Friday, August 27, 2010

faithful in all things

"Therefore, holy brethren, partakers of a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the Apostle and High Priest of our confession; He was faithful to Him who appointed Him, as Moses also was in all his house. For He has been counted of more glory than Moses, by just so much as the builder of the house has more honor than the house. For every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God. Now Moses was faithful in all His house as a servant, for a testimony of those things which were to be spoken later; but Christ was faithful as a Son over His house..." (Hebrews 3:1-6a)

When understanding the meaning of any particular passage, it is indeed beneficial to consider the intended audience so that we might arrive more closely at the author's intention. In this way, we can (by one among many methods) guard against eisegesis - importing our own ideas into the text as apposed to drawing the truth out - and ultimately work towards overcoming one of the many "gaps" that loom in between us and the Bible (though, unfortunately, they are all too often ignored). This is an important point to recognize and admit, since, whether we like it or not, we all come to the text of the Bible (or any text) as interpreters. Moreover, since we are dealing with a rather unique book, that is, one inspired by God through human agencies, then it is necessary to understand His divine purposes and truths in Scripture as well as taking into account the author's original intention(s), as far as we can recover them. With regard to the Epistle to the Hebrews, we have little explicit internal evidence as to the identity of the initial readership, except perhaps most obviously in the phrase "to the Hebrews" as indicated by the title. Further internal signposts evidenced by various exhortations to the primary audience, descriptions of their spiritual circumstances/condition, and commentary on their social milieu (such as the possibility of temple worship still in place or experience of persecution; see, for example, Hebrews 8:4; 10:32-34) pairs well with external evidence to paint a clearer picture of the first recipients of this letter. Namely, a theme that resonates in many commentaries is the proposition that these Christians to whom this letter was first written and sent were Jewish believers in Jesus Christ that had undergone mild persecution (thus, most likely before Nero) and were considering abandoning the Christian Gospel in favor of its (and their) Jewish heritage. Thus, we should not be surprised to encounter exhortations toward perseverance and steadfastness and the need to not "shrink back" or reject the all-sufficient voluntary Self-offering of Christ (10:39). As the writer states at one point later in the epistle, "you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised" (10:36). Though the object of their faith was not wavering, their faith in Him was, and so they were encouraged to consider the nature of His Person and work so that their faith might be strengthened by the (re-?)realization of what Jesus accomplished and fulfilled.
If these inferences are correct, then it is apparently the burden of the author to convince the audience of the excellencies of Christ, but also with special attention paid to how principles established/revealed in the Old Covenant are in actuality shadows that relate to a greater and more meaningful substance, Jesus (8:1-5; 9:23-24; 10:1; Colossians 2:16-17). With this in mind it is no surprise that the first two chapters of this epistle are largely doctrinal, with heavy Christological emphasis. As has been discussed in previous posts, the author definitively maintains both the deity and the humanity of Christ in accordance with His hypostatic union. But, returning to the points mentioned above, we might ask the following: If the author is indeed trying to convince unstable Christians who are contemplating returning to Judaism (and thus denying Jesus as both Messiah and God), what arguments could the writer propound in order to turn their hearts and minds to the truth found in Jesus? The answer to this question, as it pertains to the epistle to the Hebrews, is really quite similar to a dilemma that Jesus Himself posed to certain Jews that doubted His validity:

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me (John 5:39, emphasis added)

Yet the dilemma itself is not truly presented in the above statement. Instead, it appears in the loving criticism that follows: "and you are unwilling to come to Me that you may have life" (5:40, emphasis added). This is the question with which these readers were confronted, and one that we, too, must answer - Am I willing to come to Jesus, the One of whom the Scriptures testify, so that I may have life?
Consequently, in chapter 3 the author of Hebrews embarks upon a journey through prominent people and principles in the Scriptures (the Old Testament) in order to assure the readership of the supremacy of Jesus Christ. Interestingly, rather than focusing on the temple (which may have still stood at the time of writing), the writer chooses to highlight a more unifying concept and one that essentially possesses primacy, that of the tabernacle and its "regulations of divine worship", such as the Levitical priesthood, the various articles in the tent, and the sacrificial system (Hebrews 9:1). All these necessarily relate to the Covenant that God established with His people on Mt. Sinai, when Moses was called by God to mediate between Himself and the people of Israel. Therefore, the first verses in chapter three involve a comparison between the Person and work of Jesus, and the person and work of Moses. In a sense, then, we might say that the writer begins this portion of the argumentation by inviting the reader to consider what or whom they are really left with if they abandon Christ.
Recall that in the prior chapter, the author urges the believers to whom the letter is written to "pay much closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it" (2:1). What "we have heard" is the testimony of "so great a salvation" that is found in Jesus alone. Moreover, we might infer that the in some way the readers were being tempted by their doubt, and thus were in need of hearing about the infinite ability of Jesus "to come to the aid of those who are tempted" evidenced by the incarnational reality of Jesus' suffering. The proposed remedy for ensuring stability (i.e., not drifting) and overcoming temptation is strikingly simple: "consider Jesus, the Apostle and High Priest of our confession" (3:1). Why consider Him? The answer that comes makes sense to a believer in Christ who has a Jewish background: "He was faithful to Him who appointed Him, as Moses also was in all His house" (3:2, emphasis added). At this point it seems as though the writer is only concerned with (roughly) equating Jesus' ministry with that of Moses, that is, just as Moses was faithful over God's house, so was Jesus. But the writer presses on to a greater truth with even greater immediacy, namely, that Jesus "has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses" (3:3). The force of this second claim in the context of a Jewish Christian audience - especially one considering departing from Christianity - should not be easily overlooked. The comparison is not arbitrary, and neither is the declaration of Christ's supreme glory.
The point, however, is not so much to diminish the importance and significance of preeminent individuals such as Moses (Jesus, for example, constantly referred to Moses and Moses' authority as proof of the validity of His claims). Rather, major the point is to understand their importance and significance in relation to the Person and work of Jesus Christ "who fills all in all" (Ephesians 1:23). That is, Jesus Himself is the locus of understanding Moses and his ministry, and the subsequent covenant which God established with Israel through him. Turning again to the Gospels, we find that Jesus clearly did not diminish the persons of the Old Testament along with its laws, but Jesus always centered them around the supreme Person of Himself, the work He came to do, and the covenant that He inaugurated. For example, Jesus declared that He was greater than both King Solomon and the prophet Jonah (Luke 11:31-32). He also expressed His eternality when He claimed that He actually preceded the patriarch Abraham (John 8:58). Moreover, in another passage, we find God declaring in an audible voice the exclusive preeminence which Jesus held over and above Moses and Elijah:

