When the Resurrection is Assumed (Hebrews)

The resurrection of Jesus is largely missing in Hebrews. Have you noticed?

So how could a preacher so committed to making sure his listeners understand what Jesus did for them say nothing about Jesus’ resurrection? For sure, the Hebrews writer believes Jesus is big stuff. This Jesus, the Son, co-created the world and is the very image of God. He is the cosmic glue that holds the world together and he is the one who made it possible the forgiveness of our sins and now sits at the right hand of God (Heb 1:3-4). So where is the resurrection?

Jesus is greater than angels, greater than Moses, and greater than Joshua. He is our great high priest who can both sympathize with our weaknesses on earth and intercede on our behalf in heaven. This high priest is of a higher order than the levitical priesthood, compared with the mysterious Melchizedek, priest of the Most High God. So, again, where is the resurrection?

Jesus’ high priesthood ushers in a new covenant—a new and living way (Heb 10:20). Even more, this High Priest, the Son, offers a better sacrifice than the blood of bulls and goats, he offers his own blood—yet not as a dead victim but as a willing and living sacrifice. Wait a moment… Did you see it?

A dead victim now a living high priest! That sounds like a resurrection had to have happened. Yes, and nearly everything said about Jesus in Hebrews assumes the resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus is the necessary assumption that makes what the Hebrews writer says about Jesus makes sense. In other words, there is no high priest without the resurrection of Jesus

What would a life be like that accepted the resurrection of Jesus as a given—as the necessary event that makes sense of our world?

Finally at the end of Hebrews, the writer offers this prayer for his reader:

May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen. (Heb 13:20-21)

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Sight Unseen (Hebrews 11)

A journey has a certain open-ended-ness to it. Those who set out on a journey usually have a certain destination in mind, yet there is also a level of uncertainty when it comes to getting there. Consequently, most of us are grateful for an “uneventful” trip—by which we mean nothing happened to prevent us from reaching our destination when we expected.

Yet no trip or journey is exactly the same every time we make it. There always remains before the traveler the potential of uncertainty. A traffic accident can change one’s journey. Road construction can change when one gets to where he or she is going. Personal illness can cause us to be a day or more behind what we had planned. Despite these and other potential challenges we usually decide the risk is worth it.

Life is a journey and faith is what we call the willingness to face the unknown. Faith is leaning into the future without knowing what lies ahead exactly. Faith is being certain about what we cannot see.

In Hebrews 11 we have a list of biblical notables who leaned into God’s future even though it was not always clear what the outcome would be. In each account there are two emphases: (1) by faith people acted “as if” God was in control; and (2) by faith they moved into an unseen future.

For example Abel, by faith, offered a better sacrifice than Cain. Abel’s goal was not to outdo Cain, but to please God, but the “unseen” result is that Abel’s example still speaks to us today. Or, take Noah. He built an ark without water to float his boat. Or, how about Abraham? He left his homeland for the unknown in search of God’s city. (Did he really know that he was looking for a city?) Or, what of Joseph? He spoke of the exodus as the Israelites were migrating to Egypt.

None of these actually found what they were looking for. The preacher of Hebrews asserts,

These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.

Did they know they were waiting for us?

True Worship (Hebrews 9.1-28)

Chapters 9 and 10 of the Letter to the Hebrews require some effort on the part of the modern reader to grasp. In this article I hope to give such a reader some help. The basic structure of these two chapters is a comparison or analogy between the ministry at the ancient tabernacle in the wilderness and Jesus’ ministry in heaven. The Hebrews writer has already established that the former is merely a shadow of the latter, which is reality. Therefore, one does not have to understand everything that is said about the “shadow” side to get the “reality” side.

For example, 9.1-10 gives a description of the ancient tabernacle. The conclusion about rituals of this ancient tabernacle: “They are only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings—external regulations applying until the time of the new order” (9.10). While this may be interesting to some, the real stuff begins in v. 11.

