We are studying Hebrews 1:1-5 along with Matthew 1:1-17 for Sunday, December 6. All thoughts are turning to Advent, including these selections for the International Bible Lessons for Christian Teaching. Our texts present, in effect, two versions of Jesus’s genealogy – both equally genuine, according to catholically orthodox Christian theology, but notoriously difficult to comprehend simultaneously, which partly explains why my notes on Matthew 1:1-17 are in a different post.[*] Some questions on the texts are here. Here are a few notes on the Hebrews text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: Hebrews is famous for being a challenging text, on lots of dimensions. It’s written in “elevated” or “sophisticated” or difficult Greek. It doesn’t have the typical form of a letter, even though in most Bibles it’s called “the letter to the Hebrews.” Why anyone ever called it a letter in the first place is a mystery; maybe on the strength of the entirely general greetings in the last chapter, maybe just because most of the other early Christian literature was letters, and it clearly wasn’t one of the other options (gospels, apostolic adventure stories), and no one wanted to call it “the philosophical and theological argument and exhortation to the Hebrews” because they thought if they did that no one would want to read it.
Sometimes I will get a hand-addressed envelope in the mail, and when I open it, I’ll find a tract explaining some theological point and urging me to take appropriate action, in case I haven’t already. The book of Hebrews could be that kind of letter.
Whoever the author is, and whoever this author was writing it to or for, and whenever the text was written – presumably some time late in the first century CE – the document itself argues strongly for Jesus’s genuine divinity and supremely effective activity, using comparative benchmarks drawn from the history and worship life of ancient Israel. The author presents steadfast faith and faithfulness as the logical and practical responses to this divinity and supremacy. From this, readers have thought that the author might have been addressing Jewish Christians under pressure to return to a more conventional form of Judaism, or Gentile Christians under pressure to convert to Judaism in order to be “real Christians,” or even a community facing some more direct form of persecution.
Whoever they were, they presumably respected the authority of scripture, because the author appeals to that authority frequently.
Our text is the first sentence (yes), followed by the first two bits of scriptural evidence, in the argument.
Hebrews chapter 1 is one of the lectionary readings for the Nativity of the Lord (Christmas Day) EVERY YEAR, and the first sentence also shows up on the 19th Sunday after Pentecost (Year B), so we might have heard it before – especially if we are the kind of people who go to church on Christmas Day, even when it isn’t on a Sunday.
CLOSER READING: Verses 1-4 are a single long sentence in Greek.
Why does that matter? It matters because we think of a sentence as the expression of one complete thought. When a sentence is long and complex, it means the thought is big and complex. The author of Hebrews opens his – or possibly her, people have suggested it – argument with a big, complex thought.
That thought is something like this: God has spoken to “us” in these last days differently and even more authoritatively than God ever spoke to our ancestors before because of speaking in an importantly different Son-ly person who has a precisely described cosmically monumental identity and activity that includes both the appearance and the substance and the cosmic authority of divinity, as in the agency for creation and the activity of sustaining creation, as well as the recently accomplished mission of the purification of sinful humanity, and the now-ongoing participation in the divine majesty, all of which makes him in his presence and his name [that is, that which signifies the reality that is him] enormously superior to and more excellent than angels.
That’s the idea.
Why mention angels? I think we need to remember that angels are messengers. If God wanted to speak to people in ancient times, God might send an angel as a medium of communication (e.g., to Hagar). Or God might send a prophet (e.g., Moses). So if we were first-century people who knew scripture and who had been thinking that God has communicated with people through Jesus, then thinking of Jesus as an angel or a prophet would make sense to us. Angels and prophets would have been our available categories up until now.
The author of Hebrews is saying: no, think a lot bigger than that. Think in effect of God’s very self, with everything you know about God, plus everything you know about sons, plus everything you know about Torah, plus everything you know about purification for sins.
I myself assume the author is talking about Jesus here. That’s not much of a stretch. He will eventually mention “the Lord” in 2:3, and Jesus in 2:9, and I think it will be clear he has been talking about Jesus all along.
[*] Other parts of the explanation include (1) how hard it is for me to read Greek under the best of circumstances, and (2) the book of Hebrews is the worst of circumstances.