Over the next several weeks we will be working through the book of Hebrews in a more or less detail manner. This book is fascinating in many ways. Not only is the author of Hebrews the only one in the New Testament (NT) who develops the High Priesthood of our Lord Jesus Christ in such detail, but the author leads us also into a profound understanding of our faith. In other words, he leads us into a deeper understanding of the Gospel.
The study of this epistle leads us beneath the surface of things to the profound depths of our evangelical faith, and enriches and establishes our understanding of the grace of God manifested on our behalf in the incarnation, self-offering, and exaltation of him who is the Apostle and High Priest of our confession (Hughes, 1).
Today we will look into the first four verses of this marvelous letter/sermon to the Hebrews. The first four verses are outlined as follows (Ebert quoted in O’Brien, 46):
A. The Son contrasted with prophets (vv. 1-2a)
B. The Son as messianic heir (v. 2b)
C. The Son’s creative work (v. 2c)
D. The Son’s threefold mediatorial relationship to God (v. 3a-b)
C.’ The Son’s redemptive work (v. 3c)
B.’ The Son as messianic king (v. 3d)
A.’ The Son contrasted with angels (v. 4)
The centre of this chiastic pattern provides “the theological basis for the Son’s unique ability to be the supreme revealer of God and mediator of the new covenant” (Ebert, 37; quoted in O’Brien, 46).
The writer of Hebrews starts out with two polu– compound words (i.e., “at many times and in many ways”) to introduce God’s revelation in the times of the OT. These revelations through the prophets were incomplete (see also Lane, 10); though not inferior, because it is the same God who speaks!
There is also temporal significance to “long ago” in contrast to “in these last days”. Lane again explains that this expression (Gr. ep’ eschatou tōn hēmerōn) has eschatological significance. The writer “is persuaded that certain decisive events have already taken place marking the fulfillment of the promise and foreshadowing of the OT Scriptures, and that certain other decisive and final events are yet to occur” (10).
One of the main points in vv. 1-2a is that God has spoken (elalēsen “he [God] spoke” is the main verb of vv. 1-4 which is the Greek consists of only one sentence). God is a communicating and initiating person who reveals Himself to and establishes covenants with humanity. Throughout the epistle we will see how the author sees God as the one who speaks through the OT passages (e.g. 1:5-13; 5:5-6; 7:17, 21).
Lane again has a very helpful insight, “The persuasion that God’s word is living and active in human experience (4:12) undergirds the appeal to the authority of the Scriptures throughout Hebrews and prepares the hearers for the solemn exhortation not to refuse the God who is speaking (12:25) at the conclusion of the sermon” (11).
The contrast of the “long ago” and “in these last days” shows both continuity and discontinuity of the Old Testament (OT) and NT. Something new has begun and yet this “new” was already there in the OT (yet as a “mystery” as Paul calls it e.g. in Col. 1:26). Only with the understanding of OT Scripture does the NT make sense. The OT foreshadowed what was yet to come.
Another contrast is between “the prophets” and “by Son” (a literal translation of the anarthrous noun in the phrase en huiō). “[T]he anarthrous noun serves to emphasize the absolute change of category to that of sonship” (Hughes, 36, n. 3; cf. O’Brien, 50). Concerning the Son’s characteristics the writer of Hebrews makes seven statements (Bruce, 46-50). Theses statements are:
1. “heir of all things” (2b)
2. “through whom also he created the world” (2c)
3. “he is the radiance of the glory of God” (3a)
4. “the exact imprint of his nature” (3b)
5. “he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (3c)
6. “making purification for sins” (3d)
7. “he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (3e)
Ad 1: This is an allusion to Psalm 2:8 where the royal Son is assured of the possession and inheritance of the nations. The author of Hebrews interprets “nations” and “the end of the earth” of Psalm 2 as “all things.” The theme of inheritance itself is a key element to the epistle (Guthrie, “Hebrews,” 924; cf. 1:14; 6:12, 17; 9:15; 11:7-8; 12:17). Hughes suggests that “[t]he concept of heirship is involved in that of sonship” and that thus the transition from the former statement seems natural (38). Further, “Christ is the heir of everything ‘precisely as’, that is, because, he was the mediator of creation” (O’Brien, 53). Which is spoken of in the next point; ad 2: This shows Christ’s work in creation. He is the agent “through whom also he [God] created the world.”
Ad 3: Here it is of interest to note the change in subject (i.e., the Son is now the grammatical subject of the next two verses). To the first phrase (“he is the radiance…”) Ambrose wrote,
[W]here there is light there is radiance, and where there is radiance there is also light; and thus we cannot have a light without radiance nor radiance without light, because both the light is in the radiance and the radiance in the light. Thus the Apostle has taught us to call the Son “the Radiance of the Father’s glory”, for the Son is the Radiance of his Father’s light, co-eternal because of eternity of power, inseparable by unity of brightness. (Quoted in Hughes, 43)
Thus we see that the one requires the other. There is no father without a child and no son without a father. The expression of “he is the radiance of the glory of God’ (3a) may suggest three ideas (Davidson, 41): (1) that the nature of the Son is derived from God; (2) that it has individual subsistence of its own; and (3) that it bears a resemblance to God’s nature.
