he Epistle text for this Sunday helps us continue our journey into the Epistle to the Hebrews. Last week I made the point that Noah’s ark was an important one—it was the fourth or middle one of a list of seven people or groups who walked by faith (verses 1-16; we, Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Abraham—with a different aspect, and Sarah).
Perhaps you knew that there were other arks in the bible. Arguably the most famous one, even more famous than Noah’s ark, is the so-called ‘ark of the covenant’. You might want to think of it as the footstool for God. If God is sitting on his throne, depending on the size of the throne, he might want to have his feet on something so that they are not just hanging down off his fancy chair. A footstool is really just a fancy box.
An ark is a very special box. In Hebrews 11:22, there is a reference to Joseph giving instructions concerning his bones, and the text at the end of Genesis (50:26) says that he was put into a ‘coffin’, but the word is ‘ark’ and is the exact same one in Hebrew as with the ark of the covenant. And so, in Hebrews 11:23, immediately following the words regarding Joseph, there is a note regarding Moses when he was a baby. And the same word in Hebrew for Noah’s ark is also used for the ‘basket’ that Moses was in when his mother put him into the Nile River (See Exodus 2:3 and the footnote in The Lutheran Study Bible, page 98).
I do not think that all these oblique references to an ark are a coincidence. The epistle to the Hebrews previously talked about the very famous ark of the covenant, but then the writer abruptly stops focusing on it (Hebrews 9:1-10). There are more important things to talk about—Jesus being one of them.
I hope I do not lose many of you, but I think it is a significant thing when, in verse 28, the text says that ‘By faith he [Moses] kept the Passover....' The verb ‘kept’ is an important one, even though it is hard to tell with this translation. A better translation of the verb would have been ‘has kept’. The verb is in the perfect tense, and it usually means some sort of ramifications for the present. (For those who are interested in more detail, see the book by Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, page 582.)
Most of the verbs in this chapter are in the past, but this one has ramifications for the present. And Jesus certainly changed the extremely ancient and important festival of the Passover into something so incredibly significant for today with his death and resurrection—not to mention his institution of the Lord’s Supper.
Perhaps I am making too much of this, but Moses with his Passover is the fourth person mentioned from the end to have done something by faith. As the fourth person of this distinguished line of people who lived by faith was Noah, the fourth from the end was the one who HAS kept the Passover—and has made that festival important for today. (The last three are the ‘they who went through the Red Sea’, those who were involved in the fall of the walls of Jericho, and Rahab—verses 29-31.)
This entire group of people, in chapter 12:1, is called a ‘cloud of witnesses’; this is not to be confused with a ‘crowd of witnesses’. The ‘cloud’ is a reference to the glory that stayed with the ark of the covenant. (If you want to see a significant contrast, please read Exodus 40:34-38, the last few verses of Exodus, and compare that with Exodus 24:15-18, a section approximately in the middle of the book.) The cloud stayed with the people, and through the scriptures, that cloud described in Hebrews 11 stays with us.
I can understand why the Jews wanted to emphasize not only the ark but also the temple. Both of those things were eventually lost, more specifically, were removed from the sight of the Jews. That was okay. It is also okay that God does not choose to be so obvious. That tends to scare people away.
God has chosen to use his words. And that tends to draw us closer.
Usually, I look at the gospel text for the week. For the last few Sundays, I have looked at the Old Testament text. This might surprise you that for the next three Sundays, I will be looking at the epistle texts. During this particular time of the three-year series, the epistle looks at the last part of the Epistle to the Hebrews.
I think the Epistle to the Hebrews is a fascinating work. It is like a gospel account in that it focuses on Jesus. It is also like an epistle—and obviously so, because of its title. It is also like the Old Testament, and that should also be obvious. If you increase your understanding of the Epistle to the Hebrews, you essentially increase your understanding of the entire scriptures.
Since this epistle does not have a regular epistle-like format, there is the chance for the literary style of the text to come through much more clearly. The introduction (1:1-4) has a structure which is reflected in the rest of the work. There is first the mention of a ‘Son’, and then there is the mention of him making ‘purification for sins’. As in the layout of the tabernacle or temple, there was, near the entrance, the place for making a sacrifice, and then, farther along, where that special blood of the sacrifice was sprinkled—the ‘holy of holies’ or the ‘most holy place’, and this is also the progression of the writer. The epistle has that special structure in a literary way, a way that shows how important it was that God and man came together in Jesus—and also how important it was to have Jesus’ death on the cross (and the curtain of the temple torn in two, from top to bottom).
