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.)
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.
For it was appropriate for
for whom everything exists
through whom everything exists,
in bringing many children to glory,
the pioneer of their salvation
(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:
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.
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.
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?
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.
Ten years ago my father passed away. Due to unforeseen circumstances, I was asked to provide the eulogy. I rarely use a prepared text when preaching but in this case I thought that my emotions might interfere so I did.
I wanted to post it today in honor of dad 10 years after his homegoing, but I couldn’t find the file. I’m a pack rat about files, so that surprised me. Thanks to the help of my sister Betty, my mother, my sister-in-law Aydah, and my brother Robert (especially!), the file was found.
I thought of posting it at the time, but there was too much emotion involved. Now I think it’s right.
I am a privileged man, privileged to have parents who loved me, provided for me, encouraged me, and provided a good example for me. The word “privilege” is used a lot now, but privilege shouldn’t be seen as a bad thing. Nor should it be denied. My privilege gives me a duty to share, to help make the lives of others more privileged. Often we take the things that we have received through no action of our own and we take them as a way to feel better than others, more special. Instead, I believe our privileges give us greater responsibilities.
Dad was a person who shared and helped make the lives of others better. It is that example that I remember daily. There are many people whose lives are better because they encountered my father. That’s what we should each hope.
Here are my words at his memorial. Note that I use the KJV which dad read all his life. He didn’t object to modern versions, but the KJV was an old friend.
Memorial Talk for Dr. Ray Neufeld, 10/10/06, by Henry Neufeld
We’re here to celebrate the life of Dr. Ray Neufeld, doctor, father, brother, grand and great-grandfather, uncle, missionary, and humble disciple of Jesus. Most of you have your own stories and your own memories. Much of the time I spent with dad was related to electronics and particularly to amateur radio. He had an ease with understanding electricity and radio that led him to eventually test for and receive an Amateur Extra class license.
He was involved in this hobby most of his life and used it in the mission field. Robert recalls receiving a call from an amateur operator in Tennessee when he and our sister Betty were attending Highland Academy, and the rest of the family was in Mexico. A number of people on our mission station had been poisoned, and he was seeking help from a poison center at Vanderbilt University. Somehow the message didn’t tell just who was poisoned, so Robert and Betty had to wait days for the mail to bring more detailed news.
Our cousin Lolita remembers waking up to the static as her father, Don Neufeld, tried to contact dad in Guyana. With the price of long distance phone calls, it was one of the key ways we kept in touch with family at home.
Patty’s memories of the mission field include following the map and directing dad through villages in Mexico as he drove our station wagon and trailer over roads they were never intended to survive. All of us had times of getting as close to medical procedures as we could wish—for some of us much closer than we wanted. I recall standing on a chair and holding a flashlight on a surgical site after the power generator had failed in the midst of surgery.
Grandson Bob Neufeld (Robert’s son) tells of dad teaching him carpentry using the coping saw, and Robert remembers Dad making a model boat for him, though he wasn’t taught to use the tools.
But the key fact of dad’s life is one of faith. I searched for balance in this presentation between the stories of his life and his faith, but faith was central for him, and so I feel that it should be central here. I recall asking him when I was a teenager what would happen if he found out that there was no God, no heaven, and no hell. He told me that he hoped he would have lived his life in the same way he did.
And so I turn to the scriptures from which dad received strength, encouragement, and challenge daily as he went through life. I’m going to read from Hebrews 11:32 through 12:3.
And what shall I more say? for the time would fail me to tell of Gideon, and of Barak, and of Samson, and of Jephthah; of David also, and Samuel, and of the prophets: (33) Who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, (34) Quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens. (35) Women received their dead raised to life again: and others were tortured, not accepting deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection: (36) And others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: (37) They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented; (38) (Of whom the world was not worthy:) they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.
(39) And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise: (40) God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect. (12:1) Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, (2) Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. (3) For consider him that endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds. — Heb 11:32-12:3
There are many scripture passages that we tend to read half-way, and this is one of them. I don’t mean that we stop our reading in the middle of a verse or of the chapter. Rather, I mean that the verse stays locked in the past, a time when wonderful men and women of faith did wonderful things for God, a time in which we believe, but do not participate. The Bible becomes a book filled with stories about people not very much like we are, doing things we can’t or won’t do. It’s edifying reading, but when all is said and done, as the saying goes, a good deal more is said than is ever done!
