Hebrews 1:1–4


Outline

  1. Prologue: Definitive and Final Revelation in the Son (1:1–4)
  2. Don’t Abandon the Son Since He Is Greater than Angels (1:5–2:18)

Scripture

1Long ago God spoke to the fathers by the prophets at different times and in different ways. 2In these last days, He has spoken to us by His Son. God has appointed Him heir of all things and made the universe through Him. 3The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact expression of His nature, sustaining all things by His powerful word. After making purification for sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high. 4So He became higher in rank than the angels, just as the name He inherited is superior to theirs.

Context

The opening of Hebrews is elegant and eloquent, demonstrating the literary artistry of the author. The introduction gives no evidence that the writing is an epistle, for the author doesn’t introduce himself, the recipients aren’t identified, and there isn’t a greeting. The opening suggests a literary work, something like a literary essay on the significance of Jesus Christ. We know from the conclusion of the work, however, that Hebrews has epistolary features, and thus the book should not be classified as a literary essay. Still, the artistry and beauty that characterize the entire letter are evident from the opening. The author invites the reader via the elevated style of the letter to reflect on and apply his theology.

The main point of the first four verses is that God has spoken finally and definitively in his Son. The author beautifully contrasts the past era in which God spoke to the ancestors and prophets with the last days in which God spoke to us in his Son. A table should illustrate the contrast in the first two verses.

Long ago In these last days
God spoke to the fathers He has spoken to us
by the prophets by His Son
at different times and in different ways

Verses 2–4 focus on the identity of the Son and what he has done. Here we have a chiasm.

A He has spoken to us by His Son D 1 He is the exact expression of His nature
B God has appointed Him heir of all things C 1 sustaining all things by His powerful word
C He made the universe through Him B 1 After making purification for sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high
D The Son is the radiance of God’s glory A 1 He became higher in rank than the angels, just as the name He inherited is superior to theirs

The main point of the chiasm is found under A and A1: the Son is superior to angels since he is the Son. Indeed, he is the heir and ruler of the universe since he is the Creator of the universe and shares God’s nature.

Exegesis

1:1

God is a speaking God, and he has spoken to the prophets in a variety of ways and modes in the OT. The first verse is marked by alliteration in the Greek, with five different words beginning with “p”: “at different times” (πολυμερῶς); “in different ways” (πολυτρόπως); “long ago” (πάλαι) “fathers” (πατράσιν); and “prophets” (προφήταις). From the outset the literary skill and the deft style of the author are apparent so that the reader sees a master craftsman at work. The diversity of revelation in the former era is featured. God spoke “at different times” and “in different ways.” OT revelation was transmitted through narrative, hymns, proverbs, poetry, parables, and love songs, through wisdom and apocalyptic literature. God communicated with his people for hundreds of years, speaking to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to Moses and Joshua, Samuel and Saul, David and the kings of Judah and Israel, and to the prophets, and to the people who returned from exile.

One of the major themes in Hebrews emerges: “God spoke to the fathers.” The one true God is a speaking God, one who communicates with his people and reveals his will and his ways to them. The “fathers” can’t be limited to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob but include and encompass all those addressed in OT revelation., Hermeneia (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1989), 38. Similarly, the word “prophets” should not be restricted to books that are labeled as “prophetic” in our English Bibles., Hermeneia (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1989), 38–39. The word ἐν in the phrase “in the prophets” (literally) is instrumental and is rightly translated by the HCSB as “by the prophets” (cf. Attridge, Hebrews, 38n41). The writer identifies the entire OT as prophetic. Finally, the revelation given in the past is described as occurring “long ago” (πάλαι). The author is not emphasizing primarily that the revelation occurred in the distant past. His main point, given the remainder of the book, is that OT revelation belonged to a previous era. A new day has arisen, a new covenant has arrived, and the old is no longer in force. The “first” covenant is “old” (παλαιούμενον) and hence obsolete (8:13). The words of the previous era are authoritative as the word of God, but they must be interpreted in light of the fulfillment realized in Jesus Christ.

1:2

The God who spoke in the past still speaks, but “in these last days” he has spoken finally and definitively in his Son. This Son is the Davidic heir promised in the Scriptures, and he is also the agent of all creation. He is the Davidic heir and more since as Creator he shares God’s nature.

