By Frederick W. Robertson
Preached Christmas Day, 1851
"God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son."-Heb. i. 1, 2.
Two critical remarks.
1. "Sundry times"-more literally, sundry portions-sections, not of time, but of the matter of the revelation. God gave His revelation in parts, piecemeal, as you teach a child to spell a word-letter by letter, syllable by syllable-adding all at last together. God had a Word to spell-His own name. By degrees He did it. At last it came entire. The Word was made flesh.
2. "His Son," more correctly, "a Son"-for this is the very argument. Not that God now spoke by Christ, but that whereas once He spoke by prophets, now he spoke by a Son. The filial dispensation was the last.
This epistle was addressed to Christians on the verge of apostasy. See those passages: "It is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, if they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put Him to an open shame." "Cast not away your confidence." "We are made partakers of Christ, if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast unto the end."
Observe what the danger was. Christianity had disappointed them-they had not found in it the rest they anticipated. They looked back to the Judaism they had left, and saw a splendid temple-service, a line of priests, a visible temple witnessing of God's presence, a religion which was unquestionably fertile in prophets and martyrs. They saw these pretensions and wavered.
But this was all on the eve of dissolution. The Jewish earth and heavens, i. e., the Jewish Commonwealth and, Church, were doomed and about to pass away. The writer of this epistle felt that their hour was come;* [* See chap. xii. 26, 27.] and if their religion rested on nothing better than this, he knew that in the crash religion itself would go. To return to Judaism was to go down to atheism and despair.
Reason alleged-they had contented themselves with a superficial view of Christianity; they had not seen how it was interwoven with all their own history, and how it alone explained that history.
Therefore in this epistle the writer labors to show that Christianity was the fulfillment of the idea latent in Judaism: that from the earliest times, and in every institution, it was implied. In the monarchy, in prophets, in sabbath-days, in psalms, in the priesthood, and in temple-services, Christianity lay concealed; and the dispensation of a Son was the realization of what else was shadow. He therefore alone who adhered to Christ was the true Jew, and to apostatize from Christianity was really to apostatize from true Judaism.
I am to show, then, that the manifestation of God through a Son was implied, not realized, in the earlier dispensation.
"Sundry portions" of this truth are instanced in the epistle. The mediatorial dispensation of Moses-the gift of Canaan-the Sabbath, etc. At present I select these:
I. The preparatory Dispensation.
II. The filial and final Dispensation.
I. It was implied, not fulfilled in the kingly office. Three Psalms are quoted, all referring to kingship. In the 2d Psalm it was plain that a true idea of a king was only fulfilled in one who was a son of God. The Jewish king was king only so far as he held from God: as His image, the representative of the Fountain of law and majesty. To Him God hath said, "Thou art my son, this day have I begotten thee." The 45th Psalm is a bridal hymn, composed on the marriage of a Jewish king. Startling language is addressed to him. He is called God-Lord. "Thy throne, 0 God, is for ever and ever." The bride is invited to worship him as it were a God: "He is thy Lord, and worship thou Him." No one is surprised at this who remembers that Moses was said to be made a God to Aaron. Yet it is startling, almost blasphemous, unless there be a deeper meaning implied-the divine character of the real king.
In the 110th Psalm a new idea is added. The true king, must be a priest. "Thou art a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek. This was addressed to the Jewish king; but it implied that the ideal king, of which he was for the time the representative, more or less truly, is one who at the same time sustains the highest religious character, and the highest executive authority.
Again, David was emphatically the type of the Jewish regal idea. David is scarcely a personage, so entirely does he pass in Jewish forms of thought into an ideal sovereign "the sure mercies of David." David is the name, therefore, for the David which was to be. Now David was a wanderer, kingly still, ruling men and gaining adherents by force of inward royalty. Thus in the Jewish mind the kingly office disengaged itself from outward pomp and hereditary right as mere accidents, and became a personal reality. The king was an idea.
