Several years ago, I was advised that anytime I stepped into a pulpit or in front of people to preach or teach I should avoid using “theological” language. I pushed back at the time, realizing that American Christianity (Christendom) suffers from theological anemia, therefore instead of efforts to keep people in an ignorant state, a preacher/teacher should effort to raise them up to a level of theological understanding and engagement. If we, as a people, can remember last nights box scores, follow through meandering plot lines in the latest t.v. show, or engage with endless amounts of media and data on a daily basis, then a failure to understand theological words is not due to inability, rather it’s more likely due to indifference.
In the 13th chapter of Hebrews, the Author is rounding out his epistle to the Jewish Christians of the first century (probably 65-66 A.D.) by summarizing what has been said thus far and offering a series of moral exhortations. One key summary verse comes in Hebrews 13:8
“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”
At first glance, the short, pithy verses of chapter 13 seem disconnected, perhaps especially this verse. We saw recently in an earlier post regarding the commands for these believers to remember their leaders, who had likely died. Here we see the that despite the passing of their leaders, despite their faithful preaching of the gospel, and now despite the influx of false teaching, the one constant is Christ. He is the stable Anchor. He is the unchanging Shepherd who continually guides His sheep regardless of the changing circumstances. He ordains. He sustains.
Three key theological terms percolate from this profound verse: Christ is Prexistent. Christ is Eternal. Christ is Immutable. These concepts, all related, are not mentioned here for the first time, rather they are the culmination of the letter and bring it full circle with statements made in chapter 1. There we see the following:
“Your throne, O God, is forever and ever,
the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom.
“You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning,
and the heavens are the work of your hands;
11 they will perish, but you remain;
they will all wear out like a garment,
12 like a robe you will roll them up,
like a garment they will be changed.
But you are the same,
and your years will have no end.”
Here in chapter 13, and in chapter 1 cited above, we see these attributes of Christ acting as bookends to the letter as His supremacy unfolds in between establishing the focus of the Christian life.
Christ’s preexistence flows out of His eternality. The former says that He has always been, the latter says that He will always be. In between these two great truths stands the immutability of Christ, which says that He is unchanging. What He was in His nature before time is what He is today and what He will be in the future. Therefore He is perfectly consistent. Though Christ became a man, His essence or character or attributes we might say, were unchanged. His incarnation was an addition, not implying that He was incomplete, but an addition to His completeness.
The Preexistence of Christ
When it is said that Christ is preexistent, it affirms that He has no beginning, i.e. that He’s always been. In the third century, one of the more influential heresies originated, out of Gnosticism, and came to be known as Arianism. This belief asserted that the Son of God was created by the Father. The debate hinged on John 3:16 (and others) and the meaning of monogenes, commonly translated as begotten. The opposition to Arianism crafted the phrase, “begotten, not made” (The Nicene Creed) which led to Arianism’s eventual banishment as a departure from scripture (though it was also made the official position of the empire at one point). However, we see Arianism alive and well today, propagated by such cults as Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witness.
Christ, as the second person of the Trinity, the Son of God, did not come into being at His incarnation. He stepped out of eternity and into humanity. The Author entered His story; the Creator His creation. John 3:13, John 8:58, John 17:5, Hebrews 1:2; John 1:1-18; Colossians 1:15-17; Philippians 2:5-7
The Eternality of Christ
Related, and implicit in declaring Christ’s preexistence, is His eternality. Yesterday, today, and forever speaks to the fact that Christ has and will always exist. That His existence is a past, present, and future reality. Not only was He not created, unlike angels as established in chapter 1 and 2, and not only did He exist prior to His incarnation, but in His divine essence (and certainly now in His resurrected humanity), Christ will always exist.
In His own words, He is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. Surprisingly, much debate has raged on recently within orthodox circles over whether Christ has eternally been the Son, a position sometimes called eternal Sonship, see also this post from Hebrews 1. This debate hinges on whether He became a Son at His incarnation, or whether He has always existed as the Son of God, a difficulty often attributed to interpretations on Hebrews 1:5 and again the use of monogenes or begotten. However, as we have seen this passage is unlikely to be a reference to the incarnation, rather the enthronement of Christ (see also the use of Psalm 2 in Hebrews 5:5 and Acts 13:33). Christ has always existed as the eternal Son of God, the same in essence and distinct in person.
The Immutability of Christ
The immutability of Christ speaks to His unchangeable being and character. It would not be enough for us to have a Savior who is prexistent, nor is it enough that He is eternal, but that He is immutable makes all the difference. This never-changing, unending constancy makes Him reliable and faithful. It is the nature of this consistency that makes Him trustworthy. If he were changeable, then He would be an all-powerful, eternal, yet unpredictable. There would be no guarantee that He would forgive sins, extend grace, or raise the righteous from the dead. He could simply change His mind on the whole thing. Instead, He upholds His promises. Therefore, the immutability of Christ is an essential quality and a comforting characteristic.
While these theological concepts may be difficult and may require a bit of mental exercise and effort, nevertheless it is clear that they are extremely important, far more than for mere doctrinal precision but for the practical reality that they are certainties that need to be affirmed in our ever-changing world. The more we come to know and understand about Christ, the more we are brought to the feet of Him who is worthy of worship.