Proclaiming the Deity of Christ to a Jewish Audience
Now let us finally launch into our study of the text of Hebrews.
The book begins by expounding the deity of Christ. It is important for us to be able to reference Hebrews chapter 1 (among other scriptures) in order that we might be equipped to contradict some modern heretical teachings such as those of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons), the Watchtower Society (Jehovah’s Witnesses), and The Church of Christ – Scientist (Christian Science) which hold that Jesus is a created being, and even in the case of Christian Science theology, that Jesus was just a human being.
Chapter 1 of Hebrews contradicts this heresy, and provides a supporting argument based almost totally upon quotations from the Old Testament scriptures, as one might expect from a teaching designed to speak to a Jewish audience. Even today, when witnessing the Gospel to Jewish people, we find that they are unwilling to pay much heed to the scriptures of the New Testament or to the Evangelical preaching of Gentile witnesses until and unless they become convinced of the Gospel truth by reference to the Old Testament. Isaiah 53 – the Messianic prophecy regarding God’s “suffering servant” can be particularly helpful in this regard.
1God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, 2has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; 3who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, [Hebrews 1:1-3 – NKJV]
The writings of the Hebrew prophets were and are held in deep reverence by the Jewish people of Paul’s day, even up to today. The Hebrew people believe as we do that the words written in the Law and the Prophets (the Torah) are God’s very own Word spoken through human authors. We owe a great debt of gratitude to the ancient Hebrew scribes who faithfully and meticulously preserved this written Word of God down through the ages for our benefit. Even today, specially trained Jewish scribes continue the tradition of hand transcription of Torah scrolls. No erasures or corrections are allowed in the highest quality Torah scrolls. The scribe is required to cleanse himself in a ritual bath (מקווה – mikveh) before transcribing the covenant Name of God – יְהֹוָה Yĕhovah – given to Moses by God speaking at the burning bush in Exodus chapter 3.
The author of Hebrews grabs the readers’ attention by reference to the words of the prophets in Verse 1, and then immediately makes the bold declaration in Verse 2 that the incarnation and Gospel preaching of Jesus – God the Son – are on an equal caliber with God’s Word given in the Torah. Verse 2 continues by declaring that Jesus has been appointed as the “…heir of all things…”. Jesus Himself confirmed this immediately prior to His Great Commission on the day of His ascension in Matthew 28…
And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. [Matthew 28:18 – NKJV]
Finally, Verse 2 proclaims that God’s creation of the universe was accomplished through Jesus. The Gospel of John confirms this…
1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. [John 1:1-3 – NKJV]
10He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. [John 1:10 – NKJV]
Although the Old Testament doesn’t mention Jesus by Name, or His role in creation, the triune nature of the Creator God is found right in the first verse of the Bible…
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. [Genesis 1:1 – NKJV]
The Hebrew word translated as God in this verse – אֱלֹהִים ‘elohiym – is one of the plural forms of the Hebrew word for God – אֵל ‘el – and implies more than two. Thus we see a reference to the Holy Trinity right from the beginning of God’s Word. Interestingly, the Hebrew word בָּרָא bara’ translated “created” in this verse is a singular verb. This intentional grammatical error emphasizes the triune nature of God.
