Continuing in Hebrews 2, we reach another transitional section following the author’s discussion of Christ’s humanity in verses 5-9 and the family of God in verses 10-13, to now the suffering of the Son, alluded to in verse 9 and expanded upon in the remaining verses of this glorious but challenging chapter. In connecting the humanity of Christ with His death, it then becomes apparent that the chief purpose of our Lord’s incarnation was His subsequent death. Our Lord lived in order to die.
What a staggering and profound truth that the King so splendidly described in chapter 1 as the Supreme Being in the universe, the high and exalted One, the Son of God, should come to earth, suffer, and die. It hardly seems believable, yet it’s true, and in verses 14-18 we begin to see several of the purposes behind His suffering unto death.
In setting forth these purposes, we find in verse 14 the familiar transitional formula that is so often utilized in the book of Hebrews, namely the conjunction “therefore.” This is an important marker for Bible readers to pay close attention to because it most often serves to 1.)Maintain the continuity of an idea established earlier by transitioning to an explanation of why an earlier statement was made or 2.)To summarize a previously lengthy section with a more succinct statement. In verse 14a we have the latter, “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things”. This part of the verse serves to restate the solidarity in the flesh that Christ shares with His “brothers”.
In the second part (b) of verse 14 we find the first purpose statement for Christ’s incarnation and subsequent death, i.e. “that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil”. Christ came to destroy the works of the devil, namely his power over death. In 1 John 3:8 we read, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.” A similar sentiment is conveyed in Colossians 2:15, “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.” Finally, we read the words of Jesus heralding His imminent triumph over the devil, “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” John 12:31-32
The sentence begun in verse 14 continues into verse 15 and provides for us the second purpose statement for Christ’s incarnation and subsequent death, i.e. to “deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” Destroy and Deliver, the twin themes of our Lords earthy purpose.
Those who were subject to lifelong slavery because of the fear of death is author’s eighth way of defining the “everyone” from verse 2:9. He has employed the terms: sons (vs.10), those who Christ leads or Captains (vs.10), those who are sanctified (vs.11), brothers (vs.11), brothers (vs.12), children (vs. 13), children (vs.14) and now those who have been set free from fear of death by the death of Christ. Or as John Owen so clearly stated, “The Death of Death in the Death of Christ.” Why should there have been slaves to a fear of death? Our Lord tells us in 1 Corinthians 15:56 that “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.” It becomes apparent then that slavery to a fear of death is directly related to the law, specifically punishment that the law demands because it has been violated. Those identified in this passage are no longer subject to the fear of death because Christ has perfectly fulfilled the requirements of the law on their behalf thereby setting them free.
Keeping those recipients of Christ’s death in mind, we arrive at verse 16 and find the contrast once again between angels and the children of God, this time referred to as the “seed of Abraham.” This verse has seemed a mystery to commentators and translators alike throughout history. The King James Version translates the verse as, “For verily he took not on him the nature of angels; but he took on him the seed of Abraham.” Here they have offered a bit of interpretation into their translation, to which John Owen agrees. He interprets verse 16 similarly and sees it not as a reference to helping or giving aid (the verb used here) to the seed of Abraham instead of angels, rather he sees the verb meaning “to take hold of” or “appropriating” and therefore associates it with Christ’s incarnation. In other words, for Owen and the KJV translators, Christ took on the nature of Abraham’s seed, not the nature of angels.
Taken this way, this verse provides a further polemic against those who deny the humanity of the Son of God (established in verses 2:6-9) and likewise is a sufficient rebuke for those who say that Christ was a spirit being or angel prior to His incarnation (Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons for example). Surely this interpretation is biblically valid, for in the Gospel of Matthew we see that Christ’s lineage was traced back to Abraham. Additionally, this builds upon the context of the humanity of Christ, from Adam, that has been the subject since verse 6 of chapter 2, by making Him the physical seed of Abraham that was promised in the giving of the Abrahamic Covenant (see Genesis 12-22; Galatians 3:16).
A second option follows the ESV translation of this verse, “For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham”. Since the verb, here translated helps, is elsewhere translated to mean offering a hand to, i.e. Matthew 14:31 with reference to Peter sinking in the water, this translation has in view the helping or saving of the seed of Abraham instead of angels. We know this to be biblically true as well (see discussion below). This too would seem to fit the context and further define everyone in verse 9, i.e. children, brothers, sons, etc. thus making Christ the helper of Abraham’s spiritual seed.
