The Excellence and Encouragement of an Unchanging Christ
Change is inevitable in virtually every sphere of our existence. Next year we will witness a change in the presidency of the United States, and with it, regardless of who is elected, will undoubtedly come changes in our economy and our foreign policy and how much we pay in taxes. Continue reading . . .
Change is inevitable in virtually every sphere of our existence. Next year we will witness a change in the presidency of the United States, and with it, regardless of who is elected, will undoubtedly come changes in our economy and our foreign policy and how much we pay in taxes. All of us who live in Oklahoma know that if there is anything that is change-less about the weather in our great state it is that it changes not just daily but hourly! Our jobs change. Our bodies change. Our circle of friends changes. Change can be unsettling and even frightful, but the reality of it will never change. As someone once said, the only changeless thing about life on this planet is that everything in it and about it changes.
I can handle change like that. The older I get, the less disturbed I am by changes in our political climate or in fashion or in the stock market. Like you, I’ve grown accustomed to the consistency of that sort of change. But what I can never get used to is the way people change. I don’t mean change in their appearance or age or marital status or financial condition. I’m talking about how people change from good to bad to worse. I’m talking about the way people make promises and then break them. I’m talking about the way people pledge their loyalty to us and then disappear. I’m talking about people who once were honest but now lie and steal and cheat. The unreliability of people, due to changes in their moral character, is one of the most devastating and crushing realities in our world.
Think about your spouse. When I talk with couples who are struggling, I often hear things like: “He’s different. He didn’t use to be like this. When we first got married he was always so attentive to my needs. He always put me first and was so sensitive to ask how I was doing and how I was feeling. But in recent years he’s become so self-absorbed. He won’t listen to me. He no longer respects my opinion. We always have to do what he wants, go on vacation where he prefers, watch his favorite TV shows. What happened to him? I just wish I could have my original husband back again.”
If for no other reason, that is why I’m so encouraged and uplifted by what I read in Hebrews 13:8 – “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” But what does our author mean by this statement and what possible relevance does it have for you and me today? Most of you are probably in the midst of one crisis or another, some profound and disturbing change in your life or in the lives of your children or extended family or in the career path on which you once launched out. So why should we care about what appears to be an abstract theological statement about the unchanging nature of Jesus Christ?
What does it mean to say that Jesus Christ is always the same? If you’re not familiar with it, the technical theological term for this is immutability. So what does it mean when we apply words to Jesus like “unchanging” or the “same” or “immutable”?
Perhaps it would help to explain what we don’t mean. When we say that Jesus is always and ever the same and that he never changes we aren’t thinking of immutability in the way we apply that term to the Rock of Gibraltar. Gibraltar, at least for as long as I can remember and I’m sure this would be true for the centuries preceding our lifetime, has always been the same. There it is off the southwestern tip of Europe on the Iberian Peninsula, jutting forth in all its greatness, unmoved, seemingly unchanged in any meaningful sense. The wind and the waves continue to pound against it, but it remains. I suppose erosion may have altered it a bit, but not in any substantial way that would lead us to conclude that it is no longer the Gibraltar we’ve always known and admired.
But Gibraltar is a rock. It is inert matter. It doesn’t feel or think or exert itself in any meaningful sense. So I would never compare the immutability of Jesus Christ to Gibraltar. Jesus is alive and feels and thinks and responds to circumstances.
Ok. What about gravity? Gravity never seems to change. I’ve never experienced the sensation of levitation in which I suddenly began to float without the use of wires or pulleys or a jet engine. Gravity is immutable, or so it would seem. Is that what we mean when we say that Jesus never changes? Or what about my computer? The only time it might change is if I install new software. But aside from that, so long as it doesn’t break down it will always do what I instruct it to do when I type certain keys or commands.
But again, just like Gibraltar and gravity, computers are not capable of experiencing emotions such as joy or fear or gratitude or hope or delight or love or hate. None of these immutable objects in our world can interact with us as persons. So it would be misleading to suggest that Jesus is the “same” in the way or sense in which Gibraltar or gravity or computers are always the same.
