THE LETTER TO THE HEBREWS
Lesson 13: Chapter 12
God's Fatherly Discipline, the Promise of the Heavenly Jerusalem and the Unshakable Kingdom
Beloved God and Father,
You have called us to be Your holy children, and as all good fathers Lord, You actively father Your children through love and discipline. You have also given us a mother to guide and instruct us in Mother Church. Mother Church guides us in the teachings of Jesus Christ and when we fail in obedience it is in the Sacrament of Reconciliation that You call us to repentance, confession, forgiveness and restoration. Then we are sent to go forth as holy sons and daughters of a holy God and Father to serve our Father through works of love and mercy offered up in the name of our brother, Jesus of Nazareth. Send Your Holy Spirit to guide us in our lesson that we may come to more fully understand the necessity of submission and obedience to Your fatherly will. We pray in the name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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CCC# 164-65: Even though enlightened by him in who we believe, faith is often lived in darkness and can be put to the test. The world we live in often seems very far from the one promised us by faith. Our experiences of evil and suffering, injustice, and death, seem to contradict the Good News; they can shake our faith and become a temptation against it. It is then we must turn to the witnesses of faith: to Abraham, who "in hope...believed against hope"; to the Virgin Mary, who, in "her pilgrimage of faith," walked into the "night of faith" in sharing the darkness of her son's suffering and death; and to so many others: "Therefore, since we hare surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith."
Jesus to the Christians of Laodicea: Those whom I love, I reprove and chastise. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. Revelation 3:19
The Lord Jesus came to raise up Adam; Abel also was raised up, for his offerings were pleasing to God. The Lord Jesus offered his own self, that is, the firstlings of his own body, in the sprinkling of blood that speaks better than the blood of Abel spoke upon the earth. St. Ambrose, The Prayer of Job and David 4.9.32
Prophecy of the
unshakable kingdom: In the lifetime of those kings the God of heaven will
set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed or delivered up to another
people; rather, it shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and put an end to
them, and it shall stand forever.
In the previous chapter the inspired writer gave his audience a list of Old Testament heroes and heroines as examples of the faithful endurance of men and women who believed in the promises of God which they did not receive in their lifetimes [Hebrews 11:13] but promises which were received in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and their entrance into a "Tabernacle not made with human hands" [Hebrews 9:11], but into a city "whose architect and maker is God" [Hebrews 11:10, 16]. In calling his audience's attention to the "great cloud of witnesses" in Hebrews 12:1-2, that is, the heroes and heroines of the faith who have already gone home to heaven [see CCC# 2683], the inspired writer now turns to the subject of present and future persecutions and sufferings that must be endured by his audience for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven, by reminding them of the premier example of faithful endurance in the Passion of the Christ.
This part of the discourse can be divided into three sections:
Please read Hebrews 12:1-13: God Our Loving Father Disciplines His Children That We Might Share His Holiness
1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us 2 while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith. For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God. 3 Consider how he endured such opposition from sinners, in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart. 4 In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood. 5 You have also forgotten the exhortation addressed to you as sons: "My son, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord or lose heart when reproved by him; for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he acknowledges." 7Endure your trials as "discipline"; God treats you as sons. For what "son" is there whom his father does not discipline? 8 If you are without discipline, in which all have shared, you are not sons but bastards. 9 Besides this, we have had our earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respect them. Should we not [then] submit all the more to the Father of spirits and live? 10 They disciplined us for a short time as seemed right to them, but he does so for our benefit, in order that we may share his holiness. 11 At the time all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it. 12 So strengthen your dropping hands and your weak knees. 13 Make straight paths for your feet, that what is lame may not be dislocated but healed.
St. Ephraim and other Church Fathers recognized that the call for perseverance in the face of suffering must be accompanied by the hope that faith can sustain the Christian in any trial. Christians must divest themselves of anything that can hold them back, like the love of material goods, or pride or selfishness, in order to have the strength to persevere; for not all trials and sufferings are the work of men but also the work of the great adversary, Satan. St. Ephraim wrote: "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses" about the weight of our life, that is, about the fact that we have ahead of us a cloud of sad afflictions, which lead many who trust in Christ and die for him to honor, "let us lay aside everything" from us.... And "Let us run with perseverance the race that is set for us: not only by our persecutors but by the devil himself.
It is interesting that the inspired writer uses both the Greek words nephos, "cloud," and martyroi, "witnesses." The Greek words martureo, marturia, martus, martyroi, which in English are usually transliterated as "martyr" or "martyrs," or translated as the word "witness," in the Greco-Roman world referred to:
A definition which, during the periods of Christian evangelism and persecution, is applied to
The cloud of Saints who have completed the "race" are now "witnesses" to the struggles and victories of their younger brothers and sisters who are completing their "race" to enter the gates of eternity.
Dr. Craig Koester notes that the word nephos, "cloud" was a common Greco-Roman metaphor for a large group of people [Anchor Bible Commentary, Hebrews, page 522], but Biblically the word "cloud" is often associated with a form of the visible manifestation of God: Yahweh then said to Moses, 'Look, I shall come to you in a dense cloud so that the people will hear when I speak to you and believe you ever after'" Exodus 19:9. Cloud imagery associated with the presence of Yahweh is found in numerous Scripture passages, for example:
The word "cloud" is frequently associated with the manifestation of God in Sacred Scripture. The Glory Cloud is the revelation of God's heavenly throne and His chariot by which He makes His glorious presence known to man. Therefore, in this case it is reasonable to assume that the martyrs [a Greek word used by Christians to mean the "witnesses" of Jesus Christ], along with the heavenly angels [Genesis 28:12; Deuteronomy 33:2 in LXX; Psalms 68:17-18; John 1:51], form the "Cloud of Glory" as those who live in the presence of God.
