We will need to think hard about whether, and how, the distance between the first century CE and our own time affects the meaning of what the author of Hebrews is saying. That’s because we are studying Hebrews 10:23-36 (more inclusively, 19-39) for Sunday, August 15. [Some notes on the text are here.]
This week’s text comes right out and presents the salvation available in Jesus Christ as superior to the religious goods available to first century Jews. In fact, it argues that Christ has abolished the familiar sacrificial system, and has established a new, effective way of sanctification. These days, that claim will likely raise questions about Christian exclusivity, and those questions are likely to make most Christians uncomfortable. Recent findings of the Arizona Christian University American Worldview Inventory 2020 show that 63% of Americans and 68% of American Christians have the idea that it really doesn’t matter which religious faith a person professes, as long as they have some faith; that is, most American Christians say they believe that all faiths are basically equal.
Christian orthodoxy is not like Family Feud; it’s not decided by audience poll. So this text, more than most, may force us to wrestle with the tradition and its authority for us. If we take this to an extreme, we’ll have to confront this question: what do we do when a text from the Bible makes a theological claim that we find difficult or impossible to affirm?
If that’s not enough, or if it’s too much, here are a few more questions we might want to consider or discuss in class:
What is “the confession of our hope”? What does it mean to “hold fast” to it, do we think? What does it include?
What does encouraging one another to acts of love and good deeds have to do with “holding fast” to that “confession of hope,” do we think? Why?
What does meeting together have to do with “holding fast” to that “confession of hope,” do we think? Why?
Verses 26-31 describe an expectation of future punishment for those who have “spurned the Son of God, profaned the blood of the covenant by which they were sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of grace” (v29). Most commentators suggest that this section is addressed to first century believers, possibly Jewish Christians specifically, who are tempted to renounce Christian faith and return to the non-Christian community. That is, many readers see it as a effort to argue against apostasy or what we might call “de-conversion.” Does thinking of the purpose of this text as being the prevention of apostasy make any difference in the way we understand the message of the text? What difference? Why is that?
[More personal] How does the description of God in these verses express the way we ourselves think about God? How does it differ from the way we think about God? What thoughts or feelings do we have about this? Why?
[More theological] According to Calvin, knowledge of Jesus Christ is what permits people to think of God as forgiving and to approach God with confidence. If we read the text with this idea in mind, does it affect what the text means for us in any way? How?
V32 raises the issue of sufferings, which seem to be connected in some way to Christian faith. What images come to mind when this topic comes up? Do we ourselves have any experience of suffering or loss for the sake of ideas or faith commitments? Do we want to share any of those experiences? Did those experiences make it more or less difficult to affirm those ideas or commitments? Why was that?
Overall, we probably need to spend some time working through the messages in the text, and clarifying those as much as possible. Then we can explore whether any of those messages are difficult to accept, and if so, why that is. We might also explore whether the difficulties we have depend on some particular understanding of the text, or whether they are present for any plausible reading of the text. Finally, we might want to ask ourselves whether the text has any implications for our own faith or practice.
I also confess: I think the next time someone mentions “the Old Testament God of wrath” vs. “the New Testament God of love,” which people still do even though they should know better, I’m going to remind them of Hebrews 10:31.
Image: “The Conversation,” Arnold Lakhovsky, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.