Monday, July 26, 2021

The Claims of Christ (Heb. 3:1-6)

For all the individualism of our culture, and all the so-called efforts toward and celebration of self-actualization, the reality is that everyone gravitates toward an authority in their lives.  This is true even if they say they are anti-authoritarian, that they are marching to their own drumbeat, taking their own path, the captains of their own souls.  You can see this in the fact that culture (even as ours appears to celebrate “diversity”) tends to be monolithic.  There aren’t really that many people who are marching to their own tune, if any at all.  They are taking their cues from society, from social media, from their friends, from professors, from scientists, from government officials, from philosophers – which in most cases are all saying pretty much the same thing.  In every society there emerges a dominant belief system, a worldview, that controls the way people think and see things.  No one is really free from this.  And this is the authority from which they consciously or unconsciously plot the course of their lives.

I’m not here to claim that Christianity is any different in terms of obedience to an external authority.  But my point is that no one is really free from external authority.  The question is not whether we are going to steer our lives by some authority outside of ourselves, but which authority will it be?  Will it be the one adopted from the culture?  The one that is most popular?  Are we just going to live by a belief system that makes us feel good about ourselves?  How should we live?  What is the authority that you are living by?

This is relevant to what we are going to be considering this morning because the small congregation of Jewish Christians to whom this epistle of Hebrews was written were beginning to drift away from the truth (2:1).  And one of the things aiding this drift was a failure to appreciate the claims of Christ upon them.  In other words, they were facing – whether they in fact had realized this or not – an authority crisis.  As a result, they were drifting toward other sources of authority.  In particular, they were drifting toward a Christless Law.  They were beginning to be tempted to replace Jesus with Moses.

This is of course not surprising due to the fact that Moses was the authority figure among the Jewish people.  This is illustrated in the fact that the authority of the Books of Moses was one of the few things that the Sadducees and the Pharisees could agree on.  Our Lord himself points out that they trusted in Moses (Jn. 5:45).  Later, when the Pharisees were disputing with the man born blind who had been healed by Christ, they said, “We know that God spake unto Moses: as for this fellow, we know not from whence he is” (Jn. 9:29).  Perhaps the readers of this epistle were beginning to feel this way too.

So the goal of our author in this section of the epistle is to compare and to contrast the claims of Moses and Jesus Christ.  As he does so, he will show that Christ is superior to Moses.  Basically, the argument comes down to this.  They were both faithful in the work for which God had sent them (3:2, 5-6).  They share a similarity in that respect.  But there it ends.  Christ is worthy of more glory (3-4) and the reason for this is that though Moses was a servant in the community of God’s people, Christ is God’s Son over the community of God’s people (5-6).  And the obvious implication is that though the claims of Moses were legitimate in that he was sent by God and was faithful to God in his service for him, yet the claims of Christ supersede the claims of Moses.  The authority of Jesus is not that of a servant but of a Son.  It is not the authority of someone who is part of the household, but who is over the household.  That is the argument. 

And the application is also obvious, isn’t it?  Our author will work it out in the following verses, but you see it at the bookends of this section.  He begins with a call to “consider” Jesus (1) and he ends with an implicit exhortation to “hold fast” to the confession of their hope in him (6).  In other words, they need to reorient themselves in light of the claims of Christ upon them.  They need to consider what they are and then they need to act upon this reality.

Now we may not be in exactly the same condition, but the exhortation to consider Christ and his claims upon us is just as relevant today as it was then.  And the way our Lord is described here is still the way we need to consider him.  For Jesus is “the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8).  Let us therefore look at this passage and see what it has to say about our Lord, and what this has to say about the claims of Christ over our lives.  In particular, we want to consider the authority and claims of Christ in terms of his origin, his mission, his dedication, and his position.

The Claims of Christ in light of his Origin

We see the origin of the authority of Christ in terms of his description in verse 1: he is described as the “Apostle . . . of our profession.”  This is an interesting description partly because he is never described explicitly in this way elsewhere in the NT.  However, it is perfectly consistent with how our Lord describes himself in other places.  The meaning of “apostle” is “one who is sent,” and this is invariably the way our Lord describes himself, for example, in John’s gospel (cf. Jn 6:39-40).  The apostleship of our Lord is the basis for the mission of the church: “As thou hast sent me into the world, even so have I sent them into the world” (Jn. 17:18).   

This is the author’s way of saying that our Lord’s authority is an authority from heaven.  He did not come to do his own will but the will of him who sent him.  And this means that we can bank on his word.  His word is the word of the Father.  God spoke in many ways and at many different times through the prophets (including Moses), but now he has spoken the definitive word through his Son (Heb. 1:1).  What we profess and confess as Christians has the authoritative stamp of heaven upon it.

The Claims of Christ in light of his Mission

The next descriptor of our Lord is the term “High Priest.”  This describes the mission of our Lord, as we have seen in several places already (1:3; 2:17).  He made purification for sins; he has made reconciliation for the sins of the people.  Our Lord is not merely a guru; his is not just another prophet.  He did not come to tell people how to save themselves.  No: he came to save his people from their sins (Mt. 1:21).  This is something we cannot do; we might be able to ignore guilt or cover it up, but we can never fully expiate it before God.  This is what Jesus Christ did on the cross.  There is no other person in the universe who has done such a thing.  The name of Christ is the only name under heaven given among me whereby we must be saved (Acts 4:12). 

To reject Christ is to reject any sure salvation.  To reject Christ and to turn to other sources of religious authority means that we are taking it upon ourselves – we who are dust and ashes, we whose righteousness are filthy rags – to make things right with a holy God.  To turn from Jesus to Moses, from the cross to Mount Sinai, is to trade grace for works.  But in truth to turn from Jesus to anything or anyone else is to turn from grace to works, from dependance upon God’s free acceptance of us through Jesus to a dependance upon personal performance of some kind.

Both of these terms, “apostle” and “high priest” summarize what the author has carefully argued for Christ in the previous two chapters – hence the word, “Wherefore” at the very beginning of verse 1.  If we have paid attention to what has been said, if we consider it carefully, we will see that these perfectly describe who Jesus is and what he has done.  And it will be easier to see why it is folly to abandon the claims of Christ upon our life for anyone else, no matter how great or good they are.

The Claims of Christ in light of his Dedication

The one place where Moses and Jesus are at least partially compared and similar is in the term “faithful.”  Our Lord was “faithful to him that appointed him, as also Moses was faithful in all his house” (2).  This is picked up again in verses 5 and 6.  In saying this about our Lord, it is in some sense also a repetition of what has already been said, for he is a “merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God” (2:17). 

