Prophet, Priest, and King in Hebrews 1

The Letter to the Hebrews wants us to understand Jesus in light of the Old Testament. And in the letter’s opening chapter we find the well-known trifecta of prophet-priest-king.

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world (Heb. 1:1-2).

Jesus is God’s climactic revelation, the end of a line of prophets whose mouths declared the words of God. He is Prophet.

After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs (Heb. 1:3b-4).

Jesus is the mediator between sinners and his heavenly Father. He alone made purification for sins. He is Priest.

But of the Son he says, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom” (Heb. 1:8).

Christ will reign forever. The “throne” and “scepter” and “kingdom” are all royal terms. He is King.

Christ is Prophet, Priest, and King. Hebrews 1 teaches us even more than that, but those ideas are a great start!

The Gospel for the Weary

Over on Mike Leake’s blog “Borrowed Light,” I’ve written a guest post about how the weary need the gospel.

Excerpt:

As you run, you will notice footprints along the way. This direction is one which Abel, Enoch, and Noah traveled (Heb 11:4-7). Abraham and Sarah walked it (11:8-19). It was the route Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph took (11:20-22). Moses and Rahab preferred it, no matter the cost (11:23-31). Countless others staked their lives on this promised road, leaving their example of faith and devotion (11:32-40). Their stories are their footprints. Their lives comprise a cloud, and you are surrounded by it.

Mount Sinai and Mount Zion in Hebrews 12:18-24

I agree with the scholars who see (in Heb 12:18-24) seven images reflecting Mount Sinai that are then contrasted with seven images reflecting Mount Zion. Here’s how that breaks down.

“For you have not come to
(1) what may be touched,
(2) a blazing fire
(3) and darkness
(4) and gloom
(5) and a tempest
(6) and the sound of a trumpet
(7) and a voice whose words made the hears beg that no further messages be spoken to them” (Heb 12:18-19).

Then a few verses later, “But you have come to
(1) Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem,
(2) and to innumerable angels in festal gathering,
(3) and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven,
(4) and to God, the judge of all,
(5) and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect,
(6) and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant,
(7) and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Heb 12:22-24).

The stark contrast between Mount Sinai and Mount Zion is evident by the author’s use of seven images in both sections.

N. T. Wright on “By Means of His Own Blood” (Hebrews 9:12)

The writer of Hebrews said Jesus “entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption” (Heb 9:12).

In his Hebrews For Everyone commentary, N. T. Wright writes, “This is perhaps the most striking, indeed shocking, idea in the whole letter. At almost no point in the voluminous Jewish literature from the Bible through to the Jewish writings contemporary with the New Testament, and indeed beyond, does anybody suggest that human sacrifice might be a good thing—still less that the Messiah himself would become such a sacrifice. Apart from the powerful and deeply mysterious passage in Isaiah 53.10, which speaks of the sacrificial death of God’s servant, the closest that Judaism comes to such an idea is the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac at Mount Moriah (Genesis 22), a story which played a considerable role in Jewish thinking at this time, and which Hebrews will refer to in 11.17-18; but the point there, of course, was that God stopped Abraham actually killing Isaac. The sacrifice didn’t happen. Nor, of course, was there ever a suggestion that a high priest would have to become, simultaneously, both the priest who offered the sacrifice and the sacrifice itself. The idea would have been laughable if it hadn’t, almost certainly, appeared blasphemous” (p. 95).

The Strategy of Christology for Your Endurance

The author of Hebrews wrote to people who needed to endure, to run the race and not turn back. He employed multiple strategies toward this goal.

It’s been said that sound theology is important for suffering and trial, and that is true. More specifically, you need sound christology for your suffering. Christology is a strategy woven throughout the letter, and Hebrews 7 takes an interesting turn when the author spends time on Melchizedek.

Melchizedek?” you might say. “Really? Why not something a bit more relevant, someone a little more known, a subject a little easier to understand?”

To these saints who have already endured cost for their faith (cf. Heb 10:32-34), the writer waxes eloquently about a mysterious Old Testament figure who appears only twice before Hebrews (cf. Gen 14; Psalm 110), but he isn’t trying to be difficult for the sake of it. He knows that what he’s going to say “is hard to explain” (Heb 5:11). But does that mean it’s not worth saying?

Sometimes robust truth is what will hold you up. Hard times may need some hard teaching.

If you were writing a letter encouraging suffering saints to persevere, would Melchizedek be a topic you’d cover? The author of Hebrews doesn’t permeate his letter with paragraphs of this same caliber, but bringing up Melchizedek does serve his christological aim. The writer wants his readers to think great thoughts about Jesus, so from his arsenal he pulls out the four-syllable king of Salem, but he won’t stop there–he’s got something important to say about Jesus.

Don’t have a low estimation of what high christology can do for your soul during spiritual warfare. The writer wants the readers to take comfort and refuge in the truth about Jesus the Great High Priest, but how can Jesus be a high priest if he wasn’t from Levi’s tribe? Enter the purpose of Hebrews 7.

The subject of Melchizedek isn’t evoked to be impressive or heady. The author shows through typology how Jesus’ priesthood had an ancient precedent in someone who was both priest and king and held those roles without Levitical pedigree. Jesus was a priest like that. What he came to do surpassed, and was not vulnerable to, the inadequacies of the old system.

