This week’s first New Testament reading provides a memorable observation about scripture. “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). In context this passage warns against disobedience: no human acts, thoughts, or intentions are beyond God’s scrutiny. We are accountable to God for the lives we live.
The image of “the word of God” as a piercing sword may sound threatening, but it captures a truth about our reading of scripture. These texts understand humanity with all its weaknesses and foibles. The timeless stories we read may deal with people in a particular culture, but they relate to our common humanity and each generation’s struggle to live faithfully. As we grow in our reading of the Bible, we increasingly recognize ourselves and our stories in its pages. As we read the Bible, we understand that the Bible reads us.
May God lead us in this discovery of deeper truth about God and ourselves, and may we use this understanding to live more faithfully with the One who knows us so well.
Old Testament Readings: Leviticus 8-23
Chapters 8-10 of Leviticus describe the institution of the priesthood: the ordination and installation of Aaron and his sons to their role in Israel’s worship. The care with which the priests and their garments are consecrated indicates the absolute necessity of their holiness. The priests mediate between God and the people, presenting the people’s sinfulness to God through their sacrifices, and conveying God’s forgiveness and blessing to the people. For the priests to approach the holy God, they must themselves be holy, set apart and consecrated. The deaths of Nadab and Abihu (ch.10) illustrate the danger of unauthorized access to the holy God. Much as the holiness of God kept the Israelites away from Mt. Sinai at the giving of the Law (Exodus 19ff), so the priests have to exercise reverent observance of God’s holiness in the Tabernacle.
The Lord tells Aaron, “You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the clean and the unclean, and you are to teach the people of Israel all the statutes that the Lord has spoken to them by Moses” (10:10-11). What follows in chapters 11-15 are the rules for cleanness and uncleanness in various areas of life. Admittedly, these categories can be confusing. Rather than describing a state of hygiene, clean denotes those who are ritually admissible into worship. One could be unclean through eating or contacting unclean animals (ch.11) or by physical conditions (e.g., menstruation, childbirth, bodily discharges, skin diseases; chh. 12-15). The judgment of clean or unclean did not signify a verdict on one’s morality. Rather, uncleanness seems to indicate that one’s circumstances have disqualified a person from contact with the holy God and his holy people, as suggested by the remedy of temporary isolation and purification and the confirming decision of the priest. The ultimate concern with cleanness and uncleanness is maintaining holiness, so as not to disrupt the connection of God and God’s people.
Beginning with chapter 17, the rest of Leviticus lays out a “Holiness Code” to guide the people’s behavior. This section offers a comprehensive vision of the behavior for the community, including concerns about sexual immorality (ch.18), child sacrifice (ch.20). The Israelites’ holiness—being separated out for devoted life with the Holy God—demands that they distinguish their behavior from that of their pagan neighbors (18:1-5).
Questions to consider:
- Compare your view of priesthood in the Church today with the image of the OT priest. What is similar? What is different?
- Think of areas in our society where the categories of clean/unclean are appropriate, or even desirable. (food preparation; hospitals and surgeries; laboratories)
- How important is holiness for God’s people today? Instead of clean/unclean, what observable aspects of one’s living would be appropriate indicators of holiness?
New Testament Readings: Hebrews 4-8
The Letter to the Hebrews seeks to call wavering believers back to solid faith in Jesus Christ. Chapter 4 continues a reflection on the grumbling Israelites in the wilderness, of whom God said, “They shall not enter my rest” (Hebrews 4:3; cf. Psalm 95:11). Just as that generation failed to enter the Promised Land, we might suffer the same kind of judgment from God because of our disobedience. The author exhorts us to “strive to enter that rest” (4:11) that God has prepared, a “Sabbath rest for the people of God” (4:9) undisturbed by our sinfulness or waywardness. A later section in our readings (5:11—6:12) likewise encourages believers to lay “a foundation of repentance from dead works” (6:1) and to be “imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (6:12). The author sees eternal consequences for those who, “hav[ing] tasted the goodness of the word of God . . . have fallen away” (6:5-6).
The end of chapter 4 presents an important motif in the letter, Jesus as our great high priest. Jesus identifies with us in our sinfulness, like the human high priest, who “can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness” (5:2). Yet Jesus is unlike the high priest who “is obligated to offer sacrifice for his own sins just as he does for the people” (5:3). Jesus’ obedience and earthly suffering equips him to become “the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (5:9). The author argues that God appointed Jesus to fulfill this role “after the order of Melchizedek,” (Hebrews 5:6; cf. Psalm 110:4), providing a priestly pedigree for Jesus from scripture.
Melchizedek is a minor figure in the OT, mentioned only in the story of Abram (Genesis 14) and in Psalm 110. Yet the author ascribes to him an eternal priesthood (“You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek” [Psalm 110:4]) and declares that Jesus surpasses his example (see chapter 7). Though the train of thought is somewhat complicated, the argument here is the same as throughout the Letter to the Hebrews: the trusted traditions of Jewish faith and scripture have been fulfilled and surpassed in the life and work of Jesus.
Questions to consider:
- Read again Hebrews 4:12. Has reading the Bible ever produced in you a sharp awareness of your sin? A moment of deep self-recognition?
- How does our OT reading about priests (Exodus and Leviticus) help you understand the image of Jesus as our great high priest?
- Look at 5:11-14. Does this imagery help you think about your own spiritual maturity? Why is it important for the Church and the Christian to be “trained . . . to distinguish good from evil”?
Psalms: 110, 111, 31
Psalm 110 is a so-called royal psalm, celebrating the blessing of God upon the throne of the king and proclaiming God’s victory over the rulers of the nations. It is often quoted in the New Testament, a sign that the early Christians understood Jesus to have assumed the throne of David through his role as messiah/Christ.
Psalm 111 is a hymn—a psalm of praise to God. It opens with the imperative “Praise the Lord!” and each verse provides a reason for this praise. The psalm is composed as an acrostic, each line beginning with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The effect is to present a comprehensive, “A-to-Z” argument for the worthiness of the Lord whom it glorifies.
Psalm 31 is a lament—a prayer for God’s help from one in need. The unspecified threat of the “enemy” has caused the speaker visible distress and alienated him or her from neighbors. Yet the speaker asserts trust in the saving power of God, “my rock and my fortress,” and the psalm concludes by praising God and exhorting “all . . . who wait for the Lord” to “[b]e strong, and let your heart take courage” (31:24). Notably, Jesus proclaims verse 5 from the cross, signifying his faith in the redeeming power of God the Father.