Jesus, The Last Word, and the First

Hebrews 1:1-4

The book of Hebrews begins not just with a thought, but with a sound, the sound of a preachers voice. When the first phrase of Hebrews is read aloud in the original Greek, we can hear with the ear what could easily be missed with the eye alone: the richness of its tones and the rise and fall of its melody. The rhythms and resonances of the words leap off the page. From the very opening sentence, then, the reader of Hebrews is aware that, though what follows is filled with profound theological concepts and symbols, this is not a lecture or an essay or a philosophical treatise; this has the unmistakable sound of a sermon.

It is almost as if the Preacher who composed Hebrews spreads out sermon notes on a pulpit somewhere, looks out at the congregation, pauses a moment in dramatic suspense, and then begins with words as graceful and rhythmical as the beat of a human heart: Polymeros kai polytropos palai...” (“In many fragments and in many fashions in former times...,” 1:1). Like the initial line of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, “Fourscore and seven years ago...,” these opening words of Hebrews display the cadence, the alliteration, and the keen awareness of the musical flow of beautifully spoken language that signal a carefully and poetically crafted oral event, a style that is sustained throughout the book. In black and white on the printed page, Hebrews appears to be a bit like an epistle, or even a theological monograph, but, when it sounds in the ear, we know immediately that we are not in the library reading an essay but in the pew listening to a sermon.

The eloquence of Hebrews is so striking that, over the years, many have conjectured it must have been written by Apollos, a well-known early Christian preacher, described in Acts as “an eloquent man” who “spoke with burning passion” (Acts 18:24-25). No one today knows, of course, who wrote Hebrews (see Introduction), but one can certainly see why Apollos’s name would appear high on the list of possibilities. Whoever wrote Hebrews was indeed “eloquent” and “burning with passion.”

Even if we cannot solve the mystery of who wrote Hebrews, we do wonder about this author’s purpose in producing such an odd hybrid: a written document crafted to sound like a sermon. Hebrews possesses an especially strong oral, sermonic quality because it was designed actually to be read aloud as a part of congregational worship, and the writer, an insightful and gifted preacher, did what effective preachers customarily do: employed language in ways that would have aural impact when spoken aloud to a group gathered for worship. In other words, there is a possibility that Hebrews is a sermon manuscript that a preacher in one location wrote for another preacher to preach in some other place. But even if this is not the case, even if Hebrews is not written literally to be read in a service of worship in the sanctuary, it iswritten for an act of worship in the imagination. No matter where or when Hebrews is read, even when it is read silently and alone, it transports us into the sanctuary, to the place of praise and to the occasion of the sermon. Its metered measures evoke the ethos of worship and the familiar tempo of proclamation, and this is theologically significant in at least three ways:

1. The Evocative Text.Like every effective sermon, even those that make hard and demanding challenges, Hebrews is crafted to be savored and enjoyed, not simply devoured and endured. There is evocative pleasure in reading and hearing this well-spoken text. From the outset, the readers (and hearers) recognize the rhythms of a fine sermon and set their expectations accordingly. “Faith comes,” writes Paul, “from what is heard” (Rom. 10:17), and the writer of Hebrews would emphatically agree (see 2:1, 3).

In the gloomiest days of the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke this strangely lovely and memorable phrase: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” These were not simply historic words aboutcourage, they were words that generated courage. Hearing them did not merely convey information about being confident in the face of fear; hearing them evoked that very confidence, created a world where that boldness could be possible. In curious way, then, Roosevelt’s phrase can be called “pleasurable,” since it transports the hearer from a constricted and frightening world to a place of promise and hope. Just so, the “hair-raising eloquence” of Hebrews, its surprising and breathtaking rhetorical hills and valleys, the shapely and pleasurable contours of its speech, are no mere ornaments; they create a landscape on which the gospel can be seen in the vividness of its many colors, seen against the gray backdrop of all lesser alternatives,and, having been seen, can become a joyful, confident, and life-giving event of faith for the readers.