But Hebrews 11 is intended as a continued story. How many of you remember the old Junior Guide stories that were continued from week to week? There was that annoying phrase at the end, “continued next week” that told you the current conflict would not be resolved today. You’d have to wait. It was supposed to make me anxious to come to Sabbath School again in order to get the next episode, but it really just annoyed me.
But Hebrews 11 has an even more annoying “continued next week” in it. Did you miss it? Let’s listen to the beginning of chapter 12 again:
(12:1) Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us. . . .
This is not a finished story, it continues. This is not a “them” story; it’s an “us” story. It is a story that each of us is to continue each and every hour of every day until that blessed moment when “this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall put on immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:53).
So today, as I talk about dad, I’m reporting to you a new passage in the ever growing story of faith. Time would truly fail me to tell of Dr. Ray Neufeld, who through faith:
Went to medical school, even though he did not know how he would pay for it
Faced death in Mexico in order to help the helpless and witness to his faith in his Lord
Answered God’s call in four countries on two continents
Brought four children into the world and provided for their education
Rejected the security of an assured pension and trusted in God for his retirement
Survived medical problems when he arrived in Guyana that would have sent others home in defeat, then spent seven years in service there
Saw the building of a new hospital and health conditioning center from the ground up, with some of the bricks and mortar placed there with his own hands
Saw the world change dramatically over his lifetime, but never lost his faith in the creator
Indeed, time truly would fail me, and you, should I tell you all of these stories. I just want to relate two in particular that tell me who my parents are—and this includes my mother, Myrtle Blabey Neufeld as one part of the “two-become- one.”
When my father had emergency surgery just after our arrival in Guyana, one of the church leaders, I forget who, came to them and began to discuss arrangements for a return to the United States. He felt that surely with emergency surgery and some question at that time of dad’s very survival, they would be preparing to go home if nothing else for better medical care. Their response? “God sent us here to Guyana to do a mission, and we haven’t done it yet.” The subtitle could be from our scripture–”we’re going to run with patience the race that is set before us.”
Shortly after this my uncle Don Neufeld received a letter from my mother outlining the situation. The letter was written at a time when dad’s condition had not yet been resolved. It was possible that he would not make it. Uncle Don spread that letter before the Lord and prayed over it, and while he was praying, the phone rang, and the surgeon who had operated on my father, who had just arrived back in the United States, was calling to tell him that my father had turned the corner, that he was not only getting better but was planning to stay and work.
And indeed our family did stay, for seven years. I was there with them as they called for the elders of the church, anointed my father with oil. I was a witness as he returned to work, and became the sole physician for a 54 bed hospital.
One doctor had said he would never work again, and would not live more than 10 more years. Now you can be witnesses that God doesn’t look at things the way people do—this funeral is happening 25 years late, by human reckoning.
Aren’t you thankful for God’s way of looking at things?
But there’s another part to all this. We don’t get to sit here in this beautiful chapel and think about the wonderful things that Dr. Ray Neufeld did, and look at them as things that are far away, impossible, unattainable. We might like to do that, but that’s not how it should work. We are also called to add to the story of faith.
I had to think about whether to call this a eulogy. I have a little habit of putting a Greek word into my sermons, not because it’s useful (it usually isn’t) but because people expect it of someone whose degrees are in Biblical languages.
Once I’ve done it, I can get on with the real stuff. So here’s your Greek word— eulogy comes from the Greek “eu” for good and “logos” for word or message. It’s a good message or a good report. But I don’t think that Dad would really be happy with a eulogy, a good report about him. He would not want to receive the glory. He would lay it all at the feet of the “author and finisher” of his faith.
I picture dad on that day when he meets Jesus and receives a crown—and it will be a serious, heavy, beautiful crown—and he’ll lay it back at the feet of Jesus, not just because he knows he owes it all to his Savior, but because he won’t believe it’s his crown. He’ll figure it belongs to someone else, and heaven made its first mistake!
The comfortable thing for us would be to think of dad as simply an extraordinary person. In that case, we, as ordinary people, could get on with ordinary lives and be satisfied with ordinary results.
But dad will be in that “great cloud of witnesses” and he will know how he got there. It was not by being an extraordinary person but by putting himself into the hands of an extraordinary God and going along for the ride. I don’t mean the ride was easy. It was a race, and it required patience and endurance. But Jesus is the author of the faith that was required, and Jesus is the finisher.
