I'd like to begin by reading the entire passage of Hebrews 2:5-18 this morning, and then we're going to talk about how this passage helps us appreciate what God accomplished on that first Christmas when he sent Jesus to this earth.
It is not to angels that he has subjected the world to come, about which we are speaking. But there is a place where someone has testified:
"What is mankind that you are mindful of them,
a son of man that you care for him?
You made them a little lower than the angels;
you crowned them with glory and honor
and put everything under their feet."
In putting everything under them, God left nothing that is not subject to them. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them. But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered. Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters. He says,
"I will declare your name to my brothers and sisters;
in the assembly I will sing praises."
"I will put my trust in him."
And again he says,
"Here am I, and the children God has given me."
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham's descendants. For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
This is the Word of the Lord.
Our broken world
Christmas Day is a lot like life: it's never quite what you dream it's going to be. Something always seems to go wrong with Christmas. Some Christmases are better than others, but if you live long enough, you're going to get a Christmas that doesn't quite fit your dreams.
The Christmas of 2005 was the last Christmas we spent in Montana before we moved here, and it was the last time that Christmas was on a Sunday. I was looking forward to that. I thought, This could be the last Christmas at our church. What a great time to spend Christmas Day on Sunday. But I didn't count on a little something called "the flu." After we got home on Christmas Eve, we wisely made the decision to open our Christmas gifts that night knowing the next morning might be a little bit rushed. That was a good choice because right after we opened the gifts, the first family member got ill. The second family member got ill a little while after that. Within an hour the third family member got ill, and then the fourth. Luke and I were the only ones who were somewhat healthy at that point. The next morning, everybody was very ill and didn't get out of bed. After the worship service I thought, Maybe there's a chance of a miraculous recovery and our turkey dinner, a Christmas staple, will be sitting on the table. No such luck. Everyone was still in bed.
So Luke and I drove into Bozeman, a town of about 35,000 people. I knew not everything was going to be open on Christmas day, but I hoped there would be four or five restaurants. But there was only one. The Holiday Inn was open. We went in and waited, because every other person in the city whose family was sick or decided to eat out was there. We finally finished our meal about two-thirty. When we got home, Luke promptly got sick. At three o'clock in the afternoon, I was sitting by myself on the couch—everyone else in bed—thinking that this was not the Christmas I dreamed of.
Sometimes it's a lot worse than that. My story is rather trivial in the whole scheme of things. For some people Christmas is a miserable day. Maybe no more miserable than others, but on a day when everyone's emotions are on "high alert," people are either happier or more devastated than normal.
I remember growing up in the '70s. I used to listen to a Christmas album by John Denver, long before Michael Bublé. There was a song on that Christmas album that I despised, and I still do. Last year I got that CD out this Christmas and listened to it in the car when none of the other family members were there. And I still skipped past that song, "Please, Daddy, Don't Get Drunk This Christmas. I don't want to see my mamma cry." What a downer. Why even include it? Who would write a song like that? I'll tell you who would write a song like that: somebody who had a daddy who would get drunk on Christmas Day and who would make his mamma cry. As much as I despise that song and skip over it, it reminds me that we live in a broken world and there's a lot of pain on Christmas. I don't want to make Christmas depressing for you and bring up painful memories, but let's face it. We all have pain in our lives. There are things that have gone on in the past or are going on currently that devastate us. Maybe the pain that we feel is even more intense on Christmas Day.
The promise of restoration
The passage from Hebrews has an encouragement for us this morning. When we reflect on the glory of Christ, who was light of light, God of God, very God of very God, when we reflect on the fact that he became one of us, that he became human, there is something tremendously encouraging on a day when we all have some kind of emotional or physical pain, because we really do live life in a broken world.
