An Interpretive Key To Hebrews Chapter 1 (Part 1)

The first chapter of the book of Hebrews is often employed by modern day Christian apologists in their effort to defend the orthodox doctrines of the Trinity and the deity of Christ. In their minds, this chapter offers convincing proofs of these doctrines and so is often appealed to as evidence of the same. What I will present in this article is an alternative interpretation to this chapter, which will show the tenuousness of the traditional interpretation. Much of what I will present here has been presented in a few other articles on this blog. Here, I want to bring together what I had previously written with additional material into a single place for easier reference.

Background

Before we look at specific verses I want to give a brief overview of the background of Hebrews. The author of the letter is clearly a Jewish follower of Messiah, but is unnamed. There is plenty of conjecture as to who he was, such as Paul, Barnabas, Apollos, Luke, etc. Since the precise identification of the author is not important to this study I will not go there. He is writing to a specific community of Hebrew believers in Jesus with whom he is personally acquainted, probably living outside of Israel. That both the author and the recipients are Jews is established in v. 1, in which the author states,  “God spoke to the fathers … .” Had he said “my fathers”, that would have designated him a Jew, but not necessarily his readers. Had he said “your fathers”, that would have designated the recipients as Jews, but not necessarily the author. By saying “the fathers” and not giving any further indication, the most natural way to understand it is “our fathers”, and it is so translated in the NIV, ESV, ISV, and the NET. “Fathers” here means ancestors and “the” denotes some specific ancestors. If the ancestors he spoke of were not those of the author or recipients, it seems reasonable to suppose he would have designated them as the “ancestors of the Jews” since God spoke long ago to the ancestors by means of the prophets,” can only be referring to the Israelites, to whom the prophets of old were sent. Since the letter was written in Greek and relies upon the Greek version of the OT, it is likely that the recipients were Jews of the dispersion i.e. living outside of the land of Israel.

Now these Hebrew believers were under great pressure to abandon their faith in Jesus, partly because of persecution (probably from their fellow Jews), partly because of a demotion in their minds of the role of Messiah in the purpose of God for Israel (probably from persuasion by some Jewish sect) and partly because of the delay in the return of Jesus to bring in the manifestation of the kingdom of God. The authors purpose is to encourage them to remain faithful to Jesus, to endure until he returns. His method is to show the superiority of Messiah’s mission and role in God’s plan as compared to the mediatorial role of angels, the role of Moses and the Law,  and the role of the Aaronic priesthood and the sacrifices offered in that system.

Two Interpretive Options

In this passage the author speaks of one who he refers to as ‘the son’ in relation to God. The question before us is this: What does the author mean when he uses this appellation? We have two main options in the interpretation of the designation ‘son of God’ in Hebrews chapter 1 – the Greek metaphysical view and the Hebraic view. Now I know that I harp on this often, but it just is a fact that if we have the wrong presupposition when we approach a text, we will draw the wrong conclusions from the text. Every popular, evangelical commentary that I checked, approaches this text from the presupposition of the metaphysical Christology of the conciliar creeds. These commentaries are rather flagrant in their back-reading into this text the ‘son of God’ set forth in the creeds of the 4th and 5th centuries. These creeds present a metaphysical conception of the son of God and of his relationship to the God whose son he is, based on philosophical categories of ontology and essence. The Gentile church fathers leading up to that time had consciously abandoned the Hebraic foundations of the faith and recast the whole Jesus event in terms of Platonic and Gnostic ideologies, which were then pervasive. These speculative  philosophies produced the ‘son of God’ of the creeds. And so the whole of Christiandom today is heir to this unbiblical, non-Hebraic concept of the Christ, the son of God.

So-called ‘early church fathers’ (ECFs), from the late second century on, began to move increasingly away from the Hebraic roots of the faith and to view the Christ event more and more through the lens of Greek metaphysics. These ECFs had imbibed the spirit of the different Greek philosophical schools in which they had formerly been educated. Having become Christians it was only natural for them to interpret their newfound faith through these systems of thought, which were so ingrained in their minds. The nature of the ‘son of God’ and his relationship to God became the focal point of much philosophical speculation, producing conflicting schools of thought (e.g. Logos, Arian and gnostic christologies), which led eventually to the son of God of the conciliar creeds. These developments were clearly a deviation from the earlier Hebraic understanding of the first generation of Jewish and Greek believers.

