. But patrologists in general see that sort of saying as a psychological move to deter souls from sinning freely. Baptism is even spoken of as "the seal", by which God marks us as His property. One should never break the seal by sinning again. Yet, Jesus told Peter he must forgive seventy times seven times, that is, without limit. God Himself, having received the infinite price of redemption, which pays for all grace, cannot refuse to give that which His Son has so dearly and painfully earned: cf. Rom 8. 32.
What then do we say of the severe warning given in 10. 26 that if one falls away, there is no hope of pardon? This refers to those who sin not only gravely but so repeatedly that they become hard or blind. Then God may indeed be willing to give forgiveness, but the blind soul is incapable of taking it in. The great case of this is the passage in which Jesus, speaking of the sin against the Holy Spirit (of attributing His casting out of the devil to the devil) says this sin will never be forgiven, neither in this life, nor in the life to come. Even there, the words of Jesus did not mean God was unwilling to forgive. In fact, on His very first appearance to the Apostles after His death and resurrection, as if He was eager to give out what He had so dearly paid for, He told them (John 20. 23): "Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven then." He did not say except... . . - for, as we said, the price of redemption was infinite, so that after accepting it, the Father can deny nothing that that infinite price has earned: Romans 8. 32 -only that the sinners of whom He spoke had made themselves so fully hard and blind that even though God would send grace, they were closed, impervious to it. But again, the sense is that such souls may become so very hard that even though God on His part would still be willing to forgive - having accepted the infinite price of Redemption, He is always willing-- the soul has made itself incapable of receiving, for its blindness keeps it from perceiving the first movement of a grace that might lead to repentance.
How can it happen that a soul becomes unable to take in the forgiveness God is willing to give? The first thing an actual grace needs to do is to put not the mind the thing God wants to lead a soul to do. But if it has allowed the pulls of creatures to pull it so far and so tightly that the gentle movement of grace is drowned out, as it were, then that soul cannot be forgiven.
A comparison will help to clarify. We think of a galvanometer, that is, a compass needle on its pivot. We put a coil of wire around it, and send in a current. Then the needle dips the right direction and the right amount, measuring the current. It will do that correctly if there are no outside pulls, such as 33, 000 volt power lines or a mass of magnetic steel. Then two forces strike the needle: the outside pulls, and the current in the coil. Now that current in the coil stands for grace, in our mental meter. Grace is always gentle, in that it respects our freedom; the outside pulls, if one lets self be strongly caught or hooked by them, take away freedom. They drown out the pull of the current, grace, in the coil. Then the soul cannot register what God is trying to tell it: repent, be sorry. If grace cannot do the first thing, it cannot do the second and third either. So that soul is deprived of grace. Without grace, it is lost. Hence the stern words of 10. 26 saying it is impossible to be restored again.
(Even in the case of a hardened sinner, there is an extraordinary grace, comparable to a miracle, that could get through even such resistance. But God cannot make the extraordinary to be ordinary. It is only if some other soul - cf. Col 1. 24 -- puts into the one pan of the two-pan scales, as it were, an extraordinary weight by prayer and penance, then it will be quite in order for God to depart from the ordinary way, and to give an extraordinary movement of grace. So that soul could be rescued).
The error of Martin Luther is clearly nonsense, it supposes that after all these warnings of Hebrews, after the warning that it is virtually impossible to be restored if one once having received grace should fall away -- it is impossible to suppose that once Jesus has earned salvation, we may now sin as much as we want so that, "no sin will separate us from the Lamb, even though we commit fornication and murder a thousand times a day" (Luther, Works, American Edition, Epistle to Melanchthon of Aug 1, 1521: Vol 48. p. 282). If that were true, what would happen to the Holiness of God, the characteristic in virtue of which He loves all that is right, hates all evil, and acts accordingly, e.g., in Ezekiel 28. 22: "They shall know that I am the Lord when I inflict punishments on them, and I shall show myself holy in her [niqdashti]." Or in Isaiah 5. 15-16: "God, the Holy One, will show himself holy [niqdesh] by moral rightness [sedaqah]." How could a soul befouled with fornication and murder a thousand times a day be at once joined in eternal embrace to Him who is, as Malachi 3. 2 says, "like a refiner's fire? Who can stand when He appears?" The just soul, says St. Paul (1 Cor 3. 16 and 6. 19) is a temple of the Holy Spirit. Would that Holiness dwell in such filth? Or why would St. Paul himself be hard on his body, fearing, as the context shows, he might lose, not just some added prize, but his eternal salvation if he did not tame that rebellious flesh? In 1 Cor 9. 27 he [in the literal version] says: "I beat my body under the eyes, and lead it around like a slave, so that after preaching to others, I may not be rejected" at the judgment.
(Actually, even the above does not show the depth of the error of Luther. In what he himself considered his best work, The Bondage of the Will, [trans. James I. Packer and O. R. Johnson, F. H. Revell Co. , Old Tappan, N. J. 1957] Luther insisted, on p. 273, that we have no free will, that our will is like a beast on which either God or satan will ride, so that the soul does good or evil and goes to heaven or hell, but has nothing to say about which one rides [pp. 103-04]. So that though God damns the great majority [p. 101] yet those damned are "undeserving" of being damned [. 314] To say that is blasphemy, that is, insulting to the Goodness and Holiness of God).
We move ahead after our prospective summary picture: We meet a remarkable expression in verse 6: "Someone has testified somewhere." Actually it was in Psalm 8. Did not the writer of Hebrews know it was Psalm 8 he was quoting?. He hardly would not have known it, the Psalms were so familiar to all Jews. But they did not have our handy system of chapter and verse. And also, it may reflect an attitude that as long as it is Scripture, it makes no difference from what part it comes. Still further, the author of Hebrews was not thinking in the Protestant mode whereby Jesus should have said to the Apostles: "Write some books - get copies made - pass them out tell people to figure them out for themselves." What errant nonsense! The Church depend on its own ongoing teaching, as Jesus Himself had done.
Verse 5 had introduced an interesting thought. God did not entrust the world-to come to angels, but only to the Son, of whom Hebrews has been speaking.
The world to come would be the Hebrew ha olam ha ba, that is the world that comes after this world. the future life. But as to the present world, God administers things through angels. It is interesting to notice the way the Septuagint renders Deuteronomy 32. 8: "When the Most High distributed the nations, when He dispersed the sons of Adam, He set boundaries for the nations, according to the number of the angels of God." St. Thomas, in his On Separate Substances 79 says that angels are the "universal executors of divine providence."
It may be that there may be an echo of this idea in Daniel 10. 20-21 which speaks of the "prince of Greece" and the prince of Persia. The great prince who speaks to Daniel is to fight against the prince of Persia. (In 12. 1 we hear that Michael is the great prince, who is the guardian of Israel). We must remember that the passage in Daniel is heavily apocalyptic, and so it is hard to determine what the sober content is. We could, if we wished, suppose with the Septuagint of Dt 32. 8 that God did assign different angels to different regions, that after some of them fell, they still retained some power - cf. St. Paul in Eph 6. 12 speaking of the world-rulers of this darkness" and also the many mentions of spiritual powers in Colossians, which at one time were mistakenly understood to mean nine choirs of angels- -but if we watch the context in Colossians, we see, especially at Col 2. 15, that they are really evil spirit powers -- again, Paul is using the terms of his opponents in Colossians to combat them, and so we need to take these names as his own thought.
To leave these speculations behind, it does seem, with St. Thomas, that God uses angels to administer things in the present world. But Hebrews say that will not be the case in the world to come: there all is in the power of the Son.
To return to verse 7: That son was indeed "made a little lower than the angels", and suffered death. But at the end, the Father will subject all things to Him, who is then crowned with glory, all His enemies being made His footstool (cf. 1 Cor 15. 27-28, which even uses part of this passage of Psalm 8; and also Psalm 110. 1: "Until I make your enemies your footstool". All creation (cf. Romans 8. 19 -25) will be made clearly subject to Him. But before that exaltation, He was made lower, and was "Son of Man". |That expression was so often used by Jesus of Himself- it was, on the one hand, part of His gradual self-revelation; on the other hand, it would serve as a means of alluding to Daniel 7. 9-14 where one like a Son of Man is presented to the Ancient of Days, and receives everlasting dominion -surely it is Jesus, who identified Himself as son of Man so often, and not the Jewish nation as a whole, which never did receive universal, everlasting dominion.
He was indeed made lower for a time, for He emptied Himself (Phil. 2. 7) and became obedient even to death on the cross. He followed the will of the Father in not using His divine power for His own comfort-- and so He "tasted death for all", suffering terribly - but after His resurrection that phase is all over. Then He announced (Mt 28. 18-20) to the Apostles: "All power has been given to me in heaven and on earth". As God He always has the power. He had it always even as man, but would not exercise it as man until the moment set by the Father when, as Romans 1. 4 says, He was "constituted Son-of-God-in-power."
Summary 2. 10-18
It was really suitable that God, for whom all things exist and through whom all things are, should make perfect through suffering the one who leads all to their salvation. For the Son who sanctifies and those who are sanctified come from the same human race. So He is not ashamed to call them brothers in saying:"I will declare your name to my brothers, and in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praises." And similarly the Son said: "I will place my trust in Him, the Father, and the Son adds: "Here I am, I and the children God has given me."
Since then the children of God have flesh and blood, the Son too partook of the same flesh and blood, so that through death He might bring to nothing the enemy who held the power of death, the devil, and might deliver those who were subject to lifelong bondage in fear of death. He took on not an angelic nature, but human nature, that of the children of Abraham. And so it was right that He become like His brothers in all respects, so as to be a merciful and faithful high priest for their responsibilities to God, so as to make atonement for their sins.
Since He Himself endured trial and suffering, He is fit to help those who endure trial.
Comments 2. 10-18
The words "it was fitting" do not mean that things had to be that way, merely that it was suitable in God's love of good order, of all that is right. Just as the Holiness of God --cf. our comments above on His Holiness -- loves all that is morally right, so too He loves all things in proper arrangement and order. This idea is expressed well by St. Thomas in I. 19. 5. c. We need to paraphrase (because of the clumsy Latin): In His love of all that is in right order, God is pleased to have one thing in place to serve as the reason or title for giving a second thing - even though that reason does not really move Him. (He cannot be moved).
(This principle helps explain why God wills the Mass, to provide a title or reason for giving out that which was once-for all fully earned, bought and paid for, by Jesus' death. It helps explain why it pleased Him also to involve the cooperation of the New Eve, Our Lady, in fulfilling the condition of the New Covenant, obedience (cf. Rom 5. 19 and Lumen gentium §§ 56 and 61) -- similarly her obedience joins in the interior of His sacrifice, and in the rebalance of the objective order, giving obedience for disobedience. She was there by decree of Divine Providence (LG §§ 58 & 61) as the New Eve. And it helps to explain why the Father willed her cooperation also in the giving out of the fruits of the Great Sacrifice, (in the subjective redemption), and even joined ordinary Saints to the same process of giving out).
(Pope Paul VI, in his Constitution on Indulgences of Jan 1, 1967, explained the need of this rebalance of the scales, of the restoration of all the values of the objective order, damaged by sin. The essential work of rebalance of course is the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus; yet in virtue of the syn Christo theme and principle of which we spoke in comments on 2. 1-9, His members are called upon to be like Him in this rebalancing for their own sins).
It is specially remarkable that Hebrews speaks of making the Son perfect. Was and is He not perfect precisely as the Son who is God also? Of course. Was there something lacking to His human nature? Of course not, it was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit in the spotless womb of the Virgin Mary.
We begin by noting that the expression make perfect comes from the word the Septuagint uses (teleioo) in speaking of consecrating a High priest. We turn then to the Hebrew of the same passages, and we find that in Exodus 29. 9 and 29 where the Septuagint has teleioo, the Hebrew (mala' yad) literally means "fill the hand". -- The probable origin of the expression is to fill the hand of the priest with gifts to offer to God, as part of the ritual of ordination (cf. 1 Kings 13. 33, where however the Greek renders the Hebrew literally, "fill the hand"). Hebrews uses the same word teleioo in speaking of Jesus being made perfect also in 5. 9 and 7. 28. It uses the word for the followers being sanctified in 7. 19 and in 9. 9; 10. 1 and 14. To explain: Hebrew has a series of contrasts of Jesus and the old regime. The old regime had priests who could not make their people perfect (7. 19 and 9. 9). The old sacrifices gave merely legal purity for cultic purposes, and could remit sheggagah, involuntary sins. But they did not forgive sins committed be yad ramah, with a high hand: Numbers 15. 30: "Anyone who sins with a high hand... insults the Lord, and shall be cut off from among his people."
(Sheggagah means involuntary sin, a violation of the law of God committed when the doer does not realizing he is violating. Later when he finds out, he is obliged to offer a sacrifice to make up: cf. Leviticus chapter 4. The reason: The Holiness of God loves all that is good and right. A violation even one done in good faith is still objectively a violation, a disturbing of the scales of the objective order. Hence God wants it rebalanced. Cf. the case of Pharaoh who in good faith had the wife of Abraham. Genesis 12. 17 says God struck Pharaoh and his household with severe plagues because of this. Jesus Himself in Lk 12. 47-48 said that the servant who violated orders knowingly would get a severe beating, but,"the servant who did not know his master's wishes, but did things [objectively] deserving blows, will get off with fewer stripes."
This theme sheggagah is abundant in OT, NT, Intertestamental Literature, Rabbinic literature As we said, it depends on the infinite Holiness of God. Cf. Simeon ben Eleazar, in Tosefta, Kiddushin, 1. 14: "'He [anyone] has committed a transgression. Woe to him. He has tipped the scales to the side of debt for himself and for the world."The sinner takes from one pan of the scale what he has no right to have. The Holiness of God wants it rebalanced. A creature could rectify only a finite imbalance. But the imbalance of even one mortal sin is infinite, so IF the Father willed perfect rebalance, only by sending a Divine Person to become man could it be done. Cf. also Paul VI, doctrinal introduction to Indulgentiarum doctrina of Jan 1, 1967. (Imagine then the attitude of God to someone who says it is all right, if one has faith, to commit fornication and murder a thousand times a day!) Cf. Wm. Most The Thought of St. Paul, pp. 80-82 and 294-300. The great Day of Yom Kippur could atone only for sheggagah, not for sins done be yad ramah, voluntarily: cf. Hebrews 9. 7. Rich Jews at the time of Christ used to have a sacrifice offered in the Temple every day, just in case they might have committed some violation without realizing even - even though they had not yet become aware of such [Leviticus required a sacrifice only when later on they actually became aware of having done such a thing]: cf. A. Büchler, Studies in Sin and Atonement, KTAV, 1967, p. 425.
In contrast, the priesthood of Jesus and His sacrifice really did make atonement for all sins.
In the old sacrifices, a person was required to be qadosh, holy, fit for cult. In that of Jesus, a person must also be qadosh, , but now it is not merely cultic fittingness but moral fittingness that is required. The sacrifice of Jesus does confer moral fitness.
Verse 10 says that "It was fitting for Him through whom all things are, for whom all things are... to make perfect (teleiosai) Him who was the leader of [His people] to salvation, through suffering. For in His suffering, Jesus became both the priest and the victim of the perfect sacrifice. Hence suffering was called for.
We can fill in a bit. The redemption has three aspects: 1)sacrifice 2) new covenant 3) payment of debt or rebalance of objective order.
In sacrifice, the essential is the interior without which all would be vain: cf. Isaiah 29. 13. That interior was obedience, in Jesus, obedience even to death on the cross: Phil 2. 8-9. That obedience involved suffering by the will of the Father. Actually, infinite atonement could have been had from any action of the God-man, yet by positive will of the Father, which He obeyed, He went so far as the painful suffering of death on the cross. And so He was made perfect or consecrated (for Greek teleioo does reproduce the idea of Hebrew mala' yad, to consecrate), by this suffering. In that He became the perfect High Priest. In the act of sanctifying, as the new propitiatory (Romans 3. 25) He won all forgiveness for all, not just a passing over (cf Rom 3. 25) of sins without a full atonement being made in the objective order.
This was the blood of the new covenant (Jer 31. 31-33), without which blood (Heb 9. 22) there is no remission, it was the sacrifice which could really remit sins, not just pass them over (Rom 3. 24-25).
Further, sin is a debt, which the Holiness of God wants repaid (cf. Wm. Most, The Thought of St. Paul, pp. 289-301). He wanted the debt repaid even in the case of involuntary sheggagah, in Leviticus 4. But the repayment then was not full and there was no repayment for sins done be yad ramah. But the suffering of Jesus more than outbalanced the guilty pleasures of all sinners of all times.
The one who sanctifies (Heb. 2. 11), and those sanctified are all of the same race, human. Hence it counts for all. Cf. 2 Cor 5. 14: "since one died, all have died" , and most fully paid the debt. Hence He calls us His brothers: "I will announce your name to my brothers." Since the brothers all had flesh and blood, so He too, their leader to salvation, also had flesh and blood. Thus He overcame the curse (Gal. 3. 13, by becoming "a curse" for us, and by death He destroyed the rule of him who had the power of death, the devil. He delivered those who had been subject to the fear of death throughout all their lives - not just fear of physical death, but even eternal death.
He did not take on an angelic nature, but the nature of the seed of Abraham. And so it was fitting that He be like His brothers, and become a merciful and faithful High Priest before God for them, making propitiation for their sins. In that He too suffered, He can understand in an experiential way (and not just through the knowledge He had thorough the vision of God) what it is like to suffer, and so can help those who are tried. (Cf. also comments on 5. 8 below).
Chapter 3. Summary
So, holy brothers, sharers in the heavenly calling, think of the divine envoy and high priest whom we confess, Jesus, who is faithful to Him who made Him, just as Moses was faithful in all God's house. Jesus was worthy of greater glory than Moses, just as the maker of a house has more glory than the house. For some creature makes a house, but it is God who created all things.
Moses indeed was faithful in all God's house as a servant, testifying to the things he was to say. But Christ is like the Son, in His own house -- we are that household, if only we keep our courage and hope of glory, which we hold onto as a firm foundation.
