Monday, June 28, 2021

Human dignity redeemed (Heb. 2:5-9)

 


We live in an intellectual atmosphere that claims human beings are just here and that’s it.  There is no ultimate purpose guiding us to a good end; there is no objective meaning to life.  The universe came from nothing and will descend back into nothing.  It emerged from a big bang and will end in a cosmic yawn.  And in the end, when everything dies, it will not have mattered whether or not you existed at all.  It’s all an accident.  It’s an accident we are here in any sense.  There is no real and objective dignity to man – we are no different in that sense than any other animal or plant or rock, according to the post-modern way of thinking.  That is the way our modern society thinks, and these are the convictions that inform its decisions.

If you buy into this, though, there are consequences.  If this is true, then there is no absolute right or wrong.  There is no ought, there is only is.  Values are subjective and truth is relative.  There is no real ground for moral accountability and free will is an illusion: as Richard Dawkins famously put it, we are just dancing to our DNA.  Hitler was just dancing to his DNA, as were Stalin and Mao and others.  Moreover, if you really believe this and follow it out to its logical conclusion, it also means that love is an illusion, as are all ideas of beauty and honor and nobility.  But this is a problem. 

The reality is that no one (or, at least, very few people) really thinks this way.  It seems to me that most people live as if love and beauty and meaning and truth are real things, as if there are behaviors that are right or wrong no matter where you live or in what age you live.  Atheists and agnostics and other non-Christian folks will argue that you can still get meaning out of life by living for the present and for what pleases you at the moment.  But the only way they can do this in any significant way, as C. S. Lewis and others have pointed out, is by forgetting that they really believe that the meaning or beauty or loveliness that they are seeing or experiencing is just an illusion and a biological accident.[1]  In other words, the post-modern man or woman can only really enjoy love and beauty and truth so long as they live in denial of the materialist’s creed: that they are not in fact objective and real things.  That is, you have to lie to yourself in order to make the post-modern accounting of things work.  And with the emphasis today on being authentic, how authentic is that?

This is a very strong argument, it seems to me, for the Christian faith.  How do we know Christianity is true?  Well, partly because it fits.  What do I mean by that?  What I mean is that to be a Christian does not require you to live a lie.  It corresponds to reality (which, by the way, is the classic definition of truth).  We see beauty and truth and love in the world, but we don’t have to pretend that they are not accidents or merely subjective projections of the mind in order to enjoy them – because they are not!  We believe that there is actually objective beauty and truth in this world.  We believe that love is more than the result of a purposeless process involving the accidental collision of atoms in the brain.  In other words, the Christian can consistently believe what most other people have to embrace inconsistently: that love is real and truth is real and meaning is real and not merely illusions to make an otherwise unbearable life bearable.

But why are they real?  The Bible teaches that they are real because we are made in the image of God.  They are real because God is real and God is a God of love and truth and the one who imparts purpose and meaning to this world that he created.  Moreover, human beings have real dignity – not a sort of dignity we have because the powers that be agree on it for now – but real, objective dignity.  It is not created or legislated by man, but it is God-given.  This is what the Bible teaches, and this is what is at the heart of the Psalm that is at the center of attention in the text we are considering today.  And that makes this Psalm and this text both important and relevant.

But there is another reason this Psalm and its implications are so important.  We are not only battling against an outlook that is inherently hopeless and meaningless, but the church is increasingly faced with a hostile culture that is doing all it can to marginalize any influence the church and the followers of Christ have.  They even tell us that the battle for the culture has already been lost and that we are on the wrong side of history.  They are probably right.  But you know what?  That’s okay because this is exactly where the church was in the first century and where it stayed for about three hundred years.  I can’t imagine how daunting it must have seemed to be a small house church in the shadow of the might of the Roman Empire, situated there in the capitol Rome.  But it was exactly to this kind of church that this epistle and these words were written.

They remind us that the circumstances we find ourselves in by themselves do not determine the future for the church.  God is the one who ordains whatsoever comes to pass.  He is sovereign, not man.  Our future is ultimately in God’s hands, not in the hands of men.  And that is what this Psalm reminds us.  How?

In Heb. 2:6-8, the writer quotes from Ps. 8:4-6.  In that Psalm, you have a man looking up into the heavens and being caught breathless by the wonder of it all: “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him? And the son of man, that thou visitest him? (Ps. 8:3-4).  In other words, here is that common experience – when a person looks up into the heavens and then compares man to the vast expanse of the universe, man comes off as a tiny and insignificant creature.  Which, of course, he really is.  Neil DeGrasse Tyson argues that the enormity of the universe compared to the smallness of our earth is an argument against design by a Creator.  But I think the opposite is the case: the heavens are there in all their seeming infiniteness to remind us that we are not as big or important as we think we are.  And that is a needed reminder.

And yet . . . people realize that there is something inherently valuable about mankind in a way that is different from, say, finches.  Where does that sense of importance come from?  You cannot explain it if you are a materialist.  I mean, you cannot posit any real importance or dignity to man.  And this is what is at the back of that question: “What is man, that you are mindful of him, or the son of man that you care for him?” (Heb. 2:6, ESV).  Man, this tiny creature in the vast expanse of the universe, why would God care about him?  What is it that draws the Creator to this dust-bound creature?

The way the psalmist answers this question is almost unexpected.  Remember that what led to the question was the comparison between the bigness of the heavens and the smallness of man.  But the reality is that the universe is actually meant to be subjected to man: “Thou madest him [for a little while, ESV] a little lower than the angels; thou crownest him with glory and honor, and didst set him over the works of thy hands: Thou hast put all things in subjection under his feet” (Heb. 2:7-8).  What he is saying is that for all the majesty of the universe and all the miserableness of the human race, man is meant by God to rule over the universe.  Seen in that light, mankind is not as insignificant as first appeared – he possesses a true dignity that is unsurpassed by anything else in creation.

But all this is a gift from God.  We don’t have it because we earned it or because we deserve it.  We are gifted with a created purpose: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.  And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth” (Gen. 1:27-28).  This is a truth that is underlined in our text: God crowns us with glory and honor, God is the one who sets him over the works of his hands, and God is the one who puts all things in subjection to him.  And though the Genesis passage only mentions creatures on the earth, the Psalm expands this to the entire created universe, including the moon and the stars (“he left nothing outside his control,” ver. 8, ESV).

However, this is not the only part of the story.  The reality is that the Genesis 1 mandate, though it still stands, has been significantly challenged by sin and death.  Genesis 1 was followed up with Genesis 3, the fall of man into sin.  And sinful humanity cannot rule over God’s creation properly.  In fact, the created order itself groans, as Paul puts it to the Romans, under the weight of human sinfulness (Rom. 8:19-26).  I think this is perhaps pointed to in the fact that, for right now, mankind is “lower than the angels” – lower in the sense that we are sinful and prone to death, neither of which characterize the elect angels.  Note what the writer says in verse 9: that Jesus “was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death.”  But one day, this is all meant to be undone.  This is all temporary – it is “for a little while” (ESV, verses 7, 9).  In fact, one day God’s people will judge angels, according to the apostle Paul (cf. 1 Cor. 6:3). 

How does this fit in with the argument of this epistle though?  What is the author doing?  Remember that he has been arguing in chapter 1 that Jesus is better than the angels, which set up the exhortation and warning at the beginning of chapter 2.  Now, in verses 5-9, he is answering an implicit objection: that the fact that the Son of God took upon himself a human body and human nature is actually an argument against his superiority to the angels.  These verses answer that objection.  In these verses, we are shown how it is that our Lord’s assumption of human nature is no argument against his superiority to angels.

