By the Son: One Way
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. (1:2)
God’s full, perfect revelation awaited the coming of His Son. God, who used to speak in many different ways through many different people, has finally spoken in one way, through one Person, His Son Jesus Christ.
The whole New Testament is centered around Christ. The gospels tell His story, the epistles comment on it, and the Revelation tells of its culmination. From beginning to end the New Testament is Christ. No prophet had been given God’s whole truth. The Old Testament was given to many men, in bits and pieces and fragments. Jesus not only brought, but was, God’s full and final Revelation.
Coming in These Last Days
There are several ways to interpret the phrase, in these last days. It could refer to the last days of revelation. It could mean that this is the final revelation in Christ, there being nothing else to add to it. Or it could mean that in the last days of revelation it came through God’s Son. But I think the writer is making a messianic reference. The phrase “the last days” was very familiar to the Jews of that day and had a distinctive meaning. Whenever a Jew saw or heard these words he immediately had messianic thoughts, because the scriptural promise was that in the last days Messiah would come (Jer. 33:14–16; Mic. 5:1–4; Zech. 9:9, 16). Since this letter was written first of all to Jews, we will interpret the phrase in that context.
The woman at the well, though a Samaritan, told Jesus, “I know that the Messiah is coming (He who is called Christ); when that One comes, He will declare all things to us” (John 4:25). She knew that when Messiah arrived, He would unfold the full and final revelation of God, as indeed He did.
The writer, then, is saying, “In these promised Last Days Messiah (Christ) has come and has spoken the final revelation of God.” Jesus came in these last days. Unfortunately, Messiah’s own people rejected Him and His revelation, and so the fulfillment of all of the promises of the last days has yet to be fully realized.
True and Complete
The Old Testament had been given in pieces. To Noah was revealed the quarter of the world from which Messiah would come. To Micah, the town where He would be born. To Daniel, the time of His birth. To Malachi, the forerunner who would come before Him. To Jonah, His resurrection was typified. Every one of those pieces of revelation was true and accurate; and each one related to the others in some way or another. And each one in some way or another pointed to the Messiah, the Christ. But only in Jesus Christ Himself was everything brought together and made whole. In Him the revelation was full and complete.
Since the revelation is complete, to add anything to the New Testament is blasphemous. To add to it The Book of Mormon, or Science and Health, or anything else that claims to be revelation from God is blasphemous. “God has in these last days finalized His revelation in His Son.” It was finished. The end of the book of Revelation warns that if we add anything to it, its plagues will be added to us, and that if we take anything away from it, our part in the tree of life and the holy city will be taken away from us (Rev. 22:18–19).
In the first verse and a half of Hebrews, the Holy Spirit establishes the preeminence of Jesus Christ over all the Old Testament, over its message, its methods, and its messengers. It was just what those Jews, believing and nonbelieving, needed to hear.
And so is established the priority of Jesus Christ. He is greater than the prophets. He is greater than any revelation in the Old Testament, for He is the embodiment of all that truth, and more. God has fully expressed Himself in Christ.
God’s Final Word
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son. (Heb. 1:1–2)
A scene from Jesus’ life and ministry wonderfully depicts what the Book of Hebrews is all about. Matthew 17 tells us that Jesus took his three closest disciples up onto the mount, where they saw him transfigured in glory, speaking with Moses and Elijah. Peter proposed building a tabernacle for the veneration of these three spiritual giants. But just then the Shekinah glory cloud enveloped them in brightness and the voice of God said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (Matt. 17:5). When the disciples rose from their terror, they did not see either Moses or Elijah, but they saw Jesus alone. A.W. Pink comments: “The glory associated with Moses and Elijah was so eclipsed by the infinitely greater glory connected with Christ, that they faded from view.”
This is what the Book of Hebrews is about—the supremacy of Christ, along with the sufficiency of his work and the necessity of faith in him for salvation.
Background to the Book of Hebrews
We should begin studying a book with a consideration of its background. Who wrote the Book of Hebrews? To whom was it written and when? What prompted the writing of the letter, what is its literary genre, and on what basis is it included in the biblical canon?
When we consider the authorship of Hebrews, we must first observe that the answer is not stated in the letter itself. There is no opening greeting, nor do the closing remarks identify the writer. There is, however, no shortage of candidates for the honor of authorship.
