Sunday, October 25, 2009

Sunday Explanatory Notes: Hebrews 10:19-39

10:19-21 Having therefore, brothers, boldness for entrance of the Holies by the blood of Jesus, which he opened for us [as] a new and living way through the veil, that is, his flesh and [having] a great priest over the house of God,
The "therefore" of this verse transitions from a rather long argument about Christ's high priesthood and the atoning effectiveness of his death to the practical implications. Depending on whether one sees the argument beginning at 3:1 or 4:14, we have six or seven chapters dedicated to the subject. 10:19-25 thus both give the immediate take away from that argument while introducing the exhortations of 10:19-12:29.

10:19-25 is directly parallel to 4:14-16, although it is not an inclusio because 10:19-25 does not end the section 10:19-25 begins. The heart of the parallel is between 4:14 and 10:23--"let us hold fast the confession"--as well as between 4:16 and 10:22--"let us approach." The effect of 10:19-21 is to give the reasons to do so. The participles are causal and we might translate them as "since we have" confidence in Jesus' blood and "since we have" a great priest, we should hold fast our confession.

Entrance to the Holies, the Most Holy Place or the Holy of Holies, is of course the metaphor the author has been using of Christ's ascension to heaven. Now he applies it to the audience. They can now enter into the Most Holy Place as well. While previously only the high priest could do so once a year, they now have access to God's presence, the highest heaven and God's throne room, through the blood of Jesus. The author seems to be thinking of present spiritual access, through Christ who intercedes at God's right hand (4:15-16).

Scholars have long debated whether the veil in 10:20 is Christ's flesh or something else. Grammatically, the most natural way to take the statement is that Christ's flesh is like a veil through which we pass into God's presence. Others have found this imagery inappropriate, thinking it pictures Christ's flesh as something that hides or veils and thus having a negative sense of physicality. They opt for his flesh being the "new and living way." Perhaps in the author's mind there would not be a great difference between the two and, in any case, grammatically and following the author's use of "that is" elsewhere, we should go with Christ's flesh as the veil.

While in 3:2 the house of God is the household of God, here it primarily refers to the heavenly sanctuary of God, the "house of God." Perhaps a double entendre is also meant in reference to God's people.

10:22 ... let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, [our] hearts having been sprinkled from an evil conscience and [our] body having been washed with pure water.
"Let us approach" here parallels "let us approach" in 4:16. There it is approach to the throne of grace to find grace, presumably for atonement. Here it is also approach to the "Most Holy Place" of the previous verse with confidence in the atonement we have already appropriated.

The faith in question in this verse is presumably our faith, our faith in the promises of God, our faith in the atoning value of the death of Jesus. The dual imagery of inner and outer cleansing is intriguing. The washing of our bodies with water is presumably an allusion to water baptism. The sprinkling of our conscience is a mixed metaphor but no doubt refers to the cleansing of our sins and our consequence awareness of this fact. The perfect tense implies that these are completed acts whose consequences continue with the audience into their present.

The inner/outer washing of the verse reminds us somewhat of Acts, where baptism in water is associated with baptism with the Spirit. The latter Acts 15:9 equates with purifying hearts through faith. Presumably the common imagery of baptism implies a connection between the two cleansings in the minds of the early Christians.

10:23 Let us hold fast the confession of hope without wavering, for the One who has promised is faithful.
Here again is a verbatim parallel with 4:14: "let us hold fast the confession." As we mentioned earlier, it is not entirely clear whether the author has a specific confession like "Jesus is the Son of God" in mind or whether he means the basic principles of Christian faith in general. The mention of our confession as a confession of hope at least implies that the author has in mind everything associated with faith in Jesus as Son of God. The confession of hope is a confession of faith that Christ will return again to set the world straight.

The mention of wavering gets again at the doubts of the audience. In the context of confessing hope, the particular doubt in view would seem to relate to the future expectations of the faith. The mention of God's faithfulness to His promises hearkens back to 6:13-20, where the author reminded the audience that God cannot lie (6:18). As the remainder of chapter 10 will make clear, they are doubting that in fact Jesus will return in victory and thus probably that he is in fact the messiah, the Son of God. In our reading, they are not Jews in danger of turning back to mainstream Judaism. They are Gentile converts to Christian Judaism in danger of turning back to paganism in the wake of the temple's destruction.

