“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. Paper below the jump.

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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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“Faith” 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 is faith in the letter to the Hebrews? Is this theme platonic, i.e. focused on the true things in heaven rather than the copies here on earth? Is it purely intellectual? Furthermore, how does faith function in Hebrews? What purpose does this theme serve? It has been suggested that faith in Hebrews is platonic, that it is understood to be an intellectual understanding of the true heavenly nature of the copies seen on earth. Although the theme of faith in Hebrews might appear to be platonic and purely intellectual at first glance, it is actually quite practical before a Jewish-apocalyptic background. In order to demonstrate this theme’s practical nature in light of its Jewish-apocalyptic background, we will examine two important parts to faith in Hebrews. First, we will look at what faith is and how it is understood in Hebrews. Second, we will look at how this theme functions in Hebrews. Then, after having looked at these two parts, we will briefly determine why faith in Hebrews is not platonic or purely intellectual.

What is faith in Hebrews? Donald Hagner defines faith as follows: “Belief, trust, and obedience to God as revealed in Jesus Christ” (2002, 202). Faith has a prerequisite—belief in God (2002, 145). Faith cannot exist unless one believes that God exists because it requires obedience to God; if one does not believe in God, then one cannot have faith, because it is impossible for one to obey someone that does not exist. Faith is also possible only because Jesus enables it for us (Lindars 1991, 45). Thus, faith is belief and obedience to God, which is made possible through Jesus Christ. Yet, in Hebrews faith is much more developed than this simple definition. It is also a response that is not merely intellectual but practical too (1991, 98). Jesus is the object of faith in Hebrews (1991, 48). Faith is also required and expected of all believers in this letter (Lindars 1991, 107, 112-3). But still, it is much more complicated than this simple understanding of it. Faith is an attitude of the mind (1991, 108), but it is also a response from the heart (43). In addition, faith is “a believing response to the promise of God” (Lane 1991, 315). Barnabas Lindars adds, “Faith in Hebrews is a moral quality of firmness, fidelity, and reliability” (1991, 109). William Lane agrees, stating that faith “is characterized by firmness, reliability, and steadfastness. It is trust in God and in his promises” (1991, 315). Faith in Hebrews “is the proper response to God’s act of salvation through Christ” as well as “a moral quality which should be constantly expressed in Christian living” (Lindars 1991, 110). George Ladd writes, “In Hebrews faith is the faculty to perceive the reality of the unseen world of God and to make it the primary object of one’s life, in contrast to the transitory and often evil character of present human existence” (1993, 631). Furthermore, “Faith is that which makes real to the believer the unseen world of God” (1993, 631). Hagner states it similarly in the following words: “Faith makes concrete what is unavailable to our sight” (2002, 143). To sum up all of these various facets of faith in the letter of Hebrews, we might want to try to produce a working definition of faith that attempts to include as many of the aforementioned elements without becoming so complex that it transforms into something that is unhelpful.

We can define faith as follows: faith is an attitude of the mind and an active response from the heart that is required of every Christian in which firmness, fidelity and reliability should characterize him or her in a constant expression of devoted living through following the example of Jesus Christ, so that the struggle against sin might be maintained, suffering persevered, and persecution withstood. Note the major elements of faith in this definition. Faith is an attitude and a response. Faith is required. Faith is characterized by firmness, fidelity and reliability. Faith is a constant expression of devoted living. Faith is living by the example of Jesus Christ. For Hebrews faith encompasses all of these and much more. Faith is also perceived as the human responsibility in the covenant God made through Christ’s death on the cross (Lindars 1991, 108), which is why it is so important for a Christian to have, so that his or her salvation might be brought to completion (1991, 108). Now that we have seen the intricate understanding of faith in Hebrews, we can look at the function of this theme.

Hebrews uses the theme of faith in order to accomplish several things, such as, but not limited to, to highlight secured forgiveness of sins through the completed work of Christ (Lindars 1991, 103), to exhort the recipients to make extra effort and take extra care to be full participants in all aspects of Christian living (117), to ensure that the struggle against sin would be maintained and suffering would be persevered (113-4). As per our working definition, faith in Hebrews functions to help fight against the struggle with sin, to help persevere through suffering, and to help withstand persecution. This three-piece function is demonstrated in Hebrews 11 and 12, where faith is used to persuade the readers in such a way that they not give up against their struggle with sin, that they persevere through suffering, and that they withstand persecution. Now that we have looked at the function of the theme in addition to its understanding in Hebrews, we can now explore why faith is not platonic or purely intellectual.

