Saturday, August 31, 2013

Thoughts on Hebrews 7: The stench of the holy

Continuing our walk through Hebrews, we see a repeated discussion comparing Jesus as high priest to the Levitical high priests.  Chapter 7 emphasizes how Jesus as high priest was higher than the Aaronic priesthood.  The author's claim is that this is because Jesus was high priest in the order of Melchizedek.

In case someone is unfamiliar with the reference from Genesis, Melchizadek was a priest and king from what became known as Jerusalem.  When Abraham encountered him, he tithed 10% of all he had to Melchizadek.  The author of Hebrews points out that this makes Melchizadek greater than Aaron because Aaron's ancestor tithed to Melchizadek.

Truthfully, if one of my students made an argument like this, I would probably tell him that he was really reaching--except for one thing.  Out of nowhere in one of the Psalms, the psalmist makes this odd statement, "I have made you a priest forever in the order of Melchizadek".  Although I am not an expert on Jewish scholarship (or anything else I write about on this blog, for that matter), my understanding is that Jewish scholarship didn't really know what to do with this odd Melchizadek reference in the Psalms.  That is what the author of Hebrews is trying to do here...explain that which wasn't understood.

The more important point here, though, is that after Christ's priestly sacrifice, there is no need for continued sacrifice for sin.  I think this is something modern Christians take too much for granted.  Because we are so removed from the sacrificial system, we have become desensitized to what this means.

I got a small glimpse of this when I was in college and read C.S. Lewis's Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold..  In this work there is a detailed description of the reaction of the main character walking into a temple where animal sacrifice is still practiced.  If I recall, the line Lewis used was, "the stench of the holy".  There were dried blood stains all around.  It smelled of incense and animal slaughter.  It was a stark reminder of the penalty for displeasing God (or the gods in the case of the novel).

As modern (and especially relatively wealthy) Christians, we are far removed from the stench of the holy.  We don't truly appreciate the weight of our sin and the weight of the sacrifice.  Perhaps that is one of the benefits of Christ's "once for all" sacrifice, that we no longer have to contemplate such things.  But I can't help wondering if we would take our sin more seriously if we did.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Thoughts on Hebrews 6: Abandoning your birthright

Hebrews 6 is one of the most controversial chapters in the Bible.  It contains stark language on the issue of whether one can lose salvation.

Today I'm going to take a look at this passage from a different angle.  Although I'm not generally sympathetic to "covenant theology", I think it might be helpful in this case.  After the blunt discussion of apostates not being able to return to repentance, the author of Hebrews returns to a discussion of the Hebrew people--the people of promise.  Clearly, throughout history, many of the Hebrew people, who had a promise as God's chosen people, abandoned the faith and did not return.  This may be partially what Paul refers to in Romans when he speaks of Jews who are no longer Jews.  They had extra opportunities and left their birthright.  This may be what the author of Hebrews is saying--those who were so involved in the Church as to actually taste the Holy Spirit, but left.  (Of course, I freely admit even more than usual to the possibility of being wrong here.)

I think of more practical value is the discussion of the evidence of having left.  Chapter 6 makes special emphasis (after encouraging readers that he expects better things of them than apostasy) of endurance and what Paul called "fruit".  I think our emphasis in this chapter should not be fear of losing our salvation, but rather perseverance in living the Christian life.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Thoughts on Hebrews 5: Learning obedience through suffering

This is the first in what I hope to be a series of personal meditations on my daily scripture readings.  The purpose of this series is for my benefit far more than it is for the wider audience.  My goal is that readers will get on my case if I don't publish here regularly. ;)

This chapter is probably best thought of as being in two parts: Verses 1-10 and then the theme from verses 11 on continue into chapter 6.  Today I will look briefly at the first part (and hopefully be disciplined enough to do the second part when I do chapter 6).

Chapter 5 provides some comparisons between earthly priests and Christ's priestly ministry.  Since my goal is not to provide an exhaustive examination of the passage, I'll just emphasize some things the jumped out at me.

First, the earthly priest is able to be compassionate toward sinners because he is a sinner.  He is reminded of this at every sacrifice as he must atone for his own sins before he can offer a sacrifice for the sins of the people.  Christ, obviously, cannot have compassion grounded in this, as he was without sin.  So, what is the grounds for Christ's compassion?  Suffering.

Verse 8 really jumped out at me in this regard: "Although he was a son, he learned obedience through the things he suffered."  One might think that a passage on Christ's role as a priest would focus on his sacrifice as a replacement for the traditional animal sacrifices.  Instead we get this somewhat strange thought thrown in that obedience in performing the sacrifice was learned through suffering.

Perhaps I am making too big a deal of this, but it is an important lesson for me.  I have felt a lot of suffering recently.  To put it bluntly, I feel like I am being punished by God, without being quite sure what I did wrong.  I wonder if the suffering is to teach me obedience.  And if so, obedience in what area?  I suppose this is something I need to contemplate moving forward in Hebrews as I know this theme will come up again.