By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
October 3, 2021
Hebrews 1:1–4, 2:5-12 (ESV)
1 Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, 2 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. 3 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, 4 having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
5 For it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come, of which we are speaking. 6 It has been testified somewhere, “What is man, that you are mindful of him, or the son of man, that you care for him? 7 You made him for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned him with glory and honor, 8 putting everything in subjection under his feet.” Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. 9 But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. 10 For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. 11 For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, 12 saying, “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.”
Last week we completed a series on the general letter written by James, Jesus’s brother and today we begin in another general letter. The general or catholic letters are letters usually written to the entire Christian community instead of a single church or region, like the letters that Paul wrote. When Paul wrote his letters, he wrote for specific reasons, and covered certain issues that were happening in those regions. For example, the church in Ephesus was a church that was facing a schism. They were dividing along lines that had nothing to do with the Gospel. They were dividing along prejudices and social hierarchy, reverting to a lifestyle where acceptance was no longer based on the Spirit of God but the wisdom of men. We get an additional glimpse of this in Revelation, where Jesus tells the church of Ephesus that they had wonderful doctrine and would not be swayed by false teachers, but they had left their first love. They had forgotten what is most important. They no longer valued the things that God valued. James wrote a letter similar, but even to this day we have scholars that are troubled by James. They want to say James was teaching something that was different than what Paul taught, and I hope that as we concluded the series on James you were able to see that James and Paul taught similar ideas, they traveled a different pathway to get to the same conclusion.
Hebrews is like James in this regard. James was written to the church that was Jewish. It was penned while the followers of Jesus were still part of the synagogues and only in the last chapter did James begin to refer to the assembly of the disciples of Christ with a term that broke away from the traditional religious community. And he wrote in this way to show us that the church is to break away from the religious traditions and should focus on participating in the continued ministry of Christ. Hebrews is also a general letter written to the church from a distinctly Hebrew perspective.
I mention this so that we can set our mind in the proper context. Many of the concepts we will encounter in the letter to the Hebrews, speak to those that understand first century Jewish faith, and not necessarily Gentile philosophy. This has brought into question, who wrote this book? It might seem like a crazy question, but we do not know. In most letters, the author is mentioned by name so that we know where the authority is coming from. James introduces his letter by saying, “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion.” And Paul will often introduce his letter by saying something like “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to the saints who are in …” or “Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus.” But the Letter to the Hebrews begins in a unique way. “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.”
There is not introduction to who the author is it just jumps right into the discussion. And this leaves scholars wondering who wrote the letter. The earliest suggestion is that Paul wrote the letter and that is the primary reason of its acceptance into the cannon of scripture, but universally today this is not accepted. There are many reasons for this, in every writing from Paul he is more than willing to put his name on what he writes. This is largely because so many of the conflicts within the church were that the churches started by Paul had less authority than the ones started by one of the twelve apostles. This is why Paul often states that he is an apostle called by the will of God. Beyond Paul, some of the names that have been put forth for consideration are Peter, Barnabas, Priscilla, Mary, Jesus’s other brother Jude, Apollos, and several others. The interesting thing is that the author did not use the weight of their position for authority, but the words expressed. This is unique to this letter, and really to most of New Testament writings in general along with the works that were written after the apostolic age. Most of the Christian and Gnostic writings we have found seek to claim some apostle for credibility, the Gospel of Thomas, or the Gospel of Mary, each claim to be gaining the authority of their writing from some historical figure, but the words contradict what is written and testified by the apostles, so they were rejected. But the letter to the Hebrews does not have any claim, it simply presents its case to the readers and leaves the reader to determine the authority of what is written.
The words though have deep meaning to the community of believers. It seems to be written in a manner to defend the authority of Christ over the teachings of the first century religious culture. The writer has a strong understanding of the history and the temple practices. There is something interesting about this though, the discussion uses the Greek translation of scripture call the Septuagint instead of the Hebrew text. This may indicate that the author was not from the territory we know as Israel, but instead from one of the Jewish colonies outside of Palestine. This would suggest that someone like Apollos would be a prime candidate for writing the letter, but again the author does not necessarily make a difference, but the focus is on the words written. It could be argued that the letter was written to encourage those earliest followers of Jesus to remain steadfast in their faith and not to return the religious traditions of their ancestors. Since there is a great deal of emphasis on the cultic practices of religious observance it does suggest that it was written early, even prior to the destruction of the temple. And many of the arguments are pointing to Jesus as being the fulfillment and the culmination of all the sacrifices of the temple. And because of the wide acceptance of this letter, this could be why so many of the early Christian writings do not place a great deal of emphasis on the temple destruction because it no longer held any authority over them.
