10 January 2018Hebrews 1:1-12
“He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” (v. 3)
Psalm: Psalm 46
We don’t know who wrote this letter, but it was clearly written for Christians with a Jewish background. Most likely it was written for some in the first century who were struggling to hold on to this new and radical faith in Jesus the Messiah, in the face of opposition from their communities and families. The very idea that something as good and perfect as the holy law of the Jewish scriptures could be replaced or improved is a strange and offensive idea to those who faithfully held to their traditions. Throughout this letter to the Hebrews, the writer takes examples from the Jewish faith and the Old Testament and shows how these are not simply laid aside, but how the promise of the Messiah was there all along in countless verses in the prophets and psalms. The Messiah fulfils and brings to completion God’s saving work for the whole world, which was begun in the people of Israel. Like Moses giving way to Joshua, the law and the prophets had taken them so far; the Messiah would be taking them forward into the new Promised Land.
The opening four verses of Hebrews stand out as one of the most magnificent statements of the divine nature of Jesus Christ, and also a fine summary for the rest of the letter. It is a reading that is fitting for the most special of occasions and comes in our lectionary on Christmas Day, reflecting God ‘coming down’ to us, incarnate, ‘made flesh’ in the person of Jesus.
The Son is the “reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being”. “Exact imprint” is a bold claim indeed! The Greek word is ‘character’ (exactly as our English word), but in those days it was used commonly to describe a hard metal stamp used to engrave pictures and words onto coins – a perfect impression of what was on the stamp. Over the centuries, with the many different ‘characters’ of a printing press, the word took on a new meaning that was applied to personalities: What ‘type’ of person? What is their ‘character’? But think about what the writer is saying here about Jesus: it isn’t just that a bit of God’s goodness has rubbed off on him, he is the very ‘character’ of God. For centuries, God’s people had seen but sketches and faint rubbings (glorious though they were at times); now here was the real deal. The holy law of Scripture was the beautiful wrapping paper; here was the true gift. The prophets were the railway timetable; now the train has arrived! (I’m grateful to Tom Wright for many of those insights.)
Not even the angels can compare to the Son: the writer places them firmly below Christ in the pecking order (verse 4). In the Christmas story the angels (in all their blazing glory) told the shepherds to go to find the baby wrapped in cloth and lying in a manger. It’s the same idea here: angels may be wonderful messengers from God; but the Messiah is the one we’ve been waiting for, only he can bring God’s salvation and rule over God’s kingdom. The Bible is packed with glorious visions, holy messengers, wonderful words, and all wrapped in the love of God’s promises for the world, but they all point to one who is far above them in every sense.
- How can you stay true to Christian faith while also being deeply respectful of the beautiful traditions of others?
- What are the things today that we are tempted to place above Christ in order of importance? Meditating on passages like this one might help to get things in better perspective.