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Jul 16, 2020

Hebrews: A Catechism in Miniature

Dr. Andrew Swafford

Amazingly, the letter to the Hebrews offers an early summary of the entire Christian faith; it’s like a little catechism, stemming from the earliest generation of Christians.

When Was It Written?

Hebrews gives every indication that it was written before AD 70, that is, before the Romans destroyed the ancient Jerusalem Temple—an event that signals the definitive giving way of the Old Covenant and the ushering in of the New (see CCC 586). For ancient Jews, the Temple was like having the Vatican, the White House, Wall Street, and the Supreme Court all wrapped into one! For all practical purposes, the Temple was the world for ancient Jews. The Temple was understood as a microcosm of creation, a kind of recapitulation and return to Eden; and it embodied the Old Covenant, particularly with reference to the Levitical sacrifices and priesthood, the very aspects of the Old Covenant that give way in Christ. 

For all these reasons, both Jesus’ death and the destruction of the Temple in AD 70 mark the end of the old world, the end of the old creation and the ushering in of the new. One can feel the force of this by taking seriously the words of St. Paul:

“If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.”  

2 Corinthians 5:17

The reason Hebrews is clearly written before AD 70 is that it speaks of sacrifices as still on-going in the present (see Hebrews 10:11), something obviously no longer the case after the Temple is destroyed. In Hebrews, the destruction of the Temple is clearly imminent (as prophesied by Jesus) but has not yet occurred:

“In speaking of a new covenant he treats the first as obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.”

Hebrews 8:13

Hebrews, then, is an early witness to the Faith of the first generation of Christians—exhibiting the Faith of the people who knew the apostles and their close associates. The manner in which they distill the essentials of the Christian Faith clearly traces back to Jesus himself. For this reason, it is incredibly powerful to see how the faith of these earliest followers of Jesus aligns so closely with what we believe as Catholics today.

Who Is Jesus?

We recite in the Nicene Creed at Mass that Jesus is “true God from true God, begotten not made.” The reason for this language is to insist that Jesus is not a creature—he is the true Divine Son, the Eternal Son; when it comes to the Creator-creature divide, Jesus is on the Creator side of things. Indeed, salvation is made possible precisely because Jesus is true God and true man; Jesus is the “way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6) in that he is the true bridge between humanity and divinity.

This is the teaching of Hebrews. Jesus is the fullness of revelation of God—the fullness of God’s Word to us; he is the agent of creation, sharing in the Creator’s very nature: 

“In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets [i.e., partially]; but in these last days, he has spoken to us [fully] by a Sonthrough whom also he created the ages. He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power.”

Hebrews 1:1-3

Jesus, the Eternal Son, “made purification for sins” on the Cross and now in his resurrection and ascension is exalted “at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Hebrews 1:3). 

But Jesus isn’t just divine, as if he couldn’t relate to us. The ancient author of Hebrews meditates briefly upon Jesus’ Agony in the Garden, an episode in the Gospels where his full humanity is on display. Alluding to this scene from the Gospels, Hebrews states:

“In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard for his godly fear.” 

Hebrews 5:7

While Jesus is the eternal and divine Son, he fully entered into our humanity. Jesus is true God and true man; accordingly, Jesus truly hungered, wept, suffered, and died. As is apparent here in Hebrews’ reflection upon the Agony in the Garden, wherever we are, Jesus was there first. As true man, he enters fully into our plight; as true God, Jesus takes sin and death out at its root, bringing us into divine glory.

This is the ancient and apostolic Faith, the very same we profess every Sunday at Mass.

Priesthood and the Eucharist

Hebrews gives explicit answer to what on the surface could be a vexing biblical question: how can Jesus be a priest, since he is not of the tribe of Levi? Hebrews actually recognizes this difficulty:

“For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests.”

Hebrews 7:14

As Hebrews 7 explains at length, Jesus is a priest not according to the order of Levi, but according to the order of Melchizedek.

What’s fascinating is how Melchizedek—though he doesn’t appear often in the Bible—shows up in the context of Abraham (Genesis 14) and David (Psalm 110). And the covenants associated with these two figures form the most important backdrop for the New Covenant. That is, the New Covenant fulfills the Abrahamic and the Davidic, while the post-golden calf Mosaic Covenant (i.e., Leviticus and Deuteronomy) ultimately ends in Christ. Hence, it’s quite fitting that Jesus’ priesthood traces back to Melchizedek, echoing both the Abrahamic and Davidic foundations of the New Covenant.

In Genesis 14, Melchizedek famously offers a sacrifice of “bread and wine,” an offering long seen by Christian tradition as foreshadowing the Eucharist. 

And in the Davidic period, a particular sacrifice gains paramount importance—namely, the “thank offering” (the todah). While the todah was mentioned in Leviticus 7, it’s only in the Davidic period (particularly in the Psalms) that it becomes center stage. Intriguingly, the Passover itself seems to have links to the todah. For the todah sacrifice was typically offered after some kind of deliverance from suffering, either individually or corporately, generally following a typical pattern: the person cries out in suffering or distress; they are delivered by God; then the person remembers this act of salvation and gives thanks by offering the todah sacrifice (the thank offering). This is exactly the pattern of the Passover, especially as celebrated after the original Exodus deliverance: the people were suffering in bondage; they cried out; the Lord delivered them; and now they remember and give thanks by celebrating the Passover.

