For the Joy Set Before Him

The Twofold Reality of Hebrews 12:2

During this Winter Break, a friend and I have decided to read Murray J. Harris’ Prepositions and Theology in the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012). We have a Greek class in the Spring, and we want to gain a deeper understanding of Koine[1] Greek’s “prepositional system.”[2] Koine Greek is the language that our New Testament (NT)—as well as the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Old Testament—was written in.

In the book, Dr. Harris walks the reader through all of the major prepositions that occur in the NT, listing basic uses in the NT and extra-biblical literature, relationships to other nearby prepositions, semantic ranges, as well as important exegetical decisions regarding important NT passages whose interpretations hang on specific prepositions. Needless to say, this has been a fruitful read for me for several reasons.

One reason in particular is how the Greek preposition ἀντί (anti; “for” [ESV]) functions in Hebrews 12:2. In his chapter on the preposition ἀντί (anti), Harris comments on a portion of Hebrews 12:2,[3] which reads,

“ … who for (ἀντί; anti) the joy that was set before him endured the cross…” (ESV)

Many Christian Hedonists[4] and biblical scholars interpret “for the joy that was set before him” as Jesus seeking his own joy by means of enduring the cross. As a Christian Hedonist myself, I do not deny that Jesus sought his own joy in the ministry given by his Father (John 15:11; 17:13); however, I believe there is more to Heb 12:2 than only Jesus seeking his own joy. In short, I see a twofold reality embedded in a purposefully and ambiguously used prepositional phrase (“for the joy that was set before him”): (1) Jesus exchanged his joy for the sufferings of the cross and (2) Jesus pursued his joy by means of the cross. These two realities are inextricably bound together so that we cannot choose one interpretation without adopting the other.

Two Classic Interpretations

So, if we understand “for” in Heb 12:2 to only refer to Jesus’ motivation for enduring the cross, then we may align with John Piper’s (among others) interpretation.[5] In a Look at the Book session on Desringgod.org, Piper interprets the meaning of “for” in Heb 12:16 as “in order to obtain,” (purpose).[6] He also sees “for” (ἀντί; anti) in Heb 12:16 (and especially in 12:2) conveying Esau’s motivation for selling his birthright—i.e., the purpose for which Esau sold his birthright.[7] Therefore, Piper imputes the meaning of “for” in Heb 12:16 onto the meaning of “for” in 12:2; just as Esau sold his birth right “in order to obtain” a meal, so Jesus endured the cross “in order to obtain” the joy set before him.   

On the contrary, if we understand “for” in Heb 12:2 to only refer to Jesus’ exchange of his preincarnate joy for his incarnate sufferings on the cross, then we may align with Murray Harris. He writes, “On this view the author is not speaking of Jesus’ motivation for his endurance of crucifixion and his scorning of its disgrace, namely, to obtain joy, but of the disregard of personal advantage that was involved in his steady submission to the cross.”[8] Whereas the former interpretation accepts a rare use of ἀντί (“in order to obtain”; purpose), this interpretation retains its orthodox and most widely attested use in both biblical and extra-biblical literature alike: substitutionary exchange.[9]

So, Who’s Right?

So, which interpretation did the author of Hebrews intend? As far as I am aware, scholars do not debate that the normal use of ἀντί (anti) conveys some kind of exchange. So, is the author of Hebrews saying that Jesus exchanged his joy for the cross[10] or that Jesus—in an unorthodox use of ἀντί— pursued his joy[11] by means of the cross? There is persuasive contextual evidence for both interpretations:

(1) The context in which Heb 12:2 was written is an appeal for future-oriented faith (i.e., purpose), which began in chapter 10 and climaxes in ch. 11–12.[12]

(2) The only other place Hebrews uses ἀντί is in 12:16, and this use is clearly an exchange.[13]

(3) Piper argues in 12:16 that Esau sold his birthright in order to obtain (i.e., purpose) a single meal. Though the main point is Esau’s outrageous exchange of his birthright for a bowl of soup, Piper’s argument is not untrue.