When we look at reality this Christmas, we see what the writer of Hebrews describes in this paragraph, something terrible but also glorious. In verse 5 he talks about angels. We were introduced to angels back in chapter one when we learned that Jesus is far greater than all of God's messengers, not only the prophets but even the angels. The writer picks up that theme and reminds us that it's not to angels that he subjected the world to come. To whom has he subjected the world to come? Human beings. Then he quotes from Psalm 8:4-6. This quote is designed to remind us that God created us in his image and likeness to rule over the world that he created. God has created us for a noble purpose: we are, in a sense, kings and queens who reign over his creation. God created our first parents and all who would follow them, all of their offspring, to live on this earth and to govern it, to rule it, to run it, to be good stewards of it, so that we can bring out the glory of God that he built into creation.
In fact, after the writer of Hebrews quotes that psalm he underscores it. He says, "In putting everything under them God left nothing that is not subject to them." Isn't it amazing that you and I were created, as our first parents were created, to be God's kings and queens, to be his stewards, to live in this world, to bring out its beauty?
But when the writer of Hebrews looks around, he sees something terrible. At the end of verse 8 he says, "Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them." Why not? The writer doesn't have to tell us. He expects that we already know. The reason is because of sin and rebellion that entered the world. It's wrecked everything. Our Christmas Days and all of our days are full of pain and suffering and heartache because we live in a fallen world.
I think of a line in that song that we sang last night, "O Holy Night." "Long lay the world in sin and error pining till he appeared," just waiting for someone to come and to redeem. Let's face it. When we look around at our lives and look at reality, we see a lot of bad things. We see a lot of things that aren't right. They're not the way they're supposed to be. How often have you looked at life and said, "It's not the way it's supposed to be. It's just not right"?
Thankfully the writer also sees something glorious. He sees Jesus. In verse 9 he says, "But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while …" That's a stunning statement because we've already learned from chapter one that Jesus is superior to the angels. Yet for a little while he was made lower. Now the writer sees Jesus "crowned with honor and glory because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone."
Why did Jesus become human? Why did he taste death? Verse 10 says, "In bringing many sons and daughters to glory …" In those words we have the answer to why Jesus became human. Where are we when he begins this project? Verse 8 ends with, "Yes at present we do not see everything subject to them." We haven't fulfilled our purposes on this earth. We've just made a mess of it. We've damaged everything we've touched, we've damaged the environment, and we've damaged relationships. But Jesus became human to bring us to that place of restoration, so that we can experience what we were created for.
In verse 10 the writer talks a little bit about the process. He says, "… it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered." Pioneer is a word that means "the leader." It was used in one place in ancient Greek mythology of Hercules, a champion. That's why some would like to translate this "the champion of our salvation," almost like a superhero, the Superman of our salvation. It was fitting that God should make this leader, this champion, this hero perfect through what he suffered. This doesn't mean that Jesus was not perfect. He was. In the book of Hebrews, perfection means fulfilling a plan or a purpose.
Verses 11-13 simply remind us that Jesus, who became human to bring many sons and daughters to glory, really does share in their identity. They're part of the same family. "Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters." In verses 12-13 the writer quotes from Psalm 22 and from Isaiah 8 to make the point that they're the same. So Jesus became human to bring many sons and daughters to glory, to take people whose lives are a mess, who are experiencing pain, who need forgiveness, who need hope, who need purpose, to make them perfect; to restore God's presence to them, to restore the joy and the blessings that come from living life in the presence of God.
The three gifts of Christmas
How does Jesus bring many sons and daughters to glory? In the final paragraph, verses 14-18, the writer tells us. By becoming human, Jesus was able to give three gifts to us that he could not have given otherwise. When you look at these gifts you begin to understand why Jesus had to come to this earth in human flesh, even though he was fully God.
I want to show you these three gifts this morning, but in order to do that I'm going to need a little bit of help. In keeping with our Christmas traditions, I have these gifts written out on a card, but I wrapped them up. So I would like a kid to come, as long as they can read. Please read for us what's on the card inside.
Jesus overcame death.
"Jesus became one of us to help us overcome death." That's the gift. He helped us overcome death. Verse 14 says, "Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death."
