What’s An Exile to Do? Live in Confident Expectation

Posted by R. Fowler White

Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Pet 1:13)

Therefore … The commands for the new life that we Christians should live always seem to begin with that word therefore. After summarizing what God has done for our good in the opening (1:1-2) and thanksgiving (1:3-12) sections of his first letter (aka his “Survival Manual for Exiles”), the Apostle Peter turns in the letter’s exhortation section (1:13-25) to tell us what God calls us to do for His glory. The order of indicative/imperative is particularly important here: it reminds us that God does not address His commands to us His elect exiles as those who are still in bondage to sin. No, He addresses us as former slaves now free for a new life, free to grow in holiness. By free, we don’t mean that we’re fully and finally freed from sin’s presence, but we are freed from sin’s penalty and power, free to live the new life to which Christ calls us. So now, as we take courage from our elect identity in Christ and give thanks for God’s saving work, Peter instructs us about how we exiles should live.

So, what’s an exile to do now? Live in confident expectation (1:13). Our salvation calls for—in fact, it brings about—a reset of our outlook. Peter says, set your hope fully …. Fasten your gaze entirely, fix your eyes completely, focus your energies totally, on your hope of the grace of resurrection life to come (1:3), of the eternal glory that will be yours (1 Pet 5:10). Don’t set your hope on anything that’s of this earth or of this world (like an election cycle). Don’t focus your energies on anything that’s temporary, on anything that dies, goes bad, or fades away. Set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

But we ask Peter, how? How do we go about fastening our gaze, fixing our eyes, focusing our energies on our hope of our future resurrection life? Peter answers, by preparing your minds for action. Our translation blurs the image that Peter provides us. The Apostle refers to the fact that, in ancient times, men wore long robes and would tuck them into their belts if they wanted to move more freely and quickly. Peter may even be recalling what happened at the Passover. Remember how, once the blood of the lamb was applied, God’s people were to be ready to leave Egypt for Canaan (Exod 12:11). Get dressed and ready to take off. So, exiles, says Peter, get your minds ready for action. Don’t imagine that we’re just going to stroll or coast to the finish. Roll up your sleeves; tighten your belt. Get ready to roll, to exert yourself in a vigorous and sustained way. Live your life in confident expectation by preparing your minds for action.

But Peter mentions one more way to live in confident expectation: by being sober-minded, that is, by disciplining yourself, by getting your mind in gear. In other words, gear up and stay alert. The tests and trials peculiar to our exile can make us careless. So we need to concentrate. Don’t let your mind wander. Don’t zone out. Sure, take time to rest and worship, but don’t just veg out and “let life happen” to you. Don’t get distracted by leisure and recreation, personal peace and affluence, worldly reputation and power. Lock in on your life to come in that lasting city.

Noah, an exile who preached (2 Pet 2:5) while he built an ark to sail to a new world (Heb 11:7), was called to live in confident expectation. The OT church, exiles freed to march to a new land, was called to live in confident expectation. So it is with us. Resurrection life in our heavenly country awaits us. For now, we are exiles set free from this world, and we live in confident expectation of the world to come. And, oh, yes: Peter provides us more detail on what our life of confident expectation looks like. Keep reading in 1 Pet 1:14ff.

What’s An Exile to Do? Give God Thanks

Posted by R. Fowler White

For all us Christians who find ourselves increasingly marginalized in society, the Apostle Peter’s “Survival Manual for Exiles” tells us how to persevere. He opens his manual with a call to take courage from our identity as God’s elect (1 Pet 1:1-2). He continues with a review of God’s past, present, and future saving work on our behalf. In light of God’s work, Peter challenges us to bless God, to give Him thanks for His great mercy to us (1:3-12).

Give God thanks, says Peter: He has given us new birth (1:3-5). He has given us just what Jesus said we must have in order to inherit God’s kingdom: you must be born again (John 3:7). God has done for us what we could never have done for ourselves: He has caused us to be born again. Through this rebirth God has brought us a living hope, a hope of new life before death and more: as the reference to Christ’s resurrection makes clear, a hope of new life after death. Through that new birth God has also brought us a lasting inheritance, one with no expiration date. It’s an inheritance that God guards for us, while by His power He protects us now through faith. Our place in the heavenly country is, thus, secured with a divine reservation that no creature can ever cancel. So, give thanks to God for His great mercy of rebirth.

