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The Epistle to the Hebrews
THE Epistle to the Hebrews is in many ways one of the most perplexing books of the New Testament. It stands quite alone and is peculiarly independent, yet it has affinities with almost every strain of thought to be found elsewhere in primitive Christianity, and points of historical attachment for it have been sought all round the compass.6060For a full discussion on this point, see Holtzmann, Neut. Theologie, 2. 281 ff. Thus there are those who think its true line of descent is to be traced to James, Cephas, and John — the three apostles who seemed to be pillars in the mother church of Jerusalem. It is the last and finest product of that type of Christian mind which we see at work in the fifteenth chapter of Acts. Perhaps this was the feeling of the person to whom the address — πρὸς Ἑβραίους — is due. When we examine the epistle closely, however, we discover that there is very little to be found in this direction to explain its peculiarities. Others, again, would trace it to the school of St. Paul. This, no doubt, has a greater plausibility. Discounting altogether the alleged Pauline authorship, the epistle has many points of contact with St. Paul in language, and some in thought. But we cannot fail to be struck with the fact that where the language coincides with St. Paul’s, the thought does not; and that where the minds of the authors meet, their language is independent. Thus both St. Paul and the writer to the Hebrews speak of the law, of what the law cannot do (Romans 8:3 and Hebrews 10:1), of the superseding of the law (Romans 10:4 and Hebrews 7:12), of faith (Romans 4 and Hebrews 11), of a righteousness according to faith (Romans 1:17 and Hebrews 11:7), and so on; but when they use the same words they do not mean the same thing. The law to St. Paul is mainly the moral law, embodying God’s requirements from man; in this epistle, it is the religious constitution under which Israel lived, and which gave it a certain though an imperfect access to God. In St. Paul and in this epistle alike the law is superseded in the Christian religion, but the relation between them is differently defined in the two cases. St. Paul defines law and gospel mainly by contrast; in Hebrews they are set in a more positive relation to one another. It used to be life under external statutory authority, now it is life under inspiration, and the two are mutually exclusive — such is St. Paul’s conception: see Romans 6 and 2 Corinthians 3. It used to be life under the shadowy, the unreal, that which could bring nothing to perfection; now it is life under the real, the eternal, that which makes perfect for ever; the shadow is abandoned, because the coming good which cast it is here: see Hebrews 7-10. No doubt such contrasts as; this (between St. Paul and the Epistle to the Hebrews) require qualification, but broadly they are true, and they could be illustrated at many other points. At the present moment the favorite tendency among critics is to explain the peculiarities of the epistle by attaching it neither to the primitive Christianity of Jerusalem, nor in the first instance to the characteristic thoughts of St. Paul (thought both of course are implied), but to the quasi-philosophical mind of Alexandrian Judaism. It is there we find the contrast of seen and unseen, of sensible and intelligible, of this world and the world to come, of the transitory and the abiding, of earth and heaven, of which this epistle makes so much; and there also the λόγος, which mediates between God and the world, is presented in many of the aspects (e.g. as Intercessor, as Mediator, as High Priest) in which Jesus figures here. But here again the differences outweigh the resemblances. The Son of God does exercise in this epistle many of the functions which in Philo are assigned to the Logos; but in order to exercise them He must assume human nature and pass through all human experience — conceptions which are a direct contradiction of all that Logos in Philo means. Evidently the author of this epistle, whatever his intellectual affinities, combined with an extraordinary sensitiveness to all that was being thought and said in the world in which he lived an extraordinary power of holding fast his own thoughts, of living in his own mind, and letting it work along its own lines.
Of all New Testament writers he is the most theological — that is, he is most exclusively occupied with presenting Christianity as the final and absolute religion; not a religion, in the sense in which it might concede a legitimate place to others, but religion simpliciter, because it does perfectly what all religion aims to do. This is what is expressed in his favorite word αἰώνιος (eternal). St. John in his gospel and epistles uses this word twenty-three times, but invariably to qualify life, and with him it is rather the combination than the adjective which is characteristic. But in Hebrews αἰώνιος is used far more significantly, though less frequently. Jesus is author of ‘eternal’ salvation (5:9), i.e., of final salvation, which has no peril beyond; all that salvation can mean is secured by Him. The elements of Christianity include preaching on ‘eternal’ judgment (6:2), i. e., a judgment which has the character of finality, from which there is no appeal, beyond which there is no fear or no hope. Christ has obtained ‘eternal’ redemption for us (9:12): not a redemption like that which was annually achieved for Israel, and which had to be annually repeated, as though its virtue faded away, but a redemption the validity of which abides for ever. Christ has offered Himself through ‘eternal’ spirit (9:14), i.e., in Christ’s sacrifice we see the final revelation of what God is, that behind which there is nothing in God; so that the religion which rests on that sacrifice rests on the ultimate truth of the divine nature, and can never be shaken. Those who are called receive the promise of the ‘eternal’ inheritance (9:15), not an earthly Canaan, in which they are strangers and pilgrims, and from which they may be exiled, but the city which has the foundations, from which God’s people go no more out. And finally, the blood of Christ is the blood of an ‘eternal’ covenant (13:20), i.e., in the death of Christ a religious relation is constituted between God and men which has the character of finality. God, if it may be so expressed, has spoken His last word; He has nothing in reserve; the foundation has been laid of the kingdom which can never be removed. It is this conception of absoluteness or finality in everything Christian which dominates the book. The conception, of course, is involved in all Christian experience, but to make it as explicit as it is in this epistle does not come naturally to every one. There are minds to which a less reactive religion seems warmer and more congenial, they miss in a writing like this the intimacy and glow which pervade the epistles of St. Paul. Those in whom theological interest preponderates over religious may call the Epistle to the Hebrews the high water-mark of inspiration; those whose religion makes them averse to theology can call it the high watermark of uninspired writing.
Speaking generally, the epistle may be said to give a description of the Person and Work of Christ as constituting the perfect religion for men, and to define this religion in relation to the ancient religion of the Jews as embodied in the Tabernacle or Temple service. Curiously enough, the Person and Work of Christ thus interpreted have been looked at, so to speak, from both ends. Some theologians, of whom Westcott may be taken as a type, begin at the beginning, or rather at chap. 1:3. They start with the pre-existent, the eternal Son of God. They point to what He essentially is — the brightness of the Father’s glory and the express image of His substance. They point to His providential action — He bears or guides all things by the word of His power. They point to the work He did as incarnate — He made purgation of sins. They point to the exaltation which followed — He sat down on the right hand of the Majesty in the Heavens. And then they draw the general conclusion that what Christ did, according to the epistle, was to fulfill man’s destiny under the conditions of the fall. That destiny, it is assumed, He would have fulfilled in any case. The incarnation is part of the original plan of the world; only, in the peculiar circumstances of the case in hand — that is, under the conditions of the fall — the incarnation had to be modified into an atonement. This is one way of construing the writer’s ideas. Another is represented by writers like Seeberg, who begins, if one may say so, at the end. The Christ of the author is essentially Christ the High Priest, in the heavenly sanctuary, mediating between God and men, securing for sinful men access to God and fellowship with Him. Christ exercises His High Priestly function in heaven, but it rests upon the death which He died on earth. Though Seeberg does not include Christ’s death in His priestly ministry, he frankly admits that His priestly ministry is based on His death, and that but for His death He could not be a priest at all. Hence his argument runs in exactly the opposite direction from Westcott’s. Christ is essentially a priest, the work of bringing sinners into fellowship with God is essentially the work He has to do, and the work He does. It is in that work alone that we know Him. But to do it He had to die, and in order to die He had to have a body prepared for Him, i.e., He had to become incarnate (ch. 10:5). It is not the incarnation which is taken for granted, and the atonement which in the peculiar circumstances of man’s case is wrought into it or wrought out of it to meet an emergency; it is the actual fact of an atonement and a reconciling priestly ministry which is made the foundation of everything; the incarnation is defined solely by relation to it. The atonement, and the priestly or reconciling ministry of Christ, are the end, to which the incarnation is relative as the meal is. That this last is the view of the epistle and of the New Testament in general I do not doubt: it is the only view which has an experimental, as opposed to a speculative, basis; and I venture to say that the other shifts the center of gravity in the New Testament so disastrously as to make great parts of it, and these most vital parts, unintelligible. One could not go to the New Testament with a more misleading schematism in his mind than that which is provided by the conception of the incarnation, and its relation to the atonement, to which Westcott’s influence has given currency in many circles. But leaving this larger question on one side, we may start with the fact that both schools of interpreters meet in the middle, and find the real content of the epistle, religious and theological, in what it has to say of the historical Christ. And that, beyond a doubt, is concentrated in what it has to say of His death. It was with ‘the suffering of death’ in view that He became incarnate; it is because of ‘the suffering of death’ that He is crowned with that glory and honor in which He appears in the presence of God on our behalf. Here then we come to our proper subject again, and may ask, as in the case of St. Paul, in what relations the death of Christ is defined by the writer so as to bring out its meaning.
