Friday, October 13, 2017

Review of Laansma, The Letter to the Hebrews


Laansma, Jon C. The Letter to the Hebrews: A Commentary for Preaching, Teaching, and Bible Study. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2017. Pp. xxii + 342.


This commentary was originally slated to be a part of Baker’s Teach the Text series, but that series was cancelled. Laansma states, “The intended reader of this commentary is a motivated, curious, experienced reader of the Scriptures . . . who wants a specialist to get straight to the bottom line with each passage” (xiii). References to primary and secondary sources are kept to a minimum. The commentary is geared towards busy pastors and teachers.

In the introduction, Laansma notes that the genre of Hebrews is best described as a sermon with an epistolary ending. He believes that chapter 13 is a genuine part of the book. The author is a rhetorically skilled communicator, but he does not follow a set rhetorical structure but shapes his argument in order to address pastoral concerns. Laansma briefly outlines the argument of Hebrews and presents an outline. The outline follows the fairly standard paragraph divisions. Laansma divides the commentary into 37 units for the purposes of exposition.

The author of Hebrews cannot be determined. He is likely a highly educated male. There are some good reasons to suspect that the audience was in Rome, but nothing definitive can be asserted. Laansma surmises that the audience was ethnically mixed. He seems inclined towards a date in the 60s, but again nothing definitive can be determined. The church addressed has been in existence for some time. It started out as a robust Christian community but persecution had begun to wear on them and some were beginning to flag in their faith. The author calls them to persevere in their faith.

Laansma next considers the reception and canonicity of Hebrews. Hebrews was more quickly accepted in the East than in the West. It did not receive broad acceptance until well into the fifth century. Laansma opines that “Hebrews declared its own authority and its place in the Christian canon, possessing the (finally) irrepressible voice of apostolicity” (p. 12). Ultimately, Hebrews has passed the test of time and must be read as “inspired, canonical divine speech” (p. 12).

Laansma gives an overview of the preacher’s strategy. It involves including the readers in the salvation story of Israel which finds its culmination in the Son. He then considers the author’s thought world. While Hebrews seems to share similarities with Philonism, these similarities are more confined to “parallels of expressions that substantially differ in meaning” (p. 17).

Laansma then examines the Christology of Hebrews. He focuses in particular on the names and titles (Son, Jesus, Christ, Lord, priest, mediator) and what they reveal about him, though he cautions that we should not understand these titles apart from whole portrait of Christ portrayed in the book. Hebrews also affirms both the full deity and humanity of Christ. Hebrews appropriates the Old Testament witness. It foreshadows the person of Christ, but not in a complete way. Laansma then makes some comments about the heavenly tabernacle in Hebrews. It is not entirely clear whether we should take Hebrews’ imagery literally or figuratively; these may be modern categories imposed upon an ancient text. Nor is Hebrews’ heavenly tabernacle imagery entirely consistent. What the imagery does accomplish is point to the person of Christ.

Laansma then discusses the vast soteriological terminology of Hebrews (i.e., purification, sanctification, atonement, perfection, forgiveness, redemption). He then analyzes Hebrews’ soteriology through the lens of John Barclay’s paradigm of “the gift”. Laansma also notes that “covenant” is one of the driving themes in the discourse of Hebrews.

Laansma also spends some time situating Hebrews within the larger witness of the apostolic writings. The Jewish people are “near” to God by virtue of God’s grace, while the Gentiles are “far” away and must be grafted into God’s elect people. Yet in another respect the Jew is just as far from God as the Gentile; both need forgiveness and cleansing. The history of Israel is also humanity’s history for it is through the Jewish people that God would enact his saving plan for humanity. Furthermore, the history of humanity is divided between the time before Christ and the time after; between Moses’ covenant and the new covenant of Christ.

Laansma then notes that the goal of salvation, according to Hebrews, is a place: the Most Holy Place in which resides God’s throne; it is God’s resting place; it is the heavenly Jerusalem. It is the place of the holy God to whom access is obtained only through the bodily sacrifice of his Son. Hebrews summons its readers to obedience by drawing near to this God through Christ.

