Posts Tagged 'Willimon'


Contemporary Christians often feel Hebrews to be a strange and difficult book. There are, I think, two reasons for this. First, it seems to ramble about and discuss a lot of themes which have never made it into the ‘top ten’ of Christians discussion tops. It begins with a complex discussion of angels; continues with a treatment of what Psalm 95 really meant in talking about ‘entering God’s rest’; moves on to Melchizedek; lists the furniture in the Tabernacle; and ends with an exhortation to ‘go outside the camp’. Well, you see what I mean; were I a betting man, I would lay good odds that none of my readers have found themselves discussing these things over the breakfast table within the last month or two. Small wonder that most people don’t get very far with Hebrews, or let it get very far with them.—NT Wright, Following Jesus, 4

I think he’s probably correct in his assessment. There is a lot going on in the book of Hebrews—and most of the stuff going on is terribly complicated to understand. The arguments are complicated, the exegesis is tricky, and the logic is sometimes a maze of confusion. I’m not suggesting for a minute that I have it figured out entirely. Not at all. That is not to say, on the other hand, that I am completely wordless or thoughtless about this magnificent book.

Exegesis, Patterns, and the Big Idea

What I like to look for when I am reading is patterns: patterns of thought, recurring phrases, foreshadows, double-backs—you know, all those things we were taught to pay attention to when we were learning to interpret writing back in junior high. Reading through the book of Hebrews has given me an opportunity to notice a pattern repeated without fail over and over again in the book at least 14 times in the book. It’s a simple pattern and really helps us understand what the book is about or, at minimum, what small sections of the book are covering.

I add one small caveat: the book does, I believe, have an overarching point. I again agree with Wright who is very careful to write that

The book of Hebrews offers us, quite simply, Jesus. It offers us the Jesus who is there to help because he’s one of us, and has trodden the path before us. It offers us the Jesus who has inaugurated the new covenant, bringing to its fulfillment the age-old plan of God. And it offers us, above all, Jesus the final sacrifice; the one who has done for us what we could not do for ourselves, who has lived our life and died our death, and now ever lives to make intercession for us. (Following Jesus, 10)

Jesus is the Big Idea in Hebrews, without doubt. What I would like to demonstrate is a pattern for how we understand what the smaller arguments in the book of Hebrews and thus how they all tie together to help us understand the bigger argument of Hebrews, viz., that Jesus is enough.

I think if we break up Hebrews into small chunks and see how the author ends each argument then we will begin to understand the greater point he is making within each argument. That is, each argument he makes leads naturally to breaks and conclusions which are set off by key words or phrases. Then all of these smaller arguments, when clumped together, give us a grand picture of Jesus. Throughout the book, leading up to this grand climax, the author has taught us how to live—not leaving theology without a point because all good theology has, ultimately, the point of teaching us how to live because of Jesus. So we learn how to live because of Jesus or what Jesus has said or what Jesus has done and when the book is done, we can say, “Yes, I will join him outside the camp.”

Conformity to Jesus

Barth noted that “Christian speech must be tested by its conformity to Christ.” Unless ‘speech’ is a metaphor for an entire life, then I would expand upon his thought and say that Christian life must also be tested by its conformity to Christ. We have concocted all sorts of ways to judge one another (how often do we go to church, how much money do we give, how much do we serve, etc.), none of them without some merit and some with more demerit, but it seems to me that the best way to examine ourselves, the Bible way, is to judge ourselves and see if we, I, in fact conform to Christ. I’m fairly certain the apostle Paul wrote something to this effect at some point in Romans or Ephesians or both. And this only makes sense given that Paul did definitely write that we are being transformed into the image of Jesus, renewed in the image of our Creator who is Christ Jesus.

So all throughout Hebrews, the author will give frequent pauses, after short or lengthy expositions of Old Testament Scripture, and say something like, “OK, here’s a conclusion. I just said this and that, therefore, here’s how to check yourselves against what I just wrote.” Or, “OK, I just said this and this about Jesus, now, therefore, here’s the way you ought to be conducting yourselves.” He does this over and over again; I count at least 14 times where this pattern is used. The key, if you are reading in English, is to find the word ‘therefore’. In our English translations, this word will signify the need for the reader to pause and consider what has just been read. It’s a good exercise in exegesis that when you see the word ‘therefore’ to ask what it is there for.