2.    The Communal Text.The ‘oral tone” of Hebrews recreates the communal, congregational event of hearing, as opposed to the individualized act of reading. A student of the spoken word, Walter Ong, observes that “the spoken word forms human beings into close-knit groups. When a speaker is addressing an audience, the members of the audience normally become a unity, with themselves and with the speaker.” But if the speaker decides to clarify a point by asking the audience to refer to a handout, the result is that each person “enters into his or her own private reading world, the unity of the audience is shattered, to be reestablished only when oral speech begins again” (Ong, p. 74).

The Preacher of Hebrews has produced a written sermon, but one with the marks of an oral event. As such, he does not address discrete individuals, but rather “brothers and sisters, holy partners in a heavenly calling” (3:1).

3.    The Dialogical Text.Hebrews, like all good sermons, is a dialogical event in a monological format. The Preacher does not hurl information and arguments at the readers as if they were targets. Rather, Hebrews is written to create a conversation, to evoke participation, to prod the faithful memories of the readers. Beginning with the first sentence, “us” and “we” language abounds. Also, the Preacher employs rhetorical questions to awaken the voice of the listener (see 1:5 and 1:14, for example); raps on the pulpit a bit when the going gets sluggish (5:11); occasionally restates the main point to insure that even the inattentive and drowsy are on board (see 8:1); doesn't bother to “footnote” sources the hearers already know quite well (see the familiar preacher's phrase in 2:6: “Someone has said somewhere...”); and keeps making explicit verbal contact with the listeners (see 3:12 and 6:9, for example) to remind them that they are not only supposed to be listening to this sermon, they are also expected, by their active hearing, to be a part of creating it. As soon as we experience the rise and fall of the opening words of Hebrews, the readers become aware that they are not simply watching a roller coaster hurtle along the rhetorical tracks; they are in the lead car. In Hebrews, the gospel is not merely an idea submitted for intellectual consideration; it is a life-embracing demand that summons to action.

So as an evocative, communal, and dialogical text, Hebrews is not a tight argument, hard as a diamond with sharply cut facets; it is, instead, a sermonic exhortation (13:22) with an open weave, porous to the participation of the readers. It finally stands or falls not on its irreducible logic but on its capacity to be the soil in which an event of faith grows in the imaginations of those who read it. The reader does not come to the end of Hebrews exclaiming, “Q.E.D.; that proves it!” but rather, “Amen! I hear this, I see this in the eye of faith, I believe this, I will live this!” When faith sounds in the ear, then it reverberates in the heart.

God Talk (1:1)

In terms of theological content, Hebrews opens with a poetic description of divine revelation as the speech act of God (1:1). God is pictured not as a silent and distant force, impassively regulating the universe, but as a talker, as One who has been speaking, arguing, pleading, wooing, commanding, telling stories, conversing, and generally spinning words across the lines between heaven and earth since the beginning of time.

The concept of divine revelation as speech is, of course, a metaphor, but a crucial one. Primarily it implies that, just as speech is an active interruption of silence, a disturbance of the stillness caused by the force of sound waves, so revelation is an active intrusion by God into our world and not a passive process. God moves the powers; God causes the sun to rise, God shakes the foundations; God breaks the chains; God labors in the world: all of the activity of God in creation reveals the character of God and is gathered up in the concept of divine revelatory speech.

In this sense, revelation is far more than mere human discernment of the holy; it is an event, an act of God toward humanity. Revelation is being “spoken to”; it is a holy summons, a disturbance of our peace. Revelation is not initially what we do to find and to name God, but what God does towards us to seek and to save and to restore all creation. Revelation is not human beings bringing ourselves to the place where we can see God hidden in every flower, star, and cloud, but God bringing us to the awareness that the heavens are preaching a word we could not know on our own and that flowers, stars, clouds—indeed the whole universe, as well as the entire fabric of human history—are telling a story of God’s glory beyond our imagining. Revelation is not primarily the discovery of some grand design stealthily concealed in the complex patterns of nature, awaiting a science sophisticated enough to map it, but a shout in the street crying news we could not have anticipated, news that God is at work in creation, providing and saving, reconciling and judging, nurturing and healing. God speaks.

