In “The Good of Nationalism Pt 2”, Bradford Littlejohn notes the temptation Christians had after the conversion of Roman Emperor Constantine:
“In every age, Christians have been tempted to ‘immanentize the eschaton,’ translating the expectations of the eschatological kingdom of God into the midst of history. So it was for early Christians, dazed and delighted by the conversion of Constantine and the end of persecution: perhaps Christian Rome was to be the earthly political manifestation of the worldwide kingdom of Christ. Such dreams were cruelly dashed by the waves of barbarians who spilled over the borders of the over-strained and bankrupt empire, sacking Rome itself in 410 AD.”
I’ve previously noted that Hebrews was likely written to a small house church in Rome made up of mostly Jewish Christians who were suffering under Nero’s persecution (A.D. 64-69). Persecution continued sporadically for more than two centuries, eventually escalating into what is known as “The Great Persecution” at the beginning of the third century.
Between 303 and 312 AD several Roman emperors issued edicts forbidding Christian worship, calling for the destruction of Christian churches, and the forced recantation of Christianity upon the pain of death. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs shares several horrifying accounts from this period. The number of Christian martyrs multiplied exponentially until Constantine’s miraculous conversion.
It’s easy to comprehend why Christians would assume that God had combined the spiritual mission of the Church with the political ambitions of Rome. God seemed to be establishing the eschatological age. However, less than one hundred years later, Roman Christendom had collapsed. Political and religious upheaval remains an ever present reality.
While Christ has indeed ushered in a new kingdom, wherein believers are declared to be a new creation (2 Cor 5:17), we still see and experience the effects of the old one corrupted by sin. Why do we see so much rebellion if nothing is outside of Jesus Christ’s control? The reality of Christ’s dominion has been inaugurated, but its consummation still awaits His future return (George Guthrie).
Read Hebrews 2:5-9.
› I borrowed my outline for this passage from Richard Phillips Reformed Expository Commentary.
The Problem: Dominion Lost (5-8)
The author of Hebrews opens with a connection to his overall argument. Verse 5 serves to link the chain of OT quotes in Heb 1:5-13 with another chain of texts in Heb 2:6-16. Whereas the first chain seeks to prove Christ’s superiority over angels, the second chain responds to perceived objections.
1. Jesus was human—made lower than the angels (7).
2. Jesus died—suffering unlike angels (9).
Angels should not be elevated above the Son of man, because they were never intended to have that kind of authority (5). They remain servants of those who “inherit salvation” (Heb 1:14).
This inheritance of salvation is finally received in “the world to come.” Angels will not have authority in that world. That world was prophesied in the book of Daniel as the final kingdom that puts an end to every other opposing kingdom (Dan 2:44). “The world to come” is also known as “the new heaven and new earth” (Rev 21:1) with “a new Jerusalem” for its capital (Rev 21:2; cf. Heb 12:22-28). In other words, that world is a place where everyone is fully subjected to Christ. Just as it speaks of a future reality for the author and his audience, it speaks of a future reality for us as well.
Next, the author quotes Psalm 8:4-6. David’s authorship is unimportant in light of the divine inspiration of the psalm (Lane), which refers to the dominion that man was given at creation. Man received the highest honor among creatures, being created in the image of God with authority over all creatures (8a).
God may have intended the world to be subjected to man, but we can plainly see that is not the case. We do not see that by experience—not yet anyway. As the writer admits, everything is not presently placed in subjection to man (8b).
Don’t Expect Dominion…Yet!
While there is an overarching pattern of order in this world, it is frequently upset by episodic chaos. Neither nature nor wild beasts readily submit to man’s dominion. Even royal kings and governors, do not possess complete control, let alone those of lower stations. Man is a species that exists in constant rebellion against God’s created order.
Even those who will inherit salvation are limited in their ability see it and taste it. Their dominion may be certain, but there is no guarantee that they will experience it in this present age. Why? Because sin has marred our ability to rule. Until sin is finally and fully eradicated, our own rebellious hearts limit the level of authority we are capable of enjoying.
Robert Strimple makes the following insightful remarks:
“[W]hen the New Testament locates the church in the history of redemption, the paradigm to which it points is not the Canaan occupation but the desert experience (Heb 3:7-19). Christ’s church today remains the church in the desert, and gradual worldwide dominion does not occur in the desert. Canaan and rest still lie ahead. Like father Abraham, believers remain ‘aliens and strangers on earth’ (Heb 11:13), who have no enduring city here but look for one to come (Heb 13:14).”
The author of Hebrews tells us that he is primarily writing about “the world to come” (Heb 2:5). It is with the hope of their perseverance, their arrival in that world to come, that he sends them this message. He longs for them to receive the inheritance that is already theirs in Christ.
Don’t Be Surprised By Chaos!
For the original audience, it seems likely that their station in life diminished when they became disciples of Christ. The number of their enemies increased. Now they had to leap over cultural hurdles that were raised by several notches. This probably caught many of them off guard. They wondered if they have made a huge mistake in following Christ.
During his earthly ministry Jesus had not spared them the challenges they would face. He plainly told his disciples that following him meant they would need to deny themselves and take up their cross daily (Lk 9:23). He warned them to count the cost of discipleship (Lk 14:25-32). The truth is sobering, but we need to hear it.
