The Spreading Flame

The Epistle to the Hebrews popped up twice for me yesterday. Not amidst the lectionary readings but from two books that I was dipping into. The first was by way of a throwback to the 1970s when, as I was studying for a primary degree in divinity, there appeared the Paternoster Church History series with such engaging titles as The Spreading Flame, The Growing Storm, The Morning Star, The Great Light, Light in the North and The Inextinguishable Blaze. How could one not be inspired by the history of the Church through these readable volumes! 

F.F. Bruce, primarily a Biblical Scholar, producing commentaries and numerous other works, wrote the first volume on the early Church, entitled The Spreading Flame. I always meant to read it, but never did. I acquired a copy last year and it has been looking down at me from a high shelf since we moved to Swanage. It starts in Corinth, diving straight in, as one of the important early churches faced with all kinds of potential and real challenges, both within and beyond the Church fellowship, seeks under the guidance of Paul and others to establish its life and witness in what was quite a hub of first century life. 

Through reference to the Acts of the Apostles, the Pauline Epistles and other non-canonical texts, Bruce reports on how things developed, as the threats and persecution, as well as the growth and internal conflict in the church are examined, He then, almost in passing, introduces the Epistle to the Hebrews in this interesting way as the early believers in Jesus wondered why, through all the turmoil, Jesus had not yet returned: 

“ [a] group of Jewish Christians received a communication from a friend whose name has been forgotten […] he wrote to steady those who were wavering and imbue them with the necessary patience. Did the coming of Jesus seem deferred? Let them cheer up; yet a little while and the Coming One will come and make no delay…..” (p.152) 

Later, I had my second reminder of Hebrews, reading one of Ronald Blythe’s thoughtful reflections from Stour Seasons (2016) in which he quotes the author of Hebrews referring to Christ as “the effulgence of God’s glory” and our high priest. He does so in connection with John Bunyan, who, believing that he had committed an unforgivable sin, listened to his wife who read him these calming words from Hebrews: 

“Remember where you stand, not before the palpable blazing fire of Sinai, with the darkness, gloom and whirlwind, the trumpet blast and the oracular voice […] No, you stand before the city of the living God, heavenly Jerusalem […] the spirits of good men made perfect, and Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, whose sprinkled blood has better things to tell than the blood of Abel.” (p.37)

As Christians throughout the ages have been steadied in their faith through the reading of the Epistle to the Hebrews and other parts of the Scriptures, so we learn from their struggles and their patient faith in times of our own pilgrimage. Patience, patience; what a need we all have of this Christian quality - one of the fruits of a Spirit-filled life listed by St Paul writing to the Galatians: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. 

John Mann