August 22, 2010

Hebrews 1:1-4

We are in the second week of our study of the book of Hebrews. And last week we looked at the beginning of the book and at the end of the book to get an understanding of what exactly this book is and why it plays such a strategic role in biblical theology, in the structure and in the layout of the New Testament, in the context of Scripture. And we looked at the beginning and the end, looking at this incredible Christological, doxological, theological way the book begins and then its pastoral application at the end. 

But now we're going to go back to the very first verse. And as we go through the book verse by verse, we're reminded that we do that because we don't want to miss anything. Now, when we say don't want to miss anything, that doesn't mean that any study or any teacher can plum the infinite depths of this book. It does mean that we want to encounter every word, we want to take seriously every verse, we want to put it in its context and we want to take a section of Scripture every time we are together, that allows us to walk through the book in such a way that we are reminded that it has a beginning and an end, even as one book, that it fits within the total context of the New Testament, the total context of Scripture, so that we put each verse, indeed, each word, in its proper biblical context. 

We begin reading in Hebrews chapter 1 verse 1. “Long ago...” That's interesting. You know, some of the books of the Bible begin with ways we can easily understand chronologically, “In the beginning”—Genesis, John. And you understand that a Gospel like Matthew begins with a very important chronological beginning. So does, after a greeting, the Gospel of Luke. But what we have here in the book of Hebrews is a reminder from the very first verse that the writer of the book of Hebrews, inspired by the Holy Spirit, is going to put this story, the truth about Jesus Christ, in a context. It’s going to begin somewhere, and it doesn't begin in Bethlehem. Not yet. It doesn't begin in Jerusalem. Not yet. It begins long ago. “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets”. 

Now immediately, this puts the context in a very interesting light. The writer of the book of Hebrew says, if you're going to understand the story of Jesus, if you're going to understand the meaning of the cross of Christ, if you're going to understand the Gospel, you're going to have to understand that it comes in a context of God having spoken and now speaking. This is not God's first word. The Gospel does not come in a vacuum. It doesn't come out of the blue. The Gospel has a history. The Gospel has a period of preparation. The Gospel is God speaking, after He has already been speaking. What we now have in Christ, we're going to come to understand, is the definitive final word, but God has spoken before. 

Now, we were reminded as we began our study of the book of Hebrews, and we looked at the context, that the book Hebrews has the name Hebrews for more than one reason. One reason is that it is at great pains to help Christians to understand the relationship between the Gospel and the Old Testament. How do we understand the relationship between Christ and the prophets? How do we understand the relationship between the Gospel and the law? How do we understand what is new without understanding it terms of what was old, long ago? It's an indefinite chronological reference here. It is pointing backwards and it's pointing backwards a long way, centuries. Where? To win, and “many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets.” 

Now here, the writer of the book of Hebrews does something very subtle and we need to catch it very quickly. He uses two terms here that to the Jewish mind are absolutely essential, absolutely essential—the fathers and the prophets. If you were in Judaism in the first century, and you were going to make any kind of argument that was theological in any way, your point of reference, your authority, those whom you would cite by individual reference, by specific text, and by general authority, would be the fathers and the prophets.

Now the prepositions here are important. God spoke “to our fathers by the prophets”. Well, the first thing we have here encountered face to face directly in this text is the God who speaks. And again and again, we come back to the fact that this is also God's grace to us. When we are asked as Christians, what does the grace of God mean, we immediately go to Christ. We immediately go to salvation. We immediately go to the grace, the unmarried favor that is extended to us in Christ, by the Father. And that, of course, is quintessentially right. But we need to remember that there was grace before Christ, that is before the incarnation. There was grace before the actualization of the Gospel. There was grace in God speaking.  

You'll remember, my favorite definition of revelation comes from Carl Henry, my late mentor in theology, who always said, “Remember, that revelation is God's gracious”, there’s the word, grace, “self-disclosure whereby He forfeits His own personal privacy that we might know Him.” It's an act of generosity that God speaks. It's an act of grace that God speaks. If God did not speak, we could not find Him, we could not know Him. If God did not speak, we would be in darkness rather than light. If God did not speak, we would be left in ignorance rather than knowledge. If God did not speak, we would be absolutely hopeless. 

