Ephesians 1:3-14 New Revised Standard Version
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. 5 He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace 8 that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight 9 he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 11 In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 12 so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. 13 In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; 14 this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.
A new year begins. As I write this reflection on the reading for the Second Sunday after Christmas, we’re approaching the completion of our second year under the influence of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the end seems as far out of sight as ever. Much has happened over the course of the past few years that is disheartening. Hope is in short supply. But as a new year begins and we spend one last Sunday observing Christmas, we open up this second reading for the day and hear a reminder that God
has chosen us for adoption. Is this not good news? Does this not provide a word of hope as we move forward?
This letter, according to its opening greeting, was written by Paul to the church in Ephesus. Now, there are plenty of questions about authorship when it comes to the Ephesian letter. You can find my take on the matter in Participatory Study Guide on Ephesians (pp. 2-8). There are reasons for and against Pauline authorship, but for our purposes, I’m going to leave it open and simply refer to the author as Paul.
After offering the greeting in verses 1-2, Paul offers a call to worship: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (vs. 3). Yes, blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus who has blessed us not just with a few blessings, but every spiritual blessing. The foundation of these blessings is our status as having been chosen by God in Christ. If the primary audience is composed of relatively new Gentile Christians, this is a word of assurance. Just as God has chosen Israel, so God chooses to adopt Gentiles into the family.
Having chosen us in Christ, we are to therefore conduct ourselves as people who are “holy and blameless in love.” When did God choose us in Christ? According to Paul, the election took place before the foundation of the world. So, what does Paul mean by this? Did God write a script before creation took place so that every action and reaction that has taken place since has been scripted? We do what the script says. It’s possible that Paul meant such a vision, but I’m not so sure. If that is the way things work, then surely, we can’t be held responsible for what happens in our lives. Every act of violence and natural disaster; it is just part of the script, isn’t it? Wars and disease. They are just part of the plan, are they not? I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound very appealing. It seems as if, if that is true, then we’re simply puppets whose strings are pulled by God. Thus, little or no room is for freedom and responsibility. Now, Paul could affirm that premise, but I’m not sure he does.
Our problem in reading this passage is that we tend to read Scripture in very individualistic terms. So, if God destines us for adoption, then do I have a choice in the matter? But, what if it’s not my personal status that is in question here, but the means by which God chooses to adopt us and the purpose of our adoption? Thus, the God who destined Jesus to be the one through whom God adopts us into the family of God, which is the church. Secondly, God chose us from before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless in love. If we read it this way, we can also read it eschatologically. What Paul is focused on here is God’s ultimate purpose, which God will bring to fruition. That hope is that all of God’s creation would experience adoption in Christ. This is our destiny. Now, do we have a choice in this? I believe we do, but I also believe God will leave no stone unturned until God achieves the restoration of all things.
As I reflect on this passage, I believe the future is open. That is, I don’t believe that God has a script with every step along the way detailed. However, God is not without a plan, even if it can and will be altered along the way. I like to think here in terms of a GPS that recalculates when a change is made. It’s not a perfect analogy, but it might help us think about how God has in mind an ultimate destination but understands that time and pathway are always changing and thus requires adaption.
So back to Ephesians and God has predetermined, which is our redemption, the message then is that God has made a way for us to be redeemed. That means is through the blood of Jesus so that our trespasses might be forgiven. That, according to grace. Paul doesn’t say how the blood of Jesus is the means of our redemption, only that it is. Therefore, God has made known to us God’s will set forth in Christ so that in the fullness of time all things will be gathered up in him, both things in heaven and on earth (Eph. 1:10). Here is where I want to stop for a moment. Paul speaks here of the restoration of all things. It is the mystery of God’s will but it looks forward to that moment, whenever that moment takes place, God gathers everything up and redeems it bringing to a conclusion that which is so that something new will emerge. What does that mean for us? Does this speak of universal salvation, what the eastern church speaks of as apokatastasis? I would suggest it does. The future is still open, but the promise is that
God will, as intended, conclude with the restoration of all things. That seems to mean some form of universal salvation.
With this promise that all things will be redeemed comes another, and that has to do with the inheritance. As adopted members of the family, we are also heirs of the promise. Therefore, having been destined for this purpose we can “set our hope on Christ” and live for the praise of his glory” (Eph. 1:11-12). With this purpose set forth, we hear that having believed, we have also been marked by the seal of the Holy Spirit (vs. 13). This must mean, having been baptized, we have the assurance of our place in the redeemed community of the church. So, having been marked by baptism, which is the pledge of our inheritance, we can now live as God’s people, for the glory of God. Therefore, we can worship God, as the people of God, adopted, through Christ our Lord.
4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.
The four Sundays of Advent are driven by four themes—hope, peace, joy, and love. We light candles to highlight each of these four themes. The candles might be blue or purple, depending on the color scheme we choose. On the third Sunday, this Sunday, however, we light a pink candle. Why do we light a pink candle on this particular Sunday? What does pink have to do with the day we light the candle of joy? Well, here’s the reason. The purple (or blue) is seen as a more somber color that signifies repentance, which is part of the path of preparation for welcoming the birth of the Christ child. The choice of pink here softens the image as a way of acknowledging that joy is breaking through the more somber days of Advent. Since we light the candle of joy, what better scripture text to hear on a day like this than the passage from Philippians 4.
Whatever is happening around us, Paul calls for us to “rejoice in the Lord, always.” Yes, rejoice always, not just when we feel in a happy mood. Indeed, joy is not the same as happiness. Remember that Paul writes this letter not from a beach in Hawaii, but a jail cell in some undisclosed location. When Paul writes here about joy, he’s not suggesting that joy depends on our circumstances in life. Joy is rooted in relationships with God and with the community of followers of Jesus.
While Paul seems to have a deep and abiding friendship with the people in Philippi, which is the cause of his joy, it’s not as if this is a perfect congregation without problems or concerns. It might not be the Corinthian or Galatian congregations, but it’s not a perfect place (as if such a thing exists). Consider the word given to the congregation to encourage his former co-workers, Euodia and Syntyche, to get along. That will occur if they are of one mind in the Lord. The reason he wants to encourage the healing of the relationship is that these two women have been important partners in his ministry (Phil. 4:2-3). How often in churches do we find key members, who have had an important ministry, get cross-ways undermining their message. Thus, Paul wants them to reconcile so they can focus their attention on the ministry of the congregation.
