Jesus Our Pioneer

It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. Hebrews 2:10

Pioneer. The word fairly leaps from the page here in Hebrews and arrests our attention. Jesus is called “the pioneer of our salvation” in chapter 2, and “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” in chapter 12. Jesus is our “pioneer.”

Frankly, I’m not satisfied with that description of Jesus. Not when I compare it to the grand and lofty titles given to him in the New Testament: Savior, Immanuel, Christ, the Son of the living God, and more. Some of these titles found their way into the Apostles’ Creed. “Pioneer” can hardly stand in the shadow of these grand words of faith. The Creed would seem diminished if we said, “I believe in Jesus our Pioneer.”

We can rummage through other translations to find a more worthy word. We could use “founder,” “leader,” “hero,” “originator,” “author,” or “captain.” But they all seem to diminish the person and work of Jesus on whom our peace with God and our eternal destiny depend. So let us stay with the word “pioneer” and see where it takes us.

You know what a pioneer is. A pioneer is a person who goes on ahead of the others and thereby makes it safe for others to follow. In the words of Hebrews, we are called children of flesh and blood. That is who we are. We are not angels, disembodied spirits. We are human. We are flesh and blood, bone and marrow, tissue and muscle. We ache, bleed, break bones, get sick, get arthritis. We suffer on our way to dying. The writer of these words in Hebrews knew that and said it. And whenever we attend a funeral like this, we know it, too.

Death is tinged with fear, and fear brings with it a temptation. That is what these words in Hebrews are about. The temptation is to believe that death is the master of life, to believe that death is the Lord of all and that there is no hope. The temptation is to give up on life and God and to believe that in the end, death is the winner and the winner takes all.

That is where Jesus, the pioneer of our salvation, comes in. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem as the Son of God, he took on himself our flesh and blood. Jesus, the Son of God, became our brother so that we can be God’s children–flesh and blood and all. Jesus joined us on our journey of suffering toward death. That is what happened when he was born.

And Jesus faced the fear of death with us and for us. It says so right in Hebrews 5:7: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death.” That is what happened in Gethsemane just before he was arrested and crucified. There he prayed with blood, sweat, and tears, “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” Jesus faced death and the fear of death.

Jesus also faced the temptation to give up on his Father in heaven and to give in to the devil’s lie that death is the master of life. Remember how they teased and tempted him on the cross? “If you are the Son of God, come down from there and we will believe in you.” But he stayed there because he was pioneering our way through death to make it safe for us to follow. He made a “sacrifice for the sins of the people.” He trusted his Father in heaven in life and in death to make it possible for us today to say in the words of the old catechism, “What is your only comfort in life and in death? That I am not my own, but belong–body and soul, in life and in death–to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.”

Jesus our pioneer entered death to make it safe for us to follow. Listen: “Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death… . Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested” (Hebrews 2:14-18).

And that, my brothers and sisters, is the good news of God in Jesus Christ.

Roger Van Harn is pastor emeritus of Grace Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. This is part of the sermon he preached at the funeral of the Reverend Harold Dekker on 20 March, 2006.