Monthly Archives: March 2012

Hebrews 1: Superior to Angels

As I think back to growing up in Canada, I can only remember one or two visits from the Queen of England, the figurehead of Canada, a part of the British Commonwealth.  Those were big occasions.  Life stopped and people fell over themselves to give her honor.  Much more frequent were visits from her family members.  Early on, before he fell out of popularity, Prince Charles would visit.  When he took a beautiful, charming bride named Diana, they visited several times, to huge crowds as well.  Last year, the Queen’s grandson William’s and his stunning bride Kate’s first official royal visit as a couple was to Canada.  This was a great honor and they were greeted with open arms and much love.

When British political leaders would visit Canada, though, I don’t remember much pomp and circumstance.  There is a British ambassador to Canada but nobody makes a big deal out of him.  Most Canadian don’t even know who he or she is.

If you are the king or queen, you are deserving of the highest honor.  If you are the child of the king, great honor is given as well.  Servants of the king just aren’t as highly esteemed.

It would seem odd to run off from a parade for William and Kate to a dinner for a British parliamentarian.  When you can get the grandson why settle for a subject?

The author of Hebrews would most certainly agree.  There was a strain of first century Judaism that emphasized angels, maybe even to the point of veneration.  It would appear the Hebrew Christians came from this background.  To them the author asked:

For to which angel did God ever say, “You are my son; today I became your father?”  Or, again, “I will be his father, and he will be my son?” (1:5)

But he did say this to Jesus, one who is superior to angels in every way.  So why trade Jesus for angels?

"Let all God's angels worship him." (1:6)

As we begin Hebrews, ask yourself what “lesser things” sometimes supplant Jesus as the Lord of our life?

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BONUS: An Introduction to Hebrews

As we start Hebrews today it might be good to take just a moment to survey the basic background of this great letter.  As we start a new genre of biblical literature — letters — it is wise to remember they were always written to address a particular situation in the life of first century Christians.

Who wrote Hebrews?  We simply do not know.  Unlike the standard practice in first century AD letters, the author does not identify himself or herself.  Those who study these letters in the original Greek are confident that Paul did not write Hebrews.  Compared side by side, Hebrews is not Paul’s kind of writing.  Barnabas, Luke, Clement of Rome, Apollos, Silas, Timothy, Epaphras, and Philip have all been offered as possibilities, none conclusively.  You know what they say: “anonymous was a woman.”  Thus, both Priscilla and Mary the mother of Jesus have also been put forward.  The church father Origen probably said it best: “But who wrote the epistle, in truth God knows.”

To whom was Hebrews written?  Hebrews is specific enough to suggest a particular group was being addressed.  Given the intensely Jewish flavor of the book, the recipients were certainly Jewish Christians, maybe even living in Palestine or even Jerusalem, but as Judaism had spread throughout the Roman Empire by the first century AD they could be anywhere, even Rome itself.

What caused Hebrews to be written?  This question is the easiest to answer and the one for which there is the greatest consensus.  It is clear that these Christians have come from a rich Jewish religious background with its emphasis on law, priests, sacrifices, and the like.  First century AD Judaism was very black and white; do certain rituals and get predictable, desired results.  The Jewish Christians addressed in Hebrews have come from this background but now they are struggling with the freedom that grace brings.  Without the regular routines and actions of their past Judaism they are left to trust in an invisible God to save them by the one-time sacrifice of Jesus in an invisible spiritual realm.  The metaphysical nature of this new religion seems not to have been giving them the same surety and confidence they felt when their duty was law-observance.  They were tempted to give up on Jesus and his Way of faith and grace.  They were contemplating a return to the tangible Judaism of their youth.  The Hebrews author will make case after case that Jesus is superior to anything they might return to.

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Bravo! We are making good progress!

Today we come the beginning of a new month and the end of our second book.  Good job everybody!  In fact, we are finishing the longest book in the New Testament.  I have thoroughly enjoyed the back-to-back narratives of Mark then Acts.  Tomorrow we are on to a new genre entirely — letters — and that ought to be interesting!  These letter sections will go much faster.  By the end of March we will have finished three of them: Hebrews, Galatians, and James.  Three great ones!

Don’t miss today’s post from Acts 28 below.

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Acts 28: What Will You Do With Paul?

Luke has been following Paul’s judicial proceedings for many chapters, often with tremendous detail.  Why do we just end with Paul in house arrest for two years in Rome awaiting trial?  We need more closure than that.  Was Paul exonerated?  Did Jews show up from Jerusalem to plead their side of the case and did it go south for Paul?  Was Paul released and freed to go to Spain to preach the gospel as he so desired?  Was Paul killed in Rome for some charge brought against him successfully?  We are simply left to wonder.

Scholars have taken up the question and posited many a theory.  Here are a few:

  1. Acts was intended by Luke to be a legal defense for Paul before the Roman court, thus it had to be completed without these answers.
  2. Things did not turn out well for Paul and it didn’t fit the kind of ending Luke wanted to have so he left these details out.
  3. Luke was forced by sickness, jail, or traveling to finish his account abruptly.  Maybe a protegé of Luke finalized the letter quickly after Luke’s unexpected death.
  4. Acts starts with the word “first” (1:1), so maybe Acts was the first volume of two or more intended books about the gospel and the early apostles, but we do not have the later volume(s) or it/they were never written.
  5. The favorite theory amongst conservative scholars (and the one I like) is that Acts does end in the most appropriate way theologically, even if not historically.  Paul is not the focus of Luke’s book, the gospel is.  Luke starts in 1:8 with a charge from Jesus to take the gospel from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, to the “very ends of the earth,” a place like Rome.  Thus, Acts ends with the gospel being preached in Rome with great freedom and acceptance, especially amongst the Gentiles.  Luke would have felt like this was a very fitting ending, so the argument goes.

This is now the second book in a row where we come to an abrupt, seemingly incomplete ending.  We saw the same thing at the end of Mark.  We saw there that Mark seemed to be leaving the reader with the question, “What will you do with Jesus?”  Let’s take that same approach here in Acts, just to experiment again.

Maybe Luke wants to leave us with these questions: “What will you do with Paul?  What will you do with a gospel that is open to all?  What will you do with a church that includes Jews but also Gentiles who are much more receptive to the Gospel?”

Back then, some would have said Paul is a heretic who has hijacked this restored Judaism and perverted into an ecumenical, watered-down movement of grace and acceptance to all.  Some would have said Paul has got it exactly right; come join a “new Israel,” no longer defined by race.  Some would be quick to write off the Jews because they had their chance.  Some would like to muzzle Paul or even kill him.

Interestingly, people say the same things about Paul and other more modern religious thinkers today who say similar things, don’t they?  Give me Jesus, but you can keep your Paul.

The question for us, though, as we end this great book of Acts is the same question Caesar will have to answer: “What should I do with Paul?”

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