But even though our author doesn’t highlight the fact, the reality is that surely his readers would have been aware that, although Moses in the main displayed remarkable faithfulness and dedication to the Lord, yet even he was not without his faults.  He smote the rock when he should have spoken to it; he did not treat God as holy before the people, and as a result he was forbidden from entering the Promised Land.  However, there was no corresponding fault in our Lord.  He could say, “Which of you convicteth me of sin?” (Jn. 8:46), a question which remained unanswered.  Even in his trial, they could only convict him by condemning him for being who he really was.  He was and is “holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and made higher than the heavens” (Heb. 7:26).

The bottom line for the original reader and for us is this: Jesus was not only sent by the Father to be our High Priest, but he also perfectly fulfilled the mission he was sent to accomplish.  Moses didn’t quite make it to the Promised Land; Jesus brings many sons to glory.  Look at any great man or woman in history and you will find a flaw somewhere.  But look at Jesus and you see only perfection.  He was tempted in all points like as we are, yet without sin (2:18; 4:15).  There was no one like him and there is no one like him.  To reject Christ is to reject the only one who has perfectly fulfilled God’s will upon the earth.

The Claims of Christ in light of his Position

This is where the author camps out on.  It is the main point in verses 3-6.  Though Jesus and Moses were both faithful to God, Moses is infinitely inferior to the Lord, and our author explains why in these verses.  The main reason, given in verses 3-4 and repeated in verses 5-6, is that whereas Moses is part of the house, our Lord is over the house.

What is meant here by “house”?  In this context, “house” refers to the community of God’s people.  In the OT, this meant primarily being a part of the nation of Israel.  In the NT, this means being a part of the church.  In numerous places the apostle Paul calls the church the house of God (cf. Eph. 2:19; 1 Tim. 3:15).  But this does not mean merely being a part of an external organization.  It means belonging to Christ.  In verse 6, the author says that we belong to the house of Christ if we hold fast the confidence and rejoicing of the hope firm to the end; in verse 14, he says that we are partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our hope steadfast to the end.  This seems to indicate that belonging to the household of Christ and being a partaker of Christ is the same thing.  You are truly a part of the NT church when and only when you truly belong to Jesus Christ through faith (cf. 12). 

Now what is the argument?  In verse 3, we are told, “For [this is the reason why you should consider Christ] this man was counted worthy of more glory than Moses, inasmuch as he who hath builded the house hath more honor than the house.”  He then goes on to explain, “For every house is builded by some man; but he that built all things is God” (4).  In other words, Jesus, being the eternal Son of God, is the one who built the house in which Moses served.  Moses was not the architect of the Old Covenant community of God’s people; God was – and that means that Jesus was.  Incidentally, here we have another evidence of the Biblical witness to the divinity of Christ.  Verse 3 depends on the fact that our Lord is the one who built the house in which Moses served.  Verse 4 says that God is the one who built it, as the one who builds all things.  Putting these two verses together indicates again that our Lord is God manifested in the flesh.

Then in verse 5-6, this argument is repeated in different terms.  “And Moses verily was faithful in all his house, as a servant, for a testimony of those things which were to be spoken after; But Christ [was faithful] as a son over his own house.”  Moses was in the house as a servant; our Lord was over the house as a son.  And the covenant community that Moses administered existed for the purpose of pointing to the future ministry and work of Jesus Christ.  God didn’t put Moses in charge in order to have people look to him; he put him in his house in order to point people to Jesus Christ.  This is what our Lord said to the Pharisees: “Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father: there is one that accuseth you, even Moses, in whom ye trust.  For had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me: for he wrote of me” (Jn. 5:45-46).

The gist, therefore, of the argument is this: Christ stands over Moses.  Christ is the Son of God; Moses is his servant.  For the Hebrews to reject the claims of Christ on them to turn to Moses was to fundamentally misunderstand both Christ and Moses.  And in reality, honoring Moses would mean to honor Christ as the Lord of Moses and the one to whom Moses pointed.  And so to return to a Christless Law would be to gut the Law of its true meaning.

Christ over all

But Jesus our Lord doesn’t just stand over Moses: he stands over all things (cf. ver. 4).  He is King of kings and Lord of lords (Rev. 17:14).  If you ask how we know this, it is this fact to which the resurrection points (Acts 2:36; 17:30-31).  Our Lord conquered death in his rising from the dead; and this surely points us to one whose supremacy cannot be matched by any mortal man.  To substitute the claims of Christ over your life for anyone or anything else cannot enjoy any lasting success.  Eventually we will all have to come to terms with the supremacy of Christ over all things.

And this means that belonging to the household of Jesus Christ and being a partaker in his saving blessings is the most important consideration we can give attention to.  You can of course ignore Jesus, but you will not be able to do so forever.  So consider him!  See the one who is over all things, who is your Lord and King.  And that brings us to a very important question: do I belong to house of Christ?

Do I belong to the household of Christ?

The answer to this is at least partly answered at the end of verse 6: “whose house are we, if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end.” 

Let me begin by saying that this is not just a test of who is a part of the visible church.  This is a test for those who belong to Christ.  It is correlative, as we have seen, with being a partaker of Christ.  It means to be a participant in the saving blessings of our Lord.  In other words, it means to be saved.  It means being forgiven of your sins and being a child of God.  This has eternal implications.  This is not just about some temporal blessing.  To reduce this text to that is to gut it of its meaning.

At the same time, it doesn’t say that we become the house of Christ if we hold fast the hope to the end.  What the author says is that we are the house of Christ if we hold fast to the end.  That is a very important distinction.  He is saying that it is the sure and inevitable evidence of belonging to Christ is that we persevere in faith and hope to the end.  The ground of our belonging to Christ is the grace of God not perseverance in the faith.  But the evidence of our belonging to Christ is perseverance in the faith, and to say that is not in any way to diminish the power or the effectiveness of God’s grace or to make it depend decisively upon man.  In fact, I would say that to deny the doctrine of perseverance is to diminish the grace of God, for you are essentially saying that the work of God’s grace and Spirit in the heart is not effective enough to keep the believer believing.  You do not honor God’s grace either in its freeness or in its power by saying that our corrupt human nature is able to overpower God’s work in the heart so that we may not persevere to the end.

There is often a hidden assumption lurking in the shadows behind the objection to the necessity of perseverance.  That assumption is that any human involvement in matters of eternal salvation is a denial of the freeness of the grace of God in salvation.  But that is a false and unbiblical assumption.  That is not what the NT Scripture is getting at when it says that we are saved by grace and not by works.  Consider Eph. 2:8-10, for example.  There the apostle writes, “For by grace are ye saved through faith: and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast.  For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.”   Note that even as the apostle says that we are saved by grace and not by works, he also affirms that this is “through faith.”  Now I am aware that some people try to make this about God’s faith.  That’s extremely unlikely.  We are saved by faith because we are justified through faith, as Paul says repeatedly in his epistles.  And in Paul it is clear that the faith by which we are justified is our trusting in Christ. 

