Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: Hebrews

Hebrews

Nearly everything surrounding the so-called Letter to the Hebrews—its authorship, date, audience, provenance, and genre—has been the subject of longstanding debate among New Testament scholars. Dating of the book ranges widely, between 60 and 100 A.D. Some commentators would use the references to the Temple, and lack of any specific allusion to its destruction, as an indication of a pre-70 A.D. date, but this is hardly decisive. The Christology of Hebrews shows a relatively high degree of development—perhaps more than in the Pauline letters, but less than the Johannine writings. I would tend to narrow the time-frame for composition to c. 70-90, probably leaning toward the earlier part of this period (c. 75-80?). This would be consonant with the eschatology of the book, for which two points may be noted: (1) the sense of imminence has faded somewhat, replaced by a more expanded form of traditional exhortation (warning of the Judgment, etc); and (2) a “realized” eschatology goes more firmly in hand with future expectation, though the former aspect is not nearly so prominent as it is in the Johannine Gospel and Letters (to be discussed in the next article).

Christology dominates Hebrews, and, to some extent, the Christological development of Messianic thought means that the early Christian eschatology has undergone development as well; cf. the earlier article dealing with the relationship between eschatology and Messianism. There are few passages in Hebrews which are fundamentally eschatological in emphasis; however, the traditions are present throughout, run through by a new and deeper line of theological exposition. It will perhaps be best to approach the eschatology of Hebrews by adopting a survey format, looking at particular aspects or elements of each passage, rather than attempting a detailed exegesis.

Hebrews 1:1-4

The prologue to Hebrews (1:1-4) offers a good example of the dynamic referenced above. The eschatological aspect of the passage is almost incidental, marked by the phrase e)p’ e)sxa/tou tw=n h(merw=n tou/twn (“upon [i.e. in] the last of these days”), v. 2. On the surface, this detail seems thoroughly eschatological, emphasizing that believers are living in the end-times, looking toward the imminent return of Jesus, etc (cp. Acts 2:17; James 5:3; 2 Pet 3:3; 2 Tim 3:1; cf. also 1 Pet 1:5, 20; Jude 18). However, in the context of Hebrews, the traditional phrasing serves rather a different purpose, establishing a contrast that represents (and foreshadows) the end of the old Covenant and the beginning new—a central theme that is developed throughout the letter:

    • God speaks in the old (pa/lai) times and ways–through the Prophets, but
    • He speaks in new way now in the last days—through his Son Jesus

Also eschatological in significance are the references to inheritance (receiving the lot or portion, klh=ro$) and to the Ages (ai)w/n, pl.) in v. 2, but, here again, the emphasis is Christological—God set Jesus to be the heir of all things (cf. also verse 4), even as He made all of Creation (all the Ages) through him. The earlier concept of Jesus’ divine status and position as the result of his exaltation is here combined with a clear belief in his eternal pre-existence. This developed Christology effects the way that the traditional eschatological motifs are expressed and understood in Hebrews.

Hebrews 1:14

The introductory section that establishes the theme of Jesus’ superiority (vv. 5-14) builds on the prologue, and concludes with a statement of the idea that believers will inherit salvation, even as Jesus inherits all things in glory alongside the father. This is yet another example of the early Christian understanding of salvation as eschatological—to be experienced at the end-time; believers are “…the (one)s being about [me/llonta$] to receive the lot/portion of salvation”.

Hebrews 2:2-3ff

This is the first of several exhortative passages in Hebrews, which draw upon the traditional theme of the coming Judgment, used as part of ethical and religious instruction. In earlier writings, the warnings are very much driven by the sense of urgency that comes from an imminent eschatology. In some measure, this is retained here in Hebrews:

“For, if the account (hav)ing been spoken through Messengers came to be firm, and every stepping alongside [i.e. over the line] and hearing alongside [i.e. being careless/disobedient] received its wage given forth in justice, how will we flee out (of danger) [i.e. escape], being [i.e. if we are] without concern (for) so vast a salvation, which, being received at the beginning, to be spoken through the Lord, it was made firm unto us under [i.e. by] the (one)s (hav)ing [i.e. who] heard (him)…”

