John Owen Did Not Read Hebrews Like A Baptist (Part 4)

In volume three, where Owen begins his commentary proper on the text of Hebrews, he makes illuminating remarks on Hebrews 3:1–2, about how he understood the movement of redemptive history and the comparison and contrast that Paul makes in Hebrews between Moses and Christ.1 Understanding Owen’s approach to Moses is essential to understanding his reading of Hebrews and his reading of the nature and progress of redemptive history.

In the English Standard Version the passage says:

Therefore, holy brothers, you who share in a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession, who was faithful to him who appointed him, just as Moses also was faithful in all God’s house.2

As we have seen, Owen distinguished between the roles (in redemptive history) of Abraham and of Moses. He regarded the Abrahamic covenant as forming a paradigm (a pattern) that the Mosaic covenant did not form. We should also attend to the distinction between the terms comparison and contrast. The former mainly (though not only) denotes a likeness between two things, and the latter denotes differences between two things. Hebrews begins with a comparison between Moses and Christ. Owen observed how, in this comparison, Paul tread carefully because of the exalted status Moses had among the Jews. He was, for the Jews, “the visible internuncius and mediator between God and their forefathers when their church-state was erected, and they were brought into the enjoyment of those privileges wherein they were exalted above all the nations of the world.”3 For Owen, Paul needed to remove “all suspicion from himself” that he was intending to denigrate or “cast off” Moses.4 As a matter of establishing trust, he needed the Jewish Christians to understand what an honored place Moses had, and that there is even “a consistency between the true honor of Moses and the exaltation of Christ, which as yet many of them did not understand, but thought that if Christ and the gospel were established, Moses must be cast off and condemned.”5

Nevertheless, according to Owen, the Jewish Christians to whom Paul wrote, being “yet entangled in their old Judaism, and by reason of their temptations, prejudices, and persecutions, were ready to decline from the truth.”6 In order to free them from their Judaism (i.e., retrogression to the Mosaic types and shadows) and to prevent their apostasy, “the apostle calls them to the consideration of what he had delivered, and what he was yet to deliver, concerning the person, offices, and work of Christ.”7

Ever the pastor, Owen spends a good bit of time on what he calls the subjective aspect of the passage (i.e., the edification of his reader), but he then returns to the objective question—that is, Paul’s intention regarding the Jewish Christians under the heading of Christ’s faithfulness in his office as Mediator.8

Yea, this is that which he would have them immediately and in the first place to consider, and which being once fixed on their minds, those other things must needs have the more effectual influence upon them. For if [Christ] be absolutely faithful in his work, his authority and mercy ought surely diligently to be heeded. To this end the apostle compares him in particular with Moses in these verses, and in the next exalts him above him. And no better medium could be used to satisfy the Hebrews, who were sufficiently persuaded of the faithfulness of Moses. He being, then, ultimately to reveal the will of God, and being absolutely faithful in his so doing, is to be attended unto. Men may thence learn what they have to do in the church and worship of God,—even to observe and to do whatever he hath commanded, and nothing else (Matt 28:20; Rev 1:5, 3:14).9

Here Owen appealed to the difference in degree between Christ’s mediatorial office and work and that of Moses. Christ is greater than Moses. We cannot understand “the apostle’s purpose” unless we keep the objective comparison between Christ and Moses before our eyes.10 That is, just as “the faithfulness of Moses extended to the whole worship of God,” so the faithfulness of Christ “must be extended to the whole worship of God . . . under the New Testament.”11

Under verses 3–6, Owen turned his attention to the differences between Moses and Christ.12

3For Jesus has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses—as much more glory as the builder of a house has more honor than the house itself. 4 (For every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God.) 5Now Moses was faithful in all God’s house as a servant, to testify to the things that were to be spoken later, 6but Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son. And we are his house, if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope.

Here Owen began to press his case for the superiority of Christ to Moses. Again, the importance of the terms used in this comparison must not be missed for understanding Owen’s reading of Hebrews and his articulation of the progress of redemption and revelation. The focus here is not on Abraham, nor on the entire Old Testament, but on Moses and the Mosaic covenant specifically. We will consider this more fully when we get to Owen’s treatment of the later chapters of Hebrews (e.g., 6:13–20; ch. 8; 10:1), but it will help us to understand those later passages if we pay attention to Owen’s work here.

For Owen, in 3:6 and following, Paul passes “directly unto a new argument for his general end and purpose, namely the dignity [worth] of Christ above Moses.”13 For Owen, the people of God under Moses were “the church or people of God being in that testimony called ‘The house of God,’ and that by God himself,” which allows the apostle to exalt the dignity of Christ relative to Moses.14 As we saw before, as great as the contrast is between Christ and Moses, there remains but one people of God and one covenant of grace in various administrations. Not even the Mosaic covenant changes that. For Owen, the church under the types and shadows was an administration of the covenant of grace and not merely an anticipation of the covenant of grace. For Owen, the “assumption included is, ‘But Christ built the house, and Moses was only of house or a part of it: and therefore he had more glory than Moses.’”15 The house of God that Paul had in mind is “the house of God in all ages and places, from the foundation of the world unto the end thereof.”16

For Owen, through the principal sense of “house” is church, there was a place for talking about the temple. With the rest of the Reformed, for Owen, the whole typological system under Moses, represented by the temple, pointed to Christ. The very materials of the temple were “a type and representation” of Christ.17 The “real fashioning of the real spiritual house of God by Christ in all ages is a thing full of mysterious wisdom and holiness.”18

For all the continuity between Moses and Christ, “here lies a great difference between Christ and Moses,” namely, despite his honor and glory, Moses’ work was “but an inferior work, the work of a servant or a ministerial builder.”19 The work of Christ is that of one who is one person with two natures, true God and true man.

The comparison here made is not between the persons of Christ and Moses absolutely, but with respect unto their relation unto the church or house of God in their offices. Moses was indeed a son of God by adoption (for “the adoption” belonged unto believers under the old testament, Rom. 9:4); he was so in his own person; but he was not a son in reference unto the house, but a servant by his office, and no more. And the Lord Christ, who was the Son of God upon a more glorious account, even that of his eternal generation, is not here thence said to be a son, he is not as such here spoken of, but as one that had the rule as a son over the house.20

For Owen, as for Hebrews, Moses worked for Christ. His function, “his true and proper end” in redemptive history, was to point to Christ.21 He did it not so much by “direct prophecies and promises” as much as “by the whole constitution and ordering of the house of God and all its institutions.”22 This was the “great end of all the Mosaical institutions,” to “represent or prefigure and give testimony unto the grace of the gospel by Jesus Christ.”23

Notes

  1. John Owen, An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, ed. W. H. Goold, vol. 20, Works of John Owen (Edinburgh: Johnstone and Hunter, 1854), 516–17.
  2. Obviously, Owen was not using the English Standard Version, but I quote it here for the sake of clarity for the modern reader. The text as it appears in Owen’s commentary reads: “Wherefore, holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling, consider [diligently] the apostle and high priest of our profession, Christ Jesus, who was faithful [being faithful] to him that appointed him [made him so], even as Moses in all his house [in his whole house.].” Owen, 20. 490.
  3. Owen, 20.516. An internuntius (internuncius in late Latin) is a go-between or a messenger between two parties. Italics original.
  4. Owen, 20.516.
  5. Owen, 20.516.
  6. Owen, Works, 20.518.
  7. Owen, 20.518.
  8. Owen used these categories explicitly on p. 527.
  9. Owen, 20.522.
  10. Owen, 20.527.
  11. Owen, Works, 20.527.
  12. Ver. 3–6.—For this [man] was counted worth of more glory [was more honourable] than Moses; inasmuch as he who hath builded the house [an house] hath more honour than the house. For every house is builded by some man; but he that built all things is God. And Moses verily [was] faithful in all his house as a servant, for a testimony of those things which were [after] to be spoken. But Christ [was faithful] as a son over his own house; whose house are we, if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of [or glorying in] the hope firm unto the end.” Owen, 20.531.
  13. Owen, Works, 20.532.
  14. Owen, 20.532.
  15. Owen, 20.533.
  16. Owen, Works, 20.541.
  17. Owen, 20.543. It is worth noting in passing here that Owen easily connected the prelapsarian covenant of works with the Mosaic covenant. See ibid., 20.545.
  18. Owen, 20.545. Emphasis added.
  19. Owen, 20.552.
  20. Owen, 20.557. Italics original.
  21. Owen, 20.559.
  22. Owen, 20.559.
  23. Owen, 20.568.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

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