Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Hebrews 11:29-12:2

This passage appears in the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C (most recently August 2016)

Summary:  The writer of Hebrews focuses on the reality of trials and tribulations of a faithful life here on earth.  The Christian life is not one of avoiding suffering, but embracing it as Christ embraced his own suffering.  We follow Christ who suffered before entering glory.  Along the way we have our faithful brothers and sisters to inspire us.

Key words:
πιστει (pistei, dative of πιστος , meaning "faith", throughout chapter 11).  I discuss this word and its use in my last week's post for Hebrews 11.

μαρτυρων (genitive form of μαρτυς, martys, meaning "testimony"; 12:1)  As I've written about 100 times before the word μαρτυς simply meant witness in a legal sense.  However, so many Christians died giving their witness, that the meaning of the word changed.  Here in Hebrews 12 we already see the shift in the meaning of this word, in that suffering is clearly connected with witnessing.  While we may not have modern martyrs in the same sense of direct persecution for faith, most of us have received a powerful witness from someone whose faith endured suffering and obstacles.

αγωνα (agona, meaning "race" or "struggle"; 12:1) The word is essentially agony!  We are invited into agony for Christ.  This word appears in another verse in relationship to witness:
1 Timothy 6:12 Fight the good fight (αγωνα) of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.
Translating it as race makes sense given the verb "run" used in 12:1.  However, this may seem like a competition against others.  The focus here is on the struggle against sin.

This word can also mean "heat" like run a "heat." Or life on earth is like a heat!

αρχηγον (archegon, meaning "pioneer"; 12:2)  The word comes from two basic Greek words:  αρχη meaning first or primary; ηγον a derivative of αγω meaning lead.  Jesus is the first leader!  Moving beyond word games, this word appears twice in the letter to the Hebrews.  In 12:2 but also 2:10
Hebrews 2:10 It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer (αρχηγον) of their salvation perfect through sufferings.

Hebrews 12:2 looking to Jesus the pioneer (αρχηγον) and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

Both verses speak of Christ attaining perfection and pioneering our faith.  But both also clearly go via the way of the cross.  Christ leads the way, but it is always through Calvary.

Some fancy word play:
The writer of Hebrews plays on some words here in a way impossible to detect in English.
περικειμενον  vs ευπεριστατον:  In 12:1 the writer says that we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses; sin is clinging to us.  Both words have a similar root: περι (peri, around).  The cloud of witnesses is abiding around us; sin is also standing around us.  The word describing sin is quite interesting:  ευπεριστατον which breaks down into ευ-περι-στατον:  Pleased-around-standing.  Sin is happy to stand around us!

Sermon connection:  How we can be reminded of the cloud of witnesses, that they may be ever before us as much as sin is?

περικειμονον vs προκειμενον.  Both words have at their root:  κειμον from κειμαι meaning "lie around."  περι (peri) means around vs προ  (pro) means before.  The cloud of witnesses surrounds us for what lay head of us.  And what does lay ahead of us?  Agony here but glory later.

Sermon connection:  What challenges do you have before you?

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Hebrews 11:1-3;8-16

This reading occurs in the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C.  The Roman Catholic church includes slightly different verses, including either  Hebrews 11:1-2, 8-19 or Hebrews 11:1-2, 8-12.

Summary:  The writer of Hebrews uses an advanced style of Greek that makes reading it more difficult.  I have included a number more technical notes than usual if you want to dig in.  The big picture is this:  Faith is a mighty, hard and costly matter.  A good preacher should be able to extol the power of faith.  A better preacher should help the people see that their faith is not their own, but a gift from God, that comes to us by the Spirit and the Word.  A great preacher, dare I say it, preaches in such a way that people hear the Word and by the Spirit have this faith.  As Jesus says in the related Gospel passage:  Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. (12:32)."

Key words and grammar insights:
υποστασις (hypostasis, meaning "confidence"; 11:1)  Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is the word from all of the Trinitarian debates:  One ousia and three hypostases!  First, let's break down this word:  It comes from υπο- meaning "under" and -στασις meaning "a standing."  The hypostasis is the thing that settles to the ground; the foundation.  This becomes understood metaphorically then as the base of confidence.  The thing upon which you can stand, not just literally, but emotionally.

