I’ve been away for a week. I was at the Christian Associates European staff conference in the charming town of Tapolca in Hungary. I’m writing this on the plane back to Dubai. Basra is somewhere below us.
The theme for the week—”Walking with Giants”—was taken from Hebrews 11. It makes the whole “faith” business sound a little too easy. What came across, as we reflected on the work of church-planting in Europe in the light of this familiar passage, was just how hard, how uncomfortable, the practice of faith can be. What I took away theologically, however, was the thought that Hebrews, from its rather limited perspective, lends strong support to my narrative-historical reading of the New Testament—not least with regard to the significance of Jesus’ death.
The Letter to the Hebrews is addressed to a Jewish-Christian community that has endured severe persecution and is likely to face worse in the future. They have suffered public abuse, imprisonment, and the confiscation of their property (10:32-34). In their struggle against aggressive Judaism (probably) they have “not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood”—they have not yet suffered to the extent that Jesus suffered (12:3-4). But the argument of the Letter as a whole suggests that it is only a matter of time before this happens. So the writer pulls all the theological stops out in urging them not to give up but to persevere in order to arrive at the place of rest that lies beyond hardship and suffering (cf. 4:1, 11).
Against this background, a statement that might normally be interpreted within the frame of a standard evangelical soteriology takes on a rather different complexion.
But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. (Heb. 2:9)
Jesus has been “crowned with glory and honour” because he suffered and died—because he “tasted death for everyone” (2:9). At least part of the purpose behind this was to bring “many sons to glory”. These many sons are those whom he is not ashamed to call “brothers” (2:11). They are also the “children God has given me” (2:13), which is a quotation from Isaiah 8:18:
Behold, I and the children whom the LORD has given me are signs and portents in Israel from the LORD of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion.
This leads me to think that Jesus’ “brothers”, in this argumentative context, are not simply “Christians”. They are specifically Jewish believers who will sooner or later have to suffer to the same degree that Jesus suffered. With Jesus, they are “signs and portents” to Israel of coming judgment (cf. Is. 8:11-15). But through this suffering they will also be brought to glory.
Jesus’ “brothers” are those for whom he tasted death. Through death he has defeated the one who has the power of death, namely the devil, and delivered “all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Heb. 2:14-15). They have been liberated to pursue the difficult and narrow way of salvation for Israel (cf. Matt. 7:13-14) because there is no longer any reason to fear death. They have seen Jesus “crowned with glory and honour”. They know that if it eventually comes to the shedding of their blood, they too will be brought to glory.
In The Future of the People of God I have argued that Paul develops basically the same martyrology in Romans 8:29 when he writes that those who suffer with Christ are conformed to the image of God’s Son “in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers”. It is only if they suffer with Jesus that they will be glorified with Jesus (Rom. 8:17). The difference is that Paul is writing to the predominantly Gentile church in Rome: Gentiles have been incorporated into prophetic communities that are signs and portents not to Israel only but also to the Greek-Roman world. But this part of the story lies outside the scope of Hebrews.
But how does this argument work as part of a general soteriology? What I suggest is that the saving significance of Jesus’ death is mediated to the world precisely through the story of the suffering of the early martyr church.
Jesus’ death in the first place is an act of propitiation or atonement for the sins of Israel. But historically this death only initiates a prophetic movement from within Israel that must pursue the same path of self-sacrifice and at least potential martyrdom. Jesus’ disciples must deny themselves and take up their own crosses if they wish to follow him (cf. Mk. 8:34-35).
In various ways, the assurance is given to the martyr community—the community of the Son of man—that they will be vindicated, raised with Jesus, glorified; they will come to a final place of rest. But the more important outcome of their very difficult faithfulness will be the renewal and reconstitution of the people of God as a global community of new creation.
This historical narrative may certainly be compressed to the dimensions of John’s tight formula: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16). But this is not “lossless” compression. Right now I think that our shrunken evangelicalism is inadequate. We have to learn how to retell the New Testament story in its full historical complexity.