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Issues in the book of Hebrews

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Archives / 1985 / April

 

 

Issues in the book of Hebrews

Various Authors
By the Daniel and Revelation Committee.

 

In recent months the Daniel and Revelation Committee of the General Conference has given extensive study to the New Testament book of Hebrews and the relationship of its themes to Adventist understanding of the sanctuary doctrine. The committee endeavored to hear and evaluate fairly all possible viewpoints. Its last two sessions (San Diego, California, February 17-20, and Berrien Springs, Michigan, October 25-28, 1984) were devoted largely to this important study. Invited guests also participated.

Although the committee intends to publish a volume dealing with the issues in a more detailed manner, the world membership may appreciate an overview of its consensus in the following report.—Frank B. Holbrook, Secretary, Daniel and Revelation Committee.

Historical setting

Essential to a sound interpretation of Hebrews is an understanding of the times in which the Epistle was written and the needs of the persons to whom it was first addressed. Information provided by the Epistle itself and by the other New Testament writings makes fairly certain the particular situation in the first-century Christian church to which Hebrews speaks. We review the external and internal evidence briefly:

External historical background.

The death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ gave birth to the Christian church on Pentecost. Thousands of converts joined the apostles and their early associates at that time (Acts 2:5, 41, 47). Eventually "a great company of the priests" (chap. 6:7) and many from "the sect of the Pharisees" (chap. 15:5) as well as the common people swelled the ranks of the infant movement (chap. 4:4). These were all Jews, and they met great opposition from their countrymen in Judea (1 Thess. 2:14; cf. Heb. 10:32, 33).

Standing as they were at the transition point between two great dispensations, it was difficult for many of these Hebrew Christians to detach themselves totally from the Temple and its prescribed worship. Apparently they did not sense that type had met antitype in Christ's appearance, atoning death, and priestly ministry in heaven (Matt. 27:50, 51). As the church rapidly enlarged its ranks in a new mission to the Gentiles, some Hebrew Christians urged the necessity of their participation in the Mosaic rituals.

The Jerusalem Council (A.D. 49), however, reaffirmed the truth that sinners—whether Jew or Gentile—obtain salvation from sin by faith in Jesus Christ alone (Acts 15:7-11). The council excused Gentile Christians from any required participation in the Temple worship (verses 13-21, 28, 29). But the matter of Hebrew-Christian observance was not addressed (cf. Rom. 14:5, 6), and considerable numbers remained attached to the Temple.

Nearly ten years later (A.D. 58) the Jerusalem leadership informed the apostle Paul that there were "many thousands of Jews . . . which believe; and they are all zealous of the law" (Acts 21:20). In yet another, eight years the outbreak of war between the Jews and their Roman overlords would occur (A.D. 66). This tragic clash of arms would culminate in the destruction of the Temple and the ruin of the nation (A.D. 70) as Jesus had foretold (Matt. 23:38; 24:1, 2, 15-19; Luke 19:41-44; 21:20).

Internal evidence. As this terrible crisis in Jewish history approached, the Epistle indicates that the spiritual condition of many Hebrew Christians was seriously deteriorating. Gradually losing confidence in the Lord's promised return, they tended to neglect the salvation He had provided and to forget the ringing affirmations of the gospel (Heb. 10:35-37; 2:1-3).

There was danger that these once-ear nest Christians would lapse into the unbelief of their forebears in the Exodus migration to the Promised Land (chaps. 3:6-19; 4:1, 11) and under the pressures of many trials and discouragements (chap. 12:3-13) would fall away in open apostasy from the Christian faith (chap. 6:4-9). Already they were tending to forsake the assemblies of their Christian brethren (chap. 10:25) and to turn back to Judaism (chap. 13:13), from which they apparently had never fully separated.

The purpose of the Epistle

It is evident, therefore, that the Epistle to the Hebrews is written from the perspective of a deep pastoral concern for these Christians, who—in a crucial period of Jewish history—were in serious danger of making shipwreck of their faith. Its purpose was to revitalize their wavering experience (chap. 10:23) by focusing the faith and attention once again on their ascended Lord, "the author and finisher" of their faith (chap. 12:2). It attempted to lift their sights from the inadequate rites involving animal blood to Christ's true sacrifice for sin and His ministry in the true sanctuary in heaven. The emphasis was on the good news—the gospel—that is truly available through a transcendent high priest who ever ministered for them in the presence of God.

The salient points of the pastoral message may be summarized as follows:

1. God, who established the Levitical priesthood with its typical sanctuary system, intended at a given point in time to displace it by the real priesthood of Jesus Christ (foreshadowed by the former, chap. 8:4, 5) who now functions as a king-priest in the heavenly sanctuary (after the dual-office arrangement of the ancient king-priest Melchizedek, chaps. 5:5, 6; 7:11, 12,18, 19; 8:1, 2).

2. The Levitical sanctuary (designed to teach the gospel by type and symbol, chap. 4:1, 2) provided in itself only a limited access to God (chap. 9:6, 7), was repetitious in operation (verses 25, 26; chap. 10:1-3) because it was unable to take away sin and thereby to purge the conscience of the penitent sinner (verses 4,11).

3. But by virtue of Christ's priestly office the believer has free access to God at any time (chap. 4:16), for the Saviour (ever touched by his needs, verse 15) intercedes in the presence of God for him (chaps. 7:25; 9:24). Furthermore, in the mediation of the merits of Christ's once-for-all-time sacrifice, the believer finds the only available cleansing from the defilement of sin (chaps. 9:14; 10:10-14).

This appeal to the first-century Hebrew Christians is worked out in the Epistle by comparing and contrasting in broad strokes the Levitical sanctuary sacrifices and priestly ministry with Christ's efficacious sacrifice and heavenly priesthood. There is no attempt to give an exposition of the typical significance of the two-apartment phases of priestly ministry. (For example, although allusions are made to the Day of Atonement, there is no discussion of the scapegoat and its significance in that important ritual.)

Instead, the appeal to these first-century Christians to hold fast their faith in Christ (chap. 3:6, 14) is underscored by emphasizing the superiority of Christ's person, His atoning death, and priestly ministry over the now-worn-out rituals. These believers are assured that in their exalted Lord they have a better sacrifice/blood, and a better priest, who mediates for them in a better sanctuary in connection with a better covenant.

Some questions addressed

In the light of the Epistle's historical setting and purpose, the committee felt that a number of problems resolve themselves. The following were some of the questions addressed:

1. Language. How should the language employed by the inspired author of Hebrews be construed?

The language of Hebrews should be understood in its natural, literal sense. It should not be construed allegorically. In his argument the author compares in a straightforward manner the sanctuaries and priesthoods of the old and new covenants (chaps. 8:1-13; 9:1).

a. The Epistle indicates clearly that there is a heavenly reality designated as "the real sanctuary, the tent pitched by the Lord and not by man" (chap. 8:1, 2, N.E.B.). It asserts a vertical link between the heavenly sanctuary and its counterpart on earth. The earthly sanctuary is viewed as a "copy" and "shadow" (shadow-type) of the heavenly (verses 1-5; chap. 9:11, 23, 24). Naturally, the Bible writers must speak about the heavenly sanctuary—the celestial reality as it is represented to them—in the limited terms of human speech. Consequently, direct one-to-one correspondences between the two sanctuaries may not always be possible to draw, inasmuch as celestial realities far exceed human comprehension and expression (cf. The Great Controversy, p. 414). It is essential, therefore, to look for the big ideas emphasized in earthly types.

b. Literal language may employ idioms and figures of speech. For example, the general expression "seated at the right hand of God/throne" (cf. chaps. 1:3; 8:1) is an idiom. The Messiah is always portrayed in this manner (cf. Ps. 110:1; Acts 2:33; 5:31; Rom. 8:34; Eph. 1:20; Col. 3:1; 1 Peter 3:22, et cetera). The idiom is used even at the second coming of the Saviour (Matt. 26:64). A similar expression is made with regard to the redeemed (Rev. 3:21). The expression does not refer to location. Rather, as an idiom, it indicates Christ's full authority, His dignity and rank, His exaltation and supremacy. The expression "within the veil" is probably also being used in a figurative manner to denote access to God. See discussion at point 4.

2. Hebrews 9:8. Does this passage teach that the first apartment of the earthly sanctuary was intended to represent, the Mosaic era, whereas the Second Apartment represents heaven itself and the Christian era?

Hebrews 9:1-7 contains a linguistic phenomenon in that each apartment in the earthly sanctuary is referred to as a "tabernacle" or "tent" (verses 6, 7). However, it is also true that the entire sanctuary is viewed as a "tabernacle" or "tent" (cf. chaps. 8:2; 9:11). Consequently, the expression "first tabernacle," or "first tent," in chap. 9:8 is interpreted by some scholars to mean the first apartment of the Israelite sanctuary, whereas others understand it to mean the first tabernacle inaugurated by Moses at Sinai.

The committee considers that the context (which begins with chap. 8:1, 2) is determinative and clearly resolves this question. The context indicates that the author is comparing the entire sanctuary of the first covenant with the entire sanctuary of the second, or "new covenant" (chaps. 8:1, 2, 6-13; 9:1, 11, 24). Thus the reference to "the first tabernacle" is to be understood as a reference to the Sinai tabernacle-sanctuary. The committee rejected the argument that the author is using the "first tabernacle/tent" (= first apartment) as a symbol for the whole Mosaic tabernacle (a part for the whole) inasmuch as the sense of the argument in the full context suggests a simple comparison of the two sanctuaries: the earthly and the heavenly.

The New English Bible translates Hebrews 9:8 as follows: "By this the Holy Spirit signifies that so long as the earlier tent still stands, the way into the sanctuary remains unrevealed." Thus, the sense of the passage is simply that as long as "the earlier tent," that is, the earthly sanctuary, had a viable function as a type (until Christ's first advent), our Lord's priestly ministry in the heavenly sanctuary was not operative.

3. Ta hagia ("holy places"). How should this expression be translated in Hebrews? The term, functioning in the context of Hebrews as a noun, is derived from the adjective hagios, meaning "holy." The word occurs ten times in Hebrews 8-13 (chaps. 8:2; 9:1-3, 8, 12, 24, 25; 10:19; 13:11). It is generally conceded to appear in these passages in the form of a neuter plural noun except in chapter 9:1, where it is written as a neuter singular noun.

The use of this plural form (ta hagia) as a designation for the entire sanctuary is common in the Septuagint (the LXX, Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible made in the third and second centuries B.C.). This may be significant, since the author of Hebrews consistently draws his citations of the Old Testament from this version. (In the apocryphal book of 1 Maccabees [within the LXX] ta hagia is also used to designate the whole Temple. Judas Maccabeus says, "Let us go up to cleanse [ta hagia], and dedicate the sanctuary" [see 1 Mace. 4:36, 41, 43, 48].) However, the practice of the author of Hebrews is not fully consistent, because in two clear instances he uses the plural form to denote a single apartment (chap. 9:2, 3).

In the light of these facts—and the overall context of Hebrews 8-10—the committee believes that ta hagia should be regarded as a general term that should be translated in most instances as "sanctuary" unless the context clearly indicates otherwise (such as in chap. 9:2, 3). The committee rejects the evident bias of the translators of The New International Version, who, after taking the position that the expression should be rendered "Most Holy Place" in chapter 9:8 ("that the way into the Most Holy Place had not yet been disclosed"), have rendered every subsequent reference to the heavenly ta hagia with the phrase "the Most Holy Place." A more neutral rendering is that of The New English Bible, which translates ta hagia with "sanctuary" in each instance except chapter 9:2, 3 (in these cases the obvious meaning of "Holy Place" and "Most Holy Place" is given).