This is beyond dispute, for example, in Gal. 2:16, where Paul writes, “Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.”  (Some people might respond, “But see, he says ‘faith of Christ!’”  But “faith of Christ” here is a use of what grammarians call the objective use of the genitive case in Greek and could be translated, “faith in Christ” or “faith of which Christ is the object.”  It certainly doesn’t refer to Christ believing or to the faithfulness of Christ.)  Note that we believe that we might be justified.  Faith here is not the seed of faith or the principle of faith – it is faith in action; it is believing.  But notice also that Paul does not in any way think that this gets in the way of God’s grace in salvation.  In fact, it is because we believe in order to be justified that we are not justified by works.  Salvation through faith is the basis for salvation apart from works.

Going back to Ephesians 2, verse 10 underlines in another way what we are arguing for here.  The apostle says that we are God’s workmanship created in Christ unto or for good works.  We are not created through good works or by good works, but unto or for good works.  And this is God’s work.  He has ordained it.  To argue that an elect individual can go through life without ever trusting in Christ or doing good works is to despise God’s grace, not to celebrate it.

The human element in salvation, trusting in Christ and growing in grace and persevering in the faith, does not in any way therefore undermine the freeness of God’s grace.  For all this ultimately depends on God, not us.  When Paul says, “and that not of yourselves,” the word that refers to everything in the phrase “by grace are ye saved through faith.”  Faith is God’s work in us.  We believe in Christ because God works the faith in us by sovereign grace.  To say that faith is not necessary is not upholding God’s grace, it is an attack on God’s grace.

So suppose you are a wavering Christian.  You are beginning to wonder if it is worth it to keep being a disciple of Christ.  It is beginning to look like your life would be much easier if you just stopped believing in Jesus.  No more persecution that way.  No more getting beat up for Christ.  No more losing your property or your privileges in society or your reputation because of your association with Jesus.  I think that is where a lot of these Hebrew Christians were at.  What do you say to them?  Well, one of the things that our author says to them is that if you don’t hold fast to the hope and the confession of our faith in Christ to the end, you don’t belong to Christ.  And if you don’t belong to Christ, you are not saved.  And that is in the end infinitely worse than losing earthly goods and comforts and privileges.

That is not of course all he says.  As we have seen, he is reminding them of other things as well, including the scope and the magnitude of their blessings in Christ.  He starts there, in fact.  He begins by reminding them that they are “holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling” (1).  He is assuming that they are what they profess to be: genuine followers of Jesus, the people of God.  God’s people can be called holy brethren because of what Jesus has done for us – he is the one who through his death has sanctified us and made us sons and daughters of the Most High (2:11).  We have been called by a “heavenly calling;” that is, those who are called by God to faith in Christ have a heavenly inheritance.  We are not primarily citizens of this world, but we seek a country that is to come.  As we look to heaven and to the glories to come, we are reminded that the sufferings of this time are not worthy to be compared to the glory which shall be revealed in us (Rom. 8:18).  And this hope causes us to purify ourselves even as our Lord is pure (1 Jn. 3:1-3). 

And this hope, when it is held fast by us, will produce great confidence and rejoicing (6).  As we rejoice in hope, we become patient in tribulation (Rom. 12:12). 

To be balanced, we need to be reminded, therefore, of two things – both of which are in verse 6: “if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end.”  First, if we are to persevere through trials that test our faith and make us want to give up, we need to have this confidence and rejoicing in the hope.  To put it in terms of Heb. 11:6, we need to be confident that God is and that he is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him.  Note that this is not rejoicing in any hope – it is rejoicing of the hope.  This is a particular hope, a hope which is contained within the boundaries of our confession (1).  It is hope in Christ.  How then do you maintain and grow in this confidence and rejoicing?  You do so by obeying the command of verse 1, by considering carefully Christ Jesus our Lord, who is he and what he has done and is doing.

But that is not the only thing.  As we’ve noticed, there is an implicit warning in verse 6, a warning that will be expanded upon in the following verses.  It is that if we don’t continue in the faith, if we abandon our confidence and rejoicing in the hope of Christ and his salvation, we are not truly saved.  We don’t belong to Christ.  And as we’ve argued in our message on 2:1-4, warnings like this are here to remind us of the seriousness of what we are dealing with.  It is meant to give us a healthy fear of the consequences of turning away from Christ.  And so it is another means that God uses to keep us faithful to him.  Warnings like this are not a whip so much as a loving warning from a Savior who genuinely cares for his own.  After all, he is the one who warned his own disciples on multiple occasions, “He that endureth to the end shall be saved” (cf. Mt. 24:13).

 Let me summarize the argument in terms of Psalm 2.  We are to consider the claims of Christ, who is God’s Son, upon us.  He is our Lord and King and Savior.  How are we to relate to him, especially in light of the temptation to abandon our faith in him?  We are to heed the exhortation of Ps. 2:11 – “Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling.”  It is not a contradiction to say that we are to rejoice and tremble!  We need both.  We need to tremble in light of the danger of falling away.  But we also need to rejoice in light of the heavenly hope.  One without the other will leave us imbalanced.  But when we are motivated by both, we will more readily turn from temptation and run to Christ.  May the Lord grant us to consider Christ Jesus, the Apostle and High Priest of our confession, in such a way that we will indeed rejoice with trembling in the hope that we have in him.

Monday, July 19, 2021

Our Lord’s Victory over Death (Hebrews 2:10-18)


It is often alleged that religion is simply wish-fulfillment.  I think it was the famous physicist Stephen Hawking who once claimed that religion is for people who are afraid of the dark.  It is said to be the creation of the minds of people who want eternal life, who want freedom and justice for all, but who realize they can’t have it here.  Belief in God and in heaven provides them with comfort, and so that’s where religion comes from.  It isn’t real; it is just pie-in-the-sky.  Or others say that religion is created by oppressors to keep the serfs obedient – keep them focused on heaven and they won’t bother with their earthly chains.

One of the problems with this argument is that it goes both ways.  The Oxford mathematician John Lennox responded to Hawking by saying that “Atheism is for people who are afraid of the light.”  In other words, if religion is wish-fulfillment, it can equally be said of atheism.  Maybe atheism is the projection of the minds of folks who want self-sovereignty and don’t want to stand to be judged by the living God. 