In the commentary proper, each unit is divided into five parts: (1) context: situates the passage within the literary context of Hebrews. Some of the chapters contains outlines which help give a sense of the flow of thought in Hebrews; (2) background: deals with background material that will aid in the interpretation of the passage; (3) comments on wording: this section is essentially a verse-by-verse commentary on the phrases and clauses contained within each passage. However, it is not an exhaustive, detailed commentary. The commentary is more in the way of notes or brief comments; (4) comments on theological terms; and (5) teaching Hebrews: this section highlights certain themes that will aid in teaching the book. For example, for 1:1–4 the themes highlighted are: scripture, revelation, and canon; Christology; salvation; and preaching.  Occasional side-bars are found sprinkled throughout the text. The commentary contains one excursus on “the Sabbath celebration in God’s resting place.”  End matter includes a moderate-sized bibliography and a subject index.

As can be seen in the previous paragraph, this commentary is somewhat distinctive from other commentaries. First, let us be clear about what this commentary is not. It is not a highly technical commentary. It does not deal with text-critical issues; it does not delve into the grammatical or syntactical issues of the Greek text; it references comparative literature sparingly; and it does not often weigh interpretive option regarding contested passages. Rather, this commentary is pitched at a more popular level (which is not to imply that it is unscholarly). Its writing style is more accessible and occasionally the author uses homely illustrations and metaphors to get his point across. I would say that this commentary is directed more towards busy pastors and teachers who need to get at the heart of the message of Hebrews, without plodding through the lengthier, more technical treatments of some Hebrews commentaries. I will confess that I prefer commentaries that having a running exposition of the text, but some readers may prefer the more segmented approach of this commentary.

It will be impossible to note all of the exegetical decisions that Laansma makes throughout the commentary. I will simply note some things that stood out for me.

Hebrews 1:6 has been a highly contested passage. Scholars are divided as to whether the passage refers to Jesus’ incarnation (birth), exaltation (enthronement), or second coming. Laansma takes it as a reference to Jesus’ enthronement when he will receive worship. The majority of recent scholars take the passage to be a reference to Jesus’ exaltation and so Laansma falls within the majority at this point.

Laansma raises the question of whether we should adopt the exegetical methods of the apostolic writings. Many scholars find their exegetical methods strange. Laansma proposes that we neither replicate nor replace their exegetical methods, but to translate them “into our cultural setting for the sake of effective proclamation and mission” (p. 60). The challenge, of course, is how to do this effectively.

In the commentary on Heb 2:5–9, Laansma seems to take an anthropological reading of Psalm 8, rather than a Christological one—scholars are equally divided over which reading is best. However, Laansma does a good job of noting how the author reinterprets the psalm in light of Christ.

Hebrews 2:11 is another contested passage. The phrase “from one” has been variously interpreted as referring to God, Adam, or Abraham, or to a more generic term like family, race, seed, or source. Laansma believes that it refers to Abraham, although he gives allowance for the possibility that it refers to God.

On page 85, Laansma notes that Heb 2:5–18 provides a storyline of Jesus: (1) humiliation: when he becomes human and descends below the angels; (2) exaltation: when he is raised, crowned with glory and honor, and acts as heavenly high priest; and (3) final dominion: when he places all things under his feet and provides aid to his brothers and sisters.

In an excursus on “the Sabbath celebration in God’s resting place,” Laansma explains that the Sabbath and God’s resting place is a celebration, it is a summation of all of Israel’s festivals, it is an entrance into the full shalom of God, it is a time of casting out wickedness and blessing the poor, it is an enjoyment of the presence of God, it is the goal of the journey of faith.

Along with many other interpreters of Hebrews, Laansma notes that 4:14–16 and 10:19–25 are framing passages for the central unit which focuses on Jesus’ high priesthood and self-offering.

In his discussion of 6:4–6, Laansma notes that in the NT documents there is tension between preservation and perseverance. He believes that Hebrews contains both, but generally presents believers as pilgrims on a journey towards salvation. So, in this respect one cannot truly lose one’s salvation because one has not arrived.

When dealing with 7:1–10 Laansma argues that Hebrews does not view Melchizedek other than as a human figure. This goes against the grain of many interpreters who believe Melchizedek is portrayed as an angelic or heavenly figure. Rather, Laansma argues that Hebrews simply makes a textual argument. Hebrews is rather restrained in its depiction of Melchizedek compared to the wild speculation of other contemporary literature. There is no evidence in the text that Hebrews was influenced by Melchizedek speculation.

Hebrews 9 contains a number of exegetical difficulties. Regarding the placement of the altar of incense in the tabernacle (9:4), Laansma chooses not to resolve the difficulty since it has little impact on the interpretation of Hebrews (He does provide a helpful diagram illustrating the placement of the altar of incense according to Hebrews’ and the Old Testament’s scenarios).

