Sunday, January 1, 2017

Jesus, Our Brother, Kind and Good

January 6 is the day celebrated across Christendom as Epiphany, the official end of the Christmas season. Traditionally, this day is said to be the day on which the Wise Men arrived at Bethlehem to see the Christ child. Because of the Magi's gifts, it is associated with giving, and because it was the first revelation of Christ to the gentiles, it is also associated with missions and with the idea of light.

But, when we think about it, what did the Magi see? They came from a far country, prompted by something, seeking something, something significant to make them come so far and bring such great gifts. And what they found was the baby of a poor woman in a little town in a little, backcorner of Rome. It was before a little baby that these rich and wise men from a far country bowed down and worshiped. It was before a pauper's child that they offered up their rich gifts. This is the paradox which begins on Christmas, continues through Epiphany, and culminates on a dark Friday when all the honor in Earth and Heaven was given to a condemned criminal dying in shame.

This was one of the things about Christianity which the Jews of the first century had difficulty in accepting--and, not without reason, for it is something very difficult to accept. Good men were not supposed to suffer. The more righteous we are, the more right things should be--the closer to God we are, the more our life should be blessed and peaceful as God's. Abraham was a friend of God, and God blessed Him. We see this idea even in the story of Job, which continually revolves around the theme that Job, as a righteous man, seemed an unlikely candidate for the suffering he experienced. And the attitude is not limited to a certain class of people 'way back then'. We still feel the same thing often--a feeling of injustice, of incongruity about the suffering of good people. When something terrible happens to a friend, we instinctively respond, “But they're such a good person. They've never harmed a soul.” That was their attitude as it is ours. Good men should not suffer and people who do suffer should not be good. The chosen one, the Messiah, should not be a helpless baby crawling around on the floor of a poor man's house. The hope of the world should not be in a dying criminal. The Son of God should not be the Son of Man; much less the son of a poor man.

The book of Hebrews was written primarily to deal with Jewish objections to Christianity, showing Jewish Christians why they were right to stick by their newfound faith rather than returning to Judaism. And this was one of their objections: Why would God become Man, and not just any man, but a poor man, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, a man who lived a short, sad life and then died helpless and in shame? Hebrews is primarily concerned with showing the superiority of Christ--that Christ is higher in authority than the angels; that Christ, as a priest, is superior to Aaron; that Christ, as the founder of the church, is greater than Moses; that Christ brings us to a better promised land than that of Joshua; and that Christ's sacrifice is better than the sacrifices of the Old Testament sacrificial system. But this theme of superiority has to answer the problem of Christ's suffering, His poverty, His degradation. The writer to Hebrews deals with this objection in Hebrews 2:6-18, deals with it by turning the objection on its head. Not only Christ superior despite His sufferings and degradation, He is actually superior because of His sufferings and degradation.

1. Christ's Exaltation as Man
The first point to understand is the fact that Jesus was Man, was a human being. This is the essential problem and the essential point. If God became a man, that would be a tremendous degradation, a tremendous step-down. If Jesus had lived as the greatest, richest, most important, and most powerful man on Earth, this still would be an incomprehensible degradation. And, compared to the perfect, unrippled life of God, the best human life would be a life of suffering; for though we say that some people live a “good life,” the truth is that all people largely go through the same sufferings, the same humiliations, the same problems. We are all fellow travelers on one common journey through the same stormy seas to the common destination of the grave, whether we travel first class or in steerage. And God, as Jesus, voluntarily booked a passage on this doomed ship of humanity.

But why? Why would God become a man, sharing all our pains, our humiliations, our little joys, and, ultimately, our inevitable death. The writer here is attempting to explain that, but in order to explain it he takes a slight detour to discuss the nature of man and God's plan for him, using a quotation from Psalm 8.

But one in a certain place testified, saying, What is man, that thou art mindful of him? or the son of man, that thou visitest him? Thou madest him a little lower than the angels; thou crownedst him with glory and honour, and didst set him over the works of thy hands: Thou hast put all things in subjection under his feet.” (Hebrews 2:7-8a) Why, out of so vast and wonderful a universe, would God chose mankind as His special creation. There are many things in creation which are bigger, stronger, and more glorious than human beings. Even his perfect condition, man was a small, weak thing in the universe. But God chose man.

