THE LETTER TO THE HEBREWS - PART XV
I. The final chapter in Hebrews applies the general exhortations to remain faithful by giving more specific moral and doctrinal exhortations. It begins with a section that quickly goes over good of neighbor and control of desires.
A. The first three verses deal with hospitality, which the Jews considered to be a sacred duty, and which Jesus extended to all peoples, known or not. See, e.g., Duet. 15:7-11; Matt. 5:43, 19:19, 25:31-46; Luke 10:25-37; John 13:34-35. The letters of St. Paul and others in the News Testament frequently reiterate this theme of hospitality. See, e.g., Rom. 12:9-21; 1 Thess. 4: 9-12; 1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:8, James 1:27, 2:14-17; 1 Peter 4:9-11; 1 John 4:20.
1. The letter
refers to the fact that many have, in exercising hospitality, done good
for angels in disguise. The Old Testament has several instances
of angels appearing in disguise and rewarding or calling those who assisted
them. See Gen. 18:1-10, 19:1-22: Judges 6:11-24, 13:9-23;
see also Tobit 6. The implication is that such things continue
2. The letter
expressly mentions sharing in the struggles of the imprisoned and ill-treated,
because they would be the easiest to neglect and/or because fellow Christians
(and eventually the readers themselves) would likely end up in this
state. Jesus showed special solicitude the imprisoned and called
upon His disciples to do the same. See, e.g., Matt. 25:36; Luke
4:16-21; see also Isaiah 58:6, 61:1-3.
B. The letter then turns to goodness of life with respect to purity and freedom from greed. The Christian moral life involves both expansiveness in goodness and guard against evil. See James 1:27.
1. There may
be here a reference to the Book of Wisdom and its commentary on the
effects of idolatry. See Wis. 14:24.
2. The idea is that one must be free from slavery to desires in order truly to give worthy service to neighbor and worship to God. Ancient Jewish law very strongly warned against such slavery. See, e.g., Duet. 6:6-20, 22:13-29; Prov. 7, 9:13-18. St. Paul likewise picks up upon this theme. See, e.g., Gal. 5:16-26; Eph. 5:5; Col. 3:5. In the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere, Jesus likewise focuses on these themes. See, e.g., Matt. 5:27-32, 6:1-5, 24; Mark 10:1-31.
-Greed and dishonor
of marriage would have ben common in the world around them.
3. The section then builds upon the moral laws by commending the readers to a complete trust in God, rather than in money or the world.
- The letter quotes
God's promise to Jacob, see Gen. 28:15, and the promises Moses and
Joshua made to the Chosen People, when they were about to enter the
Promised Land. See Duet. 31:6, 8; Josh. 1:5. The idea is that
the readers should have even more confidence in facing the forces against
them now, for Jesus is with them.
- It then quotes
Psalm 118, which is a song of confidence and triumph in the midst of
struggle. In speaking of the gates of triumph opening to the Lord
and the call, "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord"
the psalm sets the stage for Jesus' entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
Jesus also applies the psalms words to Himself in saying "The stone
rejected by the builder has become the corner stone" in the midst
of prophesying about the kingdom being transferred from the Jewish leaders
to those more worthy. See Matt. 21:42. Peter likewise uses
that phrase when speaking to the Sanhedrin. See Acts. 4:11.
There is thus a reminder to the people that they should not be afraid
of leaders whose power is fading away.
II. The letter then gets to loyalty to leaders, guiding the people of God together in doctrine.
A. In verse 7 and
again 17, the letter calls for the readers to remember their leaders
and be loyal to them. Between these two passages, the letter calls
for unity in doctrine and willingness to sacrifice for the sake of Christ
and the praise of God.
B. The opening passage calls upon the reader to "consider the outcome of their [the leaders'] life and imitate their faith."
- The passage
indicates that some at least of the leaders have died, and yet still
rule. In addition, by use of the singular term "life," rather
than "lives" it indicates that they share one life together.
Thus, the current leaders and the deceased ones are united in one life
and faith. See also 1 Cor. 12:4-31; Eph. 4:4,
- As chapter 11 did,
this passage again calls upon the people to recollect the leaders who
died nobly and were often martyred. See, e.g., Acts 7:59-60; Rev.11:1-13.
C. The passage then presents the source of this unity of life and faith, that is, Jesus Christ who "is the same yesterday and today and forever" (literally "into the ages.") Pope John Paul II would frequently quote this text at the end of his homilies.
