In the first century, some Jews believed in Jesus as the Messiah and yet still wanted all the rituals of Judaism. The boundaries between Christianity and Judaism weren’t clear, and these people weren’t sure where their primary identity was.
The book of Hebrews may have been written to some of them. It was apparently written to people who already believed in Jesus as the Messiah. The book argues that Jesus is better than Judaism, because he brings a reality that the Jewish rituals could only symbolize. The readers should see their religious identity in Jesus. It is Jesus who gives us access to God.
Let’s see how the letter begins.
The exact representation (verses 1-3)
“Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son…” The sentence goes on for two and a half more verses. It’s an elaborate, well-composed sentence, written with rhetorical polish. This is not the way that Greek letters normally begin — this is the way that oratory begins. This book was written to be delivered orally, as a sermon.
Here, in the first sentence, there is a contrast between old and new. God spoke to the patriarchs in many ways — some things to one person, something else to another, a different portion to someone else many years later, etc. God would sometimes speak in a thundering voice, sometimes in a whisper, and sometimes in a vision.
Some Jews might have felt honored that God had dealt with their nation in many different ways, but the problem is that none of the methods were perfect. None of the prophets had the whole message, and none of the visions revealed everything we need to know.
That is in contrast to the way that God has spoken in his Son. Jesus is not a prophet — he is a Son, and as a Son he has a complete revelation of what God wants to reveal. This is definitive. The prophets could only dimly foresee the day of Jesus Christ, but he is the fulfillment of what they said. God has spoken to us in his Son.
How great is he? Verse 2 tells us that God appointed him “heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.” He was appointed heir even before anything existed. He is the Creator and the owner of the universe.
Not only that, “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word” (verse 3). Unbelievers might think it blasphemous to say that these things. When we look at him, we see God’s glory, and he is the exact representation of his nature, and he is so powerful that he can sustain the universe simply by speaking a word.
Why does the author think that the readers will accept this without any evidence or supporting arguments? Probably because he knows them and knows what they have been taught. Perhaps he is the one who taught them. He is reminding them of how great Jesus is, because they are letting this greatness slip away, and they are ignoring the salvation that Jesus brought.
Now the author gets to the main subject of the letter, the subject that he will develop in much more detail: “When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.”
If you want your sins to be forgiven, to be purified, then you need to pay attention to Jesus, because he provides the way for us. He is with God, and he carries far more authority than the prophets do, because they had only part of the truth. What they wrote was true, but it was only part of what we need. Now we have Jesus, and in him, we have all that we need.
Better than angels (verses 4-7)
The author now introduces the subject of the first chapter, which argues that Jesus is better than angels: “having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.” As the Son of God, he is by nature superior to the angels, who are messenger servants of God.
Jews in the first century had a lot of respect for angels. They speculated about them and even assigned them a role in giving the law at Mt. Sinai (see Gal. 3:19). Some gave the angels too much honor (Colossians 2:18), but this does not seem to be a problem for the readers of Hebrews. The author says only positive things about the angels.
The author wants to correct some of the readers’ ideas, but he does not attack those ideas in the very first chapter. That might cause resistance. Greek rhetorical manuals advised speakers to get rapport with the audience first. Here, the author is reminding the readers of things they already know, of conclusions they will be likely to agree with. It is only later in the book that he says, now let’s go on to something new.
The author uses a chain of scriptures to support his point that Jesus is superior to the angels. He does not stop to demonstrate that these scriptures are really about Jesus — that seems to be something he figures the readers already agree on. On this topic, he is writing to a sympathetic audience, not a hostile one.
But in preparation for the subjects that he deals with in later chapters, he does want to remind them of how great Jesus is, and he begins by comparing him to angels. Hebrews 1:5: “For to which of the angels did God ever say, ‘You are my Son; today I have begotten you’? Or again, ‘I will be his Father, and he will be my Son’?” The answer is that God never said this to any angel, but he did say it for Jesus.
The first quote comes from Psalm 2:7, which was originally about the kings of Israel, but was often understood as a messianic prophecy. The second quote is from 2 Samuel 7:14, which was originally about Solomon, but came to be applied to the end-time Son of David, the Messiah. The point in both quotations is that Jesus is the Son of God, whereas angels are only messengers. Although angels are great and powerful, they aren’t even in the same league as Jesus. They are the hired help; Jesus is the Son of God.
The next two quotations are about angels: “And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says, ‘Let all God’s angels worship him.’ Of the angels he says, ‘He makes his angels winds, and his servants flames of fire.’”
The first quote is from the Greek version of Deuteronomy 32:43; the Hebrew original doesn’t say this. Even in the Greek version, the scripture is about the angels worshiping God. But the author of Hebrews makes no attempt to explain why he can use this verse for Jesus — he apparently knows that these readers already understand the verse in this way. The second quote is from the Greek version of Psalm 104:4; the Hebrew version has a different emphasis.
Like God in every way (verses 8-14)
The next two quotes are much longer. “But of the Son he says, ‘Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, and the righteous scepter is the scepter of your kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions’” (quoting from Psalm 45:6-7).
Again, there is no attempt to explain why these verses can be used for Jesus Christ, even when they plainly call him God: “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever…” Apparently the author is reminding the readers of something they have already been taught. The point is that the Son is a ruler, but the angels are only servants.
The next verses are quoted from Psalm 102:25-27: “And, ‘In the beginning, Lord, you founded the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands; they will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like clothing; like a cloak you will roll them up, and like clothing they will be changed. But you are the same, and your years will never end.’” The original psalm is about God. In Hebrews, it is applied to Christ, saying that he is the Creator and that he will live forever. In every respect, Jesus is greater than angels.
Things to think about
- When I think of God, do I remember that Jesus is exactly like him? Does my concept of God look just like Jesus?
- When I think of creation, do I think of Jesus?
- Without the book of Hebrews, would I apply these Old Testament verses to Jesus Christ?
- Do I view the heavens and earth as perishable, scheduled for change? How does this affect my priorities?
Author: Michael Morrison, 2002, 2016