A Christmas reflection (according to the book of Hebrews)

Rarely included in texts read at Christmas is Hebrews’ distinct and rich contribution to the identity of the incarnate Son. In a sense this is not surprising – compared to John’s magnificent and poetic prologue and Matthew and Luke’s compelling birth narratives, Hebrews’s more unfamiliar imagery is harder to relate to.

Here’s a summary of Hebrews on the incarnation for this Christmas.

Hebrews 1:1-4

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.

In these few lines the story of Jesus is beautifully unfolded. God has now spoken through his Son. All previous revelation through the prophets and history of Israel has foreshadowed the coming of the Son.

The Son is described in extraordinary Christological language and accomplishes extraordinary things.

In terms of identity, the writer talks of key moments in the ‘career’ of the Son, not in a neat chronological progression but by moving back and forward between past and present.

Seven things are said of the Son in these few lines:

  1. He is appointed heir of all things by God – when exalted by God after being made lower than the angels for a period of time.
  2. The Son is the one through whom God created the world. The Son therefore existed before engaging in his saving work (not a major theme in Hebrews but important nonetheless).
  3. Ontologically this exalted creator Son embodies the very glory and presence of God himself. Like the dazzling warming rays of the sun are in effect the presence of the sun itself here on earth, so Jesus is the radiance of God. To gaze at the Son is to gaze at God himself.
  4. The Son not only creates but also sustains all things by his powerful word
  5. The Son’s ‘mission’ was to effect the purification for sins (the main theme of Hebrews)
  6. As a result the Son has been exalted to sit at God’s right hand in heaven (a major theme of Hebrews)
  7. He has inherited a name far above that of the angels – he alone is the Son of God (another major theme in Hebrews)

With the Son’s exaltation, Psalm 8:4-6 is fulfilled (Heb 2:5-9)

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.

God’s purpose is to exalt and redeem humanity. For this to happen, the preexistent Son has become incarnate, truly ‘one of us’. Humanity’s exaltation is yet to happen. But the author of Hebrews writes to encourage and give hope. The destiny of the exalted Son is the destiny of humanity. He is the pioneer and perfecter of faith – the truly human one who has provided purification for sin through his atoning death. Now crowned with glory, his journey through suffering and death to glory can be followed by those in him.

The author spells out the significance of the incarnation from 2:14ff. Jesus shares in our flesh and blood to break the power of the devil and to “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.”

The Son is “fully human in every way” and this means:

  • He alone can become a merciful and faithful high priest representing humanity
  • He alone can make atonement for the sin
  • As risen and exalted one, he is able to help those who are being tempted because he himself suffered when he was tempted.

This is the astonishing good news of the incarnation according to Hebrews this Christmas – and every Christmas.

Happy Christmas!

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Christians and the Arms Industry

Last month the Centre for Contemporary Christianity in Belfast hosted Alan and Elaine Storkey to give their annual Sir Fred Catherwood Lecture. It was entitled ‘Ain’t Going to Study War No More ..’

The lecture can be listened to here.

One major theme of Storkey’s lecture is how arms do not ‘follow’ wars, but wars follow the production and selling of arms.

In other words, the arms trade has a vested interest in the incredibly lucrative business of selling arms. It also has a vested interest in promoting narratives that tell us that we need arms to defend and protect our Western freedoms. They also need, and have, mutually beneficial relationships with Western politicians who give the companies contracts worth billions that simultaneously help Western economies grow.

Storky also talks about the endemic corruption of this system with arms companies engaged in blatant bribery of potential clients – that Tony Blair (for example) knew about and closed down investigations ‘in the national interest’.

The money at stake also means that attempts at disarmament will, and have for many decades, met a wall of resistance from political power brokers and the arms trade.

The West, of which you and I are a part, has therefore a huge ethical and moral responsibility for the proliferation of war around the world.

If this is so, what then is a response for Christians who owe their primary loyalty to a crucified Messiah and not the state they happen to live in?

The lecture is largely drawn from a book by Alan Storkey called War or Peace? The long failure of Western Arms.

A discussion board hosted by the centre is here with a post by Rev Norman Hamilton, former moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. It in he says,

It is striking, and deeply disturbing, that our daily diet of the horrors of war on the news has not energised any substantial discussion amongst Christian people in the UK (or indeed the Western world) about war – even though huge attention has been given this year to remembering World War 1 and the Battle of the Somme. Is that because war is not quite yet on our doorstep, even thought its tentacles have brought death and fear to Nice, Rouen and Brussels this year, after the outrage in Paris in 2015? Is it because we know that jobs and economic prosperity come to us from the making of war and armaments, and that we don’t want unemployment to rise? Is it because we really do believe that a ‘war on terrorism’ war is necessary and justified to try to rid our world of such evil? Is it because we believe that national defence matters a great deal, and so we must encourage our government to take whatever steps are needed to protect us? Is it because we have committed so few of our armed forces to that conflict (unlike our role in Afghanistan)? Or is it because we haven’t thought much about it as Christian people, and find it all too easy to keep it that way.

What do you think? What are some reasons why Christians are so slow to talk about war?

Some points come to mind for me:

  • A failure for Christians to have a prophetic critical distance from their own’s national narrative.  Too easily we believe the myths that armaments and violence will make us ‘safe’. Too easily we swallow the assumptions that war is a necessary and even good thing that is regrettable but ‘justified’ – despite pretty well no war meeting the abstract criteria for Just War theory. This all leads to passivity and acceptance of the status quo.
  • How we read the Bible: if Christians globally refused by default to engage in war how profoundly this would challenge the assumed ‘naturalness’ of war and the acceptability of the arms trade. Yet this is not the case – despite the New Testaments crystal clear teaching that followers of Jesus are to be people of peace, reconciliation and non-violence. For various reasons, we jump through all sort of hermeneutical hoops to avoid the teaching and example of our Lord, and the teaching and example of Paul and the rest of the early Christians movement. We have been co-opted into the Constantinian story of religion in partnership with the state rather than resisting the temptation to take up the sword in the name of the state.
  • A fatalism / passivity that this is the way the world is? Storkey ended with a call to action and also a confidence in the gospel that God’s ways actually work. Is war – with all its senseless brutality and death actually practical in solving anything? Just ask the residents of Aleppo. Is peacemaking and action towards dismantling the West’s military industrial complex somehow more impractical than warmaking?

Comments, as ever, welcome.