An Exposition of Hebrews
by A. W. Pink
Christ Superior to Angels
(Hebrews 2:17, 18)
The verses which are now to be before us complete the second main division of the Epistle, in which the apostle has set forth the superiority of Christ over angels, and has met and removed a double objection which might be made against this. In showing that it was necessary for the Son of God to become Man in order to save His people from their sins, the Holy Spirit took occasion to bring out some striking details concerning the real and perfect humanity of Christ. In Hebrews 2:11 He affirms that Christ and His people are "all of one." This receives a sevenfold amplification, which is as follows: First, they are one in sanctification, verse 11. Second, they are one in family relationship, verses 11, 12a. Third, they are one in worship, verse 12b. Fourth, they are one in trust, verse 13. Fifth, they are one in nature, verse 14. Sixth, they are one in the line of promise, verse 16. Seventh, they are one in experiencing temptation, verse 18.
It is remarkable to notice, however, that in this very passage which sets forth Christ’s identification with His people on earth, the Holy Spirit has carefully guarded the Savior’s glory and shows, also in a sevenfold way, His uniqueness: First, He is "the Captain of our salvation" (verse 10), we are those whom He saves. Second, He is the "Sanctifier," we but the sanctified (verse 11). Third, the fact that He is "not ashamed to call us brethren" (verse 11), clearly implies His superiority. Fourth, He is the Leader of our praise and presents it to God (verse 12). Fifth, mark the "I, and the children" in verse 13. Sixth, note the contrast between "partakers" and "took part of" in verse 14. Seventh, He is the Destroyer of the enemy, we but the delivered ones verses 14, 15. Thus, here as everywhere, He has the pre-eminence in all things."
Another thing which comes out strikingly and plainly in the second half of Hebrews 2 is the distinguishing grace and predestinating love of God. Christ is His "Elect" (Isa. 42:1), so called because His people are "chosen in Him" (Eph. 1:4). Mark how this also is developed in a sevenfold manner. First, in "bringing many sons unto glory." (verse 10). Second, "the Captain of their salvation" (verse 10). Third, "they who are sanctified," set apart (verse 11). Fourth, "in the midst of the church" (verse 12). Fifth, "the children which God hath given me" (verse 13). Sixth, "He took on Him the seed of Abraham" (verse 16), not Adam, but "Abraham," the father of God’s chosen people. Seventh, "to make reconciliation for the sins of the people" (verse 17).
If the reader will turn back to the third paragraph in article 10, and the second and third in article 11, he will find that we have called attention to twelve distinct reasons set forth by the apostle in Hebrews 2:9-16, which show the meetness and necessity of Christ’s becoming man and dying. In the verses which we are now to ponder, two more are advanced: First, the incarnation and death of the Savior were imperative if He was to be "a merciful and faithful High Priest" (verse 17). Second, such experiences were essential that He might be able to "succor them that are tempted" (verse 18). Thus, in the fourteen answers given to the two objections which a Jew would raise, a complete demonstration is once more given of the two leading points under discussion.
Though our present portion consists of but two verses yet are they so full of important teaching that many more pages than what we shall now write might well be devoted to their explication and application. They treat of such weighty subjects as the incarnation of Christ, the priesthood of Christ, the atoning-sacrifice of Christ, the temptation of Christ, and the succor of Christ. Precious themes indeed are these; may the Spirit of truth be our Guide as we prayerfully turn to their consideration.
"Wherefore in all things it behooved Him to be made like unto His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people" (verse 17). The Holy Spirit here adduces a further reason why it was necessary for the Son of God to become incarnate and lay down His life for His people: it behooved Him so to do that He might be an effectual High Priest. As the priesthood of Christ will come before us again and again in the later chapters, D.V., we shall not here discuss it at length. Let us now ponder the several words and clauses of our present verse.
