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. 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” 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!