Through a series of comparisons, Hebrews presents the supremacy of the Son over all his predecessors.
The letter to the Hebrews was sent to a congregation that was facing pressure from outsiders and the possibility of persecution, and therefore, some members were contemplating withdrawing from the assembly to return to the synagogue. The letter presents arguments why doing so will have catastrophic consequences for the individual believer.
The concern of the epistle is pastoral, and its purpose is to prevent Christians from leaving the congregation. Repeatedly, it urges believers to remain faithful to the teachings they had received from Jesus and the apostles. Faithfulness is the proper response to persecution, and it warns of the dire consequences of faithlessness to Jesus. To abandon the church for the synagogue amounts to apostasy – (Hebrews 2:1-4, 6:1-12, 10:22-30).
The letter employs a rhetorical technique called synkrisis, comparisons designed to demonstrate the superiority of one thing over another. For example, the letter highlights the superiority of the “Son” over what God did under the older but now “obsolete” covenant. The purpose is not to denigrate these past revelations, but to emphasize how much the glory of the new surpasses the old. Between each comparison, the letter presents dire warnings against apostasy.
Hebrews compares the “word” of the Son to that of angels, Moses, and Joshua. And it compares his priesthood with the Levitical priests, his one-time sacrifice with the repeated sacrifices in the Tabernacle, and the old covenant with the New Covenant.
The previous “words” given in the “prophets” were partial (“in many parts”), and delivered by various means (prophecy, visions, dreams). The “word” spoken in the “Son” differs in at least three ways. First, God spoke “of old,” but now “upon these last days.” Second, He spoke to the “fathers,” but now “to us.” And third, previously, He spoke “in the prophets,” but now “in a Son.”
As true and gracious as His past disclosures were, they were promissory, preparatory, and incomplete. Thus, a fuller word of revelation was needed. The past “word” was not incorrect, but partial. In contrast, His complete “word” is now “spoken in a Son.” “Upon the last of these days” provides the time element. As elsewhere, the period known as the “last days” began with the death and resurrection of Jesus. In him, the era of fulfillment commenced – (Acts 2:17, Galatians 4:4, Ephesians 1:10).
The Son in whom God spoke is the one whom He “appointed the heir of all things.” The clause alludes to the second Psalm when Yahweh promised to give His “son” the “nations as an inheritance.” It is one of two messianic Psalms that figure prominently in the epistle:
- (Psalm 2:8) – “Ask of me and let me give nations as your inheritance, and as your possession, the ends of the earth.”
- (Psalm 110:1-4) – “Yahweh said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool… Yahweh has sworn and will not repent, You will be a priest to times everlasting after the order of Melchizedek.”
But Hebrews expands the original promise. The “Son” became the “heir of all things,” not just the “nations” or the “earth.” And the mention of his “inheritance” echoes the covenant promises made to Abraham since the “Son” is the true heir of the patriarch.
And the “Son” is the “eradiated brightness of the glory and the exact impress of His very essence.” Jesus reflects the very glory and likeness of his Father. The point is not metaphysical speculation about his nature, but the surpassing greatness of the position he now holds.
And he gained this exalted status by his past accomplishment; “having achieved the purification of sins, he was appointed heir of all things.” And this last clause anticipates the epistle’s later discussions on his priesthood, covenant, and sacrifice.
The Son “sat down on the right hand of majesty.” The clause refers to his priestly activities, especially his entry into the “Holy of Holies.” “Sitting down” contrasts his act with that of the Levitical high priest who also entered the “Holy of Holies” but only on the annual Day of Atonement, and only for a very brief time. And the latter never “sat down” in the inner sanctuary. The Son’s act of “sitting down” demonstrated the completion of his sacrificial act (Hebrews 7:26-27, 10:11-12).
Jesus entered the heavenly sanctuary “once for all” through his one-time sacrifice, thereby obtaining the everlasting redemption for his people. “Sat down” stresses the permanence of his elevated position. And he “became so much better than the angels,” having advanced beyond them by inheriting “a more excellent name.” And in the literary context, the “more excellent name” is “Son.”
In two ways, the “word spoken in a son” is vastly superior to the past revelations. First, it is the last and the final word in a long sequence of revelations (“Upon these last days”). Second, it is the culmination of all that preceded the “Son,” who is the one who has “perfected our faith” – (Hebrews 12:1-2).
The letter argues from lesser to greater. Angels are God’s ministers. Moses was His anointed servant and lawgiver. But the word “spoken” in Jesus is vastly superior to any older “word,” whether mediated by angels, prophets, or even Moses. Rejecting it results in even greater punishment than disobedience to the Torah. Thus, for persecuted believers, returning to the earlier but partial “word” is not an option.
In summary, the epistle compares the “word spoken in a son” with the past but partial revelations made through prophets, angels, priests, and even the Great Lawgiver, Moses. In this way, it demonstrates the surpassing greatness of the final revelation given by God in His Son, Jesus Christ.
Of immediate relevance for believers are the epistle’s repeated warnings against disobeying Jesus, which leads inexorably to apostasy. Whether one “drifts away” into non-Christian Judaism, another religion entirely, or an irreligious life, one can expect to receive a “much sorer punishment” for abandoning the “Son.” To whom much is given, much is required.