First Sunday of Christmas (Year A)

Hebrews 2:10-18 paints a powerful picture of the significance of Jesus’ incarnation that highlights the reality of suffering on the journey of faithfulness to God.

Isaiah 63:9
"[God] lifted them up and carried them all the days of old." Photo by Natalie Grainger on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

December 29, 2019

Second Reading
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Commentary on Hebrews 2:10-18

Hebrews 2:10-18 paints a powerful picture of the significance of Jesus’ incarnation that highlights the reality of suffering on the journey of faithfulness to God.

The passage is framed by reference to Jesus’ sufferings as a human being (Hebrews 2:10, 18). This image of Jesus is a striking shift from the descriptions of the divine, exalted Jesus that dominate Hebrews until 2:9, when the author clarifies that Jesus has been crowned with divine glory and honor precisely because he suffered death. This sets the stage for Hebrews 2:10-18, which shows how Jesus’ incarnation makes it possible for other human beings to share in divine glory.

Hebrews 2:10 presents the key claim of the passage: that the sovereign, Creator God brings human beings to salvation through the suffering of the divine Son who became incarnate in Jesus. The idea that it is fitting for God to accomplish the divine purposes for the world by becoming a human being and suffering death (verse 14) would seem outrageous to some audiences, both ancient and modern. But it is at the heart of the Christian gospel, which is expressed in condensed form in this passage.

The word pioneer (archegos) used of Jesus in verse 10 is significant. It can refer both to someone in a preeminent position, such as a leader or ruler, and to a founder or originator of something. Both meanings apply to Jesus as the pioneer of human salvation, and they certainly overlap.

Verse 17 picks up on the first meaning by depicting Jesus as a merciful and faithful high priest (archiereus) who makes atonement for human sin, thus removing a major obstacle to people living in faithful relationship with God (see also verse 11).

Verses 14-15 reflect the second meaning of “pioneer” in that through his own death, Jesus disarms the power of death and thus becomes the “source” of human salvation (see also Hebrews 12:2). Jesus thereby removes another obstacle to people living in trusting relationship with God by liberating them from the bondage that fear of death brings (verse 15).

Both the removal of sin and the defeat of death are necessary to human salvation, which finds its fulfillment in entering eternally into God’s glorious presence (verse 10), as the exalted Jesus has already done.

These understandings of Jesus as pioneer of salvation make his incarnation necessary. A high priest must be human in order to truly represent the people, and only a real human being can die a human death that destroys the power of death (verse 14; see also verse 9). Jesus, the one who sanctifies, is a true brother to people who are being sanctified (verses 11-13). Even so, Jesus retains his unique status as Son (see also Hebrews 1:2) that makes his priestly activity and death decisive in bringing salvation (Hebrews 9:26; 10:11-14).

This points to another nuance of Jesus’ role as pioneer of our salvation and to the importance of his incarnation. By his earthly life of perfect obedience to the Father that opened salvation to others, Jesus serves as forerunner and example of what an unwavering life of faithfulness to God looks like. The entire book of Hebrews, in fact, presents an exhortation to persevere in faith on the long earthly journey toward experiencing the fullness of God’s salvation.

This brings us back to the theme of suffering and raises the question of why is it appropriate for God to make the pioneer of our salvation “perfect” or “complete” (teleioo) through suffering (Hebrews 2:10)?

Suffering is an inevitable part of human life, so it should be no surprise that as a real human being, Jesus suffered. But Hebrews 2:18 speaks of Jesus being “tested” or “tempted” (peirazo) by what he suffered, so that he can help other people who are being tested (see also verse 16). Jesus’ suffering in the wilderness as he was tempted by the devil comes to mind (for example, Luke 4:1-13), as does Jesus’ horrific death on the cross, which both his disciples and his hecklers tempted him to avoid (for example, Mark 8:31-33; 15:29-32).

In this context, we can understand suffering not as something glorious or redemptive in itself, but as something that is to be expected when one follows God and seeks to fulfill God’s purposes in a world that is hostile to God. It provides the opportunity to develop and affirm one’s trust in God.

Hebrews 3 and following uses the example of the Israelites who had been liberated from Egyptian bondage, only to lose faith/trust in God while wandering in the wilderness, as a warning to its audience not to do the same. The life of faith is often more like the desert than the mountaintop.

In the midst of suffering, fatigue, or feeling lost, Hebrews 2:10-18 exhorts us to cling to Jesus as the one who persevered in faith through unthinkable suffering and is sustaining us on the journey. Hebrews 5:8-9 affirms that Jesus’ obedience—even when it meant suffering—is what makes his death salvific and his life exemplary. Jesus is the “pioneer [archegos] and perfecter [teleiotes] of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2) because his own faithfulness brought God’s redemptive purposes for humanity to fulfillment, even though people are still moving toward entering the fullness of salvation.

The idea that God achieves divine purposes through suffering can be taken in directions that are both theologically and pastorally problematic, so caution is in order when preaching on this topic. Although the Bible affirms that God works in suffering and trials, we should not presume to know exactly how God does this or try to draw clear causal connections between particular instances of suffering and God’s activity. The promise of Hebrews 2:10-18 is that the incarnate, crucified, and glorified Jesus is with us and can help us in everything that we go through, even when it makes no sense to us.