bible blog 1043

This blog offers a meditation on the Common Lectionary daily readings along with a headline from world news:

Vermont USA approves Right to Dignified Dying  dignified death

Hebrews 8:1-13

J.B. Phillips New Testament (PHILLIPS)

Christ our High Priest in Heaven is High Priest of a new agreement

8 1-3 Now to sum up—we have an ideal High Priest such as has been described above. He has taken his seat on the right hand of the heavenly majesty. He is the minister of the sanctuary and of the real tabernacle—that is the one God has set up and not man. Every High Priest is appointed to offer gifts and make sacrifices. It follows, therefore, that in these holy places this man has something that he is offering.

4-5 Now if he were still living on earth he would not be a priest at all, for there are already priests offering the gifts prescribed by the Law. These men are serving what is only a pattern or reproduction of things that exist in Heaven. (Moses, you will remember, when he was going to construct the tabernacle, was cautioned by God in these words: ‘See that you make all things according to the pattern shown you on the mountain’).

6-7 But Christ had been given a far higher ministry for he mediates a higher agreement, which in turn rests upon higher promises. If the first agreement had proved satisfactory there would have been no need for the second.

8-12 Actually, however, God does show himself dissatisfied for he says to those under the first agreement: ‘Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah—not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they did not continue in my covenant, and I disregarded them, says the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel: After those days, says the Lord, I will put my laws in their mind and write them on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. None of them shall teach his neighbour, and none his brother, saying, Know the Lord, for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest of them. For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more’.

13 The mere fact that God speaks of a new covenant or agreement makes the old one out of date. And when a thing grows weak and out of date it is obviously soon going to be dispensed with altogether.

Egyptian High Priest

Egyptian High Priest

Classical Judaism rests on the concept of a covenant between God and Israel: at its simplest this states, “I shall be your God and you shall be my people.” but this is expanded on Israel’s side by an obligation to keep the commandments of God; and on God’s side by an obligation to keep his people in possession of the land of Israel.

The early Christian communities came to believe, especially after the destruction of the Temple in CE 70, that God’s new Covenant offered in Jesus had superseded the former covenant. But there was a a problem with this: how could God be honoured as faithful if he’d changed his mind about a solemn covenant with Israel? The answer is in two parts.

1. God had through his prophets promised a new covenant after the first one had been broken by Israel’s repeated worship of other Gods.

2. Israel had rejected the new covenant by its rejection of Jesus, but many individual Jewish people had accepted it and formed the new international people of God, the church. To all people, including Jews, the new covenant offers God’s forgiveness.

This new covenant is mediated by Jesus Christ who as eternal high priest makes an effective offering to God on behalf of all people. The writer gradually reveals that this offering is nothing other than Jesus offering of himself, in life and death, to God.

For reformed Christians the role of the priesthood is questionable. The reformation churches proclaimed “the priesthood of all believers” which in effect abolishes priestly status.  The abusive behaviour of a minority of Catholic Clergy has scarcely helped the image of priesthood. Is it simply an anachronistic survival of pagan religion within the Christian Church?

I think so. The author of Hebrews, by establishing Jesus as the One High Priest, and his life and death as the one sacrifice, signals the end of earthly priesthood: the Christian community continues Jesus’ sacrificial ministry to humanity, but this is only “priestly” in a metaphorical sense. Jesus was not a priest. He gave himself for humanity, in specific actions of love and healing and in specific sufferings of rejection and crucifixion. By a bold and helpful metaphor the author of Hebrews characterises him as our heavenly high priest, but to use this way of talking as the basis for priestly authority within the Christin community, is to stretch a metaphor too far. Christianity initially understood itself as the end of all religion. That’s what Paul means by the “end of the Law”.  God had come to find the world in Jesus, so there was no more need for special people who help the world find God. 

The Catholic Curia: all men, all priests. All wrong?

The Catholic Curia: all men, all priests. All wrong?

So even the reformed formula of the “priesthood of all believers” seems mistaken to me. All believers are called to continue the ministry of Jesus Christ, for each other and their neighbour. It would be better to talk of the Christhood of all believers. As institutional religion declines in the UK we may begin to see more examples of church communities who practise the Christhood of all believers, with a consequent renewal of faith and life.

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