Ultimately it is because the Lord is near that he has reason to be joyful. While that word has eschatological implications, it could also speak to Paul’s sense that God is present with him by the Spirit. This relationship with God, therefore, makes it possible to rejoice always. In fact, he tells the Philippians in this paragraph of the letter not to be anxious about anything. That’s, of course, easier to say than to do. Many of us live anxiety-filled lives. We worry about our health, the health of our family members, the situation in our nation and our communities. There is so much stuff going on in our lives that it’s difficult not to feel a bit anxious. You’d have to be a Vulcan not to feel anxiety in this day and age. So, how can Paul say to us don’t worry, be happy? Well, he doesn’t say that exactly. He simply says, don’t be anxious. Instead, pray. Again, it’s important to remember that Paul is writing this letter from a jail cell, so we can’t really dismiss this word as little more than pious claptrap. He knows what it means to live his life amid difficult circumstances. Nevertheless, he believes it’s possible for those who are people of God to experience joy, no matter the circumstances. That suggests that joy is something that is rooted in God’s presence in our lives.
I’m going to pick up on a word here that can be read in different ways. Paul writes to them, noting that “the Lord is near.” That can be read apocalyptically. We can think here in terms of Paul’s expectation that Jesus’ return in glory was near at hand. That is a message we find throughout Paul’s letters. He’s not, necessarily, a millennialist. That is, he doesn’t have a position on whether Jesus will return at some point to reign on earth for a thousand years (Rev. 20:4-6). That’s not part of his message. He does, however, believe that the last day, the day of the Lord, was near at hand. So, we can read it in this way. For our purposes, however, I’d like to read it in a more spiritual manner, in a way that someone like Origen or maybe St. Augustine would appreciate.
If we read it in a more spiritual manner, we can embrace the idea that no matter where we are or situation in life, the “Lord is near.” That is, we’re not alone as we take this journey of life. That is why we can live through difficult times without anxiety. It is the relationship that we experience with God, that sustains us, and brings us joy. It’s this relationship that is embodied by his connection with the congregation that sustains him. This suggests that the community is important to the life of faith.
People will ask whether one can be a Christian without being part of a church. Now there is a theology that suggests there is no salvation outside the church. The point of that message is a sacramental one. It is in the church that one receives the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. I believe that these sacramental moments are important contributors to the Christian life and that they are made available in the context of the church, but that’s not what I have in mind here. It is the relationship that exists when we are in community that provides a space where God draws near to us. As Jesus said, “when two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matt 18:20). This is the key to our ability to live lives of joy.
Now, the reading designated by the Revised Common Lectionary for the third Sunday of Advent is centered on verses 4-7 of Philippians 4. I’ve chosen to include in this reflection verses eight and nine. They seem to belong to what Paul writes in verses 4-7. These verses help focus our attention on what it means to live a joy-filled life. The key here is keeping our minds focused on the right things. That is, things that are noble and pure, lovely and admirable. Yes, keep your minds focused on praise-worthy things. When we keep focused on the things of God then the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding can guard our hearts and mind. That comes through Christ Jesus.
Since the Advent season has an eschatological dimension, we should keep our eyes on that word about Christ drawing near. That word reminds us that the day of the Lord is out there ahead of us. But there is no need to fear if one keeps one’s eyes on the prize. And, as we see here in this letter, Paul is committed to making sure this congregation is ready for that day. This message fits well with the message we find in the reading for today from the Gospel of Luke. In the reading from Luke 3, John the Baptist preaches a message of repentance and offers a baptism that will prepare the people to receive the coming Messiah. John is not the Messiah. He is only the one who prepares the way (Luke 3:7-18). Paul is not the Messiah, but he also is called upon by God to prepare the way for others to encounter the peace of God that comes to us through Christ. The final word of this reading, which is found in verse 9, is simply a word of encouragement. “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.” Follow the way of Jesus, which involves love overflowing so we might know what is best so that on the day of the Lord we’ll be ready with a harvest of righteousness (Phil. 1:9-11). Then, we will break out in joyful song, singing “Joy to the world, the Lord is Come! Let earth receive her King!; let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing!” Yes,”Joy to the world, the Savior reigns!”
24 For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. 25 Nor was it to offer himself again and again, as the high priest enters the Holy Place year after year with blood that is not his own; 26 for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself. 27 And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment, 28 so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.
Like much of the New Testament, the Book of Hebrews has a strong apocalyptic element. We see that apocalyptic dimension present here in this passage. Because of how apocalyptic messages have been used over the centuries and especially over the past several decades, there is general discomfort with the apocalyptic dimension of the New Testament. It’s understandable. However, it’s there for all to see. We can’t ignore it. Besides the apocalyptic elements of the New Testament provide a certain intensity and alertness to the texts. It brings to the fore a certain anticipation that something is about to happen. Granted, we live two millennia later and, as of yet, Jesus hasn’t returned. That is why theologians such as Origen and Augustine allegorized texts like this. In fact, one scholar spoke of Origen demythologizing the apocalyptic elements. There is reason to do so. At the same time, it’s important that we not ignore the message even if we must reinterpret it.
First-century Christians expected Jesus to return at any moment. At times Paul encouraged such thinking and at other times he had to calm the folks down, reminding them that in the meantime they needed to attend to business. That is, go to work so you can eat. That being said, the author of Hebrews, whose identity remains unknown, offers us a meditation on the apocalyptic dimension of Jesus’ ministry.
As noted in a previous reflection, Hebrews represents a Platonized vision of the ministry of Jesus. He contrasts the earthly ministry of the Levitical priesthood with Jesus’ heavenly priesthood. Whereas the Levitical priests had to annually offer sacrifices on behalf of not only the general populace but themselves as well. In our reading, which continues the messaging we’ve been hearing, Jesus enters the heavenly Temple ready to offer a sacrifice for sin. The sacrifice he offers is himself. Nothing is said here of the cross upon which Jesus died but is rather an offering of himself to God as a replacement for the annual sacrifices. That is, the author of Hebrews focuses on the sacrifices offered on the Day of Atonement and not Passover. While we know from Scripture (Leviticus 16) what this involves, the nature of the sacrifice on Jesus’ part is not revealed. In other words, the cross is not specifically mentioned.
