The Christology of Hebrews 8-10

Julian Kinkaid


According to E. Schillebeeckx the central point of interest in this letter to the Hebrews is "the conflict between the impotence and inadequacy of Jewish sacrifice or worship in accordance with the Torah and the effective grace of the ministry of Jesus".[1] With this in mind it might be said that the purpose of the author is to establish the finality of the Gospel, and therefore Christianity, by contrasting it with all that precedes it (the Levitical cultus in particular) thereby demonstrating the supremacy of the person and work of Christ. For this reason a special emphasis is placed upon Jesus as High Priest which is often regarded as a "more complex Christological conception than that of Prophet or Servant of God since the title does not exclusively concern the historical work of Jesus".[2] There are, however, six aspects of the person and work of Christ dealt with in these three chapters (Hebrew 8-10) and since it is difficult to divorce the work of Christ from his personage - as one is often an expression of the other - for the most part I shall combine the two for the purposes of this essay.

Christ the Pre-existent Son

Having already dealt with the pre-existent divine Sonship of Christ[3] (1:2ff; 4:14; 5:8; 7:3, etc.), the author has no intention of re-addressing the subject and therefore, on the whole, we only find an oblique reference to his Deity. The exception to this is a direct reference to Jesus as 'the Son of God' (10:29) which in my mind is not to be seen as a messianic title here,[4] but as a factual statement as to exactly whom the readers are dealing with, namely God's Son. Furthermore, in their eyes this would be seen as the fullest expression of his Deity (cf. John 5:18). The other passages are closely connected with Jesus' incarnation. Christ is seen as having existed since the foundation of the world only being made manifest when the fulfilment of the ages had come (9:25-26, cf. Gal.4:4). At this point in time he came into the world, donning the body prepared for him (10:5), the veil of flesh that was torn asunder at his death to reveal God himself (10:19-20). This tension between the full manhood and deity of Christ is brought to its climax in the establishing of the new covenant (9:16-17). Here the author plays on the dual meaning of , as an 'agreement', characterised by the covenants made by God with man and as a will." Of necessity" he writes "there must be the death of the one who made it" in order to make it valid, as in the case of any testator. Clearly it is through the death of eternal God himself in his incarnate Son that the eternal inheritance becomes ours! (9:15).

Christ the Man

As we have already seen the earthly life of Christ is "nothing but an interlude in a larger heavenly life",[5] which culminates in his death on the cross, itself an indication of his true humanity (9:27). Some would say that the whole purpose of the incarnation was his ultimate death, thereby instituting the new covenant (9:16f.). Nevertheless, the incarnation of Christ is viewed as an act of submission to the will of God (10:5-7) which consequently led to his supreme submission when he surrendered his body as a sacrifice (9:14; 10:10; cf. Phil.2:5-8). This is coloured by the "portrayal of the Isaianic Servant of the Lord, who yields up his life to God as a guilt-offering for many, bearing their sin and procuring their justification".[6] Hence, just as the animals - due to be sacrificed as part of the old system - were required to be physically unblemished, so the life that Christ offered up was without blemish: it was perfect humanity. Indeed, "his complete holiness was essential to the efficacy of his sacrifice"[7] in order to restore humanity to its perfect state (10:14). Therefore we are told that through the offering of the 'body' of Jesus Christ once for all (10:10) we have been sanctified by his 'blood' (10:19) and can enter the holy place with confidence by the way that he has inaugurated through the view of his flesh (10:20).

Christ the Mediator

The third aspect that the author brings out regarding the person and work of Christ is firmly rooted - one might even say founded - upon the fact that he was both man and God, and that is his mediatorial role. Since Jesus represents both humanity and deity he alone is suitable to mediate between the two and bear the title Mediator . Here the title can mean either an arbitrator or a guarantor. As Moses was the mediator of the Old Covenant, so Christ has inaugurated the New Covenant (8:5-6; 10:20). However, unlike the Old Covenant that was validated by the blood of calves and goats, "the basis of Jesus' mediatorship is his sacrificial death"[8] (9:15-19). Therefore, in contrast to Moses who merely acted as a go-between, Jesus is also the guarantor of the covenant he has instituted (7:22): both the testator and executor of the will. There is "the completion of the reconciliation of humanity with God".[9] Having been made manifest once and offered up to bear the sins of many, he will appear a second time for salvation, not in connection with sin (9:28; 10:25), but for those who await him and with regard to judgement (9:27).