In other words, the Judgment is coming, and we will not be able to flee from it, or escape it, if we are careless and do not remain faithful to Christ and the truth of the Gospel. This warning follows the same contrast, between the Messengers (as part of the old Covenant) and Jesus the Son (the new Covenant), that was introduced in chapter 1. Only now the focus is more properly on believers in Christ, rather than Jesus himself. Even so, the identity of believers as the people of God and children (“sons”, ui(oi/) of God, is based on our relationship with Jesus the Son (ui(o/$) of God. This the point made in vv. 10-18:

“For it was proper to him, through whom and through [i.e. for] whose (sake) all (thing)s (were made), leading many sons into honor, to make the chief leader of our salvation complete through sufferings.” (v. 10)

The eschatological dimension of believers as the sons/children of God—i.e., a religious identity that will only be realized fully at the end time—is dealt with most memorably by Paul in Romans 8:18-25ff (cf. the earlier article in this series).

Hebrews 3:1, 12-14ff

“There(fore), holy brothers, (one)s holding (a share) of the heavenly calling…” (v. 1)

This is a good example of how the Christological exposition in Hebrews is set within an exhortational framework, urging believers to live and act in the light of the truth regarding Jesus Christ. The opening phrase of this section establishes the essential identity of believers; this is a rhetorical device—by stating the identity of believers up front, the author puts in place the ideal, or standard, by which Christians should live. The expression that is particularly worth noting here is klh/sew$ e)pourani/ou me/toxoi, which refers to believers as “ones holding (a share) with (others)” (me/toxoi), i.e. with other believers, but also with Jesus himself. The share they hold is “of (the) heavenly calling”; this may be understood three ways:

    • The source and origin of the calling is from above the heavens (e)poura/nio$), i.e. where God Himself dwells; the Gospel revelation, and the manifestation of the Son (Jesus), is from God, as the Prologue (1:1-4) makes clear (cf. above).
    • It refers to what believers experience in the present, through the Spirit, in union with Christ.
    • It speaks of what waits for believers in the future—i.e. we are called to the heavenly abode, where we will dwell together with God the Father and Jesus the Son. This last aspect, of course, is eschatological. Cf. below on 11:10ff; 13:14, etc.

Following the Christological exposition (vv. 2-6), and the Scriptural citation (vv. 7-11 [Psalm 95:7-11]), this message is applied to the context of believers’ identity as stated in v. 1. The emphasis of the exhortation (and warning) is decidedly eschatological:

“You must look (to it), brothers, (so that) there will not ever be, in any of you, an evil heart without trust [a)pisti/a], in the standing away from (the) living God; but (rather), you must call each other alongside, according to each day, until the (time in) which it is (no longer) called ‘today’, (so) that no one of you should be(come) hard in (the) deceit of the sin. For we have come to be (one)s holding (a share) with [me/toxoi] (the) Anointed, if (indeed) we hold down firm(ly) the beginning of (our) standing under (in him), up to (its) completion [te/lo$]” (vv. 12-14)

Again the noun me/toxoi is used of believers, only now it clearly relates to our union with Christ, weaving the Christological message of vv. 2-6 into the earlier statement. Also woven in is the Scriptural example from Psalm 95—using the example of Israel’s disobedience (in the wilderness) as a warning to believers to remain faithful. The references to “the standing away [a)posth=nai] from God” and “(the) deceit of the sin” almost certainly have eschatological significance—i.e. allusions to the increasing wickedness at the end of the Age (the period of distress, etc)—as also does the temporal aspect of the (relatively) short time that remains until the end (i.e., while it is yet called “today”). The term “completion” (te/lo$) clearly has a strong eschatological connotation, as it does in many other passages we have studied.

Hebrews 4:1-13

The Scripture passage cited in chapter 3 (Psalm 95:7-11) is expounded further in chapter 4, developing the important theme of the pleasant rest that awaits the people of God. The Greek word is kata/pausi$, literally meaning something like “settling down”, “easing down”, with the idea of stopping or pausing (i.e. from one’s labor). The historical context of Israel entering the Promised Land is applied to believers; the implication being that “Israel” (the people of the old Covenant) was unable to enter this peaceful “settling down” in the Land, due to their disobedience. Nor was this fulfilled by the children of that wicked generation, who entered the Land under Joshua’s leadership (v. 8); thus, the author states clearly in verse 9:

“S0 then, there is left (behind) from (this) [i.e. there remains] a Shabbat [i.e. Sabbath]-like (settling down) for the people of God.”