Give God thanks, says Peter: we have joy, love, and faith now, despite testing (1:6-8). Though we face the trials of being exiles, we still have joy in our salvation. Yes, trials hurt, but they’re temporary. Yes, trials injure, but they’re valuable. They prove that our faith is genuine. They bring God glory, and they bring us reward when, at last, we see Christ face to face. So, give thanks: God has given us joy in our salvation. Moreover, though we haven’t yet seen Christ face to face, we do now love Him. God converted us from hating Christ to loving Him, and, with that adoration and affection, we gladly present ourselves to Him as living sacrifices. Give God thanks, then: He has put love for Jesus in our hearts. Furthermore, though we don’t now see Christ face to face, we do now have faith in Him. To be sure, our faith is not yet sight. But we are now trusting Him, and through that faith He is protecting us. So, we give God thanks: He has given us faith more precious than gold. And one more thing: though we don’t now see Christ face to face, we do now have joy in the future He holds for us. Again, though our faith is not yet sight, we find joy now in knowing that whoever believes in Christ will not be put to shame. On top of that, we find joy now in knowing that trials do to faith what fire does to precious metal: as heat separates dross from metal, so trials test and prove that our faith is genuine. We endure the testing of our faith, then, strengthened by the knowledge that trials are our God’s refining fire. So, give God thanks: we do have joy, love, and faith now, though we’re tested in exile.

Give God thanks, Peter writes: we’re blessed to hear the preaching of that grace predicted and investigated by the OT prophets (1:9-12). We now see the grace that they could only predict as a service to us in their future. As Jesus said, Many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it. Ours, then, is the blessing to live in the time of fulfillment! Ours is the privilege to see and hear what even the OT prophets did not! Give thanks to our God, then: He has granted it to us a great advantage to live in the time of which the prophets could only dream.

Peter’s first readers were much as we are: pushed into cultural exile, sometimes geographical exile. As it was then, so it is now: the world wants us just to shut up and assimilate. But we need to listen to Peter. He knew the temptation to deny his identity and to assimilate. After all, though he had been the first to confess Jesus’ identity as the Christ, on the night when Jesus was betrayed, Peter had three times denied both Jesus’ identity and his own identity. Jesus, however, had prayed for Peter that, though tested, his faith would not fail. God by His power guarded Peter through faith so that, when he turned again, he strengthened his brothers in faith (Luke 22:32). Peter continues that strengthening ministry to us in his first letter, telling us that, though the trials of exile test our faith, we should give God thanks for His great mercy to us. Will we heed his message?

What’s An Exile to Do? Take Courage

Posted by R. Fowler White

The Apostle Peter’s first letter has been described as a Survival Manual for Exiles, for Christ’s kingdom-colony of resident aliens in this world. His letter was relevant in the first century and is relevant now because, in the ebb and flow of divine providence, Christians can find themselves at the margins of life, relegated into social-cultural, if not geographical exile. To increasing numbers of people in our world right now, we who confess the historic Christian faith are outmoded at best and hateful at worst. It is vital, then, for us to know how Peter would have us approach every area of life. The Apostle’s opening message (1 Pet 1:1-2) to us is straightforward: though we’re exiles, we ought to take courage in our identity as God’s elect.

First, our present reality: we’re exiles (1:1). To be specific, we’re exiles of the Dispersion. But what does this wording mean? Originally applied to deported Israelites, Peter now applies it to the NT church, including Gentiles, scattered throughout the nations. But Peter’s words tell us more. They tell us that, like our father in the faith, Abraham, we’re resident aliens and strangers in this place. Meanwhile, however, by faith we understand who we are: we understand that God has made us heirs of a better country, a heavenly homeland. Knowing, then, our identity as God’s exiles, Peter says to us, “Take courage.”

Though like other exiles we lack a permanent homeland here, we’re different from others too. We’re elect exiles, loved from eternity by God the Father (1:2). Just as the Father foreknew His beloved Son (1 Pet 1:20), so He foreknew us. That is, before the creation of the world, the Father, who set His affections on His Son, set His affections on His people too. While we humans make our choices based on something worthy in others, God’s choice of us as His own is not based on anything worthy that He has foreseen or sees in us. As the Apostle Paul plainly states, God chose as He did so that no human being has anything to boast about before Him. So, nothing in us made us deserving of His choice. His choice is purely gracious. By contrast, the world measures our worth by ever-changing standards, vacillating between tolerance and hatred. Disdaining the world’s ambivalence toward us, we take courage in our gracious God: we’ve been irrevocably under His care since before the world began.

Speaking of God’s irrevocable fatherly care, we’re His elect exiles, set apart from the world by God the Spirit (1:2). Chosen precisely as the Father foreknew us, Peter says that He chose us for the purpose of having the Spirit sanctify us. That is, He had the Spirit set us apart from the world to be saved through faith. We ought to take courage, then, knowing that our present identity is no accident, no product of good luck. To the contrary, it is the Father’s eternal choice of us coming to fruition through the Spirit who set us apart for salvation.

