Hebrews is the message of a pastor urging his audience to stay true to Christ. The author uses the style and methods of Jewish synagogue preaching and Greek rhetoric. One of his techniques is the announcement of the subject. As he begins each major division in the book the author briefly states the theme that he is about to develop. These statements are important clues to the flow of the argument.
Hebrews 1:1-4 introduces the book as a whole and verse 4 announces the first subject. Christ's superiority to angels is the subject of Hebrews 1:5-14. Chapter 2, verses 1-4, then exhorts the readers to pay attention to the message delivered by God's Son. Hebrews 2:5-16 returns to the relationship of Christ and the angels before introducing the next theme with a new announcement of subject in Hebrews 2:17-18.
God's Ultimate Word: Hebrews 1:1-4
The author of Hebrews did not waste time with small talk as he began his work. The first four verses are a single sentence in the original Greek text. They contain some of the most elegantly written Greek in the New Testament. Both the author's best literary skill and most profound theology appear in his opening words. His preaching tendencies show through in the fact that five words in verse 1 begin with the Greek letter for "p". In addition to alliteration the author placed similar sounding words in parallel phrases. The result was a sentence that flowed powerfully and majestically to its conclusion. The very choice of words gave a sense of weight and importance to the message being communicated.
The impressive style of the opening sentence was very appropriate for its subject matter. The most basic and most profound understanding of Biblical faith is expressed in these verses. God has revealed himself through the prophets and, in supreme fashion, in Christ. A fundamental distinction between religion and revelation marks the Biblical faith. The Bible never assumes that it is dealing with religion when religion is understood as human ideas about God.
Biblical faith is self-consciously different from Hinduism and Buddhism. Christianity, Judaism, and even Islam are confident that their faith is not religion, but revelation. God has revealed himself and his will for human beings to us. Biblical people never assume that they sacrifice, pray, or do other religious actions because such actions will please God; rather they believe God spoke to them and made it clear that they were to do such actions in obedience to the message they received from God. The author of Hebrews identifies two great events in which God revealed himself to people. The first is the Old Testament period of revelation that climaxed in the ministry of the prophets. The second great act by which God made himself known was through his son, Christ.
The author of Hebrews does not criticize the revelation of God that came through the Old Testament period of history. He describes it as coming in many parts and many ways. One could also translate the words as "In many times and many ways." The point is that revelation came from God in the Old Testament era in a variety of ways and at a variety of times. There was both diversity and fullness in the revelation of the Old Testament that the author describes. The reference to the prophets would have meant more than just books we call prophecy. The Jewish canon called the historical books of Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings prophecy (The Former Prophets). Moses and David were considered prophets. Thus virtually any part of the Old Testament would have been considered the message of the prophets. God had revealed himself through the Old Testament to the ancestors of the readers of Hebrews. In contrast to the revelation of the past, the author points to the revelation of God in Christ that had been experienced by his readers.
The contrast between the revelation of the Old Testament and of Christ is set up in several ways. Then God spoke to our fathers. Now God has spoken to us. The time when God spoke then was of old. Now God has spoken in these last days. Then God spoke by means of the prophets. Now God has spoken by a son.
The only point that is not contrasted also creates the expectation of a contrast. There is no stated contrast to in many times and many ways. The implication is clear. In Christ God has spoken for the last time with total clarity. No more variety, no more diversity, no more differing degrees. God has spoken in Christ so completely revealing himself that there is nothing further to say. The description of the Son of God that will follow in verses 2b-3 will also suggest that the revelation by God of himself through Christ possessed a completeness that would make further revelation unnecessary. These verses provide an important basis of the Christian doctrine that Christ has fully and finally revealed what God is like.
There are several important implications to this doctrine. First, if Christ has fully revealed God then we come to know God and know about God from Christ. Further, there is no source of knowledge about God as reliable as Christ. As Paul will put it in 2 Corinthians 4:6 we see God in the face of Jesus Christ.