The apocalyptic element is clear in the statement that Jesus has appeared “at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself.” The way it is phrased here, Jesus has already done this, suggesting that the “end of the age” has already occurred, and that it occurred when Jesus offered himself in the heavenly Temple in the presence of God on our behalf. In doing this, Jesus acted to remove sin from us. As noted elsewhere in Hebrews, Jesus does this only once and not annually as was true of the Levitical priests. As we’ve seen earlier, Jesus takes his priesthood from the mysterious line of the priest-king Melchizedek (Heb. 7).
The reading suggests that the end of the age began when Jesus offered himself up as the atoning sacrifice in the heavenly temple. In other words, what happened on earth with the crucifixion also happened in heaven as Jesus entered the heavenly Temple and offered himself up to God as an atoning sacrifice. This is the word Hebrews offers concerning the first advent, but there is a second as well. Some use the analogy of D-Day for understanding the cross. While the war would continue for almost a year in Europe, once the allies landed in Normandy the war was won. There would be no turning back. With that analogy as a reference to the cross, Jesus gained a beachhead that would never be turned back. There would be many more battles to come. Evil hasn’t given up its resistance, but it will not win. Even for those of us who believe that the future is open and unwritten, could we not say that Good Friday and Easter turned the tide?
Hebrews acknowledges that we all die once, and then comes the day of judgment. What this means is not clear, though Jürgen Moltmann cautions those of us who lean toward universal salvation,
If salvation is tied to faith, then all the universal statements in the New Testament must be related to God’s good salvific intention, but not to the outcome of history. What is meant is the possibility of redemption, not its inevitable actuality. It is true that the word aionios does not mean the absolute eternity of God, but it does mean the irrevocability of the decision for faith or unbelief. Faith’s experience that in the presence of the call to decision one is standing before God has as its corollary the finality of human decision. Consequently `the double outcome’ is the last word of the Last Judgment. [Moltmann. The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology (Kindle Locations 3506-3509). Kindle Edition].
That is good to remember—the outcome is not inevitable. We have choices and redemption can’t be coerced if God is truly love.
When it comes to the timing of this day of judgment, it does sound here as if it immediately follows death. Other passages of Scripture suggest a different timeframe, so unless we embrace a God who stands outside time (timeless) then we have some interpretive moves to make here. Whatever the time frame, the story is not yet complete. There is also a second coming. But unlike the first advent, in which Christ dealt with sin (apparently through his death on the cross) this second advent is designed to save the faithful who are eagerly awaiting Jesus’ return.
Hebrews doesn’t reveal exactly what is meant by the word “save,” but it would seem that the expectation is that Jesus will return to gather up the faithful bringing this age to a close. Judgment has already occurred, so the expectation is not one of fear but hope. Thus, salvation in this context is not related to deliverance from sin, but a gathering up of those whom Jesus has already saved. Tom Long puts it this way concerning the anticipated day of judgment:
In this part of the passage, the writer of Hebrews indicates that the offering of Christ makes this obsession with judgment moot. In Christ, sin has already been extinguished, and lasting forgiveness has been granted. So Christians do not have to dread the future, watching fearfully for God the judge. God’s future is one of salvation and redemption. Christ is “coming again,” not with a sword of judgment, but “to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” [Long, Feasting on the Word, p.
So, instead of putting up signs that call for people to get right with God, in Christ, we are already made right with God. So, we can focus on other things. Judgment day is not a day to be feared but celebrated. So keep alert, the day of the Lord is near at hand!! Maranatha! Lord Come Quickly!
|Image attribution: Icon of the Second Coming, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56666 [retrieved October 31, 2021]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Icon_second_coming.jpg.|
Philippians 1:3-11 New Revised Standard Version
3 I thank my God every time I remember you, 4 constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, 5 because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. 6 I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. 7 It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. 8 For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. 9 And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight 10 to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, 11 having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
We turn on the Second Sunday of Advent to the first of two readings from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. According to the Advent candle lighting schedule, we’re due to light the candle of peace. While nothing is mentioned here about peace, it would seem that peace is the natural extension of a life filled with love and righteousness. These words come from the opening paragraph that follows Paul’s greeting.
Paul writes this letter from prison (vs. 7) to a church that likely was predominantly gentile. In the Book of Acts, when Paul visits Philippi, he finds a group of women led by Lydia who gathered down by the riverbank since there were not enough Jewish men to constitute a synagogue. When Lydia heard Paul’s message, she and her household were baptized. Of course, this is also a city where Paul and his companion Silas were imprisoned after they delivered a slave-girl from a spirit of divination, costing her master money. After experiencing a beating, the imprisoned missionaries sang hymns until an earthquake freed them—though they didn’t flee. Instead, they waited until they could stand before the magistrate and reveal that they were citizens of the empire and thus they should never have been treated in this way. Of course, in the midst of all this, the jailer and his household were baptized. Thus, this is the first church in Philippi that was composed of Lydia and her household—as well as the jailer and his household ( Acts 16:11-40). Could it be that the congregation to whom he wrote this letter was led primarily by women, and Lydia in particular? It’s quite possible and worth imagining!
In these opening lines, Paul gives thanks for the Philippian believers in his prayers. This brings him joy, despite being in prison. He is grateful because they have been partners with him in the gospel from the beginning. The NRSV uses the word sharing here, but Ron Allen and Clark Williamson suggest that the Greek word koinonia here is best translated as partnership rather than fellowship or even sharing, for Paul is grateful that the Philippians are his partners in pursuit of this common goal. Allen and Williamson write that the “Philippian Christians are partners in Paul’s imprisonment. The congregation contributes prayers, faithfulness, financial resources, and their witness in Philippi. Paul is thankful that the Philippians are reliable partners.” [Preaching the Letters without Dismissing the Law, p. 183]. His prayers of gratitude are rooted in his confidence in the one who will bring to completion the good work begun in them by God, a good work that will be completed by the Day of the Lord. It is that phrase, “the day of Jesus Christ,” that gives the passage its eschatological foundation. What follows is offered in relation to that expectation.
