Jesus, Greater than the Angels? Opening the Book of Hebrews

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Jesus, Greater than the Angels?
Opening the Book of Hebrews

Kevin James Bywater

• • •

For years, I wondered why the book of Hebrews began with so much attention on angels (Heb 1:1-2:18). The book seemed to me to be focused more on the priestly service described in the book of Leviticus—tabernacle, priests, sacrifices, offerings, washings, etc.—so why all this attention to angels? One might notice that Jesus was presented as one greater than Moses (Heb 3:1-6), better than the high priests, more effective than the sacrifices. Sure, but why does the book begin with a focus on angels? And just what exactly was the message brought by the angels (Heb 2:2)?

There appears to be some connection between the divine revelation delivered through Moses and the message that came through angels.[1] But what message came through angels? Again, why bring up angels and spend so much time arguing that Jesus is superior to them and that his message is more pressing than theirs (see Heb 2:2-3)?

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Recently I acquired a copy of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s book, Covenant and Conversation: Leviticus: The Book of Holiness. Until he stepped down, Rabbi Sacks was the Chief Rabbi of Britain. He is a good and intelligent man, in addition to being an excellent communicator and an agent for just peace. I got this book in the hopes of gaining further understanding of a Jewish approach to the Levitical system and its purposes. His book has not disappointed!

I remember reading the 50-page “Introduction” the evening the volume arrived in the post. I was surprised by the convictions and clarifications, but also by the diversions and (to my mind) the evasions. Seldom have I written so much in a book!

At times I felt that Rabbi Sacks was in direct conversation with the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians. I sensed at other times that he was disputing with the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews. Time and again he seemed to be opposing Jesus himself. I concluded that if I were to teach a course on New Testament Theology, or Paul’s letters to the Galatians or to the Romans, or the Book of Hebrews, or even on one of the Synoptic Gospels, I’d assign my students this volume by Rabbi Sacks. It is just that good, that informative, that enlightening, that frustrating and at times downright disheartening.

So, why? Why would I assign this particular book? Why am I so enthusiastic about it? What does Rabbi Sacks say that makes me see the volume both as fabulously insightful and as deeply problematic? It will take some time to explain. You’ll need to be patient as this rather long post unfolds. After setting forth some features of the rabbi’s teachings, I’ll point up some insights gained for reading Galatians and then for reading Hebrews. At the end, I’ll provide a link to a handout and an audio file for my recent presentation on Hebrews at our church here in the U.K.

Rabbinical Tradition

My remarks in this section will be brief. I’ll only summarize what Rabbi Sacks has written. I hope readers are not frustrated by this. If I didn’t simply summarize, this post would more than double in length and become, effectively, a small book. Also, I trust that my brevity does not result in confusion. For a fuller presentation of a Jewish approach to these matters, I heartily  recommend the good rabbi’s book, though I recommend reading it along with Matthew and Acts and Galatians, and Hebrews (at least). 

Rabbi Sacks notes that drawing from the Old Testament (the Hebrew Bible), Jewish tradition holds the following:

• When God first spoke the Ten Commandments to the Hebrews at the foot of Mount Sinai, the people were desperately afraid (Ex 20:18).

• The people then requested that only Moses speak with God and then convey God’s words to them (Ex 20:19; ). Moses would be an intermediary.

• Moses then proceeds up Sinai to meet with God. He receives the Ten Commandments written by God on stone tablets (30:18). He is absent for a total of forty days (24:18; 30:18).

• The people are unnerved by Moses’s long absence. Not only is God not speaking to them, Moses the intermediary isn’t either. So they mob Aaron and he makes an idol, the golden calf (Ex 32:1-6).

• God alerts Moses to their idolatry and Moses descends the mountain. Once he sees the people’s idolatrous revelry, he breaks the tablets, alerts the people to their breaking of the covenant, burns and crushes the idol to powder, and makes the people drink it (Ex 32:7ff).

• The Levites mete out God’s wrath (Ex 32:25-29). More people experience the wrath of God (Ex 32:35).