Note: Deuteronomy 33:2 LXX: ...with the ten thousands of Cades; on his right hand were his angels with him. For passages describing God's chariot also see 2 Kings 2:11; Isaiah 19:1; Ezekiel 1:4; 15-17, 27-28; 10:18-21; Psalms 68:4; 104:3. For passages referring to God's throne or the heavenly throne room see Exodus 24:9-11; Psalms 11:4; Isaiah 6:1; 66:1; Rev 4:1-11; 5:8-14.
Hebrews 12:1b-3: ..let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us 2 while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith. For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God. 3 Consider how he endured such opposition from sinners, in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart.
St. Paul had a fondness for athletic metaphors in his letters. He mentions the Greco-Roman sports of wrestling, boxing, and racing as examples of Christian perseverance and endurance in his letters:
The inspired writer encourages his audience that Jesus Christ is the leader and perfecter of faith'He is the beginning and the completion of our faith and in His Resurrection our victory has already been achieved in which He "perfects" us by imparting to us through Christian baptism His divine life and sonship. Our journey of faith, the inspired writer suggests, is very like a running contest in the Greco-Roman arena in which strength, endurance and discipline are necessary for victory. To persevere and endure to the end of our "race" we must be certain to follow Jesus' example: For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God. In the mid 5th century Bishop Theodoret urged his flock to remain faithful in the midst of sufferings by following Jesus' example; he admonished his congregation by reminding them, He [Jesus] could have avoided suffering, he is saying, had he so chosen; but he put up with the suffering for the benefit of all. The Savior's joy is the salvation of human beings; for it he endured the suffering, and after the suffering he is seated with the Father who begot him. Theodoret, Bishop of Cry [c. 393-466], Interpretation of Hebrews 12. If Jesus can endure the shame and disgrace of the Cross for us, so that He could have joy in giving the gift of salvation to human beings, can we not endure our sufferings for the sake of the same joy of receiving His gift and joining Him in the Father's heavenly Sanctuary?
The Catechism warns believers that we should expect that our faith will often be tested on our journey to salvation: Even though enlightened by him in who we believe, faith is often lived in darkness and can be put to the test. The world we live in often seems very far from the one promised us by faith. Our experiences of evil and suffering, injustice, and death, seem to contradict the Good News; they can shake our faith and become a temptation against it. It is then we must turn to the witnesses of faith: to Abraham, who "in hope...believed against hope"; to the Virgin Mary, who, in "her pilgrimage of faith," walked into the "night of faith" in sharing the darkness of her son's suffering and death; and to so many others: "Therefore, since we hare surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith." [CCC# 164-65].
Question: In what ways did the crucifixion shame and disgrace Jesus? See Deuteronomy 21:22-23.
Answer: Crucifixions were public events in which the victims were subjected to scourging and torture prior the crucifixion. In addition to scourging and ridicule in the crucifixion procedure the victim was stripped naked, nails pounded through the wrists or hands and ankles so that the victim hung suspended from his own torn flesh. The victim was tormented and reviled as he hung on the cross, but the duty of the executioners was to prolong the victim's life for several days until the victim died from blood loss or shock. The goal was to achieve the greatest horrific effect on the public at large as a lesson to submit to the power of the state and to avoid such a punishment. In the case of a Jewish victim there was the added disgrace that those "hung on a tree" were considered to be accursed under Jewish Law and rejected by the covenant people. Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine and in His humanness He despised what was done to Him and yet in His divine love, He fully submitted to the degradation inflicted upon Him.
and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God. This is the 5th time the inspired writer has either quoted or referenced this passage from Psalm 110:1 [Hebrews 1:3, 13; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2]. Jesus quoted this passage coupled with Daniel's vision of the divine Messiah in Daniel 7:13 to the Jewish Law Court [Sanhedrin] the night He was condemned. It was the combination of these two Messianic quotes from Sacred Scripture that condemned Him: Then the high priest said to him, "I order you to tell us under oath before the living God whether you are the Messiah, the Son of God." Jesus said to him in reply, "You have said so. But I tell you: From now on you will see 'the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power' and 'coming on the clouds of heaven.'" Then the high priest tore his robes and said, 'He has blasphemed! What further need have we of witnesses? You have now heard the blasphemy; what is you opinion?" They said in reply, "He deserves to die!" Matthew 26:36-66 [also see Mark 14:61-64].
The Catechism of the Catholic Church identifies the significance of this reference: Being seated at the Father's right hand signifies the inauguration of the Messiah's kingdom, the fulfillment of the prophet Daniel's vision concerning the Son of man: "To him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed. After this event the Apostles became witnesses of the "Kingdom [that] will have no end." CCC# 664
Question: What does the inspired writer ask the audience to remember in Hebrews 12:3?
Answer: He wants them to remember Jesus' ministry during which He was opposed by the Jewish authorities and was challenged on His teaching by the demand to know by what authority He taught, He was not trained in theology and held no official religious office. There was also the "opposition" from the sinners who lied at His trial and pagan Gentiles who crucified Him.
Question: What reason does the inspired writer give for Jesus submitting to such abuse?
Answer: in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart. Jesus' example of persevering in doing God's work through the suffering of His rejection, in the pain of His Passion and in the victory of His Resurrection is to give Christians courage when they face suffering, if Christians unite their suffering and death to Christ's suffering and death, their suffering becomes meaningful, it becomes redemptive suffering, the suffering counts toward their salvation, and they too are promised Resurrection if they remain faithful.