The “settling down” for the true people of God (i.e. believers in Christ) has more in common with God’s “easing down” from the work of Creation, as symbolized by the Sabbath regulations in the Torah, etc. It is thus represents something far beyond the historical settlement of Israel in the Promised Land:

“For the (one) coming into His settling-down [kata/pausi$] (has) also settled-down [kate/pausen] from his works, just as God (did) from His own (work)s.” (v. 10)

This “settling down” is something that will only take place in the future, at the end. The promise is thus eschatological, as is indicated by the reference to the final Judgment in verse 13.

Hebrews 6:1-8

Hebrews seems to share much the same worldview as the book of Revelation, and may well have been written at about the same time. In both works there is a strong warning to believers against losing faith and ‘falling away’, all the more during the time of severe testing that precedes the end. Especially in Hebrews one senses the very real possibility that some might be led astray and could actually fall from faith in Christ. The first portion of chapter 6 in Hebrews contains one of the strongest such warnings along this line. The nearness of the end perhaps helps to explain the specific eschatological emphasis in vv. 4-5:

“For it is without power [i.e. impossible] (that) the (one)s (hav)ing once been enlightened, and (hav)ing tasted the heavenly gift, and (hav)ing come to be (one)s holding (a share) of the holy Spirit, and (hav)ing tasted the beautiful utterance of God and (the) powers of the coming Age—and (then hav)ing fallen alongside—(for them) to be made new once again…”

The harvest imagery in vv. 7-8 also seems to allude to the great end-time Judgment, as we have seen in numerous other passages, going back to the early Gospel tradition (Mark 4:29; Matt 3:12 par; 13:30, 40-43, etc).

Hebrews 7 (v. 19)

The “Melchizedek” exposition in chapter 7 is perhaps the most famous example of the kind of Christological (re)interpretation of eschatological and Messianic traditions, etc, that we see throughout Hebrews. The parallels with certain texts from Qumran (e.g. 11QMelchizedek) show that, by the first century A.D., the ancient traditions regarding Melchizedek were being applied to Messianic heavenly-redeemer and Anointed-priest figure-types, and that this explains how the author of Hebrews could similarly identify Jesus the Messiah with Melchizedek. However, the discussion in chapter 7 is fundamentally Christological, not eschatological, Melchizedek being utilized to establish how Jesus Christ (who was not a descendant of Aaron) could function as a High Priest—and with a Priesthood far greater than that of the Aaronid and Levitical priests of the old Covenant. For more on this, cf. Part 9 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”, together with the supplemental article on Hebrews.

Even so, the eschatological aspect of the new Covenant remains not far below the surface in the discussion, coming through at several points, most notably in verse 19:

“…but (on the other hand), (the) bringing in upon (us) of a stronger hope, through which we come near to God.”

The noun e)lpi/$ (“hope”) in the New Testament frequently has a definite eschatological connotation (i.e. the future hope, of the resurrection, etc), as we saw, for example, in the earlier studies on Romans 8:18-25 and 1 Peter 1:3ff. The idea of “coming near” to God also alludes to our standing before him at the Judgment, and of passing through into eternal life. The specific imagery used to express this, in context, is that of the High Priest entering into God’s presence within the sanctuary of the Tabernacle/Temple.

