The sinlessness of Jesus

Mon, 16/04/2012 - 17:29

One of the issues raised by the lengthy discussion about the designation of Jesus as a high priest after the order of Melchizedek is that of Jesus’ “sinlessness”. Traditionally we have understood this in what I suppose are general existential or ontological terms: Jesus was sinless because he was by nature both God and man. But the New Testament, for the most part, frames the matter differently, situating the motif in a narrative and eschatological context that puts the emphasis not on his nature but on his obedience under particular conditions. This is not an isolated correction, of course. It is part of a wholesale shift in how we make sense of the New Testament and therefore of Christian origins—from a dogmatic-theological reading to a narrative-historical reading.

First, the background argument…

For the writer of Hebrews the significance of Jesus’ high priesthood lies not so much in the fact that he died for Israel, though that is a crucial part of the narrative, but in the fact that he presently mediated in a heavenly sanctuary for the sake of the persecuted Jewish-Christian communities that confessed his name (cf. Heb. 4:11). This is the basic eschatological argument of the Letter: the readers should persevere because Jesus has gone before them through suffering and death, he is the “founder and perfecter” of their faith (Heb. 12:1-3), he is seated at the right hand of God having received authority to rule, he now ministers as a high priest in the presence of God on behalf of his suffering “brothers” (Heb. 2:17; 6:20; 8:1-3), and he will appear in the not too distant future to “save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (9:28). If we don’t keep this narrative in view, we will inevitably misinterpret the various statements that are made about Jesus, who he was, and what he did.

Tested… without sin

For we do not have a high priest unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but tested in every way according to likeness without sin. (Heb. 4:15, my translation)

The writer explains in Hebrews 4:15 that Jesus is able to sympathise with the weaknesses and failings of a community under pressure to abandon its calling because he was himself tested in exactly the same manner. A specific form of testing or temptation is in view here: the testing of persecution, which may cause believers to disobey or depart from the faith out of fear. The argument is that the one whom they have confessed as Lord and king is also (this is the point of the frequent appeal to Psalm 110:4) a “merciful and faithful” high priest who fully understands their natural weaknesses in the face of suffering.

When it is said, therefore, that Jesus was “tested in exactly the same way but without sin” (Heb. 4:15), the point is that when faced with suffering Jesus was not disobedient and did not cease to trust in his Father. The argument is not that Jesus was naturally or supernaturally sinless prior to being tested, therefore he passed the test. It is that when he was tested, he did not sin: he resembled the readers of the Letter in that he was tested, but unlike them he did not waver in his faith. “Without sin” does not denote a precondition but an outcome, a consequence. This is not to say that Jesus was not sinless in other respects; it is to say that the argument focuses on the manner in which Jesus responded to the prospect of suffering.

The son who learned obedience

This is why the writer goes on to stress the fact that through his suffering Jesus “learned obedience” (Heb. 5:8-10).

Though being a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered, and having been made perfect he became the source of salvation of the age for all those obeying him, being designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek. (Heb. 5:8-10, my translation)

What he means by this is indicated in the preceding verse:

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. (Heb. 5:7)

This is a picture of a thoroughly human Jesus who in great anguish prayed to be saved from death and was heard by God because of his reverence. It is the sort of obedience under extreme duress that the Jewish Christian communities addressed in the Letter needed to learn, or they would fail to enter their “Sabbath rest” at the end of the painful wilderness experience (Heb. 4:1-13).

Jesus responded perfectly, in full obedience, with unfailing trust, without sin, in the face of suffering and death. Therefore, he became i) the “source of salvation” for those who faithfully and obediently walked the same path of suffering and ii) the Melchizedek-like priest-king in heaven, to whom, on the one hand, all their enemies had been subjected (Heb. 2:8), and who, on the other, made propitiation on an ongoing basis for the sins of his people, who were being tested and were sinning (Heb. 2:17-18).

We should also be careful not to over-interpret the clause “Although he was a son…”. Lane states: “Although Jesus was the eternal Son of God, he entered into a new dimension in the experience of sonship by virtue of his incarnation and sacrificial death.” 1 This is not what the writer is saying. Jesus is a “son” in the sense that whereas Moses was “faithful in all God’s house as a servant”, Jesus would inherit, at the resurrection, the right to rule over God’s house (Heb. 3:5-6). This is, in effect, the kingship theme again. But this status, guaranteed to him at his baptism, did not exempt him from having to walk the path of suffering.

Other texts

There are a three other texts in the New Testament that need to be taken into consideration.