Wherefore, as the Holy Spirit says: "Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts, as they, the ancient Jews, did in the rebellion, in tempting God, as on the day of tempting in the desert." Your forefathers tried Me, and saw ny works. Hence I was angry with this generation and said: They are always going astray in their heart. They did not know my ways, and so I swore to them in my anger: "They will not enter into my rest."
Watch out brothers, so that there may not be in any of you a heart of faithlessness, so as to depart from the living God, but encourage one another each day, as long as it is still called "Today", so no one of you may be hardened in the deception of sin. For we are sharers of Christ, if only we hold to the firmness with which we began, even to the end.
For it is said: "Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts, as they did in that tempting". Who were those who had heard and in spite of that were rebellious? Most of those who
left Egypt with Moses leading. With which ones was He angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies were laid low in the desert? Which ones did He swear would never enter into His rest, if not those who were disobedient? We see it was because of lack of faith that they could not enter.
So, let us be afraid that, now while the offer of entering into that rest is still available, some might be judged to have failed. For that good promise came to them as it did to us. But that good news was of no benefit to them since it did not meet with faith in those who heard.
For we who have faith (i.e., if we have faith) enter that rest, as He said: "As I swore in my anger: They shall never enter into my rest."
And yet, His works were finished since the beginning of the world as He said in a certain passage about the seventh day: "And God rested on the seventh day from all His works. On the same subject, the Psalm says: "They shall not enter into my rest."
Since then there is still an opening for some to enter into this rest, while those who failed in former times failed because of disobedience, He sets a particular day again, saying, "Today" when he says in a Psalm of David, after so long a lapse of time, "If only you would listen to His voice Today. So do not harden your hearts. If Joshua, the successor of Moses had really given them rest, God would not have spoken of still another day after that. So then a sabbath rest is still open for the people of God. One who has entered God's rest has rested in his turn from his own works, as God did from His.
Comments on 3. 1-19
The writer calls them members of a holy brotherhood. For Jesus is the Son of God, but we are made His brothers - we recall 2. 13 where Jesus calls us His brothers. We have a heavenly calling - that is a calling to be full members of the People of God. St. Paul commonly uses that word call in this sense.
We are members of the household of God. This is another Pauline thought, as we see it in Ephesians 2. 19: "You are no longer strangers and aliens, but citizens of the holy ones, members of the household of God." Although this Epistle is addressed to the Hebrews, it applies not only to the descendants of Abraham - for mere carnal descent from Abraham is not enough, as we saw in Romans 4 - but to all those who have been made into one body in Christ (cf. Eph 3. 6), who broke down the wall of separation and made the two one (Eph 2. 14-16).
The author calls Jesus both apostle (one who is sent) and high priest. He was sent by the Father; He is appointed high priest - which will be developed more fully in 4. 14 - 6. 20.
In the Old Testament, only Moses seems to have had both roles, as envoy and as priest. But Moses was unique. In Numbers 12. 7-8, when Aaron and Miriam claimed they were sent by God as well as Moses, God called them before the Tent of Meeting, and proclaimed that with an ordinary prophet, He revealed Himself in visions and dreams: "But not so to my servant Moses, who is faithful in all of my house. I speak to him face to face, clearly , not in riddles. He sees the form of God." There is of course a bit of Semitic exaggeration here even it be words of God, for although Exodus 33. 11 says also that God used to speak to Moses "face to face", yet that is clarified in 33. 18-22. For when Moses asks to really see God's face, God places Moses in the hollow of the rock, and covers Moses with His hand, so Moses might see only God's back, not His face.
In Dt 18. 18 God said that He would later raise up a prophet like Moses. The NT readily understood this to refer to Jesus. priests and levites asked John the Baptist (Jn. 1. 19-26 if he, John, was the prophet who was to come. In Acts 3, 22 Peter quotes this line of Dt, and says it refers to Jesus.
As we just noted, Exodus tells us that Moses did want to see the face of God, and was refused. But Jesus, far greater than Moses, always saw the face of God. For the Church has taught repeatedly- in spite of determined denials by unfaithful persons- that from the first instant of conception, Jesus' human mind saw the vision of God (cf. Wm. Most, The Consciousness of Christ, especially Chapter 7).
Even without the help of the Church we can sees that His human soul not only happened to have that vision, but could not have lacked it. For just any soul will have that vision if its power to know is raised by grace, and if the divinity joins itself directly to the mind/soul without even an image in between. This had to be the case in Jesus, for not just His human mind, but His entire humanity was joined to the divinity even in the unity of one Person!
It is tragic that so many deny this truth today, for in doing so they miss a major part of His suffering for us. By that vision He knew from the first instant everything He was to suffer. That would wear on Him all through His life. He could not, as we could, say: Perhaps it will not come, perhaps it will not be so bad. No, that vision was infallible, and mercilessly clear on all the hideous details of pain. He let us look inside Himself, as it were, in Luke 12. 50 and in John 12. 27.
We might add that Matthew's Gospel in various ways seems to intend to think of Jesus as that new Moses, especially in His exodus from Egypt, and in His giving the law: "You have heard it was said to them of old, but I say... ."
It is not only that Christ was faithful in all His house, but He Himself, as divine was the maker of that house, and thus far superior to Moses. For Christ is the maker of the house, He is the Son.
The Epistle continues saying that we are his house, provided that we hold on to our confidence and hope. If we suppose, as is most likely, that this Epistle was rather early, we may see in these words an exhortation to hold on-- they may have had the notion that the return of Christ was to be very soon. The Thessalonians, as we gather from St. Paul's Epistles to them, certainly had such a notion. Did Paul himself also think so? The reason advanced for saying that are not convincing. Chiefly commentators point to the words, "we the living" which come twice in 1 Thes 4. But there is no need to suppose Paul had a mistake here. Such language is only the sort of thing many teacher uses, speaking of first singular or plural, to make things concrete and vivid. Further, the Second Epistle to Thessalonica makes entirely clear that the author did not think the end was close. Of course, then those commentators who want to say Paul was in error will say Paul could not have written Second Thessalonians - what a weak reed on which to pin their belief, the mere possibility that "we the living" might imply such a thought. In contrast, the external witnesses saying Paul wrote 2 Thes are as strong as they are for First Thessalonians.
Some of our greatest manuscripts add the words "firm until the end:" after speaking of our hope. In spite of such evidence, in spite of the fact that the words fit the situation, some say the words were added from the end of 3. 14. Not impossible, but neither is there any solid reason for thinking the words do not also belong here in 3. 6.
The passage 3. 7-19 points out that since it was so serious to reject the first Moses, how much more serious it is to reject Christ, the new and far greater Moses. Language and imagery are taken from the Exodus here.
The words of the Holy Spirit here are from Psalm 95. 8-1. |The Psalm, and Hebrews urge them not to harden their hearts as they did more than once in the desert wanderings. Special mention however is made of Meribah ("rebellion") and Massah ("testing" of God). The incident was the murmuring of the Hebrews in Exodus 17. 1-7. There the people had said: "Is the Lord in our midst ot not?" They had already seen the power of the Lord i miracles more than once, yet they still did not have faith. It reminds us of the call by the Pharisees to Christ for a sign - when they had already seen so very many. In this incident Moses is told to strike the rock with the rod which he had used in miracles before. The water did come out at once. There is a very similar incident- for the Israelites murmured so many times-- reported in Numbers 20. 1-13. Then Moses was told merely to speak to the rock, but instead he struck it, struck twice. It seems his faith weakened. At any rate, in Numbers 20, 12 the Lord told Moses and Aaron that since they did not honor him by faith at that point, they would not be allowed to lead the community into the promised land. Therefore Aaron died soon after. Numbers 20. 27-28 tells how Moses, at command of God, took off the priestly garments from Aaron, and put them on his son Eleazar. Aaron himself then died. Moses later died, as narrated in Deuteronomy 34, on Mt. Nebo, form which he could see the promised land, but was not allowed to enter it.
The second incident seems to have taken place in the last year of their wanderings, the first, sometime earlier. The location of this first incident is said to be at Rephidim, and it seems to be close to Mt. Horeb-- which seems to be the same as Sinai.
There is a problem about the location of Rephidim. Numbers 13-14 the Israelites stopped at Kadesh-Barnea while spies scouted the land. Because of their faithless reaction there, after the false report of the spies, God condemned them to wander for years, so none of the generation there would enter the promised land, except Joshua and Caleb. There is a problem of lack of remains near the probable site of Kadesh-Barnea: Cf. R. Cohen,"Did I excavate Kadesh-Barnea" in BAR, May- June, 1981. pp 21-33. However, Frank Moore Cross, retired from Harvard, in an interview in Bible Review, August 1992, pp. 23-32, 61-62 thinks the Israelites really wandered in the area of Midian, where many remains have been found. Also, Moses had the vision of the Burning Bush in Midian, and seemingly Sinai was there. Moses married a woman from Midian.
God swore they would not enter into His rest. What would have been understood at the time of the desert wanderings by that word? Most likely the promised land. Later, around the end of the OT period, there was a tendency to reinterpret material images to make them stand for spiritual realities, as St. Paul does in Galatians 3. 15 ff. But although the Jews did know of survival after death during the desert period, they may not have known much about retribution the future life then.
Many scholars today argue that the early Hebrews seem to have had a unitary concept of man - a body with the breath of life, so that after the breath goes into the air, and the body decays, nothing is left. Hence the modern conclusion of no survival. Yet we are certain that they did know of survival very early. Three times in the OT -- Lev 19. 31; 20. 6; Dt 8. 11 - necromancy is prohibited, which makes clear they did know of survival. Jesus Himself in replying to the Sadducees, appealed to the burning bush text: "I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob." He reasoned: He is not the God of the dead but of the living. While of course accepting His words, we still may ask: Did the early Hebrews pick up that implication in Exodus 3. 15.
How did they reconcile the two things? We do not know. It seems that they did not know, but most likely did not concern themselves about it. Semites could be quite comfortable with a pair of seemingly contradictory statements, without asking how to reconcile them. A fine example is found in Matthew 6. 6 tells them top ray in secret. But Matthew 5. 16 tells them to let their good works be seen so they may glorify the Father.
There are even some passages in the Psalms - admitted by all -which seem to speak of the vision of God after death: In Psalm 17. 15 the psalmist says that when he awakes: "I shall behold your face." Psalm 73. 24:"You guide me with your counsel, and afterwards will receive [laqah the same word used for the cases of Enoch in Gen 5. 24 and Elijah in 2 Kings 9-10] me to glory [kabod]." Psalm 49. 15:"God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for He will receive me" - Again, laqah is used.
Further, Mitchell Dahood, in the introductions to each of his three Anchor Bible volumes on the Psalms, argues for revising about 30 Psalm lines with the help of the Ugaritic. If he is right, knowledge of retribution must have been found at least early in the period of the kings.
So, picking up on the word today, the author of Hebrews wants them to encourage one another, so long as it is still Today. In making the exhortation of the OT present to his own time, the author is following a very old tradition. In Dt. 5. 2 Moses told the people: "The Lord God made a covenant with us at Horeb. Not with our fathers did the Lord make the covenant, but with us all, who are living today." The reason is clear: God intends each one of His children to make the covenant with Him. A similar thought appears in 2 Cor . 2:6 "Behold, now is the a acceptable time, now is the day of salvation."
The author urges them not to be taken by the deceit [apate] of sin. Sin deceives since it promises what is cannot give, since as St. Augustine (City of God 14. 4) explains well, to sin is to fail to be "true to form", the form or pattern God intends for each of us. To do that is to move in the direction of non-being, since one thereby recedes from Being and the source of being. That deceit is epitomized in the story of Eve in the garden. She looked at the fruit - or whatever command of God it may have been - and said in effect to herself; God may know what is good in some things, but right now, I can just SEE that this is good. I know better than God. -- What consummate deception!
The author says we have become sharers metochoi with Christ if only we hold on until the end. We are partners with Him, since as Hebrews said above, He is our brother, since by divine adoption He and we are sons of the Father. But this is valid only in the condition expressed in Romans 8:17: "We are heirs of God, fellow-heirs with Christ, provided that we suffer with Him, so we may also be glorified with Him."
God was vexed with the Hebrews in the desert "for forty years", that is, for the entire period of their wandering. It is an evidence of the veracity of the author of that account that he does not hesitate to portray the people of Israel as murmuring and rebelling against God so very frequently, that Moses and God both called them several times "stiff-necked."
So it was because of lack of faith that they could not enter into the rest of God. The word used for their faithlessness is apistia which is explained by saying "they disobeyed" Again, Hebrews is in line with the certain Epistles of St. Paul, for whom faith includes not only belief in what God says and confidence in His promises, but also and especially obedience to His commands, as in Romans 1. 5,"The obedience of faith', that is, the obedience that faith is.
The fact that our author thinks of faith as including obedience, like St. Paul in Romans 1. 5, is clear especially from the examples of faith he gives in chapter 11, especially of the faith of Abraham, who not only believed in His mind, had confidence in God's promises, but acted in obedience, in leaving his home land, and in being willing to sacrifice Isaac. What of the fact that St. Paul insistently says faith alone justifies, without works? We reply: Faith in the Pauline sense includes obedience, even as Hebrews does here and in chapter 11. St. Paul seems unwilling to mention these two examples -- leaving his home land, and sacrificing Isaac-- for they might be called works . But a distinction was in order: these works were things produced by the "obedience of faith", Romans 1. 5, that is, the obedience that faith is. But they did not earn justification or salvation. That is a free gift of God, as we see in Romans 6. 23: "The wages of sin [what we earn] is death; the free gift of God [what we do not earn] is eternal life."
In line with all of this, the NT tends to picture the work of Christ as a new Exodus, by the new Moses. In Lk 9. 31 at the Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah are speaking with Jesus about the exodos He is to fulfill in Jerusalem. That word fulfill may well point to the final words of Jesus on the Cross: "It is completed, fulfilled". St. John's Gospel (19. 30), so fond of working with evocative uses of words, has Jesus say: "tetelestai: it is teleios", reminding us of the words of Hebrews that He was made teleios (Heb. 2. 10) by suffering. (We recall too our comments above on Heb. 2. 10 that that word, teleioo in Greek was used to reproduce the Hebrew expression meaning to ordain).
Do Not Lose that Rest: 4. 1-16: Summary
We still have the opening to enter into that rest. Let us be careful not to lose it, as the ancient Hebrews once did. It was lack of faith that caused them to lose it.
God has been at rest since the beginning, as Genesis says: "God rested on the seventh day from all His work". So He is still resting. It is into that rest that they could have entered, but they failed as we learn from the line: "They shall not enter into my rest." Hence the rest is still open, still available.
Since they failed by lack of faith, of obedience, he still sets a day, that is "Today", after so long a time. For the rest, the promised land, that Joshua had given them, was not the ultimate rest, If it were, Scripture could not continue to speak of something beyond that promised land.
A sabbath rest does remain open for us, the People of God. So we should hasten to get into that rest and not fall into the same pattern of lack of faith. For the word of God is effective, and cuts more than any two-edged sword, reaching even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and it knows the thoughts and intentions of the heart. No creature can hide from him, all are open and bare to His eyes.
But we can have confidence because our high priest has not just figuratively, but actually gone into the heavens. He has experienced our trouble, and so can be sympathetic to our needs. With him we can have confidence in coming before God, who sits on a throne of mercy.
Comments on 4. 1-16
The rest that was promised originally to the Jews was the land of Canaan. But they failed to enter since they did not believe God-- instead they believed the lying spies who had gone into see the land, and returned with impossible tales. They should have believed God's promise. That faith would include also obedience to the covenant. Hence the concept of faith here is really the same as that found in St. Paul, who includes under that word: belief in what God says, confidence in His promises, obedience to His commands.
In the late part of the OT period some Jews began to reinterpret God's promise of rest to mean the rest of eternal life in the vision of God. St. Paul clearly takes it this way in Galatians 3. 15ff. But at the time of which this passage speaks, they thought only of the rest of the land of Canaan, and they did not believe God that He could and would bring them into there, nor did they obey His covenant. Instead they murmured against Him so many times over.
So the words 'His rest" could mean either "the rest He will give" or," the rest He Himself enjoys." The latter was hardly thought of at the time of the desert wandering pictured here, for as we said, it was only much later than God's promises were reinterpreted to refer to eternal life with Him. Yet the author of Hebrews may well be reinterpreting that word rest at this point, as St. Paul did. The way he speaks of the fact that God Himself rested as the model for their rest would tend to show that he had this reinterpreted idea in mind, even though at the time of the desert wandering it was hardly known to the Jews. Again, he says in v. 8 that if Joshua had given them the true rest there would be no talk of something further. Yet there is something further in reality-- as the author here reinterprets things.
The fact that the OT records all their tragic misbehavior show the honesty of the writers. The Pentateuch is probably something like an epic, the story of the beginnings of a great people. Yet what people would invent a tale in which they had for centuries been slaves in Egypt, and after being so marvelously rescued from there, would tell of their reiterated disobedience and ingratitude to God?
We note the dramatic stress on the word "Today" here, just as we saw it in the comments above on 3. 13. God is as it were making His promise and covenant not just with a past generation, but with the present generation.
The last verse says that a "sabbath rest" is open for the people of God. This might mean merely that there is a rest as complete as that of the sabbath - or it is just possible that the author was thinking of s schema of ages in which the previous time stood for 6 days, and then the time to come would be the seventh. St. Augustine at the end of his great City of God speaks similarly of six ages - without meaning to suppose there were only 6900 years to al history. For the periods Augustine mentions are very uneven in length, and not periods of a thousand years each.
Naturally, an exhortation follows: Get busy so you can enter into this great rest. Do not think you can hide anything from God: His word is sharp, penetrates everywhere. Everything lies open and bare to His eyes. To Him all must given an account.
It is not likely that our author meant us to take strictly the divisions he mentions, soul and spirit, joints and marrow. Thee is in itself no difference between soul and spirit, just as the Word of God does not literally cut through joints and marrow.
For our help we have a great High Priest, Christ, who has actually penetrated into the heavens. He has had the experience of trial, and so is in a position to be sympathetic to us. Therefore we can come before the throne of mercy with confidence.
As to His experience of trials we will reserve comments for 5. 8 which even says He learned obedience from the things He suffered. And as to the saying that He was tried in every way like we are-- we must remember that the genre of Hebrews is homiletic. We should not conclude that He must have had various illness or that he was lame, or that He was ignorant in His human mind (more on that point later).