Question: However, of what does the inspired writer remind his audience in Hebrews 12:4?
Answer: That they have not YET resisted to the point of blood shed. The emphasis is on the "yet." If Jesus endured to the point of shedding His blood who are you to complain when you have not yet offered such a sacrifice? He also reminds they why it is necessary to accept suffering by quoting a passage from Scripture.
In the next verse the inspired writer quotes Proverbs 3:11-12 from the Septuagint, which differs from the Massoretic translation.
My child (literally = son), do not despise(distain) the Lord's discipline, and do not despise (lose heart) His reproof, for the Lord admonishes (instructs) the one whom he loves as a father the son in whom he delights.
My son, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord or lose heart when reproved by him; for the Lord instructs the one whom he loves and chastises every son whom he receives.
My son, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord or lose heart when reproved by him; for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges [chastises] every son he acknowledges [receives].
The only differences between the Septuagint and New Testament texts are not in the Greek but in the interpretation of the English translation; likewise the slight word differences in the opening phrase of the Massoretic text are do to the translators choice of words. However, there are differences between the Greek and Jewish Massoretic translation in Proverbs 3:12. In this case, however, the differences stem from a difference in interpreting the placement of the vowels in the Hebrew text. The difference occurs in the Hebrew word k'b. The Jewish scholars who translated the Hebrew into Greek circa the 3rd century BC took the consonants k'b as a form of the Hebrew verb ka'eb, which has to do with inflicting pain or punishment while the Massoretic scholars of the 8th century AD interpreted the consonants to be indicating the Hebrews word ke, which means "as" and the Hebrew word 'ab, which is the word for "father." In this case, unlike the Hebrews 10:5-7 quote of Psalm 40:6-8 [38:7-9 in the Septuagint] the meaning of the passage has not been significantly altered, the concept of Godly correction remains in tact.
Question: What point is the inspired writer making by quoting this passage?
Answer: God loves us and even chastisement and correction are signs of God's love and concern for His children. Also see 1 Corinthians 11:31-32 where St. Paul paraphrases Revelation 3:19 and Proverbs 3:12 where Jesus quotes from the same verse.
Hebrews 12:7-10: 7Endure your trials as "discipline;" God treats you as sons. For what "son" is there whom his father does not discipline? 8 If you are without discipline, in which all have shared, you are not sons but bastards. 9 Besides this, we have had our earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respect them. Should we not [then] submit all the more to the Father of spirits and live? 10 They disciplined us for a short time as seemed right to them, but he does so for our benefit, in order that we may share his holiness.
The reference to legitimate children is significant. American society no longer seems to place much importance on legitimacy, but in ancient times it was the legitimate heir who inherited the land and the father's material wealth. As legitimate children we are entitled to inherit our heavenly Father's kingdom and all the blessings that are associated with that inheritance, an inheritance Christians obtain upon the death of the Son [Hebrews 9:15-17]. The inspired writer is also making the point that fathers do not discipline children who are not their own. Fathers care about establishing right character and right action in their own children and to that end when their children fall into error good fathers offer discipline to bring their children back onto the right course. Our heavenly Father is no different. Because He loves us, He disciplines us. His chastisements are meant to be a lesson so that we will reform our lives before the Day of Judgment:
In his homily on this passage St. John Chrysostom taught: "The Lord disciplines him whom he loves and chastises every son whom he receives." You cannot say that any righteous person is without affliction; even if that one appears to be so; we do not know that person's other afflictions. Of necessity every righteous person must pass through affliction. For it is a declaration of Christ that the wide and broad way leads to destruction but the straight and narrow one to life. If then it is possible to enter into life by that means and no other, then all have entered in by the narrow way, as many as have departed unto life. On the Epistle to the Hebrews 29.2; quoting Hebrews 12:6 and also referring to Jesus' Sermon on the Mount teaching in Matthew 7:13-14.
Question: What about the sinner who seems to prosper in his sin? What does his condition suggest? See Romans 1:24-32
Answer: Notice that in the Romans passage the Biblical formula "God abandoned them" is repeated 3 times in Romans 1:24, 26, and 28, emphasizing that sin produces its own devastation to the human body and soul. The position of the sinner who is left in his sins is a person in a dire state. When one continually rejects God's correction through the Church, or through the intervention of friends and family, or through the temporal suffering sin inflicts on life, in an attempt to bring that person to redemption God will abandon the sinner to his self-indulgence in the hope that in the judgment of falling to the depths of his own sins and the suffering the sins inflicts that the sinner will wake up to the need for repentance and conversion.
Question: How does God the Father discipline His children and when disciplined, how should a child of God respond?
Answer: Sin is toxic. When sin brings suffering the Christians must repent the sin, seek forgiveness and restoration in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and be thankful to God for His merciful correction. The life of Father John Corapi is an example of God using extreme measures to bring a son to repentance. After becoming vastly successful in the secular world John Corapi became involved in many sins including drug use. He lost everything: his job, his home, and his so-called successful friends. Homeless, he turned back to God and his conversion experience led him to renounce all worldly wealth, to take up the Cross, and to commit himself body and soul to the ministerial priesthood of Jesus Christ. God's correction and punishment is always meant to be redemptive. In such cases of Godly correction, we should acknowledge God's discipline as the affectionate attention of a loving Father who wants to allow His children to reach their full potential of holiness. He loves us just the way we are, but He loves us too much to leave us that way!
Hebrews 12:11, At the time all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.
Question: Can you think of some Old Testament examples where God disciplined the children of Israel in a rather painful way in order to lead them to greater holiness?