- The idea is that
Jesus is always the same, and thus faith in Him will not contradict
what has gone before, although we may learn more about it. Thus,
the people should not think that anything has changed just because a
crisis is impending.
- The passage takes
a familiar theme of the Old Testament about God's providence for His
people and applies it to Jesus. See, e.g., Ps. 55:20, 90:2, 93:2,
102:13, 25-28, 135:13, 145:13; Lam. 5:19; Hab. 1:12. The passages
that emphasize this idea of God, His name, and His kingdom being always
the same typically are in the context of a plea for assistance, or an
expression of confidence in the help of God, in time of distress.
Jesus likewise promises that He will be with His disciples always.
See, e.g., Matt. 28:20.
D. The letter then continues on with the theme of unity and consistency in faith by warning against "strange and diverse teachings."
- Here, as elsewhere
in the New Testament Epistles, there are doctrinal divisions in the
background that the author is combating. See, e.g., Gal. 1:8-9;
Eph. 4:14; Col. 2:4; 2 Thess. 2:1-12; 2 Pet. 2; 1 John 2:18-23.
E. Along similar lines, the letter speaks of us receiving grace from eating at the altar, rather than in other meals.
1. The other
meals most likely mean the Jewish ceremonial meals after sacrifices
or on feasts. See also Col. 2:16. That message
would be a conclusion of the reasoning of the whole letter.
2. But the letter
could also refer to the pleasure and company of the world and be reminding
the reader that salvation does not come from that. See Rom. 14:17;
1 Cor. 8:8.
3. The passage
says that instead we have an altar at which we eat and receive the grace
of God. No one outside of the faith has a right to this grace,
while seems to be a reference to the Eucharist. See 1 Cor. 11:23-34.
F. Returning to the theme to imitating Christ, the letter again refers to the fact that, while the Israelites or the priests ate at least part of most animals that they sacrificed, the animals who were sin offerings were burned outside of the camp. See Lev. 4. And especially on the Day of Atonement, the priest would sacrifice a bull and a goa for the sins of himself and the people. He would then confess the sins of the people while holding his hands over another goat, and that goat would be led out into the desert, reflecting the sending away of the people's guilt. See Lev. 16.
1. The bull and
the goat, like all of the sacrifices made for the sins, were not eaten
because, at least symbolically, they had guilt within them. By
contrast, as St. Thomas explains, we do consume the body and blood of
Christ because He is the pure source of holiness. Jesus fulfilled
the sin offerings by truly being sacrificed outside of the gate, but
in His case, this sacrifice truly forgives sins and confers holiness.
2. The letter also calls for Christians to accept their own participation in Christ's sacrifice. Jesus spoke of the need to join with Him in sacrifice and St. Paul frequently picked up on this theme. See, e.g., Matt. 16:24-28; Mark 8:34-38; John 16:18-17:4; Eph. 5:1-2; Phil 2:3-11; Col. 1:24-29.
- The letter presents
the sufferings Christians must endure in the world as making them able
to join with Christ and, in fact be a "sacrifice of praise" to God.
The phrase "sacrifice of praise" is likely drawn from Psalm 50,
which calls upon the people to show loyalty to the covenant and obedience
to the commandments as their sacrifice, describing the animal sacrifices
as a mere image, worthless without a moral life. See Ps. 50:14,
23. That psalm is thus very fitting for this letter.
- The letter also says that the sacrifice of praise is the natural fruit of a confession on the lips. The idea is that, as with Christ and all of the prophets, one can expect that witnessing to the faith will lead to the suffering in the world that is a sacrifice of praise; it is as natural as fruit coming from a tree.
3. As in chapter
11, the letter again encourages Christians to seek the everlasting home
in the heavenly city of God, rather than focusing on the temporary homes
here on earth. In a sense the suffering on earth is a payment
for the celestial homes, a payment that is but a token compared to the
value of Christ's sacrifice or the value of the new homes, but a payment
needed all the same. See, e.g, Matt. 25:1-30.
4. The letter
again comes back to the idea of regular sacrifices as well as heroic
ones by pointing out that doing good and sharing goods are also neccessary
and worthy sacrifices. See Is. 1:16; Gal. 6:9-10.
5. By the sacrifices
of praise, suffering and good works, the Christians are to fulfill the
prophesies that all nations will make sacrifices to God. See,
e.g., Is. 19:21, 56:7; Zech. 14:21.
