Originally published in Issue #30 on October 22, 2021
(There is also a podcast version if that works better for you)
The letter/sermon to the Hebrews opens, like any good sermon, with a punch. The first four verses are beautifully constructed and designed to capture the hearer’s attention.
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
— Hebrews 1:1–4 (ESV)
The entirety of verses 1–4 is one long sentence in the Greek, and at its heart is “God has spoken to us by a Son.” Everything else in the Greek is a dependent clause. The author’s main point in his introduction to the book of Hebrews is that the Son is God’s greatest act of communication to mankind, and he will spend the rest of the book of Hebrews explaining that point and all its implications.
Today we’re going to cut this sentence in half and look at the first half of this introduction in verses 1-2a.
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son
Three comparisons dominate, all centered around God’s speaking:
- When did God speak? — Long ago vs. These last days
- Who does God speak through? — The prophets vs. (His / a) Son
- How does God speak? — At different times and in different ways vs. ???
You could add a fourth: “who does God speak to?” But because that question is fairly straightforward, I’m going to skip it.
When Did God Speak?
In the first comparison, we see that we are comparing God’s speech from long ago to his speech “in these last days.”
The comparison is emphasizing that these Christians are living in a different era than their Jewish fathers of old. A new age has dawned because of a Son. How God spoke is not how God speaks any longer. A change has occurred. Now, the author says, we are living in the “last days.”
But we also need to emphasize the continuity between these two eras. God spoke long ago and he has spoken to these new Christians. No matter the era, God spoke.
If I had a nickel for the number of times that I’ve heard another Christian tell me we are living in the last days, I would be a rich man. How then usually mean it, however, is not what the author means. When I hear it, usually Christians mean that end-time prophecy is being fulfilled and the second coming of Christ is near. Without commenting on the truthfulness of that question, these Christians are saying something completely biblical: we are living in the last days. And we have been for two thousand years.
Two thousand years may not sound very “last days” to you, and I sympathize with that. We need a paradigm shift if we’re going to understand what the author means by that phrase.
In Matthew 24, the disciples ask Jesus about signs of the end of the age. Their idea of the end of the age was that God would raise the all of humanity from the dead and establish his kingdom on earth. That is what the disciples thought Jesus was going to accomplish. And he did…and he didn’t, not yet.
The last days point to the fulfillment of Jesus’ work on earth, to bring what has been accomplished in heaven to earth. The era the author of Hebrews is talking about is the last days before the fulfillment of creation (Acts 2:14-21). Jesus will take his place as the true human one who is worthy to rule all of heaven and earth as one united kingdom. More on that next week.
Who Does God Speak Through?
In the former days, God spoke through the prophets, which doesn’t just mean “the prophets” of the Hebrew scriptures. To “prophesy” is to speak God’s words to mankind. Any author who penned an inspired book and those inspired to edit those writings into the Hebrew scriptures we know today would fall under these vessels of divine speech.
But all of this is contrasted very simply with “a Son.” In the Greek, there is no definite article (“the”), so the “his” that is in most translations is an inference. The literal Greek says, “in a Son.”
Why not “the Son?” We all know who the Son is, it must be Jesus. Wouldn’t it make more sense to say, “God spoke to us through the Son,” or even more clearly, “God spoke to us through Jesus”? I think there’s a good reason, but I won’t be able to fully explain myself in this post. So I will start just by explaining what I think the author of Hebrews is doing.
The term “sons of God” isn’t new, and would be intimately familiar to an author who knows his Hebrew Bible so extensively. In Genesis 6:2-4, “sons of God” rebel and take daughters of men as wives. In Deut. 32:8, God divides up the nations and gives them to the “sons of God” to rule. In Job 1:6 and 2:1, “sons of God” arrive in a heavenly council to meet (this is important, for more on this heavenly council see Psalm 82). In Luke 20:36, Jesus tells us that when we are resurrected from the dead and receive the inheritance he earned for us, we will become equal to angels and sons of God. There are other references to Christians being and becoming “sons of God” in the New Testament as well.
I think the author of Hebrews is telling us that a divine being, one of God’s heavenly council (for more on this teaching, see Dr. Michael Heiser's work 📽), is the one through whom God spoke. Both we and the Jewish listeners know the author is talking about Jesus, so what is the author saying? He’s saying that Jesus wasn’t just human. God used to speak through human prophets, but now God’s spoken through a human that is also divine.
Am I or the author of Hebrews saying, like the Jehovah’s witnesses, that Jesus is just another angel? No! The author of Hebrews will spend the rest of this introduction—and next few chapters—showing precisely that this Son is not like the other sons. He is not merely an angel. But at the point we end here, the author is identifying Jesus as a son of God—a divine being in God’s heavenly court.
How Does God Speak?
The Hebrew prophets wrote inspired works over the course of hundreds of years. From David’s poetry to Ezekiel’s revelatory visions to the Chronicler’s history, many ways doesn’t begin to describe the wealth of variety we have in the Hebrew scriptures.
The only part that isn’t paralleled in the Son is the many times and ways that God spoke through the prophets. I think this is intentional. From a literary point of view, it’s a statement of finality. The contrast is clear. To paraphrase, “God spoke through the prophets in lots of ways and at lots of times,” compared with “God spoke through a Son.” The latter has a point of finality and emphasizes the Son. Why? Because the Son is the very speech of God.
I don’t think the author of Hebrews is only talking about the words that Jesus spoke from his human mouth. Every action he took revealed God to us. We know what God is like most clearly by looking at His Son. John wrote, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14) Jesus’ every act of grace, mercy, and judgment reveals the character, priorities, and love of God. Jesus is the fullest and final revelation of God until we see him face to face (1 Cor. 13:12).
This four verse introduction is so tightly packed with power and meaning that I’ve split it into two weeks. Next week we will look at verses 2b–4. Somehow, it’s even richer and more dense with meaning. When we tease it apart though, you’ll be blown away by the truth of these words.