Our Big Brother (Hebrews 2:14-18)

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As a church, we are frequently blessed to be able to come alongside new parents as they ask the church’s help in raising their children for the Lord Jesus Christ. Recently, we had the opportunity to do so for a family that had just adopted a little girl. This little girl has experienced the blessing of earthly, familial adoption and, like her parents, we trust, pray and will work for her eventual spiritual adoption one day in Christ Jesus. She is blessed to be adopted into a family where she has not only one big brother, but three of them. She will no doubt be well protected, and that serve as a warning to you little boys to stay away from her! Seriously though, having a big brother can be a wonderful blessing. The right kind of big brother provides wonderful friendship and security to his younger sibling(s). Another adopted girl in our church has a big brother who does karate. Let that be a warning as well! But even the most wonderful big brother is no comparison to the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the Big Brother of all of those who are adopted into God’s family. And, of course, this image of Christ as our Big Brother is strengthened even further as we realise that we become children of God by being adopted through this Big Brother (Ephesians 1:5). He makes our adoption possible. Jesus, our Big Brother, makes our adoption a blessedly certain reality. The writer to these Hebrew Christians wanted them to know and to experience this blessed privilege in its fullness. Such experiential knowledge would go a long way toward keeping them from drifting. There are many wonderful privileges that attend having Christ as our Big Brother and some of them are revealed here in Hebrews 2. In this study, we will begin to consider vv. 14-18 with a view to discovering the blessed benefits of having Jesus as our Big Brother.

Review and Overview

This chapter makes it very clear that all is not well with man, but it also reveals that one day it will be. And it will be because the Son of God came to make sure that sons of men would be sons of God—that they will all one day resemble the Son of God (1 John 3:1-3). The author was very concerned about these Hebrew disciples of Christ. He had a shepherding concern that they were letting the gospel slip away from them. And this was largely because they were failing to see its glory. They were seemingly distracted by the old covenant with its mysterious mediation by angels and its very visible rituals connected to the temple. He writes to show them the glory of the new covenant because of the glory of its Mediator, the Lord Jesus Christ; their Elder Brother (v. 11). If they could see this, then there was little chance of them being bullied into drifting.

Bullied

These believers were undergoing some severe trials and were tempted to drift from Christ. Some, no doubt, were facing the threat of losing their livelihood. As the gospel spread, unbelieving Jews became increasingly hostile to its advancement (as can be seen in Acts). The prophecies of our Lord in Matthew 10:27-39 were coming to pass. This meant that many were losing their source of income as they lost employment or were disinherited from their families. Some, no doubt, were completely ostracised by their family and former friends. Some perhaps were being threatened with death.1 With such trials, whatever the specifics, this passage indicates that the underlying reason for their drifting from Christ was fear. The evil bully was tempting them by irrational fear. They needed help. So the question that the author answers is, how does one overcome such fear? Clearly, they needed help, as do we. And, by the grace of God, that help comes in and through our Big Brother. He helps us as we face the bullies that threaten our faith. This passage reveals two ways that He helps us. We will consider the first of those ways in this study, and the second in a subsequent study.

Our Big Brother Identifies With Us

In vv. 14-15, we are encouraged that our Big Brother identifies with us: “Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.” In a nutshell, this passage teaches us that Jesus is leading the sons of God to glory. He is leading His younger and very weak siblings to certain glory. He is leading them in the face of a very real bully: the devil. And He is doing so by gospel solidarity. He identifies with us and therefore intercedes for us. The devil slanders and accuses the brothers and sisters of Christ in an attempt to enslave them in fear. But Jesus, crowned with glory and honour, suffered death—our death—and therefore the devil has no power over either us or our destiny. This is true because Jesus identifies with His siblings. His solidarity with us is security for us. Let’s see what the text teaches us about Jesus’ identification with His brothers and sisters.

