May 6: Hebrews 9:14

In the previous notes in this series, we have explored the relationship between the Spirit and the death of Jesus. By all accounts, this association represents a certain development in early Christian thought, for which there is very little evidence in the Gospel Passion narratives. Only in the Gospel of John do we find a connection between the Spirit and the death of Jesus, and there only by way of allusion and foreshadowing. As discussed in a prior note, the Johannine presentation of the tradition regarding Jesus’ last words, and the actual moment of his death (19:30), can be understood as a reference to Jesus giving the Spirit. Similarly, many commentators find an allusion to the Spirit in the water that comes forth from Jesus’ side (19:34f, note), as symbolic of the Spirit as ‘living water’ —cf. 4:10-15; 7:37-39, and note the contrast between ordinary water and the Spirit in 3:5-8; cp. 1:26, 33.

Another possible connection is found in the use of Psalm 16:8-10 within the sermon-speeches of Peter and Paul in the book of Acts (2:25-28; 13:35), applied to the death of Jesus. It could be taken to imply that God (and His Spirit) remained with Jesus all the way through the moment of his death (and his burial thereafter). Cf. the introduction to this series, and the recent Easter Sunday article.

Apart from these indirect references, I can find only one passage in the New Testament that connects the Spirit with the actual death of Jesus—Hebrews 9:11-14, with the climactic statement in verse 14.

Hebrews 9:14

An important theme that runs throughout the letter of Hebrews is the fulfillment, in Jesus’ person, of all the sacrificial ritual previously required by God of His people (in the old covenant). In the new covenant, such sacrificial offerings are no longer required (cf. 10:9, etc), since they were fulfilled by Jesus, and he himself is the mediator of a new agreement between God and His people (believers)—see esp. 7:22; 8:6-10ff, 13; 9:1ff, 15-20; 10:16-17 (citing Jer 31:33-34); 12:24; 13:20.

The focus on the sacrificial offerings runs through chapters 7-10, with special attention given to the Day of Atonement ritual (Leviticus 16). Jesus fulfills the role of the high priest who enters “the inner (space)” behind the curtain (Heb 6:19)—that is, into the innermost shrine (‘Holy of Holies’)—to offer sacrifice (by sprinkling blood), cleansing the shrine of impurity, from the sins of the people, in the presence of YHWH (Lev 16:15ff). The sacrificial offering is burnt upon the Temple altar (vv. 24ff), as a sin offering on behalf of all the people (including the priests). In terms of the typological interpretation applied by the author of Hebrews, Jesus is both the High Priest who offers the sacrifice and the sacrificial offering itself.

The dual imagery comes together in 9:11-14, where Jesus, the High Priest, is said to have entered into the inner shrine to sprinkle the cleansing blood (of the slaughtered animal), according to the regulation laid down in Lev 16:15ff. However, the blood that he brings is his own—that is, he himself is the sacrificial offering that has been slain:

“…and not through (the) blood of goats and calves, but through (using) his own blood, he came in, on one (occasion only), into the holy (place), (hav)ing found for the ages (the) loosing from (bondage).” (v. 12)

The ‘bondage’ from which people are loosed (i.e. set free) is the bondage to sin—the Day of Atonement rituals, of course, being intended specifically to remove the effects of sin. It is a sacrificial ritual to be performed “upon one (occasion)” (e)fa/pac)—that is, one time only. After the fulfillment by Jesus, there is no longer any need for the ritual to be performed. It was fulfilled by Jesus through his sacrificial death—which involved (literally) the shedding of blood, but also the cruelty and violence of his manner of death (crucifixion) represents, in a general sense, ‘bloodshed’. On this specific Christological use of the blood-motif, cf. Mark 14:24 par; John 6:54-56; [19:34]; Acts 20:28; Rom 3:25; 5:9; 1 Cor 10:16; Col 1:20; Eph 1:7; 2:13; 1 Pet 1:2, 19; 1 John 1:7; 5:6ff; Rev 1:5; 5:9; 7:14; 12:11; 19:13. Outside of chapters 7-10 in Hebrews, cf. also 12:24; 13:12, 20.

The contrast between the blood of slaughtered animals, as used in the ritual, and Jesus’ own blood, is emphasized in verses 13-14:

“For, if the blood of goats and calves…(by) sprinkling (it on) the (one)s having been made common [i.e. unclean/profane], makes (them) holy toward the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of the Anointed (One), who, through (the) Spirit of the Ages [i.e. eternal Spirit], brought himself, without blemish, toward God, cleanse our sunei/dhsi$ from dead works, unto performing service to (the) living God?”

