Friday, March 9, 2012

Paul to Hebrew Christians: Persevere in Hope

Alice C. Linsley

In Hebrews 6, the Apostle Paul urges the Hebrew Christians to deepen in the doctrine of Christ by building on the foundation they received through their baptismal instruction, chrismation and apostolic teaching. They are sternly warned about and the consequences of going back on their baptismal promises, which Paul likens to “crucifying the Son of God all over again” (verse 6). The Apostle expresses frustration with some for remaining as babies in the faith, but commends others as examples of how a Christian should persevere.  His tone is both exhortative and compassionate.  He writes as one who is confident of God’s power to save and the certainty of God’s promises.

In speaking of the elementary teachings about Christ, Paul specifies repentance first, as this is necessarily the first act and attitude of every Christian.  He considers faith in God as fundamental, but alone it is insufficient for Christian maturity.  Here is a message for those who labor under the false notion that one only has to believe in God to be saved.

Baptismal instruction, chrismation, and belief in the resurrection of the dead and the final judgment are also “elementary” things. That is to say, they are the starting point rather than the terminus for those who would taste eternity.

Baptism, chrismation, the resurrection from the dead, and eternal judgment would have formed a part of early Christian catechetical instruction. He notes that for many Jews of the first century the doctrines of the resurrection and the final judgment would have been new, which goes to show how far rabbinic Judaism had strayed from the beliefs of the Horim (ancestors).  It is clear that Abraham and his Horite people believed in the resurrection of the dead, which is the meaning of the so-called binding of Isaac, though Jews deny this even today.

It might seem that the Apostle is minimizing the importance of catechesis when, in reality, he is stressing such doctrinal instruction as essential.  His concern is that those who have received the instruction move on to a deeper acquaintance of Jesus Christ and the things of God that lead to heavenly recognition.  Therefore he is careful not to discredit those works of love shown to God and to God’s people (verse 10).

The Christian Defined

The Apostle provides an excellent definition of the Christian in this chapter. The Christian is one who has been enlightened, has tasted the heavenly gift, shared in the Holy Spirit, and has tasted the goodness of God’s word and the powers of the age to come. 

As light is the first evidence of God’s creative work in Scripture (Gen. 1:3), it is also the first gift of the new creature brought forth in baptism.

When the newly baptized receives the body and blood of Christ in Holy Communion, he tastes the heavenly Gift.

In worship and in the fellowship of the Church, the Christian shares in the Holy Spirit and continues to taste the goodness of God’s word (divine promises and reproofs).

The Christian lives beyond earthly and fleshly aspirations since her heart is set on Christ’s eternal kingdom.

St. Paul draws on an analogy made by our Lord in the Parable of the Sower when he likens the Christian to land that drinks the rain and brings forth good fruit. He warns against becoming like land that produces thorns and thistles. Clearly, he doesn’t believe that the Hebrew Christians are that far gone because he goes on to say (verse 9): “Even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are confident of better things in your case.”

We are reminded of Paul’s great confidence in God’s power to preserve His inheritance, expressed throughout his writings.  To the Church at Philippi, he writes, “Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ.” Also consider Romans 8:35-38:

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?  As it is written: ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God revealed to us in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Never Lose Hope

The Apostle is concerned that those experiencing trials and persecutions might grow discouraged and lose hope. He encourages them to endure to the end as Christ himself faced suffering and was faithful to the end.
Paul experienced tribulations and persecutions and would have recognized how perseverance gives hope to other suffering Christians.  He wants the Hebrew Christians to “imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what is promised.” (verse 12)

Hope is described as “an anchor of the soul” (verse 19), a symbol of hope and provision for both the Greeks and the Hebrews. It functions to stabilize a storm-tossed ship.  The anchor within a circlet or diadem was a Hellenistic symbol of kingship.