In the first place, it is defined by relation to God, and especially, as in St. Paul, by relation to His love. It is by the grace of God that Jesus tastes death for every man (2:9). God is not conceived in this epistle, or in any part of the New Testament, as a malignant or hostile being who has to be won by gifts to show His goodwill to man: whatever the death of Christ is or does, it is and does in the carrying out of His purpose. It is the grace of God to sinners which is demonstrated in it. This is involved also in two other ideas emphasized in the epistle. One is the idea that no man takes the honor of priesthood to himself of his own motion, he must be called of God, as Aaron was (5:4). Christ has had this call; we hear it in the 110th Psalm, which He Himself applied to Himself (Mark 12:35 ff.). ‘Thou art a priest for ever, after the order of Melchisedec.’ It is true that the priest represents the people toward God, but he can only do so by God’s appointment, and consequently it is a work of God which he does, a gracious work, in which he is not persuading God, as it were, against His will, but on the contrary carrying out His will for the good of men. The other idea used in the interpretation of Christ’s work, and especially of His death, which connects them in a similar way with God, is the idea of obedience. Jesus, though He were Son, yet learned obedience through the things which He suffered (5:8). When He appeared in the body which God had prepared for Him, it was with the words on His lips, ‘Lo, I come to do Thy will, O God’ 10:7). There is nothing in Christ’s life and death of irresponsibility or adventure. It is all obedience, and therefore it is all revelation. We see God in it because it is not His own will but the will of the Father which it accomplished. Even when we come to consider its relation to sin, this must be borne in mind. Atonement is not something contrived, as it were, behind the Father’s back; it is the Father’s way of making it possible for the sinful to have fellowship with Him. The author introduces one idea, not very easy to define, in this connection. In speaking of the actual course of Christ in life and death, he says,
‘It became Him (ἔπρεπεν γὰρ αὐτῷ) for whom are all things and through whom are all things, in bringing many sons unto glory, to make the Captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings’ (2:10).
What ἔπρεπεν suggests is not so much the kind of necessity we have found in other places in the New Testament’s moral congruity or decorum. Suffering and death are our lot; it is congruous with God’s nature — we can feel, so to speak, the moral propriety of it — when He makes suffering and death the lot of Him who is to be our Savior. He would not be perfect in the character or part of Savior if He did not have this experience. What this suggests is the interpretation of Christ’s death by moral aesthetics rather than by moral law, by a rule to be apprehended in feeling rather than in conscience. It is moving and impressive, this action in congruity with God’s nature and our state, whether we see a more inevitable necessity for it or not. In all these ways, at all events, the writer attaches Christ’s death to the grace, the will, and the character of God; and in all these ways, therefore, he warns us against setting that death and God in any antagonism to each other.
But besides defining it by relation to God, the writer defines Christ’s death also by relation to sin. At the very beginning, in the sublime sentence in which He introduces the Son, His earthly work is summed up in the phrase, ‘having made purgation of sins’ (1:3). How this is done, he does not tell at this point, but the sequel makes it indubitable. It was done by His sacrificial death. So, again, he speaks of Christ as being once offered to bear the sins of many (9:28); as having been once manifested at the end of the world to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself (9:26); as being a merciful and faithful high priest in our relations to God to make propitiation for the sins of the people (2:17); as having offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, and having perfected for ever by that sacrifice those who are being sanctified (10:12-14). There is the same sacrificial conception in all the references in the epistle to the blood of Christ. He entered into the most holy place with (διὰ) His own blood (9:12). The blood of Christ shall purge your conscience from dead works (9:14). We have boldness to enter into the holiest in the blood of Jesus (10:19). His blood is the blood of the covenant with which we are sanctified, and to lapse from the Christian religion is to be guilty of the inconceivable, the unpardonable sin, of counting that blood a profane thing (10:29). In all these ways the death of Christ is defined as a sacrificial death, or as a death having relation to sin, the two things are one. It is quite possible to lose ourselves here by trying to give to details in the sacrificial language of the epistle an importance which they will not bear. The writer refers to sacrifices of different kinds in his interpretation of the death of Christ. Sometimes he speaks of it in connection with the Old Testament sin offerings; at others in connection with the covenant sacrifices at Sinai, on which the ancient relation of God to His people was based; more than all, in connection with the annual sacrifices on the great day of atonement, when the earthly sanctuary was purged of its defilement, and the high priest entered into the most holy place, representing and embodying Israel’s access to God and fellowship with Him. But no emphasis is laid on the distinguishing features of these various sacrifices, they are looked at simply in the expiatory or atoning significance which is common to them all. They represent a divinely appointed way of dealing with sin, in order that it may not bar fellowship with God; and the writer thinks of them broadly in this light. I do not feel at liberty to belittle this, as is sometimes done, and to say with Holtzmann that the convincing power of the writer’s arguments reaches precisely as far as our conviction of the divine origin of the Mosaic cultus, of the atoning power of sacrificial blood, and of the typical significance of the sacrificial ritual; the tacit assumption being that in regard to all these things rational conviction can reach but a very little way. As we have seen already, the death of Christ is defined by relation to sin in many places in the New Testament where no use, at least no explicit use, is made of sacrificial phraseology. Such phraseology is not essential either to reach or to express the truth held by Christian faith as to the relation of Christ’s death to sin. Neither is it forced by the author of the epistle: he only expresses by means of it, and that, as we have seen, with the greatest freedom, the conviction of all New Testament Christians, that in the death of Christ God has dealt effectually with the world’s sin for its removal. It is easy to disparage too lightly what Wellhausen has called the pagan element in the religion of Israel; but it is probably truer to hold with this writer that the sacrificial system had something in it which trained the conscience and helped man to feel and to express spiritual truths for which he had no adequate articulate language.
