The Preeminence of Christ
In these last days [God] has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power. When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high. (1:2–3)
Someone has said that Jesus Christ came from the bosom of the Father to the bosom of a woman. He put on humanity that we might put on divinity. He became Son of Man that we might become sons of God. He was born contrary to the laws of nature, lived in poverty, was reared in obscurity, and only once crossed the boundary of the land in which He was born—and that in His childhood. He had no wealth or influence and had neither training nor education in the world’s schools. His relatives were inconspicuous and uninfluencial. In infancy He startled a king. In boyhood He puzzled the learned doctors. In manhood He ruled the course of nature. He walked upon the billows and hushed the sea to sleep. He healed the multitudes without medicine and made no charge for His services. He never wrote a book and yet all the libraries of the world could not hold the books about Him. He never wrote a song, yet He has furnished the theme for more songs than all songwriters together. He never founded a college, yet all the schools together cannot boast of as many students as He has. He never practiced medicine and yet He has healed more broken hearts than all the doctors have healed broken bodies. This Jesus Christ is the star of astronomy, the rock of geology, the lion and the lamb of zoology, the harmonizer of all discords, and the healer of all diseases. Throughout history great men have come and gone, yet He lives on. Herod could not kill Him. Satan could not seduce Him. Death could not destroy Him and the grave could not hold Him.
Fulfillment of Promises
The Old Testament tells us in at least two places (Jer. 23:18, 22 and Amos 3:7) that the prophets were let in on the secrets of God. Yet at times they wrote those secrets without understanding them (1 Pet. 1:10–11). In Jesus Christ they are both fulfilled and understood. He is God’s final word. “For as many as may be the promises of God, in Him they are yes; wherefore also by Him is our Amen to the glory of God through us” (2 Cor. 1:20). Every promise of God resolves itself in Christ. All the promises become yes—verified and fulfilled. Jesus Christ is the supreme and the final revelation.
In these last days. The last days are days of fulfillment. In the Old Testament the Jew saw the last days as the time when all the promises would be fulfilled. In these days Messiah would come and the Kingdom would come and salvation would come and Israel would no longer be under bondage. In the last days promises would stop and fulfillments begin. That is exactly what Jesus came to do. He came to fulfill the promises. Even though the millennial, earthly aspect of the promised Kingdom is yet future, the age of kingdom fulfillment began when Jesus arrived, and it will not finally be completed until we enter into the eternal heavens. The Old Testament age of promise ended when Jesus arrived.
Has spoken to us in His Son. Jesus Christ is the revelation of God climaxed. God fully expressed Himself in His Son. That affirms Christ as being more than just human. It makes Him infinitely superior to any created being, for He is God manifest in the flesh. He is the final and last revelation of God, in whom all God’s promises are fulfilled.
We have looked at the preparation for Christ and the presentation of Christ. Now we will look at His preeminence. In this brief but potent section (1:2–3) the Holy Spirit exalts Christ as the full and final expression of God—superior to and exalted above anyone or anything. In these verses we see Christ as the end of all things (Heir), the beginning of all things (Creator), and the middle of all things (Sustainer and Purifier).
When the question is brought up as to who Jesus Christ really was, some people will say He was a good teacher, some will say He was a religious fanatic, some will say He was a fake, and some will claim He was a criminal, a phantom, or a political revolutionary. Others are likely to believe that He was the highest form of humankind, who had a spark of divinity which He fanned into flame—a spark, they claim, that all of us have but seldom fan. There are countless human explanations as to who Jesus was. In this chapter we are going to look at what God says about who Jesus was, and is. In just half of verse 2 and in verse 3 is a sevenfold presentation of the excellencies of Jesus Christ. In all these excellencies He is clearly much more than a man.
Jesus’ first excellency mentioned here is His heirship: In these last days [God] has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things. If Jesus is the Son of God, then He is the heir of all that God possesses. Everything that exists will find its true meaning only when it comes under the final control of Jesus Christ.
Even the Psalms predicted that He would one day be the heir to all that God possesses. “But as for Me, I have installed My King upon Zion, My holy mountain. I will surely tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to Me, ‘Thou art My Son, today I have begotten Thee’ ” (Ps. 2:6–7). Again we read, “ ‘Ask of Me, and I will surely give the nations as Thine inheritance, and the very ends of the earth as Thy possession. Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron, Thou shalt shatter them like earthenware’ ” (Ps. 2:8–9). And still again, “ ‘I also shall make him My first-born, the highest of the kings of the earth’ ” (Ps. 89:27). “First-born” does not mean that Christ did not exist before He was born as Jesus in Bethlehem. It is not primarily a chronological term at all, but has to do with legal rights—especially those of inheritance and authority (which will be discussed in more detail in chapter 3). God’s destined kingdom will in the last days be given finally and eternally to Jesus Christ.
Paul explains that all things not only were created by Christ but for Him (Col. 1:16) and that “from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen” (Rom. 11:36). Everything that exists exists for Jesus Christ. What truth better proves His equality with God?
In Revelation 5, God is pictured sitting on a throne, with a scroll in His hand. “And I saw in the right hand of Him who sat on the throne a book written inside and on the back, sealed up with seven seals” (v. 1). The scroll is the title deed to the earth and all that is in it. It is the deed for the Heir, the One who has the right to take the earth. In New Testament times Roman law required that a will had to be sealed seven times, to protect it from tampering. As you rolled it up, you sealed it every turn or so for seven times. The seals were not to be broken until after the person whose will it was had died.
John continues his vision: “And I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, ‘Who is worthy to open the book and to break its seals?’ ” (v. 2). Who, the angel wondered, is the rightful heir to the earth? Who has the right to possess it? “And no one in heaven, or on the earth, or under the earth, was able to open the book, or to look into it” (v. 3). Perplexed and saddened, John “began to weep greatly, because no one was found worthy to open the book, or to look into it; and one of the elders said to me, ‘Stop weeping; behold, the Lion that is from the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has overcome so as to open the book and its seven seals’ ” (vv. 4–5). As he continued to watch, he “saw between the throne (with the four living creatures) and the elders a Lamb standing, as if slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God sent out into all the earth” (v. 6). Jesus Christ, the Lamb, came and took the scroll out of the right hand of God. Why? Because He, and He alone, had a right to take it. He is Heir to the earth.
Chapter 6 of Revelation begins the description of the Tribulation, the first step in Christ’s taking back the earth, which is rightfully His. One by one Christ unrolls the seals. As each seal is broken, He takes further possession and control of His inheritance. Finally, “the seventh angel sounded; and there arose loud voices in heaven, saying, ‘The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ; and He will reign forever and ever’ ” (11:15). When He unrolls the seventh seal and the seventh trumpet blows, the earth is His.
In his first sermon, at Pentecost, Peter told his Jewish audience, “Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ—this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36). This carpenter who died nailed to a cross is, in fact, the King of kings and Lord of lords. He will rule the world. Satan knew this truth when he approached Jesus in the wilderness and tempted Him to take control of the world in the wrong way, by bowing down to Satan. As the temporary usurper of God’s rule over the earth, Satan continually tries every means of preventing the true Heir from receiving His inheritance.
