THE LETTER TO THE HEBREWS - PART XIII
APPROACH TO THE GREAT MOUNT ZION ABOVE ALL THINGS
I. In chapter 12, the letter goes from the history of Israel to a thundering climax of the gathering of all peoples around the great Mount Zion.
- It starts with
a positive view of the current suffering as the discipline necessary
to join the saints, comes to a great call to join with God and His whole
kingdom in glory, and ends with a vision of this temporal realm giving
way to the permanent one.
II. The first half of the chapter connects the description of the great figures of Israeli history to the current struggles of Christians and exhorts Christians that these struggles are necessary.
A. The chapter begins by referring to the heroes just described, and all other heroes of Israel's past, as a "so great a cloud of witnesses" giving us an image of them helping and cheering us on in this race of life.
- The letter calls
this life a race in which we "rid ourselves of burdens" to run all
the better. The letter thus picks up on the allegory of a race
that St. Paul referred to in 1 Corinthians 9:24-26 and 2 Timothy 4:6-8,
and possibly Acts 20:24. See also Is. 40:29-31.
- Two aspects of this
image are common to the other references, that of struggle and training
that may be painful at the time, but that leads to glory. But
the letter adds two more images: (1) the image of the saints surrounding
us to help and encourage us; and (2) the need to avoid carrying a lot
of baggage, which slows down of stops one. The latter image would
presumably refer to such things as sinfulness and/or attachment to worldly
- The image of a cloud
both emphasizes the mystery of the saints surrounding us and the idea
of the clouds as reflecting the heavens, as with the Transfiguration.
There may also be a reference to the glories of the nations being brought
to Israel, as prophesied by Isaiah, who used the image of clouds coming
in together. See Isaiah 60:8.
B. The goal is not any worldly reward, but Christ Himself, here presented as both leading us, perfecting us, and awaiting us at the end us at the end. See Catechism 2616.
- The letter exhorts
us to have that same attitude of Christ, who suffered but also saw the
joy in front of Him. See also Phil. 2:5-11. Suffering and
joy are not contradictory, but rather combined together for the race
- There is a notion
that even Jesus, God though He was and is, had a sense of contemplation
and vision of the glory that was His reward. So also we need a
sense of contemplation and vision of Jesus.
C. The letter also reminds the recipients that they have not yet suffered as Jesus or even many of the great figures of Israel did.
- One thus gets
the impression from this passage that there was a previous partial persecution,
but not a violent one, and that a persecution is just beginning again.
II The letter then switches images to that of a father disciplining His son.
A. The letter quotes the Book of Proverbs, which in describes God's preparation for us to receive prosperity on earth. See Prov. 3:11-12. Here, the letter refers to the same image that God is disciplining us, but now for everlasting glory.
- Moses also
used this image to refers to how God disciplines His people to train
them, in that case for entrance into the Promised Land. See Duet.
8:5. Here the image is likewise fulfilled as the letter describes
God disciplining us for entrance into the final Promised Land.
B. The letter encourages
the readers to reflect upon how it is always necessary to discipline
children, not only if they do wrong, but also even for the sake of training.
This notion is a common theme of Wisdom literature. See, e.g.,
Prov. 13:24. 19:18, 22:15, 19:15, Sir. 6:18, 30:1-13. The letter
indicates that we are all likewise in training for nothing less than
the rewards of heaven.
C. The image also
taps into the image of the people of God (or their leaders) as His sons
whom He disciplines, and the image Jesus commonly referred to in describing
us as His children. See, e.g., Duet. 32:5; 2 Sam. 7:14-15, Is.
66:13-14; Hos. 11:1-7; Matt. 7:9-11, 13:38, 18:3-5. Likewise,
St. Paul frequently refers to us as children of God through Christ.
See, e.g., Rom. 8:14-17 (especially emphasizing the need for suffering),
Gal. 3:23-4:30, Eph. 4:8, Phil 2:4-15. The letter picks up on
this image to see all of this life as a progress from childhood to being
full heirs of the kingdom.
D. The letter even goes so far as to indicate that, if we did not suffer, it would be an indication that we are either so immature or so far gone that God does not believe that even that would help. See Prov. 9:7-9.
- The image of children
conceived illegitimately implies a father who wants to please his children,
but does not really want them to inherit his property or power.
E. The author, writing
to a Jewish context in which the command to have respect for parents
could be assumed, puts this command together with the idea of God as
our Father to encourage us to respect His role in disciplining us.
F. The passage ends with a series of metaphors indicating that the readers have been weakened and need strength, lest the weakness be disabling.
- The first images
of physical weakness (i.e. drooping hands and weak knees) gives one
the impression of one not in shape enough for a contest, as these Christians
have not really been prepared for the contest of persecutions.
It also recalls Isaiah's prophesies of a new glorious Israel.
See Is. 35:1-6. There may also be a reference to a passage in
Job referring to suffering as discipline given by God. See Job4:3-4,
- The second image
is of a road that is straight so that even those who are lame can walk
without injury. It implies that many of the faithful are lame
in their faith, partially disabled and, therefore, in need of healing.
The letter also taps into the image of the straight road of justice,
and the way prepared for the Messiah. See, e.g., Ps. 16:11, 17:5,
27:11; Prov. 4:26, 12:28, 15:19-24; ; Is. 40:3, Matt. 3:3, Mk. 1:2,
Luke 3:4; John 1:23.
III. Spelling out the path of righteousness, the letter begins to give practical instructions.
A. First, it calls for the readers to "strive for peace with everyone."
- The implication is
that, even though the Christians will endure rejection from many because
of their faith, they should not seek out the fight, but rather try to
be conciliatory. See Ps. 34:15; Rom. 12:18-20; Matt. 5:9, 21-26.
B. The letter also says that one should strive for the holiness, for that is necessary to see God. The idea is that one must be set aside for God to enter into His realm.
- There is call to
glory here as well. The notion is that holiness is not restricted
to the few, but rather a calling for all. Se, e.g., Matt. 5:48; James
1:4. However, one cannot compromise with the world, but must rather
be fully sanctified to be in heaven. See Ps. 15:1, Rev. 21:27;
C. The letter then gives two balancing concerns. On the one hand, it says that no one should be deprived of God's grace, and thus the Gospel should be available to all. But, on the other hand it says that no "bitter root" should spring up to damage the faith in the church.
1. There is an
idea that church should minister to the weak, but should not allow them
to spread their errors. Jesus also gave such considerations when
speaking of an erring brother. See Matt. 18:5-20.
2. The phrase
"bitter root" appears to be from Moses' warnings that no one who
worships a foreign god should be allowed among the Chosen People.
See Duet. 19:17. There is perhaps also a contrast between the
root of evil, see also 2 Tim. 6:10, and Jesus as coming from the root
of the tree of David, and the root of faith. See, e.g., Is. 11:10,
Romans 15:12, Rev. 5:5, 22:16; Eph. 3:17, Col. 2:7.
. E. Concluding the exhortation, the letter cites the example of Esau, who exchanged his birthright for a meal a the end of an exhausting journey.
- The image is both
that one who seeks pleasure above all is exchanging something much greater,
an eternal glory for something transitory; and it is also a warning
against thinking that one can reverse a decision to abandon the faith
- The passage in most translations compares Esau to a fornicator. The implication is not that he was guilty of that particular sin, but rather that he is an example of those who seek worldly comfort and pleasures and are willing to trade God's promises for them. Unfaithfulness to the covenant is often compared to adultery. See, e.g., Jer. 3:6-10; Ex. 23:47; Hos. 2:4-9.
– Again, there
is a warning against presumptuously thinking that one could turn away
from the faith now and easily come back later.