Answer: On the journey to Mt. Sinai God did not immediately respond to every physical need of the children of Israel. He allowed them to feel hunger before He gave them quail to eat and the manna from heaven in Exodus 16:1-36. He let them feel thirst to teach them to turn to Him for help and then He gave them the miracle of water from the rock in Exodus chapter 17.1-7. God wanted to discipline the children of Israel to depend upon Him and to trust Him to meet their needs, both physically and spiritually.
Unfortunately, the Israelites did not always accept the fatherly discipline and continued to grumble and to "test" God [Exodus 17:7; Deuteronomy 6:16; 9:22]. As a result, God condemned the first generation of Israel to death in the desert wilderness during 40 years of wandering for their unbelief in the midst of great works of God so that He could raise up a holy new generation of holy children to serve Him in the Promised Land [Numbers 13:20-23, 27-34]. And also in the event of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Babylonians in the 6th century BC, and the resulting 70 year exile, God used extraordinary measures to secure a "faithful remnant" of Israel from whom the Virgin Mary and her son would come, a human and divine Son to bring salvation to all of mankind from the time of Adam and to all succeeding generations.
Hebrews 12:12-13, 12 So strengthen your dropping hands and your weak knees. 13 Make straight paths for your feet, that what is lame may not be dislocated but healed.
In Hebrews 12:13 the inspired writer is quoting from Proverbs 4:26 in the Septuagint, a passage which also uses the "race" metaphor to illustrate what is necessary of achieve victory in the journey to salvation. That passage reads: Make straight paths for thy (your, plural) feet, and order thy (your, plural) ways aright. Turn not aside to the right hand nor to the left, but turn away thy foot from an evil way: for God knows the ways on the right hand, but those on the left are crooked and he will make thy (your) ways straight, and will guide thy (your plural) steps in peace.
The inspired writer's command in Hebrews 12:12: So strengthen your dropping hands and your weak knees, is a reference to the stance a runner took in ancient times at the beginning of a race with bent knees and back and arms held low as he tensely waited at the starting block. Then, as today, as a runner explodes off the start line, his back straightens, his arms come up, his legs straighten out, and his stride lengthens. A "straight path," Make straight paths for your feet, is the most direct route to the finish line [on a straight track]. A runner needed to stay on course and not twist an ankle or knee and run the risk of pulling up lame and falling out of the race.
Question: How could the Christian be injured in his "race" to eternal salvation and become "dislocated" or lame? How could a "dislocated" Christian become "healed"?
Answer: In this case the inspired writer is using the words "dislocated" and "healed" metaphorically for those who don't stay on the straight path of right doctrine but veer to the right or to the left, doing injury to themselves theologically, essentially becoming "lame" and not able finishing the "race"'the journey to salvation.
Answer: Yes, one can be "healed" of such an injury even in the midst of the race if the believer repents and true faith and obedience are restored, for God wants everyone to be saved and reach full knowledge of the truth [1 Timothy 2:4]. This is again the New Testament warning that salvation is a life-long process and not a one time event, even in the midst of the journey to salvation the professed believer faces dangers to his eternal salvation. In 1 Corinthians 5:1-5 St. Paul speaks of a baptized man within the faith community who is guilty of mortal sin. He tells the community that they must discipline the man in the Lord's name by excommunicating him from the community in the hope that such a punishment will result in his repentance, conversion, and restoration to the community before his day of judgment so that on the Day of the Lord his spirit may be saved [1 Corinthians 5:4-5].
Salvation is a process with many points of justification along each individual's faith journey to the gates of heaven and eternal salvation.
The Past, Present, and Future Dimensions of Salvation:
It is God's will and our destiny to come to salvation. The only impediment to the gift of eternal life is one's free will choice to reject God's gift of salvation, an act of rejection that one is free to make any where along his faith journey: But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day. The Lord does not delay his promise, as some regard "delay," but he is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a mighty roar and the elements will be dissolved by fire, and the earth and everything done on it will be found out. 2 Peter 3:8-10 [CCC# 1038-41; 1470].
Please read Hebrews 12:14-17: A Warning to Persevere in Holiness
14 Strive for peace with everyone, and for that holiness without which no one will see the Lord. 15 See to it that no one be deprived of the grace of God, that no bitter root spring up and cause trouble, through which many may become defiled, 16 that no one be an immoral or profane person like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. 17 For you know that later, when he wanted to inherit his father's blessing, he was rejected because he found no opportunity to change his mind, even though he sought the blessing with tears.
Answer: The warning is to strive to remain in a state of sanctifying grace and to remain free of all sin, especially mortal sin, for without such holiness no one will see the Lord. CCC# 1861 teaches: Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself. It results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God's forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ's kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back. However, although we can judge that an act is in itself a grave offense, we must entrust judgment of persons to the justice and mercy of God.
Hebrews 12:16-17: 16 that no one be an immoral or profane person like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. 17 For you know that later, when he wanted to inherit his father's blessing, he was rejected because he found no opportunity to change his mind, even though he sought the blessing with tears.
Answer: Esau serves as a negative example in two ways:
St. Ephraim reminds us in this example of Esau's sin that he did not sell his birthright because he was desperately hungry: Scripture thus shows that Esau did not sell his birthright because of hunger, since it says that after he ate, "Esau rose and went away and despised his birthright." He did not sell it because of hunger, therefore, but because he indeed considered it to be worthless and sold it for nothing. Commentary on Genesis 23.2. The inspired writer of Hebrew's warning to his audience is to believe God's promises now and remain faithful because the time will come when it will be too late to repent.
