February 18, 2018
As you likely know, last Wednesday, Nikolas Cruz, an expelled student in Florida marched into his former high school with an AR-15 and killed 17 people. Can we please lament the fact that 17 people, mostly teenagers were needlessly gunned down? Can we, as followers of Jesus, mourn the grievous loss of life without getting into the gun control debate? It seems to me too often conservative, Evangelical Christians are associated with the Second Amendment, as if it’s a spiritual issue. I don’t want to politicize this today, so can we stay away from the discussion – if teachers were trained and armed; guns don’t kill people, people kill people; if we had stricter gun control laws – can we stay away from those discussions and grieve the meaningless, horrible loss of life that ultimately is the result of living in a sin-broken world? Can we lament that today, and in the next few days, families will bury their children? So let’s pray for them.
And so this week, families and students, a community and a nation will grieve, and face their own mortality. Funerals provide, even force that reflection. As a consequence, many will have seen or will see counselors, trying to reconcile the irreconcilable. The unexpected, tragic loss of life gives an opportunity to reflect and ask the inevitable why questions – questions which often do not have immediate answers, other than the ultimate answer: people who don’t know Jesus are lost, broken, sinful – and in need of rescue. It is why Jesus, the Son of God, came to earth, took on human flesh, lived a perfect life – and died. So He could rescue us from the pits of our own making – and walk with us through the inevitable pains and sorrows of life.
You see, as people talk to parents and friends and colleagues and counselors – there really is only one explanation. The devil holds this world and death in his clutches, but Jesus came and took the keys of sin and death, to destroy the works of the devil, so that we need not fear death. We understand as people face death, they do so generally with great fear. Why? One pastor suggested five different reasons:
- The fear of pain – no one looks forward to the process of dying.
- The fear of separation from what we know and from ones we love.
- The fear of the unknown.
- The fear of non-being, in the words of famous atheist Bertrand Russell, “Brief and powerless is man’s life; on his and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark.” That’s encouraging.
- And fifth, the fear of everlasting punishment.
I want you to look at that list. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the answer to four of those fears – we no longer fear separation, the unknown, non-being, or everlasting punishment. Jesus has taken care of all that. Maybe the fear of pain still exists, but even that is temporary.
In the midst of a culture of death and destruction – brokenness – I have good news for us today. Jesus came to strike a death blow to the devil, to rescue us, and walk with us in the uncertainties, challenges and miseries of life. Here’s the outline of the text we are about to read:
- The Death of Death through our High Priest (14-16)
- The Propitiation of our High Priest (17)
- The Help of our High Priest (18)
Let’s read the text – Hebrews 2:14-18.
This in incredibly good news today – in the midst of a broken, sinful, lost, reeling world. I told you a couple weeks ago no book in the NT more clearly displays the full deity and humanity of Jesus Christ than Hebrews. Now, trace church history, and almost every heresy has its roots in false teaching about Jesus – either denying His deity, like the Arians of the 4th and 5th centuries – and like Jehovah’s Witnesses today, or the those who deny His humanity – like the Gnostics of the 2nd and 3rd centuries.
Today, many deny His deity outright – suggesting He was a good man, a good teacher, a moral man, someone whose teaching changed the world, but a man nonetheless. There are even those in the so-called church today who want to deny His deity, at least when He walked on the earth – suggesting that when He became man, He emptied Himself of His deity.
And yet, orthodox Christianity has always maintained both the full deity and humanity of Jesus. We as evangelicals, probably in response to the denial of His deity, sometimes err on the side of His deity, forgetting His humanity – the fact that He was fully human. And by the way, still is. That’s one of the amazing things – when He took on human flesh, it was an eternal decision to identify with us. So as we saw, Hebrews 1 clearly declared the deity of Jesus Christ. Remember, He was:
- Heir of all things
- The Creator of all things
- The radiance of God’s glory
- The exact representation of His nature
- Seated at God’s right hand – a place of highest power and honor
- Better than the angels
- Inherited a better name than the angels
- That is, He’s called the Son
- Such that, all God’s angels are called to worship Him – and only God receives worship.
- More than that, He is called God by God Himself
- His throne endures forever
- All creation will perish, but Jesus will remain.
- Because, He is eternally the same.
Clearly, the author declares the full deity of Jesus in chapter 1. That’s a great list. But we must not miss His humanity – chapter 2. Thus far in this chapter, we see Jesus was made for a little while lower than the angels and thereby tasted death for everyone. Further, it was fitting for God to perfect Jesus through His sufferings. Not that He was imperfect, but in His humanity, to make Him perfectly and entirely the Great High Priest of His people. But why – why was it necessary for Jesus to become human? Could God not save His people apart from the incarnation? There is a threefold answer in our text today, and I cannot think of better timing for this text than in the midst of deep human suffering.
