Chapter 5: The Letter To The Hebrews

Many Witnesses, One Lord
by William Barclay

Chapter 5: The Letter To The Hebrews

The Gospel of the Approach to God

It may well be said that the whole of the Letter to the Hebrews is written on one text: "Let us draw near" (10:22). Its central idea is the new and free approach to God which has become possible through Jesus Christ.

The writer to the Hebrews wrote out of a double background. The thinkers and the seekers from the two backgrounds would have used different language and different categories of thought, but fundamentally they would have been saying the same thing and searching for the same thing.

The writer to the Hebrews wrote out of a Greek background. It was Plato who gave the world the conception of forms or ideas. For him the unseen world was the real world. In it there were laid up the forms, the ideas, the perfect archetypes and patterns of which everything in this world is a pale and imperfect copy. To put it at its very simplest, there is in the unseen world a perfect idea of a chair of which all man-made chairs are imperfect copies. This world of space and time is not the real world, the things which we can see and touch and handle are not the real things. The real world is the invisible world beyond. Philo believed that God created the unseen world first with all its perfect patterns, and then created the visible world as a copy of the unseen (Concerning the Creator of the World 16). Seneca explains to Lucilius that the ideas of which Plato spoke were "what all visible things were created from and what formed the pattern for all things" (Letters 57:18, 19). In the Letter to the Hebrews there is a direct echo of this when the writer speaks of the Temple in Jerusalem as being "a copy and shadow of the heavenly sanctuary", and when he recalls how Moses was instructed to make everything according to the pattern shown to him on the heavenly mount (8:5). For the Greek, then, the search was for access to reality in the invisible world beyond.

The writer to the Hebrews wrote out of a Hebrew background. There was one essential difference between Greek and Hebrew thought. The Greek searched for truth; the Hebrew searched for God. The Greek searched for knowledge; the Hebrew searched for the living God. For the Greek at the end of the search there was a truth; for the Hebrew at the end of the search there was a person. The Hebrew would always say, not: "I know what I have believed", but "I know whom I have believed" (II Timothy 1:12). Further, when we were studying the Fourth Gospel, we have already seen that the Greek would regard the discovery of truth or God as impossible so long as a man was shackled and imprisoned in the body. Even the Wisdom literature of the Jews has an echo of this line of thought. "The corruptible body", says the Sage, "presses down upon the soul, and the earthly tabernacle weighs down the mind that muses upon many things" (Wisdom 9:15). But the true Hebrew would certainly hold that a man can know God here and now.

So then the Hebrew sought for God; and therein precisely lies his problem. God to the Hebrew was holy, kadosh in Hebrew, hagios in Greek; and the basic meaning of this word is separate, different, other. God, as modern theology was later to express it, is the Wholly Other. Not only did the Hebrew think of God as wholly other; he also regarded it as dangerous and even deadly to seek to approach that white blaze of purity in which God lives.

Moses heard God say: "You cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live" (Exodus 33:20) After the incident at Peniel it was Jacob's astonished exclamation: "I have seen God face to face and yet my life is preserved" (Genesis 32:30). When Moses came down from the mount the people exclaimed in astonishment: "We have this day seen God speak with man and man still live" (Deuteronomy 5:24). When Manoah discovered who his heavenly visitor had been, he said to his wife in terror: "We shall surely die because we have seen God" (Judges 13:22). When Gideon knew to whom he had been speaking, and when terror gripped him, the voice of God calmed him: "Peace be to you; do not fear, you shall not die" (Judges 6:22, 23). Into the Holy of Holies in the Temple no man but the High Priest might go, and he only on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16); and even in his case the regulations laid it down that he must not linger too long in that holiness, "lest he put Israel in terror".

Here then was the situation. The Greek was seeking access to that elusive reality which he could only find when he had sloughed off the body; the Jew was seeking access to the God who was the Holy One and the Wholly Other. The argument of the writer to the Hebrews is that Jesus is the only one in whom there is free and open access to reality and to God. To this end the writer to the Hebrews describes Jesus under five great terms.

I. Jesus is the archegos of our faith (12:2). The AV renders author, with beginner in the margin; the RV, author, with captain in the margin; the PSV and Moffatt, pioneer; Weymouth, Prince Leader; Kingsley Williams, leader; Knox, origin; Phillips, source; Wuest, originator. The NEB speaks of Jesus on wham our faith depends from start to finish.

