What's the purpose of Christmas? Well according to one survey some are saying this: 'presents, family time, holidays, making and spending money, a time for children and baby Jesus' – in that order. The purpose of Christmas for some is to have a 'Winter Festival' as councils often call it. They've done away with Jesus and the main characters are now: Jack Frost, Santa, Dr Who, John Lewis and the Strictly winner. So 'eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die'. But that's a pagan Winter Festival which at best can offer us an imaginary saviour of the world, or retail therapy – at least until you realise how much you've spent! Yet there's evidence that people want more than that. Brexit and the US election show that others are fed up with at least some political correctness.
Christmas is about Christ, the only Saviour of the world, about the miracle of God coming into the world in the person of Jesus, and the great message of salvation, of liberation from our chief enemies – sin, death and the devil. And Hebrews calls us to hold fast to the Son of God and his message and not to drift. Not to drift away from the hopeful message of Christmas and buy into the commercial one which so often leads to debt and fear, not to forget the central character – Jesus himself – but to pay careful attention to him and his Word. Look at Hebrews 2:1 which is translated better:
"We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away."
And if you're not yet a Christian, verse 3 gives a loving warning. Don't neglect Jesus' offer of salvation because neglecting it will lead to judgement. Christ came into the world at the very first Christmas, fully man and fully God, to rescue us, to liberate us, "to bring many sons [men and women] to glory" (Hebrews 2:10). That was God's purpose. But why, how and what, does it mean for us today? Well those questions are now answered as Hebrews argues that God the Son, Jesus Christ, had to share our humanity, to suffer and to die, so that we might share in his glory.
Jesus the Great and Perfect Pioneer (v1-13)
So why and how? Why did Jesus need to come fully man and fully God that first Christmas? What happened that we find ourselves in need of rescue, of true liberation? Well, the writer gives us a clue by the frequent mention of that great unmentionable - death. In verse 9, he speaks of, "Jesus suffering death and tasting death for everyone." And in verse 14 the writer emphasizes Jesus' humanity:
"He himself likewise took on flesh and blood, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil and set us free."
Put simply, the reason why things aren't as they should be is because human beings have introduced a moral and spiritual infection into the world called sin - a deliberate going it alone as rulers without God, and so, as a result, placing ourselves under another influence, the devil. And death is the ultimate reminder that we can't be our own Masters; that things have gone wrong and need to be put right.
But how? How can this messed up world ever get put back on course so that we become the people we were originally meant to be? How is the devil, who over the centuries has enticed men and women to carry out the gas chambers of Auschwitz and the mess that is Syria, to be overthrown? More pertinently, how is the ultimate insult which makes a mockery of all our hopes and achievements - death - to be removed and reversed? Humanly it seems impossible. But what if God has taken the initiative? Then it's not impossible. And that's exactly what he's done in Jesus. Look at verses 8-9. For a short period God the Son, was made a 'little lower than the angels" or he was clothed in human flesh and blood.
He grew tired and weary. He was limited by time and space. He had to put up with noisy neighbours and grumbling relatives. But at the same time he began to show what man was meant to be like and who he really is. Those oppressed by demonic powers he set free and those whose hearts were broken by loss and grief he mended by raising their loved ones from the dead. But even then not everything was subject to Jesus. The Romans still ruled. The devil's power still held sway. But that was to change one Friday afternoon, when "he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone" (Hebrews 2:9), with the result that he's now raised from the dead himself with a glorious resurrected body and exalted above the angels, at his Father's right hand, crowned with glory and honour.
Death was the pathway to such glory for Jesus but, by the grace of God, his death is also the way to safety and freedom for us. As our great and perfect pioneer (v10-13) Jesus had to meet the sinister powers of sin, death and the devil and it was necessary for him to take on the same nature (v14) as ourselves, in order to deal effectively with them, which brings us to my second point:
Jesus the Great Liberator (v14-16)
"Jesus likewise took on flesh and blood, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those [you and me] who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery."
In March 2005, Ashley Smith made headlines around the globe when she was taken hostage by an alleged killer for 7 hours in her suburban Atlanta apartment. The 27-year-old widowed mother of her six-year-old girl was beginning to find her way again when Brian Nichols took her hostage. Just hours earlier, he'd shot dead a judge, a court reporter, a deputy, and a federal agent, and escaped in a stolen vehicle. Ashley had paid only passing attention to coverage of the unfolding manhunt. Now she found herself face to face with Nichols, a desperate, heavily armed man with nothing left to lose. What a terrifying situation to be in. Now in the end Ashley managed to escape with God's help. Miraculously she was able to talk her way out of the hands of the courthouse killer, using what she'd been reading in a Christian book I've found helpful – The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren.
And Hebrews brings home to us the unpleasant truth that humankind is subject to a spiritual enslavement. The kidnapper, if you like, is Satan. He exercises his hold over people by the use of fear, the fear of death. We can't escape this ourselves, we need someone to set us free. Well, the liberator has come and he is Jesus Christ. And how he liberates! If we sin, we pay the penalty, and the penalty is death. But what if there was someone else who could pay the penalty instead, on our behalf? Of course, he would have to be one of us, since it's as human beings that we sin and it's as human beings that we pay the price. But he would also have to be the perfect human being who had no sins of his own to pay for. More than that, he would have to be someone who's more than a human being, a sort of representative, an infinite being who could pay for infinite sins. There's only one I know who fits that bill and that is the Lord Jesus Christ - perfect God and perfect man united in one person. The purpose of his incarnation was that: "by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death – that is the devil." (Hebrews 2:14). We can only be released from Satan's power and freed to serve God by the forgiveness or cleansing made possible by Jesus' death. Jesus removes the threat of judgment and condemnation for those who trust in him and gives the assurance of life in the world to come. And in this sense too we're not inferior to angels (v16); it is Abraham's descendants he helps, not angels. Angels can't be redeemed, but we can.
So for those who trust in him and follow him, the devil loses his grip. What was once a dungeon - death - is transformed into a doorway - a doorway into glory. Verse 15 asserts that before Christ comes into our lives, our greatest fear is that of death. But a Christian has no need to fear death. Martin Luther wrote on this verse:
"He who fears death or is unwilling to die is not a Christian to a sufficient degree; for those who fear death still lack faith in the resurrection, since they love this life more than they love the life to come…"
On this day years ago I took the funeral of Elsie who was then the longest standing member of JPC, our partner church. She was baptized there in 1918 and was married there in 1942. Elsie didn't fear death. She knew God was with her. On Christmas Day the year after Elsie died I'll never forget going to visit Alice in hospital. Alice had cancer and was dying. But when I arrived she was beaming and said to me: 'Jonathan, I'm not scared of dying. I know Jesus now. I know I'm going to be with him.' (Alice had just been through the Christianity Explored course and had trusted Christ.) Yes "perfect love drives out fear" (1 John 4:18). But some of you might be thinking, 'Yes, but if Jesus has defeated the devil why is the devil still active?' Well a postman put it this way:
"Once I opened a gate only to find myself confronted by the largest and most vicious dog I had ever seen. It barked furiously and then leapt towards me. I stood there helpless and terrified until, to my immense relief, I saw that this massive, angry dog was chained to a huge stake set in concrete. The chain was a long one and the dog had considerable freedom, but not enough to reach me. I saw I could easily deliver the letter and did so. Whenever I had to visit that house I took little notice of the aggressive dog, instead keeping my eye on the strong stake! At the cross the enemy of souls, the devil, was made impotent, limited and chained down. When he has bitten us it's usually because we have been far too near."
Which brings us finally to:
Jesus the Great Sympathiser (v17-18)
"Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted."
In the Old Testament the high priest had to be blood kin to the people he represented. He offered animal sacrifices on their behalf. What's more, the high priest knew what it was like to be weak and tempted and so when he went into the temple to do his duty he wasn't supposed to do so in some morally superior way. Rather he was to be tender-hearted towards God's people, because he being one of them understood them so well. But now we have Jesus as our high priest. He was both priest and victim on the cross. And now we can come to him in prayer when in need, with the confidence that he knows what we're going through, because he's been through the mill himself. I need a God like that. Someone who's near and compassionate. Well, I do have that someone and he proves himself faithful over and over again. Again only because he shared our nature, experienced human frailty and suffered when he was tempted, is he able to provide the appropriate help to those who are being tempted and suffering. As well as helping those who are afraid of the future, he also helps us by showing mercy. If death is fear of the future, guilt is fear of the past. Through his great salvation Jesus has made propitiation or has appeased God's wrath for the sins of the people (v17). So if we're trusting in Christ, in his death, then our sin has been dealt with: past, present and future.
I've also known his faithfulness as I've struggled with temptation. He's a faithful, as well as a merciful, High Priest. He also shows us how to react to suffering. And he doesn't just show us and teach us – he also supports us and strengthens us when we're right in the midst of it. Around this time a few years ago a baby was born to a couple at JPC. It was discovered within hours that he had a major heart problem and had to be rushed to the Freeman. After much prayer and medical skill he was able to have a heart transplant. His parents feared he might die. But through it all they were able to turn to Christ and know his help, his strength, his faithfulness and care. They personally know Jesus - the great pioneer, the great liberator and the great sympathizer. Do you? If you don't yet why not sign up for our new course, Life Explored, starting on 18 January? And if you do know Jesus - are you turning to him for help?