An exposition of Hebrews 1:1-4

by Kees van Kralingen

Introduction

The letter to the Hebrews was written to Christians who were mostly believers from a Jewish background. Although the Jewish people at large had rejected Jesus Christ as their Messiah (Acts 4:27), still many thousands had come to believe in him (Acts 21:20). We are not sure where the addressees of this letter lived; depending on how one reads Hebrews 13:24 this could have been Italy or possibly the land of Israel itself. The time of writing of this letter is generally assumed to have been before the destruction of Jerusalem as the letter frequently refers to the Jewish sacrificial ceremonies without ever mentioning that they had come to an end in the year 70 AD. Although many people argue for the apostle Paul as the author, we cannot be sure as the text does not mention the name of the author. The author and his readers did know each other, however, and together they were acquainted with Timothy (Heb 13:23).

The reason for writing this letter is, however, very clear. The believers to whom this letter was written were in danger of giving up their faith because of various kinds of discouragements. In addition the letter indicates they were tempted to sin. The author refers to these problems in graphic terms, showing how serious these issues were (Heb 2:1; 3:12-14; etc.). These believers lacked growth in the Christian faith and had to be fed again with milk rather than solid food (Heb 5:11-14). Some had even given up on meeting together as Christians (Heb 10:25). Their arms and knees had become weak and feeble (Heb 12:12). As is clear from the response of the writer, they were thinking of returning to their previously held Jewish faith with all its ceremonies. This may have been because the Jewish faith was still a recognised and accepted religion in the Roman Empire in contrast to the Christian faith which was seen as at least strange if not dangerous.

The spiritual decline among these believers is surprising in view of their experience mentioned later in the letter. Although they had suffered insults, persecution, the confiscation of their property and even imprisonment, the believers had stood their ground (Heb 10:32-34).

How does the author respond to these issues in his letter? He uses a variety of means to get them back on the right spiritual track. He gives them different warnings; some of them very stern and in the most frightening terms (Heb 2:1-4; 3:7-4:1; 6:4-8; 10:26-32; 12:12-17, 25-29). He also calls on them not to throw away their confidence but rather to persevere (Heb 10:35-36). The author makes this very practical with a range of specific instructions which often begin with the words ‘let us…’ (Heb 4:1, 11, 16; 6:1; 10:22-25; 12:1, 28; 13:13,15). In this way he identifies himself with these people. In some cases he expresses confidence that his readers will not fall away (Heb 6:9; 10:39). The main body of his letter is devoted to one extended argument not to return to the Jewish ceremonies because of the superiority of Jesus Christ and what he has accomplished. Christ has fulfilled all the Jewish ceremonies in bringing them to their ultimate conclusion and rendering them obsolete. This is the subject of the letter up to 10:18, followed by application and instruction from 10:19 to the end of the letter. In summary, the remedy is to remind themselves about Jesus Christ, or as the author says in chapter 12:2 ‘Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.’

This letter has been, and still is, of great importance for all believers up to the present day. How easy it is to become discouraged for all sorts of reasons! The pressures in society in our time against the Christian faith may wear us out. The world without God seems to move on relatively happily; so, why should we press on living the Christian life? The state of the church with all its divisions and factions can make us wonder about its future survival. We may be tossed back and forth by the waves as the winds of strange teachings blow all around us (Eph 4:14). Looking at ourselves, we can become very discouraged by our own lack of spiritual progress or possibly decline when we suffer discouragements and/or are tempted by sin. Should we continue the fight of faith or give up? If these are our difficulties, the author of the letter has a wonderfully effective antidote: He presents us again with the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ and what God has done through him for our salvation.

The author opens his letter immediately with one powerful and majestic sentence which we find in verses 1-4. He presents to us the Son of God and thereby tells us to look at him; to consider his glory. He is the one by whom God has spoken in a very real and ultimate sense. With this great sentence so rich in content, the author deals out the first major blow to all our discouragement and temptations. The heart of this opening sentence is ‘God has spoken to us by his Son.’ This is the key point not only of this sentence, but of the whole letter and even of the Christian faith. So, let us study these verses.

1.God has spoken to us by his Son!

