Luke Timothy Johnson
Hebrews is not a real letter but a sermon (see introduction, NT, 1616–18) The best way to experience Hebrews is by reading it out loud from beginning to end. Subtle points of Greek rhetoric—such as the alliteration in the opening verses—will still escape the contemporary reader. But oral recitation helps to catch the sermonic rhythms of Hebrews, its use of “we” and “you” (so natural to the sermon), and its alternating pattern of exposition and exhortation. Note, for example, how the opening argument of 1, 5–14 leads naturally to the “therefore, we must attend all the more” in 2, 1–5 . Reading straight through also enables the reader to grasp the powerful argument that is the outstanding characteristic of this early Christian writing.
Toward Understanding Hebrews
Hebrews has significantly shaped the liturgy, doctrine, and spirituality of the church. Although other New Testament writings speak of Jesus' death as a sacrifice, Hebrews' unique reflection on Melchizedek (chapter 7 ) and on Jesus as the Great High Priest influenced the development of Catholic liturgy. Hebrews' insistence on Jesus' full divinity and equally full participation in human nature contributed to the understanding of Jesus' identity as God's Son ( 1–2 ). And Hebrews' vision of faith as a pilgrimage toward God ( 11–12 ) created a symbolic framework for the Christian understanding of discipleship as a “journey.” For all its riches, Hebrews resists easy assimilation for two reasons: the first is that it presents a sustained argument from beginning to end; the second is that its symbols are hard to understand. Dealing with these difficulties clears the way to more intelligent and satisfactory reading.
Some parts of the New Testament, like the Gospel parables, can be read out of their original context and still make sense. But each part of Hebrews plays a role in a complicated interplay of argument and explanation concerning Jesus and Christian life. Hebrews resists being excerpted. It uses a form of argument, found both in Greek philosophy and rabbinic Judaism, called “from the lesser to the greater.” The argument goes, “If something is true in a smaller matter, it is even more true in an analogous greater matter.” In Hebrews, the contrast is between the partial revelation of God in the past through angels, law, and priesthood, and the perfect revelation “in the last of these days” through God's Son, Jesus, between that former “lesser” salvation and the present “greater” salvation.
The argument in Hebrews is not theoretical but practical. The real point is the contrast between the response to God's word by the people of the past, and the response demanded of the people today. A greater blessing and hope require a greater degree of obedience and loyalty, just as disobedience carries a greater penalty. The stakes are higher all around.
The symbols of Hebrews are sufficiently strange to shake any assumption that the New Testament world was “just like ours.” Hebrews demands of its readers, for example, a far more sophisticated grasp of Scripture than that possessed by most Christians today. Much of its argument, in fact, is based on complex modes of scriptural interpretation that, while strange to us, were common in the first century. The version of Scripture used by Hebrews (as by other New Testament writings) was not Hebrew but Greek. Its citations and allusions are from the Septuagint. This study edition gives some assistance by providing complete Scripture references. Citations in the text are flagged with small letters; passages are identified at the bottom of each page. To fully appreciate Hebrews' virtuosity, study the citations in their original context as well as how Hebrews can turn them to fit its argument (as in 10, 5–7 ).
Hebrews' view of the world is strikingly different from that of present‐day Christians in an even more fundamental sense. Hebrews works within a philosophical tradition called Platonism, which saw a great gulf between the spiritual realm and the material world. Spiritual things are eternal, unchanging; material things are transitory. As a result, spiritual things are both more real and better than the material. For Platonic Jews and Christians, the “spiritual” and “material” realms were understood in terms of “heaven” and “earth.”
This is the framework for grasping Hebrews' point about the superiority of Jesus' priesthood. By his resurrection, Jesus entered heaven, where he is a “priest forever” ( 5, 6 ), in contrast to the Jewish priesthood, which could only be temporary. Likewise the “heavenly sanctuary” is superior to the physical tent of worship described in Scripture ( 8–9 ). The symbolism at times becomes dense and requires patience to disentangle, but the basic point is clear. The human Messiah Jesus now shares God's life in heaven. His priesthood is therefore both the ultimate and eternal “source of salvation” to others ( 5, 9 ).
