The author identified neither himself nor the people to whom he was writing. However, the content of the book, including the frequent references to the Hebrew Scriptures, makes it clear that he was writing to Jewish Christians who were sorely tempted to leave the Christian church and revert to Jewish worship.
There were a number of reasons why these Jewish Christians might have been tempted to return to Judaism:
- Families and friends surely pressured them. This could have taken many forms––expressions of disapproval, shunning, disinheritance, etc.
- They would have missed the elaborate rituals and furnishings of the Jewish Temple and the synagogues. Christians didn’t have church buildings in those days, but met in the homes of fellow Christians. Compared to Jewish worship, Christian worship must have seemed spare––even poor.
- Those who had enjoyed special status in Judaism would miss the prestige and influence that they once enjoyed. Luke tells us that “a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7). Whether they could have become Jewish priests again is open to question, but some would likely be tempted to return if they thought that would be a possibility.
The author spends the first ten and a half chapters of this thirteen chapter book (1:1 – 10:18) emphasizing the superiority of Christ and the new covenant to Moses and the old covenant. In chapters 1-2, he focuses specifically on the superiority of Christ to angels.
Angels are God’s messengers (Hebrews 1:14; Revelation 1:1), but are not God.
- They are part of the created order, and not the creator (Colossians 1:16).
- They are subject to judgment for wrongdoing (2 Peter 2:4; Jude 1:6).
- Paul says that humans will judge angels (1 Corinthians 6:3).
- Angels deserve respect (1 Corinthians 11:10; 1 Timothy 5:21). In the created order, people were created “a little lower than the angels” (2:7, 9) but Christ is far superior to angels (1:4-13; 1 Peter 3:22).
- Thus, we should worship God, rather than angels. To worship angels is to run afoul of the First Commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 2:3; see also Matthew 4:10).
- Gnostics worshiped angels as intermediaries between God and humans––but the author of Colossians warned that angel worship could result in their disqualification for the prize of Christ (Colossians 2:18).
- God consigned sinful angels to hell and darkness “until the judgment” (2 Peter 2:4, 11; Jude 1:6).
- At the end of time, the dragon (Satan) and his angels will make war against Godly Michael and his angels––but they will neither prevail nor find a home in heaven (Revelation 12:7-8).
The worship of angels is still a problem today. Angels appear on television and in movies. They are popular images for notecards. There are collectible angels. While those things can be harmless, they also have the potential to segue into a form of idolatry.
Popular media today portray angels as lovely, delicate, and feminine, but Biblical writers either cite masculine names for angels or give no clue to their gender. Angels were often fearsome.
As is true with many things, we need to be careful lest we be seduced by the popular culture. We need to insure that we are worshiping God and not angels––the creator and not the creation––the Supreme Being instead of one of his messengers
HEBREWS 1:1-4. GOD HAS SPOKEN TO US BY HIS SON
1 God, having in the past spoken to the fathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 has at the end of these days spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom also he made the worlds. 3 His Son is the radiance of his glory, the very image of his substance, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself made purification for our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high; 4 having become so much better than the angels, as he has inherited a more excellent name than they have.
“God, having in the past spoken to the fathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways” (v. 1). A key feature both of Judaism and Christianity is God’s revelation to humans. God revealed himself and his will in various ways.
- On many occasions, God spoke DIRECTLY to a person, as he did to Abram (Genesis 12:1) and Moses (Exodus 3:5).
- God spoke through DREAMS (Genesis 31:10-13) and VISIONS (Genesis 15:1).
- God sent ANGELS to deliver his message (Genesis 16:10-11).
- God spoke through the TORAH, which prescribes proper relationships between people and God, people and each other, as well as certain religious behaviors (such as keeping the Sabbath) and rituals intended to honor God and to expiate sin.
- God spoke through SCRIPTURES of various types (history, poetry, prophecy, etc.)––in both Old and New Testaments.
- The STORIES of God’s interaction with people as found in scripture are of special interest, because they so easily capture our attention and are so profoundly memorable and instructive.