Hebrews 8:8-13

An often overlooked aspect of the early Christian understanding of the “new Covenant” is that it marks the beginning of a new Age—and is thus eschatological. This interpretation of the Covenant-theme goes beyond the basic idea that believers are living in the “last days” (Acts 2:17); rather, it means that believers are already experiencing the Age-to-come now, in the present, through the manifestation and work of the Spirit. Only believers in Christ have this experience of the New Age, prior to its full realization following the return of Jesus and the great Judgment. Thus, there is a definite eschatological aspect to the various “New Covenant” references in the New Testament, such as here in Heb 8:8-13, drawing upon the famous passage in Jeremiah 31:31-34 [LXX 38:31-34]. The words in v. 31 of the oracle, initially referring to a time in Israel’s (immediate) future, when applied to believers in their time (late 1st century A.D.), has an eschatological—and imminent eschatological—context:

“See, the days come [i.e. are coming], says the Lord, and I will bring together completely [suntele/sw] upon the house of Yisrael and upon the house of Yehudah a new diaqh/kh…” (v. 8)

The word diaqh/kh is typically translated “covenant”, but literally refers to something (an agreement, etc) that is “set through”, or “set in order”, as in English idiom we might speak of “putting (our affairs) in order” with a will or contract. The Greek work is used to render the Hebrew tyr!B=, which properly signifies a binding agreement. The verb suntele/sw (“bring together to completion [or completely]”) is related to the term te/lo$ (“completion, end”) which is often used in an eschatological sense (cf. above). In early Christian thought, the end of the old Covenant (v. 13) corresponds generally with the end of the current Age, a correspondence Paul brings out, for example, in passages such as 2 Cor 3:7-18.

Hebrews 9:23-28

Together with this “new Covenant” theology, and the idea of the priesthood of Jesus Christ, Hebrews utilizes the sacred space of the Tabernacle/Temple—particularly its sanctuary—as an image of the New Age that believers experience in Christ. This eschatological aspect is brought out at the end of the Christological exposition in 9:23-28, with its theme of a heavenly sanctuary—the true and real sanctuary which currently exists in heaven (with God and Christ):

“For the Anointed (One) did not come into holy (place)s (that were) made with hands [xeiropoi/hto$], (thing)s patterned after the true, but (instead he came) into heaven it(self), now to shine forth in the sight God, over us [i.e. on our behalf]…” (v. 24)

This corresponds to the motif of the heavenly city, i.e. a heavenly “Jerusalem”, a motif that is found elsewhere in the New Testament (cf. on 11:10f; 13:14 below). The entirety of Jesus’ work (as Priest)—including his earthly ministry, death and resurrection, and future return—is all understood as being set in the end-time, the “last days”, and is thus eschatological:

“…but now, once, at the completion (all) together [sunte/leia] of the Ages, unto the setting aside of sin through the (ritual) slaughter [i.e. sacrifice] of him(self), he has been made to shine forth.” (v. 26b)

This is typical of early Christian thought, and his hardly unique to Hebrews; it is the Christological emphasis, and development of the underlying tradition, that is special to this letter. The eschatological aspect is stated even more clearly in verse 28, in which the future (impending) appearance of Jesus is related to his first coming—both being end-time events, from the standpoint of early Christian eschatology:

“So, also the Anointed (One), (hav)ing once been carried toward (God) [i.e. as an offering], unto the taking up on (himself) the sin(s) of many, will be seen out of a second (shining forth), (quite) apart from sin, to the (one)s looking out to receive (him) from (heaven), unto (their) salvation.”

The early Christian understanding of salvation was primarily eschatological, as I have noted on numerous occasions; in this sense it refers to being saved from the great end-time Judgment, as indicated here in verse 27. Jesus first appearance involved the removal of sin, while his second appearance fully (and finally) brings salvation to those freed from sin (i.e., his second appearance is “apart from [xwri/$] sin”).

Hebrews 10:11-13, 19-25ff

The theme of the Priesthood of Jesus, as part of the “new Covenant”, spans the entirety of 4:14-10:18, being expounded and developed a number of ways. Here in 10:11ff, this exposition comes to a close, re-emphasizing the Christological dimension of the new Covenant. Throughout the letter, various Messianic themes and motifs were introduced and given a deeper Christological interpretation. This is certainly true of traditional Messianic passages such as Psalm 110:1, cited frequently by early Christians (e.g., Mark 12:26 par; Acts 2:34-35), as also by the author of Hebrews (1:13). It was the prime reference for the idea of Jesus’ exaltation to heaven at God’s right hand (cf. the discussion in my earlier article). Psalm 110 was also a key passage for the royal theology that would establish (and support) the priestly prerogative for the Davidic line (including the Davidic Messiah). It is thus altogether fitting that the author of Hebrews would again allude to it here.