First, in verses 14-16, He became human so that He might destroy death. Isn’t that good news today? Look at those verses. Therefore, since the children – that goes back to verse 13 – the children God has given to the Son – since the children share in flesh and blood. That is, since the children of God are made of flesh and blood; since they are physically human, He Himself likewise also partook of the same – that is, in His incarnation, He became flesh.
We remember John 1 – in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…and the Word became flesh and lived for little while among us – at which time He was made a little lower than the angels. Philippians 2, He “emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond servant, and being made in the likeness of man.” Why – there’s the question, why?
Hebrews 2 goes on – so that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil. Since deity does not die, Jesus took on flesh so that His flesh might die – He was born human to die human. Now, how did the devil have the power of death? That takes us back to the Garden of Eden. Remember, God created people to live forever – death was not intended to be part of the human condition. God had placed Adam and Eve in the Garden and given them complete freedom – tend the garden – keep it – eat whatever you want. Except from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the middle of the Garden. The day you eat that fruit is the day you die. And we know Satan, in the form a serpent – tempted the woman, who disobeyed God, ate the fruit, gave it to her husband who also ate – and that day they died spiritually and were assured of future physical death.
And as a result, all their descendents, to include us, are born sinners, spiritually dead, and assured of physical death. We are born to die. Now, the difference between our deaths and the death of Jesus is we deserve it. Because the wages of sin is death – we die because we are sinners. So, Satan controlled us by the certainty of death. The happiness of every joy-filled experience is tempered by the niggling reminder of pending death. He had the keys of death, if you will, because he had the power of death. But we read in I John 3:
8 The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. That is, those works he introduced in the Garden when, as the father of lies, he successfully tempted humanity and plunged us into sin and ruin and death and the fear of death all our lives. But, Jesus said in Revelation 1:
17 “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last,
18 and the living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades.”
Don’t miss Jesus said, we don’t have to be afraid – fearful – because He is the living One. He was dead, but now, through His resurrection, He is alive forevermore – He has the keys of death. I don’t want to go further than what Scripture says – Scripture never says Satan had the keys of death. It does say, he had the power of death. John says the whole world lies in the power of the evil one, the he is the ruler of this age. Paul calls him the god of this age and the prince of the power of the air. But Jesus came to render the devil powerless who had the power of death. He does no longer. He is a defeated foe. So we need not fear. We can face death with the calm assurance of the Gospel. 2 Timothy says Jesus “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”
Which brings us to verse 15 – in His death and resurrection, He rendered the devil powerless, and freed those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives. I love the way the ESV has it – Jesus came to destroy the devil and deliver His children who had been held captive by the devil. Notice, the author says – we were in slavery all our lives through our fear of death – but no longer – we are freed. As I said earlier, the fear of death has been obliterated by the death of Jesus – He put death to death. So we no longer need fear.
Have you have ever seen that? Been at the bedside of a believer facing death without fear? I have – many times. We need not fear the unknown, because we know whom we have believed and are persuaded that He is able to keep that which we’ve committed to Him against that day. We need not fear everlasting punishment, because there is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus. We need not fear non-being, because to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. We need not fear separation, because nothing shall separate us from the love of God through Christ Jesus our Lord – for I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing will be able to separate us from His love.
So we do not fear. We don’t fear that which is listed as one of humanities’ greatest fears – death. Because it has no hold on us. We, with Paul, can say:
52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable (that’s talking about our physical bodies by the way), and we will be changed.
53 For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality.
54 But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, “Death is swallowed up in victory.
55 O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”
56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law;
57 but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
We do not have to be subject to the slavery of fear anymore. Look at verse 16, For assuredly He does not give help to angels, but He gives help to the descendent of Abraham. Again, we see the gospel is not for angels – it helps people. Someone sent me a verse to an old song I’d forgotten – it’s glorious (Johnson Oatman):
Holy, holy, is what the angels sing,
And I expect to help them make the courts of Heaven ring;
But when I sing redemption’s story, they will fold their wings,
For angels never felt the joys that our salvation brings.
Now, what does the author mean when he says he doesn’t give help to angels, but only the descendent of Abraham? Is that only the Jewish people? Not exactly. Romans 2:29 says, “But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter.” Further, chapter 4:16 says, “For this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace, so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all.” Finally, Galatians 3:8-9 says, “The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘All the nations will be blessed in you.’ So then those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer.” The point is, as believers in Jesus, we are descendants of Abraham, and the one whom Jesus helps.
