Summary of the Text
Will the Real Jesus, Please Stand Up?
Quite a few years have passed since I sat through a systematic theology class and had the professor pitch a variety of difficult to hit balls at us regarding the human and divine nature of Christ. Some of you may remember these curveballs and sinkers: Adoptionism, Apollinarianism, Arianism, Docetism, Monophysitism, Nestorianism, Sabellianism, and the list goes on.
“Will the real Jesus, please stand up?”
Sufferin’ Succotash! What a list of “isms.”
Many named after the genuinely sincere gentlemen who fumbled to try and make sense of a substantive issue, literally! The Nicene and Chalcedonian Councils had something to say on the matter and eventually cleared up the confusion on the persons of the Trinity and the nature of Christ, right? Hmm, well, as much as a creed can explain the inexplicable it is a qualified, “Yes, for the most part.”
Suffering with the Ones Who Suffer
What we have in Hebrews 2:10-18 is a less complicated choreography around Jesus and his nature. It isn’t the intent of the author of Hebrews to dive headlong into the philosophical and philological weeds as to the substantive components of the human and divine, five parts this, seven parts that; albeit, an important endeavor. Rather, (s)he is interested in showing what God has done through Jesus primarily because of and through his full identification with humanity. That “sameness” which Jesus shares with us is the special sauce in God’s work of salvation: 1) He suffers (v. 10), 2) He is connected to us as a brother (v. 11), 3) He shares in our flesh and blood (v. 14), and 4) He is like us in “every way” (v. 17)
Of course, there are important distinctions made between Jesus and humanity. 4th century preacher John Chrysostum once said, “He is a son, and we are sons [and daughters]; but he saves, while we are saved.” Only Jesus can be declared: 1) The Pioneer of our Salvation (v. 10), 2) The One who “sanctifies” (v. 11), 3) The One who destroys the Devil and his power over death (v. 14), 4) The High Priest who removes our sins (v. 17), 5) The One who suffered to help those who suffer (v. 18).
An In-Person, Playing For Keeps Presence
The key ingredient to God’s work of salvation through Jesus is that it is done in person and in real time. It is not some programmed and unmanned drone strike executed by a pilot from a remote command post. In Jesus, God puts on the flesh and blood of the ones he came to save in a “real” way, not a pretend way, not a dress up way, but in a “playing for keeps” kind of way. The fact that he suffered to the point of complete cellular destruction is a declarative smack in the face of later sophisticates (namely the Docetists) who would try to elevate his divinity at the expense of his humanity. Jesus did not merely appear to be human, he was like us, not just in a number of ways, but in “every way.”
Clearing Up Some Itchy Spots in the Text
There are two itchy red areas in this text that may need some ointment. First, was Jesus in some way imperfect so as to be made perfect through suffering (v. 10)? Second, who is the real enemy of humanity? Sin or death (v. 15)?
Was Jesus Wanting?
Τελειῶσαι (to make perfect, to complete) is what the author of Hebrews describes as the fitting work of God in reference to the suffering of the “Captain/Pioneer/Leader of our salvation.” English translations combine the modal verb “should” with “make perfect or complete” to clear up the intent of the Greek. Frankly, “completion” and “perfection” both work as ideas associated with this work of God in causing Jesus to suffer, but the verbal idea is tied with God’s overarching plan to utilize the suffering of his servant for good purposes.
It is not that there was a deficit within Jesus that was eradicated by his suffering. It is that his suffering completed or perfected God’s work of bringing many sons and daughters to salvation. It was a means to salvation rather than a means to righting something that was wrong with Jesus. Perhaps we might say, “Suffering perfected God’s plan, not Jesus’ person.”
Why does that matter? Well, we hold true with the author of Hebrews that the one who saved us was, like us, tempted in every way, but without sin (Hebrews 4:15). We also hold with the author of Hebrews that his ability to act as our intermediary before God as the Great High Priest is precisely because he suffered as do we but was found blameless and beyond reproach (Hebrews 7:26-28). It is what we hope for any rescuer on the more mundane plane, that he or she will have a position of power and strength to get us out of the muck and mess in which we find ourselves. Jesus provides that on the elevated plane of our spiritual and eternal relationship with God.
