Jesus Christ is the Same Yesterday and Today and Forever
Make sure that your character is free from the love of money, being content with what you have; for He Himself has said, "I WILL NEVER DESERT YOU, NOR WILL I EVER FORSAKE YOU," 6 so that we confidently say, "THE LORD IS MY HELPER, I WILL NOT BE AFRAID. WHAT WILL MAN DO TO ME?" 7 Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith. 8 Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. 9 Do not be carried away by varied and strange teachings; for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, through which those who were so occupied were not benefited.
Today is the last Lord's Day of the 1900s. Even though technically the year 2000 is the last year of the 20th century, the change from the 1900s to the 2000s is a bigger excitement in our society, I think, than next year's change to a new millennium will be. As there is with every century's end, there is a good deal of apocalyptic alarmism in the air. Lots of people get anxious and some people get rich off of other people's anxiety. Gold has been shrewd business. Y2K rations and generators brought in some bucks. End-of-the-world novels have been savvy marketing strategies.
So the question rises for Christians: How should we think and feel and act about changes in seasons and centuries? To answer this question I want us to focus on Hebrews 13:8, "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever." I have three questions in mind to ask about this verse. 1) In what sense is Jesus always the same? 2) What is significant about these three time periods: yesterday, today and forever? 3) What is the application of this verse in our lives, according to the connection of Hebrews 13:8 backward to money and forward to false doctrine?
1. In What Sense Is Jesus Always the Same?
Does it mean that Jesus can't respond with joy over your situation one day and grieve over it the next day? Would that contradict the statement that Jesus is the same yesterday and today?
A good way to answer this question is to notice the one other place in the book of Hebrews where Jesus Christ is said to be "the same" (( (((((, in both 1:12 and 13:8) in relation to something that changes. Consider Hebrews 1:8ff.
But of the Son [Christ] He [God] says, "Your throne, O God [=Christ], is forever and ever" . . . and, "You, Lord [=Christ], in the beginning laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the works of Your hands; they will perish, but You remain; and they all will become old like a garment, and like a mantle You will roll them up; like a garment they will also be changed. But You are the same [( (((((], and Your years will not come to an end."
His Sameness Is the Sameness of God
The most significant thing to notice in these verses is that the writer to the Hebrews clearly calls the Son of God "God." God says to his Son, "Your throne, O God, is forever and ever" (verse 8). Therefore, the writer ascribes to him the work of creating the universe. "The heavens are the work of Your hands" (verse 10). And then he draws out the implication in verse 12: the creation, which seems so stable and permanent and changeless will, in fact, "be changed like a garment," but "you are the same, and your years will not come to an end." So the sameness of Jesus Christ is the sameness that comes from being the eternal God. As Hebrews 1:3 says, "He [Christ] is the radiance of His [God's] glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power."
So his sameness is the sameness of God. His unchangingness is the unchangingness of God. The visible universe with all its laws that scientists bank on so heavily to be unchanging is like a shirt compared to God: it was put on at creation, and it will be taken off when God is through with it. So what the world regards as the baseline of stability is not. God is. And Jesus Christ is God.
What does this imply about Christ's sameness? This raises the crucial question about the changelessness of God, or what we call "the doctrine of God's immutability." We base this doctrine on texts like Malachi 3:6: "For I, the LORD, do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed." And texts like 1 Samuel 15:29, "Also the Glory of Israel [=God] will not lie or change His mind; for He is not a man that He should change His mind."
But aren't there texts that say God changes his mind? Yes there are. In fact, one of them is right here in this same chapter of 1 Samuel 15, which is why this text about God's changelessness is so crucial. The Hebrew word for "change his mind" in 1 Samuel 15:29 is the same as the word used in verse 11 and verse 35 for "regret" (NASB) or "repent" (KJV). In verse 11, God says, "I regret [or I repent or change my mind] that I have made Saul king." And in verse 35 God says, "And the LORD regretted [or repented or changed his mind] that He had made Saul king over Israel."
So in verses 11 and 35 it says God does change his mind about Saul, and in verse 29 it says, God "will not lie or change His mind; for He is not a man that He should change His mind." What are we to make of this? Here is my suggestion: When the writer says that God repented or regretted or changed his mind about making Saul king, he realized that he has said something very liable to misunderstanding. So he adds verse 29 to limit and clarify what he has said. How does he do that? He does it with the words, "For He is not a man that he should change his mind [or repent or regret]." In other words, God's changes are not like man's changes. Changing for God is from one situation to another, but not the kind of changing a human mind would do. God is not man to change like man changes.
A man can look with joy on a person and on a situation one day and look with disapproval on that person and the new situation the next day. So can God. He rejoices over a person's behavior one day and may grieve over it the next day. So his mind changes. So what is the difference? Man brings to every situation limitations that God does not bring. The most relevant one is that man brings finiteness and lack of knowledge.
God Does Not Change His Mind as a Man Does
The difference is that God is not ignorant of the behavior that you will do tomorrow. He knows what it will be and he knows how he will respond. And he knows that his response to your future behavior will be different from his response to your present behavior. And so his "change of mind" is not based on ignorance. It is foreknown and planned - unlike man's.
So two things emerge that are very crucial for understanding how Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever.
1) One is that God responds to differing situations and behaviors in differing ways: he rejoices over some behaviors and disapproves of others. He severely chastises some behaviors and mercifully passes over others. God is not a flat personality with only one emotion or no emotions. He responds, and he responds differently to different behaviors in people. That's the first thing we see from 1 Samuel 15.
2) The other is that God's responses are not like man's. They are never based on ignorance of what you and I will do. He foresees our changes and knows the perfect response to each change, and plans to respond according to his own perfect wisdom and righteousness and goodness and power to maintain his plan and purpose in the world. This is not the way humans respond. "God is not man that he should lie or change his mind" (1 Samuel 15:29). In other words, God's variations, as we experience them, are part of a unified and unchanging plan to accomplish his great purposes in the world.
