INTRODUCTION TO SERIES ON HEBREWS
The Letter to the Hebrews (NRSV)
In every English Bible ‘Hebrews’ is described as a letter. By contrast the Greek text is headed by the simple phrase ‘To the Hebrews’: it does not call it a letter – rather it is as a ‘message’ to the Hebrews, the form of which is left undefined.
The truth is that it is more of a sermon than a letter.
Letters normally begin with a greeting followed by a blessing or a thanksgiving.
For instance, Paul begins his first letter to the Corinthians by writing: “Paul and Sosthenes… to the church of God that is in Corinth… grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ…. I give thanks to my God always for you…..”
By contrast, Hebrews begins with a massive theological statement.
Only at the end of Hebrews do we have some features of a letter: “I appeal to you, brothers & sisters, bear with my word of exhortation, for I have written to you briefly. I want you to know that our brother Timothy has been set free; and if he comes in time, he will be with me when I see you. Greet all your leaders and all the saints. Those from Italy send you greetings. Grace be with you all” (Hebs 13.22-24). In today’s terms, this is simply a forwarding device. We have here a sermon forwarded to a group of Christian believers.
The Epistle of Paul to the Hebrews (AV)
In the earliest extant text of Paul’s letters (p46), dated around 200 AD, Hebrews was listed as one of Paul’s letters. However, right from those early days Christian scholars questioned this ascription. The Alexandrian church father, Origen (185-253) speculated that perhaps Luke or Clement might have been the author, but then added “But who wrote the epistle, in truth God [only] knows”.
Today we are still no wiser: some modern scholars suggest that Apollos was the author. We don’t know. All we can say is that we have here a creative theologian. Or in the words of Luke Johnson: “The most important thing Hebrews tells us about the author whoever he was, is that in the first decades of the Christian movement, another remarkable mind and heart besides Paul’s was at work in interpreting the significance of the crucified and raised Messiah Jesus for the understanding of Scripture, of the world and of human existence”.
To whom was this sermon addressed? I see no reason to question the traditional view that the Hebrews were a group of Jewish Christians, living perhaps in Rome, who were being tempted to give up on their Christian faith and instead return to the faith of their fathers.
Hence the constant reference to the superiority of Christ – and to the perils of apostasy.
The general consensus that the letter was written after the great fire of Rome (A64) which resulted in the persecution of the church, and before the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in AD 70. In this regard the references to persecution (10.32-34; 12.4), torture & imprisonment (10.33-34; 13.3) and abuse (13.13) are significant.
HEBS 1.1-2: GOD HAS SPOKEN
In the original Greek all four verses form one long convoluted sentence.
However, as nothing compared with some German authors. Kant often wrote sentences that were two pages in length!
1. The God who speaks
God spoke to our ancestors – God has spoken to us by his Son
The God of the Bible is a God who speaks.
Thomas Long (Interpretation commentary): “God is pictured not as a silent and distant force, impassively regulating the universe, but as a talker, as One who has been speaking, arguing, pleading, wooing, commanding, telling stories, conversing, and generally spinning words across the lines between heaven and earth since the beginning of time.”
“God spoke” – and God continues to speak to his people, not least through the reading and exposition of Scripture. It is not for nothing that we refer to the Bible as ‘God’s Word’.
2. God speaks through the Old Testament
“Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets” (v1)
When the writer to the Hebrews speaks of God speaking to the prophets, he is not just thinking of the prophets featured in the second half of the OT – for people like Moses, Samuel and Elijah were also regarded as prophets. I.e. The whole of the OT is a record of God’s self-revelation – it is a record of God’s speaking to his people.
“In various ways”: Our text recognises that there was no one way in which God spoke.
- On the one hand he spoke in the storm and thunder to Moses; yet on the other hand he spoke in a still small voice to Elijah.
- God spoke to some through extraordinary visions, dreams, and signs. Yet God also spoke to others through their ordinary everyday experiences of life; while to yet others he spoke into the innermost recesses of their minds and hearts, as they wrestled with the issues of the day.
In speaking to the prophets God did not reveal all of himself. God did not speak fully.
The writer is not being dismissive of the OT – Hebs is full of OT quotations. But he is quite clear that the OT is an ‘incomplete book’
This comes out clearly in the translation adopted by the NEB (as distinct from REB): “He spoke in fragmentary (polumeros) and varied (polutropos) fashion through the prophets”. Literally polumeros: “in many parts & pieces”
We see this perhaps in the way in which the prophets are often characterised by one dominant idea: e.g.
- Amos is essentially one long cry for social justice
- Isaiah, after his experience in the Temple where he had a vision of the holiness of God, is not surprisingly dominated by this idea of the holiness of God
- Hosea, because of his own bitter home experience, realised something of the wonder of the grace of God – he came to see something of the forgiving love of God.
Each prophet, out of his own experience of life and out of the experience of Israel, grasped and expressed a fragment, or a part of the truth of God.
The fact that their understanding of God was fragmentary and partial should not lead us to despise or underrate their words. The OT may not contain the whole truth, but it does contain truth – truth concerning the nature of God which is still of utmost significance and relevance.
The OT is the story of God’s progressive revelation – at each stage truth was present, but it was not the whole story. Until the coming of Jesus, God’s Son, the story was incomplete.
3. God has spoken through Jesus – his Son
“But in these last days he has spoken to us by a [GNB/REB his] Son (v2a).
[NB “These last days” – God has fulfilled his promises uttered through the prophets].
The NRSV translation is a little pedantic. It is true that there is no definite article. However, the implication is not that Jesus is ‘one son among many’. Rather see here the exalted status of God’s messenger. Jesus is “one who is a son” – and not just a prophet.
Jesus is God’s final and definitive Word.