Further still. The epistle extends this idea to man. The psalm had ascribed (Ps. viii. 6) kingly qualities and rule to manhood-rule over the creation. Thus the idea of a king belonged properly to humanity; to the Jewish king as the representative of humanity.
Yet even in collective humanity the royal character is not realized. "We see not," says the epistle, "all things as yet put under him"-man.
Collect, then, these notions. The true king of men is a Son of God: one who is to his fellow-men , God and Lord, as the Jewish bride was to feel her royal husband to be to her-one who is a priest-one who may be poor and exiled, yet not less royal.
Say, then, whence is this idea fulfilled by Judaism? To which of the Jewish kings can it be applied, except with infinite exaggeration? To David? Why, the Redeemer shows the insuperable difficulty of this. "How then doth David in Spirit call him," i. e., the king of whom he was writing, "Lord, saying, the Lord said unto my Lord, sit thou on my right hand, until I make thy enemies thy footstool?" David writing of himself, yet speaks there in the third person, projecting himself outward as an object of contemplation, an idea.
Is it fulfilled in the human race? "We see not yet all things put under him." Then the writer goes on: "But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honor; that He by the grace of God should taste death for every man." In Jesus of Nazareth alone all these fragments, these sundry portions of the revealed idea of royalty met.
II. Christianity was implied in the race of prophets.
The second class of quotations refer to the prophets' life and history (Heb. ii. 11-14; Psalm xxii. 22; Psalm xviii. 2; Isaiah xii. 2; Isaiah viii. 18). Remember what the prophets were. They were not merely predictors of the future. Nothing destroys the true conception of the prophets' office more than those popular books in which their mission is certified by curious coincidences. For example, if it is predicted that Babylon shall be a desolation, the haunt of wild beasts, etc., then some traveller has seen a lion standing on Birs Nimroud; or if the fisherman is to dry his nets on Tyre, simply expressing its destruction thereby, the commentator is not easy till he finds that a net has been actually seen drying on a rock. But this is to degrade the prophetic office to a level with Egyptian palmistry: to make the prophet like an astrologer, or a gypsy fortune-teller-one who can predict destinies and draw horoscopes. But, in truth, the first office of the prophet was with the present. He read eternal principles beneath the present and the transitory, and in doing this, of course, he prophesied the future; for a principle true to-day is true forever. But this was, so to speak, in accident of his office, not its essential feature. If, for instance, he read in the voluptuousness of Babylon the secret of Babylon's decay he also read by anticipation the doom of Corinth, of London, of all cities in Babylon's state; or if Jerusalem's fall was predicted, in it all such judgment comings were foreseen; and the language is true of the fall of the world: as truly, or more so, than that of Jerusalem. A philosopher saying in the present tense the law by which comets move, predicts all possible cometary movements.
Now the prophet's life, almost more than his words, was predictive. The writer of this epistle lays down a great principle respecting the prophet: "Both he that sanctifieth and they who are sanctified are all of one." It was the very condition of his inspiration that he should be one with the people. So far from making him superhuman, it made him more man. He felt with more exquisite sensitiveness all that belongs to man, else he could not have been a prophet. His insight into things was the result of that very weakness, sensitiveness, and susceptibility so tremblingly alive. He burned with their thoughts, and expressed them. He was obliged by the very sensitiveness of his humanity to have a more entire dependence and a more perfect sympathy than other men. The sanctifying prophet was one with those whom he sanctified. Hence he uses those expressions quoted from Isaiah and the Psalms above.
He was more man, just because more divine-more a son of man, because more a son of God. He was peculiarly the suffering Israelite: His countenance marred more than the sons of men. Hence we are told the prophets searched "what, or what manner of time, the Spirit of Christ which was in them did signify, when it testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow." Observe, it was a spirit in them, their own lives witnessing mysteriously of what the perfect Humanity must be suffering.