Peter modifies Isaiah 53:9 LXX when he says that Jesus “committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth” (1 Peter 2:22). The Septuagint has “committed no lawlessness”, and Peter may have generalized the statement to fit the household instructions to slaves. Nevertheless, the context in which Christ is declared sinless is clear: he did not sin when he was reviled, tortured, and crucified; instead he “continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Pet. 2:23-24).

I’m not sure that 1 John 3:5-6 actually says that Jesus did not sin. What we have is: “he appeared in order to take away the sins, and there is no sin in him; everyone who remains in him does not sin….” The present tense (“there is no sin in him”) is odd if the reference is to his past life in the flesh. The overall argument rather suggests that the reference is to the community that is “in him” in the present: Jesus took away sins, those in him do not sin, therefore there is no sin in him.

Finally, we have 2 Corinthians 5:21, which certainly looks much more like a general denial that Jesus ever sinned:

the one not having known sin was made sin (or a sin offering) for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in him.

But even here there is a strong case for thinking that Isaiah 53:9-12 is in the background.2 The servant of the Lord suffers violent abuse, even though he has done no lawlessness; through this suffering he bears the sins of many, but will make many to be accounted righteous.

In conclusion, unless I’ve overlooked something…

In conclusion, unless I’ve overlooked something, which is quite possible, the New Testament is barely interested, if at all, in attributing a prior sinless nature to the Jesus. The sinlessness of Jesus is noted principally in the manner of his response to the prospect of suffering and death—it is part of the narrative. This certainly does not preclude the idea that Jesus was inherently sinless, but as in other respects, our rationalist interest in ontology and our concern to safeguard later theological developments can easily blind us to the prominence and significance of the apocalyptic narrative in the New Testament.

A very brief note on blog etiquette

Proportionate, relevant and constructive responses, appropriate to the comments section on a blog, no matter how critical, are very welcome and, indeed, very helpful. Lengthy disapproving lectures? Hmm, well….

  • 1. W.L. Lane, Hebrews 1-8 (Word Biblical Commentary, 1991), 121.
  • 2. See R.P. Martin, 2 Corinthians (Word Biblical Commentary, 1986), 157.

Comments

I find it helpful to avoid, as you have done, the linear model of time. I find your reading of these texts helpful. The real question is whether we together or individually will read in the present and therefore in the presence. I have to admit I do not understand time or eternity or pre-existent. I get sin, sin offering, hearing, and obedience (hearing) and the one thing the poet of Psalm 27 asks:

One thing I have asked from
יְהוָה that thing I will seek
that I may sit in the house of
יְהוָה all the days of my life
to gaze on the pleasantness of
יְהוָה and to reflect in his temple

It is clear from history - which we have some insight into, that this request is fraught with danger - temples - physical or bodily are places where one may well suffer.

Bob, I’m not sure what you mean by avoiding the “linear model of time” here. Could you explain?

Andrew, as far as know and can see, humans perceive time analogically as a ‘line’. Time is more complex than that. It stops at the speed of light. This makes eternity a more complex idea than ‘everlasting’ in the merely linear sense. Aquinas spoke of the eternal as having ‘no term either end’. These ancients had a concept of time as instantaneous. But Jesus said - Before Abraham was, I am. And he spoke of his ‘hour’ (the word occurs 24 times in John’s gospel.) This 24 hours is the 1 day of creation and redemption for me. Try George Herbert’s poem Easter. Of course I am speaking in another metaphor. - Just not a linear one.

Andrew,

Maybe I am not following you correctly here. But are you saying that the only place where it really mattered that Jesus was sinless was when facing suffering and death?

Well, yes, that’s more or less how it looks to me. The New Testament appears to be interested in the idea that Jesus was sinless primarily—and perhaps exclusively—in relation to his response to the prospect of suffering and death. That probably has a bearing on the argument about the divinity of Jesus—at least, the New Testament is clearly not interested in asserting that Jesus was sinless because he was God, and it doesn’t seem to me to be even a logical inference.

But the more important point is that New Testament theology is mostly constructed narratively, and I think that we are generally too quick to move beyond the narrative to abstract statements about who Jesus was. In fact, I think we should learn to trust the narrative to do the theological work.

How could a man that was only sinless at one point in his life be a perfect sacrifice for the sins of all of the rest of humanity?

I hate to have to say this Andrew, but it is looking more and more to me like you have moved to an interpretation of the Bible that is so far afield from orthodox Christianity that it can’t even be called Christianity any more.

