By Dr. Madison Pierce, Associate Professor of New Testament
If you were to flip through the pages of the New Testament and stop to glance at the opening lines of its letters, you would quickly notice a pattern develop: “Paul, apostle…”; “Paul, slave…”; “Paul, apostle…”; and so on. But then you would reach the opening of the letter to the Hebrews: “At times and in various ways, God spoke to our ancestors.” Within its canonical context, the beginning of Hebrews rightly catches our attention. The Epistle opens strangely, not only when compared to other letters in the New Testament, but also to other letters from that period of time. The author doesn’t begin with a self-introduction: instead, he introduces us to God.
Through an extended theological reflection, Hebrews introduces us to a God who speaks. This God spoke to the ancestors of the addressees through the prophets for generations, and now this same God speaks to “us” through the Son (Heb. 1:1–2). Uttering words of the psalmist, this God says to Jesus, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you” (1:5; 5:5; quoting Ps. 2:7), and “you are a priest forever” (5:5; 7:17; quoting Ps. 110:4).
As God speaks again and again throughout the epistle, each quotation embodies new life as God’s words illuminate the priestly work of Christ on our behalf.
Nevertheless, it is not enough just to read Hebrews; it must also be interpreted. And unfortunately, several noteworthy interpretations of Hebrews are unhelpful, some even harmful. For instance, some think that Hebrews is exemplary in proof-texting Scripture—taking quotations of Scripture out of their context and forcing them to say something contrary to the author’s intention. But reading early Jewish interpretations shows us that the author of Hebrews quotes several passages in ways that would be relatively unsurprising to others at that time. They understood them to be about the Messiah, too—before Jesus was even born!
Other interpreters think that the author of Hebrews appeals to Scripture in ways that undermine God’s ongoing faithfulness to the Jewish people; they think the author of Hebrews goes as far as to “replace” them with the Church. But what these readers of Hebrews do not realize is that the author draws upon Scripture in ways that uphold God’s commitment to his covenant people and that honor the practices of the Jewish people. The author draws upon texts that we often avoid—like Leviticus—to portray Jesus in a way that coheres with the sacrificial system that his readers knew. The author of Hebrews knew the value that the Jewish people received in ordering their lives around the practices prescribed in the Law, but he also knew that one important function of those practices was to foreshadow the work of Christ. Calvin affirms this aspect of Hebrews, saying: “There is, indeed, no book in the Holy Scriptures which speaks so clearly of the priesthood of Christ….” And, in fact, he felt that the portrayal of the Levitical sacrifices was so valuable that he charged his readers to “defend the possession of [Hebrews].”
The author introduces the relationship between the incredible work of Christ and Scripture through speech. Speech for us is often quick and fragmented, hurried, or seemingly inconsequential—food orders, small talk about the weather, etc.
But Hebrews discloses how God’s speech is powerful and generative–at the very heart of the life of the Triune God and his saving work in the world.
For most of Hebrews, we have the opportunity to “overhear” (in a manner of speaking) what God has said to the Son and what the Son has said to the Father. The Father tells us that his remarkable Son is the one who laid the foundations of the earth and that the heavens are the works of his hands (Heb. 1:10–12, quoting Ps. 102:25–27). The Father declares his Son a priest forever (Heb. 5:5; 7:17, 20, quoting Ps. 110:4), one who offers a single yet wholly effective sacrifice on our behalf (e.g., Heb. 7:27). In turn, the Son expresses his desire to lead his brothers and sisters in praising the Father (Heb. 2:12, quoting Ps. 22:22) and also expresses trust in the Father (Heb. 2:13, quoting Isa. 8:17). Additionally, later in the argument, he proclaims his desire to do the will of God (Heb. 10:5–7, quoting Psalm 40:6–8), which in the context of Hebrews 10 is his sacrificial offering in the heavenly tabernacle.
God speaks through Scripture to readers of every age. His Spirit encourages us not to harden our hearts (Heb. 3:7–11, quoting Ps. 95:7–11). The author of Hebrews presses us to expect that we will hear God’s voice, and he teaches us about the power of God’s words—words that brought the world into being and established a powerful covenant with Israel. The author of Hebrews also teaches us to listen to the Son speaking to us, not only through quotations directed to the Father but also through his life and ministry. He reminds us that Christians across all traditions and in all times and places share in this—the holy calling to heed the Word of God.
John Calvin, Hebrews and 1 & 2 Peter, trans. William Johnston (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 1.