If God is moving Israel on from their Old Testament promises to a fulfilment of their mission in Christ, they need to pay close attention to the message. They shouldn’t become lethargic and dull of hearing, assuming that their current state of expressing their faith through hostility, despising their neighbour, is God’s plan for Israel.
The law delivered through messengers to Israel after the Exodus exacted a terrible retribution upon those who disobeyed it. This is what law does in our hearts, breaking out into a vengeful hostility against others. So, how shall they escape the terrible wrath of the law if they neglect the grace that brings life, brought to them through Jesus Christ? That is, they will be left in the law, to consume each other in its awful wrath, until they are destroyed. This is what they did to themselves in the lead up the fall of Jerusalem. If they paid heed to the former message given them through mediators, how much more should they listen when the Lord appears himself in Christ and speaks to them?
I assume this to be a Girardian reading of the text, which I believe to be accurate. In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul said the one who brought vengeance on Israel in the Wilderness was the Destroyer. But Israel, back in the days of their immaturity would not have understood this. Certainly, in Jesus we see the destroyer in not God, but the path we decide to take ourselves.
Then the author speaks again of “the world to come,” of the transition from their old covenant into the new. It is a transition from law and the judgement we bring upon each other, into bearing our own cross and forgiving each other. It is a transition from punishing our neighbours’ sin, to serving our neighbour for restoration. This is what many in Israel in that century couldn’t grasp.
Then the author begins to speak of the expectation Israel had of their exultation. He quoted Psalm 8, that spoke of the glory and honour coming through Israel to restore the rule of humanity over a world in peace. What the author expressed, which was the point that couldn’t be accepted, was that their service of their enemies, not through their wrath upon others. Peace would be won by peace, not by violence.
“Putting everything in subjection under his feet.” Not our human enemies, as Israel then often supposed, and we also often have, but the works of the flesh that are common to us all.
If we read Hebrews in isolation, it may just seem like a theology of the supremacy of Christ (and our own supremacy), and that is the way we have often preferred it. But if we read it in the generation in which Jesus taught, and was killed, we see it as a call to peace. Jesus is Lord of a renewing cosmos. The children of God in this new cosmos are “peacemakers.” This is not a lofty ideal for the passive, but dangerous work. It is restoring the wounded on the road to Jericho, caring for Lazarus at the rich man’s gate, bringing the outcast to our table to share. To read Hebrews alongside the Gospels, where those who forgive and serve in suffering are the “light” of Genesis 1, bringing new creation, reads the text within the Hebrew thought at that time.
“We do not yet see the world subjected to God‘s will,” but we see our role model, Jesus Christ, who won the victory through suffering, to be granted rule over an eternal kingdom of peace, that peacefully subdues all violence under it. He brings many sons to glory. This again is reflecting on Psalm 8, the final glorification of redeemed humanity in the bodily resurrection, to reign with Christ in the new heavens and new earth.
Christ sanctifies us by delivering our hearts from the law, putting us on a course of peace and care towards our neighbour. Only his suffering could do this for us, and it is also our suffering service, our becoming his “brothers,” taking on his nature, that brings the same sanctification to our enemies and communities. Christ is not ashamed of us: the law makes us ashamed of others, but grace brings us together to serve and restore.
“That through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” This brings us back to the opening of Hebrews 2, where the people are in bondage to their mutual destruction under their self-inspired vengeance of the law working in their hearts, due to their fear of death. Christ sets us free from this fear through his loving acceptance and forgiveness.
Through death, Jesus destroyed the devil. He didn’t save us from God, but from the grip satan had over our hearts. Jesus took away the law on the cross and thus freed us from its power of rejection, whereby we reject ourselves and reject others. This frees us from a culture of violence, instead forming us into neighbours. The cross defeats the devil in the creation, when we accept its grace and carry the cross ourselves in our relationships with others.
“A merciful and faith high priest.” This is a high priest with a difference. In the Old Testament, priests officiated over the death of others, to appease the wrath of the law. In Christ, God offers himself, to appease the wrath in our own hearts. This is the kind of priesthood we inherit, to follow as the new kind of priests, taking away wrath by our Sermon-on-the-Mount living amongst our neighbours.
“To make propitiation for sins.” This means to have mercy towards our sins. This is the mercy God showed us in Christ on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” When we afflicted Christ in unrighteousness, he fully and freely forgave us. He had mercy and in doing so he delivered us from the law which gripped our hearts, setting us free from its power. Christ responded differently to man, who responds with retaliation in the law. He responded as he taught in the Sermon on the Mount. He turned the other cheek, to the end, calling us back to himself, reconciling us in grace, rather than pushing us away in judgement.
Christ is the mercy seat in the inner sanctuary of the tabernacle. In the Old Testament, the blood of others was shed. Christ is the place where God shows his full mercy and offers it freely. In the New Testament, God demands no blood, but offers himself in Christ to free us. Christ lays down his life to ransom us from satan, from the wrath of the law, in our conscience.
As friends and I have often put it, “We don’t worship a God who demands blood, but who gives his own, and then forgives.” More on this later in Hebrews, which becomes a major them of Hebrews 8-10, showing how the cross reconstructs the real temple, our relationships, which makes the cosmos new.
If the Prophets were a major source for Paul in his letters about the kingdom of God, then the tabernacle is the major source of the letter of Hebrews, in teaching the same message. In Isaiah, the message is of new relationships which bring peace and a transformation of the cosmos. This is essentially the message of the tabernacle. The description of the tabernacle in heaven in Hebrews 8-9 isn’t of literal furniture in a distant place. It is rather Old Testament imagery used to describe new relationships which make the heavens and earth new.
Christ calls us to follow this in our relationships with others in the world, both inside and outside the church. And when we fail, he continues to forgive us, because he knows our weakness. So, we have a forgiving God, not a wrathful God under the law. Christ came to call us out of wrath and into grace, not just as individuals, but in our treatment and fellowship with each other.
This helps us to overcome sin in our own lives. Wrath towards others is a self-centred focus, forsaking the patient, self-giving approach to the restoration of others, that God shows toward us. Giving up self-centredness helps us overcome the root of sin in our hearts, which is the idolatry of self-love.