Reading through the Letter to the Hebrews

Until a few decades ago, we had no trouble attributing this wonderful letter to Saint Paul, because the last bit of it is so obviously Saint Paul, and this is stylistically different from most of the letter. However, we’ve taken scientific means of textual analysis a little too seriously and most scholars talk about ‘the letter to the Hebrews’ and not ‘Saint Paul’s letter to the Hebrews.’ But for the purposes of this reading, I’ll assume what the vast majority of Catholics, Saints and scholars, have assumed and say that Saint Paul could very well use different forms of writing and address different audiences in his letters. I have a very good impression of this great Christian pharisee and scholar and I wouldn’t put it past him to be capable of this. I called this letter wonderful because it addresses a Hebrew audience and is concerned with making a very particular argument: that the Sacrifice of Christ abrogates the Old Covenant and establishes a New Covenant and a new relationship of human beings with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jabob. In this short essay, I’ll try to reproduce that argument. The letter begins famously enough:

“In old days, God spoke to our fathers in many ways and by many means, through the prophets; now at last in these times He has spoken to us with a Son to speak for Him; a Son, whom He has appointed to inherit all things, just as it was through Him that He created this world of time; a Son, who is the radiance of His Father’s splendour, and the full expression of His being; all creation depends, for its support, on His enabling word. Now, making atonement for our sins, He has taken His place on high, at the right hand of God’s majesty, superior to the angels in that measure in which the Name He has inherited is more excellent than theirs.”

Hebrews, 1: 1-4

‘The fathers’ here are the Hebrew patriarchs and the generations that followed them and we have a wonderful initial picture of Christ in His new glory after the Cross, which gave Him a particular place in His humanity, and a Name that is higher even than the angels. In the second chapter, the Apostle says that the first covenant (given through Moses) was given by angelic means, but the second covenant (that of Christ) has been given by the Lord Himself, without mediation, and sealed with the obvious gifts of the Holy Spirit. And that gives it a greater weight.

“The Old Law, which only had angels for its spokesmen, was none the less valid; every transgression of it, every refusal to listen to it, incurred just retribution; and what excuse shall we have, if we pay no heed to such a message of salvation as has been given to us? One which was delivered in the first instance by the Lord Himself, and has been guaranteed to us by those who heard it from his own lips? One which God Himself has attested by signs and portents, manifesting His power so variously, and distributing the gifts of His Holy Spirit wherever He would?”

Hebrews, 2: 2-4

The Apostle then interprets Psalm 8 as referring to this exaltation of the human nature of Christ, made only little less than the angels but exalted beyond them because of His sacrifice. And this suffering He endured for our sake is His crown and gives Him the ability to assist us in our own suffering, because together with His Incarnation as a human being it gave Him the function of high-priesthood for all humanity. Chapter three honours Christ as the Founder of the Church, and the Apostle now uses Psalm 94(95) to call his Hebrew audience to firm allegiance to Christ. Do not harden your hearts, he says.

“Take care, brethren, that there is no heart among you so warped by unbelief as to desert the living God. Each day, while the word Today has still a meaning, strengthen your own resolution, to make sure that none of you grows hardened; sin has such power to cheat us. We have been given a share in Christ, but only on condition that we keep unshaken to the end the principle by which we are grounded in Him. That is the meaning of the words, ‘If you hear His voice speaking to you this day, do not harden your hearts, as they were hardened once when you provoked Me…'”

Hebrews, 3: 12-15

Those who had provoked God in the desert centuries ago had done so by rejected Moses and the Old Law, given by angels; the price of rejecting a covenant given by the Lord Himself in person would be higher. As at every time in the history of the Church, there would have been wavering Christians of the Hebrew tradition who would be tempted to fall away from Christ and back into an earlier observance. This is their warning: deserting Christ is not an act to be treated lightly, it would be giving up the rest that God promises in Psalm 94(95). This is what chapter four begins with. That chapter ends with a possible reason for Christians of Saint Paul’s time falling away from the Church. 

“We can claim a great High Priest, and One Who has passed right up through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God. It is not as if our High Priest was incapable of feeling for us in our humiliations; He has been through every trial, fashioned as we are, only sinless. Let us come boldly, then, before the throne of grace, to meet with mercy, and win that grace which will help us in our needs.”

Hebrews, 4: 14-16

To Hebrew (Jewish) Christians of that time, such humiliations came from the Greeks and the Romans, but also and especially from non-Christian Jews, who couldn’t bear the Christian development of their ancient religion. Chapter five describes further the function of the Jewish high-priest, and how well Christ fulfils that function in the Church – because of His humanity, which makes Him our representative, except for His sinlessness (which just means that He sacrifices for us only, not for Himself and for us).

“The purpose for which any high priest is chosen from among his fellow men, and made a representative of men in their dealings with God, is to offer gifts and sacrifices in expiation of their sins. He is qualified for this by being able to feel for them when they are ignorant and make mistakes, since he, too, is all beset with humiliations, and, for that reason, must needs present sin-offerings for himself, just as he does for the people. His vocation comes from God, as Aaron’s did; nobody can take on himself such a privilege as this. So it is with Christ. He did not raise Himself to the dignity of the high priesthood; it was God that raised Him to it, when He said, ‘Thou art My Son, I have begotten Thee this day…'”

Hebrews, 5: 1-5

Chapter five ends with a bit of a scolding to those whose faith was weak and faltering and chapter six continues with theme of apostasy – Christians leaving the Church. 

