[K:NWTS 4/2 (Sep 1989) 2-11]

A Sermon on Hebrews 13:8

Gerhardus Vos

These words of the epistle attach themselves in the most direct manner to what immediately precedes. Although there is no connecting particle, there can be little or no doubt that the author wishes to urge a reason for the exhortation he had just addressed to the readers: "Remember them that had the rule over you, which spake unto you the word of God; and considering the issue of their life, imitate their faith." The exhortation is not meant in this sense–that the Hebrews ought to imitate their former rulers by adhering to the same faith–for the reason that the Christian doctrine is the same and unalterable for all times. In that case "Jesus Christ" would stand here for the content of the Christian religion in the sense of the doctrine about Christ. It is certainly far more natural to take the phrase "Jesus Christ" in the usual personal sense which it elsewhere has in the epistle and to find here accordingly the affirmation of the unchangeableness of the personal life and character of the Savior.

The question then is what bearing this personal unchangeableness of Jesus Christ has on the duty of the reader to imitate the faith of their former rulers by considering the issue of their life. Because this is not immediately apparent, some have thought it necessary to go back to the 5th and 6th verse for making the connection where the author quotes from the Old Testament: "For himself has said, I will in no wise fail thee, neither will I in any wise forsake thee. So that with good courage we say, the Lord is my helper, I will not fear: What shall man do unto me?" To which then this verse would add the reason: we can rely upon the Lord not failing us nor forsaking us; we can consider him our helper, we need not fear because Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today, yea and forever.


The Issue of Life

But this also is less plausible. When we look clearly at the immediately preceding words, we shall perceive that the connection, while not at first apparent, is nevertheless of the closest and most convincing character. The author had been speaking not merely in general of the life and faith of their former rulers and pastors, but particularly of the issue of their life. The issue of their life does not mean the effect of that life either for themselves in the future state or for others in the present world; it refers to the manner in which their life has come to an end, the manner in which at the time of death they had exhibited and triumphantly maintained their faith. In all probability, the end of life referred to had been the end of martyrdom. The rulers who had spoken unto them the word of God had sealed their faith and crowned their profession of Jesus Christ with the testimony of their blood. Now the author looks upon this triumph of martyrdom not so much as a single exhibition of faith but as the ideal culmination of the entire career of faith. The words used in the original prove that by the issue of life he does not mean the end of physical life, but the climax of spiritual life. It is not the telos tes zoes but the ekbasis ten anastrophes that he speaks of. This is the reason why a consideration of this climax of the life of their rulers in martyrdom can be held up by him before the readers as a model upon which to fashion their own faith. What the author means to say, I take it, is nothing else but this: Behold in them, whose martyrdom you have witnessed, what the highest point is to which faith can attain; therefore keep your faith to this–shape your walk in such a manner that in your own case also, when the necessity arises, it will not be a hard and strange thing to lay down your lives for the sake of Christ, but a natural thing the issue of your whole previous Christian conversation because it has been at every point inspired by the thought of self-denial and suffering and voluntary renunciation.

The Heroic Character of Faith

There is in general a heroic strain in this conception of faith as the author writes it out, especially in the 11th chapter of the epistle. There martyrdom also appears as the supreme exhibition of the spirit of faith. The whole catalogue of the great exemplars of faith issues into the description of those who were tortured and would not accept their deliverance and had trials of mockings and scourgings and of bonds and imprisonment and were stoned and sawn asunder and thus had witness borne to them through their faith. With this agrees also what precedes in the 12th chapter where the writer exhorts the Hebrew Christians to follow in the footsteps of this great cloud of witnesses, reminds them that they have not yet resisted unto blood and urges upon them as the fundamental grace of which they stood in need, the exercise of patience in the midst of suffering.

Now it is as a motive for the cultivation of such heroic faith, a faith that had thoroughly familiarized itself with the idea of hardship that could without shrinking face the crisis of martyrdom as the natural issue of its own course. It is as a help for the cultivation of such faith that the author tells his readers: "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today, yea and forever." This means, first of all, the same grace that sustained those who preached unto you the word of God so that not only resignedly but joyfully and triumphantly they laid down their lives–the same grace stands at your disposal. If, as some modern writers of name think, the epistle was written to a company of Christians in the city of Rome, there might be a reference in this to the martyrdom of Paul and possibly of Peter (at least if the statement "who spake unto you the word of God" be not understood of the first preaching of the gospel). In that case, the reminder would come with peculiar force and richness of association since it would mean in substance: remember that the Christ in whose strength the great apostolic leaders fought their battle of faith and gained their crown is still the same Christ today, who can nerve you also to an equally glorious and triumphant fortitude in your conflict with the world.

