Friday, September 30, 2016

The 2016-17 Horizons Bible Study "Who is Jesus? - a continuing review- according to Hebrews

Picture by Penny Juncker
There is a great deal to applaud in the sixth lesson of the Presbyterian Women’s Bible study Who is Jesus? What a Difference a Lens Makes. The author Judy Yates Siker, in this lesson, “According to Hebrews,” at the end, answers the question about Jesus’s identity in this manner:

“The writer of Hebrews goes to great lengths to demonstrate the majesty, the grandeur, and the perfection of Jesus. Yet, this Jesus is one who can relate to us in our earthly circumstances. Truly, there is in every generation the need to carry the message of the good news forward, in spite of trials and frustrations of the day. The writer of Hebrews tells readers then and now to be strong, to give thanks for the unshakeable kingdom in which Christ reigns. Through the lens of this first-century writer, we are called to be strong in the faith, and through this lens, we are able to see the person and work of Jesus, the one who makes that faith possible.”

Siker understands that Jesus is both priest and sacrifice, and that he is both human and divine. She comforts her readers with the biblical truth that Jesus “can sympathize and empathize with people.”

And yet, still, there is the continued push to de-emphasize the wholeness and completeness of the biblical witness to Jesus Christ as fully God and fully human, as both Lord and the ransom for sin. Furthermore, there is the continued apology and concern about the witness to Jesus of the early church and how that affected their relationship to the Jewish people as a whole.

A High Christology:

First, in writing about the Christology of Hebrews, Siker, in note 2, reminds the reader that, as she has put it, the synoptic Gospels have a lower Christology, John a higher Christology, but Hebrews has both. But as I have pointed out in my introduction to this whole study:

“A high Christology is a Christology that is superior in that it not only emphasizes the divinity of Jesus but also affirms the humanity of Jesus. It is a balanced account of the person of Jesus, fully God and fully human. Think of the creed of Chalcedon. A fence is placed around the person of Jesus Christ and there are some things that cannot be said. A low Christology does fail to uphold Jesus’ divinity.

 While the Gospel of John and the writings of Paul give a more direct and straight forward picture of Jesus’ divinity they also are very clear about the humanity of Jesus.  Matthew, Mark and Luke give very practical understandings of Jesus’ humanity, but in terms of his miracles, wisdom and even his actions they clearly picture Jesus as God. Who can still the raging waves but God? (Matthew 8) Who can forgive sin but God? (Mark 2) Who can raise the dead but God? (Luke 7)”

And I added the words of biblical scholar Larry W. Hurtado, author of Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity. In a comment on his blog he wrote:

“But certainly Mark reflects and presumes a very “high” view of Jesus. E.g., the opening lines effectively make Jesus the “Lord” whose paths are prepared for by the Baptist. And at various points Jesus is pictured as heralded by demons who (unlike the humans in the story) perceive his transcendent significance. And Jesus acts in ways that allude to YHWH in the OT (e.g., walking on the waves and calming them).”

The same sorts of explanations can be given for Matthew and Luke. The question, "Who is Jesus?” cannot be rightly answered using the type of divisive exegesis Siker uses. Even the Old Testament looks forward to the answer: Jesus Christ, fully God, fully human.

Jesus the High Priest and Sacrifice:

While Siker correctly writes that Hebrews is the only New Testament book that speaks of Jesus as high priest, she begins this section with a rather strange explanation of why a high priest and a sacrifice.

Rather than simply referring to the Old Testament’s God given instructions to the people of Israel, Siker refers to the sacrificial offerings of all of the nations. She writes:

“Unlike our world today, almost all societies in the ancient world practiced animal sacrifice. The Greeks and Romans built countless temples to their gods and offered them daily sacrifices. Similarly, the temple in Jerusalem was the place where sacrifices were offered every day.”

And then speaking of Jesus as the perfect sacrifice and what that means, Siker writes, “So Jesus was viewed as a perfect sacrifice—that is, a sinless sacrifice. Only in this way could he be an appropriate sacrifice to atone for human sinfulness.” But Siker ruins all of her words with her conclusion, “This is how the sacrificial mindset of the earliest Christians, including that of Hebrews, worked.”