Although he was once again imprisoned, this doesn’t take away his joy at the relationship that existed between himself and this congregation. It’s just something that went with his calling to preach the gospel. As for the nature and location and timing of Paul’s imprisonment, there’s no scholarly consensus. Suggestions range from his later imprisonment in Rome to earlier imprisonments in Ephesus or Caesarea. He writes to encourage them in case he ends up being put to death. If this is his fate, he is comfortable with it because it is due to his service to Christ. But for their sake, he wishes to live so he can come to them once again (Phil. 1:19-26).
The Advent season speaks of preparation. We’re called on to be alert and to be prepared. The reading from Malachi promises a messenger who will prepare the way for the coming of God. Like refiner’s fire and fuller’s soap, the descendants of Levi will be purified so that offerings pleasing to God can be offered (Mal. 3:1-4). The Gospel of Luke points to the ministry of John the Baptist and draws on the words of Isaiah to signal John’s ministry of preparation. He is the voice crying in the wilderness “Prepare the way of the Lord” (Luke 3:1-6). Here, Paul writes a word of encouragement, in the hope that on the day of the Lord they will be “pure and blameless.” That is, Paul prays that they will have experienced the refiner’s fire, so they’ll be ready to welcome the coming of the Lord.
With the apocalyptic note to this opening paragraph, we learn that Paul’s goal here is bringing in a “harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.” This is more than bringing in a harvest of souls, but more importantly the expectation that this work in Philippi would lead to the creation and sustaining presence of a community that is ethical so that God would be glorified. Carla Works offers this vision of what Paul has in mind here: “God will destroy anti-God powers and enemies (1:28; 3:18-19). The ‘harvest of justice’ or the ‘fruit of righteousness is in the hands of the real King (1:11). Paul hopes that the church will see the current situation through this larger picture of what God is doing to rectify the world” [Working Preacher].
Together as partners in ministry, Paul and the Philippian church, proclaim a gospel that will lead to a harvest of righteousness. That is, it leads to the emergence of the new creation at the coming of the Lord. While apocalyptic messages can be problematic when the focus is on God’s wrath. But that doesn’t appear to be the case here. Paul simply wants the church to keep its focus on the things of God so that they can participate in the work of God in the world. That work leads to justice/righteousness. Because of this partnership, Paul experiences joy despite his current situation—wherever he is currently imprisoned.
Image Attribution Breu, Jörg, approximately 1480-1537. Harvesting, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55316 [retrieved November 26, 2021]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:J%C3%B6rg_Breu_d._%C3%84._002.jpg.
9 How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? 10 Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.
11 Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. 12 And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. 13 And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.
One of the messages we hear during Advent is “be ready” or “be prepared” or “stay alert.” This isn’t the time to slack off. It’s not because December is a busy month filled with parties and shopping and traveling. So, as we begin a new church year, while the Gospel reading from Luke 21:25-36 offers an apocalyptic call to be on the alert because the Son of Man might appear in the clouds at any moment, the reading from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians seems to be quite different in tone. Although Paul does plan on returning to Thessalonica to help them prepare for when Jesus returns, he also seems rather joyous because of them. At least in this reading, things seem a bit calmer than what we find in the reading from Luke.
Scholars are agreed that this is most likely Paul’s earliest letter. It was probably written around 50 CE from Corinth. Paul likely wrote this letter shortly after he had departed from the city where he founded a congregation during the Second Missionary Journey, which took him to Macedonia and Achaea (Greece). According to the Book of Acts, when Paul arrived in Thessalonica, he found a synagogue and as was his custom went on the Sabbath to preach about Jesus. While some joined him as followers of Jesus, along with many Greeks, others in the Jewish community resisted. According to Luke’s account, this led to a scuffle in the marketplace, their host, Jason was accosted, and the city officials sent Paul and Silas on their way (Acts 17:1-10). Nevertheless, a church appears to have been planted, though Paul couldn’t stay very long with them, to instruct them more fully. Paul wrote this letter, after his assistant, Timothy, returned from Thessalonica with a positive report (1 Thess. 3:6-7). Despite what we read in Acts, Paul is remembered fondly in Thessalonica and hopes to return.
The city of Thessalonica was the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia. It was a port city on the Aegean and sat on a major east-west Roman road, which made it an important center of commerce in the region. As is true of most port cities, the population of the city was ethnically and religiously diverse. As an imperial capital, it shouldn’t surprise us that it was a center for the imperial cult. But, that was but one of the many options available to the people, options that ranged from Egyptian deities such as Isis to Greek ones such as Dionysius and Zeus. Thus, the Gentile/Greek adherents who turned to Christ from idols would have chosen from among many options.
Advent is often understood to be a season of solemnity and preparation. After all, we need to get ready not only to celebrate the coming of Emmanuel in the first century, but we also need to be ready to welcome Jesus when he returns in glory. Nevertheless, while Paul does mention here that he wants to “strengthen your hearts in holiness so you will be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all his saints,” Paul also speaks of joy and love. In fact, the Thessalonian believers have given Paul joy because they have stood firm in their faith. So, even though we won’t be lighting the Joy candle quite yet (this week we light the candle of Hope), perhaps we needn’t feel guilty about singing a Christmas hymn or two (though in church we shouldn’t neglect the many great Advent hymns). So, we might decide to sing “Joy to the World” on this first Sunday of Advent along with “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” This is, after all, a new year for us as the church, so our time of waiting on Jesus to arrive need not be joyless.
This reading concludes the first major section of the Thessalonian letter. Paul has been speaking to his desire to return to Thessalonica, so he can see these beloved members of the community face to face so he can “restore whatever is lacking in your faith” (1 Thess. 3:10). This is a very pastoral note that many pastors can identify with as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage. For pastors who, during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, before vaccines were readily available, could not visit members of the congregation in nursing homes and hospitals, or be with members in person, this will resonate. I know it does for me. Preaching to a camera may get the message out, but it’s not the same as seeing the people face to face (Zoom helps but it’s not the same either).
As for the apocalyptic element to the letter, it’s brief. Paul just wants to make sure they’re ready for when Jesus returns. Later in the letter, he will remind them that regarding the timing of Jesus’ return they know very well that “the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” But they need not worry about that day because they have been forewarned and they are children of light and children of the day. In other words, they’re not sleeping—at least they shouldn’t be sleeping since they live in the day and not the night (1 Thess. 5:2-7).