If faith were platonic in Hebrews, it would follow that the object of faith would be the true thing in heaven as opposed to its copy on earth. However, Jesus is the object of faith, and although he is in heaven, we are not focused on him being in heaven as opposed to his copy that is on earth. In fact, there is no copy of Christ here on earth; there is only Jesus Christ, the human being that died, was resurrected and ascended into heaven where he sat down at the right hand of God. It is this Jesus that Christians center their faith on. Furthermore, Jesus is not a copy but an example to be emulated, so that while being the object of faith, Christians have a responsibility to emulate Christ’s example. This responsibility proves faith to be active, not passive, which means that it cannot be purely intellectual. If it were purely intellectual, it would not allow for any sort of active demonstration. However, the very nature of faith demands that it be an active expression of focusing on the example of Christ. In addition, faith in Hebrews follows Jewish-apocalyptic thinking, in which there is a horizontal aspect to faith. This horizontal aspect looks at faith on a temporal plane, where the perceptions of “before” and “after,” “past” and “present,” and “promise” and “fulfillment” influence this theme rather than the platonic vertical element, which perceives of the “above” and “below,” “heavenly” and “earthly,” and “archetype” and “type.” Therefore, the theme of faith in Hebrews is certainly not platonic, but rather, Jewish-apocalyptic, and it is not purely intellectual, and instead, practical.

Faith focuses on Jesus Christ in the things not yet seen. It is practical, being an attitude and a response that demonstrates daily loyalty and devotion to God through emulating Christ, the perfect example of faith. Faith in Hebrews is not platonic, but rather, Jewish-apocalyptic, and it functions to persuade the recipients of the letter to persevere and withstand persecution. Such a faith is expected and required of Christians, which is not terribly difficult for them because they have Christ, the author and perfecter of their faith, who helps to enable them to continue on towards completion in their faith.

Bibliography

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

Academics.

 

Ladd, George. 1993. A Theology of the New Testament. Rev. ed. 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, and Ralph Martin, eds. Columbia: Word, Inc.

 

Lindars, Barnabas. 1991. The Theology of the Letter to the Hebrews. New Testament Theology.

James Dunn, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

“Rest” in Hebrews

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

 

“Rest” is not an easy theme to quickly grasp in Hebrews. There have been many suggestions by scholars and commentators to what the “rest” in Hebrews 3 and 4 might be, such as, but not limited to, present spiritual rest, heaven, cessation from good works, successful Christian living, and peace with God. However, “rest” should be understood as God’s presence, because it best fits the historical and literary contexts. In order to understand the theme of “rest” in Hebrews, we should first seek to understand how David understood rest when he wrote Psalm 95. Second, we should seek to determine what “God’s rest” means. Third, we should briefly examine some other options presented by scholars for understanding this theme. After having surveyed all of these options, we should conclude how we ought to understand “rest” in Hebrews.

David probably thought that “rest” was The Promised Land. In Deuteronomy 12:9, God refers to The Promised Land as his “rest.” Since he would have been familiar with the Torah, it is likely that David thought “rest” was The Promised Land. We ought to note that it is the author of Hebrews and not David who makes the connection between the “rest” in Psalm 95 with the “rest” of the seventh day of Creation. However, since we see an exhortation in Psalm 95 to not take a rebellious position against the word of the Lord today, there is in fact a notion in David’s thinking that the rest was not merely The Promised Land, but it was much more. The author of Hebrews takes the position that “rest” in Psalm 95 is God’s rest from the seventh day of Creation. But what precisely is God’s rest?

God’s rest is two-sided. In Hebrews three and four, God’s rest is the rest from the seventh day of Creation. God rested from his work at the completion of Creation. It is this rest that caused the commandment to keep the seventh or Sabbath day holy in Exodus 20:8-11, thus linking it with Creation. Donald Hagner notes that the Sabbath rest for Judaism involved much more than a cessation from work, that it was also a day of celebration, happiness, feasting, spiritual joy, rejoicing in God’s creation, and an anticipation of final eschatological judgment (2002, 76). At least in part, God’s rest should be understood in terms of the completion of Creation and the Sabbath rest commandment, in which the latter is inseparably linked to the former.