Cheryl, it doesn’t appear that you are really interested in the topics on which Andrew writes, but rather that you are merely interested in sniffing out a heretic. For example, you asked him if the only place where it mattered if Jesus was sinless was when he was facing suffering and death. When he said that was how it looked to him, you didn’t bother giving examples of where you see it mattering or how you see the text showing otherwise, but merely moved on to branding Andrew as a heretic. If you truly see his view as erroneous, then it would be of interest to everyone, including Andrew I am sure, for you to show this. Pointing out which particular parts of the text on Jesus as the perfect sacrifice seem to contradict Andrew’s view of a more limited view of Jesus’s sinlessness and how you read it would be useful. Some of the rest of us who read his blog are very interested in the topics about which Andrew is writing and his interpretation of the text. Whether his views are tenable is of more interest than whether someone else views them as orthodox.

Brad,

It seems to me that I have pointed out quite a few Scriptures and also other resources here recently that show why I see his views as being in error.

I have read a lot of his material both on this blog and in other places. And frankly, the more I read, the more I have come to the conclusion that I stated in my last comment. The last few posts made have really helped cement that idea in my mind.

I can discuss this idea of Jesus sinlessness (or lack thereof) further. But it seems to me that there comes a point where you need to state things as you see them in the overall picture too. And it truly does appear to me that Andrew’s views as a whole simply do not fit in with any definition of orthodox Christianity that I know of. I am just being honest when I make that observation.

(Pardon my butting in)

The mechanism of atonement is far from agreed and has never been a point of exclusion within the churches. Christianity moved far afield from its own moorings in its history. Perhaps it should find itself. I was reading the longer commentary on the Psalms by David Kimhi yesterday (can’t find the link at the moment) and was moved by the grace of his writing. I have spent 6 years in the Hebrew of the psalms and I understand why Andrew can and should ask these questions. The Psalms move in the Anointed Spirit through the same Spirit that moves the writer of 1 John, towards a purity that is motivated by the loveliness of God, not a doctrine. This is a real movement of the human spirit in response to the same act of God that we find in Jesus and in the work of his hour. But for us humans to define God’s ways and imply the exclusion of others out of our own definitions, is, I think, a hubris that must find itself destroyed, obliterated like any other wickedness.

I was wrestling with the text of Psalm 55 this morning

יַשִּׁי מָוֶת עָלֵימוֹ
יֵרְדוּ שְׁאוֹל חַיִּים
כִּי רָעוֹת בִּמְגוּרָם בְּקִרְבָּם

let death lure them
let them descend alive to the grave
for the evils in their hospitality within them

It is too easy to forget ‘hospitality’.

Mind you, I may be wrong or stretched in my reading. Certainly, I am over my head - but who isn’t?

Bob,

Maybe I am reading you incorrectly here. But it would kind of seem from your quote above of Psalm 55 that you are kind of, sort of (??) making the implication that I should “descend alive to the grave” because I have “forgotten hospitality”. If that is the case, the humor of the situation certainly does not escape me! Someone saying that someone else should “go to the grave” because of what they see as their lack of hospitality in stating an honest observation! How very hospitable that is!! (Do “smilies” work here?) :) :)

And by the way, “Christianity” is something that has had definitions and boundaries and accepted beliefs all down through history. If someone seems to be walking outside of those boundaries, is it really a terrible thing to say so? The deity of Christ and the sinlessness of Christ are areas that are considered essential, as I understand it. Someone else said in discussion here a few days ago that Andrew calls himself orthodox, evangelical, and trinitarian but that he has so redefined those terms that they are not recognizable to most people. (At least that is the way I remember his comment.) It is a similar thought that I was expressing here.

cherylu

You might think I impled that. I couldn’t possibly say so.

My reading of your last three comments is that they are without content. They are noises that indicate to me a dependence on doctrinal abstractions that answer all questions. There is a danger thatwhen a question is so answered, it leaves the person who has the answer in a state where refinements to questions and further learning are shut off. My opinion is that such a thing is not good. You may disagree.

As to whether we deserve to descend alive to the grave, or to have our selves destroyed, is not that exactly what we are instructed to do, to consider ourselves dead and buried with Christ Jesus so that we may be alive to God? It is God who teaches. His Torah is not a set of abstract doctrines derived from a book or from tradition without the mediator, the Lord, the Spirit who alone is the giver of life.

Your words seem to me to cut off further discussion, not to mention joy in the Spirit. Nothing that Andrew has written in this post deserves such a comment. It is fair for you to be bothered by his careful exegesis, but it is not good for you or anyone to retreat behind a wall of words and say ‘this is what you must write or not write about Jesus’. So say, ‘I am bothered by such and such’ - rather than ‘you are a cad for saying such and such’.

