Commentary on Hebrews 1:1-4 [5-12]
Many religious and ethnic communities have intricate celebrations for the declaration of a new family member’s name.1
Even for those who do not have such rituals, deciding upon and revealing the name of one’s child remains one of the most important moments in the process of becoming a parent. Hebrews 1, especially when it serves as the text for Christmas day, allows readers to listen in on God’s announcement of the name of his Son.
The poetically beautiful first sentence of the Epistle to the Hebrews (yes, all four verses comprise only one sentence!) proclaims the magnificence of the Son of God in incomparably majestic prose. The sentence tells his story from time immemorial before the creation of the world up to his present reign during the time of the author.
Beginning with a series of words with a “p” sound (a technique that revealed the author’s rhetorical finesse), the author contrasts God’s speech through the prophets and God’s speech through a Son. Through the prophets God spoke in a variety of ways long ago to the ancestors. Through the Son, God has spoken in one single medium in recent times to the audience themselves. In the midst of this contrast, however, the author shows a similarity between the two events. In both instances, it is God who is doing the speaking. Although God is doing something new in the Son, his action in Jesus Christ gives evidence of the consistency of his character as revealed through his interactions with the people of Israel.
The Story of the Son
Once the author introduces the Son, he appends a series of phrases (seven of them) to describe the Son. First, the author proclaims that God has appointed him as heir; just what one would expect a father to do for his son. The striking thing about Jesus’ inheritance is that it is completely comprehensive. He is heir of all things! When one is the Son of God supreme this incomparable inheritance makes sense.
Second, not only does Jesus stand to inherit all things, he also had a hand in creating them. The author doesn’t go into much detail here, but it is clear that he believed that Jesus participated in the creation of the world. Added to that, the author claims that he shines forth the glory of God and gives an image of God’s being; just as the imprint left by a stamp reflects the stamp itself.
Finally, Jesus upholds all things. He was there at the beginning of creation, will inherit all things at the end, and presently upholds all things (check out similar language in the first chapter of Colossians). The author of Hebrews will return to this idea near the end of the letter where he claims that Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever (13:8). Jesus interacts with creation in these exalted ways because he shares the radiance and even very being of God.
In the middle of verse 3, the author shifts perspective from the expansive to the particular. The Son also made purification for sins, the first allusion to Hebrews’ extensive discussion of Jesus’ priestly offering. After he did so, he sat down at the right hand of God, a place of honor second only to God himself. In this location, it is very clear that Jesus is better than even the angels. In the ontological hierarchy of the ancient world, the only thing more exalted than angels was God himself. If Jesus is right next to God, then he is above the angels, a powerful claim to make for a human man. He earns this place above the angels, the author says, because he has inherited a better name than the name the angels have.
What’s His Name?
If Jesus is better than the angels because of the name he has inherited, many interpreters assume that name must be “Son.” They have good reason for doing so. Right after making the statement about his inherited name in verse 4, the author presents two verses from Israel’s Scriptures that God has spoken to his Son. In the first, from Psalm 2:7, God declares, “You are My Son; Today I have begotten You” (NASB). In the original language, “Son” is the very first word in God’s statement.
The second citation from 2 Samuel 7:14 conveys a similar idea. God says, “I will be a father to him, and he will be a Son to me” (NASB). The angels do many important things for God, but God never ordains them as his sons. Hence, the argument goes, the name “Son” makes Jesus better than the angels.
On the other hand, there are a few places in the Old Testament where angels themselves are referred to as sons of God (e. g. Genesis 6:2; Deuteronomy 32:8, 43; Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7; Psalm 29:1; 82:6; 89:7). Moreover, several interpreters of Hebrews have wondered if “Son” is really a name. Richard Bauckham cogently argues the point, “…the Son is the one who inherits the name from his father, not what he inherits. What he inherits must be something that belongs to his Father, whereas ‘Son’ is uniquely the Son’s title.”2 If the name “Son” wouldn’t adequately distinguish Jesus from the angels, and if “Son” really isn’t a name but a title, what could his better name be?
In the following verses of Hebrews 1, the author allows his readers to hear the voice of God speaking a series of Scriptures to Jesus. He commands the angels to worship him, declares that his throne is eternal, asserts that Jesus will endure forever, and invites Jesus to sit at his right hand until all his enemies are placed under his feet. Twice during this speech, God addresses Jesus directly and he employs two different names: God (theos) and Lord (kurios), the same names which Scriptures use for God himself.
It seems then, that Jesus, as the Son of God, inherits the name of his Father, just as our sons and daughters inherit our family names. Since God is known as theos kurios his Son bears the same name. The author of Hebrews allows us to hear God announcing his name. The awesome thing Christmas celebrates is that the little baby born in a simple village as a displaced peasant bears the very name of God.
1. This commentary was first published on this site on Dec. 25, 2012.
2. Jesus and the God of Israel: God Crucified and Other Studies on the New Testament’s Christology of Divine Identity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 239.