January 2: Hebrews 1:1-5

Jesus as the Son of God: The Pre-existent and Eternal Son

In these notes, we have been examining the development of the early Christian awareness of Jesus’ identity as the Son of God. In the earliest Gospel preaching, it was the resurrection of Jesus (and his exaltation to heaven) that marked his “birth” as God’s Son. This Christological awareness then came to extend back into Jesus’ earthly life and ministry—all the way to his baptism (marking the beginning of his ministry), and even to his very birth as a human being. Eventually, many believers came to realize that Jesus must have had an existence with God the Father even prior to his birth. Essentially this is the doctrine of the divine pre-existence of Jesus, tied to specific beliefs regarding his deity (or divine nature). There are different ways, or degrees, by which Jesus’ pre-existence may be understood, the nuances of which, I believe, tend to reflect the development of early Christology in the second half of the first century A.D. (c. 60-100).

Belief in the divine pre-existence of Jesus is hardly to be found in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts (in particular, it is absent from the early Gospel preaching preserved in the book of Acts). Paul gives evidence of a such a belief, to some extent, in his letters (late-50s and early 60s). It is expressed primarily in terms of Jesus’ role in creation, drawing upon Old Testament and Jewish Wisdom traditions (Prov 8:27; Sirach 24:1ff; Wisdom 7:12, 21; 8:4; 1 Enoch 42; cf. Attridge, p. 40), in 1 Corinthians 8:6 and Romans 11:36 (cp. John 1:3, 10). Several of Paul’s references to Jesus as the Son (of God) seem to presume a heavenly existence prior to his human birth and life (Gal 4:4; Rom 8:3, and note the opening words of Rom 1:3). This is of significance for the study being undertaken in these Christmas-season notes, exploring how early believers understood Jesus’ “birth” as the Son of God.

Of special interest is the “Christ-hymn” in Philippians 2:6-11, which joins together the idea of divine/heavenly pre-existence with the older tradition of Jesus’ resurrection/exaltation to God’s right hand. The same may be said of the hymnic section in Colossians 1:15-18, which, if genuinely Pauline, was probably written at about the same time. In neither passage is the Sonship of Jesus related to the idea of his pre-existence; however, elsewhere in the New Testament—in the letter to the Hebrews and the Gospel of John—those Christological elements are combined.

The dating of Hebrews is problematic, though it was likely written sometime between 70 and 100 A.D. Many commentators would view it as contemporary with the Gospel of John (c. 90?), though I tend to think that it may have been written somewhat earlier. In terms of its place within the development of early Christology, Hebrews seems to stand midway between Paul and the Gospel of John. Its Christology is clearly expressed in the opening (exordium) of the letter, 1:1-4.

Hebrews 1:1-4

The first four verses of Hebrews represent a single long sentence, regarded by many commentators as perhaps the finest such opening in the New Testament (from a literary and rhetorical standpoint). Here are the verses in translation:

“(With) God (hav)ing spoken (in) former (time)s to the Fathers, (in) many parts and many ways, in the Foretellers, upon these last days He spoke to us in a Son, whom He set (as the one) receiving the lot of all (thing)s, (and) through whom indeed He made (all) the Ages, (and) who, being a beam (shining) forth of the splendor (of God), and an engraving of th(at which) stands under Him, and (himself) bearing all (thing)s by the utterance of his power, (hav)ing made cleansing of sins, he sat on the giving [i.e. right] (hand) of the Greatness, in (the) high (place)s, (hav)ing come to be so much mightier than the Messengers, (even) as he has received as (his) lot a name (that) bears through (beyond what is) alongside of them.”

Not only is this masterful and majestic sentence a summary of the key themes that will be developed in the letter, it also effectively summarizes the Christian Gospel of Jesus Christ at the time the letter was written. The initial contrast is between the Old and New Covenants—between God speaking to His people (Israel) through the Prophets, and to His people (believers) through His Son (vv. 1-2a). Out of this initial statement, a complex Christological declaration is developed (vv. 2b-4). It generally follows a paradigm comparable to that in Phil 2:6-11, moving from the Son’s divine pre-existence to his exaltation (as Son) following his death and resurrection; this paradigm may be summarized:

    • Divine pre-existence as the Son
      • Incarnation (human life)
        • Sacrificial Death
      • Resurrection (restoration to life)
    • Exaltation as the Son to God’s right hand

