In the previous section of Part 4, we considered the role of Psalm 2:7 in the development of Christology in the first century. We saw how the Scripture was applied in the context of Jesus’ resurrection (and exaltation to heaven), as a way of understanding his identity as the Son of God (cf. Acts 13:33ff). It also could be used in the context of Jesus’ baptism, as in the variant ‘Western’ reading of Luke 3:22b, in which the Heavenly Voice quotes Psalm 2:7, rather than the allusion to Isa 42:1 in the majority text (and the other Synoptics). As a reference to Jesus’ Messianic identity, the use of Ps 2:7 in the baptism scene would most likely be intended to identify Jesus more precisely as the royal/Davidic Messiah (drawing upon the ancient Near Eastern tradition of the king as God’s ‘son’, in a figurative and symbolic sense).
Gradually, however, early Christians came to realize that Jesus must have been God’s Son, in terms of a Divine/exalted status, even prior to his resurrection—that is to say, during the time of his life and ministry on earth. Since the Gospel Tradition marks the beginning of Jesus’ career with his baptism, it was natural for Christians to interpret the declaration of the Heavenly Voice (at the baptism) in a deeper theological sense. In other words, Jesus was truly the Son of God, possessing a Divine/exalted position (and nature), from the beginning of his ministry.
Eventually, this idea of Jesus’ Divine Sonship was extended further back, to a time even before he was born—a point attested clearly enough by the Matthean and Lukan Infancy narratives. The Infancy narratives themselves do not indicate a belief in the Divine pre-existence of Jesus, but we know that such a belief—representing a further stage of Christological development—is attested by at least the mid-50s A.D., since Paul alludes to it at several points in his letters. The earliest definite evidence for belief in Jesus’ pre-existence is the ‘Christ hymn’ in Philippians 2:6-11, which Paul either composed himself (c. 60 A.D.), or incorporated (and adapted) from older traditional material.
The ‘Christ hymns’ in the New Testament appear to have served as a locus for Christological development. I have discussed all of these passages, in considerable detail, in an earlier series of notes. One such ‘Christ hymn’ occurs in the introduction (exordium) of Hebrews (1:1-4). This passage is especially significant for our study here, since it leads into a chain (catena) of Scriptures, imbued with Christological meaning, that begins with a quotation of Psalm 2:7 (v. 5). Therefore it is worth examining briefly these introductory verses which establish the theological (and Christological) context for the application of Ps 2:7.
Verses 1-2 deal specifically with the idea of God’s revelation, beginning with “God spoke”, and indicating a contrast:
|V. 1: God (has) been speaking [lalh/sa$]||V. 2: (God) spoke [e)la/lhsen]|
The new revelation (to us) is marked primarily by two elements or characteristics: (1) it is eschatological, set in the “last days”, (2) it takes place in the person of the Son. The Greek e)n ui(w=| does not have the definite article, so it is possible to translate “in a Son”, but it is clear from the context that God’s Son—the Son—is meant. Verse 2b presents the nature of this Son, with a pair of relative clauses:
- whom [o^n] He has set (as the) one receiving the lot [i.e. heir] of all (thing)s
- through whom [di’ ou!] He made the Ages
The first of these draws on the idea of Christ being exalted to heaven following the resurrection, in common with the earliest Christian tradition; the second expresses Christ’s role in creation, implying some sort of divine pre-existence (cf. above). These two Christological approaches were shared by several strands of early tradition (e.g. Paul, the Gospel of John), and were not deemed to be contradictory in any way. The author of Hebrews will present the two views side-by-side at a number of points in the letter (cf. below).
In verses 3-4, the Son is described in greater detail; four elements are stressed in v. 3:
- Reflection/manifestation of God’s glory and nature (3a)
- Role in creating/sustaining the universe— “by the utterance of his power” (3b)
- Salvific work—priestly cleansing of sin (by way of sacrifice, i.e. his death) (3c)
- Exaltation to the right hand of God (3d)
The outer elements (first and last) indicate the Son’s divine/heavenly status, the inner elements (second and third) parallel creation and incarnation (Christ’s work in both). This is the sort of chiastic conceptual framework—
which the author of Hebrews makes use of elsewhere (2:8-13, cf. also the famous Christ-hymn of Phil 2:6-11). In verse 4, Christ’s divine/heavenly status is emphasized—that it is greater than that of other heavenly beings (“angels”). This superiority is understood in terms of the name that he has inherited (cf. Phil 2:9ff), which, though not specified here, is best identified with ku/rio$ (“Lord”), the conventional rendering of the divine name YHWH. For more on the ‘Christ-hymn’ in vv. 3-4, see my earlier series of notes.
