For seven weeks through October and the beginning of November, we are making our way through the letter to the Hebrews in our New Testament lessons. You may remember such phrases as “In putting everything under them, God left nothing that is not subject to them. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them,” and “was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek,” and from today, “For the law appoints as high priests men in all their weakness; but the oath, which came after the law, appointed the Son, who has been made perfect forever.” Hebrews is not a light read. I’m not sure the creators of the lectionary do us any favours by doling it out chunk by chunk a week at a time. I mean, this month we’ve read 4 verses from chapter one, 7 verses from chapter two, 10 verses from chapter five, 6 verses from chapter 7 today, and 4 verses from chapter 9 next week. We would have had 5 more from chapter 4, except, Thanksgiving. Anyway, my point is, what are we to make of that? It occurred to me to wonder, exactly how much of Hebrews do we read in the whole 3-year cycle of the Revised Common Lectionary? So I looked it up. I think this is really interesting, but I’m a nerd, so your mileage may vary.
What became clear to me is that Hebrews is a really important theological text for the church when it comes to understanding who Jesus is. On multiple occasions, we read the same passages from Hebrews every year. We read the same passage from Hebrews in the third Nativity service on Christmas Day (that’s if you have 3 – one on Christmas Eve, one Christmas morning and one Christmas mid-day), on the feast of the Presentation of the Lord, on February 2nd, on the Feast of the Annunciation, on March 25th, and in Holy Week on Monday, Wednesday, and Good Friday.
Beyond reading from Hebrews on all of those high holy days, we also spend two chunks of time during Pentecost season in Hebrews: once in Year B, which is what we’re in the middle of now, reading selections from Hebrews chapters 1 to 9, and next year in Year C, we will spend the month of August reading from Hebrews chapters 11 to 13. Pentecost is the six months or so between Easter and Advent when, in the lections, we are just working our way through books of the Bible, so that over the 3-year cycle we hit most of the letters in the New Testament. The ones we miss get picked up in Easter or Epiphany seasons. So that means if you have been attending church regularly for at least the last three years, you’ve heard a good chunk from every book of the Bible. Well done!
The point I’m trying to make is that time after time, when the church needs to pay attention because we’re contemplating some specific theological point about the nature of Jesus as the Christ — at his Nativity and his presentation at the Temple, which are about Christ’s humanity, and at the Annunciation of his birth to Mary, which is about his divinity, and during Holy Week, which is about his Messiahship — the creators of the lectionary point us again and again to the letter to the Hebrews to flesh out that teaching.
So what is going on in this letter? Who is it for, and what is the author trying to tell them? Unlike most of the other letters in the New Testament, we don’t have a lot of textual clues about who wrote this letter, or which community it is addressed to. The author does not identify themselves; it may be Paul, or Barnabus, or Apollos, or another unnamed companion of theirs. We know they are a friend of Timothy’s because they mention his release from prison at the end of the letter. We can assume that the recipients are a community of diaspora Jewish Christians, possibly living in Italy, because the author sends them greetings from his fellow travellers who are “from Italy,” implying that it’s people they know. This letter probably dates from before AD 70, because the author makes reference in chapter 10 verse 2 to presently ongoing sacrifices being made at the Temple in Jerusalem, and the Temple was destroyed when Jerusalem was sacked by the Romans in 70 AD.
What we do know for sure is that both the author and the recipients of the letter are Jewish, because the whole message of the letter relies on a deep, immersive understanding of the Law, the history, and the culture of the Hebrew people. The letter seems to jump into an ongoing conversation in which this community of Jewish Christians are trying to wrap their minds around exactly who Jesus is, and how he fits into the narrative arc of salvation God had been enacting amongst their people since his covenant with Abraham. Was Jesus a man, or an angel, or God himself? In what way exactly can salvation be said to come to us through him? These appear to be the questions this church was already wrestling with, because the author of this letter jumps straight in to answer them, and to build a complete theology of who Jesus is and what he has done and is doing for us.
The thesis, or synopsis of the whole argument being made in the letter is found in the first few sentences:
“In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.”
The ways God had met Israel in the past were a shadow and a foretelling of his complete revelation to them and to all the world in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus is inextricably entwined with God. He is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of God’s being. He sustains all things by his word. Bam. Everything else in the letter is basically just fleshing this out.
The author takes his Jewish readers through the history of their people in four sections, and compares and contrasts those people and events with Jesus. First he talks about angels and the Torah, or the Law, then about Moses and the journey to the Promised Land, then about the Israel’s priests and Melchizedek, and finally about the system of sacrifices and the covenant between God and Israel. In our readings over this month and next, we are hitting on each of these four areas of comparison between God’s historical dealing with Israel and how God now relates to all mankind through Jesus. And today’s reading from Hebrews chapter seven falls into the third section: God had made a class and succession of priests from the sons of Aaron and the tribe of Levi to work in the Temple and make sacrifices for themselves and for the sins of the people, interceding before God on everyone’s behalf. The author has been reminding his readers of why they were given priests in the first place: “Every high priest is selected from among the people and is appointed to represent the people in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness. This is why he has to offer sacrifices for his own sins, as well as for the sins of the people.”
Then he explains why Jesus is a superior high priest to all who have gone before, and this is what we heard this morning: “Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them. Such a high priest truly meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself.”
Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury who wrote our Prayer Book in 1549, drew on the language of the letter to the Hebrews to express the completeness of what Jesus has done for us on the cross. We hear these words every week in the Prayer of Consecration: “who made there, by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.” The author of Hebrews, and Thomas Cranmer in the Prayer of Consecration, are both making sure to close all the theological loopholes through which anyone could say that there is more that needs to be done that Jesus Christ did not do to atone for our sin: one oblation, once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world. And in Hebrews: “Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them. Such a high priest truly meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself.”
Jesus’ high-priestly work did not end with his death and resurrection, though. It is a beautiful thought, and I’ll end with this, that “because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.” Not only did Jesus make the one sacrifice that was necessary for all people in all times, but he continues, right now, to intercede for us with God the Father. Jesus is active on your behalf today, right this minute. He has been, he is, he will be for you. You are never alone. Amen.