When Christ first came to earth He became poor for our sakes, that we, through His poverty, might be made rich. He had nothing for Himself. He had “nowhere to lay His head” (Luke 9:58). Even His clothes were taken from Him when He died. He was buried in a grave that belonged to someone else. But when Christ comes to earth again, He will completely and eternally inherit all things. And, wonder of wonders, because we have trusted in Him, we are to be “fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:16–17). When we enter into His eternal kingdom we will jointly possess all that He possesses. We will not be joint Christs or joint Lords, but we will be joint heirs. His marvelous inheritance will be ours as well.
Some Still Reject Him
Amazingly, though Christ is the Heir of all God possesses, and though He offers to share His inheritance with anyone who will trust in Him, some still reject Him. Many rejected God as He revealed Himself in the Old Testament. Now God has perfectly revealed Himself in the New Testament of His Son, and people continue to reject Him.
Jesus illustrated this tragedy in a parable.
There was a landowner who planted a vineyard and put a wall around it and dug a wine press in it, and built a tower, and rented it out to vine-growers, and went on a journey. And when the harvest time approached, he sent his slaves to the vine-growers to receive his produce. And the vine-growers took his slaves and beat one, and killed another, and stoned a third. Again he sent another group of slaves larger than the first; and they did the same thing to them. But afterward he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” But when the vine-growers saw the son, they said among themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and seize his inheritance.” And they took him, and threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Therefore when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those vine-growers? They said to Him, “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end, and will rent out the vineyard to other vine-growers, who will pay him the proceeds at the proper seasons.” Jesus said to them, “Did you never read in the Scriptures, ‘The stone which the builders rejected, this became the chief corner stone; this came about from the Lord, and it is marvelous in our eyes’? Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you, and be given to a nation producing the fruit of it. And he who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; but on whomever it falls, it will scatter him like dust.” Matt. 21:33–44)
That parable needs no explanation.
To willfully reject Jesus Christ brings on the utter damnation and destruction of a vengeful God. To Israel that parable says, “Since what you have done was so blatant, not only rejecting and killing the prophets but rejecting and killing the Son, the promise has been taken away from you and given to a new nation, the church.” Israel was set aside until the time of her restoration.
The second excellency of Christ mentioned in Hebrews 1 is His creatorship: through whom also He made the world. Christ is the agent through whom God created the world. “All things came into being by Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being” (John 1:3). One of the greatest proofs of Jesus’ divinity is His ability to create. Except for His complete sinlessness, His total righteousness, nothing more sets Him apart from us than His creatorship. Ability to create belongs to God alone and the fact that Jesus creates indicates that He is God. He created everything material and everything spiritual. Though man has stained His work with sin, Christ originally made it good, and the very creation itself longs to be restored to what it was in the beginning (Rom. 8:22).
The common Greek word for world is kosmos, but that is not the word used in Hebrews 1:2. The word here is aiōnas, which does not mean the material world but “the ages,” as it is often translated. Jesus Christ is responsible not only for the physical earth; He is also responsible for creating time, space, energy, and matter. Christ created the whole universe and everything that makes it function, and He did it all without effort.
Sir John C. Eccles, nobel laureate in neurophysiology, said that the odds against the right combination of circumstances occurring to have evolved intelligent life on earth are highly improbable, but he went on to say he believed that such did occur but could never happen again on any planet or in any other solar system (“Evolution and the Conscious Self,” in The Human Mind: A Discussion at the Nobel Conference, John D. Rolansky, ed. [Amsterdam: North Holland, 1967]). If you do not recognize a Creator you have quite a problem explaining how this marvelous, intricate, immeasurable universe came into being.
Yet thousands upon thousands of men believe that man emerged out of primeval slime. Man just evolved—that wondrous creature whose heart beats 800 million times in a normal lifetime and pumps enough blood to fill a string of tank cars running from Boston to New York; that same man whose tiny cubic half-inch section of brain cells contains all the memories of a lifetime; that same man whose ear transfers sound waves from air to liquid without losing any sound.
A.K. Morrison, another brilliant scientist, tells us that conditions for life on earth demand so many billions of minute interrelated circumstances appearing simultaneously, in the same infinitesimal moment, that such a prospect becomes beyond belief and beyond possibility.
Consider the vastness of our universe. If you could somehow put 1.2 million earths inside the sun, you would have room left for 4.3 million moons. The sun is 865,000 miles in diameter and is 93 million miles from the earth. Our next nearest star, Alpha Centauri, is 5 times larger than our sun. The moon is only 211,463 miles away, and you could walk to it in 27 years. A ray of light travels at 186 thousand miles per second, so a beam of light would reach the moon in only 1 ½ seconds. If we could travel at that speed, it would take 2 minutes and 18 seconds to reach Venus, 4 ½ minutes to reach Mercury, 1 hour and 11 seconds to reach Saturn, and so on. To reach Pluto, 2.7 billion miles from earth, would take nearly 4 hours. Having got that far, we would still be well inside our own solar system. The North Star is 400 trillion miles away, but is still nearby in relation even to known space. The star Betelgeuse is 880 quadrillion miles (880 followed by fifteen zeroes) from us. It has a diameter of 250 million miles, which is greater than that of the earth’s orbit.
Where did it all come from? Who conceived it? Who made it? It cannot be an accident. Somebody had to make it, and the Bible tells us the Maker was Jesus Christ.
Third, we see Christ’s radiance, the brightness of the glory of God. And He is the radiance of His glory. Radiance (apaugasma, “to send forth light”) represents Jesus as the manifestation of God. He expresses God to us. No one can see God; no one ever will. The only radiance that reaches us from God is mediated to us from Jesus Christ. Just as the rays of the sun light and warm the earth, so Jesus Christ is the glorious light of God shining into the hearts of men. Just as the sun was never without and cannot be separated from its brightness, so God was never without and cannot be separated from the glory of Christ. Never was God without Him or He without God, and never in any way can He be separated from God. Yet the brightness of the sun is not the sun. Neither is Christ God in that sense. He is fully and absolutely God, yet is a distinct Person.
We would never be able to see or enjoy God’s light if we did not have Jesus to look at. Standing one day before the Temple, Jesus said, “I am the light of the world; he who follows Me shall not walk in the darkness, but shall have the light of life” (John 8:12). Jesus Christ is the radiance of God’s glory, and He can transmit that light into your life and my life, so that we, in turn, can radiate the glory of God. We live in a dark world. There is the darkness of injustice, of failure, privation, separation, disease, death, and of much else. There is the moral darkness of men blinded by their godless appetites and passions. Into this dark world God sent His glorious Light. Without the Son of God, there is only darkness.
The great tragedy, of course, is that most men do not want even to see, much less accept and live in, God’s light. Paul explains that “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving, that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4). God sent His light in the Person of Jesus Christ, that man might behold, accept, and radiate that light. But Satan has moved through this world to blind the minds of men and prevent the light of the glorious gospel from shining on them.
Those, however, who receive His light can say, “For God, who said, ‘Light shall shine out of darkness,’ is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). That is what happens when God comes into your life.
