Sunday, October 04, 2009

Sunday Explanatory Notes: Hebrews 2:9-18

And now, Hebrews continues. For what preceded, see this summative post.
2:9 But we do see one who was made a little lower than the angels--Jesus--who was crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for every [mortal].
The author unfolds the solution to the human problem artfully, suspensefully. Humanity was unable to attain God's intended glory. But one who became lower than the angels did for us. By the grace of God, we no longer need be defeated by death.

Jesus thus troubleshoots the human problem. God brings Jesus into the same situation as he brought humanity: "You made him lower than the angels for a little while." But because Jesus has no sin (4:15) he is actually able to be "crowned with glory and honor" in a way humanity was not. Instead, because of sin, humanity suffers death. Now Jesus has suffered death in place of humanity and so humanity might attain to its originally intended glory and not taste (ultimate) death.

2:10 For it was fitting for Him, for whom all things are and through whom all things are, when leading many sons to glory, to perfect the pioneer of their salvation through sufferings.
Very interestingly, while 1:3 speaks of Jesus as the one "through whom all things" came to be, this verse clearly refers to God (in a context that distinguishes Him from Jesus) as the agent of creation. Since 1:3 was in a poetic context and this verse more prose, we suspect this verse gives the author's more literal way of thinking about creation. 1:3 is thus a more exalted, poetic, somewhat figurative reference to Jesus as the one through whom God "recreates" the world or brings creation to its originally intended state. This coheres with all the other places in the New Testament where Jesus is spoken of as the one "through whom" the world comes to exist (e.g., 1 Cor. 8:6; Col. 1:16; John 1:3).

But the point of the verse is to indicate the fittingness of Jesus' suffering. Jesus suffering to death makes him "perfect" or "complete" in relation to his role as pioneer of salvation. He tastes death for everyone--humanity's more appropriate end point--and now can lead "many sons," including daughters, to the glory originally intended for them in the creation as in Psalm 8. Perfection in Hebrews in relation to Christ has to do with him fully equipped to serve as Christ and high priest, a state he only reaches in death.

Salvation here has to do with escape from the coming judgment and rescue from the death slated for all humanity.

2:11-12 For both the one who makes holy and those are are made holy are from One [Father], for which reason he is not ashamed to call them brothers, saying, "I will proclaim your name to my brothers, in the middle of the assembly I will sing to you,"
Christ can lead many sons to glory and can author their salvation because Christ is human like we are. We are both "from one," presumably meaning from one source or from one Father. We are brothers with Jesus. "Sanctify" or "make holy" here likely has a strong connection to purification in relation to sins.

The three Old Testament quotes that follow are an interesting even if somewhat random collection of words interpreted in the light of Christ. The first is from Psalm 22:22. We have clear evidence from elsewhere in the New Testament that some early Christians read this psalm in the light of Jesus. Indeed, Matthew and Mark both have Jesus quote the first verse from the cross and all the gospels tell the story of Christ's passion in dialog with various verses in this psalm. The quotation of the verse is thus probably meant to evoke images of Jesus' suffering of death for the rest of humanity.

The word "assembly" or "congregation" here in the Greek Old Testament is "church." Perhaps from the very beginning of the Christ movement, this word had the connotation of the end time community, the qahal or assembly of God. In Paul's writings the word ekklesia usually had the sense of a local gathering or assembly but here probably a more universal connotation.

2:13 ... and again, "I have placed my trust on Him," and again, "Behold, I and the children God gave to me."
Hebrews strings together three quotations here just as it did in chapter 1, all of which reiterate a similar point. These two come from a series of verses in Isaiah 8, verses 17 and 18. How the author would have interpreted these verses in the light of the verses immediately surrounding them is difficult to say, but clearly verses from the preceding and following chapter were interpreted messianically by some early Christians. Matthew read Isaiah 7:14 in relation to Jesus' conception by a virgin (Matt. 1:23), and it took 9:1-2 in terms of Jesus' earthly ministry (Matt. 4:15-16). Luke 2:11 also may echo the "Wonderful, Counselor" passage of Isaiah 9:6, although the New Testament perhaps surprisingly makes little of this passage.

Thus although it is somewhat difficult to know exactly how the author of Hebrews understood this passage, it seems reasonable to think that some early Christians understood this part of Isaiah to be filled with resonances of the life of Jesus. Isaiah 8:17 speaks of the prophet waiting for the LORD to deliver His people and 8:18 speaks of Isaiah and his followers being signs of faithfulness to the LORD in a time of faithlessness. It is unclear whether this context played any role at all in Hebrews' use of these words.

In Hebrews, the words imply the faith of Jesus Christ in God, arguably a theme we also find in Paul (e.g., 2 Cor. 4:13; cf. Rom. 3:22; Gal. 2:16), coupled with his leadership of God's other children to salvation. Presumably, therefore, the two quotes are meant to reiterate that Jesus faithfully executed the human equation so that he could lead many sons to glory as they were originally intended to enjoy.

2:14-15 Therefore, since the children have partaken of blood and flesh, he himself also partook of them similarly, so that he might destroy the one who holds the power of death, the Devil and might change these, who in fear of death were subject to slavery their whole life.
The first verse is often taken in relation to the incarnation, since it speaks of Christ partaking of flesh and blood with intentionality. It is unclear whether the author was thinking this much, however, since the children also partake of flesh and blood and the intentionality could merely be God's rather than Christ's (cf. also, however, Heb. 10:5). The connection between human flesh and the power of the Devil is clear, reflecting somewhat of a dualism we will find even more explicitly in later chapters like chapter 9.