G. The letter then concludes this subsection by again emphasizing loyalty to te leaders, pointing out that they do not have an easy task either, for they must render an account of their leadership. See, e.g., 1 Ti. 4:11-16; 2 Tim. 4:1-5; 2 Peter 5:2-4; Jer. 23:1-8; Ez. 3:17-21, 13:1-16, 34:1-16.
- He points out that
reluctant, unhappy obedience may keep one technically in union with
the church but is not really a virtue and is not to one's credit.
See also 2 Cor. 9:6-9. It is part of the overall idea that we
are meant to be generous and cheerful in our duties, especially to God,
rather than grudging.
III. As is common in Pauline letters, this letter then concludes with a prayer request, blessing, and information before the final greeting.
A. The author asks the people to pray for "us," which could mean either the leaders of the church or the Christians in Italy, where the author was living, as is indicated in verse 24. Given that the passage has just been speaking of leadership, the former meaning is more likely.
- The Pauline letters
frequently include requests for prayers for St. Paul and other leaders,
with the understanding that their role is difficult. See, e.g.,
Rom. 15:30-32; Eph. 6:18-20; Col. 4:2-4; 1 Thess. 5:25; 2 Thess. 3:1-2.
- The author also asks
the people to pray that he be able to return to the Christians in the
Holy Land soon. If the author was St. Paul, he was imprisoned
in Rome in the middle 60s, and never was able to make that journey back
to his homeland.
B. The blessing summarizes the themes of the letter.
1. It brings back the idea of God as "the God of peace." Even though the
Christians are suffering
and will continue to be persecuted, God gives them the peace in heaven
that the world cannot know. See John 14:27, 16:33; see also Is.
57:19; 2 Cor. 13:11; Eph. 2:14-18.
2. The letter describes Jesus as the great shepherd, a title Jesus accepted for Himself when He said that He would lay down His life for His sheep. See John 10. God had promised of old to be the Great Shepherd and to bring forth a new shepherd king for His People' and Jesus fulfills this promise. See Jer. 23:4-6; Ez. 34:11-31; Ps. 23:1.
- This passage
is the first one in the letter that refers to Jesus as the great shepherd.
There are perhaps three reasons to use this title here. First,
in keeping with the overall idea that Christ is the fulfillment of all
the promises, Jesus also fulfills the promise of God as the new shepherd
and the king as a shepherd. See Ps. 78:70; 2 Sam. 5:2; Is.
40:11, 63:11. Second, the passage emphasizes he need to stay with
Jesus' guidance for protection and for finding the fields of everlasting
life. Third, the reference reflects an understanding that the
world is dangerous and full of wolves, but that Christ is with us to
fend them off.
3. The blessing also refers to the fact that Christ was brought up from the dead by the Great Shepherd "through the blood of the eternal covenant." A t one level God had , this statement simply reiterates that theme that God promised of old that He would establish an eternal covenant with His People. Is. 55:1-5; Jer. 31:31-34; Ez. 37:26. And, at the Last Supper, Jesus says that He is establishing that Covenant in His blood, which Eucharist makes present. See Matt. 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25.
- But the passage
indicates that Jesus was raised by the blood of the covenant, which
paradoxically seems to indicate that Jesus Himself rose, as least in
part, through the power of the very Eucharist that He consecrated.
But, in a way, it makes sense. For if Jesus is out leader in faith
and the first born of the dead, it would make sense that, as the Eucharist
brings us to risen life, see John 6:51, 54, so it did with the humanity
C. The letter also mentions that Timothy has been released and that the author hopes to visit the community with them. St. Timothy was a bishop to whom two Pauline letters of the New Testament are addressed. In addition he was in general a close collaborator with St. Paul, see Acts 16:1-3, 1 Thess. 3:2, 6; 1 Cor. 4:17, 16:10-11, and helped in the drafting of four of the Pauline letters. See 2 Cor. 1:1, Phil. 1:1, 1 Thess 1:1; Philemon 1. It appears that Timothy was imprisoned at this time, most likely in Rome, but had been released. According to ancient histories, St. Timothy became bishop of Ephesus and was martyred in 97 under the Emperor Nerva.
D. The letter has a common Pauline ending asking greetings to the leaders and to all the "holy ones," which was a common term for the Christians. See Acts 9:13; 2 Cor. 1:1; Col. 1:2, 12, 3:12. There is a universal call to holiness, see 1 Peter 1:15-16, and the author is giving the readers one last reminder that in such holiness, given by Christ, we become what we truly are in God's plans, His saints.