Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Explanatory Notes on Hebrews 9:15-28

Sorry I'm running behind on these. They may slow down to one a week... they are distracting me from other obligations...
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9:15 And for this reason he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that, because his death has come as a redemption for the transgressions in the first covenant, those who have been called might receive the promise of an eternal inheritance.
Hebrews fascinatingly has little to say about redemption of new covenant transgression. First those who were living around the time of the turning of the ages were enlightened and became a part of the new covenant. At that time they were redeemed from their past sins, which are thus dubbed "transgressions in the first covenant."

We are reminded of what Paul says in Galatians about the Law being a guardian until the heir comes of age. This imagery for Paul is not exactly the story of "everyman." It is rather the story of what happened in his day with the coming of Christ. The heir has been of age now for 2000 years.

With the language of calling, early Christian language of election peeks out. Such language functioned ex post facto for the early Christians, "derived from after the fact," despite the fact that the language makes predestinarian claims. The language works differently than what it seems to say. You know who is elected by God because they are among the elect.

9:16-17 For where there is a will, it is necessary to bring the death of the one who made the will, for a will becomes valid among the dead, since it does not take effect when the one who made the will is still living.
Hebrews now makes a play on the Greek word for covenant, διαθηκη. The Greek word can also mean a "will" or a "testament." The author thus shifts subtly from one meaning of the word, "covenant," to its meaning as a person's will. In general, a person's will comes into play after that person has died.

9:18 Therefore, the first [covenant] has not been inaugurated without blood,
Although some have tried to find a more subtle connection, the author's point basically amounts to a play on words. Just as a διαθηκη "will" usually goes into effect when the will maker dies, so the new διαθηκη "covenant" was inaugurated with the death of Christ.

9:19 ... for as every commandment of the Law was spoken by Moses to all the people as he took the blood of bulls [and goats] with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, he sprinkled both himself, the book, and all the people,
The author's portrayal of the inauguration of the old covenant goes well beyond the biblical account. It shows his allegorizing tendencies. In keeping with the shadowy nature of the Levitical system, the author amalgamates together disparate Levitical rites to pit against the one real atonement provided by Christ. For example, the scarlet wool and hyssop harken from skin cleansing rituals.

None of these is an exact shadow of Christ. Rather, all together they collectively point by example to the reality of Christ's atonement.

9:20-21 ... saying, This is “the blood of the covenant that God commanded you,” and he similarly sprinkled with blood both the tent and all the vessels of service.
It is not unreasonable to think that the author was acquainted with Paul's version of Jesus' words at the Last Supper, found in 1 Corinthians 11:25. There Paul mentions Jesus saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood." It is thus possible that he alludes to that meal here.

9:22-23 And almost all things are cleansed with blood according to the Law, and without shedding blood forgiveness does not happen. Therefore, [it was] necessary for the illustrations to be cleansed with these [sacrifices],
The author here speaks of the necessity of blood under the old covenant, the Law. Under the old covenant, forgiveness required a blood sacrifice. But this comment that forgiveness requires blood shedding is often taken out of context. The big picture of the author's argument is away from the offering of blood.

Unlike what is often made of this comment, the author is not revealing some rigid theology about the necessity of blood. He makes this comment while arguing that the blood of bulls and goats cannot in fact take away sins. He uses the given of the old covenant--its requirement of blood--in order to eliminate blood from the atonement equation. The author's dualistic framework, and the rhetorical dimension of these comments, argues against any real investment in blood per se.

The word "illustrations" here is the same word we earlier translated "examples." It refers to all the various elements of the Levitical sacrificial system. The cleansing to which the author refers is the inaugural cleansing of these things as part of the first covenant.

… but the heavenly [Holies] themselves with better sacrifices than these.
The idea that the heavenly sanctuary might need cleansed is somewhat odd. The suggestion that this is an inauguration rather than a more typical sin cleansing does not eliminate the issue, for the inaugural cleansing still relates to uncleanness.

The best solution is to remember that this entire discussion is somewhat metaphorical. There is no actual structure in heaven that needs cleansed, nor does heaven need cleansed. What needs cleansed are the consciences of human beings. We cannot take the inaugural cleansing of the heavenly sanctuary too literally.

9:24 For Christ did not enter into hand-made Holies, antitypes of the true [Holies], but into heaven itself, not to appear before the face of God for us…
It is certainly possible that heaven itself means more precisely a sanctuary in heaven. But it is more likely that heaven itself is the sanctuary he has in mind, the universe as the true temple of God. This is the tent that the Lord pitched (8:2).

The mention of Christ's appearance before the face of God reminds the audience again of Christ's intercession. We have already suggested that the focus of such intercession has to do with atonement. We find this idea in association with Psalm 110:1 already in Romans 8:34: “It is Christ, the one who died, even more was raised, who is also at the right hand of God, who intercedes for us.

9:25-26 … not so that he might offer himself often, as the high priest enters into the Holies yearly with the blood of another, since it would then have been necessary for him to suffer often since the foundation of the world. But now he has appeared once at the consummation of the ages to nullify sin through his sacrifice.
The author's dualism peeks out here as the author seems to associate the need for atonement with the very existence of the created realm. Such a statement is perhaps somewhat hyperbolic, but probably does reflect the fact that the author thinks of the created realm as intrinsically defective.

As in chapter 7, the author reiterates that Christ's offering is a one time offering, unlike Levitical sacrifices. The timeless scope of Christ's sacrifice comes out here more than it has anywhere else. The fact that the author sees himself and his audience living at the "consummation of the ages" reflects that he expects the return of Christ to take place soon. It is thus not surprising that he does not have much to say about the atonement Christ might supply in the future. His sense of atonement is primarily aimed at past sins.

9:27 And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, an after this is judgment,
Hebrews is sketchy in its view of resurrection. It clearly mentions resurrection as an elementary principle of faith (6:2), and 13:20 speaks of God "bringing up" or "bringing again" Jesus from the dead. However, it is unclear exactly what such resurrection looks like for Hebrews, especially in the light of its pervasive dualism.

Another issue here is the timing of resurrection. Some see Hebrews to say that we experience judgment immediately upon death. One's judgment here might very well relate to your sense of whether Paul develops in this direction in 2 Corinthians 5 as well.

9:28 So also the Christ, who was offered once to bear away the sins of many, will be seen a second time without sin by those who await him for salvation.

The parallelism here might push us toward equating the judgment in 9:27 with the second coming. As mortals die once and then face judgment, so the sacrificial death of Christ is followed by a favorable verdict both for the sinless Christ and for those who trust in him. This salvation comes most literally when these individuals are saved from the coming judgment.

The parallelism of the two verses also seems to equate the offering of Christ with his death. This fact might seem to contradict the offering of Christ's sacrifice in the heavenly sanctuary. But we remember that the entire argument is metaphorical--for the author the literal truth is the passage of Christ's eternal spirit into heaven itself. In these two verses the author uses the earlier Christian equation of Christ's death on the cross as the sacrifice.

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