First Thoughts on Year B Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 23

William Loader

Pentecost 23: 4 November  Hebrews 9:11-14

This passage reflects a further development in the author's theme of Jesus as high priest. The major focus up until at least chapter 7 had been on Christ's heavenly activity as high priest, in particular, his prayers on behalf of those who are following him on the journey to the heavenly world. He has has made it to the end without wavering. In the process he has learned what it means to be human, to face suffering, and to be under pressure to give up your convictions and faith. The emphasis was on Jesus the sympathetic high priest.

At the the same time we saw that the author had a secondary agenda: to show that this new form of faith was much better than what the old system had offered. The old system was based on fallible human beings, centred on an earthly material temple, and had very imperfect, mortal high priests - nothing permanent and pure. The old system served only to point forward the new system, which reflects the real world of the heavens, deals with people's real needs and has Christ as a high priest who is so much better qualified. In the interests if promoting the new, the author shows limited tolerance and sensitivity to the old.

Already in chapter 8 the focus turns towards the heavenly world. Like many authors of his day the writer of Hebrews thinks of heaven as being God's dwelling place and so, like a temple. In fact, he would claim that the earthly temple was a mere physical replica of the invisible heavenly one. The idea found some support in the comment in Exodus that Moses was shown a heavenly archetype (25:40). Popular Platonism encouraged the notion that the heavenly or spiritual world contained the realities that matter and that what we see are mere reflections of the true, ideal realities, like shadows thrown up onto the ceiling of a cave by a fire, to use Plato's own image. So it was natural to imagine angels as priests, and to see Jesus' role in heaven as that of the high priest. Even human beings who will join him are pictured as entering the temple and holy place as priests.

The new, creative thought which the author develops in chapter 9 brings a few key factors together. There is the idea of Jesus as the heavenly high priest. Then there is the notion that Jesus' death was like a sacrifice. And in the background is the idea of heaven as a temple. Was it possible to bring these ideas together? Hebrews tries to do so. The main sacrifices in the old order for dealing with sin were part of the ritual of the Day of Atonement. That was a complicated ritual, which our author simplifies for his readers in 9:1-10. He takes two basic elements. There was an animal sacrificed and there was the high priest. In fact the key element in the ritual was what the high priest did with the blood from the animal. Amongst other things he entered the Holiest Place of the temple and sprinkled the blood on the lid of the sacred box (the so-called ark of the covenant).

Could he describe Jesus' actions in a way that matched the ritual of the Day of Atonement? Certainly by reducing it down to something fairly simple and leaving out much of the detail, including repeated actions, he made a good start. The trickier part was how to relate together Jesus and the high priest and Jesus and the sacrifice. How could Jesus be the equivalent of both the high priest and the animal? Then there was the additional problem of the weight given to the sprinkling of the blood. The latter was a problem because the actual killing of the animal had little significance in the ritual beyond providing the blood. Making this match Jesus was difficult, because our author stood in a strong Christian tradition which had interpreted the death of Jesus as being like a sacrifice for sins.

This is all background to the statements we find in 9:11-14, which compress a number of complex ideas and issues into a new development in thinking about Jesus as high priest. We need to take the thoughts one by one. Christ came as high priest of the good things which have come. The new "good things" are a way of referring to the new system, the new basis which God has offered for dealing with the human condition. It is the new covenant in contrast to the old covenant of the Old Testament. The idea of Christ as high priest is not a new idea. The author has been using it extensively. But now he states that Christ entered the Holiest Place in the heavenly temple. To do so he had to pass through the heavenly temple to its heart. He reminds us that this is the real temple of heaven, not the earthly one. So far so good. Now he tells us that he entered with blood - not of animals, but his own! This is a daring stroke of imagination. He would not mean it literally, but symbolically. As a high priest took the blood of a slain animal, Jesus took the blood of his slain body. In 10:5-7 he will tell us that Jesus entered human life by taking a body. It was, therefore, something which he could also sacrifice.

To complete the match-up we might expect that he would go on to say that Jesus then sprinkled the blood on the heavenly ark of the covenant and thus performed the act which achieved atonement and forgiveness of sins. But that would have been an innovation over against his Christian tradition which asserted that Christ died for our sins. The death was what made all the difference. It was no mere act of preparation in order to obtain blood as it was in the old ritual. So the author has to modify his model. In 9:12 he states clearly that Jesus entered the holiest with the blood after having achieved eternal redemption. That matched the Christian tradition better. The effect is that, if anything, the image of Jesus' taking blood into the presence of God is more to be understood as demonstrating to God what has been achieved, than actually achieving anything in itself. It would have been understood as a way of reminding God that this was so.

All this lies behind 9:11-12. The final two verses of our short passage, 9:13-14, reinforce the argument that the new is much better. Its sacrifice is better than the animal sacrifices of the old. In the final verse we see the ultimate goal: serving God, a kind of priestly role to be offered to all. Human consciences are to be set free from 'dead works', things which inhibit and destroy human beings, like guilt and fear. We are meant to come to life!

Hebrews writes the way it does because the author would have thought that these contrasts and daring symbols would be helpful for his hearers. It would reassure them both about their faith and about the fact that they were not on the wrong track. They should not succumb to missionary propaganda from the Jews in their communities. They can know that they are a people loved and forgiven by God.

There are many ways of helping people to this confidence. Hebrews offers one very complicated way. The idea that a sacrifice or a symbolic reminder of blood kept God in touch with the validity of love might strike us as odd if not bizarre, but it must have worked for some. We are not committed to using the same methods, but we are committed to the same message - if that is our faith. We are today more sensitive to different religious traditions than our author, but we also need to come to terms critically with our own. We might even seek to emulate the level of creativity our author has shown when we face the challenge of speaking this same message to people in our day who live in a different symbolic world but face substantially the same needs.

Gospel: Pentecost 23: 4 November Mark 12:28-34

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