Thus, especially, the 53d chapter of Isaiah was spoken originally of the Jewish nation-of the prophet as peculiarly the Israelite; and it is no wonder the eunuch asked Philip in perplexity "Of whom doth the prophet say this-of himself or some other man?" The truth is, he said it of himself, but prophetically of Humanity; true of him, most true of the highest Humanity. Here, then, was a new "portion" of the revelation. The prophet rebuked the king, often opposed the priest, but was one with the people. "He that sanctifieth and they who are sanctified are all of one."
If, then, One had come claiming to be the Prophet of the race, and was a sufferer, claiming to be the Son of God, and yet peculiarly man; the son of man: the son of man just because the Son of God: more Divine, because more human: then this was only what the whole race of Jewish prophets should have prepared them for. God had spoken by the prophets. That God had now spoken by a Son in whom the idea of the true prophet was realized in its entireness.
III. The priesthood continued this idea latent. The writer of this epistle saw three elements in the priestly idea: 1. That he should be ordained for men in things pertaining to God; 2. That he should offer gifts and sacrifices; 3. That he should be called by God, not be a mere self-asserter.
1. Ordained for men. Remark here the true idea contained in Judaism, and its difference from the heathen notions. In Heathenism the priest was of a different race-separate from his fellows. In Judaism he was ordained for men; their representative; constituted in their behalf. The Jewish priest represented the holiness of the nation; he went into the Holy of Holies, showing it. But this great idea was only implied, not fulfilled in the Jewish priest. He was only by a fiction the representative of holiness. Holy he was not. He only entered into a fictitious Holy of Holies. If the idea were to be ever real, it must be in One who should be actually what the Jewish priest was by a figment, and who should carry our humanity into the real Holy of Holies-the presence of God; thus becoming our Invisible and Eternal Priest.
Next it was implied that his call must be Divine. But in the 110th Psalm a higher call is intimated than that Divine call which was made to the Aaronic priesthood by a regular succession, or, as it is called in the epistle, "the law of a carnal commandment." Melchizedek's call is spoken of. The king is called a priest after his order. Not a derived or hereditary priesthood; not one transmissible, beginning and ending in himself (Heb. vii. 1-3), but a priesthood, in other words, of character, of inward right: a call internal, hence more Divine; or, as the writer calls it, a priest "after the power of an endless life." This was the idea for which the Jewish psalms themselves ought to have prepared the Jew.
Again, the priests offered gifts and sacrifices. Distinguish: Gifts were thank-offerings; first-fruits of harvest, vintage, etc., a man's best; testimonies of infinite gratefulness, and expressions of it. But sacrifices were different: they implied a sense of unworthiness: that sense which conflicts with the idea of any right to offer gifts.
Now the Jewish Scriptures themselves had explained this subject, and this instinctive feeling of unworthiness for which sacrifice found an expression. Prophets and psalmists had felt that no sacrifice was perfect which did not reach the conscience (Ps. li. 16, 17), for instance; also Heb. x. 8-12. No language could more clearly show that the spiritual Jew discerned that entire surrender to the Divine Will is the only perfect sacrifice, the ground of all sacrifices, and that which alone imparts to it a significance. Not the mere sacrifice of victims. . . . "Then said I, Lo, I come to do Thy will, O God." That is the sacrifice which God wills.
I say it firmly-all other notions of sacrifice are false. Whatsoever introduces the conception of vindictiveness or retaliation-whatever speaks of appeasing fury-whatever estimates the value of the Saviour's sacrifice by the "penalty paid"-whatever differs from these notions of sacrifice contained in psalms and prophets-is borrowed from the bloody shambles of Heathenism, and not from Jewish altars.
This alone makes the worshipper perfect as pertaining to the conscience. He who can offer it in its entireness, He alone is the world's Atonement; He in whose heart the Law was, and who alone of all mankind was content to do it, His sacrifice alone can be the sacrifice all-sufficient in the Father's sight as the proper sacrifice of humanity: He who through the Eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, He alone can give the Spirit which enables us to present our bodies a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God. He is the only High-priest of the universe.