Divine Simplicity: The Pastoral Side to Simplicity
Brace yourself. I’m about to make quite a claim. Are you ready? What would you say if I told you that the doctrine of immutability, which Francis Turretin says is a proof for the doctrine of simplicity, helps us to understand the nature of God, which it most certainly does, but at least one New Testament writer employs it to demonstrate the stability and integrity of the Gospel itself? Grab your Bible, open it to Hebrews 13, and read it. I’ll wait.
My guess is that when you read this text you immediately noticed the bookends. In verse 7 the pastor speaks of past leaders and in v. 17 he speaks of present leaders. But the order seems to end there. A cursory reading of these eleven verses reveals no apparent rhyme or reason. Let me put it another way. Taken as individual sayings what the pastor says makes sense. In fact, even the words and expressions tie us back into the letter itself. But when we try to understand the basic theme between vv. 7 through 17 it is difficult to say the least. In fact, it seems almost dizzying!
Let’s think about it for a minute. Verse 7, as we said, begins with an encouragement to remember past leadership. But quite abruptly in verse 8 the theme changes. In verse 8 we have what appears to be an ontological statement about the person of Christ. Yes, it does seem to correspond to what we find in verse 12 of chapter one but what sense does it make here? Then, just as hurriedly, the preacher makes a statement in verse 9 about being carried away by false teaching. But before we have time to wonder about any of these things the author leads us to think about Judaism. In fact, from verses 10-14 the preacher returns to what appears to be the Day of Atonement, which the author already dealt with in chapters 8 and 9! And then the theme changes again. In verses 15 and 16 we find an admonition to do good and finally, in v. 17, we are brought back to leadership.
So, what do we make of this? Why put all of this seemingly diverse material between these statements about leadership? Perhaps one option is that these statements aren’t related at all. Maybe these statements encompass a series of things that the preacher wanted to “get in” before closing out the letter. Now, that seems a bit hard to maintain because much of this material is already “in” the letter. So, what is the preacher of Hebrews up to?
Well, I think that what we have here is the preacher making one final crucial point and employing previous teaching to do so. The question is what is the point he is trying to make? In order to answer that question I want us to start from the middle of the text and work out. In other words, let’s start with what should be already familiar to someone who has just read Hebrews. Think about the sitz im leben or the life setting of this congregation.
Remember that the people in this congregation had left the temple. They no longer returned to Jerusalem and the Temple mount for the yearly triad of feasts which obviously meant that there were no priests, no vestments, no incense, no sacrifices, no temple structure, no altar – nothing. They had left all of the accoutrements of Judaism behind. They were now worshiping in a house. The leaders were not wearing priestly garments nor were they covered in the blood of animals. It was all very plain; all very unremarkable.
Keeping that in mind notice what the preacher says in v. 10. He says, “We have an altar…” Now that is a remarkable claim. But notice what he goes on to say. Not only do we have an altar but it is an altar from which the priests who were functioning in the temple have no right from which to eat! Now, we need to pause for a minute to ask ourselves a question.
Namely, what is going on here?!
We don’t have a physical altar! What is more, there is no sacrifice on the altar we don’t have and therefore there is no food! So, what does the preacher mean when he says that the priests serving in the temple at the visible altar who are eating visible portions of sacrifice have no right to eat from the food on our altar? What is he talking about? The answer rests in what the preacher has in mind when he says that “we have an altar.” So, what does he mean?
He means that we have Christ. And by drawing a contrast between the food from our altar, which is Christ, and the food from the altar of the tabernacle, which are the animal sacrifices the preacher is saying, “We have Christ. The priests, however, are not fit to eat from our altar or we might say, they are not able to partake of Christ.”
It is simple. The priests of the temple continue to handle the types and shadows as if they were the reality. That’s the idea. But do you see what the preacher is doing in all of this? He is saying to his congregation, “What is visible, what is material is not more real. In fact, what is immaterial is real.” This is the very thing he said at the beginning of chapter eleven. But this sets us up for something very important.
Consider verses 8 and 9. Listen to v. 8, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” In verse 8 the preacher is giving us a compass by which to hear verses 10-16. In other words, whether Jesus is presented under types and shadows of a bygone covenant era or proclaimed through the gospel in a plain home, He is the same. He is unchanged and unchanging. Let me make that a bit plainer. Despite the fact that Jesus was presented under the symbol of a slain lamb or bull God expected the people and especially the priests to recognize His Son in the substitute. Furthermore, God expected his people and priests to look to His Son through those types and shadows.
Because whether he is given under types and shadows or proclaimed in the gospel He is there and He has not changed. This is why the preacher warns them saying, “Do not be carried away by varied and strange teachings.” He obviously has Judaism in mind. And that becomes even clearer when he says, “It is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, through which those who were so occupied were not benefited.” Do you see what he is saying? The grace of Jesus is our food. He is the altar from which we eat but the foods on which the priests of the temple feast are of no benefit to them because they cannot see Christ, which is why they have no right to Him now.
Brothers and sisters, do you see how the preacher of Hebrews ties all that we have said to the leaders of the church, the subject which gave order to this section? If Jesus is the second Person of the Trinity and therefore independent, immutable, and simple, then not only is there no shadow of turning in Him but there is no mutability in His message. And if there is no mutability in the message, then there will be continuity between the leaders of the past and the leaders of the present because they preach the Christ who is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
Jeffrey A. Stivason has been serving the Lord as a minister of the gospel since 1995. He was church planter and now pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA. He also holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA.