10 It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. 11 For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, 12 saying, “I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.” 13 And again, “I will put my trust in him.” And again, “Here am I and the children whom God has given me.” 14 Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. 16 For it is clear that he did not come to help angels but the descendants of Abraham. 17 Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. 18 Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.
Reading Hebrews 2:10-18 alone does not provide enough context to preach its message of Jesus’ greatness in the Incarnation. Looking at a slice of the full text is insufficient to make sense of the book’s overarching rhetorical goals; its argumentative continuity makes dividing the whole into sections difficult. Only by reading the book as a whole do we see its thematic patterns—namely, the progression from what is “great” to what is “greater” (note, this does not mean “lesser” to the “great”). This movement from “great” to “greater” is how we receive our message of Jesus’ greatness.
The first example of this progression can be found in the opening verses to the book: while God has spoken through ancestors and prophets, God also speaks through God’s Son (Heb 1:1-2). And again, Jesus is greater than the angels (1:5-13; 2:5). However, establishing the greatness of Jesus does not diminish the tradition that the Book of Hebrews’ faith is built on. With some of the most artful use of the Greek language found in the New Testament, Hebrews skillfully weaves intertexts with the psalms, Torah, and the prophets into the main body of the letter to emphasize that faith in Jesus Christ rests upon the faith of those who have gone before. Hebrews 11:1-38 retells the history of various Israelite heroes and the impact of their faithfulness. Moreover, every instance of God speaking in the Book of Hebrews is a quotation from Israel’s Scriptures. The words by which God speaks are a continuation—simultaneously new words and words rooted in sacred texts (see 1:1-2). So, the claims about Jesus are built upon a faith tradition and extend that tradition into a distinctly Christian faith. More important for our purposes in preaching Hebrews 2:10-18, the significance of Jesus’ humanity is at play in extending our faith tradition. Jesus has been made lower than the angels for a little while so that he may experience the same sufferings we do and identify with the human experience of death (2:7, 9). So, our selected passage establishes how it is fitting that Jesus intimately knows the pains and hardships of human suffering (2:10), which leads to a statement about humanity that is a key theme found throughout the rest of the letter—that “Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters” (2:11).
Dynamics of honor and shame are at play in the reception of this letter. In the setting of the Roman Empire, proper worship and tradition is important to maintaining a respectable social status. If you look, act, and worship like a Roman, you are on steady ground. It is shameful to reject Roman gods or traditions and follow Christ. Yet, Hebrews tells us that Jesus, a fully divine being who is also fully human, is not ashamed to call us brothers and sisters. Why? Because Jesus shares the same flesh and blood as all humanity. And, if Jesus shared in the same flesh and blood that we have, he also tasted the same death—and fear of death—that we experience (2:14-15).
Jesus “did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham” (2:16). As has been debated over centuries of our Christian church history, Jesus did not come in a different type of flesh which did not truly suffer, nor did he deceive us by cloaking a translucent divine self with fake human flesh. Jesus did not come in extravagance, revered higher than all other humans and adorned with the finest life one could ask for. Jesus did not live as a human body with a selective aesthetic beauty and unafflicted carefree lifestyle. Instead, Jesus “had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect,” dirt and all (2:17). Jesus was born in a manger because there was no room in the inn, and he suffered a degrading death on a cross as an innocent man who was wrongly accused and unfairly tried. Only this Jesus is “a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God” (2:17).
The final verses, 2:17-18, point forward to the rest of the letter to the Hebrews: Jesus is faithful to God, merciful, and a high priest who makes sacrifices of atonement for the sins of his people. Hebrews describes Jesus as a high priest in the order of Melchizedek (whose name is translated “king of righteousness”), who is the king of Salem (translated “king of peace”) and who does not die (7:1-3; cf. Gen 14:18-20). Jesus is unlike the priests of the Levitical priesthood. He sacrifices not with animals’ blood, but his own (Heb 9:12). Whereas there were many former priests whose lives and duties were cut off by death, Jesus lives as a priest forever in the resurrection from death (7:23-24).
So how do we preach Hebrews 2:10-18? Today, we view the witness of God’s salvation in canonical context, and our views continue to change along with the centuries since Hebrews was written. For example, preachers should be cautious of supersessionist attitudes in the relationship between Christianity and Judaism. This text should preach a Christian message about Jesus’ greatness, but it should not do so at the expense of the tradition on which it is built. What fresh meaning can we find in the text considering Jesus’ humility as a divine being who intimately knows the lows of humanity?
For those concerned with holiness preaching, Jesus sanctifies (2:11) and makes perfect (12:2) the lives of believers. Hebrews demonstrates Jesus’ salvific function as one who turns the hearts of humans towards the divine by being both divine and human at the same time.
For those in the church who are experiencing hardship in their lives, we are reminded that Jesus intimately knows what it is like to suffer. Furthermore, Jesus knows what it is like to suffer unjustly. Whereas Jesus was merciful, his trial and death was not. Hebrews reminds us that our God is not distant but has endured affliction to help us who are afflicted (Heb 2:18). When our community members experience hardships, we must not reply, “Everything happens for a reason,” but rather, “Jesus suffers with us.” In Hebrews, we are presented with the divine’s unabashed affiliation with humanity, as enacted through love (and God’s Incarnation). If someone in your congregation has been cut off or estranged from their family, Jesus is not ashamed to call them his kin. For various reasons, people may find themselves without a family, or forced to find a chosen family who supports and loves them. Hebrews offers a portrait of our God that is unashamed to welcome the outcast into the fold.
For those who are concerned with the dynamics of honor and shame (such as the Roman context to which Hebrews is addressed), especially as it pertains to national identity, Jesus walks a different path. Hebrews offers us a vision of a Jesus who identifies with those who suffer—the lowly, marginalized, and excluded. Today the politics of extreme national identity excludes various people, and perhaps Hebrews shows us a Jesus that suffers with these people: undocumented immigrants, those fearful of suffering violence at the hands of prejudiced individuals, those denied opportunities because they are discriminated against—you fill in the blank. If Jesus is unashamed to call these his kin, how might the church also welcome them as family? What do you see in your congregation that verges on valuing national identity at the expense of unashamedly calling one another our brothers and sisters?