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how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

The forgiveness of Israel’s sins in Hebrews

The Letter to the Hebrews is addressed to Jewish Christians and is, therefore, thematically much closer to the Gospels and the early part of Acts, which is why I want to look at it before we come to Paul. The argument is by no means an easy one, so if you’re not interested in the sordid details of the exposition that follows, here is the executive summary:

Jesus’ death was a once-and-for-all sacrifice for the sins committed by Israel under the Law. Just as his death on a tree redeemed Jews from the curse of the Law, so Jesus’ offering of his own blood, by which he qualified to enter the heavenly sanctuary, gained for Jews forgiveness of sins committed under the Law and made possible a new sacrifice-free covenant.

This lends further weight to my cautious thesis regarding the central atonement narrative, which is that Jesus died directly for the sins of Israel, as an outworking of the Law, and only indirectly for the sins of Gentiles.

The story about Jesus in Hebrews

The story that is told about Jesus is established at the outset: he has been appointed heir of all things; the ages were created through him; he is the radiance of the glory and the impression of the nature of God; and bearing all things by the word of his power, having made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, elevated even above the angels (Heb. 1:1-6).

Three main themes are interwoven in this dense passage: i) Jesus has become YHWH’s king who has inherited the nations; ii) Jesus is the high priest who serves in the heavenly sanctuary; and iii) Jesus is the one through whom all things are created and sustained.

It is the second theme that concerns us here, but it is closely connected to the first, which presents one of the main theological questions that the Letter attempts to answer. The extensive Melchizedek typology in chapters 5-7 validates the controversial idea that a man not from the Levitical priesthood could both rule as a king and serve as a high priest for the descendants of Abraham, for an unlimited period of time.

The high priest after the order of Melchizedek

Jesus qualified as a “high priest after the order of Melchizedek” by virtue of his suffering (Heb. 5:5-10). He became or was appointed as high priest through his resurrection from the dead (Heb. 5:10; 7:16). Having passed through the heavens, he has gone into the “inner place behind the curtain” (Heb. 4:14; 6:19). He holds this priesthood permanently “because he continues for ever”, and he is, therefore, always able to make intercession for and save those, such as the Jewish Christians addressed in this Letter, who face suffering (Heb. 7:24).

In order to enter the Most Holy Place, behind the second curtain, the high priest needed first to take blood “which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people” (9:7). Corresponding to this, Jesus’ death—his “blood”—constituted the once-and-for-all sacrifice by which he entered the true heavenly tent. By this he secured an everlasting redemption for Israel, purifying their conscience from dead works to serve the living God (Heb. 7:27; 9:11-12; cf. 10:12-14). His death redeemed Israel “from the transgressions committed under the first covenant” (Heb. 9:15).

Forgiveness of sins committed under the Law

This is crucial. Jesus’ death dealt with the sins committed by Israel under the old covenant in order that a new covenant might be inaugurated (Heb. 9:15-23; cf. Heb. 10:9-10; 12:24); he put away sin by the sacrifice of himself (Heb. 9:26). It is specifically “under the Law” that the shedding of blood is required for the forgiveness of sins. Nothing in the argument in Hebrews suggests that the shedding of blood is required for the forgiveness of the sins of those who are not under the Law.

The Jewish-Christian readers of the Letter, therefore, may have clear consciences: they are no longer burdened by the fact that they had formerly performed dead works under the old covenant. God will no longer remember Israel’s sins (Heb. 10:17). Where there is forgiveness of “lawless deeds”, there is “no longer any offering for sin” (Heb. 10:18).

The Day that is drawing near

Finally, the eschatological frame is brought into view. Just as a man dies once, and then comes judgment, Christ’s death for the sins of many in Israel will be followed by a second appearance, not this time to make a sin offering but “to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Heb. 9:27-28; 1 Thess. 1:9-10). In other words, the readers of the Letter are assured that judgment will come upon disobedient Israel and that those Jews who have taken the difficult and narrow road leading to life will at this time be vindicated and delivered from their oppressors.

Here is the central pastoral argument of the Letter. Jesus’ death has established a new covenant for Israel, under a new type of law (Heb. 7:12), under which there is no longer any need to shed blood for the forgiveness of sins. These Jewish-Christians, therefore, are urged to follow Jesus, the “great priest over the house of God”, into the presence of God, with clear consciences, made clean by a baptism of repentance, as a means of maintaining their confession as they see the Day drawing near (Heb. 10:19-26).

Comments

…Jesus died directly for the sins of Israel, as an outworking of the Law, and only indirectly for the sins of Gentiles.