He Disrobed For Us

We are told that those for whom Jesus salvifically tasted death are in fellowship together as humans. That is, the “children” whom God had “given” to Him (v. 13) all share in the experience of being flesh and blood. We share the experience of living in the weakness of the flesh. We age, get tired, fall ill and die. We live in a fallen world and witness death and decay all around us. And we deserve it, for the wages of our sin is death. But this is precisely where we see the glory of Jesus as our Big Brother. He willingly humbled Himself and became like us; that is, in the likeness of sinful flesh (Romans 8:3). Jesus, of course, was free from sin; nevertheless, by the incarnation He subjected Himself to the misery that attends the children of God, His brothers and sisters. The word “shared” in v. 14 means “to belong to.” Jesus, moved by love for the Father and for His siblings, chose to intimately enter into our experience and to belong to our world of misery. I agree with Packer, who once said that Christmas (the incarnation), not Easter (the resurrection), is the really hard thing to believe. This perhaps is why Paul, in writing of this great mystery of the love of God in the gospel, begins by saying, “Great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifested in the flesh” (1 Timothy 3:16). Once you embrace this mystery, everything else falls into place. Believer, God in Christ humbled Himself to become a man; to become a servant. Your Big Brother loved you enough to temporarily give up His right to all honour and glory so that you might share in that one day. In other words, He chose to belong to you so that you might belong to Him. And, by the way, He did that while you were His enemy. Amazing love! Before moving on, please consider that, when Jesus died on the cross, He died naked. He was quite literally disrobed. This is significant, for it was the ultimate humiliation. The Son of God became the naked and humiliated Big Brother for His siblings. With that kind of love, who would not want Him as their Brother?

He Died For Us

The next part of v. 14 reveals the extent of His identification: It was even to the point of death. As Philippians 2:8 informs us, He became “obedient to the point of death.” That is a profound statement! Consider that one day you will die. There is very good reason for each of us to expect that we will die in our lifetime! I have a life insurance policy, not because I plan to live, but rather because I plan to die. My death, like yours, will not require one ounce of obedience on our part. It is a fact of life for fallen men, women, boys and girls that they will die in this fallen world. But with Jesus, as Man, it was different. Very different indeed! Yes, He lived in this fallen, sin-cursed and death-saturated world. Yet He was not subject to the death penalty—the just penalty for all who have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Jesus never fell short of the glory of God. He always perfectly met the holy standard of God. This is what v. 9 means when it tells us that He was “crowned with glory and honour.” Many say that this was the reward that Jesus received for undergoing “the suffering of death.” But this cannot be the case because of the words that follow: in order “that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone.” Do you see that? He was crowned with glory and honour in order that He might taste death. In other words, Jesus identified with fallen man so that He could die for sinful man; to die in their place; to fully drink of the cup of God’s wrath, which they deserved. As the hymnist wrote, “Amazing love, how can it be that thou, my God, should die for me!” Again, Jesus was not subject to death. That is why the only way that He could die is if He chose to die; if He chose to became obedient to the point of death. The Father said, “Son, for the sake of my children, become a Big Brother by becoming a Man. And then—as a sinless man—die.” And our Big Brother said, “Yes Father.” What a Brother!

He Delivered Us

The rest of vv. 14-15 reveal what the death of our Big Brother accomplished for His siblings. It resulted in defeat of the devil and deliverance from the devil.

The Defeat of the Devil

First, the death of Christ resulted in the defeat of the devil. “Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil” (v. 14). The word, “destroy” means “to make useless” or “to render inoperative.” It carries the idea of making something irrelevant. This is precisely what our Big Brother did when He died. Think about it: Death usually spells the end, whereas with the gospel the death of Christ spelled the beginning. As Brown points out, “The New Testament makes it clear that the coming of Jesus was the beginning of the end for the devil.”2 When Jesus cried, “It is finished” (John 19:30), He was also saying, “It begins!” What was finished was the defeat of Satan once for all as predicted in Genesis 3:15. According to Colossians 2:14-15 it was at and on the cross that Jesus triumphed over the devil. He is a defeated foe. He really is irrelevant. We know that the devil is an angel who fell because of pride. What a blow to him that, when it comes to the siblings of Jesus, he is completely irrelevant. The devil is loud—“a roaring lion” (1 Peter 5:8)—but he cannot hurt the children of God, the brothers and sisters of Jesus. This would be a good place to point out that Christians should stop giving him prominence. The cause of my sin does not reside in hell but in my heart. There is a particular realm in which we see that the devil is irrelevant, and it is the realm of having “the power of death.” That seems strange. After all, does the Bible not teach that God is the one with ultimate control over life and death? Certainly, but as William Lane says, “The devil did not possess control over death inherently but gained his power when he seduced humankind to rebel against God.”3 When man sinned then he became a servant of the devil who then held them in fear for their existence.

Nothing in Me

How did the death of Christ render the devil and his power over death irrelevant? It seems that the idea in Philippians 2 of Jesus becoming obedient to the point of death is the key to understanding this. As we noted, death had no claim over Jesus because He did not live under the death penalty. He was righteous, and the law was not made for the righteous but for sinners. Further, because Jesus was sinless He could say of the devil, “He has nothing in Me” (John 14:30). That is, the devil had no claims on the life of Jesus. Jesus was the one man in history that the devil had no right to claim as his (Ephesians 2:1-4). And so, when Jesus died as the perfectly sinless man, He was instituting a whole new humanity, a whole new world order. Our Big Brother was resetting the rules having kept all the rules. There would now be a people—those for whom Jesus tasted death—who would forever be out of the grip of the evil one. You see, since the devil had nothing to use against Jesus, since he had no power over Jesus’ death, neither did he have any rightful claim to those for whom Jesus represented in His death.

The Greatest Ploy

While the devil thought he was so clever, seemingly manipulating the Jewish leaders to crucify Messiah, in actual fact he had fallen for the greatest ploy in history—God’s ploy. And by crushing the heel of our Big Brother, the devil was simply fulfilling prophecy; the prophecy of our Big Brother crushing the devil’s ugly head (Genesis 3:15). As I once heard John Piper say to some children, “On the cross, Jesus kicked the devil’s butt.” Hallelujah what a Saviour!

Deliverance from the Devil

Verse 15 further illuminates what this defeat of the devil looks like. It shows us, second, that the death of Christ resulted in deliverance from the devil. Jesus died to destroy the devil “and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.” We need to unpack these words to fully appreciate the glory of having Jesus as our Big Brother. The word “release” seems simple enough. It speaks of being delivered. But the root of the word carries the idea of exchange. We can therefore legitimately translate this term as “deliver through exchange.” And this is precisely what Jesus did by becoming obedient unto death. We will come back to this in a moment. Just who was it that was delivered? Particularly, it was “those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.” Does this apply to every human being? It is true that every person is going to die, but is each in bondage to the fear of death? I don’t doubt that death holds terror for the majority of people—not just the process of dying, but the fact of death itself. But I don’t believe that this verse has every human in view. The fact is, many of the most ungodly throughout history have had little fear of death—even on their deathbeds. The infamous atheist Christopher Hitchens, as he was preparing to die of throat cancer, wrote major editorials letting the world know that he was not afraid to die and that no one should believe any mythical stories of his deathbed horrors or deathbed conversion. As far as I am aware, he died peacefully. Though this verse may be generally true for most of humanity, it is not true of all. So, to whom does this apply? The entire chapter has in view those whom Jesus is leading as sons of glory. It addresses those for whom Jesus salvifically tasted death. If you keep in mind the context—the brothers and sisters of Christ—then “those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” must be primarily with them in view. This verse is revealing that our Big Brother has delivered by an exchange His siblings from a life that was often characterised by a slavish fear of death. This has remarkable implications. First, by God’s grace, He ordained that those whom He saves would first be liable to a slavish fear of death. God ordained that they would be born into this world at enmity with the devil. Though the curse pronounced in Genesis 3:15 concerning the seed of the woman being at enmity with the devil does probably apply generally to all of humanity, nevertheless in a special way it applies to God’s children. That is, though they are born with hearts at enmity with God, thankfully they are also the objects of the devil’s enmity. Such a fear might drive them to try and avoid the penal consequences of death by pursuing good and/or religious works. Others might try and avoid it by pursuing a “fountain of youth” in which death is entirely avoided. Others may live oblivious to the reality of death and judgement and so became slavishly addicted to a life of sinful indulgence as a means of denial of death and its implications. Nevertheless, when God grants repentance and faith, then the alarm sounds, the fear of death and eternal judgement awakes and “fear of death” haunts them. That is, until they place their faith in Christ and in Christ alone. The devil may haunt the siblings of our Big Brother in many ways—such as, “He will never forgive you,” or, “Your eternal judgement is certain and so eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you die”—yet by Christ’s deliverance by exchange, they are set free from the fear of the death penalty and death now becomes simply the means of glory, not of horror. Second, this deliverance required an exchange. The exchange that secured our deliverance was the exchange of the righteousness of Christ for our unrighteousness; our sin for Christ’s sinlessness (2 Corinthians 5:21). There is a heretical teaching that claims that Jesus paid the penalty for our sins to the devil, and in exchange he set the captive free. That is blasphemous. The penalty was implemented by God and hence was paid to God. The result was that the devil’s “power of death” was forever broken for Jesus’ brothers and sisters. Our Big Brother did not make a deal with the devil. Rather, by His righteousness He crushed our evil bully. Third, when Jesus died for His siblings He was plundering the devil’s domain. I love the picture provided for us in v. 14 of the devil being checkmated and forever defeated by the sovereign and gracious power of God in the cross. While the devil thought he was exercising his “power of death” over a son of Adam, he was at that very time actually under the crushing heel of the Last Adam, Messiah, our Big Brother. Consider this scene. The devil, with his ugly pride, watched Jesus die on the cross and perhaps boasted to himself that he had won the victory. Perhaps one of his minions tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Uh, master, we have a problem! Millions and millions—in fact, perhaps even billions—of souls (there are too many to count) are being evacuated from your dominion. Sir, it looks like your kingdom is being plundered and there is no way for us to stop it. They are following one that looks like a Champion. He looks like a Captain; like a conquering Pioneer. He is leading them to another kingdom. In fact, sir, this Champion has a strange resemblance to that man on the middle cross.” “Nonsense,” replied the devil. “Can’t you see that man in the middle is dying? In fact, it looks like He will give up the ghost before the other two. Look! The soldier has just pierced His side and the water and blood from around His heart are flowing. The man is dead. And you stand here telling me that He is a Champion over my kingdom? How can a dying and dead man defeat me?” Perhaps the demonic minion replied, “I don’t know, sir, but it appears that His dying seems to have been the point all along. It would appear that we have been duped, and that His death on the cross was actually His goal. And, by the way, what is that huge heel that is about to crush your head? I think we are in big trouble.” And, praise God, they were—and they are. No wonder, to the believer, the cross of Christ is seen as the power of God for salvation. No wonder Paul said that he would boast in the cross. No wonder he exclaimed that he would only preach Christ and Him crucified. Yes, hallelujah, what a Saviour! Fourth, our Big Brother has forever freed us from condemnation. It would be helpful at this point to understand the meaning of “devil.” The word means “to slander,” “to accuse” or, in some cases, “to falsely accuse.” In Revelation 12 we have the vision of the devil, up until the time of Christ, accusing God’s children and condemning them. The devil is a pretty good theologian—theoretically, that is. He knows that the wages of sin is death. He knows that God is true to His Word. And so, when God’s children sin, the devil begins to accuse and to condemn. It goes something like this: “God, your ‘child’ just committed a sin. He broke your law. You said that the soul that sins shall die. So, God, kill him.” But because Jesus died on the cross to justify such sinners; because He paid their just penalty by dying in their place; because of all of this, our Big Brother responds with triumphant passion, “Devil, go to hell!” Praise be to God that, by His grace, Jesus became one of us so that He would be our Big Brother who died for us in order to deliver us.