And God spoke “Long ago”, as the writer of the book of Hebrews begins, “at many times”, not just one time, “at many times and in many ways”. And there were lots of ways. The forms of God's revelation are many, as Paul makes very clear in Romans chapter 1. Before you even get to God speaking, in terms of special revelation or direct revelation, you have God's disclosure of Himself, even in what we would call general revelation or in nature, God speaks even in nature. But as Paul makes very clear, even though in nature, He has revealed even His invisible attributes, because of our sinfulness we cannot see it. We'll distort it. We are natural born idolators. We’ll take that knowledge that God gave us in creation, and we'll turn it into a form of, as Paul says, worshiping the creature rather than the Creator. That’s not just about someone else, that's about all of us. We are natural born idolators. That is what we see in the mirror—a would be idolator, but for the grace of God.

But the speaking that the writer book of Hebrews is talking about here is not in nature. This is special revelation he's talking about. This is direct revelation. This is verbal revelation. This is God speaking to the fathers, as to the patriarchs. God spoke to the patriarchs, “to the fathers by the prophets”. The prophets were those to whom God spoke. The prophets were those who were the human vessels of God's self-revelation. God spoke in many ways. As we recall, He spoke through Balaam’s donkey. He spoke through a bush that burned and was not consumed. He spoke through a mountain that shook with fire and was surrounded by smoke. He spoke through words, written on tablets of stone. But quintessentially He spoke through the prophets. And in Israel, in Judaism, in the first century, the authority of the law and the prophets, these were absolute. 

The writer of the book of Hebrews authorizes, immediately confirms, God's revelation through the prophets. It was a true revelation. It was an authentic revelation. It was an inerrant and totally true and trustworthy revelation. But, as consummate as is the authority of the prophets, as clear as was their message, as authoritative as was this revelation, it was not the final word. It was pointing—all prophecy was pointing, all the prophets were pointing towards the definitive word. And thus, you have the turn, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.” 

Now, in one sense, what we have here, much like in Genesis 1:1, or in John 1:1, here in Hebrews 1:1 we have an entire biblical theology. It's all right here. Did you notice how much is in there? We have incarnation, we have revelation, we have beginning, we have the creation, as we shall see, that Christ is the one through whom the world was created. He is now the heir of all things. But the crucial turn comes with the word “but”—“But in these last days”. So you have two different periods of time contrasted here. You have the long ago, and in these last days. 

“Long ago…” We wouldn't know how to tell the story of Jesus without long ago. We wouldn't know where to start. It wouldn't make a whole lot of sense, would it, if we just pointed to Bethlehem and said, “That's where it started.” We don't know how the world came to be. We don't have a clue how all this happened. We don't even why He needed to come, but He came. That's good news. Well, it would be good news, but we would not understand the good news. We understand the Gospel in the context of what came before. We understand God speaking through Christ, the Son, in the context of how God spoke through the prophets. 

The biblical theology that we need to always have in mind is very, very simple. It's promise and fulfillment. You have two words. If you understand those two words, you really have a very important and substantial biblical theology. The two words are simply promise and fulfillment. The Old Testament promise, the New Testament fulfillment. The prophets’ promise, Christ fulfillment. The law promise, Gospel fulfillment. These things happened, says Matthew, in order that the Scriptures might be fulfilled—promise and fulfillment. “These are they,” said Christ “that testify of Me.” Promise and fulfillment. 

And here you have it in Hebrews chapter 1 verse 1, “Long ago,” there’s one time, “but in these last days”, this is the new time. There's a new age, a decisive break in history. It's the dividing line between what was promised and now what is realized. The interesting phrase “in these last days” comes about in Scripture again and again. There's a sense in which we are all Latter-day Saints, in the sense that we are living in these last days, these latter days, these recent days, these new days. There's a quickening of history now with the incarnation, We're rooted in the old, we are the inheritors of the old. As Paul says in Romans, we are the branch, we Gentiles, who are grafted onto this tree. But we are in the new. 

