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Grace and the Book of Hebrews

Grace and the Book of Hebrews

In my experience, Hebrews has provided a wealth of texts for sermons that call for works and human effort. Pride of place, perhaps, should be held by the Wesleyan doctrine of Christian perfection, for which one of the central texts is Hebrews 6:1. No matter how many times Wesley affirmed Christian perfection as a gift of grace, he was unable to prevent this becoming a basis for performance based salvation, judgment, and self-righteousness. (While I believe in sanctification, and will mention it below, I don’t accept the idea of perfection in this life.)

Hebrews 6:4-6 follows, which is often treated as teaching that if we commit some particular sin or other, we will lose our salvation for doing so. I’ve written about this recently, and I disagree, but I’ve heard it preached.

Then there’s Hebrews 10:26-31, starting with the warning against continuing in sin and ending with what a terrifying thing it is to fall into the hands of the living God.

Or Hebrews 11, so often preached as a litany of great accomplishments and presented against the lack of accomplishments in the congregation. We must, of course, become faithful like these heroes of ancient times and hold up our end of the deal. After all, God needs us and demands our service.

Hebrews 12 starts with the clouds of witnesses, which I’ve heard preached as the “encouragement” of having all these wonderful people watching you from heaven, so you had better not mess up. Don’t want all these holy people watching you mess up, do you?

Of course, you aim to accomplish all of this in fear of the God who is a devouring fire (12:29).

James may be seen as an epistle of works (not an accurate portrayal, in my view, but Hebrews may well have been the source of more sermons on performance righteousness.

But is this approach justified by the text of the letter itself? I don’t think so.

Let me make a couple of assertions that I’m not really going to justify. Knowing that I believe these may help you understand the rest of what I’m saying. The first is that there was never a plan for salvation presented in scripture that did not have as its goal the creation of a holy people. From the invitation to the first couple to walk in the garden with God, to the call in Leviticus to be holy as God is holy, to Jesus asking disciples to follow him, to Paul inviting everyone to put their faith in Jesus, the anointed one, all the plans are part of one plan aiming at that point. The second is that grace is one of the, of not the, most difficult things to accept, because if grace is true, we are not in control. We humans like to be in control.

Hebrews is a book about God making a holy people, and it’s a book about how none of us are in control.

Hebrews starts with the description of God’s gracious gift, himself, in the person of Jesus. Hebrews 1:1-4 lays out this presentation. The one who is sent is sufficient to the task. As we move through the book, we see Jesus presented as one of us, tested as we are, and sharing in our experience. I have been asked whether I see Hebrews as teaching substitutionary atonement. If this is a question of whether Jesus died for us and for our sins, then the answer is surely “yes.” But if we mean “penal substitutionary atonement,” as in Jesus taking our punishment in a judical context, I think the answer is “no.”

In Hebrews, Jesus is presented as becoming one of us. The necessary elements of the sacrifice is that it must be perfect, i.e., fully connected to God, and also fully ours. Then the form of “dying for” is incorporation. We are in Christ who is our king, our parent, and our priest, and we are incorporated in his death. He dies and we die “in him.” It is not a judicial substitution, but rather that the one dies for the nation (John 11:50) as one of the nation, indeed, as the king. The key here is that we become incorporated into that kingdom, that community, and are thus buried in his death and raised into his life (Romans 6). I think Hebrews is closely aligned with this Pauline theological presentation. Everything we are called to accomplish in the book is accomplished in Christ. That’s why Christ is presented first in the book and his superiority is established. (Refer again back to my post on Hebrews 6:4-6 for some backup for this idea.)

So when we are called to perfection, we are called to be carried on to perfection. This is not the perfection of a person who lives a perfect life, and certainly not something we accomplish on our own. That’s clear through the arguments on why Jesus is the perfect high priest. In order to make that argument, one must establish that we are not capable of this on our own. The perfection to which we are called and to which we are carried is not ours, but the perfection of Jesus (Hebrews 5:9). He, Christ, is the source of salvation.

Of course it is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God, but we can instead be in the hands of the living God through the high priest who is sympathetic to our weaknesses. Of course, there is no more sacrifice for sin. If Jesus has opened a “new and living way” (Hebrews 10:19-20), then the only options are to go through it or not. If we are offered complete access to God and incorporation into his redemption and sanctification, what other option is needed? What other option could possible work?