There are three options scholars and commentators have proposed for “rest” in Hebrews that we are going to briefly explore. The first option for “rest” is heaven. Robert Gundry, in describing Christ as better than Joshua, contrasts the location that Joshua brought the Israelites into versus the location that Jesus will bring God’s people into (2003, 464). Gundry writes, “[T]hough Joshua brought Israel into Canaan, Christ will bring believers into the eternal resting place of heaven, where God rests from his work of Creation (4:1-10)” (464). For our first option, Gundry looks at rest in Hebrews as the place where we will rest with God who has been resting since the completion of Creation, that is, in heaven. However, something more than a place is being referred to in Hebrews. To refer to “rest” as heaven does not fit the context as well as one might like and it is therefore unhelpful.

The second option is spiritual rest. Donald Hagner understands rest to be a transcendental spiritual rest involving “security, contentment, satisfaction, and peace for God’s people” (2002, 203). Hagner understands that the believer enters into this kind of rest in the present because it is the sure position and possession of the Christian, yet it will not be completely realized until the end (73). This option is helpful for determining how a believer can have “rest” now, but it does not clearly identify what it is, nor does it explain the connection between God’s rest and the rest of the recipients. This option simply does not help us understand the text as it is, hence it too is unhelpful.

The third option is the presence of God. Lincoln Hurst proposed in a class on Hebrews that “rest” is God’s presence. This line of thought is founded on the basis that religion in Hebrews is total and complete access to God. Indeed, Hebrews is full of access language. Barnabas Lindars takes “rest” to be a new image in Hebrews for the theme of completion of God’s plan, which is “the state of direct access to God” (1991, 49). Lindars demonstrates that the “rest” mentioned in Psalm 95 is future, so it entails an eschatological completion (49). Since God is speaking in Psalm 95 and he makes mention of his rest, Hebrews turns to the seventh day of Creation and applies it to what is in store for believers when they enter God’s presence (49). Similarly, Donald Guthrie points to “rest” as completion. He writes, “What believers can now enter is none other than the same kind of rest which the Creator enjoyed when he had completed his works, which means that the rest idea is of completion and not of inactivity” (1983, 113). This option underscores a present and future rest that runs parallel to God’s rest from the seventh day of Creation. Since believers enter into God’s “rest,” that is, God’s presence, they too share in the cessation of work, which is not for the sake of inactivity but a result of completion. This “rest” points to the eschatological completion, which is the time that God’s plan of salvation will be made complete (Lindars 1981, 49).

“Rest” as the presence of God fits the context of Hebrews three and four quite well. Not only does it align with God’s rest both in reference to the seventh day of Creation and the Sabbath rest, but it also accounts for the warning passage in chapter three. The author of Hebrews points out that the Israelites in the wilderness did not enter God’s rest, that is, His presence, because God’s word was not met with faith; so it should not be for the recipients of the letter to the Hebrews. The author exhorts them to press into the living God and encourage each other every day so that none of them might give up their confession prematurely before the end in the face of persecution. To give up prematurely would be tantamount to having the same rebellious heart of unbelief that the Israelites had, which would keep them from entering God’s presence just as it kept the Israelites from entering it. Understanding “rest” as God’s presence best interprets the theme in accord with the historical and literary contexts and therefore it is the best and most helpful option.

God’s rest has a future function with a present impact in light of past events. God’s rest was The Promised Land for the Israelites and perhaps both The Promised Land and the seventh day of Creation for David. However, for the author and the recipients of Hebrews, “rest” is understood to be God’s presence, which could be experienced at least in part in the present but would be completely experienced in the eschatological fulfillment of time. The theme of “rest” in Hebrews must be understood in light of the seventh day of Creation, the Sabbath day, and the historical and literary contexts of Hebrews. Understanding God’s “rest” as His presence best satisfies all of those necessary considerations.

 


Bibliography

Gundry, Robert. 2003. A Survey of the New Testament. 4th ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

 

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

Leon Morris, ed. 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.

 

Lindars, Barnabas. 1991. The Theology of the Letter to the Hebrews. New Testament Theology.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Warning Passages in Hebrews

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

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Warning passages in the letter to the Hebrews have generated much discussion in Christian circles. The author of this sermonic letter warned his recipients against apostasy several times, which are found in 2:1-4; 3:12-14; 4:1-11; 6:4-12; 10:26-31; 12:14-17; 12:25-29. In order to understand the warning passages in Hebrews, we must first understand the historical context for the sermonic letter before we look at the dynamics of the texts. In terms of the historical context, we need to briefly consider the date, the destination, the recipients and the purpose of the letter.