• In the meantime, God warns that he cannot be with the Hebrews or they might be destroyed, for they are a stiff-necked people (Ex 32:9). God withdraws from them[2] due to the threat of destroying them (Ex 33:3, 5). God sends an angel (or angels) to guide the people (Ex 32:34; 33:2; note the earlier Ex 14:19; 23:20ff). The angel(s) is seen in Jewish tradition as an additional intermediary between God and Moses and the people.

• Rabbi Sacks presents an intriguing Jewish tradition that has some resonances even in the New Testament: God institutes, through the angel(s) (see Acts 7:53; Gal 3:19; also Deut 33:2), the Levitical system in order to choreograph how the people may approach God, and God does this because of the sin of the golden calf.

• God gives instructions regarding the tabernacle, the place of his glorious presence. He assigns the priesthood to the Levites, institutes offerings and sacrifices and various washings and distinctive practices to distinguish the Israelites from their gentile neighbors.

• Sacrifices were a means to help wean the Hebrews off of pagan idolatry even while incorporating some of the practices common with paganism, though while also redesigning their purpose and meaning within the ethical monotheism of Israelite religion.

Rabbi Sacks and the Fall of the Second Temple

While throughout his book Rabbi Sacks is keenly interested in pointing up the enduring legacy and value of the Levitical system, he does not hesitate to acknowledge that so much of what the book prescribes cannot currently be practiced, except in a metaphorical fashion. Since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D., Jews have been without an operating priesthood, without sacrifices and the Day of Atonement, without offerings at the temple, and without a centralized sanctuary in the promised land.

Rabbi Sacks notes that Jewish sages reflected on these losses and absences in light of what they see as the enduring obligations of the Levitical system. Without the temple and the land and the priesthood and the sacrifices, precisely who are the Jews? What is their identity? How are they to practice and retain it?

What Rabbi Sacks notes is that the sages within the rabbinical tradition reflected upon the loss of the temple and its attendant practices and reasoned that there would be suitable replacements for the offerings and sacrifices—that there are substitutions for the sacrifices. Among the substitutes would be prayer, hospitality, acts of kindness, fasting, and contrition and repentance. And these substitutes were deemed legitimate because they

realised that sacrifices were symbolic enactments of the processes of mind, heart, and deed that could be expressed in other ways as well. We can encounter the will of God by Torah study, engage in the service of God by prayer, make financial sacrifice by charity, create sacred fellowship by hospitality, and so on. (121)

There remains an enduring hope that some day, one day, in the land of promise, the temple and its services will be reestablished in all their glory. In the meantime, the substitutes, coupled with social distinctiveness, coupled with memory and hope, suffice.

A lot more material can be found in the 430-page book. This is enough for our purposes just now. I would now like to provide a few reflective observations in light of two of New Testament texts: Galatians and Hebrews.

Galatians

There are some quizzical portions of Paul’s letter to the Galatians (a surprisingly large number, if we’re honest), material that has perplexed plenty of commentators. However, I think the material noted above could prove rather insightful. Again, I’ll be brief and encourage you to do the reading for yourself. But consider this passages from Galatians 3:19-20:

Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary. Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one.

• Paul says that the law was “added because of transgressions.” 

This phrase has produced a number of competing speculations. Did the law cause transgressions? Did it define transgressions? Did it increase transgressions? I wonder if Paul isn’t simply tapping the actual chronology that the Torah narrates, here alluding to the Levitical system which was given because of the transgressions involved with the making of the golden calf and the attendant revelries. This would make good sense and would resonate well with what the good rabbi has noted. But do note, for Paul, the law is not bad in itself (Gal 3:21; Rom 7:7-13); breaking the law is what is bad; also bad would be insisting on facets of the law that have found their end (telos, purpose) in Messiah Jesus. (Also, for Paul, not all laws are the of equal value. More on this some other time.)

• Paul says that the law was put into effect through angels by an intermediary (namely, Moses).

Some see Paul here disparaging the law.[3] I don’t think that is the case at all—at least that is not a necessary reading. But he may very well be noting how the Levitical system was instated as a buffer between God and his people (as well as between Israel and the gentile nations), as well as how Moses was an intermediary, as were the angels. As such, God could be seen as one or two or three steps removed from the people.

• Most controversially, Paul says that the law was a temporary tutor in place until the coming of Christ (Gal 3:23ff). 

This is where the good rabbi would most strongly object. The idea that the law was temporary was and is offensive and objectionable to many Jews. But I’m not confident that Paul explains in his letter to the Galatians just how he knows that the law was (or was intended to be) a temporary tutor. Perhaps he already had explained that to Galatians when he had previously been with them and had instructed them. But I suspect that some of the reasoning within Hebrews will help fill in the blanks.

The Book of Hebrews

Now, if you will, imagine that you are a Jewish Christian in the first century. Imagine that you’ve heard or are aware of a great number of the teachings of Jesus and his apostles. Perhaps you’ve been pressured to renounce your allegiance to Messiah Jesus by family or friends, or a cousin who is a Pharisee, or some local fanatics. And imagine that in the midst of that pressure on one side—and, say, pressure also from gentiles, perhaps Romans, on the other side—you begin to wonder where you stand and what your own identity is or should be.

Again, as a Jewish Christian in the first century. —You remember the rhythm and predictability and security of the priestly services in Jerusalem, as well as the wonder of seeing the temple as you made your way toward the city on the several pilgrimages you’ve made in your lifetime. And as you remember, you reminisce, and you begin to long for the more predictable and stable days gone by.

Over time, you’ve participated a little less frequently in the gatherings and services of other Christians, even Jewish Christians. And you feel a powerful and peculiar and persistent aching, a longing for the more familiar system of the old covenant. I think it is to just this kind of a scenario that the author of Hebrews writes his “brief word of exhortation” (Heb 13:22).

Now, how might Rabbi Sacks’s observations and insights and convictions have a bearing on how we read this letter to the Hebrews? To my mind, I think we could read the good rabbi as in conversation with the author of Hebrews: they are two intelligent, skilled, convinced and convicted Jewish teachers, leaders who have taken two very different paths.

The writer of Hebrews believes that Jesus is the Messiah, the most profound prophetic voice of the first century. Not only is Jesus the conduit of God’s revelations, he is the embodiment of the divine will, being greater than Moses, superior to the high priests, and more effective than the sacrifices and washings.

While the tabernacle was instituted by God, it was a reflection of the heavenly tabernacle—and this just as much as David’s throne on earth was a figure of the divine throne in heaven. Jesus’s priesthood is everlasting, his sacrifice of himself was without sin and not for his own sin, his is a resurrected and eternal existence, and now he resides in the heavenly tabernacle on the heavenly throne ever interceding for his people.

While the Levitical system revealed by angels through Moses was good for its tenure under the old covenant, it is a shadow of what Christ’s throne and tabernacle and intercessory service have been and now are. While the message through the angels was binding, and every transgression was punishable, how much more so is the message now delivered through Jesus, the one through whom everything was created, the one now enthroned forever?

Hence the beginning of Hebrews—the extended argument that while the angels were great, Jesus is greater; while their message was authoritative, Jesus is the authority; while Moses was a servant in God’s house, Jesus is the Son over God’s house.

This was promised by God in the past. The author of Hebrews is keen to show that his convictions are not novel, not invented, not contrary to God’s holy word. Rather, God said there would be a priest of the order of Melchizedek (Ps 110:4), and that this one would be seated on the divine throne (Ps 110:1). God said there would be a new covenant that would be an improvement on the older covenant—the old covenant was good but not the best (Jer 31:31-34; Heb 8:7-13).

Not to be overlooked, the writer of Hebrews is keen to point to a kingdom that is better and greater and more glorious than the kingdoms of this earth: the kingdom of God (Heb 12:28). There is a heavenly city (Heb 11:16; 12:22), a heavenly tabernacle (Heb 8:5), a heavenly throne (Heb 8:1; 12:2), a heavenly priest who presented the sacrifice of himself once and for all (Heb 7:27; 9:12, 26, 28; 10:10). In Jesus we are to trust.

Again, as a Jewish Christian in the first century. — Danger necessarily and naturally persists. There are persecutors among the Jews and among the gentiles. There also is divine punishment—a threat much greater than the earthly persecutions, as horrible as they might be.