Then there’s Hebrews 11, which I think provides the key to the view of the message of Hebrews I’m presenting here. Contrary to those who preach Hebrews 11 as a triumph of the saints, it is, in fact, a triumph of grace in action. We err if we read this without adequate consideration of the stories from the Hebrew scriptures of these great heroes. Moses doesn’t fear the wrath of the king in Hebrews 11, but he flees in terror in Exodus. Sarah is rewarded for faith, but in Genesis she laughs. These people were not those who tried to obtain perfection, but those who were carried on to perfection. In 11:40 we are told that God’s plan was that they should attain perfection “with us.”

That perfection, I believe is found in Jesus, and only in Jesus.

These are the witnesses of Hebrews 12. We are being watched as we are carried on by those who have been carried before us. The question is truly simply whether we will truly be carried on. We can miss this both by thinking that we are going to do it ourselves, or by missing that it needs to be done at all. I’ve used the metaphor of a train for the theme of Hebrews. Get on the right train and stay on it until it reaches its destination. You can equally fail by sitting at the train station by never getting on the train, or if you set out to run alongside the train on your own power. Neither one will work. But if you get on the train you’ll move forward. (As with all metaphors, this one has its weaknesses!)

In this view of grace, it is not put against faith. It is not faith vs. works, as though there were two approaches and one was better. It’s not a balance between faith and works. No amount of running, even combined with train-riding attempts, is adequate. But sitting in the station is also not a real option.

What I think Hebrews makes clear is that the grace is available. Jesus opens the way to God. This is grace in action. But rather than being the enemy of true works, works of faith, grace is what opens the door and makes any works, any holiness, and any approach to God possible. Sanctification occurs only on the train, i.e., only when we are being carried on toward perfection in Jesus, our brother, our sacrifice, our high priest, and our king.

That’s why I see grace as the critical key to the entire book of Hebrews, but I also see the book as providing a critical view of grace, a grace that is active, even more, that is God’s action taken in our lives.

In this post I have not provided nearly enough scripture and logic to back this up fully. This is just an introduction. My recommendation is that you consider these ideas while reading the entire book to see what you find.

(Feature image credit: Openclipart.org.)

Repentance in Hebrews 6:4-6

Repentance in Hebrews 6:4-6

When I talked about structure, I mentioned that I’d write a follow-up after my Wednesday night class. Here’s the rundown, though I plan to keep it brief. I’m indebted to David Alan Black for the basic note about the participles in this passage, and in a scholarly article I would need to cite a number of additional sources. The structure of the passage followed my own take on it in the context of Hebrews and made the argument easier. I include this discussion in my book To the Hebrews: A Participatory Study Guide, which is currently under revision for a second edition. (The main problem with the current edition is that I created it with readings, exercises, and questions, along with several appendices with discussion. I’m putting some discussion in the lessons!)

There are a number of passages I referenced in class, but there are three passages before 6:4-6 that I see as key, and then one after. The reason is that the author of Hebrews signals new topics well ahead of the main discussion and then ties them in to later discussion.

So if you look at Hebrews 2:1, “drifting off course.” This is an early signal of what I think is the key theme of the book, one that is further developed in 6:4-6 especially. At this point, the author has presented Jesus as the true representation of God and is now ready to open up the door to the result. God has spoken in these last days through a Son, which sounds good, even exciting, but what does it mean?

Frequently Hebrews is read as a book with a message of works and perfectionism. In fact, as someone with a Wesleyan background, I’m used to starting there in my thinking. But the more I study the book, the less I think that is the correct reading. The warnings in Hebrews are not about human performance of good actions, but rather of total confidence in the one who has been presented here in chapter 1. Verses 1-4 present the Who, while the rest emphasizes that Jesus is greater than the angels. There will be more emphasis on precisely who Jesus is, but we have this pause in the first few verses of chapter 2 so we can get a preview of the theme.

Through the rest of chapter two and into chapter five, but especially in 4:12-16, we’ll develop the things that make Jesus ideal as our priest, even though we aren’t quite sure what such a priest will accomplish.

In 5:8-9 we get the second key connection, as we are told that Jesus learned obedience through suffering (and a rich passage that is, even though I’m just going to touch on it only briefly. Verse 9 tells us that he was perfected. It is this “perfection” that I think is the key object of Hebrews, the perfection of Jesus, not the perfection of any human being.

I see 5:11-14 as a bit of reverse psychology, challenging the readers/hearers with their dependence on milk just before he goes ahead and introduces some meat anyhow.

