We’re about to begin a study of the book of Hebrews. And I realize that’s one of those books we tend to avoid because it sounds so Old Testamentish, and from what little we’ve read we know it talks about Temple worship, and sacrifices and covenants, and all that seems just a little outdated and confusing.
But before you tune it out like a PBS documentary on rock formations in the Gobi desert, let me tell you a little about it and why it should interest you.
First, even though it does use OT images, they always lead us back to Jesus. In fact, the entire book is written to tell us why Jesus is so important to our faith, and why faithfully following him will solve so many our life’s problems.
Second, this book answers a question a lot of us are still asking today: Is it all worth it? I don’t know about you, but sometimes my faith gets a little stale, and religion just seems like an endless hamster wheel, going round and round but never going anywhere. And everything else in my life says, forget about your faith and just get the most out of what’s in this life. And this book gives substantive answers as to why it does matter.
Let me tell you a little about the writer and the original recipients of the letter: First, we don’t know who the writer was. He was obviously a very intelligent and thoughtful thinker, well acquainted with the Jewish scriptures and quite eloquent in his writing. Some suggest Paul wrote it anonymously, others suggest one of Paul’s close friends like Apollos or Barnabas or even Luke. The 2nd century Christian scholar named Origen said of the authorship, “Only God knows,” but insisted that the letter had Paul’s influence in its themes and language. Regardless of the lack of consensus on authorship this letter was accepted by the church as authoritative from the very beginning.
Who were his original readers? Again, we don’t have any geographical indications of where they were, but we do know it was a community of Jewish Christians who had experienced and were continuing to suffer intense persecution for their faith in Jesus. And this prompted many of them to wonder whether it was worth it to keep following Jesus, or should they just return to their Jewish roots and live a normal, unmolested life.
And so, our writer begins by telling us why following Jesus is all worth it.
In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The 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. (Heb 1:1-3)
Who are the voices we listen to?
News anchors on NBC, CBS, ABC, CNN, Fox
Online blogs, Facebook news feed
Madison Avenue – advertising
Wall Street – financial
The Horoscope / Psychic Hotline
Hollywood – celebrities
And what do all those voices tell us? Live for yourself, get the most out of life, it’s all about you, live your best life now.
Above the resounding chorus, the unsettling confusion of the competing voices, we hear one voice from the Word of God. It is the same voice which spoke on the day of Jesus’ baptism, on the Mount of Transfiguration: “This is my beloved son, listen to him.”
When I turn to the book of Hebrews, I hear one theme resounding throughout the book, interwoven through each of the minor themes, wrapping the book with a sense of tremendous authority and power – “God spoke by his son.”
That God has spoken at all is a remarkable thought – that God would attempt to communicate with his creation, revealing himself... Paul captures a sense of that in Romans 1:20, “For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities--his eternal power and divine nature--have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made….”
And every facet of that creation is another testimony to God’s love and providential care. If we had no other evidence than creation and human history, we would be led to the unavoidable conclusion that there is a God who loves and cares for his people.
But God’s communication becomes far more explicit than a vague feeling that “there is somebody out there.” God revealed himself time after time to people and through people.
The Hebrews writer begins his letter: “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways.” (Heb. 1:1)
God would often speak to men and women through visions or dreams or angels, or even directly through a clearly heard voice. Beginning with Adam and Eve, God spoke through the generations: Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, Samuel, David and Solomon.
There is a remarkable transition in history and in God’s dealings with his people that takes place as Israel demands a king. Now God continues to talk to David and then Solomon, but there arises a new breed of servant who is specially commissioned by God, called a prophet. (The word “prophet” had been used much earlier in Israel’s history – Abraham, Aaron, Miriam, Moses, even Deborah the judge, were called prophets.)
But the term begins to signify someone much different – not necessarily a leader who rises up among the people to lead them forward, but one whom God raises up to be the conscience of the nation. One who speaks not only of future events, but condemns present disobedience and who boldly and fearlessly declares God’s will to king and priest and people alike.
These prophets made a powerful impression upon the people and time after time changed the course of Israel’s destiny. But like anything miraculous or awe-inspiring from God, continued exposure led to an attitude of casual indifference. It’s not that they didn’t recognize the authority of the prophets. They simply ignored the urgency. “Oh yeah, it’s the prophet speaking again. I wonder what gloom and doom he has for us now?”
It wasn’t always just indifference. There were times when the prophets met hostile opposition to their message. Jesus himself said these people had killed the prophets – and prophets did indeed expose themselves to abuse and danger of harm and death.
And so they pigeon-holed the prophets. They knew what to expect. They knew how to react. Even if they didn’t like the message, they were able to filter it out because they had grown accustomed and familiar with them.