One way that the difference between the Hebraic and the Greek mindsest can be seen is in the categories of thought in which the relationship between God and the son of God might be delineated. The Greek metaphysically trained mind thought in categories of essence and nature, while the Hebrew mind thought in categories of status and function. So the ECFs, trained in Greek metaphysics, naturally came to view the relationship between God and his son as one of ontological equivalence, a oneness of substance and essence. Greek metaphysics had already postulated a God who emanates out of his divine substance other divine beings who thus share in his divinity. The earlier Jewish believers understood the relationship to be one of status and function, where the appellation ‘son’ was taken as an analogy. The Greek mind reasoned that if God begets a son then the son must be of the same nature as God i.e the Father to son relationship is literal. But the Jewish mind perceived the Father to son relationship as a metaphor. This is seen in the fact that the nation of Israel itself was designated to be God’s son {Ex. 422-23; Is. 1:2; Deut. 32:6; Mal. 1:6; 2:10}. This father/son relationship was not based on nature or substance but on the fact that the nation was created i.e. brought into existence by God, hence by analogy, God gave birth to the nation. Even individual Israelites could be designated ‘sons of God’ {Hosea 1:10} as well as believers in Jesus in the NT {Gal. 3:26}. Also, in the Hebrew scriptures, other created non-human beings (typically called angels) could be called sons of God {Job 1:6; 38:6-7; Ps. 89:5-7}. In all of these cases there is no connotation of a metaphysical relationship. In fact, there is not any use of the appellation ‘son of God’ in the OT that has a metaphysical association to it. But even more pertinent to Hebrews 1 is another individual in the Hebrew Bible, who is designated to be God’s son – the Davidic king, Yahweh’s anointed one.

The Interpretive Key

The aforementioned early church fathers, so-called, brought their education in Greek metaphysics to bear on the NT scriptures, and simply read into them the categories of substance and nature. This was particularly true of Hebrews chapter 1. It is understandable how they were so easily able to see these Greek concepts in certain passages, since they were, for the most part, ignorant of the Hebraic perspective, and the Greek perspective just was what they were familiar with. But what I am proposing in this article is that the Hebraic perspective should be presumed when reading the NT. We should presume that the authors of the NT, all being Jews who were highly familiar with the Hebrew scriptures and all being, most likely, unappreciative of Greek metaphysics, would have been setting forth the relationship between God and his son in the same categories of status and function as we saw in the Hebrew Bible’s use of the appellation ‘son of God’. This would mean that the author of Hebrews speaks of the ‘son’ in a metaphorical sense, rather than a literal sense. Why should it be presumed that this Hebrew author was using categories of Greek metaphysics? Well we know why it has been and still is presumed – because that is how the ECFs understood it, and these ECFs have been endowed with a sort of sacrosanct status. But the reason these ECFs understood it the way they did had more to do with their former education in the Greek philosophical schools than it did with their proficiency in biblical exegesis. But what if we take off the glasses of the ECFs metaphysical model and read this passage from the Hebraic viewpoint? Does the passage cohere in this case? I believe it does and even better than the traditional interpretation.

The interpretive key that I am proposing for this passage is that we should understand the appellation ‘son’ as a status which is bestowed upon a person, specifically a descendant of David, to function as the ruler over God’s kingdom on God’s behalf, according to the OT precedent.

Son of God = Son of David

The main thrust of Hebrews 1 is that this one who is designated as son is superior in rank and assumed function than any angel1. The author shows this by presenting a series of OT passages where the status of this son is shown to be greater than that of angels. He also notes what scripture does not say with regard to angels. Before I do a verse by verse exegesis of the passage I want to show how the OT passages the author uses to establish his point, in their original context, all refer to Yahwheh’s anointed one, the Davidic king. The passages are Ps. 2:7 and 1 Chron. 17:13 (quoted in v. 5); Ps. 45:6-7 (quoted in vv. 8-9) and Ps 110:1 (quoted in v. 13). Also in v. 6 there is an allusion to Ps. 89:27.

Psalm 2:7

“I will proclaim the decree of Yahweh: He said to me, ‘You are my son, today I have brought you forth.’

This is an oft quoted passage by the ECFs, who saw in it the Greek metaphysical concept of emanation. They applied this verse to their theory that the son was generated or emanated out from the Father’s substance before the worlds were made, despite the fact that the verse says nothing of the sort. Let’s see what some orthodox trinitarian sources say about this passage. First, in the introductory comments to Ps. 2 and in the comment on v. 7, the 1985 NIV Study Bible says:

A royal psalm, it was originally composed for the coronation of Davidic kings, in light of God’s covenant with David.

