Christ: The High Priest
A Brief Essay on the Theology of The Letter to the Hebrews
Matthew Ropp
NS501, New Testament II
Dr. David Scholer, Spring 1997
Fuller Theological Seminary, School of Theology

(to Notes, References Cited)


    "Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds." (Heb. 1:1-2) So begins The Letter to the Hebrews, which expands upon this first declaration, relying heavily on Hebrew scripture for exposition of the work and role of the Son. Interspersed with the central discussions of Christ are paraenetic sections which are also essential to the overall message of Hebrews. Harold Attridge describes this epistle as "perhaps the most enigmatic" text of first-century Christianity (Attridge 1). Thus an essay on the theology of Hebrews seems to be no easy task. If a glimpse into the mind of the author and thereby of the Spirit by which he1 was inspired may be seen, however, it will certainly be worth the toil. After briefly considering the authorship, the purpose of the letter, and to whom it was written, the major messages of Hebrews will be discussed.

    In order to understand the occasion for the composition of Hebrews of great help would be to know the author and intended recipients of the letter. There has been, however, considerable debate over both of these issues, with little consensus. For many centuries the work was traditionally thought to be Pauline, but it does not claim to be written by the apostle and stylistic, thematic, and other differences preclude that ascription (ABD III, 97). Many other suggestions have been made, but all that can really be ascertained are those things inferred by the text itself. "The author was a second-generation Christian, well versed in the study of the Septuagint…, the master of a fine rhetorical style. He was a Hellenist…" (Bruce 20) Equally unclear as the authorship of the epistle is the identity of the addressees. Again amid a myriad of suggestions and some speculation, what is known comes from the text.2 They were a community of believers (2:3-4) that had received basic instruction (6:1-2), had previously experienced persecution (10:32-34), and were at the time of writing experiencing challenges to their faith (Attridge 12).

    It is to address these challenges that the author of Hebrews writes to the group of believers. He writes to give them a "word of exhortation" (13:22), a rhetorical sermon in written form (Bruce 25). Other than persecution and a lack of regular attendance at their assembly (10:25), exactly what issues the addressees were dealing with is not clear in the text. From the author's responses to the problems, they may have included Jewish pressure, pagan opposition, and various theological doubts. Attridge sees the author as conceiving of the threat to the community in "two broad but interrelated categories, external pressure or 'persecution' (10:36-12:13) and a waning commitment to the community's confessed faith." (Attridge 13) The epistle is addressed to believers in Christ who were therefore in danger of becoming lax.

    The aim of Hebrews has been interpreted in many ways, often focusing on just one particular aspect of the text, to the exclusion of others. One prominent example is a view which focuses on the comparison and contrast between Christ and the old covenant while mostly ignoring the paraenetical program (ABD III, 99). Indeed Bruce interprets Hebrews as being unified around the finality of the gospel in contrast to what came before it (Bruce 29) with little account for the hortative sections. Attridge's method of approaching Hebrews as a "combination of doctrinal exposition and paraenesis" (Attridge 21) is more balanced and true to the text. Considered below are the christology of the author, the paraenesis that goes hand in hand with that christology, and the use of scripture that propels his arguments and implicitly validates scripture itself. Other theological issues such as soteriology, eschatology, and concepts of the law are secondary to these major themes and, for lack of space, will not be discussed herein.

    "… [T]he major doctrinal element of the text [is] its elaborate and distinctive christology." (Attridge 25) Christ is presented as the eternal and exalted Son (1:1-4; 1:13; 7:3; 13:8), a suffering servant who is also fully human (2:10-18), a high priest "according to the order of Melchizedek" (4:14-5:10; 7:1-28), and (closely related) the atoning sacrifice for sin, replacing the yearly sacrifice of Israel's high priest and establishing a new covenant (chap. 8-10). (ABD III, 100-102) Inherent in these descriptions of Christ are several unresolved antinomies. The text has both "high" and "low" christologies, with his divine and eternal status (1:1-3) yet human nature and need for exaltation (1:5-13) both affirmed. As High Priest, the Son is also affirmed both as the exalted Christ (7:26; 8:4; 9:24) and as functioning in that office on earth (2:17; 10:5-10). Attridge points out the importance of ecclesiastical tradition in understanding the christology of Hebrews and these discrepancies. The author bases his christology on what had already been taught (5:12) and was confessed (3:1) in the community (Attridge 25-26). The very nature of Christ as displayed throughout scripture satisfies these antinomial difficulties - Christ is both God and man (cf. Rom. 1:3-4, 9:5). Hebrews simply looks at the Son from varying perspectives.