Christ the High Priest

The main Christological concept brought out by the author of Hebrews is that of Christ as High Priest, for which he adopts a "philosophical distinction derived ultimately from Plato".[10] This, Dunn believes, produces an "add juxtaposition of seemingly contradictory themes", owing to the "synthesis of Platonic cosmology and Judaeo-Christian eschatology".[11] Therefore we are presented with the concept that the imperfect earthly world is a copy or a shadow of the perfect heavenly reality (cf. 8:5; 9:23f.; 10:1) and the contrast of the new order with the old (8:6-13; 9:8-12; 10:9, etc.). It is here that our author begins by reminding his readers of the fact that the priesthood of Christ is superior to that which it supersedes, a point that he established in chapter 7. Since Christ was not born into the tribe of Levi, he does not belong to the Aaronic order and, according to the Law, he had no legal right to perform priestly functions on earth (8:4, cf. 7:16). However, by its very definition Christ functioned in the capacity of a priest because he was appointed to offer up a sacrifice (8:3). As his sacrifice was unique in both its kind and quality, his priesthood is seen as being better than the old order.

Now let us turn our attention to the sacrifice that Jesus, as High Priest, offered to God. According to the author the event of Jesus' death is to be seen within the framework of the Day of Atonement (yom hakkipurim). Every year on this day (cf. Lev.16:29f.) the high priest alone was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies, behind the veil of the Tabernacle. This was only possible because he had followed a prescribed pattern of regulations and made the appropriate animal sacrifices for the atonement of both himself and the people (9:1-10, cf. Lev.16). In this same way Christ as the new High Priest has offered up a sacrifice, a voluntary self-sacrifice, once and for all (9:14, 22, 25-28). Here we see the unique quality of his sacrifice. In contrast to the repetitious nature of the Levitical system (owing to the fundamental inability of animal's blood to cleanse on more than a purely physical level [9:9, 12f.; 10:1-4]), the blood of Christ has efficacy in the spiritual sphere and so possesses eternal validity. Therefore it only needed to be offered once because it has the power to cleanse the conscience (9:14) having dealt with the problem of sin (10:18). What is more, God no longer remembers sins (8:12; 10:17). This again demonstrates the sufficiency of Christ's sacrifice, for whereas the Day of Atonement was an annual event for the remembrance of sin, the "irrevocable erasing of sins from the divine record implies that no further sin offering is called for".[12] In fact the imagery used is that of sinners being purchased from the slavery into which their sin had brought them (9:15).

With the sacrifice having been made, Christ the High Priest had free access to the Holy of Holies in heaven itself, in the true tabernacle upon which the earthly one was fashioned (8:2; 9:11, cf. 8:5). Here he offered up his blood and in the same way that the earthly tabernacle was cleansed by Moses (9:21 of Exodus 24:6; 40:9) so the heavenly tabernacle was cleansed by Christ (9:23). There he appears in the presence of God himself on our behalf (9:24), as our great priest over the house of God (10:21). The sacrifice of Christ was more than a work of atonement, it was a sacrificial self-surrender (10:9); the laying down of his will in obedience to the will of God and therein lies the true contrast between the old and the new[13] (10:8-10). Now, with the inward sense of guilt removed, we all have confidence to enter the presence of God by the blood of Christ (10:19ff.). It is because of what he has achieved that he has attained a more excellent ministry as High Priest (8:6). He has established a better covenant enacted on better promises, including the reconciliation of man to God and the continual access into his presence owing to Christ's perfect sacrifice. Therefore unlike the earthly priest who is required by law to stand before the altar and whose work is continuous, never being completed. Christ has finished his work - his sacrificial ministry being finished - he has taken his seat at God's right hand (8:1; 10:12). "Christ entered once for all, to be enthroned there in perpetuity, because the redemption procured by him is perfect in nature and eternal in effect".[14]

Christ the Intercessor

Since Christ has offered the sacrifice once and for all, only one aspect of his priestly function remains, that being his eternal intercession (cf. 7:25). Having entered into heaven itself he now appears in the presence of God on our behalf (9:24) and from his seat at the right hand of the Father he intercedes for us (Rom.8:34). Furthermore, this is no longer simply in a collective sense, as when he was on earth (John 17:20f.), but for each of us individually, that we might receive the hope of our salvation (cf. 6:19f.; 7:25).

