Have you ever talked to someone who gives a ton of detail when telling a story? As a listener, we follow along as long the best we can and then the conversation in our head starts in; “When is this person going to get to the point?” Some people really meander when speaking, but the author of Hebrews does not. Sometimes, filling in the back story is vital to our understanding and such is the case for today’s continuation in our study.
Before I dive into this, I think we are at a checkpoint in the series where a brief summary will serve us all, especially those who are joining in mid stream. So here is my reflection of the trajectory of Hebrews so far:
The book of Hebrews is a letter to a group of very religious people. As fist glance this may not seem relevant to a diverse audience today, but in fact our culture has never had more people trapped within the religious mind. The definition of religious must include the rigid frameworks not only of established mainline religions, but also those of the sciences, politics, business, sports, the arts, and just about any institutional power anywhere. As our culture has opted out of denominational religion, it didn’t become irreligious, it simply replaced one form of religion with another.
The author of this letter to the religious mind knows that unless he uses the established framework (in this case Judaism) to make his point, the fundamentalist will not appreciate nor validate his message. This is the same in our modern world. If we were to speak truth to a person stuck (religiously affiliated) within a political party, it is of no use to simply argue an opposing view. One must use their view and bridge them to the bigger reality. Once we see this, we can ask the emerging question: “What is the message he’s trying to get through?” That message is vital to all of us today. It’s the message that I fear is mostly missed by many today.
In short, the trajectory of the author is to reveal that there is this “other thing” that is so powerful, it can actually free us not only from our religion, but from our utter dependence upon institutional powers and tribal alignments, unto the most liberated a human can be. This power is not and was never intended to be a new, alternative religion, but this power is something which is found within each and every human that has ever lived, and all we need to do is learn how to see it, kind of like looking at the Magic Eye pictures from the 90’s. He calls the thing to be seen, “Christ” and the power within, “Faith.” I know those words trigger modern people, but resist any urge to assign a definition to them just yet. If you do, it’s likely a limited or wrong definition and it will distort or even obscure the message completely.
Back to today’s focus.
Hebrews chapters 4:14-7:28 are a single thought, but like a detailed “story teller” in the opening example, the author takes a major tangent from chapters 5:11-6:20. This particular tangent has been the fodder for many nightmares, jacked up theologies, afterlife assumptions, and countless threats and intimidations on the part of religions seeking to control the lives of their parishioners. We will deal with this tangent specifically next week, but in order to do so contextually, we must first see the backdrop into which this tangent is placed, and that is the focus for today.
“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:14-16)
Say the word priest, yet alone “High priest” in a modern coffee shop and very few will know what you are talking about. The term High Priest conjures up a pedophile or a church worker wearing a “collar” who is smoking weed. Remember, the author is using his religious audience’s framework to make his point so we must understand what he is referring to with regard to the Jewish religion. For this reason, in chapter five, the author walks through the function of the most highly ranked priest (high priest) in the Jewish temple tradition. Once he establishes with his audience that he understands their tradition, he uses it to compare what they already know to the work of Christ Jesus, whom many of them would have witnessed but would have rejected.
“Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.” (5:8-10)
The author’s audience would know who Melchizadek was, my audience on Pandora or iTunes, not so much. He will address this reminder for them, but not till after his long tangent. For us, we must skip ahead to 7:1 to continue his thought.
“For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God” (7:1)
Salem means “peace” so the author is saying Jesus is of the same order and thus the new King of Peace. What most Christians and others fail to realize when reading this passage is something that would be obvious to the audience, namely, that Melchizadek preceded the law, the tabernacle, the the temple, the priestly order, and ultimately the religion itself. While Jesus grew up Jewish, his message is of the kind which came before and despite the religion.
He’s saying salvation isn’t political, economic, tribal, or geographical, it’s ETERNAL and that such rescue comes from a king who grants us peace from an order which came long before any religion. This order, is the “other thing” or power which liberates all comers. Melchizadek wasn’t Christ per se, but neither was he not Christ. This is a vital piece for the audience then and today because it correctly points us to a healthy Christology, which is cosmic and universal, not merely specific and historical. It’s both.
“He is without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest forever.” (7:3)
“One might even say that Levi himself, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, 10 for he was still in the loins of his ancestor when Melchizedek met him.” (7:9-10)
I’m painting with broad strokes here, but if we miss this cosmic correlation, we miss the big message of this book, and shrink our understanding of the Christ. If we miss this, we will ultimately misunderstand the meaning of Christ and Faith and end up trapped in another religion. Why would the author so vividly argue his point by upholding Abraham, Aaron and by pointing to Melchizadek, and by positioning Jesus as superior to Moses? The only answer is that he is helping them to see beyond everything. To see beyond their religion but not to ignore it or reject it.
Why did they need to get beyond their religion? For the same reason we must get beyond ours. For the same reason we must get beyond our religious rigor surrounding whatever it is which we think tells us the truth about the world and life. That authority, if it is not of the same order of the King of Peace, is reframing ultimate reality into a version which serves the institution which gives it to us rather than us.
Look around, nearly everyone has their boat anchored to what they believe is the source of truth. This source defines us, gives us a name, requires our obedience, and paints a picture of reality which we accept as the truth. If it’s not true, then we cannot live in peace with the world around us, and the result is confusion and delusion which we cannot detect.
Since much of the audience of this book rejected Jesus, they were still waiting for their messiah to come and rescue (save) them from the tyranny of Rome’s rule and their oppressive religion. In like manner, modern evangelical Christianity is also waiting for Jesus to come out of the Eastern sky and rescue (save) them from the tyranny of liberal politics, while they recoil into their tribal distinctions. The same is true for fundamental Islam, which seeks to a military or violent rescue from tyranny. In our world, the fundamental arms of Hinduism and Buddhism are fighting. In our modern world our religions of politics and science are fighting, and creating truth claims based upon who is funding their agendas. People are trapped everywhere and many don’t even know it. They actually prefer it. That is the very definition of a lost soul.
The message of this book which I hope we hear today is that peace is possible, not one day in the future, but right here, right now. The greatest power in the universe, the endless energy which has created all things, is not a nebulous force, but has a name, is personal, is cosmic, is historical, is powerful and beyond all that, can relate to each and every soul which has ever lived. Peace is the byproduct of the King of Peace, and it is freely offered to anyone who can trust Him more than their beloved religion du jour. Like the audience of this book, we have traded true, lasting and comprehensive peace for truncated, tribal, and religious alignment and we received the raw end of the deal.
This is the cosmic, universal backdrop into which we will place the particular tangent next week. That tangent, as we will see, is the very reason so many people have rejected religion, and why we all need to be extracted, or saved from the tyranny of our very lives. The author of Hebrews is saying that if we say we want peace, but look to something other than this cosmic, Christological power, we deceive ourselves and only prolong the suffering of the world. If that triggers us, it’s due to the effect of the religious voices in our life. We would do well to identify these sources to which we have abdicated our power and begin following the voice of the King of Peace.
That is something worth considering and learning more about.