Indeed… what God was to do for the wider [gentile] world He did first in and then through Israel - this is why much of the biblical story is so Israel-centric; not to the exclusion of all else, but simply that “Israel” was the primary vehicle through whom His will would secondarily or subsequently come to work. In other words, Israel was God’s specific “handiwork”, His “firstfruits” <u>ON BEHALF OF</u> all [Rom 11:15].

Jer 2:3a Israel was holy to the Lord, the firstfruits of his harvest.

“His harvest” was the world beyond Israel… they Israel were God’s priestly and kingly portion “chosen” and “elect” the “firstfruits” to sanctify the whole [Rom 11:16] - the NT story is all about how these elect, which came to include gentiles, were refined; again not disimilar in one sense to the OT story of Gideon and his band of men.

By this he secured an everlasting redemption for Israel…

Thus with Israel redeemed [resurrection] i.e., their “ungodliness” removed [Rom 11:26-27] mercy [reconciliation] came to all [Rom 11:30-32].

I’m coming to your argument here, Andrew, from a previous post, which included some comments about the universal assumptions in the background of Hebrews. I’ll repeat some of these, but make some initial observations.

A reminder though, that central to the argument is your contention that Jesus died exclusively for the sins of Israel, and not for the sins of the Gentiles. Also a reminder that the profound depth of change which the death of Jesus facilitated, as described in the teaching of the NT, and Paul in particular, applies only to Israel, according to your view, and not to Gentiles. Redeemed Israel may confer forgiveness to Gentiles, according to you, but Gentiles may not receive it from Jesus directly. What happens when that 1st century generation of redeemed Israel dies and is no longer there to confer forgiveness is left unexplained, as is much else about this novel teaching.

Your summary of Hebrews then is back to front, and not entirely true to the content of the letter. Jesus is first (i) described in exalted terms which includes being creator of the kosmos, which is the wider created world in general. He is superior in this respect to angels, and (ii) superior to Moses and (iii) superior as “high priest” in the covenant he introduced to the covenant with its Levitical priesthood and sacrificial system which he replaced.

The letter generally seems to address Jewish Christians who were in danger of reverting to Judaism, partly by drifting away through not paying careful attention to what they had heard - 2:1, and partly to avoid persecution - 10:32, 12:4. The antidote is a full and better focus on Jesus, with the corrective comparisons and contrasts to the Levitical sacrificial system fully understood.

Since this, by my understanding, is what the letter is about, it would be surprising to find a fully developed view of the universality of Jesus’s death and forgiveness of sins in the letter. Nevertheless, there is sufficient information to draw this conclusion.

Jesus is described as creator of the universe (kosmos) and “heir of all things” - 1:2, immediately broadening the context from Israel alone. With Jesus, the significance is the entire created universe. “Heir of all things” is left undeveloped, but since the context is creation, we must assume a creation-wide meaning at this point.

Jesus is described as “sustaining all things by his powerful word” - 2:3 NIV. “Sustaining” here can mean either “bearing”/”holding together”, or “bringing forth”. Either way, the significance, at this point, is universal.

The role of Jesus in the wider creation is also declared in 2:10-12, applying Psalm 102:25-27 to Jesus himself.

It’s this kind of context which makes the quotation of Psalm 110:1 which follows very difficult to limit to the kind of human messiah/prophet figure with a limited role in the history of Israel alone which you want to make him.

We find this kind of universality in the quotation of Psalm 8:4-6, especially “and put everything under his feet” - 2:8, with the added thought: “In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him” - 2:8b. What is this “everything”? “He suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” - 2:9. This is from God, “for whom and from whom everything exists” - 2:10. This seems a long way from saying that Jesus’s death, and the significance of his actions, was limited to Israel alone, and not of direct consequence to the wider creation.

The universality of Jesus’s actions, focusing on overcoming death itself, is made a direct statement in 2:14 “that by his death he might destroy him who has the power of death - that is, the devil - and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death”. No suggestion of “the devil = Rome” here, by the way.

The writer does also speak at the same time of the application of these things to “Abraham’s descendants” (in the flesh, if not the Spirit, national Israel), “his brothers” (in the flesh, Israel), and “atonement for the sins of the people” (in the first place, Israel, even if Israel as a whole rejected Jesus), though none of these terms might mean exclusively for Israel, and nowhere are they so described.

The wider conext of the letter is suggested in the creation-wide significance of 3:3b-4, God’s own sabbath rest. This “rest” is associated with faith (3:2), resting from one’s own work, which Israel under Moses/Joshua failed to find. A “rest” remained, even for Israel under David. The language here suggests a present reality rather than a future aspiration - rest of faith, especially in Jesus, in the here and now. “All creation” appears again in 3:13, and qualifies the “Everything” of the same verse which will be uncovered at the judgment, or giving of account to God.