Important, however, as his reference to sacrifice may be, it is not so much through the idea of sacrifice that we are initiated into the writer’s mind as through the idea of priesthood. Now in relation to the priest the various conceptions of sacrifice are unified; the distinctions of sin offerings, burnt offerings, peace offerings, and so forth, disappear; sacrifice is reduced to this — it is the characteristic function of the priest, the indispensable means to the fulfillment of his calling. A priest is the essential figure in religion as it is conceived in the Epistle to the Hebrews; when the priesthood is changed there is necessarily also a change of law — the whole religious constitution is altered (7:12); in other words, the priest determines what the religion is. Hence if we wish to know what Christianity is, in which Christ is priest, we must investigate the priesthood as it is discharged by Him.
The priest’s function, speaking generally, is to establish and to represent the fellowship of God and man. That fellowship must exist, it must be incorporated and made visible, in the priest’s own person; and through his ministry it must be put within reach of the people for whom he acts as priest. Through his ministry they must be put in a position to draw near to God themselves, to worship, to have fellowship with God; in a word, to become God’s people. If we ask why a priest and a priestly work of mediation are necessary, why men cannot immediately and in their own right, as it were, draw near to God, the answer is self-evident. It is because their sin stands in the way, and cannot be ignored. In the Epistle to the Hebrews, as everywhere in the New Testament, sin is a problem, and the burden of the book is that God has dealt with the problem in a way answering to its magnitude. He has instituted a priesthood to deal with it. He has appointed His Son a priest with this very end in view, that He should make propitiation for the sins of the people (2:17). If we ask how this priest deals with sin in order to make propitiation for it, the answer, as has already been observed, is given in Old Testament terms. He deals with it by the way of sacrifice. This is the only method of propitiation, known to the Old Testament, which is of a piece with the idea of priesthood. It is irrelevant to argue, as is sometimes done by persons who are anxious that the grace of the gospel should not be abused, that the Old Testament only provides propitiation for certain kinds of sin, and these not the more serious; such thoughts are not present to the writer’s mind. Propitiation must be made for sin, if sinful men are to have fellowship with God at all; the only propitiation known to scripture, as made by a priest, is that which is made through sacrifice (apart from shedding of blood there is no remission, 9:22); and the writer has no conception beforehand of sins with which the priest and the sacrifice present to his mind are unable to deal. He does recognize the possibility that men may condemn the gospel altogether, and even after they have known its power may trample under foot the blood of the covenant with which they were sanctified, and so commit a sin for which in the nature of the case there can be no further propitiation — as he puts it, for which there is no more a sacrifice in reserve (10: 26); but that is another matter. His position, speaking generally, is that in Christ and His death we have a priest and a sacrifice capable of dealing effectively with sin as the barrier between God and man, and actually dealing with it in such a way that in despite of it God has a worshipping people among sinful men.
Can we, now, get any way under the surface here? Sacrifice is not a familiar nor a self-interpreting idea to us, whatever it may have been to the author and to those whom he addressed; can we penetrate or explain it at all, so as to make intelligible to ourselves any relation which the death of Christ had to sin, or to the will of God in regard to sin?
Sometimes the attempt is made to do this by looking immediately at the effect of Christ’s work in the souls of men, and deducing its relation to sin, as a secondary thing, from this. The epistle, of course, does not ignore the effect of Christ and His sacrifice upon men: it has, indeed, a variety of words to describe it. Sometimes the word employed is ἁγιάζειν (to sanctify). The priestly Christ and His people are He who sanctifies, and they who are sanctified (2:11). Christians have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all (10:10). By one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified (10:14). It was Christ’s object in dying to sanctify the people through His own blood (13:12). There has been much discussion as to what sanctification in such passages means, and especially as to whether the word is to be taken in a religious or an ethical sense. Probably the distinction would not have been clear to the writer; but one thing is certain, it is not to be taken in the sense of Protestant theology. The people were sanctified, not when they were raised to moral perfection — a conception utterly strange to the New Testament as to the Old — but when, through the annulling of their sin by sacrifice, they had been constituted into a people of God, and in the person of their representative had access to His presence. The word ἁγιάζειν in short, in the Epistle to the Hebrews, corresponds as nearly as possible to the Pauline δικαιοῦν; the sanctification of the one writer is the justification of the other; and the προσαγωγή or access to God, which St. Paul emphasizes as the primary blessing of justification (Romans 5:2 and Ephesians 2:18, 3:12), appears everywhere in Hebrews as the primary religious act of drawing near, to God through the great High Priest (4:16, 7:19-25 and 10:22). It seems fair then to argue that the immediate effect of Christ’s death upon men is religious rather than ethical; in technical language, it alters their relation to God, or is conceived as doing so, rather than their character. Their character, too, alters eventually, but it is on the basis of that initial and primary religious change; the religious change is not a result of the moral one, nor an unreal abstraction from it.
