The Epistle to the Hebrews
Fr. Thomas Hopko · March 28, 2008
Fr. Thomas explains the significance of St. Paul's letter to the Hebrews in our Lenten journey.
We mentioned that the Gospel readings for the Saturday and Sunday liturgies during the Lenten period in the Orthodox Church are taken from St. Mark. All of them are taken from St. Mark. All of the epistle readings during this period are from the Letter to the Hebrews. If we go to church during Great Lent in an Orthodox church, if we go to a Divine Liturgy on Saturday or to a Divine Liturgy on Sunday, we will hear the reading from the epistle, from the Letter to the Hebrews, and then the Gospel will be from the Gospel according to St. Mark.
The Letter to the Hebrews provides the epistle readings during Great Lent for a very simple reason. The Letter to the Hebrews is attributed, traditionally, to St. Paul; however, scholars will tell us that it doesn’t seem too likely that St. Paul wrote this letter, which even is more like a treatise than a letter, by his own hand. However, it would definitely be the teaching of our Church tradition, [the] Orthodox Church, that this letter or this treatise comes from Paul, comes from the teaching of Paul, comes from the company of Paul. In fact, some people even had an idea that maybe the person who actually penned it, who actually wrote it, was Apollos, because Apollos was a very learned Jew, very educated, a disciple of Paul. He was from Ephesus, I believe, but he had to be kind of straightened out in his faith by Prisca and Aquila, but he became authority on how to understand the relationship of Jesus Christ to the Old Covenant—the Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets—and very particularly to the Temple and to the sacrificial system, the sacrificial rituals of the Jerusalem Temple.
Now, one of the things that the early Christians had to face and had to come to terms with, and this created a lot of the early Christian literature, actually, even such kind of non-canonical books like the Protoevangelium of James, which is about Mary, Jesus’ mother—it’s not part of canonical Scripture, but other Scriptures—the early Christians had to come to terms with the question of: How do Christians understand the fulfillment of the Old Covenant Temple and ritual sacrifices in the death and the sacrificial suffering of Jesus? In other words, how do Christians understand that Jesus is the Messianic High Priest?
He is not only the Messianic King; he is not only the Messianic Teacher; he is not only the Messianic Prophet; he is not only the Messianic Suffering Servant—because one of the amazing thing that Christians are believing, from the beginning—amazing—is that the suffering servant of Isaiah is actually the Messiah, and the Messiah is the suffering servant, and the Messiah is the Lamb of God who was slain, and that this servant of Yahweh who is called even his first-born Son, he’s made the first-born Son through what he suffers and he becomes the King over all, this is all confessed about Jesus.
But very particularly the question had to be answered: How does priesthood operate in the new and final covenant? How does Jesus, the one unique High Priest—what is his sacrifice and how does he sacrifice and how does his sacrifice fulfill all of the sacrifices of the priestly code of the Law of God given through Moses? And what is his sacrifice?
Here, of course, it would be very clear, a very clear Christian teaching, that he is himself the sacrifice. He is the Lamb of God. He is the sacrificial Victim. He is the High Priest who offers, and he is the Offering that is made. The Orthodox Church Liturgy is very, very much in harmony and coordination and inspiration with the Letter to the Hebrews. In fact, these two books, the Letter to the Hebrews and the Revelation, are the two great liturgical, priestly books in the New Covenant writings, in the New Testament Scriptures.
The Letter to the Hebrews is really the priestly book, and then the Apocalypse shows how this heavenly, escatological priesthood is fulfilled in the heavens when the Lamb who was slain and is dead and is made alive again is seated at the right hand of the Father and is worshiped by all the presbyters and the elders with the incense and so on with the Apocalypse, with their white robes—all this is very, very liturgical Temple-type of meditation and message of the Word of God.
But in this Letter to the Hebrews, you have also this question that has to be answered. There is no more Temple. The Temple has been destroyed. Certainly by the time this was written, the Temple was destroyed. The Romans had come and simply created this horrible, horrible destruction of the city. In the Apocalyptic parts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke this is probably conflated… Three things are conflated: the crucifixion of Jesus, the destruction of Jerusalem, and the end of the world and the coming judgment at the end. All of these somehow are meditated together as kind of one, almost like one divine act.
But here are the Christians, believing in Jesus, believing in his death and resurrection, no longer connected to the Temple, Jewish Christians, already preaching to Gentiles, who by faith and grace are entering into the covenant. And then they have to be instructed: how do we understand that Jesus Christ is the one great Archiereus, the one great High Priest? And how do we understand that he himself is the sacrificial Victim? And how do we understand that his death on the Cross is the great priestly act that fulfills all the different kinds of sacrifices that were in the Old Covenant Law, that Jesus is the guilt-offering, Jesus is the peace-offering, Jesus is the thank-offering, Jesus is the offering for blood-guiltiness, Jesus is the praise-offering, Jesus is every offering, every possible offering that existed in the Mosaic Law?
