Grace Theological Journal 8.1 (1987) 131-140

          Copyright © 1987 by Grace Theological Seminary.  Cited with permission.

 

            SEVEN THEOLOGICAL THEMES

                                IN HEBREWS

 

                                    MERLAND RAY MILLER

 

By examining the relationship of literary form to theological

argument in the book of Hebrews, seven theological themes occurring

throughout Hebrews are elucidated, each of which is especially preva-

lent in 11:1-12:2. This smaller section emerges as a theological micro-

cosm of the book as a whole. Upon close inspection, these seven

themes can be seen to function as a forceful appeal for the readers not

to abandon the New Covenant community for the Old, but rather to

endure in faith. The faith that brings such endurance is that which

focuses on Jesus, the Pioneer and Perfecter of faith, who himself has

endured the cross and has sat down at the right hand of God the

Father.

            *          *         *

                                        

          INTRODUCTION

 

The task of interpreting a passage of Scripture is a delicate balanc-

ing act. For the exegete who is sensitive to the literary forms of

biblical literature and intent on finding the theological argument of a

passage, there must be a third concern, that of demonstrating how the

two interact. In the context of examining the relationship of literary

form to theological argument in Hebrews,1 seven theological themes

were discovered. These themes, which occur throughout Hebrews

(but with greater frequency in Heb 11:1-12:2), are (1) faith, (2) per-

fection, (3) promise, (4) endurance, (5) superiority, (6) witness, and

(7) inheritance. The meanings of the Greek word groups associated

with these themes are discussed briefly below. The emphasis, how-

ever, is on their development within Hebrews as a whole, and within

the concluding exhortation (10: 19-12:29) in particular.

 

 

1The literary form of Heb 11:1-12:2 has been defined in chap. 1 of my

unpublished dissertation, "The Theological Argument of Hebrews 11 in Light of

 Its Literary Form" (St. Louis: Concordia Seminary, 1984) and in the article

"What Is the Literary Form of Hebrews 11?",  forthcoming in JETS. My thesis

 is that Heb 11:1-12:2 is an encomium to Jesus.

 

 


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                                                         FAITH

 

The concept of 'faith' is not only central to Heb 11:1-12:2 (27x)

and to the book of Hebrews as a whole (41x), but to the entire scope

of biblical revelation. Therefore it is imperative to grasp the scriptural

meaning of faith in order to understand how Hebrews employs it.

In extra-biblical Greek, this concept generally signifies "to trust,

rely on." With a personal object it can acquire the nuance "to obey.”2

In the LXX, the root pist- almost exclusively translates the root

Nmx.3 The best examples are found in Gen 15:6 and Hab 2:4. The

Hebrew root occurs often in the Hiphil stem where, according to

Weiser, it means "to declare God NmAx<n," "to say Amen to God.”4 Used

in this sense, the word denotes a response to the consistency of God.

The importance of the OT for the writers of the NT leads to

frequent use of this concept. The new meanings given to the concept

in the NT are: acceptance of preaching (I Thes 1:8-9); content of

faith (Rom 10:9); personal relation to Christ (Gal 2:20); and the

message itself (Gal 1:23). These meanings of faith are sufficiently

differentiated from the OT meanings to warrant their being taken as

"Christian" usages of the term.5

In the book of Hebrews, the concept pist-, like so many theo-

logical concepts in the book, serves the hortatory purpose of the

author. It is closely related to the word of God (4:2, 3) and the

promise of God (6:12; 10:23; 11:11). It is the major focus around

which the OT history is presented, first with the unbelief of the desert

generation (3:7-4:11), and later with the faith of the elders (chap. 11).

This hortatory use of faith has misled some into taking pi<stij in

Hebrews 11 to mean exhortation. The concept has been identified

with obedience (Bultmann, Eichler6), hope (Huxhold7) and endurance

(Graesser8; the word is u[pomonh<, also translated "steadfastness" or

"perseverance ").

The underlying problem with these hortatory definitions is that

faith is conceived of as a virtue or human power. That Graesser sees

 

2Rudolf Bultmann and Artur Weiser, "pisteu<w" etc., TDNT 6 (1968) 176-79.

3Edwin Hatch and Henry A. Redpath, A Concordance to the Septuagint and the

 other Greek Versions of the Old Testament (Including the Apocryphal Books)

(2 vols.; Graz-Austria: Academische Druck-U. Verlagsanstalt, 1954),2.1137-38.

4Bultmann, "pi<stij" 187.

5Ibid.,205-14.

