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05 August 2019

Shadow or Substance?

SYNOPSIS The types and “shadows” of the old covenant find their substance in the Son, according to the book of Hebrews.

Photo by Kiwihug on Unsplash
Photo - Kiwihug - Unsplash
The epistle to the Hebrews develops its exhortation to persevere on the theme of fulfillment, what God has accomplished in His Son, Jesus Christ. God's past incomplete word has been superseded by the complete one "spoken" in His Son.

This letter was likely sent to a congregation with a significant complement of Jewish believers; most likely, it was in or near the city of Rome. The church had experienced persecution and was facing the possibility of renewed persecution (Hebrews 2:15, 10:32-34, 12:4, 13:24-25).

Consequently, some members began to withdraw from the assembly and contemplated a return to the synagogue. Returning to Judaism was one way to avoid persecution. Unlike Christianity, Judaism had legal standing in the Roman Empire. The government exempted Jews from certain requirements imposed on other groups. This included participation in the imperial cult (Hebrews 10:24-31).

In its early years, Christianity was perceived by Rome to be a Jewish sect. However, beginning in the middle of the 60s A.D., the Roman government began to view Christianity as a new and distinct religion. Eventually, it lost any legal protections it might have enjoyed previously. Following the destruction of the Jewish Temple in A.D. 70, the divide between church and synagogue became much more pronounced and scattered congregations found themselves on Rome’s radar screen.

The concern of the author of Hebrews was not theological but pastoral. His purpose was to prevent members of this assembly from leaving the faith and he strongly urged them to faithfulness and not to return to their former lives under Judaism (Hebrews 2:1-3, 3:6, 12-14, 4:1, 11-13, 6:1-12, 10:26-31, 35-39, 12:3-17, 13:9).

The book of Hebrews opens with a paragraph that sets the tone of the Letter.  It begins, “in many parts and many ways long ago God spoke to the fathers in the prophets; upon these last of days he spoke to us in a Son.” God did speak in the past but only partially, here a little, there a little. But with the advent of Jesus, He now speaks with finality in His Son (Hebrews 1:1-4).

God’s earlier word was true but promissory and incomplete. It prepared the way for His final and ultimate revelation in the Son. In this thematic passage, the author introduces angels and begins the first of a series of comparisons by which he contrasts what God has done in the past with what He is now doing in the Son.

Thus, the Son “became superior to the angels by as much as going beyond them, he inherited a more excellent name.” The purpose in the first chapter is not to digress into a discussion about the nature of Christ or angels, but to demonstrate the superiority of the Son over them.

The comparison of Chapter 1 leads to the first exhortation of the Letter, “If the word spoken through angels became firm and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense, how shall we escape if we neglect” the superior word spoken in the Son? The author refers to a Jewish tradition that the Law or Torah was mediated to Moses by angels (Hebrews 2:1-4).
The purpose is not to disparage angels or the Law, but to point out the far greater danger of ignoring the vastly superior revelation now available in the Son. The author is arguing from the lesser to the greater.
Angels are God’s ministers and glorious. The Law was given by God and is just and excellent. Yet the word spoken through the Son is vastly superior to any word given through angels. Rejecting the superior revelation in Jesus will result in far greater punishment than disobedience to the Torah

The Author next compares the Son to Moses, to Aaron, the Son’s Melchizedek priesthood to the Levitical priesthood, his sacrifice to the repeated sacrifices of the Tabernacle, and the Old Covenant to the New. In each case, he does not disparage the Old but demonstrates the clear superiority of what God has done in the New, in the Son (Hebrews 3:1-6, 5:1-10, 7:1-27, 9:26).