The third key passage is Hebrews 6:1, and “going on toward perfection.” It’s my understanding that United Methodist pastors are still asked this question on ordination, and I believe not a few have their fingers crossed when they answer. Figuratively speaking, of course! But though few translations do it, this can be taken as a passive, and thus be translated “carried on toward perfection” rather than “going on toward perfection.” I would go further and argue that the perfection that we are to go on toward is Jesus, and is only to be attained “in Christ” and not by us or as something possessed by us.

Having jumped from signpost to signpost, this leads to 6:4-6. I have noted previously that I don’t take this as a “once out always out” passage, but rather as a warning against rejecting the voice or urging of the Holy Spirit. Paying closer attention to structure and the participle tenses helped back that view up and expand it.

Here’s my translation with structure:

I have summarized the theme of Hebrews as “get on the right train and stay on it until you reach the destination.” The key is that if you have the best, the greatest, or even the only hope of rescue and you don’t take it, rescue escapes you. That’s why I have the temporal sense here. If you are rejecting the final sacrifice of Christ, according to the concepts developed in the preceding five chapters, what option is there? Jesus, the Christ is sacrificed once-for-all, and cannot be sacrificed again. If we continue to fail to accept the finality, we are crucifying him afresh.

But it’s even more simple than that. You can’t accept while you reject.

Does that make it too simple? Actually, I think it makes it a clear statement of precisely the point of Hebrews. You have two choices: This train or no train.

And that leads to the final passage I want to use, Hebrews 10:26-27. Here we have no sacrifice for sin after Jesus. It’s often used in sermons to threaten people with how seriously they should take New Testament commands. But that’s not the point at all. There is no more sacrifice because the sacrifice has been offered. If you don’t accept the sacrifice, there isn’t another one. You can’t redo it or substitute it.

The whole message centers on confidence in the grace that has opened this “new and living way” (10:20), in the perfection of our High Priest, and in the necessity of placing our full confidence in Him.

Let me add that I believe that the “cloud of witnesses” in Hebrews 12:1ff should be seen as those who are cheering us on because they have experienced the weaknesses and the failings that we have and know the grace of God and the final reward. It should not be used as a club as I have heard it preached, in the sense of: “Look at all these holy people who are watching you. Don’t screw up!”

(Featured Image Credit: Openclipart.org.)

 

A Brief Note on Hebrews and Structure

A Brief Note on Hebrews and Structure

So NOT the Logic of Hebrews!

A weakness of a great deal of Bible study is in the failure to truly see the details. In our normal conversations we have multiple contextual clues including shared history and knowledge. When reading scripture, we have to be more careful, because it is not addressed directly to us, and we often don’t share those clues. In Old Testament studies, people get used to the idea that the culture was very different. But the New Testament reflects a time and culture also different from our own, though less blatantly so. Thus we need to pay close attention.

That in turn leads to the problem with serious, detailed Bible study. When digging out details, it’s very easy to forget the broader structure. This is particularly critical when reading Hebrews because the author signals upcoming topics, sometimes more than once, then discusses them, sometimes discusses them again in another way, and then looks back at them. You won’t understand a topic in this book unless you are paying attention to the larger structure of the book.

On Wednesday night I’ll be discussing Hebrews 6:4-6 with my class at church. In this, I’ll draw lines from Hebrews 5:9 to 6:1 to 6:4-6 to 10:26-27, from each of those to other connections, all building toward an understanding of this difficult passage. I’ll post about it when the class is over. I don’t really have time to do it justice today.

What I want to emphasize is that studying the structure of the literary work one is studying is critical, and is more critical when it comes from a time and place that is not yours.

Authorship of Hebrews Summary

Authorship of Hebrews Summary

Michael J. Kok summarizes the internal evidence on the authorship of Hebrews (HT: Dave Black Online).

As Dave Black notes, his argument is really not one of internal but of external evidence. Dr. Kok cites Dave’s book The Authorship of Hebrews: The Case for Paul, which I publish. I do note the 2017 publication date, which suggests use of the new hardcover edition, which I link below. The more usual paperback is just $5.99 while the Kindle edition is just $2.99 for those who would like to check Dave’s arguments.

My own view on this is “author unknown.” After reading Dave’s work, I no longer say “anybody but Paul,” but I still find the differences in approach and style from Paul difficult to accept, and I find the absence of Paul’s salutation at the beginning odd, at a minimum. But I put greater emphasis on internal evidence, so this may be simply a difference in approach.