I recommend a close read of Psalm 50 on which Paul modeled his opening chapters of Romans. Note verses 16 and 17. They are addressed to those who ‘bear the covenant in your mouths but cast my words behind you’.

Methinks you are putting words in my mouth. I never said anyone was a “Cad.” I said his beliefs don’t line up with orthodox Christianity (Chritianity as it has been hammered out down through the years starting at the time of the apostles onward), in fact they are so far from it as a whole, that they fail to fit in that category any more as far as I can tell. That is NOT the same as calling him a name.

Jude 3 tells us we need to “defend the faith once given to the saints.” Now obviously, we disagree on what the details of that faith are. But my contention is simply that the version being given here by Andrew is so far from the understanding of that faith as it has been taken by orthodox Christianity for centuries that it doesn’t fit under that name anymore. If you want to define Christianity in such a broad way that beliefs, and interpretations of even the basics, no matter how contradictory they are, all fit under that umbrella, that is one thing. But it is not the definition of orthodox Christianity.

And please remember that what I said is the result of cumulative reading, not just what I got from this one post.

Andrew, I wish you would come back and interact here soon!

Dear Cherylu, Re: Christianity’s boundaries. Does it not matter that your version of orthodoxy (circa 2012)would be totally unfamiliar to the Jewish peasants who started this whole thing ?

And are any of you 100% certain that the version of “orthodoxy” that Andrew proposes is what was known to the Jewish peasants that started this whole thing? Does it not bother any one of you that second century Christians saw issues like the deity of Christ and the “Word” being Jesus in the same way as we see them today in orthodoxy circa 2012? Are you so certain that one that was taught by the Apostle John and stated that Jesus was both God and man had it all wrong and that is not what John and the other disciples had in mind at all?

I never said I was 100% certain , Cherylu. As a “serious” layperson, I do know what passes for orthodoxy today is not 100% of what those FIRST century Jews imbibed in church on Sunday , er, Saturday.. Now one could even parse things further: which 1st century group is in question, Pauls’ crew or James’s ( while not directly dealing with Christ’s deity, Gal.2 and many other passages paint quite a rancorous doctrinal picture of the two groups). Other texts from the same second century you cite have a different take on things . In sum, Christianity has been dynamic. Other than devotion to Jesus, I daresay that uniformity across the board is an anomaly( unless you’re saying we should pack our bags for Rome…..which I wouldn’t mind actually, oh, the beauty)
Beautifully said Bob.

Cherylu, just to be clear, I did not say that he was “only sinless at one point in his life”. I said that the New Testament was “interested in” the sinlessness of Jesus only really at the point of his response to suffering. That is, the issue is contextualized narratively. But that should not be taken to mean that he was not sinless throughout his life. That would seem to be the implication of 2 Corinthians 5:21; and nothing is said anywhere else that suggests he was anything other than perfectly obedient to his Father’s will.

On the matter of orthodoxy, I know this will not make sense, but my position is this. I stand with orthodox Christianity, I regard myself as an evangelical, but I do not think that the popular orthodoxy that we mostly espouse gives a very good account of the New Testament narrative.

The confession of Jesus’ divinity is part of the New Testament witness (“My Lord and my God”), but the New Testament narrative is weighted overwhelmingly towards the conviction that YHWH has given authority to his obedient and faithful “Son” to rule over his people and to judge the nations. I think that it is a mistake to read the whole of the narrative through the lens of Thomas’ confession.

Similarly, I think that the New Testament bears witness to the unique and full sinlessness of Jesus, but the more we set out to defend this as a matter of dogma, the harder we make it to understand the narrative and argumentative point of the assertion.

My view is that the New Testament is not written as source material for a later Christian orthodoxy. It is written as an engagement with far-reaching political-religious changes that were about to take place in the status of the people of God in relation to the nations. Inevitably, recovering that narrative will put current notions of orthodoxy under strain, but I don’t think we will lose as much as you seem to fear, and the potential gains, in my view, are immense.

Hi again Andrew,

I guess I misunderstood what you meant on this point. You said, Well, yes, that’s more or less how it looks to me. The New Testament appears to be interested in the idea that Jesus was sinless primarily—and perhaps exclusively—in relation to his response to the prospect of suffering and death. That phrase and perhaps exclusively made me think you believed that it was maybe the only at the time of his suffering and death that He was sinless.