A second implication is that no fuller nor more complete revelation of God can be or ever will be made. Some people find this a painful or difficult conclusion for two reasons. First, it runs counter to our ideas of continual progress. Surely with all our education and increased technology we can improve upon what was known about God almost two thousand years ago. To the chagrin of modern thinking Christianity has said a resounding, "NO!" There is no improvement on the revelation of God made by Christ.
Second, any religious movement that claims further revelation beyond Christ and the New Testament witness to Christ is not only false it is also dangerous to Christianity. American culture has become so pluralistic that many people suppose that any group or movement using the name Christ has equal right to the title Christian. Historic Christianity has always rejected the claims of those whose prophecies move beyond the revelation of God found in Christ. Whether Moslem or Mormon, the claim for revelation beyond the New Testament removes a movement from rightful claim to the word Christian. That does not mean that all Christians are better than any Moslem or Mormon; that is clearly not so. It simply means that for Christians there is no authentic knowledge of God beyond that revealed to us in Christ Jesus. Our self-definition, our identity, stands and falls with Jesus as the full and final revelation of God.
Verse 2 begins the description of Christ that extends to the end of verse 3. God has appointed (the word could also be translated destined) Christ as heir of all things. Psalm 2:8 had promised that the royal Son would receive the nations as his inheritance. It is not clear historically whether Judaism had used Psalm 2 in their popular messianic expectation, but early Christianity had seen clear references to Jesus in it. The verb "appointed" is the same word that was used in the Greek Old Testament in Genesis 17:5 where the passage states that Abraham was "appointed" father of many nations. But the appointment of Christ is to a greater heritage than that of Psalm 2 or Genesis 17. All things certainly supersede the nations! There is no greater status that God could bestow on Christ than to make him the heir of all things.
Yet Christ was not the passive recipient of this universal heritage. "Through him He also created the worlds." It was the common Christian conviction (John 1:2-4, Colossians 1:15-20) that Christ shared in the creation of the world. This represents what is usually called "Wisdom Christology." Intertestamental Judaism had personified the wisdom of God mentioned in the Old Testament. The intertestamental book, The Wisdom of Solomon (now found in the Apocrypha), had described the wisdom of God as an agent and sustainer of creation, the giver of revelation, and the reconciler of people to God. Early Christians who knew the teaching on the wisdom of God found in books like The Wisdom of Solomon immediately saw how well those concepts applied to Christ. The writings about the wisdom of God provided the concepts of pre-existence and acting with God in creation for the earliest Christian praise of Christ.
The exalted language continues in verse 3. He is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of God's being. The words are still drawn from the language of The Wisdom of Solomon. The very unusual word for "radiance" referred to the brightness coming out of a source of light. That brightness illuminates the environment and enables people to see the object. The writer of Hebrews powerfully caught the idea that Jesus was the brightness shining from God himself. It is Jesus who illuminates the glory of God and enables us to see God in his glory. However, there is more to say. Christ is also "the exact representation of God's being." The New Testament often described Jesus as the image of God, but Hebrews goes further and describes Jesus as God's exact representation. The Greek word (character in English letters) referred to the mark left by a stamp. That mark was the exact representation or the exact imprint of the stamp. If we could imagine the very being of God as a rubber stamp, the mark left by that stamp of God's very being was Christ.
The praise of Christ continues, "He sustains all things by his powerful word." The Greek verb literally states that Christ "carries" or "bears" all things. This language again represents the concepts of Wisdom Christology, but that does not begin to describe the swelling refrain of praise that verse 3 offers to Christ. God is the creator and sustainer of the universe, but the author has just described Christ with those very terms. Not only was Christ present at the beginning, speaking the worlds into existence; he also keeps those same worlds going with his powerful word. Should Christ ever fail to speak that sustaining word the world would fall apart. Only God can speak and the world come into existence. Only God in Christ can speak the word that keeps the world in its place and working according to the divine plan.
