“Making the Case for the Messiah,” Hebrews 1-6 #BCCSundaySchool 2019

Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews is one of the three New Testament books (along with Acts and Revelation) that doesn’t really fit into the GOSPELS-EPISTLES organizing scheme. It probably isn’t by Paul. It is definitely not an epistle. And it may or may not be to the Hebrews. This is why it is situated after the Pauline Epistles–which are otherwise arranged by length, longest to shortest (Hebrews is much longer than the short epistles that precede it). The early Church Fathers didn’t quite know what to do with it, but they knew it was important

Theologically, Hebrews is closely related to the Gospel of Matthew. These are the two books in the New Testament most clearly directed at Jews and Christians who had once been Jews. Though we don’t know the precise date of either book’s composition, internal evidence suggests that Hebrews was written before AD 70–the year that the Romans destroyed the Second Temple–while Matthew was written in the aftermath of that destruction. So, even though Matthew is the first book we read in the New Testament while Hebrews is one of the last, the actual composition of Hebrews probably came first.

Both Hebrews and Matthew advance the same clear thesis: that the man known as Jesus was, in fact, the Messiah predicted in the Jewish scriptures. The name “Jesus Christ” is another way to make the same argument, as the Greek Christos (Χριστός), or “anointed one,” is simply a translation of the Hebrew Mašíaḥ (מָשִׁיחַ). Jesus Christ not really a name, or even a title. It is an argument: “Jesus is the Messiah.”

But this was not an easy argument to make in the middle of the first century, since the Messiah that everyone was waiting for didn’t look much like Jesus. For one thing, he wasn’t supposed to die. And he especially wasn’t supposed to die at the hands of the Roman Empire. The whole point of Messiahood, or so most people supposed, was to make the Roman Empire die at the hands of the Messiah–and to set the Jewish nation free and restore the throne of David.

So making the case for Jesus as the Messiah required a lot of close textual analysis, which is exactly what Hebrews is. The King James Version of the Bible doesn’t make this nearly as clear as other versions, but, with footnotes, we can even see in the KJV that the author is quoting passages from the Old Testament and showing how Jesus fulfills the prophecies.

But here’s the cool part: the author of Hebrews does not stick to passages from the Jewish scriptures that had traditionally been seen as Messianic. The whole argument is that the Jews had been focusing on the wrong passages, and that the Messiah of prophecy had been misunderstood as a political, rather than a spiritual deliverer. So the project of this sermon is to teach Jewish Christians which parts of the Tanakh they should be looking at to make sure they see the Messiah in Christ. Like Matthew, it ends up conducting a complete overhaul of the way that the soon-to-be Old Testament interacts with the not-yet-created New one.

Let’s go through two of these (there are a lot more, but I think that these are the most important ones) to see how the process works.

Example #1: Redefining “Son of Man
In the second chapter of Hebrews, the author makes a daring interpretive move to reinterpret the common Old Testament phrase “son of man” as a Messianic prophecy. He begins by quoting the Psalms:

For unto the angels hath he not put in subjection the world to come, whereof we speak. But one in a certain place testified, saying,

What is man, that thou art mindful of him?
or the son of man that thou visitest him?
Thou madest him a little lower than the angels;
thou crownedst him with glory and honour,
and didst set him over the works of thy hands:
Thou hast put all things in subjection under his feet.
For in that he put all in subjection under him,
he left nothing that is not put under him.
But now we see not yet all things put under him.

But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honour; that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man. (Hebrews 2:5-9)

The quoted text here is from Psalms 8, which is significant for several reasons. First of all, the Psalms have traditionally been attributed to David, who was the most common archetype of the Messiah. By invoking the writings of David in support of a different understanding of the Messianic role, the author of Hebrews is saying something like “it’s OK–David understood what the Messiah would be like too.”

The whole Psalm is worth quoting:

O Lord, our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth!
who hast set thy glory above the heavens.
Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength

because of thine enemies,
that thou mightest still the enemy and the avenger.
When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers,
the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained;
What is man, that thou art mindful of him?
and the son of man, that thou visitest him?
For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels,
and hast crowned him with glory and honour.
Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands;
thou hast put all things under his feet:

All sheep and oxen, yea, and the beasts of the field;
The fowl of the air, and the fish of the sea,

and whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas.
O Lord our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth!

What is important here is the way that the passage from Psalms gets interpolated into the Epistle to the Hebrews. In the original question–What is man that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?–“son of man” appears to be simply another way of saying “everybody.” The question reads something like, “God, you are so great and so powerful, why have you given dominion over the earth to insignificant beings like us?”

But by the time it gets to Hebrews, the term “son of man” has become a title, and. specifically, a title for the Messiah. Once we get to Matthew, we will see that “Son of Man” is indeed the title that Christ uses more than any other to describe himself.

The interpretive force of this passage is immense, as it takes the phrase ben Adam, (בן–אדם ), which occurs throughout the Old Testament as a reference to humanity in general and applies it specifically to the Messiah, as embodied in Jesus Christ. Everybody, the author suggests, has been reading the Psalm wrong: Jesus is a little lower than the angels. Jesus was crowned by God with glory and honor. Jesus has dominion over the works of God’s hands. This is what it means to be a Messiah.

Example #2: Moses, not David, is the Correct Type of the Messiah
Everybody knew that the Messiah had to be a descendant of King David, and just about everybody supposed that this meant he would restore the Kingdom of Judah. Given the fact that nobody in Jerusalem really liked Roman rule, this was a pretty important part of the job description. And Jesus, having been executed by the Romans, didn’t seem to fit the bill.