2:7 Son . . . Father. In the ancient Near East the relationship between a great king and one of his subject kings, who ruled by his authority and owed him allegiance, was expressed not only by the words “lord” and “servant” but also by “father’ and “son.” The Davidic king was the Lord’s “servant” and his “son” (2 Sa 7:5, 14)

NIV Study Bible

Here is another reputable source:

You are My Son. A parent-child relationship between the gods and the king was common imagery in the ancient world. Such imagery supported the authority of the king and portrayed his role as mediator between the divine realm and the world in which he was to maintain order . . . Kings in David’s genealogical line also held their kingship by divine adoption, celebrated on the coronation day in Ps. 2. The adoption metaphor in Israel was rooted in the special covenant relationship between Yahweh and the Davidic kings . . . [I]n other ancient Near East treaties . . . [t]he great king was designated as “father,” and the vassal king was his “son.” In this way of thinking, the Davidic king was the “son” of the great King, Yahweh, who was the “father”. . .

Zondervan’s Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible
Comment on Ps. 2:7

And still another:

Jahve has declared to Him: בּני אתּה, and that on the definite day on which He has begotten or born him into this relationship of son. The verb ילד unites in itself, like γεννᾶν, the ideas of begetting and bearing; what is intended is an operation of divine power exalted above both, and indeed, since it refers to a setting up (נסך) in the kingship, the begetting into a royal existence, which takes place in and by the act of anointing (משׁח). Whether it be David, or a son of David, or the other David, that is intended, in any case 2 Samuel 7 is to be accounted as the first and oldest proclamation of this decree; for there David, with reference to his own anointing, and at the same time with the promise of everlasting dominion, receives the witness of the eternal sonship to which Jahve has appointed the seed of David in relation to Himself as Father, so that David and his seed can say to Jahve: אבי אתּה, Thou art my Father, Psalm 89:27, as Jahve can to him: בּני אתּה, Thou art My son.

Keil and Delitzsch OT Commentary on Ps. 2:7


The psalm refers to this son in three ways: as the son in vv. 7 and 12; as Yahweh’s anointed one, a common designation for the king in the OT, in v. 2; and as Yahweh’s king in v. 6. From this we can deduce that these titles are interchangeable – the king was the anointed one (Heb. mashiach = messiah) and the son. This relationship was established by God in his covenant promise to David and brings us to the second passage which the author of Hebrews uses to establish his point.

1 Chron. 17:13 (2 Sam. 7:14)

“I will be his father and he will be my son.”

In the context of this passage God sends the prophet Nathan to king David to declare to him the Lord’s promise to establish David’s line to be the only line from which kings would be chosen to rule, in Jerusalem, over God’s kingdom. He promises David that he will raise up from David’s own seed a king to succeed him, which was initially fulfilled in Solomon. It is then that God gives the decree mentioned in Ps. 2, “I will be his father and he will be my son.” We know that Solomon was the first to fulfill the promise based on 1 Chron. 22:9-10 and 28:5-7. These verses clearly mark out Solomon as God’s son, once he is anointed and takes the throne. Let’s see what one of our Trinitarian commentators has to say about this passage.


his father . . . my son. This familial language expresses the relationship God promises to maintain with the descendant(s) of David whom he will establish on David’s throne. It marks him as the one God has chosen and enthroned to rule in his name as the official representative of God’s rule over his people.

1985 NIV Study Bible comment on 2 Sam. 7:14


Now let’s go to the next passage quoted by the author of Hebrews.

Psalm 45:6-7

“Your throne, O God , is forever and ever, and righteousness will be the scepter of your kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions by anointing you with the oil of joy.”

That this psalm is addressed to the king is firmly established in vv. 1-2 which read, “My heart is stirred by a noble theme as I recite my verses for the king . . . You are the most excellent of men . . . “ The title to the psalm refers to it as “a wedding song,” and indeed vv. 10-14 describe the bride. This psalm was probably used on more than one royal wedding occasion. In the psalm, in vv. 2-7, the psalmist paints an idealized portrait of the Davidic king in his majesty. The king, as God’s ultimate representative, is addressed as “God,” but it must be understood as an honorific given to the king in light of his exalted position and not as a statement of the kings ontological nature. This would be similar to when God said to Moses, “See, I have appointed you god (Heb. elohim)to Pharaoh.” There Yahweh designated Moses as elohim in relation to Pharaoh, for Moses was representing God. Therefore, it cannot be objected that the Davidic king could be so designated in relation to the people over whom he reigned as God’s representative. We have a similar case in Ps. 82:6, where human kings2 are designated as elohim“I said, ‘You are gods, you are sons of the Most High.'” Here is what the 1985 NIV Study Bible says about Ps. 45:6:

O God. Possibly the king’s throne is called God’s throne because he is God’s appointed regent. But it is also possible that the king himself is addressed as “god.” The Davidic king, because of his special relationship with God,was called at his enthronement the “son” of God. In this psalm, which praises the king and especially his “splendor and majesty” (v.3), it is not unthinkable that he was called “god” as a title of honor.

