June 6: Hebrews 12:5ff

Hebrews 12:5ff

In the closing chapters of Hebrews, the author provides a general exhortation to believers, rooted in a call to remain faithful to Christ even in the face of suffering and persecution. As is typical in early Christian writings of the period, this exhortation includes ethical-religious instruction, though presented here in a generalized way. The most notable section of ethical-religious instruction is 12:3-17, framing the matter in terms of believers’ “struggle against sin”, using the verb a)ntagwni/zomai (“struggle against”).

Such struggle, which, as most believers can attest, is often difficult (and even painful), is compared by the author to the forceful kind of chastising discipline that a parent must, at times, employ when raising a child. The noun typically translated as “discipline” is paidei/a, from the verb paideu/w, which basically means “raise a child [pai=$]”, but often refers specifically to the instruction and training that a parent gives to a child. Drawing upon this idiomatic language, the author has introduced the traditional motif of God’s people as His children.

In the prior notes dealing with this theme—viz., believers as the sons (or children) of God—we have explored the Scriptural background of the motif, along with important examples in the Pauline letters, and elsewhere in the New Testament. The most recent note covered the sonship-theme as it was introduced earlier in Hebrews (2:10ff). In that passage, the emphasis was primarily Christological, while here, in 12:5ff, the focus is ethical-religious. However, the Christological aspect is still present, as vv. 1-3 make clear; the exhortation for believers is based upon the example we have in Jesus Christ, who himself suffered in the flesh just as we do, enduring both temptation (toward sin) and persecution by hostile forces.

The sonship-theme is reintroduced in verse 5, in the context of the “struggle against sin” being understood in terms of the discipline a child receives from his/her parents. The author presents this by way of a quotation from Scripture, introduced as follows:

“Indeed, have you forgotten about the calling alongside [para/klhsi$] which speaks through to you…?”

The noun para/klhsi$ comes from the verb parakale/w (“call alongside”); a person calls one alongside (or is called alongside), usually for the purpose of offering help of some kind. This help or assistance can take the form of emotional-spiritual comfort or exhortation, as is the case here. The verb diale/gomai means “gather through”, usually in the specific sense of “say/speak through”, according to a regular meaning of the verb le/gw. The preposition dia/ (“through”), in this context, can imply a conversation or discussion that is thorough, going ‘back and forth’. Certainly, this aspect of instruction and training (discipline) is very much in view here.

The Scriptural citation in vv. 5b-6 comes from Proverbs 3:11-12. In that passage, the Wisdom instruction is framed as teaching given by a father to his son (Prov 3:1ff). This is a common feature of ancient Wisdom literature; however, in vv. 11-12, the pattern is applied to the traditional religious theme of God (YHWH) as Father, and His people (esp. the righteous) as his children (or “sons”), cf. above. The human father continues to address his son, but emphasizes that it is also YHWH who acts to bring training (and discipline) to the child. By quoting these verses, the author of Hebrews takes on the role of the speaker/protagonist of Proverbs 3:

“My son, do not have little regard (for) [i.e. do not disregard] (the) child-rearing [paidei/a] of (the) Lord, and do not loosen out [i.e. become lax/weak] under His admonishing; for the (one) whom (the) Lord loves, He trains as a child [paideu/ei], and He flogs every son whom He receives alongside.”

The training/rearing of a child may include corporal discipline (here ‘flogging’, vb mastigo/w), which, though increasingly less common (or accepted) in modern times (especially in Western countries), was very much part of the ancient Near Eastern cultural milieu. Yet it is this more ‘painful’ aspect of discipline that the author wishes to emphasize here—indeed, it is central to his exhortation. The struggle against sin may be painful, but God allows His faithful ones (i.e., believers) to experience the impulse (and temptation) toward sin, along with opposition coming from the sinful world, as part of His parental discipline. It is part of being raised as a son/child of God, and every believer must accept the struggle as part of his/her identity as God’s child. This is the point made in vv. 7-8, urging believers to endure (lit. “remain under”, vb u(pome/nw) the discipline given to us by God.

If one remains faithful, even in the midst of our struggle against sin, then the discipline will produce its natural and proper result. We will come to be raised and trained as true children of God, reflecting His very nature and character. This is how the author concludes this part of his exhortation, in vv. 9-11. By willingly submitting to the child-rearing discipline of “the Father of spirits”, we shall live (v. 9)—that is, shall obtain eternal life. Another result is that we will come to share in the holiness of God (v. 10). Finally, this training will also bring forth the “fruit of righteousness” (v. 11), terminology which brings to mind Paul’s famous discussion of the “fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5:16-24 (vv. 22-23).

March 22: Hebrews 2:10-18 (continued)

Hebrews 2:10-18, continued

An important aspect of the sonship-of-believers theme in the New Testament is the idea that the sonship of believers is contingent upon on the unique Sonship of Jesus Christ. This is expressed in a number of different ways. Notably, in the Pauline letters, as we have seen (cf. esp. Rom 6:3-10; 8:9-11, 17ff), the identity of believers as the sons/children of God is closely tied to the participation of believers in the death and resurrection of Jesus. This is a vital component of our union with Christ, as believers. Realized through the presence of the Spirit, and symbolized by the baptism ritual, this participation in Jesus’ death (and his subsequent resurrection), enables us to become God’s offspring.

The letter to the Hebrews contains a similar emphasis on the death of Jesus, along with the effect of this sacrificial death for us, as believers. The connection between Jesus’ death and our identity as sons/children of God is less clearly developed, compared with Paul’s theological exposition (in Galatians, Corinthians, and Romans), yet it is certainly established in Hebrews 2:10-18, a passage which we began examining in the previous note.

Interestingly, in certain ways, the author of Hebrews, in developing this sonship-theme, is more closely rooted to the Gospel Tradition than Paul. It is significant, for example, the way that he alludes to the distinctive identification of Jesus with the expression “(the) son of man” —an expression applied by Jesus (to himself) throughout the Gospels. It occurs virtually nowhere else in the New Testament (or comparable early Christian writings), outside of this Tradition. The use of the expression here in 2:5-7ff, quoting from Psalm 8:4-6, captures its range of meaning, as used by Jesus, within the Gospel Tradition.

I will be discussing this expression, “(the) son of man” ([o(] ui(o\$ [tou=] a)nqrw/pou), in an upcoming exegetical series for Holy Week. Two important aspects of meaning, as applied to Jesus, are present here in the author’s use of Psalm 8:4-6:

    • An emphasis on the human condition, particularly with regard to human suffering, weakness, and mortality.
    • The idea of the exaltation of the human being, which, as applied to Jesus (i.e., the exaltation of Christ) in the Gospel Tradition, is enhanced by the connection with the Son of Man figure (“one like a son of man”) from Daniel 7:13-14.

These two aspects generally correspond with the death (suffering) and resurrection (exaltation) of Jesus; and this correspondence is definitely brought out by the author of Hebrews. Note how the Psalm passage is interpreted and applied, in verse 9:

“But (as) the one having been made less, (for a) short (time), compared with (the) Messengers, we see Yeshua, through the suffering and the death (he endured), having been crowned (now) with splendor and honor, so that, by (the) favor of God, he might taste death over [i.e. on behalf of] every (one).”

Paul’s emphasis, on our participation in Jesus’ death (see above), is here reversed—viz., the focus is on Jesus’ sharing in our experience of death. As a human being (“son of man”), Jesus experienced the same kind of suffering and death that is common to all human beings. The result of this participation, by Jesus in the human condition, is made clear in verse 10:

“It was suitable for Him—for [dia/] whom and through [dia/] whom all (thing)s (come to be)—(in hav)ing led many sons into splendor [do/ca], to make complete through sufferings the chief leader of their salvation.”

It is through the sacrificial death (and resurrection) of His Son that God leads (vb a&gw) “many sons” (i.e., believers) into honor/splendor. As part of this process, the Son himself is “made complete” (vb teleio/w) through the sufferings he experienced. The Son is called the “chief leader” (a)rxhgo/$) of our salvation, implying that he is the one, working at God’s behest, who leads us to salvation. This can be understood in the sense that he leads the way for us, through his death and resurrection. Our future resurrection to glory is patterned after Jesus’ own, and is made possible by our participation in his resurrection.