Jesus took with Him Peter and James and John, and brought them up on a high mountain by themselves. And He was transfigured before them; and His garments became radiant and exceedingly white, as no launderer on earth can whiten them. Elijah appeared to them along with Moses; and they were talking with Jesus. Peter said to Jesus, "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three tabernacles, one for You, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah." For he [Peter] did not know what to answer, for they [the disciples] became terrified. Then a cloud formed, overshadowing them, and a voice came out of the cloud, "This is My beloved Son, listen to Him!" All at once they looked around and saw no one with them anymore, except Jesus alone. (Mark 9:2-8)

Again, this is not to depreciate the value of any individual like Moses, but God helps us understand the proper value of any person by situating them in relation to Christ. Moses was indeed faithful in things pertaining to God's house, but Christ was more faithful still. Moses' disobedience was quite rare and not characteristic of his ministry, but Jesus "always do[es] the things that are pleasing to [the Father]" (Numbers 20:8-12; John 8:29). Moses was faithful "as a servant," Christ is faithful "as a Son" (Hebrews 3:5-6). Moses was a member of the house, Christ, being a Person of the Triune God, is its builder and architect. Moses served "for a testimony of those things which were to be spoken later," Christ is the content of that speech which is the Christian Gospel (3:5). As Jesus said, "if you believed Moses, you would believe Me, for he wrote about Me" (John 5:46). Admitting the reality of Christ's supremacy does not negate Moses, but rather believes him. "If [we] do not believe [Moses'] writings, how will [we] believe [Jesus'] words?" (see John 5:47). Moses was "made perfect" by the same means as we who presently believe in Jesus, for Moses "consider[ed] the reproaches of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt; for he was looking to the reward" (Hebrews 11:40, 26, emphasis added). Moses "endured, as seeing Him who is unseen" (11:26).
At this point, perhaps many of us who do not individually come from a Jewish background may struggle to grasp the relevance of this passage (and, thus, what follows, as well) to our own lives. The relevance and application, however, can be made manifest by considering three points. First, we might state the obvious that since Jesus was Jewish it ought to matter to us. If we consider the words of Christ in the Gospels, or the entirety of the New Testament, we can only understand the Gospel with greater fullness by understanding the significance of Moses and his writings. Still, as both Jesus and the New Testament writers urge us toward, we must interpret Moses (and others) in light of Jesus now that He has come. Second, Moses as a key figure of Judaism would be an example of what the readers would be left with if they rejected Christ and returned to their Jewish heritage, ignoring the reference to Him. As we are aware, Moses indeed pointed to Christ, but this group was potentially going back to Moses without considering the One to whom he directs them. The author makes clear that they are losing infinite worth by departing from Christ and, consequently, not really going back to Moses in the fullest and truest sense. For us, we might do well to contemplate the value of what we are left with if we reject Jesus, for who or what would be left to fill such an amazing void? The reality we must face is that there is no one and no thing left to turn to; only Christ has the "words of eternal life" (John 6:68). The third point is that, since Moses is one example of a shadow whose substance is Christ, we must consider what the consequence will be if we overemphasize the shadows and deemphasize the substance (e.g., the law or the Levitical system of worship in comparison to the New Covenant and the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ). This cannot be succinctly answered here, but is the focus of much to come in the epistle to the Hebrews. And, as we read in Hebrews 3:1, the way to rightly (re)orient ourselves is constant, we must "consider Jesus."

No comments:

Post a Comment