Good Friday

The Epistle to the Hebrews explores the meaning of Jesus’ death through multiple lenses.

"For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth." - John 18:37 (Public domain image; licensed under CC0)

March 30, 2018

Second Reading
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Commentary on Hebrews 10:16-25

The Epistle to the Hebrews explores the meaning of Jesus’ death through multiple lenses.

The writer recognizes that no one-way of conveying the meaning is fully adequate. The interplay of perspectives is what gives depth. In this passage from Hebrews the lenses are drawn mainly from the Old Testament, which gives a deep resonance to the writer’s language. The primary texts were considered greater length earlier in Hebrews, allowing the writer to cite them more briefly here.

The lens of covenant construes the crucifixion in terms of Israel’s relationship with God. Earlier the writer recalled how the covenant was established at Mount Sinai, when Moses made the relationship tangible by spattering God’s altar and the people themselves with blood (Exodus 24:3-8; Hebrews 9:18-22). The Law was read aloud so its message could be heard. The spattering of blood was an action that formalized the relationship. Covenant making was done in a manner that could be seen and felt. Relating to God was not merely an idea; it involved a claim upon the whole person.

Hebrews also recalls that this same tangible quality of covenant life was part of Israel’s ongoing relationship with God. In earlier chapters the writer recalled the actions of atonement that were depicted in Leviticus 16. Like the initial establishment of the covenant, the practice of atonement under the covenant also involved the offering of blood (Hebrews 9:1-10). The provision for atonement was made in the Law of Moses itself, where it was described as an annual event on the Day of Atonement. The assumption is that year after year there is a need for relationship with God to be restored. Year after year the high priest is to offer animal sacrifices. And year after year the priest sprinkling blood in the sanctuary makes forgiveness effective and tangible.

Yet the writer of Hebrews also recalls that Jeremiah developed the theme of covenant in a new way. Jeremiah spoke of an act that would be definitive rather than repetitive. The prophet told of a new covenant that would not be like the old one, which was repeatedly broken by human unfaithfulness. Rather, it would be a definitive act of divine forgiveness, in which God promises to remember the people’s sins no more (Jeremiah 13:31-34; Hebrews 8:8-12; 10:16-17).

Hebrews brings together the themes of covenant and atonement by declaring that the promised new covenant, like the old one, is enacted in tangible form — now through the death of Jesus. The action comes from God’s side of the relationship. It is not a gift that people offer to God, but a gift that God offers to people. Through it God aims at transforming human hearts and minds, as promised in the new covenant passage.

The writer of Hebrews has no patience for grace that remains an abstract concept or forgiveness that only floats in the realm of ideas. To transform human hearts and minds is to transform human lives. That is why throughout Hebrews the author says that the self-offering of Jesus is complete, not partial. It is the gift through which God claims people wholly for renewed relationship. Good Friday worship does not repeat Christ’s action. Rather, it brings us back to that singular, pivotal, definitive gift with startling clarity.

Altering the lens, Hebrews then asks readers to think of the openness that Christ’s act creates. Earlier the writer pictured readers as worshipers in a sanctuary — a space that may have features like the sanctuaries in which worshipers gather on Good Friday. The essential structure of Israel’s ancient sanctuary had two parts: an outer court and an inner court, with a curtain separating the two spaces. According to the Pentateuch there was also an open courtyard around the two-part sanctuary. But what is important for Hebrews is simply the inner court and the outer court, with the curtain creating a barrier to the place of divine presence in the inner court. The sense is that God remains hidden. The divine presence is too holy, too overpowering to be encountered by common human beings.

Yet Hebrews says that the curtain has now been opened, but not in the older pattern in which the high priest would enter and exit year after year on the Day of Atonement. Rather, Christ’s definitive act has been to open the curtain and to cross the barrier separating God from human beings in order that others may follow. Hebrews calls this a new and living way, because it is a way that gives new life.

To picture the scenario more vividly, think of people gathering in the narthex of your church with the doors to the sanctuary closed. The people are outside; the altar and pulpit are inside. The people may mingle around in the open space, but the doors create a barrier to the place where bread and wine convey God’s grace in a tangible way. The doors block the sound of proclamation from the hearing of the people.

Hebrews announces that Jesus’ offering of himself — in the flesh — opens the door and removes the barrier to encountering God in a tangible, transformative way. Through the act of opening the doors to the sanctuary and gathering around the cross we give visible expression to what Christ has done.

Christ’s act is a community-forming act. It is striking that Hebrews does not picture isolated individuals coming to Jesus but rather a community gathering in the presence of God. Throughout this section the readers are addressed in the first person plural, as a group. The writer tells this community that what is ongoing is not blood sacrifice, since God’s action in Christ is complete and definitive. Rather, what is ongoing is gathering and keeping the faith. What is ongoing is encouraging others and provoking others to acts of love that continue making tangible the grace that Christ made tangible. The way the writer uses images of Christ opening God’s sanctuary to human beings keeps finding new expression as the worshiping community itself is opened to new forms of service that extend the message of grace beyond the walls in public witness to what Christ has done.