At least as important is the recognition that we all—Jesus and we as believers—alike are God’s offspring, His sons. Thus, in leading us to salvation, the Son (Jesus) understands his kinship to us, and the importance of our being brought to the same honor/splendor which he possesses alongside God the Father:

“For both the (one) making holy and the (one)s being made holy (are) out of One—for which reason he is not ashamed to call them (his) brothers” (v. 11)

The expression e)c e(no/$ (“out of one”), in light of this sonship-emphasis, is best understood as a reference to God as our common Father. The Johannine writings make extensive use of the preposition e)k (“out of”) in this context of the birth of believers from God, as His offspring. Also part of the Johannine theology is the idea that the Son (Jesus) makes known the Father’s name to believers (cf. especially in John 17). The author of Hebrews brings out this same emphasis through a quotation of Psalm 22:22:

“…saying, ‘I will give forth (the) message (of) your name to my brothers; in (the) midst of (the) assembly called out [e)kklhsi/a], I will sing (praise) to you.'” (v. 12)

In this context, the motif of making known the Father’s name—that is, making known the Father Himself—must relate to the realization by believers of their/our identity as God’s children. This, indeed, is the point brought out in verse 13, with the quotation from Isaiah 8:17b-18:

“…I will be (one) persuaded [i.e. having trusted] upon Him…see, I and the children which God has given to me.”

This suggests another Johannine theme: namely, the idea that God the Father has given believers to the Son (Jesus). In this context, giving children to a person does not mean that the person gives birth to the children (as his/her own); rather, they are already children (born of God), given over to the Son’s care as his brothers (and sisters). The close kinship, between the Son and his fellow brothers, is developed in vv. 14-18:

“On (the basis), then, (that) the children share in common blood and flesh, (so) also he (him)self held along fully with (us) the same (thing)s, (so) that, through the (experience of) death, he might make the (one) holding the force of death cease operating…” (v. 14)

The Son was able to vanquish the power of death by experiencing death himself, by fully possessing the flesh and blood of human beings (and thus the mortality of the human condition, cf. above). This thematic emphasis on freeing human beings from the power of death—Death personified as an enslaving tyrant (and identified with the Devil)—very much resembles Paul’s emphasis (esp. in Romans, cf. chapters 5-7). Even the use of the verb katarge/w (“make [to be] without work [i.e. stop working]”) is thoroughly Pauline—this is one of just two NT occurrences [27] outside of the Pauline corpus (assuming Hebrews was not written by Paul). The apparent Pauline language continues in verse 15:

“…and (that) he might bring them forth (to a) different (place), those who, in fear of death, through all (the time) of their living were (be)ing held in slavery.”

The identification of believers as the “seed of Abraham” (v. 16), in the context of this sonship-theme, is also reflective of Pauline theology (see the earlier note on Gal 3:26).

Ultimately, at the close of this passage (vv. 17-18), the author departs from the sonship-theme, to introduce the theme which will dominate the rest of the main body of Hebrews—namely, Jesus’ role as the great High Priest, whose sacrificial offering removes the effects of sin from the Community. Even so, the author frames this thematic introduction in terms of the sonship of believers, in v. 17a (“…to be made like his brothers in all [thing]s”), through a reiteration of the kinship motif in v. 18, and again at the beginning of chapter 3 (“holy brothers…”, v. 1).

In the next daily note, we will examine one further sonship-passage in Hebrews—the ethical exhortation in 12:5-11ff.

 

 

“The Word Became Flesh…”: New Testament Christology, part 3

John 1:14 and New Testament Christology, continued

We now turn to the final part of this final division of our study (on John 1:14):

    • The Sonship of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels (and Acts) [Part 1]
    • The influence of Wisdom tradition on early Christology [Part 2]
    • The specific idea of the Divine pre-existence of Jesus Christ [Part 3]

The Divine Pre-existence of Jesus Christ

Nearly all commentators recognize that the Gospel of John contains a strong pre-existence Christology—identifying Jesus Christ as the pre-existent Son of God. In the Prologue, he is identified as the incarnate Logos; however, in vv. 14-18, the Gospel writer transitions from the Logos concept to the Son concept that dominates the remainder of the Gospel.

In Part 1, I discussed the exaltation Christology that tended to define the Sonship of Jesus in the early Christian Tradition. By the year 60 A.D., a pre-existence Christology had begun to take hold in Christian thought, developing in a number of ways. Believers came to understand that Jesus must have been God’s Son even prior to his earthly life and ministry. However, in my view, there is very little clear evidence for such a pre-existence Christology much before 60 A.D. It is virtually absent from the Synoptic Gospels and the book of Acts, and notably absent from the early Gospel preaching recorded in Acts. Some commentators would see a pre-existence Christology in the Synoptic Son of Man sayings (cf. Hamerton-Kelly, pp. 22-102), but this is questionable at best.

1. The Pauline Letters

By all accounts, the earliest evidence for the idea of the Divine pre-existence of Jesus is found in Paul’s letters, but it is far from a dominant or prominent theme. Perhaps the earliest Pauline reference where this idea of pre-existence is indicated is 1 Corinthians 8:6:

“…one God, the Father, out of whom all (thing)s (came to be), and we unto Him; and one Lord, Yeshua (the) Anointed, through [dia/] whom all (thing)s (came to be), and we through him.”

A role is assigned to Jesus Christ in creation—both the original creation (of “all things”), and the new creation (of “we” as believers). There is no verb specified, but it would seem appropriate to fill in the verb of becoming (gi/nomai), which would make this statement by Paul nearly identical with the Johannine Gospel Prologue (1:3): “all (thing)s came to be [e)ge/neto] through [di/a] him”.

Like the Johannine Prologue, Paul may be drawing here upon Old Testament and Jewish Wisdom tradition, which assigned to the Divine Wisdom (personified) a pre-existent place and involvement in the Creation (Prov 8:22-31). In some Hellenistic Jewish circles, the idea of God creating the universe by his word (Gen 1:3ff) was interpreted in light of the philosophical implications of the term lo/go$. Philo of Alexandria blended together the Wisdom and Logos (Word) conceptions (cf. the earlier supplemental article), as did the Hellenistic-Jewish Book of Wisdom, and it would seem that the author of the Johannine Prologue did much the same, identifying the pre-existent Word/Wisdom of God with the person of Jesus. Given the Wisdom-emphasis in 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:16, and the specific wording by Paul in 1:24, he may have similarly identified Jesus with the pre-existent Wisdom.

Also of interest is Paul’s interpretation of the Exodus traditions (spec. Exod 17:1-6 and Num 20:7-11 [cf. Psalm 78:15-16]) in 1 Cor 10:1-10. In verse 4, Paul identifies Jesus Christ as the Rock from which water flowed, and which (according to tradition) followed the Israelites all during their journeys: “and the Rock was [h@n] the Anointed (One)”. If Paul understands this in a literal-historical sense, rather than an allegorical-typological sense, then it would clearly attest to a belief in Jesus’ (Divine) pre-existence. Again, Paul may be influenced by Jewish Wisdom tradition in this regard; in On Allegorical Interpretation II.86, Philo interprets the Rock as representing both the Wisdom and the Word (Logos) of God (cf. also III.162, and The Worse Attacks the Better §§115, 118; Hamerton-Kelly, p. 132).

Occasionally, Paul makes a statement such as in 1 Cor 15:47, which could imply a heavenly origin for Christ (“the second man [i.e. Christ] is out of heaven”), much as in the Johannine Gospel; however, it could just as easily be understood in terms of an exaltation Christology—indeed, the context of Jesus’ resurrection in chap. 15 suggests that this is the case (see esp. verse 45, i.e., the exalted Jesus “became” a live-giving Spirit). Much clearer as evidence for belief in Jesus’ pre-existence is the wording in 2 Corinthians 4:4, where Jesus Christ is declared to be “the image [ei)kw/n] of God”. This also could be understood from the standpoint of an exaltation Christology; however, the parallel statement in Col 1:15 makes it all but certain that Paul has Divine pre-existence in mind. This is confirmed by the evidence of further influence of Wisdom-theology in shaping Paul’s manner of expression; compare, for example, the wording in Col 1:15 and 2 Cor 3:18 with Wisdom 7:26.

