Hebrews 1:1–4 . . .
“God Is Revealed by the Incarnate Son”
The unknown author of "Hebrews" starts this epistle by introducing us to God's spoken revelation of himself as his Son. In this opening commentary we'll see that it's Jesus who's the "heir of all things" who also "made the universe" (v. 2). Father God's Son is also "the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being" (v. 3). Add to that the fact that Jesus is continually "sustaining all things by his powerful word." Further, we're told that Jesus, "sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven," after he'd "provided purification for sins" (v. 3). As a result, Lord Jesus and the name that he inherited became "superior to the angels" (v. 4).
How marvelous and compelling are those righteous attributes! In the first four verses, we learn that, in the past, God had revealed himself by prophets. Today, he's revealed himself by his eternal Son, Jesus Christ, who, being God, continually radiates the supreme being in the same way sunrays radiate the sun. The word "superior" in v. 4, which appears five times in the NIV of "Hebrews," compares to "better," which we find highlighted eleven times in this epistle to the Hebrews. There can be no doubt that Jesus, as the creator of the universe, the sustainer of everything and everyone, and risen Savior seated at Father God's right hand, is better than and superior to angels. Amen!
This epistle was written to counter and correct the errors of the many Christian converts from Judaism who wanted to retain the burdensome Mosaic Law observances, together with Jesus' gospel, as though Christ’s grace was insufficient to achieve salvation. In this two-part composition, the author first praises to the skies Christ’s grandeur to demonstrate conclusively the superiority of the New Testament over the Old; he then discusses what it is that unites all righteous people: "faith" (chpt. 11). But he intends to show the New Testament’s superiority over the Old by proving Christ’s preeminence over Old Testament personnel, namely: (1) the angels, by whom the Law was handed down: "The law was given through angels and entrusted to a mediator" (Galatians 3:19b); (2) Moses, by whom or through whom the Law was given: "For the law was given through Moses" (John 1:17a); and (3) the priesthood by which it was administered: "the priests entered regularly into the outer room to carry on their ministry" (Heb. 9:6b).
Going forward in our study of "Hebrews," we'll see that Christ is favored over the angels who lack greatness (chpts. 1 and 2), over Moses (chpt. 3), and over Old Testament priesthood (chpt. 5). We'll start by looking closely at this epistle's introductory account.
The Thesis of This Epistle (1:1–4)
1 1 In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. 3The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. 4So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs (Hebrews 1:1–4).
In his or her four opening verses, the author proceeds at once to place the revelation of "God in Christ" in direct contrast with the revelations of God under the old covenant. He characterizes the revelations under the old covenant as imperfect while documenting this new revelation's perfection by highlighting the incomparability of "the Majesty in heaven." The writer aimed to prove that the old covenant, through which God had dealt with the Hebrews, had been superseded by a new covenant; the author accomplishes this by exhibiting the superiority of Jesus, the Mediator of the new covenant, to all previous mediators (8:6).
But acting as "Mediator" involves putting in order and bringing about everything required for a covenant's productiveness; also required is a perfect knowledge of the person and purposes of him who makes such a covenant with men, as well as his effective communication of such knowledge to them, removing all obstacles barring man’s entrance into that fellowship with God that the covenant conveys.
We see in the first three verses that this "covenant mediator" function was to be discharged by Christ. As Father God's Son, he speaks to men on God's behalf, thus superseding all previous revelations. Instead of appointing a priest who's capable of only conjuring up a virtual cleansing in order to achieve ceremonial purity, Jesus had become the true Priest who actually cleanses people from their sin and improves their personal relationship with God.
The theological crisis that "Hebrews" addresses might make us wonder: How can our heavenly Father communicate a message of salvation to ordinary folks, down here at ground level? After all, God is divine, not human. He doesn't experience those things that we humans deal with daily: temptations, sins, foolish choices, and their resulting sufferings. After all, God simply isn't one of us. . . Israel’s routine spiritual failure could be blamed on their incomprehensibility of God’s message — not clear or practical enough? What God's people needed was an even clearer and more relevant declaration of God’s Word. Receiving such enlightenment might have enabled the people to finally understand it, accept it, believe it, and, by believing, actually receive God’s promised blessings.