What was, for a time, so special in this very special place of the tabernacle or temple was the so-called ‘ark of the covenant’. It also has other names, but I would like to focus on the title of ‘ark’. After all, it seems that the writer wants to focus on various arks in Hebrews 11.
This chapter is called ‘the faith chapter’, and that is an appropriate title. It seems like at the start of every paragraph (although that structure of paragraphs is not in the original text), the text says, ‘By faith…’ and then it gives an example of someone who lived by faith. Near the end of the text for this Sunday (verse 16), there are some summary points. But I thought it was interesting that the following people are mentioned along the way:
Verse 3: By faith we…. Verse 4: By faith Abel…. Verse 5: By faith Enoch….
Verse 7: By faith Noah….
Verse 8: By faith Abraham…. Verse 9: By faith he (Abraham)…. Verse 11: By faith Sarah….
In this case, the ark is at the center (of seven different kinds of faith, no less). We will see next week where an ark comes up again.
For the last two weeks, the Old Testament text has been from Genesis, and the two texts were nearly one right after the other. In another week, the text will AGAIN be from Genesis. But this present week is special. This is the week when the Old Testament text is from the book of Ecclesiastes. Now how different is that?
It is actually not so different.
Here is a text from the beginning of the book of Genesis, the second creation account, the one which focuses on the creation of man and woman:
When NO bush of the field was yet in the land and NO small plant of the field had yet sprung up—for the LORD God had NOT caused it to rain on the land, and there was NO man to work the ground, and a mist was going up from the land and was watering the whole face of the ground--then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground the LORD God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food… (Genesis 2:5-9a).
I emphasized the negatives in the first half of the text because some of them are clearly in the text—and they do not appear in the second half of the text, after the turning point of the mist and the watering of the whole face of the ground. There are also implied negatives in this first half of the text. Adam works in a garden before the Fall into sin, but he works in a field after the Fall. And it also only rains after the Fall, during the Flood. The first part is certainly negative. And water is an important part of the turning point.
The first verses of Ecclesiastes have a similar structure. The text for this Sunday is from Ecclesiastes 1:2, then verses 12-14, and then 2:18-26. The following text is between the first two sections of the appointed reading (1:3-11):
What does man [adam] gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises. The wind blows to the south and goes around to the north; around and around goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns. All the streams run to the sea, but the sea is NOT full; to the place when the streams flow, there they flow again. All things are full of weariness; a man CANNOT utter it; the eye is NOT satisfied with seeing, NOR the ear filled with hearing. What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is NOTHING new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new’? It has been already in the ages before us. There is NO remembrance of former things [’first men’ or ‘men of old’], NOR will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after.
Hopefully the similarities are noticeable. The main difference is that the negatives in the Genesis account are at the beginning, where, in the second text, they are at the end. Perhaps the intention of this structural difference is to take us back to the beginning, to help us to remember our history. The content certainly supports that message. And it seems that some people today could very much benefit from that advice.
Another difference is that the structure around the turning point does not seem so neatly arranged. To help a little with this difficulty, I added a few words in brackets above. The first word in brackets is the Hebrew word for man, and this is obviously where Adam got his name. The second set of brackets has a couple possible translations of the phrase ‘former things’, both of which might make a person think of Adam.
In both cases though, the water is in the middle.
Water is obviously an important thing. Our bodies are approximately sixty percent water. Water is a majority of who we are.
It is not surprising, then, that Jesus chose to be around water for a significant period of his life. He also chose some fishermen to follow him. And he also talked about being ‘living water’. And after his followers were around him for a while, he also talked about people drinking his blood. And then, at his death, blood and water poured out of him.
How is that for being at the center of things?
By the way, if you would like to look at the vast majority of the introduction to the gospel account I used to summarize the life of Jesus above, but in basically the same format I have been using, here it is below (and I again added some brackets to be helpful):
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was NOT any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has NOT overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was NOT the light, but came to bear witness about the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did NOT know him. He came to his own, and his own people did NOT receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, NOT of blood NOR of the will of the flesh NOR of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh [approximately sixty percent water] and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John bore witness about him, and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.”’) And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ (John 1:1-17).