One of the tensions of the Christian life is understanding what it means to live out of the context of the old, but in the context of the new, to live in the context of promise that is now fulfilled. We don't live in the law, but the Gospel comes only in the context of fulfilling the law. We don't live only by the prophets, but we're instructed by the prophets even to understand how we are to understand Christ. 

“In these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” This is a decisive difference. This is quintessential. This is the writer of the book of Hebrew saying, “Yes, absolutely. God spoke through the prophets. He spoke through the prophets in many ways, at many times, to our fathers.” This is the complete legitimation of the Old Testament. This is the complete authorization, the recognition of the authority of the prophets and of the patriarchs. This is the writer of the book of Hebrews saying, “This is our story. This is Christ’s story.” Christ's story is not new as in having no connection to the old, but at the same time, it is absolutely new.

“In these last days.” God is not speaking merely through the prophets, He’s speaking through a Son. Now that phrase “a Son”, with the singular, is to set the category difference. It’s not to imply there is more than one Son—that's definitively answered in Scripture. It’s just to say, there's a difference between a prophet and a Son. It's a qualitative difference that we can immediately understand. And in this case, what we're going to find in the first few verses of Hebrews chapter one, is that this Son is defined in a way no human son can be defined, in reference to the Father. It's a categorical change. He is no longer... The Father is no longer merely speaking through the prophets in many times and in many ways, He is now speaking through a son, His Son, the Son. As John says, μονογενής, the only one of His kind, the only Son. You know, speaking through a Son. 

Of course, Jesus tells a parable about a distant landowner who sends emissaries to those who are keeping his vineyard. And then finally he sends his son. And, of course, the wicked vineyard workers kill him. It's a categorical difference between a servant and a son. It's a categorical difference between a prophet and a son. “He has spoken to us by his Son.” 

Now look at these next phrases, “whom he appointed the heir of all things”. Now that's important. The relationship between a father and a son is one of the most easily understandable relationships. The son's identity is derived from his father. It is from the father that the son receives his name. He is, and always ever will be, his father's son. But one of the blessings of sonship is being the heir of the father. And in this case, this infinite Father has one Son. He is “the heir of all things”. And this is very important because the writer of the book of Hebrews, at the very beginning, is using traditional understandings that his primarily Hebrew Jewish first audience would easily understand. This Son is invested with everything. He is invested with full authority. 

This is where the singular is very important too—a Son. This is not a Father with many sons of this category. Only one, the only one of His kind. If you're going to do business with this Father, you're going to do business with this Son. And indeed, as we come to understand, if you're going to know this Father, you're going to know this Father through His Son. “In these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things.”

The next phrase, “through whom also he created the world.” Now this is something again, that would come… It comes familiar to us because we're so familiar with this. It comes with the ring of what we expect. We know that “In the beginning was the Word … and the Word was God.” We know the full text. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” We come to understand from John chapter one, verse one, as it ties back to Genesis one, verse one, that He is the one who created all things, nothing that came to be came to be except by His creation. 

You know, one of the most essential parts of promise and fulfillment, we have to keep in mind, essential to a biblical theology, and that is why the doctrine of creation is so important. Hear me on this. If we do not have the right doctrine of creation, we will not have the right doctrine of redemption. Creation and Gospel are inextricably linked. The God who creates is the God who redeems. They aren't two different gods—they are one God.

The Son who redeems is also the Son who creates. The world is His. “He came unto his own,” says John. This is His world. He was the agent of creation. We are told in Genesis that God spoke and it happened—verbal creation. And then we have in John one, the recognition that Christ is the Logos. He is the speech of God. And what we have here, He is the Word. He is the agent through whom the world was made. Not only is He the heir of all things, it is through the Son that the Father created the cosmos, the world. Now, again, there's an entire biblical theology there. You talk about a promise and fulfillment. Now you have creation and redemption in one agent who is the Son of the Father, the heir of all things. 