Chapter 5: Christ's Priesthood compared with that of Melchisedek:
Summary of 5. 1-14
A high priest is taken from among men, and is appointed for the sake of humans in their responsibility to God, so that he may offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He needs to be able to deal in considerate way with the ignorant and with those who err, since he himself knows he is frail. As a result of this frailty, even he has to bring a sin offering for himself as well as for the people.
No one has a right to take this office on himself - it is for those called by God, as Aaron was.
Not even Christ exalted Himself to this dignity of the high priesthood. He was raised to it by the One who said to Him: "You are my Son, today have I begotten you". God also in another place said of Him: "You are a priest forever, in the line of Melchizedek".
[Just as ordinary priests make an offering for themselves, so Christ, though He had no need of a sin offering for himself] did make prayers and loud petitions with tears, to Him who could save Him from death. He was heard because of His reverence to the Father.
And even though He was the Father's Son, He still learned obedience by suffering. Then, after being made perfect, He became the source of eternal salvation to those who follow Him, He who was appointed by God as high priest in the line of Melchizedek.
There are many things to say about this Melchizedek, much of which is hard to understand, for you have become sluggish. Really, by now you ought to be able to be teachers, yet, you are not able, for you still need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God's words all over again. You have become such as to need milk, not solid food. Now anyone who is fed on milk is not trained in the matter of what is right, so he is an infant. Solid food is for those who are mature, who by practice have had their senses trained to tell good from evil.
Comments on Chapter 5
At the end of the previous chapter, the author said we could have confidence to come before God's merciful throne, because we have a great Mediator. Now He expands on that Mediator, and contrasts Him with earlier priests.
All priests are taken from humanity, and given the assignment of offerings gifts and sacrifices to God for men. From the later part of this chapter we gather than the author has in mind especially the sin offering that had to be made for the Day of Atonement - a most important things, so much so that in Talmud Berachoth 1. 1, we read that for three days before that offering, the high priest had to be secluded, so that he might not even inadvertently incur levitical impurity, and so be unable to officiate.
These ancient priests had to be able to sympathize with those who sin, since they themselves were sinful, to such an extent that they had to make a sin offering for themselves as well as for the people. Historically, from the fall of the house of Zadok when Onias was killed in 171 BC, there were few high priests who showed these personal qualities. This was especially the case when men like Alexander Jannaeus, who was both king and high priest 103-76 BC held the office.
The old high priest had to make offering for those who sinned in ignorance (cf. Leviticus, chapter 4 and our comments about on Hebrews 2. 10) - for, as we see in Hebrews 9. 7, there were no sacrifices provided for sins committed be yad ramah, "with a high hand."
But just as the ancient priests needed a divine call, like Aaron, Christ Himself, even though He was Son, did not take the dignity upon Himself: it was given Him by the Father who said: "You are my Son... . you are a priest forever in the line of Melchizedek." Here Psalm 110. 4 is applied to Jesus. So far as we know, this is the first time that Jesus who was called the messiah from David in Psalm 2. 7 was also called high priest in the line of Melchizedek. Melchizedek appears in Genesis 14. 18 as king of Salem which was traditionally, and probably correctly, identified with Jerusalem. He was called a priest of El elyon, the most high God. In Gen 14. 22 El elyon is identified with Yahweh. It seems that since David took Jerusalem, his line inherited the priesthood of Melchizedek, in perhaps a titular way, since the priesthood of Jerusalem later was from the family of Zadok, which seems distinct from the Davidic line. Both Jews and Christians did much speculation on Melchizedek. Yet Jewish unhappiness about the Christian use of this thought led them to take in time a less favorable view of Melchizedek in Talmud, Nedarim 32a, where it is said that since Melchizedek in Genesis 14. 19-20 blessed Abraham before he blessed God, therefore the priesthood was taken from Melchizedek (he remained a priest, but his sons would not be priests) and given to Abraham. Thus they wanted to counter the claim that Christ was a priest in the line of Melchizedek by claiming that there was no priesthood of the line of Melchizedek.
Really, putting the blessing of God in last place proves nothing. In a liturgical procession, the highest authority always walks in last position.
Such Jewish twisting to counter Christian claims is known elsewhere, and is even admitted by some major Jewish scholars, especially in commenting on a tendency to change the Targum of Isaiah 53, making the meek lamb into an arrogant conqueror, and attributing atoning efficacy to the binding of Isaac: cf. H. J. Schoeps, Paul, Westminster, 1961, p. 29; Jacob Neusner, Messiah in Context, Fortress, Phila. 1984. p. 190, and Samson Levey, The Messiah, An Aramaic Interpretation , Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati 1974, p. 152 and note 10.
Now a puzzling line: this high priest Jesus did offer loud prayers and tears to the Father who could save Him from death. Obviously true. We think of His anguished cry in Gethsemani: "Father, it is be possible, let this chalice pass from me." But what then of the following words, saying his prayer was heard because of His reverence? But He was not saved from death.
The answer is that He went willingly to death. Strictly speaking, as the Eastern Fathers of the Church understood so well, even the first moment of the incarnation was infinitely meritorious and infinite in giving satisfaction. Hence they spoke of physical mystical solidarity: all humanity formed a unit, a solidarity. The humanity of Jesus became part of that solidarity. But in Him, the humanity was joined in the unity of one Person to the divinity. So a power or force spread out from the divinity, through His humanity, and healed the rest of humanity.
That being the case, it would have been possible for the chalice to pass from Him. For He had already many times over provided infinite merit and satisfaction. Yet He obeyed the Father in His reverence. Already at His baptism by John (Mt. 3. 115) He had said that "it is right to do all that God requires".
The Father willed that He go beyond a deathless prayer - which He could have said during His brief stay in the world, and would have sufficed infinitely. The Father willed that instead of an incarnation in a palace to the stable and to the cross. Such was the Father's love of all that is morally right -for that is what the title Holy really means, and such was the Father's love of us humans, that as long as anything still richer could be found, He would not omit to provide it.
He was, then, heard, in His exaltation, as we find in Philippians 2:5-10: "He did not consider equality with God something to be held onto, but He emptied Himself, took on the form of a slave, and became obedient to death, even to death on the cross. Therefore the Father highly exalted Him, and gave Him the name that is above every name."
What of the words saying that He learned obedience from the things He suffered? It surely could not mean He was in any way deficient in obedience before that point. The whole theme of His life, expressed in Hebrews 10. 7 was: "Behold, I come to do your will O God." And as He Himself said in John 4. 34,"my food is to do the will of Him who sent me." We think of the great Greek Tragedian, Aeschylus, who wrote (Agamemnon 176ff), pathei mathos -- "by suffering comes learning". But more than that, let us think of a man who all his life has been most devoted to the will of God, but has never yet had the experience of severe illness. Suddenly he does fall into that physical suffering. It takes some doing for Him to learn to acquiesce, as it were, to settle down in pain. His will was always in accord with the will of God - but His bodily side had to learn to settle down in suffering.
Jesus then, made perfect by suffering is specially fitted to be the source of eternal salvation to those who obey Him, in the "obedience of faith" (Romans 1. 5). He was of course perfect from the beginning, being the divine son. But He acquired a special addition to that perfection by the learning that came from suffering. He won salvation by obeying, and so it is right that those who are to obtain salvation should follow Him in the obedience that faith is (cf. Rom 1. 5).
Our epistle adds that there is much to say about this. That word could mean about Jesus or about Melchizedek or about their relation. But he does not present it at once since they have become sluggish. They should have advanced enough to be teachers by this point, but have not done so: instead, they still need babyfood, milk. Solid food is for the mature. You do not know the "word of justice". Perhaps this means the way to reach justification taught by Jesus.
Chapter 6: Summary
But let us leave behind the beginnings of the message of Jesus and go on to speak of perfection. For we do not want to lay a foundation all over again-- which would include repentance from dead works, faith in God, the teaching about ritual ablutions and laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.
So, if God is willing, we will do this ( give the explanations for which they are not yet mature enough).
For it is not possible for one to come back to this repentance who has once been enlightened in baptism, and has tasted the heavenly gift, and partaken of gift of the Holy Spirit, and has experienced the goodness of the word of God and the mighty works of the age to come- if it impossible for such, if they have fallen into apostasy, to ever come back again, needing to have Christ die all over again to restore them. This is like the case of the ground: Ground that drinks up the rain can produce good crops, but ground that brings forth thorns and thistles is worth nothing, is on the point of being cursed. There may be an allusion here to Genesis 3. 17-19 which speaks of the land being cursed because of Adam's sin, so that it brings forth thorns and thistles.
But even in saying this, we are sure that you are not in that condition, for you show the signs that go along with salvation. God is not unrighteous; He will not forget your work and your love for His name, your service to the holy People of God. You have done these things and continue to do them. So we desire that you should show the same eagerness as before, to fulfill the hope right up to the end. Instead of getting sluggish up should imitate those who by persevering faith received what was promised.
Abraham was a man of this sort. God gave him a promise. In doing so, God swore by Himself - for He had no one greater to swear by. God said; I will surely bless you and multiply you greatly. So Abraham in showing steadfastness received that which was promised.
Human beings, to show how firm is their word, take an oath by something greater than themselves. This settles things. Similarly God used an oath to show the absolute firmness of His purpose. We have twofold encouragement: God has promised, and God cannot lie, and so we are certain that we can depend on Him to whom we have fled for refuge. This hope is the anchor of our soul, secure, dependable, which will lead us even beyond the curtain of the sanctuary, where Jesus, our forerunner has already entered, Jesus, our high priest forever in the line of Melchizedek.
Chapter 6: Comments
Our author says: Now it is time to leave behind the rudiments and go on to the perfection of the divine message. We should not go back to laying again the foundation all over. He mentions six pairs of rudiments, which he calls stoicheia, the same word St. Paul uses in Galatians 4. 3 & 9 (where the word is likely to mean early and insufficient religion): repentance from dead works by faith in God; instruction about ablutions and laying on of hands for acceptance into the Christian community; resurrection and eternal judgment.
What are the "dead works"? They mean all that cannot bring to the rest that is eternal life, or can even prevent it, i.e., the works of the old covenant which could not bring eternal salvation (cf. 9. 14) and even personal sin. The second part of this pair helps to clarify, since it speaks of faith. But faith (as we have seen in comments on chapter 3) includes belief in God's word, confidence in His promises, and especially obedience to His commands (cf. Rom 1. 5). It is this faith that causes one to enter into His rest.
Next there is mention of ablutions, baptismoi. Some have thought it refers to Christian Baptism. But the word baptismoi is used instead of baptisma. The latter is the normal word in the NT for Baptism, but baptismoi occurs only twice in the NT: in Hebrews 9. 10, which surely refers to Jewish purifications, and in Mark 7. 4. which speaks of purifications of cups, pots etc.
As to the imposition of hands, the OT used such an imposition to commission someone for public office (Num 27. 18 & 23 and Dt 34. 9), or as part of sacrificial ritual (Lev. 1. 4; 3. 2; 4. 4; 8. 14). In late Judaism it was a regular rite for the ordination of Rabbis: cf. Mishnah, Sanhedrin 4. 4. In the NT it is found in Acts 6. 6 (ordination of deacons); 8. 17 (giving the Holy Spirit to Samaritan converts); 9. 12, 17 (Ananias to Paul); 19. 6 (Paul giving the Holy Spirit to converts at Ephesus).
What is the sense in mind here? Probably a preliminary ritual before baptism, and so it would be part of the rudiments, beyond which they should have passed, cf. Apostolic Tradition of St. Hippolytus.
The resurrection of the dead and judgment were already known in the OT period: cf. Isaiah 26. 19; Daniel 12. 2. The OT also spoke of God as the judge of all the earth: Genesis 18. 25; Isaiah 33. 22.
But all these were but preliminaries though which the ones Hebrews addresses had already passed. They should not need to go back to the rudiments again.
But more seriously: if they now fall away, after having been enlightened (Baptism was often spoken of as receiving light) there is no way they can be converted again. The mention of crucifying Jesus ("again") may mean that He would need to die all over to bring them back, when His already accomplished death has not succeeded).
There is a similar statement in The Shepherd by Hermas in Similitude 9. 26. 6: "It is impossible for him who now denies His Lord to be saved." Many think Hermas is using a psychological ploy to deter people from sinning after receiving the seal, Baptism. Pardon was given in the first centuries even to apostates, but only after years of long and difficult penance - in the thought that something so drastic was needed to really cause them to see the truth, especially if a Christian when called before the Roman judge thought to himself: "I will deny now, and then get pardon later". His repentance shortly after that would almost certainly not be real, not sincere. It would be preplanned, and so not involved a real change of heart. (More on this later in comments on 10. 36).
But what is the reason now why those who fall back into Judaism or paganism cannot be restored? Surely God Himself would not be unwilling to grant pardon even for such sins. For the death of Jesus infinitely earned forgiveness for every sin.
The answer is that such people had made themselves incapable of taking in what God would gladly offer. It is helpful to start with Matthew 6. 21: "Where your treasure is, there is your heart also." One can put his treasure in a hoard of money, or in eating, or in sex, or in travel, or in study, even studying Scripture. But all these things are lower than God Himself.
Further, some allow themselves to be pulled more than others by these outside attractions - even to habitual mortal sin. In such a case two factors work together: what they seek is much lower than God, and they have surrendered to the pull of creatures with abandon.
A modern comparison will help to supplement this thought. We think of a galvanometer, a compass needle on its pivot, with a coil of wire around, it through which we pass a current. The needle should swing the right direction and the right amount. But if there are powerful outside pulls, e.g., 33000 volt power lines or a mass of magnetic steel - then these outside forces may be so strong as to overwhelm the effect of the current in the coil. We are thinking of our mind as a sort of meter, which should register the movement of grace, that is, the current in its coil. But grace is gentle, in that is respects our freedom; outside pulls if one surrenders to them with abandon can take away freedom: then the needle, does not register the effect of grace which tries to put into a man's mind what God is trying to tell him to do.
Then if grace cannot do the first thing, it will not do the further things. So the man is left without grace, is blind or hardened. Then even though God gives grace, the man is incapable of taking it in. Then his conversion, is, humanly speaking, impossible.
We said "humanly speaking" because there is always the possibility of a grace comparable to a miracle that can cut through or forestall such resistance, and so cause the man to follow the movement of grace. But this is not given ordinarily - for then the extraordinary would become ordinary. It is given only when some other person by heroic prayer and penance, puts, as it were, an extraordinary weight into the one pan of the scales of the objective moral order: it can call for, and obtain, an extraordinary grace.
The case is similar with the classic unforgivable sin, of which Our Lord Himself spoke when the scribes attributed the work of the Holy Spirit to the devil. The Father and He would gladly grant pardon - but the hardness was so immense that they could not even perceive the first movement of grace.
This problem happens especially with those who have already had great light from grace -- if they become habituated to special favor, and even then reject, they make themselves hardened - they are harder to convert than a beginner who never felt the effects of grace.
These hard souls had already been enlightened in Baptism, had tasted the heavenly gift - probably the Holy Eucharist, had received the Holy Spirit, and seen even the mighty works of the age-to-come, i.e., the miracles which at first were used to ground and spread the Church. If after all that they still fell away - what was there left to awaken them anew from their self-inflicted torpor?
So they are like land which has become hard and dry: the rains may come, but all in vain.
Cardinal Manning, in his great work, The Eternal Priesthood. wrote in his concluding chapter, on the death of a sinful priest: "Next to the immutable malice of Satan is the hardness of an impenitent priest... . They have been so long familiar with all the eternal truths": that the end of such a man is like that of one for whom medical science can do no more: He must die. Manning quotes St. Bonaventure (Pharetra 1. 22): "Laymen who sin can be easily restored; but clerics if they once go bad become incurable." We comment: satan could not repent because his clear intellect (not being hindered by junction with a material brain) saw everything at once with the maximum possible clarity. So there was no room for him later to go back on it, see it differently, and so repent. The more one grows in knowledge, the more he approaches that condition - though of course, still having a material brain, he does not reach it.
Then the author turns to a more cheerful note: God will not forget the good you have done. We hope you may imitate those who have persevered in faith, such as Abraham. St. Paul in proposing Abraham as a model of faith usually thought of Genesis 15. 6, where Abraham believed God, and his faith was the means of his justification. But here - in view of the comments in Hebrews 11. 19 -- he is more likely to have in mind Abraham's faith in being willing to sacrifice his son Isaac, even though he had to believe that he would be the father of a great nation by the same Isaac. We do not know how old Isaac was at this point. Some rabbis thought he was old enough to already have children. We do not know, and the example of faith is more powerful if we suppose he was still too young to start a line of descendants. In 11. 19 the author of Hebrews reduces greatly that demand of faith by supposing Abraham expected God would raise Isaac again from the dead. That could be true - but since the genre of Hebrews is homiletic, and since the idea of resurrection seems not to have been known among the Jews at so early a point, it is more likely that Abraham did not think of that possibility, even though of course it was true that God could raise Isaac from the dead.
St. Paul speaks of us as children of Abraham (Galatians 3. 29 and Romans chapter 4) not by carnal descent, but by imitating the faith of Abraham. So by imitating his faith we become heirs of the promise given to Abraham ( 6. 17).
Chapter 7: Jesus is greater than Melchizedek
Four kings had attacked five kings, including the king of Sodom. The four took spoils, and took Lot, nephew of Abraham as captive. When Abraham heard of it he gathered 318 of his retainers, and set out against the four kings, and defeated them. On his return the King of Sodom met him and suggested Abraham keep the goods, but give him the people. Abraham refused to keep anything, seemingly because of an oath he had taken when Melchizedek, king of Salem, met him. Melchizedek brought out bread and wine. Was that just a refreshment for Abraham, or was it meant as a sacrifice? Later Christian writers understood it as a sacrifice.
His name is taken to mean either King of Peace (Salem) or King of righteousness (sedeq). These are plausible etymologies.
Abraham gave him a tenth of all the spoils of the military expedition.
Melchizedek is described as without father or mother, without genealogy. Genesis indeed does not give any lineage for him. Thus he foreshadows the Son of God, a priest forever.
