Sermon preached on Hebrews 13:20-25 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 4/21/2019 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
“Who brought up our Lord Jesus from the Dead”
Today is our last sermon in our series through Hebrews. Though it may be bitter-sweet to end a series through such a grand and glorious book, we get to end our series thinking about the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead! What perfect timing, providentially, on this Easter Sunday. We began to look at this passage last week, and today we’ll consider those parts that we didn’t address then, particularly about the resurrection. Starting then at the end of this passage, we see in verse 23 that the author of Hebrews was hoping to come to visit them soon. In this letter, the author has been sharing with them a strong word of exhortation. He’s been concerned that they’ve been tempted to abandon Jesus and return to Moses and the old covenant. He’s written them strongly to hold fast to Jesus. He’s hoping to come and visit them soon, surely to reinforce this message in person. But in the meantime, he prays for them. He prays knowing that they are in good hands, because as his prayer shows, the risen Lord Jesus is there for them as their Great Shepherd. And we’ll see that as he references this in his prayer, he at the same time drives home the theme of his letter: that God’s people now have a better covenant with a better leader than what the people had in the past.
And so then, let’s look at this prayer for them and us in verses 20-21. I draw your attention to the words in the middle of verse 20. “Who brought up our Lord Jesus from the dead, that great shepherd of the sheep.” Without going into all the technical details, in typical Hebrews fashion, the Greek phrasing here shows a dependence on the wording from a specific passage in the LXX. In this case, it appears Hebrews has echoes of Isaiah 63 in the background. But, Isaiah 63 is about Moses and the Exodus. And so here, Hebrews appears to take the language from Isaiah 63 and coopts it to instead talk about Jesus and the Resurrection. Let me mention a few specific ways Hebrews does this.
First, he does this with the language of God “bringing up”. In Isaiah 63:11, this language of God bringing someone up is applied first to the people of the Exodus and then most specifically to Moses. Isaiah 63 is recalling God’s amazing redemptive work with Moses in the Exodus. That Exodus was obviously such a central theme in the old covenant, that it was recorded as the preamble in the Ten Commandments. “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage,” Exodus 20:1. Isaiah 63 was remembering how God had brought Moses and the people up from Egypt because the people found themselves again needing God to save them. The people knew that since God could help them like that in the past, then he surely could help them again in a similar way. Of course, as we remember the biblical history, it was an awesome display of God’s power to save his people. Remember the initial calling of Moses with the burning bush and the initial miracles he gave him to prove that he had been sent by God. Then remember the 10 plagues God did through Moses, when finally Pharaoh let them go. But then, of course, Pharaoh changed his mind and pursued them in the wilderness. That’s when the parting of the Red Sea happened! That’s what Isaiah 63:12 goes on to mention. And so think of all that power of God in bringing up Moses from out of the land of Egypt and safely out of the Red Sea. That’s the power the people were remembering, and that’s the power that they were calling upon for help in Isaiah 63.
And so, in contrast, Hebrews says how God brought up our Lord Jesus from the dead. Don’t get me wrong, the parting of the Red Sea was a pretty amazing miracle. But it surely is not as amazing as God raising Jesus from the dead. Think about it. Jesus suffered so much in the flesh, even just leading up to the cross, and then to finally hang there dying. But then he gave up his spirit. He hung on that cross until he was dead, dead, dead. Just to be sure, the professionals stabbed him with a spear to make sure he was truly dead. His body was placed in a tomb and even sealed. But God brought him back. Up from the grave he arose, with a mighty triumph over his foes! Realize, this is physically impossible. This was not what we call a “medical miracle” where people describe some unexpected recovery that defies our understanding, but that isn’t actually defying the laws of nature. Rather, this was a divine, supernatural miracle that cannot be explained by any natural or physical causes. Jesus, by divine power and authority, laid down his life at the cross, and on the third day he took it back up; not to mention that the sealed stone of the tomb was rolled away! And so, don’t get me wrong, being saved from Pharaoh and the chariots of his army, is pretty amazing. But when someone is delivered from the sting of death, that is even more remarkable. And since we know that our greatest enemy in life is ultimately death, it’s God’s resurrection power that should particularly grab our attention. Hebrews draws our attention to this by contrasting Jesus’ resurrection with Moses and the Exodus in Isaiah 63.
A second way Hebrews coopts the language of Isaiah 63, to point to the Christ, has to do with this reference to a shepherd of the sheep. Isaiah 63 describes Moses as a shepherd of the sheep. The text in Isaiah emphasizes the leadership of Moses. It’s basically describing that it was God’s intention to bring Moses up out of Egypt so he could shepherd the people. As it says in Isaiah 63:12, so God could lead his people by Moses. Certainly, the people needed a shepherd, especially in that time following the Exodus when they wandered in the wilderness. The idea of being a shepherd, of course, employs analogy. We remember that an actual shepherd is someone who watches over sheep, who makes sure they are safe, who leads them out to food and water and back to the safety of their pen afterwards. If a sheep starts to stray, the shepherd uses his staff to pull the sheep back to safety with the rest of the flock. Moses certainly did this in the wilderness, because God’s people, back then, like still today, were like straying sheep. On their own, they tended to stray spiritually and fall into dangers to their souls. Whether it was with the golden calf incident, or the peoples incessant murmuring against God when they didn’t have some need immediately met, Moses had to keep pulling the people back toward trust in God and reliance on God and on obedience.
