Christmas Day: Nativity of Our Lord (III)

The opening of Hebrews is a celebratory declaration of Jesus’ substance, superior status, and activity.

The light shines in the darkness
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. - John 1:5 (Public domain image; licensed under CC0)

December 25, 2019

Second Reading
View Bible Text

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

The opening of Hebrews is a celebratory declaration of Jesus’ substance, superior status, and activity.

To substantiate its lofty Christological claims, the text utilizes comparisons, contrasts, scriptural quotes, and scriptural traditions. While Christian tradition has entitled this work as whole to be the “Letter to the Hebrews,” its opening lacks any of the standard features of a letter’s opening (for example, sender, addressee, greeting, thanksgiving). 

Instead, the opening is better understood as an exordium, that is, the introduction of a discourse or exposition that lays the foundation for what is to come. In this particular case, the foundation is the who and what of Jesus; even though, interestingly, the name “Jesus” is not used until 2:9. Instead, Jesus is depicted as “son” (Hebrews 1:2, 5, 8) which highlights the relational reality and intimacy he shares with God.

In the Greek, 1:1-4 is a long, elaborate, single sentence. It opens with a contrast between the means by which God has spoken to God’s people. In ancient times, God spoke in varied ways to the ancestors vis-à-vis the prophets (verse 1). Now in the eschatological age (which in Hebrews dawns with the death and exaltation of Jesus), God has spoken to us vis-à-vis the son (verse 2a). This fundamental contrast does not so much mean that God’s prior declarations were deficient as it means that what God has spoken in and through the son is the ultimate divine declaration. 

This contrast is immediately followed by a number of Christological depictions regarding the son and his ultimacy (verses 2b-3). God appointed the son to be the inheritor of all reality (recalling the divine promise of Psalm 2:8). Through the agency of the son, God created time and space (recalling the wisdom traditions of Proverbs 2:8; Sirach 24:1-2; Wisdom 8:3-6). The son manifests God’s glory, i.e., the form of God’s visible presence (see Exodus 16:7,10; 24:16; Leviticus 9:6; Numbers 14:10; 1 Kings 8:11). 

Using the imagery of the imprint on a coin or a seal, the text declares that the son is the imprint of God’s essence or being. Not only is the son the divine agent through whom everything was created, the son is the one who sustains everything by means of his powerful word. The son accomplished purification of sins (i.e., priestly atonement which will be explicated in Hebrews 9-10 and which recalls Exodus 30:10; Leviticus 16). Using imagery from Psalm 110:1, the son’s exaltation is depicted as him siting at the right hand of divine majesty. The extended, opening sentence concludes with another contrast; this time between the son and the angels. The son surpasses the status of angels because the son has inherited a superior name which in this context is “son.”

The reference to the angels in Hebrews 1:4 becomes a springboard for an extended chain of scriptural references in 1:5-14 used to highlight the superiority of the son compared to the angels. Whereas in verse 2, the text declared that God spoke to us in the person of the son, here God is speaking to the son by means of the scriptural quotations. The first two quotations come verbatim from Septuagint passages in Psalm 2:7 (“You are my son; today I have begotten you”) and 2 Samuel 7:14 (“I will be his father, and he will be my son”). In their original context, these are addresses to the Davidic kings. Here, however, they are unique divine communiques from God to God’s son thus demonstrating his superiority over the angels. 

At the beginning of verse 6, we are told what God declared when God brings God’s firstborn into the world (thus recalling the divine begetting of verse 5). When this “bringing” occurs is ambiguous. 

In the liturgical context of Christmas, the incarnation or birth of the son would be the clear reference. In light of Hebrews 1:2-3, however, it could well refer to the time of the son’s exaltation. In either case, the central focus is one God’s command from Psalm 96:7 (as found in the Septuagint or LXX) that the angels are to worship him (angels were not the worshiping beings in the original Hebrew text). In its original scriptural context, God is the object of such worship, but here it is God’s directive that the angels worship the son.

The Greek that opens Hebrews 1:7-9 establishes a deliberate contrast between what God says to the angels and what God says to the son. On the one hand, the angels are transitory beings of wind and fire (quoting Psalm 103:4 [LXX]; again the original Hebrew text did not refer to angels). On the other hand, God presents the son as both royalty (throne, scepter, kingdom in verse 8) and a deity (the Greek word theos is used three times in reference to the son) by quoting almost verbatim from Psalm 44:7-8 (LXX). 

Hebrews 1:10-12 is an extended (and almost verbatim) quoting of Psalm 101:26-27 (LXX). As before, that which originally was declared about God and God’s activity is now being applied to the son. He is Lord (verse 10). Earth and heaven are his handy-work (verse 10). That which he created is transitory so that they will perish and are comparable to foldable, changing articles of clothing (verses 11-12). The son, however, remains continuous (verse 11) and the same (verse 12) so that his years will never be terminated (verse 12 recalling the reference to “forever and ever” in verse 8).

The high, celebratory Christology within the opening verses of Hebrews is particularly suited for worship on the nativity of our Lord. 

Indeed, many of this passage’s theological claims dovetail with a Christmas hymn such as “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” The angels worship the son. The son is king. The son is the agent of atoning reconciliation. The son is the everlasting Lord. The son ushers in the eschatological age. The son is the incarnate deity. The son loves righteousness. The son is the creator of all things including life itself.

All that Hebrews 1 declares and celebrates about the son is precisely what we declare and celebrate about the son on Christmas Day.