Please read Hebrews 12:18-24: The Promise of the Heavenly Jerusalem
18 You have not approached that which could be touched and a blazing fire and gloomy darkness and storm 19 and a trumpet blast and a voice speaking words such that those who heard begged that no message be further addressed to them, 20 for they could not bear to hear the command: "If even an animal touches the mountain, it shall be stoned." 21 Indeed, so fearful was the spectacle that Moses said, "I am terrified and trembling." 22 No, you have approached Mount Zion and the city of the Living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and countless angels in festal gathering, 23 and the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven, and God the judge of all, and the spirits of the just made perfect, 24 and Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and the sprinkled blood that speaks more eloquently than that of Abel.
Answer: He is describing the events of the manifestation of God at Mt. Sinai when He descended upon the mountain in fire, smoke, and the sound of the shofar [ram's horn]. It was an event both terrifying and dangerous.
Question: Why was it dangerous? Why did any animal who ventured on to the mountain have to be stoned?
Answer: Without ritual purification to come into the presence of the holy God could incur instant death. The mountain of God was holy and any animal or human being who came on to the mountain would have to be stoned because it had profaned what was holy. The people were to ritually purify themselves for three day. Yahweh commanded Moses: You must mark out the limits of the mountain and say, "Take care not to go up the mountain or to touch the edge of it. Anyone who touches the mountain will be put to death. No one may lay a hand on him: he must be stoned or shot by arrow; whether man or beast, he shall not live." When the ram's horn sounds a long blast, they must go up the mountain. The death penalty was imposed not for failing to ritually bathe but for refusing to believe God's command. God is a God of mercy but He is also a God of judgment. In the Old Covenant, the blessings were temporal and so were the punishments.
In this passage the inspired writer is contrasting the events of the first corporate covenant formation at Sinai with the first promise of the new and everlasting covenant made to David in 2 Samuel 7:17 [also see 1 Chronicles 17:11-14] when he established is royal capital upon Mt. Zion in Jerusalem. The Old Covenant was temporal with temporal blessings and punishments, however, the inspired writer warns, the New Covenant is eternal. The promises are eternal but so are the punishments and if God punished disobedience in the old, think how much more serious it is to be punished under the new!
Mentioning Jesus as mediator of the New Covenant recalls the fact that it was Moses who was the mediator under the Old. However, the inspired writer is not contrasting Moses and Christ but those who are the people who are receivers of the two covenants and what they receive as a reward for faithfulness and the wrath they receive as punishment. The inspired writer affirms for a third time that Jesus is the mediator of the New Covenant as Moses was mediator of the Old [see Hebrews 8:6 and 9:5].
Hebrews 12:22-24 No, you have approached Mount Zion and the city of the Living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and countless angels in festal gathering, 23 and the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven, and God the judge of all, and the spirits of the just made perfect..
Notice the inspired writers listeners "have approached" the heavenly Zion, it is the hoped for city of Hebrews 13:14, not made with human hands but whose architect is God Himself. His Christian listeners have approach the heavenly city in the worship of the Lord on the Lord's Day in the celebration of the Eucharist but they will not fully enter until the pass through death into eternal life.
In Scripture Mt. Zion is the hill in Jerusalem where the old sanctuary of God was located. David captured the fortress of Zion in 2 Samuel 5:6-9 and made it the location of his kingly authority. It is on this site that David received the promise that God had established an everlasting covenant with him and his throne would be 'secure forever" [2 Samuel 7:16]. Mt. Zion figures prominently in Scripture. In 1 Kings 8:1 the Ark of the Covenant was placed in a tent in Zion and later it was moved when the Temple was built on the heights of Mt. Moriah. At that time the identification of "Zion" was extended to include the site of the Temple and eventually came to refer to Jerusalem as a whole, identifying the name with the place of worship of God's holy people on earth. Zion comes to be identified with the sacred Assembly of God's covenant people, the Church [see Psalm 78:68; 87:1-2; Isaiah 1:27; 51:3; 59:20; 60:14], and the place where God dwells among his holy people [1 Kings 14:21; Psalms 9:11; 48:1-2; 74:2; Isaiah 8:18]. Significantly the often quoted Psalm 110 identifies Zion as the place where the Messiah will be enthroned at God's right hand, like the first priest-king Melchizedek ruled from Salem in the earthly Zion: The LORD says to you, my lord: "Take your throne at my right hand, while I make your enemies your footstool." The scepter of your sovereign might the LORD will extend from Zion. The LORD says: "Rule over your enemies! Yours is princely power from the day of your birth. In holy splendor before the daystar, like the dew I begot you." The LORD has sworn and will not waver: "Like Melchizedek you are a priest forever" Psalm 110:1-4. It is in the heavenly Zion, the city of the living God, where the heir of David, Jesus the King of Kings reigns [Hebrews 11:10-13, 16] and the destination of every faithful believer.
Question: Why was the New Covenant formation so different?
Answer: The Old Covenant established an earthly dominion associated with earthly blessings but the New Covenant, while still establishing a covenant family living in the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth also establishes an eternal kingdom in which its citizens will pass from the earthly domain to the heavenly to enjoy eternal blessings! The Old Covenant regulated only the lives of the covenant people in their temporal state on earth and was, as the inspired writer stated in Hebrews 8:5 and 10:1, "a shadow" of the heavenly reality to be inaugurated in the blood of Jesus Christ. Now believers who have been "made perfect" in the blood of Jesus Christ do not come to an earthly mountain but to the heavenly Mount Zion and the heavenly Jerusalem and we are not told to "stay away" but to come up and enter into the joyous celebration of God's angelic host.
