Christ’s Condescension: A Sermon by Rev Hugh M. Cartwright
But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honour; that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man. (Hebrews 2:9)
The apostle has been referring to the fact that man was originally made a little lower than the angels, but he was made in the image of God. He was made to reflect the glory of God and to control the environment in which he was created; everything was put under him. But we know the havoc sin has wrought, when mankind fell from that state in which they were created by sinning against God. We just have to look within and look around, and we discover that human beings, instead of controlling all things for the glory of God, are in bondage to sin, and the very environment is cursed for their sakes.
The restoration of the fallen race is brought about in Jesus Christ. When we look at human beings we do not see humanity as humanity was made. But we see Jesus Christ crowned with glory and honour, and through him his people are restored, not only to the state from which they fell, but to a much more glorious state. We know that through the offence ““ through the fall, through sin ““ we lost the glory we had as we came from the hand of the Creator, but in Jesus Christ we may obtain a glory immeasurably greater. All this is bound up with Christ and the relationship between him and his people. That relationship accounted for Christ being brought down to where we are and it accounts for his people being brought up where he is. It was through condescension ““ through suffering, through death and resurrection ““ that Jesus Christ secured this for his people.
We would look first at the condescension of Jesus; it says here: ‘We see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death’. Then at the grace that is manifest in this condescension: ‘that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man’. Finally the glory secured through that condescension: we see him ‘crowned with glory and honour’.
1. The condescension of Jesus.
This is the first time that the name Jesus is mentioned in the Epistle, but not the first time he has been mentioned. He is described in the first chapter as ‘the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person’. He is the One by whom everything was created, the One whom God addresses as his Son. The sonship does not imply inferiority; it does not refer to someone who came after another; it refers to the same nature. The Son of God is God the Son, and it is good to think of it like that ““ as the Spirit of God is God the Holy Spirit. Although there are distinctions between these divine Persons, they are each equally God; all divine power and glory belongs to each Person of the Godhead.
It is this Person, who is the eternal Son of God and was worshipped by the angels, who was made a little lower than them. It does not mean that he ceased to be the glorious Son of God; even when he was on earth he was the Son in the bosom of the Father. He did not lose any aspect of his Godhood but he took on something he did not have before; he took on the nature of creatures who were made lower than the angels. The One who is eternal God took into his person a human nature like yours and mine except ““ and what a wonderful exception ““ it was without sin. It was perfect human nature ““ holy, harmless, undefiled and separate from sinners. He did not become a human person but a divine Person with a human nature. He who is and was and ever will be equal with the Father in his divine nature, came to share the creaturehood and the lowliness that characterises human beings.
He is God and man, a divine Person, in two distinct natures for ever. Supposing you and I never read anything more than The Shorter Catechism, we would get good theology there to keep us from the aberrations that abound on all hands. There was no mixture of the divine and the human, but there is a union, so that the same Person, who is God over all and blessed for ever, has a humanity which puts him, in that nature, on the same level as ourselves. Who can measure the condescension of the eternal Son of God coming down to our level, while remaining the God that he was?
There was tremendous condescension in the reason why he took human nature: for the suffering of death. He who could not die took a nature in which he could die; so here is a Person who is God and who has died. God could never obey, but here is a divine Person who has learned obedience. God could never suffer, but here is a divine Person who has suffered. God could never die, but here is a divine Person who has experienced death in our nature. Alexander Stewart, who was in Cromarty, speaks at great length about the wonder of God in our nature, referring to it in such terms as the Infinite becoming an infant of days and the Eternal becoming a babe of a span long.
These are the ‘things the angels desire to look into’ (1 Pet. 1:12). The word used there includes the idea of stretching your neck to see something: they are really eager to enquire into the mystery of the divine Person they worshipped from the moment of their creation, but now in human nature suffering death. And the death he suffered was such that no one but himself could suffer. He suffered physical death and sometimes people say, ‘Others were crucified as he was crucified’. But no other was like him who was crucified, when you think of the holiness of his Person, the perfection of his humanity, and the sensitivity of his human nature. Even Christ’s physical sufferings were of a nature that no sinful human being could ever know.
Of course, he experienced much more than the physical death. In Psalm 22, we have the words which gave expression to his experience on the cross of Calvary: ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ That is the very essence of death and of the curse on sinners: to be forsaken by God, yet not separated from his presence. We will never get away from his presence:
Ascend I heaven, lo, thou art there;
there, if in hell I lie.
(Psa. 139:8, Scottish Psalter).
Whether this refers to the grave or a lost eternity, there is no getting away from God’s presence. It would be a terrible thing to be confronted eternally with God’s presence, the reality of God, God’s claims, and yet be forsaken by the God who is merciful and gracious and slow to wrath.