Then our author exclaims: How great is Melchizedek - Abraham gave him tithes, recognizing his superiority. The descendants of Levi received tithes too in later times, as the offspring of Abraham. Yet Melchizedek, who has not the same genealogy as them, received tithes from the father of the chosen people, Abraham. Further, Abraham received a blessing from Melchizedek - but one receives blessings only from a superior, not from an inferior. So again, Melchizedek, type of Christ, is superior to Abraham.
In fact since Levi who was to come from Abraham, was still in the body of Abraham, we can say that Levi too paid tithes to Melchizedek - and so the levitical priesthood is less than that of Melchizedek.
Melchizedek too is considered still "alive" since there is no record of his genealogy, birth, or death. This again foreshadows the priesthood of the Son of God.
If the levitical priesthood could have brought perfection, there would be no need of another priesthood, and another law. But it did not bring perfection.
Since another priest was to arise after Melchizedek there must be a greater priesthood, one that is forever. But God said to Christ You are a priest forever. In this way the old regime was cancelled, since it was not able to make people perfect.
The old priesthood was made through an oath-- similarly the priesthood of Jesus is made with God's oath: The Lord has sworn, you are a priest forever according to the line of Melchizedek. So Jesus is the guarantor of a better covenant.
Further. there have been many high priests, for they all died and could not continue forever. But Jesus, since he continues forever has a priesthood that cannot be transferred to another.
Jesus as our high priest is what we needed, for he is holy, free of guile and defilement, separated from sinners. He has no need to offer sacrifice for his own sins- he has none-- as the old priest did before offering for those of the people. He made his offering once for all when he offered himself. The priests appointed by the old law were men subject to frailty, but now God's oath appoints one made perfect forever.
Comments on chapter 7
In what the editor of Biblical Archaeology Review of March-April, 1995, p. 56) calls, "an extraordinary demonstration... a highly sophisticated analysis", Kenneth Kitchen of the University of Liverpool shows that what we know of the early second millennium fits well with the kinds of alliances of kings described in Genesis 14, while from about the 18th century B.C. on the situation changed so drastically that such alliances would hardly occur (BAR pp. 56-57).
The author of Hebrews, hardly meant to claim Melchizedek had no father or mother or without end of days. This is a looseness proper to homiletic genre. Also, he is interested in treating Melchizedek as a type, a foreshadowing of Jesus. (incidentally, in the early centuries A.D. some writers, since Melchizedek had no father or mother, assumed he was an angelic power, greater than all others: cf. Hippolytus, Refutation of all Heresies 7. 36 [written before 222 AD] and St. Epiphanius, Panarion 55). As we said above, the idea that Melchizedek should be greater than Abraham was irksome to Jewish exegetes, and they also disliked the Christian use of Melchizedek and reacted as we saw above, in comments on chapter 5.
In v. 8 Melchizedek is "attested as being alive" since we never read of him in Scripture as dead: without father, without mother, without end of days. In line with this, in v. 9. our author speaks of Levi, the father of the great priestly line, as paying tithes to Abraham, even though this was long before the birth of Levi - for he was "still... in the body of his forefather" Abraham. The same sort of concept appears in Genesis 25. 23 when God replied to Rebekah before the twins, Esau and Jacob were born: "Two nations are in your womb." Cf. also the version of Romans 5. 12 used by the Latin Fathers; "In whom [Adam] omnes peccaverunt" - "In whom all have sinned."
Our Epistle continues (7. 11) and reasons that if perfection could have been attained through the levitical priesthood, under which the Mosaic law came, there would have been no need for still another priest to arise, in the order of Melchizedek.
This is indeed an interesting thought: It does not mean that no individual could reach spiritual perfection during that period. Of course God was always generous with His graces, and gave them abundantly even before the coming of Christ, in anticipation of the merits of Christ - cf. the words of the definition of the Immaculate Conception which says she was free from sin from the first instant in view of His merits.
To understand this situation we need to notice that there are two different scenarios or orders. We might call them the external and the internal scenarios. In the external, one can speak of people being in darkness before Christ. e.g., Mat 4. 14-16 cites Isaiah saying that the land of Zebulon and the land of Nephthali had been a people in darkness. Then Christ came to Capernaum. And the liturgy speaks of the world as being sunk in sin and guilt before Christ.
But that is the external picture. In the internal picture, as we indicated above, grace was offered, even abundantly, long before Christ, in view of His merits, for God wills that all be saved, and saved in a great abundance of graces. So some individuals could and did attain even heroic sanctity in those centuries.
Here however, our Epistle thinking of the fact that the ancient law did not of its own power bring eternal salvation - as St. Paul noted strongly in Galatians 3. 15-29, since only the grace of Christ given through justification by faith could do that. So he notes that the levitical law could not and did not of itself bring spiritual perfection or even full forgiveness of sins. Even the great Day of Atonement was for forgiveness of sins of ignorance, sheggagah, and not for sins committed be yad ramah: Numbers 15. 30: "Anyone who sins with a high hand... insults the Lord, and shall be cut off from among his people."(Cf. comments above on 2. 10 and, below, 9. 7).
So now, the law has been changed from that given through the levitical priests, and so has the priesthood. Priesthood is now given to Christ, who was not even of the tribe of Levi, but of Judah, no man of which tribe had ever ministered at the altar.
Another sign (7. 15) of the higher perfection of the priesthood of Christ is that He is "a priest forever, in the line of Melchizedek." So the old commandment which was unprofitable (v. 18) was cancelled, for as we just said, that law made nothing perfect. -- We comment that even though St. Paul in 1 Cor 6. 9-10 and elsewhere insists on keeping the law, as Jesus also insisted in Matthew 5. 17, this works out in such a way that we can say with St. Paul's words of Romans 6. 12: "The wages - what we earn - of sin is death;' the free gift of God - what we do not earn - is eternal life. We must be like children to get in at all. - Children know that they do not earn the love and care they receive. They get that because their parents are good, not because they are good. Yet they could earn to lose it. Hence too St. Paul several times speaks of eternal life as an "inheritance" (e.g., Romans 8. 17; 1 Cor. 6. 10). What we receive from our parents we do not earn. As one student, who perfectly captured the nuance of St. Paul put it, in speaking of salvation: "You can't earn it, but you can blow it."
All levitical priests were not priests for ever, for they all died. Christ did indeed die, but that was temporary: Now He is always living to make intercession for us (Heb. 7. 25).
Further (7. 20), the new priesthood comes from God's oath (Psalm 110. 4). The old priesthood involved no oath. God merely, without oath, told Moses to bring Aaron and his sons to Him to become priests: Exodus 28. 1.
So Jesus is the enguos, the guarantor of the better covenant. In the Sinai covenant, all depended on the obedience - so often poor - of the people. In the new covenant all again depends upon obedience, but it is the obedience of Jesus, which is always perfect. Of course, this does not mean that those who follow Him have no need to do anything, that they can even "commit fornication and murder a thousand times a day" (Luther, Epistle of August 1, 1521 to Melanchthon, in Luther's Works, American Edition, 48. 281-82). No, just as Hebrews warns so solemnly against falling away completely from Jesus by apostasy, so also it would not countenance the sins of those who would, as indicated above in 6. 6 crucify Him again, make void His crucifixion as far as they are concerned, so as to practically call for His death again. This is really the great syn Christo theme of St. Paul, expressed especially in Romans 8. 17 saying that "we are heirs of God, fellow-heirs with Christ, provided that we suffer with Him, so we may also be glorified with Him." More of this theme is found in Romans 6. 1-6; 8. 9; and Col 3. 1-4, and Eph 2. 5-6.
A further indication (7. 24) of the superiority of the priesthood of Jesus is that previous high priests were many since death prevented them from continuing. But the priesthood of Jesus is "forever". He has a priesthood that is aparabaton (7. 24), one that does not pass. It does not pass in the sense that the priesthood of Levi did pass on. both in that the individual priests died, whereas Jesus lives forever, and in that the levitical priesthood is supplanted, replaced by that of Jesus.
This does not mean that in the New Testament, as some uncomprehending writers have suggested, there is only one priest, Jesus. Those who make this mistake do not notice the analogical character of the word priest. Commonly in divine things we need to see the analogical character of words, in which in two uses of the word, there is something the same, and something different, e.g., when the young man asked Jesus what he needed to do, and addressed Jesus as "good Master", Jesus corrected him: One is good. God. Of course Jesus did not mean to say that all others are wicked or that He Himself was not good. No, He meant that the word good as applied to God and as applied to all others, has something in common - but much more difference. In this way St. Augustine wrote (On Christian Doctrine 1. 6. 6) that, "He [God] must not even be called inexpressible, for when we say that word, we say something." And Plotinus said (Enneads 6. 8. 9 echoing Plato, Republic 6. 509 B) that God is "beyond being." Further, 1 Timothy 2. 5 says there is only one Mediator. Yes, if we take the word univocally, only one fills the condition: only one is strictly necessary, only one can work by His own power, only one has both divine and human natures. Yet so many times in the OT Moses was a mediator between the people and God, and in the book of Job, God Himself told Job to be a mediator for the guilt of his friends (Job 42. 8).
Similarly there is only one priest who most fully is such, who is the principal analog, Jesus. But there can be and are others whom He Himself has designated to have an analogical share in His priesthood when He said, e.g.,"Do this in memory of me" and "Whose sins you shall forgive they are forgiven them", and,"He who hears you hears me." The fact that He does such things does not detract from His own unique priesthood, but rather shows its power in raising up participation even in mere men.
Jesus brings people to "complete and final" salvation (eis to panteles: 7. 25), that is, to heaven. There is no hint that Jesus was willing to let them commit "fornication and murder a thousand times a day" as we mentioned above, and yet after that, they could be joined face to face to the all holy God (without even an image in between, since no image can show what God is like) who is "like a refiner's fire"- who can stand when He appears? (Malachi 3. 2).
Jesus is "always living to make intercession for us" (7. 25) in the Heavens, as St. Paul says lyrically in Romans 8. 33-39. Just as Moses could appeal to the merits of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in pleading with God, so we can plead the merits of Jesus. Jesus offered Himself "once for all" (7. 27:ephapax). That is, there is no need for Him to die again, or to die many times. Just as the merits of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, though finite, could be appealed to even though they acquired them only once, so also the death of Jesus, once for all, abundantly provides for us.
As we saw above, and will see further in commenting on the next chapter, this once-for-all character does not rule out the work of application of His merits to us, again, even as the merits of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob could be as it were applied many times. Jesus gave His life "as a ransom for many" (Mark 14. 24-- cf. Isaiah 53. 10: rabbim).
Chapter 8: Summary
The point of our reasoning so far is this: Such is the high priest we have - one who has taken his place at the right hand of the Throne of Majesty in the heavens. He is a minister of the real tent or sanctuary, one pitched by the Lord, not by human hands.
Every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices. So Jesus had to have an offering to make. If He were still on earth, He would not be recognized as a priest at all, for the Levitical priests were there according to the law, and no one of His tribe, that of Judah, had ever ministered at the altar ( 7. 13 above). The place where these old priests ministered is only a copy of the true reality. For God once said to Moses: Make everything in the tabernacle according to the pattern you were shown on the mountain.
But as it really is, Christ has received a better ministry, He is the minister of a better covenant, based on better promises. If the first covenant had been without fault, there would be no need or room for a second covenant.
But God showed that it was not without fault, and so He said through Jeremiah (31. 31-33): The days are coming when I will make a new covenant. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them out of Egypt. They did not obey my covenant, and I did not take care of them. But this is the covenant that I, God, will make in the days to come: I will put my laws into their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. There will be no need for each one to teach another and say: Know the Lord. For they will all know me, from the least to the greatest. I will be merciful to their sins, and remember them no more.
(In passing, we note that in the new covenant, as in the old, there was a law to be obeyed, and on condition of that obedience, He would be their God. the obedience of the old was that of the people - very poor indeed. The essential obedience in the new was that of Jesus, the guarantor of the new covenant: cf. 7. 22).
When He spoke of a new covenant, He showed that the first one was old, and about to disappear.
Chapter 8: Comments
We rendered the opening word - kephalaiaon - as meaning: This is a summary of what we have seen. It could also mean, "the chief point".
Christ, our high priest, has gone even into the heavens, and instead of having to kneel or stand in petition, He is seated at the right hand of Divine Majesty. The sanctuary He has entered is not one made by human hands, like the old temple, after a model shown to Moses. It is the true one, made by the Lord.
A high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices. So Jesus had to have something to offer: it was His own body, His life. If Jesus were still on earth, He would not be considered a priest: For He was not of the line of Levi. So He would be considered a layman.
But He is not on earth: He has completed His sacrifice once-for-all.
The words once-for-all do not mean there is nothing more to be done. It is one thing for Him to have earned all graces and forgiveness; it is another thing to give out or apply these to those who obey Him.
While still on earth He made provision for that, in saying to His Apostles: "Do this in memory of me." They were to say over bread and wine, just as He had done: "This is my body... . this is my blood". In itself those words could speak of a mere symbolic presence. But His first followers did understand them to refer to His own real presence, His body and blood. St. Paul in 1 Cor 10. 16-21 makes it parallel to Jewish and pagan sacrifices, and says that one who receives the body and blood of Jesus unworthily is guilty of [an offense] against the body and blood of the Lord (1 Cor 11. 26-30) said too that by doing this rightly "we show forth the death of the Lord until He comes (1 Cor 11. 26).
If we compare this to words of God in Isaiah 23. 19 we can understand better. God said there that the people honored Him with their lips, but their hearts were far from Him. That is why God, so many times over in the great prophets, said He did not want the ancient sacrifices, even though he had ordered them. So in what sense could He say He did not want them? He meant that the work of the lips, the external sign, was empty. What was needed was that the lips should express the heart, the heart that obeyed God. Jesus did precisely that, as St. Paul said in Romans 5. 19: "Just as by the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so by the obedience of the one man, the many would be made just."
This lets us see why He said: "Do this in memory of me." If the people did not do as He did, if they did not obey the Father. then the Father would again say that they honored Him with their lips, but their hearts were far from Him. If they even committed fornication and murder a thousand times a day as that false, so-called follower Luther said, God would still have to say: They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. - And when they would come to join themselves to God's embrace forever, He who is Holiness, He who is "like a refiner's fire" so that no one can stand when He appears, unless He be pure - then the Father would reject them, or rather, burn out the corruption from them. .
It would still be true that the Son had earned forgiveness and all grace for them - but they would have closed themselves, made themselves incapable of taking it in. They would not fulfill what St. Paul said in Romans 8. 17: "We are heirs together with Him provided we suffer with Him", so we may be glorified with Him. (cf. also the other parts of this great syn Christo theme: Romans 6. 1-6; 8. 9; Col 3. 1-4; Eph 2. 5-6).
Really what He told His Apostles to do in memory of Him, that which would "show forth the death of the Lord until He comes" was a sacrifice, not one to earn anew, but one to apply the fruits of that once-for-all offering. . We can get a hint of this in that St. Paul in 1 Cor 10. 21 speaks of the "table of the Lord", and compares it to the table of false worship - which is yet a sacrifice. Cf. also the altar in 13. 1. The two elements of which God spoke through Isaiah are present, in doing this in memory of Him, namely: there is an outward sign, the same as that which He Himself used on the first Holy Thursday, the seeming separation of Body and Blood, standing for death - as if He said to the Father: "I know the command you have you have given me: I should die tomorrow. Very good, I turn myself over to death. I accept. I obey"
The second element is of course the obedience of the same High Priest who is present on that altar. For if He said "where two or three are gathered together, there I am in the midst of them" how much more is He here when that community does what He commanded to be done: "Do this in memory of Me". In other words, He on the altar still has the obedience of His heart, of which He spoke on entering into this world, as we see in Hebrews 10. 7: "Behold I come to do your will O God." Hebrews 10. 10 speaks of that "will," that is, disposition of obedience in His will. He still has that "will" by which He made His offering on entering into the world. He made that offering on entering into this world; He never took it back, and now after His death and resurrection, His heart has not changed. Death makes permanent the attitude of heart with which one leaves this world. So when He is present, He does not repeat or renew His obedience - it is simply continuous from the first moment of entering into this world.
We said it is one thing for Him to have earned most perfectly all forgiveness and grace by His once-for-all offering. It is another thing for Him t make provision for giving out the fruits of His offering. He did that, as we have been showing, by ordering: "Do this in memory of me." He made provision also when He commanded His Apostles to teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. He made provision when, on the very first visit to the Apostles after His resurrection, He at once told them: "Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; whose sins you shall retrain, they are retained." It was as if He wanted at once to give out the fruits for which He had so dearly paid. He arranged to give them out by commissioning His Apostles to give out His forgiveness.
When we read that His offering was once-for all does that conflict with what we have just said above? Not at all. WE explained this matter in advance in our comments above on chapter 2. 1-9. First, as we said, it is one thing for Him to earn, another thing to give out the fruits of that earning. Secondly, even in the Mass, it is not His obedience that is repeated - as we said, that obedience was continuous from His entry into the world when He said: "Behold I come to do your will, O God", up to the present day. His heart never changes. So what is multiplied in the Mass is only the outward sign, carried out by a priest to whom He gave a participation in His own priesthood, in fulfillment of His command: "Do this in memory of me." Still further, there is no additional merit or satisfaction the Mass: there is simply the giving out of the fruit of His merit and satisfaction by the means He Himself ordered. the Father, in His love of good order, is pleased to have something to serve as a title for giving something out, even though that title does not really move Him (cf. St. Thomas, Summa I. 19. 5. c).
So our text continues: God found fault with the people, who did not obey, and with the inadequate covenant. Therefore He announced through Jeremiah (31. 31-33) that the time was coming when He would make a new covenant. In saying new, He indicated the previous one was old and about to fall away.