A similar result follows if we consider another of the words used to explain the effect of Christ’s priestly and sacrificial work upon men — the word τελειοῦν, rendered ‘to make perfect.’ It is widely used in the epistle in other connections. Christ Himself was made perfect through sufferings (2:10); that is, He was made all that a high priest, or a captain of salvation, ought to be. It does not mean that suffering cured Him of moral faults; but that apart from suffering and what He learned in it He would not have been completely fitted for His character of representing, and succoring, mortal men. So again when we read, the law made nothing perfect (7:19); the meaning is, that under the ancient religion of Israel nothing reached the ideal. The sanctuary was a worldly or material sanctuary (9:1); the priests were sinful mortal men, ever passing on their unsatisfactory functions to their successors (7:23); the sacrifices were of irrational creatures — the blood of bulls and goats, which could never make the worshipper perfect as touching the conscience (9:9); that is, they could never completely lift the load from within, and give him παῤῥησία and joy in the presence of God; the access to the holiest of all was not abiding; as represented in the High Priestly ministry of the day of atonement, the way to God was open only for a moment, and then shut again (9: 7f.). There was nothing perfect there, nothing in that religious constitution which could be described as τέλειον or αἰώνιον. But with Christ, all this is changed. By one offering He has perfected for ever those who are being sanctified (10:14). The word cannot mean that He has made them sinless, in the sense of having freed them completely from all the power of sin, from every trace of its presence; it means obviously that He has put them into the ideal religious relation to God. Because of His one offering, their sin no longer comes between them and God in the very least; it does not exclude them from His presence or intimidate them; they come with boldness to the throne of grace; they draw near with a true heart and in full assurance of faith; they have an ideal, an unimpeachable standing before God as His people (4:16 and 10:22). In Pauline language, there is now no condemnation; instead of standing afar off, in fear and trembling, they have access to the Father; they joy in God through the Lord Jesus Christ, through whom they have received the atonement (Romans 8:1, 5:2-11).
Once more, if we examine the passage in which the verb καθαρίζειν is used to express the result of Christ’s work in relation to man, we shall be led to the same conclusion. It is in 9:14, and occurs in the sentence contrasting the efficacy of the ancient sacrifices with that of the sacrifice of Christ. ‘For if the blood of goats and bulls and ashes of a heifer sprinkling the defiled sanctifies to the purification of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through eternal spirit offered Himself without spot to God, purify your conscience from dead works to serve the living God.’ The Old Testament sacrifices had an outward efficacy; they removed such defilements as excluded a man from the communion of Israel with God in its national worship. The New Testament sacrifice has an inward efficacy; it really reaches to the conscience, and it puts the man in a position to offer religious service (λατρεύειν) to a living God. In some way it neutralizes or annuls sin so that religious approach to God is possible in spite of it.
The examination of these words justifies us in drawing one conclusion. The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews does not conceive of a regenerating, or, in the modern sense of the term, sanctifying, effect of Christ’s death upon the soul as immediate or primary. He does not conceive it as directly emancipating the soul from sin, as an immoral power operative in it; nor does he regard this experience of emancipation as the only reality with which we have to deal. It is a reality, but it is an effect, and an effect to be traced to a cause. That cause is not simply Christ’s death; it is Christ’s death as a reality capable of being so interpreted as to yield the rational explanation of such an effect. It is often argued that the idea of an antecedent relation of Christ’s death to sin — antecedent, that is, to the emancipation of the soul from sin’s power — is essentially unreal, nothing more than the caput mortuum of this great experience. This is certainly not the view of the writer to the Hebrews. On the contrary, he has, like St. Paul and others to whom reference has been, and will yet be made, the conception of a finished work of Christ, a work finished in His death, something done in regard to sin once for all, whether any given soul responds to it or not. As he puts it at the beginning of the epistle, He made purgation of sins — the thing was done — before He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in the Heavens. As he puts it later, He has offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, and by the one offering He has brought for ever into the perfect relation to God those who are being sanctified. And though the epistle does not use the once familiar language about the risen Savior pleading the merits of His sacrifice, it does undoubtedly represent this sacrifice, offered through eternal spirit, as the basis on which the eternal priesthood of Christ is exercised, and the sinner’s access to God assured. Now, a finished work of Christ and an objective atonement are the same thing, and the question once more presents itself, What is it, in Christ’s death, which gives it its atoning power? Why is it that, on the ground of this death, God, with whom evil cannot dwell, allows sinners unimpeded, joyful, assured access to Himself, and constitutes them a people of His own?