This is where the argument in Hebrews 2 is going.  The author is going to argue that the way the human dignity that was lost in Adam is restored in Jesus Christ.  This, by the way, is another way that the Christian message fits with our experience.  Though we recognize that humans have this dignity, yet we also see that they act in incredibly undignified ways.  This is because, though we are created in the image of God, yet we are sinful and sin.  How is paradise lost to become paradise regained?  That is the question here.  And the answer is that Jesus Christ is the one who does this.

But how does he show this?  He does so in three steps.  The argument centers around the quotation of Psalm 8.  First, he shows that it is the purpose of God that mankind’s inferiority to angels be only temporary, and therefore it is no defeater to the supremacy of Christ over angels for him to become incarnate.  So it’s an argument from the time of fulfillment of Psalm 8.  Second, he shows that it is the purpose of God that the transition from “lower than the angels” to “crowned with glory and honor” be achieved solely by Jesus Christ, and therefore it is no defeater to the supremacy of Christ over angels for him to become incarnate.  This is therefore an argument from the person of fulfillment, namely Jesus Christ.  And finally, it is the purpose of God that the way this is achieved is through the death of Christ, and therefore this is also no defeater to the supremacy of Christ over the angels since his incarnation and death is the means whereby the incarnate Christ achieves this supremacy over the angels (and we in him).  Thus, an argument from the manner of his fulfillment of Psalm 8.  Let us look at these three things in turn.

The time of fulfillment: “For unto the angels hath he not put in subjection the world to come, whereof we speak. . ..  Thou madest him [for a little while] lower than the angels” (5, 7).

It seems true that angels in some sense rule over this present world.  We see this in the book of Daniel, for example, when angels are denoted by the human rulers they in some sense influence (cf. Dan. 10:13).  This is probably why angelic beings are called “rulers” or “powers” in the writings of the apostle Paul (see, for example, Eph. 6:12).  However, this is not a permanent state of affairs, for angels will not be ruling over the world to come.  In fact, as we’ve already noted, in the age to come, angels will be judged by the people of God.  With Christ, we will share in his victory and kingdom in the New Heavens and New Earth.  To those who overcome, our Lord promises that “to him will I give power over the nations: And he shall rule them with a rod of iron; as the vessels of a potter shall they be broken to shivers: even as I received of my Father” (Rev. 2:26-27).

This argument is furthered by the use of the phrase “a little while” in verses 7 and 9.  Though this phrase does not occur in the KJV, it is the correct translation of the author’s quotation of Psalm 8: “You made him for a little while lower than the angels” (Heb. 2:6, ESV).  This is taken up and applied to our Lord in verse 9: “But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus” (ESV).  So the term “little” here is not meant to describe how much lower (“a little lower”), but rather how long he was to be lower than the angels (“a little while lower”).  In other words, the inferiority of men to angels was not meant to be permanent.  This implies that there is coming a time when men will surpass angels in dignity and honor.  Now, I don’t think this means we will stop being human in order to become angels or become like angels.  What it means is that in the resurrection we will no longer be subject to sin and death and that we will rule with Christ. 

In being born of a woman, our Lord was made subject to death.  He who was the Lord of angels, at whose command they marched, became for a time lower than the angels.  This of course does not mean that our Lord became less divine or that he for a time shed his divinity.  He was and is immutably and eternally the Son of God, even when he was in his state of humiliation.  What it means is that, in addition to his divinity, our Lord added “the likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom. 8:3).  It was the addition of his humanity in the frailty in which it was clothed that our Lord became lower than the angels.  But this was only for a time.  When our Lord ascended up to heaven, he ascended in and into glory.  The incarnate Christ then became clothed with the glory that he had always enjoyed as the Son of God: “And now, O Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with the before the world was” (Jn. 17:5). 

So you see, being lower than the angels is not something inherent in being human since it is only temporary.  It is the result of sin and death, and this is exactly what our Lord came to conquer.  And so it is not argument against the superiority of Christ to angels that he became human.

The Person of fulfillment: “thou crownest him with glory and honor . . . But we see Jesus . . . crowned with glory and honor” (7, 9).

The second step to the argument here is that the way mankind achieves its superiority to angels is through Christ.  God has purposed that men and women be crowned with glory and honor.  But we have thrown this away through sin.  How can God’s purpose, the purpose to crown men with glory and honor, be achieved?  In verse 9, we see how it is achieved.  It is achieved through Christ.  He is the one, ultimately, to whom this Psalm pointed. 

You see this hinted at in verse 8: “Thou hast put all things in subjection under his feet. For in that he put all in subjection under him, he left nothing that is not put under him.  But now we see not yet all things put under him.”  It seems to me that the point being made here is that this Psalm does not yet find its fulfillment in men.  We who were made to be lords of the world which God made are in subjection to it.  All things are not under our feet – if anything, we find ourselves often under the foot of the world!  Tornadoes and hurricanes and earthquakes and tsunamis and blizzards and on and on – these things constantly remind us that we live in what can be a very deadly world.  And then add to that the violence men do to men.  No, this is not a tame world.  It is a chaotic world, at least from the standpoint of human rule.

However, in verse 9, the truth comes out.  Though mankind is still struggling to survive in this world, Christ, though he was for a little while lower than the angels, yet he is no more and is “crowned with glory and honor.”  He is the one in whom this Psalm finds its fulfillment.  But more than that – he is the one in whom we sons and daughters of Adam are crowned with the glory and honor we have forfeited through sin.  The apostle Paul makes a similar point in his great chapter on the resurrection.  He also quotes this Psalm and applies it directly to our Lord: “He [God the Father] hath put all things under his [Christ’s] feet” (1 Cor. 15:27).  It is because of this fact that we too can share in resurrection glory.  Christ has, as the Second Adam, undone what Adam did.  And in doing so, he has restored us to the position of dominion which was lost by Adam through sin.

It is not therefore a mark against our Lord’s superiority over the angels that he assumed human flesh.  For it is in assuming it that our Lord fulfills our destiny and God’s intention for men and women to be crowned with glory and honor and to be the rulers over God’s creation (including angels).  It is this reality that the apostle Paul is speaking to in Eph. 1:10 when he says that God is going to “unite all things in him [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth.”  It is only in him that we can achieve this honor and this glory. 

The manner of fulfillment: “But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honor; that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man” (9).

It is not just necessary for our Lord to become a man, to become incarnate, for this Psalm to be fulfilled for us.  It was also necessary that, in becoming a man, he suffer death.  This is especially the point of verse 9, and this will also lead into the following verses, where our author will elaborate further on why it was necessary for Christ to suffer and die. 

In other words, not only is death not a proof against the supremacy of Jesus over the angels, death is the means by which our Lord attains the glory and honor promised in the Psalm.  It is not just by uniting human nature to himself that he elevates us, but by dying for us he rescues us from the judgment of God that we so justly deserve.  Sin deserves death and so Christ tasted death for his people in order that they might be saved from it. Of course we will still die; but because of what Christ has done, death no longer has the last word.  Resurrection life follows death because of what the Son of God has done for us.

Moreover, death serves the end of his achieving his glory because it is the God-ordained means whereby the grace of God is communicated to us.  And God’s glory is displayed mainly through his grace. This is what the apostle said: God has chosen us in Christ, predestined us and given us the adoption of sons in Christ “to the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved” (Eph. 1:7).  And in the ages to come, God will show us “the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:7).  But it would never have been possible apart from the death of Jesus.  Which is why the writer says that it is “by the grace of God” that our Lord tasted death.

