Our text this week forces us to deal with some particularly knotty theological questions, like “the perseverance of the saints” and the relationship of Christianity to Judaism. We are taking a step “back,” to chapter 10 of Hebrews, for Sunday, August 15 – specifically, we are studying Hebrews 10:23-36. The select verses are, frankly, an example of taking a passage right out of context. We’d be wise to pay attention to the “background text” for this week, Hebrews 10:19-39, which is more like the relevant unit of text. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are a few notes on this difficult text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: The book of Hebrews, as we saw last week, is hard to place. We don’t know, definitively, who wrote it. Whoever it was, it was someone with a good knowledge of the scriptures, Greek philosophy, and ancient rhetoric and logic, as well as great authorial skill. We don’t know, definitively, to whom it was addressed. Traditionally, readers have thought it was “Jewish Christians” who were teetering on the brink of renouncing their new-found faith in Christ and returning to non-Christian Judaism (West, 11). However, Pamela Eisenbaum, in her introduction to the book in the Jewish Annotated New Testament, argues that because
… the text argues on the basis of Israel’s Scripture and not Judaism’s relation to the Temple in terms of first-century CE practices … its intended audience could comprise any followers of Jesus, Jewish in origin or Gentile, who have familiarity with the Septuagint (461).
We don’t know for sure whether it was written before or after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 CE. We could conceivably argue either way from the text. [However, this is the argument that persuades me: The destruction of the Temple would have made the author’s main argument even stronger. Following Christ would really really be better than relying on Levitical sacrifices that could no longer even be made, because there was no place to make them. The author would have mentioned that, if the author could have. But the author didn’t mention it, because the author couldn’t mention it, because it hadn’t happened yet. So, personally, my money is on “written before 70 CE.”]
We are picking up the carefully structured argument about the superiority of Christ almost at the end. Next, the author turns to encouraging the readers to persevere in faith by citing the examples of all the faithful who have gone before – up to and including Jesus himself, who is the ideal example of faithful endurance of suffering – “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2).
We are skipping the first 18 verses of the chapter, which assert that Jesus’s high priestly self-sacrifice has abolished the earlier sacrifices, established God’s will (Hebrews 10:9), inaugurated the new covenant prophesied in Jeremiah 31, and obviated the need for any further “offering for sin” (Hebrews 10:18). But this final, and frankly “supercessionist,” argument is the background against which the rest of the chapter advances its main point: the consequences of receiving and then rejecting faith in Christ will be dire and undesirable; the ultimate reward of persevering in faith far outweighs whatever it might cost.
We may as well acknowledge that the author of Hebrews advances a theology that many of us will not want to affirm. The Apostle Paul doesn’t even want to affirm it (remember Romans 11). I like to think that if the human author of Hebrews could have foreseen how this theological argument would be used as intellectual and cultural capital for the Holocaust, the author of Hebrews wouldn’t even have affirmed it, at least not in quite the same way. Knowing what Christians with state power would do with this supercessionist theology was not part of the context for the first century author of this text; it is part of our context, however, as twenty-first century readers of this text. Context matters.
Parts of Hebrews 10 show up in the lectionary a lot: aside from Hebrews 10:11-14 & 19-25 on the 33rd Sunday in ordinary time, year B, and Hebrews 10:5-10 on the Fourth Sunday of Advent year C, verses 16-25 are in the readings annually on Good Friday, and verses 4-10 annually on Annunciation. The annual Good Friday reading includes three of our selected verses:
10:23 Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.
10:24 And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds,
10:25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
And it makes the rest of the chapter another one of those things you won’t know about the Bible if all you know is the lectionary. [Bible Content Exam-inees be warned.]
CLOSER READING: In verse 19, the word translated “confidence” could also be “boldness,” parrhēsia. This word repeats in verse 35, where it is linked to the reward the author wants the readers to obtain.
In v22, the reference to “hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience” probably should remind us of Hebrews 9:18-21, which itself refers back to the inauguration of the Sinai covenant. That may make it a statement about the inauguration of the new covenant the author is describing. The statement is not simple, however. The ceremony being described seems to be a combination of Moses’s inauguration of the Sinai covenant in Exodus 24:3-8, the instructions for the purification of lepers and leprous diseases in Leviticus 14, and the instructions for the purification of people polluted by death by means of specially-prepared water in Numbers 19. The combination of references may be appropriate to the inauguration of a covenant that targets and overcomes sin and death.
In v23, the “confession of our hope” is, once again, the “speaking together” kind of confession we have run into more than once in recent weeks.
In v24, the verb translated “consider” often communicates noticing or observing. The instruction seems to be to pay attention to one another, and observe or discern how to induce paroxysms – sudden, uncontrollable outbreaks – of love and good works. The analogy might be to knowing how to make people laugh.
In v25, the “assembling” of ourselves that we are not to forsake or leave behind uses the word that provides our noun “synagogue.” That synagogual practice hasn’t been superceded! The “encouragement” listeners are instructed to give one another is the paraclete word. If that makes us think that the listeners are supposed to be transmitting the energy of the Holy Spirit to one another, we might not be too wrong. My aunt explained to me when I was little that “the day” meant Sunday, and Hebrews 10:25 meant we were supposed to say things like “See you Sunday!” or “See you in church!” when we saw church people in the grocery store on Wednesday through Saturday. But I suspect the author of Hebrews had in mind the day of Christ’s return.
Verses 26-31 seem to have in view either what we might call “mortal sin” – that is, grave transgression willfully undertaken with a conscious awareness that it is wrong – or the purposeful rejection of faith in Christ after having once professed it – that is, apostasy – or both. If we assume that the text is addressed to Jewish Christians, who had [once] had access to a penitential sacrificial system, the message could be: that earlier remedy is no longer available. Indeed, the thrust of the argument up to now is that it never really had been available for this kind of problem, in the sense that the penitential sacrificial system had never been a remedy for some kinds of sin. People who broke with the law in some ways were always punished by death. How much more fearsome, then, breaking faith with a law that has been written on our hearts. Fearful, in verse 27 and again in verse 31, aptly encloses the content of this paragraph.
The ”struggle” with sufferings in v32 uses a Greek word that brings to mind the image of an athletic contest – like wrestling with the sufferings, or competing against them to see who will win. In v33, “being partners” with people undergoing these sufferings evokes the image of being members of the same close fellowship or community.
Verses 33 and 34 seem to align prison – a distinctly undesirable abode – and the loss of [material] possessions very precisely and elegantly with possessing something better and more abiding.
Endurance is needed to receive the promise. We will see in the next chapter that those heroically faithful people did not themselves receive the promise (Hebrews 11:39-40), either. The promise is still to be perfected, to be received at a future time, as the reward for faith.
At the end of Hebrews 10, that future time seems imminent.
We might ask ourselves how imminent it seems to us.
Eisenbaum, Pamela. “The Letter to the Hebrews, Introduction and Annocations.” The Jewish Annotated New Testament. 2nd Edition. Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, editors. Oxford University Press. 2017.
West, Jim. Hebrews for the Person in the Pew. Quartz Hill Publishing House, 2009.
Image: Angels and Jesus Christ, Church of the Dormition of the Theotokos at Kondorpoga, 17-18 century icon painter, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons