Jesus: Better and Lower Than The Angels - Part 3

Series: Hebrews

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Jun 10, 1998

Hebrews 2:14-18

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If you have your Bibles, please turn with me to Hebrews, chapter 2.   Now, we have been slowly working through Hebrews, chapter 2.  We come tonight to Hebrews, chapter 2, verses 14 through 18.  And if you will, why don’t we look back over briefly what we have done so far.  So far in the book of Hebrews, we have seen Christ’s superiority asserted.  We have seen His superiority demonstrated by the appeal to scripture in Hebrews, chapter 1.  And we have seen a stress put on our responsibility to recognize the significance that the Lord Jesus is better than the angels, especially in Hebrews 2, verses 1 through 4.  That is pressed upon us.  “How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?”  Lest we drift away.  And the author of Hebrews calls us to pay close attention of the truth of the Lord Jesus Christ of who He is, of who His person is, of His exalted person. 

It’s very interesting that the author of Hebrews focuses exclusively on the person of the Lord Jesus Christ, though he mentions His offices in the first chapter.   He focuses on the person of Jesus Christ, that is, that who He claims to be.  And he sees this as foundational for our salvation. 

Now Hebrews, chapter 2, verses 5 through 9 continues those same themes, and picks up with a quotation from Psalm 8, applying it to the Lord Jesus Christ.  Last week we looked at Hebrews 2, verses 9 through 18, and especially verses 10 through 13 which set forth reasons why God ordained the humbling of Jesus.  And we learned there that Christ’s experience of suffering, as our mediator, as our representative, as the person who was appointed by God to bring us back into fellowship with God, that His experience of suffering shows us the link in God’s household between discipline and sonship.  That is, that when you are an adopted child of God, one of the ways that God brings you into conformity with the image of Christ is through discipline.  Whom the Lord loves, He disciplines.  That’s not a mark that He doesn’t love you.  It’s a mark that He does love you, because it was through the discipline of suffering that He perfected, that He made perfectly adequate and complete His own Son to be our representative.  We’ve said all along as we think about ideas like that, it’s mind-boggling.  All the implications of that absolutely mind-boggling. 

Tonight, we come to verses 14 through 18 which carry on this same theme which has been being discussed since verse 9, in Hebrews, chapter 2.  So let’s hear God’s holy word:  

Hebrews 2:14-18 

Father, we do ask for Your help as we study Your word.  These are dense words.  You have packed so much truth into these phrases, it’s hard to pull them all out and make consecutive sense of them.  And yet we know You mean this word for our own edification, and we know that there is truth here that will do great good to our souls to wrestle with, and especially to understand and apply.  So by the Spirit, help us to understand hard things as well as easier things, and help us to embrace them, to believe them and to see them work out in our own lives in assurance and service.  We ask these things in Jesus’ name, Amen.

Tonight, as we look at Hebrews 2, verses 14 through 18, I want to remind you that there we see that Christ’s enfleshment.  His incarnation was necessary for His work to benefit us and His propitiatory death was essential to our redemption.  In other words, Jesus incarnation and His atoning death, were necessary parts of God’s divine plan to save us.  And that theme is the focus of the author in these verses.  Now as we’ve said, there’s a lot packed into these verses, and we can’t possibly do justice to everything that is here.  But let me point you to four things that we see as we look at this passage tonight.  And the first one I want you to note in verse 14. 

I. What is the Incarnation?

“Therefore since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same.”  That’s a nice, neat biblical definition of the incarnation.  And I want to pause with you for just a few moments and talk about what is the incarnation.   Because as we’ve said for several weeks previously, when we use the word incarnation as Christians, we’ve used that word so much that sometimes we don’t have a definite idea of what we mean, other than saying the word incarnation around Christmas time when we’re thinking about Jesus’ birth.  So let’s think for just a minute about what we mean by incarnation. 

And I want to do this with you by walking you through a historical argument, because that concept of God, the very Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, taking on Himself true  humanity and having that united in one person is a confusing concept.  It’s hard to get your head around that idea.  And the early church struggled with how to say that.  How do you say that right?  How do you say that Jesus Christ was God in the flesh without leaving something out that you ought to say or saying something that you shouldn’t?  Well, let me take you through some arguments in church history that helped us clarify this.  And actually I’d like you to take your hymnal out and turn with me to the back of the hymnal, and I’m going to show you a couple of thing from church history that I think will help us define what we mean when we say the word incarnation, or that Jesus was incarnate.  Turn to page 846 and keep your finger there at The Nicene Creed.  Not long after the Lord Jesus did the deeds and wonders and miracles that He performed in the gospels that are recorded for us in the gospel, not long after He died on our behalf and ascended into heaven after His resurrection, not long after the apostles began to preach, we know that there were people preaching in the same time and in the same locations that the apostles were preaching in who were teaching that Jesus Christ was not really human.  That He did not really have a body. 

