Horizons Bible Study 2017-2018
“Cloud of Witnesses: The Community of Christ in Hebrews”
Lesson 2: In community with the living God (Hebrews 12:18-24)
by Nadine Ellsworth-Moran
Just outside my door one afternoon, a double rainbow greeted me. I stood transfixed and attempted to capture it in a photo. That’s the thing about rainbows – they are both perpetual, always reoccurring and ephemeral, yet impossible to contain. God chose this bow as a sign of covenant with Noah, and I wondered if anyone else that day remembered.
We forget we are in everlasting covenant with God and need reminding. Such was the situation in Hebrews. The first generation of believers had passed, and the young faith communities struggled to hold on to their identity and beliefs in the face of disenfranchisement and even persecution. These words come when the people need a rainbow; but more than that, they need something they can tangibly engage.
In Hebrews 12, the author clearly acknowledges, “You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice [like thunder].” Rather, if we continue reading, we find they have come to Mount Zion, to “the assembly of the firstborn,” and to “Jesus, mediator of a new covenant.” While all the past covenants with Abraham, Moses, Noah and David are still valid, they now have a new covenant in Jesus Christ that incorporates and furthers all prior covenants.
“Covenant” is not a word commonly heard these days, and Robert Davidson points out two factors regarding this word in “The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought.” First, the rendering here in Greek is not suntheke (agreement), but rather diatheke (last will or testament), which implies that this covenant will survive beyond the immediate and will “live” on in perpetuity. Second, and more importantly, in all these covenants, “whatever stress on obligation, the initiative in establishing the basic covenant relationship lies with God. It is the gift of God’s grace.” The hearers of Hebrews may understand that not only is God willing to enter into the midst of suffering, but now, in Christ, God is accessible in a way previously unknown. Before the people were kept at a distance (Exodus 19:21), but now they have a living Savior whose covenant, existence, and kingdom surrounds them and cannot be shaken (Hebrews 12: 28). These words become a balm on the wounds of world weary Christians.
It is in and through Christ, the living God, that we also find ourselves drawn into community in new ways. But how do we go about living in this new covenant? Our Book of Order guides us: “Human beings have no higher goal in life than to glorify and enjoy God now and forever, living in covenant fellowship with God and participating in God’s mission”(F-1.01). Therefore, we are called to come together in worship. Not the temple worship of old, requiring a priest to enter the holy of holies on our behalf. Not sacrificial offerings. Rather, we come together as the body of Christ, united in the One who stands as both mediator and sacrifice in our stead. We are given direct access to God. When we worship, we worship in the presence of our living God as well as with “innumerable angels in festal gathering,” according to Hebrews. We are joined with the faithful of the past, present and promised future.
Yet even the faithful become forgetful. Therefore, we are called to remember our baptism – when our communities pledge to not only nurture and care for a child, but also for one another. Our Book of Order says: “Baptism thus connects us with God’s creative purpose, cleansing power, and redemptive promise from generation to generation. Like circumcision, a sign of God’s gracious covenant with Israel, baptism is a sign of God’s gracious covenant with the Church. In this new covenant of grace God washes us clean and makes us holy and whole” (W-3.0402).
We also remember in the Lord’s Supper, when the incarnate Christ took the bread and the wine, saying: “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many” (Mark 14:24). This is a sign of the new covenant in Christ, sealed in his blood, and we hear it as an invitation to be in covenant relationship with him. A covenant initiated by Christ and extended to all.
Only our God would think of something so beautiful as a rainbow to remind us of the holy covenant with creation. Only our God would think of something so precious as the blood of the Son to seal the new covenant with God’s people. We, like the hearers of Hebrews, are called to look, listen, remember and live with this covenant always before us.
Nadine Ellsworth-Moran is an ordained Presbyterian pastor serving in Charlotte, North Carolina, and is also on staff at Union Presbyterian Seminary.
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We are grateful to have Nadine Ellsworth-Moran as our guest columnist for Horizons lessons 2 and 3. Rosalind Banbury will be back in our next issue with insights on lesson 4.