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How Does the Epistle to the Hebrews Describe the Family of God?
Throughout the Epistle to the Hebrews, Jesus is depicted as an atoning high priest in the heavenly temple, allowing all God’s children to “come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). An often-overlooked aspect of Jesus’s divine Atonement, however, involves Jesus’s role as our brother.
As Matthew Bowen has noted, “a key component of the message of Hebrews about Jesus as divine Son and atoning High Priest is his solidarity with humankind that grows out of his sibling relationship with them.”1 Indeed, toward the beginning of this epistle the author notes that “in all things it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17).2 In other words, had Jesus not become like His brothers and sisters, He could not have performed His atoning sacrifice.
The depiction of Jesus as a brother to all mankind is not an unfamiliar one in the Bible. In the gospel of John, for example, Jesus Himself claimed to be our brother: “Go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God” (John 20:17; emphasis added). Similarly, Paul describes how Jesus was “the firstborn among many brethren” (Romans 8:29).
In Hebrews, such familial language is not confined to the opening chapters but is employed throughout the epistle, reaffirming that we can relate to Jesus Christ because we do, in fact, belong to the divine family of God. Indeed, this divine family is organized such that our eldest brother faithfully presides over God’s household: “Christ as a son over his [God’s] own house; whose house are we, if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end” (Hebrews 3:6).
Furthermore, Hebrews portrays Jesus as an atoning elder brother, similar to the concept of an Israelite kinsman-redeemer, or go’el.3 In ancient Israel, a kinsman-redeemer was the “family member responsible for buying back other family members out of slavery. Jesus’s role as ‘brother’ … stands within the same conceptual framework to the older Israelite-Jewish kinsman-redeemer concept.”4 Likewise, as noted by Benjamin Spackman, seeing God as our kinsman-redeemer was an important aspect of ancient Israelite belief, and “to claim God as ‘redeemer,’ or to call upon him for redemption, was to claim kinship through a covenant relationship with him.”5 In redeeming His many brothers and sisters from death and hell, Jesus opens the path for the whole divine family to become like Him.
This is especially clear from the outset of the epistle: “in bringing many sons unto glory,” Jesus, “the captain of their salvation,” was made “perfect through sufferings. For both he that sanctifieth and they who are sanctified are all of one: for which cause he is not ashamed to call them brethren” (Hebrews 2:10–11). Furthermore, this glory is closely reflected with the salvation of the Lord mentioned in Hebrews 2:3, leading Bowen to observe that the action of God “leading many ... into glory” contains “temple echoes,” especially when it is considered that “those being led (agagonta) into glory are the saints themselves.”6
Another clear reference to the temple begins within Hebrews 2:10–11. In descriptions of Jesus having been made perfect, the Greek text uses a form of the word teleiōsis. While this word is often translated as “perfect” in the King James Version, in the ancient Greco-Roman world it often connoted becoming initiated in religious contexts. Therefore, Bowen notes that translating this word as “perfect” or even “complete” is “insufficient in capturing and conveying its nuances.” Indeed, the word teleiōsis “had an important ritual dimension,” and no one could be perfect or complete without first “receiving all the necessary initiations, rites (i.e., ordinances), and mysteries pertaining thereto.”7
When disciples were fully initiated into these rights, they had entered “a state of purification that makes one fit to perform temple functions.”8 Jesus, having been fully initiated into the divine realm, was then able to serve as the Great High Priest of the Heavenly Temple, performing an infinite and eternal sacrifice “once for all” (Hebrews 10:10).
As we are sanctified by Christ, He makes it possible for each of us to be fully initiated and to receive all the covenants and ordinances that are needed for us to enjoy the presence of the Father once more. As noted by Bowen, “Hebrews’ overriding point is that the ‘sons’ and daughters are to follow the Son, even if through unjust suffering, into the same glory.”9 Even in the most difficult moments in our lives, “suffering can be a vicarious, priestly activity” that has the potential to help us become more like Jesus, who “completed his mission and his personal preparation to receive—once more, and this time, fully—the glory of the Father” through His atoning sacrifice.10
Jesus, our elder brother in a real divine family, became fully mortal so that He could sanctify us, and He remains ever willing to help His brothers and sisters return to Him, being “like him; for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).
When we understand how Jesus’s life and mission could be described in a close, familial role as the author of Hebrews did, we can better understand the nature of God’s love for us. Rather than being a distant being, Heavenly Father is our actual father who wants us to become like Him. Similarly, Jesus is our loving brother who wants to help us succeed along this path.
As Bowen observed, when we understand that we “are sons and daughters of God, as well as brothers and sisters of a divine Son,” we are able to see ourselves “within a divine plan undergoing the process of ‘perfection’ or ‘full initiation’ (teleiōsis) that [our] ‘brother’ has already faithfully completed and who is actively helping [us] along the covenant path.”11 Indeed, as we faithfully come to Him, we are sanctified through His Atonement, empowering us to more faithfully keep our covenants with Him.
Furthermore, “Hebrews indicates that Jesus’s brothers and sisters could also [be] ‘made like’ him through priestly service.” While this service can take many forms in the Church, the fullest meaning of the word teleiōsis would signify that temple service is a key aspect to this. Indeed, “for Latter-day Saints today, this has implications for all those who receive the full blessings of the Melchizedek Priesthood, blessings made available today in the holy temple.”12
Matthew L. Bowen, “‘He Is Not Ashamed to Call Them Brethren’: Family Structure in Hebrews 2:10–18 and Jesus Christ’s Fraternal Role in Atoning for Humanity,” in The Household of God: Families and Belonging in the Social World of the New Testament, ed. Lincoln H. Blumell, Jason R. Combs, Mark D. Ellison, Frank F. Judd Jr., and Cecilia M. Peek (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2022), 243–264.
Richard D. Draper and Michael D. Rhodes, The Epistle to the Hebrews (Provo, UT: BYU Studies, 2021), 130–196.
- 1. Matthew L. Bowen, “‘He Is Not Ashamed to Call Them Brethren’: Family Structure in Hebrews 2:10–18 and Jesus Christ’s Fraternal Role in Atoning for Humanity,” in The Household of God: Families and Belonging in the Social World of the New Testament, ed. Lincoln H. Blumell, Jason R. Combs, Mark D. Ellison, Frank F. Judd Jr., and Cecilia M. Peek (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2022), 243.
- 2. Although the Epistle to the Hebrews has traditionally been associated with the Apostle Paul, the letter is, strictly speaking, anonymous. For a brief overview of the authorship of Hebrews, see Richard D. Draper and Michael D. Rhodes, The Epistle to the Hebrews (Provo, UT: BYU Studies, 2021), 4–11.
- 3. For more on this topic, see T. Benjamin Spackman, “The Israelite Roots of Atonement Terminology,” BYU Studies Quarterly 55, no. 1 (2016): 39–64.
- 4. Bowen, “He Is Not Ashamed to Call Them Brethren,” 247.
- 5. Spackman, “Israelite Roots of Atonement Terminology,” 57.
- 6. Bowen, “He Is Not Ashamed to Call Them Brethren,” 251.
- 7. Bowen, “He Is Not Ashamed to Call Them Brethren,” 252–253.
- 8. Draper and Rhodes, Epistle to the Hebrews, 146.
- 9. Bowen, “He Is Not Ashamed to Call Them Brethren,” 248.
- 10. Draper and Rhodes, Epistle to the Hebrews, 146.
- 11. Bowen, “He Is Not Ashamed to Call Them Brethren,” 247.
- 12. Bowen, “He Is Not Ashamed to Call Them Brethren,” 256.
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