But be that as it may, even though those who had had the rule over them were less illustrious leaders of the church than Peter and Paul; at any rate the appeal to the unchangeableness of Christ has great force in this connection. And to us it gives an insight into the spiritual condition of the Hebrew Christians to which the letter addresses itself. Evidently after the first transport of enthusiasm in the earliest days of the Christian profession of these believers, then had followed a period of reaction in which their zeal had begun to decrease, their courage had begun to wane, their hope had become drained in which they had lost the strength of faith to maintain themselves on the same high plain they had lived on at the beginning. All through the epistle we can feel that this was the situation which filled the writer with solicitude because he discerned in it not merely the symptoms of a deplorable retrogression in Christian attainment, but even more because he perceived in it the forebodings of apostasy. It was true then as it is now that, strictly speaking, there can be no standing still in the spiritual life; for precisely because it is life–a growing, developing thing–progress is of its very essence. The suspension of progress means that there is something wrong, that a decline has set in which, if not arrested, must lead to a fatal issue. Such a thing as a stationary Christian in reality does not exist. It is only the outside appearance of the Christian life that may seem stationary–within the forces and processes are always working either in one direction or in the other.

How appropriate then it was for the author, in this their state of languor and depression, to unroll before them not merely the annals of Old Testament history in which faith shines in its full glory; not merely to hold up before them the example of their former leaders or their own noble past, but above all to point them to Jesus Christ, the same yesterday and today and forever, through faith in whom their Christian life might be lifted above all danger of fluctuation, by laying hold of whom they could bring back into their wavering souls the same all-conquering strength and courage that had been theirs before. And perhaps there was one specific element in their spiritual discouragement which made such a reference to the unchangeableness of Christ even more pertinent than has been indicated. In all probability, they felt keenly the loss of those leaders who had formerly between them and the world stood as living examples of the Christian ideal and had communicated to them something of their own faith so as to draw them upward to the same height of courage and joy in believing. But now these fathers in Christ were gone and they were thrown back upon their own spiritual resources and distrust of themselves had taken hold of them and for the moment they did not know whither to turn for that guidance and inspiration on which they had become so dependent. For this reason also the writer reminds them that although men may come and go; while the human supports on which the Christian's faith has sometimes to lean are from the nature of the case transitory, nevertheless Jesus Christ goes with his church through all the changes and vicissitudes of time, the same yesterday, today and forever, always accessible, under every condition reliable and therefore the one proper object of faith, the only safe source of confidence because in him alone is that eternal certainty which faith needs to rest upon if it is to be faith at all.

The Immutability of Christ

This is a truth which we ourselves may well lay to heart, especially at the present time in the history of the church. It is easy in our days to come to feel as if the common people of God were more than ever left without great leaders such as former generations have known, exceptional men of God, who by their extraordinary power of faith and by the mighty utterances of their word rallied around them the army of believers, inspired them with ever new courage and thus prevented the enemy from gaining advantage over them. But if it does not please God to raise up such men in his church for the present or if it pleases him in his wisdom to take them from us, we should not anew ourselves to be tempted by this to unbelief and despondency. We should remember the truth of which the author puts his readers in remembrance–that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever, that even when the plain people of God seem most destitute of leadership, the greatest leader is always there, that not for a moment does he leave the helm or abandon either a single believer or the church as a whole to the waves of the world. Perhaps this will explain to us why the writer has placed the two propositions together without a connecting particle. First: "Remember them that had the rule over you... and imitate their faith." And then: "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever." The proper frame of mind is at the same time to honor and appreciate all the gifts and graces which God has bestowed upon eminent men for the service of the church, to honor them especially by imitating them and yet to go back of all this and cast the anchor of our faith for the future of God's kingdom in the world in Jesus Christ himself: remember the men of the past, but trust in him alone who has the power of an endless life and dwells in an everlasting present.

The Immutability of the Son of God

Such then seems to be the primary meaning of the words as determined from the connection. But I would not have you forget that these words have back of them the whole peculiar teaching of the epistle in regard to the person and work of Christ. And it is only because the author assumes his readers have assimilated the gist of this teaching that he expects his appeal to come with convincing force to them. They would understand that Jesus Christ must indeed be the same yesterday and today and forever because they remembered who Jesus Christ was and in what terms he had been described to them in almost every sentence of the epistle. He was the Son of God, the effulgence of the Father's glory, the very image of his substance. To him the author had applied the words of the 102nd Psalm: "Thou Lord in the beginning hast laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of thy hands: they shall perish; but thou remainest. And they all shall wax old as cloth a garment, and as a mantle shalt thou roll them up. But thou art the same and thy years shall not fail" (vv. 26,27). To him therefore belongs the attribute of unchangeableness that is inherent in the conception of divinity itself. Indeed the very form of the words–the same, yesterday and today and forever–reminds us most vividly of the sublime description which the New Testament Apocalypse gives of God himself as the one that is and that was and that is to come who fills with his being all the possible categories of time because he is eternal; and also it reminds us of that other no less sublime description which we find in the same book of both God and Christ himself as the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end. Christ belongs throughout the epistle to the heavenly world in which everything bears the character of the unchangeable, the abiding. In this respect, the teaching of the epistle stands nearest to our Lord's own teaching concerning himself in the fourth gospel where also the emphasis is continually thrown on this–that Jesus is from above and not from beneath and that consequently he is free from all the relativities and imperfections and vicissitudes that necessarily belong to everything earthly. Christ is the truth, the reality of God incarnate, and therefore we can sustain to him the same religious relationship, address to him the same religious trust that we sustain and address to God himself.