The original hearers of this sermon had experienced the loss of property and friends ( 10, 32–34 ). They were tempted to lose hope and seek a more stable framework than that offered by a crucified messiah. Hebrews addresses their longing for stability by offering the hope for “a better homeland, a heavenly one” ( 11, 16 ). The first readers' experience can be translated into that of every age: all of us in various ways experience loss, desperation, alienation, despair. Hebrews' message to us is as sharp as it was to them: “Oh, that today you would hear his voice: Harden not your hearts” ( 4, 7 ). We also are called to go on pilgrimage through our troubled circumstances, looking to Jesus, who is still and always the “leader and perfecter of faith” ( 12, 2 ).
The Prologue ( 1, 1–4 )
The opening sentence is elegantly constructed and introduces Hebrews' central themes. First is the contrast between God's partial revelation in the past (“to our ancestors”) and the perfect revelation now (“to us”) made through God's Son, which establishes the basic thesis: Jesus is superior to the old dispensation, or covenant (see 8, 13 ). Second, Jesus' divine status is clearly if metaphorically expressed by calling him the “imprint” of God. The exalted identity attributed to the Son is similar to that in John and Paul (see, for example, Jn 1, 1–4 and 1 Cor 8, 6 ). Third, the prologue states that the way God “spoke” in Jesus was through his death for others (the purification from sins), and his resurrection.
Note the image of enthronement: Jesus “took his seat at the right hand.” This alludes to Psalm 110, 1 , the favorite resurrection psalm of early Christians: “The Lord said to my lord: ‘Take your throne at my right hand, while I make your enemies your footstool’ ” (see also 1, 13 ). Hebrews will also exploit the fourth verse of this psalm when he develops the comparison between Jesus and Melchizedek in chapter 7 . The image of enthronement runs throughout the sermon. Jesus is both priest and king. Finally, we notice that Jesus “inherits” a name better than that of the angels. Jesus is here portrayed as a forerunner. If they follow him, Christians also will enter into an inheritance ( 1, 14; 6, 12 ). The mention of angels, in turn, provides a transition to Hebrews' argument.
The Son Is Higher than the Angels ( 1, 5–2, 18 )
A series of Scripture citations proves that the Son is superior to angels. The notes in the New Testament pp. 1618–20 discuss details of the citations. The pertinent question for us is, why do angels require putting in place, anyway? Our contemporary view of the world has small room for angels! But in the world of the New Testament, especially in the writings of Judaism, angels were regarded as the most powerful intermediaries between God and humans. The tendency to exalt their role is attested in Galatians 4, 9and Colossians 2, 18 . What concern does the author address? Jesus in his humanity did not appear so impressive as these “spiritual” beings. He was not only human; he suffered and died. Hebrews must overcome the scandal of a “lowly” Messiah.
Citations from Scripture do not by themselves demonstrate the point. As in other New Testament writings (for example, Gal 3, 1–5 ), Hebrews argues “the greater” from the fact of the readers' own experience. The work of God's Spirit among them is itself powerful “witness” to the salvation accomplished through Jesus ( 2, 3f ). And never content with the speculative, Hebrews drives home the exhortation. This “greater salvation” demands of the readers a greater response of alertness ( 2, 1f ).
From the perspective of the power of the Risen Lord, Hebrews takes up the issue of Jesus' “lowliness.” On the basis of Psalm 8 , the author asserts that Jesus was “lower than the angels” only temporarily. And the reason was so that he could “taste death for everyone,” that is, act as priest. On the basis of a messianic reading of Isaiah 8, 18f , Hebrews next affirms God's (and the Messiah's) solidarity with humanity. Then, Hebrews turns the tables, and makes Jesus' humanity a positive criterion for authentic priesthood. Because Jesus is one with those he represents before God—he shares the way they are “tested,” and the way they “fear death”—he can be a compassionate and merciful priest. It is significant that Hebrews defines priesthood in terms of his personal identity and experience rather than in terms of religious ceremony. Hebrews thereby anticipates an important principle of later doctrine: “what is not assumed [by God] cannot be saved.” Precisely because he is human, Jesus can save humanity.