Every talker needs a partner, someone to listen and to speak in return, and God’s conversational confidants have been, in particular, “our ancestors” (1:1, Greek = “fathers”), that is, the people of Israel, the Old Testament people of God. There is a reciprocal relationship implied between the speech of God and the people of God. The recipients of the divine word are God’s people, but it is by virtue of being addressed by God, gathered up in the holy conversation, that they are made God’s people in the first place. In short, God turned toward the Hebrews and “talked them into being” the people of God, the children of the promise (see 6:13-15). The speech of God creates its own family of faithful hearers: “ancestors,” not in the biological sense, but in the acoustic sense, a genealogy of those who have been hearers of the Word and thus kinfolk in the faith. The writer of Hebrews, faithful to the narratives of the Old Testament, knows that to be the people of God is not primarily to be given secret illumination or mystical enlightenment, but rather to be drawn into a lively and life-changing conversation. This God is One who speaks eventfully, and the people of God are those who have ears to hear and who speak and act in response.

God speaks, Hebrews tells us, “in many and various ways” (1:1), which is more accurately rendered “in many fragments and in many fashions.” Though some have argued that “fragments” and “fashions” are synonymous terms and that the writer is simply being redundant for rhetorical effect, the two expressions probably point to somewhat differing aspects of the experience of God’s revelation:

1. God speaks “in many fragments,” that is, a word here and there, now and then. The speech of God is not unbroken chatter, like an all-night radio talk show, but episodes of speech punctuating seasons of silence. God spoke, for example, to Samuel in the temple, but this event of divine speech interrupted a long stretch when “the word of the Lord was rare...” (1 Sam. 3:1). Or again, when the Canaanite woman came to Jesus, begging for mercy for her tormented daughter, his word of grace and healing came only after a cryptic period of silence (see Matt. 15:21-28, esp. v. 23).

In W. H. Auden’s poem “Victor, a Ballad,” Victor has been betrayed by his wife, and in his distress he flees his home on a desperate journey of grief. He walks out onto High Street, past the garbage dump, and out to the town’s edge. There he stands in his sorrow, weeping.

Victor looked up at the sunset

As he stood there all alone;

Cried: “Are you in Heaven, Father?”

But the sky said “Address not known.”

(Auden, Collected Poems, p. 140)

We do not know why the revelation of God is episodic, why God speaks in fragments, why the will of God seems crystal clear in one circumstance only to be an opaque “address not known” in another. We only know that there is a mysterious rhythm to the speech and silence of God that uncoils from the wild and wise freedom of God and that it is the experience of faithful people to say, like the psalmist, “For God alone my soul waits in silence” (Ps. 62:1).

And it is also the experience of God's people that out of the silence God does speak, and speak in timely, healing, and strengthening ways. In Bearing the Cross, David Garrow tells about such a moment in the life of Martin Luther King Jr. In the middle of the Montgomery bus boycott, King was facing a personal crisis of confidence. With negotiations with the city bogging down and resistance from the white community strengthening, King was growing not only weary but frightened as well. He had received over forty telephone calls threatening his life and the well-being of his family. Late one night, King returned home from a meeting only to receive yet another call warning him to leave town soon if he wanted to stay alive.

Unable to sleep after this disturbing threat, he sat at the kitchen table and worried. In the midst of his anxiety something told him that he could no longer call on anyone for help but God. So he prayed, confessing his weakness and his loss of courage. “At that moment,” he said later, “I could hear an inner voice saying to me ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for the truth. And lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world.'” It was, realized King, the voice of Jesus speaking a word of promise, a word of reassurance, a timely word of comfort and strength (Garrow, p. 58).

