'A devotional commentary'. Because 'every scripture inspired of God is also profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instruction which is in righteousness' (2 Tim. 3:16), therefore the chief object of a devotional commentary must be to exhibit the manner in which inspiration worked for these results.
It is not a commentary in which honest exposition is sacrificed to any supposed interest of edification, as when a truth, however precious, is evolved from a text of which the meaning is not that. It is one in which the detailed examination of critical questions—although, even in the interest of edification itself, such work is all-important—is not aimed at, but rather an examination of the main lines of thought, the march and tendency of the argument, and the connection between the inspired writer's logic and his exposition.
The writer of this little book has stated the argument as plainly as he knew how, when it was clear to his own mind. When he felt really doubtful (as in the famous question, 'Testament or Covenant', ix. 15-18), he has not shrunk from laying the difficulty before his readers, holding that no 'devotional' end can be attained by being less than frank.
He has placed at the head of every few verses something which is not quite a paraphrase, and certainly does not pretend to be a new translation. It may perhaps be accused of sharing the faults of both. It has endeavoured, even at the cost of overstatement, to exhibit in English words, what the original is often able to imply by some touch too light and fleeting to be exactly reproduced.
G. A. DERBY and RAPHOE.
The Epistle to the Hebrews is unique, in authorship, in style, and in subject. It can easily be shown that the mind of St Paul had a great influence in producing it. But it is just as easy to prove that St Paul himself did not write it, and could not have done so. In the first verse there are two words which he never employs, and a third which he employs with a different shade of meaning. Nor is it conceivable that he, who strenuously insists that his Gospel is not of man nor by man, and that he is an Apostle having seen the Lord, should have written as one to whom the truth was confirmed by them that heard, and authenticated by their signs and wonders (2:4).
Nevertheless it is the work of some member of the Pauline school. The resemblances to his style are striking, and only to be reconciled with the striking differences by the belief that it was the writing of a disciple who treasured lovingly his master's thought, and even at times reproduced his phrases, while his individuality remained unimpaired.
And this is edifying as well as interesting. We see the great convictions by which the Apostle lived, the Incarnation, the Atonement, the Intercession of our Lord, faith, justification and judgment, influencing another mind, taking new form and colour, expressing themselves otherwise, finding other support in the Old Testament, and yet continuing to be essentially the same. It is a fine example of how much difference in statement, how much originality and independence, are consistent with a loving allegiance to the same Gospel.
The truths by which we live will resound through the depths of our individuality: it is only those to which we give a tame assent that we shall tamely reproduce as we received them.
The Epistle to the Hebrews may abound in Pauline words and proof texts: the traces of Paul's influence may lie everywhere upon the surface of it; yet as we read it we shall know that it is another great soul which is addressing ours, and unveiling fresh and profound realities of the Gospel.
It is indeed, with all its discipleship, and loyalty to the common truth, a curiously different intelligence. Less eager and passionate than the master, it is more balanced and antithetical and much more rhetorical. One speaks of Jesus sitting at the right hand of God: the other, at the right hand of the throne of the majesty in the heavens. St Paul tells us that the Jew had much advantage every way, 'first—' but this first advantage carries him so far, that he does not return to tell us of any second. This Epistle methodically proves the superiority of Christ, first to the angels, and then to Moses, and thus clears its way to the main theme, His superiority to the Aaronic priesthood: it formally announces each proposition in turn before proving it: and after proving, applies it to the conscience with an exhortation.
Few things are more difficult than to make a satisfactory precis of an Epistle of St Paul, and many readers take to themselves the comfort of this text and that, without any glimmer of perception of its place in a connected argument—which is nevertheless there, though unsuspected. But no one fails to recognise the stately progress of thought in the Epistle to the Hebrews.
Most remarkable of all is the central theme itself—the Priesthood of Christ after the order of Melchizedek. That our Lord does for us what it was the function of a priest to do—this is familiar to every reader of St Paul. But he never once connects it with the function of a priest, and never quotes the text which lay so ready for his controversial purposes, which thrusts aside the Aaronic priesthood and replaces it with another imperishable order. This is remarkable indeed. It shows how completely this Hebrew of Hebrews had broken with his past ways of thought and worship.
It shows the range and amplitude of the Gospel, that so much of the significance of the Old Dispensation would have remained unstated—though plainly implied—were it not for the Epistle to the Hebrews.
God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets,2.
Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds;3.
Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high;4.
Being made so much better than the angels, as he hath by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they.5.
For unto which of the angels said he at any time, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee? And again, I will be to him a Father, and he shall be to me a Son?6.
And again, when he bringeth in the first-begotten into the world, he saith, And let all the angels of God worship him.7.
And of the angels he saith, Who maketh his angels spirits, and his ministers a flame of fire.8.