What’s the good news for sufferers about Jesus’ high priesthood? He’s “able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb 7:25). Jesus is better than any previous high priest because he is “holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens” (7:26). He doesn’t offer perpetual sacrifices but offered one, once for all, and the offering was himself (7:27).

For the Hebrews writer, Melchizedek was a means to an end; he was never the point. He was useful insofar as he pointed to what the readers needed to know (or to remember) about Jesus. The author wanted them to think great thoughts about Jesus, and his strategy was to bring up Melchizedek so that they would be awed by the glorious intercessory work of the Son who reigns as the permanent high priest with an indestructible life. Jesus is able to help people who are being tempted (2:18), and he has mercy and grace to give them in their time of need (4:16).

When your knees are buckling and your focus is blurring, Jesus is who you need and has what you need.

Three Stories of Sacrifice in the Name-List of Hebrews 11

In a previous post, I noted that the list of names in Hebrews 11 (vv. 3-31) is commonly divided by commentators into three parts: vv. 3-7, 8-22, 23-31.

I’ve been looking closely for commonalities shared among the three sections, and it’s interesting that each section contains a story about sacrifice.

  • In 11:3-7, we see in 11:4 a reference to Abel’s acceptable sacrifice.
  • In 11:8-22, we see in 11:17 a reference to Abraham offering up Isaac.
  • In 11:23-31, we see in 11:28 a reference to the first Passover when blood was shed and sprinkled.

Are there other motifs found in each of the three sections?

On the Possible Inclusios in Hebrews 11 and the Central Figure in the List of Names

Hebrews 11 has forty verses. Well established is the inclusio of 11:1-2 and 11:39-40, framing the chapter. Those verses speak about people being commended for faith, and the order of “faith” and “commendation” in 11:1-2 is reversed to be “commended” and “faith” in 11:39-40.

Typically in commentaries, Hebrews 11:3-38 is broken into two parts: vv. 3-31 contains all of the “by faith” statements, and vv. 32-38 provides a staccato-like list of names and miracles and sufferings culminating in a declaration that “the world was not worthy” of such saints.

The “by faith” list is interesting, though, because Hebrews 11:3-31 appears to break into three sections, all of which are inclusios.

  • 11:3-7. This section begins and ends with the idea of things unseen. In 11:3 what is seen is made of out things not seen, and in 11:7 Noah is warned by God about events yet unseen. In 11:3 God makes the world, and in 11:7 Noah condemns the world.
  • 11:8-22. This section begins in v. 8 with Abraham going to a place that he would receive as an inheritance, and v. 22 tells of Joseph who instructed that his bones be taken to the promised land because he too would receive it as an inheritance.
  • 11:23-31. In v. 23 Moses did not perish but was hidden because his parents were not afraid, and in v. 31 Rahab did not perish but welcomed and hid spies because she was not afraid.

These three sections also cover important blocks of Israel’s history:

  • 11:3-7 highlights people from Genesis 1-11
  • 11:8-22 highlights people from Genesis 12-50
  • 11:23-31 highlights people from Exodus – Joshua (omitting references to characters/events in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy)

If we take the central section (Heb 11:8-22) and count the times “by faith” appears, the phrase is mentioned seven times (11:8, 9, 11, 17, 20, 21, 22). The middle occurrence in the central section (11:8-22) is 11:17, and it is about Abraham. In fact, in the central section of names (11:8-22), statements about Abraham take up vv. 8-10, 12, 17-19–almost half of the verses in vv. 8-22! In fact, the only other character in Hebrews 11 to be mentioned more than once with a “by faith” statement is Moses (who appears in the third section of names, vv. 23-31).

Therefore, in the central section of names (vv. 8-22), Abraham’s name is in the middle “by faith” statement, and the repetition of his name in this section shows the author’s emphasis on Abraham. But what about this middle “by faith” reference? Here is the story condensed in vv. 17-19:

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.

Does the middle reference to Abraham (v. 17) in the central section of names (vv. 8-22) have any distinction in the list? Yes. Certain distinctives suggest that the author of Hebrews has placed this Abrahamic story here for emphasis, and the three inclusios (11:3-7, 8-22, 23-31) and the seven “by faith” statements in the central section set up this emphasis.

  1. Only in Hebrews 11:17-19 is there a direct citation of Scripture in the entire chapter. There are certainly plenty of allusions to, retellings of, and interpretations of Old Testament stories, but in 11:18 the expression elalethe hoti is followed by a quote from Genesis 21:12. No such expression appears anywhere else in the list of names.
  2. The author may be suggesting that Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac was most important example of “by faith” obedience in the entire litany of Hebrews 11 stories.
  3. Emphasis on Abraham is important in Hebrews 11 because he the first “who had received the promises” (v. 17). Others after him believed the promises, but none before him (cf. Gen 1-11) had received them.
  4. The nature of Abraham’s faith stands out because it ascribed to God the ability to raise the dead. “He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back” (11:19).

To sum up: if there are inclusios present in the three sections of names (vv. 3-7, 8-22, 23-31), and if the central section has a middle “by faith” statement (v. 17) about an Old Testament story told with some distinction (vv. 17-19), then with the design of the name-list in vv. 3-31, the author may have been highlighting not only Abraham but specifically the patriarch’s near-sacrifice of Isaac.

Do you think that in Hebrews 11, the author designed the name-list to highlight Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac? Do you think the inclusios I’ve suggested (vv. 3-7, 8-22, 23-31) are reasonable? Do you know anyone else who argues for them?