The Messianic Priest-King – 1

[Today and tomorrow I’m posting a couple of excerpts from the draft of a forthcoming book-length commentary by A. T. Ross, The Messianic Priest-King: An Exposition of the Book of Hebrews. His goal has been to take an approach to Hebrews similar to David Chilton’s concerning the book of Revelation, “paying close attention to the symbolic dimension and how the intertextual uses of the Old Testament impacted the argument.” Dealing with the chiastic structures and typology, and quoting all the best guys, Adam has really done his homework. I’ll keep you posted on publication.]

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…That the epistle is written to Hebrew Christians is the traditional interpretation of the letter and it seems the only viable reading available which can makes sense of the book in its original context. Despite this, most scholars today have abandoned this reading in favor of one of more general purpose, addressing Gentile Christians or simply Christians generally of every age. [28] Their reasons are untenable, to say the least, and seem to depend more upon the assumption of a post-A.D. 70 date of writing than on any consideration within the text itself.

Exhortations to Persevere

As we have seen it was the Jewish believers who were scattered abroad and who carried the gospel with them. Their work became the seeds that established the churches in those regions, themselves the founding members of the scattered churches. This status as church-builders would have also included the church community addressed in Hebrews, which was well known for its faithful testimony and good works (6:9-11; 10:32-34; and called back to this witness in 13:1-9,16-21).

These church founders or pillars would have been looked up to by those in their churches, who converted on the basis of their testimony. The General epistles make clear that it is this group scattered from the original persecution in Jerusalem which is in crisis and beginning to question the reality of the New Covenant. This would have been worrisome to the Apostles since their influence would lead others to similar conclusions, rather like if Billy Graham converted to Roman Catholicism. The crisis was nothing less than the Church teetering on the brink of collapse, a situation which certainly required a definitive response. What we have recorded as Hebrews, James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John and Jude is the result of the Church’s leadership exhorting and encouraging these pillars of the Church to persevere in their faith even in the midst of persecution (1 Pet. 4:13; James 1:1-4; 5:10; Jude 3-5) and so too is Hebrews written as an exhortation to perseverance (12:1-13; 13:13-14).

The Promise of His Appearing

What was the audience of Hebrews spurred on to persevere in? The question must be answered by examining what it was they were in danger of losing. Leithart sets the historical circumstance that gave rise to the writing of the General epistles in his summary of the context for 1 Peter:

the recipients are Jewish believers who are no longer living in Jerusalem, their home city, because of persecution. In 1 Peter, the apostle gives them hope and comfort in the midst of their sufferings, assuring them that a judgment is awaiting their persecutors, which will soon be carried out . . . . But time passed and more and more of the apostles died, and nothing happened. Some, particularly the persecutors whom the church hoped would be judged, began to mock the Christians’ expectation and hope for vindication. They raise doubts that the judgment is going to happen at all, and some believers have broken under the pressure. An apostasy is beginning, and the focus is on the failure of Christ to return. [29]

This presentation would match with the traditional understanding that Hebrews was addressing Jewish Christians who had “renounced their ancient religion with its elaborate external ceremony to embrace Christianity with its contrasting de-emphasis of the externals” and who were now “wavering in their faith because of persecution and were in danger of abandoning Christianity in order to beat a retreat back to Judaism.” [30] Hawthorne’s (admittedly common) misunderstanding that Christianity does away with ritualism and external rites to the contrary, [31] Hebrews itself contrasts an earthly Tabernacle with a very real heavenly Tabernacle into which Christ entered as High Priest and performed the earthly Old Covenant rites, simply in a better Tabernacle, as a better High Priest, with His own blood which is called “better sacrifices,” by the epistle (Heb. 9:24-26).

This context makes clear the reason for the erosion of confidence (3:14; 10:35), [32] impending persecution (12:4; 13:13-14), and the faltering of their hope (3:6; 6:18-20; 10:23-25; 11:1) in Christ’s soon appearing (10:25, 35-39), a belief which Hebrews is concerned to reaffirm (10:23-25). Not only would departing from the New Covenant be a turning away from the living God (3:12), but it would put Jesus to open shame (6:4-6; 10:26-31) by opening the way for Christ’s enemies to mock Him as the nations did when Israel wandered from the faith (Rom. 2:17-24; Isa. 52:5; Ezek. 36:20-23).

Following this, it seems that we can observe a gradual intensification in the anticipation of Christ’s appearing within the New Testament canon. Within the gospels the appearing in vindication is still a long way off, which is why the synoptics all include versions of the Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24; Mark 13; Luke 19) but John does not. By the time John was written, there was no need to be reminded of Jesus’ promised appearing, because as the Day grew closer the more people were aware of it. John put off including an Olivet Discourse in his gospel because his epistles would deal with the “last hour” and he would write Revelation, which was (among other things) a massive re-telling of the Olivet Discourse. [33] Where the other gospels end with the pronouncement of judgment on the Temple, John’s gospel begins with it (John 4), the rest of Christ’s work then seen through that eschatological lens.

