Introduction: Date, Structure, And Theme.
Before delving into the exegesis of this letter, it is very important to understand why the author wrote it, which is directly related to its structure. It is the thesis of this writer that this letter follows an old testament covenantal structure, a structure which is specifically employed for a new covenant renewal. It is also the thesis of the present writer that the warning passages together also follow an old testament pattern, in this case the structure of a case of covenant lawsuit judgment. To this end it is recommended that the reader read these warnings in succession, apart from what surrounds them, in order to see the connections and flow of our author’s argument.
These then is our structures, which will form the outline and theme of this commentary.
New Covenant Renewal.
- Preamble: 1-2
- Historical Prologue: 3-4:13
- Stipulations: 4:14-10:25
- Sentence And Warning: 10:26-39
- Invocation Of Witnesses: 11
- Deposit, Succession, And Confirmation: 12-13
Old Covenant Lawsuit.
- Call To Witnesses To Hear And Testify: 2:1-4
- Introductory Statement Of The Case: 3:7-19
- Recital Of The Plaintiff’s Benevolent Acts And Indictment: 6:4-8
- Curses And Blessings: 10:28-31
- Recognition: 12:25-29
As the reader will note, the lawsuit is contained in the first five sections of the covenant renewal structure. The reason why there is only five sections in the lawsuit and six in the main covenantal structure, has to do with the launching point, as it were, for the lawsuit. It comes into force where the witnesses under the covenant structure itself, become the witnesses called to testify against those who have broken the covenant. As we go through the letter, the echoes of these old testament structures will be referred to, but it is important to understand these two structures, if one is going to truly comprehend the significance of what our author is saying.
It is within these structures that we are to understand the threefold office of the Son, who was anointed to this position, a threefold office which He continues to exercise. Furthermore, without the lawsuit structure and theme, the warning passages will confuse and mislead many, as they have through the centuries. In particular, it needs to be understood, that the first audience for our author are those first century Jews who had been introduced to Jesus as the Messiah. Furthermore, it must be understood that our author wrote just prior to the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple which Jesus himself predicted (Cf. Mt. 24:1-35; Mk. 13:1-31; Lk. 21:5-33).
Hebrews 1:1-4 The Son As Prophet, Priest, And King-The Lord Of History And The King Of Glory.
As noted from the outline, the first two chapters provide us with the preamble to what is a document of new covenant renewal. In every covenant document, and in the covenant relationship itself, the preamble is the occasion to present the Lord of the covenant and His credentials. Of course, the Lord of the new covenant is the Lord Jesus Christ, but our author keys in on His status as the Son in particular. The letter begins with “God”. Of course this isn’t just any god, rather this is the God who “at various times and in various ways spoke to the fathers by the prophets” (v. 1). So at the very outset we are struck by what is foundational to the entire letter. The author is about to write about the flow of redemptive history.
First of all, what is about to follow concerns the Father, He who spoke to the fathers (Cf. Nu. 12:6-8). Secondly, what we are about to learn about the Son is that what is said about Him is in continuity with what God had spoken in the past. Thirdly, what is of interest to our author is the substance and flow of salvation history, and the scriptures which speak to us about this. This context is of vital importance. To this end we are to understand the word which the KJV translates as “worlds” here. This is not a consistent rendering of the Greek ‘aionos’. This word is more properly translated “ages”. The word ‘aionas’ at 11:3 is also rendered “worlds” when it also should be ‘ages’. Both passages are referring to the same thing, the ages of salvation history.
This is one of our author’s main points-the ages in which the prophets of old spoke (past tense), were made or fashioned by the very Son about whom He is presenting as the Lord of this final renewal of the covenant relationship. To this end, the “things” of which He as the Son is the heir, are the very things God previously spoke of. In other words, He is the inheritor of everything under the old covenant, revealed to us through the prophets. Furthermore, key to that flow of redemptive history were the successive administrations of the one covenant of grace, of which Christ is the centre and epoch of their promises. What had come in various times and in various ways culminates in a final word in the Son.
Critical also to this context is the well established eschatological phrase “last days” which our author calls “these last days”. He very deliberately takes a phrase which was understood to encapsulate the coming and establishment of the Messiah’s kingdom, and the fulfillment of the promise of the covenants of old, and applies it to the time of His writing. At Pentacost, when people heard the word of God spoken in their own languages Peter made clear that these revelatory gifts were in fulfillment of the “last days” spoken of by Joel. To this end, it is a matter which many have proved, that the entirety of the New Testament, including this letter, were written before 70 AD.
