Jesus Christ the same yesterday, today, and forever. This phrase in Hebrews 13.8 is often lifted up as a text for the immutability of God. Since Jesus is God and the preacher of Hebrews implies that Jesus does not change, therefore that means God is immutable. While such theological reason seems sound, it makes the mistake of treating the discourse of Hebrews as a explication on the nature of God, which does not readily fit the context in which it is spoken.
Certainly, Jesus as the reflection of God’s nature is brought up at the very beginning of the sermon in Hebrews in 1.1-3a. However, the concern here is about God’s power to create and sustain the world we live in, and not some abstract foray into the abstract speculations on the divine essence in isolation from creation.
Even then, in Hebrews 13, the concern is about God’s nature, as much as it is about pedagogical reliability. In 13.7, the preacher encourages the audience leaders to remember both the instructions and the results of way of life of their teachers. Then, in 13.9, he then warns them against accepting strange teachings that are built about regulating what one eats in lieu of God’s grace. So, when he see “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, today, and forever” in 13.8, this is intended as a statement on trusting the leaders who spoke the word of God over those who would reestablish the Jewish dietary concerns back onto the believers. Perhaps implicit in this is a knowledge of what Jesus taught about consumption as in Matthew 15.10-20, as if to state that Jesus is not going to turn around and change course regarding this matter.
Furthermore, there is a contrast between the leaders in 13.7 and those who teaches dietary regulations in 13.9. Whereas the leaders are implicitly assumed to have been changed in their life, the other teachers have not benefited from the observation of the dietary customs. The implication of 13.8, then, is not just that Jesus Christ does not change, but that the reliability of His instruction to promote new life does not change.
We see this idea of the effective of Jesus’ teaching play out in 13.10-13 and following. Jesus whose blood has been offered to sanctify the people becomes a source of imitation for the believers to “go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured,” which likely refers to a form of imagination in worship of the scene of the cross. Put simply, the imaginative imitation of Jesus, much as believers are called to imitate their leaders, who also presumably engaged in such a worshipful imagination, is the means by which Jesus’ blood sanctifies the people.
This is then followed in 13.14-16 with a call to offer sacrifices in the form of praise to God, which is understood as doing good and sharing. So, there is a further connection between the sacrifice of Christ and the activity of doing good and sharing with each other, probably being understood as an imitation of Christ’s love.
The point being that what is at concern in Hebrews 13 is to explain why one should continue to imitate Christ and live by His instructions as expressed by their leaders. This power of this way of life taught and enacted by Christ does not change, so they should not be tempted by other teachers who tell them to add something on top of this to advance in their faithfulness before God. To that end, we can hear Hebrews 13.8 as expressing a similar sentiment Paul is expressing in Galatians: that the whole of the Christian life is lived by the faith one has and that one does not suddenly need to the works of the Torah to progress further. What was demonstrated in the faith of Jesus Christ is fully able to become realized in a believer’s life (“it is no longer I who love, but Christ who lives in me”; Gal 2.20). At no point along the Christian journey will one need to embrace the practices of the Torah to supplement and strengthen their discipleship because Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow; what was effective yesterday will be effective today and tomorrow.
I bring this forward to bring an analogy to how Christian teaching is done today: the need to integrate therapeutic principles into the Christian way of life to effectively realize transformation. To be clear, therapy may have some implications for discipleship, for instance when people who have been abused have a way of thinking and feeling that makes them resists hearing and understanding the Gospel well. Circumstances like that aside, there is the frequent inclination to study the teachings of Jesus and provide some sort of therapeutic gloss to their meaning and then take Jesus as endorsing the therapeutic idea. The most glaring example from the 90s and 2000s was to take the commandment “You should love your neighbor as yourself” as an endorsement of the therapeutic idea of self-love as necessary to love others. While certainly, self-loathing can be a deep problem that can hinder our understanding of Jesus’ instructions, Jesus was not endorsing a practice of self-love. Another example is how some have tried to treat faith in Jesus as a form of treatment for anxiety, often with the implicit idea that faith cures anxiety. In this and many other subtle ways, the way we have tried to turn the various parts of the Scriptures into therapeutic practices has had the effect of leading us to often monkey around with people’s hearts and minds through the implicit expectations that a good Christian should think certain things, feeling certain things, want only certain things, etc. etc.
This has lead to the attempts to control and changing of inner experience by some religious groups, such as conversation therapy for same-sex attracted people, which has lead to terribly damaging results that have harmed numerous people. Beyond wanting to simply provide the Christian teaching on sexuality as a way of life and provide boundaries on certain type of behaviors, there has been the felt need to therapeuticize people’s the inner experiences of certain thoughts, feelings, and desires of all people, in part due to a misunderstanding of Matthew 5.27-30 as being about generally about all desire rather than about the specific desire for another person’s spouse that tempts people to transgress a bodily boundary.
The interplay of religion with therapy has implicitly rationalized the cognitive and emotional manipulation of people in a way that people are not even aware that they are doing it. But in the desire to strengthen to our spiritual life, we have looked to psychological principles because they do have a certain reliability to them based upon scientific findings, and then put them onto of the teachings of Jesus.
To be clear, I am not criticizing the psychological analysis of Christian faith. There is certainly something of value to that. Descriptive analysis does not seek to replace the practices of the Christian faith with some techniques practices that are seen as accomplishing the same ends or goals. Nor am I criticizing people of faith going to therapy. Having PTSD myself, I can testify to the important of therapy. What I am pointing to is the problem in how we bring in therapeutic techniques and practices to empower the Christian life, often in ways that we lack understanding of and the potentially disastrous implications that such can have when the power of therapeutic techniques are used by people who do not have a robust therapeutic understanding, not to mention distracting us from the teachings and life of Jesus.
The flag I watch for is when people start talking more about how we should specifically think and feel to empower the Christian life. While well-intended, the Gospel is redemptive not in virtue of directly changing and modifying innera thought and experiencea, but it is redemptive because the bodies of believers are being ‘exercised’ according to the teachings and life of Jesus. It is the body, not the heart and mind, that is the central place of action of Christian redemption, both in the usage of our body and the narrative imagination of the body of Christ. Where the body goes, both in reality and in our imagination, so too does the heart and mind. Insofar as we as Christian teachers address inner experience, it should be focused more so on the imagination, rather than specific thoughts and feelings.
To be clear even here: it is not wrong for Christian preachers and teachers to talk about therapy and psychology. We often have to address various difficult circumstances of life, such as mental illness, in our teaching. Rather, it is that we need to make sure we are not treating Jesus’ teachings and life as a husk for the kernal of therapeutic principles that we then teach as effective on their own grounds. Jesus is the same yesterday before modern thereapeutic techniques, Jesus is the same today even as there are therapeutic techniques, and Jesus will be the same tomorrow when there are new therapeutic techniques on the horizon. Allow Jesus to be Jesus and therapists to be therapists, but the combination of the two risks creating something that is neither really Jesus nor therapy.