6Johannes Eichler, "Inheritance, Lot, Portion, klh?roj," NIDNTT2 (1976) 301.

7H. N. Huxhold, "Faith in the Epistle to the Hebrews," CTM 38 (1967).

8Erich Graesser, Der Glaube im Hebraeerbrief (Marburg: Elwert, 1965).

 

 


 

           MILLER: SEVEN THEOLOGICAL THEMES IN HEBREWS           133

 

faith in Hebrews in this way is clearly illustrated by his contrast with

Paul's use of the term:

 

With Paul, generatio fidei. ..whereby faith-when it has first of all

been awakened through the Word-is then itself an "eschatological

phenomenon," that is, "that which conveys justification to men on the

basis of dikaiosu<nh Here, with Hb, cooperatio fidei, whereby faith as

instrument. ..is brought in by the hearer himself as the means, as the

power, with the help of which he puts himself in a wholly settled

position and perseveres in it.9

 

As a further contrast to Paul, Graesser contends that faith in

Hebrews is not faith in Christ: "The specifically Christian ('Christo-

logical') faith finds no further development in Hb, neither in the

reflective manner of the Apostle Paul, nor in the unreflective manner

of the Synoptics."10

One need look no further than Heb 12:2 and the call to "look to

Jesus" to conclude that in Heb 11:1-12:2 faith is preeminently

Christological. The whole "faith cycle" beginning at 10:32 leads up to

the climactic identification of faith (the means of endurance) with

"seeing the unseen," that is, Jesus himself. Taking the book of

Hebrews as a whole, it seems clear in light of the development of the

teaching on the High Priestly ministry of Christ, and the strong

exhortation to "enter God's presence boldly" on the basis of that

ministry (4:14-16; 10:19-25) that faith in Hebrews is pointedly Chris-

tological. If the phrase pi<stij ei]j  Xristo<n faith in Christ' is not

used in Hebrews, the idea is certainly implied throughout. Even

where faith refers simply to God (6:1; 11:6), the background is the

teaching of chap. I, that Christ, in contrast to the angels, is God.

In developing the point that faith is a virtue provided by man,

Graesser contrasts the view with that of Paul, which connects faith

with the Word of God. But in Hebrews, as in Paul, the object of faith

is the word of promise. First, by contrast, unbelief is the rejection of

the word which is heard (4:1-3). Then, positively, faith focuses on the

promise (6:12). Therefore, with the personal object (Christ) and the

promise in mind it is best to understand faith in Hebrews (indeed,

throughout Scripture as a whole) in the general sense of trust: "from

a purely formal standpoint there is nothing very distinctive in the

usage of the NT and early Chr. writings as compared with Gk. usage.

As in Greek.....pisteu<ein means ‘to rely on’, ‘to trust’, ‘to believe’.“11

 

9Ibid., 66; my translation.

10Ibid.,79.

11Bultmann, "pi<stij" 203.

 


 

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The connection of this trust with God's Word is aptly summed up by

Gerhard Delling who, in another context (and almost in passing),

speaks of pi<stij which is firm confidence in the fulfillment of God's

promise."12

In Heb 11:1-12:2 faith may be defined as an attitude of trust by

which the believer sees the unseen and thereby sets his hope on the

divine promise. The elders trusted that they would eventually be

"brought to completion" and qualified to enter their heavenly father-

land, that is, the presence of God. They therefore anticipated the

work of Christ as High Priest which would make that entrance

possible for them. They "saw the unseen" both in terms of time (the

future event of the cross) and of space (looking to heaven they

considered themselves strangers on earth). Inasmuch as they looked

to God, they also looked to Jesus who is the eternal God.

The believers to whom Hebrews is addressed live in the age of

the New Covenant and the fulfillment of the promises. The event of

the cross and the current ministry of Christ in intercession are the

bases for confident entrance into God's presence in prayer. They live

now, however, like the elders once did, on the earthly scene, where

there is a great race to be run in order finally to reach the heavenly

city. Their situation involves suffering, which calls for endurance. The

key to enduring is faith, confident trust in God's promise that "He

shall come and not delay" (10:37), looking to the Pioneer and Per-

fecter of faith to lead them on to their final perfection.

 

PERFECTION

 

The concept of perfection (tel-) is the second most common

theme in Hebrews. In extra-biblical Greek and the NT apart from

Hebrews, the meanings revolve around the idea of bringing a person

or action to completion.13 Most crucial for Hebrews, however, is a

technical use from the Septuagint.

