- God speaks
The letter to the Hebrew Christians is often neglected or overlooked in favour of other New Testament letters. This might be because we don’t know who wrote it, where it was written from or exactly when. We can work out the reason for it to be written but it addresses themes that are not familiar to many Christians, especially if they have no background in the Jewish faith. This letter doesn’t have the same features as most other letters either, it doesn’t begin with a ‘salutation’ or greeting and identify the purpose for it to be written. And the author doesn’t identify himself. It reads more like an essay than a letter and assumes that the readers are familiar with Old Testament concepts. Hebrews was probably written about 30 years after the birth of the church and before the destruction of the Jewish Temple in AD70. It is intended for Jews that had become Christians but were either hanging on to their old beliefs and understanding or were at risk of going back to them.
Without any preamble, the writer launches right into a statement about how God had made himself known throughout history and contrasts that with how different it now was. This sets the context for the letter which contains explanations of how, while the old ways were good, what we have now is far better, and the best is yet to come.
The Old Testament contains the revelation of God and the promise of a covenant made by him with his chosen people, Israel. God spoke directly to men and women who in turn communicated with the people. Many of those prophets are identified throughout the Bible, some are anonymous, and others have books written in their name. They came from different circumstances, some were shepherds like Elijah and Amos, others, warriors, kings and judges like Moses, Gideon, Samuel and David. One was the wife of Isaiah, who remains unnamed, another was the wife of Lapidoth who we are told was Deborah, the fourth judge of Israel, Huldah was the wife of Shallum and Miriam the sister of Moses. Some were even professional prophets like Elisha, Nathan and Jonah. There were rich and poor, privileged and oppressed, male and female, young and old. God used this diverse group of men and women to speak to the leaders of his people to explain and confirm the covenant he had made with them and to remind them of their obligations.
Now, in what the writer calls these last days, he has spoken through his son. The last days are those that lead to the coming again of Jesus as the king who invites those who worship him into the new Heavens and brings final judgement to those who have rejected him. We are in those last days, they began with the coming of Jesus on the first Christmas and they will end at a date no one knows except God. The son has existed from eternity and was not only present when God created the heavens and the earth it was through him the world was created. God eternally exists in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit and it as the Son that he created the world and now sustains it. He will return in his glory and invite his church to join with him at the great bridal feast in the new kingdom. There are many deep and mysterious things introduced in these few short verses and the chapters to come will explain some, but not all of them. Some will remain a mystery and because they are a mystery they will remain beyond our understanding until we meet him in person!
God has spoken to us through his Son who is made known by the Holy Spirit and his revealed word, the Bible. It is as we spend time with him and his word that he reveals himself to us, assures us of the promises he has made and his unfailing love and mercy.
- Does the letter to the Hebrews seem difficult to you?
- Why do you think God used such a diverse group of people to speak through?
- Why would you not spend time with God and his word?
- The Radiance of his glory
The son through whom God has spoken is described as the radiance of his glory, the exact imprint of his nature. In doing so the author introduces two Greek words that are found nowhere else in the bible. The first of these is radiance (Greek: apaugasma) which is a word commonly used by Philo, a Greek speaking Jewish philosopher who was alive at the time the church was born. There have been many attempts to describe this word including to emit light or splendor, to shine forth, or light issuing from a luminous body. It can mean either reflected brightness, refulgence (suggested by Calvin and Thayer and meaning, shining brightly; radiant; gleaming ) or effulgence (Diffusing a flood of light; shining; luminous; beaming; bright; splendid, as the Greek speaking church leaders suggest). It is difficult to distinguish between those suggestions!
Adolph Saphir a Jewish Christian wrote: ‘’The Son is the light, which makes manifest; God is manifest in him. Christ is the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his being. By the glory of God, His own inapproachable, infinite light is understood.” Spurgeon offers that as light is to the sun, so Jesus is to the glory of God. The Jewish readers of this letter were familiar with reference to the glory of God in the Old Testament, in Exodus 24:17 it appears as an all consuming fire on the top of the holy mountain. When Moses asked God to show his glory, he was told if he saw the face of God he would die. Instead God hid him in the cleft of a rock as all his goodness passed by (Exodus 33). Now however, the Gospel of John tells us: “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14). And the apostle Paul writes that it is in the face of Christ that we behold the glory of God (2 Corinthians 4:6).
