Alice C. Linsley
Part 1: Paul’s use of Plato
The Law is only a shadow (skian) of the good things that are coming – not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshippers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. (Hebrew 10:1,2)
Paul draws on an ancient conception that we associate with Plato. Plato studied in Egypt and was familiar with the ancient Egyptian mysteries in which an earthly substance or entity was understood to be a reflection of the eternal metaphysical entity. Very likely, Plato borrowed the idea of Forms from the ancient Egyptians. The Apostle’s epistemology is often expressed in Platonic terms, as in this verse: For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. (I Corinthians 13:12)
Paul was familiar with Greek Philosophy. In Jerusalem, he studied under Gamaliel whose rabbinic school had five hundred pupils. Gamaliel taught Greek philosophy so that his pupils would return to their Greek-speaking provinces prepared to be leaders.
Paul enjoyed a classical Greek education in Tarsus, a center of learning with a famous academy that the Greek geographer Strabo considered better than the academies of Athens and Alexandria. Growing up in Tarsus, Paul would have heard great discussions and debates in the tea houses and town square. The Stoic philosopher Athenodorus governed Tarsus and reformed its constitution. He died at age 82 before Paul came of age, but his teachings were upheld by his successor Nestor, who Paul would have heard speak. Athenodorus regarded duty to be a matter of the conscience, a concept that the Apostle uses throughout his epistles. Athenodorus said that, “Everyman's conscience is his god.” Taking this from another angle, Paul states that those who worship the Sinless God feel guilty for their sins and the blood of bulls cannot remedy this. Only by the blood of Jesus can we have “our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience…” (Heb. 10:22)
The word “conscience” is not found in Hebrew. The closest parallel in the Hebrew Scriptures is the word “heart” as is found in Jeremiah 31:34. St. Paul speaks of the conscience in these passages: Romans 2:15, 9:1 and 13:5; I Corinthians 8:7-12, 10:25-29; II Corinthians 1:12, 4:2 and 5:11; Hebrews 13:18.
Paul's schooling Greek philosophy is evident in his approach to Old Testament figures. In 1 Corinthians 15 and Romans 5, he demonstrates a Platonic approach of Christology. The first man is imperfect but the second man is the perfect Form of humanity. Adam, made in the image of God, could not save himself, but the second Adam, who is God, is able to save.
In Galatians 4:21-31, Paul uses Platonism to explain the difference between liberty based on divine promise and constraints based on Levitical rules. He uses Sarah and Hagar, women whose relationship to Abraham strikes a strong contrast. Paul writes, “There is an allegory here: these women stand for the two covenants.”
The Old and New Covenants are accompanied by the sign of blood. Sarah’s bond with Abraham is a blood (consanguine) bond, as opposed to a Hagar's fictive (arranged) relationship with Abraham. The blood bond is always the stronger. Sarah, as both wife and half-sister to Abraham, is the blood relative and cannot be put away. Likewise, the Covenant of the blood of Jesus cannot be set aside. It is superior in rank and design to the Covenant of the blood of beasts. Hagar, the bondservant or concubine, is not related by blood to Abraham and can be put away. Hagar’s relationship with Abraham was Sarah’s desperate work of the flesh, and not God’s will. So the Apostle urges the Hebrew Christians to “Purge your conscience from dead works.” (Heb. 9:14) What has the power to save comes by God’s promises, not by our own efforts.
Part II: Christ Came to Do the Father’s Will
Therefore when Christ came into the world, he said:
“Sacrifice and offering you did not desire,
But a body you prepared for me;
With burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased.
Then I said: ‘Here I am – it is written about me in the scroll –
I have come to do your will, O God.’” (cf. Septuagint, Psalm 40:6-8)
Christ came into the world to do God’s will, and that involves setting aside the Covenant of Levites to establish, or perhaps restore, the Covenant of Promise. Hebrews 10:9 states, “Then he said, ‘Here I am. I have come to do your will.’ He sets aside the first to establish the second.”
The contrast is between the Covenant of the blood of beasts which reminds us of our sins and the Covenant of the blood of the Son of God which cleanses our sins. By God’s will, “we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” (Heb. 10:10)
St. Ambrose instructs us:
Not without the Father does He [the Son] work; not without His Father’s will did He offer Himself for that most holy Passion, the Victim slain for the salvation of the whole world; not without His Father’s will concurring did He raise the dead to life. For example, when He was at the point to raise Lazarus to life, He lifted up His eyes and said, “Father, I thank thee, for that thou hast heard me. And I knew that thou dost always hear me, but for the sake of the multitude that standeth round I spake, that they may believe that thou has sent me” [John 11:40], in order that, though speaking agreeably to His assumed character of man in the flesh, He might still express His oneness with the Father in will and operation, in that the Father hears all and sees all that the Son wills, and therefore also the Father sees the Son’s doings, hears the utterances of His will, for the Son made no request and yet that He had been heard. (On the Christian Faith, Book IV, chap.vi, no.70 )
Part III: Christ the True Form of Priest
Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this Priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool, because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy. (Hebrews 10:11-14)
The contrast continues between the ineffectual sacrifices offered by the priests of Israel and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The contrast is illustrated by the verbs “stand” and “sit.” Christ’s sacrifice was offered once for all, for all people at all times and in all places. Therefore His work is complete. No priest sits while he is on duty. Jesus is seated at the right hand of the throne of God because His work is done and now He awaits the resolution of all events, even as He offers intercessions on our behalf.
When God “manifested in the flesh” became the sacrifice, offering Himself in a final act of kenosis (self-emptying), He sealed the sovereign will of God, by which His enemies also receive what they desire. Since they hate the Light, they would find no pleasure in spending eternity with God.
Part IV: The Holy Spirit Testifies
The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First he says:
“This is the covenant I will make with them after the time, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.
Then he adds:
“Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.”
And where these have been forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin.
The Holy Spirit spoke through the Prophets about what was to come. The quote is from Jeremiah 31:33, 24. This idea is also expressed in Isaiah 43:35, which says, “I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.”
Zechariah 3:19 says, “Behold, the stone I have set in front of Joshua! There are seven eyes on that one stone, and I will engrave an inscription on it,' says the LORD Almighty, 'and I will remove the sin of this land in a single day.”
Psalm 103:12 speaks of God forgiveness using the celestial image of the heavens stretched above us so that none can measure them. God promises to remove our sins “as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.”
Part V: Therefore confidently draw near to God
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the veil, that is, His body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for He who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
Concerning this passage, Matthew Henry writes, "As believers had an open way to the presence of God, it became them to use this privilege. The way and means by which Christians enjoy such privileges, is by the blood of Jesus, by the merit of that blood which he offered up as an atoning sacrifice. The agreement of infinite holiness with pardoning mercy, was not clearly understood till the human nature of Christ, the Son of God, was wounded and bruised for our sins. Our way to heaven is by a crucified Savior; his death is to us the way of life, and to those who believe this, he will be precious. They must draw near to God; it would be contempt of Christ, still to keep at a distance."
St. John Chrysostom writes that when shame is taken away and sins are forgiven, we “being made fellow-heirs, and enjoying so great love” become bold. (On Hebrews, Homily 19, no. 2 )
Living confidently as a Christian will express itself in encouragement of one another, in demonstrations of love and in good deeds. Paul’s sense of urgency is apparent in the closing line. The Day of Judgment approaches.
Part VI: A Dreadful Thing
If we deliberately keep sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” And again, “The Lord will judge His people.” It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
Even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are convinced of better things in your case—the things that have to do with salvation.
St. Paul assumes that his audience is familiar with Deuteronomy 32:34, 35 which says, “Vengeance is mine, and recompense, for the time when their foot shall slip; for the day of their calamity is at hand, and their doom comes swiftly.’ For the Lord will vindicate his people and have compassion on his servants, when he sees that their power is gone and there is none remaining, bond or free.” He uses this to stress the serious nature of apostasy and the certainty of God’s mercy , but in Romans 12:19, he uses the same verse to stress that it is wrong for Christians to take revenge against their enemies.
Here the Apostle emphasizes the gravity of falling away. Archbishop Royster writes, “Since the Apostle is attempting to combat the fairly common sin of apostasy, he rather conscientiously warns those who have fallen away of the consequences and points out what they have to look forward to: “a fearful expectation of judgment: and a “fiery jealousy” (pyros zēlos in Greek). St. Paul elsewhere calls his own jealousy over those whom he had brought to faith in Christ and have fallen away “a jealousy of God” (II Corinthians 11:2). That God Himself should be jealous for those who became His adopted children in baptism is not surprising, because the same was attributed to Him in the case of Israel (see Nahum 1:2; Zechariah 1:14, etc.). This fire will consume them that have become His adversaries. The apostate is then in a condition much worse than that of the unbeliever.”
This state is described in Hebrews 6:7-9, using the analogy of the land. Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God. But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned.
Consider how the New England preacher, Jonathan Edwards, set forth Paul’s warning in Hebrew 10:31.
“O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: it is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you, as against many of the damned in hell. You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder; and you have no interest in any Mediator, and nothing to lay hold of to save yourself, nothing to keep off the flames of wrath, nothing of your own, nothing that you ever have done, nothing that you can do, to induce God to spare you one moment.” (From "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”)
Edwards' reminder that all sinnners have a Mediator in Jesus Christ in almost lost in the harshness of his tone. However, when he preached this famous sermon in Enfield, Connecticut on July 8, 1741, a deep conviction of sin fell on those who heard it, and many repented. We also feel the power of St. Paul’s warning and recognize the truth of his words.
Part VII: Do Not Shrink Back
Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions.
So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what He has promised. For in just a very little while,
“He who is coming will come and will not delay.
But my righteous one will live by faith.
And if he shrinks back,
I will not be pleased with him.” (Habakkuk 2:3, 4)
But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved.
The Greek term hypostellō is used in both verse 38 and 39 and means to “shrink back” and “to conceal or suppress because of fear.” Paul includes himself when he speaks of not shrinking back in fear, but persevering in faith. In this, he exemplifies the courageous Christian who remains obedience and loyal to his Master under all circumstances.
St. John Chrysostom noted that Paul used a Greek term associated with athletic games, and wrote, “It is as if one should speak of an athlete who had overthrown all, and had no antagonist, and was then to be crowned, and yet endured not that time, during which the president of the games comes, and places the crown upon him; and he impatient, should wish to go out, and escape as though he could not bear the thirst and the heat.” (First Instruction to Catechumens, no. 3)
The Greek term associated with athletic games is hupomone, which means “to bear up under, to persevere; to endure.” Its constituent parts are hupo (under) and meno (to remain). Endurance is remaining to the last breath under the headship of Jesus Christ.
Related reading: Paul to the Hebrews: Persevere in Hope; Paul to the Hebrews: Hold Fast the Faith of Your Horim