Most Bible students realize that Hebrews has a key word, and that word is “Better.” The book, some call it a homily, some call it an epistle, utilizes this word repeatedly. Hebrews itself calls itself the latter. The author calls his audience, clearly Jewish Christians being persecuted by their countrymen, to remain faithful to Jesus as Messiah, in the face of that persecution. The writer reminds them that Christ and the New Covenant is the fulfillment of all of their promises and prophecies. To abandon Jesus is to abandon the very goal of Israel’s eschatological and soteriological hope. Jesus truly is better than the Old Covenant. Everything about Jesus is better!
I want to focus here on a paranetic text, Hebrews 13:15: “By him, therefore, let us offer the sacrifice of praise unto God, that is, the fruit of our lips”.
While short, Hebrews 13:15 encapsulates so much of what the author has written up to that text. A careful analysis reveals that in context this verse speaks eloquently of the imminent passing of the Old Covenant world, in fact, the imminent destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. Not only that, this verse provides insight into the author’s hermeneutic. We see clearly how he is interpreting the Old Covenant promises of the Messiah and his kingdom. Let’s take a look, albeit brief, at just some of the elements of the text.
“By him, let us offer the sacrifice of praise…”
Under Torah, the Levitical priesthood “stood between” the people and YHVH. As Hebrews 5-9 have noted, the Levitical priesthood was exclusionary; it was also ineffective (7:10f). But, under Torah, that priesthood, as ineffective as it was, still stood between the people and the Presence of YHVH in the Most Holy Place.
On Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement) only the High Priest could enter that Presence, not without blood, in order to mediate for nation. That priesthood repeatedly offered those sacrifices that could “not make those who offered the sacrifices perfect as regards the conscience” (9:9-10). Year after year, century after century, the nation brought their sacrifices to Jerusalem. They presented them to the priests and the priests offered them to YHVH.
Prior to Hebrews 13:15 the author had stated some stunning things in regard to the Levitical priesthood. It was temporary and ineffective as evidenced by the sinfulness of the priests, the fact that priests died, the fact that the sacrifices themselves were ineffective, and so forth.
So, the author has presented Jesus as a priest that is “holy, harmless, separate from sinners” (7:24f). All of this was fantastic, to be sure. But, Hebrews has also set forth Jesus as a priesthood of a totally different “family.” He is not of the family of Aaron. He is not Levitical! In fact, the author makes a point of noting that Jesus was “of Judah, concerning which tribe Moses spake nothing concerning priesthood” (7:13-14).
Yet, while Jesus was a priest from a different “tribe” he was, nonetheless, in fulfillment of Psalms 110, “high priest, who is set on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens.” And as High Priest after the order of Melchisedec, Jesus served over “the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, and not man” (8:2). Jesus as High Priest over the true tabernacle meant Israel’s Messianic Temple promises were being fulfilled!
(It must be noted that the author’s use of “true” does not imply that the Old Covenant Temple was a “false” system. The author’s point is that the Old Covenant Tabernacle / Temple was, from the beginning, a type or shadow of the coming “true” (Hebrews 9:23ff; 10:1f) Temple. In the mind and theology of Hebrews, that New Covenant, True Temple, was under construction, soon to fully replace that old typological Temple).
Beale calls attention to this: “Hebrews refers to the heavenly tabernacle as ‘true’ because it is the fulfillment, not only of direct prophecies of the eschatological temple, but, of everything the Old Testament tabernacle and temples foreshadowed.” Beale also comments on how the OT tabernacle was not “true” because it was temporary, but that the church, as the New Temple, “cannot be changed, nor can it ever pass away.” — “The former temple was not the ‘true one’ because it was a mere shadow of the one to come but because it would cease to exist. To believe that a physical temple will be built after the eschatological one has been inaugurated would be to return to the former ‘shadowy’ stage of temple existence. Once the end-time, eternal temple that corresponds to the reality of the heavenly one comes, it would be a strange reversal for God to commend a return to the shadows. To believe that Israel’s temple or one rebuilt by human hands would last forever is a false view because it mistakes the symbolic temple (Hebrews 9:8-10) for the real one (Hebrews 9:11).” ( Greg Beale, The Temple and Church’s Ministry, (Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, Ill. 2004)296).
In all of these previous texts, the radically different nature of Christ and the New Covenant priesthood, Temple and therefore, the cultus of Christ, have been expressed. Hebrews 13:15, with its introductory “oun” (therefore) calls all of these previous statements into focus.
Ellingworth calls attention to the fact that in our text “him” stands in the emphatic position, calling attention to the fact that Jesus is the mediator of the sacrifice in the true temple. The Levites have no place in this Temple! (Paul Ellingworth, New International Greek Testament Commentary, (Carlisle, PA, Paternoster, 1993)720).
