“Late In Time Behold Him Come”
Dr. S. Lewis Johnson, Jr. is a Bible teacher at Believers Chapel, Dallas, Texas. In this expository study of Hebrews 1:1-4 he provides us with a glorious Christmas message.
Scripture Reading: Hebrews 1:1-4
There are many unanswered questions about the anonoymous Epistle to the Hebrews, that sublime treatise which has been called by a recent author, “the most extensively developed and logically sustained piece of theological argumentation in the whole of the New Testament.”1 We are not certain about the date of the epistle, the addressees of the epistle, the place of origin of the epistle, nor of its author. The answers of the ancients and the moderns have included the Apostle Paul, Barnabas, Apollos, and even Pricilla, the wife of Aquila.2 Bible teachers of the male gender have sought to be humorous about the last suggestion, often saying, “The letter could not have been written by a woman, because the author says in the last chapter, ‘But I urge you, brethren, bear with this word of exhortation, for I have written to you briefly’ (13:22), and what woman would write ‘briefly’?” One of my seminary students some years ago blasted a hole in this opinion by saying to me after a class in which the matter was brought up, “But, Dr. Johnson, isn’t that just what a woman would do? Would she not write thirteen chapters and then say that she had written ‘briefly’?” The reasoning seemed cogent to me!
However, we do have a statement from the author that eliminates feminine authorship. For those unimpressed with the above arguments, and I presume all of my readers are, it will be profitable to turn to 11:32, where the author writes, “And what more shall I say? For time will fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets.” The Greek participle, translated by the words, “if I tell,” and which modifies the pronoun, “me,” is masculine in gender. Thus, while we still do not know the author of the letter, we do know that he was not a woman.
On the other hand, while the authorship of the letter is in doubt, there is no doubt at all that in the letter we have the authentic voice of God. In fact, that may be one of the reasons why the Holy Spirit guided the author in his omission of his name. It was thought desirous to leave upon the reader’s mind a strong conviction that in these last days it is God who has spoken in His Son (cf. 1:2). That is enhanced by the statement in 12:25, in which stress upon the voice of God in His Word is found again, “See to it that you do not refuse Him who is speaking.” And, finally, when one remembers that in this great letter, in which the Scriptures of the Old Covenant are cited so often, there is no mention of the names of human authors, as is customary in Paul and other New Testament authors, then the conviction steals over one that the author wished to let us know most strongly that, when we listen to his words, we are listening to the Lord God.
Many years ago the well-known Bible teacher, Arthur T. Pierson, made the striking suggestion that perhaps the subject of our Lord’s discourse on the Emmaus Road (cf. Luke 24) was that which is now contained in the Letter to the Hebrews. There is, of course, no support for this, but the two discourses are, no doubt, of similar eloquence.
The letter itself is marvelously relevant to a church that is living in Standstillsville. Contented and smug in the possession of salvation, such a church knows little of the heavenly life that He came to bring. Lulled into a comfortable, but crippling, slumber by the drives of the flesh, the power of the world, and the strategems of the devil, she needs to know Him better. And what better time to rethink our spiritual conditions and regroup for progress than the Christmas season, when we are reminded so often of the source of all spiritual life, the Lord Jesus Himself? It is He through whom God has spoken, and it is through Him that God would have us listen and learn of our Triune God.
The Final Revelation
The method of revelation (Heb. 1:1). The opening sentence of the epistle is a sonorous rhetorical sentence, worthy of a Scriptural Demosthenes. As one author has put it, “A great thought demanded a great dress.”3 And the thought into which he plunges with such alacrity is a great one, namely, the uniqueness and the finality of the revelation of God in His Son, Jesus Christ. The method is that of contrast, and in the opening verses he contrasts the two great revelations, that in the prophets and that in the Son. That the second is superior to the first is implicity in the elaborate statement of the qualifications of the Son for revealing divine truth. He is the revealer of God par excellence (cf. vv. 3-4).
“In many portions” refers to the revelation that came from the prophets, the priests, and the kings of the Old Testament. The “many ways” refers to the prophecies, the events, the institutions, the dreams, the visions, and the other means by which God spoke in the Old Testament times.
