Now we are making our way into the argument of Hebrews which is a sermon on the absolute necessity of persevering faith. It is warning against apostasy – a real threat to this Jewish Christian community – and an encouragement to stand fast through thick and thin in order to obtain the great promises of the gospel in the world to come. The sermon began with a demonstration of the superiority of Jesus Christ to both the OT prophets and to the angels, because these Jewish Christians were being tempted to lessen the place of Jesus Christ in their viewpoint under pressure from the Jewish community from which they had come and back to which they were being tempted to return. The Jews, of course, had constructed a religion that did not require a Redeemer and had no place for Jesus Christ as the Savior of his people from guilt and sin.
In 2:1-4 we encountered the first of a great many statements of the author’s fundamental theme and purpose. This is the “application” of the sermon, if you will, and, as we saw, this is only the first of many such summations of the preacher’s application. Like any good preacher, he fashioned an argument from Scripture in chapter 1 and then applied it to his readers’ situation. He will do the same again and again throughout the sermon: exposition, then application.
Now, we move on to the next section of Scriptural exposition that will lead, in turn, to the next statement of application.
v.5 The author now returns to the general theme he had been considering in chapter 1, viz. the superiority of Jesus Christ to the angels. There is another way in which Christ is superior to the angels: the world to come is subject to him, not to the angels. Two points bear mentioning. First, as we mentioned in a previous study, the Dead Sea Scrolls have revealed a strain of Judaism from this period in which it was taught that angels were to have a supreme role in the administration of the kingdom of God when it was consummated in history. In the eschatology, or doctrine of the end times, of the Dead Sea Scrolls, angels were more important than the Messiah. If this group of Jewish Christians to whom this sermon is directed had come from a background of the Qumran community type – Qumran was the place where there was a major community of folk whose beliefs were those represented in the scrolls – then it makes sense that the author of Hebrews would be interested in rebutting their particular views, including their exaltation of angels in the grand scheme of things.
Second, the Bible itself speaks of the administration of this world by angels. You remember the reference to the “prince of Persia” and “the prince of Greece” in Daniel 10:20, and then to Michael, the archangel, who comes to the aid of Daniel and Israel in Dan. 10:21 and 12:1. In the NT some of these angelic beings who exert influence in the world are evil, “the powers of this dark world,” as Paul calls them in Eph. 6:12. This author is not interested in whether they are good or evil here, he is simply calling attention to the fact that in Holy Scripture the Son of God is the Master of the world to come, not the angels. Like so much of his argument in this sermon, he takes the position of the opposition, those who are tempting these Christians to rethink their Christian commitment, and disproves it biblically. He does not stop to reconfigure the doctrine from the ground up. After all, he could have said that Christ is sovereign over this present world (as the Bible often says, as when Paul says that Christ is head over all things for the church in Eph. 1:22) and that angels have always been and will always be nothing but his servants. But he is content to make the simple point that their doctrine is flatly contradicted by the statements of the Bible.
v.6 The formula with which the author introduces the citation from Psalm 8 – which happens to be a psalm of David – is very interesting. Nowadays, of course, as you may know, the study of the Bible, even in evangelical scholarship, tends to highlight the individuality of biblical authors, their personal outlook, or style, or, even, their theology. Paul’s theology is compared to Matthew’s or John’s, for example. Some of this emphasis has no doubt been fruitful in deepening our appreciation of certain emphases that are characteristic of individual biblical authors. However, the temptation in all of this attention to the human face of Holy Scripture is to begin thinking about the Bible as a human book and to forget that the thing that distinguishes the Bible from other books is not that it was written by human beings – that is true of all books – but, rather, that it was also and more profoundly written by God himself! The Bible has a divine origin and it is the Word of God. That is the point here. The human authorship is a matter of no great importance. What matters is that this is the Word of God. You will find this throughout Hebrews. What we call the OT, which he would call simply the Scripture, is everywhere treated by him as the living voice of God to be believed and obeyed.