           

The phrase teleio<w  ta>j  xei?ra<j  tinoj... is to be understood along the

same lines. ...It is. ..used for the Hbr. "to fill the hands [xlemi

vydAyA-tx,]...That someone's hands are made free from stain, or that

he is made free from stain, means finally that the one concerned is

"able to practice the cultus," cf. Lv. 21:10.14

 

It is appropriate that Hebrews, with its theme of Jesus as High

Priest, follows the cultic implications of the Septuagint. Christ is not

only fully qualified for his ministry as priest, but it is through this

 

12Gerhard Delling, "teloj," etc., TDNT 8 (1972) 86.

13Ibid., 80-82.

14Ibid.,80-81.


 

              MILLER: SEVEN THEOLOGICAL THEMES IN HEBREWS         135

 

ministry that he qualifies believers to approach God. This is why the

elders were not brought to completion, since their qualification was

based on his priestly act which came later. Delling aptly expresses

what it means that Jesus is the teleiwth<j/ 'perfecter' (12:2):

 

God has qualified Jesus. .."to come before him" in priestly action. He

has done so by the suffering (2:10) in which Jesus confirmed His

obedience, 5:8f. As the One qualified (teleiwqei<j) for priestly ministry

before God, as the One eternally qualified (ei]j to>n  ai]w?na  teteleiw-

me<noj 7:28), He is the absolute High-priest...By His high-priestly

Work...before God Christ has once and for all "qualified" those for

whom he acts "to come directly before God" (10:14; cf. 7:19) in the

heavenly sanctuary as men whose sin is expiated.15

 

The development of the idea of perfection focuses on Jesus as the

Pioneer who leads believers to maturity in chaps. 1-6. In the middle

section of the book the focus is on the perfecting ministry of Christ,

something that could not be accomplished by the Levitical priesthood

(chaps. 7-10). Then in 11:1-12:2, the elders had not yet come to

completion (11:40) because Jesus' sacrifice had not yet been offered as

the basis for their qualification to approach God. Believers of the

present age, however, with the groundwork of Jesus' sacrifice already

laid, are regarded as complete (as are the elders since the church age

has dawned, cf. 12:23). Facing suffering calls for endurance, and that

endurance is accomplished by faith, that is, by looking to the Pioneer

and Perfecter of faith, Jesus (12:2), the one who led the way through

suffering and who qualifies his people to come before God.

 

                                              PROMISE

 

The concept of 'promise' (e]paggel-) is unique for two reasons.

First, as a theological idea it practically originated with the Bible; the

Greek gods did not make promises, and the gods of the ANE did not

keep promises. Second, the verbal root itself is very rare in the LXX;

while promise is a basic OT concept, this particular root is almost

non-existent in the Greek of the LXX.

In extra-biblical Greek, the root has many meanings, but the

common factor in all of them has been mentioned already: "In all

these examples there is reference to man's promises to a god, but

never e]paggeli<ai qeou?... There is only one known example of the

promise of a god.”16

 

15Ibid., 83.

16Julius Schniewind and Gerhard Friedrich, "e]pagge<llw” etc., TDNT 2 (1964),

578-79.



136                       GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

Of the four occurrences of the root in the LXX that have a

Hebrew equivalent, the most instructive is in Esth 4:7. In this verse

e]phggei<lato translates rmaxA /  'he said '. The LXX translators took the

words of Haman to be a "promise." The same is true of the divine

promise throughout the OT. When God says something, it can be

taken as promised. A good example of this is found in Gen 15:5:

"Then He brought him [Abraham] outside and said, 'Look at the sky

and count the stars-if you can count them!'  So, He said  rm,xoyva

MT = LXX ei#pen] to him, 'Thus your seed will be'." In the OT, then,

the divine word is often the divine promise.

The NT in some instances follows the secular meaning of extra-

biblical Greek.17  More often, though, it develops the OT idea of

promise. The verb refers to the promise to Abraham (e.g., Acts 7:5)

as well as the eschatological promise (Jas 1:12; 2:5; 1 John 2:25). The

noun is used by Paul to bring these two concepts together.

In Hebrews the promise is also associated with the promise made

to Abraham (6:12-20) and yet takes on the status of an eschatological

hope yet to be realized (10:36). This is because of the other-worldly

nature of the promised inheritance (as developed, for example, in

11:13-16). The elders had to welcome the promises "from a distance,"

because the basis of their reception, the High Priestly work of Christ,

was not yet complete. The believers of this present age, on the other

hand, have possession of the promise in the sense that Christ's sacri-

fice is complete, yet in their earthly pilgrimage they are absent from

the promised heavenly fatherland. They therefore have need of en-

durance in suffering in order to receive the promise, which the elders

by now have received (12:22-23).