So, while they stay alert to the impending return of Jesus, which Paul seems to believe will occur soon, Paul also speaks of their love for one another abounding, even as Paul, Silas, and Timothy abound in love for them. Yes, love is part of the story here. Paul is joyous because of these people, whom he loves. We might say that this love is rooted in God’s love for them. By this Paul likely is thinking in terms of the Christian life. To be a follower of Jesus is to be a person who loves, for as he writes in his letter to the Romans “Owe no one anything, except to love only another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” Indeed, all the commandments are summed up in the call to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” So, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:8-10). So, abound in love, even as Paul abounds in love for them. If we love one another, thus fulfilling the law of God, then we will be ready for the moment when Jesus returns. Therefore, we can begin the year as the church by lighting the candle of hope.
Image Attribution: Moyers, Mike. Awake My Soul, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57138 [retrieved November 20, 2021]. Original source: Mike Moyers, https://www.mikemoyersfineart.com/.
11 Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12 But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13 and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. 14 For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.
15 The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First he says:
16 “This is the covenant I will make with them
after that time, says the Lord.I will put my laws in their hearts,
and I will write them on their minds.”
17 Then he adds:
“Their sins and lawless acts
I will remember no more.”
18 And where these have been forgiven, sacrifice for sin is no longer necessary.
19 Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
The reading from Hebrews 10 begins where we’ve left off several times. The Levitical priests must offer the same sacrifices again and again in the Temple/Tabernacle. They have effectiveness, but they need regular boosters (think flu shot or maybe COVID vaccines). However, when it comes to the offering of Jesus, acting as our high priest, who offers himself as the perfect sacrifice, it only takes one dose (sort of like the measles shot). Then, when Jesus has completed this once for all offering, he takes his place at the right hand of God until the moment when his enemies are made a footstool for his feet. That is, he will sit upon the throne next to God until all those who oppose his work on our behalf finally submit themselves to his authority. Thus, “by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.” This is the good news given to those who will receive it with open arms.
The previous readings from Hebrews have been making this claim for the superiority of Jesus’ priesthood/offering. It is a central part of the message in the Book of Hebrews. We can see here that the author of Hebrews is working with Platonic categories that distinguish between the material/spiritual and earthly/heavenly dimensions. Thus, the Levitical priesthood provides the earthly counterpart to the heavenly priesthood of Jesus. That is why Jesus offers the perfect sacrifice that needs to be offered only once. Again, it’s important that when we read this, we do not read it with supersessionist eyes such that Christianity supersedes/replaces Judaism.
The creators of the Revised Common Lectionary have made verses 15-18 optional. Nevertheless, these verses which direct our attention to the message offered by the Holy Spirit through the prophet Jeremiah might be worth hearing. In these verses, Hebrews points us to Jeremiah 31, where Jeremiah speaks of the new covenant God makes with Israel, a covenant in which the law is written on the heart rather than stone tablets. In other words, if the law of God is internalized then it need not be codified. People will simply walk in the ways of God without having to be reminded by external symbols such as stone tablets. Therefore, God “will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” Thus, Jesus will have reconciled to God all those who believe. As a result, there is no longer a need for sacrifices. With one offering by Jesus the High Priest of himself everything is wiped clean. It is not that the law and the sacrifices are meaningless, however, in Christ, they take on a new identity. What was a largely material engagement is now essentially spiritualized. The earthly is now heavenly.
To this point, the reading has focused on what God has done for us through Jesus. Now we hear what this means for us. As we move into this final section of the reading it’s important to remember that Hebrews spiritualizes things. So, having been made clean through Jesus’ sacrifice, we can now enter the sanctuary (the holy of holies) through the blood of Jesus with confidence. This sanctuary is not an earthly temple/tabernacle. It’s a heavenly one. In this vision, there is a curtain that has been opened so we can enter the sanctuary. This is the new and living way so that we might approach the altar with an assurance of faith and hearts cleansed from an evil conscience, our bodies having been washed with pure water. This could be a reference to baptism as the means by which the believer identifies with or embraces the gift of salvation in Christ.
In speaking of entering the sanctuary likely serves as a call to join together as a congregation in worship. As one participates in the worship of God, one enters the heavenly sanctuary. This message is reinforced in verse 25, where the author tells the readers not to neglect meeting together, which appears to have been the habit of some in the community. Why is this important? We’re told that in gathering together they can encourage one another as the “Day” approaches. That day would be the Second Coming of Jesus referenced in Hebrews 9— “so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly awaiting him” (Heb. 9:28). By joining together in worship, the believers prepare themselves for the coming Day of the Lord. Again, we see that Hebrews has a strong apocalyptic dimension.
Stepping back to the prior verses, the author of our text tells us that we are to approach the heavenly altar/throne, “with a true heart in full assurance of faith” (Heb. 10:22). It is important that we highlight this reference to the word “faith,” which will be developed more fully in chapter 11, where we learn that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen.” It is, Hebrews tells us that it was through faith that the ancestors, including Abraham, receive approval (Heb. 11:1-2). We see that vision of faith present here in the call to “hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering.”
This call to not waver in one’s faith needs to be understood in context. The issue here is not one of “doubt” as we often think of it in the modern context. This isn’t a call for theological certainty. It is a call to stay with the program, to not give up in the face of persecution or pressure. It is a call to endurance. This is why the author addresses those who are absenting themselves from the community. Modern Christians, especially American Christians, think in individualist terms when it comes to matters of religion or faith. The community is secondary. In fact, for many “church” is nothing more than an “institution.” When looked at through consumerist eyes, the question is usually, what do I get out of this exchange. For the author of Hebrews, by absenting yourself from the community you not only endanger your own faith, but also that of the rest of the community. So, having decided to follow Jesus, a decision confirmed through the washing of water (baptism), don’t look back. Keep your eyes on the prize. You can do this, our author tells us, because God is faithful to the promise! In other words, don’t squander the gift of salvation. Jesus is faithful to the promise, so we should be faithful to it as well.
11 But when Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation), 12 he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. 13 For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!
15 For this reason he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, because a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant.