The hymn writer said, “Come to the light. ’Tis shining for thee. / Sweetly the light has dawned upon me.” What a wonderful thing to realize that Jesus Christ, who is the full expression of God in human history, can come into our lives and give us light to see and to know God. His light, in fact, gives us life itself, spiritual life. And, His light gives us purpose, meaning, happiness, peace, joy, fellowship, everything—for all eternity.
Christ’s next excellency is His being. And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature. Jesus Christ is the express image of God. Christ not only was God manifest, He was God in substance.
Exact representation translates the Greek term used for the impression made by a die or stamp on a seal. The design on the die is reproduced on the wax. Jesus Christ is the reproduction of God. He is the perfect, personal imprint of God in time and space. Colossians 1:15 gives a similar illustration of this incomprehensible truth: “He is the image of the invisible God.” The word “image” here is eikōn, from which we get icon. Eikōn means a precise copy, an exact reproduction, as in a fine sculpture or portrait. To call Christ the Eikōn of God means He is the exact reproduction of God. “For in Him all the fulness of Deity dwells in bodily form” (Col. 2:9).
Also in Hebrews 1:3 is given the fifth of Christ’s excellencies, His administration, or sustenance. He upholds all things by the word of His power. Christ not only made all things and will someday inherit all things, but He holds them all together in the meanwhile. The Greek word for upholds means “to support, to maintain,” and it is used here in the present tense, implying continuous action. Everything in the universe is sustained right now by Jesus Christ.
We base our entire lives on the continuance, the constancy, of laws. When something such as an earthquake comes along and disrupts the normal condition or operation of things even a little, the consequences are often disastrous. Can you imagine what would happen if Jesus Christ relinquished His sustaining power over the laws of the universe? We would go out of existence. If He suspended the law of gravity only for a brief moment, we would all perish, in unimaginable ways.
If the physical laws varied, we would have an unbelievable mess. We could not exist. What we ate could turn to poison. We could not stay on the earth; we would drift out into space. We would get flooded by the oceans periodically. Countless other horrible things would happen, many of which we could not even guess.
Consider, for example, what instant destruction would happen if the earth’s rotation slowed down just a little. The sun has a surface temperature of 12,000 degrees Fahrenheit. If it were any closer to us we would burn up; if it were any farther away we would freeze. Our globe is tilted on an exact angle of 23 degrees, providing us with four seasons. If it were not so tilted, vapors from the oceans would move north and south and develop into monstrous continents of ice. If the moon did not retain its exact distance from the earth the ocean tides would inundate the land completely, twice a day. After the first flooding, of course, the others would not matter as far as we would be concerned. If the ocean floors were merely a few feet deeper than they are, the carbon dioxide and oxygen balance of the earth’s atmosphere would be completely upset, and no animal or plant life could exist. If the atmosphere did not remain at its present density, but thinned out even a little, many of the meteors which now harmlessly burn up when they hit the atmosphere would constantly bombard us. We would have to live underground or in meteor-proof buildings.
How does the universe stay in this kind of fantastically delicate balance? Jesus Christ sustains and monitors all its movements and inter-workings. Christ, the preeminent Power, maintains it all.
Things do not happen in our universe by accident. They did not happen that way in the beginning. They are not going to happen that way in the end, and they are not happening that way now. Jesus Christ is sustaining the universe. He is Himself the principle of cohesion. He is not like the deist’s “watchmaker” creator, who made the world, set it in motion, and has not bothered with it since. The universe is a cosmos instead of chaos, an ordered and reliable system instead of an erratic and unpredictable muddle, only because Jesus Christ upholds it.
Scientists who discover great and amazing truths are doing nothing but discovering a few of the laws that Jesus Christ designed and uses to control the world. No scientist or mathematician, no astronomer or nuclear physicist, could do anything without the upholding power of Jesus Christ. The whole universe hangs on the arm of Jesus. His unsearchable wisdom and boundless power are manifested in governing the universe. And He does it by the word of His power, without effort. The key to the creation story in Genesis is in two words, “God said.” God spoke and it happened.
When I think about Christ’s power to uphold the universe, that truth goes right to my heart. We read in Philippians 1:6 the wonderful promise, “For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.” When Christ begins a work in your heart, He holds onto it and sustains it all the way through. We can imagine Jude’s excitement when he wrote, “Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to make you stand in the presence of His glory blameless with great joy, to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen” (Jude 24–25). When your life is given to Jesus Christ, He holds it and sustains it and one day will take it into God’s very presence. A life, just as a universe, that is not sustained by Christ is chaos.
The sixth excellency of Christ is His sacrifice: When He had made purification of sins. What a tremendous statement!
The Bible says the wages of sin is death. Jesus Christ went to the cross, died our deserved death for us, and thereby took the penalty for our sin on Himself. If we will accept His death and believe that He died for us, He will free us from the penalty of sin and purify us from the stain of sin.
It was a wondrous work when Jesus Christ created the world. It is wondrous that He sustains the world. But a greater work than making and upholding the world is that of purging men of sin. In Hebrews 7:27 we are told that Jesus “does not need daily, like those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins, and then for the sins of the people, because this He did once for all when He offered up Himself.” In the Old Testament the priests had to make sacrifice after sacrifice, for themselves and for the people. Jesus made but one sacrifice. He not only was the Priest, but also the Sacrifice. And because His sacrifice was pure, He can purify our sins—something that all the Old Testament sacrifices together could not do.
And not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled, sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?… but now once at the consummation of the ages He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. (Heb. 9:12–14, 26b)
Jesus Christ dealt with the sin problem once and for all. It had to be done. We could not communicate with God or enter into fellowship with Him unless sin was dealt with. So Christ went to the cross and bore the penalty of sin for all who would accept His sacrifice, believe in Him, and receive Him. Sin was purged, wiped out.
This truth must have seemed especially remarkable to those to whom the book of Hebrews was first written. The cross was a stumbling block to Jews, but the writer does not apologize for it. Instead, he shows it to be one of the seven excellent glories of Christ. His words are as straightforward as those of Peter: “[You know] that you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ” (1 Pet. 1:18–19).
We are all sinners. And either we pay the penalty for our own sin, which is eternal death, or we accept Jesus Christ’s payment for it in sacrificing Himself, for which we receive eternal life. If the desire of our heart is to receive Him as Savior, to believe in and to accept His sacrifice, our sins are washed away at that point. The Bible says that without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness for sin (Heb. 9:22) and that “the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). Jesus came as the perfect Sacrifice. The man whose sins are forgiven has them forgiven only because of Jesus Christ. But the blood of Jesus Christ will never be applied to us unless by faith we receive Him into our lives.
Yet again, there are people who reject Him! Hebrews 10:26 warns, “For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins.” If we reject Jesus Christ there is nothing in the universe that can take away our sin, and we will die in it. Jesus said to such persons, “[You] shall die in your sin; where I am going you can never come” (John 8:21).