v.8a Psalm 8 itself is a marvelous hymn of praise to God, in part for the dignity he bestowed on man at the creation. In comparison with the great creation, the limitless reaches of the universe, what is man that God should be mindful of him? That is a question astronomers and other scientists nowadays often ask assuming that there is no real possibility of answering it to man’s advantage. We human beings are mere specks, specks of specks, on the cosmic landscape. We are too insignificant to matter. It is the sort of thing Stephen Jay Gould, the Harvard paleontologist would say, but, hearing of his death this past week, we say, alas, that he knows better now. But, of course, the psalmist knew better long ago. God made man in his own image. That can be said of nothing else in the creation. What is more, he gave to man authority over the rest of the created world and so crowned man with glory and honor. Clearly Psalm 8 takes its cue from Genesis 1:26, where God is said to have created man in his image and as his vice-regent.
But, here, in Hebrews 2, the psalm is obviously interpreted as a reference to Jesus Christ, not to mankind in general. The reference to the “son of man” is clearly a reference to Jesus, not simply to human beings in general. In other places in the NT the same text is also treated as a reference to the Messiah. But, of course, that is entirely appropriate, as the author will go on to demonstrate in the remaining verses of the chapter. Jesus is the Man. He is the representative man; the quintessential man; the second Adam. In him the true dignity of humanity is fulfilled. “Son of man,” which, ordinarily in Hebrew, would be only a pleonasm for “man,” another way of saying the same thing in more words, had already been turned into a title for Jesus Christ. In fact, interestingly, it became far and away the Lord’s preferred title for speaking of himself, as anyone who reads the Gospels can attest. He was always referring to himself as “the son of man.” If God put everything in the creation under the feet of man, in a still greater way he has put everything under Jesus’ feet, as Paul says in Eph. 1:22 and 1 Cor. 15:27.
v.9 As will be clear as the argument proceeds, Jesus is here viewed as the pattern for the life of his people. Just as he had a period of humiliation which was followed by his exaltation, so his people will recapitulate his personal history and, though lower now, will someday rule over angels (1 Cor. 6:3). We have not yet entered the world to come, the subjection of all things to Christ awaits the consummation when he returns (9:28), but that entrance into heaven is guaranteed by Christ’s own entrance, after death, into heaven and the honor of God’s right hand.
That is the point of the last phrase of v. 9: he died on behalf of others so that they might be exalted in due time just as he was.
Now, the argument proceeds to the end of the chapter, but I have cut it off at this point because there is too much to consider in one sitting, in any case, and because our preacher has introduced another of his important themes and I want to draw your attention to it and fix it in your mind. Hebrews is repetitive and you will understand it much better if you get the main themes clear in your mind at the beginning. This theme, for example, will re-appear throughout the letter and it is important that we understand his perspective early on, otherwise we may well mistake his meaning as, I think, many have.
It comes in v.5 where after saying, “It is not to angels that he has subjected the world to come,” the author adds the seemingly innocent phrase, “about which we are speaking.” It is the world to come about which he is speaking. And he means not simply that it is the world to come about which he is speaking at that very moment in his argument; he means that is what he is and will be speaking about throughout his sermon.
For example, when he says here in v. 5 that it is the world to come about which he is speaking, he is clearly referring back to the matter of “[the] great salvation” which is the subject of the immediately preceding verses and which was introduced in the last verse of chapter 1. When this author speaks of salvation, he means not its beginning in this world, but its consummation in the next. He is using the term not as Paul used it when he said to the Philippian jailer, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved; you and your household.” He is using it rather in its ultimate sense, as, for example, when in Hebrews 9:28 he will say that Jesus is coming again “not to bear sin but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.” He means heaven, the rest of God, the eternal city, the better resurrection, or, as here, “the world to come.” That is his perspective all through the letter and he tells us that at the outset, here in 2:5. I’m speaking about the world to come and how one gets there and the terrible prospect of losing that world to come because of a flagging faith.