Throughout church history there has been a strong impulse to name the apostle Paul as the author of Hebrews. There seem to be two main reasons for this, the first of which is that much of the letter’s content sounds Pauline. Hebrews 13:23 refers to Timothy, one of Paul’s protégés, and chapter 10’s theme of joy amidst suffering strongly reminds us of Paul. Therefore, it is argued, the author of Hebrews must at least have been a member of the Pauline circle. The second reason to support Paul has to do with the canonicity of the book. The inclusion of Hebrews in the Bible was not without controversy, and arguments for Paul’s authorship naturally strengthened its case dramatically.
Nonetheless, there are many indications that Paul almost certainly did not write Hebrews. First, in all of Paul’s other letters he identifies himself, blatantly asserting his apostolic authority. The writer of Hebrews does not identify himself, although some speculate that because of Jewish hostility Paul may have wanted to remain anonymous. More telling is the nature of the Greek in Hebrews, which is of a high literary style in striking contrast to Paul’s more common Greek. The structure of Hebrews, with its interspersed exhortations, contrasts with Paul’s tendency to save practical applications for the letter’s end. Most conclusive is the statement of Hebrews 2:3, which says the author’s message “was attested to us by those who heard.” In other words, the writer received his message from those who heard it firsthand from Jesus. This is the very thing Paul always denies in his letters, insisting that he received his revelation directly from the Lord and not from the other apostles (see Gal. 1:12).
With Paul ruled out, other candidates are drawn from his circle and include Luke, Silas, and Priscilla. Most persuasive are the arguments in favor of Barnabas and Apollos. Hebrews 13:22 describes the letter as a “word of exhortation,” and Barnabas’s name means “son of exhortation.” Not only was Barnabas a close associate of Paul, but as a Levite he would likely have had the kind of interest in the Jewish priesthood that shows up in Hebrews. An even more intriguing suggestion was made by Martin Luther in favor of Paul’s sometime associate Apollos. Acts 18:24 identifies him as “an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures,” which qualifies him to write such an extraordinary epistle. Furthermore, Apollos hailed from Alexandria, and Hebrews shows an interest in theological themes known to have been popular there.
So who wrote Hebrews? In the end, we must agree with the ancient scholar Origen, who concluded, “Who wrote the epistle is known to God alone.” All we can say with confidence is that it came from an apostolic figure who was likely a colleague of the apostle Paul. It did not please the Holy Spirit to have us know the human author’s identity, so we must content ourselves with knowing that the letter is the Word of God.
Also important is the identity of the recipients. The title “To the Hebrews” is not in the text, although it is found in all the earliest manuscripts. This, along with the letter’s content, argues persuasively that these were Jewish Christians who were under pressure to renounce the faith and return to Judaism.
As to their location, the two main options are Palestine and Rome. Those who argue for a Palestinian audience point out that Christians are known to have suffered at the hands of their fellow Jews, and also point to the detailed references to the Jewish temple ritual. Since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, some have tried to show similarities to the writings of the Essene community in the Judean desert. Opposing this theory is the fact that all of the Old Testament citations in Hebrews are from the Septuagint, the Greek version common in that time, which was not used in Palestine as much as elsewhere. Also opposing a Palestinian background is the statement that the recipients of the letter had only heard of Jesus secondhand (see Heb. 2:3). Furthermore, Hebrews 12:4 states that earlier persecutions did not involve the shedding of blood, whereas those in Palestine certainly did from the very beginning.
Scholarly consensus has recently shifted in the direction of Rome. Clement of Rome, writing around a.d. 95, shows close familiarity with Hebrews, and the books of Acts and Romans speak of a large Jewish church in Rome from early on. The Jewish Christians there were persecuted in a.d. 49 under the emperor Claudius, and then again in the 60s under Nero. What we know of the former of these persecutions seems to fit the description of 10:32–34 and 12:4 (in that Claudius’s persecution involved loss of property and imprisonment, but not bloodshed), and the anticipation of violence fits the latter, with Nero’s notorious violence against Christians. Finally, there is the statement of Hebrews 13:24, “Those who come from Italy send you greetings.” It could be that a pastor now in Rome was writing to Jewish believers in Palestine. But the more natural reason for Italian Christians to send their greetings is that the readers were themselves from Italy.