The exact date of the letter to the Hebrews is not certain, but we do know Hebrews was written before 70 AD (Guthrie 1983, 28). Donald Hagner is certain that this letter was written in the 60s (2002, 25). We know it was not written after 95 AD because it is quoted by Clement at that time (Guthrie 1983, 28). However, since the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple would have been the clinching argument for the author of Hebrews, the fact that it is unmentioned in the letter strongly encourages a time of writing before 70 AD (Hagner 2002, 25). The most logical time for the letter to have been written is sometime in 64-70 AD, but where was it sent?

The destination of the letter is unknown, although we do have a few important clues that point us to Rome. Guthrie boldly writes that Rome is the best choice based on internal and external evidence as the destination of the letter to the Hebrews (1983, 27). Hagner agrees, based on the fact that 1 Clement, written in Rome in 95 AD, quotes from Hebrews extensively, and because the recipients of the letter are identified as generous (6:10; 10:32-34), which we know was characteristic of the church in Rome (2002, 25). If in fact it was written to people in Rome, exactly to whom in Rome was Hebrews written?

The recipients of the letter are not completely certain, but it is very likely to be Jewish Christians who were being written to (Hagner 2002, 23). Hebrews indicates that these Jewish Christians in Rome were contemplating going back to Judaism for whatever reason (Guthrie 1983, 32). The question is, “Why would the Jewish Christians in Rome contemplate going back to Judaism?” It has been suggested that they were feeling a greater benefit from Judaism than from Christianity, and had thus lost confidence in the church, that is, the Christian assembly (Lindars 1991, 12). But the question remains—“Why?” The Jewish Christians were facing persecution, and they were on the point of falling away from Christ so that they might not have to endure the persecution (Ladd 1993, 632). Robert Gundry suggests the possibility that the recipients “are a Jewish Christian group or house-church who have broken away from the main body of Christians in their locality and who stand in danger of lapsing back into Judaism to avoid persecution” (2003, 460-1). Therefore, the situation at hand is a group of Jewish Christians who are facing persecution, but in order to keep from being persecuted it seems as though this group is seriously considering returning back to Judaism and abandoning their commitment to Christ. We find the purpose of Hebrews out of this proposed situation.

The purpose Hebrews is to prevent abandonment of Christ for Judaism. Gundry writes, “The main purpose of the letter is to prevent such apostasy and restore them into mainstream Christian fellowship” (2003, 461). In writing to warn his recipients against apostasy (Ladd 1993, 618), the writer of the letter encourages them to remain in their faith in Christ even though they will not be free or exempt from persecution (632). Ladd writes, “Those who have embraced the gospel and entered the Christian life and the fellowship of the Christian church may become disillusioned because God is not protecting them from evil and suffering” (632). Therefore, they very well may turn their backs on Christ for Judaism (632).

The letter to the Hebrews was probably written around 64-70 AD to a Jewish Christian group in Rome that was facing persecution for being Christians and was very likely to be contemplating giving up their Christianity. For this reason the author writes to encourage against apostasy in the warning passages throughout the letter, to which we now turn.

In Hebrews 2:1-4, the author warns against drifting away from Christ. The author asks a rhetorical question, “How can we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?” The answer is clear. It is not possible to escape judgment when the message is being brought and spoken by Christ because his message is superior to that of the angels, yet even their message brought judgment when neglected. The tone of this warning passage is strong, yet not too forceful. It identifies the need to not drift away, but it does not directly point to the severity of falling away as other warning passages do later in the letter.

In Hebrews 3:12-14, a little more severity is evident. While 2:1-4 may be viewed as an unintentional drifting away, Hebrews 3:12-14 certainly has in view an intentional turning away. Furthermore, the responsibility of remaining in Christ is placed on the shoulders of the community when the author exhorts, “But exhort one another every day” (v. 13). The recipients are to be responsible for each other and to keep each other from apostasy so that not even one turns away from the living God (v. 12).

In Hebrews 4:1-11, the author gives an exhortation to take hold of the rest that God has intended for them to receive. This warning passage is not nearly as strong as the others, but it is a warning nonetheless. Hebrews 4:1-11 warns against being judged or seeming to have failed to reach the rest God intended. Hebrews 2:1-4 warns the recipients against drifting away, 3:12-14 warns against turning away, and 4:1-11 warns the recipients against failing to reach the rest God has intended for them.