What John’s gospel does include is Jesus’ promise that John would live to see the Day (John 21:20-25), which his epistles and Revelation would later confirm. [34] Paul mentions the Day approaching, but rarely seems to expect it in the immediate future (Rom. 2:5; 1 Tim. 4:1-2; 2 Tim. 3:1-5). [35] It was coming, but it would be a little while. When we come to the General epistles we find the expectation imminent. The letters address churches struggling to hold the faith in opposition to those who mocked and hunted them, exhorting their readers to hold fast to their hopeful expectation. For John, it is the “last hour,” (1 John 2:18) when the “world is passing away,” (1 John 2:17). For James, Christ the Judge is coming soon, already standing at the door and knocking (James 5:7-9). For Peter the last days are upon them and Christ’s coming is very close; the “end of all things” has arrived (1 Pet. 4:7; 2 Pet. 3:10). Finally, in Revelation, the last days are no longer coming, but have finally arrived and Christ is on His way; it is a revelation of “the things that soon must take place,” (Rev. 1:1; 22:20) when even the ones who crucified Him shall see Him coming in His wrath (Rev. 1:7).

Thus, contextually, the hope to which the author of Hebrews looks—and exhorts his readers to look to as well—is the “coming” or “appearing” of Jesus as Lord. This is the “hope set before” them (6:18), the expectation that shortly thereafter God’s enemies would be judged and Jesus vindicated as the Messiah. The readers of Hebrews are to hold fast to the confession of this, their hope (10:23), “all the more now that you see the Day drawing near,” (10:25). For if we keep sinning after receiving the grace of the Messiah there is no longer any forgiveness of sins (10:26) and what can be expected is the “fearful expectation of judgment,” and a “fury of fire” that will “consume the adversaries” (10:27). After all, if the punishment of abandoning the Mosaic law was death (10:28) how much more punishment would be “deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?” (10:29). Yahweh has promised to come in judgment and vengeance in the prophets of old (10:30-31); for that reason the readers of Hebrews are not to throw away their confidence in the hope of their vindication and the destruction of their enemies (10:35-36). Hold fast, because “yet a little while, and the coming One will come and will not delay,” (10:37).

If the early Church had really been so wrong concerning the timing of this event, the Church would never have been established. The Church would have been just another false expectation, popular for a while only to fade into obscurity like so many of the other messianic movements of the period. If Hebrews is wrong about the nearness of this climactic event of vindication, the entire argument of the book is false and collapses to the ground. If this is indeed the case, then Hebrews is something in which we ought to put no trust whatsoever. If this expected event did not occur in or around A. D. 70, the Church would have realized Jesus was a false messiah and returned to their old religions, the Church project ending with a whimper and, finally, silence. It would have been the final evidence to Israel and the watching nations that Jesus was not truly the Messiah. That the Church exists, however, means that whatever the promised and expected hope of vindication was, it really did happen within the time frame they expected. [36]

[28] Hawthorne, NIBC, 1502; Craddock, New Interpreter’s, 8-10.
[29] Leithart, Promise of His Appearing, 18.
[30] Hawthorne, NIBC, 1501.
[31] The New Covenant is just as external as the Old. See P. Richard Flinn, “Baptism, Redemptive History and Eschatology,” in James B. Jordan, ed., Christianity and Civilization #1 (Geneva Divinity School Press, 1983), pp. 111-151.
[32] That the hope of these Hebrew “pillars” in the Church was faltering because of the death of the apostles and other leaders who had themselves seen Jesus makes the perfect catalyst for the crisis in the church community Hebrews speaks to. We are told that they converted on the basis of the testimony of those who saw Jesus (2:3) and it seems these same people became the leaders in their community (13:7), who it also seems have passed away themselves, which would precipitate such a crisis of faith for those who had believed on their testimony that Jesus would return in their lifetimes. See Lane, Hebrews 1-8, lv; Hawthorne, NIBC, 1530.
[33] For a very brief overview of the book of Revelation, see James B. Jordan, The Vindication of Jesus Christ: A Brief Reader’s Guide to Revelation (Athanasius Press, 2008).
[34] Irenaus even notes that some had seen John after the fall of Jerusalem. Many take this as a reference to the book of Revelation itself, which is seen as demonstration of a late date writing, but the Greek, while somewhat ambiguous, actually refers to John himself. See Kenneth L. Gentry Jr., Before Jerusalem Fell: Dating the Book of Revelation (Victorious Hope Publishing, 2010 [1998]), ch. 4.
[35] The epistles to the Thessalonians seem to be the most “anticipatory” of Christ’s coming in Paul, addressing a group of believers who expected to hear of Christ’s appearing by letter (2 Thess. 2:1-2). This could be an internal indicator that the epistles to the Thessalonians was written late in Paul’s career, closer to the coming Day.
[36] In this I am modifying the structure of N. T. Wright’s argument for the historical resurrection: that the resurrection was said to constitute the people of God means that the continued existence of the Church demonstrates the validity of the resurrection. See N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress Press, 2003).


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