The similarities are little. The sacrifices in the temple were meant to fulfill God’s commandments for the people of Israel. The order was to be rightly fulfilled, but the heart, full of repentance and thankfulness, was important too. The rituals were not the same as the rituals of other nations offered to false gods. Most importantly, the sacrifices were symbols and types of the coming Messiah. [1]

Siker does refer to Jesus as the Passover lamb, but she does not acknowledge that he is truly the fulfillment of God’s promise seen within the offering. She only acknowledges that the early Christians including the author of Hebrews saw him that way.

The question comes to mind, does Siker believe that God commanded the sacrifices that the Israelite priesthood performed?


Siker also writes about Hebrews’ references to the high priest Melchizedek, a mysterious person to whom Abraham pays tithes. (Genesis 14:18) She refers to Jesus as a descendent of Melchizedek because Melchizedek was, according to speculation, taken up into heaven.  And likewise, Jesus was resurrected. But the author of Hebrews is using Melchizedek as a symbol of Jesus. The scripture does not give Melchizedek’s parentage nor speak of his death, therefore it can be said that he is, “Without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but made like the Son of God, he remains a priest perpetually.” (Hebrews 7:3) Jesus is of “the order” of Melchizedek’s priesthood.[2]

But Siker, in note 4, evidently does not believe that Melchizedek is a real person. In the note she writes, “Scholars continue to debate the image of Melchizedek and its creation (whether by the author of Genesis or earlier in Jewish tradition.” It is important to see Melchizedek as a real person, but without the speculation. (Emphasizes mine)

Speaking philosophically, if Melchizedek is not a real person but the Jewish priests are real people, the author of Hebrews loses his argument that Jesus’ priesthood is greater than the Aaronic priesthood. Real existence takes priority over non-existence.

But, having written all of the above, still, Siker’s explanation of Jesus as the high priest is very good and helpful for the reader. She explains how the Jewish high priest was the only one who was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies, and how Jesus who had no sin is the one who enters the heavenly Holy of Holies. He could offer the sacrifice, himself, without needing to sacrifice for himself.


Supersessionism, the idea that Christianity replaces God’s covenant with Israel is considered a problem in the book of Hebrews. Siker sees it simply as sibling rivalry. She believes this was an argument between different Jewish sects who would later become Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity.  But the problems and the answers are deeper than that.

The early Christians did meet in the synagogues as well as homes but nonetheless they also believed that Jesus was the fulfillment of the promises of God in the Hebrew Bible. They also believed that only in Jesus could anyone be saved including their fellow Jewish relatives. However, the apostle Paul gives what was meant to be the correct understanding of the position of the Jewish people who did not follow Jesus:

From the standpoint of the gospel they (the Jews who rejected Jesus) are enemies for your sake, but from the standpoint of God’s choice they are beloved for the sake of the fathers; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” (Romans 11:28-29)

God still keeps covenant with the Jewish people but he only offers salvation through Jesus Christ. How could it not be so; from Genesis 3:15 to the end of Malachi, God’s promises to his people look forward to Jesus. He is the seed of Eve who bruises Satan’s head and he is the ideal priest and messenger of the covenant in Malachi. He is the one who purifies the sons of Levi. (Malachi 3) Jesus is every biblical promise fulfilled.




[1] For deeper reading on the priesthood of Jesus and his sacrifice I recommend puritan writer John Flavel and his book, The Fountain of Life: Presenting Christ in His Essential and Mediatorial Glory. Flavel has four chapters that deal with Jesus’ priesthood, including his sacrifice and his intercession. It is very rich.
[2] F.F. Bruce, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, The Epistle to the Hebrews, F.F. Bruce, General Editor, reprint (Grand Rapids: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company 1981)
“Of Melchizedek ‘it is witnessed that he liveth’ in that sense that we never read of him otherwise than as a living man; of Christ it can be said He lives in the sense that, having died once for all and risen from the dead, He is alive for evermore.” 142.