Commentary on Hebrews 10:16-25
It takes a certain amount of gumption to enter an unfamiliar space.
The first day of school, a new country, a quiet church service — all demand a willingness to enter into the unknown. In this climactic passage, the author of Hebrews invites his audience to do the same: “Let us enter into the holiest place (Hebrews 10:19).” This is a big request, but he is not asking them to do anything that Jesus has not already done. A grand entrance, Christologically and anthropologically, provides the theme for this Good Friday passage.
The lectionary reading begins with Hebrews’ second presentation of Jeremiah’s New Covenant passage. The first edition in Hebrews 8 is the most extended citation of Israel’s Scriptures in the New Testament. For the author of Hebrews, God’s promise of a New Covenant serves to show that the first was not going to last forever.
This second version seems very much like a summarized reminder of what has come before. The author repeats only about a verse and a half of the four he had previously cited, and even in these he both condenses longer phrases (with the house of Israel, 8:10) to shorter ones (with them, 10:16) and also switches synonymous words (minds, hearts).
Although much is repeated, the highlights of Jeremiah 31 in Hebrews 10 serve to emphasize a different aspect of the citation. In this instance, the focus is not the sunset of the old covenant, but the bright dawn of the new. Lawlessness and sin of the people have been replaced with God’s laws in the people. Jeremiah serves as the corroborating witness for what the author has already argued, namely that Jesus’ offering brings complete sanctification and perfection (10:10-14). Or, better said, the Holy Spirit through Jeremiah’s words (10:15) testifies to that complete purification — the good goes in, the bad goes out.
If the bad will never be remembered again, there is no need for the offerings that only serve to remind people of their sin (10:18, referring back to 10:3). God (8:10) and/or/as the Holy Spirit (10:15) (such confusion might necessitate a doctrine in several hundred years’ time) promises to Jeremiah that such restorative forgiveness is coming. The author of Hebrews can now say, it has come.
In their forgiven and sanctified state, they can now go into holiness. The author’s language for this space has become messy in the textual tradition. At times, it is “holy place” and at others it is “holy of holies,” (9:2-3), which has raised some ambiguity as to which part of the tabernacle he imagines his audience entering.
Whether it be the section for priests or the section for the high priest, they get to come closer to God. They pass through a veil (10:20). If any in the audience are non-priests, women, or Gentiles, this is a new reality. That is not to say that Israelite religion had no way for anyone other than priests to connect with God, yet it is striking to use cultic imagery for everyone to connect with God.
They can all approach boldly because of the blood of Jesus. As the sprinkled blood allowed the people to solidify their covenant with God (Exodus 24 cited in Hebrews 9:20), so too does the blood of Jesus allow these people to share in the New Covenant. As the priests took blood to approach God’s altar, so too does Jesus’ blood allow them to approach God’s altar.
Yet their approach made possible with Jesus’ blood is not just more of the same. The way they will tread has just been inaugurated. It is new.
Their access is possible because of Jesus’ flesh. This access is a living way.
The author is not solely talking about the cross here. Jesus’ blood was shed there, but that was the place of his death, not his living. It was an end point, not a path. Because Jesus became a trailblazer, a pioneer, was raised from the dead and went into God’s presence (9:24), the boldness to enter the holy place is possible because the Jesus who died is also the Jesus who was raised and ascended to the right hand of God. His shed blood and resurrected flesh make the bold entry to God’s holy place possible.1
And that is not all Jesus does. In addition to granting access to God’s holy place, he also keeps his followers there.
The author has said they have boldness to go in; now, in verse 21, he also says they have a great priest over the house of God. This is Jesus, of course, but it is interesting that he is now called simply priest rather than high priest. Could it be that the author associates his high priesthood with his offering of himself, but here he has in mind his perpetual priesthood, in which he intercedes for those who are following him (7:25)?
Because they continually have this great priest, who has made them pure and prays for their growing continuing purity, they can hold fast their confession without wavering. They can endure. They can do so because, the author says, the one who promised is faithful.
God has promised rest (4:1), an inheritance (6:17), a New Covenant (8:6; 9:15). Because God has proven faithful to the ancestors of Israel (Hebrews 6:13–17) and to Jesus (Hebrews 1–2; 5, 7), God can be trusted to bring about the promises made to this community. As they trust God’s faithfulness, depending on their great ever-present priest, they can hold fast to hope.
As they come in and hold fast, the author assumes they will do so together. All of the exhortative verbs in this section are plurals. At this point, however, that communal assumption becomes explicit. The author wants them, stated positively, to look out for and encourage one another, and also, stated negatively, not to desert one another. If they disregard the poor habits of those who no longer assemble together, they can, as embers in a fire, stimulate each other toward good things.
This mundane encouragement is so important because there is one more aspect of the “approach” theme. The “Day” is drawing near, namely the day of God’s judgment. They need one another’s help to remain where they have already entered, and the great priest will be praying forever for them all.
- See David M. Moffitt, Atonement of the Logic of Resurrection in the Epistle to the Hebrews, Brill, 2011