Supremacy of the Son

The epistle to the Hebrews stresses the superiority of the Word “spoken” in the Son over all previous but partial “words” – Hebrews 1:1-2:4

Bible epilogue - Photo by Luis Quintero on Unsplash
The 
epistle to the Hebrews was sent to a congregation located in or near the city of Rome. Previously, it experienced pressure from outsiders, but was facing renewed pressure, and even persecution. Consequently, some members were contemplating withdrawal from the assembly, and possibly returning to the local synagogue - [Photo by Luis Quintero on Unsplash].

Unlike Christianity, Judaism had legal standing in the Roman Empire. The government exempted Jews from many requirements imposed on other groups, including participation in the imperial cult.  In its early years, the Rome perceived Christianity as a Jewish sect, and as such, it was afforded the same legal protections.

However, by the late first century, the Empire began to see Christianity as a sect distinct from Judaism, and therefore, it began to lose any legal protections it previously enjoyed. Following the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, the divide between the “church and synagogue” became pronounced, and increasingly, Christians found themselves under the scrutiny of local magistrates.

The concern of the epistle is pastoral. Its goal is to prevent Christians from leaving the faith. Repeatedly, it urges believers to remain faithful to the teachings received from Jesus and the apostles. Faithfulness is the proper response to persecution, and repeatedly, it warns of the dire consequences of faithlessness to Jesus - (Hebrews 2:1-46:1-1210:22-30).

To achieve this, Hebrews employs a rhetorical strategy called synkrisis, a series of comparisons designed to demonstrate the superiority of one thing over another. Thus, the letter highlights the superiority of the “Son” over what God did under the older but now “obsolete” covenant. The purpose is not to denigrate God’s past revelations, but to emphasize how much the glory of the new surpasses the old. Between each comparison, the letter presents dire warnings about the failure to heed the “word spoken in the Son.”

Hebrews compares the “word” of the Son to that of angels, Moses, and Joshua, and contrasts his priesthood with the Levitical priests, his one-time sacrifice to the repeated sacrifices in the Tabernacle, and the old covenant to the New Covenant.

The epistle opens with its main proposition: The superior Word of God has been spoken in the Son at the start of History’s final era, these “last days.” The first paragraph prepares the reader for the first comparison: The word of the Son is superior to the word spoken by angels. In turn, the first comparison leads to the first warning against any failure to heed the Son - (Hebrews 1:1-2:4).

The previous “words” spoken in the “prophets” were partial (“in many parts”), and delivered by various means (prophecy, visions, dreams). The “word” spoken in the “Son” differs in at least three ways. First, God spoke “of old,” but now, He has spoken “upon these last days.” Second, He spoke to the “fathers,” but now “to us.” And third, previously, He spoke “in the prophets,” but now, “in a Son.”

As true and gracious as God’s past disclosures were, they were promissory, preparatory, and incomplete. Thus, a fuller word of revelation was needed. The past “word” was not incorrect, but partial. In contrast, His complete “word” has been “spoken in a Son.”

Upon the last of these days” provides the time element. As elsewhere, the period known as the “last days” began with the Death, Resurrection and Exaltation of Jesus, the era of fulfillment - (Acts 2:17Galatians 4:4Ephesians 1:10).

The Son in whom God spoke is the one whom He “appointed the heir of all things.”  The clause alludes to the second Psalm, where Yahweh promised to give His “son” the “nations as an inheritance.” It is one of two messianic Psalms that figure prominently in the epistle:
  • (Psalm 2:8) – “Ask of me and let me give nations as your inheritance, and as your possession, the ends of the earth.
  • (Psalm 110:1-4) – “Yahweh said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool… Yahweh has sworn and will not repent, You will be a priest to times everlasting after the order of Melchizedek.
But Hebrews expands the original promise. The “Son” became the “heir of all things,” not just the “nations” or the “earth.” And the mention of his “inheritance” echoes the covenant promises made to Abraham, for the “Son” is the true heir of the patriarch.

The “Son” is the “eradiated brightness of the glory and the exact impress of God’s very essence.” He reflects the very glory and likeness of God. The point is not metaphysical speculation about his nature, but instead, the surpassing greatness of the position he now holds, which he gained by his past accomplishment; “having achieved the purification of sins, he was appointed heir of all things.” This last clause anticipates the epistle’s later discussions on his priesthood and sacrifice.