Verse 3 has one more statement to make about Christ. Wisdom Christology is philosophical. It speaks of being and existence. Even the idea of the power that held the universe together was a philosophical concept in the world of the New Testament. However, the statement,"When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the divine Majesty on high," is very different. It moves from the philosophical to the historical, from the theoretical to the actual. Though not directly stated the author was thinking of the cross.
This sentence is also a hint of things to come in the book of Hebrews. Not only is the death of Christ a central concept, but understanding it in sacrificial language is also typical in Hebrews. In the Old Testament purification of sins was accomplished only by the blood of the sacrificial animal. The contrast with the preceding phrases in incredible. Christ the heir of all things, the creator and sustainer of the universe speaks of the pre-existent, eternal role of Christ in heaven. Making purification for sins by dying on a cross plummets from heaven to the lowest role that can be imagined on earth, the sacrificial lamb. The creator Christ was executed by his creation so that he could save them though they had no idea that saving result would come from their greatest sin. But as quickly as the humiliation of Christ from heaven to earth was described, so immediately the exaltation back to heaven is mentioned, he sat down on the right hand of the divine Majesty. This affirmation of the faith of the early church will be developed further later in the book.
Verse 4 finishes the opening sentence and introduces the theme of the following verses. Christ has become as superior to the angels as the name which he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. The superiority of Christ to the angels will form the first stage in our author's argument. The word name functions here in typical Biblical fashion to stand for the whole person and their nature or character.
Christ - Superior To The Angels: Hebrews 1:5-14
The flow of the book takes a different direction at this point. The author shifts to a series of seven quotations from the Old Testament. He apparently considers the point of his quotations to be quite clear since he makes almost no interpretive comments. All but one of the quotations come from the Psalms, the hymnbook of both synagogue and early church. Though many of the passages are unfamiliar to modern Christians, they were sung regularly in early Christian and in Jewish worship. In fact, there is a remarkable parallel between statements of faith about Christ in verses 2-4 and the quotations in verses 5-13. The quotations found in verses 5-9 deal with appointment as royal Son and heir. The quotation of verse 10 speaks of a mediator of creation. Those found in verses 11-12 reflect on the unchanging, eternal nature of Christ, and the quotation of verse 13 mentions the exaltation to God's right hand.
The author's method of using the Old Testament can be described as christocentric (Christ-centered). He does not try to determine the original context or historical background. Whether the Old Testament text was messianic or not does not matter. If the language of the Old Testament passage fits the early Church's experience of or faith in Christ, then our author will quote it as fulfilled. The purpose of the original writers disappears in the light of the result of a description of Christ. That method of interpreting the Old Testament has been grossly abused in the two thousand years of church history, but our author sees the consistency of the way God spoke to the prophets and the way he spoke through his son.
Verse 5 begins with a quotation from Psalm 2:7. The stage had already been set in verse 2 with its dependence on Psalm 2:8. In the original setting the newly anointed king of Israel was given the gracious affirmation of God, "You are my son, today I have begotten you." This was the verse that the voice from heaven spoke to Jesus at his baptism (see Matthew 3:17; Mark 1:11; and Luke 3:22). They were words of divine affirmation, but notes our author such words were never spoken to the angels. Nor had God ever said to angels, "I will be his father, and he will be my son." This quotation comes from 2 Samuel 7:14 with a related passage in I Chronicles 17:13. Originally, 2 Samuel 7:14 had been a promise to David that David's son would be the one to build the temple and form a dynasty that would endure forever. Since the Davidic dynasty had come to an end with the Babylonian Exile, intertestamental Jews wondered how God would restore his promise to David's line and the passage developed messianic applications. Our author notes that the language of son and father are used of the Messiah (Christ) and God. No angels ever received such a promise.