We had better note the comparison of this to St. Paul in Romans 11;1 and 29: God as not rejected His people... . His call is without repentance, without change. So the Jews are still called to be part of His people. Some have accepted that call. But in the middle of that same chapter Paul makes a comparison of two olive trees: the tame one is the original people of God; the wild one is the gentiles. Many branches fell off from that original tree. Sadly, that means they stopped being part of the people of God. We recall the frightening words of Our Lord in the parable of the wicked tenants, in Matthew 21. 33-46. He told the Pharisees that the kingdom, that is membership in the people of God, or the Church or the messianic kingdom - all are the same - would be taken from them. So they would no longer be part of the people of
God. They would be the branches that fell off the original olive tree by their rejection of the long-promised Messiah. In their place the gentiles were engrafted , a things the Jews had never understood from the many OT prophecies of gentiles coming to Jerusalem. (They thought it meant all gentiles would become Jews. But St. Paul in Eph 3. 6 reveals a mystery not known before: the gentiles are to form one people with those Jews who remained faithful to the original covenant: one flock and one shepherd (John 10. 16).
So the final picture is this: the new covenant is both a continuation and a fulfillment of the old, with the Messiah so long promised being accepted by those who were faithful to the original covenant. But the one flock and one shepherd consists of both Jews who accepted the Messiah, and of gentiles who also did so. They become one flock. They are spiritually children of Abraham, as St. Paul brings out in Romans 4. They are as some say today "spiritual Semites". Racial descent is unprofitable (cf. Matthew 7. 13-14; Lk 13. 23-24 - which seem to tell the Jews that it not enough to be racially children of Abraham, who they thought would not let any circumcised Jew enter into Gehenna); it is following in the faith of Abraham that counts.
This covenant theme, quoting as it does Jeremiah 31. 31-33, was especially pertinent to the time of Jeremiah when in 621 BC the book of the law was found in the temple, and King Josiah solemnly renewed the covenant for himself and for his people - except that so many of the people merely went through the ceremony outwardly, as Jeremiah seemed to very soon (cf. Jeremiah, 3. 6-10 and chapter 11).
What of the law being implanted in their hearts? This is the same as that of which St. Paul wrote in Romans 2. 14-16, where he cited this very text of Jeremiah: The gentiles who do not have the revealed law do naturally what the law requires, for they read what the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Christ, writes on their hearts. In so doing, they are really Christian - as St. Justin Martyr wrote (Apology 1. 46) of Socrates and others like him.
Hosea lamented (4. 1 & 6) that there was no "knowledge" of God in the people. The usual translation is inadequate. It notes that the noun dath is used, which can be used to mean knowledge. Yet since it is really an infinitive of yada, which has broad meanings: know, love, obey etc. therefore knowledge would be better translated as obedience, obedience to the covenant. Hence in Hosea 6. 1 God says: I want hesed , obedience to the covenant - more than sacrifice, and knowledge of God rather than holocausts. Again, knowledge really stands for obedience, as indicated by the parallel part of the sentence calling for hesed, obedience to the covenant.
Further, if all "know" -- in the sense of obey - God, then there is no such thing as a permission to commit fornication and murder a thousand times a day and still be right with God because of the once-for-all sacrifice. That sacrifice earned all forgiveness - it still had to be accepted, by knowledge of God, that is, obedience to Him.
We may well wonder if Jeremiah understood the full objective import of his prophecy (Cf. Vatican II, Lumen gentium 55 which shows uncertainty of whether or not the authors of Genesis 3. 15 and Isaiah 7. 14 really saw in their lines what the Church today sees). He would naturally tend to think of the obedience to the law written on hearts as parallel to the obedience required at Sinai, that is, the obedience of the people. But it really referred essentially to the obedience of the coming high priest, obedience even to death. Hence that high priest was the guarantor, as we saw in 7, 22 of the new covenant. It was His obedience that validated it. The people still had to "know" God, and be like their high priest. Again, we think of the syn Christo theme we spoke of above.
Whether or not Jeremiah saw all the implications of His own words, yet the Holy Spirit, the chief author of all of Scripture, surely saw and intended them (cf. again Vatican II, Lumen gentium 55). Our present Epistle speaks of that obedience of the high priest so many times, especially in 10. 7.
Chapter 9: Summary
The old covenant had ordinances for worship: a first and a second tent. In that second tent was the Holy of Holies, with a golden incense altar and the Ark of the Covenant, having cherubim on its lid.
The ancient priests go many times into the first tent, but only the high priest, on Yom Kippur, once a year, goes into the second tent, the Holy of Holies. He goes with blood, to offer for the sins of ignorance (sheggaghah) of the people.
Thus the Holy Spirit shows that while the first tent stood, the way for full access to God was not to be had. The gifts that were offered could never make the worshippers perfect in their consciences. They cleansed only from the sheggagah. But now Christ has come, as the high priest, going into the greater and more perfect tent or sanctuary, not with the blood of animals, but with His own blood, having obtained eternal redemption. If the blood of goats and bulls was good for bodily cleansing, how much more will the blood of Christ cleanse consciences from dead works, so as to worship the living God.
So He is the Mediator of the new covenant. Where there is a covenant, the death of the testator is necessary. for a last will and testament is valid only when the testator has died. In
the old covenant everything was cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there was no forgiveness.
If the earthly copies of the heavenly things shown to Moses on the mountain are cleansed by such means, then the heavenly realities have to be cleansed by better sacrifices than the old ones. For Christ has entered not into just an earthly Holy of Holiness, but into the heavens themselves.
He did not need to come there many times over as did the ancient high priests -- if He had to do that He would have had to die many times since the beginning of the world. But He was offered once-for-all to bear the sins of all. To those who look forward to His coming a second time, He will bring final salvation.
Chapter 9: Comments
Nothing certain is found about the Ark of the Covenant after 587 BC, the fall of Jerusalem. It seems that the postexilic temple had nothing in the Holy of Holies, so that when Pompey the Roman conqueror forced his way into it in 63 BC. (Tacitus Histories 5. 9), he was surprised to find nothing there. The spot for the ark was marked by a slab called the "stone of foundation".
In Second Maccabees 2. 4-8 we read that Jeremiah hid the ark and the altar of incense in a cave on Mount Nebo ( Dt 34. 1) where Moses had gone up and seen the inheritance of God. Later some followers of Jeremiah came and tried to find the place, but were unable. Jeremiah told them the place was to remain unknown until God would again gather His people together and show them mercy. The problem is that Scripture does not guarantee this account, for in 2. 1 it merely says, "you will find this in the records", that is, in secular records, not in Scripture.
Fuller information on the involuntary sins, sheggagah is given in our comments on 2. 10 above.
In 9. 7 we heard again that the great Day of Atonement was only for sheggagah, not for sins be yad ramah. Hence the ordinances for that Day were called material ordinances, good for only
"bodily cleansing" ( 9. 13 & 14) from "dead works." Dead works could mean either useless rites, useless since they could not remove sins other than sheggagah, or else the phrase could mean even grievous sins.
Yet in spite of this limitation, the High Priest was secluded for 7 days before performing the rite of the Day of Atonement, so that he might not even by chance incur ritual defilement (Mishnah, Yoma 1. 1).
Our Epistle reasons: If all this was done for cleansing of the flesh, sheggagah, how much more powerful was the atonement of Jesus, who entered the true Tabernacle in the heavens, and not just the copy of it found on this earth (cf. 9. 23).
Behind our author's thinking lies the account of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 52-53. In 52. 15 this servant is to "sprinkle many nations". Jesus sprinkled all with His own blood.
Now, at 9. 15, our Epistle begins to speak of the new covenant. The old covenant was that of Sinai; the new was foretold by Jeremiah 31. 31-33. We wonder if Jeremiah had been given a special light or revelation to see that the essential obedience of the new covenant was that of Jesus - at Sinai it had been the obedience of the people. Now in the new, Jesus is the "guarantor" of the covenant (cf. 7. 23 above and comments there): Vatican II, Lumen gentium 9, said on the first Holy Thursday night Jesus inaugurated this new covenant, making Jew and gentile into one people of God (cf. Ephesians 3. 6).
Even though Jesus is the guarantor of the new covenant, the obedience of His people is still required, as shown by the syn Christo theme (cf. again the continuation of comments on 7. 23 above).
Now our author begins to make use of the fact that in the NT the word diatheke can mean either covenant or last will and testament. It clearly means last will and testament here, and also in Galatians 3. 15ff. But ordinarily in the NT it means covenant.
But then there is much debate about the sense of the word covenant. Many authors want to make it a unilateral thing, in which God, the sovereign, simply imposes on people His own will and requirements, without taking on Himself any obligation at all.
Yet it is not true that He undertakes no obligation at all, when at Sinai as in Exodus 19. 5 He said: "If you really hearken to my voice and keep my covenant, you will be my special people". In other words, if you obey, you will get special favor. Once He has given His word, on a condition, if humans fulfill the condition, God is not free to simply pay no attention and ignore it all. He has given His word, and His word cannot be violated once He has given it. Hence in Romans 2. 6 Paul speaking of covenant (cf. Wm. Most, The Thought of St. Paul, pp. 292-93) can speak of "repayment" under the covenant. So if we ask why God gives good things within the covenant framework, there are two answers, on two levels. On the basic level: all is mercy, for no creature by its own power can establish a claim on God. Thus there is justification without earning it, by faith. But on the secondary level, i.e., given the fact that He has freely entered into a covenant, then if humans observe the condition, He owes it to Himself to do what He says. Hence In Romans 2. 6. St. Paul can speak of repayment, while citing Psalm 62. 12.
Yes, it is true that technically God cannot owe anything to a creature. But He can owe things to Himself, and His fidelity, once pledged does bind Him. So we often find paired hesed, observance of the covenant, with "faithfulness" to the covenant (Hebrew emeth or emunah) e.g., Psalm 25. 10 "All the ways of the Lord are hesed and emeth for those who keep his covenant and demands, ." and Ps. 57. 4: "God sends His hesed and emeth," and Ps. 89. 25: "My hesed and my enumah will be with him."
We suspect that is the influence of Lutheran ideas that want to insist the covenant of Sinai was only unilateral, i.e. that God has no obligation and that human responses have no role in salvation. Lutheranism wants to insist there is no condition at all that we place that affects our salvation. But that can have dreadful logical consequences: If there is nothing in a human that can make a difference, then God would seem to predestine blindly, without regard to anything . Luther did actually hold this (cf. his Bondage of the Will (tr. J. J. Packer & O. R. Johnston, F. H. Revell Co. Old Tappan. N. J. 1957, pp. 273 & 103-04) and Calvin did so too. In line with this belief the Missouri Synod of Lutherans, in their Brief Statement of the Doctrinal Position of the Missouri Synod, Concordia, St. Louis 1932, #14 asked: Since all are equally and totally corrupt, and grace is everywhere, why are not all saved? They replied: "We do not know". No wonder. They did not dare face the consequence. If there is no difference at all in people, then God would have no recourse but to predestine entirely blindly. Luther himself (op. cit. pp. 103-04) did say that we have nothing at all to say about whether we are saved or lost eternally. And he added that God saves so few and damns so many (p. 101) and that they go to hell "undeserving" (p. 314). Cf. R. Garrigou-Lagrange, De Deo Uno, Desclée de Brouwer, 1938, p. 525, who thinks this conclusion is inevitable from St. Paul 1 Cor 4. 7.
Those who make this error have argued there is no difference in people, since everything good is the gift of God. That is true. Cf. 1 Cor 4. 7, and the reference to Garrigou-Lagrange above. But there is another factor they have overlooked: resistance to grace, leading to sin. People are very different in this matter. Therefore God can take into account sin, and if someone persistently throws away His grace by sinning, God will not predestine Him to heaven, though He had wanted to do so. The man is blocking Him. So as to salvation: "You cannot earn it, but you can blow it", as one student of mine once said. On this matter cf. Wm. G. Most, New Answers to Old Questions (London, 1971), summarized briefly in Our Father's Plan, (Christendom College Press, 1988), chapter 12.
To return to the matter of whether or not God takes on an obligation in the covenant: there are many Psalm lines in which by Hebrew parallelism it is clear that it is a matter of sedaqah, moral rightness, for God to observe His covenant. For example in Psalm 36. 10: "Keep up your covenant fidelity [hesed] to those who love you, your moral righteousness [sedaqah] to the upright of heart." Similarly Psalm 103. 17 Says "The covenant fidelity [hesed] of the Lord is from age to age on those who fear Him, and His moral rightness [sedaqah] on children's children." So sedaqah and hesed are put in parallelism: it is a matter of moral rightness for God to keep His covenant.
Similarly, the prophets, especially Hosea compares God's relation to His people to marriage, in which there are rights and obligations on both sides. And in Deuteronomy 26. 17-18, if we read the Hebrew (the usual versions gloss over this): "This day you have caused (hiphil perfect) God to say He will be a God to you, and He has caused you (hiphil perfect) to say you will keep His decrees and His commands." We notice the almost bold familiarity in putting God Himself in the same situation as His people: each causing the other to say.
Cf the blood ceremony at Sinai, in which they became His blood relatives, so He would be their goel, the next of kin with the right and duty of recusing his kinsman who had fallen into dire straits. So in Isaiah 63. 16 God is called their goel. Cf 60. 16;49. 26
F. F. Bruce in commenting on 9. 26 strongly rejects the idea that Jesus offers Himself in the Eucharist, saying His offering was once-for-all, and is not renewed. But Bruce misses two things in saying this: 1) In the Mass, His will is not changing at all, it is continuous from first the instant of conception as we read in 10. 7. In Mass only the outward sign is multiplied, by the priest to whom has come down the command of Jesus: "Do this in memory of me". 2) The Mass is simply the application, the giving out of fruits, by the means He Himself ordered: Do this in memory of me". And he missed the import of Hebrews 13. 10 on the altar.
Yet the Mass is correctly called a sacrifice, since in it are found the two elements of which Isaiah speaks in 29. 13: The outward sign, and the interior disposition. The outward sign is indeed multiplied, but the interior, the attitude of obedience of the Heart of Jesus is not multiplied, but continuous from the first instant of His human conception as in 10. 7.
Why have this Mass since in the once-for-all sacrifice all forgiveness and grace was bought and paid for by the infinite price of redemption? There are two reasons: 1) God in His love of good order, loves to have a title for giving out that which was already earned. Of course that title does not move Him, He cannot be moved, does not need to be moved, but in His love of good order He is pleased to have it: cf. Summa I. 19. 5. c. 2) So we may join our obedience to that of Christ, to form the obedience of the whole Christ. We do this by way of the syn Christo theme, cf. Romans 8. 17: "We are heirs of God, fellow heirs of Christ, provided that we suffer with Him, so we may also be glorified with Him."
Chapter 10. 1-25: Summary
Since the law provided only a shadow of the good things to come, but did not present the full likeness of those things, so the law with the same sacrifices that are offered continually, every year, never brought to perfection those who approach
God. If it were so, would not the sacrifices have stopped being offered, since the worshippers would no longer have a conscience of sin, having been cleansed once-for-all? But in those sacrifices there is a recalling of sin every year. For it is not possible for sins to be taken away through the blood of bulls and goats.
Because of this situation, Christ on entering into the world said to God: "You did not want sacrifice and offering. But you fitted a body to me. You did not want holocausts for sin. So I said: Behold, I come - as it is written in the scroll of the book about me - do to your will, O, God.
Since He said first; You had no pleasure in sacrifices, and holocausts or sin offerings (all of which are offered according to the law), but then, after saying that, He said: Behold, I come to do your will. Thereby He did away with the first state of things so as to establish the second. By this will we have been made holy through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once-for-all.
Every priest of the old regime stood daily, ministering and offering many times the same kind of victims which can never take away sins. But this our priest, Jesus, having offered one perpetual sacrifice for sins has taken His seat at the right hand of God, as for the rest, waiting until His enemies are made His footstool.
For by one offering He has made perfect continually, those who are sanctified.
The Holy Spirit assures us of this. After saying: This is the testament which I will settle for them after these days, says the Lord, putting my law in their hearts and I will write them on their mind, and I will no longer remember their transgressions. Once there is remission for these, there is no longer an offering for sin.
Now the author exhorts them to draw near with confidence to the throne of mercy - language he had use previously in 4. 16. Jesus our great priest, has pierced the inner veil for us, opening the way to the Father. But we must go there with a true heart. So there is no hint here that after the once-for-all sacrifice all can sin as much as they will, or that they are all finally perfect.
Chapter 10. 1-25: Comments
The law was only a foreshadowing, and not a very good one, for the image it gave was far short of that which was to come. For the old sacrifices could only remove involuntary sins, and not voluntary sins (9. 7). The latter remained even after the Day of Atonement.
Jesus cleansed once for all, and by one offering "He made forever (eis to dienekes) perfect those who are being sanctified." Does it mean no Christian sins? Of course not. And he said earlier (4. 16) let us go with confidence to the throne of Mercy. If sinless there would be no need of mercy.
What this means is that the old ceremonies were only for sanctifying of the flesh, and were temporary - repeated every year - in the new regime, the sanctification is of consciences as well, and is by nature permanent, is continual, it lasts on and on (eis to dienekes). That is, of course, unless we throw it away by sin. The perfection given is justification, which in itself lasts forever, and constitutes a ticket to enter the Father's house, if only we do not throw away that ticket. We did not have to earn it, but we could forfeit it. That is justification by faith, taking faith in the Pauline sense.
The old sacrifices left behind a recollection (10. 3) of sin, inasmuch as they took away only involuntary sins, or sins of ignorance (cf. 9. 7 above), not voluntary sins. The voluntary sins remained, until the one perfect sacrifice came to take them away, in such a way that the guilt and liability would not revive - though a person might commit new sins, of course.
The thought pattern here is much like that seen in 1 John 3. 9 where we read: "Every one who is born of God does not commit sin, for His seed remains within him. And he cannot sin, because he is born of God." St. Paul speaks in a similar pattern in Romans chapter 8 of the Church as a fail-safe mechanism to bring final salvation. Paul also described in Romans 8. 7-8 the opposite situation: "The wisdom of the flesh is hostile to God, it is not subject to the law of God, for it is unable. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God." In all these texts we see an almost abstract way of thinking: being in the flesh, as such, cannot produce any good. But being a son of God, as such, cannot produce any sin.
Since we might cast it away by sin, for that reason, in His very first appearance to the Apostles after the completion of His sacrifice and resurrection, even though they had been sanctified "once for all", He told them: "Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them."
We note too, as we explained more fully in comments on chapter 9, we can speak of a once-for-all offering in that His interior obedience which constitutes the heart of the Mass, is not repeated, it is continuous (cf. eis to dienekes), since the moment of conception: Heb 10. 7.