It would still seem to me to be very important that He was always sinless. I believe the Old Testament typology of the necessity of the spotless/unblemished lamb for sacrifice would be lost if Jesus had sinned at any time in His life. And if He had to have a sacrifice made for His own sins, how would He of been able to provide in Himself the sacrifice for everyone’s sins?

I don’t have a problem with that argument.

I was extending the comment while you were replying. I added some points on my approach to orthodoxy.

I noticed you expanded your comment. It is late here and I am getting very tired, so may have to save any further discussion for tomorrow. Think I may be too tired to make any sense any more tonight.

You are right, Andrew, it doesn’t make sense! To say in one breath that you stand with orthodox Christianity and in the next breath (and most of the breaths thereafter), to say that the New Testament consistently teaches the opposite of that orthodoxy in regards to Christology is a true enigma to me.

The deity of Christ is an essential part of orthodoxy. And I mean the eternal deity of Christ. And not some kind of He became God at one point in time and He will lose it again at some point in eternity kind of deity.

Many within the orthodox evangelical world go so far as to say that one can not deny Christ’s deity and experience the personal salvation that He offers. This is rather a huge issue, obviously.

I also realize that when it comes to declaring Him to not be God, you have said that “you aren’t there yet.” But you have seemed to me to be getting closer all of the time in the articles you have written. More and more of Scripture has been declared to be making that point.

And I don’t think most people that believe He was/is eternally God are reading the whole New Testament through the lens of Thomas’ confession. There is simply much, much more that leads people to that conclusion. Obviously you don’t agree with that. But the arguments are very convincing to many people and obviously have been right from the start of things way back when. (Early second century.)

Cherylu,

Please don’t take this comment as being critical but are you sure you really understand what Andrew is trying to do with a narrative historical approach to the text? It would be erroneous to read what Andrew writes as you would read probably the vast majority of theolgically based blogs/book/articles etc. Perhaps try reading ‘Hell and Heaven in Narrative Perspective’ (I’m guessing you have not read it yet) which you can see the link to on the right hand side of the page.

‘Many within the orthodox evangelical world go so far as to say that one can not deny Christ’s deity and experience the personal salvation that He offers.’

If one was concerned with trying to understand the bible as a a theological document from which theological meaning and truth is hidden in the words of the orignal writers then the above comment would probably be meaningful. However if one is concerned with understanding the bible as a historical document that has a consistent and flowing narrative from start to finish then the above comment is virtually meaningless.

Justin,

Is theology not being formed from a narrative historical approach? It certainly seems to me that it is. And it is this theology that is of great concern to me.

Cherylu,

Clearly you make a valid point. The end result of studying the text will always result in theological outcomes (which again suggests to me you don’t really understand what I’m talking about). But why is it of great concern to you? Surely if you find it so disagreeable you can just not read the blog? I mean I’ve come accross a heap of blogs I disagree with, I just don’t read them anymore. I’m curious as to your motivation? It seems to me there are two types of people when it comes to engaging with challenging material. There are those who are critical but from a basis of feeling challenged/stretched/deconstructed and therefore we critique because something we hold dear is being threatened. Personally I have been there a heap of times and definetely from this blog. Then there are those who just want to pin the people who have got it wrong, because being right is just so important - proably everyone that knows me thinks I do that all the time as well :) I don’t know where you stand but I hope it is the former as its a pretty cool place to be. Certainty is not all its made up to be.

I think I do understand your point. And my point is that studying the text is resulting in theological outcomes–in this case outcomes that I find deeply troubling and I believe have far reaching consequences. That is reason enough to me to speak up and possibly get folks to see things in a different way.

Well all the best to you in your fight! It’s great to know where you stand. I won’t bother you again.

Thanks for your help, Justin. Much appreciated!

to say that the New Testament consistently teaches the opposite of that orthodoxy in regards to Christology…

That’s not what I said. What I said was: ‘the New Testament narrative is weighted overwhelmingly towards the conviction that YHWH has given authority to his obedient and faithful “Son” to rule over his people and to judge the nations.’ That does not exclude the confession that Jesus is God. “Weighted towards” one thing does not mean “is the opposite of” something else.

The deity of Christ is an essential part of orthodoxy. And I mean the eternal deity of Christ.

Yes, but it is clearly not the aspect of who Jesus was that the New Testament is primarily concerned to assert. All I am trying to do is put in the foreground what the New Testament puts in the foreground, because I think that the New Testament narrative might provide a better guide to Christian self-understanding than the heavily theological discourse of Western Christendom. Not least, I think it will help us to recover a sense of the dynamic and necessary lordship of Christ over his people.

