The book of Hebrews depicts the heavenly realms in terms of the Levitical tabernacle, and posits them as the “place” where Christ offers himself before his God (Heb 9-10). In so doing, it raises a number of questions that have since taxed theologians: Had Jesus already offered himself to God on the cross before he entered into heaven in order to offer himself there? Or is the writer’s description of Jesus’s entrance into heaven simply a metaphorical view of what happened on the cross? Does the writer view Jesus as somehow present in heaven before God at the same time as he was present before the Roman soldiers? Such questions have led some scholars to question whether the book of Hebrews views Christ’s death as fully efficacious (since it still required further action to be taken) and others to dismiss the theology of Hebrews as inconsistent in its use of symbolism.
This new book by Robert Jamieson shows, on the basis of a careful consideration of Hebrews's inner logic, that neither claim is satisfactory. The book of Hebrews views Jesus’s death as decisive and significant in and of itself. Jesus tastes death “for everyone”, and his death is made effective – and the new covenant inaugurated – on the basis of Jesus’s exaltation and glorification (2:9-15, 9:15-17). The book then presents Jesus as a high priest who offers himself to God in the heavenly realms, and who does so in the aftermath of his ascension. What Jesus offers there, Jamieson claims, is the fact of his death. Chapters 9 and 10 do not, therefore, describe where and when Jesus died, but what Jesus offered to God by way of “sacrificial material” in the aftermath of his ascension. Hence, just as it would be wrong to view the death of an animal in the tabernacle as incomplete or insufficient aside from the work of a priest (it is precisely the substitution of the animal’s life for the worshipper’s that atones for sin – Lev 17:11), so it would be wrong to view the death of Christ as incomplete or insufficient. Similarly, just as it would be wrong to view the work of the Old Testament priest on the Day of Atonement as unnecessary (in the absence of it, the death of the goat would not be presented before God as a representative sacrifice), so it would be wrong to view Christ’s entrance into heaven as unnecessary.
Jamieson’s work is important because it shows how it is possible to explain Hebrews without compromising either the inherent completeness of Christ’s earthly life and death or the coherence of Hebrews’s theology. In the process, he shows how Hebrews, which is full of complex symbolism and theology, is grounded in concrete physical events. What is important for the writer to the Hebrews is not merely a story that depicts certain theological truths, but a historical sequence of events, namely Jesus’s death, resurrection and ascension.
Jamieson’s work also provides a firm foundation for further investigation into the issue of how Hebrews both views Christ’s death in light of the Levitical sacrifices and views the Levitical sacrifices in light of Christ’s death.
Jamieson's work highlights the importance of the physical realm and guards against an overly “dualistic” conception of body and soul. Jesus was assigned a body not only for the purposes of his life and his death on the cross, but for the purposes of his priestly ministry in heaven (10:5ff), which, of course, imbues Christ’s ascension with salvific significance. Indeed, Jesus assumed a body in order to present it to God in the heavenly realms as evidence of his incarnate obedience — the very obedience which enabled, led to and empowered his death. Jamieson's work implies that Christians should view their bodies as important not only for the purposes of their ministry here on earth, but also for the purposes of the afterlife, which has ramifications for what they choose to do with their bodies here and now.
James Bejon is a Junior Research Associate at Tyndale House