10:24-25 And let us consider one another for encouragement of love and good works, not leaving behind the assembling of ourselves, as is customary for certain ones, but encouraging [it] and by so much more as you see the Day nearing.
The implication seems to be that the churches, the assemblies, the gatherings (synagogues) of this audience, assuming it is a single group, have begun to suffer in the light of current events. The author has appealed to argument, but here he appeals to the audience to urge each other on. They are to show love to each other, and good works, to encourage each other to continue on in faith. The Day in question is almost certainly the Day of the Lord, the day of Christ's return in judgment.

10:26-27 For if we are willingly sinning after receiving the knowledge of the truth, a sacrifice for sins is no longer left, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment and a fury of fire about to eat those who are opposed.
The author now returns to the theme of apostasy that he touched on in 6:4-8 and that he will allude to again in 12:15-17. For the author, God's grace in relation to sin only extends so far before it is "used up," in effect. The nature of Christ's atonement is to cover sins that are past, not sins that are committed into the future, that is, not "sins with a high hand" committed in full knowledge of the truth.

We thus should not think that the author is speaking of unintentional wrongs or even of sins that are atypical and for which one might quickly repent in sincerity and seek speedy forgiveness. The author is thinking specifically of abandoning faith in Christ, of turning back from the affirmation that he is messiah, in effect relegating him to a crucified failure at best and a deserving criminal at worst. Presumably any repeated path of defiance to God would receive the same condemnation from the author.

We think that the phrase, "the knowledge of the truth" relates directly to imagery elsewhere of "having been enlightened" (6:4) or, by contrast, "sins committed in ignorance" (9:7). It is imagery that would relate best to Gentiles who had come to believe in the Jewish God, in the basics of 6:1-2. Without the sacrifice of Jesus to atone for one's sins, nothing is left but the expectation of judgment along with the rest of the world on the Day of the Lord. The opposition are perhaps the enemies mentioned in 10:13.

10:28 When someone has rejected the Law of Moses, that person dies without mercy on the basis of two or three witnesses.
Here is yet another "lesser to greater" argument (qal wahomer, a minore ad minorem, or a fortiori). Verse 28 sets up the lesser situation. Here we do not have the often heard sense that God goes lighter on people under the new covenant than He did under the old. Rather, the author suggests that if the consequences of disobedience were severe under Moses, imagine what they will be like under Christ. Under Moses, a person died without mercy, as long as two or three witnesses might corroborate guilt.

10:29 By how much of a worse punishment do you think will be worthy the one who tramples the Son of God and the blood of the covenant, having considered it profane, by which this one was sanctified, and having insulted the Spirit of grace?
And thus the second have of the author's a fortiori argument. The author's point is not that God is not gracious. Indeed, it is God's grace that secured atonement and redemption in the first place. The problem is the insulting of God's grace.

In keeping with the norms of ancient patronage, grace was undeserved favor from a "have" to a "have not." But such grace, even though it was informal, came with informal expectations as well. It would have made no sense to an ancient audience that you could insult the patron and yet enjoy the continued patronage of the giver. So also, the person who "despises" God by trampling the free offer of grace in this way not only will not receive continued grace but is destined for the wrath of God.

The honor shame imagery of this verse is extensive. The person who disregards faith in Christ "tramples" the Son of God, God's royal representative. They "trample" the blood of the covenant. It was this blood that "sanctified" them, that made them holy and pure, that made them belong to God and become the property of the Divine. Instead, they have treated it as common, as profane, as the kind of blood indeed that would make a person unclean.

10:30 For we know the One who spoke, "Vengeance is for Me; I will repay." And again, "The Lord will judge His people."
The author punctuates the threat with Scripture. The quotes are from Deuteronomy 32:35 and 36 in the Song of Moses. The author has already quoted this Song in 1:6, so we can infer that the larger Song might have had significance for him, perhaps in relation to the final judgment. The Song of Moses laments the faithlessness of Israel, anticipates its distress in the face of its enemies, then looks to its restoration. The author, however, latches only on the judgment of God's people, thus changing the meaning of the second quote from the Lord's vindication to His judgment.

The quotes thus carry with them overtones of the judgment of those in God's people who do not remain faithful and we are reminded of the author's use of the imagery of the wilderness generation in Psalm 93 back in Hebrews 3. If we are right about the setting of Hebrews in wake of the temple's destruction, these verses might also carry with them a sense that the current distress of Israel is a punishment for its failure to believe on Jesus as messiah. The author thus implicitly warns the audience that they may face a similar fate if they do not continue in faith.

10:31 It is fearful to fall into the hands of the living God.
This memorable verse evokes all the incidents in biblical history, as well as perhaps in the contemporary history of the day, in which God judged either His people or their enemies. Further example would hardly be necessary. If the audience were Gentile, the mention of the living God would evoke the contrast of the gods of the nations, not least the gods of the Romans. Departure from the Jewish God was to return back to following the dead idols of the nations, yet another feature of the Song of Moses (Deut. 32:17).

