Posted by: Billy Marsh | March 9, 2008

Hebrews 13 and the Eternal Gospel (Part II)

In Part I, I briefly traced “the word of God” in Hebrews in an attempt to show how the concept was used by the author with respect to the gospel in Jesus Christ. Looking at this point is crucial for rescuing Hebrews 13:8 from continually being only interpreted as a random statement in favor of the deity of Christ. As said before, just because the timelessness of the Son of God is a truth statement contained in this claim, it is not warranted that it is the sole meaning responsible for causing the author to insert this verse into his discussion in Hebrews 13. Shouldn’t there be a rational answer to the question of the relationship between 13:8 and 13:7, 9, especially since 13:7 and 13:9 are obviously connected and are part of an ongoing thought?

Now, I must begin by stating that I do believe that Heb 13:8 affirms the timelessness of Christ thereby ascribing to him divine identity; however, I do not think we should stop at that deduction. Rather, that truth ought to function as the reality that allows for the more specific meaning of 13:8 in its context to be viable.

As mentioned in Part I, the key to interpreting 13:8 correctly lies in not glossing over the author’s reference to “the word of God” in 13:7. He is telling them not to forget or neglect their leaders’ message and lives of faith. Thus, knowing how the author of Hebrews has handled and used “the word of God” up until this point, we can have a pretty good idea as to what that type of terminology stands for, especially coming off the heels of the majestic display of the faithful men and women of God in Hebrews 11. In addition, we know also from the culmination of the discourse in Hebrews 11–which I believe resides in Heb 12:1-2–that Jesus himself is to be seen as the supreme embodiment of what all faith entails in terms of its relationship to salvation and the content of the gospel. So, when the readers are told to take heed to “the word of God” spoken to them by their leaders and to “Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith (13:7)”, we ought to be thinking about the message of gospel and its implications on our daily lives as exemplified in the lives of those who have gone on before us.

Now let’s look at 13:9. Immediately, the author warns his readers: “Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings , . . .” This is why we cannot simply accept the timelessness of the personhood of Christ as the sole reasoning behind its insertion in 13:8. It directly disconnects the continued discussion that is picked up in 13:9 from 13:7. In both 13:7 and 13:9, the subject is doctrine. Moreover, the issue of sound doctrine and its production of right living goes on to be fleshed out in the rest of the chapter. So what part does the declaration that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” have to do with doctrine per se?

Well, the interpretation that seems to best fit the context would be the one that sees 13:8 as a sort of Christological confessional statement of the gospel message. Therefore, when the author of Hebrews sets forth this assertion, we must see it in relation to the substance of “the word of God” in 13:7 and the basis of the subsequent warning in 13:9. Essentially, what is being posited by the author of Hebrews is that “Though the preacher may change, the preaching must not.” God’s revelation in Jesus Christ is unchangeable. Here is where we must realize that this consistency and eternality of the gospel message is a result of the timelessness and deity of Christ’s identity. Thus, he exhorts them not to let the content of the gospel message change or be tampered with when those who passed it down to them die.

There is no need for strange and diverse teachings since the message of the gospel always remains the same. Going beyond the work of Christ for salvation and sanctification flies directly in the face of what the author of Hebrews in his letter has been trying to demonstrate, namely, that the shadow of the law has been fulfilled by Jesus Christ who is the substance (cf. Col 2:17). Even though the Old Covenant was incomplete, it still was meant to reveal and point the people to the time when its true meaning would appear in the Messiah. Thus, now that he has come and his work is finished, retreating back into regulations that were intended to be fulfilled is completely unreasonable and illogical.

The abrupt assertion in 13:8 seeks to make clear the declaration that the leaders’ lives were wholly characterized by the gospel message rooted in Jesus; thus, just because they are deceased, the audience has no justification or warrant to seek new doctrine, or rather, a different gospel. Jesus Christ is the eternal object of faith and it is his message and work that saves everyone who has been ransomed by God in all places at all times. Thus, the time markers such as “today,” “yesterday,” and “forever” should be interpreted as the periods of preaching. For instance, “yesterday” would refer to the time of the leaders’ preaching as well as stretching all the way back into the Old Covenant. Therefore, Hebrews 13:8 functions as a confessional bridge between 13:7 and 13:9 that declares the eternal aspect of the subject and object of the gospel message that should never cease to be preached, even as God brings the earth to its consummation as seen in Revelation 14:6.

William Lane, in his commentary on Hebrews, writes:

Those who seek to find security in the novel strange teaching have forgotten that the salvation accomplished through Christ’s high priestly ministry is “forever.” The intent of the acclamation in v 8 is to drive the men and women of the house church back to the foundational preaching received from their original leaders (530).

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