Reflections on Hebrews 2 and the Incarnation, Part 1
We are not always strong on the doctrine of the incarnation in our circles – which is a shame, not least because the Bible is very strong on it. Hebrews 2 gives us rich reflection on the truth of the incarnation. The following are a few observations.
Hebrews was written to a group of Jewish believers who were tempted to give up trusting and following Jesus. In chapter 1 the writer reminded the believers that Jesus is higher than all other authorities, including the angels (who were involved in the mediation of the Old Covenant at Sinai, 2:2). The point was that they must listen to his word (2:1-4).
Having convinced the congregation that Jesus is indeed highly exalted, the writer now turns in 2:5 and following to explain to them why this exalted Son should come so low in the incarnation, suffering and death. Remember that the cross was ‘a stumbling block to Jews’ (1 Cor. 1:23), who did not expect a crucified King.
As always, the writer grounds his argument in careful exegesis of the Old Testament in light of Christ, and here he turns to Psalm 8: ‘It has been testified somewhere, “What is man, that you are mindful of him, or the son of man, that you care for him? You made him for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned him with glory and honour, putting everything in subjection under his feet.”’ (Heb. 2:6-8, quoting Ps. 8:4-6).
Psalm 8 looks back somewhat wistfully to the original and glorious mandate that God gave Adam, the man in his own glorious image, to act as his vice-regent (Gen. 1:26-28). And it looks forward prophetically to the restoration of the glory of that mandate and calling in the Second Adam.
Originally, Hebrews notes, God ‘left nothing outside his [the first man’s] control’. But ‘at present’ – that is, since Genesis 3 and the Fall – ‘we do not yet see everything in subjection to him’ [that is, to humanity] (Heb. 2:8b). Here is where Jesus, the Second Adam, comes in: ‘But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honour because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.’ (2:9).
For the Psalm 8 pattern to be restored and the hope of that Psalm fulfilled, Jesus had to become a ‘son of man’ in the incarnation, becoming lower than the angels for a little while. He had to suffer and die to bear the penalty for Adam’s failure (and ours with him) to fulfil the mandate he was given. By God’s extraordinary grace, Jesus tasted death in our place, that death might not rob us of our God-given glory once and for all.
Because of what he has done, Jesus has been ‘crowned with glory and honour’. But that is not the end of the story. Through his glorification in the resurrection, ascension and enthronement on high, Jesus leads ‘many sons to glory’. That is why he is called the ‘founder’ or ‘pioneer’ of our salvation. Having plumbed the depths of the mess we have made of our human calling, Jesus now leads us to the heights of the glory of our calling as those made in God’s image to act as his vice-regents. He leads us to heaven itself, that we his people might enjoy his glory, and even participate in his glorious reign.
Why the incarnation? Jesus became a son of man that he might lead many sons and daughters of men to glory – in fulfilment of God’s great purpose for his image-bearers.