A dire warning against forsaking the Son follows each contrast. The comparison with angels ends with a warning to not “drift away” from the word spoken in the Son. The comparison to Moses produces a warning against being hardened through the deceitfulness of sin and unbelief (Hebrews 2:1-4, 3:1-4:16).
The initial description of his superior priesthood is followed by a dire warning against “falling away” and, thereby, going beyond the pale by once again publicly crucifying the Son and holding him up for public ridicule (Hebrews 6:1-8).
The more detailed expositions about the priesthood of Jesus, his superior sacrifice, and the New Covenant inaugurated by him are followed by a fourth warning against the dreadful fate that awaits those who desert the superior faith found in the Son:

(Hebrews 10:25-31) – “Anyone having set aside a law of Moses…dies. Of how much sorer punishment do you suppose he shall be accounted worthy, who has trampled underfoot the Son of God and esteemed the blood of the covenant a profane thing…

The Law was incomplete and not without shortcomings. The fact that a new priesthood of a different order was necessary indicated the need for a change of law (Hebrews 7:11-12 – “For the priesthood being changed, there is made of necessity a change also of the law”). There is a setting aside of the former commandment because of “its weakness and un-profitableness, for the Law was unable to perfect anyone” (Hebrews 7:18-22).

Jesus became the “guarantee of a better covenant”; he is the mediator of a “better covenant legislated on better promises.” If the first covenant had been complete or “faultless” there would have been no need for a second (Hebrews 8:7-13).
The Old Covenant with its system of sacrifices and offerings was ordained by God and the priests who served in the Tabernacle did render divine service, but only as “glimpse and shadow of the heavenly realities”, “copies” or “patterns” of the heavenly and real things (Hebrews 8:5, 9:9-10, 9:23).

In contrast, Jesus did not enter into the “copy” but into the very presence of God, “for the law having a shadow of the good things to come, not the very image of the things, can never with the same sacrifices year by year, which they offer continually, make perfect those who draw near” (Hebrews 9:24, 10:1).

In the case of this congregation, the temptation was not to revert to a grossly sinful or pagan life but to regress to the synagogue, to re-embrace the “shadow” of the Heavenly Reality revealed in Jesus. But this would amount to a rejection of God’s appointed high priest and the now open way of salvation, a retreat to the Old Regime already made obsolete by the New and vastly superior covenant established by the Son.

The underlying theme is one found throughout the New Testament: fulfillment. The Old has been superseded by the New. The Old was partial, consisting of shadows and types. The substance is found in the New. It is in Christ, not the Torah, Temple or a Territory that “all the promises of God are Yea, and in him Amen!” (2 Corinthians 1:20).

Jesus is the interpretive key that unlocks the Hebrew scriptures, not vice versa. God defeated Sin, Satan, and Death, not on the altar of the Jerusalem Temple, but on Calvary outside the Temple and the city of Jerusalem.

As Paul wrote, we are “filled full in him who is the head of all principality and authority, in whom we have also been circumcised with a circumcision not made by hand…having been buried together with him in our baptism, we also have been raised together through our faith in the energizing of God, who raised him from among the dead.”

Though we were “dead in our offenses and by the uncircumcision of our flesh, he has brought us to life together with him, having in grace forgiven us all our offences, having blotted out the handwriting against us by the decrees…and having taken away the same nailing it up to the cross…Let no one, therefore, be disqualifying you in eating and in drinking, or in respect of feast, or new moon, or Sabbath, which are a shadow of the things to come, whereas the substance is of the Christ” (Colossians 2:9-17).

There is nothing inherently wrong with using Hebrew names, worshipping on Saturday, being circumcised, or keeping a kosher diet. Such things are matters of indifference to one’s standing before God. One does not sin by refusing to eat pork or to work on the Sabbath.

Where a line is crossed is when we begin to teach or believe that such things are still necessary to be full members of God’s covenant community, when we compel others to adopt Jewish customs and lifestyles, when we find it necessary to make the vastly superior revelation found in Jesus Christ conform to the partial revelations of the past, when reverting to the shadow becomes necessary for the completion or understanding of Christian faith.

If the fulfillment of God’s redemptive plan has arrived in the person of Jesus Christ, why return and embrace the shadows that he casts? In the final analysis, doing so is not a fuller revelation but regression to that which was always partial, fragmentary, and promissory, and not without fault.

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