The pre-existence (pre-incarnation) side is presented in vv. 2b-3a with a series of clauses that modify the word “Son” (ui(o/$). Each of these relates to that noun with a relative pronoun (o%$):

    • “…in a Son” (e)n ui(w=|)
      • whom He set as heir of all things”
        o^n e&qhken klhrono/mon pa/ntwn
      • through whom He even made (all) the Ages”
        di’ ou! kai\ e)poi/hsen tou\$ ai)w=na$
      • who, being…carrying…”
        o^$ w*n…fe/rwn…

The first two clauses deal with the Son’s authority over creation, both in terms of its end (“heir of all things”) and its beginning (“made the Ages”). The latter draws upon the ancient Wisdom traditions (cf. above), whereby God made the universe using Divine Wisdom (personified) as the intermediary. The Son, as the living Word (Lo/go$) and Wisdom of God, performs this same creative role. This idea is expressed famously in the Johannine prologue (1:3, 10), but Paul alludes to the same basic belief at several points in his letters (1 Cor 8:6; Rom 11:36; also Col 1:16f). The citation of Psalm 102:25-27 in vv. 10-12 repeats this (pre-existent) aspect of Jesus’ identity as the Son of God (cf. below).

The third relative clause is compound, made up of two participial phrases, each expressing the unique deity of Jesus (as the Son):

    • (the Son) “who” (o%$)
      • being…” (w&n)
        • “…a beam (shining) forth of the splendor (of God)”
          a)pau/gasma th=$ do/ch$
        • “…an engraving of th(at which) stands under Him”
          xarakth\r th=$ u(posta/sew$ au)tou=
      • “and bearing all (thing)s by the word of his power” (fe/rwn te ta\ pa/nta tw=| r(h/mati th=$ duna/mew$ au)tou=)

The first participle is the verb of being (ei)mi, “being” [w&n]), indicating what the Son truly is. Again this breaks down into a further pair of genitival phrases:

    • a)pau/gasma th=$ do/ch$—The noun a)pau/gasma (occurring only here in the New Testament) literally refers to a beam or ray (of light) coming out from a source. Here is another indication that the author is drawing upon Wisdom traditions, since in Wis 7:26 the Divine Wisdom (Sofi/a) is said to be an a)pau/gasma “of the splendor of the All-mighty” (cf. also Philo, On the Creation §146). As is typically the case, the word do/ca (“esteem”), when used of God, refers to that which makes Him worthy of our esteem and honor, expressed in a visual manner as an overriding greatness or splendor. It can also refer to the divine/heavenly state, in which God Himself dwells. To say that the Son is an a)pau/gasma means that he (himself) is a manifestation of the very glory of God, and that the ray of light he possesses, or embodies, comes from the same Divine source.
    • xarakth\r th=$ u(posta/sew$ au)tou=—The noun xarakth/r, here parallel with a)pau/gasma, literally means “engraving” or “imprint”, something cut or stamped into a surface. Sometimes the related motif of a seal (sfra/gi$) is employed, to express the idea of a Divine image (ei)kw/n) being imprinted. Again, this reflects Wisdom traditions, and Philo uses this imagery a number of times (On the Creation §25; The Worse Attacks the Better §§83, 86; On Flight and Finding §12; The Work of Planting §18), i.e. for the imprinting of the Divine image upon the mind. Like a)pau/gasma, the noun xarakth/r occurs only here in the New Testament; however, Paul uses the common noun ei)kw/n (“image”), in a similar Christological sense, in 2 Cor 4:4 and Col 1:15, the latter being closer to the thought and wording of Hebrews. The noun u(po/stasi$ (occurring 5 times in the New Testament, including 3 in Hebrews [3:14; 11:1]) literally means that which “stands under”, and is a technical philosophical and scientific term for the “substance” or “essence” of something, or that which underlies a particular phenomenon. Thus, the Son is an imprint of God’s essential nature and identity, which is very much built into the idea of the Son as reflection of the Father. Cf. Attridge, pp. 42-5.

The second participle is the verb fe/rw (“bear, carry”), and it expresses how the Son’s divine character is manifest in the world—he carries all things, meaning that he supports and sustains all of Creation. This is done “by the utterance [r(h=ma] of his power”, which blends the Wisdom/Creation traditions (cf. above) with the fundamental religious/cosmological idea of God creating the universe by His speaking a word. Both of these ideas are established more clearly in the Johannine Prologue (1:1-3ff), but they are certainly present here as well, and relate to the divine pre-existence of Jesus as the Son. The same divine power that brought the world into existence now providentially sustains it.