That's an amazing gift. I feel the weight of the people that I've lost over the years, the people that have died, more intensely on Christmas. Don't you miss those people that are gone? We want family together on Christmas. Jesus shared in our humanity so that he could defeat the power of the devil, the one who has the power of death. Thank God that we don't have to fear death because Jesus has overcome it. We know the rest of the story: through his death and resurrection those of us who are in Christ will rise to live in new bodies, to live in the new earth. Jesus breaks the power of death and frees those who were held in slavery by their fear of death.
I enjoy short stories, and one of the most haunting that I've read over the years is a story by Somerset Maugham. It's a little story called "Appointment in Samarra" about a servant who is living in Bagdad. As he's out in the marketplace buying some goods, someone behind him bumps into him, and he turns around and sees death. He sees what looks like a very frightening gesture, like death is threatening him. So he runs home to his master and says, "Master! Master! Death bumped into me at the marketplace. When I turned around and looked at her she made a frightening gesture. I need to flee. I need to run. Would you let me take a horse? I want to head to Samarra where I can hide from Death." His master says, "All right, you can take the horse and you can go to Samarra."
Later that afternoon the master is in the marketplace and sees Death, and walks over to talk to Death. And he says, "My servant said that he ran into you this morning and that you frightened him. Why did you frighten my servant? Why did you make a frightening gesture?" Death says, "I didn't make a frightening gesture. I was just startled to see him because I have an appointment with him tonight in Samarra. I didn't know what he was doing here in Bagdad."
Every one of us is going to die. We don't want to think about that on Christmas Day, but we're going to die. By becoming human and dying for us, Jesus has defeated the power of death, the devil, and he's freed those who were held in slavery by their fear of death. Because Jesus came to earth and lived and died, we don't have to fear death. There is life after death when our bodies are raised and we live forever in the new heaven and the new earth.
Jesus overcame guilt.
There's a second gift that's described in verses 16-17, especially in 17. I need someone else to come up and help me unwrap gift number two. "Jesus became one of us to help us overcome guilt." When we're born into this world, all of us are guilty of sin. Sometimes we feel the weight of that guilt before we come to Christ. But once we come to faith in Christ we don't have to live in guilt, because he's done something about our sin. Starting in verse 16 the writer says, "For surely it is not angels he helps but Abraham's descendents. For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people."
We all owe a debt that we cannot pay. We owe a debt for sin. In this world that God created for justice to prevail, sin has to be atoned for. There has to be a sacrifice made to turn aside the righteous outrage of God against sin. That's exactly what Jesus has done. If Jesus wasn't human he couldn't pay the price, because sin was committed in the realm of humanity. So it had to be a human being to bear that penalty. But what human being is without sin? Where can you find a sinless human being? That's why God had to come and take on human flesh, because the sacrifice had to be a sinless person. The power of God had to be involved in this, but a human had to be involved, too. When Jesus came and gave his life, he made atonement. He turned aside the wrath of God for the sins of the people.
What a gift that is. If you have put your faith and your trust in Christ, God is not angry at you this morning. God is not angry with you. Your sin has been dealt with. The price for your sin has been paid. The pardon has been made, because Jesus died for you. So you don't have to feel guilty anymore. The writer of Hebrews doesn't highlight it here, but the devil, who is responsible and whose power of death has been broken, tries to undermine us everyway he can. One of the ways he tries to undermine us is by creating a false sense of guilt. That's the problem with guilt. We can fall off the wagon on one side or the other. Either we don't recognize the fact that we are guilty or, once we've come to faith in Christ and we've accepted Christ as our sacrifice, the evil one still tries to plant those doubts in our mind: God can't really love you. He can't forgive you. Look what you've done. Remember, you don't have to live that way because of the gift that you've been given.
Jesus overcame temptation.
Who would like to unwrap gift number three? "Jesus became one of us to help us overcome temptation." Have you been tempted in the last 24 hours? Of course you have.