I personally don’t buy the wish-fulfillment explanation for religion because it doesn’t adequately explain the existence and many of the features of religion.  For example, I don’t know of any religion that comes up with a God who is not also in some sense just.  And that creates a pretty big problem: it means that just because there is a heaven doesn’t automatically guarantee you will make it there; for if God judges us, then that opens the possibility that what is on the other side is possibly worse than what we are dealing with here.  This is especially true of the Judeo-Christian worldview which posits a God who is holy and just and will by no means look on evil (Hab. 1:13).  There is not only a heaven but there is also a hell.  It’s frankly hard to see how hell would be a product of wish-fulfillment.

Another thing that the wish-fulfillment hypothesis can’t fully explain is the universal desire for heaven and eternal life.  If there is no God, why is there this sense of the transcendent?  Some people will say that it is an evolutionary trait that allowed the human race to survive.  I don’t buy it.  How does hoping for the age to come over this present age aid survival?  This idea seems counter-intuitive at best.  For example, the Christian religion teaches that giving your life for others (even, or perhaps especially, for the weak) is a good thing.  That is not a survival technique, it is the opposite!

C. S. Lewis gave a better explanation in his famous sermon, “The Weight of Glory.”  I will put it to you like this: imagine waking up in a boat in the middle of the ocean with absolutely no memory of anything that went before.  Suppose there is nothing in the boat except yourself.  There is nothing around you except ocean as far as the eye can see.  Now obviously, you would eventually get hungry.  He asks, would it be wrong to assume from the fact of hunger that eatable substances exist – even though you had no observable proof they did in fact exist?  Though one in that state could neither prove they existed or if they did exist that they would be able to fill their hunger with them, yet it would clearly be a reasonable thing to assume that they do exist.  From this Lewis argues that the well-nigh universal longing and hunger for heaven is a good argument that heaven exists (even though this hunger for the eternal is not necessarily proof that you will enjoy it!).[1] 

That is to say, we humans long for eternity because that is what we were made for.  Religion exists because God exists, and the soul exists, and heaven and hell exist.  As Solomon put it in Ecclesiastes, God has put eternity into the hearts of men (Eccl. 3:11, ESV).  We were not made to live under the soul-shrinking philosophy, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Cor. 15:32).  We were not made to be shackled by death. 

And yet . . . death is another universal reality.  It is a universal reality that seems to stand against our hunger for eternity.  If we were meant to live forever, why do we die?  Though we have this innate sense that death is not really natural, that this is not the way things were meant to be, it seems that death is more certain and sure than anything else. 

So it begs for an explanation.  If death is not the way things are supposed to be, how come it is the universal experience of mankind?  A closely related question is this: why is the world so messed up, not only by death but by injustice and evil and suffering on every side?

It is the glory of the gospel that it gives us both the explanation as well as the solution to the problem.  It not only explains why we suffer and die but also how we can overcome both suffering and death.  And we see both these things in Hebrews 2, and especially in verses 14-15.  In these verses, we have the great blessing of the incarnation given to us especially in terms of our Lord’s victory over death and sin.

The Explanation for Death

How then does the Christian message account for death?  The simple explanation is this: even though God created this world “very good” (cf. Gen. 1:31) with human inhabitants who were innocent and blameless, it did not take long for the first pair to try to wrest sovereignty out of God’s hand through disobedience to the Divine command not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  We know from Genesis 3 that the serpent deceived Eve, who then tempted her husband.  Sin entered into the world.  And from sin came death: “for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Gen. 3:19).  The apostle Paul sums it up like this: “Wherefore, as by one man [Adam] sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned” (Rom. 5:12).  Death, both physical and spiritual, is the inevitable consequence of sin.

We see this in the text.  Note that the devil (who is elsewhere identified with the serpent in Genesis 3; see Rev. 12:9) is described in the text as the one “that had the power of death.”  Now how can Satan have the power of death?  Is not life and death solely in the hands of God?  Remember the story of Job – Satan couldn’t even touch Job without God’s permission.  How can Satan then have the power of death?

Satan has the power of death in the sense that he tempted Adam and Eve to sin and through sin death came into the world.  In other words, though the devil does not have the ultimate power of death, yet he is able to deceive people into sin.  And sin brings death.  Here is how our Lord put it to the Pharisees: “Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do.  He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him.  When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it” (Jn. 8:44).  Notice what our Lord says here.  The devil is a murderer from the beginning – a reference no doubt to the Fall.  Satan tempted Eve, Eve enticed Adam, Adam and Eve sinned, and sin brought death.  It is in this way that Satan had the power of death. He is the murderer of the human race.

Thus, when in the text of Hebrews we are pointed to the devil as having the power of death, we are meant to be reminded of the Fall of man into sin.  Sin is the ultimate reason for death, therefore, and is the explanation as to why the world is the way it is.

And it’s not natural.  We can see this from the fact that fear of death brings bondage: in verse 14 we are told that the reason for the bondage was the fear of death, and that this is what we need to be delivered from.  Why?  Because death is not natural.  Our fear of death and the sense of bondage that death brings is a testimony to the reality of sin and its punishment.  Death is not part of the original order of things.  It is an unholy intrusion on God’s good order.  It is the punishment for sin.  Our hatred and fear of death is a witness to this reality.  It is a witness to the fact that the human race is in rebellion against God and under his holy and just wrath.

You see this also in verse 17.  There we are told that our Lord Jesus Christ came “to make reconciliation for the sins of the people.”  Now, as we’ve already pointed out in an earlier sermon, the verb translated “to make reconciliation” could also be translated “to make propitiation.”  It refers to the removal of God’s wrath against sin.  We are reminded again that things are not right with the world, and the reason they are not right is that men and women are sinners by nature and sinners by practice.  Sin brings guilt and guilt brings down upon us God’s just wrath, of which death is part of the penalty for our sin.

And this explains why we fear death and why this fear of death produces bondage for us.  We fear death and we feel in bondage to this fear not only because death is not God’s original purpose for humanity, but also because we have this innate sense that death is the wages of sin (Rom. 6:23).  The apostle Paul thus not only argues for universal sinfulness, but he also argues that there is on some level a universal awareness that our sins deserve death.  He said this is true even of pagans who did not have the special revelation of Scripture.  He argues that they know “the judgment of God, that they which commit such things [the sins listed in the previous verses] are worthy of death” (Rom. 1:32).  As Paul would put it to the Corinthians, “The sting of death is sin” (1 Cor. 15:56).

We are of course aware that there are folks out there who claim very confidently that they do not fear death, even though they want to have nothing to do with the Lord.  They may even claim that they believe that there is no afterlife.  They say that don’t fear any judgment of God, they don’t fear hell, and they don’t fear ceasing to exist when they die.  However, this does not vitiate the argument of Hebrews 2:14.  The Bible recognizes that even though we have God’s law written on our hearts and that conscience testifies to this reality (cf. Rom. 2:13-15), yet it also testifies to another reality.  It tells us that men can harden their hearts, that they can sear their consciences (e.g. 1 Tim. 4:2) and deaden their responsiveness to this awareness that death is an echo of the Fall and a harbinger of God’s judgment.  But it is certainly not a proof that God does not exist or that death is not something to be feared.  It is proof that they have willingly deadened their conscience to reality through repeated sin.

