Thursday, June 21, 2012

Hebrews Video Commentary 1:1-4

A few years ago I had recordings from a class I taught that went all through the book of Hebrews.  Due to the fact it was moderated by a third party, it was basically lost.  Here I begin a new series, stored on YouTube.  This is Hebrews 1:1-4.  My written Explanatory Notes follow it below.

Explanatory Notes (Hebrews 1:1-4)

This is one of the most elegant Greek paragraphs in the NT. It is a single sentence in Greek periodic style. 

1:1 Although God spoke formerly to the fathers through the prophets in many and various ways, s
The first two verses present a contrast between an age in which God spoke in many ways to the fathers through the prophets and the way He is speaking now. Now He speaks in a singular way, through a Son, who is of course the Son of God par excellence, Jesus the Messiah.

1:2a in these last days he has spoken to us through a Son...  
The phrase "in the last days" is of course a Septuagentalism drawn principally from the language of Jeremiah. It is no coincidence that Jeremiah is also the place where we hear the new covenant language that Hebrews also uses. By adding the word "these," the author makes it clear that these are the days to which the prophets of the OT were pointing in their prophecies.

1:2b ... whom he appointed as heir of all things, through whom also he made the worlds, 
The last part of verse two places Christ both at the beginning and end of the creation. The point is not so much a matter of presence but of purpose. As the heir of all things, he has ultimate significance in relation to the destiny of the world. This implies that Christ is also the beginning of all things, the very purpose of creation.

The majority of scholars would see in 1:2 a reference to Christ's pre-existence. This is of course possible. However, it is also possible that the author is saying something subtle about Christ as God's wisdom for the universe. Elsewhere the author seems to refer to God "the Father" as the creator in a way that distinguishes Jesus from him in creation. It is possible that the author is telling his audience that the creation finds its purpose and destiny in Christ, the very reason for its existence.

1:3a ... who as a reflection of his glory and an impression of his substance, 
The statement that Christ is a "reflection of glory" is an allusion to Wisdom 7:26, where wisdom is said to be a reflection of eternal light and an image of God's goodness. Wisdom is the only place where the word "reflection" occurs in the Greek OT. Christ thus seems implicitly compared to God's wisdom, as in other parts of the NT (which offers another piece of evidence that the reference to Christ as agent of creation is an implicit comparison of him to God's wisdom in 1:2).

Some argue that the word for reflection should be given an active sense "radiance" rather than "reflection." But given the passive nature of "impression" or "stamp," "reflection" seems more likely.

1:3b  ...and bearing the universe by the word of his power, This statement could refer to Christ as sustainer of the creation or the agent of creation again.

It reminds us of the Colossian hymn, where allusions to Christ as the logos or word say that "in him all things hold together" (1:17). We could mention parallels in Philo to the logos having this sort of "gluing" function. In Hebrews 1:3, of course, the word for word is hrema rather than logos. This does not create difficulties for a logos type interpretation of the statement, since Christ would be the one compared to the logos and the word of power here would be the word of the logos.

In general, Hebrews does not compare Christ to the logos. This verse would be the most likely candidate. An allusion to the logos could support either the idea of Christ as agent of creation or of sustaining the universe. Given that this participial phrase modifies "he sat down," it may refer to Christ as eschatological creator of a new creation who as exalted Lord "brings" it by his powerful word.

1:3c  ...when he had made a cleansing for sins...
The first four verses of Hebrews are known as the exordium. This mini-introduction gives us in many respects a brief overview of some of the material covered later in the sermon. We have already seen the author set the stage for the two ages--formerly/last days. This statement anticipates the main topic of Hebrews teaching--the full sufficiency of Christ's death to take away sins.

1:3d ...he sat at the right hand of Majesty in the heights
This is the heart of the "who" clause we have been in since verse 3 began. As a reflection of God's glory, as an impression of his substance, bearing the universe by his all powerful word, after he had made a cleansing for sins, under these circumstances, he sat at God's right hand. The implication seems to be that it is the exalted Christ who is the reflection of God's glory and the impression of God's substance.

The statement is of course an allusion to Psalm 110:1--"The LORD said to my Lord, 'Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet." This verse features significantly in other parts of the NT as a reference to Christ's enthronement as cosmic king after the resurrection. 

1:4 ...having become as much greater than the angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
Verse 4 signals the theme that will preoccupy the rest of Hebrews 1, namely, Christ's superiority to the angels. We note the timing--it is after he is enthroned that he becomes greater than the angels. Hebrews 2 speaks of how Christ "was lower than the angels for a little while." In the exaltation, he becomes greater than the angels.

His superiority to the angels corresponds to his more excellent name--Son. This is a name that reflects Christ's cosmic kingship. To say that he inherits this name at his exaltation is to say what Acts 13:33 and Romans 1:4 say. Son of God is a royal title that applies most meaningful to Christ as he is enthroned as king at God's right hand.

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