This evening we’re beginning a series on the book of Hebrews, which was a kind of letter. It may not seem like a letter from the opening verses; and the opening of Hebrews is very unlike the opening of Titus which we read this morning. Titus began with Paul referring to himself as the author of the letter. Then he referred to Titus who was the recipient of the letter. And then there was a greeting: ‘Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Saviour’. That’s how letters began in those days. But the book of Hebrews doesn’t begin like that. However, we believe it’s a letter because it ends like a letter. The final chapter contains some concluding exhortations; and there are some final greetings; and a closing benediction. It ends like a letter, even though it doesn’t begin like a letter.
The author refers to what he has written as ‘a word of exhortation’. That’s in chapter 13 and verse 22. So, he was writing to exhort his readers. And the word ‘exhortation’ is normally associated with preaching. So, imagine you received a written sermon in the post which was written just for you. That’s perhaps how we should think of this book. It’s a sermon which the author has written down and posted to his first readers.
We don’t know who wrote Hebrews. In the past, people believed it was Paul, but it’s very different from anything else Paul has written and it’s unlikely that Paul is the author. So, the scholars have tried to work out who the author is. Since Timothy is mentioned at the end, it’s suggested that the author may have been someone associated with Paul. For instance, it might be Barnabas or Apollos. And there have been other suggestions. However, the truth is we don’t know who wrote it.
And we don’t really know who the original recipients were. Most commentators say that the original recipients were predominantly Jewish Christians who were tempted to give up their new faith in Christ and return to Judaism. That explains why the author makes clear that the Lord Jesus is a better leader than Moses and Joshua; and he’s a better priest than the Levitical priests; and he offered a better sacrifice than they ever could. The author emphasises the superiority of the Lord Jesus because his readers were Jewish Christians who were tempted to go back to something inferior. However, others believe the original recipients were predominantly Gentile believers. For instance, a Dutch scholar called Geerhardus Vos believed they were Gentile believers who had succumbed to a kind of religious externalism. They wanted a religion that was outwardly impressive, whereas Christianity is about a suffering Saviour who reigns above in a heavenly, and not an earthly, temple. The readers wanted earthly glory, and not heavenly glory. But we don’t really know who the original recipients were.
So, this is an unusual letter and it was written by an unknown author and it was written to an unknown people. There’s much we don’t know about this letter. But what we do know is that the opening is magnificent. The opening four verses are magnificent because, by speaking to us of God’s revelation in his Son, the author takes us into the inner life of God and to the eternal relations of God the Father and God the Son. Yes, he speaks to us of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross by which he provided us with purification for our sins. But the author also takes us into the depths of the Trinity when he tells us that the Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of God’s being. The Father who speaks to us is God, but the Son in whom the Father speaks is also God. And since he’s God, then he’s greater than, not only the prophets of old, but he’s greater than the angels in heaven above.
And these magnificent opening verses are arranged carefully. It opens by referring to the prophets and it closes by referring to the angels. The prophets, of course, revealed God’s word to God’s people in the past. And the Jews also believed that God revealed his law to his people in the past by the angels. So, by mentioning the prophets at the beginning and the angels at the end, the author is referring to two agents of revelation. However, the Son is greater than both.
After mentioning the Son’s superiority to the prophets, the author states the Son’s status as heir of all things. Then he refers to the Son’s work of creation: God made the universe through the Son. Then he refers to the Son’s likeness to the Father: he’s the radiance of God’s glory and the exact imprint of his being and he sustains all things by his word of power. Then he refers to the Son’s work of salvation: he has provided purification for our sins. And then he states the Son’s status as king at God’s right hand. And finally he mentions the Son’s superiority to the angels. So, the author begins and ends with the Son’s superiority to the prophets and angels who were God’s agents of revelation in the past. Then, near the beginning and near the end, he refers to the Son’s status as heir of all things and as king over all things. Then, he refers to the Son’s work of creation which corresponds to what he says later about his work of salvation. And at the heart of the passage, in the middle of this carefully arranged introduction is the Son’s likeness to the Father.
