Chapter OneHebrews 1:1-4
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In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the
prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these
last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he
appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the
universe. 3 The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the
exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his
powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he
sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. 4 So he
became as much superior to the angels as the name he has
inherited is superior to theirs.
Because Hebrews begins like a sermon, without
any mention of sender, addressees, or words of
greeting, the author opens with a majestic overture,
rhetorically eloquent and theologically
packed. This beautifully constructed opening statement begins by contrasting
the revelation given under the older testament economy with that given
under the new. This contrast focuses on and climaxes in the person of God's
Son-heir, agent of creation, sustainer of the universe, Savior, and sovereign-who
now sits at the right hand of God.
Although most translations, including the NIV, present this introduction
in several sentences, Hebrews 1:1-4 in Greek forms a single, multiclause
sentence, built around the main clause "God . has spoken." Thus God and
his communication to humanity through the Son engage the author's attention
from the first. These beautifully crafted verses fall into two main subdivisions,
the first addressing divine revelation (1:1-2a) and the second the
person, work, and status of God's Son (1:2b-4).
The Climax of Divine Communication (1:1-2a)
The author begins by presenting divine revelation in parallel contrasts
between the "older" communication during the time of the prophets and the
"newer" communication through the Son. He contrasts four areas: the era of
the revelation, the recipients, the agents, and the ways in which the revelation
Older Communication Newer Communication
Era in the past in these last days
Recipients to our forefathers to us
Agents through the prophets by his Son
Ways in various ways in one way (implied)
The eras mentioned contrast two time frames. The time "in the past" (or
"formerly") refers to the time prior to the coming of Messiah, and correspondingly,
the coming time was seen as initiating "the last days." The author
uses the adjective "these" (touton) in verse 2, expressing the Christian conviction
that the last days have been initiated already.
Divine revelation came "to our forefathers [i.e., those under the older
covenants] through the prophets." The latter phrase should not be understood
as narrowly referring to those designated as the "major" and "minor" writing
prophets of our Old Testament. Rather, the author considers all through
whom God manifested his will as owning the prophetic mantel, although the
manner of these prophesies varied considerably. As to the manner of the
divine revelation, it was "at many times" (polymeros)-that is, it was temporally
fragmented rather than in a complete package-and "in various ways"
(polytropos), a word that suggests the diversity of forms of that revelation.
The suggestion brings to mind Old Testament commands, exhortations, stories,
visions, dreams, mighty acts, breathtaking theophanies, and a still small
voice, to name a few.
This older revelation was expansive but incomplete. By contrast, the revelation
of these last days has come "to us," the receptors of the Christian
message. It constitutes God's climactic communication to humanity and has
been brought via God's Son; that is, rather than being fragmentary and varied,
it may be considered whole, focused in the person and work of Christ.
The author included no article prior to the word "Son" (buio). Whereas in
many languages this may suggest that Jesus is merely one son in a crowd of
sons, the emphasis here is on the unique relationship of Jesus with the
Father-one who relates to him as son. Whereas the prophets of old were many,
the bearer of God's word for the last days was uniquely qualified for the
responsibility. The author's statement should not be understood as concentrating
only on the teachings of Jesus, although the words of Christ are
vitally important to him (2:3-4). Rather, the whole of the incarnation-person,
words, and acts-should be understood as communicating God's ultimate
word to his new covenant people.
The Person, Work, and Status of the Son (1:2b-4)
Following the term "Son" the author of Hebrews provides seven affirmations
describing the Son's person, work, and current status. (1) "Whom he
appointed heir of all things" probably alludes to Psalm 2:8: "Ask of me, and
I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession."
At Hebrews 1:5, a verse in the immediate context of 1:1-4, the author
quotes Psalm 2:7, again affirming the unique relation of this Son with God
the Father. If this psalm indeed lies behind the author's thought in Hebrews
1:2, the inheritance of "all things" expands the idea to include the whole of
the created order (2:5). In our author's thought, this royal inheritance of
Christ has only been inaugurated but will be consummated at the end of the
age (1:13; 2:8-9). Thus this initial proposition both affirms the present and
anticipates the future rule of Christ.