This letter was written to point us to Christ our God, King, and Priest. It was written to express and teach that it is through Christ that we have our hope and only through Christ. According to the author of Hebrews, Christ is greater than all the prophets and priest, even greater than the Law Giver, because Christ is God.
“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.”
This introductory paragraph is filled with theological imagery, and we can see how the author is beginning to link everything that he will say to the words of the Old Testament. The author is calling the people, who because of the subject matter at hand, are from a Jewish tradition, to look at what is being said through their knowledge of their own scriptures. Are the teachings of Christ based on the teachings of the law and prophets? Do the teachings of the church complement and complete the teachings of the Hebrew people? These are questions that scholars and theologians have been struggling with since the first century. And we still struggle with this because many of us do not look at scripture through the understanding of the first century Israelite. What did they teach about God? What did Jesus do to exhibit his claims and attract their malice?
There is something profound happening in the community of the faithful. The Gospels tell us of the life and works of Christ, and the book of Acts continues to show us that even after the ascension of Jesus, the work continues. This man, Jesus, a common carpenter, began teaching without any traditional authority accepted within the community, and his words and works were fascinating. He spoke with an authority beyond human reason, and the signs pointed to something greater. Yet the religious leaders were fearful of what might happen if this man from common origin gained greater influence. So, they sought to silence the teacher.
Their actions did not silence the teacher. What was once a single man walking through the country then rose to be hundreds. All teaching in the authority of this man. And they backed up what they said with miraculous feats like the one they paid homage. All these teachers were of common stock. Fisherman, tax collectors, common rebels, and laborers. The only thing that connected them with anything was that they followed this man named Jesus. The author of Hebrews recognizes this phenomenon, and he says in these last days he, God, has spoken to us by his son. This is important because of what comes next.
He is the radiance of the glory of God. This term radiance is one that is interesting. It is not something commonly used outside of scripture and is exclusively used in wisdom writings of the second temple period as well as in the works of Philo of Alexandria, who was a prominent Jewish teacher among the Hellenistic Jews living in Dispersion. This word refers to effulgence, which is radiant splendor, or shining light. It can also refer to reflection, or image, but is by in large used in reference to the wisdom of God in relation to the world. In the second verse, the author said that through the Son God created the world. This is connected to this word radiance because the words spoken to bring about the first aspect of creation, light, is often regarded as the beginning of wisdom and word and light are symbols of that divine wisdom that brought about all things. He is the radiance of God. This Son, Jesus, is the light of God, he is the word of God, he is the one through which all wisdom emerged.
Radiance is a particularly important word, but there is more. “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature.” The next word of interest is glory. He is the radiance of the glory of God. Glory is a word we do not use much in our contemporary language. But it is significant. In much of ancient Greek writings, the word glory refers to what one thinks, or their opinion. It is their nature or the things they represent or hold to be important. Glory takes on a bit of a different nature when the word is used in scripture. This word was used in the Septuagint in reference to the radiance of Moses’s face after he emerged from the tent of meeting. So, within the religious scheme of thinking glory became a word of honor and reputation. The glory of God became a reflection of God’s being and nature. So, radiance and glory are connected in Hebrews saying that this divine light and word is the nature and honor of who God truly is.
Next, we come to exact imprint of His nature. The concept surrounding the word imprint comes from the forms used to make coins as well as the impressions made on official seals. These imprints are unique to the one holding the tool, and when it is used everything that bears this imprint carries the authority of the one whose imprint it bears. These sorts of things are not as common today as they once were, but they are still important. Our identification cards bear a seal of the issuing state. Our birth certificates also have an imprint of the state. When we sign official documents, we are often asked to have these documents notarized, and those that notarize these signatures have a stamp that give them authority to authenticate the document as being signed properly. The use of this exact imprint language is stating that Jesus bears the authority of God. He is not a mere agent acting on behalf of God, but is the exact imprint, meaning that Jesus is or embodies all of God’s glory and nature.
In one verse, the author of Hebrews is telling us in three ways that Jesus is the source of God’s authority. He is the source of God’s power and glory, as well as the one that carries the power of restoration. But within these introductory verses are other words that give us a bit of trouble. Things like heir, inheritance, and later begotten. These words have troubled the church and theologians for centuries. When we consider these words, we often regard them through our own human understanding. We look at them from a hierarchical perspective, and often from the cultural concepts of patriarchy. We begin to pull back from those concepts because we do not like the traditions surrounding those concepts. That is us reading our culture into scripture. We look at begotten and think created being because it implies parentage. We look at heir and we think again of a hierarchy that passes property from one generation to another usually in reference to masculine children.
