The following is the manuscript for a sermon I preached in Emmanuel Reformed Church in Springfield, SD, on Sunday, June 25, 2017. This sermon is the second in a Lectio Continua series through the New Testament letter “To the Hebrews.” Thank you for reading.
Remember to whom this letter has been written: a small church of Jewish Christians in Rome. As Jews, they were strong in their religious heritage and traditions, and their knowledge of the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament. But as Christians, they were new believers in Christ, spiritual infants. And living in Rome, it was because they believed in Christ that they were being threatened by those around them. In 1st-century Rome, to claim “Christ is Lord” was considered religious intolerance and political treason. The writer of Hebrews was compassionately concerned for the well-being of this persecuted church, but they also wrote with a strong desire to awaken these new Christians to the dangers of avoiding persecution through losing grip on their beliefs. It is a saying among preachers that our job is to “comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.” That’s precisely what the writer of this letter aimed to do:
Today’s Reading: Hebrews 2
Christ was crowned through suffering.
The writer knew their audience. These fledgling Christians knew their Old Testament! But like many Jews then and today, they know it a certain way. Passages like Psalm 22 and Isaiah 8 were read as prophecies about their MESSIAH, God’s chosen Savior of God’s people. According to the Jewish reading of their Hebrew Bible, the MESSIAH would be a “son of David,” both literally and spiritually. Not only was the MESSIAH to be a blood descendant of the great King David, but also have the same personal charisma, military prowess, and favor of God that King David had. All of this would qualify the MESSIAH to be the chosen and anointed king of a new Israel, whose physical kingdom and political reign would endure forever.
But the writer of Hebrews knew that this is not what came about. When the MESSIAH came, he looked nothing like the Jews expected. The writer of Hebrews wrote in this whole letter – and in this chapter specifically – to explain from the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, how Jesus fulfilled Scripture’s expectations for the Messiah.
Yes, Jesus was a physical descendant of David, and had the same favor of God that David did, if not more. God loved David because God loved His Son, who would be born to David’s descendants. But Jesus did not come to establish a physical kingdom for the political nation of Israel. Jesus came to establish a spiritual kingdom for the spiritual descendants of Abraham, all those who live and walk by faith. Instead of a political conqueror, crowned through might and conquest, Jesus is a spiritual conqueror, crowned through suffering.
That religious claim was as preposterous to the world then as it is today. Jesus Christ, who in chapter 1 was heralded as God’s own Son, creator and ruler and sustainer of all things, is now presented as a suffering Savior. In the contest of Best World Religions, that story is laughed off the stage. The apostle Paul came up against that same resistance, and still he wrote: “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23).
The author of Hebrews goes even further, and says that Christ crucified is the perfect representation and display of the character of our God “for whom and by whom all things exist” (Hebrews 2:10). It’s as if Scripture says, “If you want to know the generosity and power of God, look at the ever-expanding expanse of space, and the countless stars beyond our own; but if you really want to know God, in the way that will save your soul, look at His generosity and power poured out for you in His Son Christ, nailed to the cross.” Jesus Christ willingly showed His love for us, by humbling Himself to the point of becoming fully one of us, entering into the bloodline not just of David the King, but also of Adam the Sinner, becoming fully human like us, for us and for our salvation. According to the writer of this letter, it is for that reason, the Incarnation of Christ Jesus, that Christ is “crowned with glory and honor, because of the suffering of death.”
We are crowned with Christ through our persevering in suffering.
And – thanks be to God! – that would have been enough. That in Christ, God became human, and suffered, and died in the place of fallen humanity, to set humanity free, would have been enough. But – grace upon grace! – God wanted more than for us to be free of the sin that bound us. If that were all, then verse 17 would have said that in Christ we have “a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make [EXpiation] for the sins of the people.”
Our twins are discovering the joys of solid food, or, at least, our son is. There was one particular meal this past week where my son decided that the spoon coming toward his face meant playtime, and he covered himself in pureed vegetables. It was all over his face and hands and clothes, and in the wrinkles in his arms and legs. He was a mess. I love my son, but at that moment, I wouldn’t hold my son. He needed to be cleaned off before I was going to pick him up. That’s a picture of expiation.
Expiation says that, because of the mess of sin that covers every inch of me, God cannot hold me. That sin has to be removed, washed away, before God will come near me. And — thanks be to God! — Christ’s death has cleansed us of our sin. But expiation is not the word that the writer of Hebrews uses here! The writer of Hebrews says that in Christ we have “a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make [PROpitiation] for the sins of the people.”
I love my son with my whole heart, and my daughter, too. But when I see how much my wife does to love and treasure and care for our twins, because she loves our twins, I find even more love for them grows in me. That’s a picture of propitiation. God loves you and longs for you as His own precious child, but when He sees Christ, His only Son, willingly sacrifice His life to save yours, God’s heart for you grows even bigger.
This is our great comfort. God not only wants you to be free from sin; God wants you to be free to come into His presence, and to become in Him all you were created to be, all He intends you to be. The writer of Hebrews quotes Psalm 8 as a vision of your intended purpose in the world: that God has given us a position of status and power in this world, to care for this world that God created good, and to rule over everything like God does, in God’s company. Psalm 8 looks back to Genesis 1 and 2, where God charged Adam and Eve and all humanity to tend the earth and care for it and fill it and rule it, in His presence, under His guidance, as co-creators. That’s an incredible honor! But Adam and Eve’s sin after that was so complete that it scarred them, ruining their ability to rightly reflect the image of God to each other and to the world, and their ability to carry out the work they were given. Their sin also scarred everything that had been entrusted to them: creation itself, and all of their descendants, the whole human race.
In Christ that original glory and image and calling of God is restored to us. For that reason, Psalm 8 was also considered a prophecy of the MESSIAH. Specifically, in the extravagant, self-giving suffering of Christ in his whole life, and especially in his death, we see and receive again our intended purpose to give our lives to one another and to this world in love. We also are made one with God, restored to that same kind of relationship that Adam and Eve had with God in the garden.
It is that relationship with God, that glory and comfort and peace that is ours in Christ Jesus, that this small house church in Rome was considering giving up! Yes, the threat of persecution was high. Believing in Christ Jesus and living out that faith puts us at odds with the world (John 15:20). The church to whom this letter was written was in the process of gradually letting go of Christ, drifting away from their faith to fit in with the world that threatened them. They weren’t actively denying Christ, so much as passively choosing to make their lives easier. But our reward is so much greater than earthly comfort (Romans 8:18)! The glory that is ours in Christ is ours precisely when we persevere through these present sufferings, just as Christ did. And to do that, to persevere well, we must hold fast to what we have heard, the gospel we believe.
If you find yourself persevering through suffering this morning, take heart. You do not face this threat alone. Christ has gone before you on this difficult path, pioneering the way through the wrath of the world into the peace and the beauty of eternal life with God, who loves you and longs for you. Hold fast to Him, and know that He is with you, and He’s faced what you’re facing, and He’s already triumphed over it for you.