24 Jan 2022

Jesus’s Sacrifice of Prayer in Hebrews

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Exegesis, Hebrews, Jesus, Jewish Backgrounds, Prayer, Worship
In the days, while in his flesh, he SACRIFICED prayers and supplications,
with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death,
and he was heard for his godly fear.

I call to you, Lord, come quickly to me;
    hear me when I call to you.
May my prayer be set before you like incense;
    may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.

(Psalm 141.1-2).

The “epistle” to the Hebrews is a homily. Hebrews is also a very complex homily (and easily misunderstood). I am partial to Gabriella Gelardini has attempted to return to the first century and ask what kind of social context the text fits.  The answer is the Jewish liturgical calendar that frames so much of the NT writings.  She has argued that Hebrews is an example of an ancient synagogue homily composed specifically for Tisha B’Av, a day of fasting that “commemorates and mourns over the sins of Israel and the covenant curse that followed them.” Even if we cannot be dogmatic that Hebrews was “specifically” for that occasion, such an occasion sheds great light on what is in the sermon (see Gabriella Gelardini, “Hebrews, An Ancient Synagogue Homily for Tisha be-Av: Its Function, Its Basis, Its Theological Interpretation,” in G. Gelardini, ed., Hebrews: Contemporary Methods – New Insights, pp. 107-27).

There are many overlapping worlds in Hebrews that are simply alien to Protestant North American readers steeped in centuries of anti-Judaism and often outright anti-Semiticism. There is not only the strange world of the act of sacrifice, but the even more alien worldview that sacrificing operates within. In the last generation there has been a veritable revolution in Hebrews scholarship because of studies in other areas: Temple studies; Jewish lectionaries and liturgy; the role of the Psalms in Second Temple Judaism; Second Temple literature like the Apocrypha and Dead Sea Scrolls; and many more.

The role of “cultic” language in Hebrews had often been ignored by Protestant scholars. Here the word “cult” does not mean something associated with Jim Jones but the world of worship associated with Temple/Tabernacle, the “rituals” of worship.

Sacrifice in particular is prominent in Hebrews. But sacrifice is not always, even primarily, the killing of an animal. There are many forms of sacrifice that do not include killing. A prominent example would be grain or cereal sacrifices which are completely animal free. But sacrifice is a “cultic” act of worship. The Sermon of Hebrews associates this with the prayers of Jesus though almost all older commentaries never mention it and our English translations have been so conditioned by tradition and our unfamiliarity with that world we miss it. One of my favorite texts in the Bible however speaks to all of these matters above. Hebrews 5.7.

In the days, while in his flesh, he SACRIFICED prayers and supplications,
with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death,
and he was heard for his godly fear.

The term usually translated as “offered” is a “cultic” term associated with the offering sacrifice throughout Leviticus and associated texts in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint. In other contexts, it is rendered clearly as “sacrifice/d“.

In Evangelical/Protestant traditions it is too Roman Catholic to refer to a prayer as a “sacrifice” but that is exactly what Hebrews does. The other ancient Jesus, Ben Sira, said,

The prayer of the humble pierces the clouds [of incense to the throne of God]
and it will not rest until it reaches its goal
” (Sirach 35.21).

Here we have a brilliant window opened up on the “spirituality” of Jesus of Nazareth. We see Jesus as one of the people (he is a Jew) who worships the God of Israel.

Though it is common to associate these words with Gethsemane, and that can only be one illustration of the words as F. F. Bruce noted. Rather the Hebrews Preacher is echoing the words of Psalm 22 which the Sermonator has already quoted in Hebrews 2.12. The Psalm begins by speaking,

I cry to you by day,
but you do not answer,
and by night ..
. (22.2).

This deep Jewish tradition of the righteous crying to God while under duress is found in a number of Jewish sources particularly the Maccabees (to whom the Sermonator says the world was unworthy of in 11.35-38).

“[A]ll the people with lamentations and tears, prayed to the Lord …” (2 Macc 11.6);

the priests … filled the temple with cries and tears” (3 Macc 1.16);

the Jews at their last gasp … stretched their hands toward heaven and with most tearful supplication and mournful dirges implored the Supreme God to save them” (3 Macc 5.25).

The Sermonator wants to locate Jesus within this Jewish tradition. Jesus is with the people who have also cried for deliverance. He (as High Priest) represents them.

And as a priest he, Jesus, “sacrificed” prayers to God just as the Levitical priests do in the temple. Not only in Gethsemane but his whole life. And he was “heard.” His sacrifice was accepted. It “pierced the clouds” as the other Jesus proclaimed.

Jesus died on the cross. He seemingly, at that moment, was not heard. The Empire proclaimed victory. Perhaps this is why Psalm 22 is the sacrifice Jesus offered while on the cross itself. Jesus also “sacrificed” Psalm 31 but Hebrews does not quote that text.  But Jesus died in faith. The resurrection was God’s answer to the sacrifice of prayer by Jesus.

All of life can be a sacrifice to God. This notion did not begin with Jesus. It is quite “Old Testament.” It is extremely Jewish. Prayer itself is worship. It is a sacrifice we offer to God.

Let’s offer some sacrifices …

Of Related Interest:

Hebrews: Common Assumptions; Uncommon Surprises

2 Responses to “Jesus’s Sacrifice of Prayer in Hebrews”

  1. Michael Summers Says:

    Thank you, Bobby. Hebrews is one of my favorite books to preach and teach. Chapter 12 is one of the three foundation passages for my ministry and life. I appreciate especially your reference to the Maccabees passages

  2. Keith Claude Brown Says:

    Bobby, Thank you for helping me to pause and sacrifice in a more worshipful manner today. Grace and Peace, Keith

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