Hebrews 12:23: and the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven
The word "assembly" in English is the Greek word ekklesia. In the Septuagint it is used for the Hebrew word kahal, and like it means "the called-out ones"'in other words, the Church. In classical Greek ekklesia signified the assembly of the citizens of a city who met to deliberate on the needs of the community or to pass legislative for the good of the community. This assembly was composed only of citizens who had full rights and privileges of the community. The Greek word did not suggest any religious assembly but was adopted by the Jewish translators of the Greek Septuagint to render the Hebrew word kahal. Kahal Yahweh in Hebrew identified the religious assembly of God where sacrifice was offered at the Tabernacle/Temple. The Hebrew words kahal edah signified in later Hebrew the local assembly of the people of God where the Sacred Scriptures were studied, more commonly rendered in Greek by the word synagoge, the word from which our English word synagogue is derived. In the New Testament ekklesia reflects the idea of both the kahal Yahweh, the religious assembly "called out" who offers sacrifice to Yahweh, and the local synagogue where Scripture is studied. In fact the Mass reflects both aspects: the Liturgy of the Word in the study of Sacred Scripture and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, in the offering of the sacrifice.
Some examples of the use of ekklesia in the Old Testament [Septuagint] and in the New Testament:
In the Christian era the Greek word kyriakon "the Lord's house" came to be commonly used to refer to a Christian church. The Anglo-Saxon group of words [English = church; Scottish = kirk; German = kirche] are derived from this word.
Question: Who are "the assembly of the firstborn"?
Answer: The righteous dead that Jesus led into heaven after His crucifixion who had been waiting for His coming from the time of Adam (1 Pt 3:18-20; 4:6). These Saints were the "firstfruits" of the harvest of souls who are the Church [ekklesia] glorified. In Romans 8:29, St. Paul calls them "the firstborn among many brothers" and he calls Jesus "the firstborn of all creation" (Col 1:15) and "the firstborn from the dead" (Col 1:18).
In ancient cultures, like the Israelites, the "firstborn" had special rights of inheritance and blessing. The many disgraced "firstborn" sons of the Old Covenant lost these special rights of inheritance, including the "firstborn" sons of the first Passover who were spared death but who later became part of the rebellion in the sin of the Golden Calf. Then too, all of Israel was called God's "firstborn" sons in Exodus 4:22-23 but they, like the disgraced "firstborn" Esau, rejected their inheritance when they rejected Jesus of Nazareth as their Messiah. It is the "cloud of witnesses", the "firstborn" of that first redeemed assembly in heaven received all those eternal promises in abundance.
Answer: Their names are enrolled in the Book of Life.
Answer: Yes, which is another nail in the coffin of the false doctrine of "eternal security." Someone has to be "saved" in order to have one's name written in the Book of Life. If one's name is erased, that person is no longer "saved."
Question: In Hebrews 12:24 the inspired writer declares for the third time that Jesus is the mediator of the New Covenant [Hebrews 8:6; 9:15; 12:24] and then announces that the power of Jesus' blood to speak to mankind: 24 and Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and the sprinkled blood that speaks more eloquently [ can also be translated "insistently"] than that of Abel. How is it that Jesus' blood speaks more powerfully than Abel's blood? See Genesis 4:10; Matthew 23:35; Luke 11:51; 23:24; John 6:53-56; Hebrews 9:18-28; 10:19-20; 1 Peter 1:2.
Answer: This passage is a clear reference to the Most Holy Eucharist. Abel's blood cried out for justice in Genesis 4:10. Jesus spoke of Abel's blood crying out for justice in Matthew 23:35 and in Luke 11:51 along with the cries for justice from the blood of the other prophets of God that the covenant people had murdered. Jesus promised that His generation of Old Covenant people would have to answer for all the suffering endured by the holy ones of God. But Jesus' blood does not cry out in vengeance, instead His blood shouts out in mercy and forgiveness of sins as it purifies and sanctifies the believer and leads all who receive Him in the Eucharist to eternal life: Jesus said to them, "Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him [John 6:53-56; also see Hebrews 10:19-22]. Jesus' eloquent cry from the Cross of suffering was "Father, forgive them" [Luke 23:24].
In the formation of the Old Covenant the blood of a bull was sprinkled on the book [in which Moses recorded the Law], on the altar [which represented God], and on the people'symbolizing the ratification of one Covenant family, united in the blood of the covenant [Hebrews 9:18-22; Exodus 24:5-8]. The Old Covenant was also maintained in the sprinkling of the blood of the sacrifice continually on the altars of God [Exodus 24:6; Leviticus 1:5; 3:2, 13; 16:14-19; etc. ]. But now, we are united as one Covenant family in the blood of Jesus Christ, it is His blood which continues to maintain the New Covenant and our commitment to live in obedience to it, as St. Peter greeted the faithful in his first letter: to the chosen sojourners of the dispersion....in the foreknowledge of God, the Father through sanctification by the Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling with the blood of Jesus Christ: may grace and peace be yours in abundance [1 Peter 1:2].
This is the same blood Jesus spoke of when He offered the first Eucharistic cup at the Last Supper in Luke 22:20: This cup is the new covenant in my blood poured out for you. This is the same blood He offers to us from the heavenly Sanctuary, as the inspired writer of Hebrews assures the faithful, Now every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; thus the necessity for this one also to have something to offer [Hebrews 8:3] and Therefore, brothers, since through the blood of Jesus we have confidence of entrance into the sanctuary by the new and living way he opened for us through the veil, that is, his flesh..[Hebrews 10:19-20]. This is the same blood he offers to us in the Eucharist sacrifice and it is, as the inspired writer told his audience in Hebrews 9:14, it is more powerful than the blood sacrifice of the Old Covenant: how much more will the blood of Christ who through the eternal spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from dead works to worship the living God. This is the blood which cleanses and nourishes New Covenant believers at every Eucharistic celebration.
