Good Friday

We can approach the throne of grace with confidence

Black and white photo of a cross
Black and white photo of a cross, via Unsplash

March 29, 2024

Second Reading
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Commentary on Hebrews 10:16-25

The author’s reflection on Jesus as our “great high priest,” begun in Hebrews 4:14, continues into chapter 10. Throughout these chapters, the author argues that the high priesthood of Jesus is superior to the Levitical high priesthood. Jesus’ high priesthood is eternal, of the order of Melchizedek (5:5–6; 7:1–22). He is high priest of a new and better covenant (8:1–13; 9:15). He does not enter an earthly sanctuary “made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf” (9:24). Furthermore, the sacrifice of his own blood is far superior to the blood of goats and bulls in its efficacy for purifying and sanctifying us (9:12–14; 10:4–10).

In 10:11–14, the author repeats an argument already made several times in these chapters—that unlike ordinary priests, who must offer again and again the same sacrifices that cannot permanently take away sins (see also 10:1), Jesus has offered the perfect sacrifice to take away sins once and for all. He is now seated at the right hand of God, waiting until “his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet” (10:12–13, citing Psalm 110:1).

In 10:15, the author connects the sacrifice of atonement with the idea of the new covenant by citing Jeremiah 31:33–34, which speaks of the Lord making a new covenant with the people and putting his laws in their hearts and minds (10:16). The end of the citation, with the Lord declaring that he will “remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more,” bolsters the argument that since sins have been forgiven, there is no longer any need for sacrifices (10:17–18). The sacrifice that Jesus makes purifies from sin once and for all and transforms hearts and minds, fulfilling God’s promise of a new covenant.

The argument culminates in exhortations similar to those with which this long section on the high priesthood of Jesus began (4:14–16). Since we have “confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus”—our great high priest, who has definitively opened the temple curtain that separated us from God—let us approach God in full assurance of faith, knowing that we have been purified (10:19–22). 

The author encourages readers once again to “hold fast to the confession of our hope,” with the assurance that “he who has promised is faithful” (10:23). He also encourages the community not to neglect meeting together, “as is the habit of some,” but to continue encouraging one another to love and good deeds, “and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (10:24–25).

Here we get to the heart of the author’s purpose in writing. He is concerned that his readers are growing lax in their faith and discipleship and wants to reinvigorate their zeal. He does this in both a positive way—by encouraging them to approach the throne of grace with confidence, knowing that they are forgiven and purified by the sacrifice of Christ—and in a negative way, by warning them of God’s judgment (10:26–31). 

He then returns to encouraging his readers, recalling earlier days when they endured suffering and persecution for their faith, including the plundering of their possessions (10:32–34). This section concludes with the confident assertion that “we are not among those who shrink back and so are lost, but among those who have faith and so are saved” (10:39).

Hebrews is the only New Testament writing to depict Jesus as high priest, except perhaps the Fourth Gospel, where Jesus speaks of sanctifying himself so that others might be sanctified (John 17:19). Other writings speak of Jesus as a sacrifice for sin (John 1:29, 36; Romans 3:25; 1 John 2:2), but Hebrews speaks of Jesus as both sacrifice for sin and the high priest who offers the sacrifice.

How, then, does Hebrews’ depiction of Jesus as high priest inform and nourish our faith, especially as we reflect on his death on Good Friday? Certainly, we remember Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf, and we turn to God in sorrow and repentance. As we do so, we remember that self-punishing acts of penitence serve no purpose. Jesus has accomplished all that is needed for our forgiveness and sanctification. We can approach the throne of grace with confidence, knowing that our faithful high priest continually intercedes for us. This frees us to be outwardly focused. Forgiven and restored, we encourage one another to love and good works.

As an aside, perhaps a word of caution is in order concerning the polemical tendencies in Hebrews. The emphasis on a new and “better” covenant and on the superiority of Jesus’ high priesthood to the Levitical priesthood could easily be read in a supersessionist manner in our contemporary context.

Though we have little certainty about the context in which Hebrews was written, its pervasive biblical language and images suggest that it was written for people intimately familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures (read in Greek, the version known as the Septuagint). It was likely written for Jewish believers in Jesus or a mixed community of Jewish and Gentile believers who highly valued the Jewish Scriptures. It may even be the case that, faced with persecution for their confession of Jesus as Messiah, they were tempted to return to more traditional Jewish beliefs and practices. Hence the author’s concern to demonstrate the once-and-for-all-ness of what Jesus has accomplished, the perfect nature of his high priesthood and sacrifice.

It is helpful to remember that the words “Christian” and “Christianity” appear nowhere in Hebrews, so it is not a question of the church replacing or superseding the Jewish community. Rather, the author and his audience view Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel, and themselves living as God’s people in light of this new revelation. The embrace of a new covenant does not necessarily devalue the old. There is continuity between the two covenants such that, without the old, the new would be incomprehensible.