Formations 02.04.2018: Living in Tensions

Hebrews 2:10-18

It’s not uncommon that I steal books from my grandfather’s coffee table. He goes ahead and tells me to take what I want, so it isn’t really stealing. Over the years, he has made sure to send me home with books that have been meaningful for him.

One of these is The Courage to Be. Though I struggle to explain why or even what it means, the closing line sticks with me. In it, Paul Tillich insists that “the courage to be is rooted in the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt” (175). The first time I read it, I diagrammed it, hoping to uncover its meaning. It didn’t help, so after a time, I left it to be.

Still, it draws me in. And for the past few years, I’ve carried that sentence around with me, unconsciously working away at it with new experiences and old reflections. This week, I returned to it as I faced some of the paradoxes in this passage from Hebrews.

From the first verse, the writer of Hebrews proclaims that God made “the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings” (v. 10). In the same way that it doesn’t seem right that decay leads to completion, I’m surprised when the writer insists “that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death…, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death” (vv. 14-15).

Papyrus showing Hebrews 2:14–5:5; 10:8-22; 10:29–11:13; 11:28–12:2

As people of faith, we live in these tensions. We confess that good words are at the root of creation, and we trust that creation in its fullness is a place of peace and rest and life. But we also see war and economic injustice, famine, drought, and other natural disasters in our world. And we feel these and other sources of suffering in our personal lives too.

This week as we ask how Jesus might help us to rely on God, we might also consider how we live with these paradoxes. Do we embrace them, seeing suffering and death as somehow necessary in life? Or do we build walls around us and within ourselves as protection from whatever seems threatening? Whatever the answer, the writer of Hebrews holds Jesus’ choice to call humans brother and sister as an example of how we might follow into our promised rest.

Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 1952), 175.

Discussion

• What fears or anxieties have control in your life? Why?
• When have you found grace in experiences of suffering or fear?
• What role does community play in our experiences of salvation and anxiety?
• How does the example of Jesus, as the pioneer of salvation, lead you to interact with suffering, joy, death, and life?

Reference Shelf

Christ in Hebrews

The form that the Christology of Hebrews takes is different from other forms. The Synoptic Gospels tell stories and give sayings of Jesus Christ. Some of the stories are “Jesus stories” (the miracle stories, for example) designed to awaken faith in Jesus. Other stories are “Christ stories” (the infancy narratives, baptism, temptation, and so on) stamped by faith from the beginning and expressing this faith in impressive fashion. The sayings of Jesus are parables and short pithy sayings fitting in with the “Jesus stories.” In John, the discourses of Jesus are more akin to the “Christ stories” of the Synoptic Gospels. They are lengthy theological discourses presupposing the revelation of God in Christ, the Word become flesh. The deeds of Jesus in John are “signs” of Jesus’ relationship with God. With Paul, theological argumentation is used to express christological thought. Paul was reacting to different situations in the lives of the congregations he founded.

Hebrews is clear that Jesus Christ was one of us (2:11). He was tempted as we are (4:15), obedient to God (5:7-8), and subject to death (2:14). But this human figure is set within a larger framework of redemption. He was chosen from among the people (5:1), for example, so as to sympathize with their weaknesses (4:15). Hebrews tells us who this Jesus really is when it speaks of the high priesthood of Jesus, a high priest who continues to make intercession for believers (4:14–5:10). At the end of the ages, this Christ will return to “save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (9:28). The achievements of Jesus Christ were achievements not only of one who was of the people but also of God. So Jesus is God’s Son in preexistence, heir of all things, agent of creation, the image of God’s glory.

The Christologies of the New Testament must be read in light of their different forms and functions. One Christology need not be reduced to another. The preaching and teaching of Hebrews should honor the form and function of the entire book of Hebrews. The form and function of the other New Testament books may help us appreciate more fully the form and function of Hebrews, but listeners and hearers should not be confused by an attempt to amalgamate into Hebrews everything said about Jesus Christ.

Edgar McKnight, “Hebrews,” Hebrews–James, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2004) 79–80.

Fear, Sin, and Death

In some respects, however, the thought of vv. 14a-15 is atypical of the rest of the epistle. Whereas there it is sin that is the barrier removed by the sacrifice of Jesus, here it is death or “the fear of death” that is the enemy that has been overcome. The theme of the enslaving power of fear in general and the fear of death in particular is one that recurs in Greco-Roman literature. Seneca observed (Epistle 30.17) that the thought of death is often more dreaded than death itself. The first century BCE poet and philosopher Lucretius wrote a treatise (On the Way Things Happen) that is almost entirely devoted to an attempt to dispel such fear. He did it by trying to persuade his readers that, since the soul dies with the body, there is no “beyond” to fear. This is not the solution of the author of Hebrews. He believed not only in life beyond death, but also in God’s judgment (cf. 12:25-29). His message is that neither death nor the judgment it brings need be feared by the believer. And that because Jesus has defeated both fear and death. William Lane (vol. 1, 61) may be right in suggesting that here our author may be drawing upon the legend of Hercules who was thought similarly to have fought and conquered death on humankind’s behalf (cf. Homer, Iliad 5.394-400; Euripedes, Alcestis 11.76, 843-4). In which case it may pick up the divine champion resonances of Jesus the archēgos from v. 10.

The association of death with the devil or Satan, however, comes from Jewish tradition. This is particularly evident in the interpretations of the “fall” narrative of Genesis 3 that grew up. We find one such example in the Wisdom of Solomon 2:23-24a: “For God created man for incorruption and made him in the image of his own eternity, but through the devil’s envy death entered the world.” A similar idea is found in Romans 5:12 where death comes into the world as a result of sin, and in 1 Corinthians 15:26 where it is the last enemy that will be overcome at the eschaton. Jewish apocalyptic writers can also look forward to the defeat of demonic forces by God’s messianic agent (cf. Assumption of Moses 10:1; 1 Enoch 10:13; 1QH 6:29, etc.), although death is not here included among the demons. In later rabbinical writings we meet “the angel of death” who comes to carry out God’s sentence of mortality (Mekilta 72a on Exodus 20:20; cf. 2 Tim 1:10 where the devil has the power of death), but only in the Babylonian Talmud (Baba bathra 16a) do we find the angel of death (together with the evil inclination in humankind) identified with Satan. Hebrews, however, merely touches upon the idea of death as the demonic enemy whose power has been nullified by the death and exaltation of Jesus. Christ as vanquisher of the demonic is not this homily’s theme, and therefore, it is not developed further.

Marie E. Isaacs, Reading Hebrews–James: A Literary and Theological Commentary, Reading the New Testament (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2002) 44–45.

William Scruggs is a graduate of Mercer University. His favorite pastimes are adding music to his listening list, TV shows to his viewing list, and books to his reading list. When he isn’t pretending to check items off these lists, he spends time with friends and plays music. He is excited for the opportunity to continue exploring the rivers of Middle Georgia and to stay in Macon as an associate editor at Smyth & Helwys.

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