2. God also speaks “in many fashions.” The metaphor of divine speechencompasses, of course, the infinite ways that God’s presence, activity, and will are made known to human beings. Sometimes God speaks through visions and by stimulating flashes of insight, at other times God speaks through political movements and the shaking of the powers. Here God speaks in a dream or a waterfall, there in a prophetic oracle or a pillar of fire, or again in the still small voice, the commandments of the law, the stories of kings, the restless and brooding Spirit at the heart of the creation, or the journey of the sun across the noonday sky. God speaks in the quietness of prayer and the noise of honest debate. God sometimes speaks in powerful moments of spiritual wonder and also in the seeming humdrum of committee meetings. God’s speech can be heard when nations make peace and when neighbors speak kindness across the backyard fence. God speaks through the Bible and also through the touch of a caring hand at bedside. God speaks in the voices of the choir, the beauty of art, the spangling of the heavens with stars, and the cries of the hungry for food, the lonely for companionship, the sick for healing, the pressed down for hope. God speaks in “many fashions.”

God's speech is almost always mediated speech. When God wants to talk to human beings, someone or something—a burning bush, or an angel, or the heavens, or a Moses, or a Jeremiah—is summoned to do the talking on God's behalf. According to the Preacher of Hebrews, the main way that God spoke to our ancestors was “by the prophets” (1:1). This may simply be shorthand for “in the Scriptures,” but the phrase more likely refers not to the written texts of the Old Testament but to the peopledescribed there whose human words and activity became the vehicle of divine speech and disclosure: Moses, Aaron, Rahab, Deborah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, to name only a few.

A New Word (1:2A)

So with a single powerful opening phrase, the Preacher of Hebrews has summoned the majesty and pageantry of the whole Old Testament witness to God. “Long ago God spoke,” the Preacher begins, and the imaginations of the readers are vibrant with memories of the mighty speech acts of God. God spoke the creation into existence and declared it “very good.” God spoke to Abraham, summoning him from his father's house and promising to make him a great nation. God called Moses to be the liberator of God's people, and God spoke the law on Sinai. Through Isaiah and Ezekiel, Amos and Joel, Hosea and Jeremiah, God spoke, nurturing and disciplining, provoking and redeeming the people Israel. “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors. ...”

Suddenly, however, the Preacher halts in mid-sentence, then, after a suspenseful pause, utters a startling word: “but....” But what? Every sermon listener knows that the little conjunction “but” is a dagger, swiftly attacking whatever stands before in favor of what is about to come, a trumpet heralding the appearance of something unprecedented. The word “but” is a rhetorical clue that what the Preacher has just been saying, indeed what the hearers have been taking in without question, is about to fall under challenge. Something new is about to emerge to rival the old, and the language of contrast forms a familiar biblical pattern. “Butnow thus says the Lord, ... I am about to do a new thing” (Isa. 43:1,19) “You have heard it said...but I say unto you” (Matt. 5:21, 22).

“Long ago God spoke to our ancestors ... by the prophets, but...” The words are a flare across the night sky signaling that now a fresh form of divine speech has broken across human hearing. God has “in these last days ... spoken to us by a Son” (1:2), who is, of course, Jesus.

The argument is building toward the crucial contrast that will serve as a main theme of much of Hebrews, specifically the distinction between the ways that God spoke to former generations, and the definitive, climactic, and decisive word that, “in these last days,” God has spoken through Jesus. Frederick Buechner playfully points to one aspect of this contrast (Wishful Thinking, p. 97):

God never seems to weary of trying to get himself across. Word after word he tries in search of the right word. When the Creation itself doesn’t seem to say it right—sun, moon, stars, all of it—he tries flesh and blood.

He tried saying it in Noah, but Noah was a drinking man.... He tried saying it in Moses, but Moses himself was trying too hard; tried David, but David was too pretty for his own good. Toward the end of his rope, God tried saying it in John the Baptist with his locusts and honey and hell-fire preaching, and you get the feeling that John might almost have worked except that he lacked something small but crucial like a sense of the ridiculous or a balanced diet.

