The writer of Hebrews is much loved for well worded one liners. Whoever the human author of this theological masterpiece was we owe him a great deal for coining phrases such as, “We See Jesus,” “Jesus, the Captain of our salvation,” “Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith,” “looking unto Jesus” etc. There is one phrase in particular–found at the beginning of the letter–which has long troubled commentators. The phrase is found in 2:5 where the writer writes about “the world to come of which we speak.” This phrase has caused great exegetical difficulty for many because it doesn’t seem–on first glance–to be logically connected to anything the writer has said in the previous verses. It is not until we start to unpack the theology of the Old Testament citations, references and allusions found in Hebrews 1:1-14 that we come to see in fuller light what is meant by the phrase, “the world to come of which we speak.”
The writer starts in on this section (Heb. 2:5-9) by making the declaration that the “world of which we speak was not made subject to Angels, but…” He will essentially go on to say theologically, “It will be made subject to man.” The first great question that has to be settled is, “What is meant by “the world to come of which we speak?” Here, we have to go back to chapter one and construct a theology of inheritance. At the outset of this book–when the writer is speaking of the glories of Jesus as the eternal Son–he writes, “Whom He (i.e. God the Father) has appointed heir of all things” (Heb. 1:2). That’s a significant clue into what is meant by “the world to come of which we speak” (2:5). We are first told that Jesus will inherit everything. Then, in verse 3 we are told that it was through the Son that God the Father “made the worlds [αιωνας].” The Greek word is not so much “world” as it was “ages.” God the Father created the ages through Jesus.
The two ages of redemptive history are (1) the old world prior to Christ’s first coming, and then (2) the Gospel age that began to come in the incarnation when God burst into time for our redemption. At this point someone might conclude that “the world to come” has already come in the coming of Jesus into the world? This was the position espoused by John Owen. Owen believed that the contrast was between the old world (i.e. the old world of Judaism, which Paul elsewhere refers to as the elementary principles of the world) and the new age (i.e. the Gospel Age). Was Owen correct? Yes and no. Jesus did indeed bring the eternal kingdom of God with Him in His first coming; but we still await the consummation of the kingdom at the second coming when he makes all things new. This divides the Gospel age into two divisions–the inauguration of the new age and the consummation of the new age. Interesting, this paradigm is founded on the biblical teaching on the first and second coming of Jesus. It is toward the consummation that Hebrews 1 moves, when–at the very end–the writer said that Jesus would—one day—“coming again into the world” (1:6) and that He would then take creation off like a garment and change it into something altogether new (1:10-12).
When Christ returns He will destroy all the works of unrighteousness and darkness and will recreate this world into a “new heavens and a new earth wherein righteousness dwells.” This is coterminous with the “world to come” of which the writer is speaking in 2:5. Finally, we are told that we will participate in Christ’s inheritance of the world to come by virtue of our union with Him when we are told that the Angels are “sent forth to minister to those who will inherit salvation” (1:14). This means that the “great salvation” of chapter 2:3 is one and the same with the inheritance of Christ mentioned in 1:3. Tracing the theme of the inheritance from Christ (1:2) to us (1:14) in light of the writers teaching on the new creation (1:6 and 1:10-12) throughout chapter one helps us understand what is meant in 2:5 about “so great a salvation” and it’s final presented form as “the world to come of which we speak” (2:3).
You can listen to my attempt to unpack this in my most recent sermon, “Jesus and the World to Come.” You can watch the video below:
Jesus and the World to Come (Heb. 2:5-9)