Facing death (Hebrews 2:5-18)

Hebrews’ comparison between Jesus and angels continues. The author admits that Jesus was made lower than that angels for a little while, but is quick to point out why: on earth, as a human, Jesus was able to identify with humans. Two aspects of this identification–or ‘solidarity’, to use the fancy word–are highlighted: suffering and death.

Suffering is a common theme in NT epistles. Peter certainly spends time with it in his first letter, it’s a topic for Paul (Philippians 1:29 is just one example) as well as John (see the opening chapters of Revelation), and now Hebrews takes up the subject. There’s a pastoral concern, to be sure, as writers tackle an issue their readers faced routinely. And as contemporary listeners come to these texts, we appreciate how timeless they are: suffering of one sort or another is a common experience.

There is deep theology in view, as well, as writers probe the why? of suffering. There is no single, easy answer to this question, but Hebrews illuminates one plane of a multi-faceted matter by saying that suffering is the means by which Jesus was made perfect (2:10).

A reason, then, for why Jesus suffered–although in offering it, the writer opens another can of worms. Jesus made perfect? We might recoil at such a statement, protesting that we cannot imagine Jesus flawed in any way. But there is a second way to read this word: perfect also has to do with being complete.

Seen from this angle, the writer is telling us that Jesus needed something that suffering provided. We hear what that is at the end of the chapter: because Jesus suffered, we read, Jesus is able to help us who go through difficulty, too (2:18).

Suffering did not correct a flaw so much as fill a gap–a gap that was not the result of some moral failing, but was, rather, present because Jesus intended to identify with humanity. To say it another way, Jesus’ incarnation introduced Him to experiences not previously encountered, just as the plan for solidarity required developments not previously necessary. For Jesus to be complete–as a human, and as one who could identify with humanity–He needed to suffer.

In the same way, He needed to die. Again, there is more to Jesus’ death than solidarity with people who themselves face death, but never less. Indeed, Hebrews supplies two more reasons for it in this chapter.

First, Jesus will taste death for everyone (2:9). Put like this, the writer moves past solidarity to substitution, an idea connected with Jesus’ death that is taken up by others and deserves its own unpacking.

Second, Jesus dies so as to break the power of him who holds the power of death (2:14). That is, Jesus goes to death, but does not stay dead, showing that while He might submit to its power, He is not held by its grip.

In the first case, Jesus demonstrates obedience which then redounds to His glory. In the second, Jesus’ evident power (remember: some of this book’s first readers would have seen Jesus walking around post-resurrection, or heard about it from unimpeachable witnesses) provides an antidote to the fear of death.

Why do we abhor suffering? Several reasons, surely: we protest at how unfair it is; it hurts, and we do not like pain or discomfort; suffering pushes us to consider death, which we are not eager to do. But anger, or denial–neither help us when it comes to what is so common in human experience.

Hebrews offers guidance, comfort. The writer reminds us that Jesus has walked this road, and that walking this road has developed in Him empathy for us. When we go to Him with what we’re going through, we find one who truly understands.

And death? Jesus knows this enemy, too. He didn’t avoid it, or through some celestial magic turn barbed wire into fuzzy yarn, but walked straight in. This, too: in facing death, Jesus maintained faith. He trusted His father to come through, trusted the Spirit to bring strength. This pattern, this approach–this is available to all of us, too, and means that when we face death (as we do, as we do), we need not be afraid.

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