13 October 2018

God Has Spoken Fully in a Son

Calvary
The epistle to the Hebrews is addressed to a Christian congregation in or near Rome (Hebrews 13:24-25), a church under pressure from outsiders. Some of its members were contemplating a return to local synagogues to avoid persecution (2:15, 10:25-34, 12:4).
      They likely included Jewish believers in Jesus. The Author's purpose was pastoral not theological; it was to encourage believers to remain in the Christian congregation despite persecution (Hebrews 2:1-3, 3:6, 12-14, 4:1, 11-13, 6:1-12, 10:26-31, 10:35-39, 12:3-17, 13:9). A return to the synagogue might provide temporary relief from persecution, but in the end, it meant apostasy.      To accomplish his task, the Author presents a series of comparisons to demonstrate the superiority of the new revelation in Jesus Christ over the incomplete revelation found in the Mosaic legislation. Thus he shows the superiority of the Son; his word, ministry, priesthood and sacrifice over those of the Levitical system. This is not to denigrate God’s past revelation but to emphasize how much the glory of the new surpasses it. What was incomplete and anticipated is now completed and fulfilled in Jesus.
  • (Hebrews 1:1-3) – “In many parts and in many ways of old God spoke to the fathers in the prophets, Upon the last of these days He spoke to us in a Son, Whom he appointed heir of all things, Through whom also he made the ages; Who being an eradiated brightness of the glory and an exact impress of his essence, also bearing up all things by the utterance of his power, Having achieved purification of sins, he sat down on the right hand of the majesty in high places, Having become so much better than the angels, as much as he has inherited a more excellent name than they.”
      The Author lays out his main proposition: the final, full and superior Word of God has been spoken in the Son at the start of the last days. That word marked out the inauguration of the messianic age.
     The Greek sentence begins with two adverbs, polumerōs and polutropōs. Both are compound words based on the adjective polus or “much, many.” Polumerōs combines plus with meros or “part”; polutropōs combines polus and tropos, that is, “manner.” Used together they stress different aspects of God’s past revelation; it was partial (“in many parts”) and given in different “ways.” The latter presumably includes prophecies, visions, dreams and other forms of inspired communication.
     Three contrasts are presented:  first, God spoke “of old” but now has spoken, “upon these last days.”  Second, God spoke to “the fathers” (ancient Israel) but now speaks “to us.” Third, previously God spoke “in the prophets” but now “in a Son.”
     God did speak before but only partially so, here a little, there a little. As true and gracious as the past prophetic words were, they were promissory, preparatory and incomplete; they did not fully reveal what God intended in the end. A more complete word of revelation was needed. As the letter will go on to argue, the old system failed to achieve the purification of sins. The past Word was not incorrect but partial.  It was God’s penultimate Word whereas His ultimate Word has been expressed in His Son.[i]
     “The last days” provides the time key for this new Word. The “last days” began with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Acts 2:17; Galatians 4:4; Ephesians 1:10); his exaltation ushered in the time of fulfillment.
     In the Greek there is no definite article with the word “son”; omitting the article lays stress on the class or status of “son” rather than his individual identity.  The word God now speaks is by means of one who is a son, in contrast to prophets, priests, and angels. A son is in closest relationship to a father and this relationship emphasizes the elevated status of Jesus. As the Author will show in chapter 3, the Son is superior even to Moses. Consequently, the Word spoken in him is vastly superior. His word is not just one among other inspired words but is a word with finality and absolute authority.
     The Son in whom God now speaks is the same one whom He “appointed heir of all things,” an allusion to Psalm 2:8-10. Yahweh promised to give the Son “the nations as an inheritance.” But the Author now expands that original promise to make the Son “heir of all things” (note similarly in Hebrews 2:5-10; the Son is to inherit the “coming world”).
     This son is the eradiated brightness of the glory and the exact impress of God’s very essence. Not only does he hold an elevated position, but he reflects the very glory of God. This is not abstract speculation about the nature of Christ but demonstrates the surpassing greatness of the position he now holds because of his accomplishments and obedience (“having achieved purification of sins, he was appointed heir”).
     The reference to “purification of sins” anticipates the Author’s later discussion of Christ’s superior priesthood and the permanent results of his sacrifice.  As a result, the Son “sat down on the right hand of majesty.” The high priest under the Levitical system entered the sanctuary only on the annual Day of Atonement and never “sat down” or remained in it. In contrast, Jesus entered the true sanctuary “once for all” and “sat down,” which points to the completeness of his priestly act and his exaltation to reign at God’s right hand.
     The Word spoken in the Son is superior to past revelations in two key ways.  First, it is the last and final word in a long sequence of Divine revelations.  Second, the Son himself “is the culmination of divine revelation, ‘the perfecter of our faith’.”[ii]
     The Author’s goal is to exhort believers to hold fast to the vastly superior and complete revelation found in God’s Son. This full and final word surpasses God’s past revelations, whether disclosed by prophets, priests or angels.
     This narrative raises questions about attempts to return to Judaism or to remold the Christian faith into something more akin to a Torah-observant lifestyle.  Since God’s earlier revelation given at Sinai was partial rather than complete, it makes no sense now to regress to what was, in the end, preparatory for the full revelation that has now arrived. The Law given at Sinai was NOT God's final or complete word.
     Only in His Son is God’s final revelation found; not in the regulations of the Torah, animal sacrifices, circumcision, the phases of the moon and other calendrical observations. The Son came to fulfill God’s promises, not to renew the incomplete Levitical system.
     What preceded the Word spoken in the Son was preparatory and promissory, not final.  As Paul put it, the old system constituted “shadow,” but the substance to which it pointed is freely available in Jesus.
     This is the choice Christians face when they contemplate dialing back Christianity into one form of Judaism or another.  Pouring new wine into old wineskins will never produce the desired results. Why chase after shadows when the substance that casts them stands in our midst.

END-NOTES:


[i] Victor Pfitzner, Hebrews (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1997), p. 49.
[ii] Long, p. 13.

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