Comment on Ps. 45:6


The final passage quoted by the author of Hebrews is Ps. 110:1.

Psalm 110:1

“The declaration of Yahweh to my lord (the king), ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.'”

This is another coronation psalm, which would have been spoken over the newly anointed king. It is the utterance of Yahweh himself (Heb. neum) in which the newly appointed king is invited to share Yahweh’s rule over his kingdom, Israel. To ‘sit at the right hand’ of a great king signified to rule on behalf of that king, so here the Davidic king is given authority to rule on Yahweh’s behalf, with Yahweh’s full support. This was tantamount to the king sharing God’s own throne over His kingdom {see 1 Chron. 29:23}. This language is also seen in Ps. 80:17: “Let your hand be upon the man of your right hand, the son of man whom you have secured for yourself.” Here is what one reputable ‘orthodox’ source says:

1The Lord said unto my Lord] Jehovah’s oracle unto [or touching] my lord! The rendering said (R.V. saith) does not represent the full force of the word ne’um, which is commonly used of solemn Divine utterances (Genesis 2:16, and frequently in the prophets . . .). The Psalmist speaks with the authority of a prophet who is conscious of having received a message from God . . . The message is addressed through the Psalmist to the king, and the king is the subject of it. Strictly speaking the ‘oracle’ is the remainder of the verse ‘sit thou … footstool,’ Psalm 110:2-3 being the Psalmist’s expansion of it; but the whole Psalm is a Divine message of encouragement for the king.

my Lord] The R.V. has rightly dropped the capital letter, as being of the nature of an interpretation. ‘My lord’ (adônî) is the title of respect and reverence used in the O.T. in addressing or speaking of a person of rank and dignity, especially a king.

sit thou at my right hand] The seat at the king’s right hand was the place of honour . . .  But more than mere honour is implied here. This king is to share Jehovah’s throne, to be next to Him in dignity, to be supported by all the force of His authority and power. The idea corresponds to the recognition of the king as Jehovah’s son in Psalm 2:7. Somewhat similarly the king was said to ‘sit on the throne of Jehovah’ (1 Chron. 29:23 . . . )

Cambridge Bible commentary on Ps. 110:1


Finally, let’s look at the allusion to Ps. 89:27 in v. 6.

“I will appoint him my firstborn, the most exalted of the kings of the earth.”

The reference here is to King David, as vv. 19-20 show, but also to David’s descendants, as vv. 28-36 establish, whom Yahweh has appointed as his firstborn son, i.e. the heir of his kingdom.

So we have seen that the passages quoted by the author of Hebrews all point to the ‘son’ being equivalent to the Davidic king. He does bring up one more passage, Ps. 102:25-27, in vv. 10-13, but I do not believe this passage is meant to say anything about the ‘son’ but about the angels, as I will show in my exegesis of the chapter.

Exegesis of Hebrews 1

We come now to the interpretation of Hebrews 1. Based on the information that we saw above, where in seeking to establish for his readers that the son is superior to angels, the author points to four passages directly and one indirectly which all focus on the status and function of the Davidic king. I will be using this as my hermeneutic for this chapter. It must also be noted that these OT passages cited by our author are, in their original context, not specifically or exclusively about the man Jesus. In other words, they are not prophecies about the coming Messiah, but rather are idealized depictions of Yahweh’s anointed one, the Davidic king. So we might say that the man Jesus, being the final and ultimate anointed son of David, who will rule over the kingdom of God forever {see Lk. 1:32-33}, is the only one to fulfill the ideal. I will show how this understanding of Hebrews 1 is completely consistent with a purely human Messiah, i.e. that nothing that the author says about the son in this chapter necessitates that he be divine.

V. 1 – As I stated above in the Background section, this verse establishes for us that both the author and the recipients of the letter were Jews. The adverb polumeros seems to mean many portions, which may refer to time, hence “at various times,” or the like, found in numerous versions. The adverb polutropos means many or various ways and probably refers to the various ways in which God communicated his word, e.g. legal code for religious and civil matters, historical narrative, prophetic utterance, psalms and wisdom literature.

V.2 – Most translations have “His Son” but there is no ‘His’ in the Greek, so this is incorrect. There is also no definite article, so “the Son” would not be correct either. The ISV, NET, and YLT are correct in rendering the Greek as “a son.” Knowing the authors mindset, based on the foregoing analysis, it would be appropriate to think “a chosen son of David,” for as we saw, son of David is equivalent to son of God {ref. Is. 9:6-7}. So the author is saying that in the past God spoke to their forefathers by the prophets but that in these last days he has spoken to them by a chosen son of David. This was ,of course, what the Jews had been waiting and longing for, the messianic hope, that God would raise up from the seed of David a redeemer {see Lk. 1:63-75; Acts 13:22-23}.

