Part I: Overview
Introduction: As we noted last week, the early New Testament Christians read Hebrews as a letter from the apostle Paul. Strictly speaking, however, the writer of the book of Hebrews appears to be anonymous. Speculation has given rise to at least 13 possible authorial candidates, such as Luke, Barnabas, Jude, Stephen, Priscilla and Aquila, Apollos, or even Mary, the mother of Jesus. What we safely can infer about the authorship from the epistle itself are four facts:
First, the author must have been well educated. Hebrews has, by far, the best Greek of the New Testament.
Second, the author was acquainted with Jewish methods of interpreting Scripture, such as gezerah shavah (argument by analogy), and other such techniques.
Third, the author is steeped in the Jewish Scriptures. Hebrews has the most extensive use of Old Testament quotes.
Fourth the author knew Timothy (Heb. 13:23). All of these facts speak in favor of, rather than against, Pauline authorship. Certainly, the author chose to remain anonymous for undisclosed reasons. His anonymity may even suggest that his message is more important than his identity. At the same time, we would be remiss if we failed to acknowledge that Ellen G. White attests to Pauline authorship of the book of Hebrews. Moving forward in faith in that divine disclosure, we shall refer throughout the lessons with confidence to the author as Paul.
Lesson Themes: The week’s lesson emphasizes two themes. The first one is Christ our King, and the second is Christ our Mediator.
Part II: Commentary
Christ Our King: The first chapter of Hebrews can be summarized in a short scriptural statement: Christ is “superior to angels” (see Heb. 1:4, NRSV). The second chapter of Hebrews can be summarized in this scriptural statement: Christ has become “lower than the angels” for a little while (see Heb. 2:9). The question we want to pursue in our study is: What makes Jesus superior to the angels and elevates Him to a kingly position?
“God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world” (Heb. 1:1, 2, NASB). Paul wants to tell his audience, and us, that God spoke and still speaks. God spoke in different time periods “long ago,” and He speaks “in these last days.” He speaks to different recipients: the “fathers” and “us.” He speaks through different agents: the “prophets” and the “Son.” God speaks “in many ways.”
What are some of His avenues of communication? God speaks face-to-face with Adam and Eve (Genesis 3). God speaks to Moses from a burning bush, something we call a theophany, a revelation of God (Exod. 3:2–6); to Balaam through a donkey (Num. 22:28); to the boy Samuel, calling him by name (1 Sam. 3:10); to Elijah in a still, small voice (1 Kings 19:12); through a vision to Isaiah in the temple (Isa. 6:1–9); and to Hosea through his family circumstances (Hos. 1:2). All these modes of communication have one thing in common: they are incomplete.
The ultimate and climactic utterance of God is “in these last days,” when He speaks through His “Son.” Not only does God speak through the words of Jesus, but God also speaks through Jesus’ actions and character. God’s revelation is progressive. But the progression is not from true to truer, from mature to more mature. Rather, it is a forward and onward movement in His revelation of Himself to humanity. When speaking through the words and actions of Jesus, God Himself is the speaker.
Immediately following the mention of the Son, Paul makes seven affirmations about the Son (Heb. 1:2–4) that elevate Him far above any angel. First, Christ is “appointed heir of all things” (Heb. 1:2). If He is the prime Heir, His followers shall be coheirs with Him and are “those who are to inherit salvation” (Heb. 1:14, NRSV). Drawing on the theme of inheritance, the early Christians affirmed that Christ, through His resurrection and exaltation, was given a heavenly inheritance that His followers share. “Those who conquer will inherit these things” (Rev. 21:7, NRSV). By the same token, the Bible affirms that “wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9, 10, NRSV).
Second, Christ was the Father’s Creation Agent “through whom he also created the worlds” (Heb. 1:2, NRSV). Christ, as Heir, is not only the end-time (eschatological) Agent (through whom God speaks in these last days) but also the Creation (protological) Agent. The protological function of the Son points to His eschatological victory. John implicitly corroborates this by saying that “all things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:3, ESV).
Third, Christ “is the reflection of God’s glory” (Heb. 1:3, NRSV). Some Bible versions prefer the translation “the radiance of God’s glory” (NIV; see also ESV). Furthermore, Christ is “the exact imprint of God’s very being” (Heb. 1:3, NRSV). The Greek term translated “exact imprint [character]” implies a mark impressed on an object, especially on coins. Both descriptions of Jesus as God’s “reflection” and as the “exact imprint” make the same point that Jesus is the full and adequate representation of the divine. The two of them share the same “imprint of being.” What Paul conveys here is synonymous with what Jesus testifies: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9, NRSV). There is no better discloser of God than Jesus Christ. If we want to know who God is, we should get acquainted with Jesus.