It is possible to answer this question too vaguely. It is too vague an answer when we look away from Christ’s death, and its specific relation to sin, and emphasize broadly Christ’s identification of Himself with us as laying the basis for our identification of ourselves with Him, in which acceptance with God is secured. No doubt the epistle does give prominence to Christ’s identification of Himself with those whose priest He is to become. He who sanctifies and they who are being sanctified — He who constitutes others into a people of God, and they who are so constituted — are all of one (2:11). He is not ashamed to call them brothers. He takes their nature on Him, becoming with them a partaker of flesh and blood (2:14). He takes their experience to Himself, being tempted in all things like as they are (4:15). Even in death He does not stand aloof from them; He dies because they have to die; He dies that through death He may destroy him who has the power of death, and free them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage (2: 14). But all this, not excepting the death itself in this aspect, belongs, from the point of view of the epistle, rather to the preparation for priesthood than to the discharge of priestly functions. The priest must undoubtedly be kindred to the people for whom he acts; he must know their nature and life; he must be taught by experience like theirs to have compassion on the ignorant and erring; nay, he must have sounded the tragic depths of mortal fear if he is to bring weak, sinful, dying men to God. All this Christ has done. He has qualified Himself by the immeasurable condescension of the Incarnation and the life in the flesh to be all that a priest should be. But when we come to the supreme act of His priesthood, the offering of Himself to God in death, the entering into the holiest of all through His own blood, the question recurs: What is it which gives this in particular its efficacy in regard to sin?
The one hint of an answer to this question offered by the epistle itself is that which we find in the words of 9:14: ‘Christ who through eternal spirit offered Himself without spot to God.’ The sinlessness of Jesus entered into the Atonement: only one who knew no sin could take any responsibility in regard to it which would create a new situation for sinners. But more important even than this is the suggestion contained in the words ‘through eternal spirit.’ This is not the same as through ‘indissoluble life’ (7:16), as though the idea were that the life offered to God on the Cross was one which death could not hold, but was rather by death ‘liberated’ and ‘made available’ for others. Neither is it the same as ‘through His divine nature,’ as though the idea were that the divine nature or the divine personality through which Christ surrendered His human life to God gave the sacrifice an immeasurable value. These are forms of words rather than forms of thought, and it is difficult to attach to them any intelligible or realizable meaning. If we follow the line of thought suggested by the use of aijw>niov (eternal) in other passages of the epistle, we shall rather say that what is meant here is that Christ’s offering of Himself without spot to God had an absolute or ideal character; it was something beyond which nothing could be, or could be conceived to be, as a response to God’s mind and requirements in relation to sin. It was the final response, a spiritual response, to the divine necessities of the situation. Something of what is included in this may be suggested by the contrast which is here drawn in the epistle between Christ’s offering of Himself through eternal spirit and the sacrifices of the Old Testament. As opposed to these, His sacrifice was rational and voluntary, an intelligent and loving response to the holy and gracious will of God, and to the terrible situation of man. But what we wish to understand is why the holy and gracious will of God, and the terrible situation of man, demanded and were satisfied by this particular response of Christ’s death, and not by anything else.
So far as I can see, there is no explanation of this whatever, unless we can assume that the author shared the view of St. Paul and of primitive Christianity generally, that sin and death were so related to one another — were in some sense, indeed, so completely one — that no one could undertake the responsibility of sin who did not at the same time submit to death. As has been already said, it is not necessary to suppose that this relation of sin and death was established arbitrarily; if it existed for the human conscience, as part of the actual order of the world, the situation would be before us which required Christ to die in order to take really upon Him our responsibility in this relation. That it does thus exist, the New Testament elsewhere, and something in human experience as well, combine to prove; and that the writer to the Hebrews was conscious of this is shown by the fact that he, like other New Testament writers, makes the death of Christ the very thing by which sin is annulled as a power barring man’s approach to God. His idea is not that Christ by His death, or in virtue of it, acts immediately upon the sinful soul, turning it into a righteous one, and in that sense annulling sin; it is rather that sin is annulled and, in its character as that which shuts man out from God’s presence and makes worship impossible, ceases to be, through the once for all accomplished sacrifice of Christ. And though his dominant thought may be said to be that Christ by His death removes sin, as an obstacle standing in our path bears it away, so that it blocks our road to God no longer — still He does not do this except by dying; in other words, He bears sin away because He bears it; He removes the responsibility of it from us because He takes it upon Himself.
The connection of ideas which is here suggested is often controverted by appeal to the passage at the beginning of the tenth chapter. There the writer is contrasting the sacrifices of the old covenant with that of the new. ‘The law,’ he says, ‘having a shadow of the good things to come, not the very image of the things, could never with the same sacrifices which they offer year by year continually make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise would they not have ceased to be offered, owing to the worshippers, having been once purged, having no longer conscience of sins? So far from this being the case, sins are brought to mind in them year by year. It is impossible for blood of bulls and goats to remove them. Accordingly, at His entrance into the world, He says, “Sacrifice and offering Thou didst not desire, but a body didst Thou prepare for me. In whole burnt offerings and offerings for sin Thou hadst no pleasure.” Then I said, “Behold I come; in the volume of the Book it is written concerning Me; to do Thy will, O God.” Above, in saying “sacrifices and offerings, and whole burnt offerings, and offerings for sin Thou didst not desire nor take pleasure in” — that is, God had no delight in such sacrifices as are offered according to the law — then His Word stands, “Lo, I come to do Thy will.” He removes the first to establish the second.’ This passage is often read as if it signified that sacrifice was abolished in favor of obedience, and the inference is drawn that no use can be made of the conception of sacrifice in the interpretation of Christ’s death, or as it is sometimes put, that no significance can be assigned to His death which does not belong equally to every part of His life. His obedience is what atones, and His obedience is the same from first to last. But to argue thus is to ignore the very words with which the writer proceeds: ‘in which will— that is, the will of God which Christ came to do — we have been sanctified, i.e. constituted a worshipping people of God, through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.’ We cannot here, any more than in other passages of the New Testament, make the original sense of Old Testament words a key to their meaning when they are quoted in the New. What is contrasted in this passage is not sacrifice and obedience, but sacrifice of dumb creatures, of bulls and goats and such like, with sacrifice into which obedience enters, the sacrifice of a rational and spiritual being, which is not passive in death, but in dying makes the will of God its own. The will of God, with which we are here concerned, is not satisfied by an obedience which comes short of death. For it is not merely the preceptive will of God, His will that men should do right and live according to His holy law, which Christ came to fulfill; it is His gracious will, a will which has it in view that sinful men should be constituted into a people to Himself, a will which has resolved that their sin should be so dealt with as no longer to keep them at a distance from Him; a will, in short, that sinners should find a standing in His sight. And in that will we are sanctified, not merely by Christ’s fulfillment of the law of God as it is binding on man in general, but by His fulfillment of the law as it is binding on sinful men, by His obedient suffering of death as that in which God’s mind in relation to sin finds its final expression, to use the words of the writer himself, ‘through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.’ There is an ambiguity in saying that obedience is the principle of the atonement, or its spiritual principle, or that which gives the work of Christ its value.6161Cf. Non mors sed voluntas placuit sponte morientis (Bernard). It is no doubt true to say so, but after we have said so the essential question remains — that question the answer to which must show whether, when we say ‘obedience, ’ we have seen any way into the secret of the Atonement: viz. obedience to what? It is not enough to say, Obedience to the will of God; for the will of God is one thing when we think of man abstractly, another when we think of man under the definite conditions produced by sin. It is one thing when we conceive of it as an imperative will, having relation only to man as God’s creature; it is another when we conceive it as a redeeming, restorative, gracious will, of which the human race is in reality the object, not the subject, the subject by whom the will is carried out being Christ. In both cases, of course, obedience, the free fulfillment of the divine will, is that which has moral value. But just because, in both cases, the attitude of the human will is for many the same — just because we can say ‘obedience,’ whether we are thinking of God’s will generally, or thinking of it as a will specially directed to the redemption of the sinful — just for this reason it is inadequate, ambiguous, and misleading to speak of obedience as the principle of the Atonement. Christ’s obedience is not merely that which is required of all men, it is that which is required of a Redeemer; and it is its peculiar content, not the mere fact that it is obedience, which constitutes it an atonement. He had a moral vocation, of course; but it was not this — and this is all that obedience means — which made Him a Redeemer: it was something unique in His vocation, something that pertained to Him alone. Christ did not come into the world to be a good man: it was not for this that a body was prepared for Him. He came to be a great High Priest, and the body was prepared for Him that by the offering of it He might put sinful men for ever into the perfect religious relation to God.
In determining the meaning of obedience, and of the will of God, in this passage, we touch the quick of the great question about the relations of Incarnation and Atonement. If we have read it correctly, it confirms what has been already said about the ideal priority of the latter. It is the Atonement which explains the Incarnation: the Incarnation takes place in order that the sin of the world may be put away by the offering of the body of Jesus Christ. The obedience of the Incarnate One, like all obedience, has moral value — that is, it has a value for Himself; but its redemptive value, i.e. its value for us, belongs to it not simply as obedience, but as obedience to a will of God which requires the Redeemer to take upon Himself in death the responsibility of the sin of the world. That this is done obediently implies that in dying the Son of God acknowledges the justice of God in connecting death and sin, as they are connected for the human conscience; He does right, as it has been put, by the divine law which is expressed in that connection. And in doing so He does perfectly, and therefore finally and once for all, something through which sinful men can enter into fellowship with God. He lays the basis of the new covenant; He does what sinners can look to as a finished work; He makes an objective atonement for sin — exactly what St. Paul describes as καταλλαγή or reconciliation. There is peace now between God and man; we can draw near to the Holy One.
