Christ: God’s Final Word

A Brief Exposition of Hebrews 1:1-4

As we read the epistles in the New Testament, we notice a common theme: believers are exhorted to remain faithful “in the last days.” The letter to the Hebrews does this in a powerful way and its message is relevant today, a day that is marked by apostasy in the Churches of Jesus Christ. Unlike Jude, for example, which goes into great and extended detail about false teachers, the writer to the Hebrews chooses, instead, to dwell on the excellencies of Jesus Christ and how superior He is to any man or any angel or any created thing.

We call it The Epistle to the Hebrews, and yet this letter doesn’t resemble any of the other letters in the New Testament. The usual greetings and salutations are omitted, but the author writes in an intimate style, using the personal pronoun often. Though the names of the recipients are not mentioned, we do know that it was written to a specific congregation originally, but was intended to be circulated among the congregations of the day. As Kistemaker wrote in his commentary:

The message conveyed is addressed to the church of all ages and places. If there is any epistle in the New Testament that addresses the church universal in the days prior to Jesus’ return, it is the Epistle to the Hebrews.

1. The Prologue, 1:1-4

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs. (TNIV)

In the original language, the first four verses are actually one long sentence that make up the prologue, or the introduction, to the letter. The structure of this sentence is significant; the subject of the first verb is “God,” for He is always before the author. In fact, the word “God” appears 68 times throughout the epistle, once every 73 words. No other New Testament writing speaks of God so often.

The very first thing we notice about God in Hebrews is that He is active and His activities in the past had a purpose: to reveal Himself to all men. The first divine activity mentioned is that in the past, “God spoke to our [Hebrew] ancestors.” This is not referring to a general revelation of God’s Person in nature, like Paul writes about in Romans, but a specific revelation to a specific group of people: the ancestors or forefathers of the Hebrews. God spoke in a variety of ways to these people:

  • He spoke to Moses in the burning bush, Exodus 3.
  • To Elijah in a still, small voice, 1 Kings 9.
  • To Isaiah in a vision in the temple, Isaiah 6.
  • To Hosea in his family circumstances, Hosea 1:2.
  • To Amos in a basket of summer fruit, Amos 8.

God also spoke through dreams and visions, through angels, through the Urim and Thummim, through symbols and signs. through natural events and even through smoke. And God’s speaking to man was not limited to one location. He spoke in Ur of the Chaldees, in Haran, in Canaan, in Egypt, on the edge of the Red Sea, and in the middle of the desert. Certainly God is a God of variety who met man where man was; He did not wait for man to find Him. Hebrew history can be said to be the history of God pursuing man.

The author in the opening words of his letter is referring to how God spoke in the past to the previous generations of Hebrews in order to show how He continues to speak to people today, in a different way, through His Son, Jesus Christ, a point he will drive home in a few verses. The word translated “fathers” and “forefathers” is probably more accurately translated “ancestors,” as in the TNIV because the thought is that God did not just limit his speaking to the patriarchs only, who were men, but also to women, like Esther, Ruth, and many others.

God’s self-revelation was progressive throughout history in that the words of the prophets and the writings of Moses, for example, were cumulative. As Richard Taylor noted,

As a small stream becomes a mighty river, so did the Word of God become massive and full-orbed, sufficient to prepare the Jews and confirm these Hebrew Christians if they had had eyes to see and ears to hear.

F.F. Bruce put it another way:

The story of divine revelation is a story of progression up to Christ, but there is no progression beyond Him.

The many fragments of God’s progressive revelation to man in the past, if pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle, would reveal the Son; who Himself taught that the Old Testament was a adequate witness to Himself, John 5:39-47.

The finality of God’s revelation in Christ is brought to the fore with verse two and its contrast between past revelations of God (“in the past”) and the revelation of “these last days.” That phrase comes from the LXX, the Greek Old Testament, and there it refers to the days of the Messiah. The author to the Hebrews applies it to the coming of Jesus Christ in the world as the Messiah. The word “but” is important because it serves to distinguish the Son of God from the ancestors and prophets of the past. In other words, Jesus Christ is not just another in a long line of prophets to whom God revealed Himself. Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, by coming into the world of man has inaugurated a “new age,” a Messianic Age, where He is the final Word of God to man.