At the same time, we should not overread the dualism. The power of the Devil over flesh here has to do with the power of death. It is possible that there is an allusion to Wisdom 2:24 here, which mentions that death entered the world through the Devil's envy. In the Life of Adam and Eve, it is Satan's jealousy of the status God gave to Adam that leads to his trickery of Adam and the subsequent entrance of death. Although Hebrews does not mention Adam, it is thus possible that a somewhat Pauline understanding of death's origins stands behind the author's comments here.

Death is thus the principal manifestation of the failure of humanity to attain to the glory of God. Instead, humans live in fear of death their entire lives. But Christ has now tasted death for everyone, making it again possible for humanity to attain to their God-intended glory.

2:16 For clearly he is not helping angels but he is helping the seed of Abraham.
This verse begins to close the loop with 2:5, forming a kind of inclusio. It is not to angels that God has subjected the coming world but humanity. Christ did not come to help angels rule and the coming world is not destined for angelic rule. Rather the coming world will be subjected to both the rule of Christ and of humanity.

Some have suggested that this verse counters an angel-Christology. Christ did not assume the form of angels but he partook of flesh and blood. Thus the strong contrast of Christ with the angels is also explained as an attempt to counter the notion that Christ was an angel of some sort. But this line of interpretation does not seem likely, nor is it clear that the audience struggled with too high a view of angels. The vast majority of the imagery in Hebrews 1 and 2 can be explained eschatologically--the angels are associated with guardianship of the creation in the old age, but the new age is one in which Christ and humanity rule.

Although the author refers to the "seed of Abraham," there is no hint that he is only thinking of Jews. The train of thought fairly clearly refers to all humanity without distinction between Jew and Gentile. The author thus would seem to include all those who have partaken of the Christ (cf. 3:14) as seed of Abraham, whether Jew or Gentile. This is a very Pauline understanding (e.g., Gal. 3:25). On the whole, the absence of any defense or explanation of this dynamic--indeed, the thoroughgoing assumption of the inclusion of the Gentiles without ever so much as using the word "Jew" or "Gentile"--bespeaks a later rather than an earlier date for the sermon.

2:17 Therefore, he needed to be made like [his] brothers in every way, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in relation to the things of God, so he could atone for the sins of the people.
Verses 2:17-18 capture the argument that has preceded in an apt general statement. Indeed, many interpreters believe that these verses anticipate most of Hebrews' argument yet to come, constituting "key verses" of a sort for the sermon. The point is that Jesus fully assumed the human condition, became lower than the angels for a little while, as them, so that he might become an appropriate high priest.

This is the first point in the sermon where Christ's high priesthood is mentioned. 3:1 will then pick up this new thread and eventually lead to 4:14, where the priestly argument will come out in full force. Prior to Hebrews, Christians clearly believed that Christ's death was a sacrifice for sins. With Hebrews, however, Christ becomes both sacrifice and sacrificer. By showing Christ not only to be the consummate sacrifice, but indeed the ultimate priest in the true sanctuary, Hebrews removes all need for any earthy cultus at all.

2:18 For in that he himself has suffered and been tested, he is able to help those being tested.
The solidarity of Christ with humanity is a major theme of 2:5-18, and it will return in 4:14-16. There the author will remind the audience that Christ was tempted like them yet he did not sin. The rhetorical point would seem to be that they also can endure temptation and not sin. The temptation would seem to be to abandon faith because of hard times. Christ did not abandon faith and sin when he was undergoing suffering. He kept his trust in God (2:13) and thus can show them the way.

So they are learning obedience through the things that they are suffering just like Christ did (5:8). He is a high priest who can help those who undergo such tests not least because he himself also underwent those tests of faithfulness when he partook of flesh and blood.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

There are several things one must believe, if one is to believe in Hebrews, as it is written.

1. One must believe that God exists as a personal being. And that he caused Jesus to suffer so that Jesus could be a "great high priest". This means that God must cause suffering because he has the 'higher purpose of another's good". He then, ceases to be personable to Jesus...He is a utilitarian.
2. If he caused Jesus suffering for another's good, then God doesn't care about the individual (Jesus), but the collective whole of "humanity".
3.)If we suffer under injustice, we should view it as solidarity with Jesus!?? This means practically, that we should not do anything to circumvent unjust, tyranical rulers or circumstances (because it is "allowed" by God)! One has to believe that God intervenes in history in a specific and particular way. This is hard to do with a scientific mind-set, where God is known only in the natural order.

Ken Schenck said...

Christ might of course willingly cooperate, yes?

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Possibly because I value American ideals, such as liberty and justice, that I would find it hard to "submit" to an Unjust God, who demanded obedience at the sacrifice of life.

But, of course, this view does not account for the theological answer the Church came up with in the Trinity and the following theological apologies that defended God's honor in "giving up his only Son".

No, Life and Liberty, are of importance, not just for myself, but for all human beings. Democracy is the only means of allowing humans to flourish and develop fully and freely, so it is the only "ethical government". There is no "Divine Right of Kings". This is why science has prospered in the West, because of freethought. It was only under the auspices of dictatorships, whether religious or political, that freedom to "discover" was forbidden, denied, or banned.