There’s nothing that God gave dad that he hasn’t given to the rest of us. He’s authored faith for us, and he’s ready to bring it to completion. Paul said, “Follow me as I follow Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). Often the challenge we feel we can live up to is that provided by another disciple. And so we come to this point in our lives not just to remember and celebrate dad’s life, disciple of Jesus Christ, but to be challenged by it.
We cannot, we must not respond to that challenge with ordinary lives, lives that are less than the high calling that we have in Christ Jesus. It’s a demanding calling and a tough race.
As we remember Dr. Ray Neufeld, there is grief, but not hopelessness, sorrow but not despair, wonder but not fear. Dad has fought a good fight, finished his course, and kept the faith. Now he has the “crown of righteousness” prepared for him in the kingdom. Because his was not a faith without an object, a race without a finish line, or a fight without victory.
I was discussing this with mother Sunday evening, and I told her that from the time that my son James passed away to the present I have had moments when I feel heaven so near and so real that it almost overwhelms the experience of the real world as I know it. She said that with daddy’s passing, she also felt that new homesickness. “Why is it,” she asked me, “that we didn’t feel that same homesickness when it was for Jesus himself? Why does it take the passing of a loved one?”
God knows how he made us. Mother, he has given us the love that you have felt for your husband and companion in ministry, as just a tiny window on the passionate love that he has for each one of us. Through separation, he allows us to get another tiny glimpse of how he feels, separated from an unreconciled world. “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19) and “I have loved thee with an everlasting love, therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn thee” (Jeremiah 31:3).
Our feeling of loss and separation is just a shadow of the separation God feels from a rebellious world, just as our love and passion for a spouse is just a shadow of God’s love and passion for each of us, the love and passion that led to the cross.
Through this separation each one of us now has a new understanding of God’s love to which we can give witness. We know the separation, and we know the victory. We can overcome with that testimony!
In that conversation with mother, I recalled a vision Ellen White had of heaven. “Early Writings” was a special book in my mother’s spiritual life, and I’m glad to find there these key passages:
While I was praying at the family altar, the Holy Ghost fell upon me, and I seemed to be rising higher and higher, far above the dark world.
She goes on to describe a number of scenes, but in sum, all she can say is, “The wonderful things I saw I cannot describe. Oh, that I could talk in the language of Canaan, then could I tell a little of the glory of the better world.”
[Jesus] said, “You must go back to earth again and relate to others what I have revealed to you.” Then an angel bore me gently down to this dark world. Sometimes I think I can stay here no longer; all things of earth look so dreary. I feel very lonely here, for I have seen a better land. Oh, that I had wings like a dove, then would I fly away and be at rest!
After I came out of vision, everything looked changed; a gloom was spread over all that I beheld. Oh, how dark this world looked to me. I wept when I found myself here, and felt homesick. I had seen a better world, and it had spoiled this for me.
I have come to realize that before the experience of the death of a son and now of my father, I only thought I was homesick for heaven. Homesickness was a doctrine, the “Sabbath School” answer. You know how Sabbath School works.
There are certain questions you raise your hand for. “Do you love Jesus?” “Do you believe the Bible?” “Do you want Jesus to come?” We all know it’s right to raise our hands for those questions. I once stirred up a class by asking “Do you trust God?” Now what Christian can possibly keep their hand down for that one? And dutifully every hand went up. Then I asked, “What is it that you trust God to do?” There was an uncomfortable and long silence.
I had broken the rules. They had given the right answer, but I wanted more. Unfair!
Well, I’m being unfair again. Experiencing a loss made me suddenly truly homesick for heaven. The song goes, “I’m homesick for heaven, seems I cannot wait! Longing to enter, Zion’s pearly gate.” Before it was just a song. Before I didn’t understand Ellen White’s sorrow after her vision of heaven. Now it’s real. I get tears in my eyes when I sing songs of the kingdom. The “Sabbath School answer” when you’re asked whether you want Jesus to come soon is, “Yes!”
But the next questions are these: How badly do you want it? What are you going to do about it? When God called, dad answered. Whether there was money or not, comforts or not, even what many would regard as needs, mom and dad were ready to answer the call. There’s a fun song called “Please don’t send me to Africa.” It’s the plea of a Christian for God to use him, but just don’t make it Africa.
