On this last Sunday before Christmas, the RCL (finally) turns its Epistolary Lessons’ eyes from that to which few North American eyes naturally turn toward that to which most Christians’ eyes have been turned for almost a month already. Hebrews 10, after all, turns our eyes away from Christ’s second coming and toward his first.
Yet while that turn may not surprise Jesus’ friends, the reasons it offers for Jesus’ first coming may surprise its hearers. It would be an interesting exercise for this text’s proclaimers to ask our hearers why Jesus was born to Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem. I imagine that most of God’s adopted children would answer along the lines of, “Jesus ‘came into the world’ (5) to save us from our sins.”
That’s a reason this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson may startle some of its readers and hearers. It, after all, never explicitly mentions Jesus’ work of salvation as a reason for his first coming “into the world.” So an exploration of Hebrews 10:5-10 might help expand Christians’ understanding of Jesus’ coming that his friends plan to celebrate on this coming Saturday.
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson begins with “Therefore …” That, as the biblical scholar Amy Peeler notes, links what Jesus says in verses 5-7 to what Hebrews’ Preacher has just written. It suggests that Jesus’ speech is a response to bulls and goats’ blood ineffectiveness in taking away sins.
Hebrews’ Preacher says that when Jesus “came into the world,” he didn’t do so in order to offer yet more sacrifices and offerings of bulls and goats. He didn’t come with “burnt offering and sin offerings (6). Christ, in other words, didn’t first appear in order to continue the old ways of “doing religion.”
Those old ways were appropriate and helpful in their time and place. In fact, the Preacher says, “the law required them to be made” (8). However, the system of sacrifices, as well as burnt and sin offerings was flawed. Those sacrifices and offering couldn’t save the people for whom their sometimes-disobedient priests offered them.
So human beings needed someone to offer his or her complete obedience, to perfectly do God’s will. That alone would “please” (6, 8) the God before whom all of us must someday stand and give account.
The role the second person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, the Son of God voluntarily took on was “to do” God’s “will” (7).
In fact, Hebrews’ Preacher puts Jesus’ expression of that determination on Jesus’ own lips: “When Christ came into the world, he said … ‘I have come to your will, O God’” (5). While it will be hard for Scripture’s proclaimers to find that exact quotation in the gospels, Jesus himself said something very similar in John 6:38: “I have come down from heaven not to do my will but the will of him who sent me.”
Why, then, did Jesus Christ appear the first time? In order to do his Father’s will. Why was he conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of unmarried Mary? In order to do his father’s will. Why did Jesus Christ suffer the humiliation of being born to unmarried peasants in what was likely the livestock’s corner of someone’s house? In order to do his Father’s will.
Yet as Andrew Bandstra, to whom I owe many ideas for this commentary notes, Jesus also came to do God’s will throughout what Hebrews’ Preacher calls “the days of” his “life on earth” (5:7-8). He adopted a largely itinerate preachers’ lifestyle in order to do his Father’s will. Jesus, in the words of the old theological saw, “comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable” in order to do his Father’s will. He signaled both the presence of and eventual full coming of God’s Kingdom in order to do his Father’s will.
God graciously created our first parents to do God’s will. Yet while they too came into the world to do God’s will, they failed miserably. So Jesus not only came into the world but also lived to do what God creates human beings to do but what we sometimes so miserably fail at: perfectly do his Father’s will.
God’s dearly beloved people have sometimes struggled to get beyond cheap sentimentality to proclaim the theological significance of Christ’s birth that we plan to celebrate this week. We’ve also sometimes struggled to know and explain just how Christ’s life, ministry and teaching theologically “fit” with his suffering and death.
Those who proclaim Hebrews 10 might explore with their hearers how this perfect obedience to his Father was a sometimes-forgotten part of his salvation of his adopted brothers and sisters. We needed someone to rescue us by fulfilling God’s law by perfectly obeying that law. Jesus, who Reformed Christians call “a true and righteous human” (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 5, Q & A 15), did precisely that.
But in some ways Christ’s perfect doing of his Father’s will culminated in his suffering and death on the cross, in what verse 10 calls “the sacrifice of” his “body … once for all.” Even when it was, at least arguably, the most difficult for Jesus to do his Father’s will, he did it perfectly. By submitting to his Father’s will that the authorities’ torture, try and crucify him, Jesus “bore the weight of God’s wrath in his humanity and earn[ed] for and restore[d] to us righteousness and life” (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 6, Q & A 17).
Yet Hebrews’ Preacher takes the concept of Jesus’ doing his Father’s will perfectly in a slightly different direction in verse 10. While he came to do God’s will, verse 10 insists that “by that will we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus once for all.”
Bandstra calls that verse “a grand statement of what is entailed in the will of God” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Second Readings: Acts and the Epistles, Eerdmans, 501). “Almost surprisingly,” he continues, “that will is our sanctification: “by that will, we have been made holy.”
Those who proclaim Hebrews 10 will need to grapple with just what that holiness entails within their own faith tradition. Reformed Christians see that holiness in part as the status that Christ’s perfect doing of God’s will imparts to his adopted brothers and sisters. Hebrews 10:14 may sum it up: “By one sacrifice [Christ] has made perfect [perfect tense] those who are being made holy [present tense].”
Christ’s perfect obedience doesn’t yet make Christians act in fully holy ways. Yet his saving life and death give us the status of holiness. “We have been qualified through the work of Jesus,” writes Bandstra, “to enter the true sanctuary, into the very presence of God.” God, in other words, graciously views and treats us as if we were just as perfectly obedient as our Big Brother Jesus was.
Yet the means by which God accomplished this may help expand Christians’ understanding of why Jesus came into the world. Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary not just to do God’s will, but also to make his friends more and more like himself. Jesus suffered the humiliation of being born to unmarried peasants in the corner of a house reserved for livestock not just to do God’s will, but also help us do God’s will. Jesus suffered throughout his life but especially at the cross not just to do God’s will, but also to empower God’s adopted sons and daughters to obey God.
The perfectly obedient, ascended Christ is intensely interested in Christians’ Christlikeness. The Christ who is coming again, in fact, came the first time to do his Father’s will by giving his whole self in order to make us more holy. So even as Jesus’ friends exchange gifts with each other during this season, we also seek to “gift” our Lord and Savior with our complete obedience.
As I noted in my previous commentary on Hebrews 10, whenever I hear Jesus say, “I have come to do your will, O God,” I think of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s final speech at the Bishop Charles Mason Temple on April 3, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee. He addressed it to sanitation workers and others who were continuing to protest the unjust treatment of those workers.
Near the end of his speech, Dr. King said, “I don’t know what will happen now; we’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now because I’ve been to the mountaintop.
“And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life—longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will (italics added). And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land.
“I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
Of course, there was only one Messiah – and Dr. King wasn’t it. While God was clearly making him “holy” (10), he didn’t act in perfectly holy ways the way his Savior Jesus did. But Dr. King too, with Jesus Christ, wanted to do God’s will. What’s more, he was willing to join Christ in dying in pursuit of that goal.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 19, 2021
Hebrews 10:5-10 Commentary