If you offered for thanks, if you offered for praise, if you offered for sin, if you offered for disease, if you offered because you were in touch with divine, holy realities like blood or semen or childbirth or death or having babies—all this sacrificial system, and the Christians believed that all of this is fulfilled, perfected, completed in the death of Jesus on the Cross.
The Son of God has come into the world, has announced the Gospel, is the last and final Prophet—[so] that if you don’t listen to him, you’re lost—but he also comes as the final King, whose victory is everlasting, so we must be with him to be saved. But he also comes as the great High Priest. He is the Prophet, he is the great Pastor-King, but he’s also the great Priest, the only Priest that there is.
So during the Great Lenten season, we read, virtually from beginning to end at the services, the Letter to the Hebrews, which begins by saying that God in many different ways and many different times spoke by the prophets to our fathers, but in these latter days he has spoken to us by his very own Son, whom he appointed the Heir of all things. It means that all things belong to him. Through whom also he created the ages, he created the world. St. John says the same thing in his gospel, that he was the Logos by whom, through whom all things were made. The Letter to the Hebrews says the very same thing, that all things were created by him and all things belong to him.
Then it says also that he is the radiance of the glory of God the Father. Sometimes in the RSV it makes verbs there, but in fact it’s nouns. He is the apavgasma tēs doxis aftou, and the aftou, him, it means God the Father. He is the radiance of God the Father. And then it also says in Greek that he is the charatktēr tēs hypostaseōs aftou, which literally translated means he is the exact express image of the Father’s very person, hypostasis, being, whatever word, however you would translate that word into English. Then it says he upholds the whole of the universe by the word of his power. Then it says: but when he made purification for sin—that means when he offered himself as the priestly sacrifice—he was taken up into the heavens and sat down at the right hand of the Majesty, being made the head over all things, all the angels, all creation, because he is the only-begotten Son of God.
So that psalm line is quoted in the first chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews, the same that is used in the prologue of St. John’s gospel, that he is the only-begotten Son of God. He is literally God’s Son. God is literally his Father, and this Son of God, it says in this Letter to the Hebrews, became like us human beings in every possible way, in every respect, except for one thing: no sin. He became like us in every way without sin.
Sometimes people think, “Well, if you don’t have sin, you’re not a real human being.” The Bible, the Scriptures and the saints would say, “Oh, no!” When we sin, we destroy our humanity. When we sin, we ruin and spoil our humanity. When we are really human, then we’re sinless, and the less sinful we are, the more human we are, because humans are made in the image and likeness of God, so the more human we are, the more divine we are, the more godlike we are, the more children of God we are.
It says, “He became like his brethren in every respect,” and then it says very clearly the reason that he came. He came, although he was crowned with glory and honor, to be humiliated and degraded and dishonored. It says he came to taste death for everyone, to be made perfect humanly through his suffering, that he was the one for whom and by whom all things exist. He’s the one in whom all things hold together, and yet, as the archegon, the pioneer, the first one of our salvation, he makes us perfect through suffering.
He became like his brethren in every respect to become the merciful and faithful High Priest in the service of God, to make expiation for the sins of the people, suffered, tried, tempted as we are, so he could be with us who are tried and tempted, so that we might be victorious and powerful in him.
Then it says that he came to taste death, that through death he might destroy the devil, who has the power of death, and deliver all those who, through fear of death, were subject to the life-long bondage, the age-long bondage. So, then, he is our Apostle, sent from God. He is our great High Priest, the great Martys, the great Witness, the great Prophet. And he is made, therefore, the head over all things as a Son, as God’s very Son. Not as a servant, but as a Son.
So the Letter to the Hebrews, in all different ways throughout its first ten chapters, [is] saying this: that he is the Son, that he came into the world to die, that he offered up prayers and supplications and loud cries to God the Father who is able to save him from death humanly. He was heard, and even though he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered, and, being made perfect through what he suffered, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, being designated by God the great High Priest—and then it says—“according to the order of Melchizedek.”
Not a Levitical priesthood; a Melchizedek priesthood. Melchizedek was that priest and king who appeared to Abraham in Genesis and to whom Abraham himself paid tithes. Then it says that this Melchizedek, whose name means “prince of peace” or “king of peace,” that his offering—would you believe it?—was bread and wine. That’s what he offered way back in Genesis, because the offering of Christians will be bread and wine in which they will offer—and we Christians will offer—our own bodies to be sacrificed and to suffer together with Jesus, so that our bodies could become the bodies of Christ. Then when we offer our bread and our wine, that stands for the living sacrifice of our own bodies, the Holy Spirit comes upon that bread and wine and makes it the Body and the Blood of Christ.
Then it says in the Letter to the Hebrews that
If someone sins against this, if they have been enlightened…
It says in the [sixth] chapter, meaning baptism, because in the Orthodox tradition, baptism is called illumination; even during Lent, we talk about those preparing for holy illumination; that’s baptism.