So, he tried once more. Jesus as the mot juste of God.

What God has “spoken” in the Son is both continuous and discontinuous with the Old Testament narratives of divine disclosure. This interplay is expressed in the ambiguous phrase “in these last days” (2:1), which is something of a double entendre. Taken one way, this phrase connotes “at last” or “finally” and, as such, implies that God who spoke in many fragments and in many forms in the past has now, at last, spoken the definitive word. The emphasis here falls on continuity with all of the other words spoken by God to Israel; every prior word spoken by God to the people of God has been leading up to this final, consummate word. The word spoken in Jesus the Son is, in the theology of Hebrews, the last and perfect pearl in a beautiful strand of divine words.

Taken another way, however, the phrase “in these last days” should be read as an eschatological phrase, namely with the import that the Son is a word unlike any previous word, a word spoken to God’s people from the end of all time into the middle of time—from God’s future into the historical present. The emphasis here falls on the discontinuity of this event of revelation, on the fact that God’s word in Jesus marks a decisive turning point in the ages. The Son is the breaking in of God’s victorious reign, a word announcing the dawn of the triumph of God that rings down the curtain on the grinding cycles of history. The word spoken in Jesus is not simply an elaboration of what God has already done and said; there is something new here, something trail-blazing, something superior.

EXCURSUS:

Hebrews and Judaism

Hebrews's opening contrast between the speech of God 'long ago” and the new word “spoken to us by a Son” raises an important theological question that will reappear at various points in the epistle: Is the message of Hebrews essentially anti-Jewish? Because the Preacher of Hebrews speaks of the Old Testament law as “weak and ineffectual” (7:18), of the old covenant as “obsolete” (8:13), and of Jesus as having a “more excellent ministry” and as “the mediator of a better covenant... enacted through better promises” (8:6), it is tempting to read Hebrews in sharp, triumphalistic “Christianity-is-superior-to-Judaism” terms.

To read Hebrews exclusively this way, however, is to blur some subtle distinctions and finally to distort the relationship between old and new in the epistle. We cannot pretend, of course, that Hebrews is somehow theologically neutral or that it does not possess a lofty and commanding christology. Hebrews unapologetically intends to magnify the power and the meaning of what God is saying and doing in Jesus Christ and to strengthen the readers' confidence in their Christian confession of faith. On the other hand, it is crucial to remember the Preachers conviction that the God who speaks in Jesus is the very same God who spoke to “our ancestors in many and various ways,” the same God who spoke to Abraham and Sarah, to Moses and Miriam, to Deborah and Jeremiah. God's speech did not suddenly change its essential character when it came to Jesus but was always the “good news” of blessing and peace across the generations (see 4:1-2). But if the God who speaks through Jesus is the very same God who spoke through Moses and the prophets, then how can the Preacher of Hebrews speak of the word disclosed in Jesus as “better” and “more excellent” without somehow denigrating God's earlier words?

First, it is important to keep the rhetorical situation of Hebrews in mind. The original readers were not students in a class on world religions debating the relative merits of Judaism versus Christianity. They were disheartened members of a Christian community who had begun to lose their grip on their own beliefs and commitments. The Preacher responds to them as any good pastor would, by reassuring them that holding fast to their faith is truly the best way. This reassurance is more than mere cheerleading, however; it was based on the

Preacher’s own conviction that the promises of God made in Jesus are worthy of trust, indeed that holding fast to those promises is a “more excellent” way.

