Just before Easter, J. Stapley made this comment in response to an invitation issued to readers of New Cool Thang to participate in an Easter brainstorming session on the work of Christ:
…I think that Joseph Smith was clear in the last months of his life that the Atonement was for God as well as Man. This is supported by the Book of Mormon – “that he might succor his people.” “The Spirit knoweth all things, nevertheless the Son of God suffereth according to the flesh.”
From this, I’d say that JS knew, as did the author of the Epistle of Paul to the Hebrews, that the Christ-event affected Christ himself.
The Epistle of Paul of the Hebrews
Hebrews is deeply concerned with the person and work of Christ. With respect to his person, Hebrews is the only entry in the NT that attributes priesthood to Christ. In the process of explaining the work of Christ, Hebrews presents various effects including justification, sanctification, and expiation. But Hebrews has something more, that is, another effect of the Christ- event closely associated with his priesthood called “completion.”
At the foundation of this effect of the Christ-event lie words formed from the tel- root. The AV translates these tel- words with the English “perfection” and its cognates, but this is less effective because “perfection” also has connotations associated with the moral virtues. In Hebrews, the idea standing behind all these (tel-)words is that of reaching a goal, in this case the outworking of God’s plan.
I need to make two points in broad overview before we turn to the scriptures. First, God made Jesus complete and Jesus makes us complete but in this peice, we will address only the completion of Christ is any detail. Second, the end state of “completion” is the final inheritance of what God has promised. Near its conclusion, Hebrews depicts this end state as a city, the heavenly Jerusalem. Were you to turn to Heb 12, you would find you are familiar with the imagery, for it was re-used by JS in Section 76.
Changes in Christ: Made Heir
Three passages in Hebrews suggest “change” in Jesus. First, from 1:1-4 we learn that Jesus was made and heir and became superior to the angels:
God, having spoken on many occasions and in many forms to the fathers by the prophets, has in these final days spoken to us by a Son, whom he made heir of all things, through whom he also created the universe; who, after having made purification for sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high as the radiance of his glory and the impress of his substance, having become as superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than they.
The theologically-inclined find steady employment in the contrast between these verses and passages such as 1:11-12
They will perish but you remain; they will all become like an old garment and you will roll them up like a cloak; as a garment indeed they will be changed, but you are the same, your years never cease.
Some explain this in terms of source criticism, suggesting that those passages in which there is no change (1:12 and 13:8) come from a different tradition. Others attempt an explanation based on Christ’s dual nature, that is, his humanity and divinity. And finally, there are folks who find the constancy of Christ a reference to his faithfulness and allow the changes their full weight.
Changes in Christ: Made Lower than the Angels
As interesting as this is, however, our real business is with the other two instances of christological change. The second instance of change is the statement in 2:7 that Christ was for a little while “made a little lower than the angels.” The reasoning behind this change in 2:10-18 is the pertinent point:
Now it was fitting for him [God], for whom all things and through whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the pioneer of their salvation complete through suffering; for the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified are all of one…
First, we read that the outworking of God’s plan in this case is that “many sons” should come to glory. Second, Jesus is called “the pioneer of [our] salvation,” picking up the idea that he went first to a place where we will, in time, follow. In order to bring these many sons to glory, it was fitting that God make Jesus complete, that is, that Jesus must suffer in order to complete the tasks assigned him in God’s plan. The “fittingness” of God’s methods are further explained:
Since, therefore, the children share in blood and flesh, he also shared in the same way with them, in order that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver those who, in fear of death, were subject to a lifetime of slavery.
Here the parallels with the imagery of Alma 7:12 become apparent as Alma says “And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people…”
Finally, the author of Hebrew wraps up his argument which an explanation of how Christ’s suffering prepared him for his role in bringing the “many sons” to glory:
Now [in doing this] he [Christ] surely does not take hold of the angels but takes hold of the descendents of Abraham. Moreover, this is why he had to become like his brethren in all things, that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in matters pertaining to God, to make expiation for the sins of the people. Because he suffered when he was tested, he is able to help those who are being tested.
