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The glory of the builder of the house

Tomorrow I plan to publish a list of the most popular posts on P.OST over the last year. But it was suggested to me by someone before Christmas that Hebrews 3:3-4 makes sense only if ‘the author is flatly calling Jesus “God”’. I want to get this out of the way first. So with the usual caveat that this is not an argument against Trinitarianism, which I regard as a later reframing of a narrative problem, but an argument for the apocalyptic outlook of the New Testament, here is how I think this very interesting passage should be read.

First, we need to grasp the context. The author argues that it is fitting that the one who would bring many sons to glory through the sort of suffering that the readers of the letter were experiencing should himself be made “perfect through suffering” (Heb. 2:10). In this specific sense the readers of the letter are his “brothers” (Heb. 2:12). They are like the disciples given to Isaiah (Heb. 2:13; cf. Is. 8:18).

These “children” have shared in “blood and flesh”. The writer does not mean that they share a common humanity—that would make little sense in this context. He means that they have shared in persecution—or at least that they have experienced the weakness of the flesh in the face of persecution (cf. 1 Macc. 7:17; Wis. 12:5; Zeph. 1:17; Ezek. 32:5). The perfect tense points to a past experience (cf. Heb. 10:32-33).

But if the “many sons”, “brothers”, “children” must suffer in this way, it was necessary that Jesus should go through exactly that experience before them in order to destroy the power that the devil had over them (Heb. 2:14-15). For Jesus “likewise” to share in the same things (Heb. 2:14) is a reference to persecution, not to incarnation: the argument is not that Jesus had to take on flesh but that he had to suffer. This is how he became a high priest who could help the “offspring of Abraham”: on the one hand, he made propitiation for the sins that had brought this time of calamity upon Israel; on the other, he could support his “brothers” when they faced suffering too.

The writer urges his readers, therefore, to set their minds on Jesus, “the apostle and high priest of our confession”. Jesus was “faithful to the one who made him as also Moses in his house” (Heb. 3:2, my translation). The analogy with Moses is constructed on the basis of Numbers 12:7: “Not so with my servant Moses. He is faithful in all my house.”

So Jesus is like Moses in that he was appointed by God to a position in the house of Israel because of faithfulness. But he differs from Moses with respect to glory:

For he has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses, inasmuch as the one building it has more honour than the house. For every house is built by someone, and the one who built all things is God…. (Heb. 3:3-4, my translation)

This is where the question of the relation of Jesus to God arises. Jesus appears to be understood as the builder of the house, but God is the one who built all things—therefore, surely, Jesus is being called God?

In view of the overall argument, however, I would suggest that a different line of thought is to be found here. 

The writer identifies himself and his readers with the “house” over which Jesus is the Son, provided that we hold fast to the end (Heb. 3:6). They are a community that has experienced persecution in the past and they are likely to face it again in the future. It is in this specific regard that they are members of the house of the one who suffered and was glorified.

I suggest, therefore, that the statement “the one who built all things is God” has reference not in this context to creation but to Israel. Moses was a faithful servant in this house “to testify to the things that were to be spoken later” (Heb. 3:5). Jesus, however, has greater glory because he has built a house of “many sons”, “brothers”, and disciples who will endure suffering through to the end (cf. Heb. 3:14). This house is not the church as we understand it but an eschatological community within the people of God, founded or pioneered by Jesus (cf. Heb. 12:1-2), through whose faithful suffering the people of God will be saved and attain the life of the age to come.

This is exactly Paul’s argument in Romans. The believers in Rome will be “fellow heirs with Christ” (or brothers, cf. Rom. 8:29) if they suffer with him and, as a consequence, are glorified with him. In fact, it is the argument of the New Testament generally. First Jews and then Gentiles are called to become part of a transitional eschatological community that must take the narrow path leading to life, must learn how to suffer for the sake of the future of the people of God. This is the story that is being told.

Jesus is not equated with God, therefore, in the argument of Hebrews 3:3-4. He is the one who “learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb. 5:8) in order to defeat the devil, and was raised from the dead in vindication—that is, was glorified. He is, therefore, the “apostle and high priest” of their confession—he has made the transition possible, and he will support those who will suffer after him. But more importantly he has been given the status of “Son” over this house in transition—that is, he has inherited the fullness of the authority and status and blessing that God has promised his people for the age to come. God is putting all things in subjection under his feet. He has been crowned with “glory and honour” because he suffered death for the sake of God’s people (Heb. 2:8-9).

Comments

Excellent thoughts Andrew…

I suggest, therefore, that the statement “the one who built all things is God” has reference not in this context to creation but to Israel.