- God spoke through the PROPHETS, to whom God revealed secrets that had been hidden––and whom God called to proclaim guidance, judgment, and salvation. The largest body of prophetic revelation is found in the books of the prophets, from Isaiah through Malachi. However, there were other significant prophets, such as Samuel, whose stories are found elsewhere (1 Samuel 3; 8). Prophetic revelation is the particular revelation mentioned in this verse.
“has at the end of these days spoken to us by his Son” (v. 2a). The phrase, “at the end of these days,” could be interpreted in several ways, but in this context probably means the new age brought into being by Christ.
While the other forms of revelation were powerful and instructive, God’s ultimate revelation came through his Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus said, “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Jesus was God made visible, superseding every other form of revelation.
“whom he appointed heir of all things” (v. 2b). This is the first of two things in this verse that demonstrate the superiority of Christ, God’s Son.
An heir is a person who has the legal right to an inheritance. Jewish law regulated inheritances, giving two shares to the firstborn son and one share each to the other sons (Deuteronomy 21:17).
God’s first family was the nation of Israel (Romans 9:4-5). God said, “Israel is my son, my firstborn” (Exodus 4:22)––and “I will be (Israel’s) father, and he shall be my son” (2 Samuel 7:14).
Paul says that Christ’s disciples have become “joint heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:14-17)––the result of God adopting us into his family (John 1:12-13; Romans 8:15, 23; Galatians 3:16; 4:4-6; Ephesians 1:5; Revelation 21:7).
Now, the author of Hebrews, tells us that God has appointed his Son “heir of all things” (1:2).
“through whom also he made the worlds” (v. 2c). This is the second thing in this verse that demonstrates the superiority of the Son. Not only did the Father appoint the Son as heir of all things (v. 2b), but the Son was present at the creation––intimately involved in the creation of all that is.
Note the phrase “let us” in the creation story (Genesis 1:26) and the account of Babel (Genesis 11:7).
The Gospel of John traces the Word back to the very beginning––before time––before the creation of the world. The Word was not part of the creation––was not created––but stood with God before the creation. This is important, because it is contrary to the prevailing Jewish thought of God working alone in creation.
- The Prologue to John says:
“In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
The same was in the beginning with God.
All things were made through him.
Without him was not anything made that has been made” (John 1:1-3).
- Jesus prayed, “Now, Father, glorify me with your own self with the glory which I had with you before the world existed” (John 17:5).
- Paul uses similar language––”for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created… all things have been created through him and for him (Colossians 1:16).
- Now the author of Hebrews speaks of a Son, “through whom also he (God) created the worlds (1:2).
“His Son is the radiance of his glory” (v. 3a). Glory is characteristic of God, and refers to God’s awe-inspiring majesty. God shared this glory with Jesus. Jesus’ glory was revealed at the Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36) and his death and resurrection (Luke 24:26).
At the parousia (the Second Coming), Jesus will return “in a cloud with power and great glory” (Luke 21:27). At that time, “at the name of Jesus every knee (will) bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue (will) confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11).
“the very image (Greek: charakter) of his substance” (v. 3b). Elsewhere in the New Testament, the Greek word that is translated “image” is eikon (from which we get our word “icon”). This is the only place where charakter appears.
The Greeks used the word charakter (from which we get our word “character”) to speak of an engraved image that could be used to create an exact replica of the original. Thus it is especially appropriate in this verse to describe the Son, whose character exactly replicated that of the Father.
“and upholding (Greek: phero) all things by the word of his power” (v. 3c). The Greek word phero means “to bear up” or “to govern” or “to direct.”
It’s interesting that this verse has the Son bearing up “all things by the word of his power.” That brings to mind God’s creative power, as exercised by the agency of his word.
- In the creation, “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Genesis 1:3).
- “God said, ‘Let there be an expanse…’ …and it was so” (Genesis 1:6-7).
- God’s word gathered the waters together in one place (Genesis 1:9).
- God’s word brought forth vegetation (Genesis 1:11-13).