But not only that, what we have as we begin verse three, is an exposition of what this Son, who this Son, how this Son, is all that the Father has for us. “He is the radiance of the glory of God”. Now this idea of radiance, it goes back to the very idea, the shekinah glory of God. God's glory is both visible and invisible, but the visible expression of God's glory is that which burst forth in creation. The creation cannot help but declare the glory of God, even the heavens are telling the glory of God. It is a glory that shines forth and quintessentially it shines forth in special revelations of God, in theophanies, where the brilliance of the glory of God, this blinding brilliance, is just a reminder to us, a sign unto us, of the infinite glory of God, of what it means for God to be absolute light. Radiance is one of those words that then becomes a picture to us. Looking to Christ is to see the radiance of the glory of God. 

But more than that, He is “the exact imprint of his nature”. You know, if you're talking to someone and you have a pretty good idea that they misunderstand, you're going to be at pains to choose your words very carefully. The writer of the book of Hebrews is aware that as many Hebrews, many Jews, in particular Hellenistic Jews in the first century, are trying to understand the Gospel, they're trying to understand Christ. Well, you can read these opening verses to the book of Hebrews and see there are some misunderstandings that are being corrected here. And you know, one of the things that is sobering to us is that almost every ancient heresy emerges in every generation. Almost every ancient misunderstanding of the Gospel emerges in our own times. 

Jesus isn't like God. He doesn't merely in some indirect, but helpful way, show us God. When we see Christ, we do not see, please hear me. Evangelical preachers and evangelical Christians often misspake, misspeak—how’s that for parable! Evangelical preachers and Christians often misspeak by saying something that sounds almost right. When you see Christ, you see what the Father is like. Fail! The Scripture does not say that. Scripture says, when you see the Son, you see the Father. It is not merely what the Father is like. We do not look to Christ and then draw an inference the Father must be like that. And here is where this divine Son is different than a human son. No human son is the exact representation of his father. Trust me on this. I can prove this as both father and son. No son, no human son, is the exact representation of his father. He's his father's son, but not the exact representation. Christ is the exact representation. 

A little footnote here. The essential function of the virgin conception of Christ is multiple. But a part of it is in explaining how the Son, this Son, is the exact representation of His Father. He is exactly the Father. You look to Him, you see the Father. Like the opening to Colossians and it's great Christological hymn, He is the Icon, and we don't believe in icons you hang on the wall. We believe in one Icon who was hung on a cross. You look to the Son, you see the Father. 

Now this must, it indeed must have been stated to make clear where there had been a lack of clarity. Like in Paul's letters, you don't have to scratch very hard on the surface to see where clarification is being made. And we know from both Paul's letters and the general epistles in the context of the New Testament, and from the ministry of Christ Himself was reflected in the Gospels, that there were many people who got pretty close to knowing who Christ was. They had a Christology, they had an understanding of Christ that got them into the neighborhood of who He is. In the neighborhood's not good enough. And almost Orthodox Christology isn't good enough. Believing that Christ is in some way divine, isn't good enough. Believing that He shows us what the Father is like, isn't good enough. No, the Gospel hangs on the fact that He is the Son who is “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint” of the Father's nature. 

And He's powerful—“he upholds the universe by the word of His power.” Now again, most Christians, most believers, I think, never really come to terms with this. It is repeated in Scripture over and over and over again. The total context of the Bible and the Old and New Testaments is that it is God who brought all things into being, and He is the power who holds all things together. You know, the great holy grail, so to speak, in physics is a unified field theory, a complete theory of how all the forces and energies in the cosmos actually work to hold all things together. Well, here is the short and definitive version of the universal field theory: “In the beginning, God…” He holds all things together by the power of His hand. If God ever ceased to will, that the universe would exist, it would cease to exist. It is He who holds all things together. The power to create is also the power to preserve, the power to control, the power to bring it to its end.

But even as we are told, not only in this text, but again, definitively in this text that it is through Christ the world was created, we are also now told that it is Christ who holds all things together. He is the power who holds all things together. “He upholds the universe by the word of his power.” Martin Luther, the great reformer in the 16th century, was once asked a question, and we have so much of this because of his table talk. He was once asked a question by a young theology student and Luther said, “I think an angel would be scared to ask that question, which means you certainly better be!” 

