It’s been nine months since my last confession. I apologize for the absence.
I’d like to pass along some reflections regarding the NT letter to the Hebrews. Hebrews has been the grounds for a certain argument in favor of a substitutionary understanding of Christ’s death about which I’ve found myself recently in conversation.
How are we to read Hebrews?
If you’ve been an evangelical very long (as I have), you were probably raised on a substitutionary (perhaps penal-substitutionary) understanding of the Cross, and Hebrews was Exhibit A in defense of such a view. Hebrews, according to this reading, was a systematic interpretation of a Levitical understanding of the Cross, a reading of the Cross in the values and terms and logic of Israel’s sacrificial economy. Christ was the final and perfect instantiation of this economy of sacrifice, its success, because that system finally brought its logic to bear upon the right offering. Thus Israel’s sacrificial economy, established by God, finally ended because in Christ it finally succeeded. It was a fairly simple matter of mapping Jesus’ death onto Israel’s sacrificial system, particularly its logic of exchange, to arrive at an understanding of how the Cross is able to bring God and humanity together. Seen in this light, Jesus is the perfection of the kind of sacrificial exchange at the heart of Israel’s sacrificial system established by Mosaic law.
This is no longer how I read Hebrews. Contrary to the substitutionary view, let me suggest (with others, I’m not inventing this) that the Cross is not Israel’s sacrificial system finally working because it finally gets a sacrifice (Jesus) that makes it work, confirming its design and logic of exchange. On the contrary, the Cross is where and how that system finally failed and where it is rejected by God.
How then do we read Hebrews as a repudiation of the standard substitutionary view? And if Christ’s death is such a repudiation, how are we to understand his death and our need for it?
The relevant material is Chs. 7-10. Note the following:
1. The Contrasts. A substitutionary view of Christ’s death understands Hebrews to be interpreting his death in light of a fundamental comparison between the OT sacrificial system and Christ. That is, by virtue of the fundamental similarity between the two, Jesus is viewed as that system’s chief instantiation, the perfection and fulfillment to its logic of exchange (forgiveness and acceptance for suffering and death).
But when read carefully, I suggest, we see that the author’s apologetic proceeds not upon a comparison between Jesus and the OT sacrificial system, but upon fundamental contrasts, not upon on a similarity that binds them together and which understands Christ’s death as an instantiation of the Levitical kind, but upon a dissimilarity that makes it impossible to interpret Jesus’ death according to the values, logic, and terms of Israel’s sacrificial economy. It is in the essential contrasts which Hebrews makes where we see the contradiction between the values and logic of each.
1.a Contrast of Origins. The logic of the OT sacrificial system requires (7.12) that priests be of the tribe of Levi. Hebrews contrasts Jesus with this, for Jesus is of the tribe of Judah (7.11-14), not Levi. Note the dissimilarity. Jesus does not even qualify for priestly service (7.5, 11) according to the Mosaic law which maintains the integrity of Israel’s sacrificial system.
1.b Contrast of Priestly Order. It was Ch. 7 that first suggested to me a real disjunct (contrast) at the heart of the relationship between OT sacrificial economy and how we are to understand Christ’s death. Not only is Jesus not born of the tribe of Judah (7.14), but his priesthood (his service to God and humanity) is after the order of Melchizedek (Ch. 7). He performs an altogether different service. Jesus is not a member of Israel’s priestly cast, and his death not a species of “Levitical sacrifice.” He is its contradiction.
As ‘high priest’ (in identification with and representation of us) Jesus is not doing the same thing Israel’s high priests do but doing it perfectly, efficaciously. As a priest after the order of Melchizedek (7.11-28), Jesus is doing something entirely different, something not located within Israel’s Levitical logic. His is a new priesthood of a different order.
1.c Contrast in Legal/Covenantal Grounds. The “law” (7.12) defines the terms of relation and exchange, consequence, forgiveness (9.22), a way of relating to God. For “when there is a change of the priesthood there has to be a change of the law” (7.12). Jesus’s priestly act (via his life, death, resurrection, and present intercession) is thus not exemplary of the established Levitical regulation. He embodies an entirely different approach to God enacted within an altogether different law. In contrast to an Aaronic mediation of death and blood, Christ’s ‘Melchizedekian’ service mediates “on the basis of an indestructible life” (7.16). That is its logic, its law. Jesus’ death does not confirm Israel’s sacrificial logic/law (7.12). He is where that logic finally fails, and a new and living way, a new priesthood (mode of representation) established upon a “new law” (terms of relation, exchange, consequence, forgiveness, etc.) is revealed. Christ is thus where and how “the former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless” (7.18) and “a better hope is introduced by which we draw near to God.”
