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Bible Commentaries

William Barclay's Daily Study Bible

Hebrews 1

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-14

Chapter 1

THE END OF FRAGMENTS (Hebrews 1:1-3)

1:1-3 It was in many parts and in many ways that God spoke to our fathers in the prophets in time gone past; but in the end of these days he has spoken to us in One who is a Son, a Son whom he destined to enter into possession of all things, a Son by whose agency he made the universe. He was the very effulgence of God's glory; he was the exact expression of God's very essence. He bore everything onwards by the word of his power; and after he had made purification for the sins of men, he took his royal seat at the right hand of the glory in the heights.

This is the most sonorous piece of Greek in the whole New Testament. It is a passage that any classical Greek orator would have been proud to write. The writer of Hebrews has brought to it every artifice of word and rhythm that the beautiful and flexible Greek language could provide. In Greek the two adverbs which we have translated in many parts and in many ways are single words, polumeros (Greek #4181) and polutropos (Greek #4187). Polu- (compare Greek #4183) in such a combination means "many" and it was a habit of the great Greek orators, like Demosthenes, the greatest of them all, to weave such sonorous words into the first paragraph of a speech. The writer to the Hebrews felt that, since he was going to speak of the supreme revelation of God to men, he must clothe his thought in the noblest language that it was possible to find.

There is something of interest even here. The man who wrote this letter must have been trained in Greek oratory. When he became a Christian he did not throw his training away. He used the talent he had in the service of Jesus Christ. Everyone knows the lovely legend of the acrobatic tumbler who became a monk. He felt that he had so little to offer. One day someone saw him go into the chapel and stand before the statue of the Virgin Mary. He hesitated for a moment and then began to go through his acrobatic routine. When he had completed his tumbling, he knelt in adoration; and then, says the legend, the statue of the Virgin Mary came to life, stepped down from her pedestal and gently wiped the sweat from the brow of the acrobat who had offered all he had to give. When a man becomes a Christian he is not asked to abandon all the talents he once had; he is asked to use them in the service of Jesus Christ and of his Church.

The basic idea of this letter is that Jesus Christ alone brings to men the full revelation of God and that he alone enables them to enter into his very presence. The writer begins by contrasting Jesus with the prophets who had gone before. He talks about him coming in the end of these days. The Jews divided all time into two ages--the present age and the age to come. In between they set The Day of the Lord. The present age was wholly bad; the age to come was to be the golden age of God. The Day of the Lord was to be like the birth-pangs of the new age. So the writer to the Hebrews says, "The old time is passing away; the age of incompleteness is gone; the time of human guessing and groping is at an end; the new age, the age of God, has dawned in Christ." He sees the world and the thought of men enter, as it were, into a new beginning with Christ. In Jesus God has entered humanity, eternity has invaded time, and things can never be the same again.

He contrasts Jesus with the prophets, for they were always believed to be in the secret counsels of God. Long ago Amos had said: "The Lord God does nothing without revealing his secrets to his servants the prophets" (Amos 3:7). Philo had said: "The prophet is the interpreter of the God who speaks within." He had said: "The prophets are interpreters of the God who uses them as instruments to reveal to men that which he wills." In later days this doctrine had been completely mechanized. Athenagoras spoke of God moving the mouths of the prophets as a man might play upon a musical instrument and of the Spirit breathing into them as a flute-player breathes into a flute. Justin Martyr spoke of the divine coming down from heaven and sweeping across the prophets as a plectrum sweeps across a harp or a lute. In the end men came to put it in such a way that the prophets had really no more to do with their message than a musical instrument had to do with the music it played or a pen with the message it wrote. That was over-mechanizing the matter; for even the finest musician is to some extent at the mercy of his instrument and can not produce great music out of a piano in which certain notes are missing or out of tune, and even the finest penman is to some extent at the mercy of his pen. God can not reveal more than men can understand. His revelation comes through the minds and the hearts of men. That is exactly what the writer to the Hebrews saw.

