Throughout this study I have endeavored to showcase the contextualizing power of the thematic approach to biblical study. This inductive method requires a bit more work than a linear, exegesis or word study, because it forces the context to the forefront of the conversation, whereas an exegetical study focus on the thoroughness of each line, and leaves only a small portion to be contextualized if at all, and usually as an afterthought. This may seem like a small nuance, but denominations have split over this very topic. Most Sunday sermons are not even exegetical yet alone thematic, they are topical where each Sunday only a small bit of scripture is taught and usually out of context. This is why people swear something is taught in the bible but have no idea where it is…”God helps those who help themselves…”
I say all of this because when we hear someone teach something that isn’t commonly taught, it is immediately suspected to be wrong or even heretical. I’ve been called both. What I’m revealing in this study is not common teaching, but it is biblical.
The flow of the book of Hebrews follows the circular communication style of ancient Jewish thought not the linear, building to a punchline, approach of the West. For this reason it may seem like we jump around, but when capturing, as best as possible, the thoughts of the author, we must include and follow his reasoning in its circuit. The last two weeks we jumped from chapters 4-7 and 5-10 respectively, but today, we come to the center of these concentric circle of nestled themes.
The book of Hebrews is like a kitchen renovation. The dream kitchen cannot become a reality if the old cabinets and counter tops remain. The author deconstructs the Jewish religion, not in an evangelical attempt to convert his audience to some new religion, but to show them that the “bones” of the house are solid and have hidden the dream kitchen all along. The religious mind has forgotten that the cabinets are not the focus of the kitchen, they are containers for that which is stored within the kitchen. There is something beyond the kitchen itself, namely that which can come from the kitchen. The author demonstrates this by showcasing what is perhaps the biggest, most central promise within the entire bible. That is not an understatement.
“The days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they did not remain faithful to my covenant, and I turned away from them, declares the Lord. This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” (Hebrews 8:8-12, cited from Jeremiah 31:31-34)
When ancient Judaism taught from the “Law and the Prophets” they mostly viewed such promises as future since they were living under the oppressive rule of Rome and lacked political, military, and economic freedom. The religious mind today does the same thing. All religions, and especially evangelical Christianity, see the world under the rule of dark forces and awaits a future rescue and thus interprets such promises from the same “it doesn’t apply now” mindset. To free the religious mind (modern or ancient) is to gain the eyes to see that this promise is for today. That is the goal of the book of Hebrews.
The implications for our modern world possess an equally enormous scale as when the Hebrew people heard these words. He’s literally telling them that there is a new way to live. He’s freeing them from obligation to religious tradition, ritual and frameworks which pushed everything into the future or which were based in a retributive system of justice. These were not easy changes back then and they are equally challenging today. Consider who the people of “Israel” are? Consider who the people of “Judah” are. The author is expanding the audiences understanding to seem them beyond tribe and lineage, but as metaphor. (10:1)
“By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear.” (v.13)
Modern religions have repeated the mistakes of Judaism, thus Judaism is the archetype for all world religions and institutional powers. Each must find the good news that there is a new rule, law, kingdom and way to live. However, the religious mind is profoundly threatened by such freedom and will fight to the death to protect it’s tradition and containment system. This is why the author follows this circular pattern of proof. He uses the audiences framework, then ties it to their scripture and practice, then shows how Christ offers each person an individual framework and practice by which each can access God without an intermediary. Religion got it wrong. It assumed that human sin remains in the way and the temple ritual is the only fix. The author shows how, due to the work of Christ, sin no longer stands between us and God. We have a new priest, a new law, a new will, and a new way to live.
“For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.” (V.15)
“But he has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.” (V.26)
“The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves.” (10:1)
‘Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.” (V.19-22)
“Therefore let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about cleansing rites, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment” (6:1-2)
“We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where our forerunner, Jesus, has entered on our behalf.” (6:19-20)
I could spend a week on each verse unpacking the implications of all of this. Suffice it to say, that the main thing is to keep the Main thing, the main thing. That main thing as we will see in chapter 11 is our faith in Christ. Now that phrase can really trigger us because the Christian religion has highjacked and distorted it. Christ following is the result of the big promise from Jeremiah, it is not conversion to Christianity as an alternative religion. As we will see, Christ following takes on countless forms and as Jew himself, even the author and many New Testament writers remained Jews while being Christ followers. Thus the promise is the freedom from religion, or the freedom to practice within a religion, wherever Christ would have you be.
Jesus himself even told a parable where the Christ followers or “righteous” had no consciousness of that framework. (Matthew 25:38-40)
“When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’“
Christ followers are everywhere, in every institution, but not defined by any institution, nor by any religion. They gain their identity (authenticity) from their Maker because of the sacrificial work of Christ which frees “once for all“. This is the big promise, the main thing, which was given to Abraham, Moses and all the way through to Jeremiah, that “all people will know me” because the law is “written on all our hearts.” The journey to God is not through the ritual or tradition of religion (although such things are just fine) it is through faith, an inward journey.
Faith, which is different for all of us, has subverted religion. Next week, we’ll see exactly how this author proves this point.