The second word that appears only this place in the bible is translated as ‘an exact representation’ in Greek it is charakter. We may understand that word from the way might say that someone shows a certain character or characteristic and mean that it reflects something about their nature. They may be strong, or honest, or caring or the opposite of those things. When it used here it means exact in every detail, not a copy but a perfect expression of all that God is. Jesus is distinct from God the Father and yet identical with Him, whatever the divine essence is, Jesus is its exact and perfect representation and in so doing affirms the deity of Jesus Christ. Jesus has all of the characteristics that are true of a person, and all of the characteristics that are true of a divine being. Both natures fully exist in one person.
There is a technical word for this mysterious union between God the Father and God the Son. It is called the hypostatic union and means that Jesus is not two persons. He is one person. The hypostatic union is the joining (mysterious though it be) of the divine and the human in the one person of Jesus. (David Mathis). The word hypostatic means essence, nature or foundation. The nature of Jesus is the nature of God, it is this that gives us a foundation for our faith. A charakter was the word used for the imprint left in wax of a seal. It was a representation of the owner of the seal, and exact image. Jesus becomes the seal of God in the life of the believer, he is the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15), so that he could say “he who sees me has seen the father” (John 14:9).
The idea that Jesus is at the one time fully human and fully God is difficult to understand and has been the stumbling block for many followers of other religions. It is essential however to our confidence that he can do what he promises he will. Because Jesus is the radiance of His glory it is as “we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18)
- Some of this is difficult, in fact impossible to understand, how do you make sense of it?
- Why do you think it is important for Jesus to be both God and man?
- How do we contemplate the Lord’s glory?
- He Upholds all things
It is the Son of God who upholds all things by the word of his power. ‘All things’ is sometimes translated universe, and we might take that to mean the stars and planets and all of the cosmos and that is correct, but it is also everything that goes on within that universe in both the physical and spiritual realm. In Greek mythology Atlas led a rebellion against Zeus and when he was defeated he was condemned to hold up the world for eternity. There are many pictures of Atlas on one knee with the world balanced on his shoulder like a giant ball as he held it up. This is not what is meant by Jesus upholding all things!
The word that the writer of the letter to Hebrews used means to bear up or carry along, in the same sense that Moses said he was unable to carry all the people of Israel (Numbers 11:14). Jesus is carrying the world to its final destination, Paul writes in Colossians 1:16,17 that ‘’by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Jesus doesn’t uphold or carry some things, but all things. Everything in all of creation is carried by him; in the darkest trial you face, he holds and carries you to your final destination. That is why we can say with Paul: ‘All things work together for good for those that love God’ (Romans 8:28).
He brings things into existence and upholds them by the word of his power. In Genesis we read that he spoke the world into being, he said let it be, and it was! It is this same word that upholds the word and the same word that he speaks into your life and circumstances. Do you need God to speak a word into your life, or sustain a word that is already spoken? Not one of God’s promises fail, and a promise is simply a word spoken by someone who can deliver what he said he will! What is used here is the rhema of God that is the spoken word. He spoke to the waves and they were still, he spoke to the demons and they fled, he spoke to the disease and the sick person was healed. We are blessed to have the written word of God available to us and the incarnate word is Jesus who lived among us and now sits at the right hand of God interceding on our behalf. But we need the spoken word still. What do you want to hear from God? He may well reveal things to you through the Bible, but you may need to hear the holy Spirit speaking directly to your spirit. What you hear will never contradict what the bible says or what is consistent with the character of Jesus as the son of God, but he wants to speak to you.