The last of Christ’s excellencies mentioned in this passage is His exaltation. He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high. The Majesty on high is God. The right hand is the power side. Jesus took His place at the right hand of God. The marvelous thing about this statement is that Jesus, the perfect High Priest, sat down. This is in great contrast to the priestly procedure under the Old Covenant. There were no seats in the Tabernacle or the Temple sanctuaries. The priest had no place to sit because God knew it would never be appropriate for him to sit. His responsibility was to sacrifice, sacrifice, sacrifice, over and over again. So the priests offered sacrifices daily—and never sat down. But Jesus offered one sacrifice, and said, “It is finished.” He then went and sat down with the Father. It was done. What could not be accomplished under the Old Covenant, even after centuries of sacrifices, was accomplished once by Jesus Christ for all time.
Jesus’ sitting down at His Father’s right hand signifies at least four things. They are, briefly:
First, He sat down as a sign of honor, “that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:11). To be seated at the right hand of the Father is honor indeed.
Second, He sat down as a sign of authority. “[He] is at the right hand of God, having gone into heaven, after angels and authorities and powers had been subjected to Him” (1 Pet. 3:22). He sat down as a ruler.
Third, He sat down to rest. His work was done. “But He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God” (Heb. 10:12).
Fourth, He sat down to intercede for us. “Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us” (Rom. 8:34). He is seated at the right hand of the Father making intercession for all of us who belong to Him.
Here we have God’s portrait of Jesus Christ. We have seen the preeminent Christ in all His offices. We have seen Him as prophet, the final spokesman for God. We have seen Him as priest, atoning and interceding. We have seen Him as King, controlling, sustaining, and seated on a throne. This is our Lord Jesus Christ.
A man who says that Jesus Christ is anything less than this is a fool and makes God out a liar. God says that His Son is preeminent in all things.
What does this mean to us? It means everything. To reject Him is to be shut out from His presence into an eternal hell. But to receive Jesus Christ is to enter into all that He is and has. There are no other choices.
Prophet, Priest, and King
He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. (Heb. 1:3)
It is hard for us to understand how remarkable it was for the first generation of Christians to put their faith in Jesus Christ. This is especially true of the Jews who had not personally known Jesus but converted to Christianity. We can imagine the kind of arguments that unbelieving Jews would have employed to dissuade their new faith. They would have pointed out that Jesus was just a man, the son of a poor carpenter from a backwater village in Galilee. They might have echoed Nathaniel’s comment, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). It was a time of unrest and of heady passions, they may have pointed out, and this man Jesus was just one of many zealous leaders of his day. Worst of all, his failure as a Messiah was proved by his humiliating execution as the worst sort of criminal. The fact that he was crucified—the most despicable of all deaths—proved that he was rejected by God. Jesus may have been a decent enough man, though he obviously got carried away by his short-lived fame. The real problem was his fanatical disciples, who made outlandish claims about his resurrection and started a heretical religion that actually worshiped the poor man.
If this is the kind of argument the Jewish Christians were subjected to, it likely was a potent one. Especially since believing on Christ came at such a high cost—exclusion from Jewish society and perhaps even violent persecution in the days to come—many might have reconsidered their religious options.
The Epistle to the Hebrews was written because of this kind of pressure. Then, as now, faith in Jesus came at a price. You could not be a Christian without carrying a cross and suffering at the hands of the world. Therefore, it had to be worth it to believe on Jesus Christ. This is what the writer of Hebrews wanted to impress upon his readers. In the book’s opening lines, he directs us to the supremacy of our Lord. He knows that if we perceive Jesus in the marvel of his person and his work—as God’s Son and as our Savior—then instead of doubting or trembling in fear we will respond with words like those from the great hymn: “I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I’ve committed unto him against that day.”
Verses 2–3 contain seven statements of Christ’s supremacy. This number seems deliberate, because verses 5–14 go on to list seven Old Testament citations that are ascribed to Christ. Seven was the number for perfection or completion, and that is the writer’s point here: the perfect supremacy of Christ. Furthermore, the seven statements of verses 2 and 3 may be organized along the lines of the three great Old Testament offices that are perfected and completed in Christ: prophet, priest, and king. This is a helpful and biblical way of thinking about our Lord. He is prophet in that he perfectly reveals God to us. He is priest in offering himself for our sins, cleansing us, and interceding for us with God. He is our king, reigning now in heaven and ruling over us as our Sovereign Lord.
Christ as the True King
It is with the last of these, Christ as king, that the writer of Hebrews begins his sevenfold exclamation of the supremacy of Christ. Verse 2 says, “In these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.” In these first two of the seven statements, we see Jesus as Lord both in his person and in his work.
First, he is “appointed the heir of all things.” This is something that follows from Christ’s being God’s only Son. In Israel, it was the firstborn son who had the right of inheritance. This means that “as the heir, all things already belong to the Son in principle, just as they will actually and finally be his at the end.” This was God the Father’s appointment, his purpose in creation: that his Son should be blessed and glorified in receiving all things. This is also the ultimate purpose of our redemption: “His inheritance is the innumerable company of the redeemed and the universe renewed by virtue of his triumphant work of reconciliation.”2The writer of Hebrews goes on to say, “through whom also he created the world.” Jesus Christ, God’s Son, is Lord and King because of his divine role in creation. Not only was the world made for him, but it was made by him. There can hardly be a stronger claim for lordship than this. If you are the one who made something, and for whom it was made, then you are its rightful lord. So it is in the case of Jesus Christ. Paul says the same thing in Colossians 1:16: “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.” Hebrews 1:3 adds that even now “he upholds the universe by the word of his power.”
Those Jewish Christians who first received this letter were being tempted to renounce Christianity. But Jesus fulfills and gathers to himself all that the office of king ever meant in Israel. He is the true king, the Lord of all, and the faithful of Israel are those who worship and serve him.
We need to embrace the same truth. Jesus is king over the church and over the Christian people, no less than when the Israelites of David’s day looked to his authority and obeyed his commands. But how seldom people think of Jesus this way. When he walked upon this earth in his humanity, Jesus did not look like a king. He did not ride a great stallion; his coming was not heralded by trumpets; he did not hold court in a palace of gold. This is why people scoffed at his kingship. Pontius Pilate said, “Are you the King of the Jews?” It was not so much a question as a taunt. Jesus replied, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:33, 36). Does this mean that while you have to respect earthly rulers, you can afford to ignore Jesus’ kingdom since it is merely spiritual? James M. Boice answers,
Nothing is farther from the truth, for when we say that Christ’s kingdom is not of this world, what we are really saying is that Christ’s kingdom is of heaven and therefore has an even greater claim over us than do the earthly kingdoms we know so well.… Over these is Christ, and we flout His kingship not merely at the peril of our fortune and lives but at the peril of our eternal souls.
Jesus was appointed heir of all things, which were made through him and are even now sustained by him. But this is seen only by God’s Word, and only with the eyes of faith. Jesus is enthroned, not upon an earthly throne, but “at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Heb. 1:3). We can see this only by faith. Believing on Christ as our king, we must obey him by faith, and we must be comforted amidst our trials in the knowledge that one day soon he will come to manifest his kingdom over all creation, destroying his enemies with the rod of his might (Ps. 2:9), and inviting his faithful servants to enter into the joy of his kingdom (Matt. 25:21). As the writer of Hebrews points out in 2:8–9, quoting from Psalm 8, “At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him.” This is the cause of our unbelief and fear. But by faith we know that he is even now “crowned with glory and honor,” and someday soon every eye will see him, every knee will bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Phil. 2:10–11).
