The Messiah’s Sufferings in the Epistle to the Hebrews
F. Cundick, Luton
The great spiritual force of the presentation of a Suffering Messiah will be felt when a reader bears in mind three simple matters concerning this great Epistle.
i. The Chief Characteristic. It contrasts the past order with the present. Old Testament personalities and ceremonies are considered and attention is repeatedly drawn to the "better" aspects of the present new order; 1. 4; 7. 19, 22; 8. 6; 9. 23; 10. 34; n. 16, 35, 40; 12. 24.
ii. The Chief Consideration. It emphasises the superiority and excellency of the Priesthood of Christ over the old Aaronic order.
iii. The Chief Cause. In some locality unknown to us, there were some Jews who had accepted the despised Jesus of Nazareth as the true Messiah. Through the preaching of the apostles (see 2. 3), they had been converted to the Christian faith, and consequently turned away from the obsolete forms of Judaism. Persecution for their response to the Christian faith had been endured, and it seems that there was a likelihood for this persecution to increase. Because of this some were in danger of being drawn back to their former religion, thus to forsake the Christian faith with its now invisible Christ. It is not difficult to imagine how the first readers of the Epistle had been taunted and reproached for their acceptance of a faith without external ritual. To reinforce their faith the inspired penman wrote.
As he did so, he was not unmindful of their sufferings. He writes, "But call to remembrance the former days, in which, after ye were illuminated, ye endured a great fight of afflictions, . . . For ye ... took joyfully the spoiling of your goods, knowing in yourselves that ye have in heaven a better and an enduring substance", 10. 32-34. This deep experience of heavenly realities is what the writer wished to be retained. Spiritual joy comes not by possessing material wealth, but by "seeing the invisible". Furthermore, it was essential to reveal from Scripture that the Messiah must needs suffer to enter into His glory. The Jewish theologians seemed to have overlooked this feature of the Messianic prophecies. In the Epistle these sufferings appear and their distinctive purposes are made known to inspire the people of God in their pathway of obedience to the will of God.
1. The Divine Kinsman-Redeemer. As the glories of the divine-human Redeemer are expounded, and the great purposes of God declared in the Messianic advents of grace and glory in the opening of the Epistle, the writer draws attention to the Messiah's sufferings in life and death. First, let us think of His sufferings in life. "He himself hath suffered being tempted", 2. 18, amplifies the Gospel records revealing that He was exposed to temptation. This for Him was suffering. His holy nature recoiled from the awful character of sin. Here is a fact that men of depraved nature and hardened by sin are unable to comprehend. Suffering is a relative term; the measure of its acuteness is determined by the degree of one's refinement. The same burden weighs unequally on different men. Christ alone knew the full strength of temptation, for His life had in no wise been scorched by the fire of sin. The more we realise the uniqueness and beautiful refinement of His being, the more likely we shall be able to interpret in some small degree the intensity of His sufferings in life.
Then "the suffering of death" is mentioned, 2. 9, that is, not merely death, but the suffering of death. Its bitterness He tasted in His vicarious sufferings. To remove the disastrous effects of sin, and to bring the many sons to glory, God in grace sent His Son to die. In the Son's patient path of obedience and in His endurance of the cross, He has wrought the eternal salvation of His people, and all in perfect harmony with divine requirements. Both aspects of suffering, in life and death, focus attention on the reality and intensity of the work undertaken by the Kinsman-Redeemer. There could not be any pretence in dealing with the consequences of sin in the universe. The Son, who alone could measure the responsibility involved, has adorned the throne of God with the glory of redemption.
2. The Qualified Priest. "Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered; and being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him", 5. 8. 9. The Son did not need to be made perfect in His relationship with the Father, or in His moral character in manhood. In these matters He is inherently perfect. But to become the Author of eternal salvation, the way of the cross must be trodden. The corn of wheat must die to bring the harvest. The words "learned he obedience" point to the practical cost of doing the will of God in His manhood. Our salvation is dependent on this Priest who with His fulness of experience discharges His ministry perfectly. The experience of suffering has given Him the qualification to interpret our feelings aright, so He cannot intercede in vain.
The incident is related of a boy who lost his right hand. The reaction of the boy to this severe injury was one of deep despondency. He did not want to see anyone. In hope of restoring the boy, his father said, "I am going to bring a special visitor to see you". "I don't want to see him", replied the boy. But the father brought the visitor and when the boy looked up he saw that the kind man had no right arm; there was an empty sleeve. He came over to the boy and said, "I haven't any hand either. I lost mine when I was a boy, and I know how it feels". Their mutuality of suffering made them friends immediately.
3. The Perfect Sacrifice. "Nor yet that he should offer himself often, as the high priest entereth into the holy place every year with the blood of others; for then must he often have suffered since the foundation of the world: but now once for all in the completion of the ages hath he appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself", 9. 25-26 newberry. The great hinge of the argument relative to the ceremony of the day of atonement in chapters nine and ten is the remark, "But Christ";, 9. 11. His sacrifice is eternally efficacious and absolutely independent of time. The writer reasons if Christ's sacrifice had availed only for a time like the annual sacrifices of the Levitical order, then there would have been need for a repetition of His offering whenever the time expired. But Christ's sufferings are valid as a single, non-repeated act, and their vicarious character permanent. Consequently the salvation that ensues is eternal in quality.
4. The Great Sanctifier. "Wherefore Jesus also, that he might sanctify the people with his own blood, suffered without the gate"., 13. 12. Here the sacrifice of Christ is the antitype of the day of atonement. The ritual of that complex ceremony is doubtless in view, for the character of the offering considered is national. The blood was brought into the sanctuary, v. n, this expression including the most holy place, further., the high priest is the official who functions as representative of the people. Christ has fulfilled this great type in His own sufferings in sacrificial death. Not merely His dying but His vicarious sufferings are we asked to consider. By the divine overruling of circumstances in Christ's death., the ritual pertaining to the sin offering was fulfilled. Outside the camp He knew the shame of a malefactor's death. The great issue is the sanctification of His people. From the practical point of view "the people" are expected to accept the divine verdict of man in the flesh. According to verse thirteen we should learn to take sides with God, and judge all that is a product of man's endeavour, be it religious, intellectual;, political or all that is depraved and unacceptable before God.
The motive behind the Epistle becomes clearer as these themes of perfect substitution, sympathy, salvation and sanctification are reviewed. Did not the identification of faith with the suffering Messiah give the readers first a link with the past? Their experience of suffering was by no means exceptional. The illustrious men of chapter eleven had known suffering for their faith. For example, "By faith Moses, when he was come to years, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter; choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season; esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt", n. 24-26. Could they not estimate comparative values as did Moses the man of faith? Secondly, identification with the despised Christ brought them grace for the present. The pathway of suffering by which the Captain of their salvation was made "perfect" is the pathway along which He brings His people. Not all royal sons are capable for rule. But training and discipline fit the "many sons" for the coming regency of glory, and there is grace for every emergency. Thirdly, there is glory for the future. In the eternal commonwealth of the heavens (see 12. 22-24), there will be no grief at the loss of pleasures and prospects of this doomed world. The measure of the clarity and vision of the beauty and stability of this heavenly order, will determine the measure of the believer's endurance in the pathway upwards and homewards.