Christ the King

With the atoning work of Christ completed and the New Covenant relationship with God established (9:24; 10:12), we see Christ exalted as the glorified Messiah, as Cullmann writes, "the atoning death of Jesus demonstrates the true dialectic between deepest humiliation and highest majesty".[15] Originally the Day of Atonement and the Feast of Tabernacles were part of the same festal complex to celebrate the kingship of God. However, the in the NT antitype of this 'festal complex' it is the divine Priest-King who fills the central role.[16] Now Christ has taken his seat at the right hand of God (10:12), the Majesty in the heavens (8:1) awaiting the time when his enemies are made subject to him and become his footstool (10:13). The symbolism of being at the right-hand originates from the OT where it signifies honour and bliss (Psalm 110:1 & 16:11). It is from there that law is seen to be upheld or meted out (Deut.33:2) and the right hand is a symbol for strength (Psalm 18:85). Therefore Christ might be seen to be enthroned in the highest place of honour in all heaven (cf. Heb.1:3f. & Phil.2:9f.) from where he exercises his kingly rule.

As I have attempted to demonstrate, the three chapters under discussion contain a considerable amount of Christological awareness, some of which is explicit (cf. 10:29) and some explicit (cf. 9:24). It is obvious from the contents of this essay that the main emphasis of the author, as I intimated in my opening paragraph, is concerning the function of Christ as High Priest. However, this in turn leads us to the conclusion that although there are different aspects of his person and work, they are all in some way interrelated. Nevertheless, what also has become apparent is the fact that every aspect of his work is dependent upon his dual nature. In other words, all other functions rely upon Christ being both man and God at the same time. Leaving this aside, the main point brought out by the author is the superiority of Christ as the inaugurator of the new system, both in his person and work, over the Levitical system mediated by Moses. Now the imperfect has been replaced by the perfect, the physical transcended by the spiritual and the mere shadow has given way to the true image.

© 1992 Julian Kinkaid

[Note that this article was written by an undergraduate student and shoild not be quoted as a source.]


[1] E. Schillebeeckx, Christ: The Christian Experience in the Modern World. London, SCM, 1982, p. 239.

[2] Oscar Cullmann, The Christology of the New Testament, 1959. London: SCM, 1986, p. 83.

[3] J.D.G. Dunn, Christology in the Making. London: SCM, 1980, p.55: Hebrews was "the first N.T. writing to have embraced the specific thought of a pre-existent divine sonship."

[4] J. Hastings, Dictionary of the Apostolic Church, Vol. 1, 1915. Edinburgh: T.& T. Clark, 1951, p. 196: "Sonship in Hebrews shows an extension of the official Messianic conception into a timeless past."

[5] Dunn, p.52.

[6] F.F. Bruce, "Epistle to the Hebrews," New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990, p.205.

[7] Bruce, p.208.

[8] Bruce, p.208.

[9] Cullmann, p.103.

[10] Leon Morris, The Cross in the New Testament, 1965. Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1976, p.279.

[11] Dunn, p.52.

[12] Bruce,p. 242.

[13] Morris, p.295: "The writer's purpose is not to assert that obedience is better than sacrifice, but to claim that, in that it fulfilled the will of God, Christ's sacrifice of himself surpassed and superseded the Levitical sacrifices."

[14] Bruce, p.201.

[15] Cullmann, p.92.

[16] Bruce, p.199: "By virtue of this perfect self-sacrifice He has taken His seat at the right hand of the throne of God, and reigns for evermore from the heavenly Zion, high priest of the new eternal order."