These are not necessarily words of creation, but of legal authority. The heir holds equal power to the owner. We see this in Jesus’s parable of the Prodigal Son. The older son is upset at his father for throwing a party for the younger son and says when have you given me a single goat to celebrate with my friends? The father says to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” The heir has equal authority to the father, all that the father has is the heir’s within the cultural perspective of the Hebrew people. Everything the heir does is for the benefit and glory of the father and everything that the father does is for the glory and honor of the family. These are not individualistic concepts but ones of responsibility. Jesus, the heir of creation, has a responsibility to creation because of his position, not because of his parentage. And he has that responsibility because it was through Him that all things were created.
Jesus is the radiance, the glory, the exact imprint of God. He is the heir because he created all things. And it is his responsibility to restore all things back to himself. This is what this letter is about. And the writer attempts to explain all of this through the ideas that surround the cultic practices of their religion.
What was the point of God calling Abraham and Israel as his people? It all goes back to the story of our first parents. We were created to walk with God in his Garden. Eden was more than just a lovely place. It was where God lived. Humans were created in God’s image and were placed in the garden by him for one purpose. We were to make all of creation into a place like the garden. We were given total freedom to do this work, with only one restriction. We were not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Everything else was at our complete control. But there was a being that rebelled against the authority of God and convinced our first parent that the knowledge of evil would be an important asset to our divinely appointed work. This serpent, or shining one, convinced our first parents to eat of that fruit, and that participation in the rebellion brought death or separation from life, into existence.
Who and what was this serpent? Our translations all call this being a serpent and we assume that this was a talking animal of some sort, but the term serpent can be translate as shining one as well. The idea is that this was a divine being what we would call an angel. The reason we have the serpent image in our minds is because of ancient writing both inside and outside scripture. The divine throne guardians were often depicted as shining or burning beings, and they were often depicted as serpents in Egypt because of the burning sensation resulting from the venous bite of a snake.
In the second chapter of Hebrews the author begins a discussion of angels. Which we often find odd. But if we look at the passage from an ancient supernatural worldview, we can begin to see what is being spoken about. The fall was initiated by the deception of an angel or divine being, a shining fiery serpent that Eve recognized as a being that should have been in service of the Most High God. These beings were not impressed with God’s human creatures because they were given authority over creation and the angels were not. They rebelled because they thought that God was giving the humans greater authority than they had. And the writer of Hebrews tells us, “For it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come,” This means that the world was created for human. They were ticked off that God did not create something for them to rule over. They had power, they were what ancient writers called sons of God, yet they felt as if God shortchanged them.
Do we get a glimpse into what Hebrews is speaking about. Jesus came to restore us because we were caught in the crossfire. We were given authority over all the world, and because of spiritual jealousy we were deceived by those being created by God to assist and serve Him. And the curse of this serpent was that he would eat the dust of the earth, meaning he would be buried in hell.
“What is man, that you are mindful of him, or the son of man, that you care for him? You made him for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned him with glory and honor, putting everything in subjection under his feet.” this is a direct reference to Psalm 8, and it speaks of Jesus. He was mad for a little while lower than the angels or in Hebrew this word would be Elohim or the gods. This is a reference to the spiritual beings that we created to serve the Most High God. Jesus, incarnate God, made himself lower than these heavenly beings. Meaning he took on the form of creation, or humanity so that he could restore and redeem us to our rightful place. He took on our form for a time, a little while, he took on our suffering our death because that death or separation from life was what those angels deceived us into. Those angels whose purpose was to assist God, to carry his message twisted the words so that we would unknowingly join in the rebellion. Before we even really had a chance we were separated from life. And God chose to redeem us. Redemption through Christ is not for the angels, but it is for us. It is God taking responsibility for the actions done by others on us by beings that were supposed to be speaking for him. We are responsible for our own actions yes, but the curse of death was a deception brought about by divine rebellion and deception. The only way for this separation to be bridged was for God to take that responsibility on Himself, because he is the heir of creation. Jesus through whom all things were created, made restoration possible. He set it in motion through the lives of one family Abraham, one nation Israel, one Tribe Judah, and one faith.
He came to reverse the deception and restore the truth. He took on the shame of our rebellious participation and endured our suffering so that we might be restored. And when we believe in him, we will not die but will have everlasting life. We are joint heirs of creation with our brother and lord Jesus, for whom and by whom all things exist. He took on our suffering and he is not ashamed of this, because we are the image bearers of God. He is not ashamed of us because he the exact imprint of God, restored us through his life, death, and resurrection to our rightful place. We are the image bearers of God. Created to represent Him to creation. And the rest of Hebrews will tell us how Jesus perfects this restoration through a historic look through the history of Israel.
We are created to bear His image; we are created to represent him to creation. We are created to participate with him in ruling over creation. But we first must be restored and redeemed. We must be clothed in the righteousness of Christ so that the true imprint of our God can shine through us. Everything else is mere shadow and deception. Let us not draw close to the one who loves us so much that he took on our form so that we could be restored to his glory.
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