We are studying Mark 14:17-24 and Hebrews 8:6-7 & 10-12 for Sunday, June 2. Notes on Mark 14:17-24 are here. Here are my very brief notes on the Hebrews text, which is embedded in the carefully constructed presentation that is the book of Hebrews.
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: The book of Hebrews is mysterious. God alone knows who wrote it, according to Origen, and also most modern scholars, although that doesn’t stop people from wondering about it. It is written in extremely elevated (that is, hard) Greek. And it is not a letter, even though most Bibles call it “the letter to Hebrews.” It is more like a philosophical-theological presentation, something like a paper or a tract.
The references and themes in the text are all drawn from the worship life of ancient and contemporary (Second Temple) Judaism: Moses, the tabernacle, the sanctuary, the priesthood, sacrifices. And the author draws heavily on the scriptures – Torah and prophets, as in the text for Sunday, which includes a long passage from Jeremiah. All in all, scholars think the author was learned, and writing for a sophisticated Jewish Christian audience.
Dealing with the book of Hebrews is challenging for one covenant theologians, like me (and, according to me, the Apostle Paul). I notice that the official Uniform Series selection leaves out a few of the most potentially anti-Judaic verses in this part of the text … but they’re right there in the text, anyway. So we’ll have to be alert to that angle as well.
Our seminary New Testament professor basically told us: Presbyterians don’t spend a lot of time in the book of Hebrews, because this isn’t our theology. We can make of that what we will. Calvin wrote a commentary on Hebrews that also addresses the problem, and this is what he says about Hebrews 8:6
But what he adds is not without some difficulty, — that the covenant of the Gospel was proclaimed on better promises; for it is certain that the fathers who lived under the Law had the same hope of eternal life set before them as we have, as they had the grace of adoption in common with us, then faith must have rested on the same promises. But the comparison made by the Apostle refers to the form rather than to the substance; for though God promised to them the same salvation which he at this day promises to us, yet neither the manner nor the character of the revelation is the same or equal to what we enjoy. If anyone wishes to know more on this subject, let him read the 4th and 5th chapter of the Epistle to the Galatians and my Institutes. Calvin, Commentary on the Letter to the Hebrews at Christian Classics Ethereal Library
Calvin seems to see the difference between the covenants as resting more on the ceremonial form rather than the gracious substance, such that “There is yet no reason why God should not have extended the grace of the new covenant to the fathers. [And presumably to anyone else.] This is the true solution of the question.”
CLOSER READING: In v6, the word translated “ministry” is the word that gives us our word “liturgy” – something like “sacred ministry” or “liturgical office”.
The word here translated “covenant” is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word berit. The Greek word means something like a will or testament. It may be worth noting that a covenant, in the Hebrew Bible, is different from a will or testament in important respects. This is a little piece of evidence that the author is working across cultures and across time him or herself, to come up with an understanding of what God is doing. How this affects the author’s thinking, and ought to affect our reading, is hard to say, but it’s worth noticing.
In v7, the phrase translated “to look for a second one” literally includes a word for place, so, more like “there would have been no need to look for a place for a second.” The “place” may point us toward the themes of the earthly and heavenly tabernacle – the place of the “second” covenant being heaven.
In v8, we probably can read “them” as “promises,” from v6.
The author quotes Jeremiah 31:31-34 in its Greek version. There’s a difference between that Greek version that shows up in Hebrews 8:9 and the Hebrew in Jeremiah 31:32. The Hebrew reads something like “though I was their husband” or “master,” while the Greek is translated “so I had no concern for them” or “overlooked them.” Someone who knows more about the history of translation from Hebrew to Greek in Septuagint times could probably explain that.
The large task here, similar to the one in Romans 11, seems to be to understand how two different, distinct revelations of God’s will and plan for people related to one another.
We, who are the inheritors of this revelation, and of the history of what people have done with it, still seem to have that task before us.