Verse 18 says, "Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted." That's a rather radical thought. It's kind of a disturbing for a lot of people to think about Jesus being tempted. Jesus was sinless. He was perfect. That's the end of the story. That's the good news. But the Bible says he was tempted in every way as we are. You see that emphasized over in Hebrews 4:15. The writer focuses on Jesus as our great high priest. We read, "We do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weakness, but we have one who has been tempted in every way just as we are yet did not sin."
Was Jesus tempted to steal? I think he probably was tempted to steal from one of his father's clients in their carpentry business. Do you think he was tempted to cheat? I assume he was. Do you think Jesus was tempted to slander someone, to smear someone's reputation with his words? According to the writer of Hebrews, I think he was. Do you think Jesus was tempted sexually? I believe he was, according to what the writer says. He didn't sin. He didn't give in to that temptation. But everything that you and I are tempted to do wrong, Jesus was, too. Because he suffered when he was tempted, he knows what it's like. He's able to help those who are tempted.
I don't know if any of you think the way that I do, but when I read this there's always a part of me that thinks, Yeah but he was the Son of God. He was God. He had all of these powers that I don't have access to, and he was perfect. He did not have what the New Testament calls the flesh, that sinful tendency that's part of us and that we still have. Even when we come to faith in Christ there's still that sinful tendency that won't go away until we are fully glorified. And Jesus didn't have that. So did he have an advantage? Yes, but I think his temptation was far beyond what we ever experience.
A couple of guys in our church have climbed Long's Peak, 14,259 feet. It actually grew three feet in the last US geological survey. I don't know how, but it did. That's one of the highest points that you can get in the continental U.S. I climbed it a couple of times in my twenties, and the air is a lot thinner. Mt. Everest is 29,028 feet high, more than twice as high as Long's Peak. I can look at the climbers who go up Mt. Everest and say, "You have some advantages I don't have. You are paying $65,000 for a guide to help you climb. You are taking bottled oxygen to get up that peak. I climbed Long's Peak without any oxygen." But when you are at 29,000 feet it's quite a bit different than 14,000 feet. There is a much higher threshold of pain. At 25,000 feet you enter what's called the "death zone." A body starts to go into a state of hypothermia. So Mr. Everest climbers may have a guide, may have oxygen, may have some advantages, but they are facing a situation unlike what anybody at 14,000 feet will ever face.
When you and I sin, where do we usually give in to temptation? It's probably at about 5,000 feet. Maybe for some it's at 10,000 feet. Maybe some can actually make it to 14,000 feet before they give in to temptation. But Jesus never gave in to any temptation at all. Think about how that pressure would just build and build. Jesus must have faced a much higher threshold of pain than you and I ever face. So there's no reason to say, "Jesus really couldn't identify with us." Hebrews 4:15-16 says, "He's able to empathize with our weaknesses. He's been tempted in every way just as we are, yet he did not sin." So he's able to help me when I'm tempted. He knows what I'm facing.
"Let us then approach God's throne of grace with confidence so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need." I don't know where your point of temptation is today, but I do know that you have a Savior who faced what you're facing. When you go to him and share your temptation, I don't believe he is confused by that. He understands. He is going to provide grace and mercy to help you in your time of need.
Jesus was born to a rather humble circumstance. It might have been a cave. It might have been a stable. I think it was probably a room in one of those Israelite four-room houses that was used as a stable at night. There were no lights. There was no heat. There was no midwife. There was no epidural. There was no help and support of any kind other than Mary's husband Joseph. There, in that humble situation, she gave birth to a baby, wrapped him in strips of cloth, as was the custom in that day, and laid him in a feeding trough for cattle, a hay manger. Yet the writer of Hebrews tells us that there was great glory in that birth, in the humanity of Christ, that Jesus Christ became human in order to bring many sons and daughters to a place of glory. That begins right now and continues until that day when we're fully glorified, when we're raised together with Christ in new bodies.
That's possible because of these gifts purchased by Christ. I hope you take these with you today—Jesus has overcome death, guilt, and temptation because he became human. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!
Steve Mathewson is senior pastor of CrossLife Evangelical Free Church in Libertyville, lllinois. He is also director of the doctor of ministry program at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon.