(EDITOR’S NOTE — The Sept. 13 Formations lesson in the Aug. 29 printed
edition of the Biblical Recorder erroneously followed an out-of-date
schedule. This lesson, by former Recorder editor Tony W. Cartledge, was
originally published on a CD for a winter Bible study and includes the
text for the updated Sept. 13 Formations lesson. We regret any
confusion this may have caused.)
Who’s the Boss?
Hebrews 1:1-3, 4:1-13
The author of Hebrews is writing to people whom he believes have strayed from the path of right doctrine. They have confused their worship of Christ with the worship of angels and with worship through the temple. They have confused the priesthood of Christ with the priesthood of Melchizedek. They have allowed folk-religion and local customs to twist the meaning of faith in Christ and of life in Christ’s behalf.
With these things in mind, perhaps, the writer begins the letter, not with an extended greeting or a prayer of thanks as Paul was prone to do, but with a straightforward, Christocentric confession of faith:
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets,
2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. 3 He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4 having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. (Heb. 1:1-4, NRSV)
I. God has spoken … (1:1-2a)
Heb. 1:1 holds a powerful concept, the idea that God has intentionally spoken to humankind in order to reveal His own character, and to make known His promises, desires and expectations of humans. The claim of this verse is that God is not silent and withdrawn, always mysterious, but relational, open, and personal.
A. In many and various ways …
With a delightful alliterative phrase (polumer_s polutr_p_s), the writer asserts that God has many ways of speaking. We think of creation as one of the ways in which God reveals Himself. Job, for example, marveled at the majesty of creation with these words “These are indeed but the outskirts of his ways; and how small a whisper do we hear of him! But the thunder of his power who can understand?” (Job 26:14).
In a sense, God’s speaking begins with creation. Perhaps there is particular significance in the homey idea embedded in the creation stories of Gen. 2-3, the idea that God walked and talked with Adam and Eve in the new dawn of creation.
God also spoke via the medium of angels (the Greek word “angelos” means “messenger”) – to Abraham, for example, and to Jacob. The recipients of this letter had exaggerated the role of angels beyond that of messenger, however, so the author does not overemphasize their role.
B. By the prophets …
Creation speaks, but vaguely. We seek and need a more specific word. Thus the author proclaims that God has spoken through the prophets. With his Hebrew background, this writer would have had in mind the patriarchs through whom God spoke in the Pentateuch and the leading religious figures of the Bible’s historical books (also called “former prophets”), as well as those persons we think of as the writing prophets. New Testament figures like John the Baptizer were also considered to be prophets, newly come after a long absence of the prophetic word.
God spoke to and through the prophets in different ways. He spoke in storm and thunder to Moses, but in a still, small voice to Elijah. In Old Testament thought, a true prophet was one who had access to the “inner council” of God’s divine court, one who was privy to the plans of God for his people. A prophet was one who understood the hearts of the people, the plans of God, and how the two might intersect – or collide.
C. By a Son …
The clearest and most powerful means of divine speech came in the form of the divine Son, Jesus Christ, the Word of God. The writer’s implication is that God has revealed Himself progressively: through creation, through the prophets, and now, “in the last of these days,” through His Son. Only in the person of Christ could the progressive self-revelation of God be fully manifest. No message could be more powerful than the life, the words, the actions, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The unstated message behind these words of introduction is this: “Listen, because God is talking! He has spoken in many ways, including the prophets, but now He has spoken a final word through the Son. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
II. Jesus, the supreme revelation: Seven Christological statements (1:2b-3)
In the space of a verse and a half, the writer makes seven claims about Christ. Each affirms some aspect of Christ’s divinity.
- The heir of all things
- The creator of the universe (the word is literally “worlds”)
- The radiance (effulgence, reflected brightness) of the glory of God
In these roles, Christ:
- Bears the “exact imprint of God’s very being” (his “essence”)
- Sustains all things by the word of his power (power = dunamis, as in “dynamite”)
- Made purification for sin (or “sins”)
- Sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on High (the position of most power and influence)
III. Therefore: Claim the promised rest of God (4:1-13)
The first three verses of this chapter remind us of the oft-quoted passage from Augustine, the famous fifth century theologian from Alexandria. “Our hearts are restless,” he said, “until they rest in thee.”
God has a rest for His people, and we enter that rest by faith. The rest of which the author speaks is not our nightly slumber or Sabbath ease, but the promise of eternity with Christ.
This extension of the OT concept of a Sabbath rest, which forms the backbone of vv. 4-10), seems unique to the author of Hebrews. The Hebrew idea of Shabbat means “rest” – as God “rested” from his labor on the seventh “day” of creation, so He declared that humans should rest on the Sabbath day, to remember what God has done.
The writer of Hebrews saw this rest extending to incorporate the internal peace of a believer who has confidence in Christ, and the eternal rest of one who has a home in heaven. God’s rest was rejected by Israel because of their unbelief (v. 6), but remains available for those who believe. There are both present and future aspects of this rest (vv. 8-10 (compare Matt. 11:28 and Rev. 14:13).
Entering God’s rest does not come automatically: like a worker who exerts appropriate effort at his or her job while anticipating a later time of rest, the believer paddles against the stream in this life while anticipating rest in the next. Thus, we must “make every effort” in order to enter that rest.
The writer urges his readers to be open to God’s Spirit, who will convict them in this matter: “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account” (vv. 12-13).
This text has often been misused. Although God speaks and convicts through the scripture, the author clearly has more in mind. We should remember that, when the author wrote, what writings were acceptable as scriptures within Judaism was still in flux, and the New Testament was still being written – there was no “Bible” as we know it). Verse 13 continues the thought of v. 12, and it clearly speaks of the living Spirit of God who penetrates our lives and understands the deepest thoughts of our heart. Thus, while God’s Spirit may speak through the scripture, it is the Word of God and not the words of scripture that “is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart,” the “one to whom we must render an account.”
God’s living Word speaks of judgment, but also of grace – and challenges us to response with both faith and obedience.