Note in this epistle's opening passage these seven key attributes that God highlights about his glorious, radiant Son: (1) He's "heir of all things" (v. 2); (2) also "he made the universe" (v. 2); (3) he's "the radiance of God’s glory" (v. 3); (4) he's "the exact representation of his being" (or "express image of His person"); (5) he's the One "sustaining all things by his powerful word" (v. 3); (6) he'd "provided purification for sins" (v. 3); and (7) he "sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven" (v. 3). Therefore, Jesus became [and now is] "much superior to the angels" (v. 4). And because he became so much better than the angels, he's similarly inherited and obtained a superior, more excellent name than all the angels. He became superior to them in the same way that he'd been made perfect, as our Redeemer, through sufferings (2:10), which no angel has ever done. God demonstrates Jesus' superior status by giving him a superior name that compliments his essential qualities and persona.
As a result of the Israelites' inability to comprehend God’s message, God sent his Son to us “in these last days” (v. 2) to communicate more clearly than ever God’s powerful, life-changing message. Israel’s problem, as it related to their inability to comprehend and follow God's Word, routinely had to do with the Messenger, not his message. It wasn't that Jesus brought a message from Father God; it was that Jesus was the message the Father had sent. Teaching Pastor David Guzik writes: "The Son does not speak in "Hebrews"; it's the Father who speaks concerning the Son. The book of Hebrews is the Father telling us what the Son is all about."
Looking Closely at Some of the Text
1. We'll now focus on seven key elements of this passage, beginning with this revelation: "but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son" (v. 2a). The term, "these last days," could be interpreted in several ways, but in this context they probably mean the new covenant that Christ brought into being. God’s ultimate revelation came through his Son, Jesus Christ, who said, "Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14:9b). Jesus was God made visible, superseding every other revelation.
And when the author writes that God "has spoken to us by his Son," he wasn't referring only to the words that Jesus had spoken but also emphasized that God revealed himself to us by our Lord’s character, his words, and by all means his deeds. Jesus, today, reveals God to man by his entire being.
2. The next phrase, "whom he appointed heir of all things" (v. 2b) demonstrates the superiority of Christ, God’s Son. We understand by it that Father God honors Christ with high commendations, in order to lead us to show him reverence; for since the Father has subjected all things to him, we are all under Jesus' authority. John Calvin writes that "He also intimates that no good can be found apart from him, as he is the heir of all things. It hence follows that we must be very miserable and destitute of all good things except he supplies us with his treasures. He further adds that this honor of possessing all things belongs by right to the Son, because by him have all things been created"1. The author of "Hebrews" affirms that God has appointed his Son the "heir of all things."
3. Continuing to expound on "heir of all things," Calvin adds, "But the word heir is ascribed to Christ as manifested in the flesh; for being made man, he put on our nature, and as such received this heirship, and that for this purpose, that he might restore to us what we had lost in Adam. For God had, at the beginning, constituted man, as his Son, the heir of all good things; but through sin the first man became alienated from God, and deprived himself and his posterity of all good things, as well as of the favor of God. We hence only then begin to enjoy by right the good things of God, when Christ, the universal heir, admits to a union with himself; for he is an heir that may endow us with his riches"2. So, having been adorned with the "heir" title, we know assuredly that, without Jesus being the "heir of all things," we'd become drained and devoid of everything good.
4. Next, we'll explore the possible meaning(s) of the phrase "The Son is the radiance of God’s glory" (v. 3a). Glory is characteristic of God. It refers to God’s awe-inspiring majesty. God shared this glory with Jesus whose glory was revealed at the Transfiguration (Luke 9:28–36) and his death and resurrection (Luke 24:26). Clearly, this serves to highlight Christ's divine essence. We ought therefore to apply this and the passage's other high titles given to Christ for our own benefit, for they relate to us. Remind yourself that, without Christ, there's no light, only darkness; because God is the only true light by whom we can become illuminated, we ought to vigilantly insist that Jesus' radiant light sheds itself directly and continually upon each of us.