Further, Hebrews stresses the need of faith. But as we saw above (on 3. 19) faith includes obedience.
The chief reason God was displeased with the old sacrifices was the lack of the interior, which should have been obedience. But Jesus from the start makes obedience the program of His life. The quote is from Psalm 40. 7-9 (Septuagint version). the words could not have applied literally to David, or to a later Psalmist, and so our author takes them to refer to Jesus - not improperly, for all the prophets stressed the need of interior obedience without which the outer forms of sacrifice were worthless. Especially Isaiah 53. 11 said: "By His obedience, my servant shall justify many (rabbim) " (We translate daetho not as knowledge, but as obedience since the infinitive of yada as a noun should have these same breadth of meaning as the root verb yada does, which includes both mind and will).
Clearly, then, one cannot expect to cultivate disobedience, even to fornication and murder a thousand times a day, and still be perfect as a result of the obedience of Jesus.
Jesus was literally able to have that obedience within His soul at the first moment of conception, for the Church teaches that from that first instant, his human soul saw the vision of God, in which all knowledge is present. He saw in that vision with merciless clarity and infallibility everything He would have to suffer, and He embraced it all, in obedience. He let us see inside Him as it were a few times later. In Lk 12. 50 he said: "I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how am I straitened until it be accomplished." That is, I must be plunged into a sea of suffering and I feel in a tight place, constricted, unable to get comfortable, until I get it over with. The same appears in John 12. 37: "Now my heart is troubled. What shall I say? Father save me from this hour." (On the vision in the soul of Jesus, cf. Wm. Most, The Consciousness of Christ, Christendom College Press, 1980.
Finally the author exhorts them to draw near with confidence to the throne of mercy - language he had use previously in 4. 16. Jesus our great priest, has pierced the inner veil for us, opening the way to the Father. But we must do this with a true heart. So there is no hint here that after the once-for-all sacrifice all can sin as much as they will, or that they are all finally perfect.
The mention of being sprinkled with clean water naturally brings to mind Ezekiel 36. 25-27.
Chapter 10. 26-39 Summary
If one sins deliberately, not just in ignorance, there is no further sacrifice for his sin - there is only looking forward to judgment and fiery indignation from God. For if one who violated the law of Moses had to die, how much more one who tramples the Son of God under his feet, and treats as ordinary the blood of the covenant? For God has said: "I will straighten things out. I will repay. The Lord will judge His people."
Please recall your early days, after Baptism, when you had difficult sufferings. You were exposed to public shame with insults, or else you became sharers with those who suffered in that way. You showed sympathy for those in prison and cheerfully endured plundering of your property, since you knew you had and have a better possession, one that is permanent.
So do not throw away your confidence. It brings great reward. You need patience, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what He promised. For (cf. Isaiah 26. 20 and Habakkuk 2. 3): "Just a little while, and the One who comes will come, and will not delay. My righteous one will live by faith. But if one draws back, I have no pleasure in him."
But we do not belong to those who draw back and so perish. We belong to those who have faith, and so gain our souls.
Chapter 10: 26-39: Comments
Commentators on the first verse here tend to think the author speaks of apostasy, as in Hebrews 6. 6 above. But the case is different here. Here he speaks merely of sins committed "deliberately". That is Hebrew be yad ramah, the kind of sin not covered by the Day of Atonement, of which he has spoken so much.
He says that no sacrifice is left for them: Christ has died, but they have not heeded. One who violated the law of Moses was to die: how much more severe should be the penalty of him who has trampled the Son of God underfoot and treats His covenant blood as nothing?
But if we put this into the background of the Day of Atonement of which, as we said, the author has been speaking so much, the matter is clear: Here the case is any sin committed be yad ramah, with a high hand in contrast to sins of ignorance. Apostasy is not the only thing.
How then can the author speak so strongly? Because even one mortal sin was enough to call for the death of Christ. In fact, in Galatians 2. 20, Paul wrote that He "loved me, and gave Himself for me." Vatican II, Church in Modern World #22 explained: "Each one of us can say with the Apostle: The Son of God loved me, and gave Himself for me."
So in this sense Hebrews can speak of trampling under foot the Son of God and the covenant blood. It would call for another death of Christ (cf. "crucifying again" in 6. 6).
Does he mean that ordinary mortal sins cannot be forgiven at all? Of course not. Protestant commentators are inclined to think one has only to ask God privately to forgive, and it is done. They ignore the fact that Christ Himself, on His very first visit to the Apostles after His resurrection, in John 20, told the Apostles;
"Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them." He said that after completing His once-for-all sacrifice. And no contradiction. That once-for-all sacrifice earned all forgiveness: there was still the process of giving it out. He Himself spoke of that in John 20. To ignore that and say in effect; I do not care what method you want - just forgive me my way -- that would be much like scorning the Son of God of which Hebrews has just spoken.
We have just shown how the vehement language of 10;26ff can be understood. Further light comes from looking at the practice of the early Church. The famous Shepherd by Hermas has language which many commentators think is a psychological ploy. In Mandate 4. 3. 1-6 Hermas tells the Angel of Repentance: "I have heard sir... that there is no second repentance except the one when we went down into the water and obtained remission of our former sins." The angel replied: "You have heard well, for it is so. The one who has received remission of sin should never sin again, but live in purity."
But right after that, the Angel explains: "After that first and solemn calling, if a man should be tempted by the devil and sin, he has one repentance." So there is another means of forgiveness. Then come more mysterious words: "But if he sins repeatedly and repents it is useless for such a man."
It is obvious that we are dealing, as we said, with a psychological ploy. For to first say flatly: There is no other means of forgiveness, and then right away to add another, is nothing but a move to deter people from breaking the baptismal "seal"- for in the first age Baptism was often spoken of as a seal: it marks us as God's property, we must never break the seal by sinning again.
Yet in Parable 9. 26, speaking even of the great sin of apostasy -- which Hebrews 6. 4 seemed to say could not be forgiven -we find: "It is impossible for him who now denies his Lord to be saved, but for whose who denied long ago, repentance seems to be present."
The explanation is the same as that which we gave in our comments on Hebrews 6. 4: the person is hardened, and so even though God is always willing to forgive, and even though the merits of Christ have earned forgiveness for every sin, yet the man has made himself unable to take in the forgiveness. Clearly the merit and satisfaction of Christ is infinite in worth: so on the part of God there is always forgiveness. But - and here is th explanation of the above words from Parable 9. 26 -- if he goes through years of canonical penance such as was given in those days, the hardness may be broken, so that he really repents, really has a change of heart. Then forgiveness is possible.
Similarly we would explain the words we saw above of the angel saying that if a man sins repeatedly, there is no forgiveness. This does not mean that this Sacrament of Penance could be received only once in a lifetime - it means that repetition of sin brings hardness. Yet even that hardness could be dissolved by long hard years of penance, as we have just said.
The very severe Tertullian, before becoming a heretical Montanist, c, 200-206, though he thought there was Penance only once after baptism, yet wrote (De paenitentia 4) "For all sins, whether of the flesh or of the spirit, whether committed in act or [only] in the will, He who destined punishment by judgment, also promised pardon by penance."
We gather that the Sacrament could be used for things less than the big three: murder, adultery, apostasy. In fact, Tertullian speaks of merely internal sins, "of the spirit" or only "in the will".
Somewhat later, about 213-23, when he had already joined the Montanist heresy, the same Tertullian, in De pudicitia seems to imply confession more than just once for smaller faults (18. 3): "But if the clemency of God is open yet to those who are ignorant [of Him] and infidels, surely also penitence invites clemency to itself, that kind of penitence being still on hand after believing [after Baptism] which can obtain pardon for the [relatively] lesser faults from the bishop, for greater and unforgivable ones, from God alone." He continues in 19. 24-26: "For to whom does it not happen that he is unjustly angry, and is angry beyond the setting of the sun, or that he lays violent hands [on someone] or that he easily curses or swears rashly... or that he lies out of shame or necessity, in businesses, in duties, in making money, in manner of living, in looking, in hearing - what great temptations! So that if there be no pardon for these things, salvation would be open to no one."
Not many years later, in about 250, St. Cyprian of Carthage, in Epistle 10 (16) complained of laxity: "Whereas in the case of lesser sins, sinners do penance for the fixed time and... come to confession, and through the imposition of the hands of bishop and clergy receive the right of communion, [now] while the ... time of persecution still lasts... they are admitted to communion... though penance has not yet been done, nor confession made, and though the hand of the bishop and clergy has not yet been imposed on them, the Eucharist is given to them."
Again, we gather that the Sacrament of Penance was used even for lesser sins.
In verses 30-31 we meet an unfortunate translation in many versions: "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." (The version of Dt. 32. 35 used here in Hebrews is the same as that of St. Paul in Romans 12. 19). The Hebrew has the concept of naqam , which does not mean revenge, but rebalance of the objective order when it is put out of line by sin. It is the Holiness of God that wills this.
Then (v. 32) our author speaks of their earlier sufferings. We cannot identify the historical point to which he refers--obviously a time of persecution or similar harsh treatment.
So they need patience and confidence in God. For the One who is coming will surely come, and will not delay. Here our author echoes Isaiah 26. 20 and Habakkuk, 2. 3. We wonder if he is speaking of an impatience of some who had thought the return of Christ was very soon?
Habakkuk was speaking of trust in God in the face of an invasion of the Babylonians. (St. Paul uses the words of Habakkuk to mean faith in this sense, which includes believing God, confidence in His promises, and obedience to His commands).
Chapter 11: Summary
Faith is the assurance of the things we are looking forward to, it is the conviction of things that we do not see.
By it, by faith, the men of old gave testimony to what was to come. By faith we understand that the ages were made by the word of God.
By faith, Abel offered more sacrifice than Cain, thorough which he was testified to be just, since in his gifts to God he gave witness, and dying with that faith, he still speaks.
By faith Enoch was transferred so that he did not see death, as Scripture says, "and he was not found, for God transferred him" to the world to come. Without faith it is impossible to please God: one who approaches God must believe that God exists, and that He gives payment to those who seek Him.
In faith Noah received an answer about things not yet seen, and in fear he built the ark for the salvation of his household, and thus condemned the world and became the heir of righteousness which comes through faith. Noah is especially noted for his obedience to God, in making the ark in spite of the ridicule of others: He did all that God commanded: Gen 6. 22. Thus he condemned the world, and became the inheritor of righteousness.
Greatest of all in faith was Abraham. In obedience to God's call he left his homeland and relatives and set out for a place he did not know. He became a tent-dweller as did also Isaac and Jacob, who also inherited God's promise. Abraham looked forward to a city with real foundations, of which God is the builder. By faith Sarah though barren and at an advanced age, received a child, Isaac. In this Abraham believed God. Hence from this one man, Abraham, who was practically dead -- almost 100 years old - there came offspring as numerous as the stars in the sky.
All of these died without seeing that which was promised realized. They saw and greeted from far off what was to come. They were pilgrims on this earth, seeking a lasting city to come, a better homeland. So God was not ashamed to be called their God. He has prepared the better city for them.
It was in faith that Abraham went up to the point of sacrificing Isaac, even though it was through Isaac that he was to receive the great progeny God had promised. Abraham considered that God could even raise people from the dead. He received Isaac back from the dead as a type. In faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau even in respect to the things that are to come. In faith Jacob, while dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph. In faith Joseph when he was near to death foretold the departure of his people from Egypt, and instructed them to take his bones with them when they would leave.
In faith the parents of Moses hid him for three months, in spite of the decree of the Pharaoh that all male children be killed. The same Moses when grown, in faith, refused to be called the son of the daughter of Pharaoh: he preferred hardship with the people of God to the temporary pleasure of sin.
He considered the stigma that was upon the promised One greater wealth than all the wealth of Egypt, for he looked ahead to the future reward. It was in faith that Moses left Egypt, not because of the anger of the Pharaoh, but because Moses saw the Invisible God. In faith Moses established the Passover with its sprinkling of blood to keep the destroyer from touching the firstborn of his people when those of the Egyptians were killed.
It was again in faith that the people of Israel crossed the Red Sea safely, while the Egyptians were drowned in it.
It was by faith, in which they marched around the walls of Jericho for seven days, that they caused the walls of that city to fall down. It was as a result of her faith that Rahab who had given hospitality to the Israelite spies was saved when Jericho was taken.
There are so many other examples of great faith: Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets. By faith they conquered kingdoms, established what was right, and shut the mouths of lions. They put out the force of fire, escaped the sword, and saw their very weakness turn to strength when they proved mighty warriors and put their enemies to flight. Women received even dead children back through resurrection.
Others in faith endured so much: being tortured to death, suffering mocking, scourging, chains and prison. They were stoned or sawed in two, were killed by the sword, they went about in sheepskins and goatskins. They were destitute, afflicted, mistreated. The world was not worthy of such people, as they wandered in their affliction in mountains, caves, and holes in the ground.
All these were marked by faith even though they did not see or receive the things that had been promised. But God provided something better, having us in view, so that they could not reach the perfect attainment apart from us.
Chapter 11: Comments
Faith is the solid basis (hypostasis) of hope (cf. 3. 14). Faith gives reality, hypostasis, to things not yet seen. Faith allows us to know that this visible universe was really made out of nothing- which calls for infinite power. For to raise something from what we might call 3 degrees of being to 6 would be measurable power. But from absolute zero to any degree - infinite power is needed.
Now our author goes into a long praise of those in the OT period who were great in faith. This reminds us of Sirach 44. 1 - 50. 21.
The first model of faith is Abel, who offered a sacrifice that God accepted. It was not the type of material offered that made the difference. Through Isaiah, and other prophets, God so often complained about the old Jewish sacrifices, even though they offered the very things He had commanded. But it was because, as He said in Is 29. 13: "They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me". That is, the interior disposition, which is basically obedience to the will of God, is what is necessary. A faith that merely believed the words of God would not qualify, it had to be a faith that obeyed. Such was the obedience of Jesus, such must be the interior of all sacrifices that are to please God.
On faith of Abraham see also comments above on 3. 16-19.
Abel still speaks in that his example of obedience in faith is still what God calls for.
The faith of Enoch was so great that God "took him". Our Epistle understands this to mean Enoch was taken up by God without dying. Interestingly, the Hebrew word used her in saying God took him is laqah. The same word is also used in the remarkable line of Psalm 49. 15: "God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, He will take me (laqah)." The same verb is also used when God took Elijah to heaven: 2 Kgs. 2. 9-10.
In Sirach 44. 16 we read of Enoch: "While living among sinners, he was beloved to God. He was taken so that wickedness might not change his understanding, or guile deceive his soul."
In three books of Jewish intertestamental literature, Enoch is pictured as receiving special revelations. All three of these books can be found in J. H. Charlesworth (ed. ). The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (Doubleday, NY 1983, I. 5-315. The little Epistle of Jude in v. 14 says that Enoch prophesied that the Lord would come with all His holy ones around Him (taken from 1 Enoch 1. 9). The 2nd century B.C. Jubilees in 4. 17 says Enoch was the first to learn writing and knowledge and wisdom. Such a statement of course is in line with the schematic and artificial picture of the development of civilization in Genesis chapter 4.
In Apocalypse/Revelation 11 there is a strange prophecy of two witnesses, whose names are not given. Many conjectures have been made about them, all rather loose. Some think the two who are to come before the end are Enoch and Elijah.
Noah also walked with God, and was pleasing to Him, when God said He regretted making our race -- an anthropomorphism of course. God ordered Noah to make an ark - the dimensions would be about 440 x 73 x 44 feet, a large vessel. We can imagine the ridicule Noah had to take from others while it was being built, far inland. But in faith he went ahead, trusting in God's word, and obeying - for faith includes obedience as well as belief/trust. Genesis 6. 22: Noah did all that God commanded him.
The wisdom books of the OT see wisdom in Noah: Wisdom 10. 4 and Sirach 44. 17-18.
Probably the greatest of the examples of faith is Abraham. He went forth "in obedience" to a place he did not know: 11. 8. The mention of a land that he did not know evokes the thought of a city yet to come, of which Hebrews 13. 14 speaks: "We have here no lasting city but we are looking for one that is to come". Did Abraham know of the eternal vision of God to come in the future life? In general, the Israelites seem not to have known that clearly before the time of the persecution by Antiochus IV c. 170 B.C. But there are occasional passing references that seem to carry this idea, such as Psalm 49. 15, cited above: "God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, He will take me (laqah)." We noted in speaking of Enoch that this same verb laqah speaks of God taking Enoch, and taking Elijah. Psalm 73. 23 says: "Being with you, I desire nothing on earth. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is... my portion forever, (le olam). Psalm 17. 15 seems to have a similar idea. And if -- though so many reject it - we accept the revisions of about 30 Psalm lines proposed by Mitchell Dahood, in the introductions to his three volumes on the Psalms in Anchor Bible, we will find still more evidence. And of course Jesus Himself in replying to the Sadducees cited a line from the burning bush passage: "I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob". And He added: "He is not the God of the dead but of the living." The reasoning of Jesus is of course valid in itself. But it need not be true that all the Israelites picked up the same implication. However, Abraham may have known, and in view of his special relation to God that seems likely.
Verse 11 presents a problem from its odd grammatical structure: "By faith - Sarah herself being sterile - [He:Abraham] received power in the conception of seed, and [this] beyond the right age [for conception] since he [she] considered Him faithful who gave the message." The problem is that Sarah laughed in Genesis 18. 12, and 18. 13-15 seems to say she laughed in disbelief, not in joy. The looseness of the homiletic genre of Hebrews could let us say that this refers to the faith of Abraham, or that the author lets his fancy play loosely. But if we accept the reading of some manuscripts - used in our version above - then the words "Sarah being sterile" are grammatically only an aside, so that Abraham is the subject of the sentence.
This faith resulted in the start of a progeny as numerous as the stars, even though Abraham's body was "practically dead". He was 99. But for a man of that age to sire a child need not be a miracle. Again, we have homiletic genre at work.
But again we note the stress on the faith of Abraham being shown in obedience. Genesis 26. 5 focuses again on this: where God tells Isaac, because Abraham obeyed my voice... .
