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.

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