The sermon opens by focusing the hearers’ attention on the word spoken by God through the Son, the last and most complete word in the history of God’s many and diverse words spoken through the prophets in former times. The significance of this message, and thus of responding to it appropriately, is developed by dwelling on the honor and power of its messenger, first by a discussion of the Son’s work from creation to the present (1:2–4), and then by means of a comparison of the Son with the angels. The first chapter begins and ends on distinctly eschatological notes—God’s word “in the Son” comes in “these last days” (1:2), and the Son himself now waits for the forthcoming subjugation of all his enemies (1:13) even while others are identified as “those who are about to inherit salvation” (1:14). This dimension is crucial to the author’s strategy for confirming the addressees in their commitment to the Christian group, and especially to deterring the wavering from shrinking back in the face of their neighbors’ ongoing disapproval. Ultimately, it is at the Son’s judgment seat, and not in the opinion of unbelievers, that the decisive evaluation of one’s worth takes place.
The author engages in this lengthy amplification of the Son’s honor and authority not because of some theological defect among the hearers, but rather because of a defect in commitment to the Christian worldview and community on the part of some. His objective is to heighten the urgency of the exhortation to “pay attention to” this message spoken through the Son, and not to neglect the “deliverance” he provides so as to “drift away” (2:1–4). The author warns that, just as the Son’s honor is greater than that of the angels, so the “payback” (μισθαποδοσία) for slighting this messenger by disregarding his message will be greater than the punishment received by those who neglected the requirements of the law of Moses, delivered by angels (cf. Acts 7:53; Gal. 3:19).
Having drawn out the dangerous consequences of not holding to the “word” of the Son, the sermon continues by defining the benefits of responding graciously to this message. Through his death, Jesus has freed them from the bondage of the fear of death and, now exalted at God’s right hand, has become the assurance of the believers’ honor as well. Through their attachment to him, they have the opportunity to arrive at their God-appointed destination of “glory” (2:10), the fulfillment of the divine plan for humanity as revealed in Psalm 8. The addressees enjoy the honor of being confessed by Jesus as his sisters and brothers (2:11–13), and having the exalted Son as their helper and mediator (2:16–18).
These opening paragraphs reflect the main aspects of the author’s pastoral strategy for his congregation. They need to be reminded to “consider Jesus” (3:1), to recall the debt owed the Son for his role in creation, preservation, and redemption, and to respond as grateful recipients not only of his past benefits but also of his promises for the future. Keeping their eyes securely fixed on the Son, they will understand that true advantage lies in remaining attached to him, which gives them honor now as God’s family and hope of the revelation of that honor to the world at the Son’s visitation. They will also understand that the greatest danger facing them is not their ongoing experience of shame in the eyes, or abuse at the hands, of unbelievers, but rather the punishment of God if, in thinking so little of God’s word in the Son, or of the Son’s saving work on their behalf, they forget their obligation and their hope and “drifting away” from their commitment. The “coming world” is under the Son’s jurisdiction (2:5–9), and thus friendship with the Son is the one thing never to be sacrificed for any apparent gain in the present world. For this reason, the Son is thrust into center stage at the very outset, displacing any other considerations that might weigh on the hearers’ minds.
While the book of Hebrews may not readily lend itself to division according to the five parts of a classical oration, discussions of exordia, or introductions, in rhetorical handbooks do illumine some aspects of the sermon’s opening paragraphs. The purpose of an exordium was to gain the attention and good will of the hearers, to establish oneself as an expert and honorable speaker (that is, make initial appeals to ethos), 1.3.5), namely, calling for a just response to the divine benefactor. and to introduce the leading ideas that will be developed in the speech itself. The attention that the author gives to the ornamentation and composition of his opening lines (see the discussion of these verses in the introduction) begins to serve the cause of making the hearers “attentive, receptive, and well-disposed” (Rhet. Her . 1.4.6–7). It is artistically crafted to delight the ears of the hearers, to assure them that they are hearing the words of a skilled orator (an ἀνῃρ λόγιος). Throughout the sermon the author will continue to remind the hearers of this through his literary artistry. 20–21; Spicq, L’Épître aux Hébreux, 1:361–66.
Hebrews begins by building an extended contrast between God’s earlier oracles and God’s word in Jesus, setting the message that brought the hearers together into a community of believers (2:3–4) as God’s ultimate revelation in a long history of significant revelations. Almost every element in 1:1 has a counterpart (an antithesis) in 1:2a. The revelation “to the fathers and mothers” was “long ago”; the revelation to “us” comes “at the end of these days,” a phrase that signals the arrival of the end time. for “the future” or especially “the end of the days,” the eschatological threshold. Significant, then, is the author’s addition of τούτων to this LXX phrase, which identifies the “end time” as having arrived in the recent past. God’s former oracles were spoken “through the prophets,” God’s faithful servants; God’s present word is articulated through “a Son.” Both the timing of the message and the status of the messenger become significant considerations in the sermon. Response to this message will determine one’s eschatological (and eternal) destiny: there will be no further calls to repentance or opportunities to give God what is due God, for the time of judgment and reward is imminent (10:25, 37–39). Attachment to this messenger assures one of honor and favor as those who are brought into God’s own household by the Son himself; affronting, insulting, rejecting this messenger means experiencing the full brunt of divine satisfaction, the punishment reserved for those who fail to honor the Son for his benefits to all creation and humanity.
The title “Son” carries a message that Jesus’ honor and worth derives from the honor of the father, God himself. In the Greco-Roman world, one’s honor or standing depended largely on one’s parentage—whether one was born into low or high status. Ben Sira, for example, urged children always to honor their parents, since “a man’s honor springs from his father’s honor” (Sir. 3:11). Dio Chrysostom, when affronted by the townspeople of Prusa, claims that they owe him the same honor and respect that they paid to his father and grandfather, whom they only rightly revere if they remember to honor the descendant as well (Or. 46.3–4). We have also seen above that encomia (eulogies and other commemorative addresses) included praise of the subject’s ancestors as a means of establishing the honor of the subject (see Rhet. Her . 3.7.13).