There are a number of verses in the Bible that summarize Christian salvation. Each of them frames it a little bit differently in terms of what is being accomplished and how. Today’s daily lectionary reading includes Hebrews 2:10: “It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings.”
There’s something really beautiful about this salvation summary: bringing many children to glory. Now a certain type of shallow Bible interpreter is going to say that “glory” here just means heaven so this is only saying Jesus suffered and died on the cross in order to officially fulfill the requirements for Christians to get their hands stamped for the Disneyland in the Sky.
But it’s very hard to force this verse into the generic, consumeristic heaven story. For one thing Jesus’ suffering is not described as being remotely transactional. It says that he himself is “perfected” through his suffering. What in the world could this mean? Later in chapter 2, there is a reference to the way that Jesus’ death overthrows the power the devil holds because of humanity’s fear of death, but that doesn’t tell me why suffering itself perfects Jesus.
Not having exegetical commentaries at my fingertips, I suspect that the perfection of suffering has something to do with Hebrew sacrificial thinking, but I think a mystical meaning is also possible. The verse makes a connection between the perfection of suffering and the bringing of children to glory.
The word glory (doxa Gk, kabod Hb) is one of the great mysteries of the Bible. In Hebrew, it is the same root word as the word for weight. So glory has a sense of heaviness, or perhaps ultimate importance or authenticity. I think of CS Lewis’s book the Great Divorce which talks about heaven and hell allegorically. Lewis populates his heaven with Solid People who shine like the sun, while hell is inhabited by phantoms who are so ethereal that stepping on a blade of grass in heaven is like an excruciating razor blade to them. I think that when God’s children are brought to glory, they are made solid and real in a sense that much of humanity lacks as a result of the decay of our sin.
So how does suffering bring about glory? Because that is what this passage seems to suggest. One common critique of Christianity in social justice circles is that it establishes a myth of redemptive suffering which has been used to justify oppression, war, and a lot of other awful things. But I think this problem occurs when suffering is understood to be transactional as a necessary payment on a global moral balance sheet and that’s not what’s happening when we speak of the perfecting quality of suffering.
I haven’t suffered like many people in the world have, but I do have a sometimes debilitating chronic illness called ulcerative colitis that can flare up to such a degree that I literally spend more hours in the bathroom than anywhere else and I’m unable to sleep through the night. Perhaps it’s just my own twisted coping strategy, but I see something perfecting about my colitis. Even if we didn’t live in a culture where victimhood is a sought after currency for privileged people like me, I feel like I have been made more real through the humiliations I have suffered from colitis, especially when I have literally shit my pants or walked like a penguin for half a mile in a desperate attempt to avoid it.
Jesus’ suffering is a critically important resource for me in understanding my own suffering. Without the narrative frame of the cross that he invites me to take up, I’m just a sick, deformed man with a filthy disease. But because he was perfected through his suffering, my toilet seat becomes holy ground where glory happens.
Maybe this is all bullshit. It’s certainly my own subjective appropriation of the text, but I’ve come to suspect that the Bible is rightly interpreted not by purging subjectivity from our interpretations but through the symphonic combination of all our subjective readings. Which isn’t to say that all readings are equally valid but simply that biblical interpretation is symphonic by nature rather than monophonic.
In any case, I like the thought of salvation as God bringing us into glory. Not a cheap and tacky transactional Disneyland in the Sky hand stamp, which is hardly glorious. But rather that God can make us glow like Moses, who had to cover his face with a veil. Glory is a reality where the normal shame and cynicism cannot shit all over everything the way they normally do. It is a state in which genuine wonder and delight do not feel overwrought and extra but entirely fitting. It announces itself in goosebumps and heart palpitations that overwhelm whatever trivial anxieties have dominated our thoughts. I’ve tasted glory before; I wish I could spend more time there. The good news is that one with far more power than I have is the pioneer of my salvation. Glory to God!
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