The men of the revelation (Heb. 1:1-2a). God spoke in the prophets, but now He has spoken in such a person as a Son.4 Like the prophets the Son spoke the Word of God, but unlike the prophets He is the Eternal Word who became flesh and spoke in His life and words. The uniqueness of the final revelation is seen in the superiority of the Son to the prophets. None of them was a son; He is in an entirely different category from them. Further, there are many prophets, but only one Son. That which was communicated in parts, sections and fragments can only be imperfect and provisional. Thus, in the Son the partial and the piecemeal became final and complete.
And yet there is a unity in the revelation, for it is God who speaks in both ages.
The prophets were men of one theme in many cases. For example, Amos has been said to be a cry for social justice, while Isaiah is the preacher of the holiness of God. Hosea is the prophet of divine love. Thus, each of the prophets grasped a fragment of the truth of God, but finally there came One who was the epitome of the whole truth, as He affirmed, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no man cometh unto the Father but by me” (cf. John 14:6). It is He who led the Father forth into full revelation (cf. 1:18). The prophets were like men listening to a clock striking in the night. They were always getting nearer to the truth, but they had to wait until it stopped to know where they really were. All the streams of the great river of divine revelation have finally merged in one voice, the voice of many waters (cf. Rev. 1:15), through whom the final truth has come.
The expression, “in His Son,” is without the article in the original text, being literally in Son. The rendering of the English versions, “in His Son,” stresses the identity of the Son, but it is the character of the sphere of the revelation that is important to the author. It is a Sonwise revelation that is the final one. A Son, one possessed of the nature of the Father, is best able to reveal the Father, and it is in such a Son that God has spoken. As Dods says, “A Son who can be characteristically designated a son, carries in Himself the Father’s nature and does not need to be instructed in the purposes which are also and already His own, nor to be officially commissioned and empowered to do what He cannot help doing” (italics mine).5
The Unique Organ Of The Final Revelation
There follow seven facts which elucidate the greatness of the supreme revelation in the Son, and in them we move from His past glory through the incarnation on to the majesty of His exaltation after the successful culmination of His earthly task. These seven facts about the Son illustrate His supremacy over all the categories of created beings, and they underline His ability to effectively and finally reveal the Father.
(1) First, the author says that the Son has been “appointed heir of all things” (1:2). The word “appointed” by virtue of its position in the series of facts that antedate the exaltation of the Son is timeless in force, and refers to His appointment in virtue of His eternal Sonship. The author has Psalm 2:8 in mind, which deduces from the filial relation of the King of Zion to God that universal dominion is the Son’s by inheritance. Sonship and heirship naturally go together. In fact, only members of a family may inherit. Others may receive bequests, but only sons and daughters, or other members of a family, may inherit. Thus, the Son partakes of the nature of the Father and is, thus, His heir to all things. The expression reminds us of the great text in Matthew 11:27, the text that Professor Karl von Hase, professor of church history over a century ago at the University of Jena and, I believe, the great grandfather of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, called, “a meteor from the Johannine sky,” alluding to the similarity of its teaching to that of the Gospel of John. The teaching is also found here.
The entrance upon the inheritance by the Son awaits the future (cf. Heb. 2:8; Rev. 11:15), that is, the second advent of the Messiah.
(2) The second statement, “through whom also He made the world” (1:2), concerns the ages.6 The word aion, rendered by “world” here, refers to all that exists in the world under the conditions of time. The thought of the author is that the Son is the Lord of History, operating and managing the universe throughout its successive time periods (cf. 1 Tim. 1:17). Because He is the Lord of History, He is able to reveal the Father (cf. Mic. 5:2), a work that He performed often in the days of His flesh (cf. Matt 11:13). In this connection Hughes writes, “The implication of this doctrine, here and elsewhere, is the priority of Christ to the whole created order, and therefore his pre-existence and coexistence with the Father. Thus Athanasius explains that ‘when the sacred writers say that “he is before all ages” and that “through him he created the world,” they proclaim the eternal and everlasting being of the Son and thereby designate him as God.’”7
(3) The third statement, “And He is the radiance of His glory” (1:3), looks at the co-essentiality of the Son with the Father. The noun, rendered here by “radiance,” has both an active sense (effulgence, radiance) and a passive sense (reflection) in its usage, but here the active sense is more appropriate. The Son flashes forth, or radiates, the glory of the Father (cf. Col. 1:15; John 1:14, 14:9). The word is a Philonic term, and thus the author is uttering “unborrowed truths” in borrowed terms. The present tense of the verbal form (a participle in the original text) denotes his eternal nature, according to many interpreters.8
(4) The fourth statement, “the exact representation of His nature” (1:3), has been thought to set forth the true personality of the Son, but it more likely refers to the same idea as the preceding expression, but with a different emphasis. In the former it is His deity outwardly expressed, but here it is His deity inwardly expressed. He is the exact replica of the essence of God. Only “a virtuoso in exegetical evasion,” to use a phrase of Denney’s, could hope to avoid the conclusion that the Son possesses the very essence of God.
