Episcopal Church in Minnesota

Environmental Stewardship Commission
(MEESC)
Lectionary Reflection
All Years, Good Friday, New Testament Lesson

Hebrews 10:1-25

Since the law has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered year after year, make perfect those who approach. Otherwise, would they not have ceased being offered, since the worshipers, cleansed once for all, would no longer have any consciousness of sin? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sin year after year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said,

"Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired,
but a body you have prepared for me;
in burnt offerings and sin offerings
you have taken no pleasure.

Then I said, 'See, God, I have come to do your will, O God'
(in the scroll of the book it is written of me)."

When he said above, "You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings" (these are offered according to the law), then he added, "See, I have come to do your will." He abolishes the first in order to establish the second. And it is by God's will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, "he sat down at the right hand of God," and since then has been waiting "until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet." For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying,

"This is the covenant that I will make with them
after those days, says the Lord:
I will put my laws in their hearts,
and I will write them on their minds,"

he also adds,

"I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more."

Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.

Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

Reflection on Hebrews 10:1-25
by John Gibbs, PhD

The anonymous author of the letter to the Hebrews was in agreement with other early Christians in their affirmation of the cosmic context of the Crucifixion.  Christ's death, they all thought, was an event of even cosmic proportions.

Not only was the curtain that separated the Holy of Holies from the public area of the Temple "torn in two, from top to bottom" (Matt. 27:51), but also "the earth shook, and the rocks were split."  It is an apocalyptic scene that Matthew paints: graves open, bodies are resurrected, and the earthquake makes believers out of persecutors.

Was all this Matthew's expansion of Mark, or was Mark's briefer account a reduction of Matthew's earlier account?  Whatever answer one gives to the "Synoptic problem," it is clear that Mark also saw the cosmic scope of what God did through Jesus at the time of his earthly death: "When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon" (Mk. 15:33).  Also for Mark the Temple curtain was torn in two, from top to bottom at the moment of Jesus' death.

Luke also wrote about the curtain torn in two, omitting "from top to bottom."  There is no earthquake, and Jesus' death was enough to convert the centurion.  Luke's mention of the darkness at Noon adds the clause ".while the sun's light failed" (Lk. 23:45).

Though the Fourth Gospel does not have earthquake, darkness at noon, and torn curtain, that gospel has a most clear cosmic perspective from its Prologue (framed in reference to the first creation story in Genesis) onwards throughout the gospel.  When Jesus speaks his last words, "It is finished" (19:30), he means not simply that his life was now ending, but more profoundly he refers to the culmination of his service to God's purpose for the whole world (John 17:4).  As William Temple comments on John 3:16: "No object is sufficient for the love of God short of the world itself. Christianity.is the one and only religion of world-redemption. It is a sin of the world that Christ takes away (1:29)" (Readings in St. John's Gospel, p. 48).

The Letter to the Hebrews, with its contrast between seen and unseen realities (11:1), shares that cosmic perspective. We all know that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.  But there's another way to speak of his birth: "when Christ came into the world" (Hebrews 10:5; cf. John 1:9). That sounds a different note, the music of God's purpose for the entire creation. What God did in "the body of Jesus Christ" was accomplished "once for all" (Hebrews 10:10). What Christ offered was not repeated time after time, but instead was "for all time a single sacrifice for sins" (10:12).  Accordingly, ".by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified" (10:14). "The world," "for all time," "once for all"-that is cosmic language.

There is an echo of Plato in this writer's contrast between "shadow" and "true form" and in his contrast between the "perfect" sacrifice that is made only once and, on the other hand, "the same sacrifices that are continually offered year after year" (Hebrews 10:1).  One need recall only Plato's allegory of the Cave in The Republic and remember his contrast between reflected shadows on the back wall of the cave and, on the other hand, the blinding light of the real sun above ground, and that light being brilliantly reflected by real objects. That is the difference for this author between the unending sacrifices that had been made prior to Jesus' incarnation and, on the other hand, Christ's perfect sacrifice that was made once for all time.

In Plato's thought, and now in this letter to the Hebrews, perfection is unitary, for it needs no addition, no repetition.  Christ's supremacy (over Moses, the Law, and its priesthood) is evident in his having made only once the sacrifice that suffices for everybody everywhere always. (It is subject of another discourse to guard against the anti-Judaism that some have derived from this letter.)

Our lives are, then, both seen and unseen, and real in both situations. What is unseen frequently (always?) is "more real" and substantial than what lies close to hand, evident to eyes and ears.  Though they are unseen by our mortal eyes, a "great a cloud of witnesses" surrounds us in everyday life, namely all those heroes of the faith that were listed in chapter 11.  Their presence enables us to "run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of God" (Hebrews 12:1-2).

The real meaning of Jesus' sacrifice is not only "seen" but also and especially "unseen."  Though our lives "run" here and now, they are accompanied daily by the crucified/risen Jesus who, though unseen, is nonetheless really present with us through whatever challenges we experience.

In this way "cosmic Christology" functions pastorally.  It's not "just me, O Lord."  We benefit not only from the One who is nearer than breathing and closer than hands and feet, but also from "the God of all being, throned afar" (see also Romans 8:19-39).  Miroslav Wolf's comment in his review of a book on Christian hope comes to mind: "The death of Christ is not taken simply as the negative backdrop for hope that is grounded in the resurrection; rather, in the light of the resurrection, it is the death of Christ as an act of self-giving that is itself seen as hopeful" (review of Hope Against Hope: Christian Eschatology at the Turn of the Millennium [Eerdmans, 1999], in Theology Today, vol. 57 [2001], p. 582).  Black Friday was made "good" by Easter light in retrospect.  Therefore we hope. Easter vindicated his self-giving unto death.

This Christian interpretation of history and cosmos finds in the "Son" both "the heir of all things" and the One through whom God "also created the worlds" (Hebrews 1:2). That One has run our race ahead of us. Thereby he is at the beginning and at the end of our faith and of all Christians' faith: "Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith."



John Gibbs, a retired theologian, attends Trinity Episcopal Church, Park Rapids, MN.   He originally wrote this reflection in 2001.  John and we welcome your comments. Please address your comments or additional reflections to John Gibbs or any MEESC member, or mail them to:
 
 
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