St. Clement of Alexandria, prior to 202AD, writes eloquently of the nourishment believers receive from the very blood of Jesus Christ in the Most Holy Eucharist: When the loving and benevolent Father had rained down the Word, that Word then became the spiritual nourishment of those who have good sense. O mystic wonder! The Father of all is indeed one, one also is the universal Word, and the Holy Spirit is one and the same everywhere; and one only is the Virgin Mother. I love to call her the Church. This Mother alone was without milk, because she alone did not become a wife. She is at once both Virgin and Mother: as a Virgin, undefiled; as a Mother, full of love. Calling her children about her, she nourishes them with holy milk, that is, with the Infant Word... The Word is everything to a child: both Father and Mother, both Instructor and Nurse. "Eat My Flesh," He says, "and drink My Blood." The Lord supplies us with these intimate nutriments. He delivers over His Flesh and pours out His Blood; and nothing is lacking for the growth of His children. O incredible mystery! Paidagogos, 220.127.116.11
Please read Hebrews 12:25-29: Unfaithfulness Will Be Punished but Obedient Faith Rewarded:
25 See that you do not reject the one who speaks. For if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much more our case if we turn away from the one who warns from heaven. 26 His voice shook the earth at that time, but now he has promised, "I will once more shake not only earth but heaven." 27 That phrase, "once more," points to [the] removal of shaken, created things, so that what is unshaken may remain. 28 Therefore, we who are receiving the unshakable kingdom should have gratitude, with which we should offer worship pleasing to God in reverence and awe. 29 For our God is a consuming fire.
Question: Who is it who "speaks" and from where does He speak?
Answer: God formerly spoke from Mt. Sinai but now He "speaks" in the person of His Son, who "spoke" during His 3 year ministry, "spoke" through His death, burial, and Resurrection, and now "speaks" from heaven through His Church and the inspired Scripture written by His ministers. The inspired writer warns, if the Israelites of the Sinai Covenant were not exempt from judgment when they failed why do Jewish-Christians think they will escape judgment for the same sins?
Hebrews 12:26-27: His voice shook the earth at that time, but now he has promised, "(Yet) I will once more shake not only earth but heaven." 27 That phrase, "once more," points to [the] removal of shaken, created things, so that what is unshaken may remain.
Question: Who was the prophet Haggai and when was his ministry? What was his prophetic ministry?
Answer: Haggai was a post-exile prophet. In August 520BC [Haggai 1:1], on the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles, the 7th of the holy annual feasts, Yahweh instructed Haggai to speak to Joshua the High Priest and Zerubbabel the governor, a descendant of David; these men served as the leadership first group of returned exiles. Haggai was commanded to ask them why they had failed to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. It was this second Temple that was to become the focal point of the Messianic hope for all nations on earth: For thus saith the Lord Almighty; "Yet once I will shake the heaven, and the earth, and the sea, and the dry land; and I will shake all nations, and the choice portions of all the nations shall come" and I will fill this house with glory, saith the Lord Almighty [Septuagint, Haggai 2:7-8].
Question: What does the inspired writer mean, when referring to the passage from Haggai, that God said, "I will once more shake not only earth but heaven." 27 That phrase, "once more," points to [the] removal of shaken, created things, so that what is unshaken may remain. See Hebrews 9:8-10; Matthew 1:12-16; Luke 3:27; and Haggai 2:20-23.
Answer: According to the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Luke, Zerubbabel, the Jewish governor of Judah appointed by the Persians to govern the returning exiles, was the Davidic heir and the ancestor of Jesus of Nazareth through both Mary and Joseph's ancestral lines. It was through him that the prophet Haggai promised the Messiah would come. With the coming of the Messiah, the Old Covenant symbols and shadows no longer are necessary and must pass away to make way for the New Covenant Church which will be a "house" for those "portions of all the nations" [Haggai 2:8] who will come to worship the One True God in the universal Church which is filled with His glory.
In 1 Corinthians 7:29-31, St. Paul writes concerning a coming catastrophe, I tell you brothers, the time is running out. From now on, let those having wives act as not having them, those weeping as not weeping, those rejoicing as not rejoicing, those buying not owing, those using the world as not using it fully. For the world in its present form is passing away. Severian of Gabala, near the end of the 4th century, preached concerning the link between Hebrews 12:27 and 1 Corinthians 7:29-31: That is why Paul says elsewhere, "for the form of this world is passing away." So that the temporary may pass away and the eternal may come. Fragments on the Epistle to the Hebrews 12.27. It is the earthly, man-made Temple that will be shaken until it falls so that the Old Covenant people will not be distracted from coming into what is new and everlasting, the New and better Covenant promised by the prophet Jeremiah which offers the promise of forgiveness of sins and eternal salvation; it is the New Covenant in Jesus Christ in which heaven and earth are joined but the time will come when Christ returns that the two, the earthly and the heavenly kingdoms will be transformed and will become the one Kingdom of the eternal Son [Revelation 21:1-5].
Hebrews 12:28-29 28 Therefore, we who are receiving the unshakable kingdom should have gratitude, with which we should offer worship pleasing to God in reverence and awe. 29 For our God is a consuming fire.
Notice that we "are receiving" the unshakable kingdom.
Question: What is the "unshakable kingdom" that the inspired writer is referring to?
Answer: It is the Kingdom of Heaven. The "unshakable Kingdom" is the place where God rules; that where God rules is "unshakable" is an Old Testament concept [see Psalms 93:1; 96:10; 125:1; Isaiah 33:20]. Where God rules is the city not made with human hands [Hebrews 11:10] that God has prepared for them [Hebrews 11:16]. The present tense, "are receiving" indicates that the inspired writer's audience is still waiting for the heavenly city that the "cloud of witnesses" have already inherited.
