December 4: Hebrews 1:3 (concluded)

Hebrews 1:3 (conclusion)

As we conclude our study on the ‘Christ hymn’ in Hebrews 1:2b-4 (spec. verse 3), it is worth keeping in mind the syntax of the passage (vv. 3-4), in which a complex sequence of four participial clauses is governed by an initial relative pronoun (o%$):

    • o%$ (“who”)
      • w&n a)pau/gasma… (“being [the] beam [shining] forth…”) [3a]
      • fe/rwn ta\ pa/nta… (“bearing all [thing]s…”) [3b]
      • kaqarismo/n poihsa/meno$… (“[hav]ing made cleansing…”) [3c]
      • tosou/tw| krei/ttwn geno/meno$(“[hav]ing come to be so much stronger…”) [4]

The clauses in verse 3ab, discussed in the previous two notes, reflect the pre-existence Christology that gradually came to prominence among early Christians, as believers gradually came to the realization that Jesus must have had existence as the Son of God even prior to his life on earth. The remainder of vv. 3-4 more properly follows the older conception of Jesus as the Son—that is, divine Sonship in terms of his death, resurrection, and exaltation to the right hand of God the Father in heaven (i.e., the traditional exaltation Christology). Verse 3c 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 of Hebrews, focusing on the work of Jesus as a fulfillment of the priestly office (cf. Part 9 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed,” with its supplemental study on Hebrews). The noun kaqarismo/$ (“cleansing”) alludes to the Old Testament sacrificial ritual and purity regulations (LXX Exod 29:36; 30:10; Lev 15:13, etc; cf. 2 Peter 1:9), with the related verb kaqari/zw (“make clean, cleanse”) being more common in the New Testament (used in Hebrews, 9:14, 22-23; 10:2).

The motif of the exalted Jesus receiving a position at the “right hand” of God in heaven is a key element of the early Gospel preaching, and is central to the exaltation Christology affirmed by all first-century believers—cf. Mk 14:62 par; [16:19]; Acts 2:25, 33-34; 5:31; 7:55-56; Rom 8:34; Col 3:1; Eph 1:20; Heb 8:1; 10:12; 12:2; 1 Pet 3:22. As a motif, it is derived primarily from Psalm 110:1, as a Messianic passage applied to Jesus (Mk 12:36 par; Acts 2:34; Heb 1:13), though perhaps influenced by other Scriptures as well (such as Dan 7:13-14). The pre-existence Christology that developed in the second half of the 1st-century complements (and mirrors) the traditional exaltation-aspect. This is a pattern that can be seen in the two major “Christ hymns” (Phil 2:6-11; Col 1:15-20) we have studied, and the two aspects are especially well-balanced in the Christology of Hebrews.

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). However, the specific use of the comparative/superlative adjective krei/ttwn (“stronger [than]”) is distinctive to Hebrews (12 of the 15 NT occurrences), and is central to the message of the letter—namely, that the New Covenant, realized in the person of Jesus, is far superior to the Old Covenant, mediated through the priesthood, sacrificial ritual, and regulations of the Torah.

As in the Philippians hymn, the exalted Jesus is given a name (o&noma). As I discussed previously (cf. the notes on Phil 2:9-10), the context of the Philippians hymn indicates that this name—one “th(at is) over every name” —is God’s own name, as embodied in the title ku/rio$ (“Lord”), according to the traditional substitution of yn`oda& (“my Lord”) for YHWH. Here in Hebrews, however, the reference seems to be to the title “Son of God” —that is, the identification of the exalted Jesus as God’s Son (cf. the citation of Psalm 2:7 in the early Gospel preaching, in the specific context of Jesus’ resurrection, Acts 13:33; cp. Rom 1:4). The pre-existence Christology establishes that Jesus was already God’s Son, prior to his earthly life; however, the wording here in verse 4 is drawing upon the older line of tradition. Note how the author of Hebrews applies Psalm 2:7 to both aspects of 1st-century Christology—exaltation and pre-existence (1:5; 5:5).

Indeed, it is at just this point (v. 5) 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. 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 (cf. above). 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).