In Galatians 4:4, and again in Romans 8:3, Paul refers to God “sending His Son”, using language which resembles that of John 3:16-17. Now, in the Johannine Gospel it is clearly understood that God the Father has sent His Son from heaven, and that the Son has Divine pre-existence. It is not as clear, in these references, that Paul holds the same view. However, it is probably the best way to understand his view of Jesus’ Sonship. Particularly in Gal 4:4, the wording seems to indicate that Jesus was God’s Son prior to his human birth (compare Rom 1:3).

Probably the most famous Pauline passage evincing a belief in Jesus’ pre-existence is the ‘Christ-hymn’ of Philippians 2:6-11. I have discussed this passage at length in an earlier series of notes. There I addressed the possibility that Paul may have adapted an earlier hymn, incorporating it into his letter. If so, then the hymn, with its balancing of pre-existence (vv. 6-8) and exaltation (vv. 9-11) Christologies, would have been written some time earlier than Philippians itself (i.e., before c. 60 A.D.). It is conceivable that this Christ-hymn predates the Pauline references in Corinthians and Galatians (mid/late-50s). Even if Paul did not compose the hymn proper, he certainly affirmed the Christology it contains; this is confirmed by the references already mentioned above, but also, it would seem, by 2 Cor 8:9, which probably alludes to something like the ‘kenosis’ idea of Phil 2:6-8:

“…for you [i.e. your sake], (though) being rich, he became poor”

Almost certainly, Paul is not speaking here in socio-economic terms; rather, “rich” and “poor” are to be understood figuratively, for Jesus’ Divine status and his incarnate human state (after he “emptied” himself), respectively.

The Pauline authorship of Ephesians and the Pastoral Letters remains disputed. Even if one regards any (or all) of these letters as pseudonymous, they unquestionably reflect Pauline thought and tradition. While there is a strong predestination emphasis in Ephesians, I do not find any clear references which would require a belief in Jesus’ pre-existence, and could not be explained just as well in terms of an exaltation Christology; but cf. the references discussed by Hamerton-Kelly, pp. 178-187. Much the same holds true for the Pastoral Letters (cf. the predestination emphasis in 2 Tim 1:9-10; Titus 1:2). However, the ‘Christ-hymn’ in 1 Tim 3:16 (treated in earlier notes) may, like Phil 2:6-11 and the other Pauline references discussed above, assume the incarnation of a pre-existent Christ; at the very least, the implication is that something Divine (from God) was made to “shine forth” (i.e., appear, made manifest) in human flesh, in the person of Jesus.

2. The Remainder of the New Testament

I do not find any references to the pre-existence of Christ in the letters of James, 2 Peter, or Jude, although mention should be made of Jude 5. If one excepts the majority text reading, then the author is attributing the Exodus of Israel to the guidance of Jesus (presumably, a reference to the pre-existent Christ’s presence in earlier history, cp. 1 Cor 10:4 [see above]); however, a strong argument can be made for the minority reading “[the] Lord”, with God/YHWH as the likely referent.

1 Peter 1:20 is an interesting case study. It clearly refers to Jesus as having been “known beforehand” (vb proginw/skw) by God, even before the creation of the cosmos. But does this refer to Divine pre-existence, in the way we typically understand it? After all, the verb proginw/skw is just as easily applied to believers (Rom 8:29)—being known by God beforehand, even before the creation (cf. Eph 1:4; Rev 13:8; 17:8). It is certainly possible that Peter (or the author) held a belief in Jesus’ pre-existence, but this is not clearly expressed in the letter; however, cf. the references discussed by Hamerton-Kelly, pp. 258-62.

The situation surrounding 1 Peter 1:20 seems to apply to many different references in the book of Revelation. The exalted and Divine status of Jesus is expressed throughout the book, to the point where titles of God (the Father) can be applied equally, without qualification, to Christ (the Son). For example, the declarative “I am” title “I am the Alpha and the Omega” (1:8; 21:6) is spoken by Jesus in 22:13. The title certainly implies Divine pre-existence, as the qualifying existential phrase-title “the (One) being, and the (One who) was, and the (One) coming” (cf. also 1:4; 4:8; 11:17; 16:5) indicates. Jesus qualifies his Divine title differently in 22:13: “…the beginning and the end”, without applying the three-fold existential title (unless Jesus is also identified as the speaker in 1:8).

The author of the book of Revelation (and/or John as the seer) probably held a belief in the Divine pre-existence of Jesus; yet, on the whole, this is not emphasized in the book. There is, however, a strong pre-existence aspect to the entire range of eschatological symbolism and imagery of the visions. By this I mean that one may identify heavenly archetypes which are manifested (on earth) at the end time. One notes the many references to things or persons “coming down” from heaven, which echoes the Christological language of the Johannine Gospel (esp. the repeated use of the verb katabai/nw, “step down”), referring to Son’s heavenly origin. If the book of Revelation is regarded as a product of the same Johannine churches which produced the Gospel and Letters, then it is all but certain that the author and readers would have held a definite pre-existence Christology.

The Letter to the Hebrews

The introduction (exordium) of Hebrews (1:1-4) clearly evinces a pre-existence Christology, to match that of the Gospel of John and the ‘Christ-hymns’ of Phil 2:6-11 and Col 1:15-20 (see above). Indeed, it would appear that the author is utilizing a comparable ‘Christ-hymn’ in his prologue; at the very least, vv. 2b-4 possess a verse-structure and elements consonant with the other Christ-hymns found in the New Testament. The Divine pre-existence of the Son (Jesus) is indicated in vv. 2b-3a, to be balanced with an expression of the older exaltation Christology in vv. 3b-4. For more on this passage, see my earlier set of notes, along with the recent note on 2:10ff.

This pairing of pre-existence and exaltation corresponds with the thematic structure of Phil 2:6-8, 9-11. Yet chapter 1 of Hebrews definitely is emphasizing Jesus’ Divine pre-existence, as the author’s use of the Scripture chain (catena) in vv. 5-14 indicates. In particular, the quotation of Psalm 102:25-27 in vv. 10-12 is meant to allude to the Son’s role in the Creation (cp. verse 2). Psalm 2:7 [also 2 Sam 7:14] and 110:1 (vv. 5, 13) are references which had previously been given a Messianic interpretation, and then applied to Jesus by early Christians. However, originally Psalm 2:7 and 110:1 were applied in the context of the resurrection (see the discussion in Part 1), whereas here in Hebrews they seem to be understood in terms of the Son’s Divine pre-existence (however, note the exaltation-context of Ps 2:7 & 110:1ff in 5:5-6).

Interestingly, though there is a strong pre-existence emphasis in chapter 1, this aspect of the author’s Christology does not appear to be particularly prominent in the remainder of his work. The superiority of the Son continues to be argued and demonstrated, drawing upon a range of Old Testament traditions, yet the focus tends to be on Jesus’ earthly mission—especially his sacrificial death. This is particularly so for the central line of argument, whereby Jesus fulfills the sacrificial apparatus of the old covenant, which had been administered by the priestly officials. Indeed, Jesus is identified as the great High Priest, who fulfills the sacrifices of the old covenant and ushers in the new covenant. This is the great theme of chapters 5-10. But, of particular interest for us here is the author’s use of the figure of Melchizedek in chapter 7 (introduced in 5:6ff, and again in 6:19-20).

The main significance of Melchizedek (cf. the original historical tradition in Gen 14:18ff) for the author of Hebrews, as it is for the author of Psalm 110, is that it demonstrates a person can be a (high) priest of God without being a descendant of Aaron and the Levites. This is the point of the summary in vv. 1-10. Yet, as the argument continues in vv. 11-26, it would seem that the author imbues the figure of Melchizedek with a deeper significance. There is an indication that Melchizedek possessed a certain Divine power and perfection (v. 16, 26ff). Moreover, the implication is that Melchizedek has an eternal existence (already suggested in verse 3), which makes him the ideal archetype for the Priesthood of the Son of God.

There is some contemporary Jewish precedent for such an exalted view of Melchizedek. For example, Philo treats Melchizedek as a symbol of the Divine Logos in On Allegorical Interpretation III.82. However, it is more likely the author of Hebrews has something like the view of the Qumran text 11QMelchizedek in mind. In this fragmentary text, Melchizedek is identified as a heavenly Redeemer-figure who will appear at the end-time, to rescue God’s people and defeat the forces of wickedness. Possibly he is to be equated with the angel Michael; but, in any case, this text provides evidence that, at least in some Jewish circles, Melchizedek was treated as a heavenly/angelic figure. Probably the author of Hebrew shared this general view, which made the application of the figure (and the reference in Psalm 110:4) to the person of Jesus all the more appropriate. As the pre-existent Son of God, Jesus is a heavenly being much like Melchizedek, though, as the Son, he is far superior.