What distinguishes God from man is that man often changes his mind because he cannot foresee all that is coming, but God, on the other hand, always foresees what is coming and changes his mind only in response to that foreseen situation. So there is a kind of changelessness in God that is not in man.
It's not just that God is changelessly loving and righteous and wise and powerful in all circumstances, but also that he knows perfectly how that love and righteousness and wisdom and power will respond in every circumstance, because he foreknows the circumstances. What makes God God and not man is that he does not change his mind because of unforeseen circumstances.
Why do I stress this? Because when Hebrews 13:8 says, "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever," and says it in view of calling Christ God in Hebrews 1:8, I want us to feel the full weight of this blessing in our lives. The verse is meant to be a powerful incentive to live a certain way at the end of the twentieth century (and every other time). And I want it to have all the power it should have.
In sum, then, in answer to our first question: "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever" does not mean that Christ can't respond differently from day to day, rejoicing with you or over you one day and grieving with you or over you another day. Hebrews 4:15 calls him a "sympathizing High Priest." He can and does respond differently to our different circumstances. But now we see that not only are those responses rooted in a consistent character of love and wisdom and righteousness and power, but also in a perfect knowledge and plan so that he never changes his mind because of unforeseen circumstances. He is the same in his perfect foreknowledge and his perfect plan and his perfect execution of that plan in all the details of your life to bring about his glorious goal for all his children.
2. What Is Significant About these Three Time Periods: Yesterday, Today and Forever?
Why does it matter that the Jesus Christ of today be the same as the Jesus Christ of yesterday and tomorrow? Let me try to put the significance of each time period in a single sentence.
Yesterday: It is crucial that Jesus Christ be the same yesterday as he is today because yesterday is when Jesus Christ showed us in history what he is really like.
Today: It is crucial that Jesus Christ be the same today as he was yesterday because today is where we have fellowship with him and relate to him as the person we know by reading about his life and work yesterday.
Tomorrow: It is crucial that Jesus Christ be the same tomorrow as he was yesterday and today because all our hope for everlasting joy hangs ultimately on relating to him, not just his gifts.
I'll comment on each one briefly. God has chosen that we know Jesus Christ - and God, in and through Christ - by reading about him in a Book that records his life and work from yesterday. God does not ordain that we know Jesus by skipping the historical, once-for-all self-revelation of the incarnation and substituting mystical avenues of communion now. The Christ of today must be the same as the Christ of yesterday or we cannot know the Christ of today. We know him and commune with him through the Word of God about him from yesterday.
And what we know about him from yesterday enables us to know him personally now, by his Spirit. The Spirit takes the things of Christ and makes them real and personal and present and powerful and precious in our lives now.
This historical, factual Christ whom we have come now to know and love and cherish and exult in is the Christ we will increasingly know and enjoy forever and ever - if he is the same forever. And that is why forever is so important.
3. What Is the Application of this Verse in Our Lives According to the Connection of Hebrews 13:8 Backward to Money and Forward to False Doctrine?
First, consider the connection of verse 8 backward to money. Start at verse 5: "Make sure that your character is free from the love of money, being content with what you have." This is a staggering call for joyful simplicity and radical generosity in the Christian life. Beware of the desire to be rich. It can destroy you. Be content, verse 5 says, with what you have.
Then it supports and motivates that with a promise from Christ (beginning in verse 5b): "For He Himself has said, 'I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you,' so that we confidently say, 'The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid. What will man do to me?'" In other words, if we have the joyful, rock-solid confidence that the Lord of the universe, the Savior of our souls, will never leave us and will always be our helper (see also Hebrews 4:16 ". . . find grace to help in time of need"), then the result will be profound contentment without the love of money or the desire to get rich or keep more than we should.
Then in verse 7, the writer encourages us in this radical, countercultural, un-American way of life by calling us to remember and imitate our leaders who lived by this kind of faith in Christ's promises. Verse 7: "Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith." They modeled faith in the promises: "I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you. . . . I will be your helper in all your needs."
So imitate their faith in the promises of Christ. And then he adds this in verse 8: "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever." And the connection backward is clear. If Christ could be trusted once to be the helper of those who refused to love money and were content with what they had, then he can be trusted today and tomorrow also for every generation of Christian under any financial circumstances. His love is the same; his righteousness is the same; his wisdom is the same; his power is the same. And he is not bound by the limitations of finite man so that he could ever be surprised by any of your circumstances. Trust him, and be radically free from the desire to be rich. Here at the end of the 1900s, set your face like flint against the messages of American consumerism, because you confidently say, "The Lord is my helper! He will never leave me. He is enough. And he is always the same. I am content."
Finally, consider the connection of verse 8 forward to false doctrine. "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever." Verse 9 goes on: "Do not be carried away by varied and strange teachings." I suspect that there will be at least these two great dangers for the American church in the coming century. One is materialism and consumerism; the other is "varied and strange teachings." Paul warns in 2 Timothy 4:3, "For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires." So be vigilant for yourselves and for your children that your doctrine is true. Care about what you learn and what you teach.
The love of money and the rejection of sound doctrine - these will be two great, deadly forces against the church in the coming years. And what a gift it is that the Bible so clearly warns us - and not just warns us, but helps us. And not just by giving negative threats, but by giving precious and very great promises.
The solution to both greed and heresy is this: Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. What once was true about Christ always will be true about Christ, so you don't need or want new doctrine. And what was once satisfying about Christ will always be satisfying about Christ, so you don't need or want money as the way to lasting happiness. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever - the same truth and the same treasure. Receive him and be free.
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