For surely it is not angels [Jesus] helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.
Hebrews 2:16-17 (NIV)
One of the most important things to remember when journeying through a 2,000 year-old letter is historical context. The author of Hebrews is writing to fellow Hebrews around the years 67-70 A.D. The temple in Jerusalem where Jesus taught and threw out the money changers is still in existence and the sacrificial system is operating full steam. Jews of that day would be well acquainted with the sacrificial practices, the importance of priesthood, and the political and religious power of the High Priest. Most Jews would have made pilgrimage to the temple at least once in their lives.
The author of Hebrews began their letter by saying they were going to address the question of “Who is Jesus?” Now they begin to fill in the answer. Jesus was Creator made fully human in order to become High Priest and make atonement for the people. The readers of the original letter were well aware that in the sacrificial system established in the Law of Moses. There was one High Priest, the only one permitted to enter the intimate “Holy of Holies” in the temple once a year to stand before God and make atonement for the sins of the nation. The high priest was the representative, the conduit who made sacrifice for the people, one for all.
The language of God is metaphor, and for first century Hebrews the word picture the author of the letter is making is powerful and clear. The system defined by the Law of Moses was a precursor, a waypoint, and a word picture pointing to what would be fulfilled in the sacrificial death of Jesus and His resurrection. This was a huge paradigm shift in thought for the Hebrews of that day (Jesus’ followers included). The popular opinion was that Messiah would be a triumphant geo-political powerhead that lifted the Hebrew people to the top of the temporal, earthly food-chain. The author of Hebrews is beginning to unpack Messiah as cosmic high priest and sacrificial lamb who would lift any who believed to a right-relationship with God in God’s eternal Kingdom.
By the way, within a generation the writing of the Book of Hebrews the word pictures the author is making would forever lose some of the power they had with the original readers. Shortly after the writing of the letter the Roman Empire, in 70 A.D., destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and burned the genealogical records essential to establishing who among them were Levites qualified to care for the temple and who among them were sons of Aaron qualified to be priests and make sacrifices. Despite a few abandoned attempts to reestablish the sacrificial system in other locations, the fullness of the sacrificial system established by Moses was essentially dead, and has remained so for 2000 years.
“Old things pass away, new things come.”
This morning I’m thinking about perceptions and paradigms of thought about God. The Hebrews who read today’s words for the first time had their own experiences, beliefs, and preconceived notions. The truth is that I have my own. God’s Message describes the followers of Jesus ever growing and maturing in their relationship with Jesus and their understanding of God. I’ve found the same to be true on my own life journey following Jesus. Who I perceived Jesus to be when I began this journey as a young teenager is different than perception today. My own understanding of, and my relationship with, Christ continues ever to grow, expand, and deepen.
That’s what living things do.