Bloody Sacrifices and Salvation

Bloody Sacrifices and Salvation

One of the problems with understanding biblical talk about salvation is that we do not live with a sacrificial system. For many Christians, the whole idea of sacrifices is that someone sinned and a bloody sacrifice was required for atonement. Christians believe that because of one bloody sacrifice, that of Jesus on the cross, no other bloody sacrifices need be offered, and we’re very relieved. In Judaism, the sacrifices have been replaced by Torah observance, without sacrifices due to the absence of the temple. Despite the desire of some Jews to rebuild the temple, I suspect the majority are quite happy with its absence.

This was emphasized to me recently as I prepare for (never ending) episodes of my study on Paul, especially as I read Galatians, and even more as I read Hebrews. The problem is that every word needs to be defined, and we are, to a large extent, convinced that we already know what the words mean. In fact, we are so convinced that we can define ourselves right past the message of the scripture we’re reading. As Mark Twain said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” (Read more at BrainyQuote).

My purpose here is not to provide a new and perfect (I have been reading Hebrews, after all!) answer to the question of what sacrifice really means. The word means different things in different places. I has a range or ranges of meaning. In cultic terms, as opposed to the more personal,, it seems to grow out of the idea that one needs to communicate with the divine. That can be as simple as the need to present your petitions effectively or as complex as wanting to hear from God, or from the gods, what is the ultimate plan for the physical universe, always assuming there is one.

That’s why you have a complex array of sacrifices and rituals in any religious system. The actual sacrifices and rituals evolve as worship takes place, and as people believe they receive communications, or more specifically directions, from the divine. The actual rituals are a mix of what people expect such things to be (tradition), from what people perceive to have worked (accurately or not), what people have heard, and available options and resources. These rituals will also combine the perceived needs of people, secular authorities, and religious authorities in various measures.

It may seem somewhat irreverent to some to apply this kind of process to biblical rituals, but as I argue in my book When People Speak for God, communication involves at least two termini, and one of those, in this case, is human. The lesser (slower, narrower, less precise) terminus determines the quality of the received message. In addition, a culture does not turn on a dime. Even revolutions are actually evolutionary to some extent.

The result is that the cultic system serves a range of needs. In modern Christianity we’ve come to think of salvation in rather simple terms: Avoid hell, and go to heaven. The intervening problem is that we’re sinners (though that term can get complex too), and the solution is the sacrifice of Jesus. All of which can be quite helpful except that it leaves us living in this world with all the many and varied issues in our lives.

The biblical concept of sacrifice was not quite so narrow. Or, rather, I should say that the biblical concepts of sacrifice were not quite so narrow. There is no particular reason to assume that every author in scripture is going to use the word “sacrifice” (or rather, various words sometimes so translated) in precisely the same way. If you read the texts carefully, you’ll find they are quite varied and nuanced.

In Leviticus, the world is made up of sacrifices. That’s because, for the most part, Leviticus is a book giving instructions about the cult to priests who were to carry it out. In that book sacrifices speak to the continuous presence of God, to atonement for specific sins, to atonement for guilt perceived for unknown reasons, to thanksgiving for blessing, to rituals for healing and purification, and ever so much more. The sacrifices were an integral part of the way the community of Israel was to live in community with its God.

The sacrificial system was not universally loved. For the prophets, it was often a dead routine carried out in Jerusalem by a nation in rebellion. Even earlier we have Samuel’s comment to Saul:

22 And Samuel said,
“Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices,
as in obedience to the voice of the LORD?
Surely, to obey is better than sacrifice,
and to heed than the fat of rams.

(The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (1 Samuel 15:22). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.)

Or as Hebrews Hebrews 10:5-7 quotes Psalm 40:6-8:

Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said,
“Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired,
but a body you have prepared for me;
6 in burnt offerings and sin offerings
you have taken no pleasure.
7 Then I said, ‘See, God, I have come to do your will, O God’
(in the scroll of the book it is written of me).”

The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Hebrews 10:5–7). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Now the author of Hebrews puts Psalm 40:6-8 into the mouth of Jesus, and here emphasizes something that is often missed in Christian discussions of atonement. One of the claims made by various New Testament writers was that Jesus accomplished God’s will in a way that humans had failed to do. It’s not that we don’t have in mind the idea that Jesus accomplished God’s will. Rather, it is because that is not part of our view of atonement.

I think this is why we so often have trouble understanding something like John 3, in which yet another different view of atonement is presented, one in which we immediately “have” eternal life. The typical response to this is that I’m going to die. How is it that I can have eternal life? But that’s because we get off the track of a desire to create community here and to be in communion with God (and both of these concepts invite further discussion and definition), and have limited our idea to one thing. Where do I spend eternity?