We face a danger similar to the original audience when we think the spiritual blessings God has shown to us guarantee a physical prosperity in this life. This passage reminds us that we were created for the purpose of enjoying dominion, but it also acknowledges that we have not yet seen the establishment of that dominion in this present age.
Don’t be surprised by chaos and rebellion. No one has yet experienced the reality for which our souls long. At present, everything is not in subjection to us—and most things are actually outside of our control.
1. A proper humility regarding the limitations of our sinful flesh should lead us to personal and perpetual repentance.
2. The limits of taking dominion in a fallen world will also qualify our expectations with wisdom and prudence.
Sin has, and it always will, hinder our ability to take dominion of this fallen world. When God had regard for Able’s righteous offering, Cain was there put an end to his prosperity (Gen 4:8). Since then, every generation has faced the same predicament. That is why John can rightly refer to the devil as “the ruler of this world” (Jn 12:31; 14:30; 16:11), and Paul can call him “the prince of the power of the air” (Eph 2:2) and “the god of this world” (2 Cor 4:4).
Taking a humble and honest assessment of our limitations also teaches us to depend upon the means of grace that will sustain us through every trial and tribulation (Acts 14:22; 2 Tim 2:11-12). It forces us to look away from ourselves, outside our own resources, toward the promises and benefits that are only received through faith in Christ. Rather than developing worldly strategies to fight against evil, we will recognize that our only hope is found at the foot of the cross.
› What the first Adam lost, the last Adam regained…
The Solution: Jesus Crowned (9)
Jesus applied the messianic Psalm 8:2 to himself in reference to the praise he received from children (Mt 21:16). He understood that the dominion given to man at creation could only be fulfilled through him. Jesus is the new representative of man, the last Adam, who fulfills what God originally intended for man.
Calvin follows the author’s logic well:
“If men, then, are precluded from all God’s bounty until they receive a right to it through Christ, it follows that the dominion mentioned in the Psalm was lost to us in Adam, and that on this account it must again be restored as a donation. Now, the restoration begins with Christ as the head.”
Daniel envisioned “one like a son of man” ascending to the “Ancient of Days” and receiving dominion (Dan 7:13-14). This vision of Christ’s exaltation followed his humiliation.
Only in Jesus can man achieve what God intended for him at creation. Christ’s first coming represents the inauguration of this “world to come,” while his second coming represents the consummation of that world. The dominion mandate remains, but our ability to carry it out is only partially restored for those who are in Christ. If you remove Christ as the head of the body, no true dominion can be achieved.
So how can we be united to Christ? We must place our trust in the one who “tasted death for everyone.” This is a reference to everyone without any distinction between Jew and Gentile. All believers who have experienced restoration and reconciliation through faith in the Son of God. Jesus tasted death for all he would bring as sons to glory (Heb 2:10), all “those who are sanctified” (Heb 2:11), all those he is not ashamed to call brothers (Heb 2:11-12), all who belong to the congregation (Heb 2:12), all the children God gave him (Heb 2:13), and all who are of the seed of Abraham by faith (Heb 2:16; cf. Rom 4:11-12).
Jesus tasted death for (“on behalf of”, “in place of”) everyone who believes in him. His death was substitutionary, vicarious. This is the heart of the gospel. Because Jesus experienced the death that we deserved, we can enjoy the righteousness that he possesses.
Forsaken By God
Death is the great equalizer of humanity. We are all appointed to die once and then face the judgment (Heb 9:27), but Jesus’ death was followed by his resurrection and royal ascension to his throne. And now, the King of kings will continue to reign until he restrains and conquers all his and our enemies (WSC 26). In fact, Paul says “he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor 15:25-26).
Regarding Christ’s humiliating death, Herman Bavinck writes, “According to Scripture, Christ bore our sins in his body on a tree (1 Pet. 2:24); there he became for us sin and a curse (2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:13) and thus took death on himself, the whole of it, in its true essence and character as the wages of sin. We, on the other hand, cannot taste death in that way, and by faith in Christ all bitterness is removed from it. In death God is near to his own, so that it becomes for them a passage to eternal life. But that is not how Christ experienced it. He, with his holy nature, lived through it as no sinful person can; he took the cup into his hand and—voluntarily—emptied it to the last drop. By the power of love, he laid down life itself and, fully conscious and with a firm will, entered the valley of the shadow of death. There he was, and felt, forsaken by God, so that in precisely that fashion he might be able to taste death for everyone (Heb. 2:9).”
The suffering Christ endured in his humiliating death merited salvation and all the benefits that accompany it. The writer of Hebrews is telling us that Jesus was crowned “because” he suffered. Christ’s exaltation was the reward for his humiliation. Paul says the same thing (Phil 2:8-10).
From Death to Glory
I appreciate the way Lane articulates a summary of this passage:
“The transcendent Son of God made the human condition, and especially its liability to death, his own in order to achieve for them the glorious destiny designed by God.”
Sin and death had to be defeated by the sinless messiah. And that was fully accomplished when he crushed the head of the serpent in his death on the cross, and rose again from the dead three days later. But the application of Christ’s victory to our earthly lives, awaits his return—when every eye will see him (Rev 1:7) and every knee will bow (Phil 2:10).
In order for you to experience all that God created you for, you must be united to Christ by faith. While this unites you to a cross-bearing responsibility in this life, it also comes with a throne-reigning promise (Rev 22:5)!