Being now saved just as the Spirit sanctified us to be, we’re God’s elect exiles, obedient to and purified by God the Son (1:2). Focusing on the goals (not the grounds) of the Father’s choice and the Spirit’s sanctification, the Apostle describes the two sides of our conversion: side one is our obedience to Christ’s gospel; side two is Christ’s cleansing and forgiveness of us who believe. God chose us, not because of obedience to Christ, but for obedience to Christ. That is, He chose us to the end that we would obey Christ as He called us to repent and believe His gospel. God also chose us for sprinkling with His blood, to be cleansed from the sins that defile and doom us. Most likely, Peter means to remind us that Christ is like Moses, but also better (see, e.g., Heb 9:11–10:18). Moses put the old covenant into effect, and the high priest kept it in effect, by sprinkling the blood of sacrifices that could never take away sins. Christ, however, put the new covenant into effect and has kept it in effect by sprinkling the blood of His one sacrifice, by which He has forever taken away our sins. We who believe, then, should take courage from knowing that we have become just what God chose us to become: obedient to Christ and purified by His blood.

So what’s an exile to do when relegated to the margins of society? Take courage. Though we have no lasting city here, we bear witness that our triune God has given us an identity better than anything this world has to offer. By His grace alone, we are His elect, loved from eternity, set apart for salvation, purified forever.

What Reformation Looked Like in the OT Church: Change for the Good

Posted by R. Fowler White

Overall, the evidence and fruit of reformation in the OT church after the exile was change, change for the good. Change in direction from self and sin to God and His will as revealed in Scripture. Change in attitudes and affections, priorities and choices. Decreasing likeness to the world and increasing likeness to God. To as many of us as enter into solemn covenant with God and His church, we give testimony that He has begun a work of change in us and our household. So, as we read the story of Nehemiah, we examine ourselves and ask, do we, as members of God’s church, see the continuing fruit of reformation in ourselves, in our households, and in our congregations? When was the last time I noticed increasing holiness in my thoughts, words, or deeds? In Neh 12:44–13:3, reformation produced three observable changes in God’s people.

In Nehemiah’s day the people were joyfully supporting the temple ministers in their work (12:44, 47). They were joyfully fulfilling the vows they had taken (Nehemiah 10). They were giving contributions of the fruit of every tree, the wine, and the oil to the priests. They were giving their firstfruits and firstborn, year by year, to the house of the LORD. They were giving tithes in keeping with their vow that they would not neglect the house of their God. All these gifts were owed and given as required by God’s revealed will in His law. The people had vowed to support the OT church in its worship and work, and so they gave their tithes and offerings in keeping with their vow.

In Nehemiah’s day the temple ministers were faithfully performing their work (12:45-46). The priests, Levites, storeroom stewards, singers, and instrumentalists were all faithfully performing the service of their God and the ministry of purification. They were doing their work in keeping with God’s commands as implemented by King David and King Solomon. Why look back to the reigns of David and Solomon? Because they were largely the glory days of Israel: David had organized Israel’s worship; Solomon had built the temple. Their worship was driven and their faithfulness was defined by God’s word, not by the preferences of the postexilic generation or even previous generations. The postexilic temple ministers, then, organized and administered worship according God’s command as exemplified in David and Solomon.

In Nehemiah’s day the people promptly applied God’s standard for admission and exclusion to the visible church (13:1-3). Let’s bear in mind this OT “ministry of the keys” was a necessity not based merely on ethnic terms, but on covenantal, moral, and spiritual terms. According to Moses, God had sworn to bless those who, in faith, blessed Abraham and his seed and to curse those who, in unbelief, cursed Abraham and his seed. So, certain Gentiles, like Rahab, Ruth, and Naomi, had been admitted with their households because they confessed saving faith as Abraham did. On the other hand, certain Israelites, even some generations of Israel, had proven to be spiritually and morally Gentiles and had been broken off from the patriarchal tree for their unbelief. The standard for admission and exclusion was response to God’s oath to Abraham and his seed. In that light, the people were reading what was written about that standard and were promptly obeying it.

When reformation came to the OT church after the exile, it produced change in God’s people. Cheerful givers fulfilled their vow to support the church’s worship and work. Are you and I cheerful givers fulfilling our vow to support the church’s worship and work? God’s ministers faithfully administered temple worship and work according to His word. What is it that drives our worship choices and defines our faithfulness: what God wants or what we want? The people promptly applied God’s standard for admission and exclusion to the visible church. Do we acknowledge that Christ has established officers in His church to grant or refuse fellowship as His word requires? In Nehemiah’s day the evidence and fruit of reformation in the OT church produced change for the good in God’s people. May it be so in our day too.