- God’s word put lights in the sky (Genesis 1:14-19).
- God’s word created animals (Genesis 1:20-25) and humans (Genesis 1:26-27).
So also the Son’s word serves as the agency of his power. By his word, the Son upholds––sustains––bears up––governs––directs all things.
That also brings to mind, once again, that “In the beginning was the Word, (and that)…All things were made through him” (John 1:1-2). In other words, the one who upholds everything by the power of his word is actually himself known as “the Word.”
“when he had by himself made purification (Greek: katharismos) for our sins” (v. 3d). The Greek word katharismos is derived from katharizo, which means “to make clean.” From those words, we get our word cathartic, which we usually use in one of two ways:
- We talk about the emotional catharsis (cleansing) that we experience when we discuss our problems with a good listener.
- We use the word cathartic to refer to laxatives, which cleanse us from the inside.
However, the cleansing in which the Son is involved is spiritual in nature––the purification of the soul––the forgiveness of sins.
The Jewish sacrificial system was for the purpose of cleansing the supplicant from sin. But while people could submit to purification rites, purification ultimately depends on God’s action––so the Psalmist cries, “Purify me with hyssop, and I will be clean. Wash me, and I will be whiter than snow…. Create in me a clean heart, O God. Renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:7, 10)––and God promises, “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow. Though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool” (Isaiah 1:18)––and “I will save you from all your uncleanness” (Ezekiel 36:29).
It’s that kind of spiritual purification that the Son accomplished by his word.
“sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high” (v. 3e). Having accomplished his mission, the Son ascended to the heavenly kingdom from which he had descended for the Incarnation––and took his seat at the right hand of the Father (see Psalm 110:1; Hebrews 1:13; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2).
The right hand was the place of honor, as it still is today in many places. In military or corporate settings, commanders or CEOs typically sit at the head of the table. Their seconds in command sit at their right, and the next senior person sits at their left.
“having become so much better than the angels” (v. 4a). See the remarks on angels in The Context above.
“as he has inherited a more excellent name than they have” (v. 4b). In that culture, people considered a person’s name to be more than a simple label to identify that person. They believed that something of the person’s identity was tied up in the name––that the name expressed something of the person’s essential character. As is obvious from this verse, they also assumed that a name––at least some names––possessed something of the power of the one who wore that name.
While that might sound foreign to us today, it is not. When we talk about a person’s reputation, we are talking about something that expresses the essence of that person. A person’s reputation also conveys a certain power or lack of it. When the author says that the Son “has inherited a more excellent name than (the angels) have, he means that the Son’s essential character and power are far superior to those of the angels.
What is his name? His name is Son––a name that trumps all other names.
HEBREWS 1:5-12. SCRIPTURAL SUPPORT: SON SUPERIOR TO ANGELS
5 For to which of the angels did he say at any time,
“You are my Son.
Today have I become your father?”
“I will be to him a Father,
and he will be to me a Son?”
6 Again, when he brings in the firstborn into the world he says,
“Let all the angels of God worship him.”
7 Of the angels he says,
“Who makes his angels winds,
and his servants a flame of fire.”
8 But of the Son he says,
“Your throne, O God, is forever and ever.
The scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your Kingdom.
9 You have loved righteousness, and hated iniquity;
therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness
above your fellows.”
“You, Lord, in the beginning, laid the foundation of the earth.
The heavens are the works of your hands.
11 They will perish, but you continue.
They all will grow old like a garment does.
12 As a mantle, you will roll them up,
and they will be changed;
but you are the same.
Your years will not fail.”
13 But which of the angels has he told at any time,
“Sit at my right hand,
until I make your enemies the footstool of your feet?”
14 Aren’t they all serving spirits, sent out to do service for the sake of those who will inherit salvation?
These verses provide scriptural support for the author’s contention that the Son is superior to angels. I have included verses 13-14, because they are of a whole with the earlier verses.