"Wherefore" is the drawing of a conclusion from what has been said in the previous verses. "It behooved Him": the Greek word is not the same as for "it became" Him in Hebrews 2:10. There the reference is to the Father, here to the Son; that signified a comeliness or meetness, this has reference to a necessity, though not an absolute one, but in conjunction with the order of God’s appointment in the way sinners were to be redeemed, and His justice satisfied, cf. Luke 24:46. "To be made like unto His brethren" is parallel with "all of one" in verse 11 and "He also Himself likewise took part" in verse 14. The expression goes to manifest the reality of Christ’s human nature: that He was Man, such a man as we are.
The words "it behooved Him in all things to (His) brethren to be made like" are not to be taken absolutely. When the writer points out that, in view of other scriptures, the word "all" must be limited in such passages as John 12:32, 1 Timothy 2:4, 6, etc., some people think we are interpreting the Bible so as to suit ourselves. But what will they do with such a verse as Hebrews 2:17? Can the words "in all things it behooved Him to be made like unto His brethren" be understood without qualification? Was He made like unto us in the depravity of our natures? Did He suffer from physical sicknesses as we do? Emphatically no. How do we know this? From other passages. Scripture needs to be compared with Scripture in order to understand any verse or any expression. The same Greek words here rendered "all things" (kapapanta) occur again in Hebrews 4:15, where we are told that Christ "was in all points (things) tempted like as we are sin excepted" for thus the Greek word should be rendered. Thus the Holy Spirit expressly declares that the "all things" is not universal!
What then does the "all things" signify and include? We answer, everything which Scripture does not except or exclude "when people saw Him, they did not notice in His outward appearance anything super-human, glorious, free from earthly weakness and dependency. He did not come in splendor and power. He did not come in the brightness and strength which Adam possessed before he fell. ‘In all things He became like unto us’ in His body, for He was hungry and thirsty; overcome with fatigue, He slept; in His mind, for it developed. He had to be taught. He grew in wisdom concerning the things around Him; He increased, not merely in stature, but in mental and normal strength. In His affections, for He loved. He was astonished; He marveled at men’s unbelief. Sometimes He was glad, and ‘rejoiced in spirit’; sometimes He was angry and indignant, as when He saw the hypocrisy of the Jews. Zeal like fire burned within Him: ‘The zeal for the house of God consumed Me’; and he showed a vehement fervor in protecting the sanctity of God’s temple. He was grieved; He trembled with emotion; His soul was straightened in Him. Sometimes He was overcome by the waves of feeling when He beheld the future that was before Him.
"Do not think of Him as merely appearing a man, or as living a man only in His body, but as Man in body, soul, and spirit. He exercised faith; He read the Scriptures for His own guidance and encouragement; He prayed the whole night, especially when He had some great and important work to do, as before setting apart the apostles. He sighed when He saw the man who was dumb; tears fell from His eyes when at the tomb of Lazarus He saw the power of death and of Satan. His supplications were with strong crying and tears; His soul was exceeding sorrowful" (Saphir). Thus, the Son of God was made like unto His brethren in that He became Man, with a human spirit, and soul and body; in that He developed along the ordinary lines of human nature, from infancy to maturity; and, in that He passed through all the experiences of men, sin, and sickness excepted.
"That He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people." The Son of God became the Son of Man in order that He might be an High Priest. There was an absolute necessity for this. First, because of the infinite disparity there is between God and men: He is of infinite glory and majesty, and dwells in that light which no man can approach unto (1 Tim. 6:16); they are but dust and ashes (Gen. 18:27). Second, because of the contrariety of nature between God and men: He is most pure and holy, they most polluted and unholy. Third, because of the resultant enmity between God and men (Rom. 5:10; Col. 1:21). Hence we may observe: there is no immediate access for any man to God without a priest; there is no priest qualified to act for men in things pertaining to God, but Jesus Christ, the God-man. Thus has He been appointed "Mediator between God and men" (1 Tim. 2:5, 6).