Jesus, Faithful and Compassionate High Priest ( 3, 1–5, 10 )
Moses was so central a figure for Jews that he became a natural point of contrast for Christian claims about Jesus (see, for example, Jn 1, 17 ). Hebrews now contrasts Moses as “the servant of [God's] house,” and Jesus as “son over the house” ( 3, 4f ). The real contrast in this section, however, is between the people that Moses led and the Christians the author of Hebrews addresses in terms of disobedience and obedient faith ( 3, 7–13 ). Hebrews agrees with Paul's argument in 1 Corinthians 10, 1–13 that what happened to Israel in the desert is a warning for the present.
The argument here uses complex ancient rules for interpreting Scripture. Much is made, for example, of the occurrence of specific words, such as “rest” and “today,” without regard for their original contexts. The premise for such a procedure is that Scripture speaks to every age in each of its words, and that every part of Scripture interprets every other part. On that premise, Hebrews asserts that the “rest” to which Moses led the people (the land) was not the “rest of God,” namely, God's own life. For that matter, neither did people of old even succeed in entering that earthly rest because of their disobedience. Christians in contrast have hope for the real rest—of God's own life—won by Jesus' resurrection. The point? They are to obey the call of God and not fall away ( 4, 6 ). The message of Hebrews is not a trivial one. The readers are not engaged in a trivial conquest of territory; they are called to a share in God's life, a far more awesome prospect ( 4, 12f ).
Hebrews has identified obedient faith as the fundamental response demanded by God. The comparison to the wandering Israelites also establishes Hebrews' basic image of the church as the people of God on pilgrimage. The image suggests that the church is not simply an institution like other institutions. It is never fully “at home” in the world. The church exists with reference to a higher goal—the “heavenly city”—toward which it must steadily move like a pilgrim, although this side of death the goal is never reached. Pilgrims need the sort of attentiveness, patience, obedience, and endurance demanded by Hebrews. Above all, they need hope (see 6, 18 ). They can move lightly through this worldly existence only if convinced that their destination is truly “greater” than their present abode.
Hebrews points the reader again to the leader of the pilgrimage, the “apostle and high priest of our confession” ( 3, 1 ). In the description of Jesus as priest ( 4, 14–5, 9 ), Hebrews combines what has come to be called both “high” and “low” Christologies (understandings of Jesus). Jesus is definitely “from above”; he is God's Son in the fullest sense, but he is also fully human, “from below.” It is his human existence that defines the path “all the children” are to follow. As priest, he is exemplar. Jesus is not only “faithful” ( 3, 1f ) as all are called to be; he “learned obedience from what he suffered” ( 5, 8 ). The full implications of this statement will become clear only later (see 12, 1–11 ), but we already understand that Jesus' suffering deepened his faith, and his obedience was itself a form of suffering. Jesus progressively became, in his humanity, perfect Son of God, and therefore the “leader” of all who follow him.
Jesus' Eternal Priesthood and Sacrifice ( 5, 11–10, 39 )
The long middle section of the sermon argues for the superiority of Jesus' priesthood. It begins with an extended exhortation ( 5, 11–6, 20 ), and then focuses on Jesus' priestly identity and activity ( 7–10 ).
Hebrews presupposes the readers' grasp of the “basic teaching about Christ” ( 6, 1 ), but, in a rebuke as much as an exhortation, he urges them beyond the milk fit for babes to the meat meant for the mature (compare Paul's use of this imagery in 1 Cor 3, 1–3 ). This “mature teaching” is by no means a matter of moving beyond Jesus or abandoning Jesus. Such apostasy from Christ Hebrews calls “recrucifying the Son of God” ( 6, 6 ). Indeed, God's promise based on Jesus' resurrection is utterly reliable; Jesus is the “anchor of the soul” ( 6, 19 ), to whose priesthood God has bound himself by oath ( 6, 13 ). The nature and implications of Jesus' priesthood, however, are precisely what require explication. By it the Christian hope is made secure. By it Christians are able to become “imitators of those who, through faith and patience, are inheriting the promises” ( 6, 12 ).
The consideration of Jesus as priest is the climax of the “lesser to the greater” argument. But because the procedures and symbols of Jewish cult are foreign to us today, this section makes for some of the hardest reading in the New Testament. It is important to remember from the start that Hebrews' argument is based on the Christian experience of the Spirit and conviction that Jesus is Risen Lord, and he has entered into the life of God ( 2, 3–4 ). Only this premise makes Hebrews' reinterpretation of Scripture reasonable. Once that premise is granted, then the major turning points of the exposition make sense.
Jesus and Melchizedek ( 7, 1–28 )
Why does Hebrews devote so much attention to a figure who appears only twice in Scripture? Because both appearances are understood as pointing forward to Christ. In Genesis 14, 17–20 , Melchizedek is named a priest of God (although he was a Gentile), whom even Abraham acknowledged by giving him tithes. Logically, then, a priest descended from Melchizedek would be superior to one descended from Abraham! Melchizedek's second scriptural appearance is in verse 4 of the very Psalm 110 that Christians regard as a prophecy of Jesus' resurrection. Melchizedek's being “without beginning or end” (because Scripture records neither his birth nor his death) is therefore an anticipation of the Son of God whose priesthood is eternally valid. Jesus is a priest forever, “like Melchizedek” (Ps 110, 4 ) because through his resurrection, Jesus became priest “by the power of a life that cannot be destroyed” ( 7, 16 ). He “remains forever” ( 7, 24 ). His sacrifice is “once for all” ( 7, 27 ). He “lives forever to make intercession” ( 7, 25 ). The Jewish priesthood descended from Abraham cannot compete.
The Old and New Covenant ( 8, 1–13 )
God's revelation in Jesus does more than continue the story of God's people; it raises it to a new plane. Jesus' death and resurrection mark an absolute beginning. Here, Hebrews' Platonic worldview and its convictions concerning the resurrected Lord converge. In 8, 1–6 , we see the use of Platonic language, when Moses' desert sanctuary is called “the copy and shadow of the heavenly sanctuary” ( 8, 5 ). Heaven is greater than earth. More dramatically, Hebrews turns this Platonism into an interpretation of history: the old covenant is likewise a “shadow” of the new, pointing to but replaced by the work of God in Jesus. Hebrews exploits Jeremiah's promise of a new covenant “in the heart” to affirm that the old order is in fact obsolescent.
The Priestly Act of Jesus ( 9, 1–10, 18 )
The comparison of covenants now becomes a specific contrast between ancient cult and Jesus' death and resurrection. The complexity of the imagery here is daunting. The reader is offered some help by the notes in New Testament pp. 1627–30 . Even more helpful would be a careful reading of Exodus 25–27 (which describes the Tent of the Wilderness) and Leviticus 16 (which describes the ritual for the Day of Atonement). Hebrews hammers at two basic points. First, because Jewish sacrifices had to be repeated, it is obvious they were not effective—they could not truly purify the human conscience ( 9, 6.25; 10, 1–3.11 ). In contrast, Jesus entered “real” life, so his sacrifice is eternally valid ( 9, 12.24–28; 10, 10–12 ). Second, the old cult sacrificed animals, whereas Jesus gave his own life for others in obedience to God ( 8, 12–14; 10, 5–10.19 ). As both priest and victim, furthermore, he showed himself to be a personal example that others could follow. All believers have “confidence of entrance into the sanctuary by the new and living way he opened for us” ( 10, 19f ).
Exhortation to Fidelity ( 10, 19–39 )
In the light of this “greater salvation,” Hebrews warns again of the consequences of apostasy ( 10, 26–31 ). Despite their losses and trials, Christians are called to a still deeper loyalty ( 10, 32–39 ). By mentioning endurance and faith as requisites for receiving the promises ( 10, 36–38 ), Hebrews prepares for its final stirring exhortation.