Hebrews 1:3 then continues elaborating the characteristics of Jesus – God the Son – equating Him in His glory with God the Father, and calling Jesus the “express image” of the Father’s person. This is a strange phrase unchanged by the translators of the NKJV from the original KJV translation. The Greek word in question is χαρακτήρ charaktērr. Literally, it refers to a tool used for engraving or carving. But figuratively, it refers to an exact copy made with such a tool. I think the ESV and some of the other translations express to us more understandably what the Greek manuscript is trying to say…
He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature… [Hebrew 1:3 – ESV]
Of course, Jesus Himself confirms this. When His disciple, Phillip, asked Jesus to show them the Father, Jesus responded…
Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and yet you have not known Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; so how can you say, ‘Show us the Father?’ [John 14:9 – NKJV]
In fact, it was Jesus’ contention that He is equivalent to the Father that made the Jewish people to whom He had been sent desire to kill Him…
27My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. 28And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. 29My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand. 30I and My Father are one.”31Then the Jews took up stones again to stone Him. 32Jesus answered them, “Many good works I have shown you from My Father. For which of those works do you stone Me?”33The Jews answered Him, saying, “For a good work we do not stone You, but for blasphemy, and because You, being a Man, make Yourself God.” [John 10:27-33 – NKJV]
Hebrews 1:3 continues, declaring that Jesus upholds “all things by the word of His power.” We have already seen that the world was created by and through Jesus. As we know from the account of creation in Genesis 1, this was accomplished by the power of God’s Word. God said “let there be light“, “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters“, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear“, “Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb that yields seed, and the fruit tree that yields fruit according to its kind, whose seed is in itself, on the earth“, etc. The Word of God by which this creation was accomplished is none other than Jesus, as we have already seen. In fact, John the gospel writer calls Jesus “the Word” who “became flesh and dwelt among us.“
Having accomplished creation by the word of His power, Jesus now continually preserves His creation by that same power. Anyone who owns a home can confirm that without continual maintenance it will quickly fall into disorder which, left unchecked will eventually lead to total collapse and decay. Left to themselves, all things tend toward disorder. Yet we see in creation an overall order which remains as it always has. Hebrew 1:3 declares that the energy to maintain the world is provided by the Word of Jesus’ power, just as His Word accomplished the work of creation in the beginning.
Aside – I find it quite amusing when someone says, “I don’t believe in a God who would allow innocent children to suffer.” Or, “A loving God wouldn’t permit war.”, etc. Our God has created the entire universe by merely speaking! He maintains our earthly home in the perfect state to permit our survival by the power of His Word alone. The Bible states that He measures the entire universe between the tip of one of His thumbs and the tip of His pinky finger, and holds all of creation within one of His palms (Isaiah 40:12). Yet, in our arrogance, we would dictate how God should run our world, and like a spoiled child trying to hold its breath until it gets what it wants (or a spoiled adult taking his own life for the same reason), we would “punish” God by withholding our belief and devotion because we disapprove of some aspect of His sovereign will rather than falling on our faces in awe and fear when we catch the faintest glimpse of the power He wields by His Word.
But I digress…
Continuing in Verse 3, we find another complex turn of phrase regarding Jesus’ substitutional atonement for sin. Recall that Hebrews was written for a primarily Jewish audience. Purification rites such as symbolic bathing, animal sacrifice, sprinkling with blood and ashes, etc. had been part and parcel to Jewish religious life since the Law had been given by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai a thousand years or more before. But Jesus has done away with the need for such rituals by His own sacrifice on the cross for the permanent remission once, for all sin in place of the continual system of ritual sacrifice that had to be carried out day-by-day under the Jewish Law. Here in Verse 3 the writer points out this fundamental shift in God’s handling of the sins of mankind. Note that the writer emphasizes that Jesus accomplished this feat “by Himself,” having done away with the need for the Levitical priesthood. Later in Chapter 7, this subject will be taken up in detail. Furthermore, recall Jesus’ final words from the cross quoting Psalm 22:1…
And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” that is, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” [Matthew 27:46 – NKJV]
In order for Jesus to be able to take upon Himself the rightful punishment for our sins, it was necessary for Him to die – that is to be separated from God for the first time in His eternal existence. This was necessary because, as Romans 6:23 makes clear, God’s rightful punishment for sin is death. In fact, death itself came into existence when man first sinned in the garden of Eden in Genesis 3. This obviously raises the vital question – How is it possible for the eternal God in the form of the man, Jesus, to actually die? I have yet to hear a reasonable explanation from anyone, and although I am open to listen to whatever someone might propose to explain it, I am very skeptical about all such explanations. I believe it is simply beyond the ability of mortal man to comprehend. Nevertheless, we can believe that it has been done without knowing exactly how. This is a vital element of the childlike faith Jesus told us is necessary if we are to come to Him to receive the salvation He purchased for us by His death (see Luke 18:17).
Furthermore, when the writer says here that Jesus purified us from sin “by Himself” it also implies that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross alone was sufficient for the cleansing of all sin. Once He gave Himself for us, Jesus did away with the need for any other means of salvation. Nothing else is needed – not the Jewish system of animal sacrifice which the Roman occupiers would soon do away with when they destroyed the temple, not water baptism, not speaking in tongues, not performance of good works, not tithing, not adherence to a specific diet, nor anything else but faith in Christ’s resurrection alone…
8For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, 9not of works, lest anyone should boast. [Ephesians 2:8-9 – NKJV]
The word “purged” we find here in the NKJV translation of Verse 3 is also problematic. The original Greek is a pair of words – ποιέω καθαρισμός poieō katharismos – meaning “made purification.” Indeed, many translations (e.g. the ESV and NASB) render this phrase into English that way. This phrase hearkens back to the Jewish understanding of ritual purification, and would have struck a chord with the Hebrew readers.
