Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Hebrews 13:8
Some Christians believe that there is no difference between the time Jesus was on earth (and the age of the apostles that followed) and our current time.
They believe that everything that happened then should be happening now. For example, they affirm that just as Jesus and his apostles performed myriad of signs and wonders, we should be seeing those signs and wonders in the same way (at the same rate). If we are not seeing them, it is because of our faithlessness, they affirm.
Similarly, some believe that all (though they are inconsistent in the application) the actions and practices of Jesus are normative for us today. For example, if Jesus worshipped on the seventh day of the week, we should (don’t mind the fact that Jesus also kept Passover and the Feast of Tabernacles).
My aim here is not to dispute these well-meaning believers (there will be time a plenty for that) but to evaluate one of the passages they use as a proof text. They appeal to Hebrews 13:8, where the author affirms the immutability of Jesus to prove that there cannot be a distinction between Christ’s time (and the apostolic times) and ours.
They believe that Hebrews 13:8 shows that Jesus can never change, which then means there cannot be any change between the apostolic and post-apostolic period.
Is this the intent of Hebrews 13:8? What’s the true message of Hebrews 13:8? Does it in any way support the claim that there cannot be a change as we move away from the apostolic age?
Well, let us find out.
The Message of Hebrews
Though we do not know with certainty who wrote the book, its message is clear.
The book of Hebrews was written to Jewish believers who were being persecuted for their faith. Persecution was weighing them down and there was the temptation to return to Judaism.
Judaism was a recognized religion in the Roman Empire and Jews were in the good books of the Romans (until some zealots led insurrection movements).
At the beginning, people in the empire perceived Christianity as a form of Judaism.
However, as time went on, it was clear that Christianity was a unique movement with audacious claims (a dead man, who is God, rose up and now reigns at the right hand of God) and vision (the salvation of every nation, tribe, language, and people).
Upon the discovery of these claims and vision (and how it opposes the claims and vision of the empire), Christians were out of favour and series of persecutions broke out against them.
The temptation to renounce the faith and go back to Judaism was real.
The author of Hebrews wrote this epistle to encourage these persecuted believers by pointing them to the inferiority and obsoleteness of the Jewish economy and the superiority of Christ and the new covenant.
Also, the author encouraged them to persevere in the faith despite the persecutions by keeping their eyes on Jesus (who suffered and died), embracing the hope of the gospel, and reflecting on the faith of the old covenant’s saints.
The book begins by establishing Christ’s superiority (as the Son of God) over angels and Moses – the mediator of the old covenant (Chapters 1-3). In the fourth chapter, we see that Christ’s rest is superior to the old covenant Sabbath rest. From the latter part of the fourth chapter to the end of chapter 7, the author affirms the Melchizedekian priesthood of Jesus and its superiority to the Aaronic priesthood of the old covenant.
Christ, as high priest, inaugurated a new covenant that is better than the old covenant with better promises and a better (heavenly) tabernacle (Chapter 8). This covenant was founded on the better sacrifice – Christ offering himself as the once for all sacrifice for sin. (Chapter 10).
Since the Christian faith supersedes the Jewish economy, the author encouraged them to persevere in the faith and hold firm to the hope of the gospel (latter part of Chapter 10).
In chapter 11, he encouraged the persecuted believers by pointing to the faith and faithfulness of the OT saints. Such a cloud of witnesses should encourage them to persevere, look on to Jesus, do away with sin and unbelief, and embrace God’s discipline. (Chapter 12)
Furthermore, refusing God has dire consequences (God is a consuming fire). If the rejecters of the old covenant did not escape God’s warnings, how much more will those who reject the new covenant fail to escape such warnings?
Chapter 13 is the concluding chapter.
It begins by encouraging the believers to love one another. That love will manifest in kindness to strangers and remembrance of those in prison (Hebrews 13:1-2).
In verse 4, the author exalts the marriage institution and condemns sexual immorality and adultery. The marriage bed must be undefiled.
However, covetousness is as dangerous to the Christian life as sexual immorality and adultery. Believers must be content with what they have.
To encourage us in the pursuit of contentment, the author quoted Joshua 1:5 (Deuteronomy 31:6). If God will never leave us nor forsake us, then we can be content with what we have. Contentment is founded upon God’s promise to be with us always.
Armed with this promise, we can confess that “The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?”
Covetousness is founded upon fear. Our craving for more and more reflects our insecurities. We need to acquire more to have a heightened sense of security.