If Rome was the location of the audience, then the letter would have been written shortly before a.d. 64, when Nero’s persecution broke out. Under almost all theories, Hebrews was written prior to a.d. 70, when Jerusalem and its temple were destroyed by the Romans. Not only does Hebrews speak of the temple rituals as a present reality, but it is hard to imagine its writer passing up such an opportunity as the fall of Jerusalem to prove the passing away of the old covenant religion.
The purpose of Hebrews is made clear by its content. The writer warns Christians not to fall back from faith in Christ in the midst of trials and exhorts them instead to press on to full maturity. The letter should not be thought of as a theological treatise, but as a sermon written by a pastor to a congregation from which he is separated. The writer describes it as “my word of exhortation” (13:22). His method is to point out the supremacy of Christ over everything to which the readers might be tempted to turn; he is superior to angels, to Moses and the prophets, to Aaron and the Levitical priests, to the blood sacrifices of the old covenant, and to the tabernacle and temple themselves. Since Jesus is the true messenger, the true prophet, the true priest, and the true sacrifice, to renounce him is to lose salvation altogether. Therefore, the readers must hold fast to Jesus Christ. The author’s plea is summed up in Hebrews 10:23: “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.”
The final matter of background to consider is the place of Hebrews in the New Testament canon. The early church’s basic test of canonicity was proof of apostolicity. This did not mean that a book had to be written by an apostle, as is shown by the ready inclusion of Mark, Luke, Acts, and other books. It was sufficient for the author to be an associate of an apostle, so long as the teaching was apostolic in character. We should not think, however, that it was the church that created the canon, since really it was exactly the opposite. The canon—that is, the apostolic teaching of the New Testament writings—created the church. Hywel Jones aptly summarizes, “The canon was drawn up … by way of response to the effect which sacred literature had on those who heard it. The church’s formal acknowledgement of a piece of literature was an ‘Amen’ to the Holy Spirit’s testimony in it, and not a bestowing of its own imprimatur.”
Any introduction to Hebrews ought to conclude with an appreciation of its outstanding excellence. Here the last word is best given to John Calvin, who wrote in the dedication of his commentary: “Since the Epistle addressed to the Hebrews contains a full discussion of the eternal divinity of Christ, His supreme government, and only priesthood (which are the main points of heavenly wisdom), and as these things are so explained in it, that the whole power and work of Christ are set forth in the most graphic way, it rightly deserves to have the place and honor of an invaluable treasure in the Church.”
God Has Spoken
As soon as we begin the Book of Hebrews, we encounter what is perhaps the single most important statement that could be made in our time: “God spoke” (Heb. 1:1). This is one of the most vital things people today need to know. Ours is a relativistic age; as many as 70 percent of Americans insist that there are no absolutes, whether in matters of truth or morality. Secular society having removed God, there no longer is a heavenly voice to speak with clarity and authority. The price we have paid is the loss of truth, and with truth, hope. Even when it comes to those things we think we know, we now consider them mere constructs of thought amidst the constant flux of uncertain knowledge and belief. Really, we are told, we don’t know anything for sure, nor can we.
All this is especially the case when it comes to our knowledge of God himself. Can we know our Creator, if there is one? Is there a Savior to help us? Unless God has spoken, we cannot even be sure he is there; unless God is there, there is no ultimate hope for us as individuals, and no answer for the ultimate problem of death. Job asks, “Can you find out the deep things of God?” (11:7) and answers No. By definition, God is beyond the realm of our senses, from which all our self-gained knowledge has to come. Therefore, if God is there and wants us to know him—if he has an answer, a plan, or a salvation—he is going to have to speak to us. And he must speak in a way we can understand. Therefore, there is nothing more important, nothing more essential, than what Hebrews says in its very first verse: “God has spoken.”
This is the uniform testimony of the Bible about itself, that it is God’s very Word. The Bible’s books were written by human authors, who spoke and wrote in human language. But the Bible insists that through them God himself spoke and speaks to us still. Peter explained, “Men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). This is what we refer to as the Bible’s inspiration. God has communicated to us through the Holy Spirit’s leading of its human authors. The point is not that these books contain the inspired insights of men; the point is exactly the opposite. Indeed, we might better speak of the Bible not as being inspired but as being expired. It is God’s Word as from his very mouth, given through the Holy Spirit’s work in the lives of human servants. This is what Paul emphasizes in 2 Timothy 3:16, where he says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God.”
