Justification by Faith: The Letter to the Hebrews

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The author of The Letter to the Hebrews writes to his gentile audience to convince them Christianity is not simply superior to Judaism, but it fulfills all they desire in Judaism. Written during the late 1st century when Christians came under fire from Roman authority and Judaism stood out as a similar, enticing religion –free from persecution– the anonymous author urges his audience not to fall away from their faith.1 His exhortation is steeped in Jewish imagery and recapitulations of Old Testament history. By drawing on the best aspects of Judaism that his audience was attracted to and explaining why Christianity is better, the author aims to strengthen his Roman church during their struggles. The pseudo-epistle focuses first on Jesus' fulfillment of several roles of Old Testament figures. It then explains how, through his fulfillment of these roles, Jesus introduced a new, eternal covenant replacing the old covenant: Jewish law. He concludes his remarks by praising the faith of a litany of Old Testament figures, urging his audience to likewise embrace the faith of their Christianity and persevere.

To demonstrate the superiority of Christianity, the author juxtaposes the missions of influential Old Testament figures against Jesus' own sacrificial purpose. The first seven chapters of the sermon rely on Jewish scripture as a backdrop to illustrate Jesus' existence as “the reflection of God's glory,”2 “the pioneer of salvation,”3 and the high priest of their faith.4 The author introduces these figures to show the ubiquitous fulfillment of Jesus' passion and resurrection. By rhetorically praising the actions of the just men of Jewish scripture such as Moses, God's servant,5 or Joshua, who pushed the Israelites to await rest on the Sabbath,6 or Aaron, who offered sacrifices on behalf of the Israelites at God's command,7 or Abraham, who patiently awaited fulfillment of his covenant with God,8 or King Melchizedek, a priest not of the Levitical order but “through the power of an indestructible life,”9 the author presents ideals which are praised by Judaism and fulfilled by Christ. He follows these introductions with either an explanation or implicit connection as to how their roles are fulfilled by Jesus. For example, he prefaces the superiority of Jesus using the familiar framework of the superiority of Melchizedek as a high priest, saying: “accordingly Jesus has also become the guarantee of a better covenant ... but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever.”10 Referencing a handful of revered characters of the Old Testament, and outlining how Jesus exceeds their virtuous characteristics, the author rhetorically steelmans Judaism to emphasize the superiority of Christianity because of Christ's ministry and passion.

After establishing Jesus as the fulfillment of several notable figures in the Old Testament, the author uses this foundation to reiterate the significance of Jesus' death and resurrection as the new covenant. The author describes these figures, covenants, and rites as “shadows” of the reality to come under Christ.11 Whereas the high priests of the Jewish Temple offered repeated sacrifices on behalf of the Jewish population, the author of Hebrews underscores that Jesus' crucifixion, bearing the sins of the whole world, is the fullest extent of sacrifice. Furthermore, his singular passion is the fulfillment of sacrificial atonement, erasing all transgressions made under the first covenant –the Jewish Law– and abolishing the necessity of further Jewish sacrifices.12,13 The author draws attention to the fact that previous covenants made between God and the Israelites were flawed by human and material inadequacy,14 however Jesus, the Son of God, is free from burdensome human flaws. Therefore, his passion and resurrection sealed the final covenant between God and man. In emphasizing the gravity of Jesus' passion, the speaker begins to transition into the appropriate response from mankind, especially those who are already members of the church.

Old Testament imagery bleeds through this section as the author explains the severity of abandoning Christianity after benefiting from Jesus' sacrifice. Throughout the sermon, but especially in the final chapters, the author stresses the necessity of maintaining the Christian faith in the face of tribulation. He implores his audience to be empowered by Jesus' passion and the words of the Holy Spirit, saying “let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith.”15 Following this comparatively positive exhortation, the author warns against refusing Christ's ultimate sacrifice, invoking images of fiery fury16 and the consequences of refusing God's invitation to eternal salvation.17 Once again relying on Old Testament figures to serve as the backbone of his Christian model, the author anaphorically stresses the importance of patient endurance, recounting the righteousness of Old Testament paragons. He describes how, “By faith,” each of them was made right before God even in their trials.18 His message is clear, God rewards those who remain steadfast in their conviction of his plan for their salvation.

On top of the foundation presented through the Old Testament, The Letter to the Hebrews exposits the superiority of Christianity and the necessity of maintaining faith, even through persecution.

1 Ehrman, pp. 476,478

2 Hebrews 1:3

3 Hebrews 2:10

4 Hebrews 3:1

5 Hebrews 3:5

6 Hebrews 4:8

7 Hebrews 5:3-4

8 Hebrews 6:15

9 Hebrews 7:16

10 Hebrews 7:22-24

11 Hebrews 10:1

12 Hebrews 9:15

13 Hebrews 10:9

14 Hebrews 9:13-14

15 Hebrews 10:22

16 Hebrews 10:27

17 Hebrews 10:38

18 Hebrews 11:2,4-31

Works Cited

Ehrman, Bart D. “The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings.” Sixth ed., Oxford University Press, 2015.

The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version with The Apocrypha. Fourth ed., Oxford University Press, 2010.