He does not mean, of course, that in this world we have no experience of the world to come. In 6:5 he speaks of some who have fallen away who had, previously, “tasted…the powers of the coming age.” Clearly if apostates have tasted something of the world to come, then real Christians have definitely tasted those things as well. This way of speaking is very like what we get, for example, in the writings of John who speaks of “eternal life” as a present possession of believers in Christ. We have eternal life in principle, we have it as a sure and certain inheritance, and we have many wonderful experiences that are anticipations of it, but do not have it yet in anything remotely like fullness or completeness.
All of that is uncontroversial and uncontested in the commentaries. What is often brought in, however, is the assumption that this author believes that while we obviously do not have the world to come in its consummation, Christ has brought to the NT church, the world to come to a degree and in a measure unknown to the saints of the ancient epoch. In other words, in the new dispensation, the epoch introduced by Christ and his apostles, we have an experience of the world to come that ancient believers did not.
However, this preacher never says that! He never does! Instead, he says, a number of times, in language one might well think was unmistakable, that in the matter of the world to come and waiting for it and having to continue in faith all our lives to secure it, we are on the same footing as the saints have been from the very beginning. They were looking for the world to come and didn’t receive it in their lifetime and we are still looking for it today. Just like they, we must press on, knowing that the Lord will not come again and bring us to heaven until his work in this world is finally complete. All of that by way of establishing that the futurity of salvation is a great emphasis in Hebrews. You must believe and continue to believe, in Hebrews, not because you will get or lose something here, but because only persevering faith will bring you at last to the city that has foundations.
What I want to remind us this evening is simply this: you cannot really understand or rightly live the Christian life if you do not maintain this futurist perspective. That is hard for American Christians to do. We are people all for the moment. We love and expect instant gratification. But the Christian life, the gospel of Christ does not offer it. There is a great deal of waiting, patient waiting, waiting with fortitude that must be done to obtain the promises of the gospel. There is a great deal of justice that is never obtained in this world. Many of God’s people are, in our world today, suffering terribly for their faith. Can they be sure that if they remain faithful to God and Christ they will be delivered and they will live and their children will live in prosperity for the rest of their lives. No, they do not, they cannot know that. But, they know this: if they remain faithful to Christ, they will most certainly receive their vindication and their reward in the world to come; and, on the other side of the better resurrection, their incomparable bliss will make them forget all about the sorrows they had to endure.
It is perhaps not as hard to keep one’s eye on the heavenly country when one is suffering terribly in this world. It is not a surprise, for example, that our greatest hymns on heaven in the Western Church come from the ages before life became so comfortable. When so many died young, when there was no such thing as aspirin or adequate sanitation or sufficiently clean water, when disease, accident, famine, and war were the constant companions of life, heaven seemed much more real to believers, just a step or two beyond where they were. But, when the present, with all its distractions, is so powerfully and enticingly presented to our view as it is on television, for example, when we expect to live long and generally healthy lives, it is harder to see with real vividness something that is still in the future, even the distant future and, all the more, when life is sufficiently comfortable that many of us are not even that anxious to get on to something better.
But, we must overcome this vague, indefinite, weak sense of the future if we are to live a faithful and a safe Christian life. That is what we are being taught here. You must keep looking up and forward, you must keep an eye on the heavenly city. If you do not, you may not find adequate motivation to keep you faithfully following Jesus Christ all your days and you may risk losing the heavenly country altogether. This is his warning.