The overarching message of the Book of Hebrews is that Christ is both our perfect high priest and the perfect sacrifice. The calling of this high priest is rooted in the priesthood of the mysterious Melchizedek. This has been a major point of discussion in the previous two lectionary readings (Revised Common Lectionary). As we’ve seen, the danger here is that when Hebrews speaks of the priesthood of Jesus and a new covenant supersessionism creeps in. That is, Christianity is understood as replacing Judaism as God’s covenant people because the covenant Jesus initiates is a better covenant. That has had horrific consequences down through the ages.
With the danger of supersessionism in mind, we can attend to the message of Hebrews that speaks of the difference between old and new covenants. As I’ve noted in an earlier reflection the contrast doesn’t have to be between Judaism and Christianity, with Christianity replacing Judaism. Rather, Hebrews seems to have a different vision, one that contrasts the earthly and the heavenly. Now the sacrificial/priestly system of ancient Israel does provide the model for the earthly side of the equation, but the interpretive grid here is Platonism. We’ve already established that the author is steeped in some form of Platonism. Therefore, it’s not surprising that there are similarities between what we read in Hebrews and the writings of the Alexandrian Jewish philosopher Philo.
As we come to this reading from Hebrews 9, we are again told that Jesus is our high priest and that in this role he brings good things to us. While he holds this position, it is interesting that the author doesn’t speak of the Temple in Jerusalem. Instead, the author takes us back to the Book of Exodus and the tent or Tabernacle. Whether or not the author of Hebrews knows the Gospel of John, the reference to the tent here does bring to mind the message of John 1:14, that the Word (Logos) of God became flesh and dwelt (tabernacled) among us.
Whether or not the Jerusalem Temple still stands when this is written doesn’t seem to matter to the author who takes us further back to that mobile worship space. Thus, Jesus doesn’t enter the Temple. Instead, he enters the Tabernacle where he performs the priestly duties. This tent is not made by human hands. It is not of this creation, which suggests this is a heavenly tent, not an earthly one. That should be a clue to what is going on here. The author’s Platonism seems to be at work here. The earthly tent/temple is a shadow of the heavenly tent/temple. This heavenly tent is where Jesus does his priestly work.
Not only does Jesus act as priest in this perfect, that is heavenly, tabernacle, but he also offers himself as the sacrifice that brings redemption. Standing behind all of this is the Day of Atonement, the one day of the year when the priest entered the Holy of Holies and offered sacrifices of redemption. This annual event stands as a shadow or analogy for what Jesus does as both priest and sacrifice.
If we go back to the beginning of the chapter, which is omitted in this reading designated by the Revised Common Lectionary, we read:
Since the law has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered year after year make perfect those who approach. 2 Otherwise, would they not have ceased being offered, since the worshipers, cleansed once for all, would no longer have any consciousness of sin? (Heb. 9:1-2).
Note how Hebrews speaks of the law being “a shadow of the good things to come” but it is “not the true form of these realities.” This is Platonism at work. The earthly is the archetype or shadow of the true and perfect heavenly form. As we sometimes say of Platonism that which is in heaven is “the really real.” What Jesus does on the cross is enter the heavenly Tabernacle and perform the priestly duties, which the Jewish priests perform as a way of prefiguring what happens in heaven.
So, when it comes to the Temple/Tabernacle sacrifices offered by the Levitical priests, it’s not a question of effectiveness. The blood of goats and bulls does sanctify and purify the flesh of those who are defiled, but the blood of Jesus goes further. As we read through Hebrews, it’s important to remember that in the ancient world animal sacrifices were a regular part of life, in Israel and its neighbors. It’s just the way things were—in fact, that’s one of the concerns of I Corinthians, should one eat meat from the pagan sacrifices?
In any case, when it comes to the blood of Jesus, which is offered without blemish, through the Spirit, purifies the conscience from dead works. While the cross may be in view here, it is not mentioned. What is important to the author is that the ones who are purified of dead works through this act Jesus’ part can now worship the living God. As for the identity of these dead works, Ron Allen and Clark Williamson helpfully note that “the ‘dead works’ should not be confused with the mitzvoth of torah. ‘Dead’ works are not ‘deeds of loving kindness’; they are sins that pollute the conscience” (Preaching the Letters without Dismissing the Law, p. 43].
Having defined how Jesus acts as both priest and sacrifice so that in doing so our consciences are purified and we’re now able to worship God with clean consciences, Hebrews moves on to Jesus’ role as “mediator of a new covenant” (v. 15). The reading designated by the Revised Common Lectionary ends in verse 15, though the nature of this covenant and how it is implemented is described in the rest of the paragraph. This covenant, we’re told, requires blood, as is true of all covenants. So, just Jesus’ blood purifies, it becomes the foundation for a new covenant. The idea of a new covenant is rooted in Jeremiah 31, where we are told the new covenant will be written not on stone but on our hearts. Since the reading ends with verse 15 and doesn’t go further, we are simply told that this new covenant that Jeremiah promised is mediated to us by Christ. What is said here is a restating of the earlier declaration in Hebrews 8:6, that Jesus “is the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted through better promises.” This is where things get tricky. The question is: if God made the first covenant with Israel, why would God need to redo things? Nevertheless, here in chapter 9, the message of the new covenant is that with the new covenant comes the “promised eternal inheritance.” It would seem that the key is the death of Jesus, which “has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant.” For Hebrews the difference appears to be that the offering made Jesus is made once for all, offering the ransom that redeems. Therefore, we receive the eternal inheritance.
As we ponder this word about Jesus’ offering of himself to God fully, we can read this not only in light of the cross, which is never mentioned here, but in terms of his act of worship of God. Fred Craddock writes:
Christ’s offering of his life to God was the ultimate act of worship in order that we, with purified consciences, may “worship the living God.” What, then, is this worship if it is not the offering of ourselves to God in ways appropriate to the nature of God and the needs that present themselves to us? On this matter, the word of Hebrews is not unlike the urging of Paul to the Roman Christians: “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:1 NRSV). [“Hebrews,” New Interpreter’s Bible, 12:118].
Thus, Hebrews invites us to participate in the work of Christ by sharing in the worship of God and all that this entails.
23 Furthermore, the former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office; 24 but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. 25 Consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.
26 For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. 27 Unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself. 28 For the law appoints as high priests those who are subject to weakness, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever.