This is an interesting way of looking at the Trinity -- we have one substance (God) but we have means of confidence, three bedrocks of our life: the creation, the cross and the community of faith.  Okay, I got a little cute there...

ελεγχος (elegchos, meaning "testing; 11:1).  Liddell-Scott defines this word as "a cross-examining, testing, for purposes of disproof or refutation."  Three facts that seem useless:
- It is only used once in the New Testament;
- Old Testament it is found almost exclusively in translations of wisdom literature;
- It has a different meaning if it is declined as a neuter instead of masculine noun. 
What is important here:  It is really hard to figure out what this word actually means because you cannot get many similar uses as the one here.  The other meaning of the word is "rebuke" which makes no sense in this context.  If anything, faith is the rebuke of things seen!

ελπιζομενων (participle form of ελπιζω, meaning "hope"; 11:1)  How to translate this participle?  First, it does not have any article, which would seem to rule out a substantive or an adjective participle.  Second, it is in the genitive case and there are no other nearby words in this case, making it difficult to translates as a circumstantial participle.  The word that helps us know how to translate this participle is πραγματων.  This word is also a genitive neuter plural word meaning "things."  There is a parallel structure in the sentence now genitive plural object - nominative singular subject.  I would argue to translate ελπιζομενων as a genitive substantive participle

ελπιζομενων υποστασις assurance of things hoped for
πραγματων ελεγχος:  proof of things (unseen)
You could argue that ελπιζομενων modifies πραγματων; in this case the above translation (and how everyone translates it) does not change.

βλεπομεν (participle form of βλεπω, meaning "to see"; 11:1;3) This word appears in both verse 1 and 3 in different participle forms.  The point is that faith and sight are often not connected.  The other point is that God can bring about things that we cannot yet see.  Who would have predicted that Africa would be the heart of Christianity over a century ago?  Who would believe in life after death when sitting with someone as they die in suffering?  Who would believe in forgiveness when they have seen the pain that people cause?

εμαρτυρηθσαν (from μαρτυρεω, martyreo, meaning "testify"; 11:2)  As I written about before, Christians changed the meaning of this word.  Because so many Christians were killed for their witness, the word martyr came to mean to die for one's witness!  The sentence literally reads "the elders were martyred in this faith."  In this case, the word means "be well spoken of", like a "we can say about them now" kind of thing.  But the most literal translation should shake us up.  Faith has a cost!

πρεσβυτεροι (presbyter(oi) meaning "elder"; 11:2)  This word can mean ancestors but also simply elders.  In the early church this became a position of leadership and is still used today in various churches to designate leadership.!

πιστει (dative form of πιστις, meaning "faith"; 11:3 and then throughout the passage).  The writer of Hebrews will begin using the word πιστει repeatedly.  It is the word for faith in the dative case.  The dative case can have many meanings, most likely in this case the "instrumental" idea.  (By means of faith...)  In English, we almost always have to have words with prepositions to show how they fit together.  Greek can simply "decline" them in cases so show their meanings.

κατηρτισθαι  (form of καταρτιζω, meaning "restore", 11:3)  This is fascinating. Typically translators understand 11:3 to refer to creation -- the old creation.  This would make sense in that the writer of Hebrews is going to begin a retelling of the Old Testament.  But the writer intentionally chooses restore (as in Galatians 6:1:  If someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently).  I wonder if the writer of Hebrews here is connecting the old and new creation:  God is restoring the new creation -- at his word -- having made the seen from the unseen.  My sense is that belief in God's work in making the new creation takes more faith than belief in God's work in making the old creation!  I don't think translating this in terms of the old testament creation is wrong (in fact the verb tenses later in the verse suggest this as well as, again, the whole framework of the passage).  I just think there might be a small note of the new creation joining the chorus here.

Little bonus:  In verse 10 you find a curious word for builder:  δημιουργος or demiurge of gnostic faith!