The divine authorship of Holy Scripture needs to be emphasized today, especially since contemporary scholarship tends to focus on the human authors. It is right, of course, to realize the human contours God used to give different shape to different Bible books. Moses had his own experience and calling and personality and gifts, and God used them to craft a particular message in the books that Moses wrote. The same is true of Paul and John and all the other biblical writers. But while the Bible itself affirms this, its own emphasis is on divine authorship. Hebrews 1:1 says that God spoke “at many times and in many ways,” and that God employed “the prophets” to do this. But in all of this it was still God who spoke. It is not Moses who spoke in Genesis, nor David who spoke in the Psalms, nor Paul who spoke in Romans. God spoke in the Bible, and we must regard all Scripture as his holy Word.
The Book of Hebrews gives the Bible’s own slant on the process of revelation. Whenever the writer cites Scripture, it is never the human author whom he credits but the divine Author. In Hebrews 2:12 he cites Psalm 22:22 and ascribes it to Jesus Christ speaking in the Old Testament. Hebrews 3:7–11 cites Psalm 95, but prefaces it not by saying “as David said,” but “as the Holy Spirit says.” So it goes all through Hebrews. The point is not to deny the significance of the Bible’s human authors, but to show that our emphasis, following the Bible’s own emphasis, must always be on God speaking in his Word.
This has several important implications. First, if God speaks in the Bible, then the Bible carries divine authority. Today, many want to set aside the Bible’s teachings when they collide with current cultural standards. But just as God commands our obedience, so he also demands that we humbly obey his Word. There is nothing so important for Christians to recover today as the awe and respect that Scripture deserves as God’s own revelation to us.
Second, if God wrote the Bible, then it is enduringly relevant. After all, if God does not change—and by nature he cannot—then his Word does not change either. It is true that some things said in the Bible were intended only for its original recipients. God told Moses, not us, to “Go down to Egypt.” But the teaching given all through the Bible—on God’s character, on sin and on his moral standards, on the good news of salvation and how it comes to us—abides forever for the simple reason that God abides forever. The writer of Hebrews says in chapter 13 that Christian standards of conduct remain the same because “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (13:8).
God not only spoke in the Bible to those who first received it, but he speaks as well to those who read it today. This is emphasized in Hebrews. In Hebrews 3:7, for instance, the writer cites Psalm 95, written a thousand years before, and writes, “as the Holy Spirit says.” He uses the present tense. It is not merely what the Holy Spirit said back when David wrote it, but what the Holy Spirit says now as God speaks to those who read it. This is why the Bible is fully relevant to all our needs today.
Third, since God has spoken in the Bible, even though he did so with great diversity—“at many times and in many ways”—we also hold to the unity of the Bible. The Bible consists of sixty-six books written over at least thirteen hundred years by over forty different people. And yet it is one book with one unified message. James Boice explains:
These people were not alike. Some were kings. Others were statesmen, priests, prophets, a tax collector, a physician, a tentmaker, fishermen.… Yet together they produced a volume that is a marvelous unity in its doctrine, historical viewpoints, ethics and expectations. It is, in short, a single story of divine redemption begun in Israel, centered in Jesus Christ and culminating at the end of history.… Behind the efforts of the more than forty human authors is the one perfect, sovereign and guiding mind of God.
This provides us with an important interpretive principle, namely, that Scripture is best interpreted by Scripture itself. Since the Bible is one message spoken by God, we should understand the teaching in one passage in light of the way that teaching is given elsewhere in Scripture. To be sure, the Bible’s message is progressively revealed, so that the gospel appears in bud in the Old Testament and in bloom only in the New Testament. Many doctrines are therefore progressively revealed. Nonetheless, the clear teaching God gives in one place constrains our interpretation of the same subject elsewhere in the Bible. This is most relevant to our study of Hebrews, where the author not only finds numerous Old Testament passages to be relevant to his readers, but under the Holy Spirit’s control also gives us an authoritative guide as to how we should understand them (as well as the whole Old Testament).
