Hebrews (Part 04) – Better than the Prophets
The author of Hebrews has emphasized the Sonship of Christ as the reason for his superiority to angels. In patrimony, position, and privilege, Christ is better precisely because he is Son. That means that the discussion does not dwell on Christ’s superiority in his deity. Of course, he is God, and God, of course, is supreme. The discussion rather promotes a view of Christ in his humanity—thus, the role he takes as Son. In his humanity Christ was obedient in fulfilling all the covenant obligations. In his humanity Christ was even obedient to the will of the Father in offering himself up in death. That obedience of Christ was the physical demonstration of his faith in God throughout his earthly life. The result was that after dying with the guilt of our sin on him, God would not leave his holy, righteous soul in death (Acts 2:27). Christ, in his humanity, was resurrected and, by that resurrection, was declared to be the Son of God. We see, then, that it was obedience in faith by which he qualified as Son.
Suffering was necessary because sin exists, and sin buffets humanity. Christ became human, and in his humanity, then, he suffered. Had he not submitted to suffering, he could not have been human. This is the point of the second half of Hebrews 2. Verse 10 tells us that God found it necessary to have his Son suffer in order to make him perfect or complete in his role as human Covenant-Keeper. Thus, in verse 11 we learn that the one sanctified (Christ) and the ones who are sanctified (men and women of faith) are all of or from one—God. Christ is brother the next verse says. But note that Christ as brother is not in the sense of Christian brother or sister. We are not talking about, as is customarily mentioned among Christians, being a brother or sister IN Christ. The sense of the passage is discussing Christ’s humanity. Thus, as a human he is the same (a brother) as the rest of humanity. The quoted verse from Psalm 22 backs this up. That Psalm is a picture of Christ in his agony on the cross, accomplishing salvation. In verse 22 of the Psalm, Christ declares that he will speak the praise of God to his brothers. In the flow of the Psalm, salvation accomplished will be proclaimed to those in need. Therefore, these brothers that are mentioned include humanity in general. In the following verse (v.13) in Hebrews 2, the author also points to Isaiah 8:17-18 to show first, the faithfulness of the Son and then again his filial relationship to other children of God.
Verses 14 and to the end of the chapter sum up the importance of Christ being fully human. Christ had to be fully human to participate in death. God doesn’t die. Christ had to be human to die. Verse 16 is of particular note. Most modern translations (NIV, NASB, ESV, HCSB) provide the wrong sense to this verse. The Greek word epilambanomai can have the sense of “to help” (thus, the modern translation as “help”). But more predominantly, the sense is “to take hold of” or “to attain.” For example, in I Timothy 6:12 we read, “Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called….” Or in Luke 23:26, concerning Christ’s crucifiers, we find that “as they led him away, they seized one Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, and laid on him the cross, to carry it behind Jesus.” The KJV, therefore, captures the correct sense of Hebrews 2:16 in its translation: “For verily he took not on him the nature of angels; but he took on him the seed of Abraham.” This sense fits our discussion of Christ becoming fully human in order to die and accomplish our salvation.
Chapter 3 begins addressing the epistle’s intended readership as “holy brothers.” What is the author’s intent with this phrase? Is the address meant to Christians only? We may think that the term “brother,” a common Christian designation among those of God’s family, coupled with “holy” would surely designate only those who are born-again believers. However, I do not believe that is the case here. Skipping ahead to verse 12 we see clearly that among these “holy brothers” some may be unbelieving—not a characteristic of a Christian. (For a discussion of why Christians cannot lose salvation, see the summary blog titled Romans 8 – 6/5/08.)
These holy brothers are the addressees of the letter—the Jewish members of the church in Rome. Therefore, they are a group to whom the author pays respect of reverential awe. But they are what we would term the visible church—the group of professed believers. Not all those in the visible church are Christians. Being a Christian is a matter of the heart before God—not something that is readily visible in a material way. Those who are members of good churches may, at times, fall away, indicating that true faith in Christ was never within their hearts in the first place. These are the people who concern the author of Hebrews. The address is to this Roman group of professing Christians, some of whom may not hold in their hearts what they confess with their lips. Chapter 3 is a warning to those who join in with the community of believers but who do not possess saving faith. They are the ones who must take care “lest there be in any of [them] an evil, unbelieving heart, leading [them] to fall away from the living God” (3:12).
The first few verses of chapter 3 focus on a comparison of Jesus to Moses. Actually, two analogies are given to show Christ’s superiority. One remarks on the greater glory due Christ as the builder of the house than that due Moses who is part of the house. The second analogy goes further to explain Christ’s superiority by comparing his status as Son to that of Moses as servant. Since Moses is considered preeminent among the prophets, the author of Hebrews, then, through this analogy, completes the second step in showing Christ’s superiority. Chapters 1 and 2 focused on Christ, in his humanity, as better than the angels. Chapters 3 and 4 discuss Christ, again, in his humanity, as better than the prophets.
The bulk of chapters 3 and 4 draw an analogy of the visible church, with its membership of professing believers (albeit some who may not possess true faith), to the children of Israel as they journeyed from Egypt to Canaan (the Promised Land). Their journey parallels what we see in the visible church today.
Children of Israel Visible Church
RED SEA Baptism
WILDERNESS Earthly Life
Those in the visible church who have left the world to associate with the professed fellowship of God’s people, who have been baptized, but who may not be saved, parallel the children of Israel who died before entering Canaan.
But just as the obedience of Christ showed his faith in God, the disobedience of the Children of Israel betokened their lack of faith in God. The author of Hebrews points this out in quoting Psalm 95. In that Psalm, David says, “They always go astray in their hearts,” which moves God to say, “They shall not enter my rest.” Of course, in the picture presented in the writings of Moses, the “rest” into which they did not enter was the Promised Land of Canaan. However, we must remember that that was only a picture of a greater spiritual reality. God’s rest is the spiritual reality that remains even now. Hebrews 4:3 ends saying that God’s rest came about at the foundation of the world. That rest—the loving relationship humanity could have with God apart from work, suffering, and death—was established then and is available now. The children of Israel failed to find that rest because of their lack of faith. The author of Hebrews warns those in the visible church today not merely to associate with those who profess Christ, but to examine their hearts and believe.
Through faith “we who have believed enter that rest” (4:3). That word “enter” is in the present tense. This rest is not a place to which we will go. God’s rest—God’s Sabbath—is that relationship with him established through faith by the righteousness of Christ. And as we grow in sanctification and knowledge in our relationship with him, we learn more of that rest by learning to give up our own work and struggle through more perfect reliance on our God.
The spiritual reality depicted by Israel’s journey, then, was not merely for the visible church. The spiritual reality involves everyone individually.
Children of Israel Spiritual Reality
EGYPT Cursed State
RED SEA Declaration of Faith
WILDERNESS Trying of our Faith
Still, the author of Hebrews probes the hearts of his/her listeners. “You cannot hide,” we are told. The word of God—that awesome divining message, mission, revelation of the Spirit—knows the heart, knows the intent, and discerns the matter of faith.