The author begins his opening sentence by assuming that God exists. This is not put up for discussion. He is the subject of the sentence: He is there and he spoke! This latter statement is far more remarkable than we tend to think. We read in Genesis that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And then God spoke: ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light (Genesis 1:3). God spoke even before we existed. Speaking is for us human beings a normal and essential aspect of our being. But do we realise that it is God who gave language and that he spoke first, even before we were created? God’s speaking involves even more than just uttering certain words; speaking means acting. When God said, ‘Let there be light,’ there was light! What God said, happened, came into being: God’s speaking is God’s acting.

This becomes even more significant when we continue our reading of verse 1. The author introduces how God spoke initially, in the past, in what we call the time of the Old Testament; but then contrasts this with how God spoke in these last days by his Son. Most commentators recognise four parallel contrasts in the words of the writer, relating to the eras (‘in the past’ versus ‘in these last days’), the recipients (‘our forefathers’ versus ‘us’), the agents (‘through the prophets’ versus ‘by his Son’) , and the ways in which God has spoken (‘at many times and in various ways’, but now, ultimately by his Son; see further comment below).  According to commentator Peter T O’Brien, however, these contrasts are not absolute: they draw attention to two stages of the divine revelation that correspond to the Old and New Testaments respectively.[1] Additionally, there is the idea of development within the latter being the climax of the former.

God’s speaking in Old Testament times was sporadic, partial, varied in means (such as an audible voice, a vision, a dream etc.), preliminary, and incomplete, but progressing all the time. For instance, Isaiah received more detailed information about the promised Messiah than Abraham in his lifetime. The climax of God’s speaking, however, occurred when God spoke by his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. This event introduced what the writer calls ‘these last days’, and to which he later refers as the ‘end of the ages’ (Heb 9:26).

It is important to notice that the Greek text says that God spoke ‘in Son’. In other words there is no definite article. The phrase may be rendered as ‘one who is Son’,[2] which emphasises the exalted nature of the Son. This opens up who he is and everything he has done and is doing now. The Son and all he is and all he does is the climax of God’s speaking. Again, God’s speaking was also his acting: what he has done in Jesus Christ. He is therefore not just the next prophet following on from the last prophet in the time of the Old Testament, but he is the ultimate Prophet. He is not the final piece of the jigsaw, but he himself is the great content of the whole jigsaw! This also means that there can be no other, higher prophet or revelation after Jesus Christ! This denies the claims of Mormonism and Islam, for example. The Son, our Lord Jesus Christ is superior in every way because of his glory, the fullness of God’s speaking in him, and the objects of God’s speaking: us, Jews and Gentiles.

It was crucial for the addressees of the letter to understand this. They should not despise their Old Testament, but understand that God’s speaking and God’s revelation has climaxed in the Person of Jesus Christ. To realise that they have enjoyed this wonderful privilege of having been spoken to by God in this way and to be the recipients of God’s climactic revelation, should not only be a great encouragement, but a powerful stimulus to remain faithful, to persevere. There is no reason whatsoever to throw away their confidence. And we have this very same privilege as these first century Jewish believers: this should encourage us and give us every confidence and resolve to follow him and remain faithful to the end.

2.The Son is the Person through Whom God has created and sustains the universe

As the author of the letter has demonstrated the superiority of Christ as the object of God’s speaking to us, he now goes on to give a range of proofs for this superiority of the Son. As Stuart Olyott observes, he tells us seven things about the glory of Christ.[3] The first four focus on Christ as the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. The last three describe the glory of Christ as the perfect Redeemer.[4] In this section, we will be looking at the first four statements.

The Son: Heir of all things

The Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, has been appointed by God to be the heir of all things according to verse 2. In our everyday language, the heir only receives the heritage when the one who has appointed him as heir dies. Obviously, God cannot die. So, what this expression means is that everything belongs to Christ, or, in the words of Colossians 1:16 ‘All things were created for him.’  Stuart Olyott adds: ‘In particular, Christ is the crown, the climax, the consummation of history. The whole future belongs to him.’[5]

Through the Son he made the universe

The Son is also the one ‘through whom God made the universe’ as the text states. So, Christ is not only the end of creation, he is also the beginning. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last (Rev 1:8,17). Creation is specifically attributed to Christ in John 1:3 and Colossians 1:16. These truths about Christ being the Creator and also the heir of all things already provide a tremendous perspective on who it is that we believe in and serve and why we should have every reason to remain faithful to him!