His word is the word of his power, all of who God is stands behind his word. He does not speak empty phrases devoid of authority or without the power to implement his will. The universe operates as it does by the word of his power, the laws that determine how life continues exist by his word and if he so chooses he can change them in a moment. Our world is not hurtling toward some chaotic end, because he upholds it. The same power that destroyed the works of the devil and broke the laws of death when Jesus rose from the dead, is at work in you and me and the church. Paul writes to the Ephesians “Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever.”
The word of his power that upholds all things, is at work within us, the church. He has established the church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it, because he upholds it by the word of his power. Paul prayed that those who believe would know, ‘’what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come’’ (Ephesians 1:19-21).
This same power with which he upholds all things, lives in you! Live like you believe it!
- Do you feel like God is holding all things together?
- Do you need God to speak directly into your life?
- How powerful do you feel?
- He sat down
Adolph Saphir asks: “Why has this infinite light, this infinite power, this infinite majesty, come down to our poor earth? For what purpose? To shine? To show forth the splendour of his majesty? To teach heavenly wisdom? To rule by his just and holy might? No! He came to cleanse us from our sins.
Verse 3 of this first chapter of the letter to the Hebrew Christians introduces Jesus as a high priest. He came to make purification for our sins, and when he had completed that task he returned to heaven and sat down. On the Day of Atonement, on the tenth day of the seventh month of every year. The High Priest was allowed to enter the Most Holy Place to stand before God. Once he had made a sacrifice for himself and for the people, he then brought the blood of the sacrificed animals into the Holy of Holies and sprinkled it on the mercy seat (Leviticus 16:14-15). He did this to make atonement for himself and the people for all their sins committed during the year just ended (Exodus 30:10). This is the service that is later compared to the ministry of Jesus as our High Priest (Hebrews 9:1-28). As William Lane puts it: “The uncleanness of the people of Israel was acknowledged before the Lord at the altar, and it was from this defilement that they had to be cleansed by the sprinkling of the blood of the sacrificial animal. The blood covered and obliterated the sins upon the altar.” The purification of the people is the condition for participation in the community and the defilement of sin produced a barrier to God which had to be removed.
Sin defiles, degrades and diminishes the sinner. It is like a cancer that grows undetected, but progressively destroys the sufferer. Sin separates a person from the presence and protection of God and ultimately results in death and eternal separation. Everyday the priest would offer sacrifices for the people, knowing that on the next day and the day after he would need to repeat the process. The sacrifice would cleanse the one who offered it, but it was temporary and therefore continuous. Jesus came to make purification for sin, and to do it once and once only. The language of the text tells us that Jesus made purification for sin, not that he would or that he might, but that he had. He has cleansed us from all unrighteousness on the basis that we believe in his death and resurrection and confess him as Lord (Romans 10:9,10). There is a wonderful truth in this, that is difficult to grasp or to accept, according to God’s word you have been purified from all your sin. This means that there is no barrier or separation between you and God. Nothing else needs to be done to make you righteous, he has done all that is needed.
Once Jesus had made purification, which he did not only by presenting the sacrifice as a priest but by becoming the sacrifice by his death on the cross, he defeated the power of sin by his resurrection. Then he returned to the Father and sat down. The priest could never sit down because his work was never finished but when Jesus offered himself he said ‘It is finished’ nothing could be added. Ephesians 1:19-21 asks us: “what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come?”
It is in this place where he now sits and intercedes for you and me, when he ascended to heaven he sent the Holy Spirit to dwell within us where he too prays on our behalf. We Have Jesus praying for us, the Holy Spirit praying for us and we have confidence to enter the Holy Place by the blood of Jesus. So let us draw near with a true heart with full assurance of faith that nothing can separate us from the love of God, in Christ Jesus.
- Do you believe that you have been cleansed from all of your sin?
- Why is it important to daily confess our sins to God (1 John 1:9)?
- What do think about having Jesus and the Holy Spirit praying for you?
- Better than the angels
At the time the letter to the Hebrews was written there was a lot of discussion among the Jews about the role and function of angels. The Jewish Bible records that they served before God’s throne and they also were used to guide and protect humans. They also revealed the law and God’s will to the prophets and sometimes directly intervened in human activity. Now the writer says that the Son is far superior to them.
