Posted by: Billy Marsh | March 4, 2008

Hebrews 13 and the Eternal Gospel (Part I)

Am I the only person who’s ever read Hebrews 13 and wanted to know what in the world Hebrews 13:8 has to do with anything that that chapter is talking about? In the past, I’ve read over it, was thrown for a loop, but chalked it up to ignorance and just put my trust in how I’ve always heard it used, which is as a statement that testifies to Jesus’ timelessness, hence, imparting to him divine identity since only the one true God can be the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end. However, as I wrapped up my time in Hebrews for this past month, I just couldn’t shrug it off once again. I had to wrestle with it. The verse, where it is placed, within its traditional interpretation interupts the flow of the immediate context too spontaneously in order for the timelessness of Christ to be the main thrust of the authorial intent.

John the “Revelator” writes in Revelation 14:6, “Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people.” Here at the end of the age, still the gospel is proclaimed. John continues to record what he heard preached in these words: “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come, and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water (Rev 14:7).” Though the message which the angel proclaims is eschatological in terms of the urgency in which it ought to be received due to imminent judgment, still to state it colloquially, “the song remains the same.” It is an eternal gospel that men and women at all times and in all places need to hear in faith for salvation from sin and everlasting life in Christ. Now, because of Christ’s redeeming and sin-defeating work on the cross, those who are hidden in him can truly fear God and give him the glory that is due to his name.

But what does this have to do with Hebrews 13:8? What relationship does this christological verse have to do with the nature of the gospel? Well, at first glance, it’s hard to imagine Heb 13:8 meaning anything other than the timelessness of Christ since that is how it is so often quoted and expounded. Yet, here is where relying too heavily on systematic theology cheapens how we interpret and understand individual texts in light of their immediate context. We must first begin by stating that this verse does not contradict the timelessness of Christ and his eternal nature. It can very easily be read that way. Yet, just because that is a truth claim which is contained in this statement, it does not mean that the “time” issue is the reason why the author of Hebrews decided to abruptly insert his assertion in between 13:8 and 13:9, two verses that are primarily concerned with “teaching” or “doctrine”.

The apostolic preaching of the cross of Jesus Christ is the issue at hand, not the eternality of Jesus’ person. The key to coming to this conclusion can be found in 13:7 when the writer uses the phrase “the word of God”. The “word of God” in Hebrews is used throughout the letter to represent the gospel message that was proclaimed “long ago, at many times and in many ways” by prophets and the partiarchs, but now at last has been heralded by the supreme object of its content, that is, Jesus Christ, the Son of God (Heb 1:1-3).

In Heb 2:1-4, salvation is the reward neglected for failing to hear the message proclaimed by the Christ and his apostles. The author of Hebrews attests to the fact that this gospel of God was a message which they had heard and was substantiated by the apostles’ further proclamation of its content and details.

In Heb 4:2, the same promise that those in the wilderness had in the OT is presented as an equivalent gospel that is preached after the ascension of Christ which is able to save and give eternal rest to its hearers so long as it is accessed and received in faith. Thus, later in chapter 4, the author of Hebrews goes on to discourse on the nature of “the word of God” in terms of its work in discerning and transforming a person’s soul and man’s accountability to its standard.

Later, after the glorious discussion on Christ and the atonement and his high priestly role, the writer returns to the message of the gospel and its consistent content reaching back to the fathers of the faith in Hebrews 11. We see evidences of its eternality in passages such as the comment on Abraham’s faith during his test in sacrificing Isaac, “He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which figuratively speaking, he did received him back (11:19).” Or, we also can see the eternal gospel explicity in the statement about Moses’ decision to leave his place and position in Egypt, “He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward (11:26).”

Towards the end of Hebrews 11, in 11:39-40, the author of Hebrews shows the inter-connectedness of the faith shared amongst those in the old covenant and those in the new covenant. Although God’s special revelation had not been fully disclosed before Christ came, the purpose of the message was still the same and salvation and pleasing God was still only possibly by means of true faith. Thus, now that Christ has come and his work is finished, the gospel message takes on its full and final form and must be proclaimed to all who are lost and without hope in order for salvation to be given from God to those who hear and receive it in faith.

If you read the book of Hebrews closely, you will see that the author spends most of his time showing the eternality of the gospel from ages past to the present, despite the fact that God’s special revelation was progressive and not exhaustively manifested all at one time. Nonetheless, those who died in faith and those who now live by faith, are once and for all united in and saved by the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ under the terms of “a better covenant”. In Part II (I thought I could get all of this in one post, but that’s not happening now) I will show how this teaching in Hebrews comes to bear on how we determine the authorial intent behind the sudden emphatic claim that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever (13:8).”

“And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should be made perfect.”

~ Hebrews 11:39-40 ~

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