Regarding the enigmatic statement in 9:8, Laansma takes this to mean “that as long as the first (the Mosaic) tabernacle was operative, the way into the (second, the genuine and heavenly) Most Holy Place had not been disclosed” (p. 197). Now the way into the heavenly sanctuary has been revealed thus displacing the earthly sanctuary.

Regarding the symbolic value of the offering of blood, Laansma ultimately does not settle on whether blood represents life or death since the biblical texts are ambiguous regarding the manner in which it brings atonement. Laansma concludes that “Hebrews’ interest is to advance that Christ’s blood . . . effects cleansing and forgiveness rather than to explore how it does” (p. 198).

Another highly contested passage is 9:14. The phrase “through eternal Spirit” has variously been interpreted as a reference to the Holy Spirit or to Christ’s own spirit. Laansma takes it as a reference to the Holy Spirit while only briefly acknowledging the difficulty of the passage.

Laansma makes an interesting argument when discussing 9:15–22. Hebrews does not have one Old Testament ritual in view when discussing Christ’s sacrificial death. The author moves fluidly from Day of Atonement imagery to the inauguration of the covenant imagery. Laansma contends that in Hebrews all of the OT rituals are summed up in the one ministry of the Son. Hence, Hebrews frequently conflates OT ritual imagery throughout his argument. I think this is an important point that he makes and should be kept in mind when struggling to interpret the cultic imagery in the central portion of the book.

With many interpreters, Laansma believes that the author employs a word play for diatheke in 9:16–17. Diatheke can mean both “covenant” and “last will and testament.” The author exploits the ambiguity of the word in his argument. Just as the author shifts between Day of Atonement and covenant inauguration imagery seamlessly, so he shifts between the two meanings of diatheke.

Hebrews 9:23 is a notoriously difficult passage. Why does the author claim that “heavenly things” need to be cleansed? Laansma interestingly interprets the cleansing of the heavenly things as the new covenant people who have received their heavenly calling. It is the new covenant people who are cleansed. This is an intriguing suggestion that I don’t recall encountering before.

The quotation of Ps 40:6–8 (39:7–9 LXX) in Heb 10:5–7 involves a perplexing textual problem. The Hebrew literally reads, “my ears you have dug.” However, Hebrews quotes the LXX translation which reads, “a body you have prepared for me.” Laansma contends that the author used Ps 40 based on deeper theological reflection on the context of the psalm and not merely due to the fortuitous wording of the LXX.

Hebrews 10:20 is another difficult verse. Scholars have alternatively identified “flesh” with the “veil” or with “way.” Another question deals with how the preposition dia functions in the sentence (i.e., locally or instrumentally). Laansma briefly notes the difficulty of the verse but does not probe into the interpretive option. He simply opts for the view that Jesus’ “flesh” is the means of entrance into the heavenly realm.

Regarding the warning passage in Heb 10:26–31, Laansma remarks that “10:26–31 asserts the objective fact that rejecting this sacrifice is to leave one with no sacrifice, since there is no other; it does not explicitly repeat the threat of the impossibility of repentance (6:4–6)” (p. 253).

Hebrews 12:2 also has been variously interpreted. Laansma simply mentions in passing that “the joy set before him was the joy of sharing his salvation with his brothers and sisters (2:5–18)” (p. 300). From my research, this appears to be a minority view. More commentators take the joy to be the heavenly reward that awaited Jesus after enduring the crucifixion. This seems to me to be the more probable meaning of the verse, although Laansma's view is certainly possible.

As I noted above, this is not a highly technical commentary. Readers looking for intricate discussions on the Greek text or the weighing of interpretive options will need to go elsewhere. Only on a few occasions does Laansma acknowledge the difficulty of certain passages, but often he gives no hint that some passages have been highly contested among scholars. Clearly Laansma has other purposes in mind for this commentary. I think he has tried to offer a more accessible commentary by gliding over some of the more contested passages. This commentary is quite distinctive, not only in its format, as I have noted above, but also in much of its discussions. His discussions are not the usual fare that one finds in many of the more technical commentaries. I think readers will find that the unique manner in which he discusses the text will help them discover some fresh angles from which to view Hebrews.

Thanks to Jon Laansma for an electronic copy of this book and to James Stock of Wipf & Stock for a complimentary hard copy of the book.

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