The God who has revealed himself in Christ as a God of infinite goodness is a God of infinite severity. The Lord Jesus Christ was confronted on the cross by God in all the severity of his justice: ‘Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, and against the man that is my fellow, saith the LORD of hosts’. This was not just negative; it was not just the withdrawing of God’s comforting presence, but the imposition of his wrath, which is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteous of men, upon the head of Christ on the cross. The comforts of God’s presence were completely withdrawn. Christ was not under any misapprehension when he said, ‘Why hast thou forsaken me?’ When the Christian says, ‘Why hast thou forsaken me?’ he is making a mistake; God does not forsake his people; they just feel he has forsaken them. God says he can never forsake them; their names ““ they themselves ““ are graven on the palms of his hands. You cannot go far without seeing what is on your palms; this just emphasises how close his people are to God and how much under his observation.
‘I will never leave thee nor forsake thee’ ““ that is, If you think I have forsaken you, you are mistaken. Christ made no mistakes. When Christ was forsaken, it was not just a feeling he had. God withdrew all his comforts. This encouraged him in the dark days of his ministry: They are all forsaking me but my Father is with me. He could not say that on the cross of Calvary. His father was not with him; his comforts were taken away and he was left to face the awfulness of the wrath of God against the sins of his people.
That is brought before us here. The suffering of death was not on account of anything in himself but because he was acting for others. As it says here: ‘he . . . should taste death for every man’. It was death in the place of others, for the benefit of others; it was a vicarious death, a substitutionary atonement. Isaiah saw that long ago when he saw his glory and wrote of him: ‘He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all’ (Isa. 53:5,6). We sing these remarkable words:
Lord, thou my folly knowest; my sins
not hidden are from thee
(Psa. 69:5, Scottish Psalter).
Christ is speaking in this way because of the real imputation of the sins of his people to himself. Their sins became his sins, not in the sense that he became a sinner, but he became accountable to God for their sins. That is why they can say, The Lord is my righteousness. We are not the Lord, we are not the righteousness, but his people may say, ‘It is my righteousness; he is my righteousness’ ““ because the righteousness of Christ is imputed to his people. There is a reality in the counter-imputation of their sins to Christ and Christ’s righteousness to them. We have to endeavour by faith to lay hold of that truth: ‘The Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all’ (Isa. 53:6).
Why did Christ die at Calvary? Because he was the sin-bearer. This means that if we are his people, if we have been brought to trust in him as our Saviour, then our sins were what brought the wrath of God upon him. This is the condescension of Jesus, the Son of God, not just in taking our nature, but in taking our nature so that he could experience death. It speaks here about the suffering of death and about tasting death.
When I was in the Black Isle, I knew an old minister very well who was looking forward to heaven but was very much afraid of the experience of dying. Some of the Lord’s people may be like that. Most of us may be more concerned about whether or not we will get to heaven, but at that time he was sure he was on the way to heaven. Yet he said, ‘I don’t know how I can experience death, the actual dying’. He went to bed one night and wakened up in heaven. He did not even know he was dying. You can die without, in that sense, suffering death. The Lord Jesus was not like that; he tasted death. Again we might make the mistake of thinking that tasting is just a little of it, but it signifies really entering into the experience of death. He really did go through everything involved in dying ““ particularly the kind of death he died, forsaken by God under the curse due to his people.
2. The grace that is manifest in this condescension.
The construction of the sentence is very difficult: ‘He by the grace of God should taste death for every man’. Why did Christ come to die for sinners? When we look at the death of Christ we see justice being meted out to him because he was the sinner’s representative. He did not experience one iota of suffering more than was deserved because the Lord had ‘laid on him the iniquity of us all’. The justice of God insists that sin will be punished to the full but it will not be punished beyond (if we can think of a beyond) what sin deserves. ‘Awake, O sword, against my shepherd.’ That was the sword of justice: not the sword of one army against another but of the Judge, the sword of the law.
A woman was asked what was the basis of her hope for eternity; she said it was the justice of God. Then she explained: ‘That he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus’ (Rom. 3:26). Justice was meted out to Christ on Calvary, and justice demands that those for whom he died shall be saved. That is a great basis for our confidence. God would not be just if he again required the punishment of his people that Christ has already endured in their place.
Payment God will not twice demand,
first at my bleeding Surety’s hand,
and then again at mine.