Our author is not suggesting that there is no sense whatsoever in which Jesus changes. The fact of the matter is that there was a time when the Son of God was purely spirit, the second person of the Trinity, living in unbroken and joyful fellowship with the Father and the Holy Spirit. But then things changed and he became incarnate as a human being whom we call Jesus. But then things changed yet again as he was raised from the dead and glorified, being exalted to the right hand of God where he now lives and rules as sovereign Lord over all things.
Therefore, in no way should you hear the author of Hebrews denying or questioning the reality of the Son of God taking to himself a human nature. Recall that in John 1:14 we are told that “the Word became flesh.” That word “became” should be taken quite literally. The second person of the Trinity, the Son of God, did not pretend to be a human being. He did not masquerade as a man. He did not adorn himself with a human costume! He literally became a man who was given the name Jesus. So obviously there was a change in the manner or mode of existence of the Son of God. But he didn’t change in any of his attributes or in his character or in his purposes. He “changed” not in the sense that he is no longer God but in the sense that he is now also man.
There is yet another crucial thing to keep in mind. The Bible says that we used to be enemies of God. We were in rebellion against him. We were alienated from him. We were under his wrath and judgment. God was angry with us. But now we are his adopted sons and daughters. We are in fellowship with him. We are reconciled to him through faith in Jesus. We no longer need fear judgment or divine wrath. So our relationship with Jesus Christ changes when the Holy Spirit regenerates us or causes us to be born again and leads us to faith in Christ. But to say that our relationship to him changes does not mean that he changes in his essence or his character.
So when we say that Jesus is always the same and that he never changes, what we mean is that his character and life as God is immutable. Jesus never lies. He never lied in the past, he won’t lie to you today, and you can rest assured that he will tell you the truth next week and next year and next century.
Jesus is immutable and unchanging in his love for you. His love for you doesn’t rise and fall like a thermometer. His commitment to keep his promises never changes. There will never come a day when he says, “You know, I’ve been thinking. I don’t believe that my promise to those who believe in me that I will always make intercession for them at my Father’s right hand is a good idea. Things in the world have changed, and I think I need to adapt as well. I’ve got better and more important things to do than to always be available when Christians draw near to God through faith in me.” No, that will never happen.
To say that Jesus is unchanging and always the same means that there never has been a time in the past and never will be in the days ahead when his assurance to us in the Great Commission will prove false. You will recall that in Matthew 28 Jesus said, “And I will be with you, even to the end of the age.” What Hebrews 13:8 is telling us is that you need never fear that at some point Jesus will renege on that guarantee. He will never enter into the course of a day’s experience and say, “I’ve lost my zeal for being present with my people. They’ve brushed me off once too often. They’ve failed me and let me down too many times. I’ve been patient up until now, but enough’s enough. There’s a limit to everything, you know. So I’m going to cut them loose and let them fend for themselves a while. Maybe they’ll wake up and be more attentive to my glory and then I’ll renew my commitment to always be with them.”
Let me make this point with even greater force. In Hebrews 13:5-6 our author grounds his exhortation to live free from the love of money in the truth of God’s abiding presence. Don’t be enslaved to the love of money but rather be content with what you have. Why? Because God has made a promise to you, not once, but twice: “I will never leave you. No, by no means ever will I forsake you.” But how can we be sure of that? He may be present with me today, but who knows what may happen next week or five years down the road?
So here in v. 8 he tells us that we need never fear that we will wake up one day and God will be gone, vanished, having left us to ourselves. We know this will never be the case because Jesus Christ who is God is the “same” yesterday, when he first made that promise, as well as today when I need him to be near and close by to me, and in the days and weeks and years ahead when my life starts to fall apart.
In Hebrews 13:6 he said that the Lord is our “helper.” Great. But how long will that last? What if he runs out of gas? What if I don’t respond to his help as I should? What if he abandons me to my own strength and resources in order to bail out some hapless soul who seemingly needs him more desperately than I do? No, God will always be your helper. Jesus will always be present to make intercession for you as he promised in Hebrews 7:25. And we know this to be true without the slightest hesitation or doubt because we are assured here in v. 8 that Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, is always and ever the same.
Therefore, this idea of Christ’s immutability, or constancy, simply asserts that when the circumstances in any situation call for goodness, justice, or love as the appropriate response on the part of our Lord, that is precisely what he will be (or do, as the case maybe). To say the same thing, but negatively, if Jesus ought to be good, just, or loving as the circumstances may demand, or as his promises would require, he will by no means ever be evil, unfair, or hateful.
