The beginning of the book of Hebrews is epic:
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, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
Although where these four verses leave off leads directly into the rest of chapter 1, these four verses also stand alone effectively as an introduction to most of the entire book. I’ll explore these in detail shortly, but first want to comment on some of the general issues of the book.
Hebrews is usually listed as one of the New Testament epistles (or letters). However, given its writing style and introduction, it doesn’t seem like much of a letter. The ending is similar to other New Testament epistles, but that almost seems too little too late. Overall, the book of Hebrews reads more like a sermon. Given its ending, it seems likely that this was a sermon intentionally written for distribution among many Jewish Christians (similar to the large audiences intended by Peter and James’ epistles).
And that brings me to another trickier issue: who write this book? For much of the history of the Church, the general assumption has been to count it as an epistle of St. Paul. One of the Ecumenical Councils even put forth this assertion. Nevertheless, some of the Early Church Fathers and many recent biblical scholars do not believe that Paul was the author. The subject matter and writing style of Hebrews doesn’t really jive with Paul’s epistles. This doesn’t disprove Pauline authorship, but it does open the door of possibilities. Other names that have been suggested are Clement of Rome, St. Barnabus, Appolos, and St. Luke. To quote a 3rd century biblical scholar, Origen of Alexandria, “who actually wrote the epistle, only God knows.”
My last point I’d like to make before delving into analysis is the role of the book of Hebrews within the canon of the Christian Bible. No book focuses anywhere as clearly on the relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament as Hebrews does. I think this is because of the style – as a sermon, Hebrews constantly refers to Old Testament material and explains how it points to Christ. In so doing, we not only get a glimpse into the Jewish origins of Christianity, not only examples of how to interpret the OT like a Christian, but how the two testaments speak with one voice concerning the revelation of God to mankind.
So now to the introductory text of Hebrews.
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…
Here we start at the very beginning. Even before one can ask “who is God?” one must ask “how can I find out about God?” The book starts us off there – God is revealed through prophets, and later through his Son. Who is God’s Son? Read on!
…whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.
This is a big deal. God’s Son is set up to rule everything, all of creation. This makes him more authoritative than any other being. But more than that, God’s Son was also the instrument through which God created the world! That means that God’s Son is also older than all of creation. It was taught by Rabbis by the 1st century that angels were already present when the world was created. So when the book of Hebrews asserts that God created the world through his Son, this sets God’s Son in a position higher than even the holy angels. But more on that later; more is to be said about this Son.
He is the radiance of the glory of God…
Throughout the Old Testament are scattered stories of moments when God’s glory became visible. It happened for Moses at the burning bush, before all of Israel in the desert following a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, at the Temple when God’s glory entered it as a thick and impenetrable cloud, as well as when God left the Temple in Ezekiel’s vision. God is invisible, ineffable, too big and too holy to be seen. He warned even Moses that seeing his face would be deadly. And so only God’s glory could be seen, and even that only on rare occasions. God’s Son is the radiance of God’s glory. He’s an emanation of that visible cloudy fiery vision. In simpler terms, God is invisible, his glory is visible but cloudy and rare, but his Son is most clearly visible.
…and the exact imprint of his nature,
God’s Son is not just an extension of the murky cloud of God’s glory, though. He’s an exact imprint of who God is, or, as St. Paul told the Colossians, the image (or icon) of the Father. This means that when we look at God’s Son, we see God in a way that enables us to understand who he truly is without getting killed by his perfect holiness. Good deal.
…and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.
Oh by the way, just because God’s Son is visible and tangible, that doesn’t mean he is any less powerful! As Paul preached, in Christ we live and move and have our being. It’s the same idea here. Just as God created the world through his Son, his Son also continues to keep the world in existence.
After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high,
While on earth, God’s Son made purification for sins. This means he took the rule of a High Priest and made a sin offering that was effective for the sins of the whole world. A large portion of the book of Hebrews is devoted to this subject, setting out what it means, how it happened, and what it means for us. As for sitting at the right hand of the Majesty on high, two comments are in order. First, sitting in the home of anybody, especially enthroned kings, is not something one does without invitation. Thus God’s Son is clearly accepted by God as a partner of sorts. Secondly, sitting at the right hand means the same then as it does today: he’s God’s “right hand man!” This links back to when God’s Son was described as the heir of all things – God has prepared his Son to take up rulership of creation alongside him.
… having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
I told you we’d get back to this. Just in case God using his Son in the process of creation didn’t make the point clearly enough, it’s stated here explicitly: God’s Son is superior to the holy angels. Even his name – Jesus, which means “savior” – is a greater name than theirs. The word “angel” means “messenger.” Among the few named angels we know about, one is Michael (“one who is like God”) and another is Gabriel (“mighty one of God”). These are great names for sure, especially when we consider these names as descriptions of who they are rather than just what we call them, but they don’t measure up to Yeshua/Jesus/Savior and Messiah/Christ/Anointed.
From here, chapter one goes on to explore specific verses to demonstrate Christ’s superiority to the angels, but that’s all that needs to be said for now. In these four short verses, a lot has been said, and the major themes and concerns of the book have been laid out.