Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Hebrews 1:1-4 introduces a contrast that is the central theme throughout Hebrews: the climactic revelation of God in Christ, surpassing every way that God spoke and worked prior to Christ’s coming.

October 7, 2012

Second Reading
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Commentary on Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12

Hebrews 1:1-4 introduces a contrast that is the central theme throughout Hebrews: the climactic revelation of God in Christ, surpassing every way that God spoke and worked prior to Christ’s coming.

The opening affirmation in verse 1 that God spoke through the prophets is important.

While Hebrews as a whole is written to demonstrate Christ’s superiority to the old covenant, the reality and truth of the old covenant prior to Christ’s coming is a foundational assumption. Thus the old-new contrast presented in Hebrews is not between bad and good but between good and superlative. It was no easy thing for God’s revelation in Christ to surpass the old ways — but it is wonderful that it does!

Verses 2-4 present a series of assertions about Christ that establish this surpassing quality. Each describes aspects of Christ’s status as God’s Son, distinguishing Christ from the prophets. NRSV readers may be surprised that Christ is referred to as “a” Son of God in verse 2, rather than “the” Son (most other translations add “his,” though there is no such word in the Greek), but the point the verse makes is about the superiority of sonship to being a prophet as a mode of revelation; it is not making a direct trinitarian assertion (even if we suggest that the verse ultimately does point to the idea of the Trinity).

However valuable and important the prophets were as spokespersons for God, we would not claim that any was “heir of all things” or involved in the act of creation (verse 2). These two points together establish Christ’s presence at the beginning and the end, or as Revelation puts it, the Alpha and Omega (Revelation 22:13). Verse 3 adds Christ’s role between the two end points, asserting that “Christ sustains all things by his powerful word.” The three claims combine to make a powerful statement about the Son’s preeminent role and activity in creation throughout time.

Such a claim of sweeping preeminence makes no sense apart from an understanding of the Son’s relationship to God, and verse 3 thus supplies this understanding. The Son is “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.” Such emphasis on the unity of Christ and God is also seen in Colossians 1:16-20 and in the sublime phrase of 2 Corinthians 4:6, “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

Meditation on the full meaning of such phrases is a worthy occupation; here we simply note that this close, close relationship between Christ and God is a distinguishing feature of Christ’s identity and, for the argument of Hebrews, an important distinction between Christ as the agent of God’s revelation and anything that came before. The language is borrowed from Jewish traditions about Wisdom (see Proverbs 8:27-31 and the apocryphal Wisdom 7:25-26).

The latter part of verse 3 adds that Christ “made purification for sins” and “sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” To the previous claims focusing on who Christ is, these add the chief elements for Hebrews of what Christ did. The notion of Christ having provided purification for sins is not elaborated on in these early chapters of Hebrews, but it is a major point of chapters 5-10.

Christ’s exalted status at God’s right hand ties back into the first claim in verse 2 that he is the “heir of all things.” It is an image from Psalm 110:1, a psalm treated throughout Hebrews and the New Testament broadly as a messianic prophecy. It also provides the main basis for the claim here in verse 4 that Christ is superior to the angels — the angels no more sitting at God’s right hand than the prophets were the imprint of God’s being.

The comparison to angels in verse 4 becomes the link to the second part of the lectionary text, 2:5-12. In fact, the rest of chapter one is occupied with demonstrating Christ’s superiority to angels. This topic is continued in 2:5, which points out that God “did not subject the coming world…to angels.” The obvious tacit implication here is that Christ is the one to whom the coming world is subjected. This idea picks up again on Christ being the “heir of all things” from 1:2 and being seated at God’s right hand from 1:3. In the new world, the coming kingdom of God, Christ will be over all.

The rest of chapter 2 stems from what would have been to the original audience of Hebrews a natural question at this point: How can Christ be superior to angels when he was a human being? Angels live in the presence of God and are naturally superior to humans. How can Christ’s humanity be reconciled with this superior status? The basic answer provided by Hebrews is that in order for Christ to atone for the sins of humans, he had to share in their humanity. Therefore Christ’s humanity does not detract from his superiority.

Hebrews 2:6b-8a quotes Psalm 8, and the first part of the quote is translated in the RSV as, “What is man that thou art mindful of him, or the son of man, that thou carest for him? Thou didst make him for a little while lower than the angels”; most other English translations translate similarly. With this translation, the interpretation of the psalm seen provided in Hebrews is that Jesus, the Son of Man referred to in the psalm, was temporarily made lower than the angels when he became human in fulfillment of this psalm’s prophecy. He had to become human, as the rest of chapter 2 explains, in order to save humankind.

The NRSV, however, provides a different interpretation. “Son of man” is seen in Hebrews to have the same meaning as in the original Hebrew context of the psalm, i.e. simply a poetic reference to human beings. The contrast in 2:6-8 is therefore not between Jesus and angels but between humans and angels. Jesus and humans are then related to each other in verses 9c-12 — Jesus’ own exaltation resulted in the exaltation of humans. The NRSV’s reading is possible, but most interpreters today believe the RSV understanding is the correct one (the NRSV does allow for the RSV reading in footnotes). It fits better with the overall question of verse 2 — why was Jesus made human?

Verses 10-12 focus the question of Jesus’ humanity specifically on his suffering. As the “pioneer” (or perhaps “author”; Gk arch¬¬ēgos) of human salvation, it was necessary for Jesus to have the full human experience (see 2:17), including death. Therefore Jesus is even said to be “made perfect” through his suffering.

Christians today often stumble over the idea of Jesus having to be made perfect, but the claim here is merely about Jesus’ being fitted to his task. Perfection here is not about sin or morals or anything else regarding his character — it is about Jesus perfectly fulfilling his role in salvation, a role which requires him to enter the full human experience.

In that sense his experience of suffering and death truly was a matter of achieving perfection. Verses 11-12 then affirm Jesus’ solidarity with humankind: He calls us his brothers and sisters. The affirmation points both to God’s love for us in saving us and to our sharing in Jesus’ preeminence in the coming kingdom.