Words And Things: All About “By” (Part 7)

I once preached through the book of Hebrews. When I arrived at the end of the book, I was very excited about preaching on the benediction in Hebrews 13:20–21. I love benedictions. If you study the “mother of all benedictions,” that of Aaron in Numbers 6:22–27, you find that God views the benediction not as a prayer that he may or may not answer but as the actual conveyance of his name and of his blessing. Note how that benediction ends in Numbers 6:27: “So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.” We shall return to the idea of putting God’s name on us in a later look at a phrase in James, but for now, let us look more closely at the benediction at the end of Hebrews.

Hebrews 13:20–21 is a familiar passage, and when I was planning to preach on this passage I felt like it would be rather straightforward to work it up into a sermon. Here is the ESV of the passage:

Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.

Like me, you probably read this as a really glorious text, but not one that contains anything particularly difficult to understand. The “great shepherd” takes us back to Psalm 23 and other references to the Lord and to kings of Israel as shepherds. “Blood of the covenant” comes from Exodus 24 and was explained in Hebrews 9:15–22 (which we already examined in this series). And doing God’s will and things that please him might need elaboration but are otherwise easy to access.

There is even something a little hidden in translation that is not that difficult to explain. We expect the author to say that God “raised” Jesus from the dead. Instead, the phrase could otherwise be rendered “led up” (Greek anagô), and expresses the idea of a shepherd who leads his flock. In this case, the “great shepherd” was himself “led up” by his Shepherd-Father. This really is the point of Psalm 23 if you read it properly as a messianic psalm on our Savior’s lips.

Therefore, like me before I really studied this passage, you might skip over something that is actually quite surprising and inexplicable in translation. I experienced a slowly rising sense of panic as the sermon fast approached: I had no idea what it meant that God raised Jesus from the dead “by the blood of the eternal covenant.” What does it mean to raise someone “by blood”?

Normally, “by” in such a context would communicate a means or instrument used to accomplish an action, but that does not fit Hebrews 13:20. You can cleanse or consecrate something “by blood” with this instrumental sense as in Hebrews 9:22, but blood was not a means used to lead Christ back from the dead. By God’s mighty strength and glory certainly, but not “by blood.”

In Greek, the preposition rendered as “by” in Hebrews 13:20 is en, a very flexible little preposition that beginning Greek students learn to render as “in,” “on,” or “among.” Later they include “with,” “by,” or “at.” For example, one is “in” a house (Heb. 3:2, 5) or “on” a mountain” (Heb. 8:5), God rested “on” the seventh day (Heb. 4:4), God spoke “by” prophets and the Son (Heb. 1:1–2), and Jesus sat “at” God’s right hand (Heb. 10:12). But none of these common meanings for en really helps with Hebrews 13:20 (“led up from the dead by blood”).

The solution comes from a meaning of en that is relatively uncommon and can best be rendered as “by virtue of.” This communicates a cause or reason for doing something that is normally communicated by other Greek prepositions (e.g., dia or heneka). It turns out that this meaning for en is found elsewhere in Hebrews; for example, en occurs in Hebrews 6:18 in the phrase that can be rendered, “by virtue of which it is impossible for God to lie.” It may also be found in a passage more directly relevant for Hebrews 13:20 when our author says that we have boldness to enter into the holy of holies “by virtue of the blood of Jesus” (Heb. 10:19). This same meaning of en is being communicated in Hebrews 13:20.

The outcome of our investigation actually has an important doctrinal implication. Hebrews 13:20 says that God raised our great shepherd, Jesus Christ, “by virtue of the blood of the eternal covenant.” What this means is that Christ earned the right to be raised. “By virtue of” communicates that Christ merited his resurrection and exaltation in his incarnate humanity to eternal rule at his Father’s right hand when he inaugurated the eternal (new) covenant with his blood, an act of consummate mediatorial substitution on our behalf. In Reformed theology, this is part of “the active obedience of Christ,” and it is clearly communicated by the author of Hebrews in his benediction.

©Westminster Seminary California. All rights reserved. Reprinted on the Heidelblog by permission.

This article was first published on the WSC Blog in 2011.

You can find the whole series here.


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One comment

  1. Dr. Baugh, thank you for capturing this eternal ‘knowledge’ gem, long ago.

    The outcome of our investigation actually has an important doctrinal implication. Hebrews 13:20 says that God raised our great shepherd, Jesus Christ, “by virtue of the blood of the eternal covenant.”

    Dr. Clark,
    Thank you for posting Dr. Baugh’s ‘2011’ insights in the Heidelblbog.net.

    When the meaning of a preposition is obscure – confusion abounds. However, when a reliable philologist and theologian labors to research and locate an essential translation of a ‘meaningless’ preposition – this lay student gains clarity of God’s amazing Covenant.

    God confirms He has established His Covenant of blood through Christ Alone. His Covenant is His constitution for His people.

    Thank you for your commitment to the organic development of redemptive revelation and bringing it to us, ‘one-byte’ at a time, Covenant.

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