Since quite a few of our New Testament readings during Holy Week are taken from the Epistle to the Hebrews, I’ve decided to make Hebrews the focus for preaching this Holy Week. After all, since I’ve been here I’ve already preached sets of sermons on the gospels set for Holy Week, and then the psalms of Holy Week, and then the Servant Songs from Isaiah, so to preach on Hebrews was really the last option left!
The Epistle to the Hebrews is one of the more mysterious books of the New Testament. It was for a long time attributed to St Paul, but the earliest Christian writers had doubts about this attribution. Its style is very different to St Paul’s letters; for a start it lacks that directness sometimes tending to rudeness that we find in many of St Paul’s writings. And it develops theological themes and arguments that are different, although in some respects related, to those we find in St Paul’s letters.
There are very few modern scholars who defend the idea that Hebrews was written by St Paul; many alternative suggestions have been made, usually people associated with St Paul, such as Barnabas and Apollos. Feminist scholars have argued that it was written by Priscilla, a female missionary companion of St Paul. But the truth is that we just don’t know who wrote it.
Adding to the mystery is the sense that the Epistle to the Hebrews isn’t a real letter at all. It reads more like an extended sermon, and uses some of the most sophisticated Greek literary rhetoric to be found in the bible. Unlike many of the letters of the New Testament, it doesn’t appear to address any very specific situation in a local church beyond the possibility of persecution. Only at the end does it sound like a letter, with something that sounds like a sign-off, and with a reference to Timothy that does seem to connect the letter to St Paul or at least to St Paul’s circle.
What is the Epistle to the Hebrews about?
The writer develops a complex argument over thirteen chapters. One of the key ideas is that of Jesus Christ as High Priest. This is a distinctive emphasis. The gospels connect Jesus with the sacrificial rites of the Old Testament chiefly through the Passover. All four gospels link the timing of Jesus’ death with the Passover; and we find Jesus described as “the Lamb of God” or simply as “the Lamb” in both John’s gospel and the book of Revelation. But the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews connects Jesus not so much with the Passover Lamb as with the High Priest, and specifically the High Priest on the Day of Atonement.
The Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur as it is known by Jews today, is a Jewish solemnity; in fact it is the holiest day in the Jewish religious year. It is a day of fasting and reflection, of prayer and confession. Not unlike the Christian season of Lent, the focus is very much on repentance. In many Jewish synagogues today the keeping of Yom Kippur includes the recitation of the details of the sacrifices which were once made by the High Priest in the Jerusalem Temple, and lamenting the ending of these sacrifices by the destruction of the Temple by the Romans. Yom Kippur was the one day in the year when the High Priest was permitted to enter the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctuary of the Temple, and to utter the Holy Name of God. Sacrifices were made to atone for the sins of the High Priest and the sins of the people, blood was sprinkled, incense burned, and the scapegoat was driven out into the desert, symbolically bearing the people’s sins.
The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews uses the sacrificial rites of the Day of Atonement to open up the meaning of the passion and death of Jesus. It may be the distinctively Jewish nature of this material that has given the letter its name. But there is also a very Greek side to the Epistle to the Hebrews. The writer draws on the Platonic idea that material realities on earth are imperfect versions of a pure realm of ideas, in which perfect forms exist eternally. For Plato and his followers, these eternal forms were more real than physical things that are subject to change.
The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews takes this idea and applies it to the Jerusalem Temple. The Temple, and the Tabernacle, or sacred tent that came before it, was a physical, imperfect approximation of a perfect, heavenly reality; in Jesus we have a true and eternal High Priest who has entered once for all the tent not made with hands, to offer the atoning sacrifice of His own blood.
Whilst the gospel writers, and especially John’s gospel, present Jesus as the fulfilment of the Passover, the Epistle to the Hebrews presents Jesus as the fulfilment of the Day of Atonement. The Passover was a celebration of liberation; the sacrifice of the lamb and sprinkling of blood was to protect the Israelites from the angel of death that killed the first born of the Egyptians; the goal of the first Passover was freedom from slavery in Egypt.
The Day of Atonement, by contrast, was and is still very much about repentance from sin, rather than freedom from an external oppressor. The sacrifices were supposed in some mysterious way to lead to divine forgiveness, the shedding of blood suggesting a vicarious punishment, and the driving out of the scapegoat being a tangible sign of the removal of offense and wrongdoing from the community. By offering His own blood in the Holy Place of the tent not made with hands, Jesus as High Priest obtains an eternal redemption, once and for all, “purifying our conscience from dead works to worship the living God”, +Father, Son and Holy Spirit, to whom be all praise and glory now and unto ages of ages.