How did Christ come to bear the penalty of sin? How did he become subject to God’s justice in the place of his people? We have no claim upon God’s mercy. The angels that sinned were cast down to hell; no grace was given to them, no opportunity of repentance, no mediator. If God had done the same with the human race, no voice could be raised against him, for our sins deserve God’s wrath and curse in this life and that which is to come. We have to trace salvation back to God’s sovereign good pleasure; the ultimate reason is that God was willing to save a people from their sins. If you want to see the basis of the Calvinistic doctrine of the sovereignty of God in salvation, read through Ephesians 1 and you will see how everything is traced back to the counsel of his own will. He did it because it was his will to do it.
His will was characterised by grace, by undeserved favour towards the guilty. He saved them because he saved them; their salvation is attributable, not to works of righteousness which they have done, but to his mercy ““ the grace of God the Father in providing salvation for human sinners when there was no salvation for angelic sinners like the devil and his demons. It is awful to think that they were once in heaven. That creature who is the bane of our lives was once before the throne of God among those who were praising God. There is great mystery here that no one can solve: how sin got into Satan. But it is a fact, and no mercy was shown to him.
But God, in his sovereign, free grace, provided salvation for human beings who fell in Adam and were conceived in sin and shapen in iniquity, so that they would spend eternity in heaven. Grace accounted for the provision of salvation through a Mediator ““ one to represent the many. It was not left to everyone to work out his own salvation. Just as Adam represented the whole human race and all fell in him, so Christ was appointed to represent the elect of God. That is wonderful grace: a person was appointed Head of the church, the representative of the whole body.
You also see the grace of God in the person provided to occupy that office. Where could God find a person who could take on himself ‘the iniquity of us all’? Where could God find a person who had the capacity to render an obedience, in place of the disobedience of millions of his people, that would satisfy God? Where could he find a person whose death could atone for sin and save millions of people from dying eternally? Although God would ransack the whole of creation he would not find such a person. But he appointed his own Son, and he took on that appointment. Is that not grace?
There is not only the grace of God the Father in giving his Son, but the grace of God the Son in becoming the Messiah and taking on himself this tremendous work. He says, ‘I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father’ (John 10:18). And his receiving the commandment was just as divinely sovereign as the Father’s giving of that commandment. So it is the grace of God that accounts for the condescension of Christ.
3. The glory secured through the condescension of Jesus.
You notice a semi-colon before the words: ‘that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man’. Perhaps that is partly because these words explain everything that has gone before. That is why he was made a little lower than the angels, experienced the suffering of death, and is crowned with glory and honour ““ so that his death on Calvary would secure the salvation of ‘every man’.
There is a real sense in which Christ was crowned with glory and honour when he was appointed the Saviour of sinners, because to save sinners manifests God’s glory more than anything else he has ever done or could do. The Father was putting great honour on the Son when he appointed him to be the Saviour, although he was also putting on him a tremendous burden. You see in his intercession (in John 17) how the Lord Jesus regarded it as a great honour to be entrusted with the salvation of his people and to glorify God in that salvation. That should be a wonderful thought to us, when we think of Christ’s condescension. Your salvation and mine, if we are his people, is what manifests the glory of the Son of God as nothing else can.
Glory and honour were also conferred on him when he finished the work which the Father gave him to do. The Epistle to the Philippians speaks of how he humbled himself, took upon himself the form of a servant and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. ‘Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things of heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Fatherh (Phil. 2:9-11).
What glory has been put upon Christ ““ not just after his death but because of his death! His death made inevitable his resurrection, his ascension, his session at God’s right hand, and his coming in glory at the end. He is not glorified in spite of having died, he is glorified because he died ““ a death which was the death of death for the people of God. God has highly exalted him. Every knee will bow, every tongue will confess, however willingly or unwillingly. You and I will all be glorifying God at the end of time. Whether we will do so gnashing our teeth or with hearts full of devotion to God is another matter, but every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. He secured that glory and honour by his death.
It is good that we are remembering the Lord’s death on the Lord’s Day, which, every week, commemorates the resurrection of the Saviour. We should get back to the way, in the early church, they greeted each other on the Sabbath morning: ‘The Lord is risen; the Lord is risen indeed’. Do we think of that on Sabbath mornings when we are getting up or coming to church? Christ is not in the grave. He rose triumphant over death. He ‘was delivered for our offences and was raised again for our justification’. If there were no resurrection, there would be no justification, no salvation. His death would have been in vain. As the Word tells us, the grave could not hold him; he could not be kept in that prison because he paid the debt to the full.