I would see it as a kind of synthesis of the two in that “creation” equals “Israel”. This then as I read it is the better understanding of Paul’s “the creation” of Rom 8:18-23, where “Israel” eagerly waits for revealing of “sons of God” i.e., the persecuted ‘firstfruit saints’ – Jesus, Paul and Co. Israel had been subjected by God to “vanity” aka “the bondage of corruption” i.e., ‘the law’ (Gal 3:23-25) til the Hope of Israel (messiah) arrived bringing the “glorious liberty of the children of God.” (cf. 2Cor 3:7-11) Thus God rebuilding “all things” is seen in terms of covenant renewal… that which Israel “in Christ” was being called to… to be a “new creation” i.e., new Israel, or as Paul has it “the Israel of God” Gal 6:16.

This house is not the church as we understand it but an eschatological community within the people of God, founded or pioneered by Jesus (cf. Heb. 12:1-2), through whose faithful suffering the people of God will be saved and attain the life of the age to come.

Agreed… again, these are ‘the firstfruit saints’ of that “last days” AD30-70 transitional eschatological community, Jesus’ “this generation” aka “the church of the first born-ones” (plural my translation) Heb 12:23. These were they who were being “baptised for the dead” (1Cor 15:29) – ‘the dead’ being Israel; dead in trespasses and sins. Like Jesus the firstfruit saints were laying their lives down in suffering (persecution) on behalf of their brethren Israel… as is outlined in Jesus’ baptism of suffering of Mk 10:38-39; this equates to Paul’s “I die daily” of 1Cor 15:31.

This is exactly Paul’s argument in Romans. The believers in Rome will be “fellow heirs with Christ” (or brothers, cf. Rom. 8:29) if they suffer with him and, as a consequence, are glorified with him. In fact, it is the argument of the New Testament generally.

Likewise this ties in with what I’m saying above.

But more importantly he has been given the status of “Son” over this house in transition—that is, he has inherited the fullness of the authority and status and blessing that God has promised his people for the age to come.

Again as I understand it “this house in transition” was the changing of covenant bodies, old to new – from the body of Moses (law) to the body of Christ (grace). This then is Paul’s groan and then victory cry… “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” The ‘body of death’ was the old covenant mode of existence… that which Israel through the Suffering Servant and His Saints was being resurrected up out of – thus “the redemption of our body” (singular) of Rom 8:23. Hence ‘the body’ of 1Cor 15:42-44, 46 in transition … it is being sown, it is being raised.

Davo,

Excellent!! Can’t say I’ve ever read something that covered multiple huge concepts and be so on target in such a small amount of space. I agree 100% with it all. I’ve suggested before (many times) to Andrew that the creation in Romans 8 was Israel and had nothing to do with the physical creation, as well as your points about 1 Cor. 15. He rejects it everytime. Of course if I were anywhere close to being as articulate as you, who knows, he might have change his mind long ago.

Andrew, do you have any thoughts about what Davo prosented?

Thanks Rich, appreciate that. It’s all grist for the mill. :)

Sorry, I am not persuaded that everything must be collapsed into Israel’s story. Or rather, it seems to me intrinsic to the story of Israel—both in the Old Testament and in second temple Judaism—that Israel is in conflict with the nations and that this conflict has to do with the fact i) that one God created the heavens and the earth, and ii) that YHWH will eventually triumph over the nations. I think that the New Testament presupposes both aspects of that conflict. It is important to affirm the centrality of the story of Israel—in explaining, for example, eschatology or salvation. But the story makes no sense apart from the two fundamental presuppositions of creation and kingdom. So we should expect to find these thoughts present in the New Testament. It seems to me that what you are proposing takes the story of Israel out of the historical and theological framework that makes sense of it.

Thanks for an interesting post, Andrew, and slightly in advance, happy New Year.

I think you could argue Hebrews 3:3-4 either way. In one sense, it looks as if Moses’ house/Jesus’ house is reflected in the parallelism of ‘someone’s house’/all things built by God’, so that Jesus is paralleled with God.

Further, there isn’t a simple parallel between Moses and Jesus, not only because of the servant/son contrast, but also because of Moses’ house being “a testimony of the things going to be spoken”. This is looking ahead to the issue of Israel failing to enter God’s rest through disobedience, and that rest remaining to be entered, which the rest of 3/4 goes on to expound.

This wider context of ‘rest’ takes us beyond the context of endurance through suffering and persecution. This context is also evident in the preceding passage, which you do not comment on, and in which you make a curious alteration to the word order of a key phrase.

You say, para 3, “These “children” have shared in “blood and flesh” “. This seems to emphasize the point you want to make, that it is referring to sharing in suffering and persecution (though no shedding of blood by the Hebrew believers has yet taken place). In fact the phrase is “shared in flesh and blood”. This may be a simple mistake, but it draws attention to the phrase. Does it connote suffering through persecution? The phrase is used in Matthew 16:17, and it seems as if the Greek usage is the same as our idiomatic use of “flesh and blood”, meaning “common humanity”, or “humanity in contrast with spirit”, where spirit is the Spirit of God.