People like this remind me of those who are suffering from leprosy.  Dr. Paul Brand for many years worked among leprosy patients.  He was one of the first doctors to appreciate the fact that one of the main problems with leprosy is that it deadens the nerves and the ability to feel pain.  As a result, people with leprosy will do destructive things to their bodies without knowing it, precisely because they do not feel pain.  It is not, as is often believed, that they lose limbs as a direct result of the disease; they do so most often indirectly as a result of self-inflicted injuries.[2] 

I would say that sin is like leprosy.  In fact, I would say that we have OT justification for this.  It’s the reason why leprosy is dealt with in terms of uncleanness and ritual impurity (Lev. 13-14).  It kept you from God’s presence in the tabernacle under the law of Moses.  In the same way, sin is that spiritual leprosy that defiles us and keeps us from God’s presence and fellowship.  And just because spiritual lepers don’t feel the pain caused by the conscience, this is not a sign that they are in a better state of mental health than those who do.  On the contrary, they are in a worse state.  As a result, they will continue to devastate their souls with the poison of sin without even feeling the sting of it.  If that describes you, then you are not to be congratulated, you are to be pitied and wept over.

On the other hand, it is not necessarily a bad thing to be afraid of death.  In fact, everyone who is apart from Christ and in their right minds should be afraid of death.  It’s not a sign of cowardice; it’s a sign of moral sanity.  Therefore the author of Hebrews does not say that we are delivered from the bondage caused from the fear of death by coming to see that this fear is irrational.  It is not irrational; it is a supremely rational fear.  Nor does he say that we are supposed to rid ourselves of this fear by feeling better about ourselves.  A person whose fingers and toes are falling off should not try to convince themselves that they look better that way.  And you shouldn’t allow the culture, the devil, and your own sinful nature convince you that you are better off for losing the propensity to feel the thrashing of your conscience.

What then should we do?  How is this fear to be dealt with in a realistic fashion?  Our text helps us see how.  And that brings us to our next point.

Deliverance from Death and the Fear of Death

If there is one thing that should be patently obvious to each one of us, it is that death is both inevitable and inescapable.  We are prisoners awaiting execution.  And yet, the Bible describes the godly man and woman as those who do not need to fear death.  So you have verses like this: “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints” (Ps. 116:15).  Or consider the ardent desire of the prophet Balaam, when he considered the death of the righteous: “Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his!” (Num. 23:10).  Or think about the apostle Paul’s estimation of death: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21).  How in the world can you call death gain, especially when death is the penalty for sin?  And if it is right for some to fear death, why is it also right for the righteous to celebrate it, as Paul seems to do?

The answer is to be found in our text.  We do not deliver ourselves from the fear of death.  We are delivered.  And the one who delivers us is Jesus Christ: “through death” our Lord was able to “destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; and deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” (Heb. 2:14-15).  He is “a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people” (17).  Verse 17 tells us then how our Lord was able through death to defeat death.  He did so by becoming a sacrifice for us, by propitiating God’s just wrath against sin, by taking upon himself the judgment due to sin.

Notice that technically the text does not explicitly say that Christ defeated death.  This is of course the obvious and clear implication.  Yes, he defeated death!  Nevertheless, it is important to hear how the author frames our Lord’s victory in terms of what he says explicitly here.  What he says explicitly is that our Lord defeated the devil who had the power of death.  And then it says that as a result of that we are delivered from the fear of death which brings us into bondage.  I do think this is important.  Because the fact of the matter is that even believers will pass through the valley of the shadow of death.  Unless Christ returns, we will die physically.  Our souls will be rent from our bodies.  Christ defeated death, but not in the sense that we no longer have to die.  What he did is this: he defeated the devil, and he took away the fear of death on the cross.  What that means is that the sting of death has been removed.  Death is no longer a judgment but an exodus (cf. Lk. 9:31).  Death no longer has the final word.  For those who are in Christ, death will be followed by resurrection.

We no longer have to fear death because in Christ death is no longer the visible sign of God’s wrath; it is rather the way into his presence.  This is why Paul said that to live is Christ and to die is gain.  The two go together.  If Christ is your life, then death is gain.  It is why our Lord was able to say to his disciples these two seemingly contradictory statements: “and some of you they shall put to death. … But there shall not an hair of your head perish” (Lk. 21:16, 19).  You can die and not lose a single hair because of the reality of resurrection.  What is sown (in death) in dishonor and weakness will be raised (in the resurrection) in glory and power (1 Cor. 15:43).

Why then do we not fear death?  Let me summarize it for you in the following statements.

We no longer need fear death because in Christ death is no longer an instrument of God’s judgment but the entrance into everlasting joy in his presence.  Christ died for us and fully took away the punishment we deserved due to sin (including both temporal and eternal punishments).  Behind the fear of death is the fear of God’s wrath which was fully propitiated in Christ’s death on the cross.  Instead of fear, we are looking at the joy set before us (Heb. 12:2).

We no longer need fear death because the basis for our participation in Christ’s victory is grace not works.  What motivated the cross and the redemption and deliverance from death accomplished there was the grace of God: “that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man” (2:9).  We have nothing to add: we are simply slaves, “all their lifetime subject to bondage” (15).  Christ alone is the champion, the captain of our salvation (10).  We don’t approach death wondering if we did enough to balance the scales in our favor, we simply rest in the finished work of Christ for us.

We no longer need fear death because death is no longer final.  Death is followed by resurrection.  But not just any resurrection.  We know that there will be a general resurrection in which the unrighteous and the righteous will be raised.  “They that have done evil, [will be raised] unto the resurrection of damnation” (Jn. 5:29).  There is no hope in that resurrection.  But that is not what those in Christ look forward to: “they that have done good [through grace, will be raised] unto the resurrection of life” (Jn. 5:29).  What the wicked are raised to is not truly life; that alone belongs to the righteous.

This not only has implications for the future but for the present as well.  This is Paul’s point in 1 Cor. 15:57-58, which reads, “But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory [over death] through our Lord Jesus Christ.  Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, unmovable, always abounding the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.”  This is a significant statement, because in the previous verses he had argued that if Christ had not risen from the dead, everything is in vain (cf. 13-19).  In fact, if that is the case, “we are of all men most miserable” (19).  But because Christ rose, and in him we will rise, our labor now is not in vain. 

