Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Church in Hebrews 4

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More of my efforts to show that according to Hebrews the Church is in a relation of eschatological fulfilment to Israel of the Old Testament.

3. Two e˙kklhsi÷a passages

Both uses of the word e˙kklhsi÷a in Hebrews are references to the ‘end times’ hope of Israel and should be read in accord with the promise-inheritance dynamic of the passages cited above.[1]

With 2:12, the surrounding text contains a number of descriptions of the people of God, together emphasising the familial connection between Christ and Church, but doing so in ‘Israel language.’ The “brothers” in the e˙kklhsi÷a of Psalm 22 (quoted in 2:12) are the Israelites gathered around the vindicated suffering King, whilst the “children” in 2:12 are from Isaiah 8 where Isaiah and his family function as a ‘true Israel’ within Israel - displaying the kind of patient faith that should have characterised the entire nation. Like Isaiah, Christ is “ a rallying point” for faith, and those who gather around him are ‘Israel’ in the truest sense.[2] In this context the reference to those who receive help from the Son’s priesthood as “the offspring of Abraham” in 2:16 seems entirely natural. Moreover, in 2:11 both Christ (the sanctifier) and Church (those he sanctifies) are of one origin, that is, have a sonship[3] based on God’s exaltation of them.[4] Hence, in 2:10 the Church is the “many sons” (like Israel was the son of God, Exodus 4:22) who are brought to glory by the perfected Son. The ‘church’ of 2:12 is thus qualified by a number of further descriptions which emphasise the arrival of eternal salvation (sanctification-glory-perfection-inheritance) through Christ for the ‘Israel’ gathered around him.

In 12:18-24 the Hebrews are contrasted with Israel at Sinai. Rather than being gathered at the foot of Sinai, they have come to Zion, the eschatological Jerusalem.[5] This, together with the reference to perfection (12:23), indicates that the hope of Abraham and other old covenant saints for a heavenly city/country is in view.[6] The ruling body[7] of this heavenly Jerusalem is the church of the firstborn enrolled in heaven (12:22), who have access to God himself through Jesus the better mediator (12:23-24). This is summarised in 12:28 as them receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken.[8] The Church is thus contrasted with Israel, but the contrast is by way of fulfilment – what makes the Church ‘different’ is that what Israel hoped for the Church in some sense possesses. Whilst this obviously awaits consummation, because the foundational, unique and guaranteeing priestly work has been done, the Church may truly be said to have ‘arrived’ at where Israel wanted to ‘be’ as embodied in her Zion theology. The new world, the promised rest, the heavenly city, the glorified ‘perfection’ that faithful Israelites hoped for, is all, through Christ’s mediatorial work, the possession of the Church. As Giles concludes, the Church is “Israel of the last days.”[9]

[1] In both passages ideas of inheritance are found in close proximity. See 2:16 and 12:17, 28.

[2] Quotation from Lane, Hebrews, 60. Attridge, Hebrews, 90-91.

[3] Asymmetrical but related nonetheless.

[4] Attridge argues that πντες includes “both parties in v 11”, though νς is ambiguous. Atttridge thinks νς is intentionally ambiguous, much like the identity of the son of man in 2:8-9, to be revealed later. Given the verbal link with 10 (where God is the source of τ πντα) and the familial language frequent in the rest of the writer’s exposition of this solidarity, it seems likely that the referent is God. Lane, Hebrews, 58. 51. Attridge, Hebrews, p88-89.

[5] See Psalm 2 or Psalm 46 for an example of Jerusalem idealised. Attridge states that in eschatological tradition Zion “became paired with Sinai as the ultimate point of God’s manifestation”, which traditions Paul and other early Christian authors adapted. Attridge, Hebrews, 374.

[6] Cf. 11:8-10, 13-16.

[7] This ‘political’ meaning for e˙kklhsi÷a can be found, for example, in Jonathan Stephen, “Introduction,” in Tales of Two Cities – Christianity and Politics (ed. Stephen Clark; Leicester: IVP, 2005), 9.

[8] This is probably itself a contrast with the old covenant system, which is about to be removed (8:13, 12:27, also 8:2-5, 9:11). This ‘preterist’ reading of the epistle assumes a pre-AD70 dating. John Owen is one of the more famous figures from Church history to propose such a reading. Rather than engaging in the lengthy process of trying to justify a preterist reading for Hebrews, we simply note here that reading the epistle as written in the context of the imminent covenant-transitional events of AD70 would strengthen the overall argument being made in this essay about the relation of the Church to Israel. The overall ‘new Israel theology’ on display here does not depend on preterism however. See David Field, “Interpretive approaches to the apocalypse” (Unpublished Lecture Handout. Oak Hill College, 2007). Also John Owen, Hebrews – The Epistle to the Hebrews, the Messiah, the Jewish Church (vol. XVII of The Works of John Owen; 1854-55; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1991), 96-101.

[9] Giles, Church, 159.


Daniel Newman said...

Thanks for these posts, Pete. Regarding the church's participation in the eschatological Jerusalem, do you think the latter verses of Hebrews 12 are talking about what happens when the church assembles, flowing out into the day-to-day worship of chapter 13, or do you think it's talking in general terms about the status of the church?

Pete said...

Good question. I think I sort of tried to deal with it in passing later on in my essay.

Where I'm at at the moment is something like this. The church always participates in zion, because Christ is always there, he's always within the veil and so are we. We always have access, we're always seated with Jesus in the heavenlies.

However, and it's a very important however, especially given current discussions about worship etc., when the Church gathers there is a real sense in which this participation is intensified, ratified, confirmed, strengthened, experienced-in-a-more-specific-way. Part of the reason is that the church in the very act of gathering is playing out on earth the reality of the heavenlies - we gather here because we are gathered above sort of idea. The heavenly reality is more truly reflected when we gather than when we are scattered.

[So, like all of life is worship, the gathered assemblies of the church are intensified, corporate worship.]

This means that there is a significant primary application of Hebrews 12 to gathered worship - hence why we hear in our assemblies from the one who speaks to us from heaven.

I think it helps in this regard to think of our union (participation) with Christ. Surely we are always united with Christ. And yet, when we gather together, hear his word and respond, partake of the sacraments, then surely there's a real sense in which our union with him is strengthened, re-confirmed, in some sense reconstituted. Since our participation in Zion is through and in our participation in Christ I think I'd apply the same model.

[that said, 'the Lord's service' arrived in the post today, so I'll be thinking about this sort of thing a little more at some point in the near future)

I hope that makes sense. I'd love to know your thoughts too.