The Lord's Day Morning
January 6, 2013
“Better: A Study of the Christian Life in Hebrews — I'd rather have Jesus than…angels”
The Reverend Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Hebrews chapter 1. We’re going to be looking at verses 1 to 4 this morning, but after our reading I'd like you to keep your Bibles open because I want to turn to a few passages in the book of Hebrews to illustrate one particular point. We’re beginning a new series which we have called, “Better,” for reasons that I hope you’ll understand by the time that we're finished this morning. That's an important word in the book of Hebrews. It's found in a number of places in the New Testament with reference to the same theme but none more frequently than in the letter, this sermon, this book of Hebrews.
Hebrews is a book about persevering in faith and it reminds us of the various challenges to Christian faith and it points us to the sure foundation and the source of power for vital Christianity, and that is, in understanding the supremacy and the sufficiency of Jesus Christ. Over and over the author of Hebrews points us to Jesus, who is the author and finisher of our faith. And we need to hear its message today just as much as the first congregation that heard this sermon. They were struggling with hanging on to outmoded Old Testament forms and they kind of longed to go back. And the author of Hebrews is saying to them, “No, Jesus is better.” Well we too have similar struggles in our own day. We often struggle with letting go of past forms of thinking that we had before we were Christians and we often give into current ideas that are floating around in the world or set our hearts on current desires of this world instead of being transformed by the renewing of our mind according to Scripture. And these things stunt our growth and they rob us of much of the joy and the satisfaction and the security and the blessing of the Christian life. And so Hebrews is written to us as well.
It was originally written to Christians from a Jewish background, and hence the name of the book, Hebrews. Imagine their context. All they have is the Old Testament. They have a Jewish heritage, they've been trained by the rabbis teaching them Scripture, in their day angel worship is popular and some of them are wavering in their commitment to Christianity. And perhaps they have had some of their fellow country-men say to them, “You can have everything that you have in this new spirituality if you’ll just come back to your old religious heritage and then you don't have to be a traitor to your race and to that heritage.” And the pastor is saying to them in this sermon, “Don't go back. Don't turn your back on Jesus because He is the only hope.” They’re wavering in their commitment to Christ and Christianity.
Well we don't know who the author, the preacher, was. We don't know where the congregation was that he was writing to, and we don't know where he was writing from. And you know what? That's all good and well because it leaves all the focus on his message and that's where the focus needs to be. And the message over and over again is: Jesus. Over and over, the author of this sermon, this letter, this book, focuses us on Jesus and stresses His finality and superiority for the Christian faith. Larry Richards says this. “The book of Hebrews begins with Jesus. Total confidence in Him must be the basis of our new life and of our identity as Christians. It is important to realize that all there is of salvation for us is to be found in Jesus.” And the author of Hebrews will say that to us fifty different ways over and over again to drive that point home and deep into our hearts and souls.
Let's pray before we read Hebrews 1:1-4 together.
Heavenly Father, this is Your Word and we need it. We need it as much as the first congregation needed to hear this message. And so we pray that by the Spirit You would press it home, in Jesus’ name, amen.
This is God's Word. Hear it:
“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.”
Amen, and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
Maybe you’re entering this New Year flagging in your faith. Maybe you’re finding it hard to even pray. Maybe you feel that your religion and your worship experiences have come up short and you’re so disappointment, maybe even desperate, that you’re beginning to look somewhere else for the answers, you’re looking somewhere else for the satisfaction that has escaped you or the hope that eludes you or the fulfillment that you lack. Well if you’re there, Hebrews is waiting for you, and the author, the preacher of this message, is saying that Jesus is better than whatever else it is that you’re looking for. Jesus is better. He's a better Savior, He's a better Priest, He's a better sacrifice for a better covenant and for a better way of life. So if you’re lacking and empty, it's not because Jesus is not what you need or not all that you need, it's because you don't have enough of Him. And that's one reason why this word, “better,” keeps occurring in the letter of the Hebrews, the sermon of the Hebrews, because we're so tempted to think that there's something else out there better. And the author is saying to us, “No, Jesus is better. There's not something out there better than Jesus; Jesus is better than anything else.” And I want you to see this theme in the book of Hebrews.
Keep your Bible open, and turn with me to Hebrews 6 verse 9. Here, the author of Hebrews says that “we feel sure of better things – things that belong to salvation.” So in Hebrews 6:9 he speaks of a better salvation. Look at Hebrews 7 verse 19. There, he speaks of a better hope “through which we draw near to God.” We've got a better salvation and a better hope in Jesus. Then look at Hebrews 7 verse 22. “Jesus is the guarantor of a better covenant.” We not only have a better salvation and a better hope, we have a better covenant in Jesus. Turn forward to Hebrews chapter 8 and look at verse 6. “Christ has obtained a ministry that is much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises.” So we not only have a better covenant; we have better promises. By the way, this verse reminds us that the theme of “Better” will not only be shown to you by your English Bibles by looking for the word, “better” in your concordance, but by looking at phrases like “superior” or “more excellent” that theme will be carried out in the book.
Turn forward to Hebrews 9:23. “The heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these.” And so with Jesus, we have better sacrifices. Look at Hebrews 10:34. “You knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.” So the Gospel that Jesus brings gives you a better and abiding possession or inheritance. Turn forward to Hebrews 11 verse 16. They desired, these pilgrims of faith in the days of the old covenant — what did they desire? “They desired a better country, a heavenly one,” and we have that in Christ. Look at Hebrews 11:35. What did these old covenant saints endure? They were tortured, they refused to accept release. Why? “So that they might rise again to a better life.” Hebrews 11:40 — “God has provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.” Hebrews 12:24 — The blood of Jesus speaks to us “a better word than the blood of Abel.” That theme of “Better” is found throughout the book of Hebrews, and this morning I want you to feel that theme of “Better” with regard to Jesus in your bones. And I want to do that by looking directly at the description of Jesus that is found here in Hebrews chapter 1 verses 1 to 4. Actually, we won't even get out of verse 3. It's all going to be in verses 1, 2, and 3, and I want you to see just two things that the author of Hebrews teaches us about Jesus in Hebrews 1 verses 1 to 3.
THE SON IS GOD’S FINAL WORD
The first thing you’re going to see in verse 1 and the first half of verse 2. And it's simply this. The Son is God's final word. The Son, Jesus, the Son of God, is God's final word. Look at what he says. “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” The author of Hebrews is emphasizing that Jesus is God's final word to us; there's no word beyond or better than Jesus that God has or will speak to His people. Jesus is the final word. And think of the significance of that in this context. He's speaking to Hebrew Christians from a Jewish background and they had received true and clear revelation of God from the prophets in various times and in various ways. But in contrast to that, the author of Hebrews says that now God has spoken to you by His own Son, not just His servants, the prophets, but by His Son, His Son's person, His Son's works, His Son's words, and there's never ever going to be a superior, a better revelation from God than the revelation that He is giving to you in His Son.
Now by the way, in just saying that, the author of Hebrews has contradicted three world views that surround you right now. There's the worldview of pluralism that wants to say that Jesus is a truth but He's not the truth. No, the author of Hebrews says that Jesus is God's final word. He is the way, the truth, and the life. Or our Muslim friends who want to believe that Jesus was a prophet but He wasn't the final, the greatest prophet; no, you have to wait until Mohammad until you get God's final word. The author of Hebrews is standing up on his toes and he's saying, “No! Jesus is God's final word, not Mohammad. Jesus is God's fullest revelation of who He is and how He saves.” And then we live in a day and age where Mormonism is expanding in the world and Mormonism claims to have an ongoing revelation, more revelation than we've ever had before. And the author of Hebrews is saying, “No! Jesus is the final word.”
And I want you to sit back and think about that for a moment, my friends. Do you understand what the author of Hebrews is claiming? He is claiming that you, dear Christian, have a clearer and fuller revelation of God in Jesus, in the Gospel, than any of the greatest Old Testament saints. You have had a fuller revelation of God given to you in Jesus than Moses did, than Abraham did, than David did! What a blessing! What a privilege! What an accountability, that we have been given that full revelation of God to us in Jesus. It calls upon us to believe. That's the first thing I want you to see. The Son is God's final word.
JESUS IS THE DIVINE SON
The second thing is this, and you’ll see it in the second half of verse 2 and in all of verse 3. And it's simply this. The Jesus that we believe in, the Jesus that this book preaches, the Jesus who is offered in the Gospel, the Jesus that we believe in is this Jesus who is the divine Son. Now if you look at the second half of verse 2 and all of verse 3, I think that you will be able to count up seven things that the author of Hebrews crams into those two little verses to say about Jesus. He wants you to get an idea of the greatness of this Jesus. He wants you to get an idea of what it means to say that Jesus is God's Son, that He's fully divine. And I want you to look at these seven words that he says about Jesus.
JESUS IS THE HEIR OF ALL THINGS
First of all, notice that he says that Jesus is the heir of all things. God appointed Him what? Verse 2 — “heir of all things.” Now you don't need to know a whole lot about inheritance law to understand this. If Jesus is the heir of all things, how are you going to participate in His inheritance? Only if you are related to Him. If He's the heir of all things, if in the end everything's coming to Him, how are you going to share in the inheritance? Only if you’re united to Him by faith. That's the only way you’re going to inherit. Have you ever been part of a family squabble where somebody's been cut out of a will? It's not a happy thing; I've seen it happen. You want to be a part of this will? You have to be united to Jesus by faith because He's the heir of everything. That's the first thing that the author of Hebrews says about Him.
GOD MADE THE WORLD THROUGH JESUS
The second thing is this. God made the world through Him. Look at verse 2 — “through whom also He created the world.” Jesus is the one through whom God made the world. Good Hebrews understood that God was the maker of heaven and earth. We confessed that this morning using the Nicene Creed and on next Lord's Day when we have the Lord's Supper we’ll confess it again when we use the Apostle's Creed, but God is the maker of heaven and earth. When the author of Hebrews tells you that Jesus is the one through whom God created the world, he's telling you that Jesus is God. You know, understanding that someone is the author of a work is designed to raise your esteem to that person, for you to give them a due esteem for what they have created.
When I was ten years old, my father took me to Scotland and he was a member of the Rotary Club — some of you are Rotarians, and if you’re a Rotarian you know that it means that you've got to go to all those meetings. And so even while we were in Scotland he had to look up the address of the Edinburgh Rotary Club and we went to the Edinburgh Rotary Club on Tuesday for lunch. And they had beef and kidney pie! Ahh! He took me to Wimpy Hamburger afterwards to have a hamburger because I could not eat that beef and kidney pie! But while we were there, he got into the most interesting discussion with the fine Scottish gentleman who he was sitting next to at the meal. And it was a discussion about the Scotch-Irish, those Scots who had emigrated from Scotland to Northern Ireland and then come to the United States. And in the midst of this discussion, my father said to this distinguished gentleman, “You don't know what you’re talking about!” Well I noticed the man's round, Rotarian name badge said that his name was J.D. Mackie and that he was at the University of Edinburgh. Well, as I was sitting there quietly listening to their conversation I had a book in front of me called, The History of Scotland. It was written by J.D. Mackie! And I kept poking my dad, “Dad! Dad!” … “Son, son!” And so as we were walking out I said, “Dad, you know that man that you just told that he didn't know anything that Scottish history? He's a professor of Scottish history at the University of Edinburgh!” Oh, it should have raised my father's esteem for Dr. Mackie but instead he said to me, “Well, he still didn't know that he was talking about!” Knowing that Jesus is the author, the creator of everything, ought to raise our esteem for Him, and that is what the author of Hebrews is doing.
JESUS IS THE RADIANCE OF GOD’S GLORY
Third, if you’ll notice again in verse 3, the author of Hebrews says that Jesus is the radiance of God's glory. The Son is the radiance, the revelation, of the glory of God, so that if you want to know the glory of God, you look at the Son. Kings, when they want to reflect their glory, often build monuments. You know, one of the purposes of Versailles was so that Louis XIV's allies and enemies could be brought there and they could see the splendor of the King of France on display and be intimidated and impressed by it, so kings often build monuments to their glory. Some of you have been to St. Paul's in London and you've seen the inscription of Christopher Wren, his obituary where it says that if you seek a monument for him, look around you, because he was the architect not only of St. Paul's but so much of London. And the point was, that St. Paul's that beautiful cathedral and so much of the splendorous architecture that he had developed was his monument; it reflected his creativity as an architect. It reflected something of his glory. Well, the author of Hebrews says that if you want to see God's glory, look at Jesus. That's the third thing he says.
