One of the later and less well-known Sherlock Holmes stories (The Retired Colourman) begins in an oddly depressed mood. Dr Watson has been describing an elderly man, who has just left the detective's consulting room, as "pathetic and futile". Holmes picks up the phrase:
"Exactly, Watson. Pathetic and futile. But is not all life pathetic and futile? Is not his story a microcosm of the whole? We reach. We grasp. And what is left in our hands at the end? A shadow. Or worse than a shadow – misery".
The fictional Holmes, of course, has little room for any genuinely spiritual dimension in life – hardly surprising when we remember that his creator was obsessed with the delusions and fantasies of godless Spiritism. But how well this jaded language describes the pessimistic worldview of anyone without a Saviour! Pathos, futility, shadows, emptiness, and – at the end – misery. Secular humanism offers nothing but pointless short-term pleasure followed by unending gloom.
But the Christian outlook is entirely different, largely because it directs attention away from ourselves in all our failures to the only One who can provide genuine satisfaction. I cannot think of a more invigorating way to start a New Year than to reread Hebrews One. The writer wants his readers to appreciate the absolute superiority of the Lord Jesus over all others, from angels downwards. Apart from a few brief moments (can you find them?) the entire chapter therefore casts an unwavering spotlight upon Him. Reading it you can easily understand why the writer twice urges us to "consider" Christ (Heb 3.1; 12.3). Thayer's expansion of the first word is "to consider attentively, fix one's eyes or mind upon", while he defines the second (which appears only here) as "to think over, consider, ponder". He who created the mind is the best person to occupy the mind. The argument of the chapter sets up a systematic contrast between God's Son and God's angels. Let's consider five of the ways in which Christ's superiority is affirmed:
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, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds; Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high; Being made so much better than the angels, as he hath by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they. For unto which of the angels said he at any time, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee? Thou, Lord, in the beginning hast laid the foundation of the earth; and the heavens are the works of thine hands: They shall perish; but thou remainest; and they all shall wax old as doth a garment; And as a vesture shalt thou fold them up, and they shall be changed: but thou art the same, and thy years shall not fail. But to which of the angels said he at any time, Sit on my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool? (Heb 1.1-13).
You'll notice that I have marked out in bold the phrases on which I intend to focus. If, like me, you find it useful to have a thread to hold ideas together, you'll see it in the letter S. Christ is the spokesman (God has "spoken unto us by his Son"), the sin-purger (for He "purged our sins"), the sovereign (who has "sat down" on the right hand of the "Majesty"), the Son ("Thou art my Son") and the Same ("Thou art the same").
The first three descriptions effectively expound the meaning of the Old Testament term "Messiah" and its New Testament equivalent, "Christ". This grand title of dignity simply means "the anointed one", but we need to know our Old Testament to grasp its implications. In Israel's God-given constitution three kinds of person were anointed into their office, each deeply significant in the national life of a people set apart for God. Priests went through a special consecration ceremony, described in Leviticus 8. Kings from Saul onwards were anointed into their public responsibility. So too was at least one prophet. But all these people were in fact nothing more than faint foretastes of God's ultimate anointed servant, who would combine in Himself all their functions as prophet (speaking for God), priest (dealing with sins), and king (ruling for God). The Lord Jesus is the final divine spokesman (for in Him God has climactically "spoken unto us"); the final priest (for he has "purged our sins"), and the final sovereign (seated "on the right hand of the Majesty on high" in anticipation of His coming reign over the earth). Others may have paved the way, but Christ eclipses them all. Israel's many prophets brought words from God ("thus saith the Lord" was their characteristic announcement), but Christ is Himself the living Word, God's closing message to man. Israel's priests offered "oftentimes the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins", but this One "offered one sacrifice for sins for ever" (Heb 10.11-12). Israel's kings sat on an earthly throne but this One is seated at God's right hand. God has nothing more to say; He has no alternative remedy for the problem of sin; and there is no other ruler of the universe.
But the writer goes on, this time quoting words from Psalm 2 in which the Father directly addresses the object of His love: "Thou art my Son". This sums up God's gladness in acknowledging His Son to a wondering world. I suppose we tend to remember Matthew's account of the Lord's baptism because it comes first in the New Testament, but we should not overlook Mark and Luke. Placing the narratives in sequence highlights the subtle difference between them:
And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased (Mt 3.17).
And there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased (Mk 1.11).
And a voice came from heaven, which said, Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased (Lk 3.22).
The substance is the same but the emphasis is distinct. Matthew's narrative is primarily for the education of the audience ("This is"); Mark's and Luke's are for the joy of the Son Himself ("Thou art"), as the Father confides His personal delight in One who has eternally satisfied His heart and continues so to do under the new conditions of sinless manhood. As someone has put it, "Son spells out what He means to God".
The final affirmation is "thou art the same". This marvellous testimony to divine immutability frames the letter, reappearing in Hebrews 13.8, and echoing the truth of Malachi 3.6. Christ is gloriously the Same in His being, His attributes, His excellence, His reliability. What He was of old He is still. Divine sameness, of course, is not staleness. The universe, already groaning under the curse, is wearing away and will finally be disposed of like a worn-out garment, to be replaced with a new heavens and earth; but Christ remains, refreshingly unchangeable. In Him there can be no pathos, no futility, no shadow, no emptiness, and no misery. How blessed, in 2016, to belong to Him!
To be continued.