Sunday, February 28, 2010

Christos angelos? (better than the angels, 1 of 5)

...having become as much better than the angels, as He has inherited a more excellent name than they (Hebrews 1:4)

After having introduced us to the Person and Work of Christ, the author of the epistle to the Hebrews now turns to clarifying the supremacy of Jesus over the angels. From this point in chapter 1 up through chapter 2, the writer presents Christ as "better than" the angels in two ways: as Son of God and as Son of Man. So, in these chapters we see displayed both Christ's divinity and humanity without diminishing the integrity of His Person. Jesus Christ, the eternal Word, the only begotten God, and the firstborn of all creation, discloses to us what would be later termed by St. Athanasius the hypostatic union: the perfect unity of two natures in one Person.

Because of Christ's uniqueness as both fully God and fully human, we are presented with a seeming paradox that we often attempt to resolve by either denying or belittling one part of who Jesus is. For example, we have mentioned before that God is ontologically distinct, that is, different by His nature, from anything else that is. And, since God both exists by Himself eternally and caused everthing else that is to exist, we can consider a categorical distinction to hold between that-which-is-Creator and that-which-is-created. This sounds clean and neat so far: God caused to exists and is distinct by His nature from anything else, including angels, humans, animals, plants, etc. However, if we claim that Jesus is both fully God and fully human, this appears to pose a problem for our simple categorization. How can Jesus simultaneously belong to both that-which-is-Creator and that-which-is-created?

The writer of the epistle to the Hebrews begins to answer this question in the first four verses of chapter 1 by declaring straighforwardly the reality of Jesus' Person, which we have discussed beforehand (see, for example, this post). Throughout the epistle, the author develops a high Christology without ever denying or diminishing Christ's humanity or His deity, thus maintaining a line of thought consistent with the concept of hypostatic union. Still, beyond just declaring the truth of Jesus' nature, the author explicates for us in various ways why Jesus cannot be considered either God or human in the sense of an either/or dichotomy. The first way in which this is achieved is by comparing Jesus to the angels.

There are, I believe, at least two significant reasons for such a comparison. The first is that Scripture reveals of angels that they are personal beings who are different than humans. They are presented as mighty, powerful, and awe-inspiring beings who are often sent by God as messengers to humanity or, perhaps, mediators between God and humanity. The second reason is that Scripture reveals of Christ that He is clearly more than human, as was witnessed and testified by those who knew Him while on the earth both before and after His resurrection from the dead.

So, perhaps our human reasoning may proceed like this: 1) angels appear to be "greater" than human beings, 2) Jesus is also evidently "greater" than humans, as well (after all, He walked on water [Matthew 14:25-26], calmed stormy seas [Mark 4:36-41], was transfigured before Peter, James, and John [Matthew 17:1-2; 2 Peter 1:17-18], raised Lazarus from the dead [John 11:1-44], mystically appeared in in the midst of His disciples after His death and resurrection [Luke 24:33-37], and ascended into heaven in the sight of some of His disciples [Acts 1:6-10]), 3) therefore, Jesus must belong to the angelic realm, since there is only one God. Though this type of reasoning might seem sensible at first glance, the writer of Hebrews stresses that this is neither consistent with the reality of Christ's Person nor consistent with the reality God's Person (who is indeed One, though Three). Reading on in Hebrews we find manifold reasons to uphold the validity of the hypostatic union. At present however, the writer singles out angels in comparison to Christ in order to conclude that Jesus is better because He is the Son of God (Hebrews 1:5), because He is worthy of worship (1:6), because He is the eternal King (1:7-9), and because He is the omnipotent and immutable Creator (1:10-12).