Pope Benedict XVI, in Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, book #9 of his Dogmatic Theology series, notes that the announcement of the Kingdom was the focus Jesus' mission: For the New Testament, the phrase "Kingdom of God," basileia tou theou, or "Kingdom of Heaven," basileia ton ouranon, is the true Leitmotiv of Jesus' preaching. Looking at the statistics makes this plain. There are in all 122 occurrences of the word in the New Testament, 99 being in the three Synoptic Gospels and 90 on the lips of Jesus himself [Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, volume #9 Dogmatic Theology, pages 24-25]. Christ the King reigns over the Kingdom of God in heaven and on earth, the Universal/Catholic Church. This is the Kingdom that Daniel prophesized in Daniel 2:34-35 and which was promised to the divine Messiah in Daniel's vision in Daniel 7:13-14. It is also "unshakable", even in its earthly realm because of the promises Jesus made to Simon Peter in Matthew 16:18, And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. It is a vision the prophet Daniel witnessed and prophesized in Daniel 7:18, 22b, 27: But the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingship, to possess it forever and ever. [..] judgment was pronounced in favor of the holy ones of the Most High, and the time came when the holy ones possessed the kingdom. [..]. Then the kingship and dominion and majesty of all the kingdoms under the heavens shall be given to the holy people of the Most High, whose kingdom shall be everlasting; all dominions shall serve and obey him [the Messiah].
Question: But why is it that we are still receiving this promise?
Answer: It is because the Jewish-Christians the inspired writer is addressing have not "finished the race." Then too, New Covenant will not be fully in place until the "Second Coming" of Jesus the divine Messiah. The day will come, with the return of the King, when both parts of the Kingdom will be joined and Christ will reign over both His angels and His Saints in the eternal Jerusalem. But in the meantime Christians are able to enter the heavenly Sanctuary at every liturgy of the Mass and experience full communion with the Most Holy Trinity. The day will come, however, either upon the death of the believer and his final purification when he will enter into the Kingdom of heaven and live there forever, or until Jesus' Second Coming when all the Church, the Bride of Christ, is united to Him and when all the faithful will join in a life which is a Eucharistic celebration of the Lamb in the eternal Jerusalem, the promised city that has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gave it light, and its lamp was the Lamb [Revelation 21:23].
with which we should offer worship pleasing to God in reverence and awe. 29 For our God is a consuming fire.
We should all take care in how we approach the holy altar in the celebration of the Eucharist. At that moment we are coming face to face with God just as Moses came face to face with God on the Mount of Sinai. We should feel the same reverence and awe that our brothers and sisters in the Old Covenant felt in their encounter with God. We need to take care in how we present ourselves to the Almighty, as St. Paul warned:
The phrase For our God is a consuming fire is a quotation from Deuteronomy 4:24 which begins with the warning from Moses the covenant mediator in 4:23: Take head, therefore, least, forgetting the covenant which the LORD, your God, has made with you, you fashion for yourselves against his command an idol in any form whatsoever. For Yahweh your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God. This passage and others which also refer to God as a consuming or devouring fire, such as Deuteronomy 9:3: Yahweh your God himself will go ahead of you, destroying them like a devouring fire, and that he himself will subdue them before you... are used in the context of a warning to Israel to remain faithful and obedient to their covenant obligations and such imagery is also associated with God's promise to bring judgment upon Israel's enemies. In these cases, the context is judgment; however, fire also describes the ferocity of God's love for His covenant people in His desire to purify them of their sins. Fire is a manifestation of God in judgment and in love. His love is a fiery, burning love and it is in the purifying fire of His love in Purgatory which cleanses the faithful child who is in need of purification before entering into the Father's rest.
God manifests His presence in various ways, in a cloud, or a pillar of cloud and fire, a form known as the Shekinah in Hebrew, the "Glory Cloud" and also as a 'dark mist" and the cloud. Coupled with the cloud the glory of Yahweh in the Shekinah is also described as a consuming fire which moves like Yahweh Himself [see Exodus 19:16 and 24:16]. Cloud covered the mountain. The glory of Yahweh rested on Mount Sinai and the cloud covered it for six days. On the seventh day Yahweh called to Moses from inside the cloud. To the watching Israelites, the glory of Yahweh looked like a devouring fire on the mountain top [Exodus 24:15b-17]. But the inspired writer's warning to his audience in Hebrews 12:29 is a warning of judgment'similar to the one he made in Hebrews 11:31, Beloved stay alert and remain faithful: it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God, for God is a consuming fire!
Questions for group discussion:
Question: Jesus warns the Christians of the faith community in Laodicea in Revelation 3:19: Those whom I love, I reprove and chastise. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. Can you share an example where God has disciplined you in your journey of faith and where your obedient repentance has brought you closer to Him through the experience?
Question: Many Protestant brothers and sisters believe in the so called doctrine of "eternal security"'in other words "once saved always saved." Why is this doctrine of "once saved always saved" not supported by Scripture and why is it not a teaching of the Catholic Church? What is the danger a Christian might encounter in having faith in such a false doctrine? CCC#1851; 1 John 5:16-17; Galatians 5:19-21; Romans 1:28-32; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; Ephesians 5:3-5; Colossians 3:5-9; 1 Timothy 1:9-10; 2 Timothy 3:2-5; Philippians 2:12-18.
Catechism references for this lesson [*indicates Scripture quoted in citation]
Resources used in this lesson:
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