That is a question that doesn’t work well in isolation. It makes faith, salvation, and atonement a narrow and selfish thing. It’s not that we shouldn’t want to care for our eternal reward. Rather, it’s because we shouldn’t try to plan our eternity independently and as a solely future event.

I’m mostly raising questions here, and providing way too little in pointing the way. The key thing I’d like to suggest is that we need to quit reading scripture in the elementary or high school sense of “look the word you don’t know up in the dictionary.” That’s a good starting point. But then you need to allow the context of one author’s work build a nuanced definition for you.

I recall reading Ludwig von Mises’s book Human Action back when I was in college. It’s more than 800 pages of rather intense prose. In that book von Mises creates his own vocabulary. He’ll say that a particular word (psychology, for example, which he replaces with thymology [but not precisely]) has problems of definition. Then he defines the word himself and proceeds to use it in further discussion. If you don’t pay attention, you’ll wind up completely baffled a few pages further. You can’t use the dictionary, because the word is not there. What you can do is develop your own understanding of the term as von Mises uses it.

Try that with your Bible. It can be rewarding!


(Featured image is from Adobe Stock [#126750439] and is licensed. It is not public domain.)
Perfection and Maturity in Hebrews 6:1

Perfection and Maturity in Hebrews 6:1

Perfectionism is an interesting trait, and can be quite destructive. United Methodist pastors are still asked whether they are going on toward perfection, though I have found few who expressed great comfort with the required “yes” answer, and not a few who had their fingers crossed.

The line comes from Hebrews 6:1, and the more I study Hebrews, the less I see this in terms of attaining a moral standard. John Wesley himself made it clear that “Christian perfection” would be a gift of God, given by grace, and not an attainment (repeatedly stated in his compilation A Plain Account of Christian Perfection).

But what is the perfection to which a Christian should go on toward?

Before I look at that, let’s ask about the verb that is being rendered by “going on” here. This is almost universally translated actively, taking it as a middle voice. (Let me skip all the arguments about the middle voice here and just say that in this context, a middle does justify an active translation.) But it can also be taken as passive, and I think it should.

Let me quote David Allen:

…The verb may be construed in the middle voice in the sense of “to bring oneself forward,” but most likely it should be taken as passive, suggesting God as the one who moves the readers along to the desired goal. Christians are dependent upon God and his grace to enable them to press forward to maturity. (Hebrews, The New American Commentary, p. 400 [Nook Edition])

(I was helped to a decision on this in a discussion with Dr. David Alan Black, who should not be blamed for the rest of this post!)

This fits well with what I see as the message of Hebrews in general, which I summarize as “get on the right train and stay on it until it reaches its destination.” Human action is called for in the book of Hebrews, yet it is always action that is empowered by God, and not by us.

But the other side of this is what sort of perfection is involved. In learning we’re often told to go find the definition of a word in the dictionary and then we think we understand a passage we’re reading. For building language skill, that’s not a bad plan. But for coming to understand a relatively complex piece of theology, it leaves something to be desired.

Biblical languages students start by learning glosses for (a word or phrase seen as an equivalent), then learning that there are numerous possible glosses and that the lexicon provides such lists. After they have become skilled at this process, one hopes they will learn to work with definitions and semantic ranges for the words. But even at that stage, the tendency is to discover what a word means in scripture and then to force that meaning into the text.

I think that’s what is happening here. We see this verse as demanding that we continue the quest to attain a state of moral perfection. But in the book of Hebrews our task is to continue in Jesus, our High Priest. If we stay the course with Him, we will attain the promises. (I’m not going to reference everything here. Many of these are themes stated repeatedly and in different ways through the book.)

We might also consider the perfection of Jesus, who is “perfected” through suffering (Hebrews 2:10). Clearly, Jesus is not brought to a state of moral or ethical perfection. Rather, he is being perfected as a High Priest, acquainted with all our weaknesses (Hebrew 4:14-16) but also above us all in all ways (Hebrews 7:26-27), the perfect person to be the communicator or mediator between God and humanity. In this case we’re looking at a definition on the order of “totally suited to accomplish a particular mission.”

I might use this sense in recommending someone for a job. The “perfect” candidate is not one who is never going to make any mistakes, nor is he necessarily a person who is known never to engage in sexual misconduct off the job. Rather, that candidate is the person who is fully qualified to carry out the assigned tasks. It doesn’t mean he’s not wonderful in all those other ways; it’s just not the element in view.