(4) Esau in 12:16 is juxtaposed to Jesus in 12:2 as how not to “run the race” of faith.[14]

(5) “Set before” in Heb 12:2 (προκειμένης; prokeimenēs)—though in Heb 6:18 and 12:1 refers to present realties—may refer to either Jesus’ present joy or future joy.[15]

(6) If “for” in Heb 12:2 refers to purpose (i.e., a future-oriented motivation), then the “joy” seems to at least be Christ sitting at the right hand of the father in the latter part of the verse (cf. Ps 16:11).

If there is viable support for both interpretations and even evidence that the author of Hebrews—whose Greek grammar is by no means sloppy— employs both principles (i.e., exchange and future-oriented motivation) into his overall argument, why the ambiguity? Again, which interpretation is correct?

The Twofold Reality

 It appears that the author of Hebrews purposefully and ambiguously chose to write “for the joy that was set before him” in order to incorporate the twofold reality of Jesus’ preincarnate joy exchange and his future-oriented joy motivation into one single prepositional phrase. Thus, I believe both interpretations are correct only when adopted together. Otherwise, why would he have chosen to write ἀντί (“for”) when he had several other options to convey purpose?[16] Why the ambiguity? And why the exact Greek wording in Heb 12:16? Further, why place this prepositional phrase, with its twofold ambiguity, in the middle of an appeal for a life of future-oriented faith with Jesus himself, who certainly exchanged his glory in heaven for the sufferings of the cross (cf. Phil 2:6–11), in 12:2 being the preeminent example of such living?

I’m inclined to believe this was intentional on the author’s part; therefore, we cannot choose one interpretation and neglect the other. In writing “for the joy that was set before him,” the author of Hebrews essentially says, “Jesus pursued his future joy of sitting at the right hand of God (cf. Ps 16:11; Heb 12:2) by exchanging his perfect, preincarnate joy for the sufferings of the cross.” 

Nothing New to the Bible

This theology of Christian hedonism by self-denial is not foreign to the rest of Scripture. Two passages come to mind: (1) Paul in Acts 20:35: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” So, by giving away our things or money (a form of self-denial), we receive a recoil of blessing. That is, when we seek the greater welfare of others by giving something of ourselves, we in direct return also receive blessing. And (2) Eph 5:25–31, which I have already written on concerning this “recoil of blessing.” In Eph 5 we see Jesus’ manner of love for his Bride, the church: his self-denying, sacrificial death (Eph 5:25). However, even more importantly we see the reason behind his death: to have a splendorous, holy Bride to present to himself (Eph 5:26–27)! And by virtue of Christ’s and the church’s union (Eph 5:29–32), his self-denying love (his exchange of his preincarnate joy for the sufferings of the cross for his Bride’s splendor and beauty) recoils back onto himself as blessing because he will one day have a splendorous and holy Bride to embrace (Eph 5:27). In essence, Jesus exchanges his heavenly joy that he might one day have a Bride in heaven for him to rejoice in.




[1] Koine (i.e., Hellenistic) Greek simply refers to the “common language” of the day, a phase of the Greek language that lasted from about c. 330 BC–AD 330. See Harris, Prepositions and Theology, 25–26.

[2] “Of prepositions it has been rightly said, ‘An in-depth knowledge of a language is not attained until one has total mastery of its prepositional system,’” M.L. Lopéz in Harris, Prepositions and Theology, 14.

[3] Harris, Prepositions and Theology, 55–56.

[4] For an overview of Christian Hedonism, see https://www.desiringgod.org/topics/christian-hedonism#.

[5] See esp. Peter T. O’Brien, The Letter to the Hebrews, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 456, n. 57.    

[6] John Piper, “For the Joy Set Before Him,” DesiringGod, 13 July 2017, https://www.desiringgod.org/labs/for-the-joy-set-before-him.   

[7] He also relies on the overall future-oriented faith that the author of Hebrews argues for in chs. 10–13.

[8] Harris, Prepositions and Theology, 56. Harris gives five reasons for holding this position (although I see reason #3 as highly unfeasible support; as I will demonstrate, the heart of Christian hedonism is alive and pumping in the New Testament):

(1) “the prevailing substitutionary sense (“instead of”) of ἀντί (apart from the compounded form ἀνθ᾿ ὧν) in Biblical Greek”

(2) “the use of πρόκειμαι in Heb 6:18; 12:1 to denote a present reality, not a future acquisition”

(3) “the inappropriateness of any hint of personal advantage or future reward as Jesus’ primary motive for submitting to suffering”

(4) “BDAG opts for the translation “instead of” (88a, under ἀντί; 871b, under πρόκειμαι), as also J. Schneider, TDNT 7:577”

(5) “the idea of the voluntary renunciation of personal rights for the sake of others is a common NT sentiment (e.g., Mk 8:35; Ro 15:1–3; 1Co 9:19–23; 2Co 8:9; Php 2:6–8).”