From archaeological discoveries, we know that the anchor was a symbol of deified rulers among the Egyptian rulers of Phoenicia.  It has been found with the Egyptian ankh symbol in excavations at ancient Tyre and Sidon.  The word anchor is related to the Egyptian word ankh, meaning life.

In his epistle to the Ephesians, Paul warns them not to be tossed to and from, and carried about with every wind of doctrine…” but instead to “grow up into Him who is the Head, that is, Christ.” (Eph. 4:14,15)

The hope that we have as “an anchor for the soul” is Jesus Christ whose death, resurrection and ascension establish us firmly and securely in the heavenly realms where He is seated at the Father’s right hand.

Resist Complacency and Sloth

Recognizing that complacency can come of persecution and exhaustion, Paul urges them to be diligent to the end in order to secure their hope.  He writes (verse 12), “We do not want you to become lazy/slothful.”  The Greek word is nōthroi, and can be translated “dull” as in dull of hearing or deaf.
As is often the case with Paul’s arguments, he uses Abraham as an example. He reminds his Jewish readers that “after waiting patiently, Abraham received what was promised.”  Paul is thinking typologically here. Abraham received Isaac, the promised son, whose miraculous birth speaks of the miraculous birth of the Promised Son who Abraham and his Horite people expected to come into the world.  He is the “Seed of the Woman” and the focus of the first promise and prophecy of Scripture (Gen. 3:15).  So “waiting patiently” has a double meaning.  It refers both to Isaac’s birth and to Christ’s appearance, to the realized and to the yet-to-be fulfilled.  That Paul believed that Abraham expected the Seed to come into the world is made clear in Hebrews 4:2, which states, “For we also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they (the Horim) did.”

The Certainty of God’s Promises

The Apostle connects the certainty of God’s promises to God’s divine nature and eternal power (cf. Rom. 1:20).  He reminds his readers that “When God made his promise to Abraham, since there was no one greater for Him to swear by, He swore by Himself…” (verse 13)  It is evident that God cannot lie, therefore “we who have fled to take hold of the hope offered to us may be greatly encouraged. (verse 18)
Paul reiterates the promise God made to Abraham in Genesis 22:17: “I will surely bless you and give you many descendants.” (verse 14)  The Hebrew Christians, who were well acquainted with the genealogies of their Horim, would have understood that this was fulfilled in Abraham’s lifetime, for he lived to a ripe old age and had nine sons* and an unknown number of daughters. 

Reflecting on this promise, St. Irenaeus wrote, “the promise of God, which He gave to Abraham, remains steadfast… they which are of faith are the children of Abraham” (Against Heresies, Book V, chap. 32, no. 2)  In Romans 11:17, Paul states that Gentile believers are grafted into the faith of Abraham.

The immutable nature of God’s promises is expressed with regard to Christ’s eternal and pre-existent priesthood.  As our great high priest, He goes before us into the Holy of Holies behind the curtain. Here Paul strikes a contrast between the Aaronic priesthood and Jesus’ messianic priesthood, which by its nature is superior in power and efficacy. Jesus is declared “high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.”

Melcizedek a Type of Christ

Melchizedek, the ruler-priest of Jerusalem (Salem), is one of the most fascinating figures of Genesis. His name - malkîtsedek - means righteous king. He is mentioned in Genesis 14, Psalm 110:4 and in Hebrews 7 and 8, where he is given much attention by the Apostle Paul.

It is clear from Genesis 14 that Melchizedek and Abraham were well acquainted. Both belonged to the Horite order of ruler-priests which practiced endogamy. In other words, they were kin. It is likely that Melchizedek was the brother-in-law of Joktan, Abraham's father-in-law.

Read more about Melchizedek's lineage here.

* Issac (Yitzak), son of sister wife Sarah; Joktan, Midian, Zimran, Midan, Ishbak (Yishbak) and Shuah, sons of cousin wife Keturah (Gen. 25); Ishmael (Yishmael), son of concubine Hagar, and Eliezar, son of concubine Masek (named in the Septuagint).

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