Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Church in Hebrews 7

More on Church life in the epistle to the Hebrews:

Throughout the course of the letter the author explores what such corporate perseverance in faith involves, to which we turn in the next two headings.

2. Identification with the persecuted.

The author emphasises the need to live in Christian fellowship even if that requires identifying with persecuted Christians. In 10:32-34 the Hebrew’s “hard struggle” in the past had involved public reproach and identification with those likewise suffering, including those imprisoned. It is precisely this kind of response the author is wishing to exhort them to recommence. Perhaps it was the fear of continuing persecution that caused some of the Hebrews to neglect congregational life (10:25). A similar picture is painted in 13:3 where it is abundantly clear that those imprisoned are fellow members of the church. Moreover, 13:12-14 links these ideas with the sufferings of Christ. Part of following his faithful example is living life as suffering outsiders – the very essence of endurance in hope that the author has been exhorting (13:14).[1]

3. Access and Worship

One of the models the author employs for describing persevering faith in congregational life is the tabernacle. This brings a particular emphasis on the twin ideas of ‘access’ and ‘worship’.

An emphasis on access accords with the dominant Christological theme of the letter - Christ’s priesthood,[2] and the correspondingly significant role the tabernacle plays in the letter’s Christology. We see therefore that the emphasis on Christ’s ministry leads to a particular understanding of the nature of the Church, which in turn leads to specific forms of Church life. It is no surprise in this context that ‘approach’ occurs at several major junctions in the letter - most notably in 4:14-16 and 10:19-25.[3] In the latter the 1st person plural present subjunctive of προσερχομαι heads up an extended exhortation. As with the Christological priestly material, this notion of approach is drawn from and yet also contrasted with the tabernacle life of Israel (10:2) and the Sinai experience (12:18-24). Here we again see how central ‘Church’ is to the basic response to Christ the author is seeking. Corporately drawing near to God as his people is a holding fast onto the hope inaugurated in Christ’s priestly work: the ‘hope’ of 6:19-20 is somehow (at least in part) realised and ‘lived out’ in 10:19-25. We should also note that while it could be argued the drawing near of 10:22 certainly involves more than congregational meetings it cannot be ascertained that it is less. Rather, the proximity of προσερχομαι and e˙kklhsi÷a in 12:22-23 suggests otherwise, since here ‘church’ is explicitly bound together with ‘approach’. The eschatological/ heavenly reality to which the Hebrews have arrived ought to find expression in communal approach to God in the here and now.[4]

This, of course, does not mean that the epistle limits Church life to formal meetings as often experienced in the modern west.[5] Rather, 10:19-25 weaves drawing near to God with the basic responses of faith, hope and love. What is more, we have seen that Church life for the author involves daily exhortation. In relation to this, the second aspect of ‘tabernacle life’ reflected in the life of the Church as the eschatological Israel is ‘worship’. In the author’s mind this is the obvious response to the eschatological reality of 12:18-24. This reality, which he describes in 12:28 as ‘receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken’, should provoke gratitude and, like Israel before her, the offering by the Church of “acceptable worship” to the God who is a “consuming fire” (12:28-29). This worship is described in 13 as encompassing many different areas of life. Not only are these instructions expressed in the plural, but many of the activities envisaged are inherently corporate, for example - “brotherly love”, “hospitality”, identification with imprisoned members of the body, “all” honouring marriage, respect and obedience towards leaders, and the sharing of goods.[6] That the tabernacle worship of Israel is still in the background is clear not just from the wider context, but also in 13:15-16’s offerings and sacrifices. Corporate praise of God and communal life are the priestly work of God’s people.[7]

[1] These verses could be further support for a preterist/AD70 reading, since ‘outside the camp’ refers to the camp of Israel. The Hebrews must not align themselves with soon-to-be judged apostate Israel/Jerusalem, but rather Christ, who suffered and died as an outsider to the nation. Guthrie argues that a return to Judaism was a danger for the Hebrews, which would be strengthened by a preterist reading. Guthrie, Hebrews, 20.

[2] The theme appears first in 1:3, is implied in 1:5, then returned to again in 2:17, 3:1-6. It comes into particular focus in the exhortation of 4:14-16 from where it dominates until chapter 11 (a brief excursion from 5:11to roughly 6:18 being the exception). The theme resurfaces in 12:24 and then again in 13:8-16.

[3] Guthrie highlights these passages in the structure of the book. Guthrie, Hebrews, 39-40, 173, 340.

[4] “[T]his passage speaks of end-time existence as present possibility for the believer.” Giles, Church, 156.

[5] It is not less than such formal meetings however. Giles, Church, 158.

[6] Attridge understands chapter 13 to be about ‘worship’ and notes the connection between worship and congregational life. Attridge, Hebrews, 384-385.

[7] Likewise, 13:10 is unmistakably drawing on the image of the old covenant priesthood, and may be a reference to communion. See Leviticus 6:26.

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