July 12, 2017.
Click here for the class handout.
Part two of our class diving deeper into the background and context of the Hebrew epistle will examine the argument that the Hebrew writer puts forth in the first two chapters: Jesus has been exalted above the angels. At first glance, this may seem strange to us, as I would assume that a common question (at least one that I had) is, “Why would you have to make that point?” We will explore this further as we go along, but as we go along, be thinking about why the Hebrew writer would spend so much time and give so much evidence to make this point clear to his audience.
Before we go on, however, I want to give a short introduction to the book of Hebrews and the outline I have sketched out (subject to change) for this course.
I think Hebrews stands with Romans as one of the most deeply theological epistles in the corpus of the New Testament. Further, aside from possibly the gospel of Matthew, the Hebrew epistle pulls more Old Testament citations (typically thought to have been cited from the Septuagint [LXX], a point that we will return to later) than any other New Testament book. In this class, I want to explore how the Hebrew writer viewed and used Old Testament scripture and how that may give a different perspective of how we should also look at this scripture today. I hope to dig deeper into the mind of the biblical writers and ultimately come to a better understanding of our God through Jesus. Here is the tentative outline (I actually already changed it prior to this post…) that I want to follow for this class:
- Introduction and Pre-test (click here if you missed it!)
- Jesus Superior to the Angels
- Jesus Superior to Moses
- Milk to Meat: Fundamentals to Maturity in Christ
- The Israelite Priest/Sacrifice/Ritual system
- Jesus the great High Priest
- The Old and New Covenants
- Christ’s Fulfilling Sacrifice
- Hall of Faith: Part of a Larger Whole
- Hall of Faith: A Call to Action
- Suffering, Discipline and Character Building
- The Unshakeable Kingdom: Promises and Hope
- Closing Remarks/Conclusions
Again, this is subject to change, especially if certain topics take longer than anticipated (which knowing me, they probably will), but these are the lessons I want to try and tease out of our text. We won’t have time to do a comprehensive study of the entire book, verse by verse, but I think these will give us a deeper understanding of what the author is trying to say.
As an introduction to the book, I will refer to what I have written elsewhere: “The book of Hebrews has often been praised as one of the most beautiful and theological books of the New Testament. The author of the book is unknown, [yet] there have been many suggestions as to who wrote the book, ranging from Barnabas, Luke, or Apollos to even Clement or Priscilla. Paul was traditionally held as the author, but even by the end of the first century Pauline authorship was doubted, and modern scholarship argues very strongly against Paul as being the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews on the basis of stylistic, theological focus and experiential differences than the other letters of Paul. It seems that the audience of the Hebrew writer [was primarily] Jewish Christians, or at least Christians who were very familiar with the Hebrew scriptures, as the author draws heavily from these scriptures, often directly quoting them and pulling out doctrine and teaching that ultimately exalts Christ as the Messiah, our High Priests, who reigns forever. Since the epistle draws heavily from Tabernacle terminology, it is generally believed that the epistle was written c. AD 64-69, before the destruction of the temple in AD 70. Overall, the message to the Hebrews is one that lifts up Christ above all and uses the Hebrew scriptures to show that Christ ultimately fulfills the role of our High Priest, though not in the Levitical [sense], but after the order of Melchizedek (see Hebrews 5-7).”
Building the Context
In effort to keep this study somewhat concise, and to correspond to what we actually talk about in class, I am going to try to roughly follow the handout that I will give in class (Contextual Hebrews_2 for the handout). I would suggest reading the first two chapters of Hebrews to get yourself oriented to what we are going to be talking about before you go on. Don’t worry about understanding everything that the author is saying, just get a general sense of his argument, that Jesus is superior to the angels. Before we get into the nuances of the argument, I think it is important to set the context of his arguments.