We all have our “Africas.” Your “Africa” may be a calling for which you feel unworthy. But Jesus has made you worthy. Where you are weak, he is strong. Your “Africa” may be your next door neighbor’s driveway, someone you’re supposed to befriend, but you just can’t make it over the kerb and up the sidewalk to the door. It might be the children’s class at church. God can’t possibly call you to work with annoying children!
But that’s not the way dad lived. We now have the example of his discipleship. He would never think to say, “Be imitators of me, as I imitate Christ,” but he could! The challenge of his life is the challenge of the people of Hebrews 11, the great cloud of witnesses, the folks who didn’t receive the promises, but nonetheless were faithful.
Dad, you did fight the good fight, you did finish the race, you did keep the faith. That golden, jeweled crown really is yours, even if you can’t believe it. I thank you for your love, your faithfulness, and your example. I miss you. We all miss you. But we’re going to meet before the throne of God and lay our crowns at Jesus’ feet, together, by God’s grace.
Review: NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible – Hebrews
#contextchangeseverything – yes, it does. But how?
With the vast array of Bible study materials that are available in the English language comes a problem. How does one choose what materials are worth my time, shelf space (or HD space!), or money? If you search my blog for posts about study Bibles, you’ll find that I have a love-hate relationship with them, and it tends to be mostly hate. Nonetheless, I own—and use—a variety of study Bibles, and you’ll even see some positive reviews.
The reason for the hate side of the equation is that far too many people purchase a study Bible that’s recommended by someone they trust, or even written by someone they trust, not to mention randomly selected from a bookstore shelf and then accept what the notes say because they are written by biblical scholars after all. I recall being accosted by a church member some years ago who asked me about the notes on a particular text. I can’t even recall which text it was. Her problem was that she couldn’t figure out how the meaning presented in the note could be extracted from the text itself. I strongly recommend asking just such a question! I asked her if she’d considered the possibility that the note could be wrong. That was a revelation for her.
What I recommend is that a reader make sure to get study Bibles that are written from different perspectives and use them as an aid, not as a source of the answers. To some extent one should study the Bible text first, and then the notes, but sometimes one can read background material first. A study Bible that provides notes that tell you directly what the passage means can be quite convenient, but also quite misleading.
But one of the key problems for Bible students in the 21st century western world is the extent to which our culture is different from that of the world of the Bible. Very frequently what seems quite plain to us is not at all what the Bible writer is trying to say because we simply don’t share enough of those norms. I have come to believe that I have benefitted more by coming to understand human culture and language over the last 30 or so years than I have by learning the biblical languages. I do not mean to underestimate the value of learning Greek and Hebrew, but if my language learning had not been enhanced by the study of linguistics, history, sociology, and anthropology, it would have been of little value.
Pastors frequently proclaim that “the Greek word ____ means” or “the Hebrew word ____ means” and then build their exegesis on what is essentially simply another gloss. This makes people believe they have been enlightened by the ancient languages, when they have actually simply transferred their 21st century attitudes and presuppositions to a set of sounds they are told is Greek or Hebrew. Understanding a language means to some extent understanding a culture. Similarly understanding a text means understanding something about the person or persons who wrote it and the audience for which it was intended.
This is the key element that I believe a study Bible can provide. Certainly cross-references and historical connections are important, but letting the reader know how people in that time and place lived and thought is much more important.
NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible
(Note: I am basing my notes on the Olive Tree Bible software edition provided to me free of charge as I did not receive my print edition. I will not make comments on the layout or usability of the print edition.)
Thus I come to the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. They use the provocative (and obviously true) URL contextchangeseverything.com. I should note here that there are many types of context. There is a literary context, historical context, linguistic context, and (among others) cultural context. We usually think of context in a fairly narrow linguistic sense. A word study might be done by finding a variety of sentences that use a particular word. We know that when Jesus says, “Go and do likewise” we need to look at the context of what has been commanded. We can’t grab some other activity and make that the command of Jesus instead.
Study Bibles generally examine a range of these ideas as well as proposing interpretations for difficult passages, often without providing enough information so that the reader can follow the logic. The final reader is left with the simple logic that the skilled scholar who wrote the study notes concluded X, so X must be correct, an assumption that will be severely shaken in many cases if one compares other Bibles written by skilled scholars.
The Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible aims to help you understand the Bible writers, their audience, and their times. In the notes you will find direct connections between ancient culture(s) and the text itself. Rather than just being told that a certain phrase means a certain thing, you will be given the reason why one might come to that conclusion. This is no guarantee that every interpretation is correct; that would be expecting the impossible. (Which perfect one of us would make the determination in any case?) What it does mean is that for most explanations in the notes in this Bible you can follow the logic path. If you want to, you can do deeper research, and the notes are specific enough that you’ll be able to do your search, Bible dictionary reference, or deeper study in a commentary or at a good library.
Since I’m not reviewing the Bible overall, but rather looking in particular at one book, I won’t spend more time on an overview. Let me simply say that I’m delighted with the intent, and quite impressed with the implementation. There are obviously limitations. This is a study Bible, not a multi-volume commentary or an encyclopedia. It would be easy to complain about what’s not there. In my review of the book of Hebrews, I believe that the editorial choices made were quite good. I would doubtless have chosen differently in some cases, as would just about anyone, but that’s only to be expected.
On to Hebrews
To study Hebrews most effectively using this Bible, start first with the introduction to the Old Testament. Why? Because Hebrews displays an interesting interplay between the text of Hebrew Scripture, seen generally through the LXX translation, and then interpreted in a particularly New Testament light. The details of how these elements interact require some discussion, and that’s why you study and compare, but you need to understand the sources. The introduction discusses 12 issues in which we will see the world differently, and I think all of these issues will impact your reading of Hebrews.
While reading the text of Hebrews you can use the links (if you’re using Bible software) or follow the references to Old Testament passages. You cannot impose your own exegesis of passages of Hebrew Scripture on Hebrews, but it is important to know not just the text that is quoted, but also its literary context that might be brought to the audience’s mind by the reference, and also by ways in which that text might have been understood. It is not sufficient to treat the Old Testament quotations in Hebrews as words used in the context of Hebrews. Of course, the context of their use in Hebrews is the most definitive when we determine how the author of Hebrews intended them, but we need to do everything possible to get into his (or her) world in order to understand that context.
This is the value of a volume like this. I’m currently reading a commentary on Hebrews that is more than 600 pages. I have another on the shelf in front of me that is of similar length. It’s hard to back off and get an overview of the forest using those commentaries, though both are extremely valuable. What I enjoyed with the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, even as someone who has read the book of Hebrews many times, and studied the works of many commentators on it, was this broader view. Having dealt busily with the trees, putting each leaf under a microscope, it was nice to get so much material easily available. (This is a general advantage with study Bibles over detailed commentaries, at least the better ones, but the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible excels).
I’m going to compare the content of several study Bibles I have on my shelf. Where I give word counts, they are loose estimates based on line counts and my eyeball count of average words per line. The Bibles I’m using to compare are: The New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV), The Orthodox Study Bible, The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, The NLT Study Bible, and of course the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible.
First, let’s compare sheer quantity of text. First, the introduction. (I’ll add a note on approach.)
NOAB: About 450 words, no outline, though an outline can be extracted easily from the notes. The approach of the notes is often technical. Users complain that they don’t get enough theological help.
OSB: About 220 words, short outline provided, stronger suggestion of possible Pauline authorship than others. Theology is consistent with that of the Eastern Orthodox tradition.
NISB: A bit more than 1000 words and a mid-length outline. The NISB is kind of the pastor’s answer to the NOAB for mainline teachers/preachers. It provides more theological reflection, a fact I receive with definitely mixed emotions, though the material is generally helpful in its place. Theology is mainline with a bit of a liberal lean.
NLT Study Bible: About 1500 words and a brief outline. Theology is strongly evangelical
NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible: About 800 words, no outline, features “Quick Glance” section. Theology is evangelical.
Now let’s consider a specific passage, in this case Hebrews 4:12-13, and look at the quantity of notes, along with a count of insets or excurses in the whole text of Hebrews:
NOAB: 21 words. No excurses.
OSB: 54 words. One excursus.
NISB: 75 words. No excurses.
NLT Study Bible: 74 words. 9 excurses.
NIV Cultural Background Study Bible: 136 words. Two excurses.
The critical value of these notes is that they are aimed at the background and at helping you draw a line from the background to the meaning. I would say that the NOAB is great at pointing to technical details, but not so much at theology, while the NISB spends less time on technical details while using much of its space to reflect on theology. The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible uses its space in drawing a picture and pointing that to possible theological conclusions without trying to be a theology text.
