Friday, July 30, 2010

Fill the Hand: A Hebrew Idiom of Ordination and Consecration

To fill the hand is an interesting Hebrew idiom. Overall, it occurs about twenty times in the Hebrew Bible. It is most often connected with the consecration of the Levitical priests. In Exod 28:41, God instructs Moses: “you shall anoint [Aaron and his sons], and fill their hand, and consecrate them, and they shall function as priests for me.” See also Exod 29:9, 33, 35; Lev 8:33; 16:32; 21:10; Num 3:3. The expression is also used of the illegal ordination of priests. Micah the Ephraimite filled the hand of one of his sons, and the hand of the infamous Levite, to be priests (Judg 17:5, 12). See also 1 Kgs 13:33; 2 Chr 13:9.

The expression typically has the Piel of מלא with יד as its object. It is usually understood as an idiom that means to consecrate or to ordain, but what is the connection between filling the hand and ordination? The root מלא in the Piel means to fill. The word יד, which means hand, can have the extended meaning of power. The idiom seemingly communicates, therefore, the idea of conferring power or authority. To fill the hand of a person is to complete the power of that person in the sense of authorizing that person for a particular task.

There is a concrete example of this expression in the Scriptures which seems to illuminate this idiom. In 2 Kgs 9:24, we are told that “Jehu filled his hand in the bow.” In other words, Jehu put his strength into the bow to draw it back strongly for a powerful shot aimed at King Joram. Here to fill the hand means to transfer power. This seems to confirm the idea that filling the hand of someone to be priest means to authorize, hence to ordain as priest.

However, the expression can also be used of ordinary people who consecrate themselves in the service of God. David is recorded as using the expression in 1 Chr 29:5 to encourage the people to give freewill offerings to the Lord to be used in the the building of the temple. Here the people are effectively called upon to fill their own hands in the service of God! A similar idea is found in 2 Chr 29:31 where the people fill their hands by joining with Hezekiah in renewing the covenant before God. And finally, the expression can also be used of objects dedicated for the worship of God. The priests in Ezekiel’s vision of the eschatological temple would offer sacrifices to purify and to fill the hand of the altar of the temple (Ezek 43:26).

There is one particular use of this expression that deserves to be mentioned. After the sin of the golden calf, Moses proclaimed: “Whoever is on the Lord’s side, come to me!” (Exod 32:26). When the sons of Levi gathered around him, Moses told them to take their swords and to execute judgment upon the people. He also encouraged them at this time: “Fill your hands today to Yahweh, yes, every man against his son and against his brother!” (Exod 32:29). Having understood the logic behind the idiom, Moses’ use of the expression at this juncture surely appears to be a case of deliberate double entendre. The Levites were to consecrate themselves to God by unleashing the power of their hands against their rebellious countrymen.

Friday, July 23, 2010

When Jesus Became Our Great High Priest after the Order of Melchizedek

Jesus is described in Hebrews as our great high priest, but when did this office commence?

Psalm 110 is important in relation to this question, and v. 4 in particular: “Yahweh has sworn and will not change his mind: ‘You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.’” But when did Yahweh historically make this oath?

If anything, the way in which Ps 110:4 is sandwiched by the idea of the Messiah’s enthronement in vv. 1, 5, along with the mention of “the day of your power” in v. 3, suggests that the utterance of the divine oath regarding Christ’s priesthood is linked with his ascension to and enthronement at the right hand of God. Yet I admit that this is not totally clear in the psalm in question.

But there is confirmation of this understanding in the letter to the Hebrews. The author says that Christ did not appoint himself to his priestly office (Heb 5:5). The quotation of Ps 2:7 in Heb 5:5 in juxtaposition with the quotation of Ps 110:4 in Heb 5:6 is important to consider. On the one hand, the wording you are my son is echoed in the voice of God that was heard at Christ’s baptism (e.g., Luke 3:22). On the other hand, Ps 2:7 can be understood as enthronement language. The decree of Ps 2:7 is linked with Yahweh’s establishment of the Messiah as king on Zion (Ps 2:6), which is in response to (see Ps 2:5) a rebellion directed against Yahweh and his Messiah (Ps 2:1-4). It is significant that Ps 2:7 is interpreted by Paul as being fulfilled in Christ’s resurrection (Acts 13:33).

Did the author of Hebrews also understand Ps 2:7 in this way? The language of Heb 5:9-10 suggests that effectively he did. Jesus learned obedience through suffering (Heb 5:8), “and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.” In other words, suffering led to obedience, which in turn led to perfection. The time of the aorist passive participle translated as having been designated in v. 10 seems to match with the aorist passive participle translated as having been made perfect in v. 9. It would make sense that the height of Christ’s suffering and obedience was the time when his perfection was complete. The parallel between perfection and designation suggests, therefore, that Christ’s designation as high priest according to the order of Melchizedek took place more or less at the time when his perfection was complete, when his suffering reached its climax. His being designated as such a high priest meant that he could be the source of eternal salvation for those who obey him. This ties Jesus’ designation as high priest in with the time of his death and resurrection.