Many within the orthodox evangelical world go so far as to say that one can not deny Christ’s deity and experience the personal salvation that He offers.

Where in the New Testament is a person “saved” by believing in the deity of Christ? Certainly people are saved—Jews first, then Greeks—by confessing that Jesus is Lord, but he is Lord because the authority to rule has been given to him. Lordship is always something that Jesus acquires at a particular point in the story, namely at his ascension to the right hand of God. Lordship is not something that Jesus has eternally in the sense you mean, though it will last throughout the coming ages.

I also realize that when it comes to declaring Him to not be God, you have said that “you aren’t there yet.”

I am not declaring him not to be God. I am trying to understand how the New Testament speaks about Jesus, and I am pretty sure that at a number of critical points our concern to safeguard orthodoxy is getting in the way of our reading of the New Testament. For all Peter Wilkinson’s lengthy protestations, I still think that his reading of the high priest passages in Hebrews is a case in point. The argument about having the authority to forgive sins in Matthew 9:1-8 is another example.

Finally, I have to say I really appreciate the persistent but polite way you attempt to “get folks to see things in a different way”.

Andrew,

I noticed that you used a favorite phrase of mine somewhere in recent conversation here, “I don’t get it.” Well, I don’t get it either!

I said, “I also realize that when it comes to declaring Him to not be God, you have said that “you aren’t there yet.”

Then you replied, “I am not declaring him not to be God. I am trying to understand how the New Testament speaks about Jesus, and I am pretty sure that at a number of critical points our concern to safeguard orthodoxy is getting in the way of our reading of the New Testament.”

(BTW, the italics and block quote functions are not working at all for me this a.m.)

When I have spoken of you declaring Him to not be God, I have taken it from the total of your writings that I have read here and elsewhere. Maybe you are changing your mind on some things, I don’t know. But I have read such things as, (my paraphrase from memory), “The New Testament knows nothing of the Trinitarianism we know today. If we are going to retain Trinitarian language it has to be an eschatological Trinitarianism. He was declared God after His death and resurrection because of His obedience.” And at one point you even spoke of Him losing that God hood again when all things are put under the feet of the Father. Any new testament reading that says He is only God after His death and resurrection is not at all the orthodox belief that He was and is eternally God.

So to say you are not declaring Him not to be God while you say that our theology must come from the narrative of the New Tesatment and then to say that the New Testament knows nothing of Him being eternally God is….well it seems to me to be nothing but an outright contradiction. As I said, I don’t get it!!

Traditionally we have understood this in what I suppose are general existential or ontological terms: Jesus was sinless because he was by nature both God and man. But the New Testament, for the most part, frames the matter differently, situating the motif in a narrative and eschatological context that puts the emphasis not on his nature but on his obedience under particular conditions. This is not an isolated correction, of course. It is part of a wholesale shift in how we make sense of the New Testament and therefore of Christian origins—from a dogmatic-theological reading to a narrative-historical reading.

I think this probably puts it the wrong way: the conclusion that Jesus was both God and man comes from asking questions which the narrative itself raises. There wasn’t some dogmatic starting point prior to the narrative ever being read at which it was agreed by the chrch hierarchy that Jesus was both God and man, which was then to be read into the narrative.

The sinlessness of Jesus was likewise not agreed upon by some church council prior to the narrative being read, and then imposed upon it by decree. It is a proposal which arises from the very questions raised by Jesus being seen to be a very different person from anyone else he can be compared with in the wider narrative, let alone history in general. This kind of questioning about Jesus’s identity was taking place all the time, and if it did not have sinlessness as the direct issue subject of the question, the issue was never far behind. It wasn’t just a question of whether or not Jesus was Israel’s messiah, but what kind of messiah, and behind that, what kind of person was he?

Hebrews itself says very little about Jesus’s sinlessness - so it’s probably unwise to place too much weight on what is said, though I have suggested an alternative reading to Andrew’s, which I think makes better sense, given the background here suggested. (Note the significant absence in Jesus as high priest of making sacrifices for his own sins - something without parallel amongst high priests). However, Hebrews does, it seems to me, say a great deal about Jesus’s divine person, in Hebrews 1, which, alongside what the letter also says about his humanity, agrees with a similar combination of deity and humanity within his person suggested elsewhere in the NT. So maybe the ‘sinlessness’ argument is a bit of a red herring.