The last days (Gen 49:1; Num 24:14; Isa 2:2; Jer 23:20; 25:19; Dan 10:14; Hos 3:5; Mic 4:1) represent the days in which God’s saving promises are fulfilled, and they have now commenced with the coming of the Son. Believers no longer live in the days when they await the fulfillment of what God has promised. They live in the eschaton; “the ends of the ages have come” (1 Cor 10:11). It is inconceivable that the readers would embrace the old era with its sacrifices and rituals now that the new has come in Jesus Christ.

God has spoken in his Son. If we look at the table introducing this section, we see that the one phrase with no corresponding phrase is “at different times and in different ways.” Still the author expects the readers to fill in the gap. The revelation in the former era was diverse and partial, but the revelation in the Son is unitary and definitive., NTL (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2006), 66. The final revelation has come in the last days for God has spoken his last and best word. No further word is to be expected, for the last word focuses on the life, death, and resurrection of the Son. As 9:26 says of Jesus, “But now He has appeared one time, at the end of the ages, for the removal of sin by the sacrifice of Himself.” Believers await the return of the Son (9:28), but they don’t expect a further word from God. No more clarification is needed. The significance of what the Son accomplished has been revealed once for all, and hence the readers must pay attention (2:1) to this revelation.

The author also emphasizes that God has spoken “by his Son.” In the OT Israel is the Lord’s son, his firstborn (Exod 4:22). And the Davidic king is also identified as God’s son (2 Sam 7:14; Ps 2:7). The author implies that Jesus is the true Israel and the true king. But the subsequent verses indicate that sonship transcends these categories, for Jesus is also the unique and eternal Son of God, one who shares the nature of God. Indeed, the following verses indicate why the readers must pay heed to the word spoken in the Son, for the Son is far greater than angels. He is the exalted and reigning Son, the one who rules the universe.

The reference to the Son begins the chiasm represented in the second table above, and it matches 1:4, which emphasizes that Jesus as the Son is greater than the angels because he has inherited a more excellent name. The author desires the readers to see the majesty of Jesus as the Son so they understand that he is supreme over angels and any other entity in the universe.

Jesus as the Son was appointed (ἔθηκεν) by God as “heir of all things.” means “appoint” in other contexts as well (1 Thess 5:9; 1 Tim 2:7; 2 Tim 1:11; 1 Pet 2:8). In the OT, inheritance language is typically used with reference to the land of Canaan, which was promised to Israel as an inheritance (cf. Deut 4:38; 12:9; Josh 11:23). But the Son is the heir of “all things,” which echoes the promise given to the Davidic king in Ps 2:8: “Ask of Me, and I will make the nations Your inheritance and the ends of the earth Your possession.” The Son is the heir because he is the Davidic king, the fulfillment of the covenant promise made to David that he would never lack a man to sit on the throne. The Son as heir matches in the chiasm his sitting down “at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (1:3). The Son’s heirship is tied to his kingship, to his rule over all, and hence it commences with his exaltation to God’s right hand., PNTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), 52.

Jesus’ rule as the Son demonstrates that he is the Messiah, the Davidic king, the one through whom God’s promises to Israel are fulfilled. As the son of David, he is a human being, but he is more than a human being, for “God made the universe through him” (see §2.1). The phrase “the universe” (τοὺς αἰῶνας) is most often temporal, but here it designates the world God has made (cf. Wis 13:9), and the author features the Son as the agent of creation (cf. John 1:3; 1 Cor 8:6; Col 1:16)., LNTS 486 [New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2014], 16). The author likely draws here upon wisdom traditions, for we see in the OT that the Lord created the world in wisdom (Prov 3:19; 8:22–31; Ps 104:24; Jer 10:12; cf. Wis 7:22; 9:2). The Son is greater than wisdom, however, for wisdom is a personification, but the Son existed as a person before the world was formed. (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2003), 17. Rightly Cockerill, Hebrews, 99. We can easily fail to see how astonishing this statement is. The one who was put to death in Jerusalem on a cross a few decades earlier is now praised as the one who created the world!, 68.

