On the third day when it was morning, there was thunder and lightning and a heavy cloud on the mountain, and the sound of the shofar was very powerful, and the entire people that was in the camp shuddered. Moses brought the people forth from the camp toward God, and they stood at the bottom of the mountain. All of Mount Sinai was smoking because HASHEM had descended upon it in the fire; its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the entire mountain shuddered exceedingly. The sound of the shofar grew continually much stronger; Moses would speak and God would respond to him with a voice.
–Exodus 19:16-19 (Stone Edition Chumash)
Sermon One: Fire on the Mountain
from the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews sermon series
I’ve wanted to review D. Thomas Lancaster’s lecture series on Hebrews for a while now, and since I have just finished my reviews of the First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) television series A Promise of What is to Come, I thought Hebrews, a particularly troublesome epistle for me, would be a worthy project.
Two interesting things happened to encourage me to start this project. The first was the sermon at church Sunday before last. The guest speaker (Pastor is out of town for a few weeks) taught on Hebrews 1:1-3. I took copious notes and disagreed with about half of what the person was saying. I almost wrote a blog post about it, but decided that I didn’t need to blog about every single experience I have, and certainly not about every single sermon I have issues with.
The next interesting thing was going over last week’s Torah reading, which was Torah Portion Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23), a part of which I quoted from above because it factors in to Lancaster’s first lesson on Hebrews.
Lancaster begins his first sermon, “Fire on the Mountain” in the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews series by announcing that the traditional Torah readings of the Book of Genesis had just ended (as he made the recording) and the Torah reading cycle was entering the Book of Exodus. Lancaster then briefly summarized the first twenty chapters or so of Exodus for his congregation and I began to think I’d clicked on the wrong audio file in attempting to access the start of his Hebrews sermons.
But there’s a connection between Exodus and Hebrews.
For you have not come to a mountain that can be touched and to a blazing fire, and to darkness and gloom and whirlwind, and to the blast of a trumpet and the sound of words which sound was such that those who heard begged that no further word be spoken to them. For they could not bear the command, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it will be stoned.” And so terrible was the sight, that Moses said, “I am full of fear and trembling.” But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel.
–Hebrews 12:18-24 (NASB)
Lancaster takes his audience through a short and somewhat loose history of the introduction of the Epistle to the Hebrews and its canonization. The Eastern Church adopted the anonymously written letter almost immediately upon receiving it, but the Western (Roman) Church took its sweet time, not canonizing the epistle until the Fourth Century…three hundred years after it arrived on the scene.
The letter was so “Jewish,” so “Rabbinic” that a lot of people didn’t know what to make of it. It came with the title “To the Hebrews,” but what does that mean exactly? It could have been added later and may only reflect the opinion of some translator or interpreter as to the intended audience.
Lancaster then compared his experience with Hebrews to his experience with Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, since both Galatians and Hebrews are typically used by the Church as “proof texts” that the Law is dead and has been replaced by grace. In other words, those two letters are the biggest guns in the traditional Church arsenal used to shoot down Judaism and replace it with Christianity.
To illustrate this, Lancaster described some of his personal history, especially related to Galatians, starting with being a “Pastor’s kid” attending Sunday school classes taught by his oldest brother David. Lancaster thought he knew Galatians pretty well growing up, but about twenty years ago, when attending a congregation that he called back then “the Messianic Jewish heresy,” he was prompted to re-read Galatians and all of his beliefs about what Paul was saying in that letter suddenly weren’t quite so clear.
I won’t go through the entire story, which culminated with yet another sermon series of Lancaster’s that eventually became the book The Holy Epistle to the Galatians, but twenty years ago, so disturbed by how the “Messianic Jewish heresy” was describing the continuance of Torah rather than its abrupt death at the hands of Paul, Lancaster called his brother David to get some guidance. Guidance arrived but not in the form Lancaster was expecting. Lancaster quotes his brother as saying about the continuation of the authority of Torah:
Maybe it’s not what we always teach, but that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
But what’s all that got to do with the Book of Hebrews?