The eschatological anticipation is emphasized in verse 13, where it speaks of waiting “until his enemies are set (down as) a foot(stool) under (his) feet”. This same aspect is brought out again in the recapitulation of the “new Covenant” theme (citing Jer 31:33) in verse 16, speaking of the covenant that will be made (i.e. fully realized) “after those days”.

The lengthy exposition of chapters 4-10 is capped by a final exhortation, in the form of an eschatological warning, in vv. 19-25. The various themes of the exposition are brought together concisely, woven through the exhortation, but the basic emphasis is clear enough, with its eschatological implications:

“we should hold down (firmly) the common account of the hope [e)lpi/$] (we share), without bending (from it)—for the (One) giving the message [i.e. promise] about (this is) trust(worthy)—and we should set (this) down in mind (for each) other, unto the sharpening of love and beautiful works…” (vv. 23-24)

The urgency of this exhortation to faithfulness (and action) is made especially clear in the closing words:

“…and (to do this) so much more as you see the day coming near”

This “day” is the “day of the Lord”, the day of Jesus’ return, which will usher in the great day of Judgment.

Hebrews 11:10, 16; 12:22-23; 13:14

“For he looked out for the city holding the (foundation)s set down, whose producer [i.e. builder] and public-worker [i.e. construction worker] (is) God.” (11:10)

This statement is part of the Abraham section (vv. 8-12) of the famous Faith-chapter (chap. 11). Abraham’s trust (pi/sti$) in God was demonstrated by his willingness to leave his homeland, in expectation of finding a new inheritance from God (cf. Gen 12:1ff). The author’s line of interpretation is very much like that used in 4:1-13 (cf. above), where the “settling down” of God’s people refers, not to the settlement of Israel in the promised Land, but to the eternal rest that awaits for believers in heaven, in the Age to Come. Similarly, Abraham is seen as going in search of an eternal, heavenly city—designed and built by God Himself—and not to any earthly land. The same is stated more clearly in the following section (vv. 15-16):

“And if they were remembering that (place) from which they stepped out, they (certainly) held a moment to turn back [i.e. when they could have turned back], but (instead) now they reach out for a stronger—that (is), a heavenly—city. Therefore God does not feel shame about them, (and is willing) to be called their God, for (so) he (has) made ready for them a city.”

The nature of this heavenly “city” is further described in 12:22-23:

“But you have come toward ‚iyyôn {Zion}, mountain and city of (the) living God, Yerushalaim above the heaven(s) [e)poura/nio$], and (the) multitude of Messengers all (together) in (its) market-square [i.e. a)gora/], and (the) e)kklhsi/a of (the one)s first-produced [i.e. first born] having been written (down) from (the registry) in (the) heavens, and (also) God (the) Judge of all, and the spirits of (the) just having been [i.e. who have been] made complete”

The locale and space of the city, patterned after that of Jerusalem on earth, blends over into those persons (or beings) who dwell in the city. Thus, as in the great vision of the “new Jerusalem” in Rev 21-22, we are dealing not so much with an actual city as we are its people. This is an important point of emphasis. The list of four kinds of dwellers seems a bit confusing at first glace—it is not immediately clear how the “e)kklhsi/a of the firstborn” relates to “the spirits of the just”. Both seem to refer to believers, and perhaps it is best to view the list as a parallelism:

    • “the multitude of Messengers”, i.e. divine beings, the Messengers (Angels) of God
      • “the e)kklhsi/a of the firstborn”, i.e. believers, modified by a perfect passive participle:
        • having been written down in the heavens”, i.e. their names have been written down (from the registry) as citizens belonging to the ‘heavenly city’
    • “God the Judge of all”, God who rules over all the multitudes
      • “the spirits of the just”, i.e. believers, modified by another perfect passive participle:
        • “having been made complete”, i.e. perfected and sanctified by God

The noun e)kklhsi/a, of course, though a bit difficult to render literally in English, refers to a gathering or congregation of believers—lit. those “called out” to gather/assemble together. For more on the significance of ‚iyyôn (/oYx!, Zion, Siw/n), here designated as both mountain and city, cf. the recent note on Revelation 14:1.