However, how can death on the cross bring about the glory of Christ, if he loses anyone for whom he died?  And is this not the implication of verse 9: doesn’t it say that he died for “every man.”  For not everyone is saved.  Did our Lord then fail?  What about John 6:37-40?  We say that Christ is a successful Savior; isn’t this an argument against it?  No, for the following simple reason.  It is no argument against the glory of Christ because we must always observe the context for who is being referred to by “every man.”  In verse 10, they are called “many sons” to be brought “unto glory.”  In verse 11, they are called “they who are sanctified.”  In verse 13, they are called, “the children which God hath given me.”  These are the ones who are being referred to by “every man” or “everyone.”  This is not everyone in an absolute sense, but rather all those who are the children of God to be brought unto glory.  In other words, yes it is true that all for whom Christ died will make it to glory, will be saved.  There is no frustrated Savior here!

Now the reason why so many people have a problem here is that they don’t seem to reckon with the possibility that “everyone” doesn’t have to be an absolute universal everyone.  And the Scriptures certainly use language like “all” and “everyone” without referring to every single person on planet earth.  For example, in Col. 1:28, the apostle Paul says that he was “warning every man, and teaching every man,” but this does not mean everyone on earth.  It means everyone to whom Paul spoke, obviously.  In 1 Cor. 12:7 the apostle there says, “The manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal,” referring not to everyone in an absolute sense, but every in the sense of every believer.[2]  This is perfectly consistent with the way the author of Hebrews uses this term as well.  All for whom Christ took the cup of death will certainly and finally be saved.

What will you do with Christ?

One thing I haven’t mentioned yet is the little word “for” at the beginning of verse 5: “For unto the angels hath he not put in subjection the world to come, whereof we speak.”  What is the function of the word “for”?  What is the point being made here?  What is the argument?  I think it ties back to the exhortation of verse 1-4.  The apostle is saying that just as the things he said of the Son of God in chapter 1 lead inexorably to the warning of 2:1-4, even so what he is saying here supports the urgency of heeding the warning which has just been given.  We must give the more earnest heed to God’s word and gospel for the one who mediates the gospel, the Lord (3), is the one who will rule over the world to come.  He is the one before whom all will stand in judgment. 

The apostle Paul made much the same point to a bunch of pagans in Athens.  After saying that God “now commandeth all men everywhere to repent,” he goes on to give the reason why this call to repentance is so urgent: “Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men in that he hath raised him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31).  Jesus Christ who is proclaimed in the gospel is not an intellectual curiosity.  He is your Lord.  He will be your judge at the Last Day.  The question is whether or not he will be your Savior?  You cannot remain neutral before Christ.  You will either have him as your Lord or reject him as your Lord.  The Bible says that those who reject Christ will only have him as judge.  On the other hand, those who believe on him, who submit to him and receive him as Lord and Savior, will find him on that day to their Advocate (1 Jn. 2:2).  Who is Jesus Christ to you?  May you this day call on his name as your Lord and Savior, for the Bible tells us that all who call upon him as such will be saved (Rom. 10:13).

And on the other hand, all who belong to Christ, no matter how insignificant you are now – one day you will rule with Christ over all things.  Does that seem far-fetched?  Does it seem impossible?  Do you say that you are unable or unworthy to be placed in such a position of honor?  Well, you feel that way because you are in yourselves unable and unworthy.  But, thank God, in heaven we do not enjoy the fruits of our victory, but of Christ’s victory over sin and death.  We are in him and in him we participate by God’s grace in never-ending, ever-increasing joy.  Indeed, we are taken aback with the Psalmist: What is man that God is mindful of him, that he cares for him and bestows on him such grace and glory?  Left to ourselves, the question would only lead to despair, but through the one who by the grace of God tasted death for us we are raised to newness of life and crowned with glory and honor.  Praise God for such a hope!



[1] “You can’t, except in the lowest animal sense, be in love with a girl if you know (and keep on remembering) that all the beauties both of her person and of her character are a momentary and accidental pattern produced by the collision of atoms, and that your own response to them is only a sort of psychic phosphorescence arising from the behavior of your genes.  You can’t go on getting very serious pleasure from music if you know and remember that its air of significance is a pure illusion, that you like it only because your nervous system is irrationally conditioned to like it.”  C. S. Lewis, quoted in Timothy Keller, The Reason for God.

[2] See the argument in John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (Banner of Truth, 1967), p. 237-238.

Monday, June 21, 2021

A Warning to Heed (Heb. 2:1-4)

 


Here at CPBC, we affirm the complete trustworthiness of Scripture.  As our Articles of Faith state, “We believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament are the revealed and inspired word of God and the only rule of faith and practice.”  When I look at the wider Christian world, one of the things I am thankful for about the Primitive Baptists is that one doesn’t have to worry about heterodox doctrines of the Bible in terms of its inspiration and inerrancy.  You just don’t see PBs waffling on their commitment to the authority of Scripture, and for that I am thankful.  However, it’s one thing to affirm the complete truthfulness of Scripture.  It’s another thing to hear it as it ought to be heard.  In other words, you can have orthodoxy and be missing the corresponding orthopraxy. 

As an illustration of what I’m talking about, consider the Pharisees.  In terms of overall doctrine, these fellows were conservative and orthodox, especially when compared to the Sadducees.  Though the term “Pharisee” has a lot of negative baggage, remember that even the apostle Paul as a Christian confessed himself to be a Pharisee: “But when Paul perceived the one part were Sadducees, and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee: of the hope and resurrection of the dead I am called in question” (Acts 23:6).  In other words, Paul didn’t see anything contradictory about being both a Christian and a Pharisee.  And I think the reason is that the Pharisees had a fairly orthodox view of truth, including the OT Scriptures.

Nevertheless, our Lord was absolutely unrelenting in his criticism of the Pharisees.  He called them hypocrites (Mt 23:13, ff) and blind (Mt. 23:26) and snakes who would not escape the damnation of hell (Mt. 23:33).  Why?  He did so because though these people had a very orthodox doctrine of Scripture, they had allowed human tradition to mute what it really had to say.  In other words, though they had the Bible they had ceased to hear it.  As our Lord himself would put it, “Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition. . .. But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (Mt. 15:6, 9). 

I mention this because whether we realize it or not, we have probably all (myself included) inherited certain views that hinder our ability to hear all the Scriptures as we ought.  That especially includes the warnings of Scripture, like the one in Hebrews 2:1-4.  So one of my goals here today in this message is to help you and me to hear this passage as we are meant to hear it.  For that end, I want to look at this passage from the perspective of three questions: what, how, and why?  What is the author saying, how is he saying it, and why is he saying it this way?  As we move from the what to the why, we will want to pan out and look at how the warning of Hebrews 2 fits in with the wider theological context of the Bible.

What: drifting from the faith

There is something gripping about the way this text starts out: “Therefore we ought to give the more earnest heed to the things which we have heard” (2:1).  “The things which we have heard” is of course a reference to the gospel.  It is a reference to the fact that God has spoken to us in his Son (1:2).  The audience is called upon to “pay much closer attention” (ESV) to the message of God’s word to them.  What lies behind this exhortation is the fact that they had stopped paying close attention to it.  They had grown careless and lax in their profession of the faith.  The gospel didn’t have the same meaning for them that it once had.  And what was behind that was most likely the unrelenting hostility they had met with in the culture against their faith.  It was not something they could walk away from – unless they walked away from Christ.  And though it doesn’t appear that they had done that just yet, it does appear that they were on the brink of doing so.