Summary

Much of what has been said, I trust, has been seen as having enormous practical value. And we will see more of this as we expound the remaining verses of chapter 2. But let me highlight three essential results with specific reference to these verses concerning our Big Brother.

Our Biggest Menace

Fundamentally Jesus, our Big Brother, has beaten our biggest menace. The devil is irrelevant because his power over the death of the sons of glory has been abolished; it has been annulled. The devil—a fallen angel—is irrelevant in the big scheme of things. God’s grace has made him so. Therefore, we can conclude that Jesus has delivered His brothers and sisters from an irrational fear of death. And if He has removed the greatest of our fears then, by extension, He has also delivered us from the least of our fears. Faith in our faithful Big Brother makes us fearless. We might say that the faithfulness of Christ empowers us to be faithful. This will be seen in the final verses of this chapter. Jesus really is our Champion; let us therefore follow Him fearlessly. Our Big Brother has made it certain that we have nothing and no one to fear. He will lead everyone for whom He tasted death to glory. Our lives are no longer marked by futility but are rather characterised by hopefulness. He is the Champion, and we need to focus on Him and what He is doing and what He has purposed to do rather than focusing on the defeated foe and what we erroneously think that he can accomplish. We need to see Jesus (v. 9). Someone recently shared a video with me that showed how many European nations, because of low birth rate among native Europeans, are headed for disaster. The low birth rate is unsustainable for future generations. On the other hand, Muslims in those same countries are taking over—purely by birth rate. By 2050—if population trends continue—Britain will be a predominately Muslim nation. When I first saw this video some years ago I found it disturbing. When I saw it again recently, I was actually encouraged. Britain—and other European countries—has largely apostatised. It is a country filled with atheism. The gospel faces stiff challenges in the face of such a worldview. Islam, on the other hand, is not a atheistic culture. Muslims are religious, and most of them are not terrorists. I suspect that the gospel often finds more favourable soil among the religious than among hardened atheists. Perhaps current population trends are simply one way God is working to produce greater gospel fruit in our future.

The Best of Men

Jesus is better than the best of men. This truth will be fleshed out in greater detail in the chapters that follow, but for now let us rejoice that, although Psalm 8 is not a Messianic Psalm per se, nevertheless Jesus has fulfilled it. Throughout history, men have failed over and over to be a messiah to those they are leading. The best of men have only proven in the end that they are only men at best. But Jesus, the God-Man, was perfectly righteous and therefore, in Him, all of His siblings will one day be indeed the best as they share in His glory. Our Big Brother, who is the best, does His best for us, which assures that we will one day be the best we were destined to be! As Phillips reminds us, “He became like us so that we might become like him. He came to where we were to take us to where he came from so that we might become like him in his glory.”4

The Best of Messengers

He is better than the best of messengers. You will remember that this opening section of Hebrews is aimed at proving that the new covenant mediated by our Big Brother is better than the old covenant mediated by angels. This passage proves this beyond a shadow of a doubt. In fact, it might be helpful to remember that the devil was (and is) an angel—a fallen one. Angels could fall; Jesus could not. He is better than them. The gospel as proclaimed under the new covenant is better wine indeed. So don’t drift to away. Rather, “see Jesus” and swim to shore.

And You?

But let me also say a word to those who refuse to embrace the so great salvation offered by Christ. I said earlier that Jesus tells the devil to go to hell when he starts with his nonsense of trying to condemn Jesus’ brothers and sisters. One day, when you die, you will stand before Jesus. If you refuse Him as your Lord and Saviour then He will tell you to go to hell (Revelation 20:11-15). He is serious about the work of salvation that He accomplished on the cross. Don’t mock either it or Him. Rather repent and call upon His name and be saved.

Show 4 footnotes

  1. Within a few years of the writing of this epistle, Nero’s persecution of Christians would break out in earnest, and this would certainly be the case.
  2. Raymond Brown, The Message of Hebrews: The Bible Speaks Today (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2000), 69.
  3. William L. Lane, Hebrews: Word Biblical Commentary, 2 vols. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1991), 61.
  4. Richard D. Phillips, Hebrews: Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2006), 69.