Fourth, Christ “sustains all things by his powerful word” (Heb. 1:3, NRSV). Christ not only spoke things into existence, but He also sustains things in existence by His powerful Word.
Fifth, Christ “had made purification for sins” (Heb. 1:3, NRSV). He who is the instrument of God’s creative activity also is the instrument of His saving activity by cleansing the repentant from his or her sins. Christ’s self-sacrifice purifies “our conscience from dead works to worship the living God” (Heb. 9:14, NRSV).
Sixth, Christ, after accomplishing His atoning work, “sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Heb. 1:3, NRSV). This seated position is a direct allusion to Psalm 110:1, quoted at the end of the first chapter: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet” (Heb. 1:13, NRSV). Jesus told the Sanhedrin in His trial these very words: “You will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power” (Matt. 26:64, NRSV).
Seventh, Christ has “become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs” (Heb. 1:4, NRSV). How superior is Christ to the angels? This question is answered in the chain of quotations that follow (see Heb. 1:5–14). Christ deserves worship (Heb. 1:6), something the holy angels do not accept (Rev. 19:10; Rev. 22:8, 9). Christ has a throne and a scepter (Heb. 1:8). He has been anointed as King (Heb. 1:9). He created the heavens and the earth (Heb. 1:10), and He sits at the right hand of God (Heb. 1:13). “Christ became superior to the angels,” in this context, points to His enthronement ceremony, as pointed out by the lesson in Sunday’s study.
In summary, what makes Christ superior to angels? God spoke in many and various ways to the fathers in the past; but in these last days, He speaks through the Son, who became Heir of all things, is the Creator of all things, is the reflection and imprint of God’s very being, sustains all things, made purification for sins, and sat down at the right hand of God. Thus, Christ is exalted above, and superior to, the angels, who are ministering spirits in service to those who inherit salvation (Heb. 1:14). Moreover, Christ accepts worship on His throne at the right hand of God. Christ is our King.
Christ Our Mediator: A mediator is a person who stands between two parties to bring a settlement or to establish a relationship. In Judaism, Moses is the primary mediator of the Sinai covenant (Gal. 3:19, 20). In the pastoral epistles, Paul tells us that “for there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5, NKJV). Hebrews contributes to this topic by saying that Jesus “is the mediator of a better covenant” (Heb. 8:6, NRSV) or the “mediator of a new covenant” (Heb. 9:15; Heb. 12:24, NRSV). Two questions beg answers: (1) What is this covenant in Hebrews? (2) Why is the new covenant better?
To the first question: the covenant in Hebrews refers to a binding agreement, a deal between its parties. Paul talks about the first and obsolete covenant (Heb. 8:13) and the second or the better covenant (Heb. 7:22, Heb. 8:6). With the first covenant, God established a system of sacrifices, Levitical priests, and ceremonies (Heb. 5:1–4). However, moral perfection could not be attained through this Levitical priesthood, because it was weak and ineffectual (Heb. 7:11, 18). Why could moral perfection not be attained? Because the blood of bulls and goats could not take away human sins (Heb. 10:4). Why was the first covenant weak and ineffective? Because the priests were mortal and thus finite and would die (Heb. 7:23). Furthermore, the priests needed to sacrifice first for their own sins before they could sacrifice for the sins of the people whom they represented (Heb. 5:3). Thus, the first covenant was faulty and became obsolete with the arrival of Christ’s superior sacrifice and better Priesthood.
To the second question: with the second covenant, God chose no mere mortal priest, but One who lives forever (Heb. 7:24). There were no more bulls and goats offered that never could take away the sins of the people anyway. But Christ offered Himself once for all (Heb. 7:27, Heb. 9:14, Heb. 10:12). Thus, He came to remove sin through His own sacrifice (Heb. 9:26) and to cleanse the conscience from dead works (Heb. 9:14). That is the reason that the second covenant is qualitatively superior and that Christ is the Mediator of this superior, new, and better covenant. Christ is our Mediator.
Part III: Life Application
If God spoke in the past but also speaks today, how does He speak to you? How do you discern His voice from other “voices” vying for your attention?
If we are coheirs with Christ of the kingdom of God, how should we evaluate the transitory things of this world?
If Christ sustains all things with His powerful word, how has He sustained you through difficult circumstances?
Listen to the hymn “Jesus Paid It All” (The Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal, no. 184). Pay attention, especially, to the refrain while thinking about what having Christ as our Mediator really means.