In spite of these aspects of the figure of Melchizedek, it should be noted that the idea of Jesus’ pre-existence is not particularly emphasized by the author in chapter 7. Rather, it is the exaltation of Jesus, following his sacrificial death (and resurrection), that is primarily in view. For more on the Messianic and Christological aspects of the author’s use of Melchizedek, cf. the supplemental article in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

References above marked “Hamerton-Kelly” are to R. G. Hamerton-Kelly, Pre-Existence, Wisdom, and the Son of Man: A Study of the Idea of Pre-Existence in the New Testament, Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series, vol. 21 (Cambridge: 1973).

March 14: Hebrews 2:10-18

Hebrews 2:10-18

“It was suitable for Him—for [dia/] whom and through [dia/] whom all (thing)s (come to be)—(in hav)ing led many sons into splendor [do/ca], to make complete through sufferings the chief leader of their salvation.” (Heb 2:10)

Hebrews 2:10-18 is one of the few New Testament passages, apart from the Johannine and Pauline writings, to deal with the sonship-of-believers theme. It indicates that the author shares, with both Johannine and Pauline thought, the close connection of the sonship of believers with Jesus’ own (unique) identity as God’s Son.

This key Christological point is established in the prologue (exordium) of the letter (1:1-4), being buttressed by a chain (catena) of Scripture quotations (vv. 5-14) which prove the unique Divine Sonship of Jesus. This Christology is then expounded by the author, drawing similarly upon a range of Old Testament traditions, throughout the remainder of the letter. At the close of the introduction (v. 14), the idea of believers as co-heirs (i.e., as sons) with Jesus is alluded to. Just as the heavenly beings (angels) serve the Son, so they are also sent to serve “th(ose) being about to receive as (their) lot [i.e. as sons/heirs] salvation”.

An important element of the Sonship-Christology of Hebrews is also introduced in the prologue—namely, the idea of the do/ca which the Son possesses, the very do/ca belonging to God (the Father) Himself. The noun do/ca, though quite common in the New Testament (and LXX), is actually a bit difficult to translate. Properly, it denotes what a person thinks about something (or someone), how one regards it, etc. The word is frequently used in a positive, honorific sense, which is best translated as “esteem”, though, in this context, “honor” is perhaps a more suitable match in English.

However, when applied to God, in a religious context, do/ca often connotes that which, intrinsically, makes God worthy of honor—i.e., His Divine majesty, greatness, holiness, etc. It typically is used to translate the Hebrew noun dobK*, meaning “weight”, but often in the sense of “worth, value”, and thus, in a figurative religious sense, of the honor which God deserves, and of which He is worthy. The dobK*/do/ca of God is so closely connected with His nature and fundamental attributes that it, too, can be treated as a characteristic attribute—a reference to the awesome splendor or glory which He possesses.

In 1:3, in what may represent an adaptation (by the author) of an early ‘Christ-hymn’, the Son (Jesus) is said to possess the Divine do/ca, understood in the traditional theophanic sense of a brilliant light, a radiant aura which surrounds God. Christ obtained this “glory/splendor” when he was exalted, after his resurrection, but it is also something which he possessed even prior to his earthly life and mission. Hebrews balances an exaltation Christology with a pre-existence Christology, such as we see, for example, in the ‘Christ-hymn’ of Philippians 2:6-11. Jesus was the Son of God from the beginning. Note the wording in 1:2-3:

“…upon (the) last of these days He spoke to us in (His) Son,
whom He set (as one) receiving the lot [i.e. heir] (of) all (thing)s,
through whom also He made the Ages,
who,
being a shining forth of (His) splendor [do/ca], and (the) imprint of His underlying (essence),
and carrying all (thing)s by the utterance of His power…”

The hymnic character of vv. 2b-3 is indicated both by the verse-structure and the distinctive use of the relative pronoun (o%$, “who”) to introduce the principal verses/lines. Such use of the relative pronoun seems to be typical of early Christ-hymns, such as those which we find preserved in the New Testament (cf. Phil 2:6-11; Col 1:15-20; 1 Tim 3:16). For more on this aspect of vv. 2b-4, and for a detailed exegesis, see my earlier set of notes on the passage.

Even from the beginning, the Son possessed the Divine attributes, power, and splendor/glory (do/ca). Yet the pre-existence emphasis in vv. 2b-3a is balanced by the exaltation emphasis that follows in vv. 3b-4. This same emphasis occurs at 2:5-9, just prior to our reference to the sonship of believers in 2:10. With his incarnation, as a mortal human being, and following his subsequent death and resurrection, the Son (Jesus) was “crowned” with splendor (do/ca) and honor (timh/). The author prepares for the ‘transfer’ of this honor/glory to believers in Christ by emphasizing the way that the incarnate Son shared (with us) the common human condition. This enables us, as believers, also to share in the Divine glory which he possesses (and has inherited).

In the next daily note, we will explore this association further, with a detailed analysis of how the author expounds his theme in vv. 10-18.

 

May 6: Hebrews 9:14

In the previous notes in this series, we have explored the relationship between the Spirit and the death of Jesus. By all accounts, this association represents a certain development in early Christian thought, for which there is very little evidence in the Gospel Passion narratives. Only in the Gospel of John do we find a connection between the Spirit and the death of Jesus, and there only by way of allusion and foreshadowing. As discussed in a prior note, the Johannine presentation of the tradition regarding Jesus’ last words, and the actual moment of his death (19:30), can be understood as a reference to Jesus giving the Spirit. Similarly, many commentators find an allusion to the Spirit in the water that comes forth from Jesus’ side (19:34f, note), as symbolic of the Spirit as ‘living water’ —cf. 4:10-15; 7:37-39, and note the contrast between ordinary water and the Spirit in 3:5-8; cp. 1:26, 33.

Another possible connection is found in the use of Psalm 16:8-10 within the sermon-speeches of Peter and Paul in the book of Acts (2:25-28; 13:35), applied to the death of Jesus. It could be taken to imply that God (and His Spirit) remained with Jesus all the way through the moment of his death (and his burial thereafter). Cf. the introduction to this series, and the recent Easter Sunday article.

Apart from these indirect references, I can find only one passage in the New Testament that connects the Spirit with the actual death of Jesus—Hebrews 9:11-14, with the climactic statement in verse 14.

Hebrews 9:14

An important theme that runs throughout the letter of Hebrews is the fulfillment, in Jesus’ person, of all the sacrificial ritual previously required by God of His people (in the old covenant). In the new covenant, such sacrificial offerings are no longer required (cf. 10:9, etc), since they were fulfilled by Jesus, and he himself is the mediator of a new agreement between God and His people (believers)—see esp. 7:22; 8:6-10ff, 13; 9:1ff, 15-20; 10:16-17 (citing Jer 31:33-34); 12:24; 13:20.

The focus on the sacrificial offerings runs through chapters 7-10, with special attention given to the Day of Atonement ritual (Leviticus 16). Jesus fulfills the role of the high priest who enters “the inner (space)” behind the curtain (Heb 6:19)—that is, into the innermost shrine (‘Holy of Holies’)—to offer sacrifice (by sprinkling blood), cleansing the shrine of impurity, from the sins of the people, in the presence of YHWH (Lev 16:15ff). The sacrificial offering is burnt upon the Temple altar (vv. 24ff), as a sin offering on behalf of all the people (including the priests). In terms of the typological interpretation applied by the author of Hebrews, Jesus is both the High Priest who offers the sacrifice and the sacrificial offering itself.