1:3

Verse 3 unpacks further the nature and supremacy of the Son. First, the author speaks ontologically about the Son, maintaining that he fully shares the divine nature and identity. Second, the Son’s role in sustaining the cosmos is affirmed. Third, and most crucial for his argument, the Son’s reign at God’s right hand is featured. The Son reigns and rules as the one who has accomplished full cleansing for sin.

The first two clauses in verse 3 focus on the nature of the Son,, 41–42). showing that the Christology here is not merely functional but also ontological. 66 [1985]: 180). He rightly notes that the author here probes “speculative, philosophical implications” of the person of Christ (180). Against Caird and Hurst who limit what Hebrews 1 says to Christ’s humanity. See G. B. Caird, “Son by Appointment,” in The New Testament Age: Essays in Honor of Bo Reicke, ed. W. Weinrich, 2 vols. (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1984), 1:73–81; Lincoln D. Hurst, “The Christology of Hebrews 1 and 2,” in The Glory of Christ in the New Testament: Studies in Christology, ed. L. D. Hurst and N. T. Wright (Oxford: Clarendon, 1987), 151–64. The Son is the King and the Creator because of who he is because he shares the nature of God. Similarly, the author grounds Christ’s atoning work as high priest in who he is. Sometimes scholars focus on functional Christology and minimize ontology, but Hebrews makes ontology the basis for function so that Christ saves because of who he is.

The author begins by claiming that Christ “is the radiance of God’s glory” (see §2.1). The word “radiance” (ἀπαύγασμα) could mean “reflection,” so that the Son mirrors God’s glory.,” EDNT, 1:117–18. Or it could be defined as “radiance” or “outshining” to emphasize the manifestation of God’s glory.,” TDNT 1:508. The use of the term in Wis 7:26 doesn’t settle the issue,, 42. for the same interpretive issues arise there. It is difficult to determine which meaning is correct, though the active radiance seems slightly more likely., NIGTC [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993], 98–99). See also O’Brien, Hebrews, 69–70; Gareth Lee Cockerill, The Epistle to the Hebrews, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012), 94. The Son’s radiance is eternal and should not be limited to the time following his exaltation (rightly Cockerill, Hebrews, 95). In either case God’s glory is revealed in the Son, and it really doesn’t matter much which we choose, for as Johnson says, “Reflection becomes radiance, and radiance is what is reflected.”, 69. Barnard says the main point here is “the unique unity of the Son with the Divine glory” (Jody A. Barnard, The Mysticism of Hebrews: Exploring the Role of Jewish Apocalyptic Mysticism in the Epistle to the Hebrews, WUNT 2/331 [Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2012], 151).

The Son is also “the exact impression of his nature.” The word translated “exact impression” (χαρακτήρ) is used of the impression or mark made by coins.,” TDNT 9:418; K. Berger, “χαρακτήρ,” EDNT 3:456. Here it denotes the idea that the Son represents the nature (ὑπόστασις) and character of the one true God.,” TDNT 8:572–89. He reveals who God is, and thus he must share the divine identity. The Son cannot represent God to human beings unless he shares in the being, nature, and essence of God. The Son of God reveals the reality of the one true God.

Hebrews is not alone in the sentiments expressed in the previous two phrases. John’s Gospel emphasizes that God speaks to human beings in Jesus Christ. He is the “Word” of God (John 1:1) through whom the world was created (John 1:3). John directly tells us in John 1:1 that the “Word was God” (1:1). God is invisible and in that sense inaccessible, but Jesus Christ explains to human beings who God is (John 1:18). In the same way Jesus instructs Philip that the one who has seen him has also seen the Father (John 14:9). Paul in Colossians celebrates and affirms the truth that Christ is “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15), and in Philippians he says Christ “was in the form of God” (2:6 ESV).

After affirming the Son’s ontological divinity, Hebrews returns to the Son’s role in the created world. He is not only the one through whom the world was made but also sustains the universe “by His powerful word.” The thought is similar to Col. 1:17, “And by him all things hold together.”, 18). Not only did the created world come into being through the Son; it also continues, “And is upheld because of the Son. The created world does not run by “laws of nature,” so that the Son’s continued superintendence is dispensed with. The author of Hebrews does not embrace a deistic notion of creation. The universe is sustained by the personal and powerful word of the Son, so that the created world is dependent on his will for its functioning and preservation. Implied in the expression is that the universe will reach its intended goal and purpose., 56.

