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OTHER LETTERS: Hebrews

So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and favor and to find help in the time of need.
Hebrews 4:16

When was the last time you boldly approached God, handing over your needs, asking for help? Usually we take the approach the animated God complains about in Monty Python and the Holy Grail: a bunch of moaning and groveling and saying “I’m not worthy.” Okay, since we know we are sinners in need of God’s grace, how can we approach the “throne of grace” boldly? Isn’t that presumptuous? The reason we can, according to the author of the letter to the Hebrews, is because in Christ we have a high priest who has suffered along with us and who understands us.

While it is uncertain who the writer of this epistle is (definitely not St. Paul), or which particular Christian community is being addressed, it is certain from the text that the community is one beset with a number of problems. These were Christians facing persecution in the outer world and dealing with burn-out within the community. These are problems many churches can relate to today, especially when it comes to internal fatigue. Hebrews is structured less as a letter, as it is missing the introductory greetings and messages, and more as a sermon sent to a distant group of followers.

In the same way a sermon would, the epistle refers extensively to Scripture. One interesting reference is to Christ as a priest in the order of Melchizedek. Because Jesus was not a Levite, he could not have been an ordinary priest in the Jewish tradition; but he is given a special priesthood like Melchizedek. Hebrews makes the point very clear that in Christ we have a high priest who is compassionate and who brings forth the new covenant (this “new covenant” thinking is controversial today— see supersessionism).

It would have been very important for the Christians of the time to hear that Jesus is close to them and understanding of them. In difficult times the potential for a fall from faith is great. The writer of this sermon is attempting to prevent such a crisis of faith, and spends a good amount of time reminding the people of examples of faith— Noah, the patriarchs of Genesis, Abraham, others.

The letter makes the point that it is because Jesus was human that divine salvation can be offered to his followers, for in becoming human he suffered humiliation and death. The seemingly contradictory relation between death and eternal life, and humiliation and glory, is at the heart of Christianity, and here the author emphasizes these ideas. Christ became lower than the angels in order to receive the greatest glory through death and resurrection.

The challenge to renew and commit to one’s faith given in the letter to the Hebrews is a challenge faced by a large number of Christians today. It is when we are most exhausted, worried, and worn out that it is important to come, not tentatively, but boldly before the throne to receive grace.

Melchizedek
In Genesis 14:18-20, Melchizedek is the king of Salem, also called “a priest of God Most High.” He offers bread and wine to praise God and celebrate Abraham’s victory over his enemies. In Christian thinking, the incident is seen as a precursor to the Eucharist.

Supersessionism
The line of thinking present in the letter to the Hebrews and much later Christian thought that the covenant established by Jesus takes the place of the covenant God made with Moses and the Israelites at Mount Sinai. In contemporary times, evangelical Christians still hold to this while Catholic teaching (along with some mainline Protestant groups) has rejected it. Pope John Paul II has said that the covenant of God with the Jews is still in effect since God doesn’t break his promises.

 
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