Yeah, this will be a short one. Really!
As I’m reading through another commentary on Hebrews (Luke Timothy Johnson, Hebrews, New Testament Library), I can’t help but write a few notes. One might get the idea from a couple of my recent posts that I find a great deal to argue with in this commentary. Actually, it’s one of the best I’ve found. Johnson is both clear in his exegetical notes and challenging in his theological reflections. Of recent commentaries I find David Allen (Hebrews: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition, New American Commentary) more helpful on exegetical details, with his great summaries of the various positions and evidence for them, but I am finding Johnson more helpful thematically.
The prologue to Hebrews is critical. Unlike many of the Pauline epistles (though I don’t exclude Pauline authorship), this isn’t the introduction to a letter. Rather, it’s a launching pad for the theological discussion. In the train analogy I used yesterday, it’s a large signpost telling you what train you’re supposed to get on and why. I would add a quick note that the structure clearly makes Hebrews 1:1-4 a unit, not Hebrews 1:1-3. The argument is picked up with the first supporting scripture in verse 5.
It’s important in any book of the Bible, but especially in Hebrews, to look at how a thought is carried forward and concluded before determining for certain the meaning of a specific proposition. One claim regarding Hebrews is that it teaches supersessionism, a claim I find more often in superficial studies of the book than in serious commentaries.
There’s a good reason for this. In reading the prologue quickly, you might get the idea that the argument is that Jesus is good, and the partial, earlier revelation is bad. As you read through the book you can find passages such as Hebrews 8:13 you have explicit statements that have led some to such a conclusion. But in 8:13, the author is referencing a specific passage of Hebrew scripture and founding his argument in the thing that is made “old.”
The image that comes to my mind is of a house being built. In working on some software for a home designer, I toured a building site. There we saw the frame of a house. It was not finished. I could see where the nails, braces, tie-down straps, and so forth were. Later, siding would be added and many other elements that would finish the house. The old, the framework, would be put out of site, but not eliminated. It wasn’t that the framework was bad. In fact, our whole purpose was to make sure the framework was good, and ready for hurricane force winds. But to live in the house, to consider the house complete, more was needed.
Look at 8:13:
ἐν τῷ λέγειν καινὴν πεπαλαίωκεν τὴν πρώτην· τὸ δὲ παλαιούμενον καὶ γηράσκον ἐγγὺς ἀφανισμοῦ
(Nestle, E., Nestle, E., Aland, B., Aland, K., Karavidopoulos, J., Martini, C. M., & Metzger, B. M. (1993). The Greek New Testament (27th ed., Heb 8:13). Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft. Accessed from Logos Bible Software.)
In saying “new” he makes the first old. That which is being declared old and is aging is close to disappearing.
Yes, the old is being declared (or made, but I prefer “declared”) to be what it is. It’s going to disappear. But the author’s argument here is built on precisely that “old” revelation. We’re about to finish out that house, put on the frame and the trimmings and call it complete. The revelation of God in Jesus Christ truly brings God and man together, a theme that we’ll revisit in discussion the priesthood and why Jesus is considered the great high priest.
So while in the prologue the author argues that Jesus is much superior to that which occurred at many times and in various ways, as he proceeds he builds his argument on the scattered revelation which is being “superseded.” Those older revelations still have their value, but for the Christian, all is seen through the ultimate revelation in the person of Jesus Christ. God has spoken to us through “a son,” which, absent the definite article in Greek emphasizes the nature. Through the prophets, but through a son. I tell my Sunday School classes that this involves putting on our “Jesus-colored glasses.”
While individual statements may seem to support an idea of supersession, the fact that the author builds his argument, an argument made after the resurrection, on those same supposedly superseded passages means that we need to look closer. He is telling us to change our focus, to look at the greatest revelation and to see other revelation through it.