This idea that we are on a pilgrimage to our true city was picked up in Christian thought": cf. Phil 23. 20 and 1 Peter 1. 17 and 2. 11, and the opening lines of First Clement: "The Church of God in exile in Rome to the Church in exile in Corinth... ."
The notion of being in exile or only sojourning is emphasized in verses 13-16.
Then our author returns to Abraham and praises his faith in the sacrifice of Isaac. He points out that God had promised to make Abraham the father of a great people through Isaac, but then God told Abraham to sacrifice that same Isaac. How old was Isaac at the time? There is no indication here or in Genesis. Some rabbis think Isaac was old enough already to have children. Josephus (Antiquities 1. 227) thought he was about 25. But there is nothing in the text to indicate this, and the example of faith is far more powerful if we think Isaac was only a boy at the time. The fact that Hebrews 11. 19 says Abraham reasoned that God could bring Isaac back from the dead would tend to indicate that Isaac was quite young then. Need we suppose that Abraham really did think of a possible resurrection then?. It is not necessary, in view of the looseness of the homiletic genre. Again we need to recall the question of whether Abraham knew of the future vision of God, which we discussed above. It seems that the Israelites in general did not yet think of a possible resurrection. But that is unclear.
It is a contrast with the known thought of St. Paul that our author here uses the sacrifice of Isaac as an example of faith. Paul in speaking of Abraham in Romans 4 and Galatians 4 did not mention this episode. We may conjecture the reason was to avoid giving a handle to the Judaizers that he was speaking of a work, not just of faith.
But the fact that Hebrews does uses this instance, whereas in the uncontested Epistles of Paul, it is not used, could perhaps be one indication that Hebrews might not be from Paul himself. But that is quite uncertain, and there are also indications in the opposite direction.
Even if Paul had used this instance he would not have meant that such a good work was earning salvation. In Romans 6. 23 Paul makes clear: "The wages of sin [what we earn] is death; the free gift of God [what we do not earn] is eternal life." So we could sum it up in the words of a student, speaking of salvation:
We cannot earn it, but we can blow it. That is, obedience is required (cf. Romans 1. 5), but that obedience does not earn salvation. Rather, the lack of it would earn punishment.
Later on the Jews often appealed to the sacrifice of Isaac as a means of atonement. That was part of the reason why the Targum on Isaiah 53 distorts it so greatly, making the meek lamb into a proud conqueror. This is admitted by some fine Jewish scholars today: cf. H. J. Schoeps, Paul, The Theology of the Apostle, (Westminster, 1961, p. 129) and Jacob Neusner, Messiah in Context (Fortress, Phil, 1984 p. 190) and Samson Levey, The Messiah. An Aramaic Interpretation, Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati, 1974, p. 152, note 10).
In Leviticus Rabbah 29. 8 the author prays that when the sons of Isaac are wicked, may He remember the binding of their father Isaac.
Our author here, in 11. 19, speaks of Abraham receiving Isaac "as a type", a prophecy in action. Many Fathers, e.g., St. Irenaeus 4. 5. 4 says that Isaac carrying the wood was a type of Christ carrying His cross. Cf. also Genesis Rabbah 56. 4 on Gen 22. 6. Clement of Rome, in 31. 3 says that Isaac gladly was brought as a sacrifice, and Josephus Antiquities 1. 232 has the same thought. Receiving Isaac back, from what seemed certain death, But the type is more likely a prefiguration of the resurrection of Christ. This might be in mind in John 8. 56: "Abraham rejoiced to see my day.".
By faith Isaac blessed both Jacob and Esau, "even in regard to things to come." This is said even though in Genesis 27. 39 the blessing given to Esau is much less, and seems not to refer to heavenly things. This will cause us to consider a problem when we reach 12. 16-17. Here in 11, Hebrews is intent on showing the faith of Isaac. Later, in 12, Hebrews will want to warn readers of how easily they might fall into apostasy.
Next is Joseph, who showed such faith as to accept an Egyptian prison rather than violate the command of God by consenting to the wicked wishes of the wife of Potiphar.
Moses of course is specially great. His parents, in faith, hid him, and by putting him in a basket on the Nile tried to keep him from the drowning ordered by the Pharaoh (Exodus 1. 22). Later, when Moses grew up in the royal palace, he could have stayed, but in faith he preferred to join his own oppressed people. He considered the temporary enjoyment of sin - living in the royal house -as nothing compared to the future reward (here we recall the problem of how much of future reward was known to Israelites in general and at that time; though Moses, a special personality, may have seen more, even as some Psalm authors seem to have done: please recall comments above in this chapter on Abraham looking forward to a better city. Our Epistle adds that the he though the riches of Egypt less than the reproach of the Messiah: here, remarkably, the Epistle seems to identify the Hebrews with the graces of the Messiah to come - even though we cannot be sure how much they may have understood of a future Messiah at this time. It is usually said that a vision of a coming Messiah did not come until during the time of the kings. Yet the Targums see the Messiah as early as Genesis 3. 15 and Genesis 49. 10, as does also in Numbers 24. 15-17. On perceptions of Genesis 49. 10 also by rabbis cf. Samson Levey, The Messiah An Aramaic Interpretation (Cincinnati 1974, p. 8. and Jacob Neusner, Messiah in Context (Phila, 1984, p. 242). Even the Targum Onkelos, which is so restrictive in its messianic views (probably a result of late revisions by rabbis), still sees the Messiah in Numbers 24.
This faith of Moses is probably also intended as a help to Christians tempted to falter in the time of our Epistle.
In faith Moses left on the Exodus, not as though fearing the Pharaoh, but sustained by seeing the Invisible One. Did Moses ever have the beatific vision? Many commentators have thought so. But they seem to have forgotten Exodus 33. 18-23 where Moses asked to see God, and was allowed only to see Him from behind, from a cleft in the rock (even though Exodus 33. 7-11 had said he spoke to God face to face - meaning, as directly as we speak to another human). He did have a direct encounter with God at the Burning bush - and later too - as a result of which first encounter the rabbis, following Philo (Life of Moses 2. 14, 68, held that Moses thereafter never again had sex with his wife - interesting comparison with the wretched idea of those who think Our Lady, after 9 months direct contact with God, would have sex many times - and contrast with Joseph also. Even Luther and Calvin believed in the perpetual virginity, which so many today reject.
Moses also showed faith in the institution of the Passover, which objectively looked forward to the great Passover sacrifice of Jesus, even though we have no means of saying Moses was enabled to really foresee that.
Faith again was clear when Moses stretched his hand over the sea, and caused it to open for the Israelites, and then to close on the troops of Pharaoh (on problems in the account in Exodus of this crossing, Cf. Wm. Most, Free From All Error, Libertyville, 1990, pp. 88-89).
Moses himself was not permitted (Dt. 32. 48-51) to enter the promised land- for just one sin at the time of the temptation at Massah and Meribah: Numbers 20. 12 and 27. 13-14. But his successor Joshua did enter it. By faith he caused the walls of Jericho to fall down, using means that seemed hopelessly ineffective, having the Israelites march around the city seven times, and then giving a great shout.
Strangely, even recent publications seem not to know of the major work of Bryant G. Wood, in Biblical Archaeology Review of March-April 1990 where he shows that K. Kenyon was in error in not finding walls there of a suitable date for Joshua's exploit (that even the great Kenyon could make such a mistake is supported by a report in BAR of March-April, 1988 by Yigal Shiloh who found remains in Jerusalem which Kenyon had said could not be found).
Next, remarkably, Rahab the harlot is praised for her faith: she received the Israelite spies who came to look over Jericho, and then hid them, with the promise they would not harm her home when they would take the city: Joshua 6. 1-25 and James 2. 25. It is even likely that this Rahab is the one mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1. 5. Cf. also First Clement 12. 7.
In 11. 32 we meet a typically rhetorical bit of wording, that fits well with the idea that the genre of Hebrews is homiletic: "What shall I say further? Time will run out if I tell about... . ."
Our author then gives short notice to:
Gideon, who with only 300 men believed God would give him victory over the host of Midian: Judges 7.
Barak was the commander of the Israelite army who won a remarkable victory against Sisera, commander of the united Canaanite forces with their 100 iron chariots: Judges, chapter 4. Actually, Barak put his faith in Deborah, a prophetess to whom God had spoken.
Samson in his single-handed method wrought great destruction among the Philistines - in spite of his own sins: Judges, chapters 14-16.
Jephthah commanded the Israelite Transjordanian tribes against the Ammonites, and won a singular victory. Sadly he, in misguided belief, sacrificed his own daughter because of an invalid, even objectively immoral vow: Judges chapter 11.
David, strangely, is given only brief mention here, in spite of his great dedication to the will of God in faith, except for the sad incident with the wife of Uriah. God did say of David, in 1 Kings 14. 8 that he was a man who always did His will.
Samuel, last of the judges and great prophet, highly praised in Sirach 46. 13-15, advisor of King Saul, had the faith to rally the forces of his people after the terrible defeat by the Philistines in which they even captured the ark of the covenant in which they had put their faith: 1 Samuel chapters 3-7. Then, when the ark was returned, Samuel did not have it brought for years to Jerusalem, probably to show them that their faith should not rest precisely on it.
After that there is merely a general reference to the Prophets, meaning most likely not the ecstatic prophets often in guilds, but the truly great men of faith: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the lesser twelve.
Starting in 11. 33 we meet just general descriptions of the exploits in faith of other great persons:
Conquered kingdoms by faith: this starts with the victories over Sihon (he had conquered much of the territory of Moab, refused to let Israel go through his territory, was defeated by Israel), and Og (king of Basan, defeated by Israel under Moses: Numbers 21. 33-35. Then Hebrews goes through the period of Joshua and the Judges, reaches a peak in David. They "did what was right" and "they gained the promises".
Closing mouths of lions by faith: This was the case of Daniel in the lions' den: Daniel, chapter 6.
Quenched the force of fire: In chapter 3 of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to worship the golden image the king had made, were put into a fiery furnace, escaped unharmed.
Escaped the edge of the sword: In 1 Kings 19. 2-18 Elijah escaped from Jezebel; Elisha from Jehoram, in 2 Kings 6. 31 - 7. 20; Jeremiah, from Jehoiakim, in 36. 19-32.
Found strength after weakness, overthrew enemies' camps: Gideon in Judges, chapters 6-7. 1 Clement 55. 3-6 tells of women who were made strong by God; he mentions specially Judith and Esther. In passing we note that he puts the book of Judith, which is deuterocanonical, on the same level as that of Esther (On this sort of thing cf. H. W. Swete, Introduction to the Old Testament in Greek, 1900, p. 223). And of course the exploits of the Maccabees come to mind here too.
Women received their dead back in resurrection: Elijah restored life to the son of the widow of Zarephath: 1 Kings 17. 17-24; Elisha brought back to life the son of the woman of
Shunem: 2 Kings 4. 18-37.
Others tortured to death: Such as the Martyrs in 2 Maccabees, who accepted death, looking forward to a better resurrection.
Still others experienced mockery, beatings, chains and prisons, were stoned... . : The original readers had probably heard of cases like these, perhaps during the persecution of Nero. They themselves seem not to have experienced great persecution at the time: Heb. 12. 4. As to being sawed in two, there is a report in the Apocryphal work The Ascension of Isaiah 5 that Isaiah died this way under king Manasseh.
Our text comments that the world was not worthy of such wonderful persons. They were approved by faith, even though they did not live to see what had been promised, the times of the Messiah and the eternal reward. He adds that only in company with us did they reach perfection. We recall in this connection the common Patristic tradition that the just who died before the death of Christ, even if they were fully purified, were not yet allowed to have the beatific vision (Cf. Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, I. 114). They waited in the Limbo of the Fathers.
Chapter 12: Summary
Since then we have so large a number of witnesses to the value of faith, we should get rid of everything that could hinder us from running in the race we have entered, which leads to salvation. We keep our eyes of Jesus who first traversed the path of faith and finished the course. Because of the joy He knew would come finally, He despised the disgrace of the cross, and now sits at the right hand of the throne of the Father. He put up with such hostility from sinners: thinking of this will keep you from growing weary at heart.
You have not yet had to resist in this course of faith up to the point of shedding your blood. And do not forget the encouraging word of Scripture: My son do not despise the training the Lord gives you, do not lose heart when He corrects you. He, like a good Father, corrects every son he receives. So what you have to suffer is all part of that training. The Father is treating you as sons. If He did not, you would be considered as illegitimates, not as true sons. Our earthly fathers disciplined us for a while, as they thought best, and we respected them for it. Should we not all the more welcome the discipline from our Father in heaven? Yes, discipline at the time is unpleasant, but it brings such rich fruit!.
So strengthen your drooping arms and knees. Run straight ahead, and do not let lame joints get out of place. Cultivate peace with everyone and that sanctification without which no on can see the Lord in the world to come. See to it that no one fails God's grace, and produces bitter fruit. See to it that there is not among you any fornicator or irreligious man like Esau who sold his birthright for one meal. Later, when he repented, even with tears he could not get the blessing he had lost.
The mountain you have come to is not a material one, like Sinai of old, burning with fire, in darkness, gloom and storm and trumpet blasts and sounds of words which caused the hearers to beg they might not hear more. They had been told that if anyone touched the mountain he was to be stoned. Even Moses was filled with fear at the sight.
But the mountain to which you have come is Mount Zion, the city of the living God, and the heavenly Jerusalem with myriads of angels in festal garb. You have come to the gathering of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, to God, the judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous men who have reached perfection and
to Jesus, the Mediator of the new covenant, and the sprinkling of His blood which speaks better than that of Abel.
Do not refuse to listen to Him who speaks. Those who long ago refused to hear God's words on earth had no escape. Still less would there be any escape if now we refuse to listen when He speaks from heaven. Once He said He would shake heaven and earth once more."Once more" indicates the things of the created order are shaken, so that things that cannot shake may last. The kingdom we receive is not able to be shaken. So let us give thanks and bring worship that is acceptable to God, with humility and awe, for our God is indeed a consuming fire.
Chapter 12: Comments
We have the encouragement and example of so many persons outstanding for their faith. So we should get rid of sin and whatever else hinders us in our race to enter into that rest, that is, to reach the beatific vision in the life to come.
In verse 1 some versions speak of sin which "readily ensnares us". Others speak of "sin which clings so closely." The differences come from varied manuscript readings. But the sense is clear in any case. We are in a race for the prize of eternal life. Like athletes who give up so much in their attempt to win, we must be willing to give up not only sin but other things too . We all are inclined to evil as a result of original sin, but that inclination is made stronger by each personal sin. It is helpful here to recall our detailed comments which started with Matthew 6. 21,"Where your treasure is, there is your heart also." The lower the creature that pulls us, and the more strongly we allow it to get a hold on us, the greater the hindrance. We think of the remarkable expression in Wisdom 4. 12, which says that "The witchery of paltry things" may ensnare someone's heart. Even the legitimate use of creatures needs to be watched.
(Pope John Paul II in a General Audience of Oct 8, 1986 explained that the weakening from original sin is "not an absolute deterioration... . . not... a loss of their essential capacities". Rather it means that in comparison to what we would have had, with the Gift of Integrity or the coordinating gift, we are in a poorer relative position).
Our author's language here strongly resembles that of St. Paul in 1 Cor 9. 24-27 where Paul says he too, like the athletes, gives up so much, even things that are not wrong in themselves, and even "hits his body under the eyes, and leads it around like a slave" (this is the literal version of the Greek, which is commonly softened) so that after preaching to others, he himself may not be rejected at the judgment. The context shows Paul is speaking not of some extra - as some Protestants try to say to escape the force of his words - but of eternal life. Paul has been urging since early in chapter 8 that we should be willing to give up things rather than lead another into sin by which he might lose the prize, eternal life itself. Paul had been doing, and continues doing such heroic work for Christ. Yet he did not think he had "infallible salvation" by taking Christ as his personal savior. He knew too well his body might lead him into sin, following after the witchery of small things" so that he might lose eternal life.
Even F. F. Bruce, in his generally fine commentary on Hebrews, at times falls into mistakes that seem to tend somewhat in the direction of Lutheran errors. Yet he too, in comments on 11. 14 says that the sanctification of which Hebrews speaks there means being pure in heart. Bruce says Hebrews is not "encouraging antinomianism" in his readers, that is, the outrageous notion that one can sin as much as he wishes, can even commit fornication and murder a thousand times a day, and still be perfectly all right, and able to join the eternal vision of God (cf. Luther, Epistle to Melanchthon of Aug 1, 1521, in the American Edition of Luther's Works, 48, 281-82) who as Malachi 3, 2 tells us "is like a refiner's fire", so that it would not accept any corrupt soul without first burning the corruption out.
Socrates in Phaedo 66 and 82-83 and in Republic 485-86 says that each pleasure and pain has as it were a nail, and nails the soul to the body, and pins it there and makes it bodily. He says further that the man who seeks truth should have as little as possible to do with the things of the body.
Hebrews urges readers to look at Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith. Clearly, the word faith here has not the narrow sense of mental belief, nor the similarly narrow sense of confidence that the merits of Jesus apply to me. We saw above in comments on chapter 3, faith in Hebrews includes three elements as it does also in St. Paul: belief in what God says, confidence in His promises, and especially obedience to His commands. It of the lack of this third element of faith that our Epistle speaks in 3. 12 & 19. If faith here meant merely belief in what God says, without being able to see it, there would be no faith in Jesus, whose human soul saw the vision of God from the first instant, as we explained also in comments on chapter 3 above. We are thinking especially of the fact that Jesus, on entering into this world (10. 7) said: "Behold I come to do your will, O God," an attitude He continued during all of His life, even becoming obedient to death, to death on a cross (cf. Phil 2. 8). Here our Epistle says that Jesus despised the shame of such a death. Indeed, it was considered a terrible disgrace as well as terrible pain. Cicero, in his Pro Rabirio 5 said: "Let even the mention of the cross be far from not only a
Roman citizen's body, but from his mind, eyes, and ears." But Jesus in obedience took on this painful and disgraceful death in obedience, and in looking ahead to the glory that was to come even to His humanity.
Hebrews then adds that the readers have not yet resisted even to the point of shedding their blood. If the author is thinking of Rome, this would probably date the Epistle before the terrible persecution of Nero.