The Hebrew word is Messiah (messias) and the Greek word is Christ (Christos). Both words mean “anointed,” which refers to the anointing ceremony used to set people apart for service as kings, priests, or prophets. Jesus’ anointing set him apart for his unique role as prophet, priest, and king.
The New Testament uses Christos (Christ) 531 times. It uses messias (Messiah) only twice (John 1:41; 4:25). However, some translations, such as the NRSV, translate Christos as Messiah––am imperfect translation.
In the Old Testament, the word messiah was usually used for kings, but could be used for priests as well––because both kings and priests were anointed.
The Jewish people regarded certain texts as messianic prophecies, even though they clearly referred to a king of the prophet’s era. For instance, the prophet Isaiah said:
“Behold, the virgin will conceive and bear a son,
and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14).
“For to us a child is born.
To us a son is given;
and the government will be on his shoulders.
His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor,
Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace there shall be no end,
on the throne of David, and on his kingdom,
to establish it, and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness
from that time on, even forever.
The zeal of Yahweh of Armies will perform this” (Isaiah 9:6-7).
“A shoot will come out of the stock of Jesse,
and a branch out of his roots will bear fruit.
The Spirit of Yahweh will rest on him:
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of Yahweh.
His delight will be in the fear of Yahweh.
He will not judge by the sight of his eyes,
neither decide by the hearing of his ears;
but with righteousness he will judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the humble of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
and with the breath of his lips he will kill the wicked.
Righteousness will be the belt of his waist,
and faithfulness the belt of his waist” (Isaiah 11:1-5).
In their original context, these verses referred to the redemption of Jerusalem after the disastrous rule of Ahaz. However, they were also regarded as a promise of a future Messiah who would do wonderful things for Israel. The early church regarded them as messianic prophecies that were fulfilled by the coming of Jesus Christ––and the church has continued to regard them thus ever since.
“For to which of the angels did he say at any time, ‘You are my Son. Today have I become your father?'” (v. 5a). The quoted verse comes from Psalm 2:7.
In its original context, it referred to a situation where kings were plotting against Israel, but God was promising to enable his people to defeat their oppressors. However, early Christians regarded this verse as messianic, and in Acts 13:33 Paul applies it to Jesus.
The author of Hebrews doesn’t need to establish this verse from Isaiah as a messianic prophecy fulfilled by Jesus, because in his mind that has already been established. His interest in this verse is in showing that Jesus is superior to angels––because God never said anything like this of angels.
“and again, ‘I will be to him a Father, and he will be to me a Son?'” (v. 5b). This verse is from 2 Samuel 7:14.
David has set out to build a temple for God, but God, through the prophet Nathan, said, “Shall you build me a house (temple) to dwell in…. I will make you a house” (lineage––descendants––a nation) (2 Samuel 7:5, 11). God then spoke of David’s son, who would build a temple, and promised, “I will be his father, and he shall be my son” (7:14).
Again, the interest of the author of Hebrews in citing this verse is to show that Jesus is superior to angels. He regards the verse from 2 Samuel as a messianic prophecy, and God never spoke in these terms about angels.
“Again, when he brings in the firstborn into the world” (v. 6a). The Israelites and Jewish law favored the firstborn male in the family:
- Yahweh considered Israel to be his firstborn (Exodus 4:22; Jeremiah 31:9).
- Israelites were to consecrate all firstborn, both human and animals, to Yahweh (Exodus 13:2; 12-13).
- While Jewish law required the sacrifice of the firstborn, it also require people to redeem their firstborn sons––and allowed for the redemption of certain animals (Exodus 13:2, 12-13; 22:29-30; 34:20; Leviticus 27:26; Numbers 18:15).
- Firstborn cattle, sheep, and goats were to be holy––used as sacrificial animals. There was no provision for redeeming them (Numbers 18:17; Deuteronomy 15:19).
- Firstborn sons were to receive a double portion of the inheritance, and fathers were prohibited from reassigning the firstborn’s portion to another son (Deuteronomy 21:15-17).