God chose man from the very date of his creation for special honor and authority. “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:26) Mankind was given a nature which in someway mirrored the moral nature of God Himself. He was given authority over the whole earth and possibly over the whole universe. He was to be God's regent or subruler in the world, with authority over everything. He was crowned with glory and honor and set over the works of God's hands. Such was his exaltation that he was just below the angels in rank and authority. And some think there is an implication here that man could have eventually surpassed the angels. All things were to be put under his authority.  This is a very inclusive statement all things. “For in that he put all in subjection under him, he left nothing that is not put under him.” (Hebrews 2:8b) Everything was supposed to be under man's authority.

That is the picture of humanity as God originally intended it to be. But it does not take a very extensive knowledge of the world to realize that this is not how humanity now is. Far from having all things in subjection to him, man is weaker than all the things around him. The French mathematician and Christian thinker Pascel wrote these words about the weakness of man: "Man is but a reed, the weakest thing in nature... It is not necessary that the entire universe arm itself to crush him. A breath of air, a drop of water, suffices to kill him." And the writer of Hebrews realizes this. Having drawn out the Psalm's point about the glories of humanity and how all things were to be put in subjection to him, he adds, "But now we see not yet all things put under him." (v 8) We do see some hints of the original glory God intended for man in the fact that man, despite his weakness, has subdued so much of the world. But by in large, the assertion of the Psalmist seems completely false. For man as he is now is not how God intended him to be.  Sin has destroyed God's plan for humanity.

But the plans of God never simply disappear. God always has a way to bring His work to fruition, even if in a different way than one would expect. We do not see all things put into subjection to man. “But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honour; that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man.” (Hebrews 2:9) Jesus who, as God, was far above man and even far above the angels (as the writer has shown previously in his letter) yet took on the position of man, a position a little lower than the angels--He experienced the suffering of death something which, in principle, neither God nor the angels could ever know, and for this reason he was crowned with glory and honor. (cp. Philippians 2:6-11)

So the first essential point to see is the humanity of Christ--that Jesus became a man, “fully God and fully man,” so much so that what can be said of man can be said of Him. So we cannot honestly say that all things in this world are in subjection to us--but we can say they are in subjection to Christ, and therefore, because Jesus is a man, all things are, in fact, subject to man (or, at least, to a man.) “What is said of the dominion of man can be true only of human nature in the person of the Lord Jesus, and there it is completely fulfilled." (Albert Barnes) And because Jesus was a man, all of humanity has been exalted through Him.

2. The Exaltation of Man through Christ
This is the theme to which the writer turns next--the fact that, because of the work of Jesus in becoming man, living, dying, and rising again, there is hope and exaltation for mankind. C. S. Lewis used the analogy of a diver. Just as a diver must go down in dark and dangerous places of the sea to bring back the treasure to surface, so Christ came down into the world, so that he might take His people up with Him.

The writer makes a point of saying that Jesus took on flesh and blood. (v 14) Jesus is not just identified with us in the sense of sympathizing or understanding us, or even standing with us--He actually became of the same nature as man. There was an early heresy which said that Christ did not really become man, but only seemed to (that he didn't cast a shadow, didn't leave footprints, and could not always be felt). But this is not what the Bible teaches. Christ had to become as much a human as we are, so as to exalt humanity and to fulfill His work as Savior. As we already saw, humanity itself, humanity as such, has been exalted because Jesus became man--in Christ the original plan for humanity was fulfilled. But the writer here seems to be saying that there is something far more than that. In Christ, there is an exaltation for those who trust in Him, apparently far above what man ever knew in his unfallen state.

In verse 10, the writer states the reason for Christ's suffering and His incarnation. It was that He was “bringing many sons unto glory.” Jesus became the Son of Man, so that men could become the Sons of God.  This was the whole purpose of Jesus coming to earth and dying, that he might bring many sons--and daughters--to glory. Adam is referred to as the Son of God, probably because he was created directly by God, but also perhaps because of the special relation he stood to God. After sin, man became an enemy of God. But through Christ, that enmity is destroyed, and man may stand in the special relationship of closeness and belonging with is only had by a child. (Cp. John 3:1-3)  Being a Son may mean many things. In 1 John the main thought seems to be a shared nature, which the writer to Hebrews discusses in verse 11. It also means belonging. A son is one who is accepted by the Father, someone who is at home. A son also has the promise of protection, guiding, and help from his Father. The plan of God was always to create a spiritual family; this was ruined by man's sin--but through Christ's work, as man, the plan can be fulfilled and He may bring many sons unto glory.

