In my current work on a commentary on Hebrews, I have been struck by how forcefully the book of Hebrews completely undercuts a Dispensational approach to the reading of Scripture, and while we are at it, to a blind and unconditional support of the present secular nation-state of Israel regardless of its military practices and policies. This is not to say that we do not need to be equally critical of the inhuman practices of Hamas and Hezebollah, as well. We do. But here are some of my reflections.
Let us broach the question once more of whether and in what sense Hebrews should be seen as a supercessionist document. On the one hand, it is apt to point out that there were a variety of forms of early Judaism, and various of them were highly sectarian. By this I mean that, for example, the Qumran community did not think that the form of Jewish religion practiced in the Temple of Jerusalem was just as legitimate as its own practices and beliefs. Indeed, it thought that Herod’s temple was hopelessly corrupt and would be destroyed, just as Jesus himself appears to have thought. It is not then, just the Christian form of early Judaism that could and did make a case for the obsolescence of the existing cultus in Jerusalem. However, the Qumran community, though a highly eschatological group, did not take the more radical step of suggesting that the Mosaic covenant and its practices in general were outmoded. This more revolutionary notion is found only in the Christian form of early Judaism, and in particular it is found in both Hebrews and in Paul’s letters, and in some respects seems to go back to Jesus himself.
In short, I do not think it is possible to avoid the scandal of particularity when it comes to the Christian form of Judaism. There was an inevitability to the parting of the ways between Christian and non-Christian Jews however long it took in different places, and the parting was only accelerated by the Pauline Gentile mission and its success.
Andrew Lincoln sums up well what is going on in Hebrews—“its writer holds that, while the Scripture is still the authoritative vehicle of God’s self-disclosure, the sacrificial system, the law and the Sinaitic covenant, of which Scripture speaks, have been surpassed by God’s new and decisive word in Christ, and so in terms of present Christian experience are no longer appropriate. The law, its symbols and institutions remain crucial for interpreting the fulfillment of God’s purposes in Christ but do not determine Christian practice. Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice does away with the need for the sacrificial system (cf. 10.4-18) and indeed the covenant with Moses can be described as obsolete (8.13). It is in this sense that Hebrews can be appropriately called a ‘supercessionist’ document.”(Hebrews. A Guide, p. 114).
To this I would add the caution that the author no doubt would have argued that he was talking about the completion of the Jewish heritage in Jesus. He would have stressed, had he lived until today, that it is totally anachronistic to talk about the replacement of Judaism as a religion with Christianity as a religion. Our author is not talking about Christianity as some separate religion from Judaism. He is talking about what he sees as the true completion of all the Jewish religion was meant to point to and prepare for and be the basis of. Of course what he says in Hebrews would inevitably be viewed as supercessionist by those Jews who had not and did not see Jesus as the completion of God’s plans for them or the fulfillment of earlier covenants.
Sometimes, in order to escape the notion of supercessionist both conservative and liberal Christians have tried to cut the Gordian knot of this problem by suggesting there are two covenants in operation at once—- one for Jews and one for Gentiles, or one for Jews and one for Christians. Surprisingly enough we find this approach both in ultra conservative Dispensationalism and also in more liberal approaches to Paul and Hebrews. There is a problem, a very serious problem with both of these two tract models. They involve the renouncing of the claims of the NT authors about Jesus as the savior of the world, and also about the true people of God being ‘Jew and Gentile united in Christ’. It also involves applying a very different hermeneutic to the OT than we see being applied in Hebrews.
Here again Lincoln helps us: “Without the conviction that Christ was the surpassing fulfillment of the Mosaic covenant, there would have been no reason in the first place for Jews to have become Christians or to remain Christians under pressure (the issue for Hebrews) or for Gentiles to have become Christians rather than proselytes or God-fearers. Without the conviction that Jesus Christ is the decisive revelation of God for all human beings, however the implications of that conviction are spelled out, Christianity is no longer recognizably in continuity with its Scriptural foundation. The suggestion, sometimes made today, that Christians should think in terms of two covenants, one for Jews, based on Moses, and one for Gentiles, based on Jesus, does not allow Jesus to be the decisive revelation for the people to whom this revelation was given in the first place.” (Hebrews. A Guide, p. 118).
Just so. We must resist the temptation to whittle off the hard edges of this and other NT texts just to make life easier for ourselves. The scandal of particularity cannot be escaped by exegetical gymnastics or hermeneutical legerdemain.
Let me say however what this does not mean. In the first place it does not mean that Jews today are guilty of practicing a false religion, a false faith. This is not how either the author of Hebrews or Paul would have viewed the matter. Even when he painfully discusses the fact that many Jews have rejected Jesus (Rom. 11) and so he says that they have been temporarily broken off from the tree that makes up the people of God, he still envisions a time when they can and in some cases will be grafted back into that people. This is a completionist not a replacement theology, and Christians today must be always reminded that the NT is a Jewish book almost entirely written by Jews, and in the case of Hebrews for Jews. We must be very mindful and wary of how this book has been misused by later Gentile believers to justify all sorts of anti-Semitic acts.
And this brings me to the most important point. Both Paul and our author see salvation as a work in progress that will not be completed until Christ returns and the dead are raised. Only then will there be full conformity of anyone to the image of Christ, and only then will we finally and fully know who is saved and who is not. Between now and then the lost can be saved, and the saved can commit apostasy, and even when Jesus returns there will still be some saving yet to be done it would appear.
This means that Christians must live with the eschatological tension of already and not yet, live with the fact that they are in the midst of salvation history not at its end, and live with the tension that they themselves are not eternally secure until they are securely in eternity. This being the case, humility and not triumphalism is in order. As Jesus warned, many will come from the east and west and replace many of those we expect to sit at the messianic banqueting table. This in turn means that ‘the church’ has not replaced ‘the synagogue’. God is not finished with any of us yet, and God certainly finds reprehensible anti-Semitism in any form, much less in the form it took in Nazi Germany during WW II. If indeed Jesus died for the sins of the world, then he died not just for the sins of his present followers, but even for those who rejected and do reject him, at least in his role as world Savior.
My suggestion would then be that we follow the author of Hebrews’ word in Heb. 12.14 where we are called to pursue peace with everyone and also the holiness without which none of us will see the Lord. We should view every human being as someone whom God loves and for whom Jesus died. We should do our best to love everyone and be more concerned about our own Christ-likeness than other’s perceived lack thereof. We should get our own house in order.
This does not mean that we should neglect a prophetic critique of ungodly behavior whether by Christians or anyone else. For example, Christians have no business blindly supporting Zionistic Israeli policies that lead to the killing of hundreds of innocent men, women, and children, any more than we should support the hate-filled practices of Hamas or Hezbollah or Iraqi Sunni and Shiite bombers. Such support violates the very heart or essence of what Jesus himself called his followers to believe and to be. We need to repeatedly ask what would Jesus do? What did he do when confronted by violence? What did he urge his followers to do in Mt. 5-7? Think on these things.