We now start on the meat of Hebrews 1:1-4. I will refer back to this verse a number of times and expand on comments I make in this entry, but I want to provide a fairly clear, point by point summary of what we can learn from these verses.
Let me display the text in close to the order of the Greek text, phrased. (I prefer outlining, but I don’t have any really good way to display outlines as part of the blog.) Remember that I mentioned previously that these four verses constitute one long sentence in Greek.
in many portions
in various ways
in ancient times
by the prophets
in these last days
by a son
whom he made heir of everything
by whom also he made the universe
who is the brightness of his glory
the exact representation of his real essence
who carries everything by his powerful word
who when he had made purification of sins
sat down at the right hand of the majesty in high places
thus becoming as much greater than the angels
as the name he has inherited is greater than theirs.
There are several places where my phrasing might be questioned, but I think the structure is fairly clear. This phrasing tends to show the entire sentence aiming like an arrow to the key statement of verse 4, which leads into the argument from verse 5 and following. You might want to look again at my comments about translation. I suggested that verse four should be separated in an English translation from verses 1-3, in order to show how it both concludes verses 1-3, and also points forward to verse 5. In other words, it should be connected equally to both passages. I still think that, but one might call my position some interpretive structuring of the text. But is there any way you could structure verses 1-3 that doesn’t bear on interpretation?
There are several key elements of this passage that we need to notice. These will form a foundation for our study of the rest of the book, as they formed the author’s introduction to his topic.
The Word of God
The word of God has come at various times or portions, and in different ways. This is an essential point for the book of Hebrews because our author is going to try to establish firmly the idea that in his day, the word of God came in yet another way, by a son. Translators often say “by the son,” or “by the Son” but I leave out the article in English, a valid option based on the lack of the article in Greek. (Greek and English use of the article is not identical. Here I’m suggesting it refers to quality.) God is speaking now in a fundamentally different way, using Jesus, a son, albeit the only son. That is an important point. In later chapters, he will argue that the son has brought a new covenant, and a new law, and that his revelation is superior to the Torah. But the foundation is laid here by talking about the different portions and different ways in which the word is delivered.
To our author there is not just Torah, with all else being secondary and commentary. Rather, the revelation of God’s word came through various prophets at various times. Indeed, he treats all Old Testament passages equally. Thus God is simply continuing a pattern he has already established when he now presents another portion (the perfect portion as far as our author is concerned) and does so in a different way.
What are some of the ways God had already used to present his word?
- Creation itself
- Historical events, and God’s intervention in them
- Messages given to prophets
- A talking donkey
- Common wisdom
This list is not necessarily exhaustive. I like to consider some modern methods to put with those:
- Artistic banners
- Scientific discoveries
Do you think these should be included as means that convey the word of God? How would they relate to the perfect revelation of Jesus? These are some questions to think about as we follow the argument of this book.
The key here, however, is that the greatest “portion” as presented in these verses, is Jesus, the Son, a revelation that is different in nature from any before and has revolutionary importance to the world and especially to the group of Christians who are being addressed.
For some more thoughts on the word of God, see What is the Word of God?.
Who is Jesus?
Having introduced Jesus as the culmination of a chain of revelations of God’s word, our author immediately moves to giving the characteristics of Jesus.
- Heir of everyting
- Agent of creation
- Brightness of God’s glory
- Exact representation of who God is
- Upholds everything by his own word
- Provided a means to deal with sin
- Is now sovereign (sitting at the right hand of God)
With all those characteristics, he is clearly much greater than the angels. Chapters 2 & 3 will continue the argument about Jesus and his superiority to the angels. It is interesting that our author first establishes that Jesus is greater than the angels, and then discusses his relationship to Moses. What he wants to do is establish superiority to Moses, and at the same time the superiority of Jesus to the Torah. Just as the Torah is the central revelation of Judaism, against which all else is tested, so Jesus is the central revelation of Christianity, against which all else is tested.
The characteristics of Jesus can be divided into two parts: Creation and Redemption. For creation, let me reference another post of mine, Biblical Doctrine of Creation, and also one of my Participatory Study Series pamphlets, God the Creator. For the doctrine of redemption, let me reference What is the Good News?. These are just starting points, as the notion of redemption is going to be our topic in practically every chapter, but it is nice to get at least to the same starting point. I can’t help seeing a summary of Paul’s teaching in Philippians 2:5-11 here where the glorification comes from, and after, the activities of redemption.
Before I go on to verse 5 I will be posting some other material on the word of God based on the suggested reading for lesson #1 of my study guide, and also from the thought questions there.