The Epistle to the Hebrews does not make as clear to us as the Pauline epistles how it is that Christ’s death becomes effective for men. The author was not an evangelist so much as a pastor, and it is not the initiation of Christianity but its conservation with which he deals throughout. But the answer to the question is involved in the conception of Christ as Priest. The priest is a person who acts as the representative of a people: he does something which it properly falls to them to do, but which they cannot do for themselves; by God’s grace he does it, and on the strength of it they draw near to God. The epistle lays great stress on the fact that Christ has identified Himself with man; in substance, therefore, it may be said, His work must be appropriated by men’s identifying themselves with Him. The writer never uses the Pauline expression ‘in Christ’ to express this identification or its result; he has the vaguer conception of being ‘partakers of Christ,’ μέτοχοι τοῦ Χριστοῦ, which so far answers to it (3:14, cf. 3:1, 4:4 and 12:8). Christ is not represented, as He is by St. Paul, as the object of faith; He is rather the great exemplar of faith. Yet He is the object of the Christian confession, both as apostle and High Priest (3:1); it is to those who obey Him that He is the author of eternal salvation (5:9); and He is the center to which the eyes and hearts of Christians are steadily directed. It does not, therefore, exhaust the meaning of the writer to say that He is our representative, and that He does nothing for us which it is not for us to do over again. It is true that He is our representative; but He not only acts in our name, and in our interest; in His action He does something for us which we could never have done for ourselves, and which does not need to be done over again; He achieves something which we can look to as a finished work, and in which we can find the basis of a sure confidence toward God. He achieves, in short, ‘purgation of sins’ (1:3). This is the evangelical truth which is covered by the word ‘substitute,’ and which is not covered by the word ‘representative’; and it is the consciousness of this truth that makes the Evangelical Church sensitive and even jealous of a too free and easy use of the ideas that Christ becomes one with us in all things, and we in all things one with Him. There is an immense qualification to be made in this oneness on both sides — Christ does not commit sin, and we do not make atonement. The working in us of the mind of Christ toward sin, which presumably is what is meant by our identification with Him in His death, is not the making of atonement, nor the basis of our reconciliation to God; it is the fruit of the Atonement, which is Christ’s finished work. Seeberg’s elaborate essay on the death of Christ in Hebrews is an admirable illustration of the confusion which results from the hazy use of words like ‘identification,’ Zusammenschluss, etc., or the idea (to call it an idea) that Christ and the Christian are one person, and that this is what makes access to God and forgiveness of sins possible. It leads to expressions like this: ‘Forgiveness of sins therefore presupposes that the life of him who has experience of it comes to have the standing of a life which has passed sinless through death.’6262Der Tod Christi, p. 92 f. The forgiveness of sins may come to this in the end; it may beget a life which shares in Christ’s victory over sin and death; but it is surely a subversion of the very idea of forgiveness to say that it presupposes it. A life that has passed sinless through death, whatever else it may know, knows nothing of forgiveness; and therefore forgiven, whatever it may be, is not a participation in any part of such a life’s experience, whether by the method of ‘identification’ or by any other. Or again, from another side, the hazy use of such language leads to utterances like this: ‘The thing Christ has done (die Leistung Christi), though it has not been done by the sinner, is yet a thing which he might or would fain have done, and is therefore in principle his doing.’6363Ibid. p. 99. This is not wrestling with mysteries, or sounding great deeps; it is trifling with words, or trying to say ‘Yes and No’ in the same breath. Let the passion of Christ draw us to the utmost to share in His mind toward God and toward sin, and the fact remains that its power to do so is dependent on the clear recognition of the truth that Christ did something for us in His death which we could not do for ourselves, and which we do not need to do after Him. By His one offering He put us for ever in the perfect relation to God. This is the vital point in Christianity, and to deny the debt to Christ at this point is eventually to deny it altogether. The process which starts with rejecting the objective Atonement — in other words, the finished work: of Christ and the eternal dependence on Him and obligation to Him which this involves — has its inevitable and natural issue in the denial that Christ has any essential place in the Gospel. We can only assent to such a view by renouncing the New Testament as a whole.
Although faith is not defined in the epistle directly by relation to Christ, it is nevertheless faith which saves (10:22, 38 f.., 13:7), and the well-known description or definition in the eleventh chapter can easily be applied in the Christian religion. Faith is there said to be the assurance of things hoped for, the proof of things not seen (11:1). It is to the invisible world what sight is to the visible; it is the means of realizing it, so that its powers and motives enter into the life of men, and enable them after patient endurance and fulfillment of God’s will to inherit the promises. What, then, is the unseen world which is realized by Christian faith? It is a world in which Christ holds the central place, and in which, in the virtue of that death in which He made purgation of sins, He appears perpetually in the presence of God on our behalf. It is a world in which everything is dominated by the figure of the great High Priest, at the right hand of the Majesty in the Heavens, clothed in our nature, compassionate to our infirmities, able to save to the uttermost, sending timely succor to those who are in peril, pleading our cause. It is this which faith sees, this to which it clings as the divine reality behind and beyond all that passes, all that tries, daunts, or discourages the soul; it is this in which it finds the ens realissimum, the very truth of things, all that we mean when we speak of God. It is holding fast to the eternal realities revealed in Christ, and not some indefinable ‘identification’ with Him, on which all that is Christian depends. And it is this, more than anything, which, in spite of differences of form, makes the writer akin to St. Paul. For he too builds everything on Jesus Christ, crucified and exalted.
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