The basic message of Hebrews is that Christ is incomparably greater than anyone and anything in the Old Testament and that the Jewish or gentile believers should not even think of returning to Old Testament religion.
In principle, this is in line with the convictions of most Christians. But it creates a problem when the author of this letter goes further than this. The message is not only that Christ is much greater than anyone and anything in the Old Testament and not only that Christ replaced some of the Old Testament features of worship. Rather, the message is that some very important features in the Old Testament are no longer effective—and even that some never were.
The negative use of the Old Testament in Hebrews
Let us have a look at the author’s negative views.
- The priests had to bring the sacrifices regularly, which implies that they were not effective (10:2–4).
- Instead of really cleansing people from sin, the repeated bringing of the sacrifices reminded people of their sin (10:2–3).
- Instead of liberating people’s consciousness from sin, the sacrifices only cleansed them outwardly (9:13–14).
- “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (10:4).
- The very reason why these sacrifices were brought repeatedly was that they did not really remove sin (10:11).
- The law “was weak and useless (for the law made nothing perfect)” (7:18–19).
- “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves” (10:1).
Isn’t this rather rough? Is it an overreaction simply to make the point as strongly as possible that Christ is much greater than anyone and anything in the Old Testament? But doesn’t this way of making the point totally negate our view of the Old Testament? Most of us are convinced that the Old Testament is part and parcel of the Bible and is deeply meaningful to us as such. . . .
It is clear that this letter uses the Old Testament much more than any other book in the New Testament. Check this for yourself by counting the number of references to the Old Testament at the bottom of the pages in Hebrews in the TNIV or any other translation that lists them. While the author wants to convince the readers to hold on to Christ, he is concerned throughout to show how the Old Testament is superseded by Christ.
The positive use of the Old Testament
But there is more to it than this. It is not true that this author is only negative toward the Old Testament. Let us now look at his positive use of the Old Testament:
- He starts with a comparison between the prophets of the Old Testament and Jesus (1:1–2). There is nothing negative about the prophets. On the contrary, he states that God spoke through them, though even here Christ is much greater than they.
- His reference to the angels has no negative tone, although even here Christ is much greater (Heb 1:5–14).
- [His] reference to Moses is not negative (Heb 3).
- His use of Melchizedek from Genesis 14 is completely positive (Heb 7).
All of this implies that we started incorrectly. Our point was that he uses the Old Testament negatively. That now seems not to be correct. The New Testament regularly sees Old Testament characters and institutions as types or figures that are fulfilled in the New Testament, an emphasis we also find in Hebrews.
But there is even more to his positive use of the Old Testament. . . . We now have to realize that it is not true that Hebrews is negative toward the Old Testament. It is only negative about certain features in the Old Testament. How are we to interpret these negative views? What is the problem?
The problem is that they are straightforwardly negative statements in principle. We do not read something like, “Afterward it became clear that the blood of bulls could not cleanse from sin,” but the straightforward statement, “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb 10:4). Not even “It was …” But there was no hint in this direction in the Old Testament, not even that the value of these features was only temporal.
Is there a solution?
There are at least two different ways to try to understand this: first, that Christ, in any case, had to come in the future, which means that everything in the Old Testament was provisional in principle. Second, Christ had such an overwhelming significance that at his coming the entire past had to be seen in his light.
The first is that everything has, in any case, been provisional and temporal. Right from the start, the sacrifices had no internal value. They were effective simply because Christ would eventually come and make them effective by his sacrifice—so the cross has retrospective value. Even the faithful were saved because of what Christ would later do. This means that without Christ the Old Testament had and still has no meaning. If these young Christians let go of Christ, even the Old Testament will lose its meaning.
But we may have some hesitation about this view. Does it not rob the Old Testament of any value in itself? Isn’t it reading the Old Testament only in the light of the New? Why is nothing of this provisional character visible in the Old Testament—no indications that the sacrifices only had dependent value, a value only afterward to be provided? The Old Testament, read on its own, seems to have its own intrinsic value. Whatever the priests did was exactly what God ordered.
The second view is that only afterward when Christ came, was it apparent that his overwhelming meaning made everything appear in a new light. Only at this stage did it become clear that certain features had no intrinsic value. For example, there is no indication in the Old Testament that Christ was involved in creating the world. It only afterward came to light. Nowhere in the Old Testament is there any hint that four important figures—the prophet, the servant, the Messiah, and the son of man—would all simultaneously be present in Christ. Only when he came did this become clear.
So one might say that features like the sacrifices were meaningful at that stage, and when Christ came, it became clear that they had no value in themselves. But even this view creates the problem that Hebrews states it as a fact, not merely as an afterthought: “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (10:4). It does not say that only afterward did it become apparent.
Is it possible that this lack of clarity or a neat answer to the problem reminds us that we do not know or understand everything? This passage in Hebrews may help keep us humble. Some people do not know enough to realize that they have no answer; others know enough to realize this!