Lancaster set the stage for the further study of the epistle (or any Biblical document, really), but that’s not the emphasis of this thirty minute teaching. The emphasis in the first sermon was on the Kal Va-chomer argument or a comparison of two items from the “lighter” or somewhat less significant, to the “heavier” or more significant.
Jesus used this particular method on more than one occasion:
Or what man is there among you who, when his son asks for a loaf, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, he will not give him a snake, will he? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him! (emph. mine)
–Matthew 7:9-11 (NASB)
Lancaster gave a few other examples, both from the Gospel and Talmud of such an argument, including the Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge (Luke 18:1-8), which only implies the Kal Va-chomer argument (and seeing that the argument can be implicit rather than explicit is important because a reading of Hebrews 12:18-24 also indicates the Kal Va-chomer argument is somewhat implicit), but the point is that such an argument is not alien to Judaism in general and the teachings of the Master (and apostles) in particular.
Notice something important, though. Lancaster says that in the latter situation in the above example, the generosity of our (good and perfect) Father in heaven, when compared to the earlier situation, generosity of earthly (evil) fathers, the latter does not undo the former. That is, the fact that God is good, perfect, and generous does not invalidate, replace, or cancel the generosity or the status of our human fathers.
Another point to pay attention to is that the first situation, the generosity of imperfect but giving earthly fathers, must be true and have value in order for the second situation, the generosity of the good and perfect Father in Heaven, to be even more true.
Now let’s revisit Hebrews 12:18-24 which compares Mount Sinai and the Torah to Mount Zion and the Messiah. Paraphrasing, and these are my words trying to capture Lancaster’s message:
If you thought it was incredible, awesome, terrifying, and the greatest revelation of God to humanity when God appeared to the ancient Israelites and gave them the Torah at Sinai, how much more so will it be incredible, awesome, terrifying, and an even greater revelation of God to humanity when you confront Mount Zion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and His myriads of angels?
But the latter doesn’t invalidate the authority, truth, and value of the former, it is just bigger, badder, has more authority, is more true, and has more value.
If the latter invalidated the former, the Kal Va-chomer argument would fall apart and neither situation could be true.
One verse later, the anonymous writer of the letter to the Hebrews uses the same method again:
See to it that you do not refuse Him who is speaking. For if those did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape who turn away from Him who warns from heaven.
–Hebrews 12:25 (NASB)
If those who received the Torah at Sinai couldn’t escape the consequences of ignoring God, how much less will you escape the consequences of “Him who warns from heaven.”
Lancaster offered other examples of these arguments as presented by Jesus, but I think you get the point. Lancaster is saying that, like the traditional, majority Christian interpretation of Galatians, we have it all wrong about how we understand Hebrews. It took a rather pointed and shocking revelation from his brother David for Lancaster to decide to re-evaluate Galatians from a fresh perspective, setting aside Christian tradition, and interpreting the letter from its original, first century Jewish viewpoint.
Setting aside the traditional Christian interpretation and taking a fresh look at old epistles is one point that Mark Nanos makes about the Galatians letter in his book The Irony of Galatians: Paul’s Letter in First-Century Context. This is the point that Lancaster is making about how we should treat the book of Hebrews, too. It’s the focus of this lecture series, which I imagine will actually start at Chapter 1, verse 1 in the next recording. I’m looking forward to it.
What Did I Learn?
I learned to shift my perspective when looking at the book of Hebrews, at least Hebrews 12:18-25. As I mentioned above, Hebrews has been a big problem for me. I had been so exposed to the traditional Christian interpretation of this letter, that I couldn’t see any way around its anti-Jewish, anti-Judaism, anti-Torah message, which stood in such opposition to everything else I understand in the Bible. Now Lancaster has given me a basic tool with which to shift that understanding, a new lens with which to look at the text.
The website of Beth Immanuel Sabbath Fellowship, the congregation where Lancaster teaches, contains all of the audio recordings of the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews series (thirty-seven as I write this). Believe it or not, I only listed the highlights of Lancaster’s first sermon. You can listen to “Fire on the Mountain” and the other recordings of his Hebrews teachings on that page at your convenience.
I’ll review the second sermon, “A Word of Exhortation” next week.