Melchizedek is developed as the model of high priesthoof which Jesus represented. This is taken from Psalm 110, but both refer to the Melchizedek of Genesis 14, who invokes God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth” in blessing Abraham the Gentile. The context is far wider than the Levitical priesthood of Israel, and once again we are connected with a story which precedes Israel, coming from the creation story of Genesis 1-11. The context reaches into a creation story preceding and outside Israel’s history.

I’ve already mentioned the universal significance of Christ’s atoning actions described in 9:26. This is notwithstanding various references in the same chapter to the beneficiaries of the old covenant in the new covenant, but the nature of the new covenant as developed in the entire NT would make it foolish to suggest that this was an exclusive association.

The exhortation to faith in Chapter 11, a subject which is central to the whole letter, provides again a wider context than Israel, including God at creation, Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Rahab. Rahab would seem a deliberate inclusion of a person outside the covenant. These are some 20 verses out of the total 40 in the chapter.

I’ve already mentioned the contrast of the blood of Jesus and what it speaks - “the word” (which might be associated with “the word of God, or the gospel of forgiveness and freedom from sin), and Abel’s blood - 12:24, which again takes us outside the context of Israel.

Finally Jesus himself suffers “outside the city gate”, “outside the camp”, where the readers of the letter are also exhorted to go, with him. The letter finishes with a focus on a person, place and significance which was outside the symbols signifying belonging to Israel.

So I wouldn’t go to Hebrews to prove the universality of faith in Christ in the first place, but there is enough there to strongly suggest that this was entirely what the author understood, and expected of the audience he had in mind - Jewish believers in the 1st century.

A reminder though, that central to the argument is your contention that Jesus died exclusively for the sins of Israel, and not for the sins of the Gentiles.

You keep adding this word “exclusively”. Have I actually used it? My argument has been that Jesus died directly for the sins of Israel and indirectly for the Gentiles.

Also a reminder that the profound depth of change which the death of Jesus facilitated…

This “profound depth of change” thing is part of the evangelical myth that I want to question. I’m not sure it’s there in the New Testament in quite the way we think it is. Change comes about through repentance, forgiveness of sins, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and obedience to God. Where does it say in the New Testament that Jesus’ death facilitates a “profound depth of change”?

Redeemed Israel may confer forgiveness to Gentiles, according to you, but Gentiles may not receive it from Jesus directly. What happens when that 1st century generation of redeemed Israel dies and is no longer there to confer forgiveness is left unexplained, as is much else about this novel teaching.

This is a caricature of my argument. Jesus sends out his disciples with the authority to proclaim forgiveness from God for those who repent. I corrected this misunderstanding in another comment, but you may have missed it.

Jesus is first (i) described in exalted terms which includes being creator of the kosmos

Not correct. Jesus is described as the one “through whom [God] made the ages”.

It’s this kind of context which makes the quotation of Psalm 110:1 which follows very difficult to limit to the kind of human messiah/prophet figure with a limited role in the history of Israel alone which you want to make him.

…though none of these terms might mean exclusively for Israel, and nowhere are they so described.

Your whole argument about the universality of Jesus is irrelevant and once again fails to grasp the point that I am trying to make. There is no question that the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus have universal significance. It is wrong to say—and to be honest, I really don’t understand how you manage to reach this conclusion—that I want to limit the significance of Jesus to the history of Israel alone. That is emphatically not what I am saying. In this post, for example, there is a whole section entitled “Jesus is Lord in relation to the nations”.

The question is whether his death is said to have atoning significance for anyone other than Jews. These verses seem to me to suggest that the writer of Hebrews was thinking of Jesus’ death as the means by which Jews were redeemed from the judgment of the Law, which was to be the destruction of AD 70:

Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant. (Heb. 9:15)

Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. (Heb. 9:22)

Of course, the writer does not explicitly exclude Gentiles, but it is an argument about those under the Law, and it certainly cannot, as it stands, be made to include Gentiles.

The “sabbath rest” is for Israel (Heb. 3:7-11). The fact that “no creature is hidden from his sight” (4:13) hardly permits the conclusion that the writer means to include Gentiles amongst those waiting for this sabbath rest in a way that would allow us to draw the conclusion that Jesus’ death was not for Israel alone. His argument is simply that these Jewish Christians cannot escape the scrutiny of the God to whom all people must ultimately give account.

The context is far wider than the Levitical priesthood of Israel, and once again we are connected with a story which precedes Israel, coming from the creation story of Genesis 1-11.

The argument about Jesus’ death as a sacrifice and the forgiveness of sins is not connected in Hebrews with the priesthood of Melchizedek. The significance of Melchizedek in chapter 7 has to do with two things: first, the fact that Jesus was not a Levite; secondly, the fact that he was the Davidic king, who would reign forever. Melchizedek has nothing to do with atonement and forgiveness of sins, either here or in the Old Testament. So again, your argument is beside the point.

…the nature of the new covenant as developed in the entire NT would make it foolish to suggest that this was an exclusive association.

Clearly I’m not suggesting that the new covenant did not come to include Gentiles.

Chapter 11 is an argument about faith, not about atonement. Peter, you treat these texts as though everything can be thrown into the blender and made into undifferentiated evangelical soup. The arguments matter. The distinctions matter.

Finally Jesus himself suffers “outside the city gate”, “outside the camp”, where the readers of the letter are also exhorted to go, with him. The letter finishes with a focus on a person, place and significance which was outside the symbols signifying belonging to Israel.

I wish you’d read the passage. Jesus suffered outside the gate “in order to sanctify the people through his own blood”—that is, he was rejected by the Jews in the end, he bore their reproach, but by doing that sanctified the people. Not the Gentiles. Just the people of Israel. The writer exhorts these Jewish Christians to go outside the camp with him and suffer the same reproach from their fellow Jews.

You keep adding this word “exclusively”. Have I actually used it?

I’m simply spelling out the meaning of your argument. Jesus died for Israel, not the Gentiles. I haven’t yet seen a coherent argument for how the death of Jesus affects Gentiles, except in round-about language.

Change comes about through repentance, forgiveness of sins, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and obedience to God. Where does it say in the New Testament that Jesus’ death facilitates a “profound depth of change”?

How do you substantiate the first statement? According to you, forgiveness of sins was for Israel’s sins, not those of the Gentiles. How do you substantiate the gift of the Spirit to Gentiles, except as a magical occurrence - eg it happened to Cornelius and his houshold for no reason at all? As for your second sentence, it’s very sad, and almost incredible, that you have taken readings of the NT which have profoundly changed the lives of Christians throughout the ages, and saying they are part of an evangelical soup. That speaks volumes about yourself, Andrew.

Not correct. Jesus is described as the one “through whom [God] made the ages”.

Correct - but now we have to work out what is actually meant by this. Which ages did Jesus make? Or are you limiting this again to ages which you have selected? In Hebrews 1:10-13,citing Psalm 102:25-27, it’s pretty obvious that the author of Hebrews intends us to understand that Jesus is identified with the Lord who created heavens and earth.

Much of your response is misreading what I’m pointing out. The Israel/specific argument concerning Jesus as High Priest, though greater than Angels, Moses, and the Creator himself, is balanced throughout by references to a wider significance - which reaches back to the beginning of history. This is outside Israel’s history, and suggests that Jesus is not limited to that history, or a particular phase of that history.

Since we are looking in Hebrews at the significance of Jesus’s high prisetly actions, which includes at its heart atonement, which I suggest has everything to do with forgiveness of sins, draw your own conclusions.

Or rather - don’t!

I haven’t yet seen a coherent argument for how the death of Jesus affects Gentiles, except in round-about language.

In the straightforward language of Ephesians 2:11-16 Jesus’ death affected Gentiles by breaking down the dividing wall of the Law, allowing Gentiles to become part of the covenant people.

According to you, forgiveness of sins was for Israel’s sins, not those of the Gentiles.

No, according to me, forgiveness of sins was for Jews and for Gentiles on the basis of a new covenant sealed by Jesus’ blood. Gentiles like Cornelius received the Spirit of God because they believed the word about Jesus and Israel. That’s what Acts says.

As for your second sentence, it’s very sad, and almost incredible, that you have taken readings of the NT which have profoundly changed the lives of Christians throughout the ages, and saying they are part of an evangelical soup. That speaks volumes about yourself, Andrew.

It is the Spirit of God which has profoundly changed people’s lives. Why not answer my question? ‘Where does it say in the New Testament that Jesus’ death facilitates a “profound depth of change”?’ But if you find this all so offensive, you don’t have to read it. I certainly stand by my contention that by and large popular evangelical interpretation fails to respect, among other things, important narrative distinctions. I don’t take this lightly. I try to set out very clearly the exegetical reasons for making the statements that I do. There’s not much more I can do than that.

Andrew: this is what you say about the death of Jesus as far as it affects Gentiles:

forgiveness is made contingent upon repentance and upon belief in the story of what God was doing to transform the status of his people in the ancient world through the events of Jesus’ obedient suffering and his vindication

I think this is so convoluted as to be almost incomprehensible. Basically your argument means, as I’ve said all along, the Gentiles saw what God had done for Israel and so believed in that God, even though what that God had done was for Israel and not for them.