We are going to go over each quotation from the Old Testament to examine the context and the narrative they follow, but first, we should understand a little bit about the second temple period context in which the author produces the letter. The “second temple period” (sometimes referred to as second temple Judaism, etc.) is a phrase that scholars use to describe a time period in Jewish history, c. 530 BC to 70 AD, in which the second temple (as opposed to the first temple built by Solomon) was constructed, as described in Ezra, Haggai and Zechariah. At the beginning of this period, some exiles of Judah who had been taken captive by Babylon and were then under Persian rule were allowed to return to their homeland and reconstruct the temple that had been destroyed by the Babylons some years earlier. During this period, the Jews say a flourish in writing and theology, and many themes that the New Testament picks up that seem faint in the Old Testament were fleshed out. It is clear that the New Testament writers wrote within this framework of second temple Judaism, and without at least a cursory understanding of the general mindset the Jews held when the New Testament was written will make it harder to fully understand their message.
Recent scholarship has spent many pages developing this concept and second temple framework, especially helped but the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls in the 1940s and 50s. We have learned a lot about first century Palestine in the past 100 years, and this has brought many insights into the biblical texts. For our study, I think it most important to understand a few things about the mind of a Jew in the first century that will help us understand what the Hebrew writer is trying to tell his audience. Keeps these in mind as we go throughout our study.
- The Jews were deeply immersed in their scripture and often interpreted them as narratives that they were still living. We see this in much of the writings of the New Testament, where typology is used, and we will focus on this in Hebrews more when we get to the hall of faith in chapter 11. But for now, know that the Jews saw themselves as a part of the grand narrative of scripture. This is why many of the psalms and prophecy were brought to light during this period as Messianic. They read the Psalms and the prophets and saw that what they were saying had not fully come to pass. Thus, the conclusion they came to, and rightly so, was that these passages pointed forward to a coming Messiah who would lead them out of captivity and restore their former glory. This brings us to our second point.
- Israelite captivity, in the mind of a second temple period Jew, had not ended. Sometimes we hear that the captivity of the Jews ended when Cyrus made the decree that the Jews could return to their homeland and rebuild the temple and the city. However, in the mind of a Jew, this was not the case. It is true that in some sense the 70 years of captivity prophesied by Jeremiah (Jer. 25:9-11) had been ended with the return to Jerusalem, the ultimate promise that both Israel and Judah would return from exile had not been fulfilled, for only those captives from Judah were allowed to return to Jerusalem (interestingly, this is probably how they inherited the name “Jews”, as it was Israelites from Judah that returned to Jerusalem). Israel was still scattered in captivity, and prophecies that clearly stated both houses would return from exile and become one again, such as the two sticks prophecy in Ezekiel 37, had not been fulfilled. Actually, it is at least hinted, if not outright stated, in Daniel that this period of captivity would be much longer than the initial 70 years, as the “seventy weeks” prophecy in Daniel 9 seems to extend it to 490 years (there is a lot of debate as to what the actual meaning of this passage is, which I will not go into here). Regardless, the Jewish people still considered themselves in exile as long as their brothers were still in exile and as long as they were under foreign (such as Roman) rule. This brings us to our final point.
- The Jews in the second temple period, especially towards the end of the period, were fully anticipating the coming Messiah. Jesus wasn’t the only person in this time period to claim to be the Messiah. Other Jews rose up, usually as revolutionaries, claiming to be the one who was to come and lead them out of exile and restore the former fortunes of the Israelite nation. In fact, this is probably one of the reasons that the Jewish religious leaders rejected Jesus- he did not fit the mold of the coming savior that they were desperately looking for. The time period just before, during and after Jesus was ripe with the expectation that the Christ would come to save them at any time. We saw from point one that Messianic prophecy was highlighted during this time period. The Jews saw themselves as the covenant people of God, which they were, and they were waiting on him to ultimately fulfill his promises and prophecies. Unfortunately, though they were right about anticipating the Messiah, when God did fulfill the covenant many of the Jews missed Him completely.
Though there are many other things that can and should be said about second temple Judaism that relate to the New Testament writers, for the sake of brevity I will stick with these ideas for now. In the following passages that the Hebrew writer quotes, I want us to think about three general questions:
- What is the context of the passage? Is it obviously (to our eyes) Messianic?
- How might the original audience of the passage (for the sake of clarity/consistency, we will take the biblical setting of the passage to be the audience) have understood the passage?
- How might a second temple Jew have understood the passage?