The Son “sat down on the right hand of majesty.”  The clause refers to his priestly activities, especially his entry into the “Holy of Holies.” “Sitting down” contrasts his act with that of the Levitical high priest who also entered the “Holy of Holies,” but only on the annual Day of Atonement for a brief time. And the latter never “sat down” or otherwise remained in the inner sanctuary. His act of “sitting down” demonstrates the completion of his sacrificial ministry:
  • (Hebrews 7:26-27) – “For such a high-priest as this for us was even suited: Loving, noble, undefiled, set apart from sinners, and become higher than the heavens; who has no daily necessity like the high-priests beforehand over his own sins to be offering sacrifices, after that over those of the people, for this he did once for all when he offered up himself.
  • (Hebrews 10:11-12) – “And every priest, indeed, stands daily publicly ministering, and the same sacrifices often offering, the which never can clear away sins. But this priest, having offered one sacrifice for sins evermore, sat down on the right hand of God.”
Jesus entered the heavenly sanctuary “once for all” by means of his one-time sacrifice, and thereby, he obtained everlasting redemption for his people. “Sat down” stresses the permanence of his new and elevated position. And he “became so much better than the angels,” having advanced beyond them by inheriting “more excellent name.” And in the literary context, the “more excellent name” is “Son.”
In two ways, the “word spoken in a son” is vastly superior to the past revelations “spoken in the prophets.” First, it is the last and the final word in a long sequence of Divine revelations (“Upon these last days”). Second, it is the culmination of all that has preceded the “Son,” who is the “perfecter of our faith” - (Hebrews 12:1-2).

The scriptural citations in the first chapter demonstrate the superiority of the Son over angels. The concern is not over the origin or nature of angels, nor is he explaining his Christology. The seven passages cited substantiate this proposition. The literary structure is built around the rhetorical question, “to which of the angels said He at any time?” And, if angels are glorious, mighty, and holy beings, how much more so is the Son? - (Hebrews 1:5-14).

The comparison of the “Son” to angels flows naturally into the first exhortation of the epistle, which summarizes the preceding arguments. DO NOT NEGLECT THE WORD OF THE SON.
  • (Hebrews 2:1-4) - "For this cause, it behooves us with unwonted firmness to be holding fast to the things that have been heard, lest at any time we drift away. For if the word through the angels became firm, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense, how shall we escape if so great a salvation as this we have neglected, which, indeed, having received a beginning of being spoken through the Lord, by them who heard, unto us was confirmed, God jointly witnessing also both with signs and wonders and manifold mighty works, and with distributions of Holy Spirit according to his own will."
For this cause.” Logically, this clause connects refers to the preceding paragraph. Because of the surpassing excellence of the “word spoken in a Son,” it is vital for believers to hold fast to him. If disregarding the “word” delivered by angels had dire consequences, how much more so any disobedience of the “word of the Son”?

The word spoken through angels.” The Jewish tradition was that the Law was given through angels. But the Law was the revelatory word of Yahweh, regardless of any intermediary; therefore, the word spoken through angels became firm, and every transgression received a just recompense. That being so, how will we escape far greater punishment if we now abandon the vastly superior word spoken in one who is a “son”?

The letter argues from lesser to greater. Angels are God’s ministers. Moses was His anointed servant and lawgiver. But the word “spoken” in Jesus is vastly superior to any older “word,” whether mediated by angels, prophets, or even Moses. Rejecting it results in even greater punishment than disobedience to the Torah. Thus, for persecuted believers, returning to the earlier but partial “word” is not an option.

In summary, the epistle compares the “word spoken in a son” with the past but partial revelations made through prophets, angels, priests, and even the Great Lawgiver, Moses. In this way, it demonstrates the surpassing greatness of the final revelation in Jesus.

Of immediate relevance for believers are the epistle’s repeated warnings against disobeying Jesus and apostasy.  Whether one “drifts away” into non-Christian Judaism, another religion entirely, or an irreligious life, one can expect to receive a “much sorer punishment” for abandoning the “Son.”  To whom much is given, much is required.

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