The unpalatable reality is that there was an atonement for Israel, in your reading, and not for the Gentiles. Is this really true? I don’t think so, for countless reasons and times I’ve argued it with you - looking at the same texts, and suggesting a better reading. Acts 13 comes to mind especially.

The biblical narrative is not straightforward, but not so lacking in perspicuity that, all the way through, a world-wide intention is being served, in which Israel’s purpose was to serve the nations by bringing to them the same salvation which she herself had experienced. This was rather more than survival through 1st century catastrophes. In other words, salvation was of direct relevance to Gentiles, not an indirect benefit.

I’m not offended by you Andrew, though I think you are selective in things you wish to discuss, and avoid confronting anything which is inconvenient to your argument. I think your knowledge of church history is minimal, otherwise you would not be so brash as to dismiss, as your arguments do, hundreds of years of understanding not simply what the bible says, but what the Holy Spirit is bringing to light and doing. In its place, you present a reading which is not actually new, and which buckles, as I’ve suggested before, once you ask some very simple questions of it.

As for Hebrews and forgiveness of sins, I made it clear in my post that I would not go to Hebrews, in the first place, to make a defence of the universality of the atonement. Nevertheless, there is sufficient in the letter, including Chapter 11, to make us aware that the writer, whose major theme is the atonement, has a much larger canvas than Israel’s 1st century history alone. Is atonement of sins for Israel sealed off from this wider canvas? Of course not.

I am being very sensitive here to narrative distinctions, which I take no more lightly than you. Your exegetical arguments are not value neutral, and they are not convincing, once you start examining where they take us. A better course of action would be, as I have suggested, to return to the drawing board and ask if there are not better ways of framing a narrative historical theology. I think there are.

Basically your argument means, as I’ve said all along, the Gentiles saw what God had done for Israel and so believed in that God, even though what that God had done was for Israel and not for them.

I’m sorry you find it difficult to understand. I have made the point repeatedly that the death of Jesus for Israel was for the benefit of the nations. For example, I put it this way in a comment above:

Your whole argument about the universality of Jesus is irrelevant and once again fails to grasp the point that I am trying to make. There is no question that the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus have universal significance. It is wrong to say—and to be honest, I really don’t understand how you manage to reach this conclusion—that I want to limit the significance of Jesus to the history of Israel alone. That is emphatically not what I am saying.

The question is whether in the texts so far under discussion his death is presented as having atoning significance for the nations or for Israel only. The “and not for them” at the end of your summary of my argument is wrong.

The unpalatable reality is that there was an atonement for Israel, in your reading, and not for the Gentiles. Is this really true? I don’t think so, for countless reasons and times I’ve argued it with you - looking at the same texts, and suggesting a better reading. Acts 13 comes to mind especially.

Well, this seems to me to be the argument that we find in Hebrews and Romans, at least. The Gentiles don’t really feature in the Gospels, and in Acts Jesus’ death is given no real atoning value. Hebrews 9:15, as I’ve pointed out, is quite clear: Jesus’ death redeemed Israel from sins committed under the Law. I think the same argument is at work in Romans 3:21-26.

In Acts 13:48 we are told that the Gentiles believed the word of God. This is the word of God which Paul had spoken to the Jews. It is entirely a word about Israel: Jesus was a Saviour for Israel (13:23); nothing is said about Jesus’ death having an atoning significance; but in any case, forgiveness of sins is explained as freedom “from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses” (13:39). Nothing is said in the whole about Jesus dying for the Gentiles. They believe what God has done for Israel. How this passage can be taken as evidence for the belief that Jesus’ death atoned for the sins of the Gentiles is beyond me. It’s simply not there.

I think your knowledge of church history is minimal, otherwise you would not be so brash as to dismiss, as your arguments do, hundreds of years of understanding not simply what the bible says, but what the Holy Spirit is bringing to light and doing.

Isn’t that a bit of a give-away? What I put forward here is simply an exercise in biblical interpretation. It’s not done in a vacuum. I make extensive use of commentaries and other works of critical scholarship, which embody much of the accumulated exegetical wisdom of the church. But you seem to be implying that what the Holy Spirit is bringing to light is something other than or more than what the Bible actually says. That is a rather dodgy position to take, but even if we accept it, my task is simply to ask what is being said in the texts in light of the historical and literary contexts presupposed. If that differs from what the Holy Spirit has been saying since then, well, that is a problem that needs to be addressed. But I don’t think we do ourselves any good by reading the texts under the influence of later traditions.