Thus Jesus can be perfect and need perfecting all at the same time, and we see this developed from Hebrews 2-4. Hebrews 5:9, which immediately precedes our passage (I consider 5:11-14 as the first step in an argument that continues in 6:1. The chapter break separates this in a less than helpful manner.

So now we look at the state of the audience. They are stuck at basics and not ready to understand the discussion of Melchizedek which he wants to start. So having noted both the weakness and what strength would look like, he suggests that we lay aside the basics (the milk) and go on to the meat, whereupon he does precisely that.

“Let us be moved along toward perfection …” calls us away from basics and on to the meaning of this high priesthood. There is, I believe, a call to action and yes, to holiness, in moving on doctrinally, but the call here is to get past basic thinking and move on toward more mature thinking. Let your minds be perfected.

As I’ve commented before, students of Hebrews often divide the book into doctrinal presentations and exhortations. It’s not entirely wrong to differentiate, but I don’t believe these two elements are all that separated for him. The understanding of the Melchizedek priesthood of Christ is, in itself, a call to new action.

“Being carried on” or “being moved on” toward perfection is passive in form, but being carried by Christ is a rather active passivity, as we might deduce from Hebrews 11. Note how the preparation for solid food is through exercising one’s faculties.

Active passivity. Gracious working. It might just describe life “in Christ”!


(This post’s featured image is licensed from Adobe Stock, #115932220. It is not in the public domain.)

 

Book Notes – Hebrews: A Commentary (NTL)

Book Notes – Hebrews: A Commentary (NTL)

I recently worked my way through Luke Timothy Johnson’s Hebrews: A Commentary (New Testament Library) along  with the Greek text, and I’m going to write a few notes on the book, which may, or may not, constitute a real review. Time will tell!

The problem with many blogger book reviews is that they often amount to no more than various length notifications as to whether the author liked the book or not. There are some really wonderful exceptions to this, and you really can find a great deal of information about a title in the blogosphere, but you can also read many words (such as these) which don’t tell you a thing! As an alternative, you get an argument against everything the author wrote in the book, usually without sufficient quotations or references to let you get a feel for what the reviewer is arguing against.

In my view the ideal review identifies the goal(s) of the book, comments on how successful the book was in accomplishing these goals, has some interaction with the ideas, and finally has a summary evaluation which is based on the stated goals. I recall reading a book about Christian apologetics. I thought it was well written, carefully argued, and thorough. There was one problem, however. The author claimed in the introduction that he would close all the holes in arguments from Christianity and the Bible. He compared the work of others to putting one leaky bucket in another: You slow the leak but you don’t stop it. He was going to stop it. In the end, if I was asked whether I liked the book, I would have to say “yes,” despite (or even because of) the fact that I disagreed in many places. Yet in a review I would have to say that the stated objective was not achieved, and making a claim that one would accomplish such an objective was, shall we say, suboptimal.

In the case of a commentary, the difficulty is greater than with an ordinary book. There are two key problems: 1) Many people have very fixed ideas of what a commentary ought to do, and little forgiveness for a commentary that doesn’t accomplish their list of goals, and 2) People (particularly scholars) have quite a variety of very fixed ideas. No matter how you choose to write a commentary, no matter how large or small you make it, and no matter how carefully you draw compromises between never completing the task and short-changing the reader, someone will complain.

I would like you to note here my own inconsistency. I’m writing in prescriptive language about what ought to be in a review, while arguing against prescriptive ideas about writing a book. I will live with this inconsistency.

Besides, this isn’t a review. Here are my general thoughts.

I found Hebrews: A Commentary by Luke Timothy Johnson to be the most helpful commentary I have read thus far in terms of stimulating theological reflection. By that I mean that the author doesn’t merely provide a view, but he argues it in such a way that it stimulates new thinking. My personal response to some of his views is that they are perhaps a little too tied to orthodox theology and a little less daring than the book of Hebrews deserves, but that is at the nit-picking level. Johnson knows how to present quite orthodox theology in a way that is challenging and helpful.

As I studied using this commentary, reading the Greek text and taking second looks at the textual notes, I often found myself reflecting for some time after I’d read my chosen portion for the day. I rarely find that level of stimulation for thought in a commentary.