The Final Revelation in God’s Son
These opening verses tell us not merely that God has spoken, but that his final and definitive revelation is in and through his Son, Jesus Christ. The writer makes this point through three contrasts in Hebrews 1:1–2. First, there is the when of revelation: “long ago,” in contrast to “in these last days.” Second, there is the to whom of revelation, “to our fathers,” versus “to us.” Third, there is the how of revelation, namely, “at many times and in many ways … by the prophets,” versus “by his Son.”
The author’s point, which is the burden of the entire Book of Hebrews, is to show the superiority of Christianity to the old covenant religion. He wastes no time getting to this point, arguing the supremacy of Christ over the prophets. This supremacy does not in any way malign the Old Testament faith. Unlike pagan religions, it was a legitimate revelation and a true faith. In the Old Testament “God spoke,” and it was God-given religion. Nonetheless, Christ is superior and with his coming there is now no excuse for reverting back to Judaism.
The author describes former revelation as coming “at many times and in many ways.” His point is not merely the diversity of revelation in the Old Testament, but its fragmentary, incomplete, and gradual character. Take any one book of the Old Testament—perhaps Genesis, with its rich scenes of creation, fall, and redemption; or Esther, with her courageous faith in an unseen God; or Psalms, with its heart-lifting poetry—and you will read true divine revelation, even necessary revelation. But each book is fragmentary and incomplete. The Old Testament is unfulfilled. It expectantly longs for the answer that comes in Jesus Christ. By contrast, God’s revelation in Christ is not partial or incomplete. This is why the Christian era is described as “these last days.” The point is not that Jesus is about to come back any minute, as many take this to mean (though other New Testament passages tell us to have this perspective), but that this is the age of fulfillment when God’s revelation has been made complete. This is what makes the when of Christian revelation so much better. Calvin comments, “It was not a part of the Word that Christ brought, but the last closing Word.”
Another reason for the superiority of the Christian faith is the contrast in the channel of its revelation, that is, the how. In the Old Testament, God spoke by the prophets, but in the New he speaks by his own Son. One could hardly find a greater group of spiritual giants than the prophets of the Old Testament. Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah—these were outstanding bearers of divine truth. Yet how they pale compared to the very Son of God come to earth. As Jesus put it, “He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all” (John 3:31).
The revelation in Christ, then, given not merely to our forefathers but preserved for us in Scripture, is superior to that given formerly through the prophets. Martin Luther concludes: “If the word of the prophets is accepted, how much more ought we to seize the gospel of Christ, since it is not a prophet speaking to us but the Lord of the prophets, not a servant but a son, not an angel but God.”
Jesus the Truth
Whenever we think of Jesus as the ultimate, final truth, we may remember the confrontation at his trial before Pontius Pilate. The Roman governor had demanded to know if Jesus really thought himself a king. Jesus replied that his kingdom was not of this world. When Pilate responded doubtfully, Jesus related his kingship to the revelation of God’s truth in the world. He said, “For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth” (John 18:37). Christ reigns through God’s Word, because in Christ God has fully and ultimately revealed himself.
What a confrontation that was! Pilate represented the philosophy and wisdom of the world, with its relativism and cruel utilitarianism. Pilate was not able to accept that there could be truth at all. Looking into the very face of God’s Son, through whom God has revealed the ultimate truth, Pilate replied, “What is truth?” (John 18:38). This not only shows that what we call postmodernity, with its denial of truth, is really nothing new, but it also dramatizes the tragedy of our unbelieving world. Jesus put it this way: “This is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19). There before Pilate stood the very Truth of God, and there was Pilate denying even the possibility of truth.
Pilate thought he was judging Jesus, but with the Truth before him it was the governor who really was on trial. The same is true today. When you read or hear God’s message through his Son Jesus Christ, you stand before the Truth. If you reject him, God’s final Word, you consign yourself to darkness—the darkness of spiritual blindness now and the eternal darkness that comes in God’s final judgment.
But if you look to Jesus Christ, and if in him you see and believe the very Truth of God, then God’s redemptive work of the ages will be fulfilled in you. “At many times and in many ways,” God began preparing the world through the prophets for the coming of his Son. Why? So that in these last days—these days of God’s redemptive fulfillment in Jesus Christ—we might enter into the fullness of salvation. This is what Jesus said to the disciples as they struggled to know the truth on the night of his arrest. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” he told them (John 14:6). And so he is for us. When we receive Jesus as the Truth, then he becomes the Way for us to enter into Life everlasting. This is why Jesus is God’s final Word, and why even if all else in this world is lost we must hold fast to him in faith.