Obviously, the word is not easy to render. It has two lines of meaning. First, it does mean a prince, a leader, a commander. Second, its more characteristic meaning is that of a beginner of something which still exists. Thus it can mean the founder of a city or a family or a school of philosophy, the one who blazes the trail for others to follow in his footsteps. Someone has used the analogy from a shipwreck. If a ship is wrecked and some gallant man swims ashore with a rope along which others can follow in safety, that man is the archegos. He went first to make it possible for others to follow. So Jesus is the pioneer who blazes the way into the presence of God that we may follow.

2. Jesus is the prodromos (6:20). Prodromos is a military word, and the prodromoi were the scouts who went on ahead to see that it was safe for the main body to follow. It has been said that the word was used to describe the pilot boat which sailed in front of the larger vessels, as they entered the harbour of Alexandria, to show them where the right channel was. Here we have the same idea again. Jesus goes first for us to follow.

3. Central to the thought of the writer to the Hebrews is the idea of the covenant, and in this connection he uses two other terms about Jesus. Jesus is the egguos, the surety or guarantor of a better covenant (7:22), and he is the mesites, the mediator of the new covenant (8:6; 9:15; 12:24).

The covenant, as we have seen, was a relationship between God and Israel, in which God in his free, spontaneous grace had chosen Israel to be his people, and had offered himself as their God. The maintenance of the covenant was dependent on the keeping of the Law (Exodus 24:3-8). The sacrificial system was devised to restore the relationship when man's disobedience had broken it. Quite clearly, for all its greatness this covenant is very imperfect.

(a) The Law is bound to be broken. Since man is a sinner, he cannot fully keep and obey the Divine Law. To make the covenant dependent on that is to make it dependent on an impossibility.

(b) The priests are doubly imperfect. First, the priest, being himself a sinner, must first offer sacrifice for his own sins (7:27). A sinner cannot really be the means of atoning for sin. Second. the priests of the old covenant are subject to death. Being mortal men, they are born and die, and come and go with no permanency (7:23).

(c) The sacrifices of the old covenant are clearly ineffective, because day in and day out they have to be made over and over again. Whatever temporary effect they may have, they have no permanent effect on the situation created by sin (10:1-3).

(d) In any event the sacrifice of animals is unavailing because what God desires is the sacrifice of a life dedicated in loving obedience to his will (10:5-10).

The old covenant is a shadow and a copy of reality, but it is not the real thing. But there is nothing surprising in this, for the O.T. itself spoke of a new covenant: "Behold the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord; I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each man teach his neighbour and each his brother, saying, Know the Lord, for they shall all know me, from the least even unto the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more" (Jeremiah 31:31-34). The very fact that a new covenant is promised shows that the old covenant is obsolete, outdated, and passing away (8:13). And it is to be noted that this new covenant knows nothing of an externally imposed law written in a book: its law is written on the heart; nor does it know anything of sacrifice; the need for sacrifice no longer exists.

It is the claim of the writer to the Hebrews that that new covenant has come in Jesus Christ. Of that new covenant Jesus is the egguos, the sponsor, the guarantor. Of that new covenant he is the mesites. Mesas means in the middle; and a mesites was a middleman, who stood between two people who were estranged and drew them together again.

(e) Let us now see more closely the relationship of Jesus to this new covenant. The new covenant needs a perfect sacrifice. Jesus had made that. Once and for all in offering himself he has made a sacrifice that never needs to be repeated (7:27). The new covenant needs a perfect priest. Jesus is that. Firstly, he is completely identified with the men he came to save. A priest must be such that he can deal gently with the ignorant and the wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness (5:1-2). "We have not 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 sinning" (4:15). No writer in the NT has a deeper sense of the identification of Jesus with the human situation (2:14; 5:7, 8; 12:2, 3; 13:12). Secondly, the perfect priest cannot take his office upon himself; he must be divinely appointed (5:1). And it is here that the writer to the Hebrews makes his personal and unique contribution to the understanding of Jesus, for he shows us Jesus as the High Priest according to the order of Melchizedek. His picture is wrought out in two passages, which should be carefully studied, 5:1-10 and the whole of chapter 7.

He founds his argument on two OT passages to which he brings all the skill of expert Jewish rabbinic exegesis.