What Reformation Looked Like in the OT Church: Family Heads and Officers

Posted by R. Fowler White

Since we’ve just completed our 2020 remembrance of Reformation Day, it’s timely to reflect on what reformation looked like when it came to the OT church in Nehemiah’s and Ezra’s day. Having looked at reformation’s effect on the people as a whole in Nehemiah 8, we should also consider its effect on family heads and church officers. Here we’re focused on those who were husbands and fathers, chief stewards of households (including stewards of God’s church), required to be holy as He is holy and to expend themselves for the good of those in their charge and care. So, when reformation came to the OT church, what was the evidence and fruit of its impact on family heads and officers?

Look first at two observations about family heads. The text tells us that they took the initiative to seek out the teaching ministry available to them. According to 8:13, these chief stewards came together to Ezra the scribe in order to study the words of the Law. Public worship in congregation had reemerged as a non-negotiable (8:1-12). Yet public worship was only the beginning of their stewardship of their families’ discipleship. We’re told here that these family heads sought opportunities to be taught in addition to public gatherings for worship. The family heads were also obedient to what they were taught. As narrated in 8:14-18, they did what they had found written in the Law that the LORD had commanded. Note that, when they were directed to celebrate the Festival of Booths, they went out and built those booths and lived in them, each on their roofs and in their courts (8:16). We underestimate the significance of this activity unless we recognize that these family heads took the knowledge of Scripture that they had gained and spread it throughout the families in their clans. We may even say that Neh 8:14-18 is a picture of Deut 6:6-8 being lived out as a key means to and fruit of reformation among them: whether sitting, walking, lying down, or getting up, families rehearsed among themselves what God required of them.[i]

Consider also what church officers did when reformation came to the OT church. We remind ourselves that the priests and the Levites, along with Ezra and Nehemiah, were models of what the people should become, namely, a holy nation of priests. So, what happened among OT church officers when reformation took place? In general, the officers applied their abilities to the congregation’s need for teaching. We read how Ezra, Nehemiah, and the 13 Levites who stood on the podium with Ezra helped the people to understand the Law. In addition, those officers kept watch over the congregation’s response to the teaching ministry. Notice two details in Nehemiah 8. First, the officers discipled the congregation to do what God required. In 8:9, we read of how Nehemiah … and Ezra … and the Levites [spoke] to all the people. In 8:13, we’re told that the priests and the Levites were with the family heads, and together they all came to Ezra the scribe in order to study the words of the Law. In other words, the officers came alongside the family heads for Bible study. Second, the officers consoled the people in their repentance. When reformation came to the people, they trembled at God’s warnings, suffered deep sorrow for their sins, and determined to turn away from their sins—and the officers knew all this. Seeing the people’s repentance, the officers spoke “words of assurance of pardon” to them (8:10-11): Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength. And so the Levites calmed all the people (8:11). They reminded the people of the truth expressed in Neh 9:17, You are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and did not forsake them.

When reformation came to the OT church, family heads took the lead to seek out teaching, and they were obedient to what they were taught. Church officers applied their abilities to the congregation’s need for teaching, discipling them to do what God required and keeping watch over their response to that teaching. In this light, we have to ask ourselves, has reformation come to our congregations? We who have entered publicly into solemn covenant with God and His church have testified that God has begun a good work of reformation in us. As we read the story of Nehemiah and Ezra, we’re again constrained to ask if we, as officers, family heads, and members of God’s church, see evidence and fruit of His reforming work in us and among us. In the days of Nehemiah and Ezra, the OT church saw that evidence and fruit. Do we?

[i][i] D. Kidner, Ezra and Nehemiah (Tyndale OT Commentaries, 1979), 108.

What Reformation Looked Like in the OT Church: The People as a Whole

Posted by R. Fowler White

When reformation comes to the congregations of God’s church, what does that reformation look like? To put it differently, when God renews and revives His church, what does that renewal and revival look like? Would we recognize it if it happened in our congregations? Would you recognize it if it happened in your family? In you personally? Historically, we think of the Reformation in the 16th century. We think of an extraordinary sovereign work of God through His King according to His Word to His own glory, manifested in increased holiness and decreased worldliness in thought, word, and deed among God’s church and usually in increased civic righteousness (restraint of evil) among non-Christians through increased fear of God in their hearts. So, what will reformation look like if and when God brings it to us today? As a framework for answering that question, let’s consider what reformation looked like when it came to the OT church in Nehemiah’s and Ezra’s day. We can analyze what happened from various valid angles, so consider first what the people as a whole did when reformation came to the OT church.