Friday, February 26, 2010

prophet, priest, & king

Throughout the first four verses of Hebrews, the author provides multiple propositions with regard to Christ that rightly portray His nature as both fully human and fully divine. As a result, we see the supremacy of Christ displayed, which will form the basis of comparison between Christ (as Son of God and Son of Man) and the angels, Christ and Moses, Christ and the Levitical priesthood, and so on. So, because of who Jesus is in His Person, we will see that Christ is "better than" in all of these comparisons. Additionally, and intimately related to this point, the writer foreshadows the argumentation to appear later in the epistle by implicitly alluding to the various roles in which Jesus was and is active. Namely, in these four verses we see Christ as prophet, priest, and king. And, as the writer intimates, it is not merely the fact that a single individual operated in each of these three roles that is significant. Rather, because of each part the dual nature of Christ coupled with His absolute and voluntary obedience to the will of the Father, we see the expectations of these roles dramatically fulfilled in who Jesus is/was and what He does/did. Jesus is not merely the last in the line of prophets, the last in the line of priests, and the last in a line of kings; Jesus is in a sense the Prophet, the Priest, and the King to which others pointed but were insufficient in their capacity to effectuate and consummate.
Though the writer does not yet explicitly designate Christ as active in each of these offices, the implication is clear. "God, after He spoke long ago [...] in the prophets [...], in these last days has spoken to us in His Son," the ultimate Prophet who "spoke the things as [His] Father taught Him" (Hebrews 1:1-2; John 8:28). Not as the priests who repeatedly offered sacrifices as a covering for sins, obligated to stand because their work was never fully complete, Jesus is the Priest who conclusively "made purification of sins" and has "sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high" (Hebrews 1:3). Moreover, as the kings of Israel were limited in their reign by physical constraints, Christ the King has been "appointed heir of all things," and "His kingdom will have no end" (1:2; Nicene Creed; see also 2 Peter 1:11).
If such things are so, then we ought to see and realize how much we can trust in Christ, for He is the God Incarnate. Indeed, because of these things, "He is able to save [...] to the uttermost [those] that come unto God by Him" (Hebrews 7:25, KJV).

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

a more excellent name

...having become as much better than the angels, He has inherited a more excellent name than they (Hebrews 1:4)

Before we attend to the final propositions concerning Christ in Hebrews 1:1-4, let us briefly recall what the author has mentioned until this point. By doing so, and by considering all these attributes together, we can see how the author develops a beautiful Christology that is wholly consistent with the Person of Jesus, the Son of God, who "has inherited a more excellent name than [the angels]" (Hebrews 1:4).
First, we encounter the reality of God who initiates a relationship with humankind by an act of divine communication, and we see this in two parts:

God has spoken through the prophets, and
God, in these last days, has spoken through His Son, Jesus

Given the authority of God's speech, and the finality of God's self-revelation through Christ, we are invited and encouraged to consider the Person and work of the eternal Son. And, though we are only beginning to touch, as it were, the hem of His garment, the author of the epistle to the Hebrews introduces the reader to a series of propositions in regard to Christ. Namely,

1. Jesus has been appointed heir over all things,
2. Jesus is He through whom God made the world,
3. Jesus is the radiance of God's glory
and the exact representation of God's nature,
4. Jesus upholds all things by the word of His power,
5. Jesus has made purification of sins, and
6. Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Majesty on high

Finally, and keeping all these in mind, we see yet another attribute of Jesus:

7. Jesus is better than the angels
and has inherited a more excellent name than they

Of this final aspect of Jesus's Person and work, the author will have much to say; indeed, the subsequent portion of Hebrews 1 as well as the entirety of chapter 2 detail the supremacy of Christ over the angels both as the Son of God and the Son of Man. By now, this should be no surprise to us. As mentioned above, Jesus, unlike any of the angels, is Himself divine, as evidenced by His role as Creator and Sustainer, and by His being the exact nature of God. Furthermore, Jesus, unlike any of the angels, is heir over all things, is the only begotten Son of God, is the Savior of humankind, and the Eternal High Priest.
For these reasons it is entirely clear that Jesus is "better than the angels" (1:4). And, because in His Person we see the perfect union of deity and humanity, we can believe with assurance of the exalted Jesus that He has "become as much better than the angels, as He has inherited a more excellent name than they" (1:4). Jesus Christ, the Incarnate God, is able to complete for humankind on behalf of humankind the perfection that we are unable to realize, but so desperately need and desire. Being fully God, He is by nature better than the angels; being fully human, yet perfect in every way, He has become better than the angels.
For us, the humanity of Christ gives immediacy and tangibility to the glorious and unending love of God. In what greater way could an infinite and holy God express the love that He is and holds toward us than by humbly condescending to our lowly state in order to offer us the highest gift, the gift of Himself? God the Son reaches out to us, becoming one of us, so that He might offer Himself as our help, our propitiation, our life, our entrance into the presence of God, our salvation (see 2:14-18; 4:14-16). Therefore, the name of Jesus, the Son of God, is in every way better than that of the angels. And we "who believe in the name of the Son of God," have confidence and "know that [we] have eternal life" in Him (1 John 5:13).