But unto the Son he saith, Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever: a sceptre of righteousness is the sceptre of thy kingdom.9.
Thou hast loved righteousness, and hated iniquity; therefore God, even thy God, hath anointed thee with the oil of gladness above thy fellows.10.
And Thou, Lord, in the beginning hast laid the foundation of the earth; and the heavens are the works of thine hands:11.
They shall perish; but thou remainest; and they all shall wax old as doth a garment;12.
And as a vesture shalt thou fold them up, and they shall be changed: but thou art the same, and thy years shall not fail.13.
But to which of the angels said he at any time, Sit on my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool?14.
Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation?
Greater Than the Angels
God having of old times spoken unto the fathers in the prophets by sundry portions and in divers manners, hath at the end of these days spoken unto us in His Son, Whom He hath appointed Heir of all things, by Whom also He made the ages, Who being the effulgence of His glory and the very image of His substance, and upholding all things by the word of His power.
The same God, having long ago spoken unto the fathers in the prophets, not through their lips as through a passive instrument, but in them as in vital agents, nor ever perfectly, since no such agent could utter his whole message, no, but in fragments, as the comprehension of each lesson prepared the scholars for the next, and in divers manners (by types and laws, prophecies, histories and legends) now, when such days are ending (at the dawn of a new age) spake to us decisively and finally, in One Who differs from those messengers of fragmentary truth, being His Son.
The growth of grace in men is progressive: the children of the Kingdom are good seed. So is the vocation of the Church: it has learned to war in succession against slavery, torture, ignorance, not only to defend but to assert the full rights of woman and of the poor; and it is almost half awake to its duty toward the heathen. The doctrine of development was recognised earlier in religion than in physics. More than this, the faith of Christ is itself a development. The New Covenant is not entirely new; it is the unfolding and spiritualising of principles which lay implicit in the Old, as colour and fragrance lurk in an unopened bud.
Now this Epistle, more than any except perhaps that to the Galatians, affirms the absolute repeal, and even to us the worthlessness of the old system. It decayeth and waxeth old, and is ready to vanish away. It is weak and unprofitable. Even in its day it made nothing perfect. It would have been easy for such a teacher to disparage it overmuch. But there was a Spirit in him to reveal its real function. It was, according to St Paul, the slave who led the child to his true teacher Christ, and carried his books and slate for him (Gal. 3:24). It made nothing perfect, but was the bringing in of a better hope, says this Epistle. It was preparatory, educational. And to discharge its office, it had to be line upon line and precept upon precept.
Many difficulties vanish if we remember this. The fierce indignation which refused quarter to the Canaanites, and which burns in the Imprecatory Psalms, is not for us. It was indignation against the bad, when the Gospel which might reclaim the worst was not yet ready, nor men ready to receive it. Some commandments were given because of the hardness of men's hearts. And if we ask 'How then shall we discriminate? What is superseded? What is permanent?' there is a distinct answer. That is permanent which has been taken up into the New Dispensation and assimilated there. And this message, we read, came in fragments, and by various devices, which statement is an apt introduction for what follows concerning Priest and Sacrifice, the Veil and the Holiest place of all.
But the process was now closing. The God Who thus spake long ago, spoke to us, we read, at the close of these days, that is to say, when the epoch of progressive revelation is coming to an end, and a new age about to open. The old order is giving place to new. There are still priests who offer according to the law. Judaism is not gone, but it is ready to vanish away. In other words, this Epistle was written just before the destruction of Jerusalem, and prepared its readers for the shock of that great catastrophe. It cannot have been written, therefore, later than the year 70.
No one writing later could have spoken as it speaks about the danger of returning to Judaism, nor have abstained from pointing his argument by the fact that Hebrew sacrifices were at an end and the Hebrew priesthood paralysed.
It follows that the unique position of the Master in this Epistle belongs to the earliest period; and it is vain to explain it by any mythical or legendary influences working even forty years after the Crucifixion.
Let us see, then, what rank was assigned to Jesus by the common consent of the author and his readers.
One Whose Nature is identical with His own, derived from it, a Son, Whom therefore He hath appointed to possess all things, not as an arbitrary gift but by virtue of His relationship, and as an inheritance; Who was His agent in the making of all the ages [all successions alike of physical phenomena and of progressive beliefs], Who was therefore before them all, begotten from everlasting and not made; Who was to God as the rays are to the sun, wherein all its splendour is apparent, and as the stamp in the wax is to the seal, answering to it line by line; Who was not only the agent in all creation from the first, but also the upholder of it all by the same word which at the beginning spake and it was done, the word of His own power.