Because of the perfect union between His two natures, the Lord Jesus is "a merciful and faithful High Priest": "merciful" man-wards, "faithful" God-wards. To be "merciful" is to be compassionate, ever ready, under the influence of a tender sympathy, to support, comfort, and deliver. Having trod the same path as His suffering and tried people, Christ is able to enter into their afflictions. He is not like an angel, who has never experienced pain. He is Man; nor are His sympathies impaired by His exaltation to heaven. The same human heart beats within the bosom of Him who sits at God’s right hand as caused Him to weep over Jerusalem! To be "faithful" means that His compassions are regulated by holiness, His sympathies are exercised, according to the requirements of God’s truth. There is a perfect balance between His maintenance of God’s claims and His ministering to our infirmities.
"To make reconciliation for the sins of the people." It is a pity that the translators of the A.V. rendered this clause as they did. The Revisers have correctly given: "to make propitiation for the sins of the people." The Greek word here is "Hilaskeothai," which is the verbal form of the one found in 1 John 2:2 and 1 John 4:10. The word for "reconciliation" is "katallage," which occurs in 2 Corinthians 5:18, 19, and Romans 5:11, though the word is there wrongly rendered "the atonement." The difference between the two terms is vital though one which is now little understood. Reconciliation is one of the effects or fruits of propitiation. Reconciliation is between God and us; propitiation is solely God-ward. Propitiation was the appeasing of God’s holy anger and righteous wrath; reconciliation is entering into the peace which the atoning sacrifice of Christ has procured.
"To make propitiation for the sins of the people." Here is the climax of the apostle’s argument. Here is his all-conclusive reply to the Jews’ objection. Atonement for the sins of God’s elect could not be made except the Son became Man; except He became "all of one" with those who had, from all eternity been set apart in the counsels of the Most High to be "brought unto glory"; except He took part in "flesh and blood," and in all things be "made like unto His brethren." Only thus could He be the Redeemer of the "children" which God had given Him.
In Scripture the first qualification of a redeemer was that he must belong to the same family of him or her who was to be redeemed: "If thy brother be waxen poor, and hath sold away of his possession, and if any of his kin come to redeem it, then shall he redeem that which his brother sold" (Lev. 25:25). The redeemer must be a "kinsman": this fact is fully and beautifully illustrated in the book of Ruth (see Hebrews 2:20; 3:12, 13; 4:1, 4, 6). Neither pity, love, nor power were of any avail till kinship was established. The important bearing of this on what immediately follows we shall now endeavor to show.
"To make propitiation for the sins of the people." This word, in the light of its setting, is one of the most vital to be found in all Holy Writ on the subject of the Atonement, bringing out, as it does, the absolute righteousness of God in connection therewith. At the back of many minds, we fear, there lurks the suspicion that though it was marvelous grace and matchless love which moved God to give His Son to die for sinners, yet that, strictly speaking, it was an act of unrighteousness. Was it really just for an innocent person to suffer in the stead of the guilty? Was it right for One who had so perfectly honored God and kept His law at every point, to endure its awful penalty? To say, It had to be, there was no other way of saving us, supplies no direct answer to our question; nay, it is but arguing on the jesuitical basis that "the end justifies the means."
Sin must be punished; a holy God could not ignore our manifold transgressions; therefore, if we are to escape the due reward of our iniquities a sinless substitute must be paid the wages of sin in our stead. But will not the Christian reader agree that it had been infinitely better for all of us to be cast into the Lake of Fire, than that God should act unrighteously to His Own Beloved? Has, then our salvation been secured at the awful price of a lasting stigma being cast upon the holy name of God? This is how the theological schemes of many have left it. But not so the Holy Scriptures. Yet, let us honestly face the question: Was God just in taking satisfaction from His spotless Son in order to secure the salvation of His people?
It is at this point that so many preachers have shown a zeal which is not "according to knowledge" (Rom. 10:2). In their well-meant but carnal efforts to simplify the things of God, they have dragged down His holy and peerless truth to the level of human affairs. They have sought to "illustrate" Divine mysteries by references to things which come within the range of our senses. God has said, "The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know, because they are spiritually discerned" (1 Cor. 2:14). Why not believe what He has said? You cannot teach a corpse, and the natural man is dead in sin. If the Word of God does not bring him life and light, no words of ours can or will. And to go outside of Holy Writ for our "illustrations" is a piece of impertinency, or worse. When a preacher attempts to simplify the mystery of the three Persons in the Godhead by an illustration from "nature" he only exhibits his foolishness, and helps nobody.