Sunday, February 21, 2010

seated at the right hand of the Father

...When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the majesty on high...(Hebrews 1:3)

Jesus, after dying on the cross for the sins of all humanity and making purification for ours sins, trampled down death by death and rose from the grave so that, ascending into heaven He might be seated at the right hand of the Father. Again turning to the Nicene Creed, we find this confession:

On the third day He rose again
in fulfillment of the Scriptures;
He ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

But, we might ask, why (if at all) does it matter that Jesus is "seated," and why (if at all) does it matter that Jesus is "at the right hand of the Majesty on high" (Hebrews 1:3)? By turning our attention to these facets of Christ's role in redemption, the author of Hebrews introduces us to the significance of both Jesus' heavenly posture and position. To better understand the importance of each of these aspects, we will consider an analogy from God's creation of the universe (and all that is) as well as draw from a portion of the doctrine of the Incarnation that Paul details in his letter to the Philippians.
Recall that when God created "the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them," He rested from His work on the seventh day because it was completed (Genesis 1; Psalm 146:6; Nehemiah 9:6; Acts 4:24; 14:15; Genesis 2:2-3). Similarly, by being "seated" at the right hand of the Father, Christ has entered into a posture of rest because His sacrificial work is complete, having been offered "once for all" (Hebrews 7:27; 9:12; 10:10; 1 Peter 3:8). This posture is significant because it reveals his superiority over the former Levitical priesthood (see, for example, Hebrews 7:23-28). The priests of old were "weak" as a result of their mortality in addition to their own sinfulness. Moreover, the sacrifices offered at their hands only provided a covering, and could not offer absolute purification as does Jesus, since in the ancient sacrifices "there is a reminder of sins year by year" (10:3-4, 11). As a result, the Levitical priests by necessity would first offer sacrifice for their own sins before the sins of the people and, additionally, they offered sacrifices year by year until their own death prevented their work. Furthermore, since their work was never finished, they could never rest from it, but repeatedly offered sacrifices while on the earth.
The writer of Hebrews crucially notes that "Jesus, on the other hand, because He continues forever, holds His priesthood permanently" (7:24). Yet, though Jesus is the eternal High Priest, this does not mean that he repeatedly makes offerings for sin throughout eternity. Rather, Jesus offered Himself once for all time and has rested from His work in that His offering is perfect and complete. So, Jesus has entered into a posture of rest, and is "seated."
Turning to the second aspect, that of position, we read that Jesus is "seated at the right hand of the Majesty on high" (1:3, emphasis added). A typical concern that arises in reaction to this proposition is whether or not it implies Christ's subordination to the Father, the Majesty on High. Yet we must remember to retain the full context of this statement, both in the book of Hebrews as well as in the whole of Scripture. We have already seen that in the first verses of Hebrews the writer directly implies Jesus' deity by delineating His role as Creator, Sustainer, and Savior, and by uniting Christ's nature with the Person of God. Conjoining this with the doctrine of the Incarnation, we know that the Eternal Word who "was with God and was God" became flesh and "emptied Himself, taking the form of a bondservant, being made in the likeness of men" (John 1:1; Philippians 2:7). Paul also testifies that Jesus "humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death" and that "[f]or this reason also, God highly exalted Him" (2:8-9). When we consider these aspects in light of Christ's divinity revealed in Hebrews and elsewhere, we conclude that Jesus has reentered into a position of exaltation that He, by His own nature, possessed eternally, though He chose to take on human flesh both "for our sake and for our salvation" and for the glory of God.
What this suggests for us, who frequently strive in our own strength to merit salvation, is that we can find rest in the One Who has ceased from His work and by His own merit obtained for us "so great a salvation" (Hebrews 2:3). Though we should "[never] grow weary of doing good" and should always be encouraged to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, we must remember that it is God who works in us to will and to work for His good pleasure (Galatians 6:9; 2 Thessalonians 3:13; Philippians 2:12-13). We have no need for fruitless efforts of sacrificing again and again to be cleansed from sin because we can be sure that Jesus, "having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God" (10:12). For us, He is and always will be enough.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

