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The Mysterious Letter to the Hebrews

Gleaning seven insights for priests

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I recently had the opportunity to teach a seminar on the Letter to the Hebrews. Despite many years of teaching, I had never taught Hebrews, except for brief overviews in introductory courses. Yet all priests know that this letter is particularly important for our theology of the priesthood. Most ordination ceremonies employ the inspiring reading from Hebrews 5 on the nature of the “high priest” chosen from among his fellow human beings for service. I think the time is ripe to explore this mysterious document for two reasons: to gain insight into the priesthood today, and to offer possible avenues for preaching this challenging text.

Before expounding on the letter itself, some contextual background is necessary. The title of this New Testament book is itself problematic. Before the revision of the Lectionary, we used to announce readings from this document as from “the Letter of Paul to the Hebrews.” This is wrong on three counts. It is not a letter, it is not from Paul the Apostle, and we do not know who the “Hebrews” were! Moreover, dating the document and discerning its author, provenance and audience have proved elusive.

Without belaboring the scholarly discussion on such matters, let me summarize what most mainline Catholic scholars today would say. Rather than a letter, the textual indications point toward a “sermon” or “homily,” which the text labels “a message of encouragement” (Heb 13:22).

Dating the letter is difficult, but there are hints that it could have been composed around A.D. 66-70, just before the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple by the Romans in A.D. 70. At some point in the transmission of this sermon, an epistolary style conclusion was added (cf. 13:22-25), which is similar to Paul’s letters. Moreover, ancient manuscripts sometimes placed this letter in with Paul’s undisputed ones, making the association more apparent. All that can be said about the audience is that they were likely Jewish Christians, faced with serious persecution that was leading some to the desperate step of apostasy — abandoning their faith. The anonymous author — of whom Origen (c. third century) famously said, “Only God knows” — preaches an extended sermon to explain a unique Christological message intended to bolster the faith and hope of this struggling community.

Seven Lessons

To begin, we should recall briefly that our contemporary theology of priesthood emphasizes that all baptized share in the one priesthood of Jesus Christ by virtue of their baptism (cf. 1 Pt 2:9-10; Rv 1:6). The Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church explains the relationship between the priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial priesthood in this way: “Though they differ from one another in essence and not only in degree, the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood are nonetheless interrelated: each of them in its own special way is a participation in the one priesthood of Christ” (Lumen Gentium, No. 10).

Our vocation as priests charged with the ministry of Word, sacrament and pastoral charity has its beginning in first being configured to Christ in baptism. Then we are configured more closely to share in his one, unique priestly ministry. And that is where Hebrews can help us. Allow me to propose seven lessons for priests that I think validly grow out of a careful reading of Hebrews.

1) Jesus Christ the Great and Eternal High Priest. The most important fact one gleans from Hebrews is that, in the New Testament, there is only one true priest, Jesus Christ, Son of God and Royal Priest, according to the order of Melchizedek. His priesthood replaced the Old Testament priesthood based on lineage from the tribe of Levi. Indeed, the New Testament does not use “priest language” to speak of its ministers; rather, they are elders or overseers (presbyteroi or episkopoi). This means that our own priesthood is a vicarious sharing in the one priesthood of Jesus Christ. By the laying on of hands and the gift of the Holy Spirit, we are given a share in Christ’s unique and mysterious priesthood. “Mysterious” because Melchizedek’s origins are shrouded in obscurity (cf. Heb 7:3; Gn 14:17-20). Our priesthood is not our own, but Christ’s. This is why, when officiating at the sacraments, we are actually acting in persona Christi.

2) Priesthood as a vocation. Another point we often emphasize today is that priesthood is not a career but a vocation. While Hebrews does not use vocational language, as such, it does assert that priests are chosen from among fellow beings for service. As Hebrews says, “Every high priest is taken from among men (Greek, anthrōpoi) and made their representative before God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins” (5:1). We do not choose to become priests; rather, we are called and must respond, as John’s Gospel also insists (cf. Jn 15:16). The current universal program of priestly formation emphasizes this very point by its title, “The Gift of a Vocation.”

3) Priesthood as “experts in humanity.” A third point from Hebrews may seem quite surprising. It admits that priests are chosen from among fellow human beings precisely because of their humanity: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin” (4:15). The sinless part speaks of Christ the high priest, but the human element speaks of all priests who participate in his priesthood. We are to empathize with people because we ourselves have weaknesses (cf. 5:2). I am reminded of a startling image from Pope St. John Paul II who once explained the need for heralds of the Gospel to be “experts in humanity,” simultaneously in tune with this world’s suffering and yet with eyes fixed on the true goal of spiritual wholeness. Despite its high Christology, Hebrews, nonetheless, emphasizes Christ’s humanity in the Incarnation, one like us in all things but sin (cf. 4:15). We priests know well our weaknesses and failings, even if we are ashamed to admit them.

