If Jesus had been born not in some kind of livestock shelter but a hospital, how would anyone have been able to pick him out of the other babies in the nursery? Would he have been the baby who, as we sing at Christmas, made no crying? If Jesus’ friends had been choosing sides for their soccer game, would they have known how to pick Jesus out of the pack of neighborhood kids? Was he the one who, for example, dribbled the ball most skillfully?
Jesus’ friends profess that he was somehow both fully human and fully divine. But that’s such a mysterious concept that we naturally emphasize either his divinity or humanity. Having said that, I suspect that most Christians at least slightly accentuate Jesus’ divinity.
That’s, of course, somewhat understandable. Even what we sometimes consider to be the most important days of the Christian year focus on Jesus’ divine nature. On Good Friday we remember how Jesus gave his life in order to save us from our sins. On Easter we remember how God raised Jesus from the dead in order to confirm God’s salvation of us.
But on this first Sunday of the year of our Lord, 2023, Hebrews’ author doesn’t emphasize Jesus’ divinity. He, after all, reminds his readers that Jesus “had to be made like his brothers [and sisters] (17).” This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson, in other words, chooses to emphasize Jesus’ humanity.
Of course, the book of Hebrews also emphasizes Jesus’ divinity. Hebrews 1:2ff., for example, calls him God’s “Son” whom God “appointed the heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being.”
Yet I sometimes wonder if Hebrews’ readers didn’t share our emphasis on Jesus’ divinity. After all, much of the letter to them, including chapter 2, underlines Jesus’ humanity. Maybe, however, that’s at least partly because Hebrews’ author is nearly as overwhelmed by the idea of the divine Son of God becoming fully human as we are.
After all, he presents his readers with what Tom Long (Hebrews, Westminster John Knox Press, 2012) calls a “collision and collusion of images.” Hebrews’ author offers four images of Jesus that don’t readily seem compatible with each other. Yet as preachers sort through that maze of images with our hearers, we want to always remember our text’s central image: Jesus was like us in every way except that he was perfect.
In verse 10 Hebrews first calls Jesus the “author” of our salvation. Many biblical scholars prefer the literal imagery our text offers of Jesus as the “pioneer” of our salvation. However, a strong case might also be made for Long’s interpretation of verse 10 as calling Jesus the “hero” of our salvation.
The Jesus who was like us in every way descended from the heavenly realm into Mary’s womb in God’s world that death had made its headquarters. Jesus grew up to be humanity’s hero who came to defeat death’s powers and heroically rescue those whom it held in its iron grip.
Jesus as hero also helps us to understand Hebrews 2’s second image of him as our big brother. Verse 11 insists that he’s not ashamed to call his adopted siblings his brothers and sisters. Verse 12 quotes Jesus as saying to the Father, “I will declare your name to my brothers [and sisters].” For Jesus’ sake, God has graciously adopted God’s dearly beloved people as God’s sons and daughters. That means that our hero is also our big brother.
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson next speaks of Jesus as our liberator. Verse 14 celebrates how Jesus was made like us in every way so that “he might free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” That means that, as Long points out, like Auschwitz, Dachau and other concentration camps’ liberators, Jesus broke through death’s gates. He liberated all those whom their fear of death had enslaved.
This image of Jesus as liberator is related to our text’s fourth image of what verse 17 calls Jesus as our “merciful and faithful high priest.” Jesus was like us in every way so that he might “make atonement for the sins of the people.” He graciously gave his life so that his adopted brothers and sisters might have eternal life.
All of these images combine to form a picture of Jesus that is both complex and unified. After all, as Long notes, Hebrews won’t let us think of Jesus as our hero without also thinking of him as our priest. Hebrews also won’t let us think of Jesus as our priest without also thinking of him as our liberator. Jesus was made like us in every way so that he might simultaneously be our hero, brother, liberator and priest.