This son of David/ son of God has been “appointed heir of all things.” Just as the firstborn son of a family in ancient Israel was the heir to the fathers estate, so the reigning Davidic king was God’s heir to the kingdom. {Ps. 2:8; 89:27; Matt. 21:37-39} The “all things” here refers not to the entire universe but all things that pertain to the kingdom of God. That this son has been “appointed” heir shows that his heirship is not by natural birth, for a natural born son does not need to be appointed heir of his fathers estate, he just is the heir. This shows that his sonship is also by appointment {ref. Ps. 89:27}. This is in keeping with what the author is about to show in citing those four OT passages.

” . . .  through whom He constituted the ages … ” – Most translations say “through whom he made the world” or even “through whom he created the universe.” These are then used to bolster the claim that the ‘son’ was the creator of the material universe. But these translations are unwarranted. There is no reason why the Greek word aion should not be translated, according to the normal usage of the word, as ‘ages.’ The word denotes time not material substance. The word appears 14 other times in Hebrews and always denotes a period of time or ongoing time, with one ambiguous use at 11:3 where ‘ages’ is still probably the best translation. Also the ‘He‘ in this verse refers to God not the ‘son.’ So the verse is not saying that the son created the universe, but that God, through the son, constituted or ordained or established the ages (of time).

Another misconception is that the Father created the universe through the agency (Gr. dia) of the son, which would be more in line with ancient Gnosticism than with biblical theology. Trinitarian apologists are quick to point out that the use of dia  (through) with the genitive pronoun (whom) denotes agency, i.e. it reflects an instrumental connotation. Thus ‘the son’ would be pictured here as the instrument or agent through whom God made the ages, which would imply this son’s existence at the time of the said action. But is this the only way dia used with a genitive can be understood? The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament lists five senses in which we can understand the use of dia with a genitive: spatial, temporal, modal, instrumental and causal. The causal sense denotes the reason why or for which something is done. With this causal sense, possible substitutions for “through” would be ‘in consequence of,’  ‘on account of,’  ‘on the basis of,’  ‘in view of,’ and ‘for the sake of.’  Now what reason would we have to take Heb. 1:2 in a causal, rather than an instrumental sense? Or the better question might be “Why should the instrumental sense be preferred over the causal sense?” Well, the evident reason why a trinitarian or modalist or arian would prefer the instrumental sense is that they already hold as a presupposition that Jesus was a divine person who existed before the creation. But since the author is speaking of a son who is a son of David and therefore purely human and so could not have existed before the creation, but had his beginning in the womb of his mother, we should not assume this son to have personally been an agent in the creation of the world. Therefore, the causal sense makes more sense to me.

The final point pertains to the word “made” or as some versions say “created.” The word is poieo and has a wide semantic range: make, produce, construct, create, prepare, appoint, ordain, to do, accomplish, perform, institute. Now if the trinitarian wants to insist that the word should be taken in the sense of create or make then I will point them to Heb. 3:2, which says, “He (Jesus) was faithful to the one who poiesanti him.” Do they want to say that the word here means made or created? I don’t think so. Some versions translate it here as appointed. Possible renderings for our verse could be appointed, established, ordained, arranged, set up or constituted.

With this understanding the verse could be translated in the following ways:

  • “for whose sake he (God) established the ages”
  • “on account of whom he (God) arranged the ages”
  • “because of whom he (God) set up the ages.”

The idea would be that God, in view of his plan to bring the Messiah (the son) into the world, so arranged the ages of time to best accommodate that plan. This would make Messiah the central focus of history.

V.3 – The author here is not speaking of the eternally begotten Son of the creeds, simply because he is speaking of the ‘son’ as a status or a position, based on the understanding of ‘son of God’ in the Hebrew Bible. This verse then is describing the function which this ‘son’ has in relation to God and God’s people. This status of ‘son’ entails a representative function. The ‘son’, a descendent of David, sitting on the throne of Yahweh {1 Chron. 29:23; 2 Chron. 9:8}, given authority to rule over the kingdom of Yahweh {1 Chron. 28:5-6; 2 Chron. 13:5, 8}, is, in effect, the visible representation of Yahweh’s invisible rule. Yahweh is the true King of Israel {Ps.24:7-10; 48:1-3; Is.33:22; 41:21; 43:15; 44:6; Zeph.3:15} and as such stands in a unique relationship to Israel, that is, Israel is God’s kingdom. The descriptions of God in the Hebrew Scriptures are not ontological or metaphysical or abstract, but concrete and functional. Yahweh is Israel’s King, their Rock, their Fortress, their Redeemer, their Father, their Lord, their Strength, their Shepherd, their Savior, their Mighty One, their Judge, their Comfort, etc. All of these (and more) are descriptions of God’s covenant functions in relation to his people. The ‘son’, who is the visible representation of Yahweh to His people, will also carry out many of these same functions. It is, in fact, God carrying out these functions through His human agent, the son of David.

