2017-2018 Presbyterian Women/Horizons Bible Study
“Cloud of Witnesses: The Community of Christ in Hebrews”
I received a note recently. There was no return address nor was the writer’s last name written anywhere. It was signed “Nancy.” I know three women with that name. So I was baffled as to who had written it. Like my note, the Letter to the Hebrews (hereafter “Hebrews”) comes with no envelope nor a return address and no signature or addressee. But we do know the purpose of Hebrews. It speaks eloquently of Christ and urges the community of faith to stand fast and hold on to Jesus, the Son. “Cloud of Witnesses: The Community of Christ in Hebrews,” written by Melissa Bane Sevier, will engage us in understanding this complex and eloquent book of the Bible.
Hebrews is more like a sermon than a letter. It begins with a soaring description of Christ. The Son is the “appointed heir of all things,” through whom the worlds were created and through whom all things are sustained by his powerful word. In Christ we see “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.” The Son is the “purification for sins,” sits on the right hand of God and is more excellent than the angels (Hebrews 1:2-4). Jesus speaks the word of God, living and active, and he is a priest of peace and righteousness. Jesus is the foundation of all our faith and actions. Hebrews stacks up images and expressive descriptions, one after another, to impress us with Jesus’ superiority to angelic beings, Moses and the human priests who act on behalf of believers. In current slang, Jesus is the main man.
Hebrews interweaves the exalted description of the Son as the precise expression of God’s very being with Jesus’ complete humanity. Jesus is the exalted Son of God who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses, “who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” As fully human, Jesus understands our joys, sorrows and suffering. As the risen Son of God, Jesus is the bridge between us and God (Hebrews 4:14-15). Perhaps nowhere else in the New Testament is Christ’s full humanity and divinity so clearly stated.
Melissa Bane Sevier delves into the imagery and words in Hebrews by leading us to investigate how Hebrews builds on texts from the Old and New Testament. For example, we read in Genesis 1 that humanity was created in the image of God and we hear the power of God’s word to create life itself. Genesis 1 flows into the description of Jesus as the perfect image of God’s characteristic steadfast loving-kindness, justice and mercy. Like Jesus, we too are made in God’s image, created to reflect the glorious nature of God’s character in how we live.
Using texts from Genesis, Daniel, Matthew, Luke and Hebrews, Sevier takes us on a trek to see how God interacts with people through angels. As God’s messengers, angels link heaven and earth. Always unexpected, we do know the form God’s words will take. In Hebrews 13:1-2, we are urged to give hospitality to strangers for in doing so we may be giving welcome to angels without knowing it. Thus the writer of Hebrews asks the community of faith to be open and awake to God’s message, to listen to God through the witness of a host of people in the past and through unknown people sent to us today.
Early Christians gathered together hungry to hear the Hebrew scriptures and letters from other Christians. Like a YouTube video gone viral, the powerful sermon of Hebrews and other letters passed from one community of faith to another. Harassed, persecuted and wavering Christians needed encouragement like they needed water. They, like we, thirsted for the assurance that their faith and their suffering for Christ mattered.
The writer of Hebrews, in chapter 11, heartens and pushes us to be like those who trusted in the promises of God over years and decades. Living with the vision of God’s promises of a new future, liberation and protection have kept generations of the faithful on track. Chapter 11 is vibrant with examples of those who persevered in the belief that God had given them life and a mission to accomplish. The chapter builds with intensity that even amid suffering, Abraham, Moses, Rahab and countless others trusted that life with God and with God’s people was worth more than all the world could offer.
The voices of those who have gone before us, who are alive in God, still speak to us. Like a huge crowd in a stadium, the cloud of witnesses shout to us, the church, “Go team! Stay on course! Pass the baton of faith. Hold fast! You can do it.”
Rosalind Banbury is the pastor of Tinkling Spring Presbyterian Church in Fishersville, Virginia.