Over the next few days I will post something on a couple of my favorite passages and the specific comments provided by this study Bible. I would consider this an excellent Bible to have at hand for a study of any biblical book. In my To the Hebrews: A Participatory Study Guide (currently under revision), I recommend that a study group have more than one study Bible available. I think it would be good for a group studying Hebrews to have this one at hand. One of the reasons my own guide is being revised is that it is largely a collection of thought questions. I’m going to provide more of a basis for those questions in the second edition. But the book will still be intended for use by a study group that has available multiple resources to compare. This will be one of the few that I recommend.
Note: All of these introductions to the book of Hebrews tend to dismiss Pauline authorship, with the Orthodox Study Bible being the most favorable. My own position is that it is not possible to determine the author. I used to exclude Paul as a possibility, but have been persuaded by the writing of David Alan Black that Paul should be kept as a possibility. I publish his little book The Authorship of Hebrews: The Case for Paul.
I’ve completed the second chapter of Deuteronomy in the CBC commentary on Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, and it may surprise some that I’ve felt a bit of a letdown as I moved from the variety of liturgy and laws, though interspersed with narrative, that is Numbers. It might surprise you less if you realize that my personal theology (and I think we all have one), is built on Ezekiel, Hebrews, and Leviticus, though not necessarily in that order. That’s the order in which I started studying the books seriously, however.
For most Christian readers of Hebrew scripture, I think that getting into Deuteronomy is a bit of a relief. Reading Genesis through the first half of Exodus goes pretty smoothly, but then one bogs down on all those details of building the sanctuary, and you get them twice: instructions and implementation. Then when you’ve worked your way through that you get to Leviticus, which contains so much liturgy, along with obscure laws on issues we generally don’t face. Numbers is a little less dismal, and then Deuteronomy starts to give us propositional theology that we can get our teeth into.
I was there before I spent serious time in Leviticus. I don’t claim expertise; that takes incredible amounts of study. But I’ve spent a great deal of time on the text. There’s a great deal that one can learn from that liturgy, including the simple fact that liturgy matters. Those of us who are not “high church” tend to think that the way in which worship is conducted isn’t very important. It’s mostly a time to accomplish our goals, often divided between “worship” (when that’s defined as musical), and “sharing the Word,” and of course those who believe one or the other is critical can have some great debates.
But we can learn a great deal from the ancient liturgy, and I think we can either increase or diminish our impact on the world around us through constructive liturgy. This is not an argument for high church liturgy. I am also not arguing that worship only takes place in worship services, much less that worship can be equated to music. All our activities should be done in worship to our creator.
But there is a time for us to act out for ourselves and for others the nature of the church as a community, and coming together at a common place and at a common time to share in activities as a community is, I think a critical part of this. Unfortunately, we have a variety of ways to avoid this. We may reject gathering together entirely. It may be a time when an ordained pastor occupies most of the time explaining to us what he believes we should believe. It may be a time to experience an emotional high as part of musical or artistic endeavors. It may be a scripted program that is ancient and could be meaningful, but is carried out by rote.
But it doesn’t have to be any of those things. It can be, instead, a time when we gather together and join in activities that encourage one another and prepare us to face the world around us as effective witnesses for Jesus. I don’t think there’s a particular set of activities that make this happen. I do think it’s possible because I have seen and experienced it.
God doesn’t just communicate in one way. Hebrews 1:1-4 makes it clear, and presents Jesus as the ultimate communication from our creator (amongst other things that reinforce that idea). The Torah (or Pentateuch) presents these different ways. We have liturgy helping to teach the people and to shape them into God’s people. We have story, showing us people experiencing God’s activity in the world, and we have theological propositions. I kind of prefer the liturgy, but that’s just me. Here we have all three demonstrated.
I think that neglecting one or the other leaves us with potentially skewed views of God. We need both the God who is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow (Hebrews 13:8), and the God who is sorry that He created humanity (Genesis 6:6). The same God also forgives a poor Israelite who can’t even afford a bird as a sin offering (Leviticus 5:11).
So I guess I won’t be let down and instead enjoy the change!
