The Incomparable Christ (Hebrews 1:1-3)
In one of his encounters with the Pharisees, our Lord asked them the following question: “What think ye of Christ? Whose son is he?” (Mt. 22:42). In another place, he asked his own disciples, “Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?” and when they gave him a number of answers, he pressed them: “But whom say ye that I am?” (Mt. 16:13-15). There has never been a time when there has not been confusion about the person of Jesus Christ, and our day is no exception. The reason why our Lord asked these questions is because so many people were getting it wrong. Yet he was not satisfied that people get it wrong. This is no intellectual question: the problem is that many people, being confronted with the person of Christ, interpret him in ways that are compatible with a lifestyle of sin and spiritual hardness. The thing is, if Jesus is just another spiritual guru, he is harmless. But if he is who he himself said he is: the Son of God and Savior of the world – then his claims are not so easily dismissed.
This is why the author of Hebrews begins where he
does. Though this entire book is about
Jesus, in these first few verses, he sums up for us the essence of who Jesus
Christ is. He begins by saying that the
fundamental identity of Jesus is that he is the Son of God and he unpacks this
reality for us. In this text we are told
that though God has spoken before at many times and in many ways through the
prophets, yet in these last days – that is, in the Messianic age, last in the
sense that there is no great redemptive historical event between now and the
culmination of history in the Second Coming – God has spoken to us in his
Son. What this tells us is that God’s
ultimate word has been spoken in the person and ministry of his Son. This word is now communicated to us in the
words of the apostles, so that in the Bible we have God’s completed word. The OT is the word of the prophets, and the
NT is the word of the apostles which communicates the word of the Son.
What follows the announcement that God has spoken
finally and climatically in his Son is a description of the Son. In the first three verses, we have seven
distinct yet related statements about the Son, who he is and what he does. In a fundamental way, of course, this entire
letter is an explanation of the superiority of the Son to the Law, but the
author begins with a basic summary of the key attributes of the person of the
Son so that what follows in the rest of the book is in one way or other really
an unpacking of the implications of these three verses. So these are very important verses.
It is important to see, first of all, that nothing
ascribed to Jesus the Son of God can be attributed to anyone or anything
else. There is no scientist, scholar,
statesman, political leader, social justice warrior, military warrior,
dictator, or any other mere mortal man who can affirm even one thing that is
here said of the Son. This is why merely
human solutions to mankind’s most pressing problems are always fraught with
failure. A godless culture refuses to
accept the reality of the depth of its need (namely, sin), and therefore it
does not see its need for a transcendent Savior to come to its rescue. And so it settles for Band-Aids on cancers.
If you don’t see man’s deepest need in terms of the
Fall of man into sin and the effects of that Fall, you are going to locate the
problems elsewhere. One particularly
modern explanation of our problems is to look at society and to locate our
problems in external systems and societal structures, whether political or
economic (or both). The idea is that if
society is broken the explanation of that brokenness is always an external
thing – it is a bad political structure or a wrong economic structure. And we are told that all that needs to happen
is to replace the bad structure with a good one and our problems will be
solved. This is the approach, for
example, of Marxism.
Now I don’t want to convey the idea that political or
economic systems can’t be bad and be in need of replacement or repair. However, if that’s all you see then your
solution is not going to come near to fixing the problems. Unfortunately, this is the way people are thinking
today because they have rejected the Biblical view of man and sin. They think that if we just fix the “system” –
whatever that is – all will be well. I
fear that we are making the same mistakes that the Russian people made back at
the beginning of the 20th century.
They were living under an oppressive government and the Communists came
along and told them that if they overthrew the government, they would give them
something much better. Well, the
problem, as history makes clear, is that they just replaced one oppressor with
another. This is because Marxism, which
begins with a denial of God and of sin, cannot do anything but replace one
broken system with another.
It is important that we begin with a Biblical view of
the problem of man and sin. It is
especially important today because modern man has completely rejected the
Biblical account of our problems. Recently,
I read a post by a friend in which it was claimed that it is child abuse to
teach children that they are born in a state of sin. I say it is child abuse to teach the
opposite. It sounds nice, of course, to teach
that people are basically good, but this is just a Pollyannish view of the
world – it is certainly not a realistic one.