The dual imagery comes together in 9:11-14, where Jesus, the High Priest, is said to have entered into the inner shrine to sprinkle the cleansing blood (of the slaughtered animal), according to the regulation laid down in Lev 16:15ff. However, the blood that he brings is his own—that is, he himself is the sacrificial offering that has been slain:

“…and not through (the) blood of goats and calves, but through (using) his own blood, he came in, on one (occasion only), into the holy (place), (hav)ing found for the ages (the) loosing from (bondage).” (v. 12)

The ‘bondage’ from which people are loosed (i.e. set free) is the bondage to sin—the Day of Atonement rituals, of course, being intended specifically to remove the effects of sin. It is a sacrificial ritual to be performed “upon one (occasion)” (e)fa/pac)—that is, one time only. After the fulfillment by Jesus, there is no longer any need for the ritual to be performed. It was fulfilled by Jesus through his sacrificial death—which involved (literally) the shedding of blood, but also the cruelty and violence of his manner of death (crucifixion) represents, in a general sense, ‘bloodshed’. On this specific Christological use of the blood-motif, cf. Mark 14:24 par; John 6:54-56; [19:34]; Acts 20:28; Rom 3:25; 5:9; 1 Cor 10:16; Col 1:20; Eph 1:7; 2:13; 1 Pet 1:2, 19; 1 John 1:7; 5:6ff; Rev 1:5; 5:9; 7:14; 12:11; 19:13. Outside of chapters 7-10 in Hebrews, cf. also 12:24; 13:12, 20.

The contrast between the blood of slaughtered animals, as used in the ritual, and Jesus’ own blood, is emphasized in verses 13-14:

“For, if the blood of goats and calves…(by) sprinkling (it on) the (one)s having been made common [i.e. unclean/profane], makes (them) holy toward the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of the Anointed (One), who, through (the) Spirit of the Ages [i.e. eternal Spirit], brought himself, without blemish, toward God, cleanse our sunei/dhsi$ from dead works, unto performing service to (the) living God?”

Verses 13-14 comprise a relatively long and complex sentence, as my very literal translation above makes clear. The complexity is due, in large part, to the considerable mixture of images and motifs which the author has brought together. This includes both the idea of the sprinkling of blood—alluding not just to the Day of Atonement ritual, but to a range of sacrificial contexts (e.g., Exod 24:8; cp. Mk 14:24 par)—and of presenting the slaughtered animal as a burnt offering (for sin, etc).

The reference to the Spirit in verse 14 is significant, and is the particular focus of our study. The expression is pneu=ma ai)wni/ou, “(the) Spirit of the Ages”, with the adjective ai)w/nio$ (“of the age[s]”) typically translated “eternal” —understood, not so much in a temporal sense, but as a fundamental Divine characteristic or attribute. It is possible to consider also that ai)w/nio$ alludes to a certain ‘timelessness’ as a characteristic of God’s Spirit.

The expression is part of a wider prepositional phrase: dia\ pneu/mato$ ai)wni/ou, “through (the) Spirit of the Ages,” “through (the) eternal Spirit”. Commentators have long debated the precise significance of this phrase in v. 14; an entire monograph has even been devoted to the subject (by John J. McGrath, S.J., Through the Eternal Spirit: An Historical Study of the Exegesis of Hebrews 9:13-14 [Rome: Pontificia Universitas Gregoriana, 1961]). The interpretive key would seem to be the parallelism with the dia/– phrases in vv. 11-12 (cf. Attridge, p. 251):

    • “through [dia/] the greater and more complete tent”
    • “through [dia/] his own blood…” (cf. above), contrasting
      not through the blood of goats…”

The Spirit represents both the location and the manner of the sacrifice. In the first instance, the sacrificial offering takes place ‘in the Spirit’ —that is, in the realm of the Spirit; in the second instance, it is offered at the level of the Spirit, in a spiritual manner. Thus, even though Jesus suffered a physical death, in which concrete and material blood was shed, he truly offered “his own blood” through the Spirit.

This is comparable to the Johannine view of Jesus’ death, in which, as discussed in prior notes, the life-giving (and cleansing) power of Jesus’ blood (i.e., his sacrificial death) is communicated to believers through the Spirit; and, indeed, we participate in, and partake of, his ‘blood’ in a spiritual manner. Cf. especially the notes on Jn 6:51-58; 1 Jn 1:7, and 5:6-8. However, here in Hebrews the focus is somewhat different. The emphasis is not on how we experience Jesus’ death, but on the death itself. Verse 14 indicates that Jesus’ death was spiritual, as much as (or even more than) it was physiological.

Perhaps it would be better to say that Jesus’ sacrificial death effected something at the spiritual level. It brought about a cleansing of sin that is realized, for believers, spiritually; for more on this, cf. again the prior note on 1 Jn 1:7ff. Specifically, v. 14 locates this cleansing in the sunei/dhsi$ of the believer. This noun is derived from the verb sunei/dw, which literally means “see together”, in the sense of seeing how things fit together, indicating a certain knowledge and awareness of the matter. The noun sunei/dhsi$ most commonly refers to a person’s self-awareness, often in a moral-ethical sense—i.e., awareness of one’s behavior and conduct, etc. It is typically translated in English as “conscience”.

The awareness of which believers are cleansed, by Jesus’ blood, relates to our religious identity—specifically, to our identity as God’s people. In the old covenant, this identity was defined principally by the Torah regulations, including those involving the sacrificial rituals. The rituals were required to deal with the reality of sin and impurity. One such ritual, alluded to by the author (in a curious fashion) in v. 13, is the rite of the Red heifer (Lev 19), which was performed in order to remove the impurity that came from being in contact with a dead body. Probably the author is alluding to this when he refers to being cleansed from “dead works”.

Now, in the new covenant, through the sacrifice of Jesus, we perform service (vb latreu/w) to God in a new way. Our minds and hearts having been cleansed from sin, through the blood of Jesus, in the Spirit, the old sacrificial rituals are no longer required. No longer are we rendered impure from “dead works”, but we are alive in the Spirit and serve a living God. As we have seen, Paul was more forceful than the author of Hebrews in defining the contrast between the old and new covenants as a contrast between “death” and “life” (see esp. 2 Corinthians 3:3, 6-7ff, 14, 17-18). However, as our author continues in vv. 15ff, he very much brings out a similar connection between the old covenant and death. The new covenant was also founded on a death—that of Jesus—but it was a death that occurred only one time (e)fa/pac), and never again.

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

The Spirit and the Birth of Jesus: Part 4 (Heb 1:5; 5:5; 9:14)

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.

Hebrews 1:1-5

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 (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—

    • 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. 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):

    • 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)

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
    • Heavenly position (at God’s right hand)

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.

Sola Scriptura: Romans 16:25; Hebrews 1:1-2

Sola Scriptura

In our studies thus far, we have seen how the Scriptures (that is, the Old Testament) continued to be authoritative for early Christians, but only in a secondary (and supplemental) sense. The primary source of authority was what we may broadly call the Apostolic Tradition. This may seem to contradict the Reformation doctrine of Sola Scriptura; however, to make such an unqualified conclusion would be quite misleading. In point of fact, the Apostolic Tradition was the basis for the development of the inspired writings of the New Testament—and the greater revelation that was contained in those writings, ultimately to be regarded as sacred Scripture by every Christian.

With the passing of the first generation (or two) of apostles, by the end of the 1st century (and into the 2nd), the authoritative Apostolic Tradition had come to be preserved in written form (i.e., the New Testament Scriptures), gradually taking the place of the communication of that Tradition in the person of the apostles themselves (and their representatives). It seems clear, for example, that the publication of the Gospel of John was stimulated by the death of the ‘Beloved Disciple’, the leading apostolic figure of the Johannine Community (Jn 21:20-24). The authority of the apostles was based on their personal connection to Jesus himself.

The very word a)po/stolo$ (apostolos) derives its significance from the fundamental meaning of the verb a)poste/llw (“set [out] from, send forth”). An apostle is someone “sent forth from” Jesus, as his representative, an idea rooted in the early Gospel tradition and the ministry-work of Jesus in Galilee (Mark 3:14-15ff par; 6:7-13 par; Luke 10:1ff). Commissioned and sent out by Jesus, they were given (and possessed) his own divine (and inspired) authority, to preach (the Gospel) and work healing miracles. This formed the pattern for the broader apostolic mission of early Christians (Acts 1:8, 21-22, etc). The earliest congregations were founded by missionary work that was an extension of this apostolic mission, and thus the principal source of religious authority for these 1st-century congregations was the authority of the Apostolic Tradition.