The Son shows us God’s glory

The writer continues in verse 3 by saying that the Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being. First of all, it is important to notice that the subject of the text has now changed to the Son. The word translated as ‘radiance’ here in the NIV can refer to a reflection or a source of light. In the context of Hebrews and other parts of Scripture, the latter sense is more appropriate.

The Greek term, translated as ‘exact representation’ in the NIV, was used originally of a mark or impression placed on an object, especially on coins, and came to signify a ‘representation’ or ‘reproduction’.[6] The Son thus represents exactly God as he really is. These two complementary statements about the Son indicate who the Son really is as the Son of God in his fundamental and eternal relationship with God. The Son is unique as the final revelation of God. The Son reveals who the Father is and this has a crucial salvation-historical significance.

We read in John’s Gospel that ‘No-one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only. Who is at the Father’s side, has made him known’ (John 1:18). As the Old Testament had already made clear, no sinful human being can see God and survive. Moses was not allowed to see God’s face (Ex 33:19-20), but could only observe his back after God’s glory had passed by (Ex 33:21-23). But now in God’s grace, he has revealed himself in his Son and let us see something of his glory. Jesus’ disciple Philip did not understand this and asked: ‘Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.’ Jesus’ mildly rebuking answer emphasises the unique privilege that the disciples had and should have realised. He says: ‘Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me?’ (John 14:8-10a). Philip and the other disciples have had a much greater privilege than Moses. This is also what the writer to the Hebrews is referring to in verse 3.

How does this help the readers of this letter and how is this going to help us? We have not seen Jesus here on earth. The answer enclosed in the words of verse 3 is that we have the reliable witness of Jesus as the Son of God who came to earth and we have the written record of his words, indeed the very words he spoke to Philip. We now have the Bible, the Word of God which he uses by his Holy Spirit to give us this saving knowledge of God’s speaking and acting in Jesus Christ, his Son. Paul explains this in his great statement in 2 Corinthians 4:6 linking God’s creative and redemptive acts: ‘For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.’ This is why and how countless numbers of people from all kinds of nations, cultures and social classes have come to recognise Jesus Christ as the Son of God and have believed in him. And this goes even deeper and becomes more marvellous as we are promised to share and participate in the glory of Christ (see e.g. Romans 8:17; Philippians 3:21; 2 Thessalonians 2:14 etc.).

The Son sustains all things

The writer goes on to attribute to the Son the sustaining of all things by his powerful word. These simple words represent a most stupendous claim: all things, encompassing the whole universe from the largest and most distant galaxy to the smallest sub-atomic particle is being sustained by the Son. And he does this by his powerful word. By the word of the Lord the heavens were made (Ps 33:6) and by his word he also upholds everything and brings it to its appointed end. Paul expresses this as follows: ‘All things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together’(Col 1:16-17). This truth is an essential aspect of the faith that should help the readers to retain their confidence in the Lord.

All of these truths are a most powerful antidote to the discouragements to which both first-century and present-day believers are prone. Our God is in control of everything. He has created the universe and everything in it, sustains it, and will most certainly bring it to its ultimate goal.

3.The Son is the Redeemer of his people

The writer continues his one great sentence with three more crucially important declarations about the Son. This glorious person whom the apostle is describing is the Redeemer of believers![7] Although he does not give a complete description of the redemptive work of the Son, he does mention three key points:

The Son has provided purification for sins

‘Purification of sins’ indicates the full, complete and effective nature of this redemption. Purification means that the polluting, corrupting agent, sin and the guilt associated with it, has been removed. For this purpose the Son of God came to earth, was born as a baby in the most lowly circumstances and suffered in his life and especially towards the end in his death on the cross. He put away the sin of every believer of every age.[8] The New Testament speaks about this in similar terms of cleansing, washing, etc. (see e.g. Eph 5:26; Titus 2:14; Heb 9:14; 1 John 1:9). He has done this specifically by shedding his blood on the cross of Calvary in his death; hence, it is the blood of Christ that purifies from sin (1 John 1:7; and numerous other texts; see Matt 26:28; Mark 14;24; Luke 22:20; Acts 20:28; Rom 5:9; 1 Cor 11:25; Eph 1:7; Col 1:14, 20; Heb 9:12-14; 13:12; 1 Peter 1:2,19; Rev 1:5; 5:9; 7:14; 12:11). This purification through the sacrifice of the Son of God is truly effective. The writer of the letter comes back to this several times later in the letter where he emphasises this using the recurring phrase ‘once and for all’ (Heb 7:27; 9:12; 10:2, 10; see also Rom 6:10). The writer will show later in his letter in great detail why this ‘once and for all’ sacrifice of Christ surpasses the sacrifices of the old covenant.

The Son is seated at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven

With these words the author draws our attention to the next point. Because of the perfect sacrifice of Christ, he has now been given access to God in heaven (Heb 9:12) and the right to sit at the right hand of his Father in heaven. This is the place of supreme honour. Hebrews 1:13 is the fulfilment of Psalm 110:1 with further allusions to this in Hebrews 8:1; 10:12; 12:2. He is there now to intercede for his people (Heb 7:25; Rom 8:34). The glory of Christ in his exultation (Eph 4:10; Phil 2:9) demonstrates the effective and victorious nature of the redemption and is another wonderful element to strengthen our faith.[9]

The Son is superior to the angels

The author finishes his sentence by explaining the superiority of Christ over the angels in heaven, indicated by the superiority of the name Christ has been given over that of angels (compare Phil 2:9-11). In view of the context and also verse 5 citing Psalm 2:7, the name referred to here is the name of Son. One may wonder why the author draws a contrast between the Son and the angels. The most likely explanation in the context of Hebrews 1 is the superior role of the Son in God’s speaking and revealing himself. In the time of the Old Testament angels often served as messengers of God’s revelation. The New Testament also states that the law had been mediated to Moses through angels (Acts 7:38-39; Gal 3:19), a notion shared by the author of this letter (Heb 2:2). The Son is, however, superior to these messengers because God’s final and ultimate revelation has come through the Son as verse 2 has already stated. The superiority of the Son over the angels is further demonstrated by the author in chapter 1:5-14 using a range of citations from the Old Testament. Finally, it should be stated that Christ did not become the Son only from the moment of his exaltation, for verse 2 makes it clear that he was the Son already before creation.

Conclusion

The great opening sentence in verses 1-4 of this letter immediately presents to its readers the climax of God’s speaking and acting in his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ as the only really effective remedy against all our weakness in faith, our discouragements and temptations to sin. Our Lord Jesus Christ is our great Prophet, Priest and King. He is our great Prophet through whom God has spoken and revealed his plan of salvation. He is our perfect high priest who has made the perfect sacrifice of his own body on the cross once and for all, and who now lives for ever at the right hand of God the Father to intercede for us. He is our great King who will rule us by his Word and Spirit and who will protect and keep us in the redemption he has won for us. How can we ever consider giving up our faith and trust in the Son of God, our great Lord Jesus Christ? How can we ever throw away our confidence in God’s message to us in his Word, the gospel of truth? Let us finish by taking to heart the words towards the end of this letter (Heb 13:20-21): ‘May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.’

[1] Peter T O’Brien, The Letter to the Hebrews (Nottingham: IVP/Apollos, 2010), p. 47/8.

[2] O’Brien, p. 50.

[3] Stuart Olyott, I Wish Someone Would Explain Hebrews To Me! (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2010), p.11.

[4] In this way, the passage has some similarity to the famous Christ hymn of Colossians 1:15-20 where the supremacy of Christ as the Creator and as the Head of the Church is portrayed.

[5] Olyott, p.12.

[6] O’Brien, p.55.

[7] Olyott, p.13.

[8] Olyott, p.13.

[9] Although the author here does not mention Christ’s resurrection, he does mention this in 13:20.