There has long been an attempt in certain segments of Christianity to make Jesus into the first Christian. Thomas Jefferson did it. He removed the portions of the New Testament that he did not like, especially those parts that taught the divinity of Christ and that showed him doing supernatural acts. A bit later see it in the Liberals, who denied Jesus’ deity and re-made him in their own image into a “do-gooder” and a teacher of morals. The Social Gospellers did the same. Dissatisfied with a Savior who saves sinners from the wrath to come, they made him into a this-wordly savior. Norman Shepherd, in the words of Cornel Venema, treats Christ as “little more than a model believer.”
Recently I ran across the claim that when Hebrews 2:10 and 12:2 describe Jesus as our archēgos (ἀρχηγός) it means, essentially, that Jesus was the first believer. Like Baxter and Shepherd, the idea being taught is that Jesus had faith and works and Christians have faith and works. The underlying conviction is that Jesus’ faith and works are essentially the same, in important respects, as our faith and works. This is, of course, classic moralism. It is the very thing that Machen opposed in the liberals. It is Pelagian and it is utterly confused about who Jesus was, what he did, and who we are and how we are saved. Further, it quite misunderstands Hebrews.
There is no question among orthodox Christians whether Christians must seek to imitate Christ. The questions are why and to what end? The orthodox Christian doctrine is that Jesus is the Savior and Christians are the saved. The orthodox Christian doctrine is that Jesus had, as Turretin put it, fides generalis (general faith) and we have fides specialis (special faith). The distinction grounded in the fact that Jesus did not believe God for salvation as we do. We Christians obey God out of gratitude for what Jesus did for us. Jesus obeyed his Father on our behalf, as our substitute. There is a great difference between these. See the linked essay that explains this distinction at length.
Nevertheless, despite the clarity of Scripture on this and the precision of the Reformed churches (in their confessions) and orthodox theologians on this, the urge to make Jesus into a “model believer” persists. In this instance it was implied that the pastor who wrote to the Hebrew Christians (i.e., who sent them a sermon) was teaching them that Jesus was a believer just as we are and we ought to imitate his faith and works.
The noun archēgos (ἀρχηγός) is difficult to translate. The Vulgate used auctor (author), which has been followed by some English translations. The Geneva Bible (1559) used “Prince.” The Authorized Version (1611) used “captain.” The Revised version and the 1901 American Standard Version used “author.” In the 1940s, the RSV used “pioneer” as does the NIV today. The HCSB uses “source.” The ESV uses “founder.” Obviously there is no consensus as to how to translate this noun. Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that the word had various senses or uses in the ancient world. E.g., In Acts 3:15 Luke used it to mean something like author. In Acts 5:31 it seems to mean something more like “prince.” In Aeschylus it seems to have this same sense. Aristotle, Plutarch, and others use it to mean “originator” or even “instigator.” <sup>1</sup>
What point is the pastor to the Hebrews trying to make? In the context of Hebrews 2, the pastor is arguing that Jesus is true man and true God. He, who is true God, voluntarily became man, humiliated himself, for our sakes. Because he completed the work the Father gave him to do for us, which he took on voluntarily from all eternity for us in the covenant of redemption (pactum salutis), the Father has, as it were, crowned him with glory. He is the one by whom and through whom all things exist. This is the same theology as the prologue to the gospel of John. It is he who has brought “many sons to glory.” It is he who is the archēgos (ἀρχηγός) of our salvation, who was made perfect through suffering. This is the teaching of Hebrews 5:8. Even though Jesus was the Son of God, as our incarnate Savior and also true man, he “learned obedience” through what he suffered. In Hebrews 2, it is our suffering Savior who sanctifies believers who themselves suffer for Christ. This is why he is not ashamed to call us brothers (2:11). He is consubstantial (of the very same nature) with us. We have a true human Savior is also true God. He really endured suffering for us. He understands when we suffer for him. He is the singer of Psalm 22, who proclaims God’s name and praises him to the congregation. He is the singer of Psalm 18:2 who has trusted his Father and Isaiah 8:18, “I and the children God has given me.” He has fulfilled the covenant of redemption. He believed his Father and obeyed the law for us, in our place, as our substitute. He has taken us with him, as it were, in the holy of holies in the heavenly tabernacle.
Hebrews 12:2 says the very same thing. Jesus is the archēgos (ἀρχηγός) and teleiōtēs (τελειωτής) or completer of our faith. We must and can run the race set before us because we have a Savior. He has already run the race for us as our representative. He endured for us. When we suffer for Christ, for the faith and when we scorned because we are Christians, we are not suffering in order to earn a place with God. Christ has already done that for us. We do not suffer as those who have not hope or help. We have a powerful Savior who suffered more than we do or will. We have a Savior who understands. He is greater than we and yet he did not place himself above such suffering. The Hebrew Christians were tempted to go back to the Synagogue, to go back to types and shadows in part because of the shame. Rather than scorning the shame, they needed to embrace it because Christ first embraced them. In both contexts, Hebrews 2 and 12 Jesus is the one who has already endured for us sinners what the Christians must now endure for his sake. In that light perhaps the RSV’s choice of “pioneer” has something to commend it but certainly he is our Prince, he is our Captain. Good princes and captains go before their troops do they not? Do they not lead them into battle? Troops are more willing and ready to follow someone who risks and bleeds just as they do. That seems to come close to what Hebrews is saying.
Jesus trusted his Father and yes he obeyed. We must also trust our Father and obey but we may not treat Jesus’ faith and works as if they are the same as ours or as if ours have the same function or are on the same order as his. He was not a sinner who needed to be saved by grace alone, through faith alone. We are such sinners. He was born sinless and righteous. He was born under the law for us. He was not qualifying himself to be a Savior. He was not putting his trust in someone else for salvation. We are. He was earning our salvation. We are trusting him for our salvation. We obey because we have been saved not in order to be saved.
Jesus was not the first Christian. He is the only Savior and we are his Christians who trust him and seek to imitate him because of his substitutionary work for us.
- See BAGD, s.v., ἀρχηγός.