Tomorrow I plan to publish a list of the most popular posts on P.OST over the last year. But it was suggested to me by someone before Christmas that Hebrews 3:3-4 makes sense only if ‘the author is flatly calling Jesus “God”’. I want to get this out of the way first. So with the usual caveat that this is not an argument against Trinitarianism, which I regard as a later reframing of a narrative problem, but an argument for the apocalyptic outlook of the New Testament, here is how I think this very interesting passage should be read.
First, we need to grasp the context. The author argues that it is fitting that the one who would bring many sons to glory through the sort of suffering that the readers of the letter were experiencing should himself be made “perfect through suffering” (Heb. 2:10). In this specific sense the readers of the letter are his “brothers” (Heb. 2:12). They are like the disciples given to Isaiah (Heb. 2:13; cf. Is. 8:18).
These “children” have shared in “blood and flesh”. The writer does not mean that they share a common humanity—that would make little sense in this context. He means that they have shared in persecution—or at least that they have experienced the weakness of the flesh in the face of persecution (cf. 1 Macc. 7:17; Wis. 12:5; Zeph. 1:17; Ezek. 32:5). The perfect tense points to a past experience (cf. Heb. 10:32-33).
But if the “many sons”, “brothers”, “children” must suffer in this way, it was necessary that Jesus should go through exactly that experience before them in order to destroy the power that the devil had over them (Heb. 2:14-15). For Jesus “likewise” to share in the same things (Heb. 2:14) is a reference to persecution, not to incarnation: the argument is not that Jesus had to take on flesh but that he had to suffer. This is how he became a high priest who could help the “offspring of Abraham”: on the one hand, he made propitiation for the sins that had brought this time of calamity upon Israel; on the other, he could support his “brothers” when they faced suffering too.
The writer urges his readers, therefore, to set their minds on Jesus, “the apostle and high priest of our confession”. Jesus was “faithful to the one who made him as also Moses in his house” (Heb. 3:2, my translation). The analogy with Moses is constructed on the basis of Numbers 12:7: “Not so with my servant Moses. He is faithful in all my house.”
So Jesus is like Moses in that he was appointed by God to a position in the house of Israel because of faithfulness. But he differs from Moses with respect to glory:
For he has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses, inasmuch as the one building it has more honour than the house. For every house is built by someone, and the one who built all things is God…. (Heb. 3:3-4, my translation)
This is where the question of the relation of Jesus to God arises. Jesus appears to be understood as the builder of the house, but God is the one who built all things—therefore, surely, Jesus is being called God?
In view of the overall argument, however, I would suggest that a different line of thought is to be found here.
The writer identifies himself and his readers with the “house” over which Jesus is the Son, provided that we hold fast to the end (Heb. 3:6). They are a community that has experienced persecution in the past and they are likely to face it again in the future. It is in this specific regard that they are members of the house of the one who suffered and was glorified.
I suggest, therefore, that the statement “the one who built all things is God” has reference not in this context to creation but to Israel. Moses was a faithful servant in this house “to testify to the things that were to be spoken later” (Heb. 3:5). Jesus, however, has greater glory because he has built a house of “many sons”, “brothers”, and disciples who will endure suffering through to the end (cf. Heb. 3:14). This house is not the church as we understand it but an eschatological community within the people of God, founded or pioneered by Jesus (cf. Heb. 12:1-2), through whose faithful suffering the people of God will be saved and attain the life of the age to come.
This is exactly Paul’s argument in Romans. The believers in Rome will be “fellow heirs with Christ” (or brothers, cf. Rom. 8:29) if they suffer with him and, as a consequence, are glorified with him. In fact, it is the argument of the New Testament generally. First Jews and then Gentiles are called to become part of a transitional eschatological community that must take the narrow path leading to life, must learn how to suffer for the sake of the future of the people of God. This is the story that is being told.
Jesus is not equated with God, therefore, in the argument of Hebrews 3:3-4. He is the one who “learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb. 5:8) in order to defeat the devil, and was raised from the dead in vindication—that is, was glorified. He is, therefore, the “apostle and high priest” of their confession—he has made the transition possible, and he will support those who will suffer after him. But more importantly he has been given the status of “Son” over this house in transition—that is, he has inherited the fullness of the authority and status and blessing that God has promised his people for the age to come. God is putting all things in subjection under his feet. He has been crowned with “glory and honour” because he suffered death for the sake of God’s people (Heb. 2:8-9).