Jesus also sanctifies us through His own holiness. “For both he that sanctifieth and they who are sanctified are all of one: for which cause he is not ashamed to call them brethren." (v. 11)  In the Bible, the word sanctify may either mean set apart and consecrated or it may mean cleansed and purified in nature. Either sense--and very possibly both--are intended here. Jesus did not come to Earth to offer a few pious platitude and then leave things exactly as He found them. He did not come primarily to teach, or reform, or instruct. In this sense, Jesus was like a super-hero--He came to save the world. He was the change He wanted to see in the world. Irenaeus, an early Christian thinker, wrote, "Because of His boundless love, He became what we are in order that He might make us what He is."

This change of nature allows for unity and a change of station. The Christian can be united with Christ, because he has the same nature as He does. The purifier and the purified are alike in being pure.  Christians and Christ are now part of one family, with one father and one common nature of purity. And because of this, He is not ashamed to call Christians His brothers, His family.

Jesus exalts His people by His identification with them, so that He makes Christians His brothers--and sisters--and suffers and triumphs with them. Verse 12 is a quotation from Psalm 22, a psalm of David which prophesied the suffering and death of the Messiah; after all the descriptions of suffering comes these words: "I will declare thy name unto my brethren: in the midst of the congregation will I praise thee." (Psalm 22:22) The primary point seems to be the fact that the Messiah refers to His people as His brothers. But it is also interesting to note what He is doing. This shows Christ as a High Priest--an idea which is very important in Hebrews--for it shows Him as a leader in worship, both by declaring God's name and his nature, and singing His praise in the midst of the congregation. It also shows Christ's identification with us. He became so much a man, that He and His fellows might rejoice together in God's blessings and praise Him. He was not just a Prophet, who speaks to the people for God, but a Priest, who is identified with the people, so that He speak to God for them. This pictures Christ participating with us in our worship as one of the family.

The famous American poet, Edgar Allen Poe wrote a poem about an angel named Isfrael. In the early part of the poem he emphasized how notable Isfrael was for singing and praising. But in the final stanza he comments, "If I could dwell/Where Israfel/Hath dwelt, and he where I,/He might not sing so wildly well/A mortal melody,/While a bolder note than this might well/From my lyre within the sky." In other words, he was saying that the angels might not sing and praise so well, if they had to suffer through everything we humans suffer. But Christ did suffer as a human, and yet He gave praise to God among the congregation. No one can say, now, that His praise is empty or one sided; and no one can say that they have suffered too much to praise God. For God Himself suffered and yet praised God.

This idea is developed further in the next verse, "And again, I will put my trust in him." (v.13a) This a quotation from Isaiah 8. This seems again to point to Christ's complete identification with man. Just as man in his time of trouble must put his trust in God, so Jesus put his trust in God. In Isaiah 8, the prophet had just prophesied a time of great strife between the forces of evil and the followers of God. He says that though evil men rise and conspire together yet, we can have hope, because we trust in God and wait on Him. In the same way, when Christ faced great trials, He confessed His faith in God: "Father, I know that thou hearest me." "Into thy hands I commend my Spirit."

The important point in all this is the complete identification of Jesus with mankind. The end of verse 13 has Jesus saying: “Behold I and the children which God hath given me.” On this, John Wesley comments "With a like acknowledgment of his near relation to them, as younger brethren, who were yet but in their childhood, he presents all believers to God, saying, Behold I and the children whom thou hast given me." Jesus is portrayed here as the brother of man, bringing many sons to glory, singing praise and prayer in the midst of his brethren. He joined the family of man, so that we could join the family of God; He partook of flesh and blood so that we could become partakers of the divine nature. Gerard Reed writes: “As God's Son, sharing the very being of Yahweh himself, Christ Jesus salvaged human nature by refilling it with His divine presence...  As Jesus Christ's brothers, join-heirs with Him, we share the nature He assumed and made holy." (C. S. Lewis and the Bright Shadow of Holiness, 170)

So Christ became a man to exalt mankind, as such, and, particularly, all those who trust in Him who are made holy and accepted through Him. But that only partly answers the objections; that only partly explains the mystery of the incarnation. The writer shows, finally, that the work of Christ had be fulfilled, particularly, through His sufferings and even His death.

