“Cleansing the Heavenly Things” in Hebrews

About: this paper was delivered to Dr. Lincoln Hurst at Fuller Theological Seminary during my first year for a class on Hebrews.

 

What does Hebrews mean when it says that the heavenly things needed cleansing? If we want to determine what the cleansing of the heavenly things is, we have to work through three questions. First, “What are the earthly things and heavenly things in Hebrews?” Second, “How does Christ’s sacrifice relate to the earthly and heavenly things?” Finally, “What is the cleansing of the heavenly things?” Although one might think that answering these questions would satisfactorily answer our question, the truth is that the information available to us from scholars keeps us from doing so because scholarship is too diverse in its understanding, but we will indeed arrive to a conclusion through approaching our four questions.

What are the earthly things and heavenly things in Hebrews? Donald Guthrie understands that the earthly things are copies or counterparts of the heavenly things, and they needed purification due to sin (Guthrie 1983, 196). William Lane understands that the earthly things are “an imperfect suggestion” of the heavenly things (1991, 247). George Ladd writes that the author of Hebrews “is describing heavenly things in earthly, symbolic language” (1993, 621). Ladd argues that we should not understand the heavenly things to be literal or real as the earthly things are, but rather, they are symbolic and must be understood figuratively. The division among scholars in understanding the terms makes our understanding of the final question all the more difficult to determine. For our purposes, we will take Ladd’s approach, for it is unlikely that Christ literally took his own blood into heaven to offer a sacrifice to God on our behalf. If the heavenly things are to be understood metaphorically or figuratively, then how should we understand the cleansing of the earthly and heavenly things?

William Barclay, who seems to be the only one in this research who directly addressed this avenue, writes that the author of Hebrews “says that in this world the Levitical sacrifices were designed to purify the means of worship. For instance, the sacrifices of the Day purified the tabernacle and the altar and the Holy Place” (1957, 121). According to Barclay, cleansing for the earthly things means purifying the tabernacle, the altar and the Holy Place for worship. The author of Hebrews makes it clear that Christ cleansed the heavenly things. Before we examine what that means, we should first examine how Christ’s sacrifice relates to the heavenly and earthly things.

How does Christ’s sacrifice relate to both the earthly and heavenly things? Donald Hagner says that Christ’s sacrifice belonged to the heavenly things and not to the earthly things (2002, 125). For Barclay, the work of Christ purifies both earth and heaven in effect, as his sacrifice “purified the whole universe, seen and unseen” (1957, 121-2). For Guthrie, the work of Christ in the heavenly things is a complete fulfillment of the earthly sacrifices (1983, 196). For Lane, Christ’s sacrifice relates to both the earthly things and the heavenly things because he purified the heavenly sanctuary from the people’s sins committed in the earthly things” (1991, 247). For Ladd, Christ’s sacrifice was made in the earthly things but it was at the same time an event that happened in the spiritual world too, where “the heavenly is embodied in the earthly” (1993, 621). In other words, the sacrifice Christ made on the cross was an actual event in history that had spiritual meaning, so it exists in both the historical and spiritual worlds (1993, 627). There is no consistency among the scholars. For our purposes we should understand that Christ’s sacrifice was one made in earthly history but with heavenly ramifications. Now that we have answered the first three of our four questions, we are in a position where we are able to determine more clearly, although not decisively, what the cleansing of the heavenly things is in Hebrews.

What is the cleansing of the heavenly things in Hebrews? Lane says that the heavenly things were tainted by the sins of the people and therefore needed cleansing, and therefore the sacrifice of Christ purified the heavenly things from such defilement (1991, 247). However, Ladd states that the heavenly things were not defiled by the sins of the people, so they did not require cleansing (1993, 621). Scholarship is not unanimous in understanding the cleansing of the heavenly things. On the one hand, scholars argue that the heavenly things were tainted by the earthly sins of the people and required cleansing for which Christ sacrificed himself. On the other hand, scholars argue that the heavenly things were not tainted and therefore did not require cleansing. In the latter case, scholarship is still unclear in understanding what the cleansing of the heavenly things is. The former case does not give a satisfactory understanding in accord with the symbolic or figurative language of the author of Hebrews.

What we have is an unsatisfactory polarity. What we have here is an unsatisfying understanding of the cleansing of the heavenly things. Scholarship is diverse in its understanding and has not presented us with a clear argument. However, Lincoln Hurst, in a class on Hebrews, has made a connection between the cleansing of the heavenly and earthly things in Hebrews with the inauguration sacrifice for the tabernacle, and it seems that this understanding is the most helpful and most satisfactory. We will now briefly examine this understanding.

Hurst first identified that the heavenly things needed cleansing just as the earthly things needed cleansing. But, he asks, “Why?” He rightly acknowledges that the author of Hebrews is thinking sacrificially. At this point Hurst turns to the sacrificial language utilized by the author of Hebrews. He notes that “cleansing” or “purified” is used in the Septuagint and by Jocephus to refer to sanctuary offerings and not sacrificial offerings. Such sanctuary offerings were performed in the purification ritual that inaugurated the Mosaic covenant with the people of Israel. Hurst concludes that because the earthly things were initiated, so also the heavenly things needed to be initiated. Human hands inaugurated the earthly things, but God inaugurated the heavenly things. Therefore, according to Hurst we should understand the cleansing of the heavenly things as an inauguration of the new covenant. This understanding is the most satisfactory as it takes into account the language of the text and the priestly customs that it alludes to while at the same time understanding that metaphorical or figurative language is being utilized. As a result, this position is the one that we will take.

In order to understand what the cleansing of the heavenly things is in Hebrews, we have to first understand what the earthly and heavenly things is, and second how Christ’s sacrifice relates to both the earthly and heavenly things. The earthly things are literal while the heavenly things are figurative. The cleansing of the earthly things is an actual sanctuary purification sacrifice. Christ’s sacrifice was on earth but it had heavenly significance in the fact that it inaugurated the new covenant in the presence of God while the earthly sacrifices inaugurated temporary purification. Therefore, the cleansing of the heavenly things is the inauguration of the new covenant, the time of fulfillment when God would write his laws on the hearts of his people and remember their sins no more. Although scholars are not unanimous in understanding what the cleansing of the heavenly things are, Hurst’s proposal is the most satisfactory. It accounts for the literal and figurative language of the earthly and heavenly things. It accounts for Christ’s sacrifice in relation to both the earthly and heavenly things. And it accounts for the language of the text as well as the meaning of the purification ritual. What is the cleansing of the heavenly things? It would seem that it is a purification offering for the heavenly sanctuary that initiated the new covenant era.

Bibliography

Barclay, William. 1957. The Letter to the Hebrews. Daily Bible Study. Edinburgh: The Saint

Andrew Press.

 

Guthrie, Donald. 1983. The Letter to the Hebrews. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries.

Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Cambridge, U. K.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

and InterVarsity Press.

 

Hagner, Donald. 2002. Encountering the Book of Hebrews: an exposition. Grand Rapids: Baker

Academic.

 

Ladd, George. 1993. A Theology of the New Testament. Revised Edition. Donald Hagner, ed.

Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

 

Lane, William. 1991. Word Biblical Commentary: Hebrews 9-13. Vol. 47b. David Hubbard,

Glenn Barker, Ralph Martin, eds. Columbia: Word, Incorporated.

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