The final reference to this heavenly “city” is in 13:14, in the form of an eschatological promise:

“For we do not hold here [i.e. on earth] (any) city remaining (for us), but (instead) we seek for the (one) being about [me/llousan] (to come).”

The eschatological significance of the verb me/llw, indicating that something is about to occur, is discussed in the earlier study on imminent eschatology. As for the idea of a heavenly Jerusalem, in clear contrast to the earthly city, consult the recent notes on the vision in Revelation 21-22, beginning with the note on 21:2-4. Believers follow the example of Abraham, et al, in searching and longing for this “city”; it is, to be sure, not an actual city at all, but a theological symbol for which I would give a three-fold interpretation—as a symbol of: (1) eternal life, (2) our union with God (and Christ) in heaven, and (3) our (collective) identity as the people of God.

Hebrews 12:5-11, 25-29

The final two eschatological passages to consider come from the dual exhortation in chapter 12, which may be divided into two main sections, each with its own primary emphasis:

    1. 12:1-17, with a concluding warning in vv. 14-17
      Theme: The need to endure a short period of suffering and testing
    2. 12:18-29, again with a concluding warning in vv. 25-29
      Theme: The need to remain faithful in light of the great “shaking” (i.e. the Judgment) that is about to come upon the earth

The period of testing, summarized most clearly in vv. 5-11, refers essentially to the end-time period of distress, which, according to the eschatology of early Christians, believers were either: (a) already living in, or (b) were about to enter. This is expressed in terms of the discipline that a parent shows to a child, out of love, in order to perfect their personal character and growth. Such an interpretation helps to explain why believers would have to endure this (end-time) suffering, but also to provide encouragement in the face of it. From an eschatological standpoint, the thrust of the message is two-fold: (i) it is not yet as bad as it could be (and will be), v. 4, and (ii) such suffering is only temporary and will last but a short time (vv. 10-11).

The Judgment-theme of the second section (vv. 18-29) begins with an allusion to the manifestation of God (theophany) on mount Sinai (Exod 19:16; Deut 4:11-12, etc). In a similar way, the end-time Judgment will be a time when God manifests himself to humankind on earth, with an equally awesome and terrifying appearance, accompanied by supernatural phenomena and disturbances in the natural world. This aspect is emphasized in the warning of vv. 25-29, drawing upon past examples when humankind (even God’s own people, Israel) were disobedient and refused to heed the word of God:

“For if they, (being) upon (the) earth, did not [i.e. were not able to] flee out (away from God), (hav)ing asked alongside [i.e. in the sense of refusing] the (One) dealing (with them), how much more (shall it be so for) us, the (one)s turning away [i.e. if we turn away] from the (One who is) from heaven, whose voice shook the earth then, but now has given a message about (it), saying, ‘Yet once (more) shall I shake, not only the earth, but also the heaven(s)’?” (vv. 25-26)

The author’s handling of this traditional motif is complex, and a bit difficult, as is observable from the syntax (which I have attempted to preserve, as far as possible, in the translation above). This difficulty continues in the eschatological exposition, of the word “yet once (more)” (a%pac), in verse 27; the statement effectively combines the promise of eternal life with a most clear sense of the end of the current Age (i.e. the end of the world):

“And th(is) ‘yet once (more)’ makes clear the placing beyond [i.e. removing] of the (thing)s being shaken, (so) that only the (thing)s not being shaken should remain.”

In the New Age, following the end of the current Age, only the eternal—those things of God that are unable to be shaken—will remain. Believers are said to receive this “unshakable kingdom” (v. 28), which expresses precisely the same thing as the heavenly “city” of 11:10, 16, etc (cf. above), using different (but related) imagery. However, believers will only receive this kingdom if they/we remain faithful to the end, an eschatological message that is reinforced by the closing reference in v. 29, which combines the theophany and judgment themes in this section: “…for our God (is) a fire taking away [i.e. burning up] (all things complete)ly!”

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