Ad 4: Further, being the exact imprint of God’s “nature” (Gr. hupostasis; this term refers to “the essential or basic structure/nature of an entity” and thus speaking of the Son he is “a(n) exact representation of (God’s) real being”; BDAG, 1040) is being “the very essence of God” (Hughes, 43). “[I]n Jesus Christ [is] provided a perfect, visible expression of the reality of God” (Lane, 13). Yet, Hughes states that “[t]he correspondence involves not only an identity of the essence of the Son with that of the Father, but more particularly a true and trustworthy revelation or representation of the Father by the Son” (43; cf. also John 1:18; cf. also O’Brien, 55).
Ad 5: Here the Son is described the one who sustains the universe. He was not only the creator of it, but he also is the one who upholds it. The last phrase could be rendered “powerful word.” Though the primary usage of pherō is “to sustain or uphold” the context also implies “[t]he notion of direction or purpose”; the Son is thus “‘carrying’ all things to their appointed end or goal” (O’Brien, 56).
Ad 6: This is the first introduction of Jesus acting like a priest. Though, as Lane observes, Christ is here not designated as priest yet (15), this theme will be later developed in more detail by the author of Hebrews. One more crucial observation has to be made. The word for “making” is the Greek word poiēsamenos – this is an aorist participle in the middle voice which signifies that the Son “made purification in himself” (Lane, 15; emphasis original).
Ad 7: This clause together with the former (vi.) “announce[s] the major themes of the writer’s Christology, i.e., sacrifice and exaltation. None of the other declarations in the opening paragraph will receive comparable elucidation in the body of the discourse” (Lane, 15). Here Psalm 110:1 is alluded to (the author will quote such in 1:13). Throughout the NT this Psalm was interpreted in messianic terms. See for example our Lord’s own words in Mark 12:35-37_And as Jesus taught in the temple, he said, “How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David? David himself, in the Holy Spirit, declared, “‘The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.’ David himself calls him Lord. So how is he his son?” (see also Acts 2:33-35; 5:31; 7:55-56; Rom 8:34; Col 3:1; Hebr 1:3, 13; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2; 1 Pt 3:12; Rev. 3:21).
Christ is seated whereas the Aaronic priests remain standing (10:11-14). He is seated at God’s right hand, a position of honor (1 Kings 2:19), favor (Jer 22:24), victory (Psalm 20:6), and power (Exod 15:6).
In v. 4 the author now comes to the next subject; i.e., Christ being superior to angels. If this subject (angelology) is touched on because of some “strange teaching (13:9), which taught that angels were to be worshipped, is uncertain (see Bruce, 51). Lane argues against such a position (17). He states that the angels are now taken up as a subject of discussion because they too were crucial in the role of revelation. It was commonly accepted that the Law of Moses – he being the greatest of all prophets – was mediated by angels (Acts 7:38-39, 53; Gal. 3:19; and especially in this context Hebr. 2:2). Again Christ’s superiority then is in his revelation in contrast to the revelation by the angels (see also the above outline as support for such).
We note further that keklēronomēken (the “name he inherited”) is in the perfect tense. The phrase “the name he inherited” thus shows “‘heightened proximity’ and powerfully draws attention to Jesus’ prominence and superiority of his present position” (Obrien, 61). The comparative adjective “better/superior” (κρείττων) is used 19 times in the NT – 13 times in the book of Hebrews (according to O’Brien, 61 n. 114). I counted 15 times total and 12 times in Hebrews (but see 6:9 κρείσσων).
In this brief introduction the author of Hebrews introduced many subjects which will be dealt with later in this book. Jesus Christ is the final and ultimate revelation. He brings salvation history to a climax which will be consumed in his Parousia. He, the final revealer, brought atonement for sin and is superior to everything.
Bruce, F. F. The Epistle to the Hebrews. New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990.
Davidson, A. B. The Epistle to the Hebrews. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.
Ebert, D. J. Wisdom in New Testament Christology, with Special Reference to Hebrews 1:1-4. Unpublished PhD thesis Trinity Evangelical Divinity School 1998. quoted in O’Brien, 46.
Guthrie, George H. “Hebrews.” Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. Ed. G.K. Beale and D. A. Carson. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2007.
Hughes, Philip Edgcumbe. A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews. Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 1977.
Lane, William L. Hebrews. 1-8. Word Biblical Commentary, v. 47A. Dallas, Tex: Word Books, 1991.
O’Brien, Peter T. The Letter to the Hebrews. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; 2010.