Now, the Lord knows this and he himself takes care of this in many ways in our lives. I know myself that I have had many more thoughts of heaven and it has seemed much more real to me and a much more powerful attraction to my mind since the death of my father and my sister. Alexander Whyte said, on the day after the death of his little boy, that he felt as if he had one foot here in this world and one foot there in heaven. Something precious of his own, you see, was now in heaven and so he felt himself there in a real way. Well, many of you have had the same impressions and you have been glad for them. You know that when you think and feel that way your thoughts and feelings are authentically Christian. In the sorrows of life, the Lord turns our thoughts to heaven, in the keen disappointments of life that are not and, in some cases, cannot be made up in this life, we find ourselves longing for that place where everlasting joy will be upon our heads. This is the way that the Lord himself keeps heaven in our view and makes us to long for it and to be careful to guard against a flagging faith lest we should lose the world to come and never have our sorrows made up and never know what it is like to have everlasting joy upon our heads.
But, there is that for us to do as well. We must apply our faith. We must think about the world to come. And, we must take full advantage of the anticipations of heaven that we are given in this world – and that we ourselves can arrange in this world – and feed our hearts with foretastes of the world to come. My favorite passage on this theme comes from Harry Blamires, the student and then friend and colleague of C.S. Lewis; this from his book, Knowing the Truth about Heaven and Hell [126-127].
“It is in fragmentary glimpses that the joys of the kingdom are flashed before our faces on our earthly pilgrimage. We all have our stores of memories that keep their power to blind us with the dazzle of the wonder and beauty they revealed. When you first took a hand that is now cold in the grave – when you first looked into eyes that imprinted their gaze forever on your mind – when you first caught sight of that remote village nestling in the elbow of a valley, all white and green in the sun – when you first saw your wife with your baby in her arms – when a lyric of Byron’s first throbbed through your brain in school days – when Toscanini revitalized the fabric of a Beethoven symphony – when Maria Callas released flooding waves of emotion upon a few syllables, ‘Alfin son tua,’ in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor: we all have our store of such particular memories. If we wanted a single adjective to characterize what was common to them all, we should say quite naturally, quite unaffectedly, ‘It was heavenly.’ We very often add those other words and say, ‘It was heavenly while it lasted.’ This most natural of expressions carries immense implications.”
Well, I have such a store of memories and experiences that were heavenly to me and I know that you do as well. What is more, I know that I can arrange for still more of them, God willing. I can add more happiness and sublime pleasure and satisfaction to my life that will become for me a taste of the world to come and keep me longing for the day when all of life will be as wonderful, still more wonderful, more wonderful by many orders of magnitude, than these wonderful experiences, these memorable experiences in my life in this world.
We sometimes say to someone, when we are encouraging him or her to enjoy himself or enter into the experience of some pleasure, “Create a memory.” Well, we can all do that and it will do us great good, so long as we remember and reflect upon the fact that every true happiness, every true goodness experienced here is, for a Christian, an anticipation of the world to come. The more happiness we have here, the more we whet our appetite for still greater happiness there. Great happiness in this world can be a temptation to forget about heaven and to care only about life here. But, if a Christian remembers that happiness here is a foretaste of still greater happiness there, it is more likely to increase not decrease your longing for the city that has foundations.
Our children should grow up in happy homes, with lots of laughter and gaiety and warmth. They should grow up with stores of warm and delightful memories and should then in their adult life enjoy many, many wonderful things. Their minds should be chock full of happy memories. But, they must be taught to remember, when life is so good, that what makes it so good is the fact that this happiness is not some cruel joke, something soon to be taken away and never to be enjoyed again. Rather, in a Christian’s life, it is the foretaste of a life still to come, more happy, more wonderful than words can describe. They will then take greater care and we will too to be sure that we follow hard after the Lord Jesus all our days so that we will not lose the eternal joy and love we had so many happy anticipations of while we lived in this world.
The prospect of heaven, this preacher is telling us, must be kept lively in our hearts. It will draw us on in faith; it will help us be reconciled to the trials and disappointments of life in this world, and it will bathe all our living in the warmth of the anticipation of indescribable pleasures to come.
Let it be said of each one of us, as it was said by Thomas Ken of Isaac Walton,
Of this just man let this due praise be given
Heaven was in him before he was in heaven.