JESUS IS THE EXACT REPRESENTATION OF GOD’S NATURE
But he goes on and he says a fourth thing in verse 3. He is “the exact imprint of his nature.” That is, Jesus is the exact representation of God's nature. You know how if you take a seal and you dip it in wax and you stamp something and you pull it up, the representation that is left is a mirror image of the seal. And the author of Hebrews is saying that Jesus is the exact representation of God. One old archbishop of Canterbury once said, when you could trust what an archbishop of Canterbury said, he said, “There is in God no un-Christlikeness at all.” Isn't that a beautiful way of saying that Jesus exactly represents to us what God is like because He is God in the flesh?
JESUS UPHOLDS ALL THINGS BY HIS WORD
But the author of Hebrews isn't done. He says a fifth thing; look again at verse 3. “He upholds the universe by the word of his power.” He is the upholder of all things by the word of His power. You know the Greeks, in their mythology, had Atlas holding up the earth, but the author of Hebrews is saying that Jesus does more. He not only upholds the world, He moves it towards its ultimate end and destiny. He is the providential upholder of all things.
JESUS HAS COMPLETED THE WORK OF PURIFICATION
Sixth, look again at verse 3 — “After making purification for sins.” Jesus has completed the work of purification. You want to have the guilt of your sins dealt with? Jesus has already dealt with it. Now the author of Hebrews doesn't tell you how yet; he will, but right now he's just telling you that Jesus is the one who's dealt with your sins for you so that you can have forgiveness, so that you can have a clear conscience.
JESUS IS SEATED AT GOD’S RIGHT HAND
And then seventh, look again one more time at verse 3. “He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” Now sitting at the right hand, in the New Testament and the Old, is a picture of reigning. You remember when we studied Psalm 110 last month? It speaks of “The LORD saying to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand.’” It's a picture of reign, of honor, of rule. And the author of Hebrews here alludes to Psalm 110; later he’ll quote it. But here he alludes to that and he says Jesus is sitting at the right hand of God. But He's not just there receiving honor, having servants fan Him with ostrich and peacock feathers, He's actively interceding for you. Do you know that there's one place in the New Testament where we find Jesus not sitting at the right hand but standing. Remember where that is? It's Acts 7:56. It's where Stephen is being martyred for his witness to Jesus and as he is dying, he sees heaven opened and Jesus standing at the right hand. Now whatever could that mean?
Standing is the posture of prayer. It's the most common posture of prayer in the Old Testament. When Moses is interceding for the armies of Israel as they fight against the enemies of God, what is he doing? He's standing up with his hands outstretched just like we do during the invocation and the call to worship. And so it's a posture of intercession. What's that supposed to convey to Stephen? Your Lord ever lives to intercede and now in your time of need, while you’re dying for Him, He's interceding for you. He's not just sitting there being fanned with ostrich and peacock feathers; He's ever living to intercede for His people.
Now that's the picture of Jesus that the author of Hebrews opens this sermon, this letter with. Why does he tell you this? Because if our Christian life is flagging, Jesus is what we need. If our Christian life is flagging, Jesus is who we need. In Him the fullness of deity dwells in bodily form. In Him are all the blessings of God from whom all blessings flow. If you feel empty, it's not because He's empty, it's because you need more of Him because He's all you need. Don't you love that song that we written by Sovereign Grace Ministries a few years ago? It has the chorus, “Hallelujah, all I have is Christ. Hallelujah, Jesus is my life.” That's what the author of Hebrews is saying. “All I have is Christ and that's all I need because He's better.” I'd rather have Jesus than angels; I'd rather have Jesus than anything because He's better. We need to get Him. We need to get Him better because He's what we need, nothing else. Let's pray.
O Lord, in these days together in this book, grant that we would get Jesus better because He's what we need. We ask this in His name, amen.
Let's sing of Him using the first two stanzas of number 310.
Receive this blessing from your better Savior. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord, Jesus, the Christ. Amen.