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).