There can be little doubt that Sonship (i.e. Son of God) here is defined in the context of divine pre-existence—a blending of the Davidic “Messiah” with the concept of a heavenly Redeemer-figure which is also known from Jewish tradition at roughly the same time as the (later) New Testament, such as in the Similitudes of Enoch and 4 Ezra (2/4 Esdras). In Hebrews, this is indicated by the citations of Psalm 2:7 and 2 Sam 7:14—both passages given Messianic interpretation—in verse 5. Recall that in Acts 13:32-33ff, Psalm 2:7 is cited in the context of Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation (cf. above)—i.e., the Son is “born” following the resurrection. Verse 6, however, shows that the author of Hebrews has a view of Christ that is comparable to the prologue of the Gospel of John (esp. Jn 1:1ff, 9, 14, etc; cf. also Rom 1:3; Gal 4:4; Phil 2:6ff):
- Christ is already God’s “firstborn” (prwto/tokon)
- God leads him into the inhabited-world (oi)koume/nh, possibly the heavenly realm of angels in addition to the world of human beings)
—ei)$ th\n oi)koume/nhn as parallel to the Johannine ei)$ to\n ko/smon (“into the world”)
As indicated above, the author presents two different Christological portraits, and continues this in vv. 8-12 (citing Scripture):
Jesus as God’s Son is an important theological identification throughout the New Testament; let us consider the thematic development and presentation here in Hebrews. In addition to 1:2, 8 we have (context indicated):
- Heb 3:6—role as heir/master of the household, emphasizing his faithfulness
- Heb 4:14; 5:5, 8; 7:3, 28—role as (exalted) High Priest, indicating his sacrificial work (cf. below); 5:5 cites Ps 2:7 [as in 1:5], cf. below; 7:3 has spec. title “Son of God”
- Heb 5:8—his suffering (incarnation and death) and obedience (to the Father)
- Heb 6:6—his death on the cross (spec. title “Son of God” is used)
- Heb 10:29—his holy/sacrificial work, i.e. his death (“blood of the covenant”)
As the above summary indicates, there is a special emphasis in Hebrews on Jesus’ Sonship in terms of his sacrificial death.
Hebrews 5:5; 9:14
The theme of the Son’s superiority over the prophets and mediators (Moses, Aaron, etc) of the old covenant was established in the introduction (1:1-4, cf. above). In 4:14-5:10 the comparison is narrowed to the specific motif of Jesus as a new (and superior) kind of High Priest. This Priesthood of Jesus is defined in terms of his death and resurrection. In this regard, the citation of Psalm 2:7 (again) here in 5:5 draws upon the early tradition associating that particular Scripture with the resurrection (and exaltation to heaven) of Jesus. The opening words in 4:14 make clear that the exaltation is primarily in view, identifying Jesus as a great high priest “…having gone through the heavens”.
We saw, however, that the earlier citation of Psalm 2:7 (in 1:5, cf. above) was applied equally to the pre-existence of Jesus. In light of this developed Christology, the reference to Jesus as the “Son of God” here in 4:14 has a deeper significance. Even though he was already God’s Son, he humbled himself so as to take on the role of High Priest through his life on earth, with its suffering (5:7-8). Jesus’ obedience in enduring this suffering (v. 8) resulted in a greater completion (and perfection) of his Sonship (v. 9). The same basic paradigm is found in the Christ-hymn of Philippians 2:6-11:
- Pre-existence (alongside God)
- Incarnation/earthly life (lowering himself)
- Suffering/death (obedient humbling of himself)
- Exaltation by God
- Incarnation/earthly life (lowering himself)
- Heavenly position (at God’s right hand)
- Pre-existence (alongside God)
The Priesthood that Jesus took upon himself in his earthly life (and death) was translated into a heavenly Priesthood. In this regard, Hebrews uniquely blends together Psalm 2:7 and 110:1 (5:5-6). Both of these Scriptures were treated as Messianic passages, applied to Jesus, at a very early stage of Christian tradition. They hold the same kerygmatic position, respectively, in Peter’s Pentecost speech and Paul’s Antioch speech (2:34-35; 13:33); in each instance, as we have discussed, they were interpreted in the context of the resurrection/exaltation of Jesus. Hebrews, however, focuses on the figure of Melchizedek in Psalm 110, drawing upon an entirely different line of Messianic tradition, identifying the exalted Jesus with a Divine/Heavenly Savior figure (cf. Part 10 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed,” along with the supplemental study on Hebrews in that series).
The synthesis of Christological beliefs and traditions in Hebrews is rich and complex. To this, we may add a very distinctive reference to the Spirit in 9:14. Comparing the sacrifice of Jesus (as High Priest) with the sacrificial offerings of the old covenant, the author concludes as follows:
“…how much more the blood of the Anointed (One), who through (the) Spirit of the Ages brought himself without blemish toward God, shall cleanse our conscience from dead works to give service to (the) living God.”
The blood of the material sacrificial offerings (goats and calves, etc) of the old covenant are contrasted with the spiritual offering of Christ himself. He who is the High Priest offers himself as a sacrifice to God. This is done in an entirely spiritual way. The expression used is “through (the) Spirit of the Ages” (dia\ pneu/mato$ ai)wni/ou), i.e., “through (the) eternal Spirit”. This draws upon the basic early Christian belief that Jesus’ resurrection took place through the Spirit of God, but extends the role of the Spirit to his sacrificial death as well. Moreover, the sacrifice itself takes place “through the Spirit” since Jesus himself, as the pre-existent Son of God (cf. above), from the beginning shared in the Divine Spirit.
Once the Divine pre-existence of Jesus was recognized, the role of the Holy Spirit in relation to him took on an entirely new and deeper Christological significance. The older traditions had to be reworked and reinterpreted. We can see this process at work in Hebrews, and it is even more prominent in the Johannine writings, to which we will turn in Part 5.