Such is Christ. Such is the revelation of God speaking in Him, in contrast with what the prophets uttered periodically and in fragments. He reveals God, as the rays outstreaming from the sun reveal all its glory; or as the impress of a signet ring reveals every line carved upon it. And as we can conceive of an eternal Sun,—though we know this to be a mere conception—but not of a Sun without its radiance; so it is quite rational to conceive of a Son eternal as the Father is, yet deriving His existence throughout eternity from the Father. As He was the Agent of all creation, so He is of Providence—the cycles of Geology, the dispensations of religion are His work—and the same voice which said, Let there be light, and the light was, calls the dawn every morning into the eastern skies, and upholdeth all things by the word of His power. All this is meant to intensify our estimate of Christ the Revealer. He is behind and above all. It is His own work. He can explain it perfectly. He is the final utterance of God: His day is the last time.
At this point a new thought emerges. The soul requires something more than light. Merely to understand might be to despair.
Having made (by one act, not by a process) a purification of sins (in their aggregate), seated Himself (officially, and once for all, since His work was complete) on the right hand of the Majesty in the high places. Having become (in office and history, what He had always been by right of His personality) so much better (in position) than the Angels, as He hath inherited a more excellent Name than they.
'In the beginning the Word was... and the Word became flesh', wrote the Evangelist. So here we read first what the Son essentially and ever was—the fall blaze of the Divine Splendour—and what His abiding function, as the Upholder of the Universe and the Revealer to it of God; and then of His action in history, His treatment of human lapse and condemnation, and the consequent exaltation of His humanity. His making purification of sins will prove to be the central theme of the Epistle. Enough to observe now that it is the inspired summary of His whole work on earth. Not the setting of a beautiful example, not the alluring of us back from the wilderness by the charm of His love, but the purging away of sin—and the phrase distinctly implies that He dealt with the sum-total of transgression—this was the meaning of His life below. When this was done, He took His seat in that place where the kneeling cherubim veil their faces.
This is the formal statement of one of the fundamental propositions of the Book. He has become so much better than the Angels. He is worthy of more glory than Moses. He is a Priest for ever. It is hard to see how anyone can doubt the divinity of the Lord while accepting the assertion that His enthronement beside God is the measure of His superiority over the angels; and that it came to Him at the ascension by virtue of the rank He already owned as His inheritance. He is not said to have 'become better' in any ethical sense: it is the same word as when we read again that 'the less is blessed of the better' (7:7); and the ambiguity is precisely parallel with our own use of the word 'superior'. This phrase, 'having become better than the Angels', is the antithesis of that in the next chapter—'made lower than the Angels for a little while' (2:9).
For, unto which of the Angels saith He at any time, Thou art My Son, this day have I Myself begotten Thee (Ps. 2:7)? and again, I will be to Him a Father and He shall be to Me a Son (2 Sam. 7:14), and when He again (as a new step in the process) bringeth the Firstborn into the world (into that over which He had hitherto presided, the administration, the ordered course of things) He saith, and let all the Angels of God worship Him (Ps. 96:7, lxx.; Deut. 32:43, lxx.).
'Unto which of the Angels?' No such title, the verse means to say, is given to distinguish any individual Angel. It is true that the Angels collectively are called Sons of God (Ps. 29:1; 89:6), and so is that nation which was a type of the Messiah, and because it was a type of Him (Hos. 11:1). So too the promise in the second quotation was made primarily to Solomon, who also typified the Prince of Peace, and who, for his own part, by transgression, left the promise unenjoyed. These shadowy approximations, like our own relationship to God (so dear, yet only adoptive at the best), what are they to the emphatic 'My Son art Thou', and to the great assertion 'I Myself have begotten Thee'? Here only in this Epistle God is called by the name of 'Father', but it is implied, and implied for us, in the question, What Son is He Whom the Father chasteneth not? It is said this day have I begotten Thee, and not in the infinite past, because the relationship is eternal. Thus also Jesus Himself made the assertion in the present tense, 'The Father loveth the Son and showeth Him all things.... Whatsoever He seeth the Father do, the same doeth the Son likewise'.
This clearly asserted truth must not be set aside without attention, because it is mysterious. This much at least we can see clearly, that love, and the mutual joy of giving and receiving, lie far beyond creation, enshrined eternally in the very nature of the Deity.
He Who was the 'Effulgence of His splendour' is the incarnate love of God, shining into our hearts.
And of the Angels He saith, Who maketh His Angels winds and His ministers flame of fire (Ps. 103:4). But to the Son He saith, Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever, a sceptre of righteousness is the sceptre of Thy kingdom (Ps. 105:6).
To the Son He has given His own Name: the Angels are called by the name of the wild and strong forces of the universe, storm and fire. For God is in nature: His agents work the changes which we call elemental: our faith needs only to be a little stronger, and we should own the work of mysterious and holy Beings in the tornado that sweeps the ocean, and the volcano that shakes the world.