And one more point before moving on to consider the passage in detail. After introducing the Son in verse 2, the author goes on to describe him in seven ways. One, he’s heir of all things. Two, he’s creator. Three, he’s the radiance of God’s glory. Four, he’s the exact imprint of God’s nature. Five, he’s sustainer of all things. Six, he’s saviour. Seven, he’s king over all. The author describes the Son in these seven ways. And seven in the Bible is the perfect number. It’s the number of completion. The Son is perfect; and, along with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, he is worthy of all praise, both now and forevermore.
Superior to the Prophets
Let’s turn now to verse 1 and to the first part of verse 2. And these verses are arranged carefully too, because there are several contrasts. Firstly, he contrasts ‘in the past’ and ‘in these last days’. Secondly, God spoke ‘to our forefathers’ and God has spoken ‘to us’. Thirdly, God spoke ‘through’ or ‘in’ ‘the prophets’ and God has spoken ‘by’ or ‘in’ ‘his Son’. Fourthly, God spoke ‘at many times and in various ways’ and God has spoken, in the one who is Son. He’s contrasting the one Son with the many times and many ways of the past.
So, in the past, God spoke to our forefathers at many times and in various ways through or in the prophets. He’s referring to the things we read in the Old Testament about how God sent the prophets to reveal his word to his people. We can think of the written prophets, men like Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel and Daniel, the major prophets in the Bible. And then there’s what we call the minor prophets from Hosea to Malachi. God spoke to our forefathers in the faith in those prophets. I say ‘in’ those prophets, because God was in them by his Spirit, enabling them to proclaim his word. And we can also include among the prophets, men like Moses and David and Elijah and Elisha and so on. God spoke to his people through these prophets and there are other prophets mentioned in the Old Testament. God was in them all, by his Spirit, enabling them to proclaim his word.
The word translated ‘at many times’ can be translated ‘in many pieces’ or ‘piecemeal’. So, in the past God’s revelation came to his people in many pieces. He announced different things by different prophets to different people. He did not announce his word all at once, but in bits and pieces. It was all God’s word and therefore it was all true. But he announced it in bits and pieces. And he spoke to the people in different ways, because sometimes he used dreams and sometimes he used visions and he spoke to Moses face to face and no doubt he spoke to them in other ways and guided the things they said and wrote as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. Isn’t that how Peter puts it in his second letter? So, in the past, in Old Testament times, that’s how God spoke to our forefathers in the faith.
But in these last days…. Let me pause for a moment so that you won’t miss that phrase. It’s easy to slide over it as if it was unimportant. But that’s the phrase we sometimes come across in the Bible. We’re living in the last days, because the last days began with Christ’s coming into the world to live for us and to die for us before rising again and ascending to heaven to receive the Holy Spirit. And on the day of Pentecost, when the ascended Christ poured out his Spirit upon his people, Peter explained that Christ pouring out his Spirit like that was the signal that the last days had begun. And the last days will continue until Christ comes again. As I’ve said before, there’s nothing on God’s calendar between the date of Christ’s ascension to heaven and Christ’s coming again to judge the living and the dead. There’s nothing on God’s calendar between those two dates. There’s nothing more to be accomplished. And so the next big thing to happen is for Christ to come again. So, we’re living in the last days.
In the past, God spoke at many time and in various ways. But in these last days, he has spoken his last word, his final and decisive word in his Son. That should be ‘in the one who is Son’. In contrast to the many times and many ways of the past, God has now spoken in a unique way in his Son. And it’s ‘in’ his Son, because the Father is in the Son and the Son is in the Father. Isn’t that what the Lord Jesus said in John 14? Philip asked the Lord Jesus to show them the Father. And he replied:
Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works.
He was referring to the mystery of the Trinity and the mystery of the relations between the Father and the Son. We believe there’s one God. But the one God we believe in and worship is three Persons. There’s the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Father is God. The Son is God. The Holy Spirit is God. There’s no difference between them. But they are not three gods. They are not three separate beings. They are one God, because the Father is in the Son and the Son is in the Father and the Spirit is in the Father and the Son and they are in the Spirit. All three persons exist in, or they subsist in, the one divine nature. And so, they’re not three gods, but one God. It’s hard to grasp, isn’t it? But then, it’s a mystery, isn’t it? God is beyond our understanding. But the reason I say that God speaks ‘in’ the Son is because the Father is in the Son and the Son is in the Father and together with the Spirit they are one God.
And before we move on, notice, of course, that our God is a speaking God. He is a God who speaks. In the Garden of Eden, he spoke to Adam and Eve. And he has continued to speak to his people, revealing himself to his creation and making known his will and especially his will for our salvation. And whereas in the past he spoke in a piecemeal fashion, through the prophets, at many times and in various ways, he has now spoken in a unique way in his Son.
And he has spoken in his Son ‘to us’. He has spoken to us. He has made known to us his will for our salvation. And so, at the beginning of chapter 2, the author says to us that we must pay more careful attention to what we have heard, so that we will not drift away. God has spoken to us. He has spoken to you in his Son. And therefore you must pay more careful attention to what you have heard from him.
So, God has spoken to us by the one who is Son. Who is the Son? Firstly, God has appointed him heir of all things. Most of the commentators note that this recalls the words of Psalm 2:8 where God said to his Anointed King, ‘Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession.’ So, in the past, God gave the land of Canaan to David and to David’s descendants so that they would rule over the nation on God’s behalf. But in the psalm, God spoke of giving, not just one nation, but all the nations, to his Anointed King. And sure enough, after his death and resurrection, the Lord Jesus told the disciples that all authority in heaven and earth has been given to him. And therefore he was exalted to heaven to rule over all the nations. And even now, through the preaching of the gospel, he is extending his kingdom throughout the nations. And so, at his ascension, he was appointed heir of all things and he was given authority over all things.
However, Psalm 2 can also be read as revealing a kind of conversation in eternity between the Father and the Son. In verse 7 of Psalm 2, we hear God the Father speaking to his Son, ‘You are my Son. Today I have become your Father.’ In other words, ‘I have begotten you’. From all eternity, God the Father has begotten his Son. And the Father turns to his Eternally Begotten Son and says to him, ‘Ask of me, and I’ll make the nations your inheritance.’ So, from all eternity, the Father has begotten his Son; and from all eternity, the Father has given the nations to his Son to create them and to uphold them and to rule over them as God. And so, in John 3:35, the Lord Jesus said that the Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands. It all belongs to the Son, because the Father has given it to him.
And then our writer tells us that God made the universe through him, that is, through the Son.
Now, the Bible is very clear that God made all things. For instance, we read in Isaiah 40:
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
And then we read in Isaiah 44:
Thus says the LORD, your Redeemer,
who formed you from the womb:
“I am the LORD, who made all things,
who alone stretched out the heavens,
who spread out the earth by myself.
He alone is the Creator. That means there’s God the Creator and then there’s everything else. There’s the Creator and there’s the creation. But now we learn that’s there’s a distinction in God. Not a division or separation, but a distinction, because we can distinguish God who made all things from the Son through whom he made all things. There’s only one God, but in the one God there’s God the Father and God the Son and we also know there’s God the Spirit. There’s God the Father from whom all things come; and there’s God the Son through whom all things come. And there’s also God the Spirit by whom all things come. There’s only one God, one Creator. But within the Godhead, we can distinguish these three persons. And the three persons are not at odds with one another, because they are united in will and in action, because, as one theologian puts it (Webster), the Son is God, doing God’s will. And, according to God’s will, he made the universe.
And the Son is the radiance of God’s glory. Think of the rays of light which radiate from the sun in the sky. Where does the light come from? It comes from the sun. And so, the Son of God comes from the Father. The Son is the Eternally Begotten Son, Light from Light and true God from true God. The Father is the source and the Son has come from him from all eternity. The radiance of the Son comes from the glory of the Father. But that doesn’t mean the Son is inferior to the Father, which is what some theologians have suggested, who say that if the Son comes from the Father, then the Father is greater than the Son. But there’s no difference between the Father and the Son, except the Son comes from the Father. Apart from that one difference, they are the same.