...who have tasted the heavenly Gift…
That means Holy Communion, and in the Orthodox Church we call the bread and wine the Gifts.
...who have become partakers of the Holy Spirit…
Because when you participate in the broken Body and spilled Blood of Christ, then you become a partaker of the Holy Spirit. We sing this way in church: “We have seen the true Light. We have found the true Faith. We have received the Holy Spirit. And we have tasted the goodness of the Word of God.” Here we have that wonderful psalm line: “O taste and see that the Lord is good,” which we sing when we go to Holy Communion, especially during Lent, especially at the Presanctified Liturgy.
But we don’t want to commit apostasy. We want to be with the angels and the saints and the first-born, as it says in the twelfth chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews. We don’t want to defile and degrade and dishonor the Body and Blood of Christ. We don’t want to grieve the Holy Spirit in which we have been sealed for salvation. So we want to be with Jesus, the High Priest, patiently enduring, suffering, giving ourselves together with him, offering ourselves together with him as a sacrifice to God.
The Apostle Paul in the Letter to the Romans put it this way; he said: “I exhort you, brothers and sisters, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice to God, holy and acceptable—in Greek it says our logikēn latreian—which is our spiritual, our reasonable worship.” This is what we Orthodox Christians do at every Liturgy, at every eucharistic Divine Liturgy. We enter into that sacrifice of Jesus, offering himself to the Father on behalf of all and for all, in order that we could be forgiven and healed and purified and cleansed and raised from the dead and given everlasting life.
The Letter to the Hebrews tells us that the blood of bulls and goats could not do this. The priestly sacrifice of the Levitical priesthood, of the Old Covenant, could not do this. The Levitical priests offered sacrifices again and again for their own sins and the sins of the people, and they had all this big sacrificial system: blood and goats and bulls and lambs and sacrifices and offerings of all kinds: guilt-offerings, thank-offerings, praise-offerings, offerings for disease, offerings for healings, all kinds of offerings. But for Christians, all these offerings are in that one offering of Christ on the cross, once and for all, and it says in the Letter to the Hebrews that it’s hapax in Greek: once and for all, never to be repeated. We can participate in it every time we pray and go to the holy Liturgy, but we do not repeat it. It’s the death that redeems once and for all, the shedding of the blood of God himself in human form.
Then it says that he is raised and enters into the Holy of Holies, not in some human temple on earth like the priests went into, but into the heavenly tabernacle, in the heavens, not made by man, through the veil, through the flesh of Christ himself, into the very presence of God, to stand there and to intercede and mediate on behalf of all the sinners through his own blood, and securing thereby this eternal redemption, as the letter says, because he was offered through the eternal Holy Spirit of God, as the letter also says.
So we no longer are in an earthly sanctuary, and that’s why Christian churches, Orthodox churches, are built like the heavenly vision of the Apocalypse. Sure, they pattern the Old Testament temple, but it’s the Old Testament christened and the Old Testament made holy and divine in the heavens. It’s the temple of the coming age where there is no temple, where God and Christ is all and in all. But that’s still the holy place where Christ our great High Priest has entered into once and for all in his single offering, bringing his own blood to cleanse us.
So the Letter to the Hebrews also says: if we who are in this reality sin deliberately, after receiving the knowledge of the truth—that is a technical term in the New Testament: hē epignosis tēs alētheias—the knowledge of the truth. In [a] letter to Timothy, St. Paul says God desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. And the Letter to the Hebrew says, if we sin deliberately, after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment, fury of divine fire, for our God is a consuming fire, he says, because how much worse punishment would be deserved by a person who is baptized, who is illumined, who had Holy Communion, and then spurned the Son of God and profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of grace? It is a fearful thing; the author quotes the Old Covenant psalm: a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God, for our God is a consuming fire.
So this is what we hear about during Great Lent. This is what we hear at the Liturgies of Saturday and Sunday. We hear it from the Letter to the Hebrews, a marvelous letter, a canonical book of the New Testament which tells us about Jesus as the great High Priest who offers himself as the Victim once for all to effect the all-embracing redeeming sacrifice of praise and thanks and forgiveness of guilt and sin, in his own body, broken, and his own shed blood, and then taking us with himself into the very heavenly sanctuary not made by hands, into the presence of God the Father himself, and seating us together with him on the throne over all of the angels and archangels, so that we become by faith and by grace everything that Jesus is himself.
And Jesus is our Teacher, our Master, and the great last Prophet. Jesus is our King and our Lord and our Master, our God, but we are also called especially to remember during the Lenten season when we contemplate the Passion of Christ that Jesus is the Prophet and the King because he is also the great High Priest according to the order of Melchizedek whose bread and wine offering becomes the very Body and Blood of Christ by which we are saved.