When our Lord was in the midst of the storm on the Sea of Galilee and was roused by the disciples to still the storm, after seeing the mighty miracle, the Bible says, “And they became very much afraid and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey Him?’” (Mark 4:41). If the author of Hebrews had been in the little boat and had known then what he knew later, he would have replied, “It is no wonder that He stills the storm, for He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature.”
We are inclined in our shallow age to think that the preaching of solid theological doctrine is boring and impractical. Thus, we often hear the words, “We are not to be interested in doctrine, but in life.” How foolish! Why, even that statement is a doctrine, although a very bad one. The knowledge of the supreme glory of the Son is of the greatest ethical significance, for it leads to a trust in Him. One so great not only merits, but also can stand up under the greatest calls upon His provision in life. A dwarfed and elfin theology leads to a stunted faith, while a full-grown and mature theology leads to a broad and resourceful trust that brings glory to God. Finally, it is none other than Benjamin B. Warfield who wrote, “We cannot preach at all without preaching doctrine; and the type of religious life which grows up under our preaching will be determined by the nature of the doctrines we preach.”9
(5) The fifth claim is that He “upholds all things by the word of His power” (1:3). This marks Him out as the Governor of the Universe, or the Lord of Prophecy. The word translated by “upholds” is literally bearing. “Upholds” might imply the passive support of a burden, but the Son is not an Atlas, holding up the dead weight of the world.10 In its usage the word refers to movement, or progress, toward an end, and the present tense intensifies the thought. The sense is that the Lord is bearing the universe along an appointed course; He is its Governor, guiding all things toward the consummation (cf. Rev. 11:15). As Moses sought to bear Israel along under the guidance of God (cf. Num. 11:14, which has the same word in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint), so He leads the universe along to its appointed goal. Thus, He is no arrogant diviner, like a Jean Dixon, nor a groping philosopher, nor a hazy-eyed prophet, but He is the Son, the divine and glorious Governor of the Universe.
(6) The sixth statement, “When He had made purification of sins” (1:3), is very important. The previous revelation concerning the Son has been magnificent but, if one does not know Him as Redeemer, then the other knowledge is futile, for provision must be made for human sin. The word “made” emphasizes that the act of purification has taken place, contributing a note of finality to the description of the Son and His work. The middle voice of the Greek word, a participle in form, also emphasizes the personal interest of our Lord in the work. It may be rendered, when He had BY HIMSELF made a purification of sins. Incidentally, the word rendered by, “purification,” is a priestly word and foreshadows the work of Christ as High Priest, in fact, sets forth the foundation of all priestly activity, the sacrifice for sin. The purification is of sins, not from sins, for the totality of the sin of those for whom He died is in view. It is surprising, but upon first thought only, that our author is not nearly so much interested in what Jesus taught as in what He did.11In this he is in harmony with Paul.
(7) The seventh statement, “He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (1:3), is the climax and looks at the finished character of His work. The important word is the word, “sat down.” The tense, an ingressive aorist, may be translated, He took His seat, and it suggests the formal, solemn act of assuming a position of dignity and authority after sin has been dealt with (cf. 10:11-12; Psa. 110:1). The meaning of the verb anticipates the subject matter of the book, for there is an implied contrast with the Levitical priests, who never sat down, because their work was never finished.