We no longer need fear death because God will bring us through it.  I heard a prominent theologian once say that he didn’t fear death, but he did fear dying.  I concur.  It is a fearful process.  However, we know that God will not abandon us in death.  Jesus is our merciful and faithful high priest; and having suffered the travail of death he is able to help those who are passing through the veil of death (Heb. 2:18).  He will hold us as we die, and he will meet us when our souls have departed these bodies.  When Stephen was dying, he saw Christ standing at the Father’s right hand, to welcome him as he departed into his presence (Acts 7:56). 

This is true for all who are in Christ.  If you belong to him, if you have repented of your sin and turned to Christ in faith, if he is the captain of your salvation, then you have every reason to hope.  There is hope in no other.  But there is fulness of hope in Christ.  What a Savior!  He has conquered death, he has taken away its sting, he has “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Tim. 1:10).

Believer, if this is true, how could we ever turn back to other things?  To whom shall we go?  Only Christ has the words of eternal life (Jn. 6:68).  Shall we turn to a culture which makes science the final arbiter of truth?  Then there is no hope for any life beyond the grave.  Scientific materialism can not only offer no hope, it tells you that there can be no hope after death.  What about other religions?  The common theme that ties all other religions together is that in some way or other they make salvation a matter of works.  And this inevitably undermines assurance and hope.  Standing against its alternatives, Christianity announces sure hope in Christ for all who belong to him.  It can do this because salvation is not through our works but through Jesus Christ and what he has done for us by his perfect life and his atoning death.  He is the captain of our salvation.  Through Christ the Father is bringing many sons to glory.  We not only embrace Christ for ourselves, we welcome others to join us.  As the hymn puts it,

“Oh who will come and go with us/ and help us sing that song/ the song of Moses and the Lamb/ the song of God’s dear Son.”

[1] “A man’s physical hunger does not prove that that man will get any bread; he may die of starvation on a raft in the Atlantic. But surely a man’s hunger does prove that he comes of a race which repairs its body by eating and inhabits a world where eatable substances exist. In the same way, though I do not believe (I wish I did) that my desire for Paradise proves that I shall enjoy it, I think it a pretty good indication that such a thing exists and that some men will. A man may love a woman and not win her; but it would be very odd if the phenomenon called “falling in love” occurred in a sexless world.”  From his sermon, “The Weight of Glory,” see  

[2] I highly recommend the biography on Dr. Paul Brand by Dorothy Clarke Wilson, Ten Fingers for God.

Monday, July 5, 2021

The Humanity of Christ (Hebrews 2:10-18)

Today is Independence Day here in the US (July 4, 2021).  Though there are many reasons for us to be discouraged about where our country has been and where it is currently at, we ought also to thank God for the many freedoms we enjoy today.  And for the fact that they didn’t just drop out of heaven; they didn’t appear out of nothing.  We ought to appreciate the risk that those men took and the sufferings that they endured by signing their names to the Declaration of Independence.  Because of their bold step, they vouchsafed for us the political liberty that we enjoy today. 

And yet, there is a freedom that the Bible talks about that is infinitely more important than the political freedom we enjoy here today.  Paul talks about it to the Galatians: “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free, and be not entangled again in the yoke of bondage” (Gal. 5:1).  Paul is not talking there about political liberty; he is rather talking about the freedom we have from the curse of God’s law.  When the signers of the Declaration put their names to that document, they became at that moment rebels against King George of England.  But through our sins we have become rebels against the King of the universe.  Our position is infinitely worse than theirs.  And whereas they had a chance of defeating the armies of King George (and they did), we have no such prayer.  In short, there is no lasting hope for any person who is in a state of opposition to God and under his just wrath.

Except that God didn’t send his armies of angels to destroy us.  Instead, he sent his Son to die for us in order to secure for us the liberty we once threw away through sin.  This is what we are talking about here in the book of Hebrews.  In particular, it is a reminder to the Hebrew Christians that they were in danger of neglecting and despising the most precious freedom one could possibly enjoy: the freedom of knowing God reconciled in Christ, this “so great salvation” (2:3).

The book of Hebrews is incredibly balanced, at least from a pastoral point of view.  The writer not only warns his readers of God’s judgment, he also holds up for them the glory of Christ to see so that they will be attracted to it.[1]  There is great wisdom in that because you must not only flee from the wrath to come, but you must also flee to Christ.  There are all sorts of people who are trying to get into heaven – fleeing from the wrath to come – by being deeply religious or spiritual or by doing lots of “good works.”  But they are not fleeing to Christ, and that’s tragic because there is no other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved (Acts 4:12).  Being religious without Christ has no real value in the end.  The apostle Paul lamented that many of his fellow Jews had “a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge.  For they, being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God” (Rom. 10:2-3).  Of course, to submit to the righteousness of God is to believe in Jesus (4).  Those who do not are not saved (1). 

So even though this chapter began with a stern and serious warning of God’s judgment on those who drift away from the faith, the writer knows that this is not enough.  We need to see the glory of Christ as Lord and Savior in such a way that we are drawn to him.  And that is why we have the verses before us.  They are meant to help you “taste and see that the Lord is good” and that therefore “blessed is the man that trustest in him” (Ps. 34:8). 

In these verses, the writer is expanding on his argument in verses 5-9.  Remember that in those verses, he was arguing that it is no argument against the supremacy of Christ over the angels that he became a man.  However, it is one thing to see that there is nothing inherently wrong with the incarnation, it is another thing to see that it was necessary.  And this is what is happening in verses 10-18.  You see this theme struck both at the beginning and at the end of the text.  In verse 10, he begins by saying, “For it became him . . . to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings.”  To suffer was a part of the human experience of our Lord.  And this, our author explains, was fitting and appropriate.  Then, in verse 17, he writes, “Wherefore in all things it behooved him to be made like his brethren.”  It had to be this way, is what is being said.

Of course, the question is, why was it necessary?  And the answer is that it was necessary so that our Lord might become the captain of our salvation so that God might be able to bring many sons to glory (10).  This verse summarizes the argument in the following verses.  In these verses, then, we have three things.  First, we have the necessity of the incarnation (it became him).  Second, we have the extent of the incarnation (to the point of suffering).  Third, we have the blessings of the incarnation (he brings many sons to glory).  [We will deal with the first two points today, and the third point more fully later.]

The Necessity of the Incarnation

The necessity is stated at the outset, but the actual reasons for it come in the following verses.  The basic argument is this: for Jesus to become our Savior, he had to become one of us.  You see this in verse 11: “For both he that sanctifieth and they who are sanctified are all of one.”  The one who sanctifies is Jesus and the ones he sanctifies are his people.  They are said to be “all of one” which means they share a common human nature.  The point is that for our Lord to be the one who sanctifies and cleanses his people, he had to share their nature. 