Hebrews 6:4-12 talks about apostasy in a harsh and severe tone. One who apostatizes is completely unable to be restored to repentance if he or she has been enlightened in the knowledge of Christ and has been a believer—i.e., tasted the heavenly gift, shared in the Holy Spirit, and tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come. For such a believer to fall away is a tragedy, because that apostate has crucified Christ all over again. Such a person can never be restored to repentance. This warning passage is severe, but most of all it is absolute. If there was any uncertainty about the effects of apostasy, Hebrews 6:4-12 functions to clearly identify the dire consequences of apostasy in direct, harsh and final statements.

Similarly, Hebrews 10:26-31 speaks of apostasy with perilous words. Hebrews 10:26-31 not only speaks of apostasy in a harsh and severe tone, but now it attributes a fiery judgment as its consequence. The apostate is one who willfully persists in sin and places himself or herself under God’s judgment—a consuming fire (v. 27).

In Hebrews 12:14-17 and 12:25-29, more exhortations are given to warn against failing to obtain the grace of God (v. 15) and reject Christ lest they place themselves under God’s judgment (vv. 25, 29). These warnings carry on the punishment element from Hebrews 10:26-31 and return to the responsibility to press on from 3:12-14, but they are much less severe and alarming as 6:4-12 and 10:26-31.

The warning passages in Hebrews must be read in light of the letter’s historical context. Because it is most probable that the author of Hebrews was writing to warn against those Jewish Christians in Rome that were facing persecution and seriously considering forsaking Christ in order to follow Judaism in order to evade the persecution, we must understand the warning passages in this letter as an appeal against a deliberate forsaking of Christ. These warning passages functioned to convince the Jewish Christians to not shrink back like cowards, but rather to prove themselves as true disciples of Christ. They must be read in light of their intended use, and they were intended to convince the readers against apostasy. If we fail to understand these passages in light of the historical context, we miss their point, function and intended meaning, thereby misunderstanding what the author is saying. The historical context is crucial, and we cannot escape it if we are to come to a proper understanding of the warning passages in Hebrews.

Bibliography

Gundry, Robert. 2003. A Survey of the New Testament. 4th ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

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

Morris, ed. 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 ed. Donald Hagner, ed. Grand

Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Lindars, Barnabas. 1991. The Theology of the Letter to the Hebrews. New Testament Theology.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Guthrie and Hebrews

About: this paper was delivered to Dr. Lynn Wallmark at Simpson University during my senior year in a class on the General Epistles.

 

Donald Guthrie wrote a commentary on the book of Hebrews (Hebrews, The Tyndale New Testament Commentary series, edited by Leon Morris, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1983) that serves to help give some rudimentary explanations of the biblical text without giving any relation or direct application for today’s generation. Although the material covered in his book was very good, I found myself frustrated with the lack of Guthrie’s ability to make the commentary pertinent for today. Despite this vexation, Guthrie does give some foundational material, such as, but not limited to, the difficulties of the authorship of the book of Hebrews, the date and provenance of the book, the superiority of Christ in several areas of Jewish religion, the many examples of faith, and the effects of Christ’s eternal sacrifice. I am going to focus on, however, Guthrie’s exploration of four sections of Hebrews that are universally pertinent to every Christian: drifting (2:1, 3); confidence in Christ (3:14); partaking and falling away (6:4-6); and deliberate sin (10:26). By looking at these four foci we may be able to draw up our own applications for today.

THE FOUR FOCI

THE FIRST FOCUS: DRIFTING (2:1, 3)

Guthrie identifies Hebrews 2:1, 3 as an exhortation against drifting (80). The author of Hebrews exhorts his readers to pay close attention to what they have heard, in order that they might not drift away. Guthrie ties in “Lest we drift away” with the mental picture of driftwood in a river (81). He understands that the author is not referring to an active, deliberate and purposeful refusal to adhere to the words they have heard, but of a passive and helpless sliding away (81). In comparison the Greek word for “drift away,” παραρρέω, means “to be washed away, drift away,” with a mental imagery of flowing water (BDAG). Guthrie mentions not what would wash them away, nor does he give the cause. His description is good, but seemingly incomplete, for a reader should understand what is trying to wash them away and carry them off, because one must know who or what they are fighting in order to be victorious. But Guthrie does not stop here, for he goes on to talk about neglecting salvation, which is tied into drifting away.

Guthrie pays attention to the author’s purpose in verse three. The author of Hebrews is noting the existing danger of neglect with his readers, and it is possible that the readers were in jeopardy of diverging from the Christian gospel entirely (81). Guthrie notes the use of a rhetorical question (How shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?), a question that implies that there is no such escape from neglecting salvation (81). Guthrie identifies that in the New Testament when the idea of escape is linked with salvation it invariably denotes deliverance from the power or grip of the devil (81). And so, Guthrie does in fact implicitly identify the force against his readers. To drift away, then, is not one’s own doing but the devil’s who is actively trying to sweep us away to the point that we neglect our salvation and turn our backs to it—a complete overturning—causing us to be placed under the bondage of the devil from which there is no escape. It is not addressed here by Guthrie as to whether or not the author is saying that salvation can be lost, if this is a hypothetical situation, or if this is referring to non-Christians who were on the cusp of believing but were kept from actually entering into the grip of grace. This leaves Guthrie’s readers somewhat dissatisfied with an incomplete treatment of drifting and neglect in Hebrews 2:1, 3. But what of his treatment? What can we learn from it?

Every Christian in every culture throughout time ought to be aware that salvation is valuable, so valuable that it ought to be fought for. Christians have a constant battle to hold on to their faith against the devil. It is not enough to merely possess faith. One must actively hold on to it so as to never let it go. This is done by heeding the words of the Lord and paying attention to what He tells us through His servants and especially through His Word, which demands a mental perseverance and a conscious effort to grasp and cling to faith. In doing so Christians will bear confidence in their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

THE SECOND FOCUS: CONFIDENCE IN CHRIST (3:14)

Guthrie notes the author’s contrast to the hardening of the heart to the position of those who are established in Christ, that is those who actively cling to their faith (107). He notes that those who “share in Christ” are those who have a firm and steady foundation (107). Guthrie identifies “partakers with Christ,” as the best suited translation for the context and links it to sharing in the participation of the heavenly kingdom (107). The problem here is that we do not know the manner by which we share in the participation of the heavenly kingdom, but this is due to the fact that the author of Hebrews is not so much concerned with the manner of sharing as he is the terms (107). Here we find a conditional statement that expresses these terms.

The author of Hebrews uses a third-class conditional statement that might be true in the future or could be generally true at all times. But which is it? It is unfortunate that Guthrie makes no mention of the conditional statement and its value in this way or of the possible implications that it has for us today much less for the original audience. Guthrie notes that as ones who share in the participation of the heavenly kingdom, Christians are assumed to take special concern to continue in fellowship with Christ (108). However, this treatment of the third class condition is not satisfactory because it does not identify whether or not this statement is generally true at all times for the Christian or if it is probably true for the future, assuming that the condition is fulfilled. Guthrie is not concerned with this issue, rather he is focused on the author’s idea of confidence in Christ.

Guthrie notes that confidence is here relating to a legally guaranteed security, thus identifying the need for the believer to hold securely to his or her “share” in Christ (108). This ties into the third class conditional meaning, for it assumes that the sharing of the participation of the heavenly kingdom will be true in the future if the Christian presently securely fastens himself to his fellowship with Christ (108). So, although Guthrie does not bluntly state how the conditional statement is to be understood, it can be inferred through his treatment of confidence in Christ. Furthermore, the confidence that Guthrie refers to is understood as an active and productive faith that yields assurance to the believer that his or her “share” cannot be taken away (108). And what shall we make of this?

Every Christian in every generation ought to know that they are expected to demonstrate a living faith that identifies them as securely fashioned in Christ. Such a demonstration of faith also guarantees their position in Christ because they have actively clung to their faith, and therefore they can have confidence that they will in fact share in the participation of the heavenly kingdom. Present demonstration of faith yields present security in partaking of the heavenly future. It is imperative for Christians to hold onto their faith and allow themselves to be swept away from it or to purposefully fall away from it.

THE THIRD FOCUS: PARTAKING AND FALLING AWAY (6:4-6)

The author of Hebrews exhorts his readers to take action and be responsible in keeping their faith and to hold onto their faith in confidence unto the end. But here in 6:4-6 he addresses falling away from faith, only this time it is not passive but active. Guthrie painstakingly treats this passage with care, trying to present the material in depth though still concise. He explores four verbs individually: φωτίζω; γεύομαι; γίνομαι with μέτοχος; and γεύομαι with καλός. His treatment should be taken as a whole to best understand the impossibility of restoring someone to repentance if they fall away.

