I started looking at Hebrews 10 in order to reply to a comment from Chris Wooldridge, who cited the chapter as an example of how Jesus’ death is treated not only as a historical event but also as a theological or metaphysical event.
But you quickly discover that Hebrews 10 is part of a long, dense, tightly woven, intertextual (i.e. it draws extensively on the Old Testament) argument about the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection for the community of Jewish believers (presumably) to whom the letter is written.
You can’t prise a few statements about Jesus’ death as a one-off sacrifice from it and expect them to stand up on their own as general theological propositions. They don’t. They fall over.
So I have spent rather longer than I intended this week trying to construct a coherent summary of the “great high priest” narrative. Interestingly, it connects the pragmatic non-theory of the atonement argument with the other theme that I have been doggedly pursuing recently—the transformation of the suffering apostles or the suffering churches into the image of Christ.
But it’s a complicated argument, and I’m sure many will find it unsatisfactory. Hebrews is an extraordinary text, but it’s not an easy one.
He will bring many sons to glory
- The practical purpose of the letter is to encourage wavering Jewish Christians to persevere in their faith—the likelihood being that they will face more intense persecution in the future (Heb. 3:6, 14; 4:1, 11; 6:11; 12:1-2; 13:13).
- The elaborate and somewhat contrived high priest analogy is designed to serve this practical purpose. Jesus is not literally a high priest operating in a heavenly sanctuary.
- Jesus is presented, in the first place, in very human terms as one who was obedient to the will of God; in fact, the writer says that he “learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb. 2:16-18; 5:7-10; 10:9).
- He made the journey of suffering, death and vindication in advance of others; he has preceded the author and recipients of the letter “as a forerunner on our behalf” (Heb. 2:9; 6:20). If they are going to suffer to the point of shedding their blood, they need to know that he went through the same experience before them, faithfully and without sin (Heb. 4:15; 12:3-4).
- By overcoming death he has removed the fear of death for these Jewish believers (Heb. 2:14-15). They have no reason not to persevere, because even death has been defeated (cf. Rom. 8:35-39).
- Jesus is the founder of the salvation of those who will make the same journey after him; and in line with other passages in the New Testament it is said that he will bring “many sons to glory” (Heb. 2:10). To use Paul’s language, they will be conformed to Jesus’ image; he will be the firstborn among many brethren. What is in view is not the general salvation of Christians but salvation as the completion of the journey of Christlike suffering and vindication by these Jewish Christians.
- When the writer says that, “being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (Heb. 5:9), this is a salvation that comes as a consequence of the obedience and perseverance that is now being asked of the readers. That is, it is always an argument about the practical fulfilment of eschatological purpose.
Salvation means getting to the end
- Salvation is not the beginning of the journey for these believers. It is the end of the journey. They have repented of their dead works of the Law, they have faith in God, they believe in the coming resurrection and judgment of Israel (Heb. 6:1-2). That has got them started on the eschatological mission. But they still need to be saved.
- The writer, in effect, reiterates Jesus’ saying about the disciples being saved when the end comes, when judgment finally comes on Jerusalem (e.g. Mk. 13:13), though the quotation of Haggai 2:6 in Hebrews 12:26 and the reference to a “kingdom that cannot be shaken” suggests that a wider judgment on the nations is in view.
- This is not universal, indiscriminate, generalised, one-size-fits-all Christian teaching. It shows us what was happening to a particular group of people at this critical juncture in the whole story of the people of God. A narrative-historical hermeneutic does not have to extract direct application from the text, by coercion, despite history. We learn about ourselves by telling the story of the historical experience of the people of God.
- Also, in response to Chris’ comment that this approach is a “tad reductionistic”, I would argue to the contrary that I am greatly enlarging the hermeneutical space that the Bible needs in order to speak to us with integrity as a historical text, rather than as a reduced, flattened, shrunken pretext for an abstract theologising.
The obedient Son who was appointed great high priest
- Jesus was raised and passed through the heavens (Heb. 4:14). The normal New Testament argument would then be that he was given authority to judge and rule at the right hand of God, in accordance with Psalm 110:1. The writer to the Hebrews knows about this argument (Heb. 1:13; 10:13), but he takes the thought in a different direction, using a different Old Testament idea , with a different purpose in view.
- As the writer sees it, it is not fundamentally the death of Jesus that has changed everything for Israel but the resurrection of Jesus. The resurrection has made Jesus perfect, which qualifies him to function as a great high priest and to be the “guarantor of a better covenant” (Heb. 7:15-22).
- It was by virtue of the resurrection (“by the power of an indestructible life”) that he became a high priest after the order of Melchizedek (Heb. 7:15-16). He is a high priest like Melchizedek inasmuch as he has no “end of life”, he “continues a priest for ever” (Heb. 7:3). Because he has overcome death and “continues for ever”, he “holds his priesthood permanently” (Heb. 7:24).
The great high priest presents his own death as an offering
- But working backwards from this, certain things may be said about the death of Jesus. The argument goes something like this: Jesus was the obedient “son” who died; he was raised from the dead as the forerunner of many other such sons, who would eventually inherit the age to come if they stuck around long enough; therefore he may be regarded as their great high priest; therefore—finally—a redemptive purpose may be ascribed to his death as a further development of this complex, counter-Mosaic, polemical analogy.
- Having passed through the heavens, Jesus entered into the heavenly holy of holies and, as a great high priest, presented to God the offering of his obedient suffering, by which he had been made perfect (7:28).
- So the sacrifice was made on the cross, but Jesus presented his own death—or his blood—in the heavenly holy of holies, analogous to the high priest in the earthly tabernacle (Heb. 9:11-12).
- He has appeared “at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself”; like Isaiah’s suffering servant he has borne the “sins of many”; without the shedding of blood “there is no forgiveness”; he “suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood” (Heb. 9:22, 26, 28; 13:12).
- This is a death not for the world but for the sins of Israel; it “redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant” (Heb. 9:15). Again, we have to keep in view the narrative-historical parameters of the argument.
- Because Jesus has been “made perfect” by his suffering, death and resurrection, the sacrifice he offered was “once for all” (Heb. 7:23-28; 9:26).
As great high priest Jesus sustains the suffering community of Jewish believers
- The offering was accepted, and Jesus sat down at the right hand of God, “waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet” (Heb. 10:13). We can clearly see here that the writer has superimposed the “great high priest” narrative over the kingdom narrative derived from Psalm 110:1.
- As the great high priest he “is able to help those who are being tested” and mediates on behalf of Jewish believers (Heb. 2:18; 9:24) to enable them to persevere; he “will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Heb. 9:28).
No deep magic involved
The sacrificial death cannot be separated from the full story of the son who learns obedience, suffers, dies, is raised, is appointed heavenly high priest for the sake of those who draw near to God through him, and rules at the right hand of YHWH. The story is told for the benefit of Jewish believers daunted by the prospect of a long period of uncertainty and persecution before they finally gain the promised vindication and kingdom.
The death of Jesus had redemptive significance in this narrative not because the death worked some sort of deep atonement “magic” but because by the resurrection of Jesus from the dead God brought about something new for his people—a new covenant, on the one hand; Jesus’ supportive role as great high priest, on the other, enabling communities such as this one to emulate their Lord: “let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured” (Heb. 13:13).
What’s at stake here is not personal salvation so much as the consistent witness of a vulnerable community through to the day when Jesus is confessed as Lord by the nations, when at last they will enter God’s rest. Job done.