Breakfast with the Bible: Hebrews 2

Chelmsford Cathedral 15 April 2018 (part of a series, see also Hebrews 1, Hebrews 5, and Hebrews 6.1-12)

JESUS – GOD’S MAN FOR US

In Hebrews 1 the focus is on Jesus and his divinity. In Hebrews 2 the focus is on Jesus and his humanity. “The mystery of the humanity of Christ, that he sunk himself into our flesh, is beyond all human understanding” (Luther)

Jesus, says the writer to the Hebrews, “for a little while was made lower than the angels” (2.9). What did this mean?

1. JESUS BECAME ONE WITH US

Since, therefore the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things” (v14); “he became like us and shared our human nature” (GNB). Jesus really became one of us. He wasn’t just half a man – he became fully man.  He was “a complete man” (Augustine).

Examine the Gospel records and you will see that Jesus knew what it was like for the spirit to be willing, but the flesh to be weak. Jesus wasn’t ‘superman’. Jesus got tired, just like you and I get tired. Jesus didn‘t pretend to be asleep in the boat when the storm raged, he was sound asleep, absolutely knackered from all his labours. When Jesus hung on the Cross, he experienced to the full the pain and the agony of crucifixion. He bled when a spear was thrust through his side.  He really was one of us.

2. HE SUFFERED LIKE US

Three times here there is a reference to the passion (pathema/pascho) of Jesus:

  • the suffering of death” (2.9). It is in this context that the writer goes on to say that Jesus “tasted death for everyone”. The word “taste” can suggest simply a ‘sip’ as though death is not to be feared. Chrysostom, for instance, said: “As a physician, though not needing to taste the food prepared for the sick man, yet in his care for him tastes first himself, that he may persuade the sick man with confidence to venture on the food; so, since all men were afraid of death, in persuading them to take courage against death, he tasted it also himself though he had no need to do”. But this is to minimize Jesus death. The reference is to Jesus experiencing to the full the reality of death. Jesus in the Gospels speaking of his drinking ‘the cup of suffering’, and in so doing experiencing to the full God’s judgment upon human sinfulness – and that is to be feared. As Calvin said: the author “means rather that Christ died for us, and that by taking on himself what was due to us, he redeemed us from the curse of death”.
  • Jesus, the “pioneer” (archegos: see 12.2 & Acts 3.15 – arche = first, ago = to lead. GNB “the one who leads them to salvation”; Witherington: “the trailblazer”; FFB “pathfinder”) of our salvation, was made “perfect through sufferings” (2.10). This is a puzzling expression. In what sense did Jesus need to be made ‘perfect’ (from the Greek verb teleioo = ‘to bring to its goal’) ? It has been suggested that Hebs is referring to the ‘perfection of testedness’, which does not cast any doubt on any previous ‘perfection’. Witherington: “When Christ completed his earthly career by dying on the cross he became perfectly equipped and completely fit for a whole series of tasks, including that of being the believer’s heavenly high priest… Furthermore, he was equipped to be their model and moral exemplar of how to live a life of faithfulness despite pressure, persecution and even execution.”
  • Jesus was “tested by what he suffered” (2.18). What sufferings the author had in mind we don’t know. He later speaks of Jesus offering up “prayers and tears with loud cries and tears” (Hebs 5.7). “God clothed himself in a vile man’s flesh so that he might be weak enough to suffer” (John Donne).  And suffer he did. Life was no easier for Jesus because he was the Son of God – indeed, the very reverse was true

3. HE BECAME A BROTHER TO US

 Jesus “in bringing many children to glory” (2.10)…“is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters” (2.11).

Thomas Long: “The Preacher is saying that when the gaze of the eternal Son of God encompasses a criminal on death row, when the glorified Son sees a homeless woman crawling into a cardboard box to keep from freezing in the night, when the Lord of all sees a man robbed of dignity and purpose by schizophrenia, when the divine heir of all things sees a mother weeping over the death of her child or a man battling the last savage assault of cancer or the swollen body of a child slowly starving to death, he does not see a charity case, a painful victim, or a hopeless cause. He sees a brother, he sees a sister, and he is not shamed to call us his ‘bothers and sisters’ (2.11). The Son of God does not wag his had at misery and cluck, ‘There but for the grace of God go I’. Instead he says, ‘There because of the grace of God, I am’.” 

