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Prologue to To the Hebrews: Continuity and Reliability

Prologue to To the Hebrews: Continuity and Reliability

I’m continuing to read from the commentary on Hebrews by David L. Allen (Hebrews in the New American Commentary). I’m bound to get way ahead in my reading but I want to make a few remarks about the prologue, which both Dr. Allen and I would say goes through verse 4.

I have written on this before (comments and translation notes), and I haven’t found any reason to alter what I said in those posts on the subject. What I want to discuss here is how the prologue relates to the theme.

I think the prologue states the theme. We will find at later points in the book that we can refine the particular nature of the situation addressed and the causes of problems that are addressed, but we already have the basic story right here. The author is interested in two major points, I think: continuity and reliability. He states these in terms of God’s relationship to his people.

Often people get the idea that Hebrews is about discarding the Old Testament. I recall some participants in discussions I have led telling me that it is obvious that he is making the New Testament supersede the Old, or Jesus to supersede all that came before. People can become quite distressed that I do not see such an obvious conclusion. But if you are looking at the structure of the book, you realize that the entire thing falls apart if the author thinks the Old Testament is somehow wiped away. That isn’t the argument at all.

Rather, a certain view of the Old Testament is wiped away, most particularly the view that it is the scriptures and is the end, or that in the Torah one would find the ultimate revelation of God. Rather than saying that the Torah is flawed, he is saying that God didn’t finish by presenting the Torah. There is a new center point, and that center point is the revelation of God through Jesus. I would also suggest that our author is not here saying that this is a change from what the Old Testament writers themselves would have said. I think he would maintain that he is correcting course, that the idea that the Torah was everything was never correct, but rather than it was always God who was the focus, and that until God became manifest in Jesus, we didn’t have the opportunity to see that particular radiance.

So now he is putting the focus of all revelation on God, and letting us know that we can receive God’s message, and that we can enter into a relationship with God because that has been made possible through Jesus Christ, the exact representation of who God is. There is no suggestion here that this eliminates all that other revelation; instead it illuminates it.

So why do I say the structure would fall apart if the author was simply discarding the Old Testament revelation? Surely he can be arguing that the Old Testament was good enough for its time, but now we have something better, and even the Old Testament writers realized they would be superseded. But I disagree. He is not simply aiming at continuity. He is aiming at reliability. Those Old Testament writers were not some kind of failure on God’s part. Rather, they were leading up to the present time (the author’s and ours!) and that chain of connections shows that not only does the revelation continue, but it can be relied upon by us, just as it was relied upon by the patriarchs (and matriarchs, for that matter). But we now have this additional communication and evidence of reliability. God did come through, did send Jesus, did and does still lead us, and will continue to do so until we reach that (to us) coming Mt. Zion.

One of the refinements of this theme comes in chapter 11 in which we have the patriarchs represented as more faithful than they actually were in the Old Testament text. But in God’s faithfulness they are even more faithful than they would appear to us to be in their story. Well before the time of Jesus, when they were weak, he was strong.

I’d suggest spending quite some time with this passage. I’ve read it more times than I can recall. I have the entire book of Hebrews recorded on my phone in Greek so I can listen to it in my car. But I always feel tremendously inadequate as these words roll over me and I realize the freight that has been loaded into these few sentences.

A Note on Hebrews 1:3 (Orthodox Study Bible)

A Note on Hebrews 1:3 (Orthodox Study Bible)

I’ve said enough negative things about the Orthodox Study Bible that I need to mention when I find it quite helpful as well. Generally, this is when it is either quoting or referring to various church fathers.

In the note on Hebrew 1:3a, “who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person …”

The first half of v. 3 is quoted verbatim in the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great. The brightness of His glory expresses the Son’s nature, His origin from and identity of nature with the Father. He is the Father’s brightness because He is begotten from the Father beyond time and without change. Thus, the Nicene Creed speaks of “Light of Light.” As the sun does not exist without radiating light, so the Father does not exist without the Son (p. 1653, on Hebrews 1:3).

I particularly liked the last sentence. It’s hard to use analogies for the trinity without falling into one or another heresy, but this one does a great deal. The note goes on to state that the “express image” speaks of the Son as distinct from the Father, thus bringing together the two elements of the incarnation—one with the Father and yet with us, truly an icon of God.

Hebrews 1:1-4: Jesus and the Word

Hebrews 1:1-4: Jesus and the Word

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.