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[Here I offer some rather preliminary notes and observations on the book of Hebrews. I hope I can writes some more, but I don't want to make promises. This is part of a project I am working on to get myself back into preaching shape. I also offer it as part of the prophet part of prophets, priests and poets. --jlh]

“The story of Easter is thus a prophetic story of the way in which this God will not keep silent (Luke 24; John 20), will not let the conversation (the argument?) between God and humanity be ended simply because of the sin of humanity, will not be defeated by human intransigence. The Risen Christ comes back to the very ones who betrayed the Crucified Jesus, came back to them and resumed the conversation. This is the hope upon which every church is built, the hope upon which every sermon is preached: Christ comes back to his betrayers and talks to them.”(—William Willimon, Conversations with Barth on Preaching, 145)

I have been stuck in the book of Hebrews. I suppose calling it a book is a bit of a stretch since it’s really a letter. It’s a brilliant letter and every time I open its pages I come across something more that I hadn’t noticed on the previous visit. Every time I read this letter, I fall more in love with it. It is so deep, so massive, and so theologically profound that even a surface reading leaves one overwhelmed and in awe. I wish I had discovered this letter sooner in life, but I confess that its depth was enough to persuade me, when I was younger, to avoid it.

At first glance, yes, Hebrews is complicated stuff. In fact, if you have not spent significant time reading through the Old Testament—especially the books of Leviticus and Exodus—you might as well avoid reading Hebrews for a while. Yet I discovered a long time ago that there’s a simpler way to understand the various books of the Bible. Usually, not always, but usually, the author gives us a hint at his purpose in the opening of the book or letter. I think Hebrews is very much like that. So: “In the past God spoke to our ancestors [in] the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…” When reading the book of Hebrews, it is imperative we listen to what God is saying to us. It seems to me that the author could have started anywhere, but he begins by exhorting us to hear the voice of God which spoke first in the prophets and lastly in Jesus.

It almost seems too simple to say that the book of Hebrews is about this God who speaks to us, but I think that is a pretty good place to start. And it goes a little further, too, when we see that the author has attached his own prophetic voice as the natural successor of Jesus—not that he adds to anything Jesus said, but that he continues proclaiming the message of Jesus. I note that four times (at least) we are told to pay attention to our leaders, to those who speak to us the Word of God. In fact, this idea forms an inclusion for the entire book: “We must pay careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away” (2:1) and “See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven” (12:25; cf. 13:7). I suspect, however, that in many cases this idea has been quite lost on us rebels. Many think we don’t need to listen to leaders who expound the Scripture—as if their job is something else. And, to be sure, many leaders take this as a carte-blanche excuse to wield all sorts of ungodly power over the church. We need not look far for examples.

We have to pay attention. But it’s terribly important for us to note who we listen to first. Hebrews is very careful to note that we first listen to God who spoke in Jesus. God spoke in the past in the prophets, in the last days he spoke in Jesus—but regardless of whether it was the first days or the last days, it was God speaking in them and the message was consistent. The continuity between then and now is that it was God speaking. His message was consistent too (see Hebrews 3:5). We have to listen to him who spoke—which is, I think, easy enough to discern: He who spoke is God in Jesus (1:2-3). We are not to refuse Jesus who speaks to us. Why? Because he has spoken to us by Jesus ‘in these last days.’ There is an eschatological element to our listening and to his speaking. We ignore his voice at our own peril: we will drift away, we will not escape, there is no voice left for us if we ignore his voice. God has nothing else to say save for Jesus; that is, Jesus is the last word from God on matters of salvation. Consider the further words of chapter 2:

“For since the message spoken through angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation? This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will” (Hebrews 2:2-4).