They took the initiative to learn God’s will as revealed in Scripture. Strikingly, we are not told that Ezra summoned the people. Instead we’re told (8:1) that on the 1st day of the 7th month, all the people (almost 50,000) gathered as one man. We’re told (8:4) that the people made the wood platform from which Ezra read Scripture, the Book of the Law of Moses. We’re told (8:13) that on the 2nd day of the 7th month, the family heads came together to Ezra. The people took the initiative. And then what? They submitted themselves to be discipled under their leaders. The people told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book (8:1). The people remained in their places as the Levites helped them to understand (8:7), and the family heads came together to Ezra to study and to find out what God required of them (8:13-14).

Having taken this initiative, the congregation’s discipleship produced certain fruit. They were united. Notice how many times throughout this passage we’re told that “all the people” or words to that effect did this or that. No fewer than 10 times, the solidarity of the people is highlighted (8:1, 2, 5, 6, 9, 11, 12, 13, 15, 17). They were also zealous, eager, passionate, hungry, thirsty for God and His will as revealed in Scripture (8:2, 3, 7, 12, 13, 16). They were worshipful too (8:6, 17-18). We read more about this in Neh 9, where the people confess their own sins and also the iniquities of their fathers. But notice in Neh 8 that they wept over their sins as they heard the words of the Law read and taught (8:9). The people were so exercised by the conviction of their sins that the leaders, especially the Levites, had to calm all the people down (8:10, 11). Having turned from their sins, the people also celebrated their God (8:6). They were instructed to celebrate, and they did it (8:10, 12). And how did they celebrate? Just as God had prescribed: they kept the Festival of Booths, the Festival of Ingathering, signifying their identity as pilgrims living in temporary housing with God their Provider but anticipating their permanent home with Him in the Garden Land (8:13-17). Representing faithful pilgrims from all nations, this Festival testified to the congregation of God’s presence with them on the way to the beauty and bounty of a restored Eden, and they rejoiced in God and delighted in His presence, and they rejoiced in God and delighted in His presence.

When reformation came to the OT church, the congregation took the initiative to learn God’s will as revealed in Scripture; they submitted to discipleship under their leaders’ stewardship; they were united, zealous, and worshipful disciples of their Lord; they wept over their sins; they celebrated their God. Having just celebrated another Reformation Day, let’s ask: are we seeing congregations taking the initiative to learn God’s will as revealed in Scripture? Have we and our fellow members submitted ourselves to be discipled under the stewardship of our leaders? Are we united, zealous, and worshipful as Christ’s disciples? Do we weep over our sins? Do we worship our God as He prescribes? This is what reformation looked like in the OT church when God brought it to the congregation as a whole. Next, God willing, we’ll consider what family heads and officers did.

Christ the Holy Son: Better Than Moses and the Levites (Heb 3–10)

Posted by R. Fowler White

Having put before us the contrasts between Jesus the Son and the prophets in Heb 1:1-3 and the angels in Heb 1:4-14 and 2:5-18, the writer of Hebrews continues to increase our esteem for Christ by turning in chs. 3–10 to the contrast between the Son and Moses and the Levitical priests. Beginning in 3:1-6, we’re told that Jesus is the faithful Son over God’s house and the builder thereof; Moses is a faithful servant in God’s house. To understand better the different roles of Jesus and Moses relative to God’s house, it helps us to consider the house’s two forms. One of those forms appeared in Exod 20–23, where God required “the house of Jacob” (Exod 19:3) to be holy as He is holy (Exod 19:6; Lev 19:2) so as to become His holy nation of priests (Exod 19:4-6). A second form of God’s house came into view in Exod 25–31 and 35–40, where the earthly tabernacle was built after the pattern of God’s holy residence in heaven (Exod 25:40; Heb 8:5) according to His word and by His Spirit. In fact, the tabernacle stood as a shadow and type of what the house of Israel was required to be, namely the living and holy house built when God’s Spirit effectually applied His word to His people. Noticeably, what these two forms of God’s house have in common is the holiness required of them, and to understand how they were sanctified is to gain an even more reverent esteem for Christ. So let’s look further at how God’s house was sanctified.

