|God Must Really Love Us (Hebrews 1:1-4)
God Must Really Love Us
Sermon Summary from Ministers: Hebrews is introduced in terms of the Jesus-focus that will characterize all that is to follow. The theme of this initial sermon is that God’s loving activity for his human offspring has come into focus in the work Christ has done and is doing for his people.
The sermon, which our New Testament calls “Hebrews,” begins with a powerful single sentence. While English translations tend to divide it into several sentences, Hebrews 1:1-4 is actually one long, beautifully constructed sentence.
It has rhetorical flare. Verse one, for example, use alliteration as five key words begin with the Greek letter “pi” (or, p—in English, they are the words “many times,” “many ways,” “past,” “fathers,” and “prophets”). But it also has tremendous theological substance. It is fundamentally the announcement that God has spoken completely and finally through his Son.
The basic sentence in the text is that “God has spoken through his Son whose name is superior to the angels.” Everything else in the sentence serves this theological affirmation.
1. Hebrews 1:1-2a.
The opening language is a powerful conceptual parallelism. Guthrie (p. 46) calls attention to this, but I would add one further contrast.
Constrasting Past and Present
|Era||in the past||in these last days|
|Recipents||to our forefathers||to us|
|Agents||through the prophets||by his Son|
|Ways||in various ways||in one way (implied)|
|Times||in various times ||at one time (implied)|
The preacher does not have in mind one particular Old Testament revelation or a particular form of revelation. Rather, he is thinking of the whole continuity of God’s revelation of himself from creation up to the present. In many ways (theopanies, dreams, visions, miracles, etc.), at many times (through the whole history of the world and Israel) and through many people [prophets] (Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc.), God spoke to those who preceded us. However, now—in these last days—God has spoken through his Son.
The “last days” is another way of saying “the final age.” Jesus appeared at the “consummation of the ages” (9:26), and a new age has dawned. The future has broken into the present and human experience has shifted. We now experience the “age to come” through the Spirit (6:4-5). Jesus is the spokesperson for this new age as he is the inaugurator of the new age. He has pioneered it for us and is leading us to the city of God where we will experience the fullness of divine presence. We look to Jesus because God has spoken through him.
Consequently, there is an implied finality and completeness of this revelation through the Son. It is final because it is God’s climatic revelation in the “last days.” It is complete because of who the Son is (which is the topic of Hebrews 1:2b-3)
2. Hebrews 1:2b-3a.
When the preacher names the “Son” in verse 2, he follows it with four descriptive phrases that reflect language that was common among Hellenistic Jews. The language described Divine Wisdom, but here the preacher applies this language to the Son.
First, the Son was appointed the heir of all things (cf. Psalm 2:8 as a background). The linkage between “name” and “inheritance” is important. The Son’s name means that he is heir. Because he is Son, he is heir. The importance of “heir” in Hebrew theology cannot be overestimated. Abram was renamed Abraham because he was appointed the father of many nations (Genesis 17:5). Son is the heir of the cosmos, of “all things”—not just “many nations.” Thus, the text articulates the cosmic status of the Son. He is no mere human inheritor, or human king, or even angel. He is the royal heir of the cosmos.
Second, the Son was the agent of creation. This language reflects the wisdom tradition of Proverbs 8:22-31. Jesus is the divine Son (wisdom) through whom God created the world (cf. John 1:1-3; 1 Corinthians 8:6; Colossians 1:16). This affirms the pre-existence of the Son. He is before creation and the agent of God’s creative work. The Son is unlike any human prophet.
Third, the Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his nature. This language identifies the Son with God. “Glory” and “nature” refer to the same point—divine glory is divine nature. To radiate the divine glory (as light radiates from the sun) is to share the divine nature (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:6), or at least to express (reveal) the divine nature. It is a declaration that the Son is the image of God (which is also something we find in Colossians 1:15; 2 Corinthians 4:4). The term “exact representation” is a lofty claim for the Son. The Greek term character. One Hellenistic Jewish writer (Philo, The Unchangeableness of God, 55) said that no one could exhibit the character of God. But this is exactly what our preacher claims here. Jesus is the visible representation—the stamped image of God. The term character was often used to refer to an impressed seal, and thus an “exact representation.” As such, the Son is the revelation of God himself and thus the ultimate vehicle through whom God speaks.
Fourth, the Son sustains the cosmos by his powerful word. The Son is God’s providential agent in the world. He maintains the universe by his power. The Son is not only the agent of creation, but is also at work within the cosmos to sustain it. The cosmic work of the Son is ongoing. It is not merely a past act, but a present activity.