Who Is the Enemy?
Who, though, is the true enemy? Sin or death? Clearly death is what the author of Hebrews says that we fear, but it is neither sin or death that is the enemy. They are the insidious seeds of discord sown by our true enemy the serpent, fallen angel, the Devil, the personification of all that opposes God and his rule and reign in our lives. What is profound in his defeat is that God uses death itself, Jesus’ tasting of the utter awfulness of death, to defeat the power that controls it.
Angle for Preaching
The New Year brings with it a great amount of fear for many people. Some of the fear will be the residual left over from the last year that simply compounds upon imagined future anxieties. The change in the calendar also marks for many the time to turn over a new leaf, to make a change for the better. This polar opposite set of fear and hope isn’t contradictory, it is a reality for all of us.
The preacher would do well to recognize both the fear and the hope that besets her congregation in such a season and to provide a composite picture of the God who suffers with us in every way while also uttering hopeful praise in the midst of the congregation of his brothers and sisters.
Above all, this text is an illumination on the incarnation, much in the way that Paul does in Philippians 2:5-11. It is in the humiliation of suffering and death that God not only identifies with us, but it is the means by which he saves us. The humanity of Jesus, the earthiness of Jesus, the dirt-mud-sweat-tears-suffering Jesus relates to us on a level that a merely transcendent God cannot.
Scott Bullock is a Board Member and Contributor with The Pastors Workshop. He is an ordained Presbyterian minister who has served churches in Illinois, New Jersey, and California.
He holds an MA in New Testament Studies from Wheaton College, an MDiv from Fuller Theological Seminary, and a ThM in New Testament from Princeton Theological Seminary. Scott is married with three teen-aged children.
The incarnation means that for whatever reason God chose to let us fall . . . to suffer, to be subject to sorrows and death—he has nonetheless had the honesty and the courage to take his own medicine. . . . He can exact nothing from man that he has not exacted from himself. He himself has gone through the whole of human experience—from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death. . . . He was born in poverty and . . . suffered infinite pain—all for us—and thought it well worth his while.
Dorothy L. Sayers, “The Greatest Drama Ever Staged,” in Creed or Chaos? And Other Essays in Popular Theology, Hodder and Stoughton.
A Christian Approach to Suffering
In the summer of 2012, I knelt over the frail shell of a child, my son, strapped to all manner of medical monitoring equipment. His body failing, his frame thinning, the medical staff at Arkansas Children’s Hospital was at a loss. They had no answers, no direction. He was an anomaly, they said, and they’d need to regroup after making him as comfortable as possible. Though the medical community struggled to sort it all out, my faith community seemed to have every answer.
God would provide, one said, because God would respond to my great faith. God was setting up a miracle, another said. God works all things together for good, I was reminded. Platitude, platitude, platitude. I smiled through all of them, even nodded. Silently I wondered, Did all those words amount to anything, well-meaning though they were? Hunched over my son, all those platitudes haunting, my phone rang.
I looked at the screen, read the name. It was a pastor from a more reformed church in my hometown, and as I answered the phone, I wondered what platitude I might hear. There was a purpose in my son’s suffering? Everything has a Kingdom purpose? After an exchange of greetings, I clenched my jaw. Stiffened. Braced myself.
Through the phone, I heard only three words: “I’m so sorry.” There was a pause, and he told me to holler if I needed anything. He said he’d be praying, and that was that. It was a moment of selfless solidarity, a moment in which this man of the cloth didn’t force-feed me anemic answers or sell me some fix-all version of a bright-and-shiny gospel.
Instead, he did the work of Christ himself; he entered into my suffering. And years later, after a long season of healing (both my son’s and my own), his words served as a reminder of the Christian response to suffering—we enter into it together, share in it together, lament with each other.
I suppose it’s natural, our tendency to try to run from suffering, to somehow try to drag other folks from their own. We Christians use the holy tools at our disposal (particularly, the misinterpretation of Scripture) in an attempt to pave a path around suffering. The problem is that’s not the way of Christ. Christ—God with us—entered into the suffering of humanity. He lamented with those who lamented, extending compassion and healing to the hurting. Ultimately, he took on the existential suffering of all mankind as he endured his own suffering on the cross.