When we arrive at chapter seven of Hebrews, we again encounter a conversation about the priesthood of Jesus. As in chapter 5, so in chapter 7 we are told that Jesus, the Son of God, holds a priesthood different from that of the Levitical/Aaronic priesthood. Instead, he is a priest like Melchizedek, the mysterious priest/king of Salem who receives tithes from Abraham after Abraham’s military victory (Heb. 7:15-17). Now, Jesus takes that same priesthood, and unlike the Levitical priests, death is not an impediment to his continuation in office. Instead, he will hold this office forever, making intercession for those who approach God through him. That is, Jesus serves as the mediator between humanity and God. Thus, he mediates for us, as our high priest, salvation.
The creators of the Revised Common Lectionary have left out the preceding verses that contrast the new and the old covenants. Unfortunately, this contrast between the two covenants has led to the assumption that Christianity supersedes and replaces Judaism as God’s covenant people. The old priesthood, the Levitical priesthood is set aside because it cannot do what Jesus as a priest according to the priesthood of Melchizedek can do. That is because Jesus has been declared a priest forever. It’s understandable that the lectionary creators skipped over the verses that give rise to supersessionism, but they provide the foundation for our reading. Therefore, we must wrestle with them, even if we reject the implications.
The reading for the day is rooted in the author’s reinterpretation/midrash of Psalm 110:4: “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” The assumption is that Melchizedek is superior to Abraham, from whom he receives tithes, as well as Moses and Aaron, through whom God makes a covenant with Israel at Sinai. The difference between Jesus and his predecessors is that his appointment is everlasting. It is not affected by death, so he does not have a successor.
These verses chosen for this reading by the creators of the Revised Common Lectionary focus more specifically on the longevity of a priest. Because the Levitical priests are human, and as a result, they sin they must offer sacrifices on their own behalf. Additionally, due to their human state and thus affected by sin, they also die. That’s just the way things work in the world. But Jesus is different and his priesthood is unique. That is why he has taken up the priesthood of Melchizedek, which doesn’t appear to have any successor. Melchizedek appears and then disappears (Genesis 14). With this priesthood open, Jesus receives his appointment to this priesthood, which is an expression of a divine oath as revealed in Psalm 110:4.
Hebrews raises an interesting question about the priesthood. Formerly, there were many priests because death took them away from their posts. Now, we have this perfect, sinless, high priest, who lives forever and who can mediate our salvation before God forever. The Jewish answer to this assertion would likely be that they understand that the priests were many and would be taken in death, but priests are mediators, not saviors. Their authority is not inherent in their person but in the office itself. Hebrews suggests that it is not just the office but the person who mediates salvation. Is one really superior to the other, or just different? What distinguishes the two is that Jesus’ priesthood is undertaken not in an earthly Temple, but a heavenly one. For a first-century reader, who viewed reality in terms of a three-storied universe, this made perfect sense. But we no longer live with that worldview. We may continue to use that language in worship, but I’m assuming most of us, at least those reading this post don’t view the world in that way. So, whether we like it or not, we have engaged in a bit of demythologization. But, if we work with the passage theologically, then we can envision Jesus’ heavenly ministry of mediation.
Although it is spelled out more clearly in 1 John (1 Jn. 2:21), Hebrews also embraces the idea that Jesus is the advocate with the Father is the promise that we have an advocate, Jesus Christ the Righteous. Therefore, unlike other priests, Jesus doesn’t have to offer sacrifices for himself. That is because he is “holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens” (Heb. 7:26). For the author of this homily, this should give us confidence in Jesus’ ability to intercede on our behalf. In fact, Jesus’ priestly offering comes once and for all, as he offered himself up to God. That is because he is the Son who has become the priest forever. In this, there is good news!
As I pondered the message of this passage, I began thinking about how we speak of priesthood within the Christian community. Some parts of the community have clergy who are called priests. They are called upon to officiate at the altar. They are priests because they mediate the relationship between God and humanity through the sacraments. The question that has arisen through time is whether the efficacy of the sacraments is dependent on the holiness of the priest. Hebrews would suggest that this is true. The offerings of the Levitical priesthood are deemed insufficient because they, like us, are sinners. But Jesus’ offering is effective because of his holiness.
In the early centuries, when persecution was rampant, questions emerged about the efficacy of sacraments administered by priests and bishops who had saved themselves by offering sacrifices to the emperor or turning over scriptures to the authorities, or simply signing affidavits that acknowledged the divinity of the emperor. There were those in the church who concluded that any sacraments, including baptisms, performed by such priests were, invalid. In fact, ordinations of priests by bishops who had saved themselves in this way were invalid. Thus, any sacraments administered by these priests were invalid. The reasoning was similar to what we see here. The validity of Jesus’ offering is rooted in his holiness. Augustine answered those who argued in this way (the primary group he addressed are known as the Donatists), by suggesting that the validity of the sacraments was due to the holiness of God present in the church, not in the holiness of the individual priest. For those of us who are members of traditions that do not speak of their clergy as priests, but instead speak of the priesthood of all believers, how might understand this word about the priesthood of Jesus speak to our priestly calling? We might even ask what this passage says to us about leadership in the church.
When it comes to leadership, none of us are “holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens.” In other words, we’re not divine beings. Perhaps we ought to leave the priestly duties to Jesus, who is properly equipped to intercede on our behalf. As Roger Ferlo notes: “In effect, the passage declares, priests and ministers come and go, but Christ holds his priesthood permanently.” Therefore, “Christ holds title to the word ‘priest.’ He holds the true priestly authority—and authority characterized not by power but by humility—offering a sacrifice to God on our behalf ‘once and for all’ (v. 27) when he offered himself.” [Feasting on the Word, p. 208]. Perhaps if we clergy understand this word, then we will better understand our own calling. Christ is the only true head of the church.
Christ’s calling to the priesthood is rooted in his status as the Son (that is, the Son of God) who has been made perfect forever through his sufferings. As the Son of God, who lives forever, there is continuity in his priestly ministry. Because of this continuity, we don’t have to worry about whether we have a priest to mediate the relationship between us and God, because as the author will later add, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8).
So, while recognizing the possibility of supersessionism in the passage, might we contemplate the promise that Christ has been, is, and always will be with us. Yes, Priests and pastors come and go, but Jesus is always there for us.
|Abraham Meets Melchizedek (Mosaic in Basilica di San Marco)|
5 Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. 2 He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness; 3 and because of this he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people. 4 And one does not presume to take this honor, but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was.