The author of Hebrews is a preacher, giving these folks a word of exhortation.  He is not interested in merely conveying information.  That was not the point of chapter 1.  Note that this chapter begins with the word “therefore” and then follows this stirring exhortation and warning.  In other words, the purpose of chapter 1 was to give muscle to the exhortation of chapter 2.  So, let’s try to understand what this warning is all about.

First, this is a warning against drifting away from the faith.  Though the KJV has, “lest at any time we should let them slip,” almost certainly the correct translation is, “lest we drift away from it [i.e. the message of the gospel]” (2:1).  The term used here is a nautical term that conveys the image of a ship drifting off course.  So the problem is not so much forgetting the gospel, but rather a wandering away from the faith, “carried by the current” of culture as a result of “the failure to keep a firm grip on the truth through carelessness and lack of concern.”[1]

This is very timely and relevant for our day as well.  There was a time not long ago when our culture was much friendlier to the Christian faith.  That is not the case anymore.  And though for now our religious freedoms are holding up (for which we should thank God), to be a follower of Christ is not going to get you any credit in the public sphere.  So there is a lot of pressure to put up and shut up.  There is a lot of pressure to keep our faith private.  The problem is that if you take that course, you are already drifting off course.  You cannot be a Christian and be private about it.  The Christian faith is a public faith.  It is a light-shining faith, a salt-of-the-earth faith.  Are we in danger of drifting away?  Let us be honest about it.  We are swimming against the current (the church always has), so if you stop swimming because you are tired or because you just don’t think it’s worth it anymore, then you are going to be carried by the current in the direction of everyone else.  That is what is at the heart of the warning here.

How: the urgency of the warning

But that’s not the only thing.  There is a reason given in the text as to why this warning is so urgent.  And that brings us to the second thing: this warning is urgent (“we ought to give the more earnest heed”) because of where drifting away from the faith leads us.  I think the word “for” at the beginning of verse 2 stands there to tell us that what follows gives the reason for the urgency.

What is the argument here?  Well, notice first of all that verse 2 is about the Law of Moses: “For if the word spoken by angels was steadfast.”  We’ve noted that the NT views the Law of Moses as having been mediated through the ministry of angels.  So the martyr Stephen would accuse his persecutors of having “received the law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it” (Acts 7:53).  The apostle Paul tells us that the law “was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator” (Gal. 3:19).  Though Exod. 19-20 doesn’t speak of angels in the giving of the law, yet when Moses later described what happened on Mount Sinai he does speak of angels being present there (cf. Deut. 33:2 – “saints” or “holy ones” is probably a reference to angels).  But what about this law?  The thing that is highlighted about the law is that it was “stedfast” – trustworthy, reliable, firm – “and every transgression and disobedience received a just recommence of reward” (2:2).  That is to say, the law was inflexible when it came to sin.  This is a point which is referred to again in this epistle: the fact that the one who “despised Moses’ law died without mercy under two or three witnesses” (10:28).  Those who sinned defiantly died.  Those who broke the law were broken by the law. 

Here is the argument.  Note the conditional statements: If this happened under the law, what do you think will happen “if we neglect so great salvation” (2:3)?  If people didn’t escape under the law, how do you think you are going to escape God’s judgment if you sin against Christ?  The comparison is important here.  The comparison is still between Christ and angels.  If you sin against the law, you are sinning against a word mediated through angels.  But if you sin against the gospel – which is what is happening when you neglect it and walk or drift away from it – you are sinning against a word mediated through the incarnate Son: “How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation; which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord” (2:3).

The point is that you are not going to escape God’s judgment if you drift away from the gospel.  Now this might surprise you, because we’ve been told that the God of the NT is a calmer and tamer version of the God of the OT.  But this is not the case.  The OT and the NT have the same divine author.  God is the same; he has not and cannot change.  To reject the Law brought God’s judgment; to reject the gospel does the same thing.

Someone may object, however, by saying that the children of Israel were under greater responsibility to believe the law, since they saw so many miracles.  The people at the foot of Mount Sinai were exactly those who saw the plagues in the land of Egypt, who walked through the Red Sea, and so on.  To this our author responds with verses 3-4: “and [the great salvation spoken by the Lord] was confirmed unto us by them that heard him; God also bearing them witness, both with signs and wonders, and with divers miracles, and gifts of the Holy Ghost, according to his own will?”  In other words, just as God gave great attestation to the Law, so he has given great attestation to the gospel.  Now the church to which Hebrews was written saw the apostolic miracles, even if they never saw Christ himself.  So they had no good reason to walk away as they were beginning to do.

However, someone today might wonder if we stand in the same position, since we have long since passed the days of the apostles.  We don’t see Mount Sinai on fire as God came down; we haven’t seen the many miracles that the apostles were able to perform.  Does that mean that this warning does not pertain to us?  No, for a couple of reasons.  First, God inspired Hebrews and put it in the canon of Scripture; in doing so, he universalized its exhortations and warnings.  The fact that God put Hebrews in the NT means that he wants us to hear and take heed to this warning as well.

But another reason why this is still relevant, is the same reason Sinai and Passover were relevant to later generations of Israelites.  Just because they weren’t there didn’t let them off the hook.  It is the reason why fathers and mothers were supposed to recount God’s wonders to Israel; so that they would obey his law (cf. Ps. 78:1-8).  Just because we weren’t there doesn’t mean these things didn’t happen!  To say I don’t have to believe because I didn’t see it with my own eyes is an excuse that people will give but it is no good.  We believe all sorts of things that we were never there to witness.  Nor is it an excuse to say that to require belief in miracles should require greater evidence.  But what sort of evidence?  Most of the time, people mean observational, scientific evidence.  But do you realize that what you are doing is importing a worldview into the discussion (namely materialism) for which there is no scientific evidence?  No, my friend, treat the history of the Bible as you would any other historical narrative.  Weigh it the way you would weigh any other account that claimed to be a genuine telling of facts.  And you will find that for those with eyes to see there is a mountain of evidence for the resurrection of Christ in particular that make alternative explanations unthinkable.  No, we are still under the same obligations as were the first readers of this epistle.

Why: the danger considered

Now, that brings us to the following consideration: why is the author so urgent?  What exactly is the danger that is being warned here?  In other words, what particular form does the judgment of God take on those who drift away from the gospel?  As we consider these things, we are going to have to step back and think about how this warning fits in with the wider Biblical theological context, and we do this so that we will hear this text as we ought.

Let’s consider first two wrong ways to look at this passage.  One wrong way is to look at it and say that because the elect can never be lost, this warning can only involve temporal judgments.  In other words, at the end of the day, if you’re elect you can live any way you want in this world and still go to heaven.  You can live in all sorts of sin with no eternal repercussions.  Now that simply does not do justice to the context of Hebrews.  For example, in 3:6, the writer argues that we belong to the house of Christ “if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end.”  To belong to the house of Christ is another way of saying that we belong to Christ.  The author also puts it this way in verse 14: “For we are made partakers of Christ, if we hold the beginning of our confidence stedfast to the end.”  Here the description is that of being a partaker or a sharer in Jesus.  To be a partaker of Christ means that we share in all his saving blessings.  In other words, what is being argued for here is the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints.  It doesn’t mean, of course, that good works save us, but it does mean that good works are the evidence of spiritual life and without that we cannot say that we belong to Christ.  In fact, quite the opposite.  As our Lord put it, you will know the tree by its fruits.  Good trees bear good fruit and bad trees bear bad fruit.  The fruit doesn’t make the tree, but the tree does make the fruit!  If you are saved by grace through faith and not of works, you are still ordained by God to bring forth good works (Eph. 2:8-10).

