NT Eschatology—Letters 11
As we continue on in our study of New Testament eschatology (the first post can be found here), we’ll now turn our attention to the letter to the Hebrews.1
This letter was, for a long time, one of those “locked books” for me. It seemed that there was something deeper going on than just “Jesus is the fulfillment of the Mosaic Law.” But, for the life of me, I couldn’t get very deep.
And then I discovered eschatology and the floodgates opened.
Or, perhaps, I should say that I discovered a historic eschatology. That is, an eschatology that has been a part of the ancient church for a long, long time. I started to see that Jesus fulfilling the law was only the beginning. There was so much more to that statement—about what it meant for the ancient Hebrew people, the first followers of The Way of Jesus, generations of future followers, and creation itself. And about when it would all be fulfilled. All of that is packed into the letter to the Hebrews. And its impact is felt right in the opening…
In the past, God spoke through the prophets to our ancestors in many times and many ways. In these final days, though, God spoke to us through a Son.
Please note that the writer places the earthly ministry of Jesus “in these final days.” Most naturally, the question is, “The ‘final days’ of what?” Obviously, it’s not the “final days” of creation. So, what could it mean? The writer tells us explicitly later on:
Jesus has now appeared once at the end of the ages to get rid of sin by sacrificing himself.
The writer is quite clear: Jesus “appeared” and God spoke through him during the “final days” of the then present “age.” As we’ve seen over and over again, the “final days” refer to the end of the Old Covenant age, the end of biblical Judaism. Jesus’ death, which took place at the closing of that age, leaves little room for doubt. To suggest that we’re still living in the “final days” of the world is to turn a blind eye to very plain passages of the Bible.
But, as we’ve seen before, The Old Covenant system—sacrifices, Temple, festivals, etc.—didn’t end when Jesus was raised from the dead. According to this letter, it was still going on (eg., 5.1-4; 9.25; 10.11; notice the present tense verbs). One of the key passages is found in Hebrews 8.
After building a case that Jesus is God’s unique child and the Messiah (chapters 1-2), that he’s qualified to be high priest (chapter 3), that he leads the people into God’s rest (chapter 4), The writer starts to go deeper into the Old Covenant symbols showing their limitations (chapters 5-7). The writer then comes to chapter 8 showing that, like Paul (Galatians 3.15ff), the Old Covenant system was a temporary system pointing to something better.
But now Jesus has obtained a superior ministry, since the covenant that he mediates is also better and is enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, no one would have looked for a second one. But showing its fault, God says to them,
“Look, the days are coming, says Yahweh, when I will complete a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.
When he speaks of a new covenant, he makes the first obsolete. Now what’s growing obsolete and aging is about to disappear.
This is huge! Notice that the Old Covenant was “growing obsolete and aging” and “about to disappear” when this letter was written (in the mid 60’s CE). Once more we see that Jesus’ prediction about the destruction of the Temple still hadn’t happened yet. Therefore, like we’ve seen in other places, the expectation of “the end” that all were waiting for was the end of the Old Covenant age.
But they wouldn’t have to wait long.
But remember the earlier days, after you saw the light. You stood your ground while you were suffering from an enormous amount of pressure. Sometimes you were exposed to insults and abuse in public. Other times you became partners with those who were treated that way. You even showed sympathy toward people in prison and accepted the confiscation of your possessions with joy, since you knew that you had better and lasting possessions. So don’t throw away your confidence—it brings a great reward. You need to endure so that you can receive the promises after you do God’s will.
In a little while longer,
the one who is coming will come and won’t delay;
As we can see, the followers of Jesus to whom this letter was written were suffering heavily. According to Jesus’ predictions and the book of Acts, we know their fellow Jews who were behind it. Here, the writer tells them not to lose courage because they would be rewarded soon.
The last verse is crucial. Jesus told stories about a delay to his return (eg., Matthew 25), but he’d return to the people he left. Here, the writer of the letter to the Hebrews quotes Habakuk 2.3 and assures the recipients of the letter that there won’t be any more delay. And there wasn’t. Shortly after this letter was written, in 66 CE, the war began.
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In the Love of the Three in One,
Br. Jack+, LC
1. See here why I believe that the Letter to the Hebrews could have been written by Priscilla.
2. Scripture quotations marked (NET) are taken from the New English Translation. Copyright ©1996-2006 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.