  • Christ is the high priest of the good things already here!
  • He went through the “perfect” tabernacle (heaven)
  • He entered not with animal blood but his own.
  • Therefore, his blood can cleanse our consciences so we can serve (like priests) the living God!
  • Furthermore, Christ is the mediator of the new covenant and
  • He died as a ransom to set people free!

These are just a few of the high points, and the important points, of Heb 9. Finally, this chapter closes with these incredible words:

But now he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him (Heb 9.26b-28)

Though the language of the text is dense, this comes through loud and clear: Jesus has paved the way for me, an unholy sinner, to stand before a righteous God. In a sense, we are saved by the “worship” of Jesus in the true tabernacle!

Jesus: A Different Kind of Priest (Hebrews 6.13-7.28)

The writer of Hebrews has a big problem. He needs to show how Jesus is our great high priest; however, everyone in his audience would know that high priests come only from the tribe of Levi. He finds a solution to this problem in Psa 110.4:

The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind: “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.”

This psalm originally celebrated God’s support of the king of Israel while also noting the king’s priestly role (see 1 Chr 15.27 where King David does priestly things). Furthermore, this psalm connects the king’s priesthood with another kind of priest, the mysterious Melchizedek.

Outside of Hebrews and Psa 110, the only other reference to Melchizedek is Genesis 14.18-20.

Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High,
and he blessed Abram, saying,

“Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
Creator of heaven and earth.
And blessed be God Most High,
who delivered your enemies into your hand.”

Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything. (Genesis 14.18–20 NIV)

Three verses—that’s it. And those three verses are plopped in the middle of a story about how Abraham defeated five tribal chiefs to rescue his nephew Lot. Thus, just as these verses seem to come out of nowhere, so does Melchizedek.

Melchizedek (whose name is King + Righteousness in Hebrew) the king of Salem (the word for Peace) is a priest of El Elyon (God Most High) who for no reason mentioned blesses Abraham. After the blessing, Abraham gives Melchizedek a tenth of his spoils from the tribal chiefs. Then, just as suddenly, Melchizedek disappears from the Bible until Psa 110.

The preacher of Hebrews follows this logic: Since Jesus is not of the tribe of Levi he should not be able to be a priest of any kind. However, the priest Melchizedek predates the Levitical priesthood. That he blessed Abraham, the great-grandfather of Levi, shows that Melchizedek is greater than Abraham who further confirms this by giving a tenth to Melchizedek. In this way, Levi—who has not been born yet—gave a tenth to Melchizedek. Therefore, Melchizedek is greater than Levi. Consequently the Melchizedekian priesthood is greater than the Levitical priesthood.

Ok, it may not be our logic, but you can still follow it.

The point: Jesus’ priesthood is superior to that of the tribe of Levi.

The Son’s House (Hebrews 3.1-6)

Some sermons require a lot of those who are listening. And so is the case with the sermon we call the Letter to the Hebrews. However, this sermon is worth the effort.

So far the preacher has announced that God has spoken today through his Son who is better than angels who brought the law. Therefore, this Son deserves our careful attention. By becoming human, this Son became a little lower than the angels to identify with us, willingly claiming us as his siblings, so that he can be our great high priest. So little by little the case of Christ is being made.

“Therefore, holy brothers, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess. He was faithful to the one who appointed him, just as Moses was faithful in all God’s house. Jesus has been found worthy of greater honor than Moses, just as the builder of a house has greater honor than the house itself. For every house is built by someone, but God is the builder of everything. Moses was faithful as a servant in all God’s house, testifying to what would be said in the future. But Christ is faithful as a son over God’s house. And we are his house, if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast.” (Hebrews 3.1–6 NIV)

In his next move, the preacher of Hebrews calls on his “holy” brothers and sisters—who “share in the heavenly calling—to stay focused on Jesus, our high priest who now is also our “apostle.” This last descriptor reminds us of the “sent” nature of Jesus’ mission.

What follows is a comparison between the ministry of Jesus and Moses, the historic liberator of the Jewish people. The comparison is simple. Moses was a faithful servant in God’s house; yet Jesus was a faithful Son in the house. Conclusion: Jesus is better than Moses.

