Sunday, October 18, 2009

Sunday Explanatory Notes: Hebrews 10:1-18

Missed last Sunday but the ox is still moving...
10:1 For the Law, having a shadow of good things to come—not [having] the image itself of the things—is never able to perfect those who approach with the same sacrifices that they offer continually year by year,
It seems significant that the author of Hebrews does not say that the Law is a shadow of good things to come. Rather, it has, contains shadows of those good things. The phrase "good things to come" reminds us of 9:11, where Christ is said to be a high priest of "good things that have arrived." Perhaps the author is thinking that the Law involves a shadow of Christ's sacrifice.

Again, the shadow is not in a one to one relationship with the reality. All the disparate sacrifices of the Levitical system find their singular reality in Christ's atonement. They were a shadow of Christ, not an exact image of Christ. This language is not used precisely, in the way someone like Philo would use it, but its general sense is clear enough.

10:1-2 give us a good sense of what Hebrews means when it speaks of the perfection of humans. 10:1 says that Levitical sacrifices were not able to perfect the one offering them. 10:2 implies that if they had been perfected, they would have been cleansed. Clearly "perfection" in relation to humans involves the cleansing of sins for the author. Indeed, perhaps the perfection of a person in Hebrews is exactly for such a person's sins to be cleansed.

10:2-3 Since would they not have stopped offering [them] because they no longer had a consciousness of sins, the worshippers once having been cleansed, but in these [sacrifices] is a yearly remembrance of sins.
This is a contrary to fact argument. If Levitical sacrifices truly took away sins, they would be offered once and that would be it. But they have continued to be offered, so they must not be able to take away sins. Instead, the yearly Day of Atonement ritual is an indication that the sacrifices of the Old Testament had no power to cleanse sins.

We also get a good sense of what the word conscience means for the author of Hebrews. It is parallel in these two verses to "remembrance." It thus translates best, particularly in 10:2, with the word consciousness rather than "conscience." It would seem to be that faculty of the mind that is aware of one's wrongdoing or lack thereof.

10:4 For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
This statement is very interesting given the author's earlier claim in 9:22 that without the shedding of blood there is scarcely any remission of sins. Here we learn that the shedding of blood actually did nothing for the remission of sins. It perhaps hints that we should be very careful in our interpretation of 9:22.

We would argue that the author of Hebrews, in the end, has little real investment in the importance of blood sacrifice at all. The person who reads Hebrews in terms of the all importance of blood sacrifice has in fact missed the overall thrust of the sermon, which is to argue that blood sacrifices are not necessary and in fact never did accomplish their putative function. The author starts with blood sacrifice as a given in order to argue it away.

10:5-7 Therefore, [Jesus] says, coming into the world, "You did not want sacrifice and offering, but a body you prepared for me, whole burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased with."

Then I said, "Behold I have come, in the chapter of the book it has been written concerning me, to do your will, O God."
Surely the author does not mean to say that Jesus literally uttered these precise words when descending from heaven. Indeed, the author assumes the voice of Jesus when he inserts into the quote, "Then I said." Instead, the author found in Psalm 40 an expression of the key purpose for Christ's life on earth--the offering of his body as the final sacrifice.

It is understandable that we hear overtones of the incarnation in this statement, a reference to the pre-existent Christ coming into the world. But since Hebrews is speaking figuratively, as we indicated in the previous paragraph, we cannot at all be certain that the author meant Jesus' entrance into the world literally here either. One's hunch either way is completely dependent on conclusions elsewhere about how early Christians came to affirm Jesus' pre-existence and how widespread that belief was.

The version of Psalm 40 that the author quotes is yet another clear indication that he is operating from the Greek translation of the Psalms rather than the Hebrew. The Hebrew of Psalm 40 reads something like, "my ears you have dug out." The author thus can only make his point from this particular Greek translation. What probably happened was that the Hebrew was miscopied at some point, perhaps because krt (you dig out) was misread as knt (you prepare). Then the Greek translation followed suit.

10:8-9 Above, [after] saying, “Sacrifice and offerings” and “Whole burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not want nor were you pleased with” (which they offer according to the Law), then he has said, “Behold, I have come to do your will.” He takes away the first to establish the second,
Verses 8 and 9 provide the author's christological interpretation of Psalm 40. From Psalm 40, Hebrews draws a contrast between the sacrifices of the former days and God's will in preparing a body for Jesus. God takes away the first covenant and its Law, in order to establish a new covenant. We remember chapter 7 and its sense of the previous Law established on the basis of the Levitical priesthood (7:11). There the author indicated that the arrival of a new, Melchizedekian high priest points to a change of Law (7:15-19)

10:10 … in whose will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
The will of God, which removes the Levitical system and its Law, establishes the sacrifice of Christ as the reality toward which all Old Testament sacrifices were pointing. This "offering" of the body of Jesus Christ sanctifies, cleanses the sins of the people of God, of those who partake of Jesus Christ. The power and effectiveness of this sacrifice is "once for all." No sacrifices literally atoned for anything before it, and no other sacrifice is necessary after it. It is the only effective sacrifice of all time and it is all effective.

