Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Hebrews 3:1–19

The third chapter of Hebrews is essentially a discourse on faith: the faithfulness of Jesus as the Son of God (vv. 1–6) and a call to faithfulness on the part of the reader or hearer of this homiletical epistle (vv. 7–19). The first word, "Therefore," however, obligates us to search for the antecedent in the previous passage (2:5-18).

Much of that passage concerns how Jesus fulfilled his mission: his temporary subordination (of a sort) to angels, his suffering, and his death "for everyone" (v. 9); indeed, his suffering even seems to have served his perfection, who is here for the first time termed the pioneer, and who is identified as one who sanctifies (v. 10), a task we normally associate with the Holy Spirit. But this raises the still more immediate issue of what Jesus has done, and that sanctifying or purifying work is stated most plainly in this "why" statement of purpose: "so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death" (2:14–15); furthermore, this liberating work (we should also note) serves God's purpose of "bringing many children to glory" (2:10). Again, the apostle reiterates the fact that Jesus' solidarity with his flesh and blood brothers and sisters in suffering — the how of his abasement — was necessary in order to "help those who are being tested" (2:18). But the what of his liberating mission is likewise restated in terms of his purifying, high priestly calling: "so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people" (2:17). 

With this complex description of Jesus' faithfulness as high priest, suffering pioneer, purifying atonement, and liberating destroyer of death, we may proceed to the discourse on faith, and having done our contextual work, it is easy to see how Moses' faith may be at once affirmed as that of a household servant and prophet of the things to come (vv. 2, 5), yet allowed to diminish in comparison to the faithfulness of Jesus, whose sonship is once more asserted, but now with an added layer of metaphorical complexity. With the introduction of the phrase "in all God's house" the apostle would almost seem to have the covenant with David in view, in which the LORD promises to build David a house; this everlasting Messianic covenant with David is not mentioned here, except perhaps by inference, but according to its assigned metaphorical roles, God is the builder of the house, and the promised Son of God/Son of David is the house itself (or so it would seem). Here, however, Jesus is both the builder (v. 3) and the Son of the builder (v. 6) whose faithfulness "over God's house" entails his headship, lordship, and oversight (such as we encounter in the Christology of Ephesians and Colossians)—all of these roles and functions far exceeding that of the household servant (Moses) in glory. Jesus' servanthood is no basis for comparison to Moses, for that is but one dimension of the Son's comprehensive and multifaceted identity, which here includes his administrative relationship to the house, the building from God (2Corinthians 5:1), of which we as his brothers and sisters are a part (v. 6). 

If one sits with this repository of Christological metaphors long enough, a similarly rich ecclesiological complex eventually presents itself at their marvelous nexus, that is, where the identity and coherence of the body or house derives from the head, while dexterity is expressed in the broader structure. What we should not miss, as we turn to the call to faith (vv. 7-19), is the sense in which the architectural and biologic-somatic metaphors are oddly conflated here, yet in a manner that is fully consistent with similar Petrine, Johannine, and Pauline expressions: the house is made of living stones (1Peter 2:5); the temple is the body of Christ (John 2:21); the members of the church are members of his body (Ephesians 5:30; 1Corinthians 12:12, 20). 

With the turn to ecclesiological application, the homilist of Hebrews urges faithfulness upon his readers/listeners; they (and we) "have become partners of Christ" (v. 14) and should therefore exhort and encourage one another daily (v. 13). But each if these positive assertions are deeply nested, indeed, are almost overwhelmed here by warnings against unfaithfulness. The prospect of partnership is conditional: "if only we hold our first confidence to the end" (v. 14); exhortation is to serve as a check against the hardness of heart brought on by "the deceitfulness of sin" (v. 13). 

The remainder of this chapter consists of a cautionary reminder that recalls the tragic episode of Israel's rebellion under Moses whereby an entire generation of those set free from slavery in Egypt died in the wilderness without entering the promised land, the promised "rest." The focus of the apostle's exhortation is Psalm 95:7–11, which (despite its function as a conditional stipulation here) eventually serves to remind us that, for all the time that has lapsed since that ancient rebellion, "the promsise of entering (God's) rest is still open" (4;1). For the time being, however, in the text before us, it is the stick, not the carrot, that lends rhetorical incentive: do not put God to the test (v. 9) or go astray in your hearts (v. 12); do not harden your hearts (v. 8) or turn away from the living God (v. 12); for such an unfaithful, disloyal, "unbelieving heart" is "evil" (v. 12). Meanwhile, this entire caveat, strong as it is, does not condemn blindness or senselessness for which people may be found faultless; rather, it speaks to a very particular existential experience: "Today, if you hear his voice ..." (vv. 7, 15). Israel, of course, had not only seen the delivering miracles and signs of God in Egypt, at the Red Sea, and in the wilderness; they had also heard the fearsome, unmediated voice of God at Sinai, where centuries later Elijah would discern it as "a still, small voice" or "the sound of sheer silence" (1King 19). Whether loud or soft, whether through a human mouthpiece or from on high, whether in the voice of the conscience or the stillness of one's heart, ... the voice of the LORD, when heard, is to be obeyed, not stiff-armed or rejected in a diversionary turn to sin. Neither is it to be tuned out, for all such forms of rejection and avoidance only serve to dull one's spiritual sensitivities and will eventually lure one into regions where no hope of rest shall ever be found. Here, as everywhere, these warnings would direct us to the narrow gate, Jesus Christ, the way of obedience and faith, through which, through whom alone, we may gain access to God's promise of rest. 





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