Furthermore, Moses testified to what could be in the future; in other words, Moses looked forward to the ministry of Jesus. The Hebrews writer will have much to say about this.

In this text, our ancient sermonizer started with the idea that the followers of Jesus “share in the heavenly calling.” Because of the high priesthood of Jesus, we now share in Jesus’ status. This is a hard thought for most Christians but it is what the text says.

Therefore, when the preacher finishes this text, he notes that this house over which Jesus has been faithful is us! We are that house and Jesus is in the house!  That is, “if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast.”

So, let us keep our eyes on Jesus!

The Truth about Mary Magdalene

I wish the movie, The Da Vinci Code, based on Dan Brown’s novel, motivated people to search their Bibles or even read some good sources on church history. Instead, many readers and viewers will uncritically accept the unreal historical background of the movie. As far as mystery and drama goes, The Da Vinci Code is a “good” movie: it is fast-paced, exciting, and suspenseful; nevertheless, nearly every historical “truth” that underlies the movie’s plot is fiction—the book is a work of fiction. The biggest fantasy of the movie (and book on which it rests) is that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, who was pregnant with his child at the time of the crucifixion. Later, according to Brown’s fanciful reconstruction, Mary and daughter Sarah find refuge on the shores of Gaul (modern day France) and thus the bloodline of Jesus lived on through the Merovingian kings and survives even today. In the world of The Da Vinci Code, Mary Magdalene is the Holy Grail, the vessel containing the blood(line) of Jesus. Since The Da Vinci Code makes much of Mary Magdalene, it may be useful for us to separate fact from fiction regarding this female disciple of Jesus.

As important as Mary Magdalene is to Brown’s novel, she gets very little space in the canonical gospels but a bit more in the non-canonical gospels from the second and third century. Her name shows up 13 times in the canonical gospels (while Peter’s name occurs over 90 times). Several of the 13 occurrences are parallel passages or reveals different aspects of the same occasion, reducing the actual appearances to about four. Given this paucity of information on Mary, what is it we actually know?

We know that Mary came from Magdala, a fishing village on the shores of the Sea of Galilee at the south end of the Plain of Gennesaret. This is important for several reasons. First, the designation Mary Magdalene distinguishes her from other Marys in the gospel story. She is certainly not to be identified with Mary of Bethany, as Bethany was near Jerusalem while Magdala was in Galilee. The designation also supports that Mary was probably single; since were she married, she would have been called Mary, the wife of X, as is Joanna in Luke 8.3. Secondly, the city from which Mary came had a bad reputation among the Jews and later rabbis, thus, supporting the myth of that Mary was a woman of ill repute. Rabbis attributed the fall of the city to its licentiousness.

We know that seven demons had once tormented her and that Jesus exorcised them (Luke 8.2; see also Mark 16.9). The exact nature of the demonization is left undisclosed, but there is nothing to connect this torment with her supposed life of prostitution. Moreover, there is, I repeat, no evidence of any kind that Mary was ever a prostitute. Yet contrary to The Da Vinci Code, the belief that she was a prostitute was not an intentional attempt on the part of the institutional church to smear Mary’s reputation lest her true secret—that she carried the child of Jesus—become public. Mary became a prostitute inadvertently when Pope Gregory the Great (ca. 540-604) identified Mary Magdalene with the sinful woman in Luke 7.36-50. The “sinful” woman in Luke’s story cannot be Mary Magdalene as she is introduced for the first time in the very next story (Luke 8.2) as one of the women who traveled with Jesus and supported him and his disciples. Interestingly, the confused identity between Mary Magdalene and the sinful woman gained currency in the Latin-speaking West but not in the Greek-speaking East.

Each of the gospel writers speak of Mary more or less depending on how she plays into the story that particular writer is telling. For example, Mark speaks of Mary being at the crucifixion (Mark 15.40), the tomb (15.47), and the empty tomb (16.1). Thus Mary becomes a continual witness of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. Mary is accompanied by other women, but seems to be the leader or, at least, the one Mark wished to highlight the most. Mary along with the other women encounter the “young man” at the tomb in Mark’s narrative who tells them to tell Peter and the other about what they have witnessed. Matthew closely follows the details we find in Mark.

