Sunday, June 06, 2021

Hebrews 1:1-4 Explanatory Notes

1:1 In many and various ways formerly God, having spoken to the fathers by the prophets, 2. in the last of these days spoke to us through a Son...
This is one of the most elegant Greek paragraphs in the NT. It is sometimes called the "exordium" or "proemium" of Hebrews. It is a single sentence in Greek periodic style. It speaks to the level of education of the author. The apostle Paul was no doubt educated, but he does not have a sentence of this eloquence in his letters. The style is more on the level of the author of Luke-Acts.

In Greek, the first verse has five words that begin with the Greek letter pi and thus a p sound. This artful technique is called assonance. It is a reminder to us that God is a God of beauty. God delights in more than just the practical take-away or the intellectual knowledge. God also delights in beauty.

The first two verses present a contrast between the previous age in which God spoke in many and various ways to the fathers through the prophets, and the way God is speaking now in the new covenant. Now God has spoken in a singular way, in a definitive way. God has now through a Son, who is of course the Son of God par excellence, Jesus the Messiah. This is the first of many contrasts between Jesus and various figures and institutions in the Old Testament. Jesus is greater than the Old Testament prophets.

So the old covenant involved a multiplicity of speakings. It involved prophets. The audience was the fathers. It was "formerly." By contrast, God's speaking through Jesus is singular. We and the audience of Hebrews are the audience. The time is the fulfillment of times.

The word Son does not have the article, probably indicating that the author is focusing on the kind of way God has spoken. God has spoken recently in a "Son" way. As we will see, a Son way of speaking is a royal way of speaking. Son language, more than any other sense here, likely refers to the kingship of Jesus and his royal identity as the anointed one, the Christ.

The phrase "in the last days" alludes back to the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint, [1] especially 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 in chapter 8. By adding the word "these," the author makes it clear that these are the days of the new covenant to which the prophets of the OT were pointing in their prophecies.

... whom he placed heir of all things, through whom also he made the ages. [2]
The last part of verse two places Christ both at the beginning and end of the creation. The point may not be 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 quite possible. It is also possible that the author is implying something even more profound. 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 very purpose and destiny in Christ, the very reason for its existence.

There are a number of instances in the New Testament where Jesus is the agent of creation. 1 Cor 8:6 says of Jesus that "through him [were] all things and we through him." The Colossian hymn says, "In him were created all things... all things have been created through him" (1:16). John 1:3 says of the Logos, "All things through him came to be, and without him became not even one thing."

There is a Jewish background likely in play here, especially since John explicitly connects Jesus with the Logos. In Philo's writings, for example, the Logos is the instrument of God in creation, the tool "through which" God made the world. [3] So it is at least possible that Hebrews is saying something more profound about Jesus than merely that he was the creator. He reveals the meaning of creation.

The word ages might lead us in the direction of seeing Jesus as the creator of the new covenant, the inaugurator of the new age. However, the world is more often translated "worlds." We probably should not take the word in the way the Gnostics would later use it of the aeons as layers of heaven.

3. Who being a reflection of 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. [4] The book of Wisdom is the only place where this word "reflection" occurs in the Greek OT. Christ thus seems implicitly compared to God's wisdom, as in other parts of the NT (which could offer another piece of evidence that the reference to Christ as agent of creation is more profound in 1:2). [5]

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. We should likely use the translation of reflection in Wisdom 7:26 as well, where the word is used in parallel with a mirror, in which we see a reflection. The word image there also suggests a passive sense. Wisdom as the image of God's goodness fits well with Jesus as a "stamp" or "impression" of God's substance.

The point in both cases is that we have seen God when we have seen Jesus. We have seen God's glory when we we have seen Jesus, and he is leading many children to glory (Heb. 2:10). We have seen God's wisdom and goodness when we have seen Jesus, which is the substance of who God is.

and bearing the all by the word of his power...
This statement could refer to Christ as the sustainer of the creation ("bearer") or the agent of creation again ("bringer"). Both are possible translations.

The statement 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 "glueing" function. [6] In Hebrews 1:3 the word for word is hrema rather than logos. This does not preclude a logos type interpretation of the statement. Christ would be the one compared to the logos and the word of power here could be the spoken word of the logos.

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

... having made a cleansing of sins, sat on the right [hand] of Majesty in the heights,
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.

The order of events is fairly clear. Jesus makes a cleansing for sins (atonement). We will explore later whether this is a two part movement of sacrifice on earth and offering in heaven. Jesus ascends straight up through the skies to the highest sky, the highest heaven where God dwells (ascension, e.g., 4:14; 7:26). He sits on the right hand of God (session), here identified by his attribute of majesty. He is enthroned as king at God's right hand (exaltation).

This is the heart of the "who" clause that started in verse 3. 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 grammatical 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. It is arguably the most important Old Testament verse in the background of Hebrews. Although he likely went too far, George Buchanan expressed the significance of Psalm 110 for Hebrews when he argued that Hebrews was a sermon based on Psalm 110.

4. ... having become as much better than the angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than them.
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." [7] In the exaltation, he becomes greater than the angels. It is this exalted status over the angels that the rest of Hebrews 1 will celebrate.

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 fully to Christ as he is enthroned as king at God's right hand. He was heir apparent to the throne before then, but in the exaltation he is appointed "Son of God in power" (Rom. 1:4).

Names/titles other than "Son" have been suggested. Richard Bauckham suggests that the name Jesus inherits is YHWH. This is a tempting thought since YHWH is clearly the most important "name" we could imagine. However, we will argue from the rest of Hebrews 1 that the word "Lord" probably is not prominent enough to be the name in view in 1:4, and Son is the title or name immediately proclaimed in the following verse.

[1] The Roman numeral LXX, 70, is often used as an abbreviation for the Septuagint, given the tradition that seventy individuals translated the Pentateuch into Greek at Alexandria around the year 250BC.

[2] Here is the first of many superficial parallels to Philo. Philo has a treatise asking, Who is the Heir of All Things. His answer is the mind that is not focused on the senses but on the eternal ideas of reason, which is of course the logos

[3] Here is a second not as superficial parallel with Philo. In Cherubim 127, he unfolds a logic to prepositions that distinguishes between the source of something (the "from which"), the cause of something (the "by which") and the instrument (the "through which). The logos is the instrument, "through which" God created the world.

[4] Paul also likely engages with the content of Wisdom 12-14 in Romans 1.

[5] Wisdom would seem to fit well within the same Alexandrian milieu as Philo. The creation of the world through God's wisdom and through his word or logos is found in both Philo and the book of Wisdom (e.g., 9:1). An example is Philo's, Allegorical Interpretation 1.65.

[6] Planter 9.

[7] Thanks to G. B. Caird for making this connection.

1 comment:

Martin LaBar said...

"...the main topic of Hebrews teaching--the full sufficiency of Christ's death to take away sins."