The first treatment deals with being enlightened. Guthrie notes that this is characteristic in the New Testament, relating to God’s message to man (141). Therefore, this is referring to someone who has been enlightened to God’s Word—His gospel. The Greek word for such enlightenment that is used here means “to make known in reference to the inner life or transcendent matters and thus enlighten,” bearing the idea of shedding light on or giving light to, with the imagery of the heavenly light that is granted to the enlightened one (BDAG). Guthrie takes this enlightenment to be some sort of an initial revelation of Jesus Christ, which he believes is strengthened in his treatment of the other three verbs. But within this treatment it should have been noted by Guthrie that this is an inward and spiritual enlightenment and is not merely head knowledge.

The second treatment deals with tasting. Guthrie notes that tasting the heavenly gift is the experience of the knowledge of the truth (141). The Greek word for tasting here means, “to experience something cognitively or emotionally, come to know something,” bearing the idea of obtaining the heavenly gift (BDAG). This word is fairly treated by Guthrie who notes that the heavenly gift is experienced and known (141). Although not said directly by Guthrie this treatment understands that the heavenly gift has been obtained. But the question arises, “What is the heavenly gift referring to?”

Guthrie identifies the heavenly gift with the gift of the Holy Spirit. However, he also notes that in the present context, the origin of this gift is uncertain, and we cannot be sure that it is referring to the Holy Spirit. At the least Guthrie does state that the gift is not one of human origin but of heaven. Guthrie satisfactorily treated this verb and its use, especially in combination with the question that comes forth from the text regarding the heavenly gift.

The third treatment deals with partaking or becoming partakers of the Holy Spirit. Guthrie suggests that this links to the gift the Spirit, which is the heavenly gift. This has the idea of sharing the Holy Spirit. Thus, as Guthrie notes, it distinguishes the person who only has head knowledge of Christianity from the person who has a share in Christ (142). At this point there is no question that the person who has fallen away is in fact referring to one who was a Christian, for this person would have been one who was at one point partners with the Holy Spirit (cf. BDAG for trans. of μέτοχος as “partners”), which is only possible if they had shared in the participation of the heavenly kingdom, thus being given the Holy Spirit, the gift of God.

The fourth treatment deals with tasting goodness. As the third verb tied in with the first, so also does the fourth tie in with the second. Tasting is now linking with goodness. What goodness? The goodness of the Word of God, which is the knowledge of the truth. Guthrie particularly notes that the person is not tasting God’s Word, rather its goodness (142). Guthrie states that it is possible to come to the Word of God with a sincere heart, yet without appreciation (143). Furthermore, Guthrie says that only those who are well immersed in experiencing Christianity could taste of the goodness of the Word of God (143). The cusp of Guthrie’s treatment of the kind of tasting is most satisfactory. He identifies the tasting is of an experience that will not reach its climax until the parousia (143). Therefore, those who forsake their faith will not see the fruition of their tasting experience when the Lord comes again.

In the text we now come to the idea that one who has completely fallen away from their enlightenment and tasting, which is to fall away from the Christian standard or path of faith, cannot come back to repentance (143). In doing so they are taking part in crucifying the Son of God once again (143). Guthrie relates this act as an attitude of unrelenting hostility towards Christ (144). The attitude of apostasy, then, does not allow for repentance as it hardens the heart from becoming repentant.

At this point Guthrie reviews four possible understandings of this controversial passage. First, he identifies Calvin’s understanding was that the tasting mentioned was only a partial experience that had no affect on the person, yet the enlightenment mentioned by the author is a complete one at that, so this understanding is not satisfactory (144). The second understanding is that the unpardonable sin of grieving the Holy Spirit is at hand (145). Third, Guthrie identifies that this passage has been understood to be hypothetical because there is no indication that any of the author’s readers had committed the aforementioned apostasy, but that this situation was a real possibility for his readers (145). Last, Guthrie makes note of another understanding regarding this Scripture as referring to the impossibility of restoring the apostates back to a condition of repentance (145). However, it is noted that there is uncertainty as to whether or not this is dealing with the initial act of repentance and if it could be performed a second time (145). Guthrie notes that in this case it is realized that there is a point of no return and restoration becomes impossible (145). And so, Guthrie deals with this troublesome passage very well, despite the ambiguity of the author’s intentions for the text. But what can we do with such a difficult portion of Scripture?