Now before we leave Verse 3, and take up the intriguing discussion of Jesus’ relationship to the angels in the remainder of the chapter, I thought it might be fun (if not particularly helpful) to delve into the idea of Jesus having sat down at the right hand of God. Someone asked in one of the Bible studies I attended whether Jesus is standing or sitting in Heaven. Firstly, I think we need to remember that God is Spirit, existing for eternity past, present, and future as the three distinct but inseparable persons of the Trinity – God the Father, Jesus – God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Once we come to full understanding of how this eternal God can even exist as three distinct persons, how one of them could take on the form of a man in the flesh of Jesus Christ, how He being fully God, yet fully man could die on a cross, and how He could then raise Himself from the dead by the power of His own Spirit, we might then be in a position to understand how this Spirit being could either stand or sit at the right hand of Himself. With all that said, though, I thought it might be fun to delve into what the Bible has to say on the subject without actually offering an answer to the question(s). Of course, being at the right hand of a sovereign person is a place of honor. In the Bible, the right hand is also a symbol of strength and power. A quick word search of the NKJV for the phrase “right hand” yields 148 matches. Many of these are included in admonitions for God’s people to turn neither to the right hand nor the left hand of the path that God has placed them upon. The others are references to the place of power and honor at the sovereign’s right side. Of particular interest to us at the moment are a few references to Jesus being that the right hand of God…
The LORD said to my Lord,
“Sit at My right hand,
Till I make Your enemies Your footstool.” [Psalm 110:1 – NKJV]
This Messianic psalm of David is quoted later in Hebrews 1. “The LORD” printed here in all capital letters is the traditional English way of translating God’s covenant name given to Moses at the burning bush in Exodus 3 – יְהֹוָה Yĕhovah. The second occurrence of “Lord” in this verse is a reference to the Messiah – the Lord Jesus – who is directed by God the Father to sit at His right hand until His enemies have been finally subdued. Jesus Himself quoted this verse in Matthew 22:44, Mark 12:36, and Luke 20:42 when reasoning with the Pharisees about the promised Messiah – i.e. Himself. Peter also quotes it in his sermon on the day of Pentecost when 3,000 people were saved (Acts 2).
At His trial before the Sanhedrin, when they asked Jesus directly whether or not He is the promised Messiah (Christ), He answered that indeed He is and then said they would see Him seated at the right hand of the Father…
Jesus said to him, “It is as you said. Nevertheless, I say to you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.” [Matthew 26:64 – NKJV] (See also Mark 14:62 and Luke 22:69)
At his own trial with John before the Sanhedrin, Peter again said that Jesus has been exalted to the right hand of God but didn’t say whether Jesus was standing or sitting. Despite his abject failure to clarify this critical sitting or standing question, though, Peter does manage to touch on some important aspects of Jesus’ lordship…
“Him God has exalted to His right hand to be Prince and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. [Acts 5:31 – NKJV]
Further references to Jesus having been exalted to the right hand of God may be found in Romans 8:34, Ephesians 1:20, Colossians 3:1, Hebrews 1:3 (the verse we are currently studying in case you may have forgotten), Hebrews 1:13, Hebrews 8:1, Hebrews 10:12, Hebrews 12:2, and 1 Peter 3:22. Of these, some of them make no mention of whether Jesus is standing or sitting there. The others specifically state that Jesus is sitting.
In fact, the only mention we find of Jesus standing rather than sitting at God’s right hand was given by Stephen – the first Christian martyr – who reported seeing Jesus in Heaven just before he was stoned to death…
55But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, 56and said, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” [Acts 7:55-56 – NKJV]
Perhaps Jesus had left His seat beside the throne just at the very moment Stephen was being martyred for his testimony, in order to receive His faithful child and servant into His kingdom. Perhaps Jesus does the same for all of us when we die and go to Him.
Next time, we will take up the discussion found in Hebrews 1:4-13 of Jesus’ relationship with the angels.