Wind and fire, so intermittent, changeful, and with such mixed result, while they change, He is for ever; and while they are messengers He sitteth on the throne judging aright. He is eternal, but they are created things. 'He maketh His Angels winds'.
Some difficulty has been raised about the phrase 'Thy throne, O God'. It is undeniable that these words are a grammatical and natural rendering both of the Hebrew and the Greek. It will scarcely be asserted that apart from doctrine any other would have been thought of. And it is certain also that the rendering 'Thy throne is God for ever and ever' introduces a notion strange in itself, without any parallel in Scripture, and especially unsuitable when we have just learned that He sits at the right hand of God. It is enough to add that words entirely capable of the higher meaning would never have been addressed, in such a context, to any mere mortal or mere creature.
And yet this great Being has accepted a place within the Universe which He governs. We shall presently have to consider much fuller statements of His voluntary partnership with man, His share in human conflict and temptation, but this is already implied in the verse which follows:—
Thou hast loved righteousness and hated iniquity, therefore God, Thy God, hath anointed Thee with the oil of gladness above Thy fellows.
Into the midst of a demonstration of Christ's inherent superiority comes the mention of conflict,—a wickedness to be hated and enemies who shall become His footstool—and in the act of learning how much He was above the Angels we are taught that men are His fellows. This is the first hint of the great doctrine of atoning condescension which forms the central part of the Epistle. A great commentator says indeed that neither men nor Angels are specified as His fellows, because the intention is to include both. But this is surely wrong, for when the idea is expanded, we read that He taketh not hold of Angels (for their rescue), but of the seed of Abraham He taketh hold (2:16).
So, then, the Supreme is here revealed as condescending to the limitations of the creature, and not for pain only but also for its compensations. And since the highest and purest nature must always be the most sensitive, and sin degrades and makes callous, therefore, at the enthronement of our elder Brother, the consecrated oil of joy which anointed Him was far above all other joy. Who shall say how far? His humanity is filled and flooded with conscious participation with the Divine. For the joy that was set before Him He endured the cross, despising shame.
Another citation follows, which has to do, not with the rapture of His mortal victory, but with His eternal pre-existence and immutability.
Thou, Lord, at the first didst found the earth; and the heavens are works of Thy hands. They shall perish; but Thou abidest; and they all shall grow old as a garment; and as a robe shalt Thou fold them up, as a garment, and they shall be changed; but Thou art the same and Thy years shall not fail.
He said, 'I am the first and the last'. At the first He created all that is. Through the ages we have been taught that He upholdeth all things by the word of His power. Now we learn that what seems like wreck and ruin is not the failure of His providence, but its entrance upon other processes: at the end He shall transform it all. Nothing is really spoiled. When the material universe is spoken of alone, we seem to read a death-sentence: 'They shall perish'; but when He is taken into account, these things are as a precious robe which He folds up, and they shall not be destroyed but changed. Amid these changes He remains. It is not written that He shall abide, He shall be the same, for the soul of that Timeless Immutability has passed into the phrase; and as Jehovah said to Moses I AM, so it is written, Thou remainest: Thou art the same.
Unto which of the Angels said He at any time, Sit thou on My right hand until I plant thine enemies a footstool of thy feet (Ps. 110:1). Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth unto service (which they render to God) through them that shall inherit salvation?
Where are the Angels bidden to sit enthroned while God vindicates their cause for them? It is the reverse: they are, from time to time as need arises, sent as messengers upon God's service. And this service is rendered to Him through us: what they do for the saints He accepts as done for Him; even as Christ has declared that He accepts our service of one another.
The dignity of Christ's people, by virtue of which this is so, is expressed in a subtle and beautiful phrase. Christ is inheritor of all things. He hath received by inheritance a more excellent name than they. Now an inheritance is the natural expression for what is given, not to reward labour, nor as the spoil of battle, nor as an alms from mere compassion, but freely and by reason of a tie which the heart has owned. We are thus to inherit salvation. And He who admits us to this privilege sends high messengers from other worlds to deliver us from danger known or unknown, from the crafts and assaults of Satan, and to lead us to that homeland of all His people where at last salvation shall be perfected.
In the Revelation St John saw them busy upon this task, crying, 'Hurt not the earth, nor the sea, nor the trees, till we have sealed the servants of our God in their foreheads'. And such service we are told is rendered by them 'all'. Surely we are reminded of the angels of tempest and of flame, so lately mentioned, and are taught that salvation comes not only when all is benign and calm: that the height is not ours more truly than the depth, nor life than death; but all alike are ours if we are Christ's.
Wherefore, the second chapter says, Let us see that this is so.