On page 238 of his NTL commentary on Hebrews Luke Timothy Johnson uses the word “interrupt” to describe the transition between exposition and exhortation starting in Hebrews 5:11. In a way I’m nitpicking here, and because I am, I must also note that overall I find Johnson’s commentary nearly the most useful I’ve read, and if I were just talking about theological reflection, I would call it the best.
I have a couple of objections to use of the word “interrupt,” however. First, it seems to me that calling the transition an interruption divides the text without consideration for the author’s purpose in writing. There is no exposition here which stands alone, and which can then optionally be applied to the hearers via an exhortation. Rather, the intention is exhortation and the exposition underlies the exhortation and is illustrated and illuminated by the nature of that exhortation.
Second, the exhortations also help raise questions for the further exposition that follows. In the case in question (Hebrews 5:11-6:12), the question of the faithfulness and reliability of God is raised, which will be answered in Hebrews 6:13ff. This is also the critical question of the entire book. God has provided the final High Priest (logically and temporally), who will offer the final sacrifice, and will provide the way back to the presence of God. Since this is all final, human beings are presented with this final choice, in the view of our author. If you reject this, what means can God provide for you?
Without exhortation, the exposition would be dry, pointless, and incomplete. The exhortation is an integral part of developing the topic.
I emphasize this because of some of my experience in studying Pauline epistles in college and graduate school. We would make it through the theological exposition in the beginning of the book, but when we got to the practical admonitions, those were treated as something of an afterthought by Paul. “Here’s your theology of salvation, and oh, by the way, there are a few things it would be a good idea to do …”
But for Paul those admonitions grow out of the theology he has presented. The practical elements are not appendices to letters that are otherwise theological treatises. It would be better to call the theological exposition introductory matter to the practical sections. Perhaps this explains why Galatians and Romans seem to get so much more treatment from a theological viewpoint than 1 & 2 Corinthians.
Sometimes I think the worst thing about biblical scholarship is that it is carried out by biblical scholars. Their interest is in extracting theological propositions and historical data. The writers, especially Paul, are writing pastorally. The two don’t always work well together.
At least that is the view from someone who took Romans (through chapter 8!) and Galatians (through chapter 4!) in school. As far as I could tell, the professors were happy with that.
They differ on the referent of ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ. There are good arguments for using this as the “personified word,” and for not reading it as a reference to Jesus, but again, as I have time and again over the years, I end up disagreeing. I think this forms an excellent tie back to the prologue, which clearly outlines a high Christology. Now we have definitely been reading arguments taken from the written word, and references to spoken word (Hebrews 2:1-4). But the prologue points us to Jesus as God’s ultimate communication with humanity.
This, in turn, points us to Hebrew 4:14-16, which summarizes one side of the coin of the high priesthood of Jesus. Here we are told, based on the arguments of chapters 2 & 3, that we have a high priest who is able to sympathize with our weakness. He is our brother (2:11). This will be brought together with the other side of the coin in Hebrews 7:26-28, which tells us that his brotherhood with us does not diminish his status in all ways with God. But right here it’s the one who is our brother, who can sympathize with our weaknesses, who is the one to whom we must give account.
And there you can see how I think λόγος should be rendered at the end of verse 13. I think we do have a play on words, but we should also look beyond a gloss or even a simple dictionary definition, and note that Jesus is giving an account to us of God, while we give an account of ourselves to God. Except not so much. Because we have such a high priest who is able to take us all the way in to the throne of grace.
This doesn’t take the written word of God, nor the word of God spoken by the prophets or apostles out of the equation. Wherever God’s word is, it is “alive and active,” but its ultimate representation is in the person of Jesus. To the question, “Is this the written word of the prophets or is it Jesus?” I’m saying “yes.” But mostly Jesus, because that’s where our author is pointing us everywhere.
Jesus does not replace the written word. Rather he completes it. The New Testament doesn’t supersede the Old. It builds on it. If you’ve read Hebrews thus far, getting to the end of Chapter 4, you’ve experienced the work of someone whose respect for the Hebrew Scriptures is very great and shows clearly through. One should remember this when one gets to passages that talk about something old vanishing, such as Hebrews 8:13. The very foundation of his argument is not vanishing.
He’s going to make the case that Jesus is the perfect High Priest (and we see functions of that priest in 12-13, God->Us, Us->God), that Jesus is the perfect sacrifice, and subtly, by the texts used in making those cases, he will let us know that Jesus is the perfect King.