The year of 70 AD is critical, because it marks the end of the old covenant sacrifices and administrations, which were brought to an end with the destruction of the temple. It has been proven by many, that the entirety of the New testament was written before 70AD, including this letter. As we shall see, our author at several points speaks of the sacrifices under the old covenant as still being offered, and of that priestly system still in operation. Unlike the previous ages, ‘these last days” of the Son are God’s final word for, “He has in these last days spoken (past tense) to us by His Son” (v. 2). Coterminous with the finished work of Christ is the completion of the canon of holy scripture, for the word of God always accompanies the flow of salvation history.
Peter also called this time between Christ’s incarnation and the end of the old covenant administrations as “these last times”. “He (“Christ” v. 19) indeed was foreordained (by “the Father” v. 17) before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you” (I Pet. 1:20). Like our author, Peter writes “these” last times. The “last days” or “last times” are not still future, they were finding their fulfillment in that generation. This was the time for the inauguration or founding of Messiah’s house and kingdom as spoken of by the prophets (Is. 2:2; Dan. 2:28; Mic. 4:1), a time for which Daniel in particular gave us specific time indicators. Jesus also clearly predicted Jerusalem’s destruction (Mt. 24:1-35).
Another overarching point needs to also be made concerning these first two verses, and that is that Jesus is the Lord of history. On this point our author hearkens back to a point often missed concerning the Genesis account of creation. God created time and history. From the very first day of creation we have the conclusion that this was “the day and the evening” (1:5). Furthermore to govern or rule the day and night God on the fourth day created “lights in the firmament of the heavens to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs and seasons, and for days and years” (v. 14). God created time and history. Furthermore He did so through the Son. “For by Him all things were created” (Col. 1:16). The Son is the sovereign Lord of time and history.
Yet another significant point strikes us in these beginning verses, and one which also connects us with the rest of what is one sentence in the Greek, namely verses 3-4. As the Lord of this final new covenant renewal, the Son was anointed to this end. This is what the word Christ or Messiah means-the anointed One. To this end one of the interesting signs that the Messiah is who He is said to be, is that only the Messiah would occupy all three Old Testament mediatorial offices in His one person. These three offices are the prophet, the priest, and the king, and it was strictly prohibited for any one person, other than the Messiah, to occupy all three. However, this is the very point which our author states here, and which he will elaborate on as he proceeds further.
The Son is the prophet whom the prophets of old spoke of, and He is in fact the very One who created the ages in which they spoke. First of all, He is equal with the Father-He is God incarnate-“being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person” (v. 3a Cf. Jn. 1:14; II Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15). Next, He is the promised Prophet of old-“upholding all things by the word of His power” (v. 3b Cf. Col. 1:17). The entire message of the Old Testament prophets culminates in the final Prophet who was promised. Furthermore, the prophetic office is foundational to the other two, just as the word is foundational to all that we know and believe. Then we see that the Son is also a priest-“when He had by Himself purged our sins” (v. 3c Cf. 7:27). Finally, He is King, as He, “sat down at the right hand of the majesty on high” (v. 3d Cf. Ps. 110:1).
There is much to say about these points, of which our author will elaborate on as we proceed, but there is one further important point introduced with this beginning sentence of the preamble of this new covenant renewal. Our author will shortly proceed to explain the presentation-exaltation-and enthronement of the covenant Lord (1:5ff), but before he does so he sets the stage. As noted in the introduction, much of the structure and content of this letter is quite confusing if one misses the structure of new covenant renewal and old covenant lawsuit. A case in point is the introduction of angels. Angels are introduced here because they surround the throne of the Glory-Presence of which our author has just noted, and it is to this throne that the Son has been exalted!
This threefold office to which the Son was anointed and which He continues to occupy, is the very anointing that places Him in the position of inheriting the throne of His Father. This is exactly what took place when treaty lords passed on their kingship to their sons at their passing. Such passing necessitated the renewing of the covenant bond, and included in the preamble was everything that justified the new Lord of the covenant to occupy that position. In manmade covenants this entailed much pomp and ceremony, but it also entailed witnesses. In the same way, the angelic host are here spoken of because they inhabit the Glory-Presence and worship before the throne, ever remaining witnesses to His Glory. There collective name means “messenger” but this One is the Message Himself-the Son (v. 4 Cf. Luke 1:32-33; Phil. 2:9).