Second, when the whole of Hebrews is taken into account, we can see that the Preacher understands the word spoken “in these last days ... by a Son” as a superior word in two ways, neither of which casts away or undermines God’s prior revelation. The first way that the word spoken “by a Son” is superior is by virtue of being the last and ultimate word in a great sequence of divine words. Imagine a great chasm between God on the one side and suffering and broken humanity on the other that must be bridged if human beings are to be rescued and creation brought to its consummation. In order to span the gap, God engages in a series of saving acts, redemptive “words,” that are forged together like links on a great chain stretched across the divide. God calls Abraham to leave his ancestral lands, stirs up the midwives Shiphrah and Puah to civil disobedience, summons Moses to liberating leadership, enrolls Isaiah through a moment of liturgical mystery—each of these divine actions, and many others, forming saving links that are joined to the growing chain of redemption. Jesus is the final link in this chain, the one that at last accomplishes the connection. Each link in the chain is valuable and, indeed, necessary, but without Jesus the chain will not reach. It is the final link, the last word spoken by a Son, that completes the chain and fits it for its saving purpose.

The second way that the word spoken “by a Son” is a superior word is that Jesus is more than just the last link in the chain of redemption; Jesus is the culmination of divine revelation, “the perfecter of our faith.” In order to understand what this may mean, consider another analogy. Suppose that a young woman has just graduated with honors from Harvard. Adding to the pride of this occasion is the fact that she is the only member of her family ever to attend college. However, as she reflects on what made this day possible, she is aware that everything about her heritage has, in a sense, been pointing toward this accomplishment. For example, her great-grandfather, who could neither read nor speak English, immigrated to America to find freedom for himself and a more hopeful life for his children. One of her grandfathers was a tailor who, though he could not afford to provide a college education for his children, nevertheless instilled in them a love of learning and an intellectual curiosity. Her mother encouraged her to have the boldness to apply to Harvard, worked in a bakery to help pay the costs, and prayed for her every day.

Now this young woman’s graduation from Harvard is the culmination, the fulfillment of generations of striving and working, hoping and trusting. Without diminishing the dreams, the sacrifices, the prayers, and the yearnings of those who went before her, it can be said that she has carried her family’s heritage to a new and more excellent level. Indeed, all that has gone before her has come to flower in this achievement; she has brought her family legacy to fulfillment, or to use the language of Hebrews, to “perfection.”

So the promises of God spoken through Abraham and Sarah and Moses and Miriam and Isaac and Rebekah and all of the others whose stories constitute the narrative fabric of the “old covenant” anticipate the final word spoken in Jesus and are brought into laser-sharp focus in the disclosure of the Son. The word spoken in Jesus does not void the previous promises of God; it fuses, clarifies, and fulfills them; it brings them “to perfection.”

Christ for the World We Sing (1:2B-4)

The very mention of the Son in 1:2leads the writer of Hebrews into a lyrical moment. He begins to sing, or, as some scholars have suggested, to quote a hymn in good preacherly fashion. The rest of this introductory section (vv. 2b-4) is probably derived from an early Christian hymn known by heart to the first readers, and it consists almost entirely of a series of doxological phrases naming the praiseworthy characteristics of Jesus. As the Preacher intones the familiar choruses, he is surely confident that the hearers will respond with the refrain. Indeed, reading this section of Hebrews is much like hearing a preacher, his voice rising with excitement, suddenly break into a verse of “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name,” and to have the congregation join in, “Let angels prostrate fall; bring forth the royal diadem, and crown him Lord of all.”

Specifically, Jesus is described in the following ways:

a. As the “heir of all things, through whom he created the worlds” (1:2). This phrase is like a tuning fork. As soon as it is struck, a multitude of Old Testament allusions begins to vibrate in response. In the Old Testament, God’s people are described as heirs of “the land” (see Deut. 12:9, 19:10), and certain key persons (for example the “servant” of Isa. 53:12and the apocalyptic king of Dan. 7:14) are promised a rich inheritance. Psalm 2:8, the most direct allusion in the Hebrews text, presents “the nations” as the inheritance of God’s son. Hebrews weaves all of these threads together and augments them by naming the Son as their heir, not merely of the land or of the nations, but of “all things.”

