Hebrews 1: 1-4
by Jonathan Sedlak
June 16, 2011
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.
He 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, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
- Hebrews 1:1-4 (ESV)
As shown above, the English Standard Version of the Bible splits the first four verses into three sentences, even though, grammatically, it consists of just one sentence in the original Greek text. By splitting one sentence into three, a temptation may arise to separate the doctrine contained in verses three and four from that the first two verses. This would be unfortunate precisely because every doctrine presented in these four opening verses is harmoniously connected with the others. Imagine for a moment that these verses were not intended to convey a harmonious introductory theme, leaving no explicit connection, but rather were presented as isolated facts clumped together. It might look something like this:
"A long time ago, and in a wide variety of ways, God spoke to our Fathers by the prophets. In these last days he spoke to us by his Son. He also appointed this Son of his to inherit all things. The Son also created the world. The Son is the radiance of the glory of God. The Son is the exact imprint of God’s nature. The Son upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, the Son sat down at the right hand of the Father in heaven and has become far superior to the angels."
To say that “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature,” and so on, and yet miss the connection of that assertion with the Son being appointed in “these last days” as the “heir of all things,” is to miss the point of the author in a big way. The author is not simply stating isolated facts about the Son of God as though his audience was biblically illiterate.
As I explained in the previous post, “these last days” most likely refer to a limited period of time prophesied by Jesus (Matt 24:1-34) against those who crucified their Messiah and rejected His everlasting Covenant; a time period that was nearing its end in the days of the apostles; a time period which would end the administration of the Old Covenant and its central sanctuary of sacrificial worship, thereby inaugurating the new age under the reign of the promised Messiah. Accordingly, it is this Messiah, the Son of God, who created the world and also “upholds the universe by the word of his power.” It is this Jesus who is “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature.” These statements don’t carry much weight unless this Son is still alive. But the author doesn’t just imply that the Son of God is still alive; he makes the categorical statement that he is still alive and in power over the world he created: “After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.”
The “Majesty on high” refers to God the Father. Later on in this letter, the author uses this phrase to refer to God the Father in the heavens (Heb. 8:1). Jesus is His Son, and after his crucifixion and death, he ascended to heaven into the very presence of God. When a human being dies, he ascends into heaven before God’s tribunal. There, before God, he stands as a guilty and polluted sinner. Only if the sinner has a substitute in his place will God’s decision be favorable. Now, keep in mind that Jesus died at his crucifixion and he also ascended into heaven before God’s tribunal; only Jesus didn’t have a substitute to represent him in God’s presence. Jesus stood before God all alone. When sinners die, they stand before God’s tribunal either with a righteous substitute or not. But when Jesus stood before the Father, he was the righteous substitute for sinners. He died as a perfectly righteous man; and in dying, he qualified to be the only man who could stand before God and offer himself as a substitute for sinful men. This is what is meant by the phrase, “after making purification for sins.” This accomplishment of “purification for sins” is what ushers in “the last days” of the Old Covenant. Jesus did not have to stand before His Father in heaven and offer himself as a substitute for sinners; but he could, and did; and in doing so, he inherited a name more excellent than any other creature under heaven.
It’s interesting that the author singles out angels at the end of in this opening sentence. According to a recent archeological discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which contain information about the religious life of Jews in the Qumran community, there was a particular doctrine made popular within the first century A.D. about the “last days” foretold by the prophets. Their expectation of the end of the world involved a course of wars between the righteous forces of God and the wicked forces of Satan. As one can easily imagine, many Jews of that era were not expecting God to manifest himself as a human being to usher in his kingdom. Instead, Jews of the Qumran community popularized the belief that in the last days God, the supreme agent of salvation, would usher in his kingdom on earth by means of created agents, particularly his “hosts of Light,” angels, commanded by the “Prince of Light,” the archangel Michael, who also was believed to be the same Melchizedek mentioned in Genesis 14:18. This Melchizedek, supposedly Michael the archangel, would rule over the earth as second-in-command to God Almighty, and would oversee the complex rule of three human messiahs, one prophet, one priest, and one king, to fulfill the promises of Scripture. (see Geza Vermes, The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English [Penguin Books; 2004] pp. 84-90).
Since this belief and others like it were prevalent among Jewish sects in the generation prior to the birth of Jesus, as the Dead Sea Scrolls indicate, the author of Hebrews is definitely making an authoritative claim about Jesus which opposes any contrived idea about the angel Michael or his host of angels bringing all of the forces of Satan, as it were, under the footstool of God’s feet. Here the author emphatically declares that the Son of God has sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in the heavens, thereby inheriting a name superior than Michael, angels, and all other creatures. Jesus is the promised Messiah, the Prophet, Priest, and King, and he reigns on earth as we speak because, long ago, at many times and in many ways, God revealed His will by His prophets that His Son would be the “heir of all things.” Jesus is the one who speaks as a prophet, the one who makes purification for sins as a High Priest, and who sits at the right hand of the Father reigning as King over all. It is this Messiah, Jesus the Son of God, which every knee shall bow before, and every tongue shall confess unto as Lord of all.