In a similar way, Heb 6:20 implies that Jesus became high priest at a certain point in time, which in turn enabled him to be a forerunner into the presence of God “within the veil” (Heb 6:19). Thus, according to the author of Hebrews, Jesus’ appointment as high priest occurred shortly before he ascended into the presence of God in the heavenly temple.

Regarding the typological relation between Jesus and Melchizedek, the lack of biblical information concerning the life and particularly the death of Melchizedek is taken as the main point of comparison with Christ: it is as if Melchizedek has not died and continues on as a priest forever, and this continuation in the office of priest is a picture of what is definitely true for Jesus. Yet it is not as if Christ is an eternal priest in a timeless way; but, having entered into that office at some point in time, he continues on in that office forever. The significance drawn from this typological relationship is that the submission of Abraham to Melchizedek proves the superiority of the priestly order of Melchizedek over against the Levitical priesthood, hence the superiority of the new covenant over the old. In the mind of the author, Melchizedek is not viewed as being an eternal priest in a timeless way, but that at some point in his life he became a priest, and that this office seemingly continues on forever. In a similar way, Heb 7:16 says that Jesus became (literally, has become) a priest in the likeness of Melchizedek. Furthermore, the authority for Jesus becoming a priest was “the power of an indestructible life” (Heb 7:16). The quotation of Ps 110:4 in the next verse, therefore, ties Jesus’ priesthood in very closely with his resurrection. Jesus was not appointed as high priest on the basis of the Mosaic regulations concerning the priesthood (Heb 7:28), but as a result of the divine oath recorded in Ps 110:4. Significantly, this oath is described as being “after the law,” i.e., it is not recorded as part of the Mosaic revelation recorded in the Pentateuch (Heb 7:28). Presumably the oath recorded in Ps 110:4 is a prophecy of the oath that was formally made by God around the time of Jesus’ resurrection.

It seems, therefore, that Jesus’ death and resurection marks the time when his office of high priest according to the order of Melchizedek formally commenced. This fits in with the idea that the climax of the ordination ceremony of the priest is the sacrifice of the ram of ordination (אֵיל הַמִּלֻּאִים–the ram of the filling with priestly power and authority) and the sprinking of the priest in its blood (Lev 8:22-30). Jesus’ death on the cross was the climax of his ordination as our great high priest.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Concept of the Eternal Covenant in the Old Testament

Following on from my post entitled “The Eternal Nature of the Eternal Covenant in Hebrews”, it should also be noted that the language of an eternal covenant is not just limited to Hebrews. The phrase ברית עולם an everlasting covenant appears a number of times in the Old Testament, and there are other verses where the words ברית and עולם are closely related.

The relevant verses are: Gen 9:16; 17:7, 13, 19; Exod 31:16; Lev 24:8; Num 18:19; 25:13; Jdg 2:1; 2 Sam 23:5; Isa 24:5; 55:3; 59:21; 61:8; Jer 32:40; 50:5; Ezek 16:60; 37:26; Ps 105:10; 1 Chr 16:17.

I will endeavor to investigate these verses over the next few weeks or so.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Eternal Nature of the Eternal Covenant in Hebrews

I have been asked about how we should understand the eternal nature of the eternal covenant in Heb 13:20. The connection between this verse and Bullinger’s language of “the One and Eternal Testament or Covenant of God” is intriguing. His idea seems to be that there is one covenant that is eternal in the sense that it began with Adam and continues on forever, and this is one way of understanding the idea of the eternal covenant in Heb 13:20.

It is correct to speak of one covenant relationship that God has had with his people since the time of Adam, but the purpose of the author of Hebrews is actually to distinguish the Mosaic administration of this covenant relationship from the post-cross administration of this covenant relationship. The author argues: if the revelation given to Moses and the prophets was special (Heb 1:1; 2:2), then how much more so the word given to the Son of God himself (Heb 1:2; 2:3)! There is continuity, but also discontinuity in the sense that a greater revelation has been revealed, which must take priority, to which we must be committed, and from which we must not turn back.

So, in speaking of an eternal covenant, the author of Hebrews means the new covenant, which he contrasts with the old covenant. Jesus is the guarantor and mediator of a covenant that is “better” than the Mosaic covenant (Heb 7:22; 8:6). Jesus’ ongoing life means that he exercises an eternal priesthood, and this underpins this better covenant (Heb 7:24). Jesus’ mediatorship is linked with his death, which opened the way for the called to receive an eternal inheritance (Heb 9:15). This inheritance is not eternal in the sense of being timeless, but it is eternal in the sense that it continues on for eternity from a particular point in the past. The context suggests that this point is the time of Jesus’ death, when the new covenant was inaugurated.

It is clear that the author of Hebrews views the new covenant as beginning formally at the point of Jesus’ death. A covenant is made valid, i.e., it comes into effect, through the death (usually symbolic) of the one who made it (Heb 9:17). In relation to the Mosaic covenant, the necessary death was symbolized through the shedding of sacrificial blood (Heb 9:17-21). But the new covenant was established through the literal death of the one who made it. His death was a “better” sacrifice, which has opened the way to enter into heaven itself, not just into the tabernacle/temple, which was the Mosaic copy of this awesome place (Heb 9:23-26).