The author had already stated that this new priesthood would, of logical necessity, demand radical changes: “the priesthood being changed, there is made of necessity a change of the Law” (7:12). He drives home that point in two dramatic statements “we have an altar, whereof they have no right to eat which serve the tabernacle (i.e. the Levitical priesthood, DKP). To suggest that now, under Christ, the Levitical priesthood could not even serve as priests in the true tabernacle was dramatic, revolutionary and threatening.
The second comment suggestive of a radical new order is found in the highly charged: “We have here no continuing city, but seek the one that is about to (from mello) come” (13:14). The author is making a succinct restatement of what he had described in chapter 12:25f. His comments there, about the passing of “heaven and earth” should not be taken as a description or prediction of the end of the material cosmos. Rather, as Lane and others rightly note, he is depicting the imminent demise of the Old Covenant world, he is predicting the destruction of Jerusalem in typical apocalyptic language.
Lane argues effectively that Hebrews 12:25f and its description of the “shaking” of heaven and earth, must be seen as a prediction of the passing of the Old Covenant, and not, as many commentators claim, a prediction of the end of “the visible, created, cosmological heaven.” Rather, Lane says, “The explicit association of ‘the earth’ with Sinai and the old covenant (v. 25b, 26a) implies that ‘the heaven’ is to be associated with the new covenant (25ac). ‘Earth’ and ‘heavens’ are symbols of the revelation at Sinai and of the new covenant revelation to the writer’s generation, respectively.” (William Lane, Word Biblical Commentary, Hebrews 9-13, Vol. 47b, (Dallas, Tx. Word Publishers, 1991)480).
Gentry likewise says of Hebrews 12: “The writer of Hebrews contrasts the old covenant and the new covenant (Hebrews 12:18-28), pointing out that the new covenant recipients are currently receiving (paralambanontes, pres. act. prtcp) ‘a kingdom which cannot be shaken’ (Hebrews 12:28). This kingdom will ‘remain’ after God shakes down the old covenant order at the temple’s destruction in AD 70. (Heb. 12:26-27; cp. 8:13), destroying those temple implements made with hands (9:11, 24; Mk 14:58; Acts 7:48). (Kenneth Gentry, He Shall Have Dominion, (Draper, VA., Apologetics Group, 2009)259).
Greg Beale, commenting on the language of the shaking of “heaven and earth” at the Great Day of the Lord says, “If the OT usage of this kind of language (Joel 2- DKP) is determinative for Peter, (In Acts 2, DKP) then here also the wording connotes the end of one kingdom and the emergence of another. The kingdom ending is, of course, Israel, but this time it is her definitive end. Rome would destroy Jerusalem in AD 70. Joel’s language of the earth’s destruction in Acts 2 is also appropriate as a figurative portrayal of the temple’s destruction, since, as we have seen so often earlier, the temple itself and its parts symbolized the cosmos. We observed that when the temple veil was torn, it was symbolic of the beginning destruction of the old creation.” (Beale, 2004, 296). Very clearly, Hebrews has in mind the imminent destruction of Jerusalem.
What Hebrews was saying then, was truly revolutionary. To suggest that Jerusalem, “the perfection of beauty” (Psalms 50), the center of the world (Ezekiel 5:8-9) was not a continuing city (from a form of “meno” to abide, to remain firm) was blasphemous in the mind of the first century Jews. Jerusalem was the “eternal city!” As Walker well notes, the paranesis to go to Christ “outside the camp,” must be viewed in its context: “Given the Jewish background of the readers, the resonance concerning Jerusalem cannot be avoided. Here is a ‘thinly veiled reference to the city of Jerusalem.’ The author is drawing them away from a religious interest in Jerusalem by alerting them to the impermanent and transient nature of that city. As an object of religious hope it would disappoint them; no so ‘the city that is to come.’ This transient, earthly city was no longer a part of their fundamental identity. Instead, ‘the repudiation of Jesus unmasked Jerusalem as an ephemeral, transient city and made certain the coming of the future city.’” (P. W. L. Walker, Jesus and the Holy City, (Grand Rapids / Cambridge, Eerdmans, 1996)219. This book is very helpful).
It is of course, difficult for modern readers to fully comprehend and appreciate the place of Old Covenant Jerusalem in the minds of ancient Jews. The suggestion by the author of Hebrews, that Jerusalem was not a continuing city, that their inheritance was to be found outside Jerusalem, that the Levitical priesthood was ineffective, etc., was truly spectacular. Again, it was stunning, revolutionary and dangerous. The Jews had even killed Stephen who had dared to suggest– by appealing to Israel’s own prophecies– that God’s true abode was not in the temple made with hands (Acts 7:48-49). Hebrews is driving home that point even more by excluding the Levitical priesthood, the Temple’s altar, the “chosen city” (and by implication, the Land itself) from any longer being the locus of acceptable worship! We will begin to draw some conclusions from this in ensuing articles.