Alex had a question about how Christ reveals God in texts like John 1:18, Colossians 1:15 and Hebrews 1:3, where there seems to be more going on than the “kingdom” story about how Jesus became Lord and would judge and rule over Israel and the nations of the pagan oikoumenē or “empire”. Here are a translation and some exegetical notes on Hebrews 1:1-4. I may or may not get round to doing something similar with the other passages.
It seems to me that the kingdom narrative is firmly in place in Hebrews 1, though the hard political edge has been blunted. It has plainly been overlaid with the Jewish wisdom motif, but I don’t think it amounts to a straightforward identification of Jesus with the eternal wisdom of God. The eschatological outlook remains determinative for understanding the relation between Jesus and God.
1 At many times and in many ways, long ago, having spoken to our fathers by the prophets,
The leading argument here is that God spoke to Israel through the prophets and then through a son. We can align this with Jesus’ parable of the wicked tenants in the vineyard, who oppose and kill the owner’s servants and then kill the son. God sent the prophets to Israel, but they rejected the call to repentance; he sent his Son to Israel, but they murdered him.
2 in the last of these days God spoke to us by a son, whom he appointed heir of all things,
The lack of the definite article with huios suggests that what we have here is not a christological title (“his Son”, “the Son”) but a figure that contrasts Jesus with the prophets on the ground that he would inherit all things.
“Appointed (ethēken) heir of all things” is a reference to Jesus’ resurrection and elevation to the right hand of God. Behind it is Psalm 2:8, which will be quoted in verse 5:
I will tell of the decree: The LORD said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.
The “son” through whom God spoke to Israel will inherit the nations.
Other statements in this opening passage reinforce the point. When God brings the “firstborn” into the oikoumenē, he says, “Let all God’s angels worship him” (Heb. 1:6; cf. Deut. 32:43). All heavenly beings will bow down before Israel’s new king.
And definitively, Psalm 110:1 is quoted:
And to which of the angels has he ever said, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”? (Heb. 1:13)
The same idea is found in Romans 1:4: Paul’s gospel was that Jesus had been determined Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead. Also Ephesians 1:20-22:
he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet. (Eph. 1:20–22)
through whom also he made the ages;
This is usually taken as a statement about the creation of the cosmos: ESV, for example, has “through whom he created the world”. However, it could be argued that the temporal context for all three statements in verse 2 is determined by the phrase “in the last of these days” or “in these last days”.
So the argument of the verse would be that, at the close of the age of second temple Judaism, God spoke to Israel by a son, made this son heir of all things along the lines of Psalm 2:6-8, and by doing this “made the ages”. In Hebrews 2:5 the writer says that God subjected not to angels (but to Jesus) “the oikoumenē to come, of which we are speaking”. The concern is with the future world, not with the original creation.
We have a similar reference to the preparation of the ages in Hebrews 11:3:
By faith we understand that the ages have been prepared by the word (rhēmati) of God in order that the thing seen might not have become from visible things. (Heb. 11:3)
If this has in view the original creation of the world, the need for faith is hard to explain. It was known from scripture that God created the heaven and the earth. But if the reference is to the “world to come”, the future ages of Christ’s rule, then “by faith” is entirely appropriate. It was the remarkable faith of the early churches that the God of Israel had begun a new creation, that would be administered as a new oikoumenē, by raising Jesus from the dead and giving him the nations as his inheritance.
The allusion to the wisdom theme is clear: cf. “when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master workman” (Prov. 8:29–30); “for she that is the fashioner of all things taught me, namely wisdom” (Wis. 7:22, cf. 27). But the point would be that the wisdom of God, made flesh in Jesus, is now the “master workman” or agent of a new creation—the “ages” of the oikoumenē to come.
3 who, being a reflection (apaugasma) of his glory and a physical-impression (charactēr) of his substance, and bearing all things by the word (rhēmati) of his power, having made a purification of the sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in the heights, 4 having become as much greater than the angels as he inherited a name superior to them.
The indicative verb in the subordinate clause that begins with “who” is “sat down” (ekathisen): God “spoke through a son (participle clauses) who (participle clauses) sat down….” Again the controlling idea is the enthronement of Jesus as the Son of God who will inherit all things.
The three participle clauses in verse 3 (”being a reflection… bearing all things… having made a purification…”) are embedded in this relative clause, which suggests to me that in some way they constitute the grounds for the sitting down at the right hand of God.
1. The Wisdom background is again unmistakable. In the Jewish tradition wisdom is “a breath of the power of God and an emanation of the pure glory of the Almighty… a reflection (apaugasma) of eternal light and a spotless mirror of the activity of God and an image of his goodness”. Wisdom “can do all things…, she renews all things”; she also sits by God on his throne (Wis. 7:25-27; 9:4).
The word charactēr is typically used with reference to coinage, trademarks, reproductions, outward appearance. It suggests a physical or visible representation or embodiment of the “substance” of God. It describes existence, not pre-existence.
The argument, therefore, would be that, as the son sent by God to speak to Israel, Jesus was a concrete expression of the wisdom of God as understood in Jewish tradition. In John’s language, he was the word made flesh, the embodiment of the logos. Jesus was not just the “son” sent to the vineyard of Israel; he was also the wisdom of God at work.
2. The next clause is usually taken as a statement about the cosmos: “he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Heb. 1:3). But the Greek literally reads: “bearing or bringing (pherōn) all things by the word of his power”. The ESV “he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Heb. 1:3) is an over-translation.
Josephus wrote of Herod: “Now Herod was forced to bear all this (tauta panta pherōn), that confidence of his being quite gone with which Caesar’s favour used to inspire him” (Ant. 16:293; cf. 19:83). He means that Herod had got into trouble with Caesar and had to put up with some difficulties.
To say that Jesus bore all things by the word of his power, therefore, is perhaps to say that he patiently endured all things—all opposition and suffering—by the word of his power. It is perhaps an allusion to the testing in the wilderness, when Jesus resisted the devil by citing the word of God.
The writer to the Hebrews later exhorts his hearers in these terms:
So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear (pherontes) the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. (Heb. 13:12–14)
Here we have the same close connection between the bearing of suffering and a sanctifying or purifying death that we have in Hebrews 1:3.
3. The final point, naturally, is that the one who embodied the wisdom of God, who patiently endured all things, purified the conscience of believing Jews by his death (cf. Heb. 9:14), and for that reason sat down at the right hand of God and inherited a name greater than the angels.
To conclude briefly, Jesus is the son sent to Israel, who suffers, is killed, and is raised to the right hand of God to rule over Israel and the nations. The Jewish idea of wisdom as an expression of the creative action of God, as a personified agent of God, has been retrofitted to the political sonship narrative. The writer will do much the same thing with the analogy with the high priest later: the significance of Melchizedek is that he was a priest-king who in some sense transcended the normal constraints of historical existence.
Jesus is identified with the wisdom of God, by which the world was originally made, because he was the beginning of a new world, the one to whom the oikoumenē to come was subjected. That wisdom or logos became flesh and it created something entirely new.