So in this text, we are warned against drifting away from the faith – warned against following the path of Judas and Demas and many others – because those who are truly saved aren’t going to apostatize or walk away permanently from the faith.  If you walk away, don’t carry the notion with you that you will be all right in the end, because you won’t.  As Hebrews puts it later, “But we are not of them who draw back unto perdition; but of them that believe to the saving of the soul” (10:39).

But there is another wrong way to read this text.  It is this: it is to read this as if it were a sword hanging over the neck of every believer.  There are some who look at warnings like this and preach them in such a way that it sounds like fear is supposed to be the main motivating factor in the life of a believer.  Terror is what motivates holiness in this reading of the text.  But that is not a Biblically faithful way of reading this text either.  I mean, how can you do that and fit it in with Romans 8?  Remember what the apostle Paul teaches there: “For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father” (Rom. 8:15).  And to Timothy, Paul would write, “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Tim. 1:7).  Or as the apostle John would say, “There is no fear in love: but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment.  He that feareth is not made perfect in love.  We love him, because he first loved us” (1 Jn. 4:18-19).  Clearly, God – who is the perfect Father – does not intend for his children to be tormented into obedience. 

But then, what do you do with the warning of Hebrews 2:1-4?

Remember that this text is addressed to professing Christians who were on the brink of apostacy.  The writer is not addressing Christians who are wrestling with everyday sin and temptation.  He is addressing a particular type of person, and that person is a person who, though they have made a profession of faith, yet they are beginning to waffle on their commitment to Christ.  They are thinking about walking away from the faith.  They are drifting.  So the warning is this: those who drift away from the faith will not escape God’s judgment.  And since those who drift away and draw back, draw back unto perdition (Heb. 10:39), this is a warning with eternal implications.

We are not saying the elect can lose their salvation.  That cannot happen.  What we are saying is that if you draw back unto perdition, if you completely drift away from the faith and stay there, you prove that you were not elect in the first place and you can expect God’s severe judgment upon your life.

This is where I think really having a good grasp on the doctrine of the preservation of the saints is so important.  And, in particular, it helps us to understand why it is right to warn a Christian audience of the danger of drifting away, a danger with eternal ramifications.  To do so not only doesn’t violate the doctrine of the security of God’s elect, but it also supports it.  To see this, think with me through the following propositions.

Now the rub is this.  We know the elect will certainly and surely be saved.  Suppose someone in the congregation who hears this kind of warning is elect.  Is it still right for them to hear such warnings?  Is it right for them to take it to heart?  It is right for them to apply a warning of eternal peril to themselves?  I would say, yes, if they are one of those who are thinking about walking away from the faith, and I would say that for the following reasons.

First, it is right for a person to hear this warning as a warning of eternal peril, even if that person is elect, because it remains true that all who finally walk away from Christ will perish.  That is still a true statement.  To hear this warning is simply to believe the truth.  An elect person who takes this to heart is not affirming that the elect can lose their salvation.  All they are affirming is that those who do not persevere in the faith will be lost.  There is nothing wrong in believing true statements.  I think some people squirm under the kind of affirmation this text is making here because they really believe that there are elect out there who will live their whole lives apart from Christ or who will walk away from him and will still go to heaven.  They don’t think that there is any real correlation between election and holiness.  But they are mistaken.  God chooses or elects his people so that they will be holy (Eph. 1:4).  On the other hand, if you believe what the Bible says, that God chooses us through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit (2 Thess. 2:13), then you will have no problem with a text like this telling professing Christians that if they do not persevere in holiness then they are not saved.

Second, it is not Biblically sound to reason that because I’m elect, therefore this warning does not apply to me.  That’s putting it backwards.  How do you have confidence that you are elect?  The Bible says that you can have confidence that you are elect – or that you can possess genuine assurance of your salvation – when you heed warnings like this and persevere in the faith.  It says that you can make your calling and election sure by looking for the evidence of it in things like faith and love and so on (2 Pet. 1:5-10).  This is one of the reasons why 1 John was written, to give believers true signs of salvation: “These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God” (1 Jn. 5:13).  Throughout this epistle we have these signs, or marks, of eternal life, of the new birth.  One of those signs is perseverance in the faith: “For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith” (1 Jn. 5:4; cf. 5:18).

Now someone may rebut by saying, “But I have the testimony of the Holy Spirit telling me that I am saved, according to Rom. 8:15-16, and so I don’t need such outward evidence of the new birth.”  But that is not what that text is saying!  It is not saying that the Holy Spirit will give assurance of salvation to those who live in sin or who walk away from the faith.  Look at the context, especially verses 13-14.  Those two verses, taken together, mean that those who are led by the Spirit are precisely those who are mortifying the deeds of the flesh.  In other words, I cannot claim to have this Spirit of adoption inwardly testifying that I am a child of God if I am living in unrepentant sin.  The Holy Spirit, after all, is holy, and will have no part in participating in giving peace to those who are living in the gutters of sin and wickedness.

Third, it is right for all to hear this warning as a warning of eternal peril because this is one of the means that God uses to bring his elect back from the brink of walking away.  In other words, not only do warnings like this not jeopardize the doctrine the preservation of the saints, they actually are part of God’s plan to preserve his people! 

It is important to remember that just because a person is elect does not mean that they are not immune to the attacks of Satan.  And Satan doesn’t know who is elect and who is not – the Devil is not omniscient.  He will try to do to us what he tried to do with Peter: to sift our faith and try to make it fail (Lk. 22:31-32).  He is a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour (1 Pet. 5:8).  And just because our Lord kept Peter from becoming a Judas doesn’t mean that Satan was not allowed to do something.  After all, Peter did deny Christ three times and he did need to be reconverted! 

And I think it is also important to note that when Peter was in the process of denying Christ, he looked little different from Judas at that moment.  It was not until he repented and turned that the difference emerged.  In the same way, if I have denied Christ, if I am in the process of drifting away, I may not know whether or not I am a Peter or a Judas until I repent.  In other words, in that moment, I have every right to consider warnings like this to be directed at me.  Again, one of the ways God brings me back to repentance is to remind me what is at stake, to remind me that those who finally walk away are, like Judas, sons of perdition (cf. Jn. 17:12).

Now I’m not saying that God can’t bring us back to repentance any other way.  Different people require different methods.  It’s like the apostle Paul put it to the Thessalonians: “Now we exhort you, brethren, warn them that are unruly, comfort the feebleminded, support the weak, be patient toward all men” (1 Thess. 5:14, emphasis added).  In other words, for some all it takes is a look from Christ and their heart melts (cf. Lk. 22:61-62).  For some, compassion is all that is needed.  But some of us are a little more hard-headed.  Some of us need a swift kick in the rear.  Some of us need to be called to repentance with a little more urgency.  We need to be awakened out of our complacency with warnings like Heb. 2:1-4.  Like Lot who was hesitating about leaving Sodom and Gomorrah, he had to be told: “Escape for thy life; look not behind thee, neither stay thou in all the plain; escape to the mountain, lest thou be consumed” (Gen. 19:17).  [This is an especially interesting and relevant passage because God was going to certainly save Lot from Sodom’s destruction – and yet the warning was still a legitimate warning!  See 2 Pet. 2:6-9.]

Now it’s clear that the people to whom the writer of Hebrews is addressing needed this stiffer, sterner warning.  They had become careless and neglectful of their commitment to Christ.  And the reason is that they had forgotten just how serious this is.  Temporal persecution and life’s disappointments had begun to weigh more heavily to them in importance than their commitment to Jesus.  And when that happens, you need to be reminded that eternal issues are at stake.  Like our Lord put it to his disciples: “Whosoever … shall be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation; of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Mk. 8:38). 