I might raise a few more questions as we go along, but these are the general questions that we should keep in mind as we look at these passages.
Psalm 2 and II Samuel 7:8-17
The first two scripture references that I want to look into are Psalm 2 and II Sam. 7:8-17. Neither of these passages, in my opinion, is obviously Messianic (by this I mean, if I were just reading them, I wouldn’t immediately come to the conclusion that they were speaking of the Messiah directly). The II Samuel passage is even more hidden than the psalm. Reading through the lens of Christ, I could see the connection between Psalm 2 and Jesus; but only with the lens of Christ. The psalm opens with almost a taunt of the nations that come up against Israel and by extension the God of Israel. The term “his anointed” in verse 2, is actually the term from which we get the word “Messiah” (and thus, if we were to read this passage in Hebrew, the Messianic idea that drives the psalm would probably be much more obvious). The Messiah was the Anointed One, the Savior to come- at least in the mind of the second temple Jew. This term is used in the Old Testament, typically for a servant chosen by God to lead the people in some way. For example, Samuel uses the term in I Samuel 12:3 to describe himself as the appointed judge of Israel (at least, I think he’s referring to himself). Perhaps a more well-known use of the term was for the king, as is used for Saul and David upon several occasions when Saul is king (see I Samuel 15:1, 17; 24:6, 10). With this in mind, I would think that the original audience would have read this psalm as one that warned the nations about coming up against the Lord through conflict with His king, the king of Israel. However, as we have seen earlier, the term Messiah in this passage would have easily tipped off a second temple Jew to this being a Messianic psalm, and this is certainly how the Hebrew writer uses the psalm.
The passage in II Samuel 7, however, might seem at first glance to come out of the blue for the Hebrew writer. In the context of this passage, it is clear that the direct referent of Nathan’s oracle to David is Solomon, David’s son who would build the temple (v. 13). Here we see David has observed that although he has a beautiful house, the Lord has none. Thus, David decides to build a house for the Lord. To make a long story short, the Lord speaks through Nathan to tell David that he is not the one to build his house, but rather his son would build it. We know as the story progresses that Solomon built the temple, the house of the Lord. Thus, I believe that the original audience would have interpreted this scene as a prophecy and charge to Solomon, David’s heir. However, by the second temple period, many Jews interpreted this passage, as the Hebrew writer does, Messianically. I think we can best understand why by looking at the parts of the passage that don’t seem to have been fully fulfilled in the time of David. Although this begins a long tradition of associating the Davidic heir as in a father-son relationship with God, by the second temple period, the monarchy had been demolished. This is hardly a fulfillment of “I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.” We learn in the dead sea scrolls from the sect of Jews at Qumran that the Hebrew writer wasn’t the only one to take this passage as a Messianic prophecy. This passage has a history of being interpreted in light of the coming Messiah, that the Savior would be God’s son. We might begin to see here why the Jews were looking for a political/military figure to come as Messiah, to overthrow Roman rule and to once again establish the monarchy to Israel. The second temple period was ripe with this expectation that Isreal would be established again physically, as demonstrated by the Maccabeean rebellions. I think the important aspect to draw from this passage is the emphasis the oracle places on establishing the kingdom of the Davidic heir forever.
I think it important to pause here and say something about understanding prophecy. As can be clearly seen by the passage in II Samuel 7, prophecy was not always seen to have a 1:1 relationship from the oracle to the fulfillment. In a very real sense, this passage was fulfilled by Solomon, the heir that did build the Temple. However, though the Hebrew writer surely knew the context of the passage (as his scholarship in the Hebrew Scriptures can attest to), he did not see Solomon as being the ultimate fulfillment of the prophecy. There is a rule of prophecy that I believe needs to be firmly established if we are to have any clue as to how to interpret it: Many times, prophecy follows an “already, but not yet” format. Many prophecies found in Scripture have an immediate fulfillment that would have made sense to the audience (this is especially true for typological prophecies), and then an ultimate fulfillment in Christ. As a note, I think this helps with understanding Jesus’ own prophecy in Matthew 24, where it is partially fulfilled in the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, but will not be ultimately fulfilled until the second coming of Christ. The kingdom of heaven should also be seen in this light, as in some sense already here in the church, but not fully established until the resurrection and restoration of all things. Again, this view of prophecy is understandable when we remember that second temple Jews truly believe they were living out the narratives that were revealed in their scriptures.