Lying to children (or anyone else) is not doing them a favor. It is akin to telling them that Santa Claus
is real – a nice thought, but a lie nonetheless. I know that original sin is not a popular
idea (it never has been), but as one person put it, the doctrine of original
sin is one of the doctrines of the Christian faith than can actually be
empirically verified. Look around you
and you will find constant verification of the Pauline statement that “all have
sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:18).
So what has the Fall done, and what does this have to
do with Hebrews 1? Well, let’s begin
with what the Fall has done and then I want to circle back and tie this to what
the apostle is saying here in the first few verses of the book of Hebrews.
What is the Biblical description of mankind’s
fundamental problem? The Bible teaches
that every human being is fundamentally corrupt, not only by practice but also
by nature. This is what the apostle Paul
is getting at in his description of the human predicament in Eph. 2:1-3: “And
you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins; wherein in time
past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince
of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of
disobedience: among whom we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts
of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by
nature the children of wrath, even as others.”
We are dead in sins and we are that way by nature – and you can’t get
much worse than that (cf. Rom. 1-3).
Now this doesn’t mean that we’re as bad as we can
possibly be. Thank God for his common
grace and restraining hand! Nor does it
mean that men by nature can’t do many good things. Nor does it mean that we are not accountable
before God for our actions. What it does
mean is that, left to ourselves, we will always freely choose a course that is
fundamentally opposed to submission to God, to love to God. We are invariably idolators. And though it doesn’t mean that we are all
Hitlers, it does mean that we are all capable of Hitler’s atrocities, given the
right circumstances, even if we don’t (mercifully) get there.
This is what theologians mean by phrases like
“original sin” or “total depravity.” Original
sin means that we are born with a nature that is turned in on itself and
oriented away from God. Total depravity
means that every faculty of our soul is corrupted by this sin – total referring
to the totality of our being (not totally depraved in the sense that we can’t
get any worse): mind, affections, and will.
And this has left us, as the Shorter Catechism so well summarizes, in a
state of sin and misery.
The doctrine of original sin is the great
leveler. If this is the case no one can
say that they are fundamentally better than another person, for that would be
like one dead person saying that they are not as decomposed as the next. However, most importantly, it means that we
cannot be our own saviors. It means that
it must take a Being transcendent to us and holy – in other words, it must take
the Son of God.
This is why what Hebrews tells us about the Son is so
important. Only such a person can save
us. As the apostle puts it in 7:25,
“Wherefore he is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by
him, seeing he ever liveth to make intersession for them.” In the surrounding verses, the author is
comparing Jesus with priests who were mortal.
It is because is the immortal Son of God that he can do what those
priests could not. We need someone who
can save us “to the uttermost;” only the kind of person described in these
verses can do such a thing.
And, on the other hand, if you don’t recognize that
Jesus Christ is in fact the eternal Son of God, you will end up making
salvation a matter of works and have to correspondingly dumb down our true
condition. What I mean is that once you
stop recognizing the deity of Christ, salvation must be something that I can
accomplish, it has to be something that a mere man can do. This is verified in religious movements that
claim to follow Jesus yet reject the Biblical view of his divinity.
Therefore, it is of upmost importance to uphold a
Biblical view of Christ as the eternal Son of God. And this is why the way this epistle starts
out is so important. Again, the seven
things that are here predicated of the Son transcend any description of mere
mortal men. This is not a description of
some super saint; it is a description of one who shares the very nature of the
Father, who is co-equal and co-eternal with the Father, the eternal Son of
God. So what are these seven things? Let’s look at them one by one.
He is the heir of all things: “whom he appointed heir of all things”
The phrase is a clear allusion to Psalm 2:8, which the
early church took to be a psalm about Jesus, because it is a psalm about the
Christ. In the psalm, God is speaking to
his anointed one (ver. 2), and he says, “Ask of me, and I shall give thee the
heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy
possession.” In Psalm 82:8, we read,
“Arise, O God, judge the earth: for thou shalt inherit all nations.” Now why would the Christ, why would God, need
to inherit the nations? Aren’t they
already his? In one sense, the answer is
yes. But in another sense, the answer is
no because not all nations yet acknowledge his sovereignty. Hence, I take this to be a reference to the
culmination of history at the Final Judgement when every knee will bow and
every tongue will confess that sovereignty of God over all things. And this is exactly what the NT affirms of
Christ. The apostle Paul puts it this
way to the Philippians (quoting Isaiah 45:23): “Wherefore God also hath highly
exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: that at the name
of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and
things under the earth: and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ
is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:9-11).
