When last I wrote to you, the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic had not reached its peak. Now, we are all keenly aware of the challenges and changes that the pandemic brought. All of us at RTS, especially our students, are so deeply grateful for your love, prayers, and support of us – the future ministry of the church – as we have tried to navigate these tricky waters. We have gone from residential theological education to remote learning, to remote and residential, and back to residential study again (but with some new remote tricks that we’ve learned along the way) in the last six months or so. Our heads are spinning, but our hearts are grateful.
We’ve been praying for you, too. The health and economic trials that so many in the RTS family have endured have kept us all on our knees. I’ve told our leadership more than once this year that I have never been so keenly aware of our total dependence upon the Lord: to watch over us, to keep us safe, to provide the resources we need to go on, to give us wisdom to know what to do, and the strength and courage to do it.
One of the hardest things to endure, of course, was not being able to gather as the church on the Lord’s Day the way we did before the pandemic. But our graduates have all ministered extraordinarily in these extraordinary times. We’re proud of and thankful for them. I don’t think any of us will take for granted the blessing of public worship and the communion of the saints for a long time to come.
These reflections lead me to the topic of this article: the beautiful covenantal benediction of Hebrews 13:20-21. Not only are we featuring that passage as our benediction in this issue of M&L, but we are focusing on covenant theology in one of our main articles. In God’s providence, it’s the perfect benediction for people affected by a pandemic.
“Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.”
Notice that it is a seven-part prayer of blessing: (1) “Now may the God of peace,” (2) “who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus,” (3) “the great shepherd of the sheep,” (4) “by the blood of the eternal covenant,” (5) “equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight,” (6) “through Jesus Christ,” (7) “to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.”
The address or invocation begins: “Now may the God of peace.” In other words, he is invoking or entreating the God of peace to give you this blessing. A preacher doesn’t have any power in himself to generate and give divine blessing to you, but he can invoke and pronounce God’s blessing on you. Moses and Aaron were instructed to say to the people: “The Lord bless you…and give you peace” (Num 6:24-26). The author of Hebrews is following that example here.
Note that he specifically indicates the God of peace. He’s not just thinking of God as the author of comfort of their souls in the midst of trials, or the author of harmony in the congregation, but of God who gave us peace by the gospel. God is the God of peace because he is the author of the peace established by Christ on the cross and experienced by all those who trust in him. That has been a major theme of Hebrews, and it is central to every other experience of peace in the Christian life. Philip Edgcumbe Hughes puts this clearly and beautifully:
“The peace here of which God is the author is primarily the peace of the gospel (Eph 6:15), the peace which has been established, or re-established, between man and his Creator by the blood of Christ’s cross (Col 1:20), the peace of God in Christ Jesus which passes all understanding (Phil 4:7), peace, in short, in its deepest and fullest sense. It is the God of this peace, which speaks forgiveness and acceptance to man at the very heart of his being and which should permeate the whole of his existence in all its relationships and vicissitudes, whom our author invokes here.”
Now that’s a word for people passing through a pandemic. If you have gospel peace, you have a peace that will guard your heart in every trial of life.
If you have gospel peace, you have a peace that will guard your heart in every trial of life.Then, the author tells us that it is the God of peace “who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus.” This is a profound acknowledgment and ascription. This is a frequent assertion in the New Testament: “God raised him up” (Acts 2:24; 10:40; 13:30), but this is the only explicit mention of the resurrection in Hebrews (we’ll see why that’s so important in a moment). As Hughes says: “The proof of the acceptance of this sacrifice on our behalf is his resurrection from the grave and his exaltation to the right hand of the Majesty on high (Heb 1:3; 12:2), whereby he is declared to be Lord of all (Phil 2:8–10)….The resurrection manifested his glory as the prince of life and conqueror of death.”
And what is the position or office of the Lord Jesus? You might have expected Hebrews to say “High Priest” or “Mediator,” but instead he says: “the great shepherd of the sheep.” This phrase has Ezekiel 34 and 37 written all over it. Jesus is the fulfillment of the Davidic and new covenant promises and prophecies:
“I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep…declares the Lord GOD. And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them. I am the LORD; I have spoken. I will make with them a covenant of peace…My servant David shall be king over them, and they shall all have one shepherd….I will make a covenant of peace with them. It shall be an everlasting covenant with them” (Ezek 34:15, 23-25; 37:24, 26).
