Hebrews 9:8, 14; 10:15, 29
When we turn to the letter to the Hebrews, we find a number of references to the Spirit. For the most part, however, these are traditional in nature (cf. the notice in 3:7 on the Spirit-inspired character of the Scriptures), and not nearly as prominent or significant as one might expect in a theological writing of this sort. The lack of emphasis on the Spirit may simply be a reflection of the overwhelmingly Christological thrust of the letter; even so, if Paul (for example) had authored a similar work, the Spirit surely would have featured much more prominently. In particular, there is little or no mention of the idea, so frequent elsewhere in the New Testament, of believers being “in the Spirit” —that is, united with Christ (and God the Father) through the presence of the Spirit. The closest such reference in Hebrews is in 6:4, where believers are described as those
“…(hav)ing been (en)lightened, (hav)ing (both) tasted the heavenly gift and (hav)ing coming to be holders with (one another) of (the) holy Spirit”
The idiom of believers holding the Spirit together with one another certainly captures the essential idea of being united in the Spirit. The emphasis is on the initial experience of salvation (conversion), which entails acceptance of the Gospel, trust in Jesus, confirmation in the baptism ritual, and the presence of the Spirit. The author does not develop the idea any further. However, earlier in the letter (2:4), mention is made of the activity of the Spirit among believers, through miraculous and powerful “signs and wonders”, referring to the work of the Holy Spirit in terms of things (i.e. ‘gifts’) distributed (merismoi/) among individual believers and congregations (cp. Paul’s discussion in 1 Cor 12-14).
The four remaining references to the Spirit are contained within the “New Covenant” exposition in chapters 9-10. The bulk of Hebrews (3:1-10:25) expounds the central theme that believers in Christ are living under a new covenant, and that all the forms of the old covenant are replaced (and fulfilled) in the person of Christ. The author of Hebrews declares, even more forcefully than Paul does in his letters, that the old covenant has completely passed away, and is no longer in effect for believers. This is very much part of the early Christian eschatological worldview—that this “New Covenant” marks the end of the current Age, and the beginning of the new. For more on this aspect, cf. the article on Hebrews in the series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”.
In particular, Hebrews focus on the ritual dimension of the old covenant, as embodied in the Temple cultus—that is, the sacrificial offerings, and the priesthood that administered them. Interestingly, Hebrews never refers directly to the Temple itself (referring instead to the older tent [skhnh/] shrine or ‘Tabernacle’), nor does it make use of the early Christian tendency to interpret the Temple in terms of Jesus’ own person/body. Instead, the author utilizes the simpler contrast between the physical Temple on earth and the (spiritual) dwelling of God in heaven. Christ is identified, not with the Temple, but with the priesthood (spec. the High Priest) that offers sacrifice in the Temple sanctuary. The two main sections which describe Jesus as a (High) Priest are Hebrews 4:14-5:10 and 6:20/7:1-10:18; cf. the earlier article in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.
Hebrews follows a well-established line of tradition in understanding the death of Jesus as a sacrificial offering. The author draws upon two principal types of sacrifice: (1) the offering which took place at the ratification of the covenant (Exodus 24:3-8), and (2) the sin offering at the ‘day of atonement’, when the High Priest would also enter the innermost part of the shrine (Leviticus 16). According to the Last Supper account, Jesus himself alluded to these same two sacrificial traditions, associating them with his own death (his “blood”). Thus, the idea of Jesus’ death as a sacrifice that marks the beginning of a “new covenant” is rooted in the Gospel tradition (Mark 14:22-25 par). The author of Hebrews does not contribute anything new in this regard; rather, he develops and expounds a set of ideas and associations that were already well-established in early Christian belief.
The references to the Spirit in chapters 9-10 are interesting in the way that they punctuate the exposition, following two parallel lines of thought; this may be summarized as follows:
The first line of thought draws upon the traditional association of the Spirit with prophetic inspiration. This association came to be applied, in Jewish thought, specifically to the inspiration of the Scriptures—the Torah (Pentateuch), Prophets, and Psalms (cf. the earlier note on Nehemiah 9:20, 30, etc). The New Testament authors generally assume the Spirit-inspired character of the Old Testament Scriptures, referring to it a number of times, in passing, without any real need to comment on the matter further or to develop the theological basis for the idea. There is a clear example of this in Heb 3:7 (cf. above), and another allusion here at 9:8:
“…the holy Spirit making clear by this (that) the way (into) the (holy) of holies had not yet been made to shine forth, (while) the first tent was yet holding (its) standing [i.e. while it still was standing]”
The “this” (tou=to, in italics above) refers to the Torah regulations related to the sanctuary of the earthly Tent (Tabernacle) and Temple, summarized in vv. 1-7 as part of the “first (covenant)”. This idea expressed in v. 8 is that, through the inspired account of the Tabernacle/Temple ritual in the Scriptures—including the inspired source/nature of the building plan itself (Exod 25-31)—the Spirit has revealed the limitations of the old covenant, which are to be fulfilled in the new. This is part of the wider exposition in the section, whereby Christ’s sacrifice both completes, and takes the place of, the sacrificial offerings made in the Tabernacle/Temple complex.