But Jesus wasn’t just another prophet. When he spoke, he wasn’t just another messenger – he was the very message itself. And so the Hebrews writer highlights this distinction: “But in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.”
It’s true, some saw Jesus as simply another in the line of prophets. But even to the casual observer, there was something much more about Jesus than simply a dusty, travel worn, itinerant preacher. At the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew observes, “When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.” (Matt. 7:28-29) They knew what to do with prophets, but they didn’t know what to do with Jesus.
Beginning in verse 2, the writer of the book of Hebrews states seven facts about the Son of God which bring out his greatness and show why the revelation given through him is the highest that God could give.
“Heir of all things” – These words reemphasize the sonship which Jesus holds. Think of the implications of the inheritance of God – not just the earth, but the universe, unlimited by time. Only the eternal son of God could be the rightful heir.
“Through whom he made the universe” – Not only is he the recipient, but the very agent of creation. The words of Hebrews echo the first paragraph of John’s gospel – “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” (Jn. 1:1-3)
“The radiance of God’s glory” – The radiance shining forth from the source of light. Not a reflection (as though secondary), but in essence, the very glory itself that characterizes God. (In this and the following statements, it is clear that the writer is not merely establishing that this message is from God, but that Jesus possesses the very nature of God.)
“The exact representation of his being” – The coin that comes from the cast bears every detail, without distortion. Christ is God in exact detail, without distortion. Jesus himself would say to his disciples, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.”
“Sustaining all things by his powerful word” – We again hear the echo of Genesis. It was with a word, that God spoke the world into being. It is with that same powerful word that Jesus continues to sustain it, holding it all together. Not like the mythological Atlas, supporting a dead weight on his shoulders, but as one who personally cares for and works in the ongoing functioning of the world and in the personal lives of his people.
“Provided purification for sins” – Here we pass from the cosmic functions of creation, to his unique, very personal relationship with mankind, manifested most powerfully in the cross where sin was defeated and death was banished and we were cleansed perfectly and completely from our sins by his blood.
“He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven” – This isn’t intended to give us a physical location or some heavenly coordinates where we might locate Jesus. There is no physical right hand of God or a material throne. The language denotes the exaltation and supremacy of Christ glorified.
Paul expressed the same thoughts in different language:
Eph. 4:10 He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.
Phil. 2:9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name…
Col. 1:17-19 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him.
If Jesus was not a prophet like Isaiah or Jeremiah of old, then who was he? In the remaining verses of this first chapter of Hebrews, the writer carefully considers and answers the implied question, “Could Jesus have been an angel of God?”
So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs. For to which of the angels did God ever say, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father’”? Or again, “I will be his Father, and he will be my Son”? And again, when God brings his firstborn into the world, he says, “Let all God’s angels worship him.” In speaking of the angels he says, “He makes his angels winds, his servants flames of fire.” But about the Son he says, “Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever, and righteousness will be the scepter of your kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions by anointing you with the oil of joy.” He also says, “In the beginning, O Lord, you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment. You will roll them up like a robe; like a garment they will be changed. But you remain the same, and your years will never end.” To which of the angels did God ever say, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”? Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation? (Heb 1:4-14)
Now, to you and me, all this talk about angels is a little strange sounding. To our modern minds, it would seem completely unnecessary to prove that Jesus, the Son of God is greater than angels. But to the ancient Jew, angels occupied a prominent place in their understanding of the universe. Angels were exalted beings—the highest order of God’s created beings. There was a special place of honor for angels because they were the instruments through which God communicated his covenant to Moses at Sinai. Every time an angel appears in the OT, people always fall to their faces in awe and fear.
Through a series of OT quotations our writer says no angel ever occupied the place of honor and authority accorded the Son of God. Angels are glorious beings – they are “winds and flames of fire.” But they remain merely servants – not only to God, but in vs. 14, he says, “ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation” – that is us.
Let’s go back to vs. 4 for a moment and notice something that will recur again and again in the book of Hebrews: So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs. Did you hear the word “superior” or sometimes translated “better”? That word will occur thirteen times in the book of Hebrews and in it we find the ultimate purpose of the book: to show the superiority of Christ to everything and everyone who has come before. He is not merely another in a long line of godly men who have spoken for God, he is the final, ultimate communication. He is not only the messenger, but the message. The noted theologian A.B. Bruce wrote, “It’s not difficult to read between the lines and see behind the apologetic better the dogmatic best.”
There is a superiority in the message communicated by the Son of God. There is a superiority in the covenant established with his blood. Both stand upon the absolute, rock solid word of God. All of the promises that God had ever made to his people had their resounding “yes!” in Jesus.
Jesus is worthy of all our praise and honor, and all of the glory that belongs to him. And when he speaks, we should listen as though our lives depended on it. Because they do.