The Apostolic Tradition has three fundamental components:

    1. The proclamation (kerygma) of the Gospel
    2. The words of Jesus—sayings, teachings, parables—along with his example (of what he said and did), preserved and transmitted by the apostles to the early congregations (cf. 1 Cor 15:1-4)
    3. The authoritative teaching by the apostles

A study will be devoted to each of these components; we begin with the first of these.

1. The Proclamation (Kerygma) of the Gospel

The “good message” (or “good news”), the eu)agge/lion, or Gospel, has its origins in the preaching of Jesus (Mark 1:14-15 par, et al), being carried on, even during his lifetime, by his disciples, acting as his representatives (i.e., as apostles) (Luke 9:6, etc). However, following the resurrection (and ascension) of Jesus, the “good message” gradually came to take on a distinctive form—as a thumbnail narrative of Jesus’ life and work. The sermon-speeches in Acts preserve examples of this early Gospel proclamation (kerygma). In these speeches, the Gospel narrative is extremely simple, focusing on the death and resurrection (and exaltation) of Jesus, and only slowly incorporating certain details or aspects of his earthly ministry. Noteworthy examples, representative of the earliest preaching, are: Acts 2:22-24, 29ff, 36; 3:13-15; 4:27ff; 5:30-32; 10:37-42; 13:26-32. It is easy to see how these simple narrative statements, over time (c. 35-60 A.D.), would develop into the larger narratives of the Gospels.

It must be emphasized that, from the very beginning, this Gospel proclamation held primary authority for early Christians, taking precedence over the Old Testament Scriptures. This can be seen already in the way that the Scriptures supplement (and support) the kerygma in the sermon-speeches (on this, cf. the earlier study, and throughout the series “The Speeches of Acts”). The revelation of the inspired Old Testament Scriptures (i.e., of the old covenant) are thus subordinate to the Gospel; they continue to hold authority for Christians, primarily, insofar as they point the way to the greater revelation of Christ (in the new covenant).

There are a number of New Testament passages, many of which were written when the composition and development of Gospels was still in its very early stages, which indicate that the proclamation of the Gospel (with its seminal narrative) was being compared with the Scriptures—being on a par with them, and even altogether surpassing them in many important ways. I wish to examine a couple of these passages briefly.

Romans 16:25-26

“And to Him having the power to set you firm(ly), according to my good message [eu)agge/lion] and the proclamation [kh/rugma] of Yeshua (the) Anointed, according to the uncovering of (the) secret [musth/rion] having been kept silent in (the) times (of) ages (past), but now (hav)ing been made to shine (forth) even through (the) writings of (the) Foretellers, according to (the) arrangement of (the) God of the Ages, unto hearing under trust, unto all the nations, having been made known…”

The authenticity of the doxology in Rom 16:25-27 continues to be debated, with many commentators convinced that it was neither originally part of Romans, nor written by Paul. Even if this were granted, the wording reflects genuine Pauline thought (and style), as well as the thought-world of Christians in the mid-to-late 1st century. Three key nouns are used which are largely synonymous in context: (1) eu)agge/lion (“good message,” i.e., Gospel), (2) kh/rugma (“proclamation,” transliterated as a technical term, kerygma), and (3) musth/rion (“secret,” i.e., mystery). All three are important early Christian terms, and they all refer to the seminal message (and narrative) of the Gospel. The expressions and phrases that contain these words are also closely related:

    • “my good message” —i.e., the good news of Christ that is preached by apostles like Paul
    • “the proclamation of Yeshua (the) Anointed” —the genitive can be understood in either a subjective sense (Jesus’ preaching) or objective sense (preaching about Jesus), or both.
    • “the uncovering of the secret kept silent…” —the noun a)poka/luyi$ (“removal of the cover from, uncovering”) emphasizes that the Gospel is a divine (and inspired) revelation, akin to the prophetic revelations (by God) during the time of the old covenant (cf. below).

The use of the term musth/rion (“secret”) in this respect is authentically Pauline (1 Cor 2:1, 7; 4:1; 13:2; 14:2; 15:51; cf. also 2 Thess 2:7), though it is perhaps more prominent in the disputed letters of Colossians (1:26-27; 2:2; 4:3) and Ephesians (1:9; 3:3-4, 9; 5:32; 6:19). For more on the meaning, background, and use of the term, see my earlier word study. Indeed, of the three terms, musth/rion has the greatest theological significance. Here, it relates to a distinction between the two ages or dispensations—the old and new covenants, respectively—that is fundamental to early Christian thought:

    • Old Covenant (periods of time/ages past): the Gospel-secret has been “kept silent/hidden” (verb siga/w)
    • New Covenant (“now”): it has been “made to shine forth” (vb fanero/w), i.e., has been made manifest, revealed, and has at last “been made known” (vb gnwri/zw).

The Gospel proclamation is expounded out of the Old Testament Scriptures (“writings of the Prophets”), which is fully in accord with the earliest Christian preaching and teaching, even going back to the teaching of Jesus himself. The Scriptures (especially the Psalms and the books of the Prophets) contained, in a secret and hidden way, the seeds of the Gospel (e.g., Gal 3:8); but it required the new inspired revelation of the apostles in order to “uncover” and make known this secret. On this basis alone, the Gospel represents a superior kind of revelation, however it is rooted in the Scriptures and supported by them. Indeed, without the New Covenant revelation, people remain blind to the true meaning of the Scriptures (2 Cor 3:14-16, etc).

Hebrews 1:1-2

“(In) many parts and many ways (in times) of old, God (was) speaking to the Fathers by the Foretellers, (but) upon (the) end of these days He spoke to us by a Son, whom He set (as one) to receive the lot of all (thing)s, through whom also He made the Ages…”

The same dispensational contrast—between the old and new covenants—serves as a key theme that runs throughout Hebrews, and it is established at the very beginning of the introduction (exordium, 1:1-4). It marks the current time—i.e., of the first generation(s) of believers—as a turning point, marking the beginning of a New Age (= new covenant), and presenting  a clear dividing line between the time now and all that has gone before:

    • Old Covenant: “(in times) of old [pa/lai]” —God spoke through the Prophets
    • New Covenant: “at the end [e)p’ e)sxa/tou] of these days,” that is, in the eschatological present time—God has spoken through His Son

There is a clear contrastive parallel here between the Prophets and Jesus (the Son of God), as the source of divine-inspired revelation (communicating the word of God) in each dispensation (and covenant), respectively. The superiority of the revelation in the person of Jesus is obvious, and the author develops the point systematically throughout his work. Here, this superiority is expressed by contrasting the singular revelation in Jesus with the multifaceted way that God spoke through the many different Prophets. For Jews and Christians in the first-century, of course, the revelation through the Prophets (in the old covenant) was known only through its preservation in the Scriptures (the Prophetic writings, including the Psalms). The Torah (Pentateuch) doubtless would also be included, but emphasis is given on the Prophetic oracles as the vehicle for God’s revelation.

The comparison between Jesus and the Prophets, as well as the idea of God speaking (vb lale/w), might suggest that it is the words of Jesus that are primarily in view here. The preserved words and teachings of Jesus are certainly a key component of the authoritative Apostolic Tradition (cf. above), and will be discussed in the next study; however, I believe that a much more comprehensive and holistic view of the Tradition is being expressed here. This can be affirmed by what follows in vv. 2-4, beginning with the statement that God “set” (vb ti/qhmi) Jesus (His Son) to be the “heir of all things”. This phrase reflects the fundamental Gospel tenet of the exaltation of Jesus (to the right hand of God in heaven) following his resurrection (Acts 2:33-34; 5:31; 7:55-56 [cf. Mk 14:62 par]; Rom 8:34; Col 3:1, etc). The earliest Christology was unquestionably an exaltation-Christology, focusing almost entirely on Jesus’ deity, and identity as the Son of God, in terms of his resurrection (and exaltation) by God the Father. However, by the time Hebrews was written (c. 70 A.D.?), early Christians had begun to evince a pre-existence-Christology as well, and Hebrews combines both of these Christologies (e.g., the ‘Christ-hymn’ in vv. 2-4, on which cf. my earlier study; cp. also the study on Philippians 2:6-11.

In any case, the point is that the declaration in v. 2b is a key component of the Gospel kerygma; thus, the contrast between the Prophets and Jesus can also be understood as a contrast between the Prophets and the Gospel. And, from the standpoint of our study, it is important to note that the written record of the Gospel (taking shape during the years c. 35-90 A.D.) forms a close parallel to the written record of the Prophets (in the Old Testament Scriptures).