Christ as the Final Prophet
This passage exalts Christ not only as Lord of all, but also as the One who perfectly reveals God in all his glory. He is the true king, but also the final prophet: “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb. 1:3).
Hot and brilliant as the sun is in the heavens, we would never see it or feel its warmth without the radiating beams that come to the earth. So it is with God and his Son, who is the radiance of his glory. Without the Son we remain in the dark regarding the glory of God. But with the Son we have an ideal, indeed, a perfect revelation of God. Paul said in 2 Corinthians 4:6 that we see “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” We do not see God in Christ through drawings that purport to represent his features, much less through an actor who tries to represent the way Jesus must have been. We see God in Christ through the Bible’s teaching of his person and work, of his holy zeal and compassionate love, of his heavenly words and mighty, saving works.
As the Son, Jesus is a better revelation than that which came through the prophets. It is one thing to know a chosen servant. You can learn a lot about a master by what you see in those who work for him. But as Martyn Lloyd-Jones explains, “A servant may be able to say everything that is right about his lord and master, he may know him well and intimately, but he can never represent him in the way that the son can. The son is a manifestation of the father by being what he is. Thus our Lord himself, while here on earth, represented and manifested the name of God in a way that is incomparable and greater than all others, because he is the Son of God.” John 1:18 tells us, in a striking assertion of Jesus’ deity: “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.”
Jesus is the perfect prophet—the one who fully reveals God’s glory—because he is not only similar to God the Father, but also is “the exact imprint of his nature.” The Greek word here is charaktēr, which gives us the word “character.” It refers to the stamp or imprint made by a die or seal. The best example is a coin with the imprint of a ruler’s face; in the same way, Jesus bears God’s image or imprint. Paul says, “He is the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). The point is the trustworthiness with which Jesus reveals God to us. There is an exact correspondence between what we see in him and what is true of God. “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” Jesus explained (John 14:9).
Furthermore, Jesus “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Heb. 1:3). Jesus wields divine power because as God’s Son he is fully God. As the true and great and final prophet, he is able not merely to reveal God’s will but also to establish God’s will upon the earth.
This description of Jesus as the great and final prophet helps us to gain a proper understanding of the relationship of the Old Testament to the New. The reason the Hebrew Christians should not revert from Christ back to Judaism is not that the Old Testament was wrong. Through the long line of prophets, God left his people with his revelation for their salvation. But the chief message of that revelation was of a Savior yet to come, the true prophet who would not only point to salvation but would also accomplish it. Isaiah spoke of a child who would be born, a son who would be given, and said that he would be called “Wonderful Counselor” (Isa. 9:6). He added, “The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord” (Isa. 11:2–3). The way to be a true follower of Isaiah and the other prophets was and is to believe their message, to receive in faith the One for whom they prayed, who is the head of their order and the fulfillment of their age-old longing.
Christ as the Perfect Priest
We need to give homage to Jesus, God’s Son, as the King who is Lord of all. And we need to listen to him as the true and final prophet who perfectly reveals God’s glory. But there is a third office Jesus perfects and completes, that of the priest. Apart from his ministry in this office we may bow to God, and we may listen to God, but we can never be accepted by God and draw near to his presence. Therefore, the writer of Hebrews tells us that Jesus is the true and perfect priest, who makes atonement for our sins. He writes, “After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Heb. 1:3).
The theme of Christ’s priestly office will occupy much of the Book of Hebrews, and it is a message we must understand if we want to be saved. Jesus fulfills the priestly office because he offers the one true sacrifice to take away our sin. This is what the angel said about him to Joseph even before his birth: “You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). Yes, Jesus rules within us by his spirit, and he speaks to us as prophet through the gospel. But these are possible only because as Lamb of God he laid down his life for our sins, making purification for us upon the cross. Then, as the true and final priest, he went into heaven to present his own blood to God to secure our full, perfect, and final forgiveness.
This sevenfold exclamation of praise to God’s Son is completed with the statement that “he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Heb. 1:3). There were no seats in the temple at Jerusalem. The priests offered sacrifices for the purification of the people day and night without ceasing because the problem of sin had not yet been solved. They never sat down. But when God’s Son, the true priest whom the old covenant priests merely represented, shed his blood for us, his atoning sacrifice was the one to which all the others had merely pointed. He sat down, because there was no more sacrifice to be made, God’s Son having offered his infinitely holy and precious blood once for all. That being the case, if the readers of Hebrews wanted the benefits of the Old Testament sacrifices, then they must not turn away from Christ but hold fast to his death for their salvation.
God’s Son “sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Heb. 1:3). Since this is a throne, naturally we think of his kingly office. But it is also as our priest that Jesus takes up his heavenly royal seat. The King who rules on the throne of heaven is the very priest who sacrificed himself for our salvation and whose presence there bears everlasting testimony to our forgiveness. As Charles Wesley says in his great hymn “Arise, My Soul, Arise”:
Five bleeding wounds he bears,
received on Calvary;
they pour effectual prayers,
they strongly plead for me.
“Forgive him, O forgive,” they cry,
“forgive him, O forgive,” they cry,
“nor let that ransomed sinner die!”
Crown Him with Many Crowns
Verse 4 completes what in the Greek text is a single sentence that runs from the beginning of verse 1. It says, “Having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.” This seems like an odd ending, but there are two explanations. The first is that Jewish spirituality in that day had an excessively high view of angels. The Jews connected angels with the great events of the Old Testament, believing that God gave Moses the law through angelic mediation and that it was an angel voice that spoke to Moses from the burning bush (Ex. 3:2).
The writer of Hebrews does not quarrel with these facts but rather with their interpretation. He acknowledges that angels are ministering spirits God sends for our help (Heb. 1:14). But that God employed angels does not mean that we should exalt them, as many Jews seem to have been doing. The angels, like the prophets, were servants of the old covenant. But Jesus Christ is the Son who fulfills the old covenant. He is the Christ, the Messiah, which means “Anointed One.” He fulfills the three anointed offices of the Old Testament: prophet, priest, and king. Therefore, the only way to fulfill all that the Old Testament taught, the only way to realize all that the Israelite fathers had looked to with hope, was to trust in the Son of God, Jesus Christ. Upon the throne of heaven, he is exalted above even the angels, and his name—that is, his title or position—is more excellent than theirs.
There is another possible reason why the writer brings in angels, one that resonates with our own spiritual environment. People are fascinated by angels. Book about angels are bestsellers, and many people adorn themselves with angelic jewelry. The reason is that people know they need a mediator with God. They need someone to open a doorway to heaven and to the blessing and power of God. They need supernatural help for their otherwise insurmountable problems. People in the first-century church, just as in our own time, found in angels an appealing and non-demanding form of spiritual hope and comfort (see Col. 2:18). The fact that we don’t know much about angels makes them attractive for our veneration; we can fill in the details as we want them to be.
