In 1958 a woman named Elisabeth found herself living in a little house with a dirt floor, no walls, and no furniture. She was there with her daughter and one other woman whose name was Rachel. They were living among a group of tribespeople called the Aucas. They were known as a violent people. In the prior decade, the Shell Oil company had lost eleven employees who had sought to work near this tribespeople and been killed. Another plantation owner nearby had borne witness of fifteen different families being murdered by this group. Elisabeth herself had been warned not to be among the Aucas as one from the area had told her, “Never, never trust them. They may appear friendly, and then they will turn around and kill. i ” But she knew all too well of their violence. A little under three years earlier, on January 8, 1956, Elisabeth’s husband, Jim Elliot, had been killed, along with Rachel’s brother Nick, and three other missionaries. Yet now here she was, living and working among the very men who killed her husband, many of whom would come to know Christ in the following years, in no small measure because the obvious love reflected in the gospel perseverance of Elisabeth and Rachel.
Perhaps to most of us here this morning, the story of Jim and Elisabeth Elliot is not new. But it does raise a question, doesn’t it? What drove Elisabeth Elliot to keep pressing on in the faith? Following Christ had already cost her great comforts in this life. When she and Jim married, they agreed that they wanted to focus on storing up treasure in heaven rather than earth, and so they made plenty of decisions that cost them much they could have had on earth. More than that, following Christ had cost her the life of her husband. She was a young widow, raising her daughter on her own. And now, obedience to Christ was leading her back to the very tribe of people who had taken her husband’s life. What drives that kind of perseverance? What keeps a person like that from saying, “Enough is enough?” or declaring that she can’t keep pressing on.
It may well be this morning that this isn’t simply some question of curiosity in your own mind. You may well feel your strength diminishing and continuing to walk in obedience to Christ feels too overwhelming. It may be because you’ve gotten a taste of persecution and don’t feel like you can take much more, or you’ve begun to feel the weight in our culture of standing where the Bible stands on issues of sexuality and would rather find yourselves in agreement and not standing against those around you, or maybe you’re just overall growing weary in your following of Christ and feel the pull of wanting to say “yes” instead of “no” to sin. After all, so it seems, at least you could stop what feels like a daily struggle and just start giving in. It doesn’t have to be a fight, so you think, if I just quit trying to say no.
Whatever the case may be, if you’re there, it’s good that we’re diving into the book of Hebrews this morning because this book was written for the sake of helping a group of believers persevere in the faith. It was written to a church or perhaps group of churches who were Jewish Christians, and we know that they’d been Christians for some time because the author will say to them in 5:12 that “by this time [they] ought to be teachers.” At some period in their past, they’d faced some persecution. Some of them had endured public reproach, had their property plundered, and suffered much (10:32-34), but they had endured faithfully. And though they were still serving the saints (6:10) and loved the brothers (13:1), they were now growing weary in following Christ. In fact, some of them had already stopped gathering with the saints for worship (10:25).
Interestingly, it seems that one particular temptation they felt was to go back and begin practicing the prescriptions God gave for worship in the Old Covenant. That is, they wanted to go back to making animal sacrifices, following the law of Moses, and orienting their lives around the temple and the work of the Levitical priesthood instead of around Jesus. And though we can’t be sure why that would have been tempting, we do know that in the first century of the Roman Empire, Jews were granted freedom to practice their religion while Christians weren’t. For a while it seems, Christianity was simply seen by Rome as a sect of Judaism, and because Judaism was an accepted religion, so was Christianity. But the Jews were quick to point out that Christians weren’t simply a sect of Jews. Christians oriented their affection, worship, and lives around Jesus, whom they believed was the Messiah, while the Jews rejected him as a blasphemer. Consequently, Christians were often the target of persecution from the state. So it may have been the temptation simply to be acceptable to Rome that tempted these Christians to shrink back from allegiance to Jesus and make their worship look more like their Jewish neighbors.
But whatever the case, here were a people growing weary of following Jesus, feeling great temptation to shrink back from him and turn back to things that had simply been shadows, pointing us to the fulfillment that is found in Jesus. And so the author of Hebrews (and we don’t know who it is) writes this glorious book that has a theme throughout that Jesus is better. Sometimes it’s translated as “superior” as we’ll see in verse 4 of our text this morning. Sometimes we simply see the idea as the beginning of chapter 3 shows that Jesus is better than Moses. And at other times (especially in chs. 6-11), we’ll see this exact word in our English Bibles as we’re reminded that Jesus brings us a better hope, a better covenant, a better sacrifice, a better possession, a better country, a better life, and that his blood speaks a better word than that of Abel. In other words, whatever you want to hold up as an alternative to Jesus, when they are compared, Jesus is without exception better.