Within 11: 1-12:2, the concept e]paggel- stresses two major theo-

logical points. First, by the repetition of the phrase pisto>j  o[  e]paggei-

lo<menoj 'He who promised is trustworthy' (10:23, 11:11), the pur-

pose of God to carry out the promise is established. Second, the

contradiction of "received, but did not receive" regarding the elders

demonstrates the crucial nature of Christ's sacrifice as the basis for

the fulfillment of God's promises.

 

                                                  ENDURANCE

 

The verbal concept of 'remain' (men-) underlies two important

theological themes in Hebrews: (1) the permanent as contrasted with

the temporary in God's plan, and (2) endurance in suffering.

The idea of permanence is common in extra-biblical Greek and

the LXX. NT theology stresses (1) the immutability of God and

 

17Ibid., 579.



            MILLER: SEVEN THEOLOGICAL THEMES IN HEBREWS      137

 

divine things (Rom 9: II; I Pet 1:23, 25), and (2) the abiding in

contrast to the transitory (I Cor 13:13; 2 Cor 3:11).18

This latter theme is central to Hebrews. Beginning in chap. 7,

Melchizedek and his priesthood are contrasted with the Levitical

order (vv 2, 23, 24). The former is eternal, the latter temporal. Thus

the ministry of Christ has an eternal significance. His New Covenant

is the eternal covenant (13:20), making the first temporary. Evidence

of this is seen in the ability of the subjects of the Mosaic covenant to

persevere (8:9). That believers have an eternal possession is proven by

the fact that the readers were able to take the robbery of their earthly

goods with joy (10:34). After all, they awaited a kingdom that cannot

be shaken (12:27), a city that does not remain "here" (13: 14).

Of greater importance for Heb 11:1-12:2 are u[pome<nein and

u[pomonh< which occur only in the final exhortation (12:1-2). The

Greeks regarded this as a virtue roughly equivalent to "courage." The

LXX reflects the OT approach which considered endurance not as a

manly virtue, but rather an inclination to trust God's promise: "While

the Greek moralist censured the linking of u[pomonh<] with hope as an

inadmissible weakening, OT u[pomonh< issues almost wholly in hope.”19

The peculiar LXX expression u[pome<nontej to>n  ku<rion / 'waiting on

the Lord' (cf. Ps 36 [37 MT]:9) does not occur in the NT. However,

the NT concept of enduring the trials of this present life (I Cor 13:7)

implies waiting on the Lord, and "apparently the centrality of faith

and the prominence given to e]lpij ["hope"] as primary Christian

virtues leave no place for the OT formula.”20 This seems more likely

where faith and hope occur in the same context with endurance

(I Cor 13:13; Titus 2:2).

The linking of faith with endurance is especially noteworthy in

Hebrews, where faith is seen as the means of endurance. The readers,

who have already endured suffering (10:32), still have need of endur-

ance for the race ahead (10:36; 12:1, 7). Their attention is therefore

directed toward Jesus, who in carrying out his High Priestly sacrifice

by enduring the cross (12:2,3) is the Pioneer and Perfecter of faith.

 

                                                 SUPERIORITY

 

The concept 'better' (kreitto<n) is crucial to the theology of

Hebrews-it occurs more than twice as often here (13x) as in the rest

of the NT (6x). Originally a comparative of kratu<j / 'strong', it

 

18 Also note the specialized uses of men- in the Pastorals and the Johannine

 literature; F. Hauck, "me<nw," etc., TDNT 4 (1967) 574:-76.

19Ibid., 584.

20Ibid., 585.



138                               GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

is used predominantly in the LXX as a predicate adjective translat-

ing the Hebrew expression  Nmi ... bOF / 'better...than' (see Prov

21:9, 19).

In Hebrews kreitto<n is used primarily as an adjective in the

attributive position ("better hope," "better covenant," for example).

The word is used first to develop the superiority of Christ (1:4; 7:7),

then of the better things that relate to salvation (6:9). By the time the

"something better for us" is mentioned (11:40), on account of which

the elders could not come to full completion, the readers have already

heard of the "better hope" (7:19), "better covenant" (7:22; 8:6), "better

promises" (8:6), "better sacrifices" (9:23), "better possession" (10:34),

"better fatherland" (11:14, 16), and "better resurrection" (11:35). All

these things are direct benefits of the climactic High Priestly work of

Christ at the cross.