Now I realize that this interpretation is probably different than anything you have heard, but stay with me as I work through it.

” . . . the one who is the radiance of His (Yahweh’s) majesty . . .” – The Greek for radiance is apaugasma which literally means ‘a shining out from’, that which radiates from a source, e.g. the rays of light from the sun. This is the only occurrence of this word in the NT. The mistake of the ECFs was to take this literally. Some scholars propose that the author of Hebrews is drawing on the personified wisdom motif of the Wisdom of Solomon (WOS) 7:26, where Wisdom is said to be the “apaugasma of eternal light.” They deduce from this that our author is setting forth the ‘son’ in terms of ‘wisdom christology’. But the mere occurrence of the same word is a rather weak argument for deducing a connection of thought. Now it could be that the author was familiar with the verse from WOS and lifted the word apaugasma to use it, but in a completely different context. In the WOS it relates to God’s attribute of wisdom, whereas in Hebrews it relates to the Davidic ‘son’. Now the glory and majesty of the Davidic king, Yahweh’s human agent, is only a shining out from the original source, Yahweh’s majesty as Israel’s king; the glory and majesty of the Davidic king is derivative {ref. Ps. 21:5 and Ps. 96:6}.

” . . . and the representation [or guarantee] of His (Yahweh’s) reality (as Israel’s King) . . . ” – The Greek for representation is charakter which referred to the impression made in clay or wax or metal by a stamping tool, e.g. the image impressed on a coin or a wax seal; hence an image, likeness or representation. Another way we can understand this word is in reference to the signet ring of a king, which bore his mark or signature, as it were. The king would press the engraving on the ring into wax or clay to make his mark on it, thus sealing a document of some type and thus guaranteeing whatever the document says. The ‘son’ i.e. the Davidic king, would be God’s signet ring, the guarantee of His covenantal support of His people {see Haggai 2:23}. This is the only occurrence of this word also in the NT. That this phrase, used of the son, need not entail that the son shares divinity with God, is evident by the use of charakter in a similar way in 1 Clement 33, where it is stated that man is the “express likeness ( Gr. charakter) of his (i.e. God’s) own image.”

The Greek for reality is hupostasis  which has as its primary meaning ‘a standing under, a foundation or base, a support.’ But this word does have a varied semantic range. It is used 19 times in the LXX with various meanings, such as foundation, pillars (support), solid ground, building design (blueprints), and hope (ground for confidence). Hupostasis appears two other times in Hebrews, at 3:14 and 11:1, translated as ‘assurance‘ or ‘confidence’. In Heb. 11:1 it is set in synonymous parallelism to elegchos which denotes a ‘firm conviction’ of unseen realities. It appears twice in 2 Corinthians, at 9:4 and 11:17, where it seems to mean ‘a ground for boasting.’ The word did have among the classic Greek philosophers the meaning of ‘substance’ or ‘existence’ or ‘reality’, but I reiterate that I do not believe the author to be speaking of God in Greek metaphysical terms but rather, in Hebraic fashion, in terms of how God functions in relation to His people.

One idea behind hupostasis seems to be that of a confidence or assurance that one has from standing on a firm and sure foundation, hence it was used to denote a promise or guarantee which engendered such confidence. In this sense God’s hupostasis would be his covenant. It was also used as the title on ancient documents which showed ownership of property. Such a document gave the one whose name it bore assurance that they could take possession of the property, i.e. it was the owner’s ground of assurance and confidence, and his guarantee.

If we were to take hupostasis in the sense of reality it would denote the unseen reality that stands under (and hence supports) that which is seen. In the context of Hebrews 1 it would be speaking of the fact that Yahweh is the reality that stands underneath the Davidic throne. Yahweh is the ultimate King of his kingdom, though unseen, while the ‘son’ is the visible representation of Yahweh’s rule.

With all of the foregoing in mind I offer the following possible interpretive translations of the first part of v. 3:

1.” . . . who is the radiance of Yahweh’s majesty, the imprint of Yahweh’s guaranteed support . . .”