absolute purification

...When He had made purification of sins...(Hebrews 1:3)

Though we will later discuss the reasons as to why Jesus is, from the perspective of His humanity, the sole human capable of inaugurating salvation (cf. Hebrews 2:14-18; 4:14-16; 7:11-28; 9:1-10:14), we find here a statement regarding the reality of Christ's salvific work in the proposition that "[Jesus] had made purification of sins" (Hebrews 1:3). That is, at the time of the author's writing the epistle to the Hebrews, the act of purification was a past event, and one that Jesus Himself had both brought about and carried out to completion. From our point in history, we may also say that Jesus has made purification of sins, implicating that this past action holds even for the present. Thus, it is not surprising that we read elsewhere in Hebrews that Christ perpetually holds the office of the Great High Priest, as He is a "priest forever" (5:6; 6:20; 7:17, 21; see art inserted below).

What the author highlights in verse three with regards to the purification that Jesus made is the absolute and definitive quality that pertains to Christ's offering of Himself as a sacrifice for sin. As will be argued later in the epistle, Jesus Christ has "by one offering perfected for all time those who are sanctified," and, furthermore, "where there is forgiveness of these things, there is no longer any offering for sin" (10:14, 18). What this entails, then, is the singularity of Christ's sacrifice, the completeness of Christ's sacrifice, and the inability for any other imitation to effectuate these aspects in order to consummate humankind by cleansing us from all sin. For those prior to the coming of the Messiah, the provisional sacrifices of animals by obedience to the Law necessarily looked forward to the one time offering of Jesus, since they could not produce the absolute purification that He would as the one truly pure and spotless Lamb. And, for those to come after Jesus' incarnation, death, and resurrection, we conclude that there can no longer be any (additional) offering for sin; Jesus has made purification and there is no longer (nor has there ever been) need outside of Him.

If the Levitical sacrifices were insufficient, why should we declare the all-sufficiency of Christ? This question is, in part, an apparent reason for why the epistle to the Hebrews was written. The author provides the answer to this soteriological question by developing a Christology that is consistent with Jesus' reality (i.e., His Person and Work). The propitiatory sacrifice of Christ offering Himself is perfect and complete because in it God Himself directly cleanses our sins. As we will read in Hebrews, Christ is able to cleanse us from all unrighteousness because in Him we see the perfect union of divinity and humanity. In Him we see true innocence. In Him we see true perfection. In Him we have a sinless and eternal Great High Priest. Therefore, we find a means of obtaining ultimate and eternal resolution for the problem that plagues all of humankind, our desparate need to be cleansed from sin. Knowing these things, we are confident that "if we confess our sin, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9). Jesus lovingly invites us to eat and drink of His body and blood (John 6:35, 51-58), for, the blood of Jesus alone, an offering of Himself by Himself, is able to provide absolute purification. With this in mind, our hearts cannot but overflow with joy, singing in praise to God for the cleansing blood of His Son:

Oh! Precious is the flow
That makes me white as snow;
No other fount I know,
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