What this passage reveals about Jesus Christ is a cause for much greater comfort and hope than we could ever gain through the mystical worship of angels. When the Bible presents God’s Son as the true prophet and priest and king, God is showing us that Jesus Christ is and does all that our souls could ever need. Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the long-expected Anointed One, who enters into the God-given offices of the Old Testament so that he might save us to the uttermost. Charles Hodge expresses this well, explaining how Jesus Christ perfectly fulfills all our needs so that we might enter with him into the blessings of eternal life:
We as fallen men, ignorant, guilty, polluted, and helpless, need a Saviour who is a prophet to instruct us; a priest to atone and to make intercession for us; and a king to rule over and protect us. And the salvation which we receive at his hands includes all that a prophet, priest, and king in the highest sense of those terms can do. We are enlightened in the knowledge of the truth; we are reconciled unto God by the sacrificial death of his Son; and we are delivered from the power of Satan and introduced into the kingdom of God; all of which supposes that our Redeemer is to us at once prophet, priest, and king.
Jesus is the perfect and all-sufficient answer from God for our everlasting blessing. The significance of this for the original readers is obvious: If you have a Savior like this, you never let him go. If you have to lose your job, your family, your possessions—even your life—then so be it. Jesus said, “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?” (Luke 9:24–25). What great profit it is, then, to gain Christ, and eternal life with him, even if all the world needs to be lost.
What this passage tells us about Christ reminds us not merely that we must hold to him in faith, but also how to draw near to him in faith. This comes through our understanding of his three offices as prophet and priest and king.
Jesus is our King. We need to be ruled and governed, protected and led. Let us therefore bow before him and crown him Lord of all, flying his banner at the gates of our hearts and forsaking all other kingdoms and rulers. Jesus is our Prophet. We need truth; he is the Truth and he speaks the truth. Let us therefore come to his Word seeking light and forsaking all the false prophets who would lead us astray. Jesus is our Priest. So we should readily come to him for cleansing, for forgiveness, for interceding prayers, and for a full and loving reconciliation with God the Father. Let us therefore confess our great need for his blood and for his ongoing priestly intercession in heaven. Let us lay hold of the cross, forsaking all claim to any merit of our own. In all these ways, through his three offices, let us commit ourselves to Jesus Christ alone, who is able to save us to the uttermost, to the glory of God the Father.
1:3 / The third and fourth phrases in this characterization of Christ turn to the manner in which the Son is a true expression of the father. The Son (lit., “who”) is the radiance of God’s glory. The word radiance or “radiant light” means intense “brightness.” Barclay effectively paraphrases: “The Son is the radiance of his glory just as the ray is the light of the sun.” Again a parallel exists between the personification of wisdom, this time in the apocryphal book the Wisdom of Solomon (7:25f.): “For she is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; … she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness” (rsv). Other nt writers hold a similar view of Christ. In the prologue of the Gospel of John, Christ is designated “the true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world” (John 1:9), in whom “we have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father” (John 1:14). For John, as for our author, Jesus expresses the brilliant glory of God. Paul, too, speaks of the light that Christ brought, referring to “the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6; cf. 4:4).
The next phrase, he is the exact representation of his being, is simply a more explicit way of expressing what the author has just said. The Son is a perfect representation of God’s being “just as the mark is the exact impression of the seal” (Barclay). The thought is again reminiscent of Christology elsewhere in the nt, for example in Paul’s statements that Christ is “the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4) and “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15); although in these two instances, the Greek word (eikōn, from which comes the English word “icon”) is different from that used here. John expressed the same idea in the words “anyone who has seen me [Jesus] has seen the Father” (John 14:9). It is to be noted further that it is God’s own being that is expressed so accurately, the word being here to be understood as “substance” or “essence.” These two parallel phrases at the beginning of verse 3 obviously speak of the uniqueness of the Son. They also point to the extraordinary connection between the Father and Son. In order for the Son to be the kind of direct, authentic, and compelling expression of the Father described in these phrases—for him to be the radiance of God’s glory and the impress of his very essence—he must participate somehow in the being of God itself, that is, he must himself be deity to accomplish the wonderful mission described here. Our author would have us conclude, without denying the distinction between Father and Son, that the Son is of the same order of existence as God, and so with God over against all else that exists.
As the Son was instrumental in the creation of the universe (v. 2), so the continuing significance of the Son is seen, in the fifth phrase, in his sustaining all things by his powerful word. Philosophers of every age are prone to ask what it is that underlies reality—that is, what dynamic sustains and makes coherent all that exists. Our author, further revealing his christocentric perspective, finds the answer in the mighty word of the Son. This view also finds parallels in Paul and John. When John uses “Word” (logos) to describe Jesus, he uses a term that has both Jewish and Greek associations. For the Greek Stoic philosophers logos was the underlying principle of rationality that made the world orderly, coherent, and intelligible. Without using the technical term logos, Paul argues in similar fashion: “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). Although the author of Hebrews does not use the specific term logos in this passage, the idea that Christ sustains the universe, is behind it all, and keeps it all going (as the present participle sustaining indicates), is parallel.
Our author, however, is not content simply to mark off the incomparable character of the Son against all others and all else, as he has done in the first five phrases. He wants also to get to one of the main points of the epistle, the atoning work of the Son, for this, too, is vitally a part of and dependent upon the Son’s uniqueness. What makes these the last days is that “once-and-for-all” (to borrow language that will be encountered later in the epistle) he … provided purification for sins. This indeed is the preeminent work of the Son. The “cleansing of sins” (a literal translation) may seem strange in the midst of glorious clauses pointing to the deity of the Son. This phrase, after all, describes the work of the high priest and, though impressive in itself, would seem familiar enough to a Jewish reader. With the insertion of this clause, however, the author anticipates a main argument of the book (cf. chaps. 9 and 10): the work of the high priest is not efficacious in itself but rather foreshadows the priestly work of the one who alone can make atonement for sins. Only God in the Son can accomplish the sacrifice that makes possible the cleansing and the forgiveness of sins (see Rom. 3:24–26). Thus the cleansing of sins rightly belongs with phrases that describe the uniqueness of the Son in his relationship to God.
When he had thus accomplished the purpose of his incarnation, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. The words of this final and climactic clause convey a sense of completion and fulfillment of God’s purpose. They are drawn from a messianic psalm of the ot (Ps. 110) that is exceptionally important to our author’s argument. Psalm 110:1 is cited or alluded to here and in 1:13 (more fully); 8:1; 10:12–13, and 12:2. Psalm 110:4, the Melchizedek passage, is cited or alluded to in 5:6, 10; 6:20; and throughout chapter 7 (vv. 3, 11, 15, 17, 21, 24, 28). Why is this psalm so important to our author? Two main arguments of the epistle can be supported by Psalm 110: the incomparable superiority of Christ (as revealed in his exaltation to the right hand of God) and the extraordinary high priesthood of Christ (as paralleled and prefigured by Melchizedek). The ascension of Christ to the position of power and authority at the side of the Father is the vindication of the true identity of the one who suffered and died in accomplishing the forgiveness of sins. This view is found often in the nt and is regularly associated with the ascension of Christ. “He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe” (Eph. 4:10); Christ, “who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him” (1 Pet. 3:22). Jesus alludes to Psalm 110:1 in the synoptic tradition (see Mark 12:36 and 14:62, both with parallels in Matthew and Luke). What the psalmist promised now had come to pass—hence the note of completion and finality. That he has sat down signifies the completion of his atoning work (cf. 10:11–12).
