Christmas Day: Nativity of Our Lord (III)

Hebrews is a rich writing that presents a plethora of puzzles to the interpreter of the text.

December 25, 2009

Second Reading
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Commentary on Hebrews 1:1-4 [5-12]

Hebrews is a rich writing that presents a plethora of puzzles to the interpreter of the text.

In the first place is the question of authorship and on that issue one frequently finds commentators citing the statement of Origen, “Who wrote this epistle, God knows the truth” — meaning that it was God alone who really knew. Regarding the letter in general, many readers would join in Origen’s bafflement, but by saying, “What this epistle means, only God knows.” Nevertheless, certain prominent features of the letter stand out, so that identifying them assists the reader of Hebrews in making sense of this substantial writing.

Hebrews contains at least three kinds of material: theological reflection, biblical citation and interpretation, and exhortation. These elements of the letter are related to one another in an intricate fashion that is sometimes not apparent to the current-day reader of the epistle. Yet, identifying the kind of material and its function in the letter assists us in “making sense of” the text.

The main epistolary text for the Christmas Day celebration is Hebrews 1:1-4, a portion of the letter that is often referred to by interpreters as an “exordium.” According to the norms of ancient rhetoric, an exordium was an introductory statement designed to make the audience (reader/s) open to the balance of what the author/speaker had to say. Hebrews 1:1-4 is a long, polished single sentence in Greek. It is written in a formal, poetic style that seems designed to capture the attention and the imagination of anyone reading or hearing these lines.

In essence, verses 1-4 form a lofty Christological statement that is designed to register the superiority of God’s Son. Verse 1 looks back into the past to God’s manifold actions through the prophets in relation to the ancestors (of the Jews) and takes its point of departure from observing that previous activity of God. As the author looks back and invites us to join him in viewing what God did in the past, we should understand that the author is pointing to the great and good (not inferior or bad) past actions of God in relation to humanity.

Nevertheless, in verse 2 the author continues by introducing still further action of God (“in these last days”) that transpires in God’s work in and through God’s Son. Then, having introduced God’s Son into the picture, the ensuing verses continue by speaking of the Son and the particular characteristics that set him apart from all else. Remarkably, the Christology that these verses express is about as “high” as anything in the New Testament (and the rest of early Christian writing for that matter). Interpreters form many comparisons between the statements about Christ in these verses and statements in Wisdom literature, especially as regards the figure of Wisdom in those writings.

Perhaps, above all else, the Son is said to be “heir of all things.” Inheritance was of supreme importance in ancient culture and establishing lines of connection between the parental figure/s and the heir/s was taken with utmost seriousness, for only the recognized and designated heir could inherit the parental estate at the death of the parent/s. Remarkably, God does not die, so that the Son enters his heir-ship through his own death. The remainder of verses 2-4 celebrate what it means that the Son of God is heir: The statements that follow recognize the Son (Christ) as Creator (the one through whom God created the world), Revealer (he reflects the glory [of God] and bears the very stamp of God’s nature), Sustainer (he upholds the universe by his word of power), Redeemer (he made purification for sin), Exalted One (he sat/sits on the right hand of the majesty on high). Finally, he is superior to the angels, as his name is more excellent than theirs — that is, he is the Son, not merely a messenger (even if it God’s own messengers from on high). The statements about the Son are in essence a catalogue of his divine identity, recognizing both who he is and what he has done.

With the mention of the angels and the statement that the Son is superior to the angels, the author moves to give biblical evidence for the claim that has just been made (that is, the Son is greater than the angels). Hebrews 1:5-12 cite a variety of passages from Jewish scriptures — Psalm 2; 2 Samuel 7; 1 Chronicles 17; Deuteronomy 32; Psalm 96; Psalm 103; Psalm 44; and Psalm 101. The author’s use of these passages from Jewish scripture does not follow the norms of modern-day historical-critical interpretation of these ancient texts; but at the same time the author does not simply offer a batch of proof-texts. Rather, Hebrews 1:5-12 presents an elaborately woven tapestry of statements, texts, and interpretations.

The most immediately apparent point is that God’s Son is superior to the angels, but in the course of making that statement and registering its truth through the citation and interpretation of scripture, the author tells us still further things about the Son: First, the Son was begotten by God — an idea expressed in language similar to that of the Synoptic Gospels in the story of Jesus’ baptism.

The author of Hebrews does not state when the Son was begotten and that has allowed much theological speculation and argument. Nevertheless, the comparison of this line with the foregoing statement in 1:1-4 might best support a connection to resurrection and exaltation — although the lectionary may have in mind the birth/incarnation of Jesus.

The remainder of the statements in verses 5-12 make clear that God is Father to the Son, that the Son was the “firstborn” into the world (another statement that generates much speculation and argument), that the Son was/is worshipped by angels, that the Son reigns eternally, that the Son is indeed eternal while creation itself is but temporal in nature. In the mix of these statements, verse 8 may be a statement (again, speculation and arguments occur) that the Son is God.

All these themes are suggestive for preaching on Christmas Day. The preacher is confronted by a proverbial embarrassment of riches. Prudence will require discipline in selecting and developing one or another (or more) of the themes in this lesson.