Now this is a statement of the deity of Christ because
it is God who will inherit the nations. In
fact, what Paul affirms of our Lord in his statement to the Philippians, is
affirmed of God in Isaiah 45. As the one
who inherits all things, the Son shares the glory of his Father, because he is
the Son of the God.
He is the creator of all things: “by whom also he made the worlds”
It is sometimes affirmed by some folks that God made
the Son first and then the Son made everything else. But we know this is not the case. For example, the apostle John puts it this
way: “All things were made by him: and without him was not anything made that
was made” (Jn. 1:3). Now imagine with me
two categories: “Made” and “Not Made.”
Clearly, these two categories include everything that exists. My question is this: in which category does
Jesus belong? Now the apostle affirms if
anything was made Jesus made it: this is the clear implication of the second
part of the verse. But this would mean
that Jesus is not in the “Made” category, for then that would mean that he
created himself. In other words, it would mean that he existed before he
existed! So our Lord must belong to the
“Not Made” category. But there is only
one Being who belongs in the “Not Made” category: God himself!
Thus, when we read Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning, God
created the heavens and the earth” (which is a Hebraism for the universe), we
see that this is a statement about the Son.
It is the reason why John self-consciously (I think) began his epistle
in such a way as to make an explicit a parallel with Genesis 1:1. “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 by him.”
Think about it: the one who is restoring God’s broken
world is none else than the Creator of all things. The one who made it can fix it. He can recreate and restore what has been
undone by sin.
He is the brightness of the Father’s glory
He is the express image of his person
We must consider these two things together because, I
believe, they are saying the same thing in two different ways. Now there is no question, in my mind that
these phrases are a clear witness to the deity of the Son. In fact, apparently the heretical Arians in
the Christological debates of the fourth century did not want to include
Hebrews in the canon of Scripture precisely because of this verse. However, there is the question of whether
this is a reference to the visible manifestation of his deity, or if it
is a description of the deity itself. A
lot of the early church fathers understood this to be a description of the
deity itself. And they would say that
just as you cannot separate the radiance or brightness of a light from the
light itself, even so you cannot separate the essence of the Godhead that is
shared between the Father and the Son, and this proves that Christ is God. For example, Athanasius said, “Who does not
see that the brightness cannot be separated from the light, but that it is by nature
proper to it and co-existent with it, and is not produced by it?” You see this in the Nicene Creed, where it
says, “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally
begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from
true God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father; through him were
all things made.” I don’t think there’s
any question that the phrase “Light from Light” has its origins in Heb. 1:3.
Nevertheless, I think that probably what the author
had in mind here was the visible manifestation of the glory of the Father in
the person of the incarnate Christ. As
such he is the “radiance of the glory of God” (ESV). But the reality is that only someone who is
truly God can radiate the glory of God in this way. This is what the apostle John was getting at
when he said, “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld
his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and
truth” (Jn. 1:14). Or when he wrote, “No
man hath seen God at any time: the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of
the Father, he hath declared him” (1:18).
[Remember that he had just said that “the Word was God”!] This visible manifestation of the Father’s
glory was reflected throughout the entirety of his life, but especially in his
miracles, in his Transfiguration, and ultimately in his Resurrection and Ascension
(“raised in glory,” 1 Tim. 3:16). Donald
Guthrie is right on when he comments, “To reflect the glory of God in this way
presupposes that the Son shares the same essence as the Father, not just his
likeness.” It is why our Lord could say to Philip, who
asked the Lord to show them the Father: “Have I been so long time with you, and
yet hast thou not known me, Philip? He
that hath seen me hath seen the Father: and how sayest thou then, Show us the
Father?” (Jn. 14:9).
