The letter to the Hebrews is addressed to a congregation facing pressure from outsiders. Some members are contemplating withdrawing from the assembly and returning to the local synagogue. The letter presents arguments for why doing so will have catastrophic consequences.
The concern is pastoral, and the purpose is to prevent Christians from leaving the congregation and apostatizing. Repeatedly, the letter urges believers to remain faithful to the teachings of the apostolic tradition.
Faithfulness is the proper response to trials and persecution, and the letter warns of the dire consequences of faithlessness to Jesus – abandoning the church and returning to the synagogue leads inevitably to apostasy – (Hebrews 2:1-4, 6:1-12, 10:22-30).
The letter employs the rhetorical technique called synkrisis. It consists of comparisons that demonstrate the superiority of one thing over another.
For example, Hebrews highlights the superiority of the “Son” over what God did under the former covenant. The purpose is not to denigrate that past revelation, but to emphasize how much the glory of the new surpasses the old. Between each comparison, the letter presents dire warnings against apostasy.
The letter compares the “word” of the Son to that of angels, Moses, and Joshua, his priesthood with the Levitical priests, his one-time sacrifice with the repeated animal sacrifices of the Tabernacle, and the former covenant with the New Covenant.
The previous “words” 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, He speaks “upon these last days.” Second, He spoke to the “fathers,” but now, “to us.” And third, He spoke “in the prophets,” but now, “in a Son.”
As true and gracious as His past disclosures were, they were promissory and incomplete. Thus, a fuller word is 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. With the death and resurrection of Jesus, God’s people have entered a new era and the time of fulfillment has commenced – (Acts 2:17, Galatians 4:4, Ephesians 1:10).
SON, HEIR, PRIEST
God appointed the Son “the heir of all things.” This clause alludes to the second Psalm where 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 is the “heir of all things,” not just the “nations” or the “earth.” And the mention of his “inheritance” echoes the covenant promises to Abraham since Jesus 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.” He 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.
He gained his status as the “high priest forever” through his past accomplishment – “having achieved the purification of sins, he was appointed heir of all things.” This last clause anticipates the letter’s later discussions about his priesthood, covenant, and sacrifice.
Jesus “sat down on the right hand of majesty.” While this applies to his royal reign, more importantly, it refers to his priestly role and activities, especially his entrance into the “Holy of Holies” on behalf of his people.
The term “sitting down” contrasts HIS priestly 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. The Aaronic high priest never sat down in the inner sanctum, but Jesus did exactly that, only in the greater and true Tabernacle. His act demonstrates the completeness of his sacrifice – (Hebrews 7:26-27, 10:11-12).
Jesus entered the heavenly sanctuary “once for all” through his one-time sacrifice, and thereby he obtained everlasting redemption for his people. And stressing that he “sat down” indicates the permanence of his elevated position.
MORE EXCELLENT NAME
And he “became so much better than the angels,” having advanced beyond them by inheriting “a more excellent name.” And in this context, the “more excellent name” is “Son.”
The “word spoken in a son” is superior to past revelations in two ways. First, it is the last word in a long series of revelations (“Upon these last days”). Second, it is the culmination of all that preceded him, the “perfecter of our faith” – (Hebrews 12:1-2).
The letter argues from lesser to greater. Angels are God’s ministers. Moses was His anointed servant. But the sonly word is vastly superior to any previous message whether mediated by angels, prophets, or the great Lawgiver himself. Rejecting it results in even greater punishment than disobedience to the Mosaic law.
Thus, for the persecuted believer, returning to the earlier but partial revelation is not an option, and doing so will result in disaster.
In summary, the epistle compares the “word spoken in a son” with the past but partial revelations made through prophets, angels, priests, and even Moses. In this way, it demonstrates the surpassing greatness of the final revelation of God provided in His Son, Jesus of Nazareth.