Verses 13-14 comprise a relatively long and complex sentence, as my very literal translation above makes clear. The complexity is due, in large part, to the considerable mixture of images and motifs which the author has brought together. This includes both the idea of the sprinkling of blood—alluding not just to the Day of Atonement ritual, but to a range of sacrificial contexts (e.g., Exod 24:8; cp. Mk 14:24 par)—and of presenting the slaughtered animal as a burnt offering (for sin, etc).

The reference to the Spirit in verse 14 is significant, and is the particular focus of our study. The expression is pneu=ma ai)wni/ou, “(the) Spirit of the Ages”, with the adjective ai)w/nio$ (“of the age[s]”) typically translated “eternal” —understood, not so much in a temporal sense, but as a fundamental Divine characteristic or attribute. It is possible to consider also that ai)w/nio$ alludes to a certain ‘timelessness’ as a characteristic of God’s Spirit.

The expression is part of a wider prepositional phrase: dia\ pneu/mato$ ai)wni/ou, “through (the) Spirit of the Ages,” “through (the) eternal Spirit”. Commentators have long debated the precise significance of this phrase in v. 14; an entire monograph has even been devoted to the subject (by John J. McGrath, S.J., Through the Eternal Spirit: An Historical Study of the Exegesis of Hebrews 9:13-14 [Rome: Pontificia Universitas Gregoriana, 1961]). The interpretive key would seem to be the parallelism with the dia/– phrases in vv. 11-12 (cf. Attridge, p. 251):

    • “through [dia/] the greater and more complete tent”
    • “through [dia/] his own blood…” (cf. above), contrasting
      not through the blood of goats…”

The Spirit represents both the location and the manner of the sacrifice. In the first instance, the sacrificial offering takes place ‘in the Spirit’ —that is, in the realm of the Spirit; in the second instance, it is offered at the level of the Spirit, in a spiritual manner. Thus, even though Jesus suffered a physical death, in which concrete and material blood was shed, he truly offered “his own blood” through the Spirit.

This is comparable to the Johannine view of Jesus’ death, in which, as discussed in prior notes, the life-giving (and cleansing) power of Jesus’ blood (i.e., his sacrificial death) is communicated to believers through the Spirit; and, indeed, we participate in, and partake of, his ‘blood’ in a spiritual manner. Cf. especially the notes on Jn 6:51-58; 1 Jn 1:7, and 5:6-8. However, here in Hebrews the focus is somewhat different. The emphasis is not on how we experience Jesus’ death, but on the death itself. Verse 14 indicates that Jesus’ death was spiritual, as much as (or even more than) it was physiological.

Perhaps it would be better to say that Jesus’ sacrificial death effected something at the spiritual level. It brought about a cleansing of sin that is realized, for believers, spiritually; for more on this, cf. again the prior note on 1 Jn 1:7ff. Specifically, v. 14 locates this cleansing in the sunei/dhsi$ of the believer. This noun is derived from the verb sunei/dw, which literally means “see together”, in the sense of seeing how things fit together, indicating a certain knowledge and awareness of the matter. The noun sunei/dhsi$ most commonly refers to a person’s self-awareness, often in a moral-ethical sense—i.e., awareness of one’s behavior and conduct, etc. It is typically translated in English as “conscience”.

The awareness of which believers are cleansed, by Jesus’ blood, relates to our religious identity—specifically, to our identity as God’s people. In the old covenant, this identity was defined principally by the Torah regulations, including those involving the sacrificial rituals. The rituals were required to deal with the reality of sin and impurity. One such ritual, alluded to by the author (in a curious fashion) in v. 13, is the rite of the Red heifer (Lev 19), which was performed in order to remove the impurity that came from being in contact with a dead body. Probably the author is alluding to this when he refers to being cleansed from “dead works”.

Now, in the new covenant, through the sacrifice of Jesus, we perform service (vb latreu/w) to God in a new way. Our minds and hearts having been cleansed from sin, through the blood of Jesus, in the Spirit, the old sacrificial rituals are no longer required. No longer are we rendered impure from “dead works”, but we are alive in the Spirit and serve a living God. As we have seen, Paul was more forceful than the author of Hebrews in defining the contrast between the old and new covenants as a contrast between “death” and “life” (see esp. 2 Corinthians 3:3, 6-7ff, 14, 17-18). However, as our author continues in vv. 15ff, he very much brings out a similar connection between the old covenant and death. The new covenant was also founded on a death—that of Jesus—but it was a death that occurred only one time (e)fa/pac), and never again.

References above marked “Attridge” are to Harold W. Attridge, The Epistle to the Hebrews, edited by Helmut Koester, Hermeneia commentary series (Fortress Press: 1989).