Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Stating the Obvious

When you make a life-long habit out of reading other people’s mail, strange things tend to become commonplace.

I should probably unpack that a bit.

I’m enjoying the book of Hebrews once again, as I make my way through the New Testament in my morning reading. But the problem with having been acquainted with the scriptures since before I could read them for myself (and it’s not the worst problem in the world to have) is that arguments which should puzzle any modern, thinking, Gentile reader seem perfectly normal to me. My familiarity with the passage makes it difficult for me to be surprised by it, though it should surely surprise me.

The sheer weirdness of the arguments made in the first three chapters of Hebrews does not register until I deliberately and carefully try to put myself in the shoes of somebody who didn’t go to Sunday School for twelve or thirteen years, and who didn’t have the Bible read to him at home every morning before school, and I pretend I am reading it for the very first time.

Inductive and Deductive Learning

For most of us who grew up in Christian homes, theology precedes familiarity with the word of God itself. It kind of has to. There is no real way as children that we could ever come to the scriptures for ourselves and organically absorb their message from beginning to end, then arrive at our own conclusions about what it means. We were simply too young. So we had most of the conclusions handed to us up front. Even though any proper theology is arrived at inductively, by first reading all the data and then generalizing about it, we Christian kids all got our generalizations first and our data later. Our Bibles came to us backwards.

For example, any four-year old living in a modern Christian home will tell you Jesus is God, and it is a great thing that he is able to do so. But he didn’t learn that supremely significant truth from John 1:1 or Hebrews 1:3. He didn’t work it out for himself. He learned it as a truism, in the same way we were all told that 2+2=4. Later, as he reads the relevant data — the word of God — for himself, he will find out where this theological “generalization” about the nature of the Son comes from and on what evidence it was established. He has learned a truth deductively rather than inductively. His theology preceded his knowledge of the foundation on which his theology was originally built. The generalization preceded the data which gave rise to the generalization.

Got that? Great.

The Bizarreness of Hebrews 1-3

Now, provided that the data legitimately supports the conclusions we have made about it, that’s all well and good. There’s no real way we could have learned about Jesus any differently. Somebody we trusted told us something and we believed it. The evidence for what we believed came to us much, much later.

This is true even if we memorized these verses at the age of six and recited them dutifully for the adults in our lives. For us, they were simply bits of received wisdom. We did not read them in context. We could not possibly absorb them in their original languages, let alone understand the logic that leads us to recognize their authority today. As children, we would not have known what they meant at all unless someone had taken the time to explain them to us in our own language and at our level.

All this is to point out how bizarre the arguments of Hebrews 1-3 should have first appeared to me if I had really paid attention to them. Here, the author of holy writ actually bothers to spend two chapters arguing that Jesus is greater than angels, and the next arguing that Jesus is greater than Moses. Well, of course! How could I possibly think otherwise, since “Jesus is God” is a formula drilled into me since early childhood? How could any mere man or spirit-servant compare to the incarnate Word? Do these things even need to be stated?

Back to the Beginning

Well, yes, if you’re the original reader of Hebrews. To a first century Jew, the supremacy of Jesus was no given. It was not taken for granted at all.

Think about it. Hebrews was written more than thirty years after the events described in the gospels, but before those gospels were fully circulated, and long before they were compiled into what we now call the New Testament. John’s gospel, with its blatant emphasis on the deity of Christ, had not yet been written. The audience for Hebrews was then, for the most part, not old enough to have experienced the ministry and miracles of Christ firsthand, but still close enough to those events to know they were indisputably historic, and that the humanity of Jesus was established beyond question.

The original Hebrew audience was also steeped in the Law of Moses in a way we are not and could never have been. Along with Abraham and David, Moses meant something to a first century Jew that he could never mean to you or me. Could Moses be greater than other men? Of course. He gave the nation their law. He brought them out of Egypt. Might Moses be greater than all other men a Jew might consider? Very possibly. For a first century Jew on the fence about the role of Jesus of Nazareth in the plans and purposes of God for his nation, the position asserted in the third chapter of Hebrews — that a crucified Nazarene is not only greater than Moses but in another exalted category altogether — was more than debatable; his orthodox Jewish friends considered the statement blasphemous, and persecuted the heretics who asserted it to the death.

Hebrews and Angels

And angels? No wonder they warrant two chapters. It is evident the writer to the Hebrews has not bothered to direct his argument for the supremacy of Christ toward Sadducees, a prominent religious sect who did not acknowledge angels at all. Either there were no Sadducees among the Jews addressed in Hebrews, or else, having become converts to Christ, they were already convinced of the existence of angels (and, more importantly, resurrection), and were now ex-Sadducees. The Hebrews argument is very obviously directed squarely at believers from the Pharisaic tradition, for whom angels were a very big deal indeed.

Like Moses, the Law was intimately associated with angels. Moses spoke of “ten thousands of holy ones” at Sinai. David says the same, making reference to their “chariots” and great numbers. Stephen referred to a law “delivered by angels”. Paul says the same to the Galatians, referring to a law “put in place through angels by an intermediary”. The writer to the Hebrews says the law’s message was “declared by angels”. There is no good reason to suspect the original readers of Hebrews would have disagreed with him. His argument to them for the greatness of Christ and the greatness of their responsibility to hear him depends on them both believing in and greatly respecting angelic power. When God spoke in times past, he often delivered his message through angels.

But it is not just the Law with which angels were associated in the Old Testament. Daniel speaks of angelic protection assigned to Israel. The archangel Michael is called “the great prince who has charge of your people”. Messianic prophecy refers to “ten thousands of his holy ones” as early as Enoch.

Superior to Angels

Here again, for a first century Jew not entirely convinced of the deity of Jesus, the argument in the first two chapters of Hebrews — that Jesus is “as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs” — was something he might sincerely have to stop and reflect on. It was not a matter for automatic assent.

For first century Jews, the conclusion about the supremacy of Jesus Christ which we take for granted on the basis of our childhood theology was not anywhere near so obvious as it is to us. The writer to the Hebrews very much needed to assert it in the strongest possible terms, and show it to be the case from the established Hebrew scriptures which Jews regarded as the final word on orthodoxy.

For you and me, the outrageousness of these chapters is lost entirely. We have come not just to accept the doctrine taught here for ourselves, but to assume it so automatically that we might wonder why the writer to the Hebrews stops to make the argument at all.

But there was a time when the obvious had to be stated because the obvious was ... not obvious. We ought to be grateful for the truths we so easily take for granted, and remind ourselves that the ease with which we believe any given text in scripture very much depends on the assumptions we bring to it.

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