Verse 6 quotes a command that all God's angels worship him. This is difficult to follow since the author was quoting from the Greek Old Testament of Deuteronomy 32:43 which is different from the Hebrew text which is followed by English translations. The Hebrew (and thus English) text makes no mention of angels, but the Greek Old Testament reads, "Let all the angels of God worship him." The "him" of the Greek Deuteronomy 32:43 would have been God himself, but our author interprets "him" as a reference to Christ. Since the angels are commanded to worship Christ, he is obviously their superior. Verse 7 focuses on the angels. Our author quotes Psalm 104:4 that God makes his angels spirits (or winds) and servants are made flames of fire. The point is clear. The son of God is superior to angels. Referring to angels as winds and flames emphasizes their temporary status.
The subject comes back to Christ in verse 8. Verses 8-9 quote Psalm 45:6-7 which appears to have been originally written for a royal wedding. The throne of God is forever and the scepter of his kingdom is a scepter of righteousness. As a result God has anointed (and appointed) the king with the oil of gladness beyond your companions. Even if one could imagine the angels as the companions of God's son, his anointing goes far beyond theirs. The writer then shifts to Psalm 102:25-27 for his sixth quotation. The opening lines, "In the beginning, O Lord, you founded the earth and the heavens are the work of your hands," is obvious scriptural warrant for the role of Christ as creator that was introduced in verse 2. Our author saw the sustaining role of Christ over creation in the comparison of the world to clothes that the Lord folds and puts away. But while clothing may change, Christ is the same and his years never end.
The final quotation, in verse 13, comes from Psalm 110:1, "Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet." Jesus himself had quoted Psalm 110 in Matthew 22:44; Mark 12:36; and Luke 20:42-43. It was a favorite text of the earliest Christian preachers. It will influence Hebrews again for the terminology of a priest after the order of Melchizedek appears in Psalm 110:4 and will be the basis for a later argument in Hebrews. Early Christians often used Psalm 110 in support of their arguments for the deity of Christ. That aspect of Christ is not raised in verse 13, but Psalm 110:1 served quite well to affirm Christ's superiority over angels.
Having finished his series of quotations the author makes his final interpretive comment in verse 14. His conclusion is that angels are spirits in divine service. They are sent by God as servants or slaves because of the ones who are about to inherit salvation.
This final clause begins a transition from the subject being focused on Christ to a focus on the readers of the book. If angels are servants of God sent to work for him, part of their work is done for those people about to inherit salvation. Not only is Christ superior to the angels, they are servants, not beneficiaries, of the plan of salvation. Angels exist for our sake and we exist for Christ's sake. The not-so-obvious conclusion that our author wanted to draw was that Christ was superior to the angels.
The First Word Of Exhortation: Hebrews 2:1-4
The author turns to words of practical application. If Christ is as splendid as Wisdom Christology proclaimed. If he were the fulfillment of all these scriptures, then the readers need to respond to Christ's message with increased seriousness. "We must pay greater attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it." One could even translate the expression "we must" as "it is God's will for us." It is God's will that the readers hold fast to what they have heard. Failure to do so could lead to drifting. The word that our author uses comes from the language of sailing. The ship must be firmly anchored or it will drift in the breeze, lose its mooring, and eventually be destroyed on some rocky shore far from the harbor. What we have heard was the gospel message, the proclamation of Christ as Messiah and Son of God. Here is the first warning of the book against Jewish Christian readers abandoning, drifting away from, their commitment to Christ. The author's concern was with spiritual drifting.
His argument builds from chapter one. The Old Testament gives no indication that angels were involved in the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, but by New Testament times many people in Judaism were convinced that angels were the mediators between God and Moses on Mt. Sinai. Paul alludes to this view in Galatians 3:19. The logic of our author flows like this. If the Law of the Old Testament given by angels who are inferior to the Son provides a quick and just punishment for every violation and sin, how important it must be to give attention to the message incarnate in God's son. Our author can not bring himself to imagine what sort of punishment would swiftly be meted out to those who reject the word of Christ, God's Son, when the Torah provides such harsh punishment for those who only disobey the message brought by the angels. How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? The word "neglect" literally means to become unconcerned.
