Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost

One of the besetting sins of 21st century Christianity is “performance,” by which I refer to an unreflective and anti-formational, anti-theological, and anti-spiritual formation of both the officiating clergy and Christians who are either participating in baptism or Holy Communion.

Archangel Michael and the Devil
Archangel Michael and the Devil, Coventry Cathedral. Sculpture by Sir Jacob Epstein, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tenn. Original source.

November 15, 2015

Second Reading
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Commentary on Hebrews 10:11-14 [15-18] 19-25

One of the besetting sins of 21st century Christianity is “performance,” by which I refer to an unreflective and anti-formational, anti-theological, and anti-spiritual formation of both the officiating clergy and Christians who are either participating in baptism or Holy Communion.

Read in the context of post-modernism, Hebrews 10, seems to call into question our assumptions around the so-called means of grace practices that all Christians engage in during times of worship. The sharp contrast between the repeated sacrifices done by the Jewish priest and the once-and-for-all sacrifice that Jesus did serves as a reminder of the true nature of the identity of Jesus as the one who establishes a new covenant. As partakers of Holy Communion, Christians are reminded of the presence of Jesus Christ in the bread and wine elements.

The preacher of Hebrews returns once again to the basic text, which is Psalm 110:1-4 of which a eternal priest like Melchizedek was to remain seated until his enemies were put down. Having already offered his once-for-all sacrifice, he sits in the rightful place, “at the right hand of God,” (Hebrews 10:12a). What then should Christians do or what are the implications of what the Hebrew preacher is saying in these verses? I want to suggest three elements that can assist preachers to interpret these verses in a practical way. First, sacrifices are meaningful when they give people what they need, rather than what they want. Since Jesus came as a high Priest, he came as John claims, to “have life and have it abundantly.” It is crucial for preachers to remind parishioners of the presence of Jesus Christ in all that they do and say. Second, people must prepare themselves to receive, be it the effects of baptism or Holy Communion, and they can only do this after prayer. Prayer is absolutely necessary for spiritual and faith transformation and without prayer, all that we do in our churches slides into meaningless and powerless rituals. Third, people must pray for Holiness (Psalm 51:1-2). The problem in our postmodern era and in some parts of the world is that there are some Christians who believe that there is nothing to confess while they live in sin, yet God commands us to “be perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

The following verses of Hebrews 10:15-18 are probably problematic to most Christians because the mention of the “Holy Spirit” as the one that testifies about what God through Jesus says, tends to be difficult for people to wrestle with. Yet, the power of the written word and Jesus’ power is manifested in the work of the Holy Spirit, which is the cornerstone of biblical interpretation, worship, and all that takes place in the Church. Like Christians, Jewish preachers and writers attributed the inspiration of Scripture to the “Holy Spirit,” who in ancient Judaism was viewed as the Spirit of prophecy (Jeremiah 31:31-34). As an African preacher and New Testament scholar, I have lived to believe and count on the interceding power of the Holy Spirit when I preach, teach, and pray. In a word, the Holy Spirit is another way of talking about God and since the Son is also God, Hebrews raises a fundamental theological fact of the inseparability of God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. In fact, Hebrews 10 reminds preachers to always remember that Jesus is more superior to any other priest, be it a Levitical or modern day priest.

The theological notion that Jesus is a high priest before God leads interpreters to wrestle with the idea of a heavenly tabernacle of which Jesus Christ is the embodiment (Exodus 25:9; 40; 26:30). While the notion of colonization and decolonization do not appear in Hebrews, readers may be intrigued to notice how verses 15-18, are a call to be decolonized from colonial powers of culture, religion, and empires. The promise of verse 18 is that the new covenant established by Jesus Christ, the eternal priest, was first and foremost for the forgiveness of sins, and one’s sins will never be remembered because of the ‘atonement’ that was made by Jesus. In the postmodern period, the gospel of Jesus Christ has one goal in mind, simply to decolonize families, individuals, churches, and world communities from religious, cultural, and imperial colonization. Hebrews has one goal in mind and that goal is to rescue souls from spiritual death; restoring and nourishing believers to eternal life through Jesus Christ. Thus, being a believer is equal to being a new creature (2 Corinthians 5:17). The problem for our time is that there are many Christians who do not believe in what Jesus Christ did, and consequently their faith in Jesus is not well established.

The theology of Hebrews is that forgiveness is for everyone no matter how wicked one is. The key is simply to confess and believe in what Jesus did. The message that Jesus has compassion for everyone is profoundly important for readers and interpreters of Hebrews. Like Psalm 95:4-13, Hebrews calls on believers to seize the opportunity to enter God’s resting place and in similar ways to believe in the eternal role, function, and place of Jesus Christ as the one who allows believers to have access to God. While there are some seasons when believers slide into spiritual sluggishness and drooping morals and ethics, Hebrews summons Christians to a life of constant spiritual alertness, engagement, and striving to be Holy and perfect (Hebrews 12:2).

Hebrews 10:19-25 are indisputably a call to a new form of worshiping God, one in which faith in Jesus allows believers to have access to God without waiting for a priest. The superiority of Jesus’ sacrifice opened a new door for believers to have obedience in both death and resurrection of the messiah. In verse 21, the preacher alludes to Jesus’ superiority over Moses and thus helps interpreters to appreciate the magnitude of the ‘Christ event.’ Of theological depth is the language of “Drawing near,” which signals an invitation to enter into a relationship with God (Hebrews 7:19), as well as availing oneself in the presence of God (Hebrews 10:19-20).

Most lay people may not understand the language of Hebrews, especially when it comes to phrases such as “holding fast, faithful, and harmony,” but these words point to the presence of evil, and as such Christians must remain faithful as Jesus did in his ministry, death, and resurrection. Jesus, the faithful one, is a model of faith and the Hebrews preacher exhorts Christians to emulate the example of Jesus. In summary, Hebrews 10:11-25 is a call to faithful living and an exhortation to endurance in the midst of a series of trials, tribulations, and persecutions.