This is also why he is the “express image of his
person.” Now I think perhaps that a
better translation here would be, “the exact imprint of his nature” (ESV). This is because the Greek word here which is
translated “person” in the KJV is better translated “nature.” It is true that the word for “person” in the
KJV (hypostasis) came to mean “person” in later centuries and at that
time Greek theologians would use this term to distinguish between the Father,
Son, and Spirit who share the same essence (ousia). However, in the first century it was apparently
used more often with the meaning “nature” rather than “person.”
The idea behind “express image” is that of a die or an
engraving: “a stamp on a wax seal will bear the same image as the engraving on
the seal.” It is the same idea, I think, as what the
apostle Paul was getting across when he wrote of our Lord that he is “the image
of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). He is
the image of the invisible God because he shares the very nature of God. There is an exact correspondence between the
Son and the Father in a way that infinitely surpasses our ability to image
forth God. We are created in God’s
image, yes, but it cannot be said of us what is said of the Son, for he is the
“express image” or “exact imprint.” That is something which can only be said of
someone who is in fact God. One author
put it this way: in this verse the author is seeking “to convey as emphatically
as he could his conviction that in Jesus Christ there had been provided a
perfect, visible expression of the reality of God.”
One way to put these two ideas together is simply like
this: the incarnate Son of God visibly radiates the glory of the Father for the
simple reason that he shares his nature.
He is God. Or, to put it another
way, the glory of the Son is the glory of God.
It is why in 2 Corinthians 4, Paul talks about the “light of the gospel
of the glory of Christ” [this is a literal translation of verse 4], and he
talks about the “light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of
Jesus Christ” (ver. 6). In the gospel
the glory of God shines forth in the glory of Christ because his glory is the
glory of God. In other words, Jesus is not the Son of the
Father like we are. We are children of
God by adoption. But Jesus is the
pre-existent and eternal Son of God. He
did not ever become the Son, for he was always the Son. He was not adopted by the Father for he is
his Son by eternal generation. The
church Fathers had it right: He is “God from God, Light from Light, true God
from true God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father.” And therefore, we can say with surpassing joy
and hope and confidence: “For us and for our salvation he came down from
He upholds the universe by his powerful word: “and upholding all things by the word of his power”
Not only is Jesus the creator of all things, but he
also upholds all things. He is sovereign
in creation, and he is sovereign in providence.
I’m so thankful for this reality.
Paul put it this way: “For by him were all things created, that are in
heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones,
or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and
for him: and he is before all things, and by him all things consist [hold
together, ESV]” (Col. 1:16-17). Our
Lord, God’s Son, is not the god of the deists.
He didn’t wind the world up and let it go to spin out its future on its
own. He not only created it, but he
upholds it every moment and down to the last atom. You and I can’t even walk out of this room
apart from Christ giving us the breath to do so. The reality is that man is not the captain of
his soul, he is not the master of his fate.
God is sovereign, not man. And
thank God for that. It is for this
reason that I believe that all things work together for the good of those who
are called according to God’s purpose (Rom. 8:28). Not just some things, but all things!
We can have supreme confidence in Jesus as our Savior
because he is sovereign over all things.
If even one thing were out of his control, we would have just cause to
be anxious about the future. But we need
not fear. He is in control. As the hymn puts it: “Have faith in God, he’s
on his throne.” Things are not going to
spin out of control because he holds all things in his powerful hand. Rest in that and trust in him!
And think about it: how does he exercise his
sovereignty? He does so by his
word. By his word he created and called all
things into existence. And by his word
he upholds them in being. Here is
someone who is not like us! The
disciples began to realize this when they were in the boat in the middle of
this terrific storm, and Jesus stood up in the boat and simply spoke a word and
calmed the storm. I love the response of
the apostles: “What manner of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey
him?” (Mk. 4:41). He could do it because
he is not just a man: he is the eternal Son of God.
He purged our sins: “when he had by himself purged our sins”
The incarnate Son not only relates to the Father as
the one who perfectly reflects his glory, and he not only relates to the
universe as the one who created it and upholds it, but he also relates to his
church, as the one who purged its sins.
The meaning of “purged” carries the idea of purification. Sin corrupts and it defiles. It renders us utterly unworthy to enter into
the presence of God. But on the cross
our Lord died for the sins of his people so that they might be cleansed from
the pollution arising from their guilt and be able therefore to come into God’s
presence with joy. This phrase
introduces a theme that this epistle will elaborate over several chapters. It is because of this that the author will be
able to say in 10:19-22, “Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into
the holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way, which he hath
consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh; and having an
high priest over the house of God; let us draw near with a true heart in full
assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and
our bodies washed with pure water.”