3. Hebrews 1:3b-4
The exaltation of the Son, however, is not simply in light of his pre-existent status. As William Lane in his commentary points out, while the Son was described in the categories of Jewish Hellennism’s perception of Divine Wisdom, the preacher breaks with that tradition to also identify the exaltation of the Son with his high priestly function. The Son is exaltation because he is humiliated, that is, the Son is exalted because through his incarnation as a human being he became a high priest who was both priest and victim. He is exalted because he shared the human experience even though he was a participant in the divine reality.
The language of “purification” anticipates a major theme in Hebrews. It anticipates the priestly and sacrificial themes of chapters 7-10. The Son atoned for sin. Consequently, his exaltation to the “right hand” of God was not simply in light of his agency in creation or cosmic status, but was also the result of his human act of priestly self-sacrifice for the sake of cleansing his fellow-humans from sin. The reference to purification, therefore, is inclusive of his incarnation, death and priestly work.
The enthronement of the Son, indeed, is the most extensively elaborated theme in Hebrews 1:1-4. The preacher will link almost everything to this exaltation to the right hand of God. The reference to the “right hand” is inclusive of his resurrection, ascension, and enthronement where he continues as priest to intercede for his people (cf. Hebrews 8:1; 10:12; 12:2). In this capacity, the Son receives his inheritance—a name that is above every name. It is a “better” (a term used 13 times in Hebrews) name than the angels.
Theologically, though the Son was the agent of creation itself and the exact image of the Father, he humbled himself to serve as a high priest among humans for the sake of their salvation. Out this humble service, God exalted him and enthroned him as a royal priest to secure eternal redemption for his people. This is why the Son is God’s final, climatic and complete spokesperson. This is the picture Paul gives in Philippians 2:5-11, though for different purposes and in different language.
Essentially this text portrays the Son in three specific ways.
First, the Son is God’s final and climactic revelation of himself. The Son is God’s “final” prophet in that the Son is now the reference point for all revelation of God. While the revelation of God in the past was partial and scattered, the revelation of God through the Son is complete, focused and final. This revelation is final in way that the law mediated by angels was not. It is complete in a way that could not be said of the prophet Moses.
Second, the Son is described as Divine Wisdom. While “wisdom” does not appear in these verses, the descriptors in verses 2-3 are drawn from the language of Jewish Hellenism. They are common descriptions of divine wisdom based on Proverbs 8:22-31 (as, for example, in the Wisdom of Solomon 7:21-27). This language exalts the Son above the angels and connects the Son directly with God as one who shares the reality of God’s own wisdom. This language testifies that the Son shares the divine reality and experience. The Son participates in the divine reality and thus is superior to the angels.
Third, Son’s incarnation and high priestly participation in human experience is assumed. The Son is exalted to the right hand because he made purification for sin. The Son is the high priest who made atonement for his people. Consequently, the incarnation is assumed here. The Son’s incarnational act also testifies to his superiority over the angels because he was made lower then them to identify with humanity in order to bring others to glory. The Son became a brother of humanity in order to make them “sons” of glory. This is the point of Hebrews 2:5-18.
Three theological points, therefore, emerge out the fundamental declaration that God has spoken through his Son: (1) The finality of God’s revelation through the Son; (2) the shared reality of the Son with God; and (3) the shared reality of the Son with humanity. Or, the Son, who is both divine and human, is God’s final and complete revelation of himself.
This theological beginning has a tremendous pastoral point. These discouraged Roman Christians need stability and boldness. They need the kind of theological grounding that can anchor their faith. If Jesus is the final and complete revelation of God, then there is no other hope or ground for faith beyond Jesus or exclusive of Jesus. To give up Jesus is to give up God. God has spoken through Jesus, and his promises are secure in him. The hope of discouraged believers is that God has spoken.
The theological substance is important for us. A theologically mature understanding of who Jesus is grounds our faith and gives substance to our faith. It stabilizes faith. It anchors our hope and encourages our perseverance.
Suggested Teaching Approach
I think we always want to keep in mind the purpose of the writer in relation to his audience. Consequently, the question we want to always keep before us is “how does this section contribute to the encouragement of his readers?” What is the theology here that encourages struggling and potentially hopeless believers? The answer in this context is that God has spoken through his Son, whose identity certifies the revelation.
You might spend the time thinking deeply about the identity of Jesus as the Son of God and what this means pastorally.
Who is Jesus? How is the Son described in this text? What do these descriptors mean and how are they significant? I would proceed phrase by phrase through this brief text and seek to draw the group into a discussion of the significance of these descriptors.
How does this identity ground the faith of believers? How does it give significance to the spoken word of God through him? Why is the identity of the Son important in relation to the God’s word to his people?
What are the implications for our life with God? How does God speak today? How does his speaking today relate to what he has spoken in his Son?
Why is this a word of encouragement for discouraged believers?
Use your resource material for other questions and ideas (both theological and pastoral) for teaching and applying this text.
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