Tuesday, January 17, 2006

N.T. Wright addressing Hebrews in outline

N T. Wright, in his collection of sermons entitled Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship (Eerdmans, 1994), devotes a chapter to an analysis of the larger themes in the book of Hebrews. He identifies three motifs running through the book, or, as he says, “three lines of thought which may open the book up for us, not least in coming to the Eucharist.” These are: A compelling portrait of Jesus; A new reading of the Old Testament; Jesus the Final Sacrifice. In the process, he also outlines the structure of the book, and it is this that I want to reproduce here. Why? Well in order to provide context to the long-in-the-making discussion of the definition of faith in Hebrews chapter 11. Now, to Dr. Wright:

“In chapter 1, Jesus is the Son of God, superior even to the angels. There were some in the early Church who thought of Jesus as just a special sort of angel; no, says the writer, he is of a different order of being altogether. But at once, in case you should get the wrong idea, chapter 2 emphasizes that Jesus is also totally and truly human. Please note: not only was Jesus totally and truly human, he still is. One writer described Hebrews’ portrait of Jesus as ‘our man in heaven’. That is one of the major thrusts of the book – to emphasize that the one who has sat where we sit, who has lived our life and died our death, has now been exalted and glorified precisely as a human being. He hasn’t, as it were, ‘gone back to being just God again’. Chapter 2 closes with the first statement of our opening theme: because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

Then, in chapters 3 and 4, Jesus is the true Joshua; it’s the same name, actually, in Hebrew and Greek. He is the one who leads the people of God into their true promised land. Then, in chapters 5, 6, and 7, he is the true high priest. That’s where Melchizedek comes in. To understand this we need to take a step sideways for a moment.

It was a problem for the early Church that Jesus was from the house of David. It meant he was qualified to be Messiah, that is, King of Israel. But it disqualified him from being a high priest, who should have been from the house of Levi, a different tribe altogether. Hebrew points out that, in Psalm 110, the King is said to be a priest for ever, according to the order of Melchizedek, whose priesthood does not depend on ancestry but on the call of God alone. Jesus is not, then, a transient high priest, to be replaced by someone else. He remains a priest for ever. In other words, summing up where we’ve got to so far, Jesus, the Son of God, the truly human one, is leading his people to their promised land, and is available for all people and for all time as the totally sympathetic one, the priest through whom they can come to God. Following Jesus is the only way to go.

We then move into chapters 8-10, which speak of Jesus’ sacrifice and the new covenant, to which we shall return. This leads us to the great list of the heroes of faith in chapter 11. There are lists like this in various Jewish writings; and the vital thing about the list is, who comes at the end? In one of the most famous lists, the one in Ecclessiasticus which begins ‘Let us now praise famous men . . .’, the answer is: Jesus himself. In chapter 12.1-3 the writer issues an appeal which could stand as the key biblical text on the whole theme of ‘following Jesus’:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith. For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God.

Consider how he endured such opposition from sinners, in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart.

The themes we have already looked at come to a head in this passage. Take them in reverse order: Jesus, the high priest, coming at the end of the great list of heroes. Jesus, the one who leads us into our promised land, the pioneer, the one who goes ahead to blaze the trail. Jesus, the truly human being, who has travelled the road of human suffering ahead of us. Jesus, now enthroned as Son of God. Jesus, therefore – as the final chapter, chapter 13, puts it – Jesus Christ, the same, yesterday, today, and for ever; Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, the one brought again from the dead. That is the picture of Jesus which Hebrews offers us; . . . And at the heart of this picture we find the cross: the cross which Jesus endured on our behalf, which was, as we shall see, the final sacrifice. This, then, is the first part of the bird’s-eye view of Hebrews: a picture of the human high priest Jesus and his cross.” (pp. 5-7a)
Cf. the previous post in this series: The danger of substantial faith - pt 2

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