What was announced by Jesus was God’s salvation. If we ignore the message proclaimed by Jesus, confirmed by those who heard, and testified to by God through signs and wonders, what other hope do we have? In the context of the letter to the Hebrews what we find is that this final message of Jesus in these last days concerning salvation is far superior to anything it is compared to. It is superior to the message spoken by the prophets (1:1), superior to the message spoken by angels (2:2), superior to the message spoken by Moses (3:5), superior to the message spoken by Joshua (4:8), superior to the message spoken by the sacrifices (10:5), and superior to the message of Abel’s blood (11:4; 12:24). There is nothing that compares with the voice of Jesus: he has spoken, we must listen; we ignore him to our own peril and disaster. (In fact, the word ‘better’ (Gk. kreitton) is a significant word in Hebrews, 1:4; 6:9; 7:7, 19, 22; 8:6; 9:23; 10:34; 11:16, 35, 40; 12:24). Everything about Jesus and his last word is, finally, better than anything that preceded it or anything that might follow it.

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A First Sunday of Lent Reflection

“When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.” (Matthew 28:17)

I like to wonder sometimes exactly what life was like ‘inside the narratives.’ Man, I have been reading these stories in the Bible since I learned how to read. Trouble with me is that I have never spent a day outside the church. There’s never been a doubt. That’s not to say I didn’t wander at times-for large swaths of time. It is to say, however, that ‘church’ has always been my life. I knew, or at least had inklings, that I would be a preacher from a very early age of my life (like around the age of 6 or 7 when I ‘preached’ to my school bus driver one day after another student got all excited about finding a dollar bill on the floor.) So I like to wonder and wander. I stay near the center, but like one of our bloggers here says, I try to stay close enough to the edge to matter.

I mean it must have been crazy living in those days and experiencing what they experienced. Who can understand it? All of the sudden a man walks up to John the Baptist and asks to be baptized. The next day John points at him and says, “Behold the Lamb of God!” which is something closer to, “Hey, you people, you people, wake the hell up and look at the One God has provided! Shake yourselves out of your stupor and Look at this One among you! If you can believe it, if you can accept it: The Lamb of God!” I’m sure not a few laughed a serious belly laugh that day. If the eleven could stand on the mountain with Jesus after his death, burial, and resurrection and doubt what they saw then imagine how it must have been for those that day when John simply said, “Behold!”

“They worshiped…some doubted.” Doubted. Indeed. They worshiped; some doubted. Yet none were excluded, all were commissioned. And Jesus, perhaps not ironically, didn’t condemn them for doubting.

Commenting on the book The Resurrection of the Body LaVonne Neff writes, “This, I think, is the book’s chief charm: it re-creates some of the bewilderment people surely felt in Jerusalem during the weeks following Jesus’ crucifixion.” Bewilderment? That’s an understatement. She titled her book review “Giving Up Certainty for Lent.” When I first saw it I thought, “Ha!” Then I wondered, “Do I have the courage to give up certainty…forever…until at last my eyes behold him?”

But you know what? I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Struggling mightily to overcome something inside that has stirred up all sorts of strange feelings and ideas. And I cannot (overcome it). It’s that perpetual ‘what if?’ I don’t like it because, and this is the truth: I don’t have the courage to doubt. I like certainty, knowing. I like the world devoid of doubt. I don’t like uncertainty. I don’t like thinking: Oh my God, what if I am wrong? What if my wrong is too much? What if I am not right enough? Of course, this is where grace comes in and rescues us. It doesn’t matter how hard I try to outrun grace. I can’t. I. Can’t.

You know how much courage it must have taken for those disciples standing right next to the resurrected Jesus to worship and doubt? Sadly, we have made it the job of theologians and preachers and apologists to work hard, ever so hard, to go about erasing all those doubts instead of creating a space where that worship and those doubts are held in tension. We feel like we need to fill the void that exists between worship and doubt. Jesus said, “You believe because you have seen. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” What he didn’t say is, “Blessed are those who have the courage to eliminate all doubts in order to believe” (John 13:29). But Jesus also said, “Stop doubting and believe” (John 13:27). Yet, Matthew 28:17 evidently occurs after this exhortation. I’m not interested in the nature of or the reason for their doubt. All I know is that Matthew had the courage to tell us that even those theological behemoths had the courage to doubt–standing right next to Jesus no doubt.

