Sunday, June 6, 2021

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

and

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?”[1]  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.”[2]  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.”[3]  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.”[4] 

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.[5]  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 heaven.”

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!



[1] Quoted in Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Eerdmans, 1977), p. 42.

[2] Donald Guthrie, Hebrews [TNTC], (IVP, 1999), p. 66.

[3] Ibid.

[4] William Lane, Hebrews 1-8 [WBC], (Zondervan, 1991), p. 13.

[5] I owe this insight to John Piper.  See his book, Providence (Crossway, 2020), p. 195-196.5-196.

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