Or let me put it in slightly other terms. Jesus Christ never changes in his essential being. That is to say, he will never gain any new attributes or characteristics. Neither will he ever lose any. Jesus will never grow! He doesn’t develop. He will never be better than he always has been and is today. To say he is immutable or unchangeable or always the same, past, present, and future, means that he is as infinitely good today as he ever will be. He won’t be “better” tomorrow. If he were to be better tomorrow than he is today it would mean that today he is less than perfect. Jesus never improves.
He is infinitely good. How can you add to or improve on infinity? You can’t! The only way Jesus could change in terms of his character is either by losing attributes or getting worse, on the one hand, or by gaining attributes or getting better, on the other. But he experiences neither. You and I do. We are gradually and progressively changing in our moral being. I hope and pray I’m getting better as time passes. I hope and pray that I’m gaining new features in my personality, like humility and love and compassion and a deeper disdain for evil. But that never happens in Jesus.
We must also remember, as John Piper has pointed out, that our author isn’t saying that since Jesus is grieved with you because of your sin on Tuesday that he can’t rejoice with you after you repent on Wednesday. To say that Jesus is the “same” at all times doesn’t mean that his relationship with you and me is static and unaffected by our sin or, conversely, by our obedience. Of course, our sin doesn’t affect our eternal relationship with him. He is always and forever committed to us when we come to faith in him and regardless of the ups and downs of our lives we remain forever and eternally his. But that doesn’t mean his feelings remained unaffected or unchanged. Would you want a Savior who was so indifferent to your sin or to your obedience that he never felt anything when you obeyed him or disobeyed him?
So don’t ever think that what Hebrews 13:8 means is that last Tuesday, when you fell into sin, Jesus was grieved by what you did and that on Wednesday, when you repented and asked his forgiveness, he said, “Sorry, but once grieved, always grieved. After all, I don’t change. I’m always the same. So once you messed up and I grieved, I stay that way forever.” No!
Now, let’s take a moment and consider the importance of these time references: yesterday (or the past), today (or the present), and forever (the future). Why does he say this?
First of all, it’s absolutely crucial that Jesus be the same yesterday or in the past as he is today because it was in the past, some 2,000 years ago, that he revealed to us what he is really like. It was while he was on the earth that he put on display the nature and character of his heavenly Father.
Second, the reason it’s important that he be the same today as he was yesterday is because it is now, in the present, that you and I have a relationship with him. We relate to him today on the basis of what we read about him in Scripture as he was in the past. God has orchestrated things so that we know Jesus by reading about him in an inspired and infallible book. But if the Jesus I read about in Matthew or Romans or Hebrews isn’t the same today as he was then, of what good is he? How could I possibly trust him or turn to him in times of trouble if I have no assurance that the way he responded to people back then is the way he responds to me and other people today?
In other words, the Holy Spirit takes the truths of Christ as revealed in Scripture and makes them real and personal and present and powerful and precious in our lives now. But if the Christ of today isn’t the same as the Christ recorded for us in the Bible, we’re doomed!
Third, if Jesus turns out to be different in the future from what he is today or what he was in the past, all hope is shattered. My hope, your hope, is based on the consistency of Christ, that he will be in ten years and into eternity the same Christ who walked this earth 2,000 years ago, the same Christ who hears my prayers and guides and guards me today.
What this means, very simply, is that Jesus Christ is dependable! Our trust in him is therefore a confident trust, for we know that he will not, indeed cannot, change. It is because the Jesus who promised us eternal life is immutable that we may rest assured that nothing, not trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword shall separate us from the love he has for us. It is because Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever that neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, no not even powers, height, depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:35-39)!
This truth should also serve well to drive from our hearts all fear and anxiety. If Jesus will be the same “forever” then we may rest assured that the promises he made to us “yesterday,” in Scripture, will most assuredly come to pass either “today” or at some point in the “forever” of our future with him.
Finally, the truth of the immutability of Jesus Christ means that he wins! If he is omnipotent now, he will always be. His purposes will never fail and his will cannot be thwarted. No matter how great the setbacks may be that we suffer today, we can rest assured that the unchanging Christ will prevail over all his and all our enemies!