In fact, Hebrews 2 draws attention to a wider issue than endurance through persecution, which is the victory of Christ over death. While this would be an obvious encouragement to those facing persecution, it does draw attention to a wider significance of Jesus, which was more than providing an example of faithful endurance. Jesus’ death overcame the one who held the power of death, that is the devil, and gave freedom to those who were enslaved by the fear of death (3:14-15).

This was an essential part of the greater hope which Jesus gave to those with whom he also shared in their “flesh and blood”. The letter as a whole is saying something much more than exhorting a “community within a community” to hold out for better historical times to come on earth. At least, the better time to come on earth was much more than freedom from persecution and suffering.

Once again, we are back to the big story/little story debate. It’s difficult to get away from the big story in Hebrews, in which we are talking about eternal truths and fulfilment of a much bigger scriptural story as well as immediate local difficulties in an on-going story.

In fact the phrase is “shared in flesh and blood”. This may be a simple mistake, but it draws attention to the phrase. Does it connote suffering through persecution? The phrase is used in Matthew 16:17, and it seems as if the Greek usage is the same as our idiomatic use of “flesh and blood”, meaning “common humanity”, or “humanity in contrast with spirit”, where spirit is the Spirit of God.

The Greek is τὰ παιδία κεκοινώνηκεν αἵματος καὶ σαρκός: “the children have shared in blood and flesh”. There’s no mistake—English translations seem to default to the idiomatic “flesh and blood”. Matthew 16:17 has σὰρξ καὶ αἷμα, though I’m not sure we should give too much weight to word order. If the thought is of a common humanity in Hebrews 2:14, we would expect the present tense rather than the perfect, which suggests a particular experience in the past. But in any case, to say that the children have shared in a common humanity seems a statement of the obvious: the writer can’t be saying, “Since therefore the children have been human….” We also have the important emphasis on suffering in 2:9-10. So I think, as I said in the post, that having shared in blood and flesh at least means that “they have experienced the weakness of the flesh in the face of persecution”, which is fully in keeping with the argument of the letter.

Andrew,

I must admit that I’ve enjoyed your various post about supposed passages that support the divinity of Jesus. You have challenged me many times and I admit I’ve walked away usually having to agreed with your arguments. I haven’t changed my belief on the divinity of Jesus, but I think I understand that various passages that you’ve covered that have traditionally been used to support that belief in a different light.

So, since we’re on the book of Hebrews I would like to challenge you with Hebrews 1:6-8. To me this is a clear passage that speaks to the divinity of Jesus. Specifically the command for the angles to “worship” the Son, and verse 8’s denunciation “Your throne, O God”. Verse 10 could also be sighted but I want to keep it simple.

Also, while were on the topic. You have stated many times that you do hold to the trinity and that you do support the divinity of Jesus, thus my question to you is, which passages do you believe supports the divinity of Jesus? I think we’re all dying to know. :)

Thanks, Rich.

These verses need to be examined at greater length, but just briefly for now…

Hebrews 1:5-6 consists of statements about Israel’s king (Ps. 2:7; 2 Sam. 7:14). The “firstborn” who is brought into the oikoumenē is also Israel’s king (cf. Ps. 89:26-27), though perhaps there is a suggestion in verse 6b that the king is worshipped as God (cf. Deut. 32:43; Ps. 97:7). Verses 8-9 are a quotation from Psalm 45:6-7, which is also addressed to Israel’s king. Here either it was possible for the king to be addressed as elohim or Psalm 45:6 is addressed directly to the God who anoints the king, etc. (45:7). This would seem to suggest either that there is nothing very exceptional about applying “Your throne, O God…”, to Jesus in Hebrews 1:8, or that it is only the second part of the quotation that applies to Jesus: “therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions” (Heb. 1:9)—the companions being the “children”, “many sons” (Heb. 2:10, 14), who will suffer after him, as noted in the post.

As for your second question…

1. The dominant argument of the New Testament by a long way is the apocalyptic-kingdom one: the man Jesus was raised from the dead, exalted to the right hand of God, and given authority from God to judge and rule over the nations.

2. For reasons that are unclear to me Jesus was also associated, perhaps at a very early stage, with divine wisdom, meaning that he was seen as the means or agent by which the new reality had come about and perhaps by which all creation originally was made (eg. 1 Cor. 8:6; Col. 1:15-17). Arguably this makes him part of the primal divine identity, though the point needs to be carefully stated.

3. The divine status claimed for pagan kings appears to have been a factor in the attribution of divinity to Jesus (cf. Jn. 20:28; Phil. 2:6-11), though this is an extension of the kingdom argument. If Domitian was Lord and God, then so must Jesus be.

4. In the end it seems that the Greeks needed to reinterpret the kingdom data in metaphysical terms, which is why the Son of God became God the Son, the second person of the trinity. The historical narrative about kingdom is translated—unavoidably, and rightly, given the presuppositions of the Greek world—into the dynamics of internal trinitarian relations.