The majestic Christ
We live in a society which recognizes the necessity of good communication. In the world of commerce millions are spent on persuasive advertising; it has become a highly developed technique and one of recognized financial importance. Politicians know how vital it is to communicate effectively. Diplomats recognize the immense dangers that can arise in international affairs when there occurs a serious ‘breakdown in communications’. Stresses in family life frequently arise in situations when the partners in a marriage merely talk to each other but fail to communicate.
The letter to the Hebrews begins by asserting the greatest single fact of the Christian revelation: God has spoken to man through his word in the Bible and through his Son, Jesus. In Christ God has closed the greatest communication gap of all time, that which exists between a holy God and sinful mankind.
In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. 3 He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.
Some first-century Jewish Christians had abandoned their faith because they no longer recognized Christ’s deity and equality with God. The author’s first task is to expound and exalt God’s Son. He reminds them of eight things about Jesus.
- Jesus is God’s prophetic voice
It is naturally important in these circumstances for the author to emphasize the continuity of the Old and New Testaments. Christ does not break with the great Jewish past. He comes to bring it to fulfilment. Without him the Old Testament revelation is partial, fragmentary, preparatory and incomplete. God spoke at different times by different means. He used many and various ways. But in Christ he spoke fully, decisively, finally and perfectly. The first-century Christians must listen to him, the greatest prophet of all times. Ezekiel portrayed the glory of God, but Christ reflected it (1:3). Isaiah expounded the nature of God as holy, righteous and merciful, but Christ manifested it (1:3). Jeremiah described the power of God, but Christ displayed it (1:3). He far surpassed the best of prophets of earlier times, and these wavering Christians must listen to his voice.
Although we are glad to acknowledge that something essential, new and eternally effective has been accomplished by Christ, we are not to set one Testament against the other, but recognize that ‘all Scripture is God-breathed’. The way in which this letter unites both Testaments is a persuasive reminder of the authority of Scripture, a truth which is just as much exposed to attack now as in previous generations. The early Christian communities found themselves harassed by a number of zealots who wanted to discard the Old Testament revelation, and the problem is certainly not confined to antiquity. In our day, those who take seriously the message of the Old Testament as well as the New, and who are determined to submit themselves to its teaching, are hastily dismissed in some circles as unintelligent obscurantists or unthinking fundamentalists. A commitment to Scripture demands that we grapple honestly with any difficulties our contemporaries have about the biblical narratives, but the teaching of this letter encourages us to reaffirm our confidence in the God who has spoken clearly to mankind in Scripture and in his Son.
‘Attending to the word’ is a key theme in Hebrews, especially in the opening and closing sections of the letter. These Christians cannot hope to press on to mature spiritual experience if they ignore, minimize or despise it. Christ is God’s greatest prophet with a distinctive message for these last days. His coming inaugurated a new era. In him the last days have most certainly begun; the phrase conveys the superiority of the message and the urgency of the times.
- Jesus is God’s Son
Those Jewish Christians whose faith in Christ was faltering may have come to regard him merely as a good man, a captivating teacher, or an impressive leader. He was all that, but much more. He is the Son of God. The theme of Sonship is a recurrent one in this letter. We are here reminded of the message of the Son (1:2). Later passages discuss the superiority of the Son, his reign, mission, achievement, obedience, nature and perfection. One interpreter of the letter’s teaching entitles his commentary Sonship and Salvation. It is an excellent reminder of this epistle’s leading ideas. Because these two ideas are inseparably united, apostasy is so serious and disastrous. Without the work of the Son there is no salvation. Those who deliberately and persistently spurn the Son of God (10:29) are inevitably exposed to spiritual atrophy. How can they possibly be brought to repentance when there is no salvation outside Christ? They have refused to walk in the only way ordained by God. They have opposed the truth revealed by God. They have despised the life approved by God. How can man hope to be saved if he rejects the Saviour?
- Jesus is God’s appointed heir
Christ was appointed heir of all things. Possibly this idea of the inheritance of Christ is drawn from Psalm 2:8, later to be used in the unfolding argument: ‘I will make the nations your heritage.’ But surely by describing Christ as ‘heir of all things’, he intends to convey to us the idea that the Lord Jesus will inherit not only this earth but the entire universe. The Son obviously comes into a rich inheritance. Moreover, in other contexts the New Testament says that believers share this inheritance. The seventeenth-century commentator John Trapp says, ‘Be married to this heir and have all.’
- Jesus is God’s creative agent
The author takes his readers directly from Christ’s destiny in the future to his role in the beginning of creation. He is at pains to emphasize that the Lord we have trusted was no mere Galilean preacher. He shared actively in the creative work of Almighty God. It is all closely linked with the idea of inheritance; in other words, ‘what the Son was to possess he had been instrumental in making’ (Moffatt). Surely a Christ whose hands had shaped the universe and summoned the galaxy of stars into being could hold these Jewish Christians in days of testing and guide their steps through times of adversity. If the chaos before creation could be overcome, surely he could control their destiny and provide their immediate needs.
- Jesus is God’s personified glory
For the Hebrew people the glory of God was a visible and outward expression of the majestic presence of God. When the law was given at Sinai ‘the glory of the Lord’ settled on the mountain. Likewise, the glory of God became manifest at ‘the tent of meeting’; it was a visible sign to God’s people of his continuing presence. Later, when the ark of the covenant was captured, the Hebrew people lamented, ‘The glory has departed.’12 Now, says the author of this letter, in these last days this same glory has been seen in the person of Christ who reflects or is ‘the radiance of God’s glory’ (niv). The word used (apaugasma) can mean either ‘radiation out from’ or ‘reflection back’. These early Christians knew only too well that their non-Christian Jewish neighbours refused to acknowledge the deity of Christ. Wistfully, they recalled the great moments of their history when God’s glory had been manifest. Some may even have thought with pride about the Jerusalem temple, doomed to destruction in ad 70; surely the glory of God was manifest there in its ceaseless ritual and sacrificial cultus! But the author of this letter reminds his readers that nowhere has the glory of God been more perfectly manifest than in the person of God’s Son. In Christ all the majesty of God’s splendour is fully revealed.