Now this is not a mere speculation of the epistle, just as little as it is a mere speculation in the Johannine teaching of our Lord. For we must observe in the second place that the whole beautiful representation which the author gives of the saving work of Christ both as Revealer and as High-Priest is the direct outcome of this conception of Christ as a divine, eternal Person. If you take this away, you take away the foundation of everything that is taught concerning Christ as the Savior not merely because it would be impossible for us to approach him in a religious spirit, were he divested of these attributes, but even more so because it would be impossible for him to approach us and encompass us and enlighten us and atone for us and bring us back to God if he be not rooted with his personal life in the soil of divinity and eternity. There is not a writing in the New Testament which teaches so emphatically the absolute indispensableness of the divine nature of Christ for the work of redemption as the epistle to the Hebrews does. He is the climax of all prophecy because he is the Son who does not speak the truth for a small portion or in a limited manner as it came unto the fathers through the prophets, but who speaks it as the echo of the voice of God himself and therefore speaks it to all the ages so that we may say of himself not only, but of his speech–it is the same yesterday and today and forever, the same in authority, the same in freshness, the same in vital power as when it first resounded from the background of eternity.

An Immutable Priesthood

And the same is likewise most literally true of his priestly work. In that also we recognize the impress of what he is. The whole epistle is full of this thought. It is not necessary to state more than the main lines along which its profound and splendid exposition of Christ's priesthood moves. The central theme from which the author starts and to which he returns is: he is a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek. And what this means is shown us in the type. When Melchizedek appears in Scripture as a priest who derives nothing from ancestors or predecessors in office, but everything from his own royal personality, it is only because he has been by inspiration made alike in this respect unto the Son of God that he might prefigure the Son of God. Christ draws the qualification for his priesthood from his divine nature as well as from his human nature because it can be said of him that he is without beginning of days and end of life; therefore he remains a priest forever. He has his priesthood unchangeable because the power of an endless life is in him. He transcends and abrogates by his ministry the Levitical priesthood because in his, the undying person, he has forever assumed all its functions and prerogatives in an infinitely higher sense. Through the eternal Spirit, he offered up himself without blemish unto God and therefore he has perfected forever by one sacrifice all them that are sanctified. Finally, his eternity and priesthood are seen most closely united in this–that for the main part the discharge of his priestly functions takes place according to our epistle in heaven where he ministers in his glorified state. The two are so inseparable that the author simply says: "If he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all" But being in heaven, he is the one priest, and his priestly state partakes of the unchangeability which is the supreme law of that world. He is a priest upon his throne (to use an Old Testament phrase) and his throne, as we have seen, is everlasting since it stands at the right hand of the throne of God himself. Even when the priestly work in the specific sense of the application of his redemption shall have ceased, when it no longer will be necessary for him to make intercession or plead his merit for us because all sin and all consequences of sin shall have been removed–even then he will remain the everlasting High-Priest of humanity offering up to God the united adoration and praise of the redeemed race of which he is the Head.

A Sympathetic Savior

It is necessary to keep this in mind because we sometimes emphasize the other side too much. Undoubtedly his earthly experience as a weak, limited, suffering man was necessary to qualify him for his office. Without it he could not have the experimental knowledge of our temptations and the sympathy, the assurance of which is so precious and consoling to us in our times of trial and affliction. But let us not forget, brethren, that it lay far from the author's thought to make this sympathy work for us merely in a subjective way just as we say that the sympathy of a person helps us though he can do nothing more for us than express to us a fellow-feeling with our infirmities. No–the sympathy of Christ works for us with all the endless resources that his divine nature and his glorious humanity put at its disposal. It is the sympathy of one who is the same yesterday and today and forever; of one who remembers, as only absolutely perfect human nature can remember, what he himself passed through while on earth, when he offered prayers and supplication with strong crying and tears. It is the sympathy of one with whom to feel for us and to act upon us is one and the same thing. It is the sympathy of one who has access at every moment to every part alike of any distressing or perplexing situation in which any believer may find himself as well as to every recess of our heart, to the most secret fears and the most silent griefs which we can share with nobody else. And then it is the sympathy of one who can never grow weary of our complaints because in him there is an exhaustless store of pity which is adequate for the consolation of ages of believers which flows as freely at the present day for you and me as it flowed in the day of the Hebrew Christians for the simple reason that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever, unchangeable in this as in everything else. It is only by thus uniting the divine and the human, the temporal and the eternal aspect of Christ's activity for us that we can draw from them that rich profit and consolation which the reading of this wonderful epistle is intended to supply to us.

Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, New Jersey
January 7, 1903; Preached: January 11, 1903