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.
The purpose of points
In a recent Cornhill preaching class, we spent a bit of time discussing the purpose and value of giving clear teaching points or headings in a sermon. We tend to encourage students to make a habit of using headings and to work hard at them (although there are occasions when headings are a hindrance rather than a help (apologies for the compulsive alliteration; the subject seemed to invite it…)).
The following are a few practical reasons – some more compelling than others – why it is worth investing in good headings:
1) They give your congregation a sense of progression and momentum through the sermon and fuel their hope that they will indeed make it home for lunch. This, in turn, will help them listen more attentively.
2) They convey a sense that you have digested and got a clear handle on the material you are preaching. This is a subtle point, but it does help your hearers trust you as a competent teacher. It strikes me that John Stott exemplified this in his preaching.
3) Good headings crystalize truths from the Bible passage, and so make them easier to understand. For you as a preacher, the very process of articulating, refining, and simplifying headings often will lead to a clearer understanding of those truths for yourself as you prepare to preach them. This will improve the clarity of your sermon as a whole.
4) Good headings help the congregation to remember what they have heard and so continue to feed on the word in the following hours and days. If you are anything like me, you probably forget much of what you hear. I sometimes ask groups of students mid-way through the week what they remember from Sunday’s sermon at their local church. The results are not uniformly encouraging. Anything we can do to help people retain what they hear from the word must be worthwhile. (As an aside, this is one reason why overly long headings may not be advisable)
5) Good headings provide focal points for discussion when the church family talk about the sermon over coffee or lunch. It is great to develop a culture where the church family do chew over the word together and seek to encourage each other from the word after they have heard it preached. Faithful and clear teaching points can only help.
6) They help those who have drifted into a daydream (or indeed have fallen asleep…!) to re-join the flow of the sermon. We might like to think that this is a consideration not worthy of our congregation, but I suspect it is not.
Are you allowed to preach just on a single verse at Cornhill?
Well, yes, you are. Indeed we actively encourage students to learn how to do so wisely. Of course there were some good reasons why in recent decades many preachers moved away from the frequent single-verse habit of their predecessors:
• it could readily lend itself to preaching verses out of context;
• done as the staple diet, it prevented consecutive exposition through whole books;
• it assumed greater Bible literacy in congregations than is now often the case;
• preachers could rather easily choose to preach on just their favourite topics.
There have been some real gains in this shift, and it’s wise to try to hold on to them. But when students ask (as they occasionally do) ‘how can I preach on a single verse and still do all the things Cornhill trains me to do with the text?’, that’s probably a signal that we need to work at not losing the ability to preach well from a single verse. Choosing a single verse as your text is, after all, doing nothing more radical than just opting to preach on a pretty short text. There are of course still some dangers out there into which the unwary and lazy may fall:
• preaching the context rather than what my text actually says;
• conversely, preaching my text without controls from its context.
However there are some benefits from occasional single-verse preaching, when done well:
• less time is normally spent in the sermon on text-explanation, leaving more time for application – whereas many of our sermons are imbalanced the other way;
• it can summarise the heart of the message of a complex book or chapter in a single verse (debatable examples of whole-book summaries, for my money, are Galatians 5.5; James 4.4; 1 John 5.20);
• in speaking situations where brevity, crystal clarity and directness are essential – funerals, short evangelistic talks, Christmas services, etc. – a single verse may well be the most sensible way to go.
Job opportunity at PT
Please pass this onto anyone in your congregation for whom it might be suitable. Thank you!
Book-keeper (& buildings manager)
Part-time (7-10 hours per week), starting early 2015
We are looking to recruit a part time book-keeper to join our existing team. For the right candidate the role may also include some buildings management responsibilities. The role is part time (between 7-10 hours per week) and the days are flexible. It is based at our London office in Borough High Street. The salary is £25-£35k pro rata depending on experience and responsibilities. The candidate should have previous financial management
More detailed information about the role and details of how to apply can be found on our website at www.proctrust.org.uk/financerole. The closing date for applications is Friday 12 December 2014.
The power of story
I read two very good stories whilst I was away. The first I had not read since I was at school – 30 years ago (ouch, that hurts!). It was George Orwell’s Animal Farm. I suppose studying it at school had put me off. But I enjoyed it second time around, even with such a gap. It’s very simply written, but has pace and flow that grips the reader. Simple, yet very effective.
The second book was Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Grey. No, not that one! It predates the infamous EL James novel and is another clever, gripping story – not unlike Animal Farm as it describes life in a totalitarian state. It is more involved than Orwell – characters are more developed and the story is more complex. But it is gripping nonetheless. I like Fforde books – they make me laugh and are good holiday fodder. This one is more thoughtful; sadly it was not a commercial success so there is unlikely to be a long promised sequel.
Both illustrate the power of story. When well written and pacy, stories captivate the imagination and carry the reader or hearer along. That’s also how Bible story works – whether Old Testament or New Testament. The stories are well written and captivating.
Which makes it all the more strange that so much narrative preaching robs the text of colour, pace and life. It’s not an easy thing to do to preach narrative well. But – at the very least – we as preachers have to work hard to preserve in our sermons something of the colour and involvement that the text generates. For story is powerful. And whilst preaching is more than story telling – much, much more – it is certainly not less.
This is reality. Be encouraged.
We had a few days away last week staying on the Sandringham Estate in Norfolk (sounds slightly more impressive than it really was). Sunday we headed to a local village parish church, just to the west of Kings Lynn where a couple we know are hard at work for the Lord. It was an encouraging time to be with them, especially as we had a wonderfully faithful and warmly applied sermon from Matthew 15 – not the easiest of passages.
