Is Jesus the same today as He was 2000 years ago? You bet, as long as we’re talking about the same Jesus the author of Hebrews was referring to.
This verse is a great reminder of who Christ is but it’s also one of the most misused passages in the Bible. It’s most common misuse is when a speaker quotes it to promote modern day signs and wonders. I’m often asked, “If Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever, then why do some say that the sign gifts of tongues, healing, and miracles have ceased?” It’s a well intended question but misguided without proper biblical interpretation.
In this post I’d like to offer a call to interpretive discernment. May I first commend the zeal with which many charismatic’s desire God’s work in people’s lives, and their passion to see the world healed and saved (something we should all pray for if we’re loving Christians). But despite the zeal, many are misguided due to improper interpretation of the biblical text. Neither excitement, nor experience, can excuse bad interpretation. No matter the position on sign gifts, Hebrews 13:8 should not be used as proof that we too will perform apostolic signs.
Here I must insert a disclaimer: No Christian should ever advocate an interpretation of Scripture that claims God doesn’t heal today. That would be inaccurate. The Bible depicts our sovereign God hearing the prayers of the righteous (James 5:16) and we’ve all experienced God heal at the bequest of His children – So, do not allow the cessation of signs and wonders to mean that God has stopped working.
So with agreement that our God heals, and debate about sign gifts on the shelf for a time, let’s look at a few things critical to proper biblical interpretation and let the Bible speak. About this letter to the Hebrews Leon Morris writes, “There is a homiletical air about much that he writes; so it’s not surprising that many have considered the book a sermon – one the author had preached earlier or one he was now composing for the benefit of his friends. He himself calls his work “my word of exhortation” (13:22)” (Morris, Leon. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary – Hebrews. Grand Rapids, MI. Zondervan. 1981) With Morris’ words in mind, one cannot help but be motivated to take the entire “sermon” of Hebrews into consideration when analyzing a particular verse – To do otherwise would be to take one sentence from a preacher’s message and run to wild conclusions.
THE AUTHOR’S PURPOSE
The author of the book of Hebrews is unknown but many early century scholars believe it was Apollos, Paul, Barnabas, or Phillip. Any of those 4 men would be useful vessels for the Holy Spirit. Hebrews was written to reassure Jewish believers that their faith in Jesus was legitimate and encourage them to live secure in the faith. The writer reminded them that because of Christ, O.T. sacrifice was no longer required (13:12), that Jesus was the ultimate High Priest mediating for His people (2:17-18), the Foundation of all faith (3:1-6), and the Author of salvation! (2:9-10). This letter affirms that Jesus Christ is the eternal foundation of faith.
THE READER’S CONTEXT
The entire chapter of Hebrews 13 isn’t difficult to understand contextually. While verses 18-25 are filled with personal instructions for prayer, obedience, and an update on Timothy, we will look specifically at verses 1-17. Overall, verses 1-17 are an exhortation to perform Christian duties like brotherly love (13:1), being kind to strangers (13:2), and remembering those in prison (13:3), being faithful in marriage (13:4), free from the love of money (13:5), and then verse 7 provides us the reason for the famous declaration of verse 8…
Hebrews 13:7 says, “Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith.” The exhortation here is that when living the Christian life, they ought to draw encouragement from their former leaders! It was these leaders who first and foremost led by example, and above all their example was founded on speaking the word of God. The writer then tells them to consider the result of their conduct. In a nutshell he tells them to look at the fruit of their leaders lives and emulate them. Homer Kent writes, “Eventually these leaders had passed from the scene. It need not be inferred that they all died a martyr’s death, although they may have. The real importance was that all had been faithful to the end. None had waivered and given up faith in Christ. Let these readers continue imitating that steadfast example.” (Kent, Homer. The Epistle to the Hebrews. Grand Rapids, MI. Baker Book House. 1972)
With a clear understanding of the author’s intentions and the surrounding context, we come to verse 8. Why would the writer have felt the need to remind the readers that Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever? To promise miracles? No – verse 9 tells us otherwise – Verse 9 says, “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 thus occupied were not benefitted.”
There it is! Christ is explained as unchanging because truth was already being forged. False teachers had begun to infiltrate the church and introduce false doctrines about Christ and many Judaizers linked the works of the law to salvation. In order that his audience might find security in the unchanging work of Christ on the cross, he exhorts them with the unchanging nature of Jesus in verses 8 and 9. It didn’t matter if they ate meat, or as Paul said, “Even though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8). John MacArthur explains, “The Jews were used to having religious regulations for everything, and it was hard for them to adjust to freedom in Christ” (MacArthur, John. Chicago, IL. Moody Publishers. 1983).
The letter of Hebrews, and contextually speaking, chapter 13, has nothing to do with tongues, signs of healing, or the works of miracles and everything to do with who Jesus was, is, and forever will be as the all sufficient Son of God.
THE MODERN APPLICATION
This passage is not about signs, wonders, and miracles. The clear application of this passage is to count on the eternal, matchless, King of kings and Lord of lords as the foundation of faith both now and forevermore! For He has been, is, and will always be the basis of salvation. Every Christian ought to be confident that He is the author of their faith, that their salvation is secure, and that nothing can steal that away. It was never the miracles of Jesus that were to be the focus, but rather, the person of Jesus. Even more than discernment of “miracle workers” I pray you take away from this article a deepening love for our unchanging Lord.
With our interpretive work complete, let’s conclude with questions that may still linger in your mind: Why can’t Hebrews 13:8 be used to proof text signs and wonders?
Q: Do you want to use it to prove that tongues still operate today?
A: That would be misguided since Jesus never spoke in tongues, and had nothing to do with tongues in the book of Acts. His unchanging nature doesn’t imply anything about this.
Q: Do you want to use this verse to tell people that they can work the signs that Jesus did?
A: This would be misguided since they’re not Jesus and this passage isn’t telling people to imitate His ministry. It’s an exhortation for people to trust Jesus hasn’t changed, salvation is still through Him, and to follow the example of leaders who teach the Word.
Q: Do you want to tell people that the same God who healed then, can heal now?
A: Great! God does heal. Pray, ask, and submit to His will no matter what the result. Just don’t tell people that God heals everybody or even wants to. Paul himself prayed 3 times to the Lord to remove the thorn in the flesh that plagued him and do you remember Jesus’ response? (red letters in your Bible). He said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). God is sovereign in healing (John 5:1-9), and grows us through trials (James 1:2-4)
In conclusion, I respectfully ask that we deeply consider the interpretation of a text before standing before hearers of the Word and declaring what we do not know. May God bless your diligent study of His word, and may the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit bring you to full maturity in Christ.