The author reprises the idea that the Son reigns over all, presaging one of the major themes of the book in doing so. The Son’s rule commences “after making purification of sins.” The word for “purification” (καθαρισμός) is cultic (cf. Exod 29:36; 30:10; Lev 14:32; 15:13; 1 Chr 23:28), anticipating the discussion on the efficacy of Levitical sacrifices in chs. 7–10 (see also Heb 9:14, 22–23; 10:2). The Son’s once-for-all sacrifice cleanses the sins of those who believe in him. Hence, those who are “purified” (κεκαθαρισμένους) “no longer have any consciousness of sins” (10:2). They are free from the stain of guilt that defiled them. Since atonement has been accomplished, the Son has now “sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” The allusion as noted above is to Psalm 110 in the letter, a psalm that pervades the entire letter and plays a fundamental role in the author’s argument.

The allusion, as noted above, is to Ps 110:1, where David’s Lord sits down at God’s right hand (see also 1:13; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2). 110 in Early Christianity, SBLMS 18 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1973); Martin Hengel, Studies in Early Christology (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995), 119–225; W. R. G. Loader, “Christ at the Right Hand—Ps. cx.l in the New Testament,” NTS 24 (1977–78): 199–217. The right hand signifies power (Exod 15:6, 12), protection (Pss 16:8; 73:23; Isa 41:10), and triumph (Pss 20:6; 21:8). Indeed, it signifies that Jesus shares the same identity as God, as Bauckham argues. The “potent imagery of sitting on the cosmic throne has only one attested significance: it indicates his participation in the unique sovereignty of God over the world.”, ed. R. Bauckham, D. R. Driver, T. A. Hart, and N. MacDonald (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 33 (see his whole discussion, 32–33). Here the author emphasizes the forgiveness of sins, for the Son is seated at God’s right hand since his work is finished. And he reigns at God’s right hand as the Lord of the universe and as the Davidic Messiah. The exaltation of Christ is a common theme in the NT (see Phil 2:9–11; Col 1:15–18; Eph 1:21; 1 Pet 3:22), and thus we see Hebrews shares the worldview of the NT generally in presenting Christ as the exalted and reigning king over the universe.

1:4

Verse 4 is tied closely to 1:3. The Son who is seated at God’s right hand and rules the world as the Davidic Messiah and Lord has become greater than angels. Israel was called as God’s son to rule the world for God (Exod 4:22–23). David and his heirs had a special calling as God’s son and the king to mediate God’s rule to the world (2 Sam 7:14; Pss 2:7–12; 72:1–20). The kingly role of both Israel and David is fulfilled in Jesus as the one who rules over all. Clearly the author is not suggesting that he has become greater than angels as the eternal Son of God. His argument, anticipating chapter 2 as well, is that the Son has become greater than the angels as the God-Man. The author introduces here one of his favorite words: “better” (κρείττων). Believers in Christ have a “better hope” (7:19), a “better covenant” (7:22; 8:6), “better sacrifices” (9:23), a “better possession” (10:34), a “better resurrection” (11:35), and “better” blood than Abel’s (12:24). The one who shares God’s nature and manifests his glory has purified believers of sins and now reigns at God’s right hand. In other words his reign commenced at a certain point in history. He began to rule at his resurrection and exaltation.