The remainder of vv. 3-4 more properly follows the older conception of Jesus as the Son–that is, in terms of his death, resurrection, and exaltation to the right hand of God the Father in heaven. Verse 3b summarizes this concisely:

“(hav)ing made cleansing of sins, he sat on the giving [i.e. right] (hand) of the Greatness in high (place)s”

Interestingly, the actual death and resurrection of Jesus, so central to the early Gospel preaching, is not even stated, but simply taken for granted. The author moves from the atoning/saving aspect of Jesus’ work straight to his exaltation. In some ways, this reflects the unique theological emphasis in the letter, focusing on the work of Jesus as a fulfillment of the priestly office. The closing lines in verse 4 build upon the idea of the Son’s superiority (over the Angels), again expressed in terms of his exaltation after his death. The language and thought, in this respect, is quite similar to that of the Christ-hymn in Philippians (2:9-11).

It is at this point that the author introduces the citation of Psalm 2:7 (along with 2 Sam 7:14):

“For to who among the Messengers did He ever say, ‘You are my Son, today I have caused you to be (born)’, and again: ‘I will be unto a Father for him, and he will be unto a Son for me’?” (v. 5)

In inclusion of 2 Sam 7:14 confirms the Messianic context of the birth/sonship motif in Psalm 2:7. As we have seen, this originally applied to the earthly life and ministry of Jesus, and, in particular, his death and resurrection. In this he was to be recognized as God’s Son, but still in the figurative sense that the Messianic interpretation would have entailed. Now, however, a deeper Christological meaning has been given to it, since Jesus is now seen as God’s Son from before the beginning of Creation. This also gives to all the birth and sonship images a new depth, as the author continues in verse 6:

“And, again, when He brought His first-formed (child) into the inhabited (world), He says: ‘And all the Messengers of God must kiss toward [i.e. worship] him’.”

The citation presumably comes from Deut 32:43 LXX, but it is the wording used to frame the citation that is especially significant. It refers to the Son’s incarnation, or coming into the world of human beings (cp. John 1:9ff, 14). But here the context makes quite clear two important points about Jesus as God’s Son: (1) he is God’s “firstborn” child prior to the incarnation, and (2) the citation of Psalm 2:7 (and 2 Sam 7:14) also applies to his sonship prior to the incarnation. This represents a genuine development in early Christian belief regarding the “birth” and sonship of Jesus, one quite similar with what we find in the Gospel of John. This will be examined in the next daily note (on John 1:12-13 and 14); here, it remains to consider again how the author of Hebrews frames this dual aspect of Jesus’ sonship—the ‘older’ aspect of his resurrection/exaltation, and the ‘newer’ aspect of his pre-existent deity. Chapter 1 closes with a pair of Scripture quotations (from the Psalms) applied to Jesus as the Son. It is part of the running comparison between the Son and the other heavenly beings (Angels):

“And toward the Messengers He says (v. 7)… But toward the Son (He says, v. 8)…”

The first passage, from Psalm 45:6-7, alludes to the exaltation of Jesus, of his being raised (as Son) to the throne of God; the second passage (Psalm 102:25-27), by contrast, implies the Son’s pre-existence, with its Creation-setting: “You, Lord, down at (the) beginning, set (the foundation for) the earth, and the heavens (are) the works of your hands”. In the original Psalm, of course, the “Lord” (ku/rio$) is YHWH, but here it is meant to apply more properly to Jesus, based on the common dual-use of ku/rio$ among early Christians. The final citation of Psalm 110:1 (v. 13), a Messianic passage at least as important as Psalm 2:7 (compare Acts 2:34-35 with 13:32-33), demonstrates again how the early Christian understanding of Jesus as the Son of God has been transformed in the light of the growing Christological awareness. In Acts 2, this Scripture is interpreted in terms of Jesus’ resurrection/exaltation, while here in Hebrews it has an altogether new and deeper meaning—one which combines the exaltation motif with divine pre-existence.

References above marked “Attridge” are to Harold W. Attridge, The Epistle to the Hebrews, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 1989).

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