Thus it has been with the sacred truth and holy mystery of the Atonement. Good men have not hesitated to ransack the annals of history, both ancient and modern, to discover examples of those who, themselves innocent of the crime committed, volunteered to receive the penalty due to those who were guilty. Sad, indeed, is it to behold this unholy cheapening of the things of God; but what is far worse, most reprehensible is it to observe their misrepresentations of the greatest transaction of all in the entire history of the universe. An innocent man bearing the punishment of a guilty one may meet the requirements of a human government, but such an arrangement could never satisfy the demands of the righteous government of God. Such is its perfection, that under it no innocent person ever suffered, and no guilty person ever escaped; and so far from the atonement of the Son of God forming an exception to this rule, it affords the most convincing evidence of its truth.
Once we perceive that the Atonement is founded upon the unity of Christ and His people, a unity formed by His taking part in flesh and blood, the righteousness of God is at once cleared of the aspersion which the illustrations of many a preacher has, by necessary implication cast upon it. The propitiation rendered unto God was made neither by a stranger, nor an intimate friend, undergoing what another merited; but by the Head who was responsible for the acts of the members of His spiritual body, just as those members had been constituted guilty because of the act of their natural head, Adam—when "by the offense of one, judgment came upon all men to condemnation" (Rom. 5:18). It is perhaps worthy of notice in this connection that, in the over-ruling providence of God, it is the head of a murderer’s body which is dealt with when capital punishment is inflicted either decapitation as in France, hanging by the neck as in England, or being gassed as in some parts of the United States. Thus the head is held responsible for the feet, which were swift to shed blood, and the hand which committed the lethal crime.
However great the dignity of the substitute, or however deep his voluntary humiliation, atonement for us would not have been possible unless that substitute became actually, as well as legally, one with us. In order to ransom His church, in order to purge our sins, Christ must so unite Himself with His people, that their sins should become His sins, and that His sufferings and death should become their sufferings and death. In short, the union between the Son of God and His people, and theirs with Him, must be as real and as intimate as that of Adam and his posterity, who all sinned and died in him. Thus did He, in the fullness of time, assume their flesh and blood, bear their sins in His own body on the tree, so that they, having died to sin, may live unto righteousness, being healed by His stripes. Therefore, no human transaction can possibly illustrate the surety-ship and sacrificial death of Christ, and any attempt to do so is not only to darken counsel by words without knowledge, but is, really, to be guilty of presumptuous impiety. Probably more than one preacher will be led to cry with the writer, "Father, forgive me, for I knew not what I did."
Here, then, is the answer to our question: so far from the salvation of God’s elect having been procured at the unspeakable price of sullying the holy name of Deity, the manner in which it was secured furnishes the supremest demonstration of the inexorable justice of God; for when sin was found upon Him, God "spared not His own Son" (Rom. 8:32). But it was against no "innocent Victim" that God bade His sword awake. It was against One who had graciously condescended to be "numbered with transgressors," who not only took their place, but had become one with them. Had He not first had a real and vital relation to our sins, He could not have undergone their punishment. The justice of God’s imputation of our sins to the Savior’s account rested upon His oneness with His people.
It is this fact which is iterated and reiterated all through the immediate context. "Both He that sanctifieth and they who are sanctified are all of one" (verse 11), "Behold I and the children which God hath given Me" (verse 13), "Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, He also Himself likewise took part of the same" (verse 14), "Wherefore in all things it behooved Him to be made like unto His brethren" (verse 17). Why? Why? Here is the inspired answer: "To make propitiation for the sins of the people." That was only possible, we say again, because of His union with them. When Christ became one with His people their guilt became His, as the debts of a wife become by marriage the debts of the husband. This itself is acknowledged by Christ, "For innumerable evils hath compassed Me about: Mine iniquities have taken hold upon Me, so that I am not able to look up; they are more than the hairs of Mine head: therefore My heart faileth Me" (Ps. 40:12).