We can do nothing for those who have received, once for all, their enlightenment, who have tasted the heavenly gift, partaken of the Holy Spirit, known, too, God’s word of comfort, and the powers that belong to a future life, and then fallen away. They cannot attain repentance through a second renewal. Would they crucify the Son of God a second time, hold him up to mockery a second time, for their own ends? No, a piece of ground which has drunk in, again and again, the showers which fell upon it, has God’s blessing on it, if it yields a crop answering the needs of those who tilled it; if it bears thorns and thistles, it has lost its value; a curse hangs over it, and it will feed the bonfire at last.”

Hebrews, 6: 4-8

Scary. It speaks of final and obdurate apostasy. The Apostle now presents as a model of faithfulness the patriarch Abraham, who accepted in the absence of visible circumstances the promise of God that he would be the father of many tribes of people. And just as God made that promise to Abraham in distant centuries, He also made an oath to Christ our high-priest in Psalm 109(110), and through Him to the Church. This must be the ground of our own faith. Chapter seven suggests that Christ’s priesthood precedes the Levitical priesthood of the Hebrews, because of its connection to Melchisedech, the priest who was associated with the patriarch Abraham. Christ anyway, being like King David of the tribe of Juda, was not of the traditional hereditary Levitical priesthood. Christ’s priesthood is of a different and more ancient Order.

Now, there could be no need for a fresh priest to arise, accredited with Melchisedech’s priesthood, not with Aaron’s, if the Levitical priesthood had brought fulfilment. And it is on the Levitical priesthood that the Law given to God’s people is founded. When the priesthood is altered, the Law, necessarily, is altered with it. After all, He to whom the prophecy relates belonged to a different tribe, which never produced a man to stand at the altar; our Lord took His origin from Juda, that is certain, and Moses in speaking of this tribe, said nothing about priests. And something further becomes evident, when a fresh priest arises to fulfil the type of Melchisedech, appointed, not to obey the Law, with its outward observances, but in the power of an unending life…

Hebrews, 7:11-16

Christ’s priesthood has abrogated the Hebrew priesthood, returning things to an older system represented by the priest-king Melchisedech. And together with it, the Old Law associated with the Levitical priesthood has passed away to allow a more ancient Law to be restored, possibly that of the beginning of Genesis. This has echoes of Christ’s teaching on marriage and divorce, which He had said was more primitive than Moses’ dispensations. The rest of chapter seven speaks of the temporary nature of the Old Covenant and its inevitable replacement with Christ’s New Covenant. Chapter eight begins an analogy of Christ the high-priest interceding for the Church with the Hebrew high-priest interceding for the Hebrews. The Hebrew system, with tabernacle and Temple, was based on a heavenly model that Moses had seen on the mountain. And Christ has taken the religion of the tabernacle and Temple back to what Moses had seen of heaven. The type created on earth had now reached its end.

“This High Priest of ours is one who has taken His seat in heaven, on the right hand of that throne where God sits in majesty, ministering, now, in the sanctuary, in that true tabernacle which the Lord, not man, has set up. After all, if it is the very function of a priest to offer gift and sacrifice, he too must needs have an offering to make. Whereas, if he were still on earth, he would be no priest at all; there are priests already, to offer the gifts which the law demands, men who devote their service to the type and the shadow of what has its true being in heaven. (That is why Moses, when he was building the tabernacle, received the warning, Be sure to make everything in accordance with the pattern that was shewn to thee on the mountain.)

Hebrews, 8: 1-5

The letter was certainly written before the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70. If Saint Paul had survived that, he would have altered this passage with a greater certainty of the passing away of both the old religion and the Old Law, properly replaced with the Christian religion and Law, as given by the rest of chapter eight. Chapter nine has a fuller description of elements of the Hebrew religious rites of the Jerusalem Temple and how the Christian rites supersede and transcend them. 

“The sanctuary into which Jesus has entered is not one made by human hands, is not some adumbration of the truth; He has entered heaven itself, where He now appears in God’s sight on our behalf. Nor does He make a repeated offering of Himself, as the High Priest, when He enters the sanctuary, makes a yearly offering of the blood that is not His own. If that were so, He must have suffered again and again, ever since the world was created; as it is, He has been revealed once for all, at the moment when history reached its fulfilment, annulling our sin by His sacrifice. Man’s destiny is to die once for all; nothing remains after that but judgement; and Christ was offered once for all, to drain the cup of a world’s sins; when we see Him again, sin will play its part no longer, He will be bringing salvation to those who await His coming.”

Hebrews, 9: 24-28

If we kept in mind that this was written for a Hebrew/Jewish audience, we would understand why the Apostle goes into such detail about the abrogation of the Old Law, replaced with the Law of Christ. He uses Psalm 39(40) to demonstrate the inevitability of the end of the animal sacrifices of the Old Law. 