He then turns to a comparison with the training given by a good Father to his sons. If the Father in heaven disciplines us, sends us suffering, it is out of love; and generous acceptance of suffering will make us grow greatly spiritually. A very similar thought appears in Proverbs 3. 11-12. In fact, if God did not discipline us it would b e a sign He did not love us, or did not mean to accept us. So, in Acts 14. 22 St. Paul says that it is through many tribulations that we must enter the kingdom of God. The speech of Elihu in Job 32 -33 brings out this idea well. The Rabbinic Sifre on Deuteronomy 32 says, "a man should rejoice more in chastisement than in times of prosperity. For if a man is prosperous all his life, no sin of his can be forgiven." And the text continues quoting Rabbi Meir saying that God chastises as a Father does his sons. Cf. also Psalm 119. 67 & 71, and Matthew 5. 10-12.
So they should strengthen themselves for the struggle ahead, for it leads to the rest of which he has spoken so much earlier.
They should pursue real sanctification, for without it no one can see God. Again we recall out comments starting on Matthew 6. 21.
So they should try to see to it that no one fails God's grace and produces bitter fruits (on this expression cf. Dt. 29. 17).
Especially, there should be among them no one like Esau, who was a fornicator and irreligious.
Here we meet problems. In chapter 11 our author spoke more favorably of Esau, and even said, with some exaggeration that Isaac blessed both Jacob and Esau in regard to things to come.
Was Esau really a fornicator? Genesis does not report any such thing, unless we take fornication in a different sense sometimes found in the OT as meaning infidelity to God. The closest thing we can find to fornication by Esau that is well attested is the fact that Esau married two Hethite women (Gen 25. 34-35).
In general Genesis shows Esau as not really wicked. He was a man fond of hunting. When he came back seemingly exhausted and asked his brother Jacob for food, which Jacob was cooking, Jacob, in a most disreputable act, said the price would be his birthright - in virtue of which he would have gotten a double portion of inheritance. But this was taking unfair advantage. Esau told Jacob he was near death (15. 32): What good was birthright then? Genesis 25. 34 says that Esau made little of his birthright. It was not contempt in the more usual sense: it is saying: What good is that to me in comparison to staying alive? In ascetic literature we often read that someone should despise the world. Yet the world is good, since God in Genesis 1 made all things good, and it has great dignity from the fact that Jesus in the incarnation took a created nature and used created things. So the contempt is only relative, as it was when St. Paul in Philippians 3. 8 said he considers all else just rubbish in comparison to the good of gaining Christ. -- So too Esau could think the double portion of inheritance not important compared to saving his life. Later, Jacob, by gross deception, said he was Esau, and obtained Isaac's blessing in that way. When Esau came in later and asked for that blessing it was too late -- a word spoken by a person in authority was often believed to have effect from the very fact that it was spoken. So his Father gave him a very inferior blessing. Esau was very angry, yet later forgot his resentment and when he later met Jacob was very considerate of Jacob: Genesis chapter 33. So Esau does not really look like a wicked man in Genesis.
How then can Hebrews speak thus of Esau at this point?
In comments on chapter 11 we pointed out two different purposes in the mind of the author: in chapter 11 he was intent on showing the faith of Isaac, here in chapter 12, he is intent on warning against falling away.
So there seems to be a shift in perspective. St. Paul does much of this. For example, in speaking of the Law, very often he says harsh things: no one can keep it, it brings only death and curse, it is the "ministry of condemnation". Yet a few times, early in chapters 3 and 9 of Romans, St. Paul says having the Law was one of the great privileges of the People of God. How could Paul speak this way? Most usually he takes an artificially narrow perspective, which we could call a focused view. It is like the case of someone looking through a tube, who sees only what is framed by the circle formed by the tube. In that perspective Paul could think: The Law makes heavy demands - it gives no strength -to be under a heavy demand with no strength must mean a fall - and so one is spiritually dead and cursed. Yet when St. Paul had a different purpose and perspective in mind, he could as it were remove the restriction made by the circle of the imaginary tube and then think: The Law makes heavy demands, and IT gives no strength. Yet off to the side, in no way coming from the Law, there was grace even before Christ. If one uses that, then the Law is indeed Wisdom, for it shows him how to be open to God's gifts, and steers him away from the evils that lurk in the very nature of things" cf 1 Cor 6. 12. The First Epistle of John shows similar shifts: 1 John 1. 10 says if we claim he have not sinned, we make God a liar. But in 3. 9 he says that no one begotten of God sins. He cannot sin.
What makes possible the great shift in Hebrews is the use of the perspective, a false one, taken by the rabbis. In Genesis Rabbah 65. 15 and 65. 1 and Jubilees 25:1, 8 we see that often the Rabbis identified Esau with Rome, and hence called him wicked. Especially in Rabbah 65. 15 we read that poor Esau, being hairy, found that his sins stuck in his hair, while Jacob, being bald, did not have that trouble. In that same passage Rabbi Isaac said such an interpretation is "far-fetched". And Jacob had the Day of Atonement to rid him of the sins annually, but Esau did not. In 65. 1 Esau was accused of violating many women, and so he is called a fornicator. This really means that Rome was guilty of such things.
In 12. 17 we are told that Esau later tried to repent, and found no mercy. But we need to watch the context. Esau in Genesis was not repenting of a sin, but sorry over the fact that Jacob had stolen his birthright and hence also the blessing. With tears he tried to get the blessing anyway: but in vain, it could not be recalled. But Esau was not hardened like the sinners mentioned in 6:4-6. For those are hardened, in the sense explained in our comments on chapter 6. But Esau was not hardened. Chapter 12. 16 speaks of Esau's tears. In context the tears were to obtain the Father's blessing-too late.
Later in history the descendants of Esau, called Edom, were hard on Israel, when Israel wanted permission to go through Edomite land on the way to the promised land: Edom refused. When Jerusalem fell to Babylon, Edomites took over some of the land in the south part of Judah.
The people under Moses came near to a terrifying mountain, burning with fire, in the midst of darkness, gloom and storm. They were so frightened they asked that God speak to them only through Moses, not directly. Hebrews, with homiletic freedom, gives the impression they did not want to hear more from God. But from
Genesis chapter 20 it seems it was merely fear that led them to speak this way, Dt. 5. 28-29 finds their attitude even commendable. Moses had told them that if even a beast should touch the mountain the beast must be stoned -- was it thought the beast would contract such holiness from touching the mountain that the people should not touch the beast, so they would not be levitically unclean, and hence kill it b y stoning from a distance? Our author says even Moses said he was filled with fear and trembling. Those words by Moses are not found in Scripture. They probably come from a later rabbinic amplification.
Similarly later in Dt 9. 19 Moses told them he was fearful of the anger of God after the golden calf sin. And in
Acts 7. 32 Stephen says that Moses at the burning bush was in fear.
But now thanks to the sacrifice of Jesus, we have confident access to God (cf. 4. 16 above). We have come to mount Zion. Originally Mt. Zion was the Jebusite stronghold which
David conquered and made his royal residence. Later Solomon built the temple on the hill to the north of Zion and put the ark there, so the name Zion came to include this further area, and at times meant all Jerusalem. Both in Jewish and in Christian thought (Cf. Gal 4. 26), there is a heavenly Jerusalem of which the material Jerusalem is a type. In Exodus 15. 40 God ordered Moses to make the sanctuary according to the pattern shown to him on the mountain (cf. Heb. 8. 5).
They have come, says our author to the place where myriads of angels are gathered. Dt. 33. 2 spoke of thousands of thousands of angels at the giving of the law. Daniel 7. 10 spoke again of the thousands who stood before Him.
Hebrews also says they have come to the assembly of the "firstborn enrolled in heaven." The sense is most probably that all the people of Christ have the privilege that once the firstborn in Israel had, for they are members of Christ, who is called the first born of creatures (Col. 1. 15). And they have come to God, the judge of all and to the spirits of the just who have attained perfection, for Jesus did make perfect those who obeyed Him (cf. comments in 2. 1-9 above). His blood speaks better than the blood of Abel. His blood is sprinkled on them for the remission of sins (cf. Romans 3. 25) - the figure is from the ancient propitiatory which was sprinkled with blood on the Day of Atonement (cf. Leviticus 16. 14) in recollection of the sprinkling of blood done by Moses at the ratification of the Sinai covenant (Exodus 24. 8). We think too of the 4th Servant Song in Isaiah 52. 15 which says He will sprinkle the nations.
In chapter 2 our author had reasoned: if there were such sanctions for the old regime, how much more for the new? So we must not be like the old people of God who did not want to listen at Sinai when He spoke to them on earth -- now He speaks from heaven, So we must not refuse to hear. Once his voice shook the earth, but now He has said, "Just a little while, and once again I will move not only the earth but heaven also". The original setting was in Haggai 10. 6-7 (520 B. C) when God promised to shake heavens and earth. The sense then was that the Messiah would come in. Hebrews applies these words to the time when the Messiah has come, when all belonging to the created order is shaken -- and the things that cannot be shaken, the eternal things, will last. For the kingdom we receive is unshakable. So we ought to thank God and bring proper worship, for our God is a consuming fire (cf. Malachi 3. 2). (the translation of Haggai 2. 7 we follow comes from St. Jerome who wrote that the one desired by the nations - the Messiah - would come in. The more usual version today says instead that the treasures of the nations would come in. But that too would mean the messianic age, when, as we find in Isaiah chapter 60, the treasures of the nations were to come into Jerusalem).
Chapter 13. Summary
Keep up brotherly love, and remember to practice hospitality -some without realizing it have had angels as guests. And do not forget those in prison and those who are badly treated. Marriage should be highly esteemed and kept chaste: God will judge those who violate it.
Avoid love of money: instead, be satisfied with what you have. God Himself has promised: I will never abandon you. As a result, we too should have courage and say: The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid of what any man can do to me.
Look to your leaders in the church and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ never changes. He is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow.
Be wary of all sorts of strange teachings and of those who think it wrong in itself to eat some kinds of foods. This practice brings no good.
Our altar is one from which those who carry on the old worship have no right to eat. The bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into their holy place by the high priest are burned outside the camp. In a similar way, Jesus in His sacrifice suffered outside the city, to sanctify the people by His own blood. So then we too should be willing to go outside the camp in being reproached because of Him. We have no lasting city in this world - we are looking for the city that is to come.
Through Jesus we offer up a sacrifice of praise to God continually, the fruit of lips which acknowledge His name.
Do not forget to do kindnesses to others or to share what you have - these things are sacrifices that pleases God.
Rather, obey your church leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, knowing they must give an account to the Divine Judge for them. Help them in this with joy, not reluctantly; not with sighing which is useless.
Pray for us too. We have nothing on our conscience; we desire to live the right way in everything. I beg you all the more earnestly do to this, so I may be restored to you more quickly.
And now, may the God of peace who by the blood of the eternal covenant brought Jesus back to life make you fit to do His will in everything, as He brings to pass in us whatever pleases Him, through Jesus Christ. To Him be glory foe ever and ever. Amen.
Finally, my Brothers, put up with my exhortations.
I am sending this letter in few words.
I am glad to tell you that our brother Timothy has been set free. I will see you with him if he comes fairly soon.
Greet all our spiritual leaders and all the holy People of God. Those who are from Italy send greetings.
Grace be with all of you.
Chapter 13: Comments
St. Paul usually at the end of his letters added some rather miscellaneous exhortations. So Hebrews does the same. But our author puts stress on some of the most essential things: love of fellow Christians and of all - and hospitality. The need of hospitality was much different then than it is now. The Inns they had were rather poor if not dangerous places. Instead many in pagan Greece and Rome had guest-friends, i.e., when you are in my city you can stay with me; when I am in yours I will stay with you. As an incentive, Hebrews says some have received angels into their homes without knowing it was so. A special instance of that was Abraham in Genesis chapter 18 who had three guests. Actually, two of them were angels, and the third was God Himself!
He wants them to be helpful to those in prison, who often would have no food provided by the prison keepers. They depended on outside friends. At times it might even be dangerous for the outsider so give help. He stresses the sanctity of marriage, which has two divine purposes: to continue the human race, and to promote mutual affection. God Himself will punish those who violate the sanctity of marriage by fornication or adultery.
He gives a special warning about loving money. In 1 Timothy 6. 10 we read that the love of money is a root of all evil - we notice it says a root. Some versions incorrectly say the root of all evil. There are other roots of evil beside money. But love of money leads to lack of detachment, the practice we spoke of above in our comments on 2. 1-9 taking our start from Matthew 6. 21. We should avoid undue care for what we shall wear or otherwise have, for God has promised to take care of us." "
He urges respect and obedience to the leaders of the Church. He does not call them bishops or presbyters or deacons. Especially, the terms presbyter (Acts 20. 17) and bishop (Acts 20. 28) were not sharply defined in those days, as we see from their use to refer to the same men in Acts 20. 17-28, where the two words are interchangeable. Cf. also 1 Clement 22 compared with 54. Yet we know they were in existence. Acts 14. 23 tells us that St. Paul on his return trip through south central Asia Minor established presbyters in everyplace. And in 1 Thes 5. 12-13 he tells them to respect them, even as Hebrews does here.
Next he warns against strange teaching - there were many kinds of errors in existence already. St. Paul at Miletus, in Acts 20. 30 warned that from among the very presbyters/bishops to
whom he was speaking false teachers would come. Paul also advised in Titus 3. 10: "After one or two warnings, avoid a man of false teaching." We think too of his warnings in Colossians 2. 4-8 to avoid false philosophy. There the opponents Paul warned against were either early types of Gnostics, or Jewish apocalyptic speculators - we can read much of their ideas in the Intertestamental Literature (cf. J. Charlesworth, Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament, Doubleday, 1983),
In Romans 14 Paul warned against the errors of thinking certain foods were forbidden in themselves. The Judaizers held similar beliefs, based on the old dietary laws for the Old Testament. In Romans 14 it seems some demanded even more than the Judaizers, for they seemed to feel even other kinds of foods besides those forbidden in the Old Testament were wrong to eat. There is a similar warning in Col. 2. 16.
Protestants of course in commenting on these passages in Paul and on our present lines from Hebrews have tried to suppose the authors were opposing the Catholic legislation , which used to be so strongly observed, about abstinence from meat on Fridays. They failed to make a distinction - a most common cause of so many errors - between thinking a food is evil in itself, and in giving up for penance, because of a law of the Church,
which was established for their spiritual good, to help make up for their sins, rebalancing the objective order - cf. above, our comments on 2. 10-18.
Then in 13. 10 we read that "we have an altar, from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat." There is a reference, of course to the ancient Jewish tabernacle, with its sacrifices, of which th worshippers would partake and eat. Therefore in parallel, the word here must refer to an altar of sacrifice. Earlier we had to warn against misreadings of Hebrews that would seem to rule out the Mass, by words about once-for-all offerings of Jesus. We explained, in comments on 2. 1-9, that those referred to the first of two phases: the sacrifice of Calvary, and the renewal of it, which Jesus Himself commanded: "Do this in memory of me." Here we have a help to understand correctly those earlier passages.
Similarly one might have wondered why Hebrews did not bring out a parallel of the Eucharist to the bread and wine offered by Melchizedek, to whom Jesus is superior. The explanation is that Hebrews at that point was concerned only to make the comparison of Jesus and Melchizedek to bring out the immense superiority of Jesus. To add something still further about the bread and wine of the Eucharist would have been to speak of a still further phase, the renewal of His once-for-all sacrifice. In other words, the author's scope then was different from what it is now. We saw a dramatic example of that difference in scope in his comments in chapter 11 on the blessing of Esau, compared to the strange words about Esau in chapter 12: we explained that as a shift of perspective, and compared it to the frequent shifts of perspective in the Epistles of St. Paul, and even in First John. Here our author takes time to note a special parallel: just as the animals offered on the great Day of Atonement were burned outside the camp, so too Jesus, in His great Atonement was killed outside the city.
That leads to the thought that Christians then may have to be thrown out and treated as outsiders by their pagan neighbors. In this they can take consolation from the fact that they are imitating the rejection Jesus endured for us.
And in line with that he goes back to the theme he had used so effectively before in 11. 13-14: We have not here a lasting city. We are just pilgrims and sojourners in this world. it is not really our city. Our citizenship is in heaven: Phil 3. 20. We showed in our comments earlier, on 11. 13-14 that this theme was often used in early Christian writings, and rightly so, for it gives a most helpful perspective on this world compared to the world to come.
Returning to the theme of our altar, he urges us to bring spiritual offerings - this is like the language of 1 Peter 2. 5. It does not, as some Protestants imply, say there is no more sacrifice today. We showed above, in comments on 2. 1-9 that the Mass is indeed a sacrifice. Vatican II, in Lumen gentium 34 also spoke of spiritual sacrifices. The sense is this: the People join in the offering of the Mass in two ways: inasmuch as the priest , who represents Christ, whose members they are, goes to the altar for their sake, and secondly, inasmuch as they, though not carrying out a liturgical rite, yet join in the essential interior. For as we know from Isaiah 29. 13 God rejected the ancient sacrifices of the Jews because they were all externalism. A sacrifice as we know requires the outward sign, which the Jews loved to carry out, and the interior disposition, which is obedience to God, in carrying out His covenant commandments, and in accepting as His will the hardships we all encounter, even to the point of rejection by outsiders, even to the point of shedding their blood for Christ -a thing he said in 12. 4 had not yet happened to them. But it was to happen soon, in the many early persecutions. Their good deeds are part of this obedience to God. Their works do not earn salvation (Cf. Rom 6. 23), but yet are willed by God as part of the interior of the sacrifice at our altar, in which Jesus becomes present as the same Divine Victim, with the same attitude of obedience He once expressed in Hebrews 10. 7: "Behold I come to do your will O God." Without it, even His death would have been empty!
Then he returns to asking them to follow the authorities of the Church. They are not to be like early Protestants, deciding for themselves what everything means and requires. They should do this gladly, not with sorrow.
Finally he asks for prayers for himself so he maybe restored to them soon. We do not know what is implied: Is the author in prison then? Is it perhaps St. Paul in prison? He expects the release of his great coworker Timothy soon. Again we cannot know, but surely wonder at what the hasic picture was.
Finally greetings to the church leaders in a general way, and to all the people of God. May grace be with them all.