5 So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him,“You are my Son,today I have begotten you”;
6 as he says also in another place,“You are a priest forever,according to the order of Melchizedek.”
7 In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. 8 Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; 9 and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, 10 having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.
Priests were ubiquitous in the ancient religious world. Every nation and tribe had priests who were tasked with mediating the divine-human relationship. As Paul noted regarding the Athenians, they were extremely religious with idols to just about every god under the sun, including an altar to the “unknown god” (Acts 17:22-24). This priestly work often included offering sacrifices, sometimes to appease the gods and at others to give thanks for the blessings provided to the people. Every religion and deity had its own requirements. What was true more broadly was true of the Jewish people. Jewish life, at least theoretically, centered on the Temple (though many, perhaps a majority of Jews, lived far from Jerusalem, and so they found other ways to connect with what was centered in Jerusalem). Thus, the Jews had priests who mediated that divine-human relationship, with the priestly responsibilities spelled out for the most part in the Torah (especially the Book of Leviticus). Since Christianity is rooted in Judaism, it should not surprise us that early Christians envisioned Jesus taking on a priestly role. The tricky thing was that Jesus was not of priestly descent, and Judaism was pretty explicit about who could be a priest and who could not. Jesus didn’t fit the bill. So how might Jesus be a priest while not being of the priestly line? The answer to the question is found here in the Book of Hebrews.
We’ve already encountered a reference to Jesus’ priestly role in the previous lectionary reading from Hebrews 4:12-16. In that reading, we’re told that “we have a great high priest, who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God.” Jesus, acting as our high priest can “sympathize with our weaknesses,” because just like us he has been tested. Though tested, he did not sin. Therefore, he provides the way for us to go boldly before the throne of God and receive grace and mercy. Our reading for the week picks up where we left off the week before. In this passage, the author (we do not know the identity of the author or the recipients of the book) takes us deeper into a conversation about what it means for Jesus to be our high priest.
As we will see, according to the Book of Hebrews Jesus is a “priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.” This is the answer to the question of how Jesus can be our high priest despite not having the expected pedigree for a priest within Judaism. Before we get to Jesus’ priesthood, we must first understand the nature and roles that describe and define the Jewish priesthood. The first thing to note is that high priests are chosen from among humans. As such they are “put in charge of things pertaining to God,” acting on behalf of the people of God.
The first responsibility given to the priests is offering gifts to God and making sacrifices for sins. This is important because as we move further into Hebrews, it is Jesus’ role in dealing with our sins that takes center stage. Here, we’re focused on the Aaronic priesthood. These priests can deal “gently with the ignorant and wayward since he himself is subject to weakness. Now, remember that Jesus, acting as a priest, can sympathize with our weaknesses, but unlike this priest, he doesn’t sin. Because this priest is liable to sin, he must offer sacrifices on his own behalf. It’s important to note here that the sacrifices did their job. They brought things back into balance. The problem is that they have to be repeated regularly. It’s a bit like medicine I take. If I stop taking it, I’ll go back to where I was. So, the priests offer the sacrifices regularly. But what if there was a sacrifice that was offered once and for all. It would be like taking a pill that solved my problem once and for all.
We have a contrast between the normal priestly duty and the one taken up by Jesus. In addition to that information, we are reminded that one doesn’t decide to become a priest of one’s own accord. This is not just any job. It is open only to those whom God has called. This is what happened with Aaron and his descendants. God appointed Aaron as high priest and gave to his tribe (Levites) responsibility for the religious life of the people. In time, according to the Old Testament records, the political authority would be given to another family, that is, until the monarchy fell with the Babylonian captivity. In Second Temple Judaism, the priesthood took on more political authority, especially during the Maccabean period.
Of course, the Gospels trace Jesus’ ancestry back to Judah, by way of David (thus marking his kingly role). Not being of the Aaronic or Levitical line, Jesus didn’t have a natural path to becoming a priest. So, if he were to serve in this position, he would need to claim a different kind of priesthood from that of Aaron, which was tied to the Jerusalem Temple (before 70 CE). With that in mind, Hebrews offers a different path that draws on references to a mysterious figure who appears only briefly in Genesis and one of the Psalms.
Before we get to that priestly line, we need to hear again the word about vocation. Hebrews notes that “Jesus didn’t glorify himself in becoming a high priest.” Instead, it was the one (God) who sent him who glorifies him. Thus, Hebrews wants to make sure we understand that the priestly status is a high one. Therefore, a person has to be appointed/called, just as Aaron was.
Hebrews tells us how Jesus was called to the priesthood. In making the case for this unique form of priesthood that has similarities to the Aaronic priesthood, but is different, the author quotes first from Psalm 2:7: “You are my Son, today I have begotten you” (Heb. 5:5). In other words, he has divine status. Taking note of the divine acknowledgment of Jesus’ status as Son of God, the author continues by quoting from Psalm 110:4. That passage declares of Jesus: “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.” Who is Melchizedek? He is the mysterious priest-king of Salem (Jerusalem), who comes out and meets Abraham after a military victory and to whom Abraham offers tithes in gratitude for the victory (Gen. 14:17-21). We should note that this priesthood is older, according to the biblical story, than the Aaronic priesthood. Thus, in the mind of the author, it is superior. Though not mentioned by the author, by connecting Jesus’ priesthood to Melchizedek, we are told that Jesus is both king and priest (as was true of the mysterious Melchizedek).
While the author affirms Jesus’ divine status as Son of God, the author also affirms Jesus’ humanity, inviting us to reflect on the “days of his flesh” when he “offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death” (Heb. 5:7). Here is a reminder that Jesus did his priestly work from the cross, where he offered prayers to the one who could save him from death but chose not to do so. That is because he learned obedience amid suffering. This is a difficult passage to deal with because it suggests that God subjected the Son to suffering. Even if the Son freely chose to accept the assignment, was it necessary for him to suffer on the cross to be made perfect and achieve salvation for those who obey God? To the author, the answer is yes, and it undergirds his calling as a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek. In other words, the offering made by the priest holding the Melchizedek order is to offer himself (once and for all) to reconcile God and humanity. As such, Jesus holds the distinction of being our high priest, not for a moment, but forever!