He is, then, the Prophet through whom God has spoken finally and completely, the Priest who has offered the last and sufficient sacrifice, and the King who sits in the authority of enthroned omnipotence, — a transcendent Person who represents the transcendent finality of Christianity. In Him the perfect relationship of God has been established and is maintained. Two characteristic words of the epistle serve to emphasize this. One is the word better, often used by the author in comparing Christianity with other religions and their representative figures (cf. 1:4; 7:19, 22; 8:6; 9:23; 12:24). The other is the word eternal, which is used to characterize the new dispensation. And this word adds something that is very significant. It is not only that Judaism is surpassed by the new age in its truth, but the word eternal stresses the fact that the truth of the new age can never be surpassed. Thus, as Denney says, “It is the eternal, final, perfect form of man’s relation to God; in the strict sense of the term it is incomparable; and it depends for its very being on Christ, and on our faith in what He is and has done for us. It is in this conviction that he speaks of the ‘eternal’ salvation of which Christ is author to all who obey him (59); of the ‘eternal’ redemption which He won by His own blood (912) ; of the ‘eternal’ spirit—the final revelation of divine love —through which He offered Himself without spot to God (914); of the ‘eternal’ inheritance promised to those who hear His voice (915) ; of the ‘eternal’ covenant established in His blood (1320). When we recognise what these expressions mean, we see that for the writer of the epistle Christ has the same absolute significance which He has for Paul.”12
The Supremacy Of The New Revealer
The fourth verse is a transitional one, the author moving on to the consideration of the superiority of the Son to the angels, His enthronement indicating supremacy over the Old Testament mediators of revelation. The participle, “having become,” indicates that the writer is moving in the orbit of the Son’s humanity. As God the Son it is impossible for Him to become. What was proposed in the eternal counsels (cf. v. 2, “appointed”) is realized in His resurrection and ascension. His inheritance of the title of Son is by the Father’s eternal appointment, but He entered into the full experience of it at the resurrection. In that sense, that is, as Mediator He entered into His inheritance of Sonship. And the name Son is a measure of His superiority to angels, who are merely messengers (cf. 1:14).
First of all, speech is the vehicle of fellowship, and God’s speaking to us indicates that He believes we are capable of fellowship, and that He longs to enjoy it with us. And as for the words of God, who can fully explain what they ought to mean to us?
Second, the fact that He has spoken points also the divine initiative in revelation, for He stoops in love to our frailty, darkness, and sin. As the Divine Shepherd He goes out into the wilderness to seek lost sheep; He does not wait for them to return to Him. Our God is a seeking God; otherwise we should all be lost, for there is none that seeketh after Him.
Third, the message that God speaks is a simple unitary one, — the Son, on the cross once in the past, and now on the throne saving to the uttermost those that come unto God by Him. To know Him on the cross means the forgiveness of sins, and to know Him on the throne means the experience of the presence of God in joy, strength, and worship. It is to move from lethargy in life to the vitality of the heavenly life. Oh, may He plant a longing in our hearts to know His message, the Son!
1 Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids, 1977), p. 35.
2 Harnack, the famous German Church historian, is the source of the suggestion that Aguila and Priscilla wrote the epistle, with Priscilla being the primary author. A contemporary female has tried to revive the hopeless suggestion. Cf. Ruth Hoppin, “A Female Author of Scripture,” unpublished lecture given at the Claremont (Calif.) School of Theology, April 2, 1974.
3 William Barclay, The Letter to the Hebrews (Edinburgh, 1957), p. I.
4 Cf. 3:6; 5:8; 7:28.
5 Marcus Dods, “The Espistle to the Hebrews,” The Expositor’s Greek Testament (Grand Rapids, 1961), IV, 249.
6 Hughes, p. 40.
7 Hugh Montefiore, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (New York, 1964), P.34.
8 Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, “The indispensableness of Systematic Theology to the Preacher,” Selected Shorter Writings, -II, ed. by John E. Meeter (Nutley, 1973), P. 286.
9 Brooke Foss Westcott, The Epistle to the Hebrews (London 1892), p. 14.
10 James Moffatt, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Edinburgh, 1924, p. 8.
11 James Denney, Jesus and the Gospel, pp. 40-42.