 

WITNESS

The word 'witness' is naturally associated with testimony in a

legal setting. The root mart- is so used throughout Greek literature,

extra-biblical as well as the OT and the NT. There is a more technical

sense, that of "good reputation," "approval," which predominates in

Hebrews. This sense of "witness" is based on the veracity of the one

giving testimony and thus "relates to things which by their very

nature cannot be submitted to empirical investigation.”21 It is in this

sense that Hebrews speaks of God "adding his witness" sunepi-

marturou?ntoj to the apostolic preaching and of Scripture

"emphatically affirming" diemartu<rato the author's point.

It is with this background that the unique connotation of

ma<rtuj / 'witness' in 12:1 is best understood:

 

The distinctive thing here is, of course, that this ne<foj  martu<rwn 

consists of those who according to c. 11 have received witness (acknowl-

edgement) from God because of their faith....As such, they bear

witness by the very fact of their existence to the authenticity of faith. It

thus seems that the factual witness is also implicitly a confessing

witness.22

 

The theological import of mart- in 11:1-12:2, then, is that God's

approval comes by faith, that is, by looking to Jesus. As the elders

looked forward to that sacrifice at the cross, which would ultimately

qualify them to enter God's presence, they lived by faith. Now that

Jesus has offered that final sacrifice, believers run the race by looking

to him, realizing they are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses who are

 

21H. Strathmann, "ma<rtuj" etc., TDNT4 (1967) 478.

22Ibid.,491.



          MILLER: SEVEN THEOLOGICAL THEMES IN HEBREWS           139

 

approved by God and testify to the necessity of faith as the means of

running with endurance.

 

INHERITANCE

 

The concept of 'inheritance'  (klhro-) is derived from the verb

kla<w 'to break', indicating the breaking up and distributing of an in-

heritance23 (the meanings in extra-biblical Greek fit this etymology).24

The major OT theme is that of the possession of the land

promised to the fathers. The NT follows this, though often the

inheritance is a spiritual rather than a material one. There is, how-

ever, a peculiar emphasis in NT theology: "A firm link is established

between son-ship and inheritance such as we hardly find in the Old

Testament and later Judaism, and runs through the whole of the New

Testament.”25

This emphasis on sonship is also followed in Hebrews. After

identifying believers with Jesus (1:4, 14) and specifying that their

inheritance is salvation, the author then develops the concept of

sonship relative to Jesus as the Pioneer of salvation (2:10-14).

Believers, then, are those who receive "the promise of an eternal

inheritance" (9:15). In chap.11, it is the elders who are heirs (vv 7,

8, 9). It is significant that the inheritance of "righteousness based on

faith" precedes the inheritance of the land, since ultimately it is the

former that qualifies them to stand before God. This fact, together

with the longing of the elders for the heavenly city (11:13-16), shows

that the inheritance they saw from a distance was that unseen place,

the presence of God. It is that place to which the readers have come

(12:22-24), yet they are still pursuing it as they run their earthly race

looking to the Pioneer and Perfecter of faith (12:1-2).

 

                                            CONCLUSION

 

The theological argument of Heb 11:1-12:2 is set within the

hortatory context of the book as follows: the readers, while tempted

to desert the New Covenant community for the Old Covenant (10:38-

39; 8:13), are commended for their past endurance of suffering

(10:32-34), warned against throwing away their confidence (10:35),

and told that they need endurance (10:36) in order to lay hold of the

promised inheritance. That inheritance consists of the better things

laid up for them, including their final approval by God and entrance

into his presence in the heavenly city. They are then given an over-

view of great episodes in the lives of the elders, who were approved

 

23Eichler, "klh?roj" 296.

24Wemer Foerster and Johannes Herrmann, "klh?roj" etc., TDNT 3 (1965) 768.

25Ibid.,781-82.



140                         GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

by God and who endured by faith. Their attention is turned to the

focus of faith, Jesus, who endured the greatest and most significant

suffering of all, the cross. The explanation of Jesus' status as Pioneer

and Perfecter of faith and the conclusion that he has now sat down at

God's right hand is followed by the sober reminder that the readers

may face the prospect of death in following their leader (12:3-4), but

that even so suffering is evidence of the Father's loving hand of

discipline (12:5-8).

Finally, to summarize the theological argument of this passage,

the readers require endurance to run the race and to bear suffering.

The elders endured by faith. Jesus is the focus of faith. Therefore the

readers can run the race with endurance by looking to Jesus--faith is

the means of endurance.

 

 

 

This material is cited with gracious permission from:

            Grace Theological Seminary

            200 Seminary Dr.

            Winona Lake,  IN   46590

www.grace.edu

Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at:  thildebrandt@gordon.edu