He says that the revelation of God which came through the prophets was in many parts (polumeros, Greek #4181) and in many ways (polutropos, Greek #4187). There are two ideas there.

(i) The revelation of the prophets had a variegated grandeur which made it a tremendous thing. From age to age they had spoken, always fitting their message to the age, never letting it be out of date. At the same time, that revelation was fragmentary and had to be presented in such a way that the limitations of the time would understand. One of the most interesting things is to see how time and again the prophets are characterized by one idea. For instance, Amos is "a cry for social justice." Isaiah had grasped the holiness of God. Hosea, because of his own bitter home experience, had realized the wonder of the forgiving love of God. Each prophet, out of his own experience of life and out of the experience of Israel, had grasped and expressed a fragment of the truth of God. None had grasped the whole round orb of truth; but with Jesus it was different. He was not a fragment of the truth; he was the whole truth. In him God displayed not some part of himself but all of himself.

(ii) The prophets used many methods. They used the method of speech. When speech failed they used the method of dramatic action (Compare 1 Kings 11:29-32; Jeremiah 13:1-9; Jeremiah 27:1-7; Ezekiel 4:1-3; Ezekiel 5:1-4). The prophet had to use human methods to transmit his part of the truth of God. Again, it was different with Jesus. He revealed God by being himself. It was not so much what he said and did that shows us what God is like; it is what he was.

The revelation of the prophets was great and manifold, but it was fragmentary and presented by such methods as they could find to make it effective. The revelation of God in Jesus was complete and was presented in Jesus himself. In a word, the prophets were the friends of God; but Jesus was the Son. The prophets grasped part of the mind of God; but Jesus was that mind. It is to be noted that it is no part of the purpose of the writer to the Hebrews to belittle the prophets; it is his aim to establish the supremacy of Jesus Christ. He is not saying that there is a break between the Old Testament revelation and that of the New Testament; he is stressing the fact that there is continuity, but continuity that ends in consummation.

The writer to the Hebrews uses two great pictures to describe what Jesus was. He says that he was the apaugasma (Greek #541) of God's glory. Apaugasma (Greek #541) can mean one of two things in Greek. It can mean effulgence, the light which shines forth, or it can mean reflection, the light which is reflected. Here it probably means effulgence. Jesus is the shining of God's glory among men.

He says that he was the charakter (Greek #5481) of God's very essence. In Greek, charakter (Greek #5481) means two things, first, a seal, and, second, the impression that the seal leaves on the wax. The impression has the exact form of the seal. So, when the writer to the Hebrews said that Jesus was the charakter (Greek #5481) of the being of God, he meant that he was the exact image of God. Just as when you look at the impression, you see exactly what the seal which made it is like, so when you look at Jesus you see exactly what God is like.

C. J. Vaughan has pointed out that this passage tells us six great things about Jesus:

(i) The original glory of God belongs to him. Here is a wonderful thought. Jesus is God's glory; therefore, we see with amazing clarity that the glory of God consists not in crushing men and reducing them to abject servitude, but in serving them and loving them and in the end dying for them. It is not the glory of shattering power but the glory of suffering love.

(ii) The destined empire belongs to Jesus. The New Testament writers never doubted his ultimate triumph. Think of it. They were thinking of a Galilaean carpenter who was crucified as a criminal on a cross on a hill outside the city of Jerusalem. They themselves faced savage persecution and were the humblest of people. As Sir William Watson said of them,

"So to the wild wolf Hate were sacrificed

The panting, huddled flock, whose crime was Christ."

And yet they never doubted the eventual victory. They were quite certain that God's love was backed by his power and that in the end the kingdoms of the world would be the kingdoms of the Lord and of his Christ.

(iii) The creative action belongs to Jesus. The early Church held that the Son had been God's agent in creation, that in some way God had originally created the world through him. They were filled with the thought that the One who had created the world would also be the One who redeemed it.

(iv) The sustaining power belongs to Jesus. These early Christians had a tremendous grip of the doctrine of providence. They did not think of God as creating the world and then leaving it to itself. Somehow and somewhere they saw a power that was carrying the world and each life on to a destined end. They believed,

"That nothing walks with aimless feet;

That not one life shall be destroy'd.

Or cast as rubbish to the void,

When God hath made the pile complete."

(v) To Jesus belongs the redemptive work. By his sacrifice he paid the price of sin; by his continual presence he liberates from sin.

(vi) To Jesus belongs the mediatorial exaltation. He has taken his place on the right hand of glory; but the tremendous thought of the writer to the Hebrews is that he is there, not as our judge but as one who makes intercession for us so that, when we enter into the presence of God, we go, not to hear his justice prosecute us but his love plead for us.

ABOVE THE ANGELS (Hebrews 1:4-14)

1:4-14 He was the superior to the angels, in proportion as he had received a more excellent rank than they. For to which of the angels did God ever say: "It is my Son that you are; it is I who this day have begotten you"? And again: "I will be to him a Father, and he will be to me a Son." And again, when he brings his honoured one into the world of men, he says: "And let all the angels of God bow down before him." As for the angels, he says: "He who makes his angels winds and his servants a flame of fire." But, as for the Son, he says: "God is your throne for ever and for ever, and the sceptre of righteousness is the sceptre of your kingdom. You have loved justice and hated lawlessness; therefore God has anointed you, even your God, with the oil of exultation above your fellows." And, "You in the beginning, O Lord, laid the foundations of the earth and the heavens are the work of your hands. They shall perish but you remain unalterable. All of them will grow old like a garment, and like a mantle you will fold them up and they will be changed. But you are ever yourself, and your years will not fail." To which of the angels did he ever say: "Sit at my right hand till I make your enemies your footstool"? Are they not all ministering spirits, continually being despatched on service, for the sake of those who are destined to enter into possession of salvation?

In the previous passage the writer was concerned to prove the superiority of Jesus over all the prophets. Now he is concerned to prove his superiority over the angels. That he thinks it worth while to do this proves the place that belief in angels had in the thought of the Jews of his day. At this time it was on the increase. The reason was that men were more and more impressed with what is called the transcendence of God. They felt more and more the distance and the difference between God and man. The result was that they came to think of the angels as intermediaries between God and man. They came to believe that the angels bridged the gulf between God and man; that God spoke to man through the angels and the angels carried the prayers of man into the presence of God. We see this process particularly in one instance. In the Old Testament the law was given directly by God to Moses, without need of intermediary. But in New Testament times the Jews believed that God gave the law first to angels who then passed it on to Moses, direct communication between man and God being unthinkable (compare Acts 7:53; Galatians 3:19).

If we look at some of the basic Jewish beliefs about angels we will see them reappearing in this passage. God lived surrounded by his angelic hosts (Isaiah 6:1-13 ; 1 Kings 22:19). Sometimes the angels are thought of as God's army (Joshua 5:14 ff.). Greek for "angels" is aggeloi (Greek #32) and in Hebrew mal'akim (Hebrew #4397). In both languages the meaning is messenger as well as angel. In fact, messenger is the more common meaning. The angels were really the beings who were the instruments in the bringing of God's word and the working of God's will in the universe of men. They were said to be made of an ethereal fiery substance like blazing light. They were created either on the second or the fifth day of creation. They did not eat or drink and they did not beget children. Sometimes they were believed to be immortal, although they could be annihilated by God, but there was another belief about their existence as we shall see. Some of them, the seraphim (Hebrew #8314), the cherubim (see keruwb - Hebrew #3742) and the ofanim (Hebrew #212) (-im is the plural ending of Hebrew nouns) were always around the throne of God. They were thought of as having more knowledge than men, especially of the future, but they did not possess that knowledge by right but rather because of "what they had heard behind the curtain." They were thought of as the kind of entourage, the familia, of God. They were thought of as God's senate; God did nothing without consulting them. For instance, when God said: "Let us make man" (Genesis 1:26), it was to the angel senate that he was speaking. Often the angels remonstrated with God and laid objections to his purposes. In particular, they objected to the creation of man and at that time troops of them were annihilated; and they objected to the giving of the law and attacked Moses on his way up Mount Sinai. This was because they were jealous and did not wish to share any of their place or prerogatives with any other creature.