Examples, Discipline, Disobedience ( 11, 1–12, 29 )
The sermon's long argument reaches its climax in this exhortation to faith, understood as loyalty, endurance, and hope. The recital of heroes and heroines of the past serves to provide examples for the readers to imitate. Why? Just as the readers had lost property and had been persecuted, so also had the believers who preceded them. Yet the ancestors persevered in the search for a better homeland ( 11, 14 ). The repetition of the phrase “by faith” summons the readers to join ranks with those on pilgrimage to God's presence. Unlike the desert generation that fell by the way because of disobedience, these exemplars continued faithful, even though they themselves did not receive the full promise ( 11, 39 )! It was left to Jesus, the “leader and perfecter of faith” ( 12, 2 ) to provide complete access to God through his death and resurrection. Because Christians can now look to him ( 12, 2 ), there is solid reason to hope while still on the journey.
By summoning such a “cloud of witnesses” ( 12, 1 ) to support the commitment of the readers, Hebrews states a conviction that eventually became an article of the Christian creed, “the communion of saints.” Those struggling for God on earth are not alone. They are joined in a larger fellowship of faith with those who have died and who now support them with their prayers. The people of faith have solidarity in hope.
This is not blind optimism: the alienation, suffering, and persecution experienced by the ancients is not trivialized. And Jesus, before he could sit on the throne, had to “endure the cross, despising its shame” ( 12, 2 ). Jesus' human response to God is the perfect example for the faith of Christians. Faith is always “evidence of things not seen” ( 11, 1 ), which means that it is always a risk taken in the face of a pain more palpably present than the promise. Thus, also, the Christian experience of prayer has as an essential component the “dark night” of the soul when God seems more absent than present.
The connection between Sonship and suffering continues in 12, 5–13 . The remarks about fathers disciplining their children at first seem banal if not regressive. But when we remember that Jesus, “Son though he was,…learned obedience from what he suffered” ( 5, 8 ), we come to appreciate the profound correspondence between Christology and Christian existence. What we suffer in our lives, if we can perceive and accept such suffering in faith, enables God to shape Jesus' own “sonship” in us. Ancient Greeks had the maxim mathein pathein, “to learn it is necessary to suffer.” Being educated as children of God requires a painful transformation, for the goal is the holy God ( 12, 10 ).
Hebrews reminds its readers that they have undertaken not a pleasant stroll but a terrible path toward “the city of the living God” ( 12, 22 ), a pilgrimage whose completion means life eternal but whose abandonment means not seeing the Lord ( 2, 14 ). Nowhere else does the New Testament give a sterner reminder of life's tragic depths and terrifying heights than in this simple conclusion, “for our God is a consuming fire” ( 12, 29 ).
Final Exhortation, Blessing, Greetings ( 13, 1–25 )
Although the final chapter is mainly practical, it is intimately joined to the theological argument of chapters 1 through 12 . Notice, for example, the plea to “imitate the faith” of leaders, and the motivation of that faith being the eternal priesthood of Jesus who is “the same yesterday, today, and forever” ( 13, 7f ). The mix of advice about hospitality, marriage, and possessions ( 13, 1–4 ) with the command to “go to Jesus outside the camp…for here we have no lasting city, but we seek the one that is to come” ( 13, 13 ) is altogether typical of this sermon (see also 10, 25 ) and of the early Christian understanding of existence. Christians live in the world like other people and participate in its structures. But they are not defined by this world or its values, even its religious values ( 13, 9–11 ). No institutional cult or sacrificial priesthood is legitimated by this severe writing; everything necessary has been accomplished already by Jesus. Christians are defined not by their liturgy but by their following the one who suffered “outside the gate, to consecrate the people by his own blood” ( 13, 12 ). Christians are never entirely at ease in the world or even in the church. They are pilgrims, struggling toward the “God of peace” into whose care the final blessing ( 13, 20f ) entrusts the readers of this profound and powerful sermon.