This is not David Allen’s volume in the NAC series. Dr. Allen covers everything and references everything. The only negative thing I would say about his commentary is that I have to have some energy built up before I go to consult it. If you want a detailed and complete survey of the topic along with arguments in favor of a particular solution, but all means use David Allen’s work. On the other hand, if you want to get more quickly to the topic for teaching and preaching, use Luke Timothy Johnson.

I know we don’t like to think that we might shirk some portion of the possible study of a passage we’re going to teach or preach. We’d like to think that we covered everything before we tried to present an exposition to others. But we all face the clock. Brevity is not a sin.

So when I want to get right to meditating on the text, but with some solid meat to set it up, I turn to Johnson’s commentary.

Now I haven’t called this a review, yet I’d like to present some interaction. I’d suggest, however, that I’ve already done this in blog posts on Hebrews written after reading material from Johnson’s commentary. You can start with Hebrews and the Problem of Writing Introductions. I could provide a number of links, but the simplest thing to do is to type “Hebrews” in the search box after you get to that article. Nearly everything I wrote on Hebrews after that point references Johnson.

Note: I read

God Perfected through Suffering

God Perfected through Suffering

For it was appropriate for
    him,
        for whom everything exists
            and
        through whom everything exists,
    in bringing many children to glory,
        the pioneer of their salvation
    to perfect
        through suffering

(Hebrews 2:10, very literal)

I wouldn’t suggest that any Greek students translate the way I just did, or your Greek teacher may suggest you learn English. I’m trying to bring the focus onto certain things and it’s sometimes hard to gauge what this is going to do for readers of the English text that results.

I think this text is one of those that we tend to discount, because what it’s actually saying is a bit startling. In his commentary, Luke Timothy Johnson points out that this text forms a sort of envelope with 2:18, and that the verses between are a carefully structured argument. I quite agree, but I want to just bring your attention to the stark initial statement. Johnson emphasizes how outrageous this concept would be in the Greek world. I would suggest it would sound outrageous just about anywhere. When a Bible writer says something that sounds outrageous we have our defensive mechanisms: Discounting (take 20% or 30% off the rough edges), find a balancing text so we can believe that one instead, or just move on to something more edifying.

In this case I think we tend to focus on the suffering, since we have heard the story of the cross so many times. That was something shocking to those who first heard it, but it has become routine now, not that when we’re called to suffer as Christ did, we take that very seriously. We  tend to think we’re suffering for Jesus every time we have a bad day. No, we’re just living in the world. Some days just aren’t as nice as others!

But the idea that the Son, described in such majestic terms in Hebrews 1:1-4 is to be made perfect, or perhaps complete, through suffering is a little bit more difficult. Luke 2:52 notwithstanding, we tend to think of Jesus in majesty all the way through. Just look at all the halos around the baby Jesus in art. I suspect not so much halo spotting by Mary. In Hebrews, we’ll hear this theme many times, one of the key ones is 5:9, where “having been made complete he became the means of eternal salvation.

I’d suggest two points here that we avoid, and we need to affirm and absorb instead:

  1. God is much more involve in and impacted by our lives and situation. The incarnation may have been an event in history, but it’s also an eternal reality. God is much more involved. We sometimes wobble between transcendence and immanence. God has no problem with both.
  2. The suffering and death of Jesus was a necessary part of atonement, in different ways. I do not affirm penal substitutionary atonement as the singular theory expressing the truth of the atonement. It is, in my view, just one metaphor that helps us think about our salvation. But if we think incarnation, to be complete it must be real, and, well, complete. Becoming human and then not facing death would be to become something other than human; rather, it would be a contradiction. So Jesus became complete as the means of our salvation by living and dying as we do.

As difficult as it is sometimes to keep this in focus, salvation requires both the glory and the suffering. And when we are called to suffer, or even given the gift both of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him (Philippians 1:29).

I don’t know about you, but I suspect that could involve more than some mild annoyances.

Checking Facts and the Authorship of Hebrews

Checking Facts and the Authorship of Hebrews

Dave Black just posted a note on the authorship of Hebrews which brings up an important point: Fact checking. This comes up all over the place these days. It’s so easy to just quote something you’ve heard or to reference a secondary source when a primary source is available. As an editor I’m reminded of this constantly when I look up quotes in books or check references. Sometimes one must cite a secondary source, but most commonly one can find a way to access the information directly.

So assuming you read Dave’s post (which I copied to our Topical Line Drives site so we’d have a permanent link), did you follow his advice: “Look up these verses for yourself if you like”?