How much clearer could the fundamental contrast be? The crucifixion is what the Mosaic/Aaronic sacrificial systems does to the new covenant’s “new and living way.” The Cross is where two diametrically opposed orders of sacrifice meet. Israel’s entire economy of sacrifice (its priesthood, its legal/contractual grounds, its terms and logic) is “useless” (v. 18), not useless until it finds in Christ a kind of victim whose blood will make it useful. Rather, he once and for all exposes Israel’s economy of sacrifice to be inherently useless. “If there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another” (8.7). This is not the sort of language one employs if one wishes to say that Jesus’ death is the embodied perfection of the logic that defines Israel’s sacrificial economy.
1.d Contrast in Kind/Mode of Sacrifice (i.e., ‘Blood’). Why should Jesus’ death/blood be necessary at all if it was not a sacrifice of the Aaronic order of relations? Doesn’t blood (i.e., death) as such entail something like a penal-substitution? Why else would Jesus’ life of loving surrender to God culminate in so violent a sacrifice of his life? Two answers come to mind:
1.d.1 First, the contrasts thus far establish the need for Christ’s violent death. This is not to somehow condone the logic of Israel’s sacrificial order. Nor does it contradict the fact that Christ’s priestly service is based on the power of an “indestructible life” (7.16). Rather, the contrasts, which are real, must be revealed. The first covenant, with its sacrificial logic (“weak and useless” as it was, 7.18) required explicit defeat of its terms, and defeat of its terms meant defeat in its terms. Thus, Israel’s weak and useless system must exhaust itself in its own ideal terms and circumstances. It must scapegoat and offer to God a truly (infinitely) innocent victim, on behalf of the very survival of the nation (Jn. 11.51), thus operating at its best, under ideal conditions, and according to its quintessential logic. Only in such an event could its failure be made plain and the whole system “set aside” (10.9). This is precisely what we find in the Cross (Col 2.13-15).
Christ’s resurrection is thus to be viewed the same way, as God’s verdict upon a Levitical understanding of Christ’s death. How so? Because Israel’s offering is rejected. God gives back to the world its sacrifice. He rejects the blood that Israel’s sacrificial economy required. To be sure, a sacrifice acceptable to God is made by Jesus, but it is a sacrifice of an entirely different order, the loving surrender to God of his whole life, sharing our humanity and our experience of death. What Israel does on the Cross is thus not what God is doing there – as the Resurrection reveals. The Cross is what Israel’s sacrificial economy does to the (loving/peaceful) sacrifice Jesus makes of his whole life to God in identifying with our condition. Identification, not substitution, is the logic of atonement.
1.d.2 Second, 9:16-28 relates the necessity of blood (9.16) in the enforcing of a “will.” Notice that talk of ‘wills’ places us within the domain of civil, not criminal, law. That is, blood here is not the satisfying of any punitive demands of the law. On the contrary, it has in view only the terms in which humanity can be effectually comprehended within the promises of God – promises that extend unending life to those embraced by its terms. That comprehension must involve Christ’s death, his blood, but not the blood which Israel’s sacrificial system requires. Rather, it is the death which is our “shared humanity,” in order to “become an effectual high priest” of a new and living way. Death as such must be negotiated to ratify the new covenant ‘will’ in the mortal experience of those governed by that new will. Mortality and death are the terms in which Christ must introduce the ‘new law’ of a ‘new covenant’ that grants us indestructible life. Ch. 2.14-15 makes this clear: “He shares their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.”
The blood Jesus must shed to establish our destiny under the new covenant is thus not the blood which Israel’s economy of sacrifice demands. Rather, it is the blood that represents humanity’s futility, its mortality, death itself, the “fear of which enslaves” human beings (2.15). Notice there is nothing peculiar in 2.14 about tabernacle, altar, or sin offerings per se. In 2.14-17a Christ is to free us from our fear of death, and of course ultimately death itself. He does this by (2.9) by “tasting death for everyone” (that is, by dying). When 2.17b introduces “making atonement for the sins of the people,” this atoning work follows, and is followed by, no mention of tabernacle or altar. Rather, atonement appears within the whole scope of Jesus’ incarnate career. He atones (here in Ch. 2) by being made like us, by being tempted like us, and by suffering like us. Suffering what precisely? Here it is not the crucifixion, but rather “being tempted,” i.e., suffering the conditions of a mortal human existence, including death. The “because” linking v. 17 and 18 is interesting: “…that he might make atonement for the sins of the people…because he himself suffered when he was tempted….” Wouldn’t we expect “because he suffered when he was crucified” as a description of suffering that atones and reconciles? How does Jesus suffering the common lot of human temptation define the “atoning” work of Christ as high priest (17b)? And consider, high priests are not ‘substitutes’, they are ‘representatives by virtue of a shared nature.’ Christ’s lived sufferings (which of course extends to the end of his life in a violent death), under the conditions of (“because” of) our shared humanity – these all together constitute the ‘blood’ (viz., the life of Jesus in its total surrender under the violent conditions of the world he came to reconcile) of Ch 9.16-28, the blood of the new covenant, united by Christ to God himself (the heavenly realities of 9.23-24). It is the blood of the “new covenant” after all. The blood of penal-substitution is precisely not this, but is instead the same blood of the old (weak/useless) covenant.