Icon of Christ the Great Hight Priest used by permission and is courtesy of Marek Czarnecki at Seraphic Restorations,
(c)MCzarnecki2010. Visit his website at

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

the word of His power

...And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power...(Hebrews 1:3)

As we learned previously, the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews offers a glimpse of the role of Christ in the creation of the universe, revealing Him as the one "through whom [God] made the world" (Hebrews 1:2). In addition, we alluded to other passages, both internal and external to the epistle under discussion, in which we see Christ's role as Creator expounded upon even further. Essentially, all things were created not only through Him, but also for Him and by Him (2:9; John 1:1-3; 1 Corinthians 8:6; Colossians 1:16). Jesus is not merely some means or tool by which God created all that is; Jesus is co-Creator with God, being Himself one Person of the Triune Godhead, all of whom partake of (or share) the same being and substance.
Here in verse 3 the author expands upon Christ's role in creating and relationship to creation by declaring that He "upholds all things by the word of His power" (Hebrews 1:3). So, in the first part of this proposition we see that Jesus is not only active in creatio originans ("originating creation"); He is also active in creatio continuans ("continuing creation"). Jesus Christ is the dynamic Sustainer of the entirety of the created realm. As Paul the Apostle writes, "[Jesus] is before all things, and in Him all things hold together" (Colossians 1:17).
What is unique about the concept that this phrase in Hebrews captures (& other similar passages) in conjunction with the descriptions of the creation in Genesis 1 and John 1:1-3 is the verbal aspect of creation. Not surprisingly, this verbal aspect of the act of creation reveals something of the nature of the agent that is able to bring about such an inimitable type of activity. We are then, more or less, seeking to answer the following: What type of being or person can create and sustain by word alone? In the Scriptures, the only Person that possesses such an attribute is that which is uncreated, and there is only One who is uncreated: God. As a result, we have yet another proposition that undeniably implies the deity of Christ, given the theological context of Old Testament Judaism.
Exactly how God achieves this verbal aspect of creating and sustaining must remain at present a beautiful mystery. Though God has been so gracious to reveal part of His nature by declaring His ability to speak things that are not into existence as if they were, we are humbled to know that such a simple action (from God's perspective) is, in its entirety, incomprehensible for us who are incapable of doing such. Yet, this should by no means discourage us, for God invites us to know and trust in Him who is able to speak and, therefore, create, and to speak and, therefore, sustain. As we fix our gaze upon Jesus, we take comfort in knowing that since He is able to "uphold all things by the word of His power," so He will be able to sustain us to the end.

Friday, February 12, 2010


...And He is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of His nature...(Hebrews 1:3)

As we have read previously, the author of the epistle to the Hebrews deifies Christ by establishing His role in creation and by declaring Him the "radiance of [God's] glory" (Hebrews 1:2-3). Yet, the writer continues to expound the nature of Christ, for conjoined to this latter proposition is one of the most definitive expressions of Jesus' divinity in the entire epistle: Jesus is "the exact representation of [God's] nature" (1:3, NASB). This phrase is rendered into English multiple ways in a variety of translations, each proclaiming the same truth, that Jesus: "is the express image of [God's] person," "is the exact imprint of [God's] nature," "bears the very stamp of [God's] nature," or is "the very image of [God's] substance" (1:3, KJV/NKJV; 1:3, ESV; 1:3, RSV; 1:3, ASV). Interestingly, the differences in wording are reminiscent of the historical development of some important theological terms, terms that saints of old took great care to formulate in order to most accurately represent the relationship(s) between the God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Though the orthodox position traces back to first generation Christians (and, crucially, to Scripture), disagreement concerning the Person of Christ culminated in the fourth century with what is often termed the Arian Controversy/Heresy. Because of the uniqueness of Christ, many were divided (as people still are today) with respect to how to more or less "categorize" Him in terms of ontology. That is, we can make an ontological distinction between God and non-God, between God and God's creation. Within the latter of these categories we can further distinguish between, for example, angelic beings and human beings (among other things). Those who knew Christ on the earth were wholly convinced of His humanity; they had physically "heard," "seen" and "touched" Him (1 John 1:1). Yet they were additionally assured of His simultaneous other-than-humanness. Jesus is the only-begotten Son of God who is better than the angels (cf. John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; 1 John 4:9; Hebrews 1:2-5). A pressing question immediately arose in the early church, one that we do well to consider today: Who is Jesus the Christ?