More than this, the wording of verse 8 implies that the Spirit also reveals, at the same time, the perfection of the new covenant. The Spirit makes known to believers the truth that Jesus’ sacrificial death opens the way (o(do/$) for us into the holiest place—the innermost shrine where God himself dwells. This is but a step removed from the idea expressed in Ephesians 2:18 (discussed in a prior note), that in the Spirit we, as believers, hold the way leading toward God the Father (cp. John 14:6).
Moving ahead to 9:14, the author refers to the role the Spirit played in the sacrifice of Christ, which both brought cleansing from sin (for believers) and established the new covenant. Acting as High Priest, Jesus made the sacrifice (in his own blood) “through (the) Spirit of (the) Age(s)” (dia\ pneu/mato$ ai)wni/ou). The expression “Spirit of the Age(s)” was unusual enough that it prompted scribes to alter it to the more familiar “holy Spirit” (with a(gi/ou instead of ai)wni/ou); however, the reading with ai)wni/ou is almost certainly original. The adjective, difficult to translate literally in English, is often rendered as “eternal”, which tends to capture the general idea, if not especially accurate as a translation. The ai)wn– concept in the New Testament relates fundamentally to the Jewish and early Christian eschatological worldview, with the distinction between the current Age and the new Age to come. It also corresponds to the term <l*ou in Hebrew, which typically signifies either the distant past or the distant future, with the presence and power of God encompassing both (i.e. ‘eternal, eternity’). In the context of the exposition here in Hebrews, the distinction is between the earthly sanctuary, which is temporal in nature, and the heavenly sanctuary, which is eternal. The Spirit, of course, belongs to the heavenly sanctuary, where God himself has his dwelling.
The further associations of the Spirit with cleansing (vb kaqari/zw) and life for the dead, are well-established in Christian thought and tradition, as we have seen these notes.
At 10:15, the Spirit again declares the New Covenant (cf. above on 9:8), this time citing the famous prophecy of Jeremiah 31:33-34 (vv. 16-17). The declaration effectively brings the long exposition (of chaps. 3-10) to a close, concluding with a blunt restatement of the fundamental argument—namely, that the old covenant (with its sacrificial ritual) has come to an end for believers in Christ (v. 18). The sacrifice of Christ did away with the need for any further sacrificial ritual.
The reference to the Spirit in 10:29 properly belongs to the exhortation section that follows (10:26-12:13), but one which builds upon the New Covenant exposition of chaps. 9-10. After all, if there had been serious consequences for transgressing or rejecting the old covenant, how much more so is it now in the case of the new. This is the thrust of the warning in vv. 26-31, stated clearly enough in verse 29. In the old covenant, the person who sinned willfully and deliberately was “cut off”, and could not be restored to God (as part of his holy Community) through sin offering. So it is also in the new covenant, according to the author of Hebrews. A person who continues in blatantly sinful behavior, after coming to faith in Christ, will face the same Judgment as the wicked. They are said to be “trampling the Son of God under (foot)” and “bringing (it about)” that the “blood of the covenant” is treated as something “common” (i.e. profane), and not holy.
Moreover, the person who so violates the New Covenant is said to “bring injury (up)on the Spirit of (God’s) favor”. It is a rejection, not only of Jesus Christ (the Son of God), but one which brings insult and injury (vb e)nubri/zw) to God’s own Spirit. This is reminiscent of Jesus’ famous (and much-debated) saying on the “sin against the Holy Spirit” (Mk 3:28-29 par); on which, cf. my most recent discussion. The expression “the Spirit of favor” (to\ pneu=ma th=$ xa/rito$) is unusual (and unique in the New Testament), but clearly the term xa/ri$ (“favor”) refers to God’s favor—that is, the favor he shows to his people (believers). This means, primarily, the favor he shows in bestowing his Spirit upon us. The gift of God’s Spirit, of course, cannot be separated from the work of Jesus Christ and our trust in him, as is apparent from the strong Christological context of these references in Hebrews. Even though the author never develops this sense of the role of the Spirit in and among believers, he clearly accepts (and assumes) it as part of the early Christian worldview.