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The Cross is not the end

by
28 March 2024

The Epistle to the Hebrews is key to our understanding of Easter, suggests Jonathan Rowlands

Alamy

The Sacrifice of Melchizedek (detail): mosaic in the sixth-century Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare, in Classe, Ravenna

The Sacrifice of Melchizedek (detail): mosaic in the sixth-century Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare, in Classe, Ravenna

“JESUS died for your sins.” There is a good chance of hearing something like this in church over the days ahead. God loves humanity so much that he sent his Son to die; and, on the cross, Jesus took the punishment for sin, serving the sentence in our place — or so the story goes.

But this is not the full story, at least, not according to one book of the New Testament: the Epistle to the Hebrews. This tells another story about who Jesus is and how he has dealt with sin. For Hebrews, Easter is not the end of the story, but the beginning.

 

HEBREWS is a difficult read. Intricately written, it demands much of its readers. On even a quick skim, however, it becomes clear that it has a great deal of discussion about priesthood and presents Jesus as high priest. But this poses a problem. Leviticus (the crucial Old Testament text about priesthood) says that only men of the tribe of Levi can be priests. Jesus does not qualify: “Our Lord was descended from Judah, and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests” (Hebrews 7.14).

What to do? The author cannot rewrite history. He needs another way to discuss Jesus as priest. Enter Melchizedek. Melchizedek offers a way of understanding Jesus’s priesthood. Jesus is not a priest like the priests in Leviticus: instead, he is a priest “according to the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 7.17, quoting Psalm 110.4).

Melchizedek is mentioned more times in Hebrews than in the entire Old Testament, where he is an obscure figure. Other than in Psalm 110.4 (referred to above), Melchizedek appears only in Genesis 14.18-20. That’s it.

Melchizedek turns up rather abruptly in Genesis. He is a king and a priest, but —unusually — lacks ancestry, and disappears as suddenly as he appeared. Because of his mysterious origins, people began to view Melchizedek as an eternal figure.

This is what Hebrews thinks, too. Being “without father, without mother, without genealogy”, Melchizedek had “neither beginning of days nor end of life”, and so “remains a priest for ever” (Hebrews 7.3).

Melchizedek, then, is crucial in Hebrews. Like Jesus, Melchizedek cannot be a priest through ancestry: he has none. Like Jesus, Melchizedek has eternal life. Jesus’s eternal life, however, comes through resurrection. Death no longer has power over Jesus, and this grants him “the power of an indestructible life” (Hebrews 7.16).

Hebrews, therefore, depicts Jesus as an eternal high priest “according to the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 7.17), through his resurrection life. Crucially, Jesus’s priestly work includes dealing with sin. From the outset, Hebrews emphasises how Jesus “makes purification for sins” (Hebrews 1.3). This is priestly language.

Crucially, also, this tells us something about Easter. Jesus deals with sin as high priest; Jesus becomes high priest through resurrection. Jesus, then, can deal with sin only after his resurrection, and not on the cross. This might be a troubling thought, especially at Easter. Hebrews, however, offers, instead, a better story of Jesus’s victory over sin.

To understand it, we must return to Leviticus. We cannot understand Hebrews without understanding Leviticus’s key ritual: Yom Kippur (“Day of Atonement”). Yom Kippur is the only time when high priests enter the Holy of Holies, the innermost tabernacle area where God dwells most intensely. The high priest collects the blood of sacrificial animals, sprinkling it in the Holy of Holies.

In ancient thought, blood contains life: “The life of the flesh is in the blood . . . as life, it is the blood that makes atonement” (Leviticus 17.11). In Yom Kippur, Israel and the animal are connected. The animal’s life is brought (by means of its blood) into God’s presence. As the animal is purified, so, too, is Israel.

Crucially, the animal’s life (not its death) is the sacrifice. It is not killing the animal which makes atonement: bringing the animal’s blood — its life — into the Holy of Holies does. This is crucial.

 

IN HEBREWS, Jesus deals with sin through his own Yom Kippur ritual, but there are some important differences. First, the location: in Leviticus, Yom Kippur happens in the earthly tabernacle. In Hebrews, Jesus “did not enter the tent made by human hands”: instead, he “entered into heaven itself” (Hebrews 9.24). Whereas, in Leviticus, Yom Kippur takes place on earth, in Hebrews, Jesus performs this ritual in heaven, “in the presence of God” (Hebrews 9.24).