Now why is that the case?  Why did our Lord have to become incarnate in order to sanctify his people?  And the answer is that in order to sanctify us he had to participate in our sufferings and die: “Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil” (14).  He had to die for us in order to defeat death for us, and that meant that he had to become human and mortal.

Of course, that leads to another question, which is: why did he have to die in order to defeat death?  And we see the answer in verse 17: “Wherefore in all things it behooved him to be made like his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of his people.”  That is a very significant statement.  It tells us that we are to interpret what our Lord did on the cross in terms of sacrifice, for he was a priest to God for us.  As our priest, he made reconciliation for our sins, or, more accurately, he propitiated God’s just wrath against us on account of our sins.  And he did this by dying for us, by becoming a substitutionary sacrifice for us.  As Paul put it very succinctly in his letter to the Corinthians, he died for our sins (1 Cor. 15:3).   

The basic assumption here is, of course, that only someone who shares our nature could stand in our place and satisfy God’s just requirements on our behalf.  Our author makes this very point again in 10:4, when he says, “For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins.”  Why is it not possible?  It is not possible because there is no real correspondence between an animal and a human.  Humans sin, and it is human death, not animal death, which is required by that sin.  Only a human could be a substitute for another human.

But this is not the only reason why it was necessary that Jesus become incarnate.  It wasn’t sufficient that just anyone stand in our place.  For the reality is that any other human would not have gotten the job done.  Why?  Because any other man or woman would not have been worthy or able to bear the punishment of the sins of the “many sons” who are being brought to glory.  Consider, for example, what the psalmist says: “Truly no man can ransom another, or give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of their life is costly and can never suffice, that he should live on forever and never see the pit” (Ps. 49:7-9, ESV).  It is just not possible.  No one can bear God’s wrath against sin.  But who could do such a thing?

Only one person: Jesus Christ.  For he is not only a perfect human being, fit to represent us, but he is also the eternal Son of God, and therefore able to bear the infinite punishment due to sin.  This is why our Lord is called the “captain” of our salvation.  I love that word.  It is use in three other places in the NT, every time with reference to our Lord: twice in Acts (3:15; 5:31) where it is translated “Prince” and twice in Hebrews (2:10; 12:2), with the translations “captain” and “author.”  It carries the connotation of “champion”[2] and this is what I think best gets at what our writer is saying.  Jesus is our champion in battle against sin and death.

Ancient armies used to decide the outcome of a battle by substituting champions who would represent each side, much like the combat between David and Goliath.  In our case, the only champion who was able to stand in for us was Jesus Christ, and he has done just that.  He has stood in our place and defeated the one who had the power of death, the devil (14).  And in defeating the devil, he conquered death for us.

Here we see just how important it is that Jesus is both fully God and fully man.  If you take away either his humanity or his divinity from him, he cannot stand in for us as the captain of our salvation.  Take away his humanity and he couldn’t be a fit representative for us.  Take away his divinity, and he wouldn’t be able to fully propitiate God’s wrath against sin.  Which is why those who reject either Christ’s humanity (like the early Docetists) or his divinity (like the ancient Arians or the modern-day Jehovah’s Witnesses) end up making salvation a matter of works rather than grace.  For if Jesus is not a man, then he really couldn’t stand in for us and so it still remains for us to make things right with God.  And if he is not God, then he couldn’t have fully satisfied God’s justice on our behalf and so it still remains for us to make things right with God.

The Extent of the Incarnation

The next thing we see in this text is the extent of the incarnation.  How human did Jesus become?  Hebrews tells us that he became fully human.  He entered into every aspect of human existence – with the exception of sin – by taking to himself a true human body and soul.  He entered fully into the physical and emotional and volitional experiences of mankind.  He knows what it is like to suffer, for he became the captain of our salvation “through sufferings” (10).  He knows what it is like to die, for he destroyed death “through death,” by dying for us (14). 

In fact, the author here quotes several OT passages in order to underline this reality.  In verses 12-13, he quotes from Psalm 22 and Isaiah 8.  Psalm 22 is one of those obvious Messianic passages.  It opens with the words, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1), the very words that our Lord uttered on the cross as he bore the punishment for sin that we deserved (cf. Mt. 27:46).  As you go through the Psalm, we see other ways in which the experience of the psalmist foreshadowed that of the Messiah.  The way his enemies mocked him (Ps. 22:7-8; cf. Mt. 27:42-43), the way they parted his garments among them (Ps. 22:18; cf. Mt. 27:35), and the general description of his suffering all point to the death that our Lord suffered on the cross.  And yet at the end, there is this note of exultation.  Death was not the end of our Lord, for he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven.  And in his state of glorification, he says, “I will declare thy [God’s] name unto my brethren in the midst of the church will I sing praise unto thee” (Heb 2:12; cf. Ps. 22:22).  He can call the people of God “my brethren” precisely because he entered into every aspect of their suffering.  He identified with us in the most intimate manner possible.

Then he quotes from Isaiah 8:17-18.  In these verses, Isaiah was speaking of himself, his children and his disciples.  But the context is a Messianic context.  In 8:14, we are told that the Lord “shall be for a sanctuary; but for a stone of stumbling and a rock of offence to both the houses of Israel,” a text which is directly applied to our Lord in the NT (cf. 1 Pet. 2:8).  Then in the next chapter (9:6-7) we are told of the Son who would be given who would take the throne of David and rule forever, the Mighty God.  This again is another obvious reference to the Christ.  It is with that context in mind that the author of Hebrews applies Isa. 8:17-18 to Jesus.  The first passage points us again to the humanity of Christ, for although he is eternally God, when he became incarnate, he entered fully into the experience of humanity.  As a man, he “grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man” (Lk. 2:52).  He learned obedience through the things which he suffered (Heb. 5:8).  And in his humanity, he had to put his trust in God the Father for the strength he needed to complete his task: “And again, I will put my trust in him” (2:12). 

Passages like this remind us that our Lord didn’t cheat when it came to his humanity.  Though our Lord never ceased to be God, he did not allow his divine nature to interfere with his experiencing the limitations of humanity (cf. Phil. 2:8).  As a man, therefore, he had to put his trust in God his Father.  In verse 14, when our author says that “as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same,” he is underlining as emphatically as he can his identity with us in the frailty of our humanness (excepting sin of course).  So, when he was hungry, he experienced hunger like you and I experience it.  When he was exhausted, he experienced tiredness the same way we would experience it.  When the nails were driven through his hands, he experienced pain in the same way we would have experienced it.  And through it all, he put his trust in God for the strength he needed to persevere, just like we must do when we face the storms and trials of life.