Deuteronomy 32:39-43 and Ps 104:1-4
Our next couplet of quotations comes from Deuteronomy 32 and Psalm 104. The similarity of these two almost jumps off the page when we look at the context of both passages. Each is embedded in a song of praise to God for the mighty works that He has done. Deuteronomy 32 contains the Song of Moses that was sung in dedication to all the mighty works that God had done for the people of Israel under the leadership of Moses. It would be an understatement to say that this song was important in Israelite life and worship, and indeed we find it being alluded to over and over in the New Testament and even beyond. Again, we should stress that passages like this form narratives that the people of God saw themselves as playing a role in.
What is interesting to note here is the differences that are found in the Hebrew version of the Old Testament (the Masoretic Text, MT) and the Greek version (the Septuagint, LXX). Depending on what version you are reading, you might find that Deut. 32 says, “bow down to him, all gods” (ESV) instead of what the Hebrew writer quotes, “Let all God’s angels worship him.” Some versions, such as the NSAB won’t even have this line in Deut. 32 at all. This is because the MT doesn’t contain this line. The LXX, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, which is often used by New Testament writers, reads thus: “O heavens, rejoice together with him, and let all the songs of God worship him. Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people, and let all the angels of God regain their strength.” This too, however, is not an exact match of the quotation found in Hebrews. There have been various explanations and suggestions as to which source the Hebrew writer is quoting here, but this is not the context to go into detail about it. For now, mark it as an interesting difference, and I will explore this idea a bit further in a later question.
Psalm 104 is likewise a song of praise to God for his mighty works. Again, it is interesting to note the difference in the quotation here than that which is found in Hebrews, specifically that the phrase “he makes his messengers winds” found in the MT has been changed to “he makes his angels winds” in the Hebrews citation. In this case, it seems that the LXX is the source for the Hebrew writer, as the LXX has interpreted the Hebrew text for “messengers” as “angels”. Again we will return to this point later. The final question to answer for both of these passages is, what point do they make about angels? It is clear that the Hebrew writer cites them as showing that angels are ministers of God, and therefore necessarily below him in rank, bowing down to worship Him. Thus, the Son of God, being on an equal plane with God, ranks superior to the angels.
Psalm 45:6-9 and Psalm 102:25-27
The original context of Psalm 45 might be the most provocative in our list of quotations. The psalm is titled as a love song, seemingly a song for the wedding of a king. What makes it so provocative is the fact that the psalm begins with a clear statement of addressing a human king, and then in the verse that is quoted in Hebrews, calls him God. The Hebrew word for God used here is elohim, which is sometimes used in reference to the God of Israel, and at other times used in reference to divine spiritual beings (typically expressed as “angels” in the New Testament, which was by that time a catch-all for beings in the spiritual realm). However, the context here makes it clear that the psalm is addressing the king as God, in some sense of the word. Though referring to the king of a nation as God is often seen in the Ancient Near East, this is the only passage in Hebrew Scripture that would seem to indicate this, which can be expected since the Israelites were monotheists, and their king was not their God. In my opinion, it is not likely that an Israelite would have understood this passage to mean that the king was God, but rather it would build an association between the king and God, just as the father-son relationship built from the previous verse. This passage makes much more sense, so it seems, in light of the full revelation of Jesus being the ultimate fulfillment of the passage, being both King and God, as the Hebrew writer rightly argues.
Psalm 102 is a very different psalm in terms of tone and genre. It seems to begin as a lament but ends with the lines quoted by the Hebrew writer, exalting the God of Israel, YHWH, through His mighty creative acts. As a small note, here too, the MT differs significantly from the LXX, and it is from the LXX that the Hebrew writer quotes. It is clear that YHWH is the person in reference for the psalmist, and by quoting this in light of Jesus, the Hebrew writer implicitly equates YHWH, the God of Israel, with Jesus, establishing a high Christology from the onset of the epistle.