Now these people came to be known as docetics.  That’s just a word that was applied to them because there is a Greek word, doketai, which means to seem, appear to be.  And they said that He appeared to be human, but He really wasn’t.  Now there was a reason why they believed this.  They had a hard time believing that the very Son of God could have experienced the ignominious death of the cross and all the humiliations of our human finitude and weakness.  So they said, ‘Well, though He appeared to be a human, actually He wasn’t.’  Now you will find in the epistles of the New Testament, in books like Colossians, which we’ve studied here together, and in the epistles of John, as well as in other places, explicit declarations by the apostles that that is false teaching.  That that is heresy.  In fact, there is a very interesting story which was apparently was first told by Polycarp and later repeated by the early church theologian Irenaeus.  The story goes that John, the apostle John, the one who leaned on the Lord’s breast at the Last Supper, was in Ephesus, and he was going to the baths in the downtown.  And as he was on his way into the baths, apparently there was another man named Cerinthus.  Cerinthus was a notorious heretic and taught that Jesus Christ only appeared to be human, but He was in fact was not human.  He was a spiritual being.  And he was apparently going into the baths at the same time that the apostle John was.  And it is said that when John found out that Cerinthus was going into the same building that he was going, that he immediately took up his clothes, and he fled from the building, screaming we must not be in the same building with the terrible heretic Cerinthus, lest the building fall in on us.  And so such was the feeling of the apostles towards those who denied that Jesus truly had humanity, like ours.  But there were people who taught  that. 

There are a variety of reasons why they taught that.  The main thing seems to be is in that time, in the first century and the second century, there were a lot of people who thought that matter and particularly human bodies were evil.  And they didn’t believe that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, could have partaken of anything that was essentially evil, like a body or matter.  In fact, they thought that salvation ultimately was redemption from the body, leaving the material aspect of reality and becoming perfectly pure and spiritual.  And so they deny that Jesus Christ had a body like ours.  And so from the very beginning, the early church responded to that and affirmed in no uncertain terms that Jesus Christ was truly human. 

Now look for a moment at that Nicene Creed.  In that Creed, and by the way you’ll see the same language in the Apostle’s Creed, we see these words in the second section on page 846.  “He was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures.”  Those phrases in The Nicene Creed and also the phrases that you find like them in the Apostle’s Creed which we say frequently, are there precisely to affirm that all true Christians believe that the Lord Jesus Christ came in the flesh, that He was truly human, that He suffered under Pontius Pilate.  Those phrases are there precisely to rebut the idea that He was simply some sort of a spiritual phantasm that only appeared to have a body. 

But the first part of that section of The Nicene Creed is designed to refute another error that came along.  In the fourth century, a man began teaching that the Lord Jesus Christ was not very God of very God.  In fact, he taught that Jesus Christ was a created being.  He was the greatest of all created beings, but he was not equal and same in substance with God.  He was a man named Arius.  And against Arius, the entirety of the church eventually affirmed that Jesus Christ was very God of very God.  That is, He was not only fully human, but He was fully divine.  And I want you to look at the first phrases of that middle section of The Nicene Creed.  “And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of his Father before all worlds.”  That phrase is designed to say that Jesus Christ was not created with the rest of creation.  He was before all worlds.  “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God.”  That phrase is designed to indicate that whatever is of the essence of God, so Jesus has that essence.  So Jesus has that essence.  He is God of God.  Very God of very God.  The next phrase says “begotten, not made.”  Now that phrase is designed to show us that Jesus Christ’s relationship to the Father was not that of someone who had been made by the Father, but rather someone who was begotten of the Father.  Now, what begotten means is not defined.  But whatever it means, it doesn’t mean that He was made.  It doesn’t mean that there was a time when He didn’t exist, and then He later existed at some point later on.  

The next phrase is being of one substance with the Father.  He wasn’t just like the Father; He wasn’t just morally similar to the Father.  He was of the same essence as the Father.  He shared the same deity that God the Father had.  Those phrases were all designed to refute wrong teaching about the incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Isn’t it interesting that in both of those two teachings on one side you have one group that denies His full humanity.  On the other side you have a group that denies His full deity.  And both of these errors have been repeated in different forms and in different times in the history of the church.  But the early church wrote creeds like The Nicene Creed.  Actually this Creed here was amended at the Counsel of Constantinople in 381 and then put into a final form at 451.  And it’s technically known as The Niceno Constantinopolitan Creed, but you can see why they would call it The Nicene Creed because that’s a lot easier to say. 

