Wednesday, June 2, 2010

perfect through sufferings

For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things, and through whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to perfect the author of their salvation through sufferings. (Hebrews 2:10)

As, in this portion of the letter, the author in the epistle to the Hebrews has been affirming the supremacy of Christ in that He is "better than the angels," it is not surprising that Jesus' suffering is brought into focus as the writer continues to exalt Christ in His humanity. Here, we read that "it was fitting for [God] bringing many sons to glory, to perfect the author of their salvation through sufferings" (Hebrews 2:10). While it was "fitting" for God, we should bear in mind that this was in no way arbitrary or accidental. What is striking about the nature of Christ's suffering is its necessity: it could not have been any other way. So, similarly to the argumentation explicit in verse 17 wherein we read that Jesus' Incarnation was, in a sense, obligatory, these truths are not simply descriptive of reality itself - they place limitations by negating certain seemingly possible events. Turning to the words of Jesus Himself, He asks, "Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?" (Luke 24:26, emphasis mine).
However, before delving into the necessity of Christ's suffering "in bringing many sons to glory" directly, the writer reminds us of the nature of God, "for whom are all things, and through whom are all things" (Hebrews 2:10). This concept radiates throughout Scripture and God's plan for salvation, which has (in part) as its end goal "that God may be all in all" (1 Corinthians 15:28). The phrases in Hebrews "for whom are all things" and "through whom are all things" appear in similar forms elsewhere in two separate Pauline texts. For example, in discussing the consumption by Christians of "foods sacrificed to idols," Paul justifies the acceptability of such an action by declaring that "there is no God but one," and afterward writes, "[Y]et for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him" (1 Corinthians 8:4, 6; note: similar things that are mentioned exclusively of the Father here are also predicated of Jesus, who is "the image of the invisible God" in Colossians 1:16-17). A second passage from Paul also makes use of of the aforementioned phrase(s). After discussing "Israel" and the mercy God shows, Paul begins a doxology that culminates with "For from Him and to Him and through Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen" (Romans 11:36). Though I struggle to find a manner with which to articulate the relatedness between God's being "all in all" and Christ's being perfect "through sufferings," the conjunction of these two concepts is by no means mere coincidence, as the former thought informs the latter in Hebrews 2:10. God realizes His being "all in all," that is, being the one for whom and to whom and through whom are all things, significantly through the suffering of His only begotten Son, who suffered on our behalf for the purpose of bringing us to glory, the glory which God gave to Jesus, Himself being God Incarnate, and which Jesus imparts to us (John 17:22). By bringing us "to glory," as Hebrews states, Jesus enables us to be "perfected in unity" with each other, with Himself, and with the Triune Godhead, so that God may be all in all (17:23).
Additionally, we read that those whom Christ brings "to glory" evidence a filial relationship that they have been endowed with (for further discussion on 'filiality', click here). Jesus brings us to glory as "sons[1];" that is, we have become the children of God in Christ, the True and eternal Son. The Apostle John marvels at this gift when he writes, "See how great a love the Father has bestowed upon us, that we would be called the children of God" (1 John 3:1, emphasis added). And, to "as many as received [Jesus], to them He gave the right to become the children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God" (John 1:12-13, emphasis added). Indeed, we have need (and are privileged to) be "giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us [as daughters and sons] to share in the inheritance of the saints in Light" (Colossians 1:12). For, it is Christ who has not only instructed, but enabled us to refer to God as "our Father" in a real and abiding sense (Matthew 6:9; see also Galatians 4:6). And it is Christ who, in His suffering, had the object of our glorification. As the Apostle Paul writes, "we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit" (2 Corinthians 3:18).
So then, the suffering of Christ had a definitive purpose in the plan of salvation that relates to humanity "by bringing many sons to glory." But, in addition to this, we read in Hebrews 2:10 a specific feature that pertains directly to Christ Himself and His voluntary self-sacrifice: Jesus, "the author of our salvation" was made "perfect...through sufferings." This is in no way a move from imperfection to perfection, but rather an expression of the completeness of Christ's Person and work; this is the Christ who declared of Himself to the disciples on the road to Emmaus that He must suffer (Luke 24:26). When we consider the suffering of Jesus, we should not neglect the importance of recognizing that Christ conquers death by death, as Behr rightly emphasizes, "in no other way" (2006:32). Christ's suffering leads to His voluntary self-sacrificial death on the cross; it is not some arbitrary facet of His life that we analyze in retrospect. We see then, God revealed through the cross (the climax of Christ's sufferings), or, rather, we see God revealed through Jesus (see John 1:18; 14:7) on the cross, for "the LORD has bared His holy arm in the sight of all the nations, that all the ends of the earth may see the salvation of our God" (Isaiah 52:12). This prophetic declaration in Isaiah appears immediately before the well-known Hymn of the Suffering Servant, which, if I may be given leave, I will here quote in its entirety:

Behold, My servant shall prosper,
He shall be high and lifted up and greatly exalted.
Just as many were astonished at you, My people,
So his appearance was marred more than any man
And his form more than the sons of men.
Thus he will sprinkle many nations,
Kings will shut their mouths on account of him;
For what had not been told them they will see,
And what they had not heard they will understand.
Who has believed our message?
And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?
For he grew up before Him like a tender shoot,
And like a root out of parched ground;
He has no stately form or majesty that we should look upon him,
Nor appearance that we should be attracted to him.
He was despised and forsaken by men,
A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
And like one from whom men hide their face he was despised, and we did not esteem him.
Surely our griefs he himself bore,
And our sorrows he carried;
Yet we ourselves esteemed him stricken,
Smitten of God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced through for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities;
The chastening for our well-being fell upon him,
And by his scourging we are healed.
All of us like sheep have gone astray,
Each of us has turned to his own way;
But the LORD has caused
The iniquity of us all to fall on him.
He was oppressed and he was afflicted,
Yet he did not open his mouth;
Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers,
So he did not open his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
And as for his generation,
Who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living
For the transgression of my people, to whom the stroke was due?
His grave was assigned with wicked men,
Yet he was with a rich man in his death,
Because he had done no violence,
Nor was there any deceit in his mouth.
But the LORD was pleased to crush him, putting him to grief;
If he would render himself as a guilt offering,
He will see his offspring, he will prolong his days,
And the good pleasure of the LORD will prosper in his hand.
As a result of the anguish of his soul,
He will see it and be satisfied;
By his knowledge the righteous one, My servant,
Will justify the many, as he will bear their iniquities.
Therefore, I will allot him a portion with the great,
And he will divide the booty with the strong;
Because he poured out himself to death,
And was numbered with the transgressors;
Yet he himself bore the sin of many,
And interceded for the transgressors. (Isaiah 52:13-53:12)

While the above chapters in Isaiah are perhaps unique in the breadth to which they describe the suffering Messiah, they are not unique in terms of the occurence of such content. Again turning to Jesus' conversation with the disciples on the Emmaus road after His death and resurrection, we see Jesus rebuke their ignorance (which we share apart from Christ opening our eyes to recognize Him), saying:

"O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory? Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in the Scriptures." (Luke 24:25-27)

That which was contained in the Scriptures (the sacrificial system ordained by God to be performed through the Levitical priesthood, the Hymn of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah, etc.) foreshadowed the necessity of Christ's suffering which culminated in His death, a death that He overcame by death. To borrow Paul's words, these things were "a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ" (Colossians 2:17). The Scriptures declare that the Christ must suffer, and in that He did (in fulfillment of these Scriptures), Jesus offers Himself as a perfect sacrfice through His voluntary suffering, securing our eternal redemption by taking our curse upon Himself (Galatians 3:13; see also Matthew 16:21; 17:12; Mark 8:31; 9:12, 22; Luke 17:25; 22:15; 24:46; Acts 3:18; Acts 17:3; 26:23 for the necessity and Scriptural fulfillment of Christ's Passion/suffering).
There is yet one final aspect of Christ having suffered, and suffered for us, that pertains to us in a way that, at first, may seem contradictory: we are called to suffer. A crucial theological difference, however, distinguishes His suffering from ours by focusing on the reason for such suffering. As the Nicene Creed affirms, "for our sake He was crucified under Pontius Pilate; He suffered, died, and was buried." Jesus suffered to overcome our sin and death, and He does so in such a way that His suffering applies to us as He takes our place on the cross, being Himself a perfect substitute, and offering to God the required perfection that we (outside of Christ) can never display nor perform. On the other hand, Christ calls us to suffer in that He offers an example by which He brings us unto Himself:

"For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving an example for you to follow in His steps, who committed no sin, nor was their any deceit found in His mouth, and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to the One who judges righteously; and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed." (1 Peter 2:21-24, emphasis added)

Jesus suffered for us and gave Himself to be our example, that we might be made more like Him. And in such suffering we affirm our filiality and inheritance, as Paul writes:

"For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are the sons of God. For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading again to fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, 'Abba! Father!' The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him." (Romans 8:14-17, emphasis added)

Again, we return to the theme in Hebrews that "in bringing many sons to glory," Jesus, the origin and "author of our salvation" was made "perfect...through sufferings" (Hebrews 2:10). But, as children and heirs with Christ, we do not suffer for sin; rather, we are invited to suffer to be made more into the image of Christ as we proclaim the one who suffered not only on our behalf, but as "He is the propitiation for our sins," so is He the propitiation "for those of the whole world" (1 John 2:2). As Jesus suffered to bring us to God, so we suffer for the sake of His name by achieving the temporal missional goal of the church, so that the chief end is realized when God is worshiped and glorified by all (Piper 2003). And, as Jesus "kept entrusting Himself to the One who judges righteously," so He encourages us to do the same, offering our lives as "a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is [our] reasonable service of worship" (Romans 12:1). "Therefore, those also who suffer for the will of God shall entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right" (1 Peter 4:19).

[1] The Greek term huios does not here exclusively refer to men, but may be used to highlight physical, genealogical descendance from Adam, since it is often used of the offspring of men. If this is the case, the term fits well with the prhase in the following verse, wherein it is said that the sanctifier and the sanctified are all from "one," stressing the humanity of Christ, being both fully human and fully divine.

Behr, John. (2006). The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.
Piper, John. (2003). Let the Nations Be Glad: The Supremacy of God in Missions, 2nd Ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.

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