Psalm 110 is the climax quotation of the string, bringing the Hebrew writer’s argument to its full. This is one of the most quoted psalms in the New Testament, and many Jews in the second temple period understood this to be a clear Messianic psalm. Sitting at the right hand was an expression of power and prominence, and is likely indication this was a psalm dedicated to the king. But it is clear that as time went on, this psalm came to be interpreted as more than just the king, but rather the coming Messiah character. The Hebrew writer uses this psalm without a couplet to set it up as one of the foundational passages which he will further develop into arguments throughout the epistle.
Psalm 8, Psalm 22:22-26 and Isaiah 8:11-18
After the argument set up in the first part of the chapter, the Hebrew writer then turns to discuss the incarnation. Though still related to the angels, we see that the author uses Psalm 8 to say that Jesus was for a while made a little lower than the angels. In the context of the psalm, it would seem that the author is speaking about humans in general, being given dominion over all the earth, though they are not in the spiritual realm as the heavenly beings are. The Hebrew writer applies this to Jesus specifically. He goes on to quote Psalm 22, which is one of the more obvious Messianic prophecies (though it surely meant something to David when he first wrote it), seemly then taking the broader meaning of “man” in Psalm 8, making us brothers of Christ through our shared humanity. The quotation from Isaiah 8 is used in a similar way.
Jesus the Supreme (1:1-4)
Now that we have the background somewhat unpacked (in far too many words, I’m sure), for the sake of brevity, I will simply list the questions that I have on the outline pertaining to the opening chapters of Hebrews and answer them in terms of what I think the Hebrew writer is doing in these first couple of chapters.
- What statements does the Hebrew author make about Jesus in his opening paragraph?
The Hebrew writer makes it clear that He believes Jesus to be equal with God, being with Him in the beginning, and the agent through whom all things were created. This is a bold statement of deity, one that will frame the rest of the epistle.
- What name did Jesus inherit?
There is a hint here of “name” theology, which is the sense that the “name” of the Lord in the Old Testament was not always just thought of as a title or name, but rather the actual presence of the Lord (see, for example, Exodus 33:19 and Nehemiah 1:9). There was power in the Name, as can be derived from God revealing His name in dramatic form to Moses from the burning bush (see Exodus 3). For more information, see Dr. Heiser’s treatment of name theology in his podcast on Acts 3: https://www.nakedbiblepodcast.com/naked-bible-41-acts-3/
Exalted above the Angels (1:5-2:18)
- How is the author’s use of the LXX important for his interpretation of the scriptures?
- How do the author’s quotes differ from the MT (see 1:6-7, 2:7)
We discussed earlier how the quotes that the Hebrew writer makes from the Old Testament often differ from what is found in the MT. Often it can be shown that the likely source for the Hebrew writer is the LXX, a Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures compiled some 200 years before the first century. This is important in understanding the history of scripture. The LXX is often the version of scripture that is quoted in the New Testament. Being a translation, this inevitably means that some interpretation has already occurred from the primary Hebrew scriptures to the secondary Greek translation, as we see even here in our verses. Further, the LXX was the prototype for the early cannon of scripture, and it contained books which we now refer to as the Apocrypha (or deuterocanonical if you are Catholic). It was not until the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s that these books were removed from the list of books considered canonical by Protestants. The Protestant argument for removing the books is that they do not appear in the Masoretic Text, which was the Jew’s compilation of their own cannon of Scripture written in Hebrew. Notably, the Jewish canon wasn’t decided upon until circa the first century. Thus, this raises a question, at least in my mind, of if we should still consider these books to be canonical or not.
- In what way are the quotations that the author cites appealed to as prophecy?
The Hebrew writer sees these as Messianic prophecies because of their ultimate fulfillment, or even as typologies. This would imply that prophecy has an “already, but not yet” element to it, as discussed above.
- How are the verses in each couplet in the “string of pearls” (v.5-13) related to one another?
Each of the passages is connected through a “catchword”, a word, or possibly multiple words, that are emphasized in both verses. This was a common technique used by other Jewish scholars in the first century to string together passages on a particular theme. They are more broadly