“We have have much to say that is difficult to interpret since you have become sluggish in hearing” (Heb. 5:11).
At the cusp of Hebrews five and six is a warning that seems to come out of nowhere. Since the writer has been talking about Melchizedek and resumes this subject in chapter seven, the warning seems to erupt mid-thought. But this is not unusual in context; warnings in previous chapters show the writer’s rich teaching from the Old Testament is punctuated by exhortation (Heb. 2:1, 3:12, 4:11).
The writer expresses frustration: his audience should be maturing, even teaching others, but needs the basics of God’s word taught them again. Interpreting God’s word to them has become difficult for the writer and his company because those he is writing have become “sluggish in hearing.”
In 2 Corinthians three, Paul says a veil remains when the old covenant is read and is “set aside only in Christ” (2 Cor. 3:14). When the heart turns to Christ, the veil is removed. By the Spirit, readers see Christ in the old covenant face to face and are changed into His image.
The writer of Hebrews seems worried that his audience is turning from Christ and that the old covenant is veiled again. Instead of seeing Jesus in the old covenant, they would see required practices and traditions; they would see history; they would see commands and temple worship. In short (to borrow again from 2 Corinthians) they would see the letter of the old covenant and not the spirit.
In this mindset, accepting the teaching of the writer of Hebrews would’ve been difficult. His whole letter weaves Old Testament stories, Psalms, and history into a tapestry of Jesus’s face. In a veiled reading of the Old Testament, Psalm two could not say to Jesus, “You are my Son. Today I have become your Father”; Sabbath law, the promised land, and the creation account could not be woven together to show rest in Christ’s completed work (as in chapters 3 and 4). The writer could not connect Genesis 14 and Psalm 110 to show Christ’s new priesthood, the order of Melchizedek.
The danger of reading the Bible in a veiled way is not limited to the time when Hebrews was written, nor is it limited to the old covenant. We can read the New Testament in an old covenant way. By the Spirit, Christians can and should see Jesus in both testaments, unveiled. We can appreciate the original dimensions of the scriptures: history, prophecy, letters, poetry, moral instruction, etc. These do not go away with the veil. Rather, the letter of any text becomes the framework or outline of spiritual realities in Christ.
When Jacob rolls a stone away from a well to water Rachel’s flocks, we can acknowledge the events happened, the people lived and died (Gen. 29:10). We can also see, by the Spirit, the stone rolled from Jesus’s tomb, and the living water of resurrection life flowing to God’s flocks. Removing the veil from our hearts doesn’t obliterate the fundamental meaning of any scripture. It allows the meaning of a scripture to be fully realized in Jesus. The letter is a ladder to spiritual things. To climb it doesn’t do away with the ladder (we need to stand on it!). But a ladder’s full purpose isn’t realized until we climb.
More than this, reading the Bible in a veiled way will keep us from being transformed. Reading, “You shall not covet” will not change us. In fact, Paul said the command against coveting made him covet more (Rom. 7:7-8). Thinking of the gospels, we see how rest-less and unloving the Pharisees became as they worked so hard to keep the sabbath. At best, reading scripture with a veil will make us realize that the Christian life is impossible.
But seeing Jesus in the scriptures opens the possibility of transformation: by the Spirit, we can enjoy a process where divine life—with all its traits—is produced in us. Instead of trying our hardest not to hate people because the Bible says so, the One who died for His enemies can live in our motivations.