Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

If today we can talk about any sort of exegetical and theological consensus when it comes to reading and interpreting Hebrews, it would be the superiority of Jesus Christ’s work, his blood, and his role and function within God’s economy of salvation.

Good fences, Houston Heights, Texas
Good fences, Houston Heights, Texas. Image by Patrick Feller via Flickr; licensed under CC BY 2.0.

November 1, 2015

Second Reading
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Commentary on Hebrews 9:11-14

If today we can talk about any sort of exegetical and theological consensus when it comes to reading and interpreting Hebrews, it would be the superiority of Jesus Christ’s work, his blood, and his role and function within God’s economy of salvation.

All these theological themes are captured in one phrase, Jesus, “the eternal Heavenly Priest, according to the order of Melchizedek,” (Hebrews 7:1-9:28). Although the Western church has read, interpreted, preached, and taught this canonical book, I doubt whether they grasp the theological meaning and implications of the symbolism of Jesus’ blood. Yet, Christian practitioners from the Global South or Third World countries are quick to make theological connections with Hebrews’ symbolism because blood rituals are a common feature within their cultural worldview. Equally important to preachers and teachers of Hebrews is the fact that this canonical book is not a letter, but a pastoral sermon whose function is to exhort Christians who are caught between the demands of culture and the faith ethos of what they have become, namely, believers in Jesus Christ. In terms of its context, which is surely Jewish, Hebrews seeks to encourage and embolden Jewish Christians to remain faithful even in times of hardships, trials, and tribulation. Similarly, 21st century Christians around the world are summoned to contemporize the message of Hebrews, because, the preacher was not just exhorting and addressing ancient Christians but the message has relevance in the present context of every believer.

Also important for readers and interpreters of Hebrews to keep in mind is the notion that the message of this sermon makes a sustained theological argument from beginning to end, and the argument centers on the role of Jesus Christ and his relationship to the Jewish tradition. Therefore, in Hebrews 9:11, the homilist presents Jesus as the “high priest of good things.” The question remains, whose high priest is Jesus? And in what ways can Jews appreciate Christ as a priest in the context of the traditional Levitical priests? In order to appreciate the full meaning and theological force of Hebrews, this commentary calls on preachers to read the entire homily and then be able to interpret passages such as 9:11-14 within the canonical context of the entire Christian Testament and then in the context of Hebrews. While Hebrews is a sermon, we need also to read it as sacred Scripture because in it God continues to reveal His transforming word. The point I want to make is that we should always remind lay Christians that Hebrews like any other book of the Bible functions as the Holy Spirit’s instrument for guiding Christian practitioners into a deeper knowledge of God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit.

The preacher of Hebrews is well invested in the Jewish Scriptures because of the use of Old Testament language and symbols, especially the interpretation of Genesis 14:18-21 and Psalm 110:4. Symbolically, Jesus is a “High Priest according to the order of Melchizedek,” (Psalm 110:4). The verses of Hebrews 9:11-14 portray Jesus in heavenly language, that he is both a Priest and King not on earthly terms but on the basis of resurrection. Therefore, it is not descent from David that makes Jesus Priest and King, but his resurrection is a divine enthronement and his exaltation becomes the fulfillment of his priesthood that began with his death and resurrection (Hebrews 9:11-12). In one of the above paragraphs, I argued that Hebrews should be read as sacred Scripture because the message we hear is that of the living Christ who speaks words of power to God’s people, offering life where there is death and hope where there is despair. The question to be posed at this point has to do with the implications of this passage of Scripture to present-day Christian practitioners all over the World. The first implication is that Christians are summoned to a life of steadfast faith, because the blood of Jesus that was spilled and shed on the day of his death is still operative and available to all believers.