"To make propitiation for the sins of the people." In the light of all that has gone before in the Epistle, this statement is luminous indeed. The whole context shows us His qualifications for this stupendous work, a work which none but He could have performed. First, He was Himself "the Son," the brightness of God’s glory and the very impress of His substance. Thus it was the dignity or Deity of His person which gave such infinite value to His work. Second, His moral perfections as Man, loving righteousness and hating iniquity (Heb. 1:9), thus fulfilled every requirement of the law. Third, His union with His people which caused him "made sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him."
The "propitiation" (which is the New Testament filling out of the Old Testament "to make an atonement") which Christ made, was the perfect satisfaction that He offered to the holiness and justice of God on behalf of His people’s sins, so that they could be righteously blotted out, removed for ever from before the face of God, "as far as the east is from the west." This sacrificial work of the Savior’s was a priestly act, as the words of our present verse clearly enough affirm.
For "the sins of the people" is parallel with Matthew 1:21; John 10:11. They plainly teach that atonement has been made for the sins of God’s elect only. "The people" are manifestly parallel with the "heirs of salvation" (Heb. 1:14), the "many sons" (Heb. 2:10), the "brethren" (Heb. 2:12), the "seed of Abraham" (Heb. 2:16). It is with them alone Christ identified Himself. The "all of one" of Hebrews 2:11 is expressly defined as being only between "He that sanctifieth and they who are sanctified." He laid hold of "the seed of Abraham," and not "the seed of Adam." He is the "Head" not of mankind, but of "the church which is His body" (Eph. 1:21-23). A universal atonement, which largely fails of its purpose, is an invention of Satan, with the design of casting dishonor upon Christ, who would thus be a defeated Savior. A general atonement, abstractedly offered to Divine justice, which is theoretically sufficient for everybody, yet in itself efficient for nobody, is a fictitious imagination, which finds lodgment only in those who are vainly puffed up by a fleshly mind. A particular atonement, made for a definite people, all of whom shall enjoy the eternal benefits of it, is what is uniformly taught in the Word of God.
"For in that He Himself hath suffered being tempted He is able to succor them that are tempted" (verse 18). Here is the final reason given why it was necessary for the Son to become Man and die: He is the better able to succor His tried people. It was not simply His having been "tempted" that qualified Him, for God Himself may be tempted (Num. 14:22), though not with evil (James 1:13). So men may be tempted, yet as to be moved little or nothing thereby. But such temptations as make one suffer, do so work on him, as to draw out his pity to other tempted ones, and to help them as far as He can. It is this point which the Spirit has here seized.
"For in that He Himself hath suffered, being tempted." The subject of Christ’s being tempted is an important one, for erroneous conceptions thereof necessarily produce a most dishonoring conception of His peerless Person. If the Lord wills, we hope to discuss it more fully when we come to Hebrews 4:15, yet feel we must offer a few remarks upon it now. That the temptations to which our blessed Lord was subjected were real ones is evidenced from the inspired declaration that He "suffered" from them, but that they involved a conflict within Him, or that there was any possibility of His yielding thereto, must be emphatically denied. That He became Man with a human spirit and soul and body, and therefore possessed a human will, we fully believe; but that there was the slightest inclination for His heart or will to yield to evil solicitations, is wicked to so much as imagine. Not only was His humanity sinless, but it was "holy" (Luke 1:35), and His inherent holiness repelled all sin as water does fire.