The importance of Jesus lies in not what he said, but in who he was and what he did. Clearly the teachings of Jesus are invaluable for our understanding of the nature of God and of what God would have us to be. But if the significance of Jesus resulted solely in his teaching – was to be found only in his word – he would still be just a prophet, albeit the greatest of prophets. God spoke through his very life and being. For whereas the prophets were but friends of God, Jesus was the Son of God. As the Son of God Jesus was able to reveal the Father in a way previously unknown.
HEBS 1.3: TO SEE JESUS IS TO SEE GOD
The unique nature of the person of Jesus is emphasised through Hebs description of Jesus as “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being
- Jesus mirrors God. The first phrase (apaugsma tes doxes) has been translated in different ways: He is the reflection of God’s glory (NRSV). “He is the effulgence of God’s splendour” (NEB) “He is the radiance of God’s glory” (REB/NIV); He reflects the brightness of God’s glory” GNB). Or as Peterson puts it; “Jesus perfectly mirrors God” (The Message).
Some people don’t like mirrors – it shows them as they are, warts and all. It shows them how ugly they are. But there is nothing off-putting about the reflection of Jesus. Jesus shows us what God is like in all his amazing glory.
How is this possible? In the OT the glory of God was overwhelming to the point of being terrifying – people couldn’t look at God and live. REO White: “As smoked glass, at the time of an eclipse, allows the safe study of the sun’s ‘corona’, so Jesus makes the divine glory bearable to human eyes: we cannot bear to gaze upon the sun’s full splendour, but we can live in sunlight, shining through Jesus Christ”.
Jesus helps us see God safely. To see Jesus is to see God wonderfully in action.
- Jesus is the spitting image of God (character tes hupostaseos autou). He is the exact imprint of God’s very being” (NRSV); He is ‘the stamp of God’s very being (NEB/REB); “He is the exact likeness of God’s own being” (GNB); ‘the exact representation of his being’; ‘He is stamped with God’s nature’ (The Message)
The underlying Greek word (character) was used of the impression of a metal stamp on a coin. In the days when this letter was written emperors would employ an engraver to carve their portrait on a stamp made of hard metal. He would then use this stamp to make the coin – when you looked at the coin you would see a picture of the emperor. Similarly, if you look at Jesus, you see exactly what God is like.
To see Jesus is to see God.
So the great Christ-hymn of Col declares: “He is the image of God” (Col 1.15)
“No one has ever seen God. The only Son, who is the same as God and is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1.18). What a claim to make of a man still within the living memory of many! But then, this was a claim that Jesus made of himself: “Whoever has seen me, has seen the Father” (John 14.9)
HEBS 1.3B – 14: JESUS IS LORD
Hebs goes on to make five amazing claims for Jesus:
He is the agent of creation: “[whom he appointed heir of all things,] “through whom he also created the worlds” (NRSV) – Hebs uses an unusual word for ‘world’ (aoines/eons) and employs the plural to emphasise the all-encompassing nature of the creation – “the whole created universe of time and space”. The same thought is found in John 1 & Col 1. John 1.1-3: “In the beginning was the Word… All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being”; Col 1.16: “In him all things in heaven and on earth were created… all things have been created through him and for him”. What an amazing person Jesus is!
He is the heir of all: whom he appointed heir of all things (NRSV); “the one whom God has chosen to possess all things at the end (GNB). Here we have an allusion to Psalm 2, where the Lord’s anointed is acclaimed as God’s Son.
He is ‘heir’ of everything precisely because he is the mediator of creation.
He is the sustainer of all: “he sustains all things by his powerful word” (NRSV); “sustaining the universe with his powerful word” (GNB); “he holds everything together” (The Message). See Col 1.17: “in him all things hold together”.
He is involved not just in the beginning and the end, but also in everything in-between.
Here creation is viewed not just as a one-off event, but as a continuous process. God didn’t just set off the world in motion – he is involved in the whole evolutionary process.
FFB: “He upholds the universe not like Atlas supporting a dead weight on his shoulders, but as One who carries all things forward on their appointed course”.
He is the Lord of all: “When he had made 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” (NRSV). In the NT the resurrection & ascension are seen as one and are viewed as the moment when Jesus was crowned Lord of all.
Sere Phil 2.9-11: “Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend…”
Rom 1.4: “he was declared Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord”. FFB: “The eternity of Christ’s divine sonship is not brought into question by this view: the suggestion rather is that he who was the Son of God from everlasting entered into the full exercise of all the prerogatives implied by his sonship when… he was raised to the Father’s right hand”.
He is one with the Father: v8: “But of the Son he says, ‘Your throne, O God, is for ever and ever, and the righteous sceptre is the sceptre of your kingdom’” (1.8). With this quotation from Ps 45, Hebs makes a direct equation of Jesus with God. Not that Hebs is unaware of the humanity of Jesus – indeed he emphasises this aspect more than any other NT writer. But for him Jesus is both ‘God and man’.
FOR REFLECTION AND DISCUSSION:
- How long would it have taken for this sermon to be preached? What a contrast with the length – and style – of many sermons today! How do you respond to the comment, ‘sermonettes breed Christianettes’?
- The OT is a record of God speaking. We cannot therefore abandon the OT and kick it into touch. Marcion, an early church ‘heretic’, not only sought to do away with the OT, but also cut out every reference to the OT in the NT. How seriously should we take the OT today?
- Tom Wright once likened Jesus to being ‘a chip off the old block’. To what extent is that a helpful way of understanding the divinity of Christ?
- R.J. Berry, a former London university prof of genetics: “To most people in the West, Christianity is not so much wrong as unnecessary. There is no need to believe in a first cause who is impotent in the world he created. But Darwin has forced us to recognise that any religion worth serious consideration is one where the God is in constant control of every day events”. In what sense do you understand Jesus as sustaining all things?