North American culture, however, prefers to shrink Jesus to a much more manageable size. He isn’t, in many western eyes, the hero of our salvation. He’s just the perfect example of a nice guy. Jesus isn’t the one who freed people from death’s iron grip. He’s no more than a model for us to emulate. Jesus isn’t our merciful priest. He was just a prophet who advocated for justice.
In fact, most of our culture’s perceptions of Jesus ignore the immense role that suffering played both in his life and his saving work on our behalf. Hebrews’ author, in fact, brackets our text with reference to Jesus’ suffering.
Jesus is his friends’ hero, brother, liberator and high priest. But he is also our suffering hero, brother, liberator and high priest. We, in fact, profess that Jesus suffered, not just during the last week of his life, but also somehow right from the moment of his conception and birth in Bethlehem.
Yet while most Christians get that, it’s harder for us to understand how Jesus’ suffering made him, as verse 10 claims, “perfect.” The Scriptures have taught God’s adopted children the value that suffering has in our lives. But it’s very hard to imagine how the already perfect Jesus’ suffering made him perfect.
Here Long helpfully points out that the perfection Jesus’ suffering made wasn’t moral, but vocational. He compares Jesus’ suffering to a machine that shapes a piece of metal so that it can perform its function. When that piece is shaped just right and does its job, a machinist can say something like, “Perfect!” She isn’t just saying that it’s shaped right. The machinist is also celebrating how it’s ready to do its job. Long suggests that Jesus’ suffering was like that machine. It shaped him in such a way that it fully prepared him to do the work of saving us from Satan, sin and death.
As a result of Jesus’ suffering, Hebrews adds, when Jesus sees a woman crawl into a cardboard box to get out of the cold, he doesn’t see a person who’s homeless. He sees a sister. When Jesus watches dementia shrink someone’s world, he doesn’t see a forgetful and forgettable person. He sees a child of God.
Long notes that when see someone who’s hungry, or imprisoned, or homeless, we sometimes say something like, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Jesus says, “There because of the grace of God am I.” The Jesus who was like us in every way except that he was perfect experienced rejection, pain, suffering, loneliness and death. So he fully understands our misery.
Of course, Jesus didn’t experience the suffering that comes with being a woman or elderly person. But even men who somehow struggle can in some ways imagine what it’s like to be a woman and older. In a similar way, Jesus can imagine what it’s like for people who are female and or older.
On the doorstep of the year of our Lord, 2023 that would be great news in and of itself. But our text offers even more great news. Jesus didn’t just know what it was like to suffer. Hebrews insists that because he suffered when he was tempted, he can also help his adopted brothers and sisters when we’re tempted.
The Jesus who leads his adopted siblings into a new year bears the scars others inflicted on him. The Jesus whom you and I follow into the new year experienced death. He was literally “tested.” As a result, when something or someone this year tests God’s dearly beloved people, we’ll have Someone to comfort us.
January 7 will be, God willing, the 16th anniversary of the diagnosis of my cancer. The time of that diagnosis was a harrowing one that brought me face to face with real suffering for the first time. But it also brought me face to face with a number of people who acted a lot like Christ toward my suffering self and family.
I’ll always think of my oncologist as a kind of hero. He quickly diagnosed my condition, and formed a treatment plan. But he also insisted, “This is a case we can handle.” On top of that God brought brothers and sisters in Christ into my hospital room. Less than 24 hours after my diagnosis two sets of pastors entered my room, sat with me and prayed with me. Members of the church I pastor also had the courage to sit with me and look with me into the face of my cancer.
God also, however, sent me a large number of high priests. They didn’t, of course, save me from my sins. But they prayed for me. I still have a copy of the countless emails members of this church and others sent my family and me. Those promises helped carry my family and me through a difficult time and into a future that has been longer than we could ever have imagined 16 years ago.
When Hebrews insists that Jesus is able to help those who are tested in various ways, it’s not just speaking of the Triune God’s gracious help. Hebrews’ author is also speaking of those whom God equips to come alongside those who are being tested.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 1, 2023
Hebrews 2:10-18 Commentary