(2) The next affirmation, "through whom he made the universe," takes a
backward look at another of the Son's roles. With other writers of the New
Testament, Hebrews proclaims the Son as the Father's agent in the creation
of the universe (see 1:10; cf. John 1:3; Col. 1:16). Note Paul's expression of
this conviction in 1 Corinthians 8:6: "Yet for us there is but one God, the
Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but
one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom
we live." Paul here makes a distinction between the role of the Father and that
of the Son; yet, both are included in the work of creation. He affirms the
Father as the source of the created order and the Son as the Father's agent in
the creative process. The Son, to whom all of creation will be subjected in
the end (cf. 1 Cor. 15:28; Heb. 1:13; 2:5, 8), is he through whom it originated
in the beginning.
(3) Four participial clauses flank and support the author's next main statement
concerning the Son's exaltation to the right hand of God (1:4). The first
of these deals with the Son's divine nature: He "is the radiance of God's glory
and the exact representation of his being." The two parts of this statement
affirm the same truth. In biblical literature the "glory" often refers to the
luminous manifestation of God's person. The word translated "radiance"
(apaugasma), used only here in the New Testament, carries the sense of "splendor"
or "intense brightness." One cannot separate the experience of looking
at the brightness of a light from seeing the light itself because they are too
closely associated. By analogy, to see the Son is to view God's glory or manifest
presence. So as the "radiance of his glory" the Son is the manifestation
of the person and presence of God (e.g., Luke 9:32; John 1:14; 2:11; 17:5;
Rom. 8:17; 1 Cor. 2:8; Phil. 3:21; 2 Thess. 2:14).
Similarly, the Son is "the exact representation of his being." The word rendered
"representation" (charakter), also used only here in the New Testament,
originally denoted an instrument used for engraving, and later the impression
made by such an instrument. For example, it could refer to the impression
made on coins. The word thus speaks of the features of an object or person
by which we are able to recognize it for what it is. The imagery may also
call to mind the "representation" of a parent one often sees in the face of his
or her children. To see the face of the child immediately exhibits the close
family relationship. What the Son represents is the "being" of the Father,
that is, his essential nature. The phrase "representation of his being," therefore,
closely parallels other New Testament passages that speak of Jesus as
the "form," "likeness," or "image" of God (e.g., John 1:2; Phil. 2:6; Col. 1:15).
So the Son provides a true and trustworthy picture of the person of the
(4) The Son is also the one "sustaining all things by his powerful word."
The background of the Son's "sustaining [bearing] all things" should probably
be understood in a managerial sense. The action speaks of the continual
organization and carrying forward of the created order to a designed end, an
activity ascribed to God in Jewish writings. This is not the idea of the Son
holding up the weight of the world as the mighty Atlas of Greek mythology,
but rather the dynamic progression of creation through his governmental
power. He carries out this government "by his powerful word." So, as the
world was created by the word of God through the Son (1:2; 11:3), it is sustained
by the Son's powerful word.
(5) "Purification for sins" constitutes one of the author's major concerns
(see esp. 9:1-10:18, which addresses the superior offering for sin under the
new covenant). Behind his treatment of the subject stand the Old Testament
concepts of the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16) and the blood of the covenant
(Ex. 24), along with a number of other subtopics. Here, in the statement
of Hebrews 1:3, is the introduction's reference to Christ's sacrificial death on
the cross. What the Son "had provided" was a forgiveness that would be permanent
and lead into the very presence of God.
(6) At the heart of the introduction, the author centers on the Son's present
status as the one at God's right hand (1:3). This allusion to Psalm 110:1,
the Old Testament passage to which authors of the New Testament refer
most often, presents the exaltation of Christ. The concept of "the right hand"
represents either superior power or ultimate honor, though it also carries the
derivative meanings of "greatness" or "favor." As adapted in the New Testament,
Psalm 110:1 supported Jesus' messiahship, vindication (through resurrection
and exaltation), role as judge, lordship, and his intercession on
behalf of believers.
