Birth of the Son of God: Hebrews 1:1-4

Today’s note, on the Christmas theme of the “Birth of the Son of God” will look at the ‘birth’ of the Son in terms of divine revelation. I begin with the introduction (exordium) of the Letter to the Hebrews.

Hebrews 1:1-4

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]

    • (in) many parts and many ways
    • (in) old (times) [pa/lai]
    • to the Fathers [toi=$ patra/sin]
    • in the Foretellers [i.e. Prophets] [e)n toi=$ profh/tai$]

 

    • in one new way (implied)
    • in these last days [e)p’ e)sxa/tou tw=n h(merw=n tou/twn]
    • to us [h(mi=n]
    • in (the) Son [e)n ui(w=|]

 

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. 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—

    • pre-existence
      —incarnation
    • exaltation

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.

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 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—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):

  • vv. 8-9—in more traditional language of exaltation (citing Psalm 45:6-7)
  • vv. 10-12—of Jesus’ divine status and existence encompassing the beginning and end of creation (citing Psalm 102:25-27, cf. also verse 2b above)

As I have already pointed out, there are a number of similarities with the basic Christology of the author and that presented in the Gospel of John; for more on Jesus as “the Son” in relation to God the Father, see the previous Christmas season note. Elsewhere in the New Testament writings, Jesus as God’s Son is an important theological identification, especially in: (1) Paul’s letters, (2) the first letter of John (par. with the Gospel of John), and (3) here in Hebrews.

  1. Paul’s letters—in the context of
    a) God’s work through Christ, esp. his sacrificial and atoning death: Romans 1:3-4; 5:10; 8:3, 32; Gal 1:16; 2:20; 4:4; 1 Thess 1:10; Col 1:13.
    b) specific association with the Gospel message: Rom 1:9; Gal 1:6
    c) the unity and bond of believers (with Christ, the Spirit): Rom 8:29; 1 Cor 1:9; 2 Cor 1:19; Gal 4:6; Col 1:13, and also Eph 4:13
    Note also 1 Cor 15:28
  2. The letters of John—similarly, along with the Gospel of John:
    a) the union of believers with God and Christ: 1 Jn 1:3; 2:23-24; 3:23; 4:9b, 15; 5:12-13
    b) Christ’s redemptive work: 1 Jn 1:7; 3:8; 4:9-10, 14; 5:11
    c) the identity of Christ: 1 Jn 2:22-23; 4:15a; 5:5, 9-10, 20
  3. 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; 5:5 cites Ps 2:7 [as in 1:5]; 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”)
  4. Other passages:
    2 Peter 1:7 (referring to the Transfiguration scene [Mark 9:7 par])
    Revelation 2:18—the message (to Thyatira): “the Son of God relates these (thing)s…”

This last reference to the Son of God speaking brings us back to the first verses of Hebrews—”God spoke…in (the) Son”. How did God speak? We do not find much mention in Hebrews of the things Jesus actually said; the emphasis is rather on: (1) who he is, and (2) what he has done—in classic theological terms, this means the person and work of Christ. God speaks first through the person of Christ, i.e. his (pre-existent) divine status and/or nature as Son, and then through his work—in creation, his sacrificial (and atoning) death, his resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of the Father in heaven. Here New Testament Christology reaches perhaps its fullest and most rounded expression—of Jesus Christ as the Son of God.

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