2. Whom he hath appointed heir, &c. He honours Christ with high commendations, in order to lead us to shew him reverence; for since the Father has subjected all things to him, we are all under his authority. 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 honour of possessing all things belongs by right to the Son, because by him have all things been created. At the same time, these two things are ascribed to Christ for different reasons.
The world was created by him, as he is the eternal wisdom of God, which is said to have been the director of all his works from the beginning; and hence is proved the eternity of Christ, for he must have existed before the world was created by him. If, then, the duration of his time be inquired of, it will be found that it has no beginning. Nor is it any derogation to his power that he is said to have created the world, as though he did not by himself create it. According to the most usual mode of speaking in Scripture, the Father is called the Creator; and it is added in some places that the world was created by wisdom, by the word, by the Son, as though wisdom itself had been the creator, [or the word, or the Son.] But still we must observe that there is a difference of persons between the Father and the Son, not only with regard to men, but with regard to God himself. But the unity of essence requires that whatever is peculiar to Deity should belong to the Son as well as to the Father, and also that whatever is applied to God only should belong to both; and yet there is nothing in this to prevent each from his own peculiar properties.
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 favour of God. We hence only then begin to enjoy by right the good things of God, when Christ, the universal heir, admits us into an union with himself; for he is an heir that he may endow us with his riches. But the Apostle now adorns him with this title, that we may know that without him we are destitute of all good things.
If you take all in the masculine gender, the meaning is, that we ought all to be subject to Christ, because we have been given to him by the Father. But I prefer reading it in the neuter gender; then it means that we are driven from the legitimate possession of all things, both in heaven and on earth, except we be united to Christ.
2 “The universe” at the end of v. 2 renders τοὺς αἰῶνας (tous aiōnas, GK 172), which elsewhere more often means “the ages.” In Jewish thought time was divided into two “ages,” “the present age” and “the age to come” (see 6:5), so that “the ages” taken together represent the totality of time but by transference can also be used of the whole physical creation. See 11:3 for the same use of τοὺς αἰῶνας, tous aiōnas, with reference to the original creation of the universe; cf. the title “King of the Ages” used for God, e.g., in 1 Ti 1:17. Paul speaks of this αἰῶν (aiōn) in parallel with this κόσμος (kosmos, “world,” GK 3180) in 1 Corinthians 1:20 and 3:18–19.
1:2 / In these last days (lit., “at the end of these days”) God has spoken through his Son. The writer uses eschatological language, that is, language of the last or end time, thereby affirming that we have entered the eschatological age. In other words, God’s plan has now come to fruition; we have entered a new age (cf. 9:26). A fundamental turning point has been reached as God speaks climactically, definitively, and finally through his Son. Any further speaking about what remains to happen in the future is but the elaboration of what has already begun. All that God did previously functions in a preparatory manner, pointing as a great arrow to the goal of Christ. This is the argument our author so effectively presents throughout the book. Christ is the telos, the goal and ultimate meaning of all that preceded.
But in what sense was the writer, or any of the writers of the nt for that matter, justified in referring to his time as the last days? The key to understanding this kind of statement (see also 4:3; 6:5; 9:26; 12:22ff.), is found in the theological ultimacy of Christ. There is no way our writer can have recognized the reality of Jesus Christ—who he is and what he has done—and not have confessed this to be the last time. The sense in which it is “last” is not chronological but theological. The cross, the death, and the exaltation of Jesus point automatically to the beginning of the end. Theologically we have reached the turning point in the plan that God has had all through the ages, so by definition we are in the last days. Eschatology is of one theological fabric: when God has spoken through his Son, the eschatological age has begun, and we are necessarily in the last days theologically. These are the last days because of the greatness of what God has done. The surprise is, of course, that this period of eschatological fulfillment is so prolonged that these last days are not necessarily (though for any age it may turn out that they are) the last days chronologically.
