Analyzing the Viewpoints: His Flesh (2)

Hebrews 10:19-20 says that we have “boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way, which He hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, His flesh.” It is a wonderful blessing, and a lovely verse, but what precisely does the author refer to at the end of the verse when he speaks of the Lord’s flesh? Is he saying that the veil of the tabernacle pictured the Lord’s flesh? Or does the expression, “His flesh,” correspond to “the new and living way”? The following two articles relate to this question, presenting two views for you to carefully consider in coming to a conclusion on the interpretation of Hebrews 10:20. The purpose of presenting opposing views is not to create controversy nor to generate division, and it is not merely for you to assess who formulates a better argument. The purpose is to help you to understand the viewpoints, and to encourage you to study it more deeply yourself in your own time. Our two writers have read and considered the opposing view and continue to happily respect each other.

– Matthew Cain

There has been considerable discussion as to whether Hebrews 10:20 should be read as “a new and living way through the veil (that veil is His flesh)” or as “a new and living way through the veil (and he made that way by means of his flesh).” I want to suggest that Christ’s flesh is not the veil, but rather the way, the means through which a “new and living way” into God’s presence has been inaugurated. This view is linguistically plausible, fits well with the local context and the wider context of the epistle, and avoids the difficulties created by the alternative view.

The discussion of the language of the verse involves a considerable volume of technical detail, but scholars generally agree that a strong case can be made for either reading.[1]

Therefore, context becomes vital to determining the correct interpretation. It is useful to begin by thinking about the wider context of the epistle, and then considering the local context of 10:20. There are two other passages in the epistle to the Hebrews that refer to the veil and they provide us important clues to the correct understanding of 10:20.

Chapter 9 deals with the literal veil in the “worldly Tabernacle” (9:3). In this first Tabernacle, the veil served as a barrier to the Holiest of all (v3), a barrier that could only be crossed by the “high priest alone, once every year, not without blood.” The spiritual import of this is clearly spelled out for us – “the Holy Ghost this signifying, that the way into the holiest of all was not yet made manifest, while as the first tabernacle was yet standing” (v8). Notice that the only gloss provided by the Holy Spirit is that the veil was a barrier. Those who regard the veil as speaking of Christ’s flesh often argue that the veil in the tabernacle was, in addition to being a barrier, a point of contact between God and man. However, there is no hint of this in Hebrews – the literal veil was a barrier physically, and its spiritual significance spoke of a way that “was not yet made manifest.” The application of these features to Christ’s body is hardly obvious – His body was not a barrier to God’s presence. Rather, He was God manifest in flesh (1Tim 3:16) – the Word become flesh and tabernacling amongst us (John 1:14).

Chapter 6 speaks about the veil in a spiritual and heavenly, rather than a physical and earthly, sense, but it reveals the significance of the veil in the same way. Verses 18-20 speak about the believer’s hope, which “we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which entereth into that within the veil; whither the forerunner is for us entered, even Jesus.”

The word “forerunner” signifies “one who comes in advance to a place where the rest are to follow” (Thayer). Christ, then, has gone as a pioneer “into the inside of the veil,” into the presence of God. The expression “inside the veil” occurs on four occasions in the LXX. On three of these occasions (Lev 16:2, 12,15) it refers to the high priest entering the Most Holy Place on the Day of Atonement. Thus, precisely the same “entering in” is in view here in Hebrews as in Chapters 9 and 10. Christ has gone in on the basis of His finished work, and our vital link to a risen Christ in heaven is, to us, an anchor sufficient to withstand all the storms of a tumultuous world. In this passage, again, the veil is a barrier to God’s presence, and, so far from Christ’s body being the barrier, He, in his resurrected body, has passed through the barrier and entered within the veil. The resurrection is central to this passage; it is Jesus, the risen Man at God’s right hand, Who is our forerunner, the prototype and guarantee of our own heavenly hope.

These passages provide the contextual background that is essential to a proper understanding of Hebrews 10:20. The ways in which they speak of the veil must inform our understanding of its significance in this verse too. We must also give due weight to the immediate context of the verse. Verse 19 tells us that we have “boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus.” His blood has satisfied God’s righteous claims. So, the verse tells us that we can enter, and why it is possible for us to do so. To the reader with a Jewish background, this must have seemed a bold claim. His mind would have gone immediately to that imposing veil, so glorious but so forbidding. “How,” he would have asked, “could such an entrance be effected?”

Verse 20 addresses his concern. The veil is no longer an issue, for we approach “by a new and living way, which He hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, His flesh.” There is a glorious paradox in the expression “a new and living way.” The word “new” literally means “freshly slain.” But this freshly slain way is also a living way. What could this way be? There can, surely, be only one answer, and the writer gives it. It is His flesh. Christ, crucified and resurrected, has entered through the veil, “inaugurating” and “consecrating” a new possibility of approach to God.

Notice that the whole emphasis of this passage is “the way.” There is no need for the author further to define “the veil.” To identify the veil as being Christ’s flesh is a non sequitur, serving only to complicate and distract from the thrust of the passage. His interest is the way, and it accords entirely with the structure and purpose of his argument to provide further detail about it. Moreover, this focus accounts for the slightly unusual word order. In 6:20, the writer emphasized the identity of the forerunner by revealing it at the end of the clause: “Whither the forerunner is for us entered, even Jesus.” He uses the same technique here, and for the same reason, to focus our attention, not on an irrelevant point of typological explication, but on the glorious truth that Christ in His resurrection and ascension has inaugurated a new and living way, and that the veil can no longer bar the believer from the presence of his God.

[1] This debate is helpfully summarized in N.H. Young, New Testament Studies, 20.