He was superior because he was the Son, not one of the sons, but the Son, the only one. His relationship with God was closer and his inheritance was superior. The statement about Jesus having become better than the angels refers to what was accomplished by his incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension into glory. Angels were sometimes referred to as “sons of God” (Job 1:6), and while believers are called “sons of God” (John 1:12), no single angel or believer was ever referred to as “the Son of God.” That title belongs only to Jesus and signifies His deity. The Jews knew that a claim to be the Son of God was to claim equality with him: “This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God” (John 5:18).
As the son, miraculously conceived by the Holy Spirit, Jesus took on human nature but without our sinfulness. He lived without sin, remaining pure and was therefore able to pay the debt of our sin. By assuming this human nature he voluntarily became lower than the angels, but now having satisfied the claims of death and defeated its power he is revealed as fully God and is superior in essence, power, and purpose to the angels.
There was some false teaching about angels emerging in the church ((Colossians 2:18, Galatians 1:8). Some even taught that Jesus was another one of the angels and equal to them, the writer to Hebrews stresses that this was wrong. Jesus was superior in every way, only he was the Son of God, he had the same nature as God, he was the radiance by which God became seen, he upheld the world and all that is in it by the word of his power. He and he alone could make purification for the sins of the people and now he sat at the right hand of the father while the angels ministered around the throne. Jesus was fully God and by his incarnation was fully human. Once a little lower than the angels because of his humanity, now raised to his place in glory above all rules, powers and authorities in the heavenly places. He was and is the Son of the Most High God.
Curiously there are those people today who hope for an angel to visit them with a message from God. The whole time they have access to the one who is superior to every angel, who has given his word and speaks it still. Angels still have mystical appeal which draws people to them. In a world that seeks to deny God many appeal to angels. Children are taught to rely on guardian angels and caricatures of ‘angelic beings’ appear on greeting cards and in paintings. These figures are often gentle and female in appearance while the Biblical image is often of a warrior clothed for battle. The world seeks the mysterious and the fantastic while rejecting the revelation of the Son who is the exact representation of the Almighty God.
The Son is superior to the angels, he rules with authority over every created thing in heaven and on earth. He sustains and carries the universe and all that it contains and makes it ready for his return. He is our saviour and our friend and he invites us to call him his brother, but is and always will be the One who reigns with power and authority and reveals the majesty of God.
- What do you think of angels?
- Do you believe there are heavenly beings, like angels and demons?
- What does it mean to you to know that God is superior to any angelic or heavenly being?
- Why is the son better than the angels?
The statement that Jesus is superior to the angels is explained, or proved in the succeeding verses. The writer uses what some people call a ‘string of pearl’s’ which is a collection of passages from scripture joined together to make his case. At the time that Hebrews was written the common language was Greek and a version of the Old Testament in that language is quoted. That means that the words don’t exactly correspond with our Old Testament which is translated directly from Hebrew.
The argument or evidence begins with a quotation from Psalm 2:7 and asks rhetorically “to which of the angels did God ever say, “You are my son. Today I have begotten you?” The answer of course is none of them. John Gill writes: “The words, This day have I begotten thee, must refer either to his incarnation, when he was miraculously conceived in the womb of the virgin by the power of the Holy Spirit; or to his resurrection from the dead”. We know that God took on human form as Jesus and therefore was in that sense the son from then on, but as the apostle Paul points out in Acts 13:33 and Roman 1:4, it was his resurrection that demonstrated his divinity and therefore not just a son, but the son of God. William Lane points out that the title of Son could have had referred to the pre-existent son, the incarnate son or to the exalted son. None of these titles could be applied to angels.
Verse 6 makes clear that the role of the angels is to worship the son, they are ministers to him. He on the other hand is seated on the throne. He holds in his hand the scepter, an ornate staff that represented rule and authority, that represented righteousness and the Kingdom of God. It is an eternal throne and Psalm 104:14 describes the appearance of the son as he is seated on it.