The author introduces angels here, which play a major role in the ensuing argument (1:5–2:16). Why does the author emphasize Jesus’ superiority to angels? Were the Hebrews assigning a particular significance to angels?Hebrews, rev. ed., NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 9. It is unlikely that the readers were tempted to identify Jesus as an angel in order to soften a reference to his deity (against Donald A. Hagner, Hebrews [New York: Harper & Row, 1983], 10). If we examine the letter as a whole, and what the author says in the next chapter, we discover the most probable answer. The angels were the mediators of the Mosaic law (2:2; cf. Acts 7:53; Gal 3:19). In stressing the Son’s superiority to the angels, the author features Jesus’ supremacy over the Mosaic law and the Sinai covenant. [New York: Pilgrim, 1981], 5–13; Thomas W. Manson, “The Problem of the Epistle to the Hebrews,” BJRL 32 [1949]: 1–17). Nor is there any evidence that he combats an angelic Christology (against Ronald H. Nash, “Mediator in Alexandrian Judaism and the Hebrews,” WTJ 40 (1977): 89–115, esp. 109–12). Hence, the reference to the angels ties into one of the central themes of the letter. The readers should not transfer their allegiance to the law mediated by angels. Such a gambit should be rejected, for they would be opting for what is inferior since the Son rules over angels as one who has “inherited” a name better than theirs. God promised to make Abraham’s name great (Gen 12:2), and the same promise is given to David (2 Sam 7:9). And this covenant promise, first given to Abraham and then channeled through David, finds its final fulfillment in Jesus Christ. The word “inherited” (κεκληρονόμηκεν) reaches back to “heir of all things” (1:2). Such an inheritance has been gained through his suffering and death, signifying again the rule of the Son at his resurrection. 120 (2001): 469–86.

The more excellent name is typically understood to be Son., 47; Cockerill, Hebrews, 98; Meier, “Structure and Theology,” 187. But others argue that the name here is probably Yahweh, the name of God revealed to Israel. Joslin, in particular, makes a powerful argument supporting a reference to Yahweh., 71; Bauckham, “The Divinity of Jesus Christ in the Epistle to the Hebrews,” 21–22; Barnard, The Mysticism of Hebrews, 157–70. First, the term “name” elsewhere in Hebrews almost certainly refers to Yahweh (2:12; 6:10; 13:5). Hence, the presumption is that the same name is in view here as well. Second, Joslin says that the term “Son” is not a name but a title or a description of Jesus (1:2, 5, 8; 2:6; 3:6; 4:14; 5:5, 8; 6:6; 7:3, 28; 10:29). The word “name” echoes the name of God that plays a central role in biblical tradition (cf. Exod 3:13–15), for God’s name signifies his character and in revealing his name God reveals himself. The superiority of Jesus’ name in a context where his exaltation and divine identity are communicated points to his deity.

It is difficult to decide between Son and Yahweh here, though I prefer the former for the following reasons. First, the word “Son” occurs four times in the chapter (1:2, 5 [twice], 8), so that the reader naturally thinks of the word “Son.” Second, in the chiasm of verses 2–4 presented in the table above the term “Son” (v. 2) matches the inheriting a more excellent name (v. 4). Third, the word “name” refers to the Lord elsewhere in the letter, but all these references are to the Father rather than to the Son, so the parallel isn’t as close as claimed. Fourth, verse 5 supports and grounds verse 4 with the word “for” (γάρ), and the verse twice calls attention to Jesus’ sonship, suggesting that Son is the name that makes Jesus greater than angels. Fifth, the author speaks of Jesus inheriting the name. It is difficult to see how Jesus could inherit the name of Yahweh. Such a state of affairs would suggest that there was a period when Jesus wasn’t divine and that he inherited such deity at some point. But doesn’t the same objection apply to the word Son? No, for in using the word Son,the author would be referring to Jesus’ exaltation and rule as God and man, and such a rule only commenced at his resurrection., ed. G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2007], 925). See also his discussion on p. 924. Guthrie maintains that the title here is “name,” which could fit with the view stated above (George Guthrie, Hebrews, NIVAC [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998], 50), though it seems to me that “Son” is the more natural reading.

Bridge

Jesus is the culmination of God’s revelation. The OT Scriptures point to him and are fulfilled in him. We see in the introduction of Hebrews that Jesus is the prophet, priest, and king. He is the prophet, for God’s final word is spoken by him and in him. He is the priest by whom final cleansing of sins is accomplished. He is the king who reigns at God’s right hand. The last days have arrived in Jesus and the final word has been spoken, and hence there will be no further revelation until Jesus’ return. The great revelatory events have taken place in Jesus’ ministry, death, resurrection, and exaltation. Believers do not need any other word from God for their lives. They are to put their faith in what God has revealed in and through Jesus the Christ.