The Peasant King
Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12 ESV
The 19th century philosopher Soren Kierkegaard told the parable of a king who fell in love with a maiden. She was one of his servants and lived across a great distance of social class and wealth from him. He couldn’t imagine her life, but he couldn’t stop thinking about her. He had every privilege, but what he really wanted was her, not just with his body, but with his heart.
He was wise enough to know that he couldn’t go to the village with his royal guard and simply take her back to the palace. She could never resist his power, and she could never resist the opportunities for her and her family that his wealth would provide. She’d have no choice, and the king knew in that scenario that she’d always keep her heart from him.
One day he finally left the castle in disguise. He put on the rags of the peasants and let his beard grow. He found the maiden and a place to stay near her. Slowly, through stolen glances and kind words, he won her heart.
They lived alongside each other, sharing work and breaking bread. He patiently showed her his heart and his true self. Finally, after a while, he was able to tell her he was the king. By then, she knew him, and her heart was his.
The author crowns the story with the line: “For love is exultant when it unites equals, but it is triumphant when it makes that which was unequal equal in love.”
Hebrews tells this story, through the story of Israel and sometimes in details that sound strange to our modern ears, of God coming to us through Jesus. He put on the shabby clothing of humanity to come and meet with us as one of our own, revealing himself at just the right time to be the King.
Our passage from the beginning of Hebrews today is a close look at this incarnation – the story of the peasant king who came among the people, whose name was called Immanuel, “God with us.” The Author became a character in the narrative, so let’s look at him in three aspects today:
- The story of Israel
- The story of the world
- The story of us
The story of Israel
We’ll start with the story of Jesus in a very local sense—Jesus as the Jewish kid who sometimes slowly but always intentionally tied himself into the narrative of Israel.
But first a step back to look at what we’re reading. We roughly know the author or authors of most books in Scripture—a person or a small school of scribes that they taught and who wrote in their name. John wrote John, Matthew wrote Matthew, etc.
But Hebrews is the exception. No one knows who wrote it. There have been guesses throughout history, but none have really stuck. The only reason it’s called “The Letter to the Hebrews” is because it is so thoroughly Jewish. It is full of Old Testament quotes and parallels and it is so obviously intended to connect Jesus with the Jewish story that ancient scholars have inferred it was meant for a Jewish audience and titled it that way.
But who wrote it, why it was written and who it was sent to are mysteries, and in a sense that makes it even more the timeless theological discussion it is. Jesus is being connected not just to one community and circumstance (like in one of Paul’s letters), but to the whole story of all humanity.
That starts locally with the Israel story.
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son. (Hebrews 1:1-2 ESV)
This is a powerful connection. Think of a king, especially in the ancient world, who started by sending messages and legislating laws from far away, and then got to the point of sending portraits of himself, and finally came to visit. This is the connection of Jesus to the story of Israel.
The unfortunate theological mistake we often make in the modern world is to see the giving of the law and the coming of Jesus as disconnected. We think God gave us the law, then we couldn’t keep it and we messed it all up and missed the mark, so Jesus had to come and set everything straight. This understanding misses the point of the story.
The choosing of Israel, the giving of the law and even the consistent failure of humanity were all part of the narrative. God let nothing go to waste. He knew even before Eve reached for the fruit that the whole deal would cost him his Son. He chose one person, Abraham, then one nation, Israel. Then he chose out of that nation one lineage, one family and finally one unassuming teenage girl to bring himself into the story of Israel.
So, instead of the law somehow failing, it only pointed forward to our need for a Savior. It clarified the story and made space in it to prepare the way for Jesus. And the author of Hebrews starts his letter with this discussion.
After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. (Hebrews 1:3-4 ESV)
“Much superior to the angels.” This line may sound strange to our modern Christian ears. Angels are on the periphery, if anywhere, of our theology. But in the time this letter was written, there was a strong Jewish tradition that the law had been delivered by the angels (see Deuteronomy 33:2). They had delivered the law or somehow been involved in the process on Mount Sinai.
The law was a kind of advance echo of God’s redemptive plan in Christ. Like the king in Kierkegaard’s story becoming a servant and winning a girl’s heart as a servant, before bringing her to the castle and making her queen, Paul said the law was “our tutor to bring us to Christ” (Galatians 3:24).