First, a reality check. The church was relatively small – a normal congregation, the vicar told me, is about 40-45ish. His wife works hard running the Sunday School. Whether she wants to or not, this particular vicar’s wife has to be the unpaid curate. There’s music and coffee afterwards, but there are simply not (I imagine) the number of people to put on the programmes and events that larger churches take for granted.
So, here’s the reality check. Many young men going into ministry have attended a relatively well funded University church. They have perhaps done an apprenticeship in a similar church. But those kinds of churches (for which we should all thank God) are not normal. The majority of churches in this country are relatively small, underfunded and (in the world’s eyes at least) struggling. They cannot hope to put on programmes and events like larger churches do. I should know – I ministered in such a church for almost a decade.
And yet here’s the encouragement. God saves unbelievers and builds Christians through the faithful preaching of the word. That’s why I was so encouraged to visit this little parish. You don’t need the razz-ma-tazz and glossy literature. You need Christ Jesus proclaimed. This wonderful village church had it. And if you have it, we need to believe Christ will build his church.
I mentioned a few weeks ago that Trevor Archer, who is the Training Director at FIEC, joined us at the Cornhill+ conference. He has since written an article reflecting on his time at the conference and the contribution of the course to local church ministry. And about the students crossing paths (pretty much literally!) with a professional rugby player whilst on a country walk. As you do.
New Testament ‘controls’
Sometimes a New Testament text sheds light on an Old Testament passage or book. Well, not just sometimes, quite often! It raises the question of how this can shape our preaching of the Old Testament passage. It seems to me there are two opposite kinds of mistake we can make.
The first is the classic academic Old Testament scholarship error of refusing to read an Old Testament text as part of the whole Canon of Christian Scripture. I am sometimes alarmed by how supposedly evangelical commentaries slip into this. For example, Hebrews 1:10-12 make it clear that some of the closing verses of Psalm 102 are spoken “of the Son”. Despite this important truth being ignored in some commentaries, it is both significant and instructive, and will shape the way we preach the Psalm.
The second is to jump too quickly from the Old Testament passage to the New Testament ‘control’ and effectively just to preach the New Testament text, rather than using the New Testament text as a ‘control’, to direct our exposition of the Old Testament passage but not to dominate it.
An example I found helpful was to use James 5:11 as a text to illuminate and shape a concluding sermon on the book of Job. James tells his hearers they have heard of the steadfastness of Job and also the compassionate and merciful purposes of the Lord. I found these two foci made a natural structure for expounding Job 42. I hope they did not dominate Job 42, but helped to open it up so that God’s voice was heard through Job 42. My attempt at this may be found either in Out of the Storm (IVP) or Job: the wisdom of the Cross (Crossway).
Christ our pattern
Some powerful words from the pen of Donald Macleod, in what seems to have been an address to the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland:
‘The Christ whom we are trying to follow and trying to emulate made himself nothing. He became a nonentity. It was not what he was, but it was what he looked like, what he allowed men to think of him and how he allowed men to treat him. He obscured his deity beneath humanness and ordinariness and suffering and even death. He didn’t look great or clever. He had none of the trappings of popularity. Instead, he was despised and contemptible: a non-person. That is a hard road. But for the Christian it is the only road: one on which we are willing to renounce our rights, to be misunderstood, to be damned with faint praise, to serve and yet be deemed absurd failures by those we are trying to help… ‘What upheld Christ? What kept him going? A sense of duty, of course, and love for lost men and women. But there was something else – what the Epistle to the Hebrews calls ‘The joy set before him’. That has become very unfashionable today. But Christ was not ashamed to derive strength and courage from that great prospect – the prospect of glory with the Father – which lay before him. Neither should we be ashamed of it.’ (From Glory to Golgotha, pp.157-58).
Macleod of course has a strong understanding of what Christ has done for us that we cannot do ourselves (see his new book Christ Crucified: Understanding the Atonement). But in the above quote he challenges me deeply to take Christ as my pattern too. Sometimes I am what Macleod calls an ‘absurd failure’ because, well, I can be a bit absurd and I often fail. But other times we are judged to be absurd failures simply because we are following our Lord. Then he challenge for me is: will I be ashamed to find my joy in precisely the same thing that the Lord Jesus chose to find his joy in?
Better than O Valiant Hearts. Much better.
Better than O Valiant Hearts. Much better.
One of the great non-evangelical Remembrance Sunday hymns is O Valiant Hearts. Not really one to sing in church! All a bit jingoistic. But it’s got a great tune. A really good tune. Not the Holst one, the original (download it here, listen to it here). And there are some great words in Praise! by Fred Kran which fit well and are written just for Remembrance Sunday.
God! As with silent hearts we bring to mind
how hate and war diminish humankind,
we pause-and seek in worship to increase
our knowledge of the things that make for peace.
2. Hallow our will as humbly we recall
the lives of those who gave and give their all.
We thank you, Lord, for women, children, men
who seek to serve in love, today as then.
3. Give us deep faith to comfort those who mourn,
high hope to share with all the newly born,
strong love in our pursuit of human worth:
‘lest we forget’ the future of this earth.
4. So, Prince of peace, disarm our trust in power,
teach us to coax the plant of peace to flower.
May we, impassioned by your living word,
remember forward to a world restored.
Let Chris Idle do the talking:
“Some of the most popular material in demand among prayers and hymns [for Remembrance Sunday] falls far short (in several directions) of Christian standards or biblical norms. Emotions run high, war memories may still ache after 60-70 years or from more recent conflicts, but there is also a longing for new approaches. It was this need and tension which prompted Coventry Cathedral staff to commission Fred Kaan to frame this hymn.”