Luke tells us that Mary is among a large group of women who supported Jesus financially. Among this group are those like Mary who have been healed by the touch of Jesus. Luke specifically points out that Mary was one of those who told the apostles about the resurrection event, which they were unwilling to accept (Luke 24.10-11, as in Mark 16.9-11).

John introduces Mary Magdalene rather abruptly in 19.25. She is at the cross along with the mother of Jesus and Mary, the wife of Clopas. John does not tell us that Mary observed the burial of Jesus but does have a significant role for her in the resurrection account. In this account (20.11-18), the only account in the NT to refer to her merely as “Mary,” she encounters the risen Lord whom she confuses for the gardener. When she recognizes Jesus, she calls out “Rabboni.” To which Jesus responds, “Don’t cling to me since I have yet to ascend to my Father.” Jesus instructs her to go tell his disciples to whom she announces, “I have seen the Lord.” So for all of the gospels Mary becomes the first “evangelist” to share the good news of the resurrection; the third century church leader Hippolytus will calls her the “apostle to the apostles.”

This, then, is all that we know about Mary Magdalene from the biblical record. Embellishing the biblical record regarding Mary Magdalene began to happen very early in the history of the church. What follows is a quick catalogue of where Mary Magdalene is mentioned among the non-canonical witnesses. These works will generally be unfamiliar to most Christians which creates a real danger of The Da Vinci Code. Since most Christians will not have read these works (nor know how to access them for that matter), they will be lost as to how to answer their neighbors regarding the claims made by Dan Brown’s characters. (Many of the text mentioned below are accessible in English translation at http://www.earlychristianwritings.com).

A second century work Epistula Apostolorum mentions Mary Magdalene in much the same way as the canonical gospels. In this document, the apostles refuse to accept her testimony about the resurrection; they will only believe when they see Jesus himself. The Epistula Apostolorum is an anti-Gnostic document. Gnosticism was an early form of heretical Christianity that pitted the “bad” God of the Old Testament against the “good” God of Jesus and the New Testament. This dualism was central to the Gnostic who saw all physical reality as evil while accepting that only the spiritual can be good. Christians today could learn a great deal from the Gnostics as New Age impulses are simply recycled Gnosticism. Anyway, the Gnostics found Mary Magdalene useful in their critique of what would become known as orthodox Christianity.

Among the Gnostic texts, the important references to Mary Magdalene occurs in the Gospel of Peter (2nd cent.); the Gospel of Thomas (ca. 200); Secret Gospel of Mark (2nd cent.); Pistis Sophia (3rd cent.); the Sophia of Jesus Christ; The Dialogue of the Savior; Gospel of Philip (late 3rd cent.).

The composite of Mary that develops in the Gnostic tradition looks like this: The Gospel of Peter reports that Mary came to the tomb but she did not weep at the burial of Jesus for fear of the Jews. Determined to mourn, she came to the empty tomb where she heard the resurrection news from a young man in shining robes, but she and the other women with her fled in fear.

The Gospel of Thomas, however, moves far beyond the biblical record regarding a suppose competition between Mary Magdalene and Peter. In the final saying, Peter says, “Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of the Life.” To which Jesus responds, “I myself shall lead her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males” (Gos. Thom. 114). Readers of The Da Vinci Code will note that this actually works against Brown’s attempt to recover the “sacred feminine” in religion. In the Gospel of Mary, Mary shares a secret revelation she has received from the Lord in a vision. Both Andrew and Peter reject the vision but a certain Levi defends Mary as one made worthy by the Lord as Jesus loved her more than he did the other disciples.

