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by John Calvin
THE EPISTLE TO THE HEBREWS
ON THE EPISTLE TO THE HEBREWS
Not only various opinions were formerly entertained as to the author of this Epistle, but it was only at a late period that it was received by the Latin Churches. They suspected that it favored Novatus in denying pardon to the fallen; (6) but that this was a groundless opinion will be shown by various passages. I, indeed, without hesitation, class it among apostolical writings; nor do I doubt but that it has been through the craft of Satan that any have been led to dispute its authority. There is, indeed, no book in the Holy Scriptures which speaks so clearly of the priesthood of Christ, so highly exalts the virtue and dignity of that only true sacrifice which he offered by his death, so abundantly treats of the use of ceremonies as well as of their abrogation, and, in a word, so fully explains that Christ is the end of the Law. Let us not therefore suffer the Church of God nor ourselves to be deprived of so great a benefit, but firmly defend the possession of it.
Moreover, as to its author, we need not be very solicitous. Some think the author to have been Paul, others Luke, others Barnabas, and others Clement, as Jerome relates; yet Eusebius, in his sixth book of his Church History, mentions only Luke and Clement. I well know that in the time of Chrysostom it was everywhere classed by the Greeks among the Pauline Epistles; but the Latins thought otherwise, even those who were nearest to the times of the Apostles.
I indeed, can adduce no reason to show that Paul was its author; for they who say that he designedly suppressed his name because it was hateful to the Jews, bring nothing to the purpose; for why, then, did he mention the name of Timothy as by this he betrayed himself. But the manner it of teaching, and the style, sufficiently show that Paul was not the author; and the writer himself confesses in the second chapter that he was one of the disciples of the Apostles, which is wholly different from the way in which Paul spoke of himself. Besides, what is said of the practice of catechizing in the sixth chapter, does not well suit the time or age of Paul. There are other things which we shall notice in their proper places.
What excuse is usually made as to the style I well know that is, that no opinion can be hence formed, because the Greek is a translation made from the Hebrew by Luke or someone else. But this conjecture can be easily refuted: to pass by other places quoted from Scripture, on the supposition that the Epistle was written in Hebrew, there would have been no allusion to the word Testament, on which the writer so much dwells; what he says of a Testament, in the ninth chapter, could not have been drawn from any other fountain than from the Greek word; for διαθήκη has two meanings in Greek, while |berit| in Hebrew means only a covenant. This reason alone is enough to convince men of sound judgment that the epistle was written in the Greek languages. Now, what is objected on the other hand, that it is more probable that the Apostle wrote to the Jews in their own language, has no weight in it; for how few then understood their ancient language? Each had learned the language of the country where he dwelt. Besides, the Greek was then more widely known than all other languages. We shall proceed now to the Argument.
The object at the beginning is not to show to the Jews that Jesus, the son of Mary, was the Christ, the Redeemer promised to them, for he wrote to those who had already made a profession of Christ; that point, then, is taken as granted. But the design of the writer was to prove what the office of Christ is. And it hence appears evident, that by his coming an end was put to ceremonies. It is necessary to draw this distinction; for as it would have been a superfluous labor for the Apostle to prove to those who were already convinced that he was the Christ who had appeared, so it was necessary for him to show what he was, for they did not as yet clearly understand the end, the effect, and the advantages of his coming; but being taken up with a false view of the Law, they laid hold on the shadow instead of the substance. Our business with the Papists is similar in the present day; for they confess with us that Christ is the Son of God, the redeemer who had been promised to the world: but when we come to the reality, we find that they rob him of more than onehalf of his power.
Now, the beginning is respecting the dignity of Christ; for it seemed strange to the Jews that the Gospel should be preferred to the Law. And first indeed he settles that point which was in dispute, that the doctrine brought by Christ had the preeminence, for it was the fulfillment of all the prophecies. But as the reverence in which they held Moses might have been a hindrance to them, he shows that Christ was far superior to all others. And after having briefly referred to those things in which he excelled others, he mentions by name the angels, that with them he might reduce all to their proper rank. Thus he advanced prudently in his course; for if he had begun with Moses, his comparison would have been more disliked. But when it appears from Scripture that celestial powers are subordinated to Christ, there is no reason why Moses or any mortal being should refuse to be classed with them, so that the Son of God may appear eminent above angels as well as men.
