Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives. For assuredly He does not give help to angels, but He gives help to the descendant [lit. seed] of Abraham. Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted.
This is by far one of the most glorious, precious, and important passages in all of Scripture. We could summarize the theme of this text as the necessity and end of the incarnation (with His redeeming sacrifice in view). The surrounding context of this passage, and the main focus of the entire letter to the Hebrews, is that of Jesus as “the Apostle and High Priest of our confession” (3:1). The primary focus, then, is on the redeeming work and inseparable mediation of Christ (e.g. 1:3; 2:3, 9ff).
In verses 14 and 15 we see that Jesus came in the flesh (i.e. incarnation; cf. Gal. 4:4-5) in order to destroy the work of the Devil (cf. Gen. 3; 2 Cor. 4:3-6; Eph. 2:1-10; Col. 2:14-15), and so set free those who were subject to lifelong slavery through fear of death (i.e. fear of death and condemnation, which enslaves men in their sin, especially that of self-righteousness). This He did, as we will see, by His propitiatory death/sacrifice (v. 17). Paul’s words in First Corinthians 15:55-56 come to mind: “‘O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR VICTORY? O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR STING?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Now we come to verses 16 and 17, where my main focus is upon. First, the author uses very interesting and very important terminology in verse 16. The NASB, as above, says “does not give help…gives help….” This giving of help literally means “take hold of.” F.F. Bruce comments: “the verb is the same as that used in 8:9, where God recalls how he ‘took hold’ of his people Israel by the hand to bring them out of Egypt, and in both places the ‘taking hold’ carries with it the idea of help and deliverance” [The Epistle to the Hebrews, (1990). 87]. It is a forceful term, clearly used in a redemptive sense in this context. The author first notes who the Son of God did not take hold of — angels. If angels were the objects of God’s redeeming grace, then the Son would not have needed to become flesh and blood, for angels are spiritual (not flesh and blood) creatures. Instead, Jesus took hold of the descendants or seed of Abraham. The seed of Abraham is part of the seed of Adam (the entire human race). This is a critical point; the text does not say that Jesus takes hold of the descendants or seed of Adam, but of Abraham. There should be no doubt, whatsoever, that this text speaks of particularity in the saving work of Christ. And just who are the seed of Abraham? Is it Abraham’s physical descendants? Not at all. According to Galatians, the descendants of Abraham are those of faith (3:6-9, 29). Paul brings up this same point in Romans 9:6-8, where he says that the “children of promise are regarded as descendants.” Paul then elaborates on these words through the rest of the chapter, demonstrating God’s sovereign grace in the matter (e.g. vv. 16-18).
OK, back to Hebrews. This seed of Abraham is referred to as “sons,” “children,” and “brethren.” (see Heb. 2:9-18). While some may wish to point out v. 9, “…so that by the grace of God He might taste death for EVERYONE,” (emphasis added) as negating any concept of particularity, this “everyone” is qualified by verse 10, which speaks of the sufferings of Christ bringing “MANY sons to glory” (emphasis added), as well as the terms “children” and “brethren,” which have already been shown to be the descendants of Abraham, the children of promise.
As if the particular nature of Christ’s sacrifice wasn’t evident enough, verse 17 adds to its weight. In order to redeem “His brethren” (i.e. the descendants of Abraham, according to promise) He had to be made like them in all things — though without sin (4:15) — as the priest was the representative and intercessory of the people (5:1-10). Again, we see a particular focus of Christ’s saving work — His brethren. I believe this speaks to the purpose for which Christ came. He came to redeem His brethren (the seed of Abraham). Further, Christ’s sacrifice is here described as being propitiatory. The word “propitiation” carries the idea of appeasement or satisfaction. In this regard, the appeasement or satisfaction is in reference to the wrath of God against sin (cf. Rom. 1:18; 3:19-26). This is beautifully described in Second Corinthians 5:21, “He [God] made Him [Christ] who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” In other words, Christ’s sacrifice was a penal and substitutionary sacrifice. That is to say, Christ voluntarily bore our sin on the cross, and therefore our guilt, and therefore our punishment, so that we would become the righteousness of God in Christ. Yet, those who reject the doctrine of particular/limited atonement contradict this very meaning of a propitiatory sacrifice. They say that Christ died for every single human being, yet there will still be millions upon millions who will suffer the same punishment throughout an eternity in hell. So…did or did not Christ die for every single human being? If He did, and if His sacrifice was propitiatory as the Scriptures attest, then He actually bore the sins of every single human being in His body on the cross, and therefore bore their guilt, and therefore bore their punishment. God’s justice has been served; the debt cancelled (Col. 2:14; Heb. 10:18). To say that Christ died for every single human being, and yet not all are saved, is to question both God’s justice and the perfection of the cross. The theological inconsistency here is blatant! What is more, as the High Priest, Christ mediates for those whom His sacrifice was made (3:14-16; 8:1-6; 9:24). In short, Christ’s propitiatory sacrifice was for God’s elect, and His mediation is directly connected with His sacrifice (Rom. 8:31-34). If Christ died for all, then He mediates for all. This, however, is not the case. We have seen from this text that Christ’s atonement was particular in nature, and being the merciful and faithful High Priest that He is, He does not fail in His priestly duties. Christ actually put away sin by His sacrifice (Heb. 9:27)!
Lastly, the author of Hebrews rounds this all out by showing the practicality of Christ’s redeeming work. Since Christ became like us and was tempted in the same ways were are tempted — though He without sin — He may truly sympathize with us in our temptations. We can go to Him in our trials and temptations, knowing that He has gone before us, and so He will come to our aid. Again, He is a merciful and faithful High Priest.
Now, in conclusion, some may respond, “Well, Christ died for every single human being; but, they must believe in Him in order to benefit from His sacrifice.” Obviously, we must repent and believe in the gospel to be saved. There is no question about this. However, first of all, this doesn’t deal with the meaning of propitiation; it is inconsistent with it, as it requires something of man to make Christ’s sacrifice of effect. Second, we must understand the unifying work of the Godhead in bringing about salvation. The Father elected and predestined a people in eternity; the Son became flesh and died on behalf/in the place of that elect people, thus accomplishing their redemption; and the Holy Spirit, in due time, according to God’s sovereign appointment, applies that redemption won by Christ by giving them spiritual life (since they are at the time spiritually dead) and bringing them to repentance and faith (e.g. Rom. 8:29-30; Eph. 1:3-14; 2 Thess. 2:13-14). In other words, one should not misunderstand the doctrine of particular/limited atonement as meaning all of the elect were instantly saved when Christ died in their place. No, He won or accomplished their redemption through the cross, which is subsequently applied by the Holy Spirit. So when that time does come — their repentance and faith — they are justified, sanctified, etc., on the grounds of Christ’s sacrifice. However, His propitiatory sacrifice guaranteed their eventual salvation (e.g. Rom. 4:25), as the three Persons of the Godhead work perfectly together in bringing about the eternal plan of salvation.
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