The first chapter of Hebrews stresses the supremacy of the high priest who now sits at the “right hand of the majesty on high.” First, the eternal sovereignty of God is described (“Your throne, O God, is to times everlasting”), then, the qualifications of the Son for the priesthood are stated (“You loved righteousness and hated lawlessness”).
This leads to the letter’s first exhortation and severe warning. Considering the excellency of the Son’s name and his exalted status, any failure to heed the “word spoken” by God in him will result in horrific consequences.
God and the Son are addressed separately. The purpose is not to engage in metaphysical speculation about the nature of their relationship, but to stress the greatness of Jesus and the supremacy of his position.
- (Hebrews 1:8-14) – “But as to the Son: Your throne, O God, is to times everlasting, and a scepter of equity is the scepter of his kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated lawlessness. For this cause, has God, your God, anointed you with the oil of exultation beyond your partners. And you, by way of beginning, Lord, the earth founded, and the works of your hands are the heavens. They shall perish, but you abide still, and all as a mantle shall be worn out. And as if a robe wilt you fold them up as a mantle, and they shall be changed. But you are the same, and your years shall not fail. But to which of the angels has he ever said: Sit at my right hand until I make your foes your footstool? Are they not all spirits doing public service, for ministry sent forth for the sake of them who are about to inherit salvation?”
Because of his qualifications, God exalted the Son to reign from His throne (“For this cause, God anointed you with the oil of exultation beyond your partners”).
The Greek term rendered “partners” occurs five times in the letter in reference to believers, the very ones for whom Jesus achieved the “purification of sins” – (Hebrews 3:1, 3:14, 6:4, 12:8).
The One who “anointed” the Son is the God who “founded the earth” and the “heavens.” Though the creation itself might “perish,” He “remains forever.” And because the Son inherits His throne, his authority and status are supreme and everlasting.
As for the angels, at no point has God ever said to any angel, no matter how high or powerful he is, “sit at my right hand.” Angels do not rule or function as priests. They are servants “sent forth for the sake of them who are about to inherit salvation,” namely, the church.
The comparison of the Son with the angels now concludes with the first warning of the consequences for failing to heed the “word” unveiled in His Son:
- “For this cause, it behooves us with unwonted firmness to be holding fast to the things that have been heard, lest at any time we drift away. For if the word through angels spoken became firm and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense, how shall we escape if so great a salvation as this we have neglected, which, indeed, having received a beginning of being spoken through the Lord, by them who heard to us was confirmed, God jointly witnessing also both with signs and wonders and manifold mighty works, and with distributions of Holy Spirit, according to his own will?” – (Hebrews 2:1-4).
The concluding paragraph presents two themes repeated in later chapters. First, the need to “hear” the “word” that God speaks in His Son. Second, warnings about the grave danger posed by refusing to obey and honor him – (Hebrews 4:1-11, 6:4-8, 10:26-31, 12:25-26).
Because of the surpassing excellence of Christ’s “word,” it is vital to adhere to it. If disregarding the word of the angels results in severe punishment, how much more so will the refusal to heed his vastly superior word?
The clause, “spoken through angels,” reflects the Jewish tradition that the Law was delivered to Israel by angels. The statement does not disparage them, Moses, or the Torah. Angels may have mediated the Law, but its source was God. It was His “word” regardless of the intermediary used to deliver it, and every transgression will receive a just recompense – (Deuteronomy 33:2, Acts 7:53, Galatians 3:19).
With that being so, how shall disciples of Jesus escape far greater punishment if they now abandon the supreme word? As dangerous as it is to disobey the legal code mediated through angels, how much more serious is that danger when they ignore the superior “word” of Jesus?
NEW vs OLD
The letter argues from the lesser to the greater. Angels are God’s ministers and glorious beings. Moses is God’s anointed servant. The point is the grave danger posed to believers who abandon this superior revelation. Anyone who returns to the old Levitical order risks everlasting destruction.
Some believers addressed by the letter are contemplating going back to the Jewish synagogue to escape persecution. The letter’s goal is to encourage them to cleave to the supreme revelation they now possess in the apostolic tradition.
The rhetorical strategy is to compare this superior revelation with the past ones made “in the prophets”, including Moses, and thus demonstrate the surpassing greatness of the now definitive revelation made in Jesus.
Whether anyone “drifts away” from the Son of God to non-Christian Judaism, another religion, or an irreligious life, he can expect to receive a “much sorer punishment” than any transgressors ever received under the regulations of the Mosaic Law. To whom much is given, much is required.