The Incarnation in Hebrews, Part One

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The Seed of Abraham

The epistle to the Hebrews raises an interesting problem in 2:5-8. The writer opens with the observation that God did not subject the world to angels (5). In other words, angels were not given dominion over the created order. For proof he cites Psalm 8:4-6, which clearly declares that, though God has made the human race a little lower than the angels, He has crowned it with glory and honor and has placed everything under the feet of humans. Quite reasonably (for the author of Hebrews is an able reasoner), he infers that if everything was subjected to human dominion, then nothing in the created order was left outside human control (8).

The author notes a jarring discrepancy, however. While the psalmist declares that everything is under human dominion, experience teaches otherwise. Whereas nothing is supposed to be exempted from human control, what we observe is that many things are not subject to humans. This apparent contradiction requires explanation.

The explanation consists in two parts. First, the writer uses the expression, “not yet,” when he speaks of human dominion. While humans do not presently exercise the full rulership of creation, some day they will.

Second, the writer points to Jesus Christ, who is already crowned with glory and honor (9), the very dignity that Psalm 8 confers upon all humanity. Yet he notes that it was not always so. Surprisingly, he declares that for a little while, Jesus Himself was made lower than the angels. How can this startling declaration be true? In what respect was Jesus made lower than the angels? The writer gives a clear answer: for the suffering of death. No angel can die, not even a fallen one. By taking a mortal nature into Himself, God’s Son stooped to an experience that no angel will ever share.

If Jesus Christ is the eternal Second Person of the Godhead, then why would He take up a mortal nature? Does not John declare that in Him was life (Jn 1:4)? Why would the immortal source of all life humble Himself to die? The writer to the Hebrews answers these questions pointedly: Jesus became mortal so that He might taste death for everyone (9).

The Father’s object was to bring many sons to glory (10). He purposed to do this through a captain (leader, founder, originator) of their salvation. It was fitting or proper, however, that this captain should have to earn the right to bring these sons into glory. The way to earn the right—i.e., to be perfected—was by suffering.

Why should suffering be the fitting or proper way to bring many sons to glory? The writer supplies the reason. Both the Savior and the saved are all of one (11). In order to become the captain or forerunner of salvation, Jesus became one with those whom He planned to save. In other words, He did not stand outside the sea of human calamity and throw a rope from the shore. On the contrary, He plunged into the sea in order to rescue us, enduring our calamity in order that He might bring us to safety with Him. He could only save us as one of us.

Consequently, He is not ashamed to call us His brothers. This brotherhood seems to involve two elements. First is the union of Jesus Christ with the human race, a union in which He fully shares our nature. Second is the solidarity that comes from following Him. He is not a brother—at least not in the full sense—to those who will not follow Him as their captain or forerunner (Mark 3:33-34). In addition to human identity, saving faith is essential to being a brother of Jesus.

Yet for those who have trusted Him, this brotherhood is far-reaching. Jesus declares God’s name to His brothers and sings God’s praise in the congregation (12). Because Jesus has had to trust God (13a), He knows exactly what He is calling His brothers to do. These brothers are either His children (which would mix the metaphor) or else (possibly) God’s children given to Him (13b). All of these expressions are calculated to emphasize the closeness, solidarity, and unity between Jesus Christ and those whom He saves.

Since our nature—human nature—involves flesh and blood, Jesus also had to partake of flesh and blood. To His eternal deity He added a complete human nature, including a fully human body. It was a mortal body. It could die. His mortality was important, for the way that He would destroy the ruler of death was by enduring death (14). That ruler of death was the devil, who wielded his power to strike the terror of death into human hearts, binding men and women in slavery (15).

While Jesus partook of human flesh and blood, this kind of solidarity was impossible with angels (16). Angels are individual creations, not a race. They sin individually and they are condemned individually. They have no shared nature into which Jesus could have entered. But He did share human nature. In fact, He was born of the seed of Abraham. The writer’s reference to father Abraham rather than father Adam is interesting, and it is probably meant to draw attention to Jesus as the one who brings about the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant in its various permutations.

For Jesus, becoming a human could permit no half-way measures (17). He became like His brothers in every respect, except for their sin (Heb 4:15). He did not simply dip His toe into the pool of human nature. He plunged in, fully immersing Himself in everything that it means to be genuinely a man.

This full identification—this full adoption of complete human nature—is the very thing that qualified Jesus to be our merciful and faithful high priest (17b). He has endured the full gamut of human frailty, weakness, and temptation. He has been tested; indeed, He has suffered by being tested. Consequently, He has earned the right to make propitiation for our sins. And He has the insight to help us when we are tempted.

Jesus is one of us. He is our forerunner, our scout, our pioneer. He has passed through death, and by passing through, He has defeated it and come to safety. When we trust Him, He shows us the way and brings us to safety with Him. Indeed, He is the way. He has earned the right to be our captain because He has blazed the trail ahead of us. He has walked through temptation, testing, and suffering. He has defeated our enemy and become our Savior. He has taken our nature and made us His brothers.

I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father.

from “New Heaven, New War”
Robert Southwell (1561–1595)

This little babe, so few days old,
Is come to rifle Satan’s fold;
All hell doth at his presence quake.
Though he himself for cold do shake,
For in this weak unarmèd wise
The gates of hell he will surprise.

With tears he fights and wins the field;
His naked breast stands for a shield;
His battering shot are babish cries,
His arrows looks of weeping eyes,
His martial ensigns cold and need,
And feeble flesh his warrior’s steed.

His camp is pitchèd in a stall,
His bulwark but a broken wall,
The crib his trench, hay stalks his stakes,
Of shepherds he his muster makes;
And thus, as sure his foe to wound,
The angels’ trumps alarum sound.

My soul, with Christ join thou in fight;
Stick to the tents that he hath pight;
Within his crib is surest ward,
This little babe will be thy guard.
If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy,
Then flit not from this heavenly boy.

[node:bio/kevin-t-bauder body]

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