Where does the author start in making his long argument about the superiority of Jesus as he seeks to keep a people from walking away from their commitment to following Christ in faith? He starts with a prologue in which he simply makes two points: 1) God has spoken clearly, fully, and finally in his Son, and 2) The Son is the God-man who reigns over all. God has spoken, and Jesus is indeed the very one the apostles had testified that he was, the God-man. That lays the foundation for his argument, and I would dare say that this is what drove Elisabeth Elliot to press on. No matter what following Christ had cost her, she was convicted that God had spoken to us in his Son, and that his Son, Jesus, was no less than the God-man who reigned over all. And if those two things are true, what are you going to do besides devote your affection, worship, and life to Jesus Christ? So, these are the two points I want us to see this morning. We’ll start with the first.
God has spoken clearly, fully, and finally in his Son
The author of Hebrews starts with the fact that God has spoken. It might not seem to be the place we would think of starting when we’re dealing with a people who are tempted to walk away from the faith. How about coming out of the gate warning them of fiery judgment or the like? But it makes complete sense if you think about it. The only reason any of us know God is because our Creator has not decided to remain hidden and silent, but he has spoken and revealed himself to us so that we might know him, love him, walk with him, and see the need to persevere in those tasks.
The author begins by looking at how God spoke in the Old Testament times. He writes, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, by the prophets” (v. 1). We know this as we look at our Old Testaments. God spoke to those who came before us by the prophets. The prophets were men who were seen as mouthpieces for God. They could speak and say, “Thus says the Lord,” and then speak the very words of God. We see that in the writings of Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and the like. But God didn’t only speak through them in some dictated way whereby they spoke words they heard from him. Sometimes he gave them visions like we see in Ezekiel with wheels spinning in the sky with eyes all over them. Sometimes he spoke through poetry or proverbs. Sometimes it was straightforward narrative like we find in Joshua, while at other times in more difficult literary forms like we just saw in Ecclesiastes. This is why the author tells us he spoke to our fathers “at many times and in many ways.”
And it’s amazing, isn’t it? It’s amazing that we can read our Old Testaments and see the very words of God. Imagine the excitement of someone in those days when news began to spread that one of God’s prophets was coming to speak or write the very words of God. What great news it would have been when God told Moses instructions about the sacrificial system that he passed on to the people, telling them that God had given them a means to worship him and have him dwell in their presence. And yet, as we see in verse 2, the author goes on to tell us of something better, as we might expect, given the theme of this book.
We read in v. 2a, “But in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” Now first off, notice the contrasts. We see “in these last days” as opposed to “long ago,” “to us” as opposed to “to our fathers,” and “by his Son” as opposed to “by the prophets.” In other words, what he is saying is that God has revealed himself with a better word, and that better word is nothing less than his own Son. That is, when God wanted to reveal himself most clearly, he actually came to us. He sent his own Son who is God the Son. He came to us in the person of the Son.
And the Son is superior to all of that which was spoken by the prophets because he is the one about whom they prophesied. And whereas the Old Testament always left us looking for more and greater revelation, the Son has come to us in these last days, showing us that this is God’s final revelation to us, which will be an important point going forward in the book. Later, the author of Hebrews is going to note that the old covenant is becoming obsolete and passing away. We’re not under the old covenant with its prescriptions for animal sacrifices, etc. And a new covenant has come to us, administered by Christ, which we see in the New Testament. But if one asked, “Well, is there then a newer new covenant that is coming?” the answer is, “No, God has spoken to us by his Son ‘in these last days.’” That is, this is God’s final revelation.
So the Son’s life, work, and teaching is God’s final revelation to us. Even when the New Testament authors wrote the New Testament, it was still God’s revelation to us through his Son, which is why Jesus said to his apostles, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth . . . for he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:13-14). In other words, the person of the Son and his words given to us as our New Testament is God’s most clear, full, and final revelation to us.
But let’s pause for a second and appreciate this note. Imagine for a second that we’re under the Old Covenant, walking around with Moses and Joshua. And one day someone says to you, “Hey, Moses has just been with God, and God has given him a word to share with us. Come, and we’re going to go hear a man speak the very words of God.” Wouldn’t that be amazing? Wouldn’t your heart be racing as you went to hear this man speak God’s very words? What a gift! Well, brothers and sisters, God sent his Son to us as the fullest and most clear revelation of who he is. And when Jesus ascended to the Father’s right hand, the Spirit took the Son’s words and gave them to the writers of the New Testament so that we have the very words of God’s Son in these pages. Therefore, any Old Testament saint who gathered around to hear Moses speak God’s very words with his heart racing was less privileged than you and I are when we open up our Bibles and read Hebrews 1:1-4, for example, as we’re doing this morning. The Old Testament was looking forward to the revelation that God has given us. Long ago and in many ways he spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son. God has spoken clearly, fully, and finally by his Son, and this revelation can be trusted. So bank your life on these words that God has given us and live accordingly.
But the author of Hebrews doesn’t want us to think that the Son he’s spoken of as being anything less than worthy of our devotion and trust, so he shows us in the rest of our text that the Son is the God-man who reigns over all.
The Son is the God-man who reigns over all
In the second half of v. 2 through the end of v. 4 the author of Hebrews tells us who this Son he’s speaking of is. And he provides us a picture of who he is in three different categories that come to us as a chiasm. If you’ve forgotten or never heard of that term, it’s simply a literary device the biblical authors will use where they outline what they’re saying in the form of half of an “X” or a greater than sign (>). I’ll try to show what I mean, if you outline vv. 2b-4, it looks like this:
A – The Son is the heir of all (enthronement)
B – The Son is the agent of creation (divine power)
C – The Son is the radiance of the glory of God (divine nature)
C’ – The Son is the imprint of God’s nature (divine nature)
B’ – The Son upholds the universe by his divine power (divine power)
A’ – The Son is seated at God’s right hand (enthronement) ii
And you can see how it forms a greater than sign in its outline. But what’s most important is what it says, not simply its structure, and as we look at that, we see first that the Son is the enthroned human Priest-King.
We’ll see this more in the rest of ch. 1 and in ch. 2, but at the beginning and end of our verses here, the author shows us that the Son is the fulfillment of God’s promise for a human king to reign over the earth. First, he writes at the end of v. 2, “Whom he appointed the heir of all things.” And this is a reference to the promise that God made to and through David in Psalm 2 regarding this promised Messiah (or King) who would come from his line and reign over the earth. The Lord promised to this human descendant of David who would reign as king, “Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, the ends of the earth your possession” (Ps. 2:8). In other words, God is promising the human king who would come from David’s line that he would be appointed heir of the whole world. Everything would belong to him.
The author of Hebrews is saying that the Son he is writing about here is the very one promised. He has been appointed the heir of all things. He is David’s promised Son. He is the promised Messiah. But he doesn’t stop there. He also mentions his work as our high priest. He writes in vv. 3b-4, “After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.”
Now, next week we’ll talk more about this name, but this morning, we can note that the Son is not only the king from David’s line who reigns but the priest who made atonement for sins by the sacrifice of himself. In other words, the Son is the one who lived, died, and was raised for us so that our sins might be forgiven. And after he rose from the dead, he ascended into heaven so that he might sit down at the right hand of God, having accomplished everything necessary for our forgiveness. And this is another reminder of his humanity, for a priest is one chosen from among men to represent man before God (Heb 5:1). He is the enthroned human Priest-King at God’s right hand who died and rose so that we might have forgiveness of sins.
But the author of Hebrews makes clear that he isn’t merely a human. He is God. He shows us that he is the one who has done and is doing what God alone does. In v. 2 we are told that he is the one “through whom also [God] created the world” and in verse 3 that he “upholds the universe by the word of his power.” The Son is the agent through whom God created all things and the one who is holding the universe together now.
In the Old Testament you read of each nation worshipping their own gods. And even the Israelites would refer to the gods of the Hittites or the gods of the Canaanites. So, with all these gods mentioned in the Old Testament, what set apart the God of Israel as the one true God? The answer, in part, is that he alone is the one who created the world and rules over it. That’s what any OT Israelite would say. The one true God alone created and rules over all things.
Therefore, when the author of Hebrews wants to tell us who the Son is, he uses this unique identifying marker of the true God, telling us that the Son created the world and holds it together by the word of his power. And lest we think we’re reading too much into that, we get to the center of the chiasm and see in verse 3 that the Son “is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature.” That is, he shares the very nature and very glory of God, which is to say the Son is of the same essence as God the Father.
This is what has led the church over the years to understand that there is one God existing in three persons: Father, Son, and Spirit. So this one whom God has given to us—the Son—to reveal who he is and to reconcile us to himself is both human and divine, the divine Son who took on a human nature so that he might be our King and Priest; the divine Son who created the world and then came into it as he was conceived in Mary’s womb; the divine Son who while Mary held him in her lap was holding together her cells and every molecule of the universe by his divine power. The Son is the God-man who reigns over all. That’s who we’re talking about when we talk about Jesus.
So let me ask you this. If what I’ve said is true, and God has spoken to us so that when we read the Bible we read the words of his Son who is the God-man who came to save us from our sins and reigns over all things at God’s right hand—having created and holding the universe together now—then how in the world can you or I not live our lives to love, worship, and obey that one? You want to know how in the world Elisabeth Elliot found herself right back in the house of a man who had killed her husband just under three years earlier? It’s because she believed God had revealed himself by sending his Son, the God-man, who commanded her to make disciples of all nations. And if God has spoken and the Son is who he tells us he is, then the only unreasonable thing would be not to obey him with our lives. Therefore, this morning, as we come to the table, may it be an expression that we are by faith committing once more to love and serve the Son with our heart, soul, mind, and strength, by the power of the Spirit to the glory of God. Amen.
i Elizabeth Elliot, Through Gates of Splendor (New York: Harper, 1957), 104 (these events are described in pp. 96-104).
ii George H. Guthrie, Hebrews, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 55.