There's certain questions and we don't ask. There are questions in the inner Trinitarian relationship between the Son and the Father, we don't dare to ask. Even the angels wouldn't dare to ask. It's in that privacy of God is not revealed to us. But what is revealed to us, is that the Father, through the Son, exercises creation and the upholding of the world, By the way, and you've heard me say this before, but as a seminary president, I just have to love it, and as a former seminary student. Luther was once asked by a seminary student, as they were sharing a meal, “Father Martin, what was God doing before He created the heavens and the earth?” And you gotta give Luther credit. He never missed a beat. He said, “I do know He was creating Hell for impetuous theology students!” All right, you gotta love Luther. 

Christ “is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins…” Isn’t that a summary of the Gospel that just comes now out of the blue? Creation, all power, now making purification. Again, a Jewish context—purification is the issue here. That might not be the first word we would think of, but it is the word that fits the Jewish context in terms of promise and fulfillment. Quintessentially here, He has made purification for sins. That is atonement. 

After making atonement, and much about that is going to be the exposition of the book of Hebrews. “After making purification for sins”—so here you have a timeline—"he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” As the Apostles Creed said, “He ascended into Heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God. the Father almighty…” The place of power, the place of privilege, the place of authority. 

“…having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.” This is interesting. When you read the prologue to the Gospel of John, you're not really dealing with this. You read the prologue to the Scripture and the doctrine of creation and the story of the Bible and Genesis 1, you're not dealing with this. What are we dealing with here? We're dealing here with a theological context that is specifically addressed by the book of Hebrews in a way that is extremely helpful to us. 

In first entry Judaism, especially in Hellenistic Judaism, there was a huge interest in angels. There was the recognition that angels were messengers of God. There was incredible speculation about how to authorize understanding if it was, indeed, an angel who spoke. There was an incredible attentiveness to what messages might come by an angel. Angels were a focus of such speculation that It was considered that to be an angel, was to have the privilege of reflecting this shekinah glory of God in an infinite and eternal way. There's an understanding that angels were created beings, but they were created beings of incredible spiritual privilege.

The angels spend all their time reflecting the glory of God among the bene-Elohim in the throne room of God. They're deputized at times to arrive as God's messenger, and they play, and have played, an essential role. So in first entry Judaism there's a lot of attention to angels.

There's a sense in which the angel must be the greatest spiritual being. To be an angel, to be the privileged messenger of God, to be the one who bathes in the glory of God—that must be a special privilege. And yes, it must be. But, as we shall see when we continue this study next time, the writer of the book of Hebrews is at tremendous pains. He goes to extraordinary links to say, “God never said of any angel, what he says of His Son.” The angels do reveal, even as the prophets revealed, but they don't redeem. The Father never said of an angel, “You are my Son.” 

So, as we begin the study of the book of Hebrews verse by verse and word by word, we come at the end of the first four verses to be told that Christ has inherited, that is He has been given a name, that's “more excellent than theirs,” because He is much superior to angels.

It was certainly the case, and we know this from sources outside the book of Hebrews and outside the New Testament, that first century Judaism was focused on the superiority of angels. And along comes the one who is not an angel, but the one whom the angels announce, the one whose birth the angels attend. He is not merely an angel. 

The difference between getting the identity of Christ right, and almost right, is actually infinite. The writer of the book of Hebrews, inspired by the Holy Spirit, has given us this incredible Christological hymn that begins this book, which is so rich in theological content, lest we misunderstand who Christ is. In our own day, in our own times, there are multiple misunderstandings of who Christ is. 

And as we come to the end of these first four verses, we are reminded that to get this wrong is to get everything wrong. He is the exact “radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature”. He “upholds the universe by the word of his power.” He has made “purification for sins”. He now sits down “at the right hand of the Majesty on high”. And we know this because “Long ago … God spoke to the fathers by the prophets” many times in many ways, but he's now spoken to us by a Son.

Let's pray. Our Father, we are so thankful that we can pray this prayer in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son. Father, we're so thankful for this introduction to the book of Hebrews, these first four verses. And as it sets the stage for everything that will follow, Father, we pray that Your Holy Spirit will apply these words to our heart, that we be conformed to the image of your Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, the exact representation of Your nature and the radiance of Your glory. Father, may we live in that glory, to Your glory, this week. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

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