After having thus brought the angels under the power and dominion of Christ, the Apostle having, as it were, gained confidence, declares that Moses was so much inferior to him as a servant is to his master.
By thus setting Christ in the three first chapters in a supreme state of power, he intimates, that when he speaks all ought to be silent, and that nothing should prevent us from seriously attending to his doctrine. At the same time he sets him forth in the second chapter as our brother in our flesh; and thus he allures us to devote ourselves more willingly to him; and he also blends exhortations and threatening in order to lead those to obedience who are tardy or perversely resist; and he continues in this strain nearly to the end of the fourth chapter.
At the end of the fourth chapter he begins to explain the priesthood of Christ, which abolishes all the ceremonies of the Law. But after having briefly showed how welcome that priesthood ought to be to us, and how gladly we ought to acquiesce in it, he shortly turns aside to reprove the Jews, because they stopped at the first elements of religion like children; and he also terrifies them with a grievous and severe denunciation, that there was danger lest they, if slothful to make progress, should at length be rejected by the Lord. But he presently softens this asperity by saying, that he hoped better things of them, in order that he might encourage them, whom he had depressed, to make progress.
Then [in the seventh chapter] he returns to the priesthood; and first shows that it differed from the ancient priesthood under the Law; secondly, that it was more excellent, because it succeeded it, and was sanctioned by an oath, — because it is eternal, and remains for ever efficacious, — because he who performs its duties is superior in honor and dignity to Aaron and all the rest of the Levitical tribe; and he shows that the type which shadowed forth all things was found in the person of Melchisedec.
And in order to prove more fully that the ceremonies of the Law were abrogated he mentions that the ceremonies were appointed, and also the tabernacle, for a particular end, even that they might get forth the heavenly prototype. Hence it follows, that they were not to be rested in unless we wish to stop in the middle of our course, having no regard to the goal. On this subject he quotes a passage from Jeremiah, in which a new covenant is promised, which was nothing else than an improvement on the old. It hence follows, that the old was weak and fading.
Having spoken of the likeness and similitude between the shadows and the reality exhibited in Christ, he then concludes that all the rituals appointed by Moses have been abrogated by the one only true sacrifice of Christ, because the efficacy of this sacrifice is perpetual, and that not only the sanction of the New Testament is made by it complete, but that it is also a true and a spiritual accomplishment of that external priesthood which was in force under the Law.
To this doctrine he again connects exhortation like a goad, that putting aside all impediments they might receive Christ with due reverence.
As to the many examples he mentions in the eleventh chapter concerning the fathers, they seem to me to have been brought forward for this purpose, — that the Jews might understand, that if they were led from Moses to Christ, they would be so far from departing from the fathers, that they would thus be especially connected with them. For if the chief thing in them was faith, and the root of all other virtues, it follows that this is especially that by which they should be counted the children of Abraham and the Prophets; and that on the other hand all are bastards who follow not the faith of the fathers. And this is no small commendation of the Gospel, that by it we have union and fellowship with the universal Church, which has been from the beginning of the world.
The two last chapters contain various precepts as to the way in which we ought to live: they speak of hope, of bearing the cross, of perseverance, of gratitude towards God, of obedience, of mercy, of the duties of love, of chastity, and of such like things. And lastly, he concludes with prayer, and at the same time gives them a hope of his coming to see them.
(6) Novatus was a priest in Carthage about the middle of the third century, and came to Rome as an advocate on Novation, who was the leader in this opinion. What gave the first occasion to this sentiment was the case of some who fell away from the faith during the Decian persecution. Novatian resisted their restoration, and afterwards extended the same denied repentance to all such, and regarded them as forever unfit to be received into the Church. He opposed the election of Cornelius to the see of Rome, who differed from his jurisdiction, and formed a sect of his own. He was consequently excommunicated, together with his party, (of which Novatus seems to have been one,) by a council assembled by Cornelius in the year 251. He was then made a bishop by his own party, and was followed by many; and his sect continued to flourish till the fifth century. But Novation, a Roman priest, rather than Novatus, a priest from Carthage, was its founder. — See Mosheim’s Eccl. Hist., volume. 1 page 249. — Ed.
the Week of Proper 21 / Ordinary 26