This book, this opening passage, and particularly verse 2, point to the centrality of the Son and the superiority of the Son to all that preceded, all that exists now, and anything that might exist in the future. God has now spoken to us climactically by his Son, in whom, as Paul puts it, all of God’s promises are “Yes” (2 Cor. 1:20). The very mention of the Son has strong ot messianic overtones, as is evident immediately in verse 5, which quotes Psalm 2:7, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father,” and 2 Samuel 7:14, “I will be his father, and he will be my son.” Indeed, the remainder of the chapter, with its numerous ot quotations, points to the unique identity of the Son as the Promised One, the Messiah designated by God to bring about the fulfillment of God’s great plan and purpose.
The true nature of the Son is then expounded in seven glorious phrases that portray his incomparable superiority. He is, in the first instance, the one whom he [God] appointed heir of all things. In the Hebrew culture, to be a son means to be an heir, especially when one is the only or unique son. Therefore, the Son of God, by virtue of his sonship, is appointed the one who will finally possess everything. To the messianic Son of Psalm 2:7 (quoted above) are also spoken the words, “Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession” (Ps. 2:8). The Son is thus of central significance at the beginning, in creation, and at the end, in inheritance. Paul’s language is parallel: “all things were created by him and for him” (Col. 1:16).
Second, the Son is described as the one through whom he [God] made the universe. The Son is God’s agent in the creation of the universe of all space and all time—in short, of all that exists. This view of Christ is present also in the Fourth Gospel (John 1:3, “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made”), and in Paul (Col. 1:16, “all things were created by him”; 1 Cor. 8:6 “through whom all things came”). The background of this view possibly lies in the concept of Divine Wisdom, which, personified, is instrumental in creation according to Proverbs 8:27–31 (cf. Wisd. of Sol. 9:1f., 9).
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.’
1:2–3. What God announced through the prophets was important. What he spoke through his Son was climactic, definitive, and superlative. We are living in the last days, not in a chronological sense but in a theological sense. Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension showed that we have entered new territory in God’s plans. In these final days God has spoken through his Son. God wants us to hear him. We had better listen. Anyone neglecting what Jesus says faces the spiritual danger of a driver crashing through road signs announcing, “Bridge out ahead!”
The overwhelming superiority of the Son is described with seven majestic phrases. The first two show the relationship of the Son to creation. Jesus is the heir of all things in that he will ultimately have control over all creation (Heb. 2:8). God worked through his Son to make the universe of time and space (Col. 1:16). The Son was God’s intermediate agent in creation.
The next two phrases show the Son’s relationship to the Father. As the radiance of God’s glory, the Son reflects God’s spotless purity; he shined into human hearts (John 1:9). As the exact representation of God’s being, the Son has the divine substance of the Father. This was a bold proclamation of Jesus’ deity. Jesus is God.
The fifth phrase shows something the Son is now doing in the world. God’s creative word formed the world of time and space (Heb. 11:3). The sustaining word of the Son maintains it. As the sustainer of the world, the Son carries God’s plan to its conclusion. With Jesus in charge we know that the world will not fall into utter chaos. God’s plans will triumph.
The sixth and seventh phrases focus on the redemptive work of Christ. The Son brought us God’s grace because his death removed the stain of sin. Jesus has provided purification for sins as an act of supreme grace without any merit on our part. After dealing with our sins, Jesus ascended the throne. In his resurrection and ascension he assumed a place of honor at God’s right hand. Today we proclaim him as Lord.
The Son is a Prophet through whom God spoke his final word to human beings. The Son is a Priest who has removed the blot of sin from our ledger. He is a King exalted by God to a supreme place of honor.
2a. But in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.
Although the contrast between the times before the coming of Christ and the appearance of Christ as the completion of God’s revelation is striking in verses 1 and 2, the continuity of this revelation is also significant. Both parts of God’s revelation form one unit because there is but one Author. There is but one God who reveals, and there is but one revelation. The Word spoken by God to the forefathers in the past does not differ basically from the Word spoken to us by his Son.