I remain unconvinced that Paul wrote Hebrews, and I actually find the issue less critical than others do. I think one can look at the book itself and figure back to the issues that were important to the author. It’s nice to know authorship, but when it’s uncertain, I dislike making conclusions that depend on a specific answer to a complicated question. I’ve switched from the “anyone but Paul” school to the “uncertain authorship, but Paul is possible” option after reading (and publishing) Dave’s book.

But that conclusion is less important than the broader one: Do you get as close to the source as you can in checking facts?

Sunday School: Thinking about Sacrifices

Sunday School: Thinking about Sacrifices

Sacrifice
Credit: Adobe Stock 46272514

I’m preparing to teach tomorrow, and the main text is Hebrews 4:14-5:10. The quarterly is kind enough to stop just before the author tells his readers/hearers that the topic is difficult and they’re not very bright!

Nonetheless, the idea of priesthood brings up the idea of “sacrifice” and “sacrifices,” and these are two concepts that I don’t believe modern audiences are prepared for. We tend to get locked into one of two unhelpful modes.

On the one hand, we may believe sacrifice is critical, and its primary, or even only purpose is to atone for sin. This feeds into the penal substitutionary atonement theory (or I prefer metaphor), in which the sacrifice of Jesus is specifically as a substitutionary death taking the punishment for our sins. The reason I prefer metaphor to theory here is that a theory should be an explanation that deals with the relationship between various facts. A good theory is a singular thing because it is the best explanation of the data. A metaphor, on the other hand, is one of many ways of looking at a set of events. In this sense I reject a substitutionary atonement as a theory, but accept it as a valid metaphor.

On the other hand, because the whole idea of substitutionary atonement, sometimes even referred to as “cosmic child abuse,” is so foreign to our way of thinking about things, that we reject everything that relates to it. But there is a least one really good thing about substitutionary atonement (and I believe there are others): A person convinced that Jesus died as a substitutionary sacrifices for his or her sins will be convinced that wrath and punishment have been averted.

This is not the place to cover this in detail, but I am doing so in my video series on perspectives on Paul. I started in Paul’s Gospel vs. Another Gospel, then went on to part 2, and this coming Thursday night I will be doing part 3. I’m thinking there may be yet more parts, because I’m looking verse by verse at some defining statements about the gospel in various Pauline and disputed epistles.

I think there’s a better background against which to think about sacrifice, and that is communication within a relationship. The priesthood and sacrifices were part of the way in which ancient people carried on communion within an ongoing relationship with their god(s). The Israelites had specific ways of offering various sacrifices, ways of representing their God, and expectations.

I like to think of gifts that I give my wife. One of the traditional gifts for someone with whom we are romantically involved is roses, often a dozen, maybe two dozen. I have only done that once in our relationship. I mean the dozen. There have been a scattered number of times on which a gift has included roses, but that is much less frequent than in other relationships.

So am I neglecting my wife and being unromantic by not giving her the traditional gift? I don’t think so, and she’ll surely read this post and let you know if I’m wrong. We’ve established a different tradition that fits her personality and mine. That tradition has to do with surprise and variety. I look at various places where I can buy flowers. The grocery store even works out frequently. I look for flowers of a different color or a different type than she has had recently. I often buy enough for a couple of arrangements in vases. More importantly, I try to bring the flowers into the house when she is not expecting them.

It is true that flowers are frequently a way of expressing regret for a wrong action, but that wouldn’t work all that well in our relationship. In fact, the only thing that does work is sincere regret, directly expressed (no weasely political apologies), and a discussion of how we can improve as we move forward. Flowers as a sacrifice for sin are not functional in our relationship, yet they are given.

I’d like to suggest thinking of the reason why you might do something for another person, or have something done for you and the various reasons you might give or receive a gift. Then start looking at the sacrificial system again. There are still many things that will not connect. For example, in those cultures that practiced human sacrifice, the killing of the human victim—the ideal one being a firstborn son—was seen as giving that child to God. So also with the animal sacrifices.

If you think of the sacrifices in this way I think it will be easier to follow how sacrifice was replaced by the “mitzvah” (good deed) in Judaism, and by a combination of giving and symbolic acts in Christianity. You might even start to think about the Sunday liturgy at your church and what it says about what God would like to see happening in your relationship to him. Is it possible God might prefer a “mitzvah” of some sort?

I’m going to build on this, but I think this is a good foundational metaphor to use in looking at sacrifice. Then we can adjust for the people involved and how they viewed what was good and bad in a relationship.