There were millions and millions of angels. It was not till quite late that the Jews assigned names to them. There were, in particular, the seven angels of the presence, who were the archangels. Of these the principal ones were Raphael, Uriel, Phanuel, Gabriel, the angel who brought God's messages to men, and Michael, the angel who presided over the destinies of Israel. The angels had many duties. They brought God's messages to men. In that case they delivered their message and vanished ( 13:20). They intervened for God in the events of history (2 Kings 19:35-36). There were two hundred angels who controlled the movements of the stars and kept them in their courses. There was an angel who controlled the never-ending succession of the years and months and days. There was an angel, a mighty prince, who was over the sea. There were angels of the frost, the dew, the rain, the snow, the hail, the thunder and the lightning. There were angels who were wardens of hell and torturers of the damned. There were recording angels who wrote down every single word which every man spoke. There were destroying angels and angels of punishment. There was Satan, the prosecuting angel, who on every day except the Day of Atonement continuously brought charges against men before God. There was the angel of death who went out only at God's bidding and who impartially delivered his summons to good and evil alike. Every nation had its guardian angel who had the prostasia, the presidency over it. Every individual had his guardian angel. Even little children had their angels (Matthew 18:10). So many were the angels that the Rabbis could even say: "Every blade of grass has its angel."

There was one special belief, held only by some, which is indirectly referred to in this passage which we are studying. The common belief was that the angels were immortal; but there were some who believed that they lived only one day. There was a belief in some rabbinic schools that "every day God creates a new company of angels who utter a song before him and are gone." "The angels are renewed every morning and after they have praised God they return to the stream of fire from whence they came." 4 Ezra 8:21 speaks of the God "before whom the heavenly host stand in terror and at thy word change to wind and fire." A rabbinic homily makes one of the angels say: "God changes us every hour . Sometimes he makes us fire, at other times wind." That is what the writer to the Hebrews means when he talks of God making his angels wind and fire.

With this vast angelology there was a very real danger that the angels would come, in men's belief, to intervene between God and them. It was necessary to show that the Son was greater far than they and that he who knew the Son needed no angel to be his intermediary with God. The writer to the Hebrews does it by choosing what are for him a series of proof texts in which the Son is given a higher place than was ever given to any angel. The texts he quotes are: Psalms 2:7; 2 Samuel 7:14; Psalms 97:7 or Deuteronomy 32:43; Psalms 104:4; Psalms 45:7-8; Psalms 102:26-27; Psalms 110:1. Some of these texts differ from the versions we know because the writer to the Hebrews was quoting from the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament, which is not always the same as the original Hebrew from which our versions are translated. Some of the proof texts he chooses seem very strange. For instance, 2 Samuel 7:14 is in the original a simple reference to Solomon and has nothing to do with the Son or the Messiah. Psalms 102:26-27 is a reference to God and not to the Son. But whenever the early Christians found a text with the word son or the word Lord they considered themselves quite entitled to take it out of its context and to apply it to Jesus.

There was one danger which the writer to the Hebrews wished at all costs to avoid. The doctrine of angels is a lovely thing; but it has one danger. It introduces a series of beings other than Jesus through whom man makes approach to God. In Christianity there is no need for anyone else in between. Because of Jesus and what he did we have direct access to God. As Tennyson had it:

"Speak to him thou for he hears, and Spirit with

spirit can meet--

Closer is he than breathing, and nearer than

hands and feet."

The writer to the Hebrews lays down the great truth that we need no man or supernatural being to bring us into the presence of God. Jesus Christ has broken every barrier down and opened a direct way for us to God.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

 


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Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Hebrews 1:4". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". http://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dsb/hebrews-1.html. 1956-1959.


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Tuesday, July 25th, 2017
the Week of Proper 11 / Ordinary 16
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