The assumption made by Andrew is that Jesus’s identity is adequately summed up as human agent of YHWH, and that the narrative of 1st century crisis requires no further questioning about his person. But this is begging the question. If Jesus was an agent of YHWH, questions as to what kind of person this agent was would continue to be asked, as the gospels themselves do, and as history has shown that they have continued to be asked, by all kinds of people in all kinds of cultures. The genie of ontology won’t go back into the bottle of a 1st century narrative.

Just a further detailed comment on Hebrews - it seems that Andrew’s assumption that the “sabbath rest” to be enjoyed by the people of God, provided they persevere under persecution, is rest from persecution. Apart from being historically questionable, it’s also a travesty of the narrative in Hebrews. The “rest” was rest from works, representing works of the law - 4:10, not from persecution. It is a “rest” which God prepared from the foundation of the world, on the seventh day of creation.

The whole burden of the teaching which then follows is the incompleteness of the sacrificial system of works to deal with sin, and the completeness of Jesus’s sacrifice of himself as a sacrifice for sin. The issue is law versus promise, where the promise has as its highest objective the access to the very presence of God himself, through Jesus the intercessory high priest, who made atonement for sins as high priest. This is the highest goal of Hebrews, as it is for us, and not a 1st century respite from 1st century persecution.

The narrative is that the Hebrew believers would do better to maintain their loyalty to Jesus rather than apostasize to Judaism, and that this entailed a better understanding of what Jesus had accomplished for them as high priest, by providing unbroken access to God and the the fruits of that - Hebrews 12:22-24, when they were in danger of drifting back to a sacrificial system which was never designed to be more than shadow to the reality provided by Jesus.

Proportionate, relevant and constructive - or disapproving lecture? You decide.

Thanks - I think you raise a balanced question. My feel for it on a quick read is that we can see God through the action and work of Jesus. We also see God through the voiceless voice of the created order. The NT definitely processes the identity of Jesus in a direction and perhaps these were well taken up by later church councils. (But some not so well.) Thus I come to see what is divine through the work and action of Jesus. However, I find the unified voice of the Spirit in the TNK as well - so more refinement to my questions is required.

Besides this, the TNK identifies the son with Israel and the anointed also. Exactly where to go from here? The questions are manifold and multifarious. But note, I am not trying to ‘figure this out’ by human ingenuity or formula. In the situation I find myself in, i.e. in covenant, I don’t need to - but I am free to find rationale and joy in the dialogue within the Anointing Spirit that we are taught through the Anointed Jesus.

This seems to me to come firmly in the “disapproving lecture” category. You think everything that I say is wrong, most of what you say here you have said before, and much of it is a misunderstanding of what I wrote.

I have never maintained, for example, that “Jesus’s identity is adequately summed up as human agent of YHWH, and that the narrative of 1st century crisis requires no further questioning about his person”.

Likewise, I did not simply equate “Sabbath rest” with the ending of persecution. The writer to the Hebrews is concerned that these Jewish believers will fail in obedience, like the wilderness generation (Heb. 3:7-11, 12, 18-19; 4:1, 6, 11), and therefore not reach their promised land, their Sabbath rest after six days of work, which is the impending “day” when Jesus will “appear a second time… to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Heb. 9:28; 10:25; cf. 1 Thess. 1:10).

One reason—not the only reason—why they might fail in obedience is persecution.

So the writer repeatedly urges them to hold fast to their confidence and hope (eg. Heb. 3:6, 14; 4:11; 6:18). This is the “work” of faithful obedience from which they will eventually find rest. It has nothing to do with “works of the Law”—that whole controversy is absent from Hebrews; there is nothing about apostasizing to Judaism. These are good and necessary works: “whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his” (Heb. 4:10; cf. 6:10-12; 10:24-25). The writer is clearly not suggesting that God’s works of creation are like works of the Law that are superseded in Christ.

It seems a bit rich, therefore, to label my argument a “travesty of the narrative in Hebrews”.

Andrew - I do actually appreciate the depth and detail which you combine in your exegetical explorations; maybe I should preface each comment with this sort of affirming statement. I also find myself asking: how can an argument which seems so watertight (the stress must fall on ‘seems’) also get it so wrong?

In fact, your views depend on a big picture which you have drawn, which you then fill in with the supporting detail. The detail is fascinating. It also adroitly side-steps problematic issues. In the comment I have just provided, I was also stepping back from the detail, initially, and looking at how the narrative actively encourages us to ask questions about the identity of Jesus which cannot be limited to the 1st century narrative crisis version of events which you describe. I find that when you have ventured into this territory (the inner identity of Jesus), it has been disastrous for you argument - eg Jesus becomes “God for us”.