And this also runs parallel to the final clause of Alma 7:12 and v. 13, where the role of the Succoring Servant is explained:
and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities. Now the Spirit knoweth all things; nevertheless the Son of God suffereth according to the flesh that he might take upon him the sins of his people…
Changes in Christ: Made a High Priest
Heb 2:10-18 leaves the reader with a number of questions such as precisely where the “pioneer of [our] faith” now leads us and how he can accomplish the expiation for sin since he did not inherit the priesthood through his father. For this we turn to 4:14 – 5:10. First, the closing verses of chapter 4:
Therefore, since we have great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast the confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tested in every respect, in these same ways, without sin. Therefore, let us with boldness approach the throne of grace, in order that we might receive mercy and find grace for help at the right time.
Hebrews has no report of Jesus’ resurrection. Instead, it pictures him at death as passing through the heavenly sanctuary and approaching God. The divine in this context is exquisitely expressed as “the throne of grace,” leading to one of the most powerful promises of the NT, that we may follow our “pioneer” boldly, approaching the Presence ourselves for the timely help we need.
When Hebrews talks directly about Christ’s priesthood, it approaches the subject from two different directions. In some cases, it emphasizes the difference between Christ’s office and that of the OT cult. In other cases, it points up the similarities. In what follows, the similarities are in focus:
Now every high priest taken from men is appointed for men with respect to men in matters pertaining to God, in order to offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to curb his emotions toward the ignorant and erring since he himself is also clothed with weakness, and because of this he is obliged to make an offering for sins: as for the people, so also for himself. And one does not take the honor for himself, but is called by God, just as Aaron was.
So also Christ did not glorify himself so as to become high priest; rather it was he [God] who said to him [Christ], You are my son, I have begotten you today, just as in another place he says, You are a priest forever according to the type of Melchizedek.
(Emphasis represents quotations from Ps 2:7 and Ps 110:4)
Although Christ’s virtue precluded the need to offer sacrifice for himself, in his priesthood he still stands in solidarity with his brothers of the OT because he knew what it meant to live as a man. When called as Aaron was, he accepted the dignity so offered and by virtue of this office became complete in order to serve these same brothers:
[This is the one] who, in the days of his flesh, offered both prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience by what he suffered, and having been made complete he became for all who obey him the source of eternal salvation, having been designated by God high priest according to the type of Melchizedek.
In this instance, being “made complete” is set parallel to being “designated by God a high priest.” In this office he is the source of salvation, an expression which goes well beyond the idea of offering timely help to include the favorable judgment of God, deliverance for sin and release from death.
When Did Christ Become a Priest?
Hebrews does not explain precisely when Christ became a high priest. It rejects the idea that he had a priesthood during his lifetime because he lacked membership in the right tribe as well as a means to offer gifts and sacrifices (Heb 8:1-4):
The main point of what has been said is this: we have such a high priest, who has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle that the Lord, not man, set up. Now every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; thus the necessity for this one also to have something to offer. If then he were on earth, he would not be a priest, since there are those who offer gifts according to the law.
Although there are those who suggest that Christ attained his priesthood when he returned to God, a better answer relies on the following (Heb 9:11-12)
But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that have come to be, passing through the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made by hands, that is, not belonging to this creation, he entered once for all into the sanctuary, not with the blood of goats and calves but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls and the sprinkling of a heifer’s ashes can sanctify those who are defiled so that their flesh is cleansed, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from dead works to worship a living God.
I should point out that this is the only reference to the Spirit’s participation in the self-offering of Christ—he contributes as a mediator. At the heart of this passage however, is a striking dual image: Christ as both priest and offering, as both subject and object of the sacrifice that brought “eternal redemption.” This suggests that if we must pose a question about when Christ attained his priesthood, one good answer would be at the complex moment when he died.
And there you have it: Christ as both subject and object of his sacrifice and as both subject and object of the Christ-event. I must say I am glad that J. Stapley brought all this up, because I had totally forgotten about it until I read his post and it’s too good to be so easily lost.