Second, the high priest: in Leviticus, Yom Kippur is repeated annually. As high priests die, new ones are appointed. It is not so with Jesus. Having eternal life, he remains high priest for ever.

Finally, the sacrifice: Jesus enters heaven “not with the blood of goats and calves”, as in Leviticus, “with his own blood” (Hebrews 9.13), shed on the cross. Not only is Jesus high priest: he is also the sacrifice. His death is a vital part of atoning for sin, but this atonement is not complete until Jesus’s blood is brought into God’s presence.

And so, every aspect of Jesus’s Yom Kippur is more effective. It happens in heaven rather than on earth. Jesus is an eternal high priest rather than a mortal. Jesus offers himself rather than animals. A better place, a better priest, a better sacrifice.

This raises an uncomfortable point. Hebrews is often branded “supersessionist”. Supersessionism is the idea that the Church has replaced — superseded — Israel as God’s covenant people.This idea is anti-Semitic, and is to be condemned as such.

You can probably see why some view Hebrews as supersessionist. If Jesus performs a better Yom Kippur, why bother with the old one? If Jesus is the “mediator of a better covenant” (Hebrews 8.6), why concern ourselves with the old covenant and the people with whom God made it? But this is a wrong reading of Hebrews. The God who “spoke through the prophets” is the one who “speaks through the Son” (Hebrews 1.1-2). Hebrews’ story of atonement is deeply embedded in Jewish thought: Jesus’s defeat of sin depends on it. This demands that the Church engage more deeply and more charitably with the thought of our Jewish neighbours. There is no Church without Israel, no Hebrews without Leviticus.

In his heavenly Yom Kippur, then, Jesus deals with sin for good. Having done so, he waits in God’s presence until his return.

 

WHY does this matter? What’s wrong with looking to the cross? It is important, because Hebrews gives us a bigger picture of who Jesus is. It is a picture worth remembering as we celebrate Easter.

Specifically, Hebrews’ depiction of Jesus matters because, first, it shows the security of salvation. Jesus’s Yom Kippur is an unrepeatable, irreversible atonement. Jesus does not “offer himself again and again”, but atones for sin “once for all” (Hebrews 9.25-26). Your sin is not more powerful than Jesus’s atonement — never will be, never could be. If that’s not good news, then I don’t know what is.

Second, Hebrews explains other aspects of the New Testament. If Jesus’s death on the cross deals with sin, what need is there for his resurrection, or ascension, or anything else? Instead, what Jesus offers by bringing his blood into heaven is not his death, but his whole life. His entire life — from birth to death, from resurrection to ascension — is offered to the Father for us.

Every second of Jesus’s perfect, obedient human life is an indispensable part of his resolving sin. Jesus didn’t come to earth to die: he came to live. Everything about his life on earth — his teachings, his miracles, how he interacted with the people around him — all aspects of Jesus’s perfect life contribute to his becoming the perfect Yom Kippur sacrifice and high priest.

We should, then, reflect on Jesus’s whole life. When focusing solely on Jesus’s death, we reduce him to less than he must be to atone for sin. Jesus’s life is not a footnote to his death: all aspects of Jesus’s life are equally important, equally necessary. Hebrews gives us a better picture than a man hanging from a cross.

Third, Hebrews explain why prayer works. Jesus becomes high priest through resurrection. He, therefore, remains a priest for ever, waiting in the Father’s presence in heaven.

This Jesus, who achieved salvation by bringing his own blood into heaven itself, is the one through whom we pray. This Jesus hears our requests, sees our distresses, and prays to the Father for us. This Jesus “always lives to make intercession” for us as high priest (Hebrews 7.25),

Hebrews does not offer us theology in abstract. Jesus the eternal high priest demonstrates the certainty of salvation, the purpose of Jesus’s whole life, the effectiveness of prayer.

 

THE work of Jesus did not finish on the cross: Good Friday is not the end. Only through resurrection — only because of resurrection — was Jesus made high priest. Only then could Jesus offer his whole life as heavenly Yom Kippur sacrifice.

In allowing the otherness of Hebrews to speak, we encounter Jesus afresh, in all his otherness. Jesus is stranger, and yet more beautiful, than we imagine. He is more than his death: he is his life. That is good news indeed!

 

Dr Jonathan Rowlands is Graduate Tutor and Lecturer in Theology at St Mellitus College.

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