THREE CONSEQUENCES

1. HE IS ABLE TO DEAL WITH OUR SINS

2.17: “He had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful and merciful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of his people

A priest (Latin: pontifex – bridge-builder) is a person who represents their fellows before God, who acts and prays on their behalf.  Jesus is our priest, in the sense that he is our representative. This is what makes his death on the Cross so special. When Jesus died on that Cross, he died no individual death – rather he died for us, he died in our place.

Jesus, because he was truly man, was able to be our representative. An analogy might help. In rugby football, only those born in England or have parents or grandparents who were born in England, are able to play for England.  What’s true of England is true of Ireland, Scotland and Wales. To represent your country, you have to be a fellow-countryman. In similar fashion, for Jesus to represent us, he had to be one of us.

It is precisely because he became one of us “in every respect” (kata panta – GNB/REB “in every way”; The Message “he had to enter into every detail of human life”; Craddock: “He was as we are, no pretensions, no appearances, no exemptions – save sin”) that he was able to go to the Cross and deal with our sins.

3. HE IS ABLE TO FREE US FROM THE POWER OF DEATH

 2.14,15: Jesus shared our flesh and blood “so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death

The ancient world lived in fear of death.  And so too does the modern world. Death has been described as “the great human repression, the universal complex.  Dying is the reality that man dares not face and to escape which he summons all his resources… Death is muffled up in illusions” (HP Lovell Cocks). Even in our so-called open society death is still the last thing we talk about. Doctors hate telling people they are terminally ill.  So too do the families of the terminally ill hate telling their loved ones they are going to do.  Instead, we pretend that they are going to get better.

But Jesus, precisely because he became one of us and then died for us, has been able to free us from the fear of death.

3. HE IS ABLE TO HELP US IN THE HERE AND NOW

 2.18: “Because he himself was tested (GNB “tempted”; REB “passed through the test of suffering”) by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

Witherington: “It is quite likely that our author is not thinking here of temptations in general, but more specifically of the trial of being pressured, persecuted, suffering for one’s faith…. Suffering is a trial that, like the fear of death, can tempt the person to become unfaithful to what one believes, to that which one has previously committed one’s life. Jesus demonstrated that one can endure and prevail over such trials, and furthermore he does not leave the believer to do so on his own.”

Attridge: “The one who has led the way can now lend a hand… Christ ‘is able… to give aid because as a fellow sufferer, he is merciful and sympathetic, but also because, by his suffering, he has been brought to that position of honour and glory whence true help comes”.

This thought is developed in 4.15,16: “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace in time of need. Jesus offers more than a listening ear. In the first place he offers “mercy”.  I.e. we can come in confidence and ask for forgiveness – we may be cold-shouldered by others, but Jesus never cold-shoulders anybody. He also offers “grace” in the sense that he gives to those who turn to him the strength and the power to deal with all the challenges which come to us in life. Christian faith is not simply an ambulance which follows in the wakes of battle to deal with casualties – it is the armour which wins victories. In all the ups and downs of life Jesus is with us by his Spirit.  He is more than ready to help in the temptations & difficulties of life – because he has been one of us!

FOR REFLECTION:

  1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “If Jesus Christ is not true God, how could he HELP us? If he is not true man, how could he help US?”
  2. Leon Morris: “For Christians, as for their Master, there is perfection in suffering. Little as we may like them, the fires of affliction are the place in which qualities of Christian character are forged”.
  3. Martin Luther: “He who fears death or is unwilling to die is not a Christian to a sufficient degree; for those who fear death still lack faith in the resurrection, since they love this life more than they love the life to come… He who does not die willingly should not be called a Christian.”

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