It is also interesting to consider how the author of Hebrews uses the word αἰώνιος, which is usually translated as eternal. In Hebrews, it usually designates continuation into the future rather than something that is timeless. Eternal salvation in Heb 5:9 refers to the salvation that results from obeying Jesus. It is an eschatological concept that continues on forever. The timeframe of eternal judgment in Heb 6:2, eternal redemption in Heb 9:12, and the promised eternal inheritance in Heb 9:15 are similar. The eternal redemption was only secured “by means of his blood” (Heb 9:12). Even though the effects of Jesus’ sacrifice applied to the old covenant saints, the redemption obtained by this means did not really begin until Jesus secured it through his death on the cross. In a similar way, the idea of the eternal inheritance being promised means that it did not exist in consummate reality from the beginning. The called only receive the eternal inheritance promised to them through the death of Jesus which redeems them from the sins committed under the first, i.e., the Mosaic, covenant (Heb 9:15). The only time when αἰώνιος is used in Hebrews to denote the idea of a timeless existence is in Heb 9:14, where the Holy Spirit is described as the eternal Spirit.

All in all, according the manner in which the writer of Hebrews uses his language, the eternal covenant is the new covenant in Christ. It is eternal in the sense that from the point of inauguration at the cross, it endures forever. More theologically we could speak of how this “eternal” covenant has been the foundation for God’s unitary covenant relationship with his people ever since Adam was kicked out of the garden, but this is to delve into an area that is beyond the purview of this particular epistle.

As the writer puts it: Once upon a time God’s people only knew Sinai;

but [now] you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel (Heb 12:22-24)!

The sprinkled blood that is better than the blood of innocent Abel has inaugurated the better and eternal covenant, namely, the new covenant in Christ.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Importance of the Concept of Covenant in Biblical Hermeneutics

The concept of covenant is very important for coming to an accurate understanding of the message of the Bible. The Bible has developed as the written record of God’s relationship with his people through history. The Old Testament is the written testimony to God’s relationship with Israel based on the Sinaitic covenant, also known as the old covenant. The Old Testament is simply old covenant revelation, and the covenant theology of this revelation is the theological foundation upon which the New Testament is built.

It is significant that the New Testament teaches that Christians, in a manner similar to the people of Israel, are in a covenant relationship with God. Jesus came to establish the new covenant, and Jesus’ disciples participate in the blood of the covenant (Luke 22:14–20). Paul viewed himself as being a minister of the new covenant (2 Cor 3:6). Paul says that non-Jewish Christians were once “strangers to the covenants of promise,” but have now been brought near in Christ (Eph 2:12–13). The writer of Hebrews teaches that Christians are sanctified by the blood of the covenant (Heb 10:29); and have come “to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel” (Heb 12:24). Christians, therefore, relate to God on the basis of a covenant. This covenant, however, is not the Sinaitic or Mosaic covenant, but the new covenant in Christ.

The new covenant exhibits the same basic relational dynamics as the old covenant, but the key difference between the old and new covenants is the medium of revelation. Under the old covenant, the medium of revelation was, first and foremostly, Moses; but with the coming of Jesus Christ (who is the fulfillment of the prophecy of Deut 18:15, 19 concerning the second and greater Moses) a new revelation has been given. Because Christ is the second and greater Moses, the revelation mediated through Jesus (and his apostles) takes priority.

Understanding the covenant structure of Old and New Testament revelation, and how the old and new covenants relate together, is of great importance in interpreting the overall meaning of the Bible. In fact, from a Christian point of view, if it is acknowledged that the new covenant is built upon the foundation of the old covenant and exhibits the same basic relational dynamics as those already established in the old, it follows that having a good understanding of the old covenant can greatly assist us in understanding the nature of the new covenant and what it means to be a Christian. Indeed, it can be argued that a deficient understanding of the nature of the old covenant tends to go hand in hand with a deficient understanding of the new covenant. If the Old Testament describes the basic human problem, then it makes sense to conclude that the more we understand the problem, the more we can understand and appreciate the solution that is provided through the new covenant in Christ. It is important, therefore, to come to a clear understanding of the nature of the old covenant and its purposes in God’s plan of salvation history. Doing so will greatly elucidate our understanding of the gospel.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Gospel as Eschatological Torah

Luke-Acts records Jesus as teaching that Jerusalem would be the starting point from which the preaching of the gospel would emanate. In Luke 24:46-47 Jesus tells his disciples that “it is written … that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” This idea is also reflected in Acts 1:8 when Jesus says that his disciples will be his witnesses “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” The starting point for the preaching of the gospel of the risen Christ is Jerusalem. But where in particular is this written in the Old Testament Scriptures?

The answer seems to be … in Isa 2:2-3.

It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of Yahweh shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of Yahweh, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go the law, and the word of Yahweh from Jerusalem.

The intertextuality between Isa 2:2-3 and Luke 24:46-47 shows that the Old Testament concept of eschatological torah finds its fulfillment in the gospel!