4) Priesthood as a “bridge” reality. Priesthood is not unique to Judaism or Christianity but an almost universal phenomenon found in many religions. Why? Because human beings aspire to otherworldly, divine realities, and this requires some sort of “bridge” to mediate between heaven and earth. Hebrews teaches that the Levitical priesthood, although serving adequately for a time when Israel wandered in the desert to arrive at the Holy Land, could not permanently serve as an effective bridge between God and humanity. Only a perfect bridge — God’s only beloved Son, the great high priest — could accomplish that. Hebrews employs special terminology for Jesus Christ like the “pioneer” (archēgos, cf. 2:10; 12:2), and the “great shepherd of the sheep” (13:20), because he is the perfect mediator between God and humanity in the New Covenant. What people look for today in their priests are also bridge persons — someone who can authentically speak to them of God, truth and uplifting spiritual realities.

5) Priesthood as uniformly goal-oriented. Yet another teaching of Hebrews is the importance of priests remaining conscious that all human life is supposed to be goal-oriented. The letter uses a unique vocabulary of “perfection” (Greek, telos and teleioun) to emphasize that our lives should always be moving toward spiritual maturity. This is not perfectionism, which is a debilitating psychological weakness, but striving to grow more and more into a spiritually mature believer, one who is ready for solid food and not merely milk (cf. 5:12). This is similar to Jesus’ own teaching in the Gospels to make the kingdom of heaven the priority in life, over and above all other considerations (cf. Mt 6:33). We priests need constant reminding that this is the goal we serve. We are here to help lead others to the Kingdom, to assist them on their spiritual pilgrimage, and to recognize that we too are fellow pilgrims with them.

6) Priesthood as ministerial service. A sixth point derives from the emphasis in Hebrews of proposing Jesus Christ the High Priest as a model for the Church’s leaders. The letter alternates constantly between doctrinal exposition — such as the royal high priesthood of Jesus Christ — and exhortations to the readers (or hearers, if it was a sermon) to bolster their faith and to remain steadfast in it. Hebrews fluctuates between affirming the community of the faithful and severely reprimanding them. It’s a bit like the proverbial carrot-and-stick approach. The author can call his community “sluggish in hearing” (5:11) and then, all the while calling them to “encourage one another” (10:25), urges them to remain in “mutual love” (philadelphia, 13:1) and not to “neglect to do good and to share what you have” (13:16). Is this not what priests do in their parishes? Affirm, encourage and exhort, while maintaining the delicate balance between strict teaching and gentle correction? This is especially true in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

7) Communal cooperation. A final point might be termed in our day a kind of “synodal” sensitivity. In multiple passages, Hebrews regularly exhorts the readers to remain faithful and support one another. In fact, the theological virtues of faith, hope and love permeate the entire letter, with an emphasis on being conscious of the great “cloud of witnesses” (12:1) who have gone before us in faith. Chapter 11 in its entirety lists the ancestors of old who in one way or another remained faithful to the original covenant given by God. How much greater, then — in the logic of the author — is our life in the New Covenant under the unique priesthood of Jesus Christ! Hebrews offers a kind of vision of what we now call the Communion of Saints. We are not alone. We are but a part of a vast crowd of witnesses (Greek, martyroi) who have remained faithful on their journey to the Kingdom. As hinted at by the vocabulary, part of this witnessing is suffering, which Jesus did not hesitate to do even as High Priest. Hebrews emphasizes that he “learned obedience from what he suffered” (5:8), showing that suffering can have a positive vicarious effect when accepted voluntarily. Contemporary priesthood, too, has its sacrificial moments, whether physically, spiritually, mentally, relationally or otherwise. It is not an easy life, nor is it intended to be.

The teachings of this unique book of the New Testament are too numerous and profound to be explained in such a short article. It should be clear, however, that this letter should not be glossed over, especially when it comes up in the Lectionary cycle. Not only can it provide some rich fodder for spiritual reflections in our communities, but it can also enrich our own self-perceptions as priests, after the model of the Great and Eternal High Priest, Jesus Christ, whom we serve.

SULPICIAN FATHER RONALD WITHERUP is former superior general of the Society of Saint Sulpice and author of many books on biblical and theological themes.


The Letter to the Hebrews in the Lectionary

All priests know that preaching the Sunday Lectionary usually means addressing the first reading and the Gospel of the day because they are often thematically related. Alas, this often means neglecting the second reading, which only rarely is tied thematically to the others. Nonetheless, semi-continuous sequential readings can offer the preacher an opportunity to expound on the second reading occasionally. Hebrews offers one such occasion.

In Year B (Mark), excerpts from Hebrews are read sequentially from the 27th to the 33rd Sundays in Ordinary Time. Also, in Year A (odd-numbered years), almost the entire letter is read during the weekday Masses in the first four weeks in Ordinary Time. In addition, in every liturgical year, the Mass for Christmas Day and the service on Good Friday have readings from Hebrews. Other excerpts are scattered throughout Years B and C.

The unique message of Hebrews, and its complex argumentation, demand more careful preparation on the part of the homilist. The effort is worth it, however, for Hebrews offers a rich Christological message along with solid ethical exhortations for all believers.

— Father Ronald Witherup, PSS




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