Creation in The Letter to the Hebrews


(system) #1

The document we are studying does not have an epistolary introduction that identifies the author and the intended readers. It does have, however, an epistolary ending that includes the phrase “those who come from Italy send you greetings.” This has made many think that the letter was sent to Rome, and that Christians from Italy were sending greetings to friends and relatives at the capital. The author describes what he is writing as “a word of exhortation” (13:22), and alludes to exhortations contained in the Scriptures (12: 5).

We have at hand a series of exhortations with serious warnings. On the one hand it is made clear that if they abandon faith and abandon hope they will not have a second chance to repent (6: 4-8), and that the punishment of the wicked will be harsh. On the other hand, those who find themselves tempted, under tribulations, suffering, are exhorted that, if they sin, they should with confidence come near to the throne of God certain that they have a High Priest who not only is able but also eager to make effective in them the forgiveness already obtained in the heavenly sanctuary by “the blood of the eternal covenant” (13: 20).

As a brief summary, it may be said that Hebrews addresses a Christianity that is in danger of running out of gasoline, and be left stranded by the road having lost even the desire to reach the intended destination. The author is exhorting these Christians not to become discouraged, not to allow distractions to attract their will and become demoralized by the sufferings of life on earth. They must keep their eyes fixed on “the Author and Perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despised the shame (of the cross), and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (12:2). The exhortation is “that you may not grow weary or fainthearted” (12:3). On the contrary, let us be those who “forcefully seize the hope set before us, which we have as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” (6: 18-19). In other words, seeing joy ahead Jesus endured the cross and now is seated at the right hand of God. Having before us hope we must suffer the vicissitudes of earthy life to enjoy living in the heavenly Jerusalem (12:22). Hope is the anchor of the soul. It will keep us safe and steadfast, if we don’t abandon it. See to it that you don’t loose faith or hope. Hope is the road (9: 8; 10: 20) that takes us where Christ, our High Priest, is behind the veil offering his blood for the forgiveness of sins (6: 19).

Faith, on the other hand, is “the substance (hypóstasis) of things hoped for, the demonstration of things not seen” (11:1). This definition and its explication give us the key to understand Hebrews. The explication affirms: “By faith we understand that the world was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was made out of things which do not appear” (11:3). Here we are informed of two very important things. In the first place, that God created the world by “the word” is not something we know from reading Scripture. It is something we know by faith. It is not a matter of science or history. It is a matter of faith. In the second place, creation by the word did not bring into existence that which was not. Creation by the word made it possible to see that which previously was not visible, but was already in existence.

This explication should cause us to pay closer attention to the definition. Faith is the hypostasis of things hoped for (the objects of our hope), the convincing demonstration (pragmaton elegxos) of what is not seen. These technical words let us know that we are not in the Platonic world of the chain of being seeking to escape from the material world. We are in the Stoic world that considers all reality to be material. Even God is matter.

In Hebrews we read the word hypostasis three times with the meaning given it by the Stoics. They rejected Plato’s denigration of matter. Having denied the Platonic distinction between matter and form, the Stoics distinguished primary matter from matter with attributes and faculties. Thus, while every thing is material, not all matter is of the same kind. Some things are primary matter; others are matter with attributes and faculties. For the Stoics, to be (ousia) names primary matter, while hypostasis names differentiated matter, that is, matter with attributes and faculties. Both types of matter are beyond reach, invisible. Things in this kind of matter are not phenomenologically available to the senses of human beings. In summary, hypostasis names differentiated matter in the invisible, incorruptible, immovable, eternal realm. In Hebrews heavenly realities are not spiritual, immaterial, like in Colossians; they are hypostatic. Faith is what opens for us the realm in which we hope to live. On the basis of this definition, we are told that creation by the word converted hypostatic material reality into phenomenological reality, and only faith allows us to know this.

The necessity to forcefully seize the hope that faith provides is expressed somewhat cryptically. “For we become participants in Christ only if we hold firm until the end the beginning of the hypostasis” (3: 14). In other words, we will share joy with Christ if we hold firm what faith gives us (knowledge of the Creator) until the end. Hypostasis is more directly related to Christ in 1: 3. After stating that God made the universe by His Son, the Son is described as the one who “reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp (xarakter [not eikon = image]) of His hypostasis.” As already said, for the Stoics God is also a material being. God is constituted of one of the four basic elements, fire. We are not surprised, therefore, to read that “our God is consuming fire” (12: 29). Here we are told that the being of God is hypostatic, and the Son is the “stamp” (xarakter) engraved by the hypostasis of God, the track left in phenomenological matter by hypostatic matter.

It is clear, then, that in Hebrews reality is conceived in terms of parallel lines which are different. One is the immobile, eternal, material reality differentiated by attributes and faculties which is beyond our senses. The other is the phenomenological reality that suffers changes, corruption and is available to our senses. Creation brought forth the phenomenological reality, but everything in it already existed as hypostatic material reality. Faith and hope make it possible to those living in the world of the senses to seize the hypostatic world, to participate in the Sabbath rest of God, to have access to the benefits of the sacrifice that truly cleanses the conscience (9: 14), which our High Priest offers “in heaven itself,” in the sanctuary not made by hands (9: 24), with differentiated hypostatic matter, “not of this creation” (9: 11).