So, we go from the local story of Jesus as a Hebrew fulfilling the Israelite story to the universal…
The story of the world
But in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high. (Hebrews 1:2-3 ESV)
The writer of Hebrews then uses this word to describe Jesus—the “exact imprint.” This is a word from minting describing the exact imprint of a face on a coin. He is to God what sunlight is to the sun. Jesus is God himself among us.
One commentator expressed the difference between us and Jesus’ original audience:
It is sometimes said that the ancient and the modern Christological heresies are mirror images of one another. Moderns understand well that Jesus was human, but have a difficult time imagining how he might be God. The ancients, on the other hand, could well imagine that Jesus was divine, but struggled with his humanity. (Erik Heen)
The ancient world was very religious, with shrines and temples on every corner. The idea of Jesus being some kind of divine otherworldly being was not too far of a stretch for their imaginations. But a god being a flesh-and-blood human—or even caring about us very much—was baffling to them.
In our day, we are more comfortable with Jesus being a great teacher, perhaps even an activist or a social justice warrior, some kind of sage poet. But the idea of him being supernatural or divine baffles many people.
The tension in Jesus is that he holds these two realities together. He is Lord of the universe who makes it cohere; he is the Jewish kid with calloused hands. He is the great teacher and advocate of the powerless; he is the eternal judge and all-powerful who is a greater mystery than we could ever imagine.
It is truly the story of a peasant king.
The story of us
But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. (Hebrews 2:9 ESV)
Jesus entered the story of Israel. He entered the story of the universe. And now he enters our story.
The incarnation—from the word “carn”—which means flesh. In the flesh. The peasant king didn’t only come down from his throne, he took on the clothing, the hardship and life of the poor. In our case, he took on the flesh not just as a disguise, but in reality, even to the point of death.
The context of Hebrews talks a lot about angels—how the angels gave the Law and how human beings are just below the angels (quoting Psalm 8:5). Jesus walked through these barriers, stepping past the angels, stepping past the powerful, famous cultures in history, stepping past an elite privileged existence to live the relatively helpless life of a craftsman in the first century.
He entered the story of us and took on the chaos and humiliation of it. He stepped out of glory into nowhere. Instead of blowing it all up and starting over, he entered the story himself. He gave up all his power to die the humiliating helpless death on a cross—he’s been lower than all of us, so he could lift all of us up with him.
And that is where he still meets us. Jesus doesn’t want to take you from your life, but to meet you in it!
He redeems us by entering the story of our lives through circumstances and relationships to transform us into his image. He doesn’t want you to be someone else—he wants you to fully become you.
When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. (Genesis 9:14-15 ESV)
This is the promise that God made to Noah as the earth dried from the flood. Never again would he destroy humanity and start over. Never again would he hit the reset button on the great human experiment.
Instead, he entered that story himself as the peasant king, through:
- The story of Israel – Jesus was a child of the line of David, born in a small town. He was the promised Messiah who brought about an unexpected kingdom.
- The story of the world – “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together,” Paul says in Colossians 1:17. Jesus is not just a religious figure or a wise teacher—he is the Lord of the universe who holds it together in light unapproachable.
- The story of us – The writer of Hebrews says he is able to sympathize with us because he was tempted in every way like we are (see Hebrews 4:15). Jesus went through the sweat and loss and confusion of being a human being. He entered our story and redeemed it.
So the peasant King is among us, sharing our lives and breaking bread with us. One day soon his reign will be fully restored on earth, and we will fully live like the royalty we are. We will be home.
Small Group Discussion Questions
- Re-read the story of the Peasant King from the beginning of the sermon.
- Have you ever seen a dynamic like this in action or heard a story like this? (The show Undercover Boss is a good example.)
- Why do you think Jesus chose to lay down his riches and glory rather than just come down and put everything right?
- What does it mean for Jesus to enter our story?
- How does he meet us in our everyday lives and show us his careful work of redeeming us in everything? Share examples.
- It can be hard to hold the idea of Jesus as Lord of the Universe and Jesus as our best friend and comforter at the same time.
- How can we hold these ideas together?
- What happens when we overemphasize one and forget the other?
QUOTE TO PONDER:
- Love is exultant when it unites equals, but it is triumphant when it makes that which was unequal equal in love. ~ Soren Kierkegaard, Danish Christian philosopher