In this sense, the son i.e. the Davidic king, is Yahweh’s signature, as it were, guaranteeing his covenant support of his people

2.” . . . who is the radiance of Yahweh’s majesty, the guarantee of Yahweh’s covenant promises . . .”

This would give the same sense as the first one – the son is the guarantee that Yahweh will fulfill his covenant functions toward his people {see Rom. 15:8}.

3.” . . . who is the radiance of Yahweh’s majesty, the (visible) representation of the (unseen) reality of Yahweh (as Israel’s true King).

In this sense, the son , sitting on the throne of David, is the visible representation of the rule of Yahweh as Israel’s ultimate King. Yahweh ‘stands under’ the Davidic throne as it’s strength and support.


I think the author uses the concepts of God’s ‘majesty’  and His ‘covenant support’ because these ideas epitomize or sum up the many things said in the OT about God’s relationship to Israel. His ‘majesty’ speaks of His righteousness, justice and salvation in connection with His kingship, as in Isaiah 5:16; 30:18; 33:5; 44:23; 46:13; Psalm 89:14-18; 97:1-6. His ‘support‘ sums up many aspects of God’s covenant responsibilities as Israel’ King, such as to be their Rock, Protector, and Defender; their Fortress, Shield, and Refuge. It also speaks of God as Israel’s hope and confidence. Biblical passages which portray God in these terms are too numerous to list, but a few examples are Deut. 33:29; Psalm 18:1-3,16-18,30-36,46-50; 20:1-2; 28:7-9; 46:7; 48:1-3; 115:9; Jer. 14:8; 17:13.

So Yahweh is the true King of Israel and as such performs all these various functions on their behalf. But how does He do this? Through his anointed one, the son of David, the one chosen to rule on His behalf over His kingdom. But this should not be a surprise. All throughout Israel’s history God has performed these functions through his human agents {see Judges 2:16-18; Acts 7:35}. Once God established the line of David to rule over his kingdom it was primarily through the reigning king, this one He called his ‘son‘, that He manifested His theocratic rule over, as well as His protection and care for, His people.

So what the author of Hebrews is telling his readers in this verse is that the ‘son‘ i.e. the one in the line of David, chosen to rule forever over God’s kingdom, is the visible representation of God’s theocratic rule and the agent through whom God performs His covenant responsibilities toward His people.

” . . . bearing the burden of all things by the word of His power . . . ” – The traditional translation of “upholding all things” and the consequent interpretation of the Son holding the material universe together by his word is entirely unwarranted. The Greek word is phero, of which the primary meaning is ‘to carry or bear’ . The idea of ‘upholding’ as in ‘holding together’ does not fit any of the 66 occurrences of this word. I believe the idea here is of the ‘son’ bearing the responsibility laid upon him by God as His representative. This concept is seen in the following passages:

“All things have been committed to me by my Father.”  Matt. 11:27

“For unto us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.”  Isaiah 9:6

“The Father . . . has entrusted all judgment to the son.”  John 5:22

“The Father loves the son and has given all things into his hand.”  John 3:35

The “all things” that the son is bearing refers to all that God has committed to him to carry out, all that He has laid on his shoulders. The orthodox commentators imagine here, based on the orthodox creeds, that the ‘son’ is holding all of the created order together, sustaining and preserving it. This is sheer nonsense and not in accord with the OT portrait of the ‘son.’ The son  carries out his assigned task by the word of God’s power, not his own.

” . . .  having made purification for sin . . . ” – One of the responsibilities laid upon this ‘son’; a burden he gladly bore on our behalf. This purification was made by the sacrifice of himself to God {see Heb. 10:10-14}.

” . . .  he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” – Having become obedient to God even unto death, he was highly exalted and given authority to rule on God’s behalf over His kingdom. This is what it means for this ‘son’ to sit at the right hand of God. This is plain from the use of the expression in the OT:

“Let your hand (of power) be upon the man at your right hand, the son of man whom you have strengthened for yourself.”  Psalm 80:17

“Yahweh says to my lord (the king), ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet. Yahweh will extend your mighty scepter from Zion; rule in the midst of your enemies.”  Psalm 110:1-2

To sit at God’s right hand is equal to sitting on God’s throne, as said of Solomon in 1 Chron. 29:23 and 2 Chron. 9:8. Jesus himself said that he sat down with [his] Father on his throne,” {Rev.3:21}.These are metaphors, not a literal location where Jesus literally sits. These metaphors express the truth that the ‘son’ was given all authority to rule over God’s kingdom with and on behalf of God. Of course this implies the son’s subordination to the one who gave him that authority {see 1 Cor. 15:27}.