The references to "the Majesty" here and at 8:1 are unique among
allusions to Psalm 110:1 in the New Testament. The word originally described
God's power, greatness, or strength (e.g., Deut. 32:3; 1 Chron. 29:11; Ps.
145:3, 6). As used in Hebrews 1:3 it constitutes a reverential periphrasis for
"God" commonly used in Jewish circles of the day. "In heaven" is God's
locale and particularly his privileged position. Thus, the Son, creator of
the universe and heir of all things, has been exalted to an exceptional position
of authority and honor.
(7) The result of the exaltation is that the Son "became as much
superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs."
Many commentators have noted this book returns again and again to contrast
Christ and Christianity with the persons and institutions of the older
covenant. Here, in his comparison of the exalted Son with the angels, the
author has moved from Jesus' nature and work to his status. The Son has
moved to a position of authority and governance above the status of the
How much greater is his position? "As much superior . as the name
he inherited is superior to theirs." The first word translated "superior" in 1:4
(kreitton) is the author's favorite when drawing attention to the preeminence
of Christ and the new covenant religion. Christ is a superior priest (7:7);
Christ's followers have a superior hope (7:19) because they are involved in
the Son's superior covenant (7:22; 8:6), which is based on superior promises
(8:6); Christ made a superior sacrifice (9:23; 12:24); therefore, believers have
a superior possession (10:34), a superior country (11:16), a superior resurrection
(11:35), and a superior privilege (11:40). A comparative, the other
term translated "superior" (diaphoroteron), can also be rendered "more excellent"
and is used again at 8:6 to describe Christ's ministry in comparison with the
old covenant system.
Based on the previous reference to "Son" in verse 2 and the Old Testament
texts that immediately follow in verses 5-14, most scholars have understood
"name" in verse 4 to refer to the title "Son." However, "Son" in verse 2 is not
titular; in the collection of quotations that follow, the title "Son" is joined by
the titles "God" (v. 8) and "Lord" (v. 10). Although it cannot be denied that
the concept of "sonship" is prominent in this section of the book, it seems that
uppermost in the author's mind in the collection of Old Testament texts of
1:5-14 is the preeminence of the exalted Son. He is the one who deserves
worship (v. 6), has a throne and a scepter (v. 8), has been anointed (as a king?)
(v. 9), has made the earth and heavens (v. 10), and has been exalted to the right
hand of God (v. 13).
The word translated here as "name" has a broad range of meanings, including
"name," "status," "title," "rank," "reputation," or even "person." Richard
Longenecker has pointed out "the name," initially used as a pious reference
to God, came to be employed among early Jewish Christians as a designation
for Jesus. Both Ephesians 1:21 and Philippians 2:9, for example, speak
of the exaltation of Christ over powers of the universe, as does the author of
Hebrews. In each of those texts Jesus' "name" is said to be above every other.
This designation connoted the Messiah's power and divinity. In Hebrews
1:4 what the Son inherited was the title "the name," a designation or rank formerly
reserved for God.
Summary. Through his brief but tightly packed introduction, the preacher
eloquently proclaims in two movements a rich, full overture to the "symphony"
of ideas in Hebrews. In the first (1:1-2a) he declares to his first hearers
that God, a communicator of expansive, foundational revelations through
the older testament, has offered his ultimate revelation in one related to him
as son. Then, in the second movement, the introduction climaxes in the
Son's sacrificial work and resultant exaltation to the "right hand" of God.
Through graphic imagery the purification for sins and exaltation are related
dynamically to the close relationship of the Son to the Father, attributing to
Christ a nature (the "radiance of God's glory" and "the exact representation
of his being"), works (the creation and sustaining of the universe), and status
(the inheritance of a "name") that point to his deity and the uniqueness
of his relationship with the Father.