“No, what these offerings bring with them, year by year, is only the remembrance of sins; that sins should be taken away by the blood of bulls and goats is impossible. As Christ comes into the world, He says, ‘No sacrifice, no offering was thy demand; thou hast endowed me, instead, with a body. Thou hast not found any pleasure in burnt-sacrifices, in sacrifices for sin. See then, I said, I am coming to fulfil what is written of me, where the book lies unrolled; to do thy will, O my God.‘ First He says, ‘Thou didst not demand victim or offering, the burnt-sacrifice, the sacrifice for sin, nor hast thou found any pleasure in them; in anything, that is, which the law has to offer, and then:—I said, See, my God, I am coming to do thy will.’ He must clear the ground first, so as to build up afterwards. In accordance with this divine will we have been sanctified by an offering made once for all, the body of Jesus Christ.”

Hebrews, 10: 3-10

Christ had to ‘clear the ground’ of animal sacrifices to make His own great sacrifice. Given this Sacrifice, we cannot remain forever in wilful sin, but must persevere in the observance of purity and await the promises associated with the following of the commandments of Christ. Perseverance in the faith seems to be the goal of this exhortation by the Apostle.

“Do not throw away that confidence of yours, with its rich hope of reward; you still need endurance, if you are to attain the prize God has promised to those who do His will. Only a brief moment, now, before He Who is coming will be here; He will not linger on the way. It is faith that brings life to the man whom I accept as justified; if he shrinks back, he shall win no favour with me. Not for us to shrink away, and be lost; it is for us to have faith, and save our souls.

Hebrews, 10: 35-39

Perseverance in faith. Chapter eleven summons up the faith of Abel, the faith of Enoch, the faith of Noah, the faith of Abraham and Sara, the faith of Isaac and Jacob, the faith of Moses, the faith of Israel under the Judges, the faith of Samuel and David, the faith of the Hebrew prophets.  All these believed without seeing the end of their faith, a faith they suffered for and accomplished marvels with; we Christians know that end – it is Christ.

“Theirs was the faith which subdued kingdoms, which served the cause of right, which made promises come true. They shut the mouths of lions, they quenched raging fire, swords were drawn on them, and they escaped. How strong they became, who till then were weak, what courage they shewed in battle, how they routed invading armies! There were women, too, who recovered their dead children, brought back to life. Others, looking forward to a better resurrection still, would not purchase their freedom on the rack. And others experienced mockery and scourging, chains, too, and imprisonment; they were stoned, they were cut in pieces, they were tortured, they were put to the sword; they wandered about, dressed in sheepskins and goatskins, amidst want, and distress, and ill-usage; men whom the world was unworthy to contain, living a hunted life in deserts and on mountain-sides, in rock-fastnesses and caverns underground. One and all gave proof of their faith, yet they never saw the promise fulfilled; for us, God had something better in store. We were needed, to make the history of their lives complete.

Hebrews, 11: 33-40

And in such fashion as the great men and women of the Old Testament worked wonders, suffered and died for the faith they had, so must we be prepared to do for the Christian faith, keeping Christ always before us. This is the flow of chapter twelve, which also gives us our heavenly goal – no longer the glory of God on Mount Horeb and the trumpet blasts of unseen angels, but something greater. 

The scene of your approach now is mount Sion, is the heavenly Jerusalem, city of the living God; here are gathered thousands upon thousands of angels, here is the assembly of those first-born sons whose names are written in heaven, here is God sitting in judgement on all men, here are the spirits of just men, now made perfect; here is Jesus, the spokesman of the new covenant, and the sprinkling of his blood, which has better things to say than Abel’s had.”

Hebrews, 12: 22-24

The rest of the letter, chapter thirteen, is a short exhortation to Christian virtue and a final exhortation agaisnt apostasy. If I were to summarise the whole letter, I would use these words: the authority of the Son of God, Christ our Lord, who took on our lowly human nature and through His great sacrifice was raised higher even than the angelic natures, is an authority that cannot be rejected for it has replaced the authority of the Hebrew priesthood, abrogating it and restoring a more ancient system – one that is based in heaven, with Christ ministering as priest there; Christ’s Sacrifice gave Him a particular high-priestly role of service to His fellow human beings, and brought to an end both the Old Law and the Old religion of the Hebrews; with the one great Sacrifice of Christ completed, all Christians need do is persevere in faith and in keeping the commandments of Christ, until He arrives in glory. We have great models of faith in the Old Testament to inspire us and Christ Himself stands before us, beckoning us towards the heavenly Jerusalem and the eternal worship of the one God. I shall end this essay with Paul’s usual words of farewell. He obviously wrote these words in Rome, and mentions his favourite spiritual son, Saint Timothy.

“I entreat you, brethren, bear patiently with all these words of warning; it is but a brief letter I am sending you. You must know that our brother Timothy has been set at liberty; if he comes soon, I will bring him with me when I visit you. Greet all those who are in authority, and all the saints. The brethren from Italy send you their greetings. Grace be with you all, Amen.

Hebrews, 13: 22-25