The Lord hath sworn and will not change his mind, "You are a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek." (Psalm 110:4)

After his return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer, and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet him (Abraham) at the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King's Valley). And Melchizedek king of Salem brought him bread and wine; he was the priest of God Most High. And he blessed him and said:

Blessed be Abraham by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth;

and blessed be God Most High,

who has delivered your enemies into your hand!

(Genesis 14:17-20)

Here a new and unknown priesthood is described, a priesthood which, as the writer to the Hebrews saw it, was the forecast and the symbol of the priesthood of Jesus Christ. Let us then follow the argument of the writer to the Hebrews in chapter 7 to see what these passages say to him about the priesthood of Jesus Christ and its superiority to the existing levitical priesthood.

The priesthood of Jesus Christ is a royal priesthood, for Melchizedek was a king. It is a righteous priesthood, for Melchizedek means king of righteousness. It is a peaceful priesthood, for Meichizedek was king of Salem, and Salem is taken to mean peace. The levitical priesthood was entirely dependent on descent from Aaron, and such descent had to be proved and guaranteed; but there is no mention of any genealogy, of any father or mother of Melchizedek; the new priesthood therefore depends on personal power and quality and not on any family tree. There is no mention whatever of either the birth or the death of Melchizedek; he appears as timeless; therefore the new priesthood is eternal, without beginning or end, beginning before time began and unending when time ends.

Now follow a series of arguments to prove the superiority of the new priesthood. The superior always blesses the inferior. Therefore, since Melchizedek blessed Abraham, he is the superior of Abraham, who is no less than the founder of the nation of Israel. Ordinarily it is the Levites who receive tithes, and they do so because the Law entitles them to do so. But Melchizedek was no Levite and yet he received tithes, not because the Law assigned them to him, but as a perfect personal right. Further, the Levites tithe their brethren, but Melchizedek tithed Abraham who was a total stranger to him. Still further, Levi himself paid tithes to Meichizedek, because, although yet unborn, he might be said to be in the body of his great-grandfather Abraham. Every stone in the edifice shows the superiority of the priesthood according to the order of Melchizedek to the levitical priesthood.

Still further, the priesthood according to the order of Melchizedek is confirmed by nothing less than the oath of God (Psalm 110:4), which makes it far greater than the levitical priesthood. The very mention of the priesthood according to the order of Melchizedek demonstrates the inferiority of the levitical priesthood, for, if the levitical priesthood had been adequate and effective, no other priest-hood would ever have been mentioned. And this new priesthood is a complete revolution. The priests came from the tribe of Levi, but Jesus came from the tribe of Judab, from which no priests ever came; and this is the proof, not only of a new kind of priesthood, but of the total abrogation of the old law. Finally, two facts are brought forward which we have already noted. The new priest need make no sacrifice for his own sin for he is sinless, and the sacrifice he made never needs to be repeated but is for ever and for ever effective and availing.

Such is the picture of the priesthood according to the order of Melchizedek, the new priesthood which put the old priesthood for ever out of date.

There remains one thing to note. The writer to the Hebrews had an almost unique sense of the total adequacy of the work of Jesus Christ. It stretches back into the past, for it redeems men from transgressions committed under the old covenant (9:15). It reaches forward into the future, for the work of Jesus Christ as high priest is never ended. Even in the heavenly places he carries on his priestly work, for we have a high priest who has passed through the heavens (4:14). He appears in the presence of God on our behalf (9:24). He continues a priest for ever (7:3). He is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them (7:25). Here is a picture of Jesus Christ saving in past time, saving in present time, and saving for ever and for ever. And in this picture and behind it there is something even more far-reaching. Its real meaning is that the life and the death and the Cross of Christ are not, as it were, parts of some isolated incident. The incarnation and the crucifixion are not, as it were, emergency measures. This was not done because everything else had been tried and failed. The life and death of Jesus are not simply events in time; they are windows into the eternal heart of God, whereby we see the suffering and redeeming love of God which has been suffering and redeeming since the beginning of time and will be beyond the end of time. In Jesus Christ we see God, not as God for a moment became, but as God for ever was, for ever is, and for ever will be.

The Latin Word for priest is pontifex, which literally means a bridge-builder, and for the writer to the Hebrews the Gospel's essence is that Jesus Christ is for men the bridge into the presence of God. "Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way which he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great high priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith" (10:19-22).