- Jesus is God’s perfect revelation
How can this writer impress upon his readers the message of Christ’s person? He insists that Jesus bears the very stamp of God’s nature. All the attributes of God became visible in him. The stamp vividly presents the picture of an image or superscription on a coin or medal. It exactly and perfectly matches the picture on the die. The verbal form of the word used here (charaktēr) means ‘to engrave’. In other words, if man wants to see God he must look to Christ. How could the first-century Jews, who were opposing these Jewish Christians, hope to know God if they were turning their backs upon Christ in whom God is perfectly revealed? The terms used in this great introductory passage of the letter clearly expound the unity of Christ’s nature with the Father and yet maintain the distinction of his person. The word translated ‘nature’ (hypostasis) here describes the very essence and actual being of God. As Hughes points out, ‘the radiant light of God’s glory’ suggest ‘the oneness of the Son with the Father’ while ‘the perfect copy of his nature’ maintains ‘the distinctness of the Son from the Father’ though, as this commentator observes ‘oneness and distinctiveness are implied in each’.
- Jesus is God’s cosmic sustainer
This letter’s introductory exposition of the superiority and adequacy of Christ moves on to its dramatic climax as mention is made of Christ’s present work in the universe. He keeps the planets in orbit by his authoritative and effective word of power. It is the author’s compelling way of emphasizing Christ’s equality with God. Every Jew passionately believed that Almighty God kept the entire universe in the hollow of his hand. He is not only creator but sustainer. Quite deliberately this is described as part of Christ’s present role. The word of authority which has been proclaimed by the Lord as prophet is the same word which holds the universe in order.14 It is important for the writer to emphasize that Christ’s word is powerful and able to do what he determines. He speaks in the universe and what he commands is done. He has spoken in their hearts and what he demands can most certainly be accomplished whatever opposition and persecution they may encounter. In the strong hands of such a Christ they are eternally secure.
Possibly our vision of Christ is limited. We are in danger of confining him to our restricted experience or limited knowledge. We need a vision of Christ with these immense cosmic dimensions, a Christ who transcends all our noblest thoughts about him and all our best experience of him. These first-century readers would be less likely to turn from him in adversity if they had looked to him in adoration. The opening sentences of the letter are designed to bring them and us to our knees; only then can we hope to stand firmly on our feet.
- Jesus is God’s unique sacrifice
In presenting this impressive opening exposition of God’s Son, the author rightly emphasizes Christ’s work in redemption as well as creation. This is to become a central theme in his later exposition. At this point our attention is turned from who Christ is to what he did. Philip Hughes reminds us that there is a contrast here which ought not to be missed. Jesus is ceaselessly ‘the radiant light of God’s glory and the perfect copy of his nature’ (jb). He continously upholds ‘the universe by his word of power’. But when he gave himself up on the cross Jesus shed his blood once for all at a single point in time. No repetition of this saving act will ever be necessary, nor can anything that we do serve to procure our own salvation. Christ is God’s unrepeatable sacrificial provision for the greatest problem of mankind—sin. Our author explains that Christ’s saving death on that first Good Friday was a finished work.
This cosmic Christ effected such purification entirely alone. Some manuscripts emphasize this aspect of his sacrificial work with the words ‘by himself’. Whether this reading is original or not, the truth is certainly supported in a host of different contexts through the epistle. In his own person he did for sinful man what man could never achieve for himself. The law said, ‘Do this.’ It demanded man’s work. But Christ came and effected by his saving death man’s purification from sin. His message was, ‘Trust this.’ Man was urged to believe in Christ’s work, not his own. It was not to be achieved by the multiplicity of good works, but by Christ’s work.
When this eternal work of purification was brought to its triumphant conclusion in the death and resurrection of Christ, our Lord sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high (1:3). The first readers of this letter were not likely to miss the implication of this statement and, if they did, its author was to press home its meaning in a later passage (10:11–12). The Old Testament priest’s cultic work had constantly to be repeated because it was only temporarily beneficial. But Christ ‘offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins’. The priest stood because his task was never complete. He could never hope to bring it to the moment of final achievement. Only Christ’s sacrifice could be eternally effective. He sat down to indicate that the work was finished. On that day when he bore our sins in his own body, he cried, ‘It is finished.’
This letter’s introductory exposition of the supremacy of Christ has already indicated that he is unique in his teaching (1:2), nature (1:2–3) and work. This chapter goes on to assert that he is unique in his status. He is superior to angels (1:4). He has ascended to the throne of God. The right hand is the place of special honour. This sacrificial, saving work is recognized and authenticated by God. He is given the seat of distinctive privilege. The Son who was humiliated on earth (12:3) is enthroned in heaven.
The first few sentences of Hebrew confront the reader with one of the most important issues in the contemporary theological debate, the doctrine of the person of Christ. It seems that in every generation some different aspect of biblical teaching is exposed to rigorous scrutiny and fresh examination. In the present century people have questioned the doctrine of God, and the ‘God is dead’ theologians have had their say. Man is said to have ‘come of age’ intellectually and no longer to stand in need of his earlier religious props and ecclesiastical supports. In the sixties Honest to God was a distillation of ideas which had been the preoccupation of some theologians for a decade or two, but it took the English-speaking world by storm and, like most storms, caused considerable havoc and damage. More recently, however, possibly in the wake of earlier doctrinal aridity, cynicism, and even unbelief, the biblical doctrine of Christ has been exposed to severely critical treatment and the incarnation declared by some radical theologians as an unacceptable doctrinal idea.
This letter’s lofty teaching about the person and work of Christ, expounded with the aid of arresting titles of Jesus, is a stark challenge to modern humanitarian Christologies, most of which tend to reduce Jesus to an inspired man with a unique sense of religious destiny, or an outstanding example of benevolent concern and altruistic service, or a fervent zealot with a passion for liberation, usually interpreted in political terms. Whilst preserving the important truth of Christ’s essential humanity, this letter presents its readers with a revelation of Jesus in his matchless deity. He is the enthroned Lord, worthy of all our honour and worship.
In contrast to this clear uncompromising teaching, the contributors to The Myth of God Incarnate are generally dismissive about the New Testament assertions concerning the deity of Christ, arguing that, whilst such ideas were perfectly appropriate in their first-century context, there is no reason why twentieth-century believers need accept them. Don Cupitt has written further on the subject, maintaining, for example, that the title ‘Son of God’ does not imply that Christ was divine. He begins by asserting that ‘everything in our historical knowledge is relative and merely probable, and nothing is certain’ and then goes on to ask what possible ‘evidence could there be which could oblige us to admit that a certain historical figure though in every observable respect human was really more than human—was even co-equal with God?’19 But Hebrews introduces us to a Christ whose perfect sinless nature is a unique revelation, whose sacrifice is alone effective for our salvation, and whose authority in heaven and on earth is without rival. As we are about to see in the succeeding verses, the angels worship the exalted Christ because they recognize his deity. We believers hasten to offer our adoration because, in addition, we have personally experienced his salvation. No wonder that, throughout the centuries, Christians have taken upon their lips the confession of a transformed doubter, released from his cynicism: ‘My Lord and my God.’
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1983). Hebrews (pp. 9–20). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Phillips, R. D. (2006). Hebrews. (R. D. Phillips, P. G. Ryken, & D. M. Doriani, Eds.) (pp. 16–25). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.
 Hagner, D. A. (2011). Hebrews (pp. 23–26). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Brown, R. (1988). The message of Hebrews: Christ above all (pp. 27–35). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.