But in coopting that idea here for Jesus, Hebrews doesn’t just say that Jesus is also a shepherd of the sheep. Hebrews says he is the Great Shepherd of the sheep. He is the shepherd of shepherds, akin to how he is described as the Great High Priest in Hebrews 4:14. All earthly spiritual shepherds are but undershepherds of Jesus. All shepherds among God’s people are but imperfect types of the one Great Shepherd that has come in Jesus. He, on God’s behalf, perfectly shepherds us according to the description in that famous Psalm 23. And in the wonderful teachings of Jesus, we remember how he described himself as the Good Shepherd. And we remember why he said he was a good shepherd: because he lays down his life for the sheep, John 10:11. Of course, this prayer in Hebrews reminds us that was not the end of Jesus’ shepherding. Rather, like the Isaiah reference to Moses as a shepherd, God brought Jesus up from the dead to be such a Great Shepherd of us. He continues all the more now to shepherd us, because, “He is risen!”
And think of where he is leading us: to the glory of a heavenly inheritance! The Isaiah notion was that God brought Moses out of Egypt to shepherd his people safely to the Promised Land. If Moses as the shepherd of the sheep had been able to do that, that would have been wonderful, but it would have only been to the typological home for God’s people. The Promised Land of Israel under the old covenant was only the typological home, not the final home of God’s people. But think about the contrast – Moses shepherded the people long and well through that forty years of wilderness wandering. Yes, sadly, we know because of his inability to fully handle the stiff-necked, wayward people, he ended up sinning when he struck the rock for water instead of speaking to the rock like God commanded. That resulted in Moses not being able to finish the mission. He had to pass the baton on to Joshua to complete the work of leading the people into the Promised Land. Moses, instead, died on Mt. Nebo, being able to see the Land from a distance, but not being allowed to shepherd the people into it. In contrast, Jesus as the Great Shepherd of the sheep has become the forerunner into the glory of our final home. He has already passed through the heavens into the glory of the world to come as he sits in heaven at the right hand of God. From that position of authority, he now currently shepherds us his sheep unto that glory. He leads us and guides us and protects us by his Word and Spirit and via the undershepherds he has appointed in the church. We have a living Great Shepherd who now keeps us while we are on this time of “wilderness wandering” of this life. And he is the one who will come back here for us at the end to bring to that new beginning of the glory of the world to come. That’s the shepherd we have, who in his resurrected life shepherds us now and into glory!
And so, having thought about some of the details of Isaiah 63 that are coopted here in Hebrews to point to Christ, think about the overall conclusion. When we look at the Isaiah 63 passage as a whole, we see that the passage was a prayer for God to remember his people and save them. It looked back on Moses and the Exodus to appeal to God to again bring such help to redeem and save God’s people. Thus, with the reflection we’ve had today from Hebrews, we realize then how the prayer of Isaiah 63 was ultimately answered. God heard that prayer in Isaiah 63 and ultimately answered it by sending Jesus and in bringing him up from the dead to be the Great shepherd of the sheep. Isaiah 63’s remembrance of Moses is not to stay in the past of Moses and make a home there. It’s to look ahead to the future which is in Jesus!
Thus, it would be foolish for any Christian to think we should go back to Moses and the old covenant typologies, now that we have such fulfillment of God’s promises in Jesus. Therefore, our Christian faith is rooted in the best shepherd, not a lesser one. For our faith is rooted in the living shepherd whom God raised from the dead, not the one God buried after he died. It is rooted in an exalted shepherd who leads us into the true Promised Land as the forerunner there, not in the shepherd who was barred from the typological Land, who could but look on it from a distance. This is our Great Shepherd that God has brought up from the dead so that we, along with Moses and all the saints of old, would have the hope of bodily resurrection into glory at the end of the age.
So then, see where this prayer in Hebrews takes all of this. Having thought about the resurrection of Jesus who shepherds us to glory, the prayer request here in Hebrews is about that shepherding that Jesus will do for us as we are on the journey to glory. The specific prayer request is in the first half of verse 21. Hebrews prays for the growth and worship and service for the people he’s been writing to. Essentially, he’s praying for their sanctification. By application, this is a prayer needed for all Christians. Verse 21, he prays that God would “make you complete in every good work to do His will, working in you what is well pleasing in His sight.” So then, I love how Hebrews connects God raising Jesus from the dead with this prayer for the sanctification of believers. Essentially, Hebrews’ prayer calls upon the same power that rose Jesus from the dead to be at work in our souls. Romans 8:11 makes a similar point, that the same Spirit that rose Jesus from the dead is also living in us and working in us as Christians.