10:32 But be in rememberance of the days formerly, during which, after you were enlightened, you endured much struggle of sufferings...
The author already alluded to an earlier time of trouble for the audience in 6:10. If the audience is in Rome, as is the majority suggestion, two principal possibilities exist. The first is the expulsion of certain Jews from Rome by Claudius around the year AD49. The second is the persecution of Nero after the fire of Rome around AD64. The image of becoming enlightened again points strongly to a Gentile audience, since the distinction between Christian and Jew seems hardly strong enough at this time to justify such a drastic reinterpretation of a mainstream Jew.

10:33 ... now on one hand being exposed to public disgrace both with abuses and troubles, now on the other having become partners with those living thus.
The rhetoric here seems to distinguish the audience from certain others undergoing a more dramatic crisis than they. If the audience is Gentile, we can imagine Gentiles who were not expelled from Rome suffering disgrace by association with Jews who were expelled. Similarly, at the time of Nero's persecution we can imagine an assembly of converts who witnessed others in the broader Christian community suffer death.

10:34 For you both suffered with the prisoners and you received with joy the seizing of your possessions, knowing that you have a better and remaining possession.
One version of the Claudian hypothesis sees a Jewish audience losing their property because of exile from Rome. On the Neronian hypothesis, we can see many believers being fined while others were eventually put to death. The statement in 12:4 that the audience has not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood would seem irrelevant in this debate. The author speaks of the current crisis, not any previous one. As a matter of fact, the most likely understanding of 13:7 is that the former leaders, at least of the broader Christian community, were in fact martyred.

The mention of a better possession looks forward to the asides of 11:13-16, where the author speaks of a heavenly homeland in store for the audience, a better country. They have on earth no lasting city, such as Jerusalem (13:14). Similarly, any earthly possessions they might have in Rome are of no lasting consequence, and should they have to lose them again, it is no matter.

10:35-36 Therefore, do not throw away your confidence, which has great reward, for you have need of endurance so that, after doing the will of God, you might receive the promise.
"Therefore" indicates the logical conclusion of what has preceded. They have endured suffering in the past; they can endure suffering now. Just as they did not lose faith during the earlier time of suffering, so they should not do so now. If the previous trial was under Claudius, the stakes have escalated with the anticipation of scores of martyrs. If the previous trial was under Nero, the stakes have escalated with the very destruction of Jerusalem and God's temple, with the very possibility of atonement called into question. Once more the author invokes God's promise, the promise of vindication, the promise of the return of the messiah.

10:37-38 For yet "a little while, the one who comes will come and will not delay, but my righteous one by faith will live," and "if [a person] should turn back, my soul is not pleased with him."
The first verse is the strongest possible allusion to the delay of Christ's return as part of that which is causing doubt (although cf. 9:28). If as seems likely the earliest Christians expected Christ to return sooner rather than later, we can anticipate that the period immediately following the deaths of apostles like Paul, James, and Peter might have accentuated a sense that Christ must surely return very soon indeed.

Perhaps the Jewish War would have contributed to the sense that the final hour was being played out, the beginning of the judgment with the household of God (cf. 1 Pet. 4:17). Then when the destruction of Jerusalem came and went and the captives were paraded through town, finally to be crucified, it surely created a climate of doubt among some.

Hebrews' use of Habbakuk 2:4 is different from Paul's. Paul understands the verse in relation to the person who is justified on the basis of faith, of trust in the fact that God raised Jesus from the dead (e.g., Rom. 4:24). For Hebrews, faith here has the principal sense of faithfulness and endurance. The one who is righteous to God is the person who does not turn back but keeps going, remains faithful.

10:39 But we are not of turning back to destruction but of faith to the saving of soul.
The final verse of the chapter confirms that faith in this context is the opposite of turning back or shrinking back. Turning back leads to destruction. Faith, on the other hand, implies that one's "soul" will be saved, rescued from God's wrath and judgment. Whether the author is thinkng of the soul as a detachable part of a person is not clear. However, since the author elsewhere uses spirit in this way (12:23), it is perhaps just as likely that soul here means "life." We are of those who remain faithful and their lives are saved.

For Philo, the soul was the part of a person that joined body and spirit together. There was the animal part of the soul, which was connected strongly to the body and gave it life. Then there was the spirit, which was the soul's soul. If the author of Hebrews had some conception of this sort, then we can better understand 4:12's comment about the difficulty of separating soul and spirit.

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