2. Use of OT Prophetic Critique. Note the use of key OT passages critical of blood sacrifice. This critique is widespread in the Prophets, including a repeated emphasis that what grounds the experience of forgiveness is the simplicity of a humble and repentant heart. Blood sacrifice is simply not required by God. Humility and repentance are his concern. Several passages make this clear:
- Ps 51.17, “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.”
- Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.”
- Jeremiah even disputed that the sacrificial system had its origin in divine command at all (7.21-22): “Add burnt offerings to your sacrifices and eat the flesh! For I said nothing to your fathers when I led them out of Egypt and I commanded nothing concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. Instead I gave them this command: hearken to my voice, for then I will be your God and you will be my people.” (Emphasis mine)
One could go on. Take Heb 10.8:
- “First he said, ‘Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them’ though they were offered in accordance with the law.”
Notice the tension here. Burnt offerings and sin offerings were offered “in accordance with the law.” Thus, Mosaic legislation establishes the integrity of the sacrificial system. Presumably God wanted and ordained blood sacrifice. This would need to be the case if Christ’s death is to be understood as the perfection of that system’s sacrificial logic. On the other hand, we’re told God “did not desire” this system and “was not pleased” with its offerings. Note Jeremiah’s stunning declaration (Jer. 7.21-22) that God never in fact commanded or instructed Israel to institute blood sacrifice. It wasn’t his idea.
What sense are we to make of this? Did God or did God not institute blood sacrifice to ‘set the stage’ for the greatest blood sacrifice of all? My answer will not please everybody. I suggest that God worked with blood sacrifice because that’s where Israel was, not because spiritual realities on God’s side of the equation require such sacrifice. Consider Israel’s demand for a king, which God took to be a rejection of him. God went with it, even incorporated Israel’s monarchy into their prophetic imagination foreshadowing the Kingdom and Christ as Messiah. But it was never introduced by God as an embodiment of abiding spiritual truths. At best, God tolerated it.
Similarly, Moses permitted Jews to divorce through writing a letter of divorce. But Jesus made it clear that God never wanted or endorsed this (Mt 19.8). God only tolerated it because of Israel’s hard heartedness. We mustn’t mistake the best use God makes of our falsehoods and misunderstandings as suggestive of his endorsement of those positions.
I suggest we view Israel’s entire system of blood sacrifice this same way – as something Israel insisted upon but which God tolerated. It’s difficult to imagine God commanding Israel’s blood sacrifice as such when you consider that blood sacrifice is older than Israel and was the common mode of worship for all Israel’s pagan neighbors. We should view OT regulation of blood sacrifice as God managing for the best what Israel was intent upon but which has absolutely nothing to do with satisfying divine requirements for forgiveness or for providing us terms of similarity upon which to map our understanding of Christ’s death.
Back to Heb 10. Consider vv. 5-6:
- “Therefore when Christ came into the world, he said: ‘Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me’….”
The mention of “a body you have prepared for me” might suggest that Jesus is being identified as a sacrifice of the Levitical order. But this is impossible. It asks us to imagine God not being pleased with sacrifice and offering but being pleased with making Christ just such a sacrifice. Where then does “so a body you have prepared for me” come in? Not to introduce a source of blood that God is interested in. On the contrary, it is to demonstrate the lengths to which God must go to demonstrate how antithetical blood sacrifice is to him. See 1.d.1 above. How can God get it across to Israel that he is not interested in blood sacrifice whatsoever? The answer: By submitting himself (“a body you have prepared for me”) to that sacrificial economy – antithetical to him in every way – letting it exhaust all its resources upon him, and then rising from its death as a rejection of it, exposing once and for all its failure and impotence.
Space won’t allow me to explore at length Israel’s Second Temple mystical apocalyptic tradition of a heavenly court as a possible context for Heb 9, where spiritual realities and transactions are mirrored in earthly rituals. One should examine how this argument functions. All the instruments of the earthly tabernacle have heavenly counterparts where Jesus presented his blood in God’s presence. I can see how the language of ‘shadow/substance’ and ‘heavenly copies’ lends itself to seeing the relationship between the two in strongly similar terms, so the challenge is to read this language as mapping essential differences, for however one takes the language, it cannot contradict the contrasts which the letter makes in explicit terms.
It’s not as though there are zero similarities though. The author is after all bringing Jesus’ death into conversation with Israel’s law and priesthood, not with the Greek pantheon or Egyptian deities. There has to be some shared context, some genealogical connection. But this is not difficult to see, given Christ’s place within Israel’s history. Also, the relevant terms obtain on both sides: ‘priesthood’, ‘sacrifice’, and ‘law’. And both attempt to bring worshippers near to God. And yet priesthood, sacrifice, and law are not the same in each, hence the irreconcilable contrasts.
I hope we have enough here to disenchant those who view Christ’s death as the perfection of the sacrificial logic operative in Israel’s sacrificial economy and reason enough for them to leave the substitutionary reading behind.