Mary becomes a primary questioner of Jesus in the Pistis Sophia. Thirty-nine of the sixty-four questions to Jesus come from her. Mary confesses her persistence, “I will not tire of asking you. Do not be angry with me for questioning everything.” To which Jesus replies, “Question whatever you wish” (Pistis Sophia 139). Mary is given a high profile in the Pistis Sophia as “blessed, she whose heart is more directed to the kingdom of heaven than all her brothers, excellent, blessed beyond all women, beautiful in speech, the pleroma (fullness) of all pleromas,” etc. Besides attesting to her now traditional role at the resurrection, the Pistis Sophia also develops a competition between her and Peter. The Dialogue of the Savior notes that Mary is one of three disciples specially chosen to receive special teaching but she is more significant than either Matthew or Thomas since “she spoke as a woman who knew the All.”

In the late 3rd century Gospel of Peter, Mary is the “companion” of the Lord and described as one who walked with him. Again Christ is said to have loved her more than all the rest which is demonstrated by Jesus often kissing Mary. The other disciples were offended by the lavish attention Jesus gave to Mary. For this, the Lord rebuked them with a parable (Gos. Phil. 63-64). The 4th cent. Acts of Philip features a woman by the name of Mariamne that seems to be the same character as the developing Mary legend. She is with Jesus when he divides the world into missionary zones and then travels with Philip.

In summary, the extra-canonical sources paint a picture of Mary Magdalene that begins with the canonical gospels. From here, however, the Mary legend grows: Jesus loves her more than the other disciples and so she became a fit recipient of special revelation. However, what is missing from this more fanciful literature is that Jesus ever intended to build the church around Mary, though the conflict between Mary and Peter in the Gnostic materials may speak of the tension within the early church between orthodoxy and heresy. Again, there is absolutely no evidence in any source, canonical or otherwise, that would even faintly suggest that it had been Jesus’ intent to entrust the mission of the church to her—not even in the Gospel of Mary!

What is also missing is that Jesus was ever married to Mary. Brown’s contention that the word companion meant wife in the Aramaic original of the Gospel of Philip is wrong on two counts. The Gospel of Philip is in Coptic, not Aramaic, and the word “companion” is a Greek loanword, koinonos, “to hold or have in common.” The word certainly means companion, not spouse. In the end, there is simply NO EVIDENCE from any source, canonical or extra-biblical that any such relationship ever existed. Nada. Nil. Zero.

My purpose has been to set before the readers both the canonical and non-canonical source materials related to Mary Magdalene with the hopes that we, believers in Jesus, can talk more intelligently with our friends about issues The Da Vinci Code might raise.

A form of this article was originally published in the Gospel Herald.

Bringing Many to Glory (Hebrews 2.5-18)

Long before verse numbers were added to the Bible, the Hebrews writer used a less than helpful method of citation: “…there is a place where someone has testified.” Some place in the Bible it says… This some place happens to be Psalms 8.4-5:

… what is man that you are mindful of him,

the son of man that you care for him?

You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings

and crowned him with glory and honor.

You made him ruler over the works of your hands;

you put everything under his feet” (Psalms 8:4–6 NIV)

The psalmist ponders why God would be so concerned about humanity. Because the psalmist speak of “man” in the collective sense, the Hebrews writer can take advantage of the singular, which he applies, as you might expect from this ancient preacher, to Jesus.

In becoming human, Jesus became a little lower than the angels (following the LXX), but now he has been exalted far above them. Notice as you read Hebrews that the author wants us to understand that it was the Man Jesus who was exalted.

The logic of what follow may be difficult for modern readers to follow. It goes something like this: Jesus was exalted because he died > because he died, he can somehow experience death for everyone > by doing this he will bring many children to glory > since he is the “author of their salvation” > who is somehow made perfect by suffering.

Did you follow that? It’s OK, if you did not.

The big picture is that this Jesus who was made a little lower than angels in becoming human and is now exalted can fully identify with those who belong to him.

How’s that? Better?

Jesus and his followers now belong to the same family and Jesus is not embarrassed to claim them as his siblings. It is precisely Jesus’ humanness that makes him “able to help those who are being tempted.” It is this that makes him the perfect priest we all need.

Jesus understands what you are going through. He has been through it himself. Now, the writer of Hebrews claims, Jesus, in his exalted state, remains our Man in heaven.