Statements such as those in Rom 16:25-26 and Heb 1:2 thus are seminal (and foundational) for establishing the authority of the New Testament Scriptures. And, the authority of these new Scriptures (of the new covenant), while being on a par with the old Scriptures—in terms of their divine/prophetic inspiration and revelatory content—far surpasses that of the old. This is a vital principle that must be maintained—for believers, the new covenant in Christ (manifest through the presence of the Spirit) has entirely eclipsed the authority of the old covenant (cf. 2 Corinthians 3).

The Old Testament in the Gospel Tradition: Psalm 110:1

Psalm 110:1

It may be argued that no Scripture influenced early Christian belief regarding the person of Jesus more than the opening verse of Psalm 110. Its significance can be seen on several different levels:

    • The Messianic identity of Jesus—that is, as the royal Messiah from the line of David (cf. Parts 6, 7, 8 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”)
    • In relation to the exaltation of Jesus to the right hand of God in heaven, and, developing from this, the exaltation-Christology that dominated early Christian thought
    • The application to Jesus of the figure-type of Melchizedek (as developed especially in Hebrews)
    • It was also a seminal text in the shift from an exaltation- to a pre-existence-Christology

We may begin with the role of Psalm 110:1 in establishing the Messianic identity of Jesus. In particular, we must consider the Synoptic episode in Mark 12:35-37 par, where Jesus discusses the relationship between “the Anointed (One)” and the “Son of David”. Central to the episode is Jesus’ citation of Psalm 110:1, which in the Greek version (LXX) begins:

ei@pen o( ku/rio$ tw=| kuri/w|
eípen ho kúrios tœ kuríœ
“The Lord said to my Lord…”

The dual use of ku/rio$ (“lord”) at first glance is confusing, and is due to specific circumstances surrounding the recitation (and translation) of the Divine Name hwhy (YHWH, Yahweh). The original Hebrew reads,

yn]d)al^ hw`hy+ <a%n+
n®°¥m YHWH la°dœnî
“Utterance of YHWH to my Lord:…”

Early on in Jewish tradition, the Tetragrammaton hwhy (YHWH) was replaced with “(my) Lord” (ynda) when the text was recited; this, in turn, generally led to the common practice of translating hwhy with Ku/rio$ (“Lord”) in Greek, and to the double-use of ku/rio$ in LXX Psalm 110:1. A similar wordplay could be attested for Aramaic—ya!r=m*l= ar@m* rm^a& °¦mar m¹r¢° l®m¹r°î (cf. Fitzmyer, WA p. 90).

In the original context of the Psalm, the Lord (YHWH) speaks to “my Lord” (the king). Most scholars would hold that the setting (as in Psalm 2) involves the enthronement or inauguration of the (new) king, a time at which nobles and vassals might choose to rebel or to gain power and independence for themselves (Ps 2:1-3; 110:1). God gives to the king assurance of His protection and support, including victory over all enemies, i.e. the surrounding nations (Ps 2:4-11; 110:2-3, 5-7). Much like Psalm 2, this Psalm refers to the king in exalted, ‘divine’ language, very much in keeping with ancient (Near Eastern) ideas of kingship.

I would divide the Psalm as follows:

    • Declaration (utterance/oracle) of YHWH— “Sit at my right-hand…” (verse 1)
      • Promise by YHWH of (divine) power/victory over the king’s enemies (verses 2-3)
    • Declaration (oath) of YHWH— “You are a priest…” (verse 4)
      • Promise of the king’s power/victory over the peoples, in terms of YHWH’s judgment against the nations (verses 5-6)
    • Concluding declaration of YHWH’s establishment of the king’s rule (verse 7)

It should be noted that much of the vocabulary and syntax of this Psalm remains obscure, with verses 4 and 7 being especially difficult to interpret.

As discussed in Parts 6 and 7 of this series, Psalm 2 was interpreted and applied to the coming/future Anointed King (from the line of David) in a number of Jewish writings of the period (such as the 17th Psalm of Solomon). However, apart from its use in the New Testament, there is little evidence for a similar Messianic interpretation of Psalm 110 at the time of Jesus. In one text from Qumran (11QMelch [11Q13]), Melchizedek (Ps 110:4) appears as a Divine/Heavenly figure who functions as Judge against the wicked (Belial), but this scenario (col ii, lines 9-13) is derived from Psalm 82:1-2 rather than 110:1. His appearance (as Judge and Deliverer) is also connected with the Anointed One of Daniel 9:25 and the Messenger of Isa 52:7 who brings the good news of salvation (col ii, lines 15-25). A similar paradigm may underlie the “Elect/Righteous One” and “Son of Man” figure in the Similitudes of Enoch (1 Enoch 37-71), which many scholars hold to be roughly contemporary with Jesus and the early New Testament writings.

In any case, Jesus cites Psalm 110:1 as though a Messianic interpretation were understood, but he shifts the meaning of “Anointed One” (o( xristo/$, Christ/Messiah) away from the royal Davidic figure-type and toward a different reference point—a Divine/Heavenly figure, closer, perhaps, to the “Son of Man” of 1 Enoch and Jesus’ own sayings (cf. Mark 8:38; 13:26; 14:62 pars; Luke 12:8, 40; 17:22, 24, 26, 30; 18:8, and pars in Matthew; also John 1:51; 3:13; 5:27; 6:62). Certainly, it was understood this way in early Christian tradition, associated specifically with the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus to the right hand of God in Acts 2:34-36 (cf. also Mark 16:19; Acts 2:33; 5:31; 7:55-56; Rom 8:34; Col 3:1; 1 Pet 3:22, etc). In the Synoptic saying of Jesus in Mark 14:62 par, he identifies himself (as “the Son of Man”) who will appear at the right hand of God, in connection with the coming/end-time Judgment (Mk 13:26 par). Thus Jesus may be identifying himself with a pre-existent Heavenly/Divine figure akin to that in 1 Enoch 37-71. In Hebrews 1:13, Psalm 110:1 is cited in the context of belief in the pre-existent deity of Jesus, though in Heb 5:6 an association with the resurrection (and exaltation) seems to be more in mind.

Mark 12:35-37 / Matt 22:41-46 / Luke 20:41-44

In this Synoptic episode (set during Passion week in Jerusalem), Jesus himself raises a question regarding the relationship between the “Anointed (One)” and the “Son of David”, based on an exposition of Psalm 110:1. The precise meaning and intent of Jesus’ argument continues to be debated by commentators. Only traces survive of the historical setting—it appears to be part of a scholarly discussion between Jesus and certain authorities on Scripture (Scribes/Pharisees), a context that is best preserved in Matthew’s account (Matt 22:41-43ff) which records at least part of an exchange. In Mark and Luke, this is framed as a pair of (rhetorical) questions by Jesus:

    • Question 1: How do they count/consider the Anointed (One) to be the son of David? (Lk 20:41)
    • Question 2: (But) David calls him “Lord” and how is he (then) his son? (Lk 20:44)

The second question is based on the common-place idea that the son would call his father “Lord” (“Master, Sir”), not the other way around. The first question assumes that the “Anointed (One)” —here the future Anointed King/Ruler—would be a descendant of David, which is attested in Jewish writings of the period, as well as in the New Testament (cf. the previous two articles). The identification is derived from Scriptures such as 2 Sam 7:11-16; Psalm 132:10-12, etc. It is in this context that Jesus cites another Scripture—Psalm 110:1 (Lk 20:42-43 par), and the way he uses it would indicate that it was commonly understood in a Messianic sense; however, there does not appear to be any other surviving evidence for such an interpretation in Judaism at the time of Jesus (see the discussion above).

In my view, Jesus uses Psalm 110:1 as a clever way to shift the meaning of “the Anointed (One)” from the Davidic King figure-type over to a different reference point—that of a coming Divine/Heavenly figure, generally referred to elsewhere by Jesus as “the Son of Man” (from Daniel 7:13).