The first two verses, then, contrast the prophets, who were specially chosen by God to convey His word to the people, and the Son of God, who surpasses all the prophets because He is the Son. This is brought out in the Greek where the emphasis in verse two is on the word Son. So the thought is this: God began speaking to man through the prophets and finished speaking to man through the Son.

With verse three, the contrast between the prophets of the past and the Son of the present changes to a comparison between the Son and the Father. How favorably is the comparison? There are five main points that deserve quick consideration.

  • The Son is the radiance of the Father’s glory. The word translated “radiance” or “reflection” is a difficult word in the Greek. It may refer either to a either a radiance of brightness bursting forth from within or a reflection of light from without. Or perhaps it means both, since in Christ we see the Son of God, His own Person, and we see God the Father as being the Son.

Jesus Himself hinted at this in John 8:12 where He declared that He was the “light of the world” and that in Him there is no darkness at all. Hughes observes,

Jesus’ radiance is not so much the glory of the Son’s deity shining through His humanity, but the glory of God being manifested in the perfection of His manhood completely attuned as it was to the will of the Father.

  • The exact representation of his being. The word translated “representation” is from an unusual Greek word, charakter, occurring only here in the whole New Testament. Originally, it described a tool used to engrave or stamp an image onto something. Used here, it could denote God stamping His perfect image upon His Son so that the Son is completely the same in His being as the Father. Nevertheless, even though an imprint is the same as the stamp that made the impression, both exist separately. So the Son, who bears the image of the Father and the stamp of the Father’s nature, is not the Father but proceeds from the Father and has a separate existence. And yet, as Jesus explained, whoever has seen Him has seen the Father, so exact is the image (John 14:9).
  • Sustaining all things by his powerful word. The Greek pheron, translated “sustaining” means “to carry along.” The author does not mean to suggest that Jesus is like Atlas, merely holding up the world like a piece of dead weight. The thought is that Jesus is carrying the world along, toward a predetermined goal; the word is dynamic, not static. This is an important distinction becaue many people, including many believers, view God as being real, but uninvolved in the working of the world. Their idea of God is that He created all things, including man, then set them on them on the world like actors on a stage, with God sitting afar off, watching what man does. Nothing could be farther from the truth, as the author to the Hebrews writes. God, through Jesus Christ, is literally carrying the world along to the destiny He ordained for it. Notice the scope of this: the Son carries “all things,” the universe is seen here as a single unit. And He does this all by a mere word. The Son of God, the ruler of the universe, utters a word and all things listen in complete obedience to His voice.
  • [H]e had provided purification for sins. This is Christ’s work on behalf of sinners. Literally, the word “purification” comes from a term used in the New Testament of “ritual cleansing,” but here it refers to the complete removal of sin. Implicit in this statement is a statement that describes the awfulness of sin: it defiles and stains. But Christ has completely removed that stain. The verb “provided” is in the aorist tense, meaning the cleansing done on our behalf is a completed act, based on something Jesus Christ did at a fixed point in history.
  • [H]e sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. Sitting is the posture of rest, and the position, at the right hand, denotes a place of highest honor. Having completed the task assigned of Him, the Son returned to Heaven to take His place, once more, at the helm of the universe, by His Father’s side. Of course, the expressions “sit down” and “the right hand” are more symbolic than literal. The point the author is making is that the Son of God’s saving work is complete, nothing more can be added to what He has wrought, not even by Himself. Everything necessary to secure the salvation of man is in place, awaiting a response from man himself.

2. Our response

What is man’s response to what Jesus did for him? For believers, when we study these verses we should be filled with a sense of holy gratitude for the work of the Son. And that gratitude should motivate us to praise Him and exalt His Name. But more than that, what He did for us should inspire us to live lives that glorify Him and please Him.

For those who don’t know the Jesus we know, the knowledge of the gospel makes little sense to them. But as they learn more of the wondrous love God has for them, we need to pray that the Holy Spirit will draw them to Himself and that they will receive a gift of grace to reach out in faith to believe and accept this glorious salvation.

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