So then, we continue to invoke the Lord God by that same resurrection power to work that new life within us, now, and unto glory. When we look then at the specific prayer request in verse 21 here for us, we see that there are two halves. The first is to “make you complete in every good [work] to do His will” and the second is to be “working in you what is well pleasing in His sight”. In one sense, this could be understood as two different prayer requests. However, upon closer examination we see that they are closely related, almost of the sort of parallelism we find in Hebrew poetry. Both halves deal with the growth we want God to do in our hearts so that we’ll have right actions flowing from such hearts. With that basic summary, let’s look at each half briefly and see some of the specifics mentioned.
Let’s think first about the prayer to “make you complete in every good [work] to do His will”. The main verb of this whole prayer is this word for making complete. It’s a verb about putting in order or restoring. It can be used to describe the mending of nets. What’s important then to understand is that this verb’s direct object is the word “you”. In other words, the prayer is for God to fix, restore, complete, and perfect “us”, God’s people. As fallen creatures, we need to be put in full and complete working condition. This is what we seek the Shepherd to be doing. As Christ brings to us the resurrection life of the age to come, we must be made fit inwardly for such a life. And this prayer in Hebrews reminds that this is something we seek growth in here and now. With a view to glory, we seek God’s inner renovation of our souls here and now. The prayer request then says that such soul renovation is with a view that we would be then doing deeds according to God’s will. Again, this obviously describes the sanctification process. But I love how it shows how sanctification works and why it is also a result of God’s grace. If we are going to do godly deeds in this life, it will only be as God graciously renovates our hearts to live for him. Thus, that is why we pray for such. We pray for that power which raised Jesus from the dead to be raising our souls out of that old place of spiritual death to live in the newness of our spiritual rebirth.
So then the other half of this prayer is “working in you what is well pleasing in His sight.” In this half, the verb is “working” and it looks to what God would work inside us, God’s people. Hebrews again prays here that God would do something in us so that there could some fruit come forth from our changed hearts. This clearly parallels and complements the first half which asked for God to make us complete. But notice here the specific fruit that he seeks. In the first half the fruit was about living that conformed to God’s will. Here the fruit he seeks is that which “is well pleasing in sight.” That’s worship language. In the Greek it’s worship language that he’s used in context here in Hebrews about worship. It started back in 12:28 which I pointed out before is really the beginning of the concluding imperative section of this book. There it talks about that since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, we should with gratitude worship God in a pleasing way. The pew Bible translates 12:28 as “acceptably” but it’s the same Greek root as what we have here in verse 21 for “well pleasing”. The same word appears in the middle of this section, in 13:15, that also speaks of well pleasing worship, in the context of sacrifices that involve both praise and sharing with our brethren. In other words, we see this theme developed in this chapter of well pleasing worship. This final section of Hebrews began there in 12:28 with a call for worship that is well pleasing to the Lord, in light of our great salvation. It continued to develop the idea in this final chapter. Then, this whole section ends on that same note. But now, Hebrews goes from calling for well pleasing worship, to praying for well pleasing worship. He prays that our hearts might be so sanctified that such well pleasing worship would pour forth from us.
There is much gospel in that thought. It’s a theme we find so much in Scripture. God commands us to do various things, and then shows how he will enable his people to do the things he commands. So too here with worship. God commands us to rightly worship him, so we pray that he would give us the grace to rightly worship him. That is the only way we will truly be able to live out these commands.
Trinity Presbyterian Church, in conclusion, we therefore today call again upon the resurrection power of God that rose our Lord from the dead to work within us this grace of sanctification. Trusting in the resurrection of Jesus, we pray for the grace to live righteous lives. Rejoicing in the resurrection of Jesus, we pray for the grace to worship God aright.
And if you are here today never having trusted in Jesus Christ, in his death and resurrection, I call you to do so today. The Bible says our sin deserves God’s wrath and curse. If Jesus paid for your sins on the cross, then he will shepherd you unto a glorious eternal life. Otherwise, you will find and experience the wrath of God for eternity when he returns. The Bible says you can have the confidence of this salvation by repenting of your sins and putting your faith in Christ, in his death and resurrection. Trust him today and begin to have the risen Lord Jesus shepherd your life unto glory.
So, then for us who have this hope and faith, let’s experience some fulfillment of this prayer right now. As we continue to pray this prayer today, we can see it being answered here in front of us. The prayer prays that we would worship God in a pleasing way, and then immediately says, “to God be the glory forever through Jesus Christ.” As an act of worship, let us give a hearty “amen” of affirmation to that as we conclude today’s sermon. To God be the glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen!
Copyright © 2019 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
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