Conclusion

I don’t know where each of you are at.  I hope that you are not where these Hebrews were at.  I hope that you are walking with the Lord and that your commitment to Christ is firm and steady.  If it is, thank God for his grace because he is the one who holds us fast!  He is the one who keeps us (1 Pet. 1:5).  I am so thankful for that reality.  I am thankful for the reality of Jude 24: “Now unto him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy, to the only wise God our Savior, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever.  Amen.”  Amen!

But if you are where these Hebrews were, if Jesus just doesn’t seem that relevant to you anymore, if the things of this life are more important to you than the things of God, then you are in danger of drifting away.  And therefore you are in danger of God’s judgment.  If you continue in this path, you will not escape God’s judgment.  And as the writer will later say, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (10:31).  You need to repent and turn back.  You need to consider the issues at stake. It is idiotic to sell Christ out for a mess of earthly pottage.  It is suicide to sell Christ for a few gold coins.  There is no hope there.  You might get a buzz out of this world for the next few decades if that’s what you live for, but what about eternity?  There is no hope for eternity without Christ and therefore there is no hope for those who turn away from Christ.

However, the amazing thing about Jesus is that no matter how you have sinned against him, he is always ready to take us back.  He took back Peter, who denied him three times.  He took Paul, who murdered who knows how many Christians.  It is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners (1 Tim. 1:15).  You may have been really tempted by the world.  You may have done some really stupid things.  But thank God, he receives sinners (Lk. 15:2)!  Don’t let Satan whisper in your ear that you are not worthy.  Of course you’re not.  God justifies the ungodly!  So rest in him, and if you have walked away from him, come back to him today.  For our God still receives prodigal sons (Lk. 15:11-32). 



[1] William Lane, Romans 1-8 [WBC], (Zondervan, 1991), p. 37.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Christ better than the angels (Heb. 1:4-14)


There is a story set in the days when Texas was still very much a frontier state, a story about a town that was in the grip of a riot that had gotten completely out of control.  Local law enforcement couldn’t do anything about it, and so they used the telegraph to send a message to the state authorities asking for help from the Texas Rangers.  The reply came back that they would receive help and it would be coming on the afternoon train.  Well, the town fathers waited with bated breath for the train to arrive.  Finally, the train came puffing into town, but they were immediately crestfallen when they saw just one man step off the train.  They approached him and, seeing the Texas Ranger badge on his chest, asked him, “Where are all the others?  Why is there only one of you?”  The ranger wasn’t even phased.  He responded, “Well, there’s only one riot, isn’t there?”

 

Now that is a legend, although, in my opinion, a good one!  However, there is a story in the Bible that is even better than that, and it isn’t a legend.  It is the story of the Assyrian invasion of Judah in the 8th century B.C. during the reign of good king Hezekiah.  You can read about it in 2 Kings 18-19 and 2 Chronicles 32.  We are told that the Assyrian king had invaded Judah, had captured many of its walled cities, and then sent one of his officials to threaten Hezekiah and to bully him into surrendering the capitol city Jerusalem.  This official was so confident of the victory that the Assyrian army would achieve over Hezekiah and his tiny army that he boasted that not even the God of Israel would not be able to save them.  And that, of course, was his fatal mistake. 


I love the response of Hezekiah.  It’s an example for all of us to follow.  He took the communication from the Assyrians and put it before the Lord: “And Hezekiah received the letter of the hand of the messengers, and read it: and Hezekiah went up into the house of the LORD, and spread it before the LORD” (2 Kings 19:14).  In other words, Hezekiah sent up a prayer-telegram asking for help.  This was certainly out of his hands – he needed God’s help.   


God helped him, and here is how he did it.  We are told, “And it came to pass that night, that the angel of the LORD went out, and smote in the camp of the Assyrians an hundred fourscore and five thousand (185,000): and when they arose early in the morning, behold, they were all dead corpses” (2 Kings 19:35).  This is better than one ranger, one riot.  Here you have one angel, one army. 


There is another story similar to it that is related in the life of the prophet Elisha.  This prophet was able to use the supernatural insight given to him by God to tell the Israelite king about the secret plans of the Syrian king and therefore to save the Israelites from disaster time and time again.  Finally, the Syrian king got wind of this and sent an entire army to arrest Elisha who was then at the city of Dothan.  When Elisha’s servant got up the next morning and looked out, all he could see was the city surrounded by the soldiers and the horses and chariots of the enemy.  He immediately got Elisha, and said to him, “Alas, my master! How shall we do?”  Elisha simply asked the Lord to open the eyes of his servant, and this is what happened: “And the LORD opened the eyes of the young man; and he saw: and, behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha” (2 Kings 6:15-17).  No need to fear when you have angelic chariots of fire surrounding you! 


As these stories indicate, angels can be an interesting study in the Bible.  They are spiritual beings who, though they can appear in physical form from time to time, are nevertheless “spirits” (Heb. 1:14), or incorporeal beings.  But they are not just harmless apparitionsthese created spiritual beings possess incredible intelligence and power.  We know they are highly intellectual because fallen angels (demons, led by Satan) are able to dupe and deceive even the most intelligent of human beings (cf. 2 Cor. 4:3).  What is true of fallen angels (namely, great intellectual capability) must be true of unfallen, or elect, angels.

   

They are also very powerful, as the above accounts confirm.  They are said to “excel in strength”: “Bless the LORD, ye his angels, that excel in strength, that do his commandments, hearkening unto the voice of his word” (Ps. 103:20).  They are called “powers” in Col. 1:16 and Eph. 1:21. The apostle Peter tells us that angels are “greater in power and might” than their human counterparts (2 Pet. 2:11), and when people are confronted by angels, they often are overwhelmed by a sense of their power and might, like the soldiers at the tomb of Jesus (Mt. 28:2-4).  They often bring the judgments of God upon the wicked, like Herod, who was struck down by an angel of the Lord because he did not give God the glory (Acts 12:23).

 

But they also bring God’s mercies to God’s people.  We are told that, “He [God] shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways.  They shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone” (Ps. 91:11-12).  In fact, there is this wonderful passage in the text we are considering this morning, which describes angels as “ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation” (Heb. 1:14).  An angel not only struck Herod down; it was also an angel that saved the apostle Peter from Herod’s hands (Acts 12:1-17).  Though we are not to worship angels or put our trust in angels, the Lord has revealed this aspect of their ministry in order to encourage us.  The fact is that we may have many enemies arrayed against us (including spiritual ones, Eph. 6:10-12), yet we need to remember that on our side are all the hosts of heaven.  We may not be able to see them, but they are there and we know that because God’s word has revealed it.  We should never think we are alone.  God is with his people, and his angels are always at his beck and call, to do his bidding for the glory of his name and the good of his people. 


Angels are also an example for us. They are those “that do his [God’s] commandments, hearkening unto the voice of his word” (Ps. 103:20).  When our Lord tells us to pray that God’s will is done, he tells us to pray that it be done “in earth as it is in heaven” where the angels are.  They perfectly and immediately do his will.  John Newton once said something along the lines that if God told one angel to sweep a floor and another angel to rule a kingdom, both angels would do God’s will equally cheerfully and it would not even occur to the angel who was told to sweep that he should complain for having the more menial duty.  They would both look at their tasks in one light and in one light only: that they were doing God’s will.  That should be our attitude as well. 


Now some people have thought that Hebrews 1 was written to counteract a tendency to worship angels.  I doubt that.  Rather, what the author is trying to do here is to show that, great as angels are, Jesus is better.  Since the Law was mediated by angels (2:2), to go back to the Law apart from Christ would be to prefer angles over Jesus.  So the author does not want them to do this.  But to see the force of this argument, we need to really consider, as we have been doing, just how great angels are.  I think it was John Piper who said that we should not think of the Seraphim (which I think are a specific type of angel) as chubby babies with wings, floating around God; rather, we should think of them more along the lines of the Blue Angels whose sonic boom shook the temple when they cried, “Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isa. 6:3).  Even John the apostle fell down on his face and started to worship an angel – not once, but twice – though the angel prevented him from doing so (Rev. 19:10; 22:8-9).   


Angels are amazing creatures.  But that is what they are: as awesome as we might think that they are, they are only created beings.  Jesus is better: “Being made so much better than the angels” (Heb. 1:4).  How is he better?  In this text, the author outlines four distinct ways in which our Lord is better than the angels.   


Better in his Perfections 


The first way our Lord is better than the angles is in his name: “as he hath by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they” (4).  Now I say that means he is better in his perfections because the name of God is connected with his glory and his glory is simply the public display of his perfections (cf. Exod. 33:18-19; 34:5-7).  So there is this tight connection in the Bible between the name of God and his perfections.  To say that Jesus has a better name than the angels is to say that his perfections, his attributes, far excel that of the angels. 


What name is this?  It is the name of Son, as the following Scripture proofs show (5).  We considered last time just what this means in verses 1-3.  We saw that the title of Son of God is the title of one who is in fact God.  On the other hand, angels are never called by this name: “For unto which of the angels said he [God] at any time, Thou are my Son, this day have I begotten thee?  And again, I will be to him a Father, and he shall be to me a Son?” (5).  This proves his point since the author knows that his readers share the his conviction that Scripture is the word of God.   


He has quoted Ps. 2:7 and 2 Sam. 7:14, both texts which were understood to be Messianic: that is, these are prophesies about the Christ.  It could of course be argued that both passages are, on one level, about the Davidic king.  But the promise to David was that one of his descendants would rule over God’s kingdom forever, and therefore it was understood that promises to the Davidic king are ultimately fulfilled, not in someone like Solomon, but in Christ (see, for example, 2 Sam. 7:16).  This is why Isaiah would write about the coming Christ (who would be the Mighty God): “Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it, with judgment and with justice from henceforth forever” (Isa. 9:7).  And it is the reason why the angel Gabriel would tell Mary, Jesus’ mother: “He [Jesus] shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David” (Lk. 1:32).  So though it is true that each of David’s heirs were in one sense a son of God in a derivative sense, none of them were the Son of God in the truest and ultimate sense.  Only Jesus could truly claim that title.  Certainly angels could not. 


But how can the author talk about Christ inheriting this name?  Or what does it mean that he was begotten on a certain day?  Does this indicate that Jesus was not always the Son of God?  No.  I think both expressions point to the fact that at his resurrection the eternal Son of God, who had become incarnate and in so doing had hidden certain aspects of his glory and his divinity for a time, came to possess – as the incarnate Son of God – the fullest enjoyment of his rights as God’s only Son.   

To see this, note that the one who came to earth did not become the Son of God by the incarnation, for it was the Son of God who came to be born as a man (Rom. 8:3; Jn. 3:16).  He was announced as Son at his birth (Lk. 1:32), at his baptism (Mt. 3:17), and at the Transfiguration (Mt. 17:5).  But it was his resurrection and ascension that truly revealed him to be what he always was: the Son of God.  This is why Paul would write that God’s Son was “declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:4).  In fact, Paul quotes Ps 2:7 (which our author quotes in verse 5) in his sermon in Acts 13, applying it to the resurrection of Christ from the dead (Acts 13:33).  The point is, if there was any doubt that he was who he said he was, the resurrection should have dispelled those doubts forever. 


What name does Christ possess?  It is the name above all names (Phil. 2:9)! 


Better in his Praise 


However, not only is Christ superior to the angels in his name, he is also superior to the angels in the worship which is given to him.  This is the point of verse 6: “And again, when he bringeth in the firstbegotten into the world, he saith, And let all the angels of God worship him.”  This is a quote from the Septuagint version of Deut. 32:43 (which is not in the Masoretic Text so it doesn’t usually appear in English translations), although it also sounds similar to Ps. 97:7.   


The title “firstbegotten” is a reference to Christ.  Our Lord is several times referred to by this title (or something similar) in the NT.  For example, in Col. 1:15, our Lord is called “the firstborn [same word] of every creature.”  In Rev. 1:5, he is called “the first begotten of the dead.”  And in Rom. 8:29, the apostle Paul says the Jesus is “the firstborn among many brethren.”  In each of these places, the reference is to the preeminence of Christ.  Here, “first” does not point to someone who is first in a temporal sequence, but to someone who is first in rank or honor.  In the ancient world, the firstborn son had privileges that none of the other sons had.  So when the NT says that Jesus is the first born or the first begotten, it is saying that he holds a position of honor above all of creation. 


This is an unmistakable reference to the angelic announcement to the shepherds of the Savior’s birth (Lk. 2:9-14).  Even at the very beginning of our Savior’s earthly life, he is worshipped by the angels.  When the firstborn is brought into the world, the angels of God obey and worship his Son. 


We would of course expect this sense he is the one who created all things and upholds all things (1:2-3).  We would expect this of one who is the radiance of the Father’s glory as the eternal Son.  Because of this, he is – unlike angels – worthy of worship and honor.  He is worthy of praise.  And this is exactly what we find happening in heaven: the Lamb and Lion is receiving worship.  This following description of a scene in heaven is very instructive because here you see angels worshipping Jesus (and not the other way round).  You also see our Lord described in terms that only God could be described by: And I beheld, and I heard the voice of many angels round about the throne and the beasts and the elders: and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand and thousands of thousands; saying with a loud voice, Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honor, and glory, and blessing.  And every creature which is in heaven and on the earth, and under the earth, and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, heard I saying, Blessing, and honor, and glory, and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb forever and ever.  And the four beasts said, Amen.  And the four and twenty elders fell down and worshipped him that liveth forever and ever” (Rev. 5:11-14). 


Why does God command the worship of Jesus?  He does so because he is God; because he is worthy of it.  But he also does so because to see the worth of Christ, to see his infinite value and excellence as we should, means that our affections will correspond to that sight of him with awe and love and trembling and rejoicing and reverence.  In other words, you cannot see Christ as he really is and not come away worshipping him.  To call upon us to worship Christ is simply to call on us to see our Lord as he really is.  There is a tasting and seeing that the Lord is good (Ps. 34:8).  And this tasting and seeing will inevitably erupt in praise: “Blessed is the man that trusteth in him!”  Or, to put it another way, to see Christ rightly means that we will rejoice in him fully, and to tell someone who is rejoicing not to worship is an unloving thing to do.  It is therefore both right and loving for God to command the worship of his Son. 


We must pause here and ask ourselves a very important question.  How do you see Christ?  Do you love him?  Do you really see him as worthy of your worship?  To withhold the worship of our hearts from the Son of God is just another form of rebellion against him.  This is not just an intellectual question we are considering here.  The command to worship the Son is not just a command for angels.  It is a command for us all.  You should worship him and you must worship him; it is both right and good for you to do so.  To refuse to do so is simply to give your worship to someone or something else and that is treason against God.  Listen to how the psalmist puts it in Psalm 2, which had already been quoted in reference the Son of God twice in Hebrews 1: “Be wise now therefore, O ye kings: be instructed, ye judges of the earth.  Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling.  Kiss the Son [a sign of submission], lest he be angry, and ye perish from the way, when his wrath is kindled but a little.  Blessed are all they that put their trust in him” (Ps. 2:10-12). 


