Q: Does the modern Church face the same dangers of fusing spiritual commitment to God with nationalism and other tribal associations?
Context, Audience, and Purpose
The Letter to the Hebrews is a “word of exhortation” (13:22), or in other words, a sermon. In this sermon the author gives various expositions of Scripture that are followed by exhortations based on the text cited, that altogether serve to motivate and encourage believers to not give up on the Christian faith despite difficulties and persecution.
The audience addressed to Christians and not to Jews – or to put it more specifically, most likely Hellenistic Jewish Christians located in Rome as some commentators believe. The readers and the writer are second-generation believers (2:3 – 4), baptized (6:4-5; 10:22), and are fully instructed (6:1-2). They are deemed mature enough to have become teachers (5:12), however, they have stalled in their growth and the author chastises them for this. Many in this community are facing a crisis as their commitment seems to be waning. Many have come under intense suffering and persecution. Some have been imprisoned and tortured, while others have lost their property (10:34). There was pressure to revert back to their old Jewish rituals and ways to avoid further persecution.
The author wrote to warn them against such apostasy (6:4-9; 10:26-31) and to help them return to the mainstream of Christian fellowship.
Theme and Theology of Hebrews
The author of Hebrews presented Jesus Christ as the High Priest who offered himself as the perfect sacrifice for sins (8:1-2; 10:11-18). Christ therefore had superiority over every aspect of Old Testament religion. It was the author’s intent and hope that an understanding of this principle could prevent the audience from abandoning Christ and returning to Judaism (10:26-29).
“He of whom these things are said belonged to a different tribe, and no one from that tribe has ever served at the altar. For it is clear that our Lord descended from Judah, and in regard to that tribe Moses said nothing about priests. And what we have said is even more clear if another priest like Melchizedek appears, one who has become a priest not on the basis of a regulation as to his ancestry but on the basis of power of an indestructible life.” – Heb 7: 13 – 16 (TNIV)
Here the author wants to establish the high-priestly ministry of Christ. But to a Jewish audience, they would have much trouble accepting this because Jesus was from the tribe of Judah and not a Levite. For his method of persuasion, the author refers to back to the Old Testament Scripture that the audience was familiar with and brings to attention the priesthood of Melchizedek to ground a priestly Christology in OT Scripture and, most importantly, in the plan of God before there ever was a tabernacle or a Levitical priest.
This would have been surprising for a Jew to read this because it was their presumption that the Aaronic priesthood was superior to that of Melchizedek, for the law came later than Melchizedek and could be thought to be God’s way of replacing all previous priesthoods. But the author points out that the priesthood of Melchizedek was spoken of in Psalm 110, well after the giving of the law. That God spoke through David about the Melchizedekian priesthood, while the Aaronic priesthood was a going concern, shows that the priests of the line of Aaron could not accomplish what a priesthood aimed at.
Verse 16 is of importance here where the author states that “[Christ] has become a priest not on the basis of a regulation as to his ancestry but on the basis of power of an indestructible life.” The writer is making it clear that Christ’s being a Melchizedek priest is not a matter of lineage or tradition or succession but of likeness or similarity to Melchizedek. The “indestructible life” he refers to here most likely is in reference to Jesus’ resurrection. The power and authority of his work comes from his eternal nature and the life he has, exalted at God’s right hand (Psalm 110:1).
Therefore, Christ legitimacy as being our great high priest is based not based at all from his pedigree, ancestry, tribe, or tradition. The old ways of worshipping and serving God have been obliterated and totally replaced with something much, much better. Since you have something greater than the old covenant, why go back to the old way of things?
We run the danger of thinking that God is Jewish, American, black, white, Korean, Protestant, Catholic, or a Calvinist for that matter. One of the prominent images we have of Jesus in America today is that he’s a light-skinned, blue-eyed young man with shiny, wavy, slightly blonde hair, with an impeccably trimmed beard. It’s so tempting and easy for us to believe that a certain theology or biblical interpretation that we’ve immersed ourselves in is the only one true way of looking at things. The danger is that we make up or create a god that fits (consciously or unconsciously) into our own image. When that happens we worship an idol and not the true God who is free to be who He chooses and wants to be.
Also we tend to demean, exclude, and look down upon others who do not agree with our theology or biblical interpretation. When that happens it evolves into an “us vs. them” situation; those who are “in” will certainly agree with us, but those who don’t are certainly “out” and therefore not aligned with God. God is with “us” but not “them”. This can be taken to the extreme where we then become the arbitrator of who is a “true” Christian or not, saved or unsaved. This is pure hubris. It is utter foolishness and pride to presume that we know all that God knows or how He’s supposed to act. When this happens in churches today, it causes nothing but unnecessary pain and division.
The message of the Letter to the Hebrews is true for today. Like most of the gospels and other writings of the NT, they depict a Jesus that continuously doesn’t fit the mold of what the traditional notion of the Messiah should be. If fact, Jesus adamantly refuses to conform to other people’s expectations of what he should be like, even if it’s from those very close to him – whether it be his family members or even his closest disciples. The author of Hebrews is showing that through a figure like Melchizedek, who was neither Hebrew or Jew for that matter, God can use gentiles as a vehicle through whom He could bless others. Again, God is revealed to have shattered previous notions that He can only work through purely Levitical means. You cannot put God into a box.
Just as Jesus’ legitimacy of being our great High Priest didn’t rely upon his ancestry, pedigree, tribe, or tradition, such petty differences should not splinter us as believers. We are all sinners living under the grace of God. Our spiritual commitment to God shouldn’t be predicated by our denominations, race, language, culture, or any other differences. We are new beings under Christ, we have a new and better citizenship that transcends anything the world attempts to put in our way. This all comes “on the basis of the power of an indestructible life” that Jesus provided for us in his death and resurrection.
In many ways, as creatures of habit, we are naturally wary of new ways of thinking or being just as the Jewish Christians were whom the Letter of Hebrews was addressing. Like them, we must be constantly and often sternly reminded and persuaded to stop living in the old, obsolete, outdated covenant and truly embrace the better and newer one that God wants us to. (8:13)