Now, if you’ll turn over just a few pages, turn over to the chapter in The Confession on Christ the Mediator.  In the second section of that chapter, there is a beautiful summarization of something in the Creed about Jesus Christ that was developed by the church at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, when they said, Chapter 8, section 2, it’s on page 853 of your hymnals,  “The Son of God, the second person in the Trinity, being very and eternal God.”  You recognize that language, it’s right from Nicea.  “[O]f one substance and equal with the Father.”  You recognize that language coming right from Nicea.  “[D]id, when the fullness of time was come, take upon him a man’s nature, with all the essential properties, and common infirmities thereof, yet without sin.”  And again there you see The Apostles’ Creed and the Council of Nicea.  “[B]eing conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the virgin Mary, of her substance.  So that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition or confusion.  Which person is very God, and very man, yet one Christ, the only Mediator between God and man.” 

Now that’s a mouthful.  But that last phrase, especially beginning with the words “so that” gives you a definition of what all of Christendom means when we say Jesus Christ was incarnate.  When we say that He was incarnate, we mean that two whole, perfect and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood were inseparably joined together in one person in Jesus Christ  without conversion, composition or confusion.  In other words, when those natures were joined, they were not turned into something else that they had not been before.  They were not converted.  They were not composed.  In other words, one didn’t become joined with the other in order to create a third thing, nor were they confused so that the human and the divine natures were mixed together in some way.  Okay.  They were brought together without conversion, composition or confusion.  And by the way, that language comes right out of the Council of Chalcedon in 451. 

Now we’ll talk, and we’ll try and talk in as simple terms as we possibly can, from time to time throughout the rest of this book about the meaning of the incarnation.  As you can see just from those statements, it’s a very, very deep and profound subject.  It’s hard to even find the words to use to talk about what it means for Christ to come in the flesh.  But here in verse 14 we see an assertion of that incarnation.  That since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook the same.  Now the point of this passage is to explain why He did that.  And I want you to look at three other things.

II. Christ became incarnate to die for us.

We’ve talked just a little bit about what we mean by the incarnation.  Now let’s talk about why the incarnation.  In verses 14 and 15 it is made clear that Christ became human.  He took on Himself humanity in order to die.  The author of Hebrews makes this clear.  He took the same.  “Since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself partook of the same that through death He might render powerless him who has the power of death.”  So because we are made of flesh and blood, because we are human, because we possess all the faculties of humanity, He took on those faculties that He might suffer death on our behalf.  And there are two specific things that we are told that He did take on this humanity in order to do. 

First of all, in verse 14, the second half of that verse, He took on our humanity that He might render death powerless.  Notice the phrase?  “That through death, He might render powerless him who had the power of death.”  And secondly, we are told in verse 15 that He did this in order to deliver us from slavery.  That He might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery.  Now that’s a very interesting phrase.  In the gospels who does Jesus say has the power of death?  God.  Now here it is implied that Jesus dies in order to save us from the dominion or from slavery to the one who has the power of death, and it implies who has the power of death.  Satan. 

Now how can both of those be true?  Well, ultimately God has all power, and Satan’s power is only delegated.  But what is the nature of Satan’s power of death?  Sin.  And that is precisely what the author of Hebrews is getting at.  Jesus died and was able to render the power of Satan null and void over all those who trusted on him.  Why?  Because His death dealt with sin, and sin is the sting of the law, and it is sin that brings death.  So it’s not that Satan has absolute power over death and the Lord Jesus’ death somehow takes that power away from Satan.  God ultimately has the power of death.  But that which makes us liable to death is sin.  And that is what Satan promotes.  And, therefore, through Christ’s death the author of Hebrews is telling us that Christ released us from the slavery of sin which bring about death. 

III. He was born to be our representative.

Then in verses 16 and 17, we are taught not only that He was born to die, but that He was born to be our representative.  He was born to mediate on our behalf.  Look at these words.  “For assuredly He does not give help to angels, but He gives help to the descendant of Abraham.  Therefore, he had to be made like His brethren in all things, so  that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” 

Notice that again it is stressed that Christ came to be a representative, not for angels, but for men, for the seed of Abraham, for the descendants of Abraham.  He gives help to the descendants of Abraham, we are told in verse 16. 