The application to contemporary Christianity is clear. Lack of concern, apathy, lack of intense commitment is the plague of our churches and our lives. There will come a time in the drifting when it is too late to anchor the soul again. The current will have become swift and our lack of concern will have let us drift past the point of return. The author is not thinking of our getting to a point that God couldn't rescue us, but that we get to a point that we are disconnected from Christ and unable to stop the inevitable consequences. Paul suggests in Romans 1:24-28 that God simply lets people go with the current in which they choose to float and drift. The end results are much worse than being struck with lightening bolts or damned to hell. The results are a life lived without God, redemption, or hope, a life lived with only human carnality and degradation as its resources. The author's hypothetical question, how shall we escape if we are unconcerned about so great a salvation, has a simple, clear, and tragic answer. We won't escape.
The final part of Hebrews 2:3 and verse 4 describe the gospel. It was declared first by the Lord Jesus himself; it was affirmed to the readers by those who heard Jesus; its proclamation was accompanied by signs, wonders, powerful miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit. Such impressive testimony demands respectful obedience. Unconcern that leads to drifting has no excuse.
Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion
These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.
As you begin each day pray that the Lord would speak to you through his Holy Spirit as you open yourself to his word.
First Day: Read the notes on Hebrews 1:1-2:4. Look up the Scripture references given.
1. Note and jot down one or two new thoughts or pieces of information that seemed important to you for understanding Hebrews.
2. Select one or two insights that were spiritually important to you. What spiritual impact could they have on your life?
3. Ask the Lord to show you any areas of life where you have been unconcerned, but He would like you to tie your spiritual anchor tighter. Write a brief prayer committing yourself to that kind of obedience.
Second Day: Read Hebrews 2:1-18. Focus in on Hebrews 2:5-9.
1. Verses 6-8a quote from Psalm 8:4-6. Read all of Psalm 8. What view of human beings is found in Psalm 8? What responsibilities and/or privileges are primary messages in Psalm 8?
2. Trace all the references to "subjecting" or "putting under feet" in Hebrews 2:5-8. What is the author's final conclusion about subjection?
3. On the basis of Psalm 8 and Hebrews 2:5-8, how should you feel about yourself? What hopes should you pray that God would bring quickly to reality in your life?
Third Day: Read Hebrews 2:1-18. Now focus in on verses 5-9 again.
1. How does the author of Hebrews apply Psalm 8 to Jesus?
2. Why does the author of Hebrews think that Jesus' suffering death caused him to be crowned with glory and honor?
3. In what ways are the sufferings of Christ mentioned in verse 9 applicable to your own life and in what ways are they not applicable?
Fourth Day: Read Hebrews 2:1-18.Turn your focus to verses 10-13.
1. How is Jesus described in verses 10-13? What is important about each description?
2. Verse 12 quotes Psalm 22:22. Read all Psalm 22 and list the phrases that remind you of Christ.
3. What does it mean to you to be considered a brother of Christ? What spiritual desires does that thought awaken within you?
Fifth Day: Read Hebrews 2:5-3:6. Now focus in on Hebrews 2:14-18.
1. What was accomplished by the death of Christ according to verses 14-18? What application or importance is that to you?
2. What do you think was the author's point in mentioning "angels" in verse 16? What did he mean in speaking of the descendants of Abraham? Do Romans 4:11-12 and Galatians 3:29 affect your answer?
3. Verse 18 is a wonderful promise. List some areas of your life in which you are being tested and you believe Jesus understands and can help you. Would you have found it harder to trust Christ for help in any of these areas if he had not come to earth and suffered?
Sixth Day: Read Hebrews 2:5-3:6. Now focus in on Hebrews 3:1-6.
1. What new comparison is introduced in verses 1-6? What points does the author make?
2. In what ways was Moses faithful? In what ways was Jesus faithful and more faithful than Moses? What conclusion can you draw about the bottom line meaning of faithfulness?
3. What are the conditions for being "God's house?" Write a brief prayer asking the Lord to help you really be a part of the household of God.