Go In and Go On

They say that confession is good for the soul so you should know now that much of what follows I have borrowed from William Barclay, whose translations and commentaries I have often used as a go-to over the years.

The Letter to the Hebrews, our reading of which, according to the Bible Companion, starts today, might well be called the letter of the great unknown. No one knows who wrote it. Away back in the third century the early Christian theologian, Origen, said: “Who wrote the Letter to the Hebrews? God alone knows”. How then did it become attached to Paul’s name? When the New Testament came to be put together as a book, the test of what was to get into it was whether it had been written by an apostle, or at least by someone who had been in contact with the apostles. No one knew who had written Hebrews but it was seen as far too great and far too valuable to omit and to lose. So it was, as it were, put under the protection of Paul, the great letter-writer, and was included with his letters.

Five hundred years before the writer to the Hebrews wrote the letter, Plato the Greek philosopher had spoken of a doctrine that left a deep mark on Greek thought. He had spoken of forms or ideas. There were, he said, the perfect ideas, the perfect forms, the perfect patterns, the perfect archetypes of all things laid up in heaven. Everything on earth was a pale and imperfect copy of these forms and ideas; and the task of life was to get from the world’s imperfections to heaven’s perfections, to get from earth’s unreality to heaven’s reality. As the writer to the Hebrews saw it, in Jesus heaven’s perfection had come to earth.

Before Jesus everything had been fragmentary and ephemeral (1:1) but Jesus is greater than everything that went before. He is greater than the angels (chapter 1). He is greater than Moses (chapter 3). He is greater than Joshua (chapter 4). Everything that had been foreshadowed and hinted at came to perfection in Jesus.

But in one respect, in the greatest of all things, this was especially true. The priest had a very special position in ancient religion. The Latin for priest is pontifex, which means a bridge-builder. The priest was the person who built a bridge between God and man. In particular the Jewish High Priest had a very special function on the Day
of Atonement. No human being ever went into the Holy of Holies in the Temple, except the High Priest, and even then, on only one day in the year. The priest on behalf of the people went into the presence of God. To the writer to the Hebrews the ancient priesthood is only the imperfect shadow of the real thing. Jesus is the real priest, the priest who himself can go into the presence of God and who can open the way for others to follow.

So the writer to the Hebrews tells how Jesus is the perfect priest. Two things are necessary for any priest – having sympathy with people and being divinely appointed (chapter 5). That was supremely true of Jesus.

There are things which show the obvious imperfection of the old priesthood. The old priesthood had to offer sacrifice for its own sins before ever it offered sacrifice for the sins of the people. Jesus does not need to do that because he has no sin (7:27). The old sacrifices had to be made over and over again, day in and day out throughout the years. But the sacrifice Jesus made is made once and for all and never needs to be made again (10:1-3).

The imperfection of the old sacrifices is obvious. If they were really effective, they would not need to be made over and over again. The blood of animals can never really make atonement. But Jesus is not only the perfect priest, he is the perfect offering too; and the offering he brings is himself and his perfect obedience (10:5-14).
There is nothing surprising in this because the new covenant, the new relationship to God, had already been foretold (Jeremiah 3:31-34; Hebrews 9:15-18) and the new kind of priesthood, the priesthood after the order of Melchizedek (Genesis 14:17-21; Psalm 110:4; Hebrews 7) had already been foretold too.

So Jesus is both the perfect priest and the perfect offering and therefore, in him, the way to God is open wide. So for the writer to the Hebrews two things are to be said to the Christian:

First, let us go in. The access to God is wide open because of what Jesus the great High Priest has done. Let us then draw near (4:16; 10:19-22).

Second, let us go on. Those to whom he was writing had become a little weary, a little regretful for what they had left, a little discouraged and they were on the verge of turning back. But to them there comes the invitation to go, not backwards but forwards, and to go in faith (5:11-6:12; chapter 11). For those of us who may, in the environment of the current pandemic, have become weary and discouraged, this is a strong exhortation for us to go on, to persevere:

“10 God will not forget all that you did, and the way in which you showed your love for him in your past and present service of his dedicated people. 11 It is our earnest desire that each of you should allow the same eagerness in your efforts to reach the full and final realisation of your hope. 12 You must not become lazy. You must take as your examples those who through faith and perseverance are entering into the promises of God.” (Hebrews 6:10-12)

So then we can take to heart the twin rallying-calls of the great unknown who wrote the Letter to the Hebrews: let us go in and let us go on.

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