The wonderful thing is that, when he is crowned with glory and honour, his people share in that glory and honour ““ not that they share the glory that belongs to him but the fact that he is in glory means that they will enter into the full enjoying of God to all eternity. Even these bodies that we drag to the house of God, bodies that at times make spiritual exercises so difficult, will be transformed into the likeness of his glorified body. A glorified soul, mind and body! Whatever a spiritual body will be, it will be in perfect harmony with the spiritual exercises of heaven. There are times when, if you are very tired at the end of the day, yet want to listen and benefit, you can hardly keep from falling asleep in God’s house. That certainly will not happen in heaven because the body will be perfectly suited to heaven, glorified like unto his glorious body. Everybody in heaven will be like Christ in their souls and bodies. There will be an infinite distance between them and Christ as to his Godhead, but their humanity will be fashioned according to his humanity and they will be raised up in glory. ‘The souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness, and do immediately pass into glory.’
We should remember that, although we mourn when Christians die, they do not; they do not give another thought to the sorrows they left behind; they have been made perfect in holiness. What a change! Wrestling on towards heaven, struggling with corruptions, with one burden after another ““ in some cases, a mind losing its powers, a body getting weaker and a soul becoming weary ““ and they wake up the next moment in glory. The body, still united to Christ, rests in the grave until the resurrection, when it is raised up in glory. Yes, he tasted death in order that he would be crowned with glory and honour, and he did so ‘for every man’, for the benefit of all his people.
Our text does not teach that Christ died for everyone, or that every person is going to be saved. Some people like to think about a universal atonement and a universal salvation and jump into this verse and say that he tasted death for everyone. The Bible makes it very clear in other places that Christ died for the church; he gave himself for his people, he was wounded for their transgressions; he did not pray for the world but for those who were given him out of the world. The intercession of Christ has the same extent as the death of Christ. Christ did not die for anyone for whom he does not pray, and he does not pray for anyone for whom he did not die.
Words like every and all have to be taken in their context. Look at the immediate context of these words ““ for example: ‘bringing many sons unto glory’ (v 10), ‘He that sanctifieth and they who are sanctified’ (v 12), ‘I will declare thy name unto my brethren’ (v 11), ‘the children are partakers of flesh and blood’ (v 14). The every man is every man who comes into that category: his brethren, the children that God has given him, those whom God has chosen, those whom God in his sovereignty brings to himself. He tasted death for every one of them. And every one of them will benefit from the fact that he is crowned with glory and honour.
It is wonderful to think that, when Christ died, he died for specific people: those whose names were written in the Lamb’s book of life, who were graven upon the palms of his hands. The atonement is not a general thing. What use would it be to you or me to trust in Christ for salvation if multitudes for whom he died will yet be lost? What an affront to Christ to suggest that there is a sinner in hell for whom he died! It cannot be; God’s justice will not allow it.
Everyone for whom he died will come to him. ‘All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out’ (John 6:37). There is a connection: ‘Whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son. Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified’ (Rom. 8:29,30). He justified everyone for whom he died; they were in his plan of redemption from eternity and they will be in his glory to all eternity. That is what we have to commemorate today. The broken bread and the poured-out wine remind us that the Son of God took on himself our nature and that in that nature he died in the place of his people so that they could benefit eternally, and through him enter into the full enjoyment of God.
‘We see Jesus.’ We have to ask ourselves if we see him as the eternal God in our nature wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities? ‘We beheld his glory, the glory of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.’ Nowhere do we behold his glory more than when we see his face marred more than that of any man. Have we seen Jesus? Have we come today saying ‘Sir, we would see Jesus’ (John 12:21). We have not come to listen to somebody speaking, we have not come just to go through certain procedures. We ought to have come with a desire to see Jesus, to get a hold of him and to see him in his glory. ‘Behold the Lamb of God.’ Look at him. Trust in him. ‘Look unto me and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth.’
There is a day when we will see him in his glory and that is the very essence of heaven. Samuel Rutherford’s words are very familiar:
I shall not gaze on glory,
but on my Bridegroom’s face.
He speaks of how Christ, the Lamb in the midst of the throne, will be the object of constant interest and attention by his people. And this will be their blessedness.
Let us also remember that every eye shall see him, and those also who pierced him. There will be terrible wailing on that day among those who saw him in his world ““ and Paul spoke to the Galatians of ‘Christ evidently set forth, crucified among you’ (Gal. 3:1). You have Christ crucified proclaimed in the everlasting gospel and, although you never looked at him, never thought anything about him, yet every eye shall see him, and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him. What a mercy if you can say today: We see Jesus; our hearts go out to him and we trust in him and, ‘this is all my salvation, and all my desire’ (2 Sam. 23:5).
This sermon was preached on 7 August 2011 on the Sabbath morning of the communion season in Dingwall. Mr Cartwright was only able to preach on one more Sabbath before his final illness made further pulpit work impossible.
Taken with permission from the Free Presbyterian Magazine, January 2012.
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