To turn away now, to turn from the new covenant, to turn your back on Jesus as our eternal high priest, is akin to when our Jewish forefathers longed to return to Egypt or when they feared entering the land of promise. They didn’t enter it (Heb 4:6). They died in the wilderness. God swore an oath that they wouldn’t enter the land (Heb 3:11). They were recipients of God’s wrath. Don’t be like them. Don’t be like Esau who sold his birthright (Heb 12:16-17). Don’t trample the Son of God underfoot (Heb 10:29) or crucify him again (Heb 6:6) by turning away, thus implying that he deserved that ignominious death as just another blasphemer.

Press on. Go forward. Keep moving with God. Recognize God’s promises of old. Recall the words of God through Christ in our generation (Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:1ff). Remember the signs and wonders that confirmed all these things (Hebrews 2:4). But remember well that our hope is not on this earth but in heaven: Jesus—our sinless, resurrected, eternal high priest—is our hope. He is like an anchor for us (Heb 6:19). Let us keep our eyes fixed on him as we lean into and through the temptations and trials and tribulations of this life (Heb 12:2ff). We are sojourners here on our way to a new, heavenly Jerusalem that is to come (Heb 13:14).

The writer of Hebrews concludes by encouraging his readers to offer a sacrifice of praise, to be generously charitable, and to encourage one another (Heb 13:15-16). Our center, our identity, our hope, even our very selves are to be so intertwined with Christ Jesus that he may represent us in the heavenlies, interceding for us as we make our pilgrimage on this earth toward the heavenly city, the heavenly tabernacle, the heavenly throne room. And may it be.

Did God Speak or Was He Mute?

Now, of vital important is Rabbi Sacks’s conviction that after the prophet Malachi there were no other prophets. No other prophets? None. There were no explanations from God as to why the temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. This would mean that John the baptizer, calling the people to repent, to renew their covenant with God, and to avoid the coming divine wrath—well, John was a bit pesky, apparently, and eventually he was silenced. This would mean that Jesus did not speak the words of the Father.

When Jesus spoke of the coming destruction of the temple (Matt 24; Mark 13; Luke 19, 21), he was seen as one who opposed Moses, the law, the temple. Later Stephen would be accused of the same (see Acts 7). Perhaps it should not surprise us then to find that in the closing days of Jesus life leading to the cross, the Jews who opposed him most strongly and sought to orchestrate his demise were not the Pharisees but the high priests (see James Dunn, The Partings of the Ways, 68).

As I now see it, one of the concerns of Jesus and the apostles was to prepare those people loyal to the Messiah to anticipate and prepare for the divine wrath that would bring the destruction of the temple and move forward with the Messiah into the era of the new covenant, the covenant promised by Jeremiah and now incarnated in and enacted by Messiah Jesus. In enacting that new covenant, Jesus’s blood would be shed, his body would be broken.

Of course, if one rejects Jesus as Messiah and John as a prophetic voice, then one could be perplexed by the loss of the Second Temple and the new exile from the land, not to mention the absence of the temple and its services for nearly two millennia. Instead of loving Jesus as the substitutionary sacrifice, the rabbinic traditions offer substitutes for the sacrifices. The development of these traditions is an accident of history and not divinely intentional; the impetus for their development was problematic but not predicted or promised; the traditions arose from anxiety rather than anticipation, from necessity rather than teleology, from a crisis rather than from the Christ.

So, did God speak or was he mute? If he was mute, then the path of the rabbinical traditions would appear to be a viable option. However, if God did speak, then that rabbinical pathway is a diversion, a denial or rejection of what God has said. And perhaps this is why the letter to the Hebrews begins as it does:

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. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. 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. (Hebrews 1:1-4)

Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will. (Hebrews 2:1-4)

One should note that throughout the letter the author has no intention of disparaging what has come before—what God has done or said or revealed otherwise. In fact, throughout the letter readers should notice that the author regularly and persistently appeals to what has been revealed and said and written beforehand; he makes his case based on prior divine revelation, pointing up that this was God’s stated intention.

What Jesus did and taught does not supercede what came via angels and prophets in the past, rather, it exceeds what was previously revealed. For what was revealed in the past pointed forward to a new covenant, a priest in the order of Melchizedek, one who would be seated on the divine throne in heaven. The writer of Hebrews is not attempting to be novel; he is pointing up what God has newly does for the sake of his people in Messiah Jesus.

Concluding Thoughts

As I mentioned above, I think more people should read Rabbi Sacks’s book, along with the gospel of Matthew, the book of Acts, Paul’s letter to the Galatians, and the exhortation to the Hebrews. Far too little is grasped of the old covenant today. The Old Testament just seems large and burdensome, that is unless we edit it down to moralistic stories and what we deem to be messianic passages. God forbid! To my mind, reading Hebrews without having a growing grasp of Leviticus, as well as a developing appreciation for the times of transition in and around the first century…well, I think Hebrews can only come off a rather flat, monochrome, and distinctly opaque. When put in conversation with Rabbi Sacks, the arguments and warnings and recollections and exhorations in Hebrews make a whole lot more sense.

My Talk and Handout on Hebrews

The other day I co-taught an evening seminar on Hebrews at our church here in the U.K. The first speaker, Dr. Andrew Atherstone, provided a wonderful survey of the book, discussing a variety of questions (such as authorship) along the way. I then presented a version of what I’ve written above. My presentation may be downloaded here and my handout downloaded here: Hebrews and Rabbi Sacks (PDF). I hope you find them helpful. And do consider acquiring Rabbi Sacks’s book, Covenant and Conversation: Leviticus: The Book of Holiness.

vanauken - talking about christianity

Some Recommended Readings

To read further into this subject, here are a few books that I’d recommend. Of course, this is no full endorsement of any of them. Each offers tremendous insights, just as each puts forth some readings and inferences that I’d take issue with—some more, some less.

Recently I read again much of James Dunn’s book, The Partings of the Ways: Between Christianity and Judaism and Their Significance for the Character of Christianity. Never before have I so appreciated the content and skilled presentation in this volume. It is the work of a knowledgeable and skilled scholar and interpreter. It is filled with fabulous material (as well as some points worth disputing).

I also recently consulted E.P. Sanders’s classic, Jewish Law from Jesus to the Mishnah: Five Studies. At times, Sanders comes off as simply eccentric. Over the years I’ve found him to make rather controversial assertions that are not adequately warranted or qualified. Even so, this is something of a source manual for the times of transition in the first century.

I also recently was rereading Shaye Cohen’s classic, From the Maccabees to the Mishnah. This volume covers a lot of the same territory as the two above, though from a decidedly Jewish perspective. But as an overview of individuals and issues, of movements and sources, it is a fabulous introduction. It is written more for a popular audience and now is in its third edition (which I do not own but have now ordered).

So many other volumes could be recommended here. Perhaps just two more are in order, one by a Jewish rabbi and one by a scholar who is a Messianic Jew. I imagine that reading these two volumes together would be quite an education. I’m going to aim to do that next month. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach has written Kosher Jesus in the hopes of reclaiming Jesus for Judaism, rescuing him from Christianity. Michael Brown has written an engaging response: The Real Kosher Jesus: Revealing the Mysteries of the Hidden Messiah. The authors both are learned and are friends. They’ve debated a number of times, though I’ve yet to watch one of their debates. I think I will do that very soon.

Footnotes

[1] Notice how the writer morphs from his argument vis-a-vis the angels (Heb 1:1-2:18) to his discussion of Moses (Heb 3:1ff). Also, compare Heb 2:2 with Heb 10:28, and Heb 2:3 with Heb 10:29. While note fully explicit, the point will be supported as we look at Jewish tradition throughout this essay.

[2] Supportive of this is the phrase “I turned away from them” found in Heb 8:9.

[3] Here I am thinking specifically of some proponents of “the apocalyptic Paul.” Some recent commentaries (and quite helfpul in many other respects) on Galatians and Romans strive to characterize Paul as being against the law, as attributing it to angels, and possibly even to bad or fallen angels. I find this reading both unwarranted and objectionable.