William Willimon wryly notes, “God is proved only by God’s speaking, not through natural theology arguments of God’s existence. Since the unbeliever lacks the one requisite for true knowledge, that is, faith, there is no wonder why apologetics, which tries to get around the need for faith, doesn’t work. Where God fails to convince the unbeliever, there is little that we can do to convince” (Conversations with Barth on Preaching, 178). That’s not all. It gets worse, far worse:

“The only means we have of making sense of the gospel is Christ. Apologetics tends to speak and reason as if the cross and resurrection of Christ were incidental to comprehension of what we have to say, as if Christian claims can be comprehensible even if one rejects the Christian world. In other words, if we ever devised an effective apologetics that enabled us to present the Christian faith without recourse to a God who speaks for himself, then all we would have done is, through our apologetics, convinced people that there is no God who speaks. To put it in another way, apologetics is a sort of backhanded way of saying that what we believe about God is not really true. We have no weapon to defend Christ; he can only defend himself. We have no weapon to defend Christ; he can only defend himself. We have no ‘knock down’ arguments for Christ; he himself is the only argument” (Conversations, 178)

What? Not one? Upon what shall I base my, uh, belief then? Faith? Pshaw! Thus the door is open to doubt. And doubt opens the door to faith. “Without faith, it is impossible to please God” and “the righteous one will live by faith.”

I have a confession to make: I wish I had that kind of faith. That is, I wish I had the courage to doubt. I wish I had the intestinal fortitude to doubt, say, the literal reading of certain books of the Bible. Part of the ongoing experiment that God undertook when he called me was to lead me to the sort of faith that gives me the courage to doubt. In this I have discovered why I went from being an avid reader and cheerleader for certain blogs to fierce opponent: that which is based upon absolute certainty is not based on faith; that which has all the answers has not asked enough questions, let alone the right questions; that which knows and sees beyond doubt cannot be that which lives by faith or perhaps has passed on from this world already. Only that which is found in confusion, perplexity and doubt can truly be said to be that which is by faith. It’s like believing in bodily resurrection and still having the courage to be cremated. It’s like believing in bodily resurrection, being cremated, and still having the courage to have your ashes scattered in the wind.

I guess even that kind of faith has courage to face death doesn’t it?

You know where certainty comes from though, right? It comes from fear: Bold, unashamed, unmitigated fear. It comes from the sort of fear that actually prevents us from growing. It is the sort of fear that stagnates us, leaves us on the plateau of certainty. Fear is, I’m convinced, the catalyst for works righteousness and the complete abandonment of faith as life and grace as salvation. Fear believes it is saved because of certainty. Faith believes it is saved in spite of doubts.

Doubts don’t arise from fear, but faith. I’m not talking about the sort of doubt that leads to apostasy or blasphemy. I’m talking about the sort of doubt that can only lead to faith. I’m talking about the sort of faith that doesn’t resort to mere apologetics but is willing to live in the place between worship and doubt, between seeing and not seeing, between wisdom and foolishness, between weakness and strength.

I have a confession to make. God is leading me there and the journey is not easy and not without resistance from me. I like certainty. I like answers. I like knowing. I told someone in a thread the other day, “I’m not confused at all.” Well, that was a lie I told to cover up all sorts of fears, not to cover up all sorts of doubts. I wish now I hadn’t said that. Doubt is not sin. Doubt doesn’t necessarily lead to death, but perhaps it does lead to a deeper faith in the One who overcomes death.

God is leading me to a place where I don’t have to be right. He is leading me to a place where I can be wrong. He is leading me to the place where He is, to Jesus. Being courageous enough to doubt, to live in uncertainty, to not know all the answers, is the courage to live in His grace and find it sufficient. Doubt, then, is the catalyst for salvation by grace, and grace alone.

You could say I lost my faith in science and progress
You could say I lost my belief in the holy church
You could say I lost my sense of direction
You could say all of this and worse but

If I ever lose my faith in you
There’d be nothing left for me to do.

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