Note that it is “purged,” not “purges.” This is a once-for-all event. Atonement is not an on-going thing, for the
sacrifice of Christ for our sins happened once for all at the cross. The way we presently appropriate it (cf. Rom.
5:11) is by faith, by looking to Jesus and trusting in him. We don’t cleanse ourselves by making
ourselves better; we receive the atonement accomplished by our Lord by resting
in his finished work. But this needs to
be a daily reality grasped by faith. It
is this idea that is behind 1 John 1:7, “But if we walk in the light, as he is
in the light, we have fellowship with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ
his Son cleanseth us from all sin.” From
all sin, praise God!
He is seated at the Father’s right hand: “sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high”
All the previous descriptions of the Son grammatically
hang on this one. In other words, the
author is saying that the one who sits at the Father’s right hand is the one
who is the heir of all things, who made the worlds, who is the perfect
reflection and image of the Father, who upholds the universe by the word of his
power, and who once-for-all purged the sins of those who believe in him. This is the Son of God.
In saying that the Son is seated, we are not to take
this in a crassly literal sense. The
idea is that his atoning work is accomplished and he is perfectly in control of
all things. In the tabernacle there were
no chairs because the priest’s work was never done. The fact that the Son is pictured as seated
is an indication that he has done what he set out to do. There is nothing more to be done for the
forgiveness of sins but simple to receive the pardon through faith.
And in saying that he is at the right hand of the
Majesty on high, the author is indicating the supremely exalted status of the
Redeemer. It is true that when Jesus
came to earth, he came into a state of humiliation. He was born in a low condition, made under
the law, underwent the miseries of this life, the wrath of God and the cursed
death on the cross, and he was buried and continued under the power of death
for a time (Shorter Catechism). “For ye
know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your
sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich” (2 Cor.
8:9). But he is poor no more. He is infinitely exalted and his elect are
exalted with him: “and [God] hath raised us up together, and made us sit
together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus: that in the ages to come he might
shew the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ
Jesus” (Eph. 2:6-7).
This is the Son through whom God has spoken. He is our Prophet, for he is the one through
whom God has spoken the final and decisive word. The truth we need to know about God and
ourselves and how to relate to the living God – this truth is found in
Christ. He is the way, the truth,
and the life (Jn 14:6), and those who come to God must come through him. Those who embrace him will find true freedom
(Jn 8:32). He is our Priest, for he is
the one who has fully and completely purged the sins of his people. I know that a lot of people don’t think there
is any need for atonement from sin. They
think they’re okay, especially when they compare themselves to other
people. But my friends, it is our one
great need. We don’t need to compare
ourselves to other people: we need to see ourselves as standing before the holy
and eternal God. There is no other way
to relate to God unless we have the defilement of our sins removed. It is insanity to think that God will just
automatically do it. It is tragic
thinking to believe that God somehow owes us heaven. He does not.
It is sheer grace and mercy that opens the door of heaven and fellowship
with God to any sinner. Only Christ can
open that door because only he satisfied the justice of God for sin on the
cross. And then he is our King. He created all things, he is the heir of all
things – to him every knee shall bow and every tongue confess. He upholds all things by the world of his
power and he is seated – sovereignly enthroned – at the right hand of the
Majesty on high.
This is the one through whom God speaks his word of
salvation, hope, wisdom, and warning.
This is the one to whom “we ought to give the more earnest heed” (Heb.
2:1). Will you hear him? There are so many voices out there. So many people who are vying for your
attention and your trust. But the fact
of the matter is that there is no one like Jesus. And therefore there is no salvation like the
one which our Lord gives to those who trust in him. May the Lord draw your heart to him this day!
Quoted in Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews
(Eerdmans, 1977), p. 42.
Donald Guthrie, Hebrews [TNTC], (IVP, 1999), p. 66.
Lane, Hebrews 1-8 [WBC], (Zondervan, 1991), p. 13.
 I owe this insight to John Piper. See his book, Providence (Crossway, 2020), p. 195-196.5-196.