4. Hebrews 6:19, 20 ("within the veil"). Should this be understood to mean that Christ entered the Most Holy Place at His ascension? If so, does this invalidate the two-apartment, or twophase, ministry of Jesus in the heavenly sanctuary as taught by the church?

Some scholars note that the entire two-apartment sanctuary was viewed by Israel as God's dwelling (Ex. 25:8) and that the author was aware of the fact that a veil hung before each apartment (Heb. 9:2,3). They suggest, therefore, that the phrase "within the veil" is an allusion to the first veil and means simply that Christ has entered "within the heavenly sanctuary, into the presence of God."

On the other hand, there are scholars who believe that the author of Hebrews had "Day of Atonement" imagery in mind (cf. chap. 9:7; Lev. 16:3), and that he was thinking of Christ's entry into the most sacred place of the sanctuary. Thus, they suggest that the phrase "within the veil" refers to the second veil and that the allusion heightens the thrust of the author's argument that the believers' transcendent high priest has opened a new and living way to the very heart of God.

The committee agrees that the author is contrasting the limited approach to God that Israel had in the Levitical priest hood (Heb. 9:6, 7) with the direct access all believers now have in Christ Jesus, who ministers as high priest in the very presence of God for them (verse 24). Any believer may come directly and "boldly unto the throne of grace" (chap. 4:16) "by... [the] new and living way" (chap. 10:20)—by virtue of the Saviour's accomplishments and mediation. Ellen White has applied the veil imagery of chapter 6:19, 20 to both apartments (cf. The Great Controversy, pp. 420, 421, first apartment; Present Truth [March, 1850], p. 64 [Review and Herald reprints, p. 64, Second Apartment).

It may be admitted that if the author is using Day of Atonement imagery in chapter 6:19, 20 (a view held by most scholars), it does indeed heighten and sharpen the message he wished to convey to his readers that by virtue of Christ's death and priesthood they now had direct access to God. Through the ministry of their ever-living high priest they could draw near to God "in full assurance of faith" (chaps. 7:25; 10:19- 22). His efficacious blood would be mediated for them in the very presence of the Deity (chap, 9:14, 24).

It is the conviction of the committee that if the author of Hebrews had Day of Atonement imagery in mind (in chap. 6:19, 20), his application neither exhausts the meaning of the Day of Atonement ritual nor negates a two-apartment priestly ministry of Christ in the heavenly sanctuary. In view of the author's evident purpose, Day of Atonement imagery would simply underscore the point that Christ had opened the way to the immediate presence of God, that every barrier between them and God had been removed. Hope in Christ, their living high priest in God's presence, could be to them "an anchor of the soul, both sure and stedfast" (verse 19).

5. Does Hebrews teach that the Day of Atonement type was fulfilled at Calvary? Does Hebrews 9:11-14 with its reference to "bulls" and "goats" indicate this?

The committee noted that the author of Hebrews alludes to a variety of sanctuary rituals and not to just one. For example, he alludes to the daily service (chaps. 7:26, 27; 10:11, 12) as well as to the yearly service (Day of Atonement, chaps. 9:25; 10:3). He refers to the sprinkling of the water of purification made from the ashes of a red heifer (chap. 9:13; cf. Numbers 19) and to the administration of animal blood at the ratification of the covenant at Sinai (Heb. 9:18-21). With one broad reference he includes all the varied sacrifices of the sanctuary ritual: "almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission" (verse 22).

It is true that a bull and a goat were sacrificed on the Day of Atonement, but they were offered on many other occasions, as well (see Numbers 28, 29). The phrase "bulls and . . . goats" in Hebrews 9:13 means the same thing as "goats and calves" in verse 12. But it is evident that the similar expression ("calves and . . . goats") in verse 19 is a reference to the sacrifices made at the ratification of the covenant and not to those made on the Day of Atonement. There is scholarly acknowledgment that "bulls and goats" became a stereotyped expression denoting sacrifices in general (cf. Ps. 50:9-13; 66:15). Consequently, the phraseology does not necessarily carry Day of Atonement imagery.