These questions, however, are precisely the reason why I come to the conclusion, along with I suppose the majority opinion of Christians in history, that Jesus is both God and man, and that this is the best basis for an explanation of a narrative which was occurring then, and also which has personal relevance for us today. I would willingly support that statement, but it’s not the primary issue of this thread.

Just to look in detail at your comments above. I note that you say “I did not simply equate “Sabbath rest” with the ending of persecution.” So you did, to a greater or lesser extent, equate “Sabbath rest” with the end of persecution.

What else then, according to you, did the “Sabbath rest entail?” You say it was the “impending “day” when Jesus will “appear a second time… to save those who are eagerly waiting for him”, which of course for you is the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, which in effect, according to you, was the beginning of the “rest” from persecution, the assurance of the survival of the church through and beyond persecution - it amounts to the same thing.

You then say: “The writer to the Hebrews is concerned that these Jewish believers will fail in obedience, like the wilderness generation”. But what did this obedience entail? What was their “confidence and hope” which he “urges them to hold fast to?” It was clearly the confidence and hope they had obtained when it was placed in Jesus, as opposed to Judaism with its sacrificial system, which they were in danger of reverting to by “drifting away” - Hebrews 2:1. I guess we agree on the first point, but disagree on the second, since you think the danger of apostasizing to Judaism has nothing to do with the Hebrews narrative.

You say of the “works” of the Hebrew believers:

These are good and necessary works: “whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his” (Heb. 4:10; cf. 6:10-12; 10:24-25).

I have always associated the “works” of Hebrews 4:10 with the sacrificial system which follows. Maybe that’s a false assumption. I think you may be right. Hebrews distinguishes “works” (which are sometimes “good works”), from “dead works”, which to my mind is associated with the danger of reversion to Judaism which underlies, in my view, the narrative of the letter.

I do think the writer has a narrative in view here, warning that possession of the land did not amount to the “rest” which was promised in Psalm 95, nor was “rest” to be found exclusively in the land. A warning to nationalist zealots, or those who wanted to maintain their exclusively Jewish traditions, perhaps. There was in this sense, in comparison with the six days of creation, a seventh day, which had come about through Jesus (I don’t think that is overstating it, since he was Lord of creation).

I also think the writer has a lasting state or condition in view - a contrast between promise (Hebrews 4:1, Hebrews 6:13, Hebrews 7:20) and law (Hebrews 7:11 ff). This revolves around the meaning of the word “rest”. What is “the rest” which the Hebrew Christians might be in danger of failing to enter? It was not something future, such as an imminent day of reckoning for hostile and disobedient Judaism, since the writer says: “Let us be careful that none of you be found (ie in the present) to have fallen short of it” - 4:1, and “Now we who have believed enter (ie in the present) that rest” - 4:3.

Entering this “rest” was a present experience for the Hebrew believers, when they believed and “entered”. “Today” is the time for entering that rest, which was fulfilled in Jesus’s “today” for the believers - a current possibility for them, which the writer urges them to take hold of. It was not in the first place a future 1st century or later event.

The comparison and contrast of Jesus with the sacrificial system then illustrates what Jesus makes possible in this “today” for the Hebrew believers, rather than simply in their future. The crowning glory is access to the presence of God - Hebrews 9:24, Hebrews 10:19-22, Hebrews 11:39-40, Hebrews 12:22-24, through Jesus’s dealing with sin which excluded Jews under Judaism, for all its sacrificial and high priestly system, and exaltation to ‘the right hand of God’. I find this to be the emphasis of the letter: entry to the Most Holy Place in particular - Hebrews 10:19, rather than, as you seem to be suggesting, a description of equipment which will get believers through the more important imminent judgment on Jerusalem.

The sacrificial system itself is not necessarily, I think, presented in a negative light, although it did entail repetitive tasks (Hebrews 10:11) which failed to achieve what Jesus did, namely absolution from sin and privilege of access for every believer to the holy of holies, the presence of God. I may be wrong, but a coming ‘day’ of judgment and deliverance, whether on Jerusalem in the 1st century, or yet to come, does not in itself form a huge part of the letter (mainly the latter part of chapter 10). That’s not to diminish its importance, but just to say that the focus of the letter’s teaching is not in itself totally dependent on a coming day as a future event for the Hebrew believers.

I hope you find this to be a constructive response to your comment - rich, but not “a bit rich”.

What about John 8:46? “Can any of you prove me guilty of sin?” Doesn’t Jesus present Himself as sinless here before His passion?

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