Why?  How?  Well, you’re told that in verse 17.  And again, two things, two reasons why He comes or what He comes to do on behalf of the seed of Abraham.  First, in the first half of verse 17, we are told that He became incarnate in order that He might be a merciful high priest.  Look at the words, “that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest.”  What is being stressed there is that it was necessary for Him to be fully human in order to be our representative before God.  What did the High Priest do?  The High Priest represented the people to God.  The High Priest prayed on behalf of the people.  The High Priest offered up sacrifices on behalf of the people.  And in order for the Lord Jesus to represent us as a merciful and faithful High Priest, He had to be like us.  He had to take on humanity. 

And secondly, notice in the second half of verse 17, we’re told that He also had to be human in order to make atonement for our sins, in order to make propitiation for the people.  He had to be made like us to make propitiation for the sins of the people.  That’s what the author of Hebrews says.  Now propitiation is a big word that means appeasing the wrath of somebody.  If you propitiate, you are appeasing the wrath of someone.  And Jesus, in His death on the cross, is appeasing the just wrath of God against sin.  So isn’t it interesting that we are told here in verses 16 and 17 that Jesus had to be human in order that He could represent us before God and in order that He could be a sacrifice to God on our behalf that God’s wrath, His just wrath against us, might be spared.  So Jesus not only serves as a human High Priest so that He can represent us to God, but also so that He in our place can receive the just penalty of sin. 

III. He was born to come to the aid of His brothers and sisters.

And again in verse 18, we’re told a third reason for the incarnation.  In verse 18 we’re told that Jesus was born to come to the aid of His brothers and sisters.  Look at verse 18.  “For since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted.”  Notice that Jesus is made human, not simply so that He can sympathize with us.  I mean it’s nice to have someone to sympathize with you.  But sometimes what you want is someone who can get you out of the mess that you’re in.  It’s not just someone who can say, ‘Boy, I’m really sorry that you’re in the mess that you’re in.’  And we’re told here in verse 18 that Jesus didn’t just become human so He could say, “You know, I really know how you feel.”  I mean that’s nice sometimes.  Jesus, however, became human so that He could do something about our situation, so that He could come to the aid of those who are tempted.  He was tempted like His brethren in order to come to our aid.  So all of these reasons are given for Jesus being fully human just like we are. 

Now we cannot begin to fathom the compassion of the Lord Jesus Christ.  What is made clear here in Hebrews, chapter 2, is that Jesus chose to become human on our behalf.  He did not have to do that.  The Lord Jesus did not have to undergo what He underwent.  He chose to do that on our behalf, and that has radical implications for our trust in Him.  If He chose to do what He did, knowing every step of the way where He was going, then we can trust Him.  A lot of times in our lives we think,  “Wouldn’t it be nice to know what was coming.  Wouldn’t it be easier to trust in God if we knew how it was all going to work out?”   Well, I want you to think about that in reverse with regard to the Lord Jesus Christ.  Think about the fact that the Lord Jesus Christ had to live His entire life knowing what was coming.  Think what that would have been like.  The gospel authors share with us a little inside hint of what that was like for the Lord Jesus Christ to know what was coming.  To share a little hint of that, for instance, in John 12, when the Lord Jesus is said to be deeply troubled.  To share a little bit of that when they tell us about what it was like for him in the Garden of Gethsemane when He said “Lord, take this cup from me.”  We have no idea what it would have been like to have lived an entire life knowing that one day that awful day of crucifixion was coming.  And yet Jesus Christ chose to do that for you. 

Now that has radical implications for how you trust Him.  We are drawn in to inadvertent suffering all the time in our lives.  And in that inadvertent suffering, sometimes we have a hard time trusting God.  But Jesus Christ chose His suffering on our behalf and calls on us to trust in Him.  Can we not trust in Him when we face sufferings that we haven’t chosen, knowing that He chose His sufferings on our behalf?  The exalted Christ that we love and serve is not only fully divine, He is fully human, and He chose to be human on our behalf.  He drew near to us in taking on our humanity and so we ought to trust Him when we find ourselves under difficult providences as humans living in a fallen world.  He experienced every range of suffering and temptation that there is, and so beckons us to trust in Him who chose to suffer when we are called to go through sufferings that we have not chosen.  Let’s look to Him in pray.

Heavenly Father, we thank You for the gospel truth of this passage.  We would ask that you would help us to understand it, help us to be clear in our minds about the issues involved with the Lord Jesus’ person and especially the implication that He is fully human and fully divine for our worship of Him, for our salvation and for our assurance and trust.  We ask these things in Jesus’ name, Amen.

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