The author of Hebrews clearly regards the Son of verse 5b (above) to be the firstborn of verse 6a. He was in good company:
- Luke notes that Jesus was Mary’s “firstborn son,” and notes the law that requires that every firstborn male must be dedicated to the Lord (Luke 2:7, 23).
- Jesus referred to himself as God’s only (Greek: monogene––only born, only begotten) son (John 3:16).
- Paul refers to Jesus as “the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:29).
- The author of Colossians refers to Jesus as “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (1:15) and “the firstborn from the dead” (1:18).
- The author of Revelation calls Jesus Christ “the firstborn from the dead and the ruler of the kings of the earth” (1:5).
So being the firstborn establishes Jesus as preeminent.
“he says, ‘Let all the angels of God worship him'” (v. 6b). This quotation comes from the Septuagint (the LXX, the Greek version of the Old Testament)––an approximation of Psalm 97:7. The Hebrew translates, “All the gods must worship him.”
Again, the author’s purpose is to show the superiority of the Son to the angels.
“Of the angels he says, ‘Who makes his angels winds, and his servants a flame of fire'” (v. 7). The quotation is from Psalm 104:4, which says that God makes “the winds his mal’akay (angels or messengers), flames of fire his servants.”
Hebrew poetry often cites two parallel lines, as this verse does. In this case, mal’akay (angels or messengers) parallels servants––both messenger and servant being subordinate––inferior to the Son.
“But of the Son he says, ‘Your throne, O God, is forever and ever. The scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your Kingdom. You have loved righteousness, and hated iniquity; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness above your fellows'” (vv. 8-9). The quotation is from Psalm 45:6-7. In its original context, it referred to a king of Israel, but the Israelites considered it to be messianic in nature––as does the author of Hebrews. The Messiah will reign forever and ever in uprightness and righteousness. God has anointed the Messiah above his fellows––above the angels.
“And, ‘You, Lord, in the beginning, laid the foundation of the earth. The heavens are the works of your hands. They will perish, but you continue. They all will grow old like a garment does. As a mantle, you will roll them up, and they will be changed; but you are the same. Your years will not fail'” (vv. 10-12). The quotation is from Psalm 102:25-27.
In its original context, “Lord” means God, but the author feels at liberty to apply this verse to the Messiah.
As noted above, the author is supported in this endeavor by these verses from the Gospel of John:
“In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
The same was in the beginning with God.
All things were made through him.
Without him was not anything made that has been made” (John 1:1-3).
“Now, Father, glorify me with your own self
with the glory which I had with you
before the world existed” (John 17:5).
“But which of the angels has he told at any time, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies the footstool of your feet?'” (v. 13). The quotation is from Psalm 110:1. In his Pentecostal sermon, Peter quotes this verse, saying:
“The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit by my right hand,
until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”‘ (Acts 2:34-35).
He then concludes:
“Let all the house of Israel therefore know certainly
that God has made him both Lord and Christ,
this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36).
Again, the purpose of the author of Hebrews is to establish the preeminence of Jesus Christ over all creation.
“Aren’t they all serving spirits, sent out to do service for the sake of those who will inherit salvation?” (v. 14). The author concludes by stating that the angels are Godly servants––but servants only––sent to carry the message of salvation to those who will inherit it.
For more about angels, see “ANGELS” in The Context above.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Barclay, William, Daily Study Bible: Hebrews (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1976)
Bruce, F.F. The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1990)
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Holladay, Carl R., Preaching Through the Christian Year C (Valley Forge, Trinity Press, 1994).
Lane, William L., Word Biblical Commentary: Hebrews 9-13, Vol. 47b (Dallas: Word Books, 1991)
Long, Thomas G., Interpretation: Hebrews (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1997)
MacArthur, John, Jr., The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Hebrews (Chicago: The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, 1983)
McKnight, Edgar V., Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Hebrew-James (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2004)
O’Brien, Peter T., Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Letter to the Hebrews (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009)
Pfitzner, Victor C., Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Hebrews (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997)
Copyright 2016, Richard Niell Donovan