But what if the Jews had been reading the wrong passages? What if they had the wrong archetype? What if Moses (the High Priest) and not David (the High King) was the correct ancient figure to be looking at. What if the Messiah was supposed to be a spiritual deliverer and not a political one? This is what the author of Hebrews attempts to establish in Chapter 3

 Wherefore, holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling, consider the Apostle and High Priest of our profession, Christ Jesus; Who was faithful to him that appointed him, as also Moses was faithful in all his house. For this man was counted worthy of more glory than Moses, inasmuch as he who hath builded the house hath more honour than the house. For every house is builded by some man; but he that built all things is God. And Moses verily was faithful in all his house, as a servant, for a testimony of those things which were to be spoken after;

Here, the author twice invokes Numbers 12:7, in which the Lord says that Moses is faithful in all mine house. The context is important. God is talking to Aaron and Miriam in a vision and saying that he only talks to prophets in visions and dreams–except for Moses, who, being faithful in all mine house, talks to me face to face. Moses is, in other words, special. Unique. And Christ is another Moses.

This Christ-as-Moses typology sets up the opening scene of Matthew, when Herod commands the death of all of the males in Judea–in exactly the same way that Pharaoh commanded the death of every newborn Hebrew boy. From the beginning of the New Testament, readers have known that Christ is another Moses–or that Moses was a type of Christ. And that Christ’s authority is spiritual, like a priest, and not political, like a king.

This argument continues in Hebrews 5, with a devastatingly powerful pair of quotations that establish the Messiah as something very different than a Hebrew warrior king:

So also Christ glorified not himself to be made an high priest; but he that said unto him, Thou art my Son, to day have I begotten thee. As he saith also in another place, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek. Who in the days of his flesh, when he had offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death, and was heard in that he feared; Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered; And being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him; Called of God an high priest after the order of Melchizedek. (Hebrews 5: 5-10)

Once again, the quotations come from the Psalms: Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee comes from Psalms 2:7; and Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek comes from Psalms 110:4. Reading these two passages Messianically changes our view of the Messiah entirely. They establish that the Messiah should be

1) an actually begotten son of God; and
2) a priest after the order of Melchizedek.

Of course, this doesn’t change OUR understanding of Christ at all, since the first is perhaps the core assertion of the entire Christian religion, and the second is the basis of the Latter-day Saint understanding of the priesthood.

But these would have been seen as radical statements by their original audience in the middle of the first century of the Christian Era. They completely reframe the concept of the Messiah, while laying the groundwork for understanding what it means to worship Jesus Christ as both the Son of Man and the Son of God.

Comments

  1. Kevin Barney says:

    Great post, Michael, thanks.

  2. Sidebottom says:

    Well-said. It’s a shame that CFM splits this book into two – I realize that it’s long but the first twelve chapters are one continuous thought – a well-structured and cleanly articulated case for Christ as Messiah.

  3. So if I were a first or second century Jew, how would I not see the book of Hebrews as just proof texting?

  4. I thought Hebrews had plenty of scholarly evidence that Paul wrote it. http://www.scottwoodward.org/scripture/NT_Hebrews_didpauwriteHebrews.html

  5. Sidebottom says:

    It’s certainly possible that Paul wrote Hebrews, but the source you cite is far and away a minority opinion. There are plenty of stylistic and theological reasons for this, but even conservative evangelicals question Paul’s authorship. They read Heb 2:3 to mean that the author heard the gospel from the mortal Jesus (rather than a vision of the resurrected Jesus).

  6. Maybe I don’t understand this particular scripture, but Number 12:7 doesn’t make sense to me in light of how you explained it. Can you further explain?

  7. Michael Austin says:

    Cynthia,

    Read non-typologically, the scripture says that Miriam and Aaron should defer to Moses because they can only experience God through a vision/dream, while Moses can talk to him face to face:

    “When there is a prophet among you,
    I, the Lord, reveal myself to them in visions,
    I speak to them in dreams.
    But this is not true of my servant Moses;
    he is faithful in all my house.
    With him I speak face to face,
    clearly and not in riddles;
    he sees the form of the Lord.
    Why then were you not afraid
    to speak against my servant Moses?” (NIV: Num. 6-8)

    So the gist is: stop criticizing Moses because Dad likes him best, And I am dad. And I tell him stuff straight out that I make you puzzle over and guess at.

    But all that the author (as I read it) wants us to read this typologically–to read Moses as a figure whose entire life points to Jesus the Messiah. This does two things. 1) It shifts the common typology of the Messiah from David to Moses. From conqueror to liberator. But also from military commander to prophet (thereby from secular to spiritual). The second thing it does is say something like, “you think you got the Messiah right, but you are like Aaron and Miriam in that you are trying to puzzle it out from riddles. Jesus was like Moses, [faithful in “God’s] house,” so he has access to a truth that you do not.

    The whole point (again, as I read it, and I could certainly be wrong) is to tell Christians who already accept Jesus as something divine, to accept that he is the Messiah and the fulfillment of prophecy and they need to stop criticizing him for not setting them free from Rome. It is not the sort of argument that could convince an unbeliever of JCs Messiahship. But it is, I think, a good argument to convince people who already accept Jesus as the Messiah that this believe has consequences that they have to acknowledge.

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