Throughout it all, Jesus Christ is an embodiment of the heavenly tabernacle, and in him all redemption is carried out. Thus he is more superior to any tabernacle made with human hands and can only be entered on the basis of faith. The blood of Jesus was not equal to that of animals as mentioned in verse 12, but Christ’s blood is more divinely efficient and has the power to clean all humanity from sin. In Christ’s blood and not in animal blood is real cleansing performed, and as such, Christians are summoned to have a well-defined horizon of the constitution of deep faith. In some manner, the preacher of Hebrews defines and illustrates faith in a much deeper way than James 2:14-26. In fact, readers and interpreters of Hebrews will be intrigued to find that the Apostle Paul shares a more developed meaning of faith with Hebrews. Paul’s definition and understanding of faith in Galatians 5:6 is similar to the way Hebrews presents faith to Christian believers who are going through trials, persecution, and tribulation.

“As a high priest of good things that have come,” Jesus Christ is an embodiment and an example of faithfulness, the faithfulness that God expected among the Children of Israel during their Exodus journey from Egypt to the promised land of Canaan. Preachers and teachers who have been trained in historical methods of interpreting the Bible are still asking historical, contextual, and textual aspects of the text and as such, they have not been able to equip Christians on the journey of faith. The Bible remains or is captive to historical inquiry, and that will not revitalize and revive the declining congregations in North America. This commentary seeks to challenge preachers and teachers to probe life-giving and transformative questions that will assist Christians on their journey of faith, spiritual, and theological formation. What is needed is to ask present day questions that lead and invite people to encounter God in Jesus Christ, which the preacher of Hebrews offers. This passage of Hebrews invites Christians to see God as the center of everything they do, and the secondary step is to allow Scripture to shape, mold, and form people into Christ’s image. In reading and interpreting this passage, preachers will notice the urgency of Christ as he invites them through the power of the “Spirit,” to enter into the Spirit’s role of conforming believers to the way and image of Jesus Christ.

Centrally, this passage of Hebrews is basically a summoning of God’s people to authentic faith, and as such, the redemption of people is not a result of performing cultural rituals/ceremonies. Rather, our redemption and salvation are through Jesus Christ’s great sacrifice. Whatever we have committed in life and whatever has tainted humanity’s conscience is made clean by the blood of Jesus. What is required of Christians is to have faith, and this faith is “the reality of things hoped for, the proof of things unseen,” (Hebrews 11:1). The power to serve God (Hebrews 9:14) is given to believers who exercise faith in the blood of Jesus.

The preacher’s message, especially in verse 14, raises questions of the nature of God and the way things are structured in the world, as well as the way people have been programed to view themselves in ethical, moral and legal ways. Such questions include the following:

  1. How does God deal with my past life of mistakes?
    2. Is it possible to be both a culturally oriented person and a Christian?
    3.   If thousands of Christians in the first 4-6 centuries of Christianity died for their faith, why does it take suffering for one to be a Christian?
    4.   Is Hebrews a book for North American Christians, and if so in what way is it relevant to issues of faith, formation, and spiritual development?
    5.   How do Christians in North America and those in countries such as Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, Vietnam, and parts of Africa read, interpret, and appropriate the message of Hebrews 9:11-14?
    6.   In what way does Hebrews summon Christian believers to authentic faith?
    7.   How can one remain faithful in seasons of abuse, torture, dehumanization, hunger, HIV/AIDS, and natural disasters?
    8.   Is Heaven a real place and if so, what does it look like and who is in charge of Heaven?

This passage of Hebrews summons Christians from all over the world to have no doubts about where to place their trust, faith and belief. Earthy tabernacles/churches should not be seen as the destination, but rather as portals to a much great heavenly, as well as eternal tabernacle. If everything should be viewed through Jesus, then, Hebrews calls on all Christians to see their life stories within the framework of what God did through Jesus Christ. That which God did was to offer Jesus, as the sacrificial lamb, and by so doing started the process of perfection for all believing humanity and the truth of that perfection will be realized when Christ the priest comes back on the Lord’s day.