In Hebrews the Christian’s hope is “to enter into God’s rest”, that is, to live in unchangeable, eternal reality. This rest is one that God has been celebrating from the moment God finished the work of creation in the beginning (4:3). This rest which God enjoys in the hypostatic world has been offered to successive generations as it is said “Today” (3: 13; 4: 7). As a hypostatic reality God’s sabbatical rest, which God celebrates eternally, is available to those who hold firm their faith and hope. Therefore, the exhortation: “Let us strive to enter that rest” (4: 11).

To be noted about Hebrews is that the author envisions that “the Day is drawing near” (10: 25), and thinks he is living “in these last days” (1: 2). Still, he does not think that Christ has to have a final dramatic triumph over Satan. Christ died on the cross in order to “destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil” (2: 14). The eschatological future is established on an already existing reality, on God’s sabbatical celebration (sabatismos). This is a hypostatic reality, and those who hold firm to the faith that opens that reality to their eyes, and the hope that gives them the energy to strive on in its pursuit, will enter God’s rest. But God has also sworn that those who give up their faith and hope will never enter that rest. The rest God celebrates is the foundation of faith and hope, and the Son has opened the way to it. (For more on this theme, see my A Day of Gladness, University of South Carolina Press, the chapter on Hebrews).

Christ’ second coming (9:28), when he will be seen by those who wait for him, will be like the coming of Yahve to Mount Sinai, when the voice of God made the earth shake. Citing Haggai 2: 6, the author announces: “yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens” (12: 26). This means “the removal of what is shakable, as of what has been made, in order that what is unshakable may remain” (12: 27). Then we read this exhortation: “Let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire” (12: 28-29). In order to receive the immovable hypostatic kingdom it is necessary to remove first the movable, phenomenological realm.

The parallel cosmological realities of Hebrews are exhibited in the description of the earthly sanctuary. According to Ex. 26: 30-37, the sanctuary consists of one tent in which a veil of special materials separates the Most Holy Place from the Holy Place, and the altar of the incense is located in the Holy Place. Since the veil did not reach the ceiling of the tent, the aroma of the incense passed into the Most Holy Place. In Heb. 9, the sanctuary consists of two tents. The Holy Place is in the first tent, and the Most Holy Place in the second (9: 2, 3, 6, 7), and the altar of the incense is found in the second tent, the Most Holy Place.

This discrepancy in the descriptions of the sanctuary has puzzled many scholars, and is mostly ignored by fundamentalists. I think the explication is not difficult to understand when the cosmology of Hebrews is taken into account. Since every sanctuary is in its very essence a representation, a scaled model, of the universe, the author of Hebrews could do no other but have two tents to represent the hypostatic and the phenomenological spheres. For him, cosmology was more important than historical accuracy. He takes the altar of incense out of the Holy Place and places it in the Most Holy Place for the same reason. He who died “outside the gate” (13: 12) and passed behind the veil by his shameful death (6:19), is now offering the blood of the eternal covenant “in heaven itself,” the Most Holy Place. The Holy Place, the temple of Jerusalem, has been removed. The author interprets the fact that the earthly priests entered the Most Holy Place only once a year to mean that while the temple of Jerusalem, the first tent, stood the road to the Most Holy Place, the second tent, “was not yet discovered” (9: 7-8). In this way, he again makes a difference between what is and what is open to human eyes to see by faith.

In the symbolic universe of Hebrews the future will not establish a new heaven and a new earth, or the restoration of the Garden of Eden (one of the “things made” in the creation of the movable kingdom). The future will bring the immovable kingdom that precedes the phenomenological, shakeable, changeable world in which we now live. What emanated from primary, undifferentiated matter to hypostatic, differentiated existence is real in the manner that counts. The real world is not the world of the future. It is the world that preceded the beginning. The world of change in which we live now is the world that resulted from creation at the beginning of time. The life that will participate in God’s rest is the life to be lived in the hypostatic world, not a future yet to be created.

What makes Hebrews difficult to understand is that it envisions a future worth striving for with courage and confidence that it is neither historical nor apocalyptic. Those who have the courage, the audacity, the self confidence of hope (3: 6) can proleptically enter the unshakable kingdom already eternally in existence and find “help in time of need” (4: 16) while they continue to suffer the ups and downs and the temptations of life in the kingdom that can be shaken and will be removed, taken out of the way, in order to make way for the immovable kingdom at the second appearing of Christ. It is on this account that we can affirm that Jesus Christ, the imprint of God’s hypostasis, is “:the same yesterday and today and forever” (13: 8). Undoubtedly, in Hebrews the creation is conceived within a very particular cosmological structure.

  1. Hypostasis acquired different technical meanings in the Christological controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries. The Cappadocian Fathers spoke of God in terms of one ousia (being) in three hypostasis (realities, persons). At the Council of Chalcedon (451 C.E.) the compromised reached about the person of Christ was that he was one hypostasis (person) with two natures. This became known as the hypostatic union of the human and the divine natures. This was extraordinary because it was thought that each manifestation of a “nature” could only be in its own hypostasis.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/2765