For the Joy Set before Him

It is one of those ‘stop-you-in-your-tracks’ type statements that crops up in the Bible from time to time. ‘Who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God’ (He 12.2). It is, of course, speaking of Christ and his sufferings on Calvary, but it is the strange inclusion of ‘joy’ in this statement that seems out of place.

There is a translation issue bound up with this verse that has a bearing on how it should be interpreted. It concerns the Greek word anti which can be taken either as ‘for’ or ‘in place of’.

In his commentary on Hebrews, Calvin prefers the latter option. And he explains why: ‘for he [the author] intimates, that though it was free to Christ to exempt himself from all trouble and to lead a happy life, abounding in all good things, he yet underwent a death that was bitter and in every way ignominious’. William Lane, among others, adopts the same interpretation in his commentary.

The sense of the verse then becomes, that Christ relinquished the earthly joys that could rightly have been his and instead accepts the anguish of the cross in order to secure salvation for his people.

The majority of translations and commentaries, however, opt for the translation ‘for’, with the sense that Jesus was looking beyond the cross to what it would achieve as the supreme incentive for enduring its pain and shame. (Calvin acknowledges the legitimacy of this interpretation, though adding, ‘I still prefer the former exposition’.)

Regardless of which translation we might deem preferable, the weight of joy in this statement is set against the weight of suffering with the implication that the former far outweighs the latter.

This thought has already surfaced in the New Testament where Paul tells the Romans, ‘For I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us’ (Ro 8.18). Suffering weighs heavily on us all – even as Christians – but it is not the heaviest thing in the cosmos. The weight of glory exceeds it and that glory is bound up with joy.

How then, in the context of Hebrews, does this statement about joy in relation to the sufferings of Christ help the Christians to whom it was first addressed? The answer lies in what it says about Christ’s horizons in life.

Throughout the letter, Jesus has been presented not just as the incarnate Son of God, but also as the archetypal man. He is the one ‘who had to be made like his brothers in every way’ (2.17) and who, as our priestly representative, ‘has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin’ (4.15). In the language of Paul he is the ‘second man’ and ‘last [ultimate] Adam’ (1Co 15.45-48). He had to be such to undo the damage done through Adam’s fall in Eden; but it was also necessary so that he might become the model man. He is the paradigm for the new life that begins in salvation.

Clearly for these Hebrew Christians, the attraction of this world’s pleasures (partial and polluted though they are) was undermining their determination to press on in the life of faith that was costing them so dearly. Hence the note the author strikes repeatedly in his catalogue of faithful saints from Old Testament times and their willingness to be true to God and accept suffering rather than betray him for a moment of pleasure. Moses is held up as the classic example of what this means: ‘He chose to be ill-treated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time’ (11.25). But then the writer adds, ‘He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward’ (11.26).

If there is any statement that exegetes the enigmatic reference to Christ’s attitude to suffering and joy in the twelfth chapter, this statement about Moses provides the natural key.

As the One to whom Moses ultimately pointed, Jesus supremely chose deliberately to eschew the pleasures of this world for the perfect joys and pleasure of the coming world. And he knew that the purpose behind his earthly mission was to plumb the depths of sorrow for his people in order that he might be their trailblazer to the heights of everlasting joy.

In so doing, through his sufferings on Calvary, he provided the only true and safe horizon whereby his people can navigate their way through life. He gives balance and perspective on how we are to view life. Far from suggesting that joy has no place in Christian experience, or that we are to somehow enjoy our suffering, he is reminding us of where our priorities must lie. Since what matters most is the joy bound up with God’s being truly glorified through the restoration of his good creation, we can joyfully endure sufferings in this present world for the sake of what is to come.

Easter is the perfect season to remind us of this great reality. The darkness and despair of Good Friday give way to the joy of Easter Sunday. The Christ who suffered, bled and died for us – the man of sorrows, acquainted with grief – is the same Christ who is also risen for us and who is alive for evermore.

He is our Great High Priest, enthroned in the highest place of honour and authority, who ‘always lives to intercede’ for his people (7.25). His prayers will carry us through our sorrows and guarantee the fullness of joy he has prepared for us in heaven.

Mark Johnston