As summarized in 9:11-28, the sanctification of God’s house in its two forms was accomplished through the priesthoods of Moses and the Levites and of Christ. Under God’s servants Moses and the Levites, God’s house was sanctified when Moses inaugurated the first covenant, cleansing the earthly tabernacle and the worshipers with the blood of calves and goats for his own sins and for those of the worshipers. Once inaugurated by Moses, the Levitical priests kept the tabernacle and the worshipers cleansed by continually offering sacrifices for their own sins and for those of the people. Similarly, under God’s Son Jesus, God’s house was sanctified when He inaugurated the second covenant, cleansing the heavenly tabernacle and the worshipers with His own blood, not for His own sins but solely for those of the worshipers. The sacrifice by which Christ established the holiness of the heavenly tabernacle and the worshipers is the same sacrifice by which He maintains that holiness. He offered His sacrifice for sins once for all time (10:10, 12), forever perfecting those worshipers He sanctified (10:14) and now always ministering for them in heaven (7:25; 12:22, 24). As Hebrews presents them, then, both priesthoods followed the same liturgy necessary to sanctify God’s house in both its forms. Even so, the two priesthoods were markedly different when it came to fulfilling God’s command to emulate His holiness.

Disabled by sin and death (5:1-3; 7:23, 28; 9:7; 10:11), the Levites were not and could not be holy as God is holy. Nor could they make anyone else holy and perfect (7:18-19): their ceaseless sacrifices could neither take away sins nor cleanse the inner man (9:9-10, 13; 10:1-4). Granted these realities, however, the Levites and the worshipers they represented could and should have learned of the good things to come (3:5; 10:1). Though many continued to boast in the Levites, the remnant who shared Abraham’s faith knew of those good things. Through God’s promises, prophecies, ordinances, shadows, and types, they, like Isaiah, looked heavenward to the priest better than any son of Levi and found in Him the blessings of His sanctifying (cleansing) work (Isa 6:7). They, like Moses and David, also looked forward to the priest from the tribe of Judah (Gen 49:8-12) and the order of Melchizedek (Gen 14:18-20; Ps 110:4). According to Hebrews, Jesus, the eternal Son incarnate, became that priest. Having through the eternal Spirit (Heb 9:14) demonstrated in His life and in His death the holiness that God required, Jesus proved to be holy even as God is holy (4:15; 5:7; 7:26; 9:14; cf. 2 Cor 5:21). Sinless and immortal, He is powerful to sanctify the people He represents, cleansing their hearts and transforming them into a living tabernacle-house (e.g., Deut 6:6; Ps 37:31; 40:8; 119:11; Isa 51:7), a holy nation of priests on whose hearts God’s law is written (e.g., Mal 3:1-4). He is, in a phrase, both sanctified and the sanctifier of all who believe (Heb 2:11; 13:12), as Abraham, Moses, David, and Isaiah did.

The message of Hebrews is clear: though pressures from our opponents may tempt us to deemphasize or conceal, or even reject and deny, the distinctives of our historic Christian faith, let us hold unwaveringly to the hope that we confess (10:23), since in Jesus the Son, the Holy One, we have so great a priest over the house of God (10:21).

Christ the Victorious Son: Better than the Angels (Heb 2:1-18)

Posted by R. Fowler White

As we’ve emphasized in part 1 and part 2 of our series, the author of Hebrews teaches that our perseverance is traceable, in part, to a deepening appreciation for the eminence of Christ our high priest. In this post, we come to 2:1-18, where the author finishes what he started in 1:4-14. Having told us that Christ the God-man is exalted over the angels, he warns us: since we know that punishment was inescapable for neglecting God’s previous message through the angels at Mt Sinai (2:2), we dare not turn a deaf ear to God’s final message through the Superior who is over those angels (2:3 with 1:4)! To impress us further with the gravity of this warning, the author amplifies the contrast between the Son and the angels even more.

In 1:4-14 the writer’s accent fell on the Son’s historical glorification and His eternal deity, but in 2:5-18 his accent shifts to the Son’s historical humanity and humiliation. In 1:4-14, the theme is the Son’s supremacy to angels by rank and being, pivoting off of Ps 110:1 in 1:3 and 1:13. In 2:5-18 the theme of supremacy reappears, but now the emphasis is on His supremacy to angels by conquest as promised in Ps 110. Quoting Ps 8:4-6 to focus our thinking, it is clear in 2:8b-18 that the glory of the conquest promised in Ps 110:1 will belong not to the angels, but to man. More than that, the man qualified to conquer will not be just any man: according to Ps 8:2, God’s design is for the weak to conquer the strong. To see the force of this argument, we need to backtrack to Gen 3, where man was overcome by God’s enemy—a former cherub angel, at that—and was given with his seed over to sin, death, and defeat. In Gen 3:15, when God announced His future victory over the serpent and his seed, He reasserted His original design to have the weak conquer the strong. Specifically, God appointed death—the death of the woman’s one upright Seed—as the way to new life. Though ostensibly weak in death, that Seed would conquer the strong. Until the arrival of that upright Seed, however, God effectively took away from man the task of keeping the garden secure and pure and transferred it to the cherubim angels (Gen 3:24). As a result, man was, for a little while, subjected to the angels (Heb 2:7a; cf. 2:9).

With the appearance of the Son “in these last days” (1:2), however, the author of Hebrews can announce the arrival of the Seed promised in Gen 3:15 and Ps 8! It is none other than the eternal Son, the Creator God, who condescended to become the man qualified for conquest. In His state of incarnation (2:14), the Son overcame the temptations to sin (2:18). While contending with the indignities of this world, the temptations of the devil, and the infirmities in His flesh, He put His trust in God (2:13a), even unto death, and was thereby perfected (i.e., fully qualified) to become as the champion of salvation for the children whom the Father had given Him (2:13b). For the sake of those children, He defeated the devil, inflicting mortal suffering on him as He Himself endured mortal suffering (2:9, 14). For the sake of those children, He faced down the terrors of death, giving them the hope of resurrection (12:2; 6:18-19; 11:35). Though feeling the weight of God’s wrath, He laid down His life as a propitiation for the sins of His people (2:17). All this He did, bearing the reproach of man’s exile from Eden in being made lower than the angels for a time, so that by grace (2:9) and mercy (2:17) He might qualify man again for the glory (2:10) of life with God.

At the beginning of the ages, God drove man from the earthly sanctuary (Gen 3:23), and the cherubim angels resisted his return (Gen 3:24). Now, at the end of the ages (Heb 1:1), God has restored man, through the incarnate Son, to the heavenly sanctuary, and the angelic hosts assist Him to maintain its security and purity for all who will inherit salvation. Knowing that Jesus is the victorious Son greater than the angels, we dare not turn a deaf ear to God’s final message through Him. No, we hold Him, with ever-increasing faith, in the highest esteem! In our next and last post in this series, we’ll focus on Christ the Holy Son in Heb 3–10.

Christ the God-Man: Better Than the Angels (Heb 1:4-14)

Posted by R. Fowler White

Our esteem for Christ becomes more and more reverent as we receive and rest upon Him alone as He is presented to us in Scripture. In Heb 1:1–2:18, He is presented not only as the Son better than the prophets of old, but also as the Son better than the angels. The angels come before us in Hebrews in two capacities: 1) as heavenly messengers who delivered the old covenant revelation at Mt Sinai (2:2); and 2) as guardians of post-fall access to God’s presence, initially in Eden’s sanctuary (2:7 with Gen 3:24) and later in the most holy place of the old covenant sanctuary (9:5 with Exod 25:18-22). We’ll look in this post at the teaching of Heb 1:4-14.

In 1:4, the writer of Hebrews contrasts the Son and the angels, capturing in that contrast the reason for the Son’s rest at the Father’s right hand. In 1:5-14 the writers accents the fact that the Son is in a new state of exaltation. The point is not that the Son, born as man, has now become God. Rather, the Son, who has always been the exalted God, has now been exalted as man. In fact, the seven OT texts in 1:5-14 with which the writer expands on his statements in 1:4 contain some of the most sublime declarations of the Son’s eternality and deity in all of Scripture. In this context, however, the Son’s supremacy to the angels rests not so much on His eternality and deity, but especially on the new state He has entered and on the new honor He has received. Keeping these things in mind, notice how the author’s citations describe the Son’s exaltation.

First, in 1:5-6 the Son who has taken His seat on high is the One whom the Father had begotten, that is, in this context, begotten as the Firstborn from the dead (cf. Col 1:18; Rev 1:5). Though other texts teach us the Son’s eternal generation and identity as the Firstborn of all creation (e.g., Heb 1:2; see also Col 1:15-17), the preceding and following contexts of 1:5-6 imply that it is most probably His re-emergence into the world at His resurrection from the dead that is in view in 1:5-6. As such, it is in the new, post-resurrection phase of the Son’s messianic role in history that He and the Father are said now to enjoy their unique relationship. Second, in 1:9 the Son who has received the Spirit-oil of gladness from His God and Father is the One who had rendered to Him the perfect obedience that satisfied His law (cf. Acts 2:33-36; Eph 4:7-11). To be sure, we read of the Son’s eternality, deity, and royalty in 1:8. The focus in 1:9, however, is the Son’s new status: He is the servant who in life and in death subjected Himself to God’s law and is now rewarded for His obedience. Finally, in 1:13 we hear echoes and amplifications of 1:3. The Son who gave Himself as the final sacrifice for sins (1:3b) is not only seated in heaven: He now awaits the reward of final victory for His obedience. He who is the immutable Lord and builder of the cosmic house in 1:10-12 is also in 1:13 the One who, after humbling Himself, has already been exalted at His first coming and will again be exalted at His second coming (9:28). Thus, the Son is before us once more, both in His immutability as the eternal God and in His mutability as the once humiliated, now glorified man—who will be glorified yet again!

All told, then, the exaltation of the Son our high priest is undeniably connected with His eternality and immutability, but that exaltation is not completely or exclusively explained by those attributes. According to Heb 1:4-14, the esteem we are to have for the Son, particularly in contrast to the angels, will come as we appreciate His role in the history of creation and His role in the history of redemption. In other words, we understand Christ’s priesthood better when we receive and rest upon Him as the Son who is greater than the angels. He is now and forever, in His one Person, God ever-glorious and man at-long-last-glorified. Our next post in this series will focus on Christ the Victorious Son in Heb 2:1-18.

Christ the Eternal Son: Better Than the Prophets (Heb 1:1-3)

Posted by R. Fowler White

The author of Hebrews teaches that our perseverance is traceable, in part, to the depth of our appreciation for the surpassing greatness of Christ our high priest. In other words, receiving and resting upon Christ alone, as He is presented in Scripture, is a means by which the grace of perseverance comes to us His people. Captivated by Christ, we grow in our knowledge of His glory as our high priest and, in turn, our hearts are enlarged in peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, in love and thankfulness to God, and in strength and cheerfulness in the duties of obedience. In Heb 1:1-3, we’re introduced to our great priest as one who is first and most basically the eternal Son. Though, overall, the writer of Hebrews emphasizes the Son’s priestly office, our esteem for the Son comes first by seeing Him in His relationships with God and others who are part of the history of revelation, creation, and redemption. Each of the descriptions in 1:1-3 carries implications that we’ll consider all too briefly.

The Son in whom God now speaks appears “in these last days,” that is, at the culminating point in the history of special revelation. Placed as He is in this position, we see the Son in relation to those who preceded Him historically, namely, “the prophets”—presumably Moses and the prophets who came after him. Through them God spoke during a long and varied history of special revelation. Yet the Son, we’re told, supersedes them all. The Son is that Prophet whose appearance had been anticipated since Deut 18:15: He is the one who would lead God’s people to spiritual liberty and would mediate a better covenant (Deut 30:6-10; Jer 31:31-34; Heb 8:10; 10:16). In other words, the Son is superior to the prophets because He has spoken the final revelation and has accomplished the final redemption!

Moving beyond the Son’s present place in the history of revelation, the author of Hebrews draws our attention to the eternal decree of God (see also 10:7; 13:20; Eph 1:9-10; 3:11; Acts 2:23). According to that eternal purpose, the Son, anointed by the Spirit, was to obey His Father’s will and thereby become the firstborn Heir of all things (cf. Heb 2:10). In other words, here we behold the Son not only as He has come to be in history, but also as He was in the pre-creation situation in relation to God and all created things. As the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His being, we see that the Son has been a distinct person from the Father but of the same essence as the Father. As the One through whom the Father made the worlds of time and space, we see that the Son was the builder of the visible temple of heaven and earth (1:10 with 3:4): He was before all things, and all things are from Him (cf. 2:10). As He governs all things by His powerful word to their proper goal, we see that all things are to Him. So before we properly consider the Son as priest, we consider Him as someone not only greater than the prophets in the history of revelation, but also as a “before creation and above history” Person equal to God in essence and distinct from the Father, the Alpha and Omega of creation and history.

With the extraordinary portrait of the Son in relation to all things as prelude in 1:1-3a, the writer sets our high priest before us in 1:3b, referring both to His sacrifice and to His post-sacrifice session. The two clauses in 1:3b carry deep and broad theological implications. Suffice it to say that in 1:3b we are already being told that this priest is greater than Levi (Aaron). Particularly by using the wording of Ps 110:1, we read the joyful news that the Son is a priest at rest. No longer standing but rather seated (Heb 10:11-14), the posture of our high priest signals that Zion’s priest has succeeded where Sinai’s priests could only fail. The ramifications of the Son’s work and rest are staggering. He has done the work of offering the sacrifice that cleanses sinners. So, sacrifice is finished; forgiveness is granted! Now the sons of Levi are purified! Now the worshipers that the Levites represented are reconstituted as a holy nation of priests (cf. Mal 3:1-4)! Now the cleansing of the cosmic temple is begun, for earth was the site of His sacrifice, and heaven is now the site of His session!

How is it, then, that we develop a more reverent esteem for Christ? We do so as we receive and rest upon Him alone as the eternal Son who is greater than the prophets of old. In our next post in this series, we’ll look at Christ the God-man in Heb 1:4-14.

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