    It is the priesthood of Christ that is most emphasized in this epistle and that is somewhat unique to Hebrews. This is the only New Testament document in which Christ is expressly called a priest, although it is inferred in others. One source of the author's view of Christ as a priest comes from the Old Testament, especially Psalm 110. Bruce notes that this reference alone could not have accounted for the designation - it was also essential for the nature of Christ to be consistent with that of a priest (Bruce 29-30). Because the author's christology is also based upon what the believers had already been taught, it is interesting to note that the title of high priest must have already been a part of the ecclesiastical tradition (Attridge 26). Priesthood is inseparably tied to sacrifice and as the high priest Jesus became the final sacrifice for all time and established a new covenant (10:10; Bruce 29-31). As a priest in the order of Melchizedek, Christ is part of an order separate from the Levitic order. His sacrifice is therefore also of a separate order - a sacrifice to end all sacrifices. He is a priest that ministers on the believers' behalf in the very throne room of God (9:11-14,24).

    The paraenetic sections of Hebrews cannot be ignored. They are deeply tied to the author's christology, both supporting and flowing from it. This is shown in one way by the many uses of "therefore" to shift between the two, including 2:1, 3:1,7, 4:1, 6:1, 10:19, and 12:1. The paraenetic transition of 4:14-16 presents two types of exhortation that run throughout the text: "let us hold fast" and "let us approach". "Static" consistency and perseverance in living the "Christian" life as it has been received are taught on one hand: "do not drift away" (2:1); "hold fast to the confession" (10:23); "run with perseverance" (12:1). The recipients are also called to more "dynamic" action: "let us approach" God for aid (10:22); "make every effort" to enter God's rest (4:11); "go" out to bear the suffering that may be necessary (12:12-13) (Attridge 21-22). "If one element serves to focus the overall paraenetic program of Hebrews it is the exhortation to be faithful." (Attridge 22) The main subject of the first lengthy paraenetic section is faithfulness in 3:1 - 4:13 and the discourse on faith is more fully developed in chapter eleven. The faith discussed there has both a cognitive aspect and a fidelity aspect, reflecting both the "static" and "dynamic" foci mentioned above.

    The author of Hebrews makes great use of the Old Testament scriptures and thereby shows his reverence for and dependence on them, a theological statement in itself. The scriptures are quoted directly, summarized, and referred to throughout the letter. Bruce attributes this to the sermon form that the letter takes; just as a homily would be based on one or more texts, so is the letter (Bruce 25-26). The form in which the Old Testament is quoted is that of the LXX, with various deviations, some probably intentionally selected to meet the author's purposes.. The Hebrews author sees the Old Testament as a divine oracle. Both direct statements of God and other words originally in the mouths of others such as Moses and David are ascribed directly to God and sometimes to Christ. The Old Testament is also treated as a mystery which awaits explanation - an explanation he creatively provides to support his christology (Bruce 26-27). The God who spoke through the prophets has now spoken eschatologically in his son (1:1-2; ABD III, 102). The author frequently recontextualizes passages, using this as an interpretative device (Attridge 24).

    Hebrews is a work of exhortation. The author's "main point" is that "we have … a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the Majesty in the heavens…" (8:1). The recipients are exhorted to remember the teachings about Christ they have received, to see him as exalted yet a servant, both their high priest and yet the high priest's sacrifice for their sins. Being reminded of the very nature of the Christ they are exhorted to remain steadfast in that faith and to press on in relationship with God until they enter his final rest. "I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, bear with my work of exhortation, for I have written to you briefly.… Grace be with all of you." (13:22,25)


1 The author is male, as shown by the masculine pronoun used in 11:32 (Attridge 5).
2 The title of "Letter to the Hebrews" is considered a later addition based upon ancient conjecture (Attridge 12).


References Cited

Attridge, Harold W.
  1989    The Epistle to the Hebrews: A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews. Hermeneia. Philadelphia: Fortress.
  1992    "Epistle to the Hebrews." In The Anchor Bible Dictionary. D. N. Freedman, ed. Vol. 3, pp. 97-105. New York: Doubleday.

Bruce, F. F.
  1990    The Epistle to the Hebrews: The English Text with Introduction, Exposition and Notes. Rev. edition. New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans.

National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States of America.
  1989    The Holy Bible. New Revised Standard Version. Urbana 1993 edition. New York: American Bible Society.

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