Better in his Permanence  


In verses 7-12, we come to another mark of the superiority of Christ to the angels.  It is that, in contrast to angels (as well as every created thing), our Lord is eternal.  At the same time, our Lord is unchangeable or immutable in his essential being and character.  So he is superior to angels in his eternity and in his immutability.  


The author begins by pointing out the ephemeral nature of angels: “And of the angels he saith, Who maketh his angels spirits, and his ministers a flame of fire” (7; quoting Ps. 104:4).  The word for “spirits” could be translated by “winds,” which is how the ESV takes it, for example.  You might also remember that our Lord compares the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration, a work in which he is sovereign in drawing our hearts to know and love Christ, to the wind (see John 3:8).  In fact, the Greek word pneuma can mean both “wind” and “spirit.”  In other words, what we have in this verse is a comparison between angels and wind and fire.  Now commentators are divided in their opinions as the purpose of this comparison.  Some say that the point is that angels are as powerful as wind and fire.  That’s possible.  But I think, given the context here, the point is rather that, like fire and wind which are by their very nature changeable and ephemeral and transient and fleeting, so are angels.  As powerful as wind may be (just think tornado or hurricane) or fire (think about the forest fires that ravage millions of acres), they don’t last very long.  In contrast, our Lord is eternal and unchangeable, and that’s the point of the next few OT references in the following verses (8-12). 


In verses 8-9, which is a quotation from Ps. 45:6-7, the argument is that our Lord’s throne is eternal and immutable: “But unto the Son, he saith, Thy throne, O God, is forever and ever: a scepter of righteousness is the scepter of thy kingdom.  Thou hast loved righteousness, and hated iniquity; therefore God, even thy God, hath anointed thee with the oil of gladness above thy fellows.”  By the way, in passing I think it important to pause and see that the Son is explicitly called God here.  The one who is addressed as “O God” is the Son.  Every now and then you will hear some “scholar” claim that the NT doesn’t ever explicitly claim that Jesus is God.  Of course it does.  It does so in Jn. 1:1, and it does so here, in Heb. 1:8.  And these are not the only places.  There is no question that the NT views Jesus Christ as more than just another prophet.  He is the Son of God, eternal and unchangeable, which can only be said of God himself. 


Our Lord’s throne is eternal which means that in the end his kingdom will win.  Don’t let the present eruptions of wickedness and the prevalence of ungodly attitudes shake your confidence in God’s final victory over all his enemies.  All the kingdoms of the earth will eventually perish; only God’s will remain.  As Luther’s hymn puts it: “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; the body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still: his kingdom is forever.” 


Not only is our Lord’s throne eternal and unchangeable, but he is also eternal and unchangeable in his life.  That’s the point of verses 10-12, which is a quotation from the 102nd Psalm.  It’s interesting that every other OT passage which is quoted here in reference to Christ, comes from the Messianic Psalms or from a Messianic prophecy.  But this Psalm is not a Messianic Psalm: it’s just a Psalm which celebrates God as the God who rescues the afflicted.  It’s like our author doesn’t see the need to connect his point to Psalms which are explicitly Messianic in order to demonstrate that the Son shares the nature and the worship of God; he goes directly to a passage about God and applies it to Christ.  In other words, he doesn’t need to make the point that the Son is God; that point is already made.  All he wants to do now is simply to say that since Christ is God he possesses all the attributes of God, including his incommunicable ones, like immutability.1  


He is the creator of all things.  He is the one who laid the foundation of the earth and made the heavens (10), but whereas they will perish, he will remain (11).  And whereas they will be folded up like a garment and changed, he remains the same and his years will not end (12).  All that we see around us in changing and changeable.  It is the very nature of the creature to be mutable.  The things around us that seem to be the most solid and unchanging are in fact changing.  The Rocky Mountains are decaying slowly.  Mount Everest, on the other hand, is still growing.  And one day, everything in this universe will be changed like a garment and will be succeeded by a New Heavens and a New Earth (cf. 2 Pet. 3:13).  But God does not change.  Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:8).  Isn’t that comforting?  Can you find such a solid foundation on which to rest your hopes in any other place or person?  Of course not.  Only in God can we find a permanent basis for our hope and trust.  Everything around you may change, but God does not change.  Trust in him, look to him.  “Change and decay in all around I see: O Thou that changest not, abide with me!” 


Better in his Princely Rule 


Finally, this chapter closes with one more comparison and contrast between the Son of God and the angels of God (13-14).  Here in verse 13, Psalm 110 is quoted, which is one of the most – if not the most – quoted or alluded to Psalm in all the NT.  It is explicitly quoted or referred to in a dozen other places in this epistle alone (cf. 1:3; 5:6, 10; 6:20; 7:3, 11, 17, 21; 8:1; 10:12, 13; 12:2).  It is clear that this Psalm was viewed as Messianic, even by our Lord himself (Mk. 12:35, ff).  The point is that no angel was ever invited to sit at the right hand of the Majesty on high (1:3).  This is a position of privilege that belongs to Christ alone.  He alone is enthroned; he alone is Lord of lords and King of kings.  The angels not only worship him; they also bow down to him and obey him.  So should we! 


Angels are not sovereign, they are servants: “Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation?” (14).  Our Lord is the author of salvation; but these are the servants for those our Lord has saved.   


Now think about this for a moment with me.  We began by looking at the incredible power and intelligence of angelic beings.  In the presence of angels even the holiest men have been overcome with shock and awe.  But what we are told is that, even so, angels are appointed by God to be the servants of his elect and redeemed people.  My friends, this ought to amaze us.  We are totally and completely unworthy in ourselves.  We who are the heirs of salvation are nevertheless messy people with lots of problems.  We are dumb sheep.  Angels don’t wait on us and surround us and protect us because we are better than they are.  That’s not the case.  They do so because God loves us that much.  And that ought to cause us to thank God for his grace and his mercy and his faithfulness.  It ought to cause us to stop doubting his commitment to the good of his people.  Angels help us because they are sent by God to help us.  They are a window into the love that God has for us.  Let that cause us to love him more.  He literally moves heaven and earth to give support and hep to his people. 


Where are you?  Are you an heir of salvation?  Can you claim such blessings?  Not everyone is an heir of salvation!  Only those who belong to Christ, only those who relate to the Father through his Son can come to him.  Jesus our Lord has said, “I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger, and he that believeth on me shall never thirst” (Jn. 6:35).  He went on to say these very encouraging words: “All that the Father giveth to me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out” (Jn. 6:37).  Yes, we must affirm that only those who are drawn by the Father effectually through the Spirit can come (Jn 6:44).  But that does not mean that you have no responsibility to come.  What it means is that those who do come do not have themselves to praise; God alone ought to be praised for our coming to Christ.  That, however, does not mean that you should not come.  You should come and come now on the basis of the promise of the Son of God himself: those who come will find life; those who come will never be cast out.  May we all take up the confession of the apostle Peter: when our Lord asked him if he also would walk away from him, he responded: “Lord, to whom shall we go?  Thou hast the words of eternal life.  And we believe and are sure that thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Jn. 6:68-69).  May the Lord enable all of us to make such a confession! 

For his mercy endureth forever, Ps. 136

The refrain “for his mercy endureth forever” is one of the most common refrains in the OT, and it is cer...