The temptations or trials which Christ suffered here on earth must not be limited to those which came upon Him from Satan, though these are included. First, Christ suffered bodily hunger (Matt. 4:1,2), etc. Second, His holy nature suffered acutely from the very presence of the foul Fiend, so that He said, "Get thee hence" (Matt. 4:10). Third, the temptations from the Pharisees and others "grieved" Him (Mark 3:5) Fourth, from the words of His own disciples, which were an "offense" unto Him (Matt. 16:23). Fifth, His greatest sufferings were from His Father’s temptings or tryings of Him. (See John 12:27; Matthew 26:38, 39; 27:46). Note how in Luke 22:28, "My temptation," the Savior spoke of His whole life as one unbroken experience of trial! How real and deep His "sufferings" were, many of the Messianic Psalms reveal.
The very fact that He suffered when "tempted" manifests His uniqueness. "He suffered, never yielded. We do not ‘suffer’ when we yield to temptation: the flesh takes pleasure in the things by which it is tempted. Jesus suffered, being tempted. It is important to observe that the flesh, when acted upon by its desires, does not suffer. Being tempted it, alas, enjoys. But when, according to the light of the Holy Spirit and fidelity of obedience, the spirit resists the attacks of the enemy, whether subtle or persecuting, then one suffers. This the Lord did, and this we have to do" (Mr. J.N. Darby).
"He is able to succor them that are tempted." Having passed through this scene as the Man of sorrows, He can, experimentally, gauge and feel the sorrows of His people, but let it be dearly understood that it is not the "flesh" in us which needs "succoring," but the new nature, the faithful heart that desires to please Him. We need "succor" against the flesh, to enable us to mortify our members which are upon the earth. Not yet has the promised inheritance been reached. We are still in the wilderness, which provides nothing which ministers to us spiritually. We are living in a world where everything is opposed to true godliness. We are called upon to "run the race which is set before us," to "fight the good fight of faith," and for this we daily need His "succor."
The Greek word for "He is able" implies both a fitness and willingness to do a thing. Christ is both competent and ready to undertake for His people. If we have not, it is because we ask not. The Greek word for "succor" here is very emphatic, and signifies a running to the cry of one, as a parent responding to the cry of distress from a child. A blessed illustration of Christ’s "succoring" one of His own needy people is found in Matthew 14:30,31, where we read that when Peter saw the wind was boisterous he was afraid, and began to sink, and cried "Lord save me." And then we are told, "And immediately Jesus stretched forth His hand and caught him."
On one occasion the Lord Jesus asked His disciples, "Believe ye that I am able to do this" (Matt. 9:28). And thus He ever challenges the faith of His own. To Abraham He said, "Is anything too hard for the Lord?" (Gen. 18:14). To Moses, who doubted whether the Lord would give flesh to Israel in the wilderness, He asked, "Is the Lord’s hand waxed short?" (Num. 11:23). To Jeremiah the searching question was put, "Is there anything too hard for Me?" (Jer. 32:27). So He still asks, "Believe ye, that I am able to do this?" Do what? we may ask. Whatever you are really in need of—give peace, impart assurance, grant deliverance, supply succor.
"He is able to succor them that are tempted." Remember who He is, the God-man. Remember the experiences through which He passed! He, too, has been in the place of trial: He, too, was tempted—to distrust, to despondency, to destroy Himself. Yes, He was tempted "in all points like as we are, sin excepted." Remember His present position, sitting at the right hand of the Majesty on high! How blessed then to know that He is "able" both to enter, sympathetically, into our sufferings and sorrows, and that He has power to "succor."
"As Man, a man of sorrows,
Thou hast suffered every woe,
And though enthroned in glory now,
Canst pity all Thy saints below."
Oh, what a Savior is ours! The all-mighty God; yet the all-tender Man. One who is as far above us in His original nature and present glory as the heavens are above the earth: yet One who can be "touched with the feeling of our infirmities," One who is the Creator of the universe; yet One who became Man, lived His life on the same plane ours is lived, passed through the same trials we experience, and suffered not only as we do, but far more acutely. How well-fitted is such a One to be our great High Priest! How self-sufficient He is to supply our every need! And how completely is the wisdom and grace of God vindicated for having appointed His blessed Son, to be made, for a season, lower than the angels! May our love for Him be strengthened and our worship deepened by the contemplation of what has been before us in these first two chapters of Hebrews.