It was as a fellow-truster-in-God that our Lord says, “Behold I and the children which God hath given me” (2:12).  Here again we see the closest identification of our Lord with his disciples.  It ought to remind us of what our Lord himself said in John 6: “I came down from heaven [there is the incarnation], not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me.  And this is the Father’s will which hath sent me, that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day” (Jn. 6:37-38).  He is able to resurrect us at the last day precisely because he identified fully with us and was therefore able in our place to keep God’s law that we broke and satisfy God’s justice that we deserved.

This is also the point of verse 16: “For verily he took not on him the nature of angels; but he took on him the seed of Abraham.”  The point seems obvious, but there is something we might miss.  The point is not only that he could not have redeemed us if he had been an angel (which, by the way, he is not!); he had to become a man.  But we might also miss the fact that God didn’t have to save us – for he didn’t save the fallen angels.  He left them to perish.  So might he have done for us.  We should never think that God somehow owes humanity a second chance or that he owes us a shot at salvation.  He doesn’t.  He could have justly left us to perish.  We are rebels, traitors to God.  And it really ought to surprise us that God has in fact saved us, because it required the suffering and the death of the Son of God.  Why would God do that for miserable creatures?  The distance between you and a worm is not so great when compared to the distance between God and man.  And yet, as Isaac Watts put it, God has done all this, “for such a worm as I.” 

We see this note sounded again in verse 17: “Wherefore in all things it behooved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people.”  He does not want us to think that there is some aspect of our experience that Jesus didn’t enter into as a man.  I may have suffered in some ways that you have not; and you will have suffered in ways that I have not.  We can sympathize with each other, but neither of us can really say that we fully understand what the other is going through.  But if I understand this text correctly, it is saying that our Lord so identified with us in our pain and suffering (Jesus “took our infirmities and bare our sicknesses,” Mt. 8:17), that we can take them to one who can truly sympathize with us.  Isn’t this what our author explicitly says later?  “For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.  Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:15-16).  In all points!

There is another point we need to emphasize.  With suffering comes the inevitable temptation to become disillusioned or bitter against God.  And then if Satan can’t tempt us away from God through pain, he will try to do it with illicit pleasures.  The point is that temptation is often temptation to sin.  And yet, as it says in Heb 4:15, our Lord was tempted in all points like as we are, yet without sin.  And then in our text, “For in that he himself hath suffered being tempted, he is able to succour [help] them that are tempted” (2:18). The question that comes is this: how can our Lord truly identify with us and help us in temptation when our temptation is almost always accompanied by sin, and our Lord never sinned?

The question is ill-informed, however.  It turns out that it is precisely because our Lord did not sin that he can say that he was tempted in all points like as we are.  Let me put it like this as an illustration.  Suppose you have two prisoners of war, both who are tortured by their captors in order to get information out of them.  One of the prisoners eventually breaks and gives the enemy the information they want.  He does this of course to stop them from hurting him.  But the other does not break and so they keep on at him until eventually they have to give up.  Which one of the prisoners, do you think, suffered the most?  The one who broke or the one who did not break?  The one who gave in, or the one who did not give in?  Can the one who gave in tell the one who did not, “You can’t really understand what I went through”?  No!  Actually, the one who did not break is able to say to the one who did, “Though you can’t understand fully what I went through, I can fully understand what you went through!”

In the same way, when it comes to temptation, our Lord can fully understand what we go through, not because he gave in but precisely because he didn’t.  Thank God he was tempted, “yet without sin”!  And that means that he knows how to give us help in every hour of need.  Do not think that you can bring a problem to the Lord that he does not know how to help you with.  He can strengthen you and give you the grace that you need at precisely the point that you need it. 

Moreover, it is not just that his experience of shared humanity merely enables him to help us (cf. 18).  No, it motivates him to help us.  Is this not the point of those words “that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest” (17)?  He is merciful, which means that his heart is moved by our afflictions and our suffering.  Now that does not mean that if we ask him to take them away he will do so, because he knows that sometimes we need that thorn in the flesh (2 Cor. 12:7-10).  And yet we should never impute to the Lord a cold and unfeeling heart.  On the contrary, what the prophet says of God’s relation to Israel of old is equally true – if not more so! – of the brethren of Christ: “In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them: in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; and he bare them, and carried them all the days of old” (Isa. 63:9).  Or, as the psalmist put it, “The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy.  He will not always chide: neither will he keep his anger for ever.  He hath not dealt with us after our sins; nor rewarded us according to our iniquities.  For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward them that fear him.  As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us.  Like as a father pitieth his children, so the LORD pitieth them that fear him” (Ps. 103:8-13).

And we also need to remember that whatever sufferings we are going through, they are at best temporary, if we belong to Christ (cf. 1 Pet. 1:6).  As the apostle Paul put it, our sufferings are “but for a moment” (2 Cor. 4:17), especially in light of eternity (18).  God knows this.  He will never keep his anger forever.  Our sufferings will one day fade into forgetfulness as we enter into the joy and glory of our Lord.

And then there is that word “faithful.”  He is faithful: he never forsakes his children; he never goes back on his promises.  The one who promises us eternal life in Jesus Christ is the one who cannot lie (Tit. 1:2).  I love the way the book of Joshua ends: “There failed not ought of any good thing which the LORD has spoken unto the house of Israel; all came to pass (Josh. 21:45).  There will never be a moment when the Lord will forsake us, “for he hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee” (Heb. 13:5).  I know that sometimes it feels like the Lord is not with us.  There can be very dark times that the Christian goes through.  And yet we must not allow our emotions which are so changeable and uncertain dictate to our faith.  When we are in darkness let us follow the exhortation of the prophet: “Who is among you that feareth the LORD, that obeyeth the voice of his servant, that walketh in darkness and hath no light? Let him trust in the name of the LORD and stay upon his God” (Isa. 50:10).  We can do this because we have a merciful and faithful high priest.

Let me end with this thought.  How do you know that Jesus is for you?  How do you know that he is your merciful and faithful high priest?  Another way to put that question is: how do I know I am one of the sons God is bringing to glory?  To answer that, let’s go back to verse 13: “Behold I and the children which thou hast given me.”  As I said before, that ought to remind us of what our Lord said in John 6, for there he also talks about those whom the Father gave to him (Jn. 6:37-39).  But who are those people?  They are precisely those who see the Son and believe on him (Jn. 6:40), who come to Christ by faith (45), who see him as the bread and water of life (36).  Have you come to Christ?  Do you believe on him?  If you have come and if you do believe: keep coming and keep believing!  And if you have not come to Christ, hear his words: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me: for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Mt. 11:28-30).  Come to Christ!

[1] R. Kent Hughes makes a similar point at the beginning of chapter 5 in his book, Hebrews: An Anchor for the Soul (Crossway, 2015).

[2] William Lane, Hebrews 1-8 [WBC]

No Compromise (Rev. 2:12-29)

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