I love what C.H. Spurgeon says here: “In the covenant we are the sheep; the Lord Jesus is the Shepherd. You cannot make a covenant with sheep—they have not the ability to covenant. But you can make a covenant with the Shepherd for them, and so, glory be to God, though we had gone astray like lost sheep, we belonged to Jesus. He made a covenant on our behalf, and stood for us before the living God.”
Next, by what was Jesus raised from the dead? We know by whom, but by what right and demand was he raised from the dead? Hebrews says, profoundly, “by the blood of the eternal covenant.” Jesus’ resurrection was a promise and pact of the Father to the Son in the covenant of redemption before time, before the foundation of the world. The basis of the resurrection is the covenant of redemption! It’s as if the author of Hebrews says: “Let me tell you what was behind Jesus’ being crowned with glory and honor because of his suffering and death (Heb 2:9) and what was behind his resurrection: an eternal agreement between the Father and the Son.” Spurgeon explains:
“The work He has done has pleased the Father, and therefore He has brought Him back from among the dead. His acceptance is ours: we are accepted in the Beloved (Eph 1:6)….Before God had spoken existence out of nothing, before angel’s wing had stirred the unnavigated cosmos, before a solitary song had disturbed the solemnity of the silence in which God reigned supreme, He had entered into solemn counsel with Himself, with His Son, and with His Spirit, and had in that council decreed, determined, purposed, and predestinated the salvation of His people.”
Jesus’ resurrection was a promise and pact of the Father to the Son in the covenant of redemption before time, before the foundation of the world.That’s why Hebrews saves this mention of the resurrection: to tie it back to God’s purposes from eternity. Yes, of course, this covenant of Jesus’s will last for eternity, but it was also founded in eternity, and planned from eternity. As the Scottish Psalter puts it, “He loved us from the first of time, he’ll love us to the last.” Drink it in, brothers and sisters. God’s saving love for you had no beginning. There has never been a time when he didn’t love you.
Now, the prayer of benediction gets to the heart of the petition or request to God. The writer asks that God would “equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight.” This is where this blessing prayer is going. This is where he is headed. He is praying that God would equip us to be and do what he originally created us to be and do. We were made to glorify and enjoy God; to do his will; to do good works.
John Owen gets at the meaning of good works when he explains: “The whole of our obedience toward God and duty toward man consists in good deeds (Eph 2:10).” Spurgeon tells us that this request means “that we may be qualified, adapted, and suited to be used of God for the performance of His will.”
The second phrase of the petition “working in us” elaborates and emphasizes God’s activity in us in sanctifying us, growing us, maturing us, conforming us to Christ, and enabling us to do good works. F.F. Bruce paraphrases: “The prayer, then, is that the people addressed may be spiritually equipped for every form of good work, and thus fulfil God’s will as he operates in them.” B.F. Westcott accentuates that “The work of God makes man’s work possible.” The bottom line, my friends, is that God has not merely forgiven us and then left us to try to do our best on our own. He is actively at work in us growing us in Christlikeness.
This work is done “through Jesus Christ.” That is, union with Christ is the means of our salvation and our sanctification. It is through the work of Jesus that we are pardoned for sin and enabled to grow in grace. Christ’s work for us, in our place, is the basis of our forgiveness. Christ’s work in us is the basis of the Christian life.
This is why Paul will pray for Ephesian Christians that “Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith” (Eph 3:17). Why? Why would he pray that? Aren’t they already Christians? Yes, but if they are going to grow, they need Christ-shaped hearts (desires). Elsewhere Paul says, “It is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:9-11). You see? All of that transformation is done through Jesus Christ.It is through the work of Jesus that we are pardoned for sin and enabled to grow in grace. Christ’s work for us, in our place, is the basis of our forgiveness. Christ’s work in us is the basis of the Christian life.
The blessing prayer ends with a doxology: “to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.” There is a delicious ambiguity here. Is this praise and adoration aimed primarily toward the God of peace or to Jesus Christ? There is a similar doxology (“for ever and ever”) in Philippians 4:20 focused on God the Father (cf. Rom 11:36). In the end, we know our One Triune God is worthy of all praise because “In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost” (Westminster Confession of Faith 2.3).
If we understand the blessings that this benediction prays down on us, and the basis of those blessings in the eternal purposes of the God of peace, accomplished through the shed blood of Jesus Christ, the Covenant Mediator and Sacrifice, our good and great Shepherd, then we will want to live lives of praise to God, even in a pandemic.
Because our Shepherd walks with us even in the valley of the shadow of death, we will not fear (Ps 23:4), because “neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38-39).