Be that as it may, it is important to keep in mind that the cross is the true fulfillment of all typical sacrifices. Thus it may be said correctly that the cross (antitype) did indeed fulfill the sacrificial aspect (the offering of the Lord's goat) of the Day of Atonement (type).

However, it is the committee's conviction  that the allusions to the Day of Atonement, as well as to the daily rites, were not to provide a complete interpretation of its antitypical significance. Rather, the purpose of the author is to underscore by contrast the repetitious and ineffectual nature of animal sacrifices to save from sin, whether they are daily or yearly (chap. 10:4). By contrast, he presents the better blood of Christ's supremely better sacrifice offered once for all time (chap. 9:25-28). The merits of His blood alone can purge the conscience (verses 11-14) and provide genuine "redemption" from transgression in the covenantal relationship, whether it be under the first or second covenants (verse 15).

6. Does Hebrews indicate that Christ's atoning death in A.D. 31 cleansed (chap. 1:3, "purged") the heavenly sanctuary (chap. 9:23-26)? If so, there would be no need for a cleans ing/Day of Atonement fulfillment of the type in 1844.

It is important to note that two ideas are intertwined in the author's thought when he speaks of sacrifice and its accomplishments: (1) the sacrifice itself (the shedding of blood), and (2) the application or mediation of the blood (= the application of the merits of the sacrifice). The two parts form a unit. A sacrifice never stood alone. Whether mentioned or not, the ministering, or application, of the blood was always an essential part of the sacrifice. These two facets of sacrifice may be seen in the author's descriptions in chapter 9:

a. Verses 12, 13

(1) Blood of goats/calves/bulls (= sacrifice)

(2) "Sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh" (= application/mediation)

b. Verse 14

(1) "Blood of Christ"—"offered himself (= sacrifice)

(2) "Purge your conscience" ( = application/mediation)

c. Verses 18-21

(1) Blood of calves/goats—Sinai covenant (= sacrifice)

(2) "Sprinkled" book and people (= application/mediation)

d. Verse 22

(1) "Shedding of blood" (= sacrifice)

(2) "Purged," "remission" ( = application/mediation)

e. Verse 23

Earthly sanctuary ("patterns of things in the heavens")

(1) "These" [animal sacrifices understood] (= sacrifice)

(2) "Purified" (= application/mediation, at whatever times called for)

Heavenly sanctuary ("the heavenly things themselves")

(1) "Better sacrifices" (= Christ's sacrifice at Calvary)

(2) "Should be purified" [under stood] (= application/mediation)

It is evident that there is only one atoning sacrifice for sin, the atoning death of Christ. If that event had in itself "purified" the heavenly sanctuary, there would be no reason for the Saviour to function there in a priestly ministration. But a sacrifice never stood apart from the application of its merits. Consequently, it is understood that there are many applications of the merits of the one cross event.

All the "work" of Heaven is done on the basis of Calvary and is an application of its significance. Hebrews 9:23 (in context) contains both the ideas of Christ's efficacious death and the application of its merits—whether such is to be applied at the justification of a sinner who accepts God's salvation or whether applied in the final judgment to reaffirm the true believer and to vindicate God's authority and sovereignty before the universe. The cross event did not cleanse the heavenly sanctuary at the moment of the Saviour's death, but it did provide the basis upon which Christ, as man's high priest, could mediate His merits and bring about a total reconciliation of the universe (cf. Eph. 1:10; Col. 1:20) and thus restore the heavenly sanctuary and government of God "to its rightful state" (Dan. 8:14, R.S.V.).

7. A question commonly raised when the book of Hebrews is discussed (although not based on it) was touched on briefly by the committee. If, according to John 12:31, judgment took place at the cross, wouldn't this be a fulfillment of the Day of Atonement type? Is it not also true that a person is judged when he hears the gospel and rejects it (chap.3:18)?

It is evident, on the face of these passages, that the term judgment is being used in an accommodated, or modified, sense. Satan was indeed exposed and condemned in the eyes of the loyal universe at the cross, but he nevertheless continues to reign. The sinner who turns from the gospel invitation abides under divine condemnation (verse 36), but he may yet repent when the Spirit woos again.

The point is that neither of these statements deals with the final judgment. The Day of Atonement ritual removed in a total manner all sin that had been transferred to the sanctuary. As a result the sanctuary, the people, and the camp were regarded as cleansed. The Day of Atonement ritual is, therefore, analogous to the final judgment in its three phases (pre-Advent, millennial, executive), for only the final judgment completely resolves the sin problem and removes its effects from the universe. The Scriptures are clear that the final judgment will involve all humanity, including the professed followers of God (Acts 17:31; Rom. 14:10-12; 2 Cor. 5:10; Matt. 22:9-14; Eccl. 12:14, et cetera). Thus, the Day of Atonement type—in terms of the final judgment—was not fulfilled at the cross.

The value of Hebrews

For the Sanctuary Doctrine. The book of Hebrews provides no detailed exposition of the Israelite sanctuary ritual because its pastoral concerns moved in another direction. However, it does furnish some important keys for understanding the significance of the sanctuary and its main emphases. For example:

1. It indicates that there is a vertical link between the earthly and heavenly sanctuaries. The earthly is viewed as the counterpart of the heavenly and is designated a "copy" and "shadow" of the heavenly reality.

2. As a teaching device, the earthly sanctuary is described as a "parable" (chap. 9:9, "figure" = Greek, parabole = English, parable). As a parable, the earthly sanctuary serves to illustrate major points in the gospel/plan of salvation (chap. 4:1, 2; cf. Christ's Object Lessons, p. 133).

3. The earthly sanctuary and its rituals are also referred to as a "shadow," or type (chaps. 8:1-5; 10:1). A shadowtype is like a prophecy; it foreshadows "things to come" (verse 1). It is evident from Hebrews that the sanctuary rituals were intended to foreshadow the atoning, sacrificial death of Christ and His priestly ministry in the heavenly sanctuary (chaps. 8:1, 2; 9:11-14).

4. The book of Hebrews makes certain applications of the sanctuary types to demonstrate the inadequacies of animal blood and human mediation to care for the sin problem. At the same time it seeks to lift the attention of its readers from the Temple and rituals as ends in themselves to focus faith on the grand Substance of all the shadows, Jesus Christ Himself, His atoning death and priestly ministry for them in the presence of God.

Other New Testament writers also apply sanctuary type in a general manner to a variety of topics such as the Incarnation (John 1:14), the church (2 Cor. 6:16), and to the individual believer (1 Cor. 6:19, 20). However, none of these applications, including that of Hebrews, exhausts or limits further application of the sanctuary types.

Seventh-day Adventist understanding of the two phases of Christ's priestly ministry is based on-the two major ministries of the priests in the earthly sanctuary. The author of Hebrews has clearly underscored the fact that the Levitical priesthood served "a copy and shadow of the heavenly sanctuary" (chap. 8:5, R.S.V.). It is only logical and reasonable, therefore, to examine these distinct labors of the typical priesthood for insights into the nature and scope of the Saviour's true priestly function in the heavenly sanctuary.

For personal experience. The same message that the inspired author of Hebrews conveyed to his readers in the first century is needed again in the closing years of the twentieth century. End-time Christians, jaded by affluence on the one hand or distracted by multiple cares on the other, are in danger of losing faith as they wait for their Lord's return.

There is need to lock in afresh on the living Christ, our High Priest at the throne of God. As one of the committee members has expressed it so well:

"Our need, then, is to hear the same sort of message as the Hebrews. Someone must remind us of the reality of our religion, of its surpassing worth—must tell us again of the glory of our Head. And tell us in such a way that we can grasp it, that it brings us to our senses. Once more we must hear that because our religion is so great, we must take it seriously. Perhaps if we can grasp the magnificence of our salvation, if we can see the transcendent dimension, the divine realities of it, then we will cease to be so wishy-washy as Christians. Then we may stand up on our feet and look the world squarely in the eye. Then we shall know for sure who we are and what we are to be."

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