In the early part of the 4th century A.D., under an attempt to preserve the "unicity of God," Arius brought "trinitarian speculation" to a head, denying the deity of all but the Father (Davis 1983:61). At the Council of Nicaea, Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria (pictured at right) opposed Arius with what would come to be adopted as the biblically affirmed catholic faith in regard to the Person of Christ: Christ shares, and is, the same being as the Father. Eventually, the terms that developed to maintain a proper and biblically-founded Christology were "hypostasis" (cf. Hebrews 1:3) and "being/essence (ousia)" in the East, and "person" and "substance" in the West. Using a modified philosophical term, Athanasius confirmed that Jesus was "one in being (homoousia)" with the Father, and this confession is preserved in the Nicene Creed, which states:

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the Only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
one in Being with the Father

As a result, the orthodox view of the early church affirmed that God exists in three hypostases but one being (ousia), in three Persons but one substance.
Returning to the epistle to the Hebrews, we see its author maintaining the same Christology: Jesus Christ is "the exact representation of [God's] nature," "the exact imprint of [God's] nature," "the very image of [God's] substance" (Hebrews 1:3, NASB, ESV, and ASV). Although we may be tempted to dismiss such discussion as too abstract, we find concrete relevance of this eternal truth in the ability of the Incarnate God to bring about our salvation, as Jesus is He who "made purification for our sins" (1:3).

Davis, L.D. (1983). The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325-787): Their History and Theology. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

radiance of God's glory

...And He is the radiance of God's glory...(Hebrews 1:3)

After declaring that Jesus is He "whom [God] appointed all things, through whom [God] also made the world," the author of Hebrews conjoins yet another attribute of Christ in the proposition that "[Jesus] is the radiance of [God's] glory" (Hebrews 1:3). We do well to ask, "What does this statement claim about the nature of God?" And, "What does this statement claim about the nature of Christ?" Importantly, how can this be said of Jesus, who walked the earth in human flesh, when God alone is uniquely glorious (that is, unique in the glory that He possesses and that radiates from Him)? Not surprisingly, we find yet another attribute that deifies Christ, posing a superficial dilemma to Christian monotheism and its Jewish foundation. Again, we conclude that this is non-contradictory when we consider the New Testament teaching that Jesus, who is a distinct Person from the Father, is as the Nicene Creed affirms "one in being with the Father," and both are God.
Bearing in mind the deity of Christ is fundamental to understanding the attribute that Jesus is the radiance of God's glory. For, in this manner we can truly see the nature of God perfectly manifested in the Person of Christ. Moreover, to this end, an encounter with Christ is the equivalent to encountering the Father. As Jesus said to Philip the apostle, "He who has seen the Me has seen the Father" and also "I am in the Father and the Father is in me" (John 14:9, 11). Philip's initial desire that Jesus "show [them] the Father," evidencing his confusion, should not surprise us, for as John writes, "No one has seen God at any time" (John 1:18a). Yet, Jesus maintains that if we see Him we see the Father, for, being in truth "the only begotten God," Jesus has declared the Father and has made Him known (John 14:9; 1:18b). Similarly, Paul writes of Jesus that "He is the image of the invisible God," and that "in the face of Christ" we see God's glory (Colossians 1:15a; 2 Corinthians 4:6; see also 2 Corinthians 4:4).
In the epistle to the Hebrews, the writer constantly brings to our attention the divine and exalted nature of Christ so that we can be assured of Christ's supremacy, as it is ontologically grounded (that is, it derives from His being). This, in turn, gives substance to our hope in Christ as the one in whom we can trust as the author and perfecter of our faith, and the guarantor of our salvation.