However, for those who have God’s promise of his perpetual presence, we cannot be afraid of men. We are secured in God and we do not need to acquire more and more because of our insecurities.
The Immediate Context of Hebrews 13:8
To summarize, in 13:1-6, the author has focused on two things: the godly habit we need to embrace and the sins we need to shun. We need to embrace love (in its various forms) and reject sexual immorality and covetousness.
One unique feature of this author is that he precedes or (and) follows imperatives with encouragements. The point of the book is to encourage believers to persevere in the faith. Therefore, he makes a point of accompanying every admonition with encouragement.
Why should you be patient? Because it is impossible for the God who promised to lie (Chapter 6). Why should you hold fast to the hope of the gospel without swerving? Because he who promised is faithful (Chapter 10).
Why should you live by faith rather than shrink back? Because there is a cloud of witnesses (Chapter 11). Why should you embrace God’s discipline? Because he disciplines the ones he loves (Chapter 12).
After admonishing them to embrace one godly virtue and shun two sins, he now encourages them by pointing them to their leaders.
Remember your leaders
The author encourages them to remember their leaders. In this context, these are their spiritual leaders – those who spoke the word of God to them. They are the spiritual teachers who instructed them in the word of God.
More likely, these people founded their church. Since the author was addressing the whole congregation, ‘those who spoke the Word of God to you” is a reference to those who founded the church and brought the gospel to them.
The call to remember these leaders, accompanied with the use of the past tense to describe their ministry (who spoke the word of God to you), indicate that these leaders were dead at this point. The Greek word here – Laleo (spoke) – is in the aorist tense, which means it is a past action.
To encourage these believers to pursue love and shun immorality and covetousness, the author wants them to remember the founders of the church who brought the faith to them.
Why should they remember them?
Because of the outcome of their way of life. The Greek word translated as ‘end’ is ‘ekbasis.’ It is the word translated in 1 Corinthians 10:13 as ‘way of escape.’
One of the definitions of the word according to Thayer Definition is ‘the issue referring to the end of one’s life.’ Commenting on the use in Hebrews 13:7, they noted, “refers not only to end of physical life, but the manner in which they closed a well spent life as exhibited by their spirit in dying.’
The use of ‘Ekbasis’ further confirms that these founders were dead at this time. The word suggests that the end of their way of life correspond with the end of their lives.
The believers were to consider the end/outcome of the life of their spiritual leaders. These founders of the church have persevered in the faith until their death and now they have entered into their rest (Revelation 6:11; 14:13).
As the pioneers of the church, they faced intense persecutions. However, they persevered amid persecutions and stayed faithful until the end.
Consider this and then imitate their faith. What kind of faith did these leaders exhibit? It was a persevering faith – a faith unto death. The author is using the example of their founders to encourage them to persevere unto the end in righteousness and holiness (as per verses 1-6).
The Immutability of Jesus Christ
It is in this context that we have the statement about the immutability of Jesus Christ – Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
The author is referring to the immutability of Jesus to make the point that if the believers imitate the faith of their leaders, the outcome of their lives will be the same.
God rewarded the persevering faith of the founders of the church by giving them rest (ushering them into glory). If the present crop of believers imitate their faith, they will see the same outcome.
‘Jesus Christ is the same’ when the founders persevered and found rest. ‘Jesus Christ is the same’ when the author admonished the current believers to imitate that faith. ‘Jesus Christ is the same’ whenever anyone at any time imitate this persevering faith.
For everyone who persevere in the faith, there is glory because Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
That is the point that the author of Hebrews was making. You will not sow persevering faith and reap anything other than glory. God rewards the faith of his people yesterday, today, and forevermore because the Christ in whom they trust is immutable.
Hebrews 13:8 has nothing to do with the question of whether there is any difference between the apostolic age and the post apostolic age or the pre cross era and the post cross era. That question must be settled on other grounds.
Appealing to this passage to ‘prove’ that everything in the present must be the same as in the pre-cross and apostolic age is poor exegesis and proof texting.
This statement about the immutability of Jesus has a particular context – Jesus rewarding the persevering faith of his people. Whether it is in the apostolic or post-apostolic age, God always rewards the persevering faith of his people with glory.
Those who love God’s word will not misinterpret it to make a point or support an argument. Christians who love God and his word must carefully exegete it rather than resort to proof texting.
All the cults and heretical organizations that exist today are products of proof texting.
To stay faithful to scriptures, we must tremble before it and seek to submit ourselves to its teachings.