V.4 – Here we are told that this ‘son’, this offspring of David chosen to rule for God, became  (could also be translated was made) so much better than the angels . . . “ Now if the ‘son’ was the ‘eternally begotten Son’, co-equal with the Father and creator of the angels, would he not have always been, by nature, better than the angels. Yet the text says that he became such which surely implies there was a time when he was not such.  This is explained further at 2:9 where the author says ” … Jesus, who was made for a little while inferior to angels … “ But if Jesus was eternal Deity walking around in human flesh could he have ever been inferior to angels? The man Jesus, the final and ideal son of David, the one chosen to rule over God’s kingdom forever, was for a time inferior to the angels in that he was mortal, whereas angels are immortal. But after he suffered death for the human race he was crowned with glory and honor and exalted “above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given.” {Eph. 1:21}

Why does the author feel the need to tell his readers that this ‘son’ is better than the angels? Perhaps it is because they had diminished the role of the Davidic ruler in God’s plan and were giving angelic mediators more prominence. Or perhaps they were even thinking of Jesus not as a real man, but as an incarnate angel. The author does lay much stress on the humanity of Jesus in chapter two. If it were the case, as we are made to believe, that all Christians from the very beginning understood Jesus to be God in human flesh, so that the author and recipients of this letter would have held that to be true, why would our author have to tell his readers these things? Would not they have already believed he was greater than angels by virtue of his being God? The whole argument of the author here shows the fallacy of that position. It only makes sense if the author and recipients believe the son to be simply a man. In that case the author might have to convince some of his readers that the son is now been made superior to angels.

The ‘son’ has inherited or obtained a more superior name when compared to the angels. I used to think that the ‘name‘ here was that of ‘son’, but I don’t think that is right. Even angels, in the Hebrew Scriptures, are called ‘sons of God.‘ I have come to see ‘name’ here as signifying fame, renown, or reputation based on one’s rank or authority. As the author says at 3:3Jesus has been accounted worthy of greater honor than Moses . . . ,” so here he is basically saying that Jesus has been accounted worthy of greater distinction than any angel. This reveals one of the errors that the author is writing to combat – that the mediatorial role of angels was more significant than that of the Messiah. If this is true, it shows that these early believers did not hold the belief that Jesus was God incarnate, for if they did they could never have regarded him as inferior in status to angels.

V.5 – Here the author begins his series of OT citations, all focusing on the role and function of the Davidic king, as we saw above. For this reason I categorically reject the interpretation of ECFs who saw in these passages some sort of metaphysical relationship between God and the son. The father/son relationship pictured in these statements is not ontological, i.e. by an actual birth of the son from the Father, nor metaphysical i.e. by an emanation of the son out of the Father’s substance. This relationship is symbolic, i.e. the son of David has the status of sonship bestowed upon him by God, because he is chosen to rule on behalf of God. This privilege was never given to any angel.

This ends part 1; please come back for part 2.

Endnotes

  1. Though the Greek word angelos can refer to either human or non-human supernatural agents, I think it is clear that the author of Hebrews is referring to non-human agents in Chapters 1 and 2 of the book.
  2. Here is an article that presents the case for the ‘gods’ of Ps. 82 being human kings.







Author: Troy Salinger

I am 60 yrs. old. I live with my wife of 37 yrs. in Picayune MS. I have been a believer in the Lord Jesus since August of 1981. I have no formal theological education, but have been an ardent student of Scripture for 41 yrs. I am a biblical Unitarian i.e. I believe the Father is the only true God (John 17:3) and Jesus is His human Son, the Messiah.

2 thoughts on “An Interpretive Key To Hebrews Chapter 1 (Part 1)”

  1. Very informative.
    Understanding the NT from a Hebraic perspective is essential. A pious Israelite would note interpret John 1:1 as the author claiming there is a second God figure, someone else other than the Father. It seems to be ingrained, to this day, in the mind of “westerners” that Son of God has reference to essence or nature.

    I don’t know why it never hit me that one aspect of Heb. 1:1-2 is a contrast between God speaking in the past by prophets, but in these latter days by the king (i.e., a son is especially a descendant of David).

    Your point that all five quotes in Hebrews 1 relate to the Davidic king is important. I appreciated seeing your other translation/interpretive options for these verses. The typical Trinitarian translations “created the world” and “upholds the universe” are so faulty.

    It’s ironic that the use of hypostasis in the NT relates more to “substance, reality”, but the 4th century “fathers” changed it to mean “person/self”!

    “God is your throne” is still a very legitimate translation of 1:8. 🙂
    Thanks again for the hard work and good study.

    Like

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