3. The Exaltation of Christ Through Suffering and Death
Verse 10 says that it was fitting or becoming for God, in bringing about the salvation of man, “to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings.” Christ's work was made perfect or complete because of His sufferings. The sufferings of Christ were not an accident--they were planned for a reason. "Wherefore in all things it behoved 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. For in that he himself hath suffered being tempted, he is able to succour [i.e., come to the aid of] them that are tempted." (v. 17-18)

Christ went through all the things which we, as humans, go through. He was made like His brethren. There could be no special treatment. God would not bend the rules of the game for His Son. Jesus could not be a "Teacher's Pet" (Christ only once--that I can think of--worked a miracle for his own benefit.) He had to walk the same road as everyone else. And because He did, He can fully sympathize with our trials. Lest anyone, in a difficult time, say, "If Jesus knew what this was like, he would not ask me to go through it," Jesus went through far worse trials than any other man. (cp. Hebrews 4:14-16) Christ was fully identified with the sorrows, sufferings, and problems of Man, so that He could sympathize with them and so that he could bring an end to them, and make reconciliation for the sins of the people. Suffering is an essential part of human life as it now stands. We can avoid or escape some sufferings, but we all have to face some suffering. If Christ had lived a good life with no suffering to it, He could have done nothing to help us with this part of our life. But now he has experience our sufferings and triumphed through them so that as He shares our sufferings we may share His triumph over them.

And, finally, there was one greater purpose in all this. “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; and deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.” (Hebrews 2:14-15)

This was the purpose of Christ's work, to destroy death, to abolish it, to destroy it's power. Isaiah had prophesied this, when he said "He will swallow up death in victory." (Isaiah 25:8) But in order to destroy death, He had to die, and to die He had to become a human. In verse 9, the writer comments that Jesus came that He “should taste death for every man.” Adam Clarke compares this to the ancient custom of executing criminals by forcing them to drink a cup of poison. He pictures “the whole human race as being accused, tried, found guilty, and condemned, each having his own poisoned cup to drink; and Jesus, the wonderful Jesus, takes the cup out of the hand of each, and cheerfully and with alacrity drinks off the dregs!” By His own death, He has opened a way trough death.

He was also defeated the Devil, who is said to be the one with the power of death, because it was through his agency that death came into the world; and all his works tend to death.

The writer makes a point of saying that he delivered those who were in bondage to the fear of death. The fear of death is one of the most universal fears of human. Indeed, it seems that it is a fear that God has implanted in the human heart, for without it people would use no caution in their lives and would make no preparation for death. Fear is a very important part of life and though it may help us, it always causes some kind of bondage.

How do you remove a fear? There are only two valid ways to do, either by showing that the fear is groundless--that there is nothing to be afraid of--or by removing the feared thing. Christ has destroyed the fear of death by destroying the power of death. If Christ had come and lived a great life but had never died--if He had simply ascended up to Heaven at the end of life--we could never be sure that the power of death was broken. There would have been nothing to deliver us from the fear of death. But because Christ died, there is nothing left to be afraid of.

Many early Christians, especially among the Jews, didn't the understand the idea of a Messiah who suffered and who was humbled to the position of a man. Many people still think the whole story is very strange--and, indeed, it is very strange. But the writer here is attempting to show that strange as it is, it is not without reason. It may be bizarre, but it is not unreasonable. The Son of God humbled Himself to become man, to experience all the same troubles, trials, and sufferings that man experiences, so that He could identify with man and through His death and resurrection exalt humanity and bring many sons to Glory. Like an athlete who subjects himself to rigorous training and discipline in order to win a trophy; like a soldier who suffers the heat and horror of the battle in order to obtain victory; like a workman subjecting himself to the sweat and toil of labor in order to produce a masterpiece--so Jesus humbled Himself and suffered as a man and died, to procure salvation for man. The Magi found a poor baby crawling on the floor of a poor man's house--and they worshiped Him for they realized (perhaps dimly and unclearly) that because God's chosen had come down so low, He would be able to lift up all low things--that He had become one of us, so we could become one with Him.

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