Pastor/teacher/elder Bob Deffinbaugh says this about Jesus being the radiance of the Father's glory: "When the Son of God took on human flesh at His incarnation, He manifested God’s glory to men. . . Jesus Christ, the Son of God, displays the glory of God to men. That glory was not usually evident in spectacular ways, but there were those rare occasions when the curtain was lifted, and greater outward evidences of it were seen, such as at His baptism and at His transfiguration. And what glory He now displays from heaven… This One — the Son — is He who radiates the glory of God, and yet this glory does not force men to keep their distance (as was the case in the Old Testament); it beckons men, women, and children to draw near, as so many have done."
5. Also worth examining is the phrase "sustaining all things by his powerful word" (v. 3c). The Greek phero for "sustain" means "to bear up" or "to govern" or "to direct"; so here, to uphold or sustain means to preserve or retain all creation in its own state. The author suggests the likelihood that all things would come to nothing, albeit disappear, were they not sustained by and through the power of the true Creator. By his words, the Son upholds, sustains, bears up, governs, and directs all things.
Though the pronoun "his" may refer to the Father as well as to the Son, "powerful word" certainly alludes to Christ being the one and only sustainer of all things when he expresses Father God's words. The one who upholds everything by the power of his word is actually the One known as “the Word.” After all, Christ himself is the Word of God (John 1:1, 14; Revelation 19:13).
6. We'll now look closely at "he had provided purification for sins" (v. 3d). The Greek word katharismos, for "purification," is derived from katharizo, which means "to make clean." From it we get our word "cathartic," which we usually use in one of two ways: (1) emotional catharsis (cleansing) is what we get while discussing our problems with a good listener; and (2) cathartic refers to laxatives that cleanse us from the inside. However, the cleansing that the Son provides is spiritual in nature — the purification of the soul, the forgiveness of sins. The Jewish sacrificial system was initiated for the purpose of cleansing supplicants from sin. But while Jews could engage in such purification rites, their spiritual purification ultimately depended on God’s actions. Here, it’s that kind of spiritual purification that the Son accomplished for his people by and through his words.
7. Finally we'll dig into the meaning behind "he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven" (v. 3e). Having accomplished his mission on earth, the Son ascended to the heavenly kingdom from which he'd descended for his incarnation. There, in the heavenly realm, he took his seat at the right hand of Father God, the Majesty in heaven (see Psalm 110:1; Hebrews 1:13; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2).
Deffinbaugh adds this: "It is only after our Lord accomplished cleansing for sins that He sat down. That is because He had finished His work of cleansing sins. But the author wants us to know more than just that the Son sat down. He wants us to take note of where the Son was seated: at the right hand of the Father. The right hand is the hand of power. The right hand of God is the place of access and intercession. It is at the right hand of the Father that the Son will await the Father’s indication that it is time for the Son to subdue His enemies and assume His throne. . . This is the place from which our Lord currently ministers on behalf of His people."
As we'll discover in our next study, the rest of chapter 1 (and all of chapter 2) will show us, as referenced throughout many trusted Old Testament Scriptures, that Jesus is better than and more superior to the angels.
How We Can Apply These Nuggets of Spiritual Wisdom
This opening passage's text is challenging yet important to scrutinize. In summation, Jesus has a past that had been recorded in the Bible using past-tense verbs; yet, because "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever" (13:8), his past reveals to us who and what Jesus now is (and has always been): Father God’s eternal Son. That said, Jesus died in the past to purify people from their sins; he was exalted in the past and received a superior name to other mediators of God’s covenant of grace. But what Jesus did, and what God did for him "in the past," bring together and connect with us what he's always been and what he'll be eternally. The majestic claims that "Hebrews" makes about Jesus remain reliable benchmarks of a people who believe in and follow their Lord and Savior.
Alone or with friends, consider and possibly discuss how you'll personally and meaningfully answer these three questions.
Who do you confess Jesus is? Remember that he's "the light of God’s glory" (v. 3). . .
What do you claim that Jesus does? Jesus "sustains all things by his powerful word ["message"]" and "had provided purification for sins" (v. 3). . .
Do you worship only Jesus as your exalted Lord? Christ Jesus "sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven" (v. 3) and is "as much superior to the angels ["messengers"]" (v. 4).