And so, the Son is the exact representation or imprint of God’s being. The image here is of stamp or seal which leaves its mark on the page. There’s a correspondence or match between the mark on the page and the stamp which made it. And by applying that image to the relation between the Father and the Son, the writer is saying that the Father’s stamp is placed upon the Son so that the Son corresponds to the Father exactly. He is the image of the Father. He is the imprint of the Father. He is not different from the Father, but is a repetition of the Father. There is an exact likeness between them. The substance of the Father is engraven on the Son, as John Calvin puts it.
And the Son through whom God made the universe upholds all things by his word of power. Notice that a change takes place in this verse. Up to now, the subject of the verbs has been God the Father. He has spoken. He appointed. He made the universe through the Son. But now it’s the Son who is the subject of the verbs. He is the one who upholds all things. Therefore he is the Lord of history, who controls and directs all things. And he does it by his word of power, which speaks to us of his divine power and the ease with which he upholds all things. Do you remember when he and his disciples were in the boat and there was a storm. And the disciples were afraid, because they thought they’d drown. But the Lord Jesus got up and he rebuked the wind and the waves. He spoke; and everything because calm. He was doing what he always does, because he always upholds all things by the word of his power. He upholds you and me every day. You wonder how you’ll cope. But you can count on him to uphold you.
And the one through whom all things were made and the one who upholds all things by his word of power came into the world as one of us to be our Great High Priest and to offer himself to God as the once-for-all perfect sacrifice for sins by which we are purified and cleansed. And having been cleansed by his blood, shed on the cross, we’re able to approach God in worship with confidence and we can look forward to coming into his presence in the life to come.
And, of course, the writer to the Hebrews will make much of the fact that the Lord Jesus offered a better sacrifice than the Levitical priests ever did, because their animal sacrifices could not really make up for our sins, and they were really only a reminder to the people that they were sinners who needed be be cleansed inwardly and spiritually, not outwardly and ceremonially. In other words, their animal sacrifices were to make do until the Son came into the world to offer himself on the cross as the perfect sacrifice for sins. And through faith in him we are pardoned and cleansed.
And having provided for our purification by the sacrifice of himself, the Son has now sat down at God’s right hand. Sitting down speaks to us of a work completed, because none of us can sit down and relax until we’ve finished our work. The Old Testament priests had to stand at the altar, day after day, and offer sacrifices for the sins of the people. And their work was never finished, because those sacrifices could not take away the guilt of the people. But the Son’s sacrifice of himself was effective. Before he died, he cried, ‘It is finished’. And so, having finished the work he had come to do, having offered himself as the perfect sacrifice, the Son was able to sit down.
And he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty. That is, he sat down on God’s throne. He always ruled the nations as God the Son. But now he rules them as our Saviour. And now he sits on his throne, waiting, not working. He accomplished his work when he died on the cross. And now he waits until the time is right to come again in glory and with power to punish his enemies and to bring his people into the new heavens and earth to live with him and with the Father and Spirit forever and forever in eternal glory.
And so, this is the Son in whom God has spoken his final word. From all eternity God gave the Son the nations. God made the universe through the Son. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact imprint of his being. The Son upholds all things by his word of power and the Son has provided purification for our sins. And having completed his work, the Son sat down on God’s throne. And so, the writer tells us, he has become as much superior to the angels as the name he inherited is greater than theirs. What name did he inherit? Some say it’s the name ‘Son’. Some say it’s the name ‘Lord’. Some say it’s a name known only to him. Whichever it is, it’s a great name. And our writer will go on to make clear how the Son is greater than everything else. He’s greater than the angels. He’s greater than Moses. He’s greater than Joshua. He’s greater than the priests. He’s the High Priest of a greater covenant. And he entered a greater temple than the earthly temple. And he offered a greater sacrifice for sins than the Levitical priests ever did. There is no one greater than he is. And he’s the Son of God the Father. And since he’s the Son of God the Father, since he is Light from Light and true God from true God, then he is uniquely qualified to reveal the Father to us. Who better to speak on God’s behalf than God himself? And God has come, in the person of his only Begotten Son, to make known to you his willingness to pardon your sins and to give eternal life to all those who repent and believe in him.