Epistle to the Hebrews

The beginning of this letter summarises and shows the centrality of Jesus in history, in Saint Paul’s life and in the life of every believer: -

God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds; who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high. (1:1-3)

We can easily find clearly described the relationship and profound similarity between the beginning of the Epistle and the Prologue of the Holy Evangelist John:-

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. (1:1-4)

Christ alone has given meaning to history, geography and symbols: everything has been a story of the birth of Christ, making it possible to reckon everything as happening either before or after Christ’s Nativity, since everything is in Christ.

All the Old Testament is, according to this letter, focused on Christ: he is the salvation that we are expecting. (2: 3) All things have been brought into subjection under him. (2: 8) Jesus, once crowned with thorns, is “crowned with glory and honour,” (2: 9) so that “he that sanctifieth and they who are sanctified are all of one.” (2:11) Christ calls them his brothers (2:12) and children “‘Behold I and the children which God hath given me.’” (2:13) He is like his brethren, (2:17) being one with them and for them (2:18) and they are his house. (3: 6)

Moses is the symbol of Christ’s person, though Jesus is even more important than Moses. (Chapter three passim compares Moses and Jesus.) Christ is the compassionate high priest; Christ is the promised land, Christ is the subject of all the promises given by God to man throughout human history and especially in the history of the people of the Old Testament. (Chapter four) “We have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God.” (4:14)
Indeed the end of the whole Law is Jesus Christ, who is the “mediator of a better covenant,” (8: 6) an eternal one, for he is priest after the order of Melchizedek, an order not linked to the Law and its legality. (Chapter six)

Paul’s life in Christ and everything that we have already discovered from his letters on the meaning of that life is the result of his very profound knowledge of the Torah. The Epistle to the Hebrews contains basically all the Messianic expressions that we find in the Pauline Epistles. Moreover, we can understand from this Letter to the Hebrews the depth of Paul’s faithfulness to Jesus and may conclude that the characteristically Jewish identity of Paul’s life was transfigured by his Messianic faith.

So everything that Paul would have learned from the Torah and other books of the Old Testament is to be found in this letter. From that he passes to Jesus, who is the “high priest of good things to come.” (9:11) He is “the mediator of the new testament.” (9:15) “For the law (has) a shadow of good things to come.” (10: 1) Christ, by his incarnation has abolished the first law to found the second. (10: 9)

So we are able “to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh.” (10:19, 20) This way is Christ, as he told us when he said, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” (John 14: 6) The patriarchs of the Old Testament all walked along this way, by strength of faith, as described in the marvellous expression, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (11: 1) Through it, the elders witnessed with their lives. This faith gave rise to great, heroic exemplars and was realised in Christ.

Saint Paul considers that the whole of life is in Christ. Our life, all life is hidden in Christ. The lives of the patriarchs and prophets of the Old Testament is hidden in Christ: the whole of the Old Testament is life in Christ and in Christ, the Old Testament gains its true meaning. Saint Paul, the great expert, knowledgeable in Torah, begins with the experience of the elders of the Old Testament and continues through to the experience of life in Christ in the New Testament. He always reminds us that, as was mentioned earlier, the Old Testament “was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ.” (Galatians 3:24) The Old Testament guided Paul on the road to Damascus and into Damascus and the Hauran wilderness. It changed him, made him take a unique, fundamental step from one covenant to the other, from the Old to the New Testament, from the shadow to the reality.

Paul did not reject or repudiate the Old Testament, but he understood it in its new, true, definitive light. That is why in the same way and with the same strength with which he believed in the Old Testament, he now believes in the New and passes to the New from the Old.

In chapter eleven of the Letter to the Hebrews, he describes aspects of the life in faith of the ancestors: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Samson, David, Samuel and the prophets.

The chapter ends with these verses:-

And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise: God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect. (11:39-40)

Saint Paul passes from the Old Testament (chapter eleven) to the New Testament (chapter twelve), saying: -

Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. (12: 1, 2)

He expresses the importance of the transition from the Old to the New and Christ, saying: -

For ye are not come unto the mount that might be touched, and that burned with fire, nor unto blackness, and darkness, and tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, (an allusion to the vision of Moses on Horeb) but ye are come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant. (12:18, 22-24)

So everything has a meaning to the extent that it is linked to Jesus, in the Old and New Testaments and in the life of every human being. Evermore in the life of each man and woman there are always two testaments: “old and new.” The strength of the Christian faith is that it has two testaments, which are in reality the one covenant of the one God, at once both old and new. The power of Christianity resides in this continuous ability to pass from the Old into the New Testament. Our personal Christian faith remains alive insofar as we are able continually to pass (pass over) daily from our “old” testament, from the “old man,” to the New Testament, from shadows to reality, from death to life and from sin to grace. This “passover” is only possible through linking our life to Jesus Christ, who is “the same, yesterday, and today and for ever.” (13: 8)

We need the ardour of Saint Paul, his lover’s love, enthusiasm, faith, striving, devotion, zeal, generosity, openness and the horizons of his vast cosmic, unifying and ecumenical vision. We need his love for everyone, his readiness to give of himself and devotion till death, to the point of being sentenced for love of Christ Jesus, for love of Jesus’ brethren, those who are loved by Jesus.