All Christians world wide at any time ought to know the severity of turning their back on their faith. To do so would be to hold Christ in contempt, crucifying him all over again and also being completely responsible for it. Christians are responsible for keeping their faith. They are to fight to keep it so as not to be swept away, but they are also to actively pursue not giving up their faith on their own accord. They are to actively demonstrate their faith and share in the participation of the heavenly kingdom lest they fall away. Firmly hold on to your faith; do not let it slip from your fingers and do not throw it away, rather protect it and invest in it. It does not matter what the intention was of the author, Christians regardless bear the responsibility of pursuing faith wholeheartedly. Indeed, those who intentionally give up their pursuit also deliberately sin, and this is not the calling of the Christian, the one who is securely fashioned in Christ.

THE FOURTH FOCUS: DELIBERATE SIN (10:26)

Guthrie addresses the severe warning in Hebrews 10:26, which deals with responsible or deliberate sin. Guthrie identifies deliberate sin as the sort of sin that people enter into with their eyes wide open (217). He also notes that the Levitical sacrifice does not allow for atonement of such deliberate sin (217). Again, the knowledge of the truth is mentioned, and it clearly identifies the fact that the truth is definitely known among all Christians (217). It is the entirety of the Christian revelation (217). Thus, it denotes sin that is done after a comprehension of the truth had been acquired, which is essentially a rejection of that truth (217). Such rejection goes against Christ’s eternal sacrifice for sins (217). However, this is the extent of Guthrie’s treatment regarding this verse. It leaves the reader hanging and in question of the scope of deliberate sin. Would not all sin done after receiving the truth be deliberate? Does that not mean that there would therefore be no atonement for sin after receiving the revelation of Jesus Christ? Guthrie’s treatment is very unsatisfactory. It does not help in identifying what it means to deliberately sin. Deliberate sin is understood to be sin done without compulsion (BDAG). This denotes that deliberate sin is a kind that is done consciously against one’s own conscience. It is the living without constraint, which is the same as living with a license to sin without restriction. Those who think they have a license to sin and use such license without restraint, these are the ones who deliberately sin. Guthrie left this treatment unfinished and should have given some clarification for understanding what the author had in mind when he was talking about sinning willfully. And what are we to do with this understanding of deliberate sin?

All Christians throughout all time should know that the grace given them does not give them a license to sin. They are to live lives of restraint, trying to tame themselves from wild living and rid themselves from sin, thus becoming holy—separated unto God. Christians bear the responsibility, then, to fervently hold onto their faith—not allowing themselves to be carried off and away from their faith or throwing in the towel and giving up their faith willfully—and to respect the eternal sacrifice that Christ made by living holy lives, lives of restraint and not of sinful license.

CONCLUSION

Guthrie’s treatment of Hebrews provides some invaluable information. However, it did not make any effort to apply to us today or universally—throughout all space and time—for that matter. The material within his commentary is satisfactory in the sense that it helps to explain the text and to shed light on things that might be missed in the English language. Most satisfactory was his treatment on the controversial passage in chapter six, since he not only presented helpful material but also did good word studies and wrestled with different popular conclusions regarding the text. Still, it was unsatisfactory in the sense that Guthrie did not explain some of the Greek conditional nuances that help to further explain the text, like the aforementioned third-class condition in chapter three. It was also unsatisfactory because it did not relate or directly apply the Scripture or commentary to us today. As I was reading it I could not help myself but ask, “Now what? What am I supposed to do with this?”

Yet, despite my irritation, I found the material helpful, and in many respects the four foci as well. I chose these foci because they are absolutely essential to all believers to grasp and understand. I found it amazing that Guthrie would not relate these foundational understandings to his readers. So, I decided to take it upon myself to review them as best as I could so that others might be able to make the connection from the Scripture into their own lives. It is absolutely important that Christians be aware of the possibilities of drifting, falling away, or deliberately sinning, as well as their effects, so that they might be encouraged to persevere and place their confidence in Christ and partake in the participation of the heavenly kingdom. These are four important issues to me that I thought were not treated as well as they should have, which is in fact why I chose to focus on them in this paper. Now that I have, I believe that myself and those who read it can better apply the material within Guthrie’s commentary to our lives and current settings today.