The Bible in a Year – 14 December

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

14 December. Hebrews chapters 11-13

These last chapters of Hebrews turn from a consideration of Jesus and what he has achieved, to a list of the great figures of the Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament) and what they achieved through faith.  Much of what is written here is not found directly in the scriptures, and is probably based on rabbinical teaching, but let’s take it as it stands.

The main thrust of the author’s argument is that having faith is not about immediate gain.  The “prosperity gospel” (“if you believe in God and pray hard enough he will make you rich”) is totally alien to this Christian doctrine.  Rather, the riches that the great heroes of the past sought were spiritual ones – the reward of finding God’s blessing in this life, or of preparing others for a life of faith.

The examples given include Abraham, who was promised a vast number of descendants through his son Isaac although he was also called by God to sacrifice Isaac, before the mission was abandoned at he last minute; also Moses, who led an entire nation to safety before his life ended within sight of the promised land; and many unnamed saints who endured physical torment for the sake of the eternal life that was their hope.

The point being made is that we should look not to be rewarded ourselves in our own lifetime, but to “store up treasures in heaven” as Jesus put it, by selflessly working for the benefit of others. This is so counter-cultural that it needs to be repeated often.  To quote Jesus again, “unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains a single grain”.  In other words, you have to put yourself out for the sake of others, before God can use you to grow his kingdom.

This Christmas, when we respond to charity appeals at the same time as feeding and giving presents to our families, let us remember that we celebrate the one who laid down his life that we might have fulness of life.


The Bible in a Year – 13 December

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

13 December. Hebrews chapters 7-10

Chapters 5 to 10 are a lengthy explanation (originally for the benefit of Jewish readers) of how Jesus has superseded all the requirements of the Jewish law, at least those that relate to sacrifices, food laws and anything else to do with Temple ritual.   Judaism has of course moved on itself since those days and no longer has a Temple or sacrifices, so the distinction is not as great as it was.  But the point is still worth making, that Jesus started a completely new way of relating to God.

There are several points to the writer’s argument, and some of them (such as Jesus being equivalent to the obscure priest-king Melchizedek from the time of Abraham) are rather too obscure to explore here.  More to the point is the fact that the old system of sacrifice required an endless succession of priests who died like everyone else, making regular sacrifices in a specific place (the Tabernacle or Temple), using animal blood, to forgive sins that had been committed, but could not achieve atonement (putting right) for sins that people had not yet committed. So there was no end to that system and it had no effectiveness outside the Jewish community who participated in the rituals.

Until Jesus, that is. He came as the one who outlived death, so requires no successor.  He shed his own innocent blood instead of that of young animals, so no animal sacrifices are needed. He ascended into heaven and is therefore connected with all places at all times, so his sacrifice is also effective at all times and places. And he came for the benefit of all humanity, whether or not of Jewish heritage.

So why does the Church re-enact Jesus’ last meal (and thus symbolically his sacrifice) every day in many places, and at least every month in most congregations?  Isn’t it enough to take Communion once, as we are baptised only once?  Although Jesus’ death is effective at forgiving the sins of those who confess them in faith, we fallible people constantly need to be reminded of that.

We also need to be reminded regularly that “Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (9:28), which is why we have the annual season of Advent in which we are now living.  And “in a very little while, the one who is coming will come and will not delay; but my righteous one will live by faith.” (10:37).


The Bible in a Year – 12 December

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

12 December. Hebrews chapters 1-6

The letter to the Hebrews is difficult to follow, since it consists of dense theological argument in the Jewish tradition, in which verses of scripture are quoted out of context in support of the writer’s argument, a practice that would be frowned on these days.  And the argument itself is difficult to follow.  Since the plan I am following covers the whole book in only three days, I can only scratch the surface of its meaning.

In the first two chapters, the focus is on angels. Angels have had a bad press at times.  Go back forty years and you would find that few people would claim to believe in them.  The “age of reason” had no time for angels, and classed them along with ghosts, fairies and UFOs as mere mythology.  But times have changed.  Spirituality is back in fashion, experience matters more than doctrine, and you will find plenty of people who claim to have experienced angels. I know at least two.

But what are angels, or rather where do they fit in a Christian worldview?  The danger is to consider angels as demi-gods and pay them too much attention.  The anonymous writer of Hebrews makes it clear that Jesus was, in his earthly form, “a little lower than the angels” (2:7, quoting a psalm). But also that after his resurrection he ascended from earth, through the heavens (sky) in which he angels dwelt, to the throne of God above.  Such “up and down” imagery cannot be taken literally today – if it ever was – but as a metaphor it works, if by “up” we refer to importance.  Jesus is more important than the angels.  Why? Because as the Son of God he has more authority than angels who are mere servants of God.  And he came to earth, not to serve angels but people (2:16).

Not only that, but Jesus is also more important than Moses, the greatest of Jewish prophets and leaders (3:3).  The rest of chapters 3 and 4 concerns the concept of “rest”, which is an extension of the ides of the Jewish Shabat (sabbath). If God ‘rested’ after his work of creation, so he intends humanity to ‘rest’ after our work on earth.  That ‘rest’ might be seen in an individual sense of “rest in peace” after death.  But more constructively, it is the new heavens and earth” that Jesus promised would come at the end of time,  a new existence like an endless sabbath, where praise and worship are all that matters, and there is no toil or suffering.

Chapter 5 starts on the major theme of the book – Jesus as High Priest -and I will look at that tomorrow.