Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year C)

Christ was obedient not only in his death, but from the moment of his coming into the world.

December 20, 2009

Second Reading
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Commentary on Hebrews 10:5-10

Christ was obedient not only in his death, but from the moment of his coming into the world.

This is the message of today’s epistle reading. The author’s declaration here is close to Paul’s statement in Romans 3:25, where he speaks of God putting forward Jesus “as an expiation through faith in his blood.” Yet, it is not Paul that the author of Hebrews has in mind.

What we find here is a positive explanation of Christ’s priestly act. What is said about Christ is in reply to the inability of the priestly or Levitical sacrificial system to perfect the individual’s conscience. The author said in 9:14 that the perfection of conscience was the goal of worship. The speaker here is Christ. In fact, it is only the second time in book that Jesus himself speaks. More importantly, these words are ascribed to Christ “when [he] came into the world” (Hebrews 10:5). Thus, the complete obedience that is the essence of Christ’s priesthood is also expressive of his character. One may clearly see this in his faithful and obedient sacrifice on the cross, but the author wants us to understand that Christ was faithful at the moment of his coming into existence. Jesus is the son who “learned obedience through what he suffered” (5:8), and did so from the beginning.

Christ enters the world reciting the words of Psalm 40:6-8. The two statements express Jesus’ priestly role, his mediation between humanity and God. Earlier in Hebrew 2:12-13, Jesus speaks of his complete solidarity with his brothers and sisters. In today’s passage, he declares his utter commitment to God’s will (10:5). The choice of this psalm has been called inspired by some scholars. A psalm of David, which makes it eminently appropriate for the messiah, the psalm expresses confidence and hope in God even in circumstances of persecution. Placed in Hebrews, it expresses the contrast between the sacrifices of the first covenant, which was external, and the response of faithful obedience to God’s will, which is internal. It is this internal transformation that the author regards as the essence of the true worship of God.

The writer of Hebrews also echoes the psalm in his portrayal of Jesus. First, Psalm 40:10-11 is echoed in Hebrews 2:3, 12, where Jesus is described as speaking salvation and proclaiming God’s name in the assembly. Second, Psalm 40:3 (where the psalmist receives a new hymn) is echoed in Hebrews 2:12 where Jesus sings a hymn in the assembly. Third, Psalm 40:2 declares that God “has brought me up out of a pit of misery and from miry clay; and he sat my feet on a rock, and set my goings aright.” This is echoed by Hebrews’ understanding of the resurrection. Most striking, the very first verse of the psalm is echoed in the author’s portrayal of Jesus as the one who was “heard because of his reverent submission.”1 

The actual verses quoted from the psalm come from the Septuagint (i.e., the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) rather than the Hebrew. This is most evident in the use of the term “body,” which does not appear in the Hebrew rendition. (It has “ear.”) The point appears to be that Jesus was committed entirely to God, including his body.

By contrast, the quotation that appears in 10:7 presents something of a problem. Outside of the grammar, which is challenging, the meaning of “in the scroll of the book” is unclear. Since this is a psalm of David, the author appears to be making a connection between the ideal king, who has the will of God written in his heart, and the messiah’s analogous dedication to the divine will. The messiah is completely and utterly committed to doing what the Lord desires.

The purpose of the priestly sacrificial system was the sanctification of the people. Yet, the author says that it could not accomplish what it desired, setting the people apart as a kingdom of priests mediating God’s will to the nations (see e.g., Exodus 19:6). This is highlighted by the statement, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired . . . in burnt-offerings and sin-offerings you have taken no pleasure” (Hebrews 10:5-6).

Some have taken this language as supersessionist, the idea that the covenant with Israel has been voided by God and replaced by a new one with Christians. It does not appear that the author’s statement is that strong. There is no outright rejection of the Torah here. In fact, the author’s use of “the scroll of the book” mitigates against such an understanding. Nevertheless, Hebrews is saying that the access to God claimed by the proponents of the priestly system is untrue. What God desires is faithful obedience, which places this claim in Hebrews in the same vein as those made by the prophets. The sort of obedience that Hebrews understands as perfecting the conscience is not found in such ritual observances.

Jesus declares, “I have come to do your will, O God” (10:7). It was through a single-minded obedience of Christ’s will and — most pointedly — body, says Hebrews, that our sanctification through God’s will has come about. The author wants us to see that the incarnation is explained by the atonement, but the atonement would never have come about without Christ’s faithful obedience. Moreover, the sacrifice offered up by Jesus was so perfectly complete that no repetition of it is either necessary or possible. It was offered “once for all” (10:10). Although Jesus “learned obedience from the things he suffered,” which implies that he grew in his understanding of the divine will, the reading for today wants us to be certain that even at the moment of the incarnation Jesus was thoroughly committed to carrying it out.

1Hebrews 5:7; see Luke Timothy Johnson, Hebrews: A Commentary [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006], 251.