Yet in many ways the contrast between the first and the second verse is obvious. We may show the contrast graphically:
God has spoken
||OLD TESTAMENT ERA
|NEW TESTAMENT ERA
|at many times
|in various ways
|in the past
|in these last days
|to our forefathers
|through the prophets
|by his Son
The figure appears to be incomplete: the “how” on the Old Testament side does not have a New Testament counterpart. The phrase “at many times and in various ways” lacks a parallel. The writer is pointing out that the fullness of revelation is unique, final, and complete. He is not implying that the piecemeal revelation given through the prophets was inferior and that the revelation provided by the Son was without variation. Not at all. The many-sided revelation of God that came repeatedly to the forefathers in the ages before the birth of Christ was inspired by God. It was a progressive revelation that constantly pointed toward the coming of the Messiah. And when Jesus finally came, he brought the very Word of God because he is the Word of God. Therefore, Jesus brought that Word in all its fullness, richness, and multiplicity. He was the final revelation. As F. F. Bruce aptly remarks, “The story of divine revelation is a story of progression up to Christ, but there is no progression beyond Him.”
Jesus himself did not write a single verse of the New Testament; men designated by him and filled with the Spirit wrote God’s revelation. Jesus, the living Word, speaks to us because no one else possesses equal authority; “for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). By his Son, God addresses all believers. In these last days God has spoken to us by his Son. The phrase in these last days is set over against the phrase in the past and refers to the age in which the fulfillment of the messianic prophecies has taken place. This age waits for the liberation “from its bondage to decay” to be “brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21).
In the first two verses of Hebrews there is a contrast between the prophets, who were a distinct group of people chosen and appointed by God to convey his revelation, and the Son of God, who surpasses all the prophets because he is Son. In fact, all the emphasis in verse 2 falls on the word Son. There is, strictly speaking, only one Son of God; all others are created sons (angels) and adopted sons (believers). As God has spoken by his Son, so the Son has spoken by the apostles who, inspired by the Holy Spirit, wrote the books of the New Testament. The new revelation that God has given us in his Son is a continuation of the revelation given to the forefathers. God’s revelation, completed in his Son, is a unit, a harmonious totality in which the Old is fulfilled in the New.
2b. Whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe.
To express the excellence of the Son of God, the writer of Hebrews describes what God has done.
God appointed his Son heir of all things. An heir rightfully inherits whatever the father has stipulated in his will. As the one and only Son, Jesus thus inherits everything the Father possesses. Incomprehensible! Unfathomable!
The time when God appointed the Son heir of all things cannot be determined. The Son may have been appointed heir in God’s eternal plan. Or Jesus may have been appointed heir when in the fullness of time he entered the world, or when he pronounced the Great Commission: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt. 28:18).
The writer of Hebrews immediately clarifies the term all things by saying that God made the universe through his Son. The phrase obviously refers to the creation account in the first chapters of Genesis. Many people think that the New Testament, which speaks about redemption, has nothing to say about creation. However, the New Testament is not entirely silent on this subject; both Paul and the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews teach that Jesus was active in the work of creation. In his discussion about the supremacy of Christ, Paul teaches: “For by him all things were created …; all things were created by him and for him” (Col. 1:16). And John in his Gospel confirms the same truth: “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” (1:3).
Through his Son, God made the universe. It is impossible for man to understand the full import of this statement, but complete understanding is not the objective at this point. However, it is important to recognize the majesty of the Son of God, who was present at creation and is the sovereign Lord of all created things. He is God.
The word universe signifies primarily the cosmos, the created world in all its fullness, and secondarily all the stars and planets God has created. But the meaning is much more comprehensive than this, because it involves all the events that have happened since the creation of this world. It concerns the earth and its history throughout the ages. The word has been interpreted as “the sum of the ‘periods of time’ including all that is manifested in and through them.” It refers not to the world as a whole but to the entire created order that continued to develop in the course of time.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1983). Hebrews (pp. 5–7). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Phillips, R. D. (2006). Hebrews. (R. D. Phillips, P. G. Ryken, & D. M. Doriani, Eds.) (pp. 5–15). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.
 Calvin, J., & Owen, J. (2010). Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews (pp. 33–34). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
 France, R. T. (2006). Hebrews. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Hebrews–Revelation (Revised Edition) (Vol. 13, p. 39). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Hagner, D. A. (2011). Hebrews (pp. 22–23). 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.
 Lea, T. D. (1999). Hebrews, James (Vol. 10, p. 9). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
 Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953–2001). Exposition of Hebrews (Vol. 15, pp. 27–29). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.