Union with Christ in Hebrews
When we think of the places in Scripture where we find the doctrine of union with Christ, most people, especially Biblical scholars, immediately think of all the material in Paul’s letters. Paul uses the words “in Christ” numerous times point to this union, he also uses the imagery of our baptism into Christ or being the body of Christ to signify this union. In this post, I want to suggest that the book of Hebrews also has a concept of union with Christ.
First, in the book of Hebrews we see that Christ is the new glorified exalted man who represents the people of God. This is clear in chapter two where Jesus fulfills Ps. 8 in his glorification. He is the true human crowned with glory and honor fulfilling the eschatological goal of humanity. But we also notice that His suffering death which lead to glory accomplishes a purpose for His people. So he “tastes death for everyone” (2:9), is from ‘one source’ with believers (2:11; the interpretation here is debated), and He calls believers “brothers” (2:11). In the incarnation, he becomes united to humanity (2:14) so that he can aid the “seed of Abraham” (2:16). Thus, in 2:17 when Jesus is “made like his brothers in every respect,” it is not just speaking of the incarnation, although it is, but notice that the purpose of the incarnation is related to his union with those he will redeem. So in Biblical teaching, in the hypostatic union, Jesus becomes truly man; it is the incarnation. But also, part of the purpose of the incarnation is so that he can be in a more specific union with those he is saving—he comes brothers with the covenant community. This is analogous to Paul’s doctrine of union with Christ.
In this union with the covenant community, Jesus is not merely a servant in the house of the people of God but he is head over the house (Heb. 3:2-3, 6). Although it is the imagery of a house (or household, to emphasize it is not the building in view), this is not unlike Paul’s imagery of the body of Christ.
Hebrews 3:14 is one of the key verses that leads me to believe that Hebrews does have a concept of union with Christ behind some of what it articulates. “For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end” (Heb. 3:14). We share in Christ or we are a partaker of Christ. Hebrews does not elaborate very much on what is meant by the phrase, yet we see the emphasis on holding fast to the original confidence in the faith as in 3:6. It probably has in view that the believer receives the benefits that come from the exalted Christ. In light of chapter 2, it probably can be summarized generically as ‘union with Christ.’ Christ’s work has won benefits for his people and those who remain in the faith are indeed partakers of the benefits. They are partakers of Christ himself. His glory will be their glory.
Likewise, later in the book of Hebrews, we see a connection between Christ’s perfection and the perfection of believers. Christ’s perfection is his becoming the glorified eschatological man—the head of the new humanity. There is no moral transition in Christ—Jesus was always morally perfect. However, Christ’s human life moved from humiliation to glory/perfection. Christ is “made perfect” (2:9-10), he learns obedience and is ‘made perfect’ (5:9). In this perfection he is the source of salvation for all who obey him (5:9). Christ’s offering ‘perfects’ believers (10:14). Likewise, the saints of the Old Testament are not perfected apart from us (11:40), which suggests a union of the people of God. There is also the great assembly, a covenant community, of which Christ is the head (Heb. 12:22-24).
Hebrews articulation of a concept of union with Christ is different than the way Paul describes it. Paul is certainly more nuanced and detailed. However, Hebrews does have a conception of the people of God sharing in a union that links their destinies with the head of the people, the Son Jesus Christ. The believer can have every confidence in Christ and Christ’s ability precisely because he acts as the representative of the eschatological people of God. Because Christ entered into heaven as the glorified man, we can have hope that our destiny is the same as Christ’s destiny (6:18-20). Christ is our anchor and we are tethered to Christ because of great union with Him. Hold fast to Christ and it is evident that you are a partaker in all his benefits.
Tim Bertolet is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College and Westminster Theological Seminary. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Pretoria, South Africa. He is an ordained pastor in the Bible Fellowship Church, currently serving as pastor of Faith Bible Fellowship Church in York, Pa. He is a husband and father of four daughters. You can follow him on Twitter @tim_bertolet.