Tag: Christology

The Perfect High Priest – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 22B (Hebrews 7)

Hebrews
7:23-28 New Revised Standard Version

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.

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                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. 

Revelation of God and Pioneer of Salvation – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 19B (Hebrews 1-2)

 

 

Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12 New Revised Standard Version

1:1 Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

2:5Now God did not subject the coming world, about which we are speaking, to angels. But someone has testified somewhere,

“What are human beings that you are mindful of them,
    or mortals, that you care for them?
You have made them for a little while lower than the angels;
    you have crowned them with glory and honor,
   subjecting all things under their feet.”

Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

10 It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. 11 For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, 12 saying,

“I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.”

 
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                God once spoke through prophets, but now God speaks through the Son, who is the reflection of God’s glory and the “exact imprint of God’s very being.” This is the one through whom God created all things and who is the pioneer of our salvation. That is the starting point in the lectionary’s invitation to explore the message of the Book of Hebrews. This book, which has the look of a sermon or perhaps a circular letter is one of the more challenging and at times problematic books in the New Testament. It is problematic because it seems to carry a supersessionist message. That is, it emphasizes the Christian message at the expense of Judaism so that Christianity now replaces the Jewish people in God’s plans. Therefore, the Temple and the priesthood offer prefigurements of the work of Christ. For instance, in Hebrews, Jesus is identified with the priest-king Melchizedek. Though somewhat obscure today, except perhaps the famous definition of faith in chapter eleven, it has been a favorite of many down through the centuries.

                Once upon a time tradition attributed authorship to Paul, even though this book is very different from anything that Paul wrote. The book itself does not carry any hint as to its authorship, though the many references to Old Testament figures and practices have led to the assumption that the author and audience were Jewish Christians. The Platonic elements suggest a similarity to the writings of Philo, which might suggest that the origins of the book are to be found in Alexandria. Though that suggestion is contradicted by the reference in Hebrews 13:24, which reads: “those from Italy send you greetings.” Ultimately, we do not know who wrote the book or where it originated. As for the date, the references to sacrificial practices in the present tense could suggest a date before the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. However, the suggestion that Jesus’ sacrifice supersedes the Temple sacrifices might suggest a date after the destruction of the Temple, though if the Temple had been destroyed would not be a clear reference to that event helped support the idea that Jesus supersedes the Temple. Again, we don’t know how to date the book.  So, who might have written this text if Paul didn’t (and if the author was writing from Italy/Rome)? Some of the figures to whom this intriguing but sometimes dangerous text has been attributed include Barnabas, Silas, Epaphras, Luke, Apollos, or my favorite Priscilla. But, as Origin noted, only God knows for sure. [Stephen Farris, “Hebrews,” The Preacher’s Bible Handbook, pp. 328-329; Pamela Eisenbaum, “The Letter to the Hebrews,” The Jewish Annotated New Testament, 1st ed., p. 406]. As to the genre of the book, while it is often spoken of as a letter, it has more the feel of a sermon. Why was it written? Perhaps as a word of encouragement to a community struggling to hold things together. What we do know is that it is a thoroughly Christological document. As Stephen Farris notes, the sermon reminds the reader/hearer that “Jesus has traveled the journey before us, and therefore we can take the next step with confidence” [Farris, “Hebrews,” p. 331]. That is, he is both superior to angels and the pioneer of our salvation, and as we will see he is the high priest who acts on our behalf.

            In this first of seven readings from Hebrews, taking us through chapter ten, the author of Hebrews introduces us to the primary subject of this book, the Son of God. This Son is the heir of all things and the one through whom God has chosen to speak in these last days. In this, the Son succeeds the prophets, through whom God once spoke. In making this declaration, Hebrews is telling us that Jesus brings us the final word from God. As we’ll see, Jesus is very different from his predecessors who were humans just like us. This spokesperson for God is the heir of all things and is the one through whom God created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory, which suggests a connection to the embodiment of divine wisdom, as we see in the Wisdom of Solomon  “For she is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; therefore nothing defiled gains entrance into her. 26 For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness” (Wis. 7:25-26). Not only is Jesus a reflection of God’s glory, but he is the “exact imprint of God’s very being” who “sustains all things by his powerful word.” This is a very high Christology, suggesting divinity. Hebrews goes further to inform us that when he had finished making purification for sins (the subject of much that follows) he sat down at the right hand of God, “having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.” This word comes in the last days, the new age that Jesus has introduced. The message, therefore, has an eschatological element to it.  

                If the focus of the opening verses of this lectionary reading focuses on Jesus’ identity as Son of God, the second portion, taken from chapter 2, affirms his humanity, though exalted humanity. This passage draws from Psalm 8:4-6 (LXX). In Hebrews 1:4, the author proposes that the Son is superior to the angels and that he has inherited a name greater than theirs. The angels are servants of God, but “God did not submit the coming world, about which we are speaking to the angels” (Heb. 2:5). In support of this premise, the author turns to Psalm 8, a song that declares that while human beings might be made a little lower than the angels, God has crowned humanity with glory and honor and subjected all things under their feet. Hebrews takes this Psalm and applies it to Jesus, who according to our reading was made for a little while lower than the angels but is now crowned with glory. What was originally intended to speak of humans, in general, is now applied to Jesus, who is crowned with glory through his death, so that by God’s grace he might taste death for us all. In other words, through his sacrifice of himself, Jesus attains the status supposedly given to humanity. He does this on our behalf. All of this is fleshed out in great detail as we move through the book. All that we read concerning this work of Jesus, is rooted in the connection between his actions and those present in the Temple sacrifices. In this, he makes purification for our sins. So that what was enacted on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) on an annual basis, is done once and for all by Jesus. As the pioneer of our salvation, Jesus goes ahead of us, preparing the way by tasting death for us, so that we might share in God’s glory.

                Hebrews tells us that it was fitting that God would bring many children to glory through the work of the pioneer of our salvation through his sufferings. As a result, we become his siblings— “For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason, Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.” It is as his siblings that we share in the glory of God.   

 

Image attribution: God reigning in majesty, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55258 [retrieved September 26, 2021]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pantocr%C3%A0tor_de_Ta%C3%BCll.jpg.