Introductory Notes

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

God spoke

by the prophets

in these last days

he spoke

to us

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?

Key Elements

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
  • Dreams
  • Visions
  • A talking donkey
  • Legislation
  • Common wisdom

This list is not necessarily exhaustive. I like to consider some modern methods to put with those:

  • Artistic banners
  • Art
  • Movies
  • Scientific discoveries
  • Music

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.

Hebrews 1:1-4: Translation Issues

Hebrews 1:1-4: Translation Issues

In some passages, I may divide discussing translation issues into one section on how a passage is rendered into English, and another on the textual issues, but this passage has only one textual issue of any consequence.

Textual Issues

In verse three we have the following general options:

  • “when He had by Himself purged our sins” (NKJV), also the reading of the KJV, Darby, and YLT.
  • “After he had provided purification for sins” (NIV), also the reading of the remaining translations available to me.

The issue is the presence of either Greek “di’ heautou” or “di’ autou” preceding the word “katharismon (cleansing).” The bulk of modern translators have chosen to follow those manuscripts that leave out those words. And there are some very good ones there–Sinaiticus, Alexandrinus, and Vaticanus, for starters, a very good trio of witnesses. But for the alternative text we do have P46, which is the oldest known manuscript to contain this passage, along with the bulk of the Byzantine tradition.

In this case, however, internal evidence, combined with good external evidence, overwhelms even the testimony of P46. One of the principles of textual criticism is that you accept as oldest that reading that can best explain the others. In Greek we have three variants: “autou” alone, “autou, di’ heautou”, and “autou, di’ autou.” These do seem to involve explanatory additions, explaining how the cleansing was accomplished. In addition, I would note that this seems to break the very compact style of expression in the prologue.

Translation Issues

There are basically two categories of translation issues to consider: The structure of the passage and the translation of the two keywords describing Jesus and his relation to the Father in 1:3.


In Greek, this entire passage is one sentence. Various translations have dealt with this in different ways. English readers may miss the point of verse 4, which is pointing forward to the first element of the author’s argument that Jesus is greater than the angels, if that point is included in the same sentence or even in the same paragraph as verses 1-3. Many versions do divide this long sentence into multiple English sentences, but only a few, such as the NLT, which places verse 4 in the next section, and the CEV, which places part of verse 3 and verse 4 in a separate paragraph.

The difficulty with including it in the first introductory paragraph is that this leaves the reader without a thesis sentence for the material in verse 5ff. Verse 4 tells us what our author is about to argue. First, he will argue that Jesus is greater than the angels (1:5ff), and then he will say he is greater than Moses and the Torah (3:1ff). This is a good example of a case in which a reader can be led astray by the divisions presented in a Bible edition. There were no such separations in the Greek manuscripts. These are features of modern Greek editions, and modern translations. Always be prepared to “think across the boundary.”

I personally prefer the option of putting verse 4 into a separate paragraph which will allow us to see it as a transition point, but you’ll notice that in my outline of Hebrews, I don’t follow my own rule. In that case, however, I carry over the thought by labeling point II.A. “Jesus is Greater than the Angels.”

Key Words

There are a number of key words in this passage, and I will discuss them when dealing with interpretation of the passage. Two terms in the first part of verse 3, however, have evoked a broad range of translations. My own translation of this line follows:

3This Son is the brightness of his glory and the exact representation of his real essence.

The Greek word I translated “brightness” is “apaugasma” and the phrase I translated “exact representation of his real essence” is “charactEr tEs hupostaseos autou.” The first of these may mean either something shining on its own, or reflecting the light of another. This is why some translations will use the term “reflection” in their translation (“The Son reflects God’s own glory” NLT). A good parallel to this is Wisdom of Solomon 7:26:

26For she is the radiance of the eternal light,
and the spotless reflector of the activity of God,
and the image of his goodness. (my translation)

By putting “radiance” and “reflector” in parallel, the author suggests a more passive understanding. Nonetheless, Wisdom of Solomon is referring to wisdom, while Hebrews 1:3 is referring to Jesus. Those with a high Christology may well prefer “brightness” or “radiance.”

My use of “exact representation” comes directly from the Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains. This is the word from which we get the English “character,” but the meaning we normally find in the literature contemporary more or less to the book of Hebrews is something like “stamp” or “impression.” In combination, these terms state that Jesus presents God to us exactly, and I think this view will be supported by our later study of the book.

There is some remarkable theology in these few verses, and I look forward to blogging about some of the things we can learn from it.