[9] “The analysis of the 22 NT uses of ἀντί leads to the conclusion that apart from the six instances where this preposition joins another word to form a virtual conjunction, it always expresses (15x) or alludes to (1x, Mt 17:27) a substitutionary exchange,” Ibid. Harris also quotes A. T. Robertson, who writes, “The idea of ‘in the place of’ or ‘instead’ comes where two substantives placed opposite to each other are equivalent and so may be exchanged,” A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research, (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1919), 573 in Harris, Prepositions and Theology, 50, emphasis mine. Robertson continues in his own grammar and writes, “majority of the N.T. examples belong here,” Robertson, Grammar of the Greek New Testament, 573, emphasis mine.

[10] If so, the “joy” seems to refer to Jesus’ preincarnate joy before the sufferings of the cross. So Harris: “It is highly improbable that the χαρά [“joy”] refers to the earthly ‘happiness’ of a life free of suffering,” Harris, Prepositions and Theology, 55–56.

[11] If so, this would refer to a future joy of “Jesus’ exaltation, a notion that is supported not only by the following words, he sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (12:2), but also because it is a recurrent theme in Hebrews,” O’Brien, Hebrews, 456.

[12] Two particular examples in this “hall of faith” stand out, which will serve to illustrate the author’s argument for future-oriented faith: Abraham and Moses. The author maintains that these two individuals specifically believed in a future promise and that this faith motivated them to live the way they did.

Abraham is said to have been “looking forward (exedecheto) to the city” (Heb 10:10) that God prepared (10:16) as he “went out, not knowing where he was going” (10:8). Likewise, Abraham’s descendants “all died in faith” (11:13) because “they desire[d] a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (10:16). Hebrews also portrays Moses with a future-oriented stimulus: Moses is said to have chosen “rather to be mistreated with the people of God than enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward” (10:25–26). At Moses’s disposal were seemingly infinite pleasures in Egypt, but he viewed them merely as fleeting. He therefore exchanged his royal position as the grandson of Pharaoh (Exod 3:10) for the lowly status of an enslaved Hebrew, where—implicit in Heb 10:25–26—pleasures do not flee (cf. Ps 16:11; Heb 12:2).

[13] Heb 12:16 clearly employs anti as a substitutionary exchange; Esau sold (מכר [mākar] in Gen 25:33; αποδίδωμι [apodidōmi] LXX) his birthright for [ἀντί; anti] a single meal.[13] That is, he relinquished his blessings of being firstborn for the fleeting pleasures of a single meal. To put it another way, the price of the single meal was his birthright; Esau had to hand over in a transaction—one item in place of the other— his birthright to Jacob that he might receive a bowl of lentil stew (Gen 25:32–34). This aligns with our general gloss of anti above. See also “ἀντί,” BDAG, 88; Paul Ellingworth, The Epistle to the Hebrews: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 666; Harris, Prepositions & Theology, 50; Donald Guthrie, Hebrews: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale New Testament Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1983), 259; O’Brien, Hebrews, 475–476; J. P. Louw and Eugene A. Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains, 2nd ed. (New York: United Bible Societies, 1989), §57.145.

[14] In fact, the word order in both verses is precisely the same:

Heb 12:2:       ὃς         ἀντὶ      τῆς προκειμένης αὐτῷ χαρᾶς     ὑπέμεινεν  σταυρν 

 Heb 12:16:     ὃς        ἀντὶ      βρώσεως μιᾶς                               ἀπέδετο τ πρωτοτκια ἑαυτο.

[15]πρόκειμαι,” BDAG, 871.

[16] E.g., ἵνα, ὅπως, τοῦ + infinitive, εἰς τό + infinitive, and πρὸς το + infinitive. See Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 591, 674.