The irony is that the Son, who is heir of all things, also created all things. Jesus, who is the “last word,” is also the “first word.” The writer of Hebrews here connects Jesus to the figure of Wisdom, who was understood to be the inventive hand of God in fashioning the creation (see Prov. 8:22-31; Wisd. Sol. 7:22). The idea of the Son creating his own inheritance eventually grows into highly developed doctrines of the preexistence of Christ. Here, though, it may best be seen in a less precise sense, as an awestruck liturgical affirmation that Christ is all in all, at the beginning of time and at the end of it; that “all things have been created through him and for him” (Col. 1:16).

The idea that Jesus is the heir of all things addresses the human need to know where life is ultimately headed. Does the one who ends up with the most toys, or the most troops, really win? Does history flicker out with a whimper? Do the rich keep on getting richer and do the violent always bear it away, world without end, amen? The Preacher of Hebrews assures his congregation that, when all is said and done, life does not belong to the demagogue, the oppressor, the tyrant, or the warrior; it belongs to Jesus Christ. The creation does not disintegrate in violence, chaos, and futility; it endures at a holy inheritance. Human beings do not end up in meaninglessness; they end up as the treasure of the beloved Son.

b. As “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being” (1:3). Here, again, the writer of Hebrews draws upon the wisdom traditions (see esp. Wisd. Sol. 7:26) to affirm the clarity and value of what has been seen and heard in Jesus. Jesus, as the Son, is not an approximation of divine truth; in him the very nature of God shines forth brightly. Jesus is not aword from God; he is the divine word. To paraphrase Paul, in former times God’s people may have “seen through a glass darkly,” but, in Jesus, we see God “face-to-face.”

There was once a man from a small southern town whose father died when the man was an infant. While other boys would work in the fields or play catch or go fishing with their fathers, this man had no father, not even any memories. As he grew older, he became obsessed by the need to know something, anything, about his father. Whenever he met a person who may have known his father—a schoolteacher in the town where his father had grown up, a retired minister who once served in his father’s home church, an aging cousin of his father—he would urgently ask, “What can you tell me about my father?” He spent a lifetime piecing together shards of recollection, pieces of anecdotes, trying to get a picture of the man who was his father.

In a much deeper sense, the Preacher knows we all hunger to know God the Father. We are on a desperate search for information about our heritage, intimate knowledge of the one who gave us birth. All spiritual quests are, in their own ways, attempts to ask, “What can you tell me about my father? What do you know? What do you remember?” The answer of Hebrews is that, when we have seen the Son, we have seen the Father. Or as Calvin put it, “The Father, however infinite, becomes finite in the Son....He shows himself only in the Son—as though he says, ‘Here I am. Contemplate me.’”

c.    As the one who “sustains things by his powerful word” (1:3) and who “made purification for sins” (1:3). Here the Son, who at the beginning was the agent of creation and who at the end inherits all things, is portrayed as at work in the flow of human history, holding things together and, by a definite act (the cross, though it is not here named directly), having renewed the brokenness of creation.

d.    As seated “at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (1:3). This is a clear allusion to Psalm 110:1, a favorite text of early Christians (see Hay, Glory at the Right Hand) and a key psalm for the author of Hebrews (see 1:13; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2). If the previous phrase about “purification of sins” referred to the death of Jesus, this phrase refers, in a single image, to the resurrection and exaltation of Christ.

e.    As “superior to angels” (1:4). This phrase is both a fitting and customary conclusion to the doxology and a transition to the rest of the material in this chapter. Like the Christ hymn of Philippians 2:5-11, Hebrews 1:1-4has traced the christological parabola (see the discussion of the “parabola of salvation” in comments on 1:5-14), following the trajectory of the divine Son from creation sweeping downward to the cross and up to the heavenly place of majesty, where the Son is exalted with “a name above every name,” even the names of the angels. Now that the Preacher has arrived at the theological climax of this section of the sermon—the affirmation that the Son is higher even than the angels—he now amplifies this with a rhetorical flourish in the verses that follow.