This is background for the term “Eucharist.” For if you translate todah from Hebrew into Greek, you get eucharistia—which means “thanksgiving!” The Eucharist, as the New Covenant Passover, clearly has links to the ancient todah—which happens to be the only sacrifice in which the worshipper ate of the sacrifice.

Glorified and Risen Humanity

Jesus, of course, institutes the Eucharist at the Last Supper, giving the apostles the command to “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19; see also 1 Corinthians 11:25). Traditionally, this command of Jesus institutes not only the Eucharist, but the priesthood as well. The apostles (and their successors) will continue to offer Jesus’ one sacrifice, making present Jesus’ self-offering to the Father and allowing Christians of every generation to “remember” and enter into this salvation. The Liturgy, most especially the Eucharist, makes present Christ’s past act of salvation on the Cross—enabling us to receive and appropriate for ourselves the salvific efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice. 

And this then makes sense of Hebrews 8:3, which speaks of Jesus continuing to have something to offer. Here is the whole passage:

“Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of Majesty in heaven, a minister in the sanctuary and the true tent which is set up not by man, but by the Lord [i.e., heavenly sanctuary, not earthly]. For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; hence it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer.”

Hebrews 8:1-3

What does Jesus continue to offer?

Jesus continues to offer himself through the New Covenant priesthood and the sacrifice of the Eucharist. Jesus is the one priest—all priesthood participates in and makes present his priesthood; Jesus continues his priesthood through the ordained priest. Similarly, Jesus died once and for all—and the Eucharist makes present his one sacrifice through his glorified and risen humanity.

Communion of Saints

In the New Covenant, death does not sever our union with Christ, nor does it sever our union with one another. 

Hebrews 11 takes us through the Old Testament “hall of fame,” of sorts. And then Hebrews 12 immediately concludes, stating that “we are surrounded” by this “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1). The Greek word for “witness” here is martus, a reference to the Old Testament heroes of the previous chapter whose witness came at the price of their very lives (e.g., Hebrews 11:37: “They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword”).

The implication in Hebrews 12:1 is definitely not that the faithful departed are oblivious to what’s happening on earth, but rather that they surround us—they share communion with us.

This comes out in a pronounced way liturgically in Hebrews; for in the heavenly liturgy of the Eucharist, all the angels and saints gather with us around the glorified sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Notice in the following passage how Hebrews emphatically insists that the “spiritsof the faithful departed are present with us

“You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and … to the spirits of just men made perfect.”

Hebrews 12:22-23

This last phrase (“spirits of just men made perfect”) is clearly an allusion back to the Old Testament heroes of chapter 11, the very end of which says this:

“And all these [the OT heroes], though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.”

Hebrews 11:39-40

Going from the Old to the New, we move from the earthly to the heavenly—from the earthly liturgy which imitates that of heaven, to the New Covenant liturgy which participates in the worship of heaven. In this transition, we move from covenantal union among the living on earth, to a communion rooted in Christ which transcends death: for anyone united to Jesus remains united to one another and this union is not severed by death.

In all these ways, it is remarkable to see that the Catholic Faith we profess today is in fact the very same as that proclaimed by the apostles. The letter to the Hebrews is an early and compelling witness to this fact.

May our study of the Bible help us better see the biblical foundations of our Catholic and apostolic faith. And may this embolden our conviction of the living reality of the Risen Jesus in our midst.

The depiction in Hebrews of the angels and saints present with us liturgically is in fact the very reality we experience at every Mass. 

Do we realize the glory before us in every Eucharistic celebration?

Discover more about the Letter to the Hebrews, including the new study by Dr. Swafford and Jef Cavins:

Hebrews: The New and Eternal Covenant [Study Program]

Hebrews: The Heavenly Grandeur of the New Covenant [All Things Catholic Podcast with Dr. Andrew Swafford]

Can I Be ‘Spiritual, Not Religious’? (Answers from Hebrews)

How the Mass Finds Its Roots in the Bible [Dr. Swafford Video]

DrAndrew Swafford is associate professor of theology at Benedictine College. He is general editor and contributor to The Great Adventure Catholic Bible published by Ascension, presenter of the Bible study Romans: The Gospel of Salvation (and author of the companion book), also by Ascension, and presenter of Hebrews: The New and Eternal Covenant Bible study . Andrew is author of Nature and GraceJohn Paul II to Aristotle and Back Again, and Spiritual Survival in the Modern World. He holds a doctorate in sacred theology from the University of St. Mary of the Lake and a master’s degree in Old Testament & Semitic Languages from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is member of the Society of Biblical Literature, Academy of Catholic Theology, and a senior fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. He lives with his wife Sarah and their five children in Atchison, Kansas. Follow him on Twitter: @andrew_swafford.

Featured image sourced from Wikimedia Commons {{PD-US-expired}}

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