Both of these interpretations are biblically valid and supported elsewhere in Scripture, leading one to wonder if the Divine Author of Hebrews doesn’t have both options in mind when He pens this verse. This is the direction I’m inclined to take, concluding that both Owen and the modern commentators are correct. Due to the dichotomous nature of the Abrahamic Covenant, i.e. promises to his physical seed and promises to his spiritual seed, Christ came from the physical seed of Abraham (Gal. 3:16) in order to save the spiritual seed of Abraham (Romans 4:9-12; Gal. 3:9,14,29) thereby becoming the Inheritor of the promises made to Abraham and the Distributor of those promises to all who have faith in Him. Important to note here is that the humanity of Christ as the second Adam has already been established in chapter and this verse narrows the help that Christ gives from the universality of Adam’s children to specifically Abraham’s seed, literally the children of God, keeping with the familial motif established throughout several verses of this chapter. One additional note, Schreiner points out that the author is possibly drawing from Isaiah 41:8-10:
8But you, Israel, my servant,
Jacob, whom I have chosen,
the offspring of Abraham, my friend;
9 you whom I took from the ends of the earth,
and called from its farthest corners,
saying to you, “You are my servant,
I have chosen you and not cast you off”;
10 fear not, for I am with you;
be not dismayed, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
Much more is left to be said regarding the seed of Abraham, but for now we move on to verse 17 and find continuity (therefore) with our previous conclusion, “Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” Explicitly tied to the humanity of Christ, in becoming like His brothers, is His qualification and appointment as “High Priest in the service of God”. We may conclude that this is a third purpose for the humanity of Christ, namely to serve in the office of High Priest as intercessor between God (faithful) and man (merciful) and as we will see, to mediate the New Covenant established in His blood (this is the first of 17 references to Christ as High Priest and more will be developed in the coming chapters). Christ not only serves as a merciful and faithful High Priest who makes a sacrifice, as typified under the Levitical system, but IS the sacrifice, truly “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29).
Additionally, we find in this verse one of the specific functions of Christ as the High Priest is to “make propitiation”. Typically, the word propitiation carries with it a dual concept of the removal of guilt or forgiveness of sins (expiation) and the appeasement or satisfaction of God’s wrath (propitiation). The Old Testament type for this can be found in Leviticus 16 where we find the high priest commanded by God on the Day of Atonement (note some translations use the phrase “sacrifice of atonement” instead of propitiation, see NIV) to place their hands on the head of a live goat symbolizing the transference of the people’s sin and guilt (expiation). Likewise, we see the command from God to the high priest to kill a second goat and sprinkle its blood on the mercy seat (the root of the word propitiation). Therefore, we find biblical precedence from this passage that our concept of propitiation should include both ideas. As previously stated, the high priestly function is fulfilled through our Lord Jesus Christ who is both the sacrifice AND the High Priest.
Finally, in verse 18 “For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” we find a fourth reason for the incarnation of our Lord, namely the Sympathetic Resonance of Christ with His brothers. The term sympathetic resonance refers to a harmonic phenomenon wherein an instrument, such as a tuning fork, is struck and another instrument of like kind resonates with the sound that is made and offers a corresponding sound. This expression is fitting for describing our Lord’s humanity in relating, literally resonating, with His brothers who are tempted, so that we may be reminded that He was tempted in every way as we are and is yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15).
Also, found in this verse is the second use of the word help, which would seem to be in line more with “giving aid” (assumption #2 from above) though we must remember He is able to do so because He shares the same flesh and blood (assumption #1 from above).
Jesus’ humanity qualifies Him to serve as our merciful and faithful High Priest. This, along with several other purposes for His incarnation, were identified in this passage, namely His deliverance of the saints from fear of death, destruction of the works of the Devil, providing propitiation, and having sympathetic resonance with those for whom He mediates the better covenant. What is man that our Lord would condescend Himself from the glory and exaltation that He shared with the Father, to the humiliation and suffering as a man among sinners. Truly He is an awesome God, worthy of all praise and honor.
*Image credit: http://cmda.org/resources/publication/the-suffering-and-death-of-christ