Commentary on Hebrews 9:24-28
At a moment when antisemitism and anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim violence has become more visible and more vitriolic, Christian interpreters of scripture bear an even clearer ethical responsibility to proclaim Christ without the triumphalism of supersession.
Hebrews, unfortunately, has often been wielded as a text that demonstrates the superiority of Christian atonement theologies over (assumed) Jewish ritual sacrifices. For preachers who choose Hebrews as their text, this moment might be a good opportunity to teach some basics about the book itself.
It is worth noting for listeners, whether teaching for the first time or simply reminding them, that Hebrews is an ancient sermon based on the only scriptures available in the late 1st century CE. While often attributed to Paul and colloquially called a letter, Hebrews bears the markings of neither Pauline authorship nor correspondence. The text of Hebrews is a proclamation moment, meaning it does not seek to correct historical practices or theologies, nor does it lay out systematic doctrine. Rather the occasion for such proclamation was to build the community.
The writer or preacher’s voice in the text is anonymous. As such, we must hold open the possibility that this writer does not fit our usual assumptions about who writes New Testament texts. What is to prevent us from understanding this writer as a woman? Why not Prisca (as Cynthia Kittredge suggests)? Only our own (often unsupported) assumptions about women’s leadership in the early church (see also Romans 16:1-3; Luke 8:1-3) prevent us from affirming the possibility that the preacher in Hebrews is a woman.1
What difference would this possibility make for our interpretation? It might simply shake us out of our usual assumptions about the text. Hebrews 9:24-28 is often understood as a theological rejection of the sacrifices offered in the holy of holies, the innermost sanctuary of the Jerusalem temple where only the high priest was allowed. Yet, we have little or no evidence that the temple was actually functioning or that the preacher in Hebrews knew how the historical temple functioned.
The preacher is, however, deeply steeped in her scriptures, especially in the text from Exodus that provide a literary description of the temple and its functions. The description of sacrifices in the text does not necessarily comment on the historical practices in the temple, but rather this description is an interpretation of ancient scripture. In other words, the preacher in Hebrews is doing the same thing that the gospel writers are doing that contemporary preachers are doing: working through scripture as a way of interpreting who this Jesus guy is, was, and will be.
Hebrews 9:24-28 paints a picture of temple practices that would have been quite familiar to anyone (Jewish, Roman, Greek, Egyptian, etc.) who lived within the legacy territories of Alexander the Great’s empire. Working within Platonic philosophical categories of images as copies of an ethereal perfect form, the preacher notes that images made with human hands are a copy of the true image of God (verse 24). The preacher doesn’t suggest that these images are without merit, but merely that Christ, as both the high priest and the sacrificial animal himself, has access to the real form of God’s temple.
If we have any doubt that in Christ we encounter the true, living, perfect form of the divine, the preacher in Hebrews hopes to negate as much. Christ draws us into a divine reality, a divine reality where suffering is neither requested nor required, particularly in a systematic, repeating sense. Rather than suggesting that temple sacrifices are bad and that the Jerusalem temple, in particular, was ineffective, the text suggests a necessity in God’s full presence for mercy.
Notice that the text says in verse 26 that “Christ appeared once for all…to remove sin.” I am struck by the NRSV translation of hamartia in the singular.2 Christ’s sacrifice was not for individual propitiation of our solitary deeds against God and one another. So often our society brushes off atrocities as the work of a few bad people. Sin, in this sense, is entirely individual. Yet the singular sense in these verses suggests a more collective concept of sin is at work here — the condition of sin in the community.
Christ’s sacrifice was to remove conditions and systems of sin. Even when verse 28 picks up the plural of hamartia, these conditions and systems belong to many (polloi), not just singular individuals. The promise of Christ in this text is not proper worship or anti-temple theology, but rather that God lifts conditions and systems of sin as a mercy against relentless, repeated suffering. This is a promise of hope that rejects violence against anyone in God’s beloved creation.
- Cynthia Kittredge, “Hebrews,” in Searching the Scriptures vol.2, edited by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza (New York: Crossroads, 1994) 430–44.
- For Greek enthusiasts, hamartias in both v. 26b and v. 28 could either be a genitive singular or an accusative plural. The NRSV and NIV both translate the genitive singular in v. 26b and the accusative plural in v. 28, a decision that is grammatically correct.