Which brings us to our second point, how did Jesus help the descendants of Abraham? Verse 17 – through making propitiation for our sins. Look at it, “Therefore, He had to be made like His brothers and sisters in all things.” That’s an interesting way to say it – He had to. Meaning, the only way propitiation could be made for people was for Jesus – God – to become a man – like His brothers – in all things. But why? Because, in order to be the perfect High Priest – in order to represent man to God, He had to be a man. And in order to represent God to man, He had to be God. So, He had to be made like us. Anselm of Canterbury addresses the idea in his work, “Why God Became Man.” In speaking of the payment that must be made for our sins, Anselm wrote:
“It could not have been done unless man paid what was owing to God for sin. But the debt was so great that, while man alone owed it, only God could pay it, so that the same person must be both God and man. Thus it was necessary for God to take manhood into the unity of His person, so the He who in His nature ought to pay and could not should be in a person who could.”
So that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in all things. This is the first of seventeen times the author uses the term high priest. He will make a big deal about it through the rest of the book, so I’ll save it till then. Suffice it to say, in order to make propitiation, He had to be the high priest. Because you see, the former high priests had to make atonement for themselves – their work was just rolled forward until the sins of the people were eventually rolled onto Christ – the perfect High Priest who did not need to make atonement for His own sins. So His sacrifice of Himself was perfect and complete.
But notice, as a man He became a merciful and faithful high priest. How so? Because of the next point which we will get to in a moment – since He was human, He knows what it’s like, and is therefore the perfect one to show mercy. But He is also faithful – to whom? Faithful to people, or faithful to God? Lots of discussion about that, but in the end, most agree probably faithful to both. You see, a priest acts as mediator to both parties – and Jesus did so faithfully to both God, fulfilling His plan for redemption, and man, dying in their place.
So in what way did He serve as a merciful and faithful high priest? By making propitiation for the sins of the people. Your translation may have it, atonement. It certainly includes that idea. He died in the place of His people to both expiate and propitiate their sins. To expiate means to remove their sins. To propitiate means to remove God’s wrath from His people for our sins. God was rightly angry because of humanities’ rebellion. Jesus did both, by becoming sin for us – taking our sins away – carrying them in His body on the cross – and thereby, as theologians say, absorbing or averting the wrath of God.
Jesus became a man, sharing in flesh and blood, that through His own death He would render powerless the one who had held us in the clutches of death – to free us from fear of death. As our perfect, merciful and faithful High Priest, His dying provided expiation and propitiation for us.
Which leads us to our last point. Having become a man, He Himself was tempted in that which He suffered – so that He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted. I want to remind you to whom Hebrews was written: to a group of people who were being opposed for their faith. Martyrdom was right around the corner. They were questioning if this Christian faith was really worth it. They were considering quitting.
And so the author writes to remind them they have a merciful and faithful high priest – who is able to help because He Himself suffered through His temptations. He can help you in yours. This verse teaches a couple of very important things about temptation. First, we learn later this High Priest – while He was tempted in every way as we are – was without sin. That tells me temptation itself is not sin. It is not a sin to be tempted – Jesus was. It is a sin to give into the temptation. Jesus was tempted in what He suffered – the same way these people were being tempted. So He can come to their aid.
In what way were they being tempted? To quit. To bag it. Did Jesus face that temptation? You bet. In the Garden of Gethsemane, He cried out to His Father – if there is any other way, let’s do it that way. Father, let this cup pass from Me. You ever feel that way? This is too much. I cannot endure the opposition, the persecution – the trials and challenges of being a Christian. I don’t think I can take another step. Jesus felt that. But He persevered – and the encouragement is to also remain faithful – to not quit – to stay with it. Because Jesus is there to give you help in the midst of it all.
Now, let me close with an important second thought about Jesus’ temptation – it’s called the doctrine of the impeccability of Christ. What that mean? It means while Jesus was tempted in every way as we are – He was not only without sin – it was impossible for Him to sin. He was, after all, God in the flesh. And God cannot sin. Some people are bothered by that. They say – well, if Jesus could not sin when tempted, then He was not tempted like I was – there’s no way He can understand. The opposite is actually true. Yes, it is true He was tempted. Yes, it is true, He never sinned. Yes, it is true, as God, He could not sin.
But consider this. When you are tempted – and give into the temptation – you don’t face the temptation to the degree that Jesus did. How can I say that? Because eventually, you gave in. You didn’t face the trial to the degree that Jesus did – because He never gave in. He faced the temptation to the fullest degree. When you give into temptation and sin – you don’t face the temptation to its fullest – to the degree He did. You quit. So truly, He is able to understand your temptations – to a greater degree than you ever have. It does not require that you give in to temptation and sin in order to understand – it requires that you are tempted. He was. And so He understands, fully.
So, what are you facing right now? What do you feel is too much for you right now? Have you ever doubted? Have you ever felt like quitting? Talk to Jesus – He understands. He’s been there. And He will come to your aid – He will help you through. I promise.