The son lived a righteous life, upholding justice and hating evil and because of this he was made the happiest man on earth! Specifically the text says he was anointed with the oil of gladness, more than all of his brethren. He existed before the foundation of the world and would remain even though all of creation would perish. It will change, a perfect and incorruptible new heaven and new earth will replace the old, but he would remain the same. The son sits at God’s right hand where he will remain until all of creation, in heaven and on earth – including the angels are brought in submission to his feet. No angel has ever been invited to sit in the presence of God. The passage tells us, as Sonnenberg writes, that:
- Jesus was appointed to be God’s son, but the angels were appointed to worship the son
- Jesus was anointed to rule the creation, but the angels were sent to serve the creation
- Jesus was appointed to reign in heaven, but the angels were appointed to serve on earth.
- Ministering Spirits?
When the writer of Hebrews asks another rhetorical question he refers back to verse 7. Where quoting from Psalm 104 he says, “He makes his angels winds, and his ministers a flame of fire.” Now in verse 14 he asks: “Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?”
There are a couple of words used here that sometimes take on a different meaning. The word translated ‘angels’ is the same as is used for apostle and means those who are sent with a message. They are referred to as ministering spirits, a phrase that was well known to his Jewish hearers. As used here, to minister is serve in the same way that priests served before the altar. These ministering spirits are sent to serve. This word is often translated as minister but is a different Greek word, this time deacon which is familiar from Acts 6:2ff but also sometimes as an office of the church. You may be familiar with Minestrone Soup a popular cheap meal. Legend suggests that it derived its name from religious monks who, wanting to give food to weary travellers, gathered their vegetables, threw them in a pot and served it to their guests. The word to serve in Latin is minister and Greek Diaconia. Whether a true or not, it’s a good story!
These ministering spirits are sent to serve not to rule. They are to serve God, but to do it by ministering on behalf of those who are waiting for the salvation that is to come. Angels have received a lot of attention in recent times, sometimes being elevated to at least equal status with Jesus and on occasion seen as more significant than he. There are suggestions that everybody has their own personal guardian angel looking over their every move. While there is ample evidence both in the bible and in historical records of supernatural assistance being given for the protection of believers, it is always spoken of in the plural sense, that is angels will guard you in all your ways (Psalm 91:11). There are occasions when an individual angel has provided guidance (Acts 8:26), gave protection (Daniel 6:22) or gave understanding (Daniel 9:20-23), but these were not personal guardian angels but messengers sent to minister to the believer.
The service or ministry that angels may provide might include those things, that is guidance, protection and understanding, but also they attend on and worship God (Rev 5:11) , bring judgement on the wicked (Acts 12:23), assisted Jesus and his disciples on earth (Mt 28:2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7), will assist Christ on his return to earth (Mt 24:31) and announce his coming (1Thes 4:16). Spurgeon writes: “Angels are the unseen attendants of the saints of God; they bear us up in their hands, lest we dash our foot against a stone. Loyalty to their Lord leads them to take a deep interest in the children of his love; they rejoice over the return of the prodigal to his father’s house below, and they welcome the advent of the believer to the King’s palace above”.
“John Paton was a missionary in the New Hebrides Islands. One night hostile natives surrounded the mission station, intent on burning out the Patons and killing them. Paton and his wife prayed during that terror-filled night that God would deliver them. When daylight came they were amazed to see their attackers leave. A year later, the chief of the tribe was converted to Christ. Remembering what had happened, Paton asked the chief what had kept him from burning down the house and killing them. The chief replied in surprise, “Who were all those men with you there?” Paton knew no men were present–but the chief said he was afraid to attack because he had seen hundreds of big men in shining garments with drawn swords circling the mission station.” (Moody Bible Institute). We may never experience the dramatic rescue of John Paton, or Daniel or others, but we an be assured that angels are sent by God to minister to us. We do not pray to angels for guidance, protection, understanding or help in a difficult situation. We pray to the one who sends them as his minsters, the one who “upholds all things by the word of His power”.
- What form do you think angels might take when they come to your assistance?
- Is there an area in your life where you could use a direct message from God?
- What do you think about the experience of John Paton and his wife?