Gareth Lee Cockerill is professor of New Testament and biblical theology at Wesley Biblical Seminary, Jackson, Mississippi, and author of the newest NICNT volume on The Epistle to the Hebrews. In part one of our interview with him, he talks about what it has been like for him to work with Gordon Fee, to follow in the footsteps of the great F. F. Bruce, and to interpret Hebrews as a living word for Christians today.
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1. What does it mean to you to have authored a volume the NICNT — and, particularly, to have penned what will be the last volume released under Gordon Fee’s general editorship?
There is no series for which I would rather have written a commentary on Hebrews than the NICNT. This classic series has the reputation for solid scholarship as well as for readability. It is respected by scholars and useful to pastors. Professor Gordon Fee, the NICNT editor, insisted that exposition be engaging and that scholarship serve the purpose of clarifying the meaning and relevance of the Biblical text. I am thankful that he edited this volume before his retirement because I have benefited significantly from his emphasis on clarity of style and economy of expression. I found him to be a most gracious person and a firm, but helpful, editor. I am especially grateful that such an outstanding New Testament scholar has so strongly commended the final product.
2. Why do you feel it’s time for an updated NICNT volume on Hebrews? (And what does it feel like to walk a mile in the literary shoes of the late F. F. Bruce?)
I was just beginning my doctoral program when I had the opportunity to stand in the lunch line next to F. F. Bruce. It was in 1973, at the twenty-fifth annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. Professor Bruce asked me what I was working on. I said that I was doing my dissertation on Hebrews 7:1-25. He told me that he had just had a student (Bruce Demarest) complete a dissertation on the history of the interpretation of that chapter. One of my doctoral exams was on this very subject! When I had that conversation with Professor Bruce, I never dreamed that I would have the honor of producing the commentary on Hebrews that would replace his classic volume in the NICNT. I am humbled by the privilege that has been given me.
In our initial discussions, Gordon Fee, the NICNT editor, asked me to justify replacing Bruce. I told him that scholarship had made significant advances in understanding ancient rhetoric, in analyzing the structure of Hebrews, particularly through discourse analysis, and in studying the intertextuality of the New Testament’s use of the Old. In writing this commentary I have been true to these original arguments. This new volume shows how the author has structured Hebrews and arranged his argument to have maximum rhetorical effect on his hearers. I have attempted to interpret each passage in relation to this larger picture and to show the importance of each for the whole. I have also presented a fresh analysis of Hebrews’ use of the Old Testament that emphasizes continuity and fulfillment rather than continuity and discontinuity, the view adopted by many. By my exposition of the text I attempt to demonstrate how Hebrews’ use of the Old Testament can inform our own interpretation.
3. In the introduction to this commentary you claim to approach Hebrews not as a “laboratory specimen” but as a living word for Christians today. Can you elaborate on this?
The book of Hebrews is not merely some ancient artifact suitable for laboratory examination. It is the very word of God that addresses God’s people in the present, providing for their salvation and calling them to faithful obedience. The writer of Hebrews has a clear conviction of the immediacy of God’s word. The saving work of the incarnate Son of God is God’s ultimate self-revelation that fulfills all previous revelation, offering God’s people a fully sufficient salvation and holding them accountable. The object of this commentary, then, is not to find some facile application for each passage. Rather, it is to explain the text so that the modern reader may enter the world of Hebrews and clearly hear what God says to his people. The problems faced by those first recipients of this letter/sermon are perennial — fatigue in the journey, loss of conviction about the truthfulness of God’s word, pressure and persecution from the unbelieving world, the attraction of the benefits that world can confer — all things that would discourage us from faithful perseverance. The answer to these dilemmas is also still the same: the full sufficiency of the eternal, incarnate, and now exalted Son of God, and of him alone as the one who can bring us successfully to journey’s end.
Don’t miss part two of our interview with Dr. Cockerill, in which he talks about the authorship of Hebrews and discusses the epistle’s unique contributions to Christian theology.