Acts 2:32-36

Psalm 110:1 is one of three central Scriptures cited in Peter’s Pentecost speech (Acts 2:14-41, cf. the previous article on Psalm 16:8-11). The citation (in vv. 34-35) is virtually identical to the Greek (LXX) version [109:1]:

Ei@pen o( ku/rio$ tw=| kuri/w| mou Ka/qou e)k deciw=n mou,
e%w$ a*n qw= tou\$ e)xqrou/$ sou u(popo/dion tw=n podw=n sou.
“The Lord said to my lord, ‘Sit out of [i.e. from/by] my right-hand,
until I should set your enemies (as something) under-foot [i.e. a ‘foot-stool’] for your feet’.”

The only difference is the first definite article (o() for ku/rio$ (i.e. “[the] Lord”), which is omitted in some manuscripts.

The Exposition/Application.Psalm 110:1 follows on the citation of Psalm 16:8-11, with a definite continuity of thought: just as Ps 16:8-11 refers to God not leaving his Holy One down in Hades to see ruin/corruption—implying the resurrection—so with Ps 110:1 we see the result and after-effect of the resurrection—Jesus exalted (as Lord) to the right hand of God the Father in Heaven. This is stated clearly in the kerygmatic statement in vv. 32-33 (see below), but decisively in verse 36, which serves as both exposition and kerygmatic declaration. In its original context, Psalm 110 was probably connected with the coronation or inauguration (enthronement) of the king (cf. the discussion above). Of course, this very ambiguity lies at the center of the early Christian view of Jesus as “Lord” [ku/rio$] (see below).

However, there can be no doubt that early Christians saw in this Psalm (as in Psalm 2) a reference to Jesus’ exalted/divine status. The fact that verse 1 was already cited by Jesus in early Gospel (Synoptic) tradition (Mark 12:36-37 par) may have contributed to the association, even though the exact meaning and force of the question Jesus asks is not entirely clear (cf. above).

Here in Acts, Ps 110:1 is applied specifically to Jesus’ exaltation to God’s right hand in Heaven following the resurrection, which is somewhat problematic for orthodox Christology, for it could be taken to mean that Jesus had a position at God’s right hand only after (and as a result of) the resurrection/exaltation. This was discussed in an earlier note; and see also my article on Adoptionism. For more on this idea, cf. below on Acts 2:36.

Kerygmatic statement/formulae.—There are two statements which should be noted: (a) verses 32-33, following the exposition of vv. 29-31 and prior to the citation of Ps 110:1 in vv. 34-35, and (b) the climactic declaration in verse 36. Here is the statement in vv. 32-33:

“This Yeshua God made to stand up (again)—of which we all are witnesses—(and) therefore he was lifted high to the right [lit. giving] hand of God, and receiving the announcement [e)paggeli/a, i.e. promise] of the holy Spirit (from) alongside the Father he poured this out—(of) which [also] you see and hear.”

In some ways this continues the kerygmatic statement from vv. 22-24, which summarizes Jesus’ earthly life and ministry up to the moment of resurrection; now is described the resurrection (and post-resurrection appearance[s], “of which we all are witnesses”), the exaltation to God’s right hand in Heaven, and the sending of the Spirit (which Jesus receives from the Father). There can be little doubt that such credal summaries were an important part of early Gospel preaching and proclamation (kerygma). The climactic declaration in verse 36 is, however, especially striking:

“Therefore let all the house of Yisrael safely/certainly know that God made him (both) Lord and Anointed—this Yeshua whom you put to the stake!”

Here we have the two titles most widely used and applied to Jesus in the early Church— “Lord” (ku/rio$) and “Anointed” (xristo/$, i.e. Messiah / ‘Christ’). It would seem the implication here is that both titles apply to Jesus as a result of the resurrection and exaltation, which, again, is somewhat problematic from the standpoint of orthodox Christology. Also difficult is the statement that God made (e)poi/hsen) Jesus Lord. I have discussed these points in some detail in an earlier note.

Psalm 110:1 in Hebrews

Hebrews 1:13 apparently cites Ps 110:1 in the context of Jesus’ pre-existent nature and status as God’s Son (Heb 1:2-3ff). This represents a considerable development in early Christology, moving in the direction of subsequent orthodox belief. Mention should also be made of the obscure and highly enigmatic reference to “Melchi-zedek” in Ps 110:4—the entire verse, in context, is extremely difficult to interpret, with a wide range of scholarly suggestions available. Be that as it may, Christians applied this specific reference from the Psalm to Jesus as well—most famously in the seventh chapter of Hebrews (Heb 7). For more on this, cf. Part 9 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”, along with a related study on the idea in Hebrews.

References marked “Fitzmyer, WA” above are from J. A. Fitzmyer, A Wandering Aramean: Collected Aramaic Essays (Scholars Press: 1979).

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).

December 3: Hebrews 1:3 (3b)

Hebrews 1:3, continued

Verse 3b

fe/rwn te ta\ pa/nta tw=| r(h/mati th=$ duna/mew$ au)tou=
“and bearing all (thing)s by the word of his power”

This is the second of the two participial clauses in verse 3ab, each of which illustrate different aspects of the pre-existence Christology that came into prominence during the period c. 60-90 A.D. It is helpful to keep in mind the syntactical structure:

    • (the Son) “who” (o%$)
      • being…” (w&n) [3a]
        • “…a beam (shining) forth of the splendor (of God)”
          a)pau/gasma th=$ 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=) [3b]

Both of the key participles (w&n, fe/rwn) are present-tense forms, and, as such, may be intended to establish characteristics of Jesus the Son of God that are eternal (i.e., ever-present); or, at least, that they have fundamental meaning and significant in the present, rather than simply referring to events or conditions in the past. The first participle (cf. the discussion in the previous note) is a form of the verb of being (ei)mi), and thus the clause functions as a declaration of who Jesus is. The second participle is of an active/transitive verb (fe/rw), meaning “bear, carry”, and refers to what Jesus (the Son) does.

The doing of Jesus involves the act of creation—that is, of God creating the universe. This is a central aspect of the early pre-existence Christology, and it is influenced by Hellenistic Jewish Wisdom/Logos tradition, being originally derived (primarily, if not exclusively) from the ancient Wisdom-tradition in Proverbs 8:22-31. For the basic details on this line of tradition, cf. the discussion in the previous note, as well as the earlier notes on the Colossians hymn (1:15-20).

However, while the Colossians hymn, like the Johannine prologue, refers to Jesus’ role in creation in terms of “making, establishing, forming” (kti/zw, ti/ktw), here in v. 3b the emphasis seems to be on sustaining the universe, maintaining its unifying bond of existence. Let us see how this is expressed by examining the two component phrases of the clause.

fe/rwn ta\ pa/nta

As noted above, the 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. Particularly important to this line of Christology is the substantive use of the adjective pa=$ (“all”), in the plural, as a comprehensive (and emphatic) reference to everything in the universe (“all things,” ta/ pa/nta). The adjective is used repeatedly (7 times) in the Colossians hymn (ta\ pa/nta in vv. 16-17, 20). While this coincides with Pauline usage, the same emphatic term here in Hebrews demonstrates that the language in Col 1:15-20 could just as easily be derived from an earlier (non-Pauline) hymn or confessional statement.

tw=| r(h/mati th=$ duna/mew$ au)tou=

This sustaining of creation 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 noun r(h=ma is used, rather than lo/go$ (as in the Johannine prologue), but the same basic idea of the spoken word is involved. Admittedly, lo/go$ is more closely rooted to the underlying Wisdom tradtion, since it connotes the Divine thought and reason that brings shape and order to the universe. This all-pervasive sustaining and ordering of creation is attributed, famously, to the Divine Wisdom in Wis 7:24ff. In the writings of Philo of Alexandria, this is expressed in terms of the Logos (Lo/go$), as the means by which God sustains the cosmos (On the Migration of Abraham §6, cp. Who Is the Heir? §7, On Dreams 1.241. In certain passages, the Logos is referred to as a “pillar” that supports the universe, and to the “bond” (desmo/$) that holds all things together (On the Work of Planting §8; On Flight and Finding §112; cf. Attridge, p. 45).

“His power,” of course, refers to the power of God, and indicates that the creative (and world-sustaining) power of the Son (like the Logos) is that of the Father Himself. The pre-existent Jesus thus shares the same Spirit (i.e. Power) of God, affirming a central point of the developing Christology, common to the great hymns in Philippians and Colossians, as well as other key Christological passages of the New Testament.