10:11-12 And every priest has stood [in office] daily ministering and offering the same sacrifices often, which are never able to take away sins. And this one, after he offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat on the right hand of God…
Again, the author contrasts the differing nature of the two types of sacrifice. The early priests sacrifice daily--far beyond even the once a year sacrifice of the high priest on the Day of Atonement--but their sacrifices are never able to take away sins. Those sacrifices were only foreshadowings, sketchy examples and pointers toward what was to come.

Meanwhile, Christ's one time, effectual sacrifice is done, accomplished forever. His seating or "session" at God's right hand signals the accomplishment of the salvific deed, that for which he entered into the world, for which a body was prepared for him. The mention of God's right hand evokes Psalm 110:1 once again, the passage that has repeatedly popped up since 1:3.

What a rich tapestry of early Christian theology is woven here! We have the fundamental data of Christ's death on the cross and his subsequent resurrection. Christ's death must have been understood very early on as an atoning sacrifice, perhaps conceptualized in similar terms to the Maccabean martyrs of 2 Maccabees 7 and 4 Maccabees. The death of this righteous individual would bring the wrath of God toward Israel to an end. However, it would perhaps be decades before it would be understood to have the scope that Hebrews understands.

As we have mentioned before, Hebrews takes the idea that Christ's death was a sacrifice and metaphorically expands it by way of Psalm 110:4 to be Christ as priest offering himself as a sacrifice, a king-priest after the order of Melchizedek. Indeed, Hebrews extends the metaphor even further. He is like the high priest on the Day of Atonement, a once a year offering just as his is once for all time.

What sanctuary might he offer this sacrifice in? Why heaven itself, already understood in Jewish tradition as the "real" temple of which the earthly one was only a copy of sorts. As the highest order of priest in the truest sanctuary of all, Christ comes to offer the sacrifice to end all sacrifices.

10:13 … the rest waiting until his enemies might be placed as a footstool for his feet.
Then there was the resurrection, very possibly unanticipated by Jesus' followers. Psalm 110:1 was "ground zero" of early Christian tradition on the resurrection, at least as it has come to us. It was perhaps the primary text through which the earliest Christians came to understand Jesus as Lord, the primary text through which the early Christians came to understand why the messiah rose but had not finished the task of liberating Israel and becoming its earthly king.

Psalm 110:1 gives the reason Christ did not immediately serve as Lord. God has seated him at His right hand "until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet" (Ps. 110:1). Paul understood this enemy to be death. It is not completely clear what enemies Hebrews has in mind, although the chapter later speaks of judgment that will devour God's enemies (Heb. 10:27). It is thus possible that Christ is awaiting the time appointed for the judgment.

10:14 For with one offering he has perfected forever those who are being sanctified.
This verse aptly summarizes the entire point of the author's argment about Christ as high priest, an argument that was first mentioned in 2:17-18, was initiated in 3:1, but did not gain steam until 4:14. The one, sacrificial death of Jesus has enabled the cleansing of sins, the "perfection" of all those who are going to be purified, be "sanctified." The act is done. All that is left is the appropriation of that death.

10:15-17 And the Holy Spirit also witnesses to us, for afterwards he has said, "This covenant that I will make with them, after those days, says the Lord, giving my laws on their hearts, and on their mind I will inscribe them, and their sins and their laws I will never remember again."
The author now returns to Jeremiah 31, which he quoted extensively in chapter 8. These final verses thus mark an inclusio that binds together the literary unit from 8:1 to 10:18. This shortened recap of the longer quote in chapter 8 perhaps helps us see what was most important to the author there.

The author focuses on the new covenant as a doing away with the symbolic, Levitically based Law and the replacement of it with a law written on the heart. Their sins will be forgiven, for real, in Christ. It is possible to see a connection here between Paul's sense in Romans 2:15 of Gentiles demonstrating the law written on their hearts and Hebrews use of Jeremiah 31. Paul's focus is ethical--the Spirit in the heart enables one to keep the essence of the Law. Hebrews perhaps assumes this but takes it to a soteriological conclusion.

10:18 Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer an offering for sins.
Here is the soteriological conclusion. If God has written His law on our hearts and we keep the law by the Spirit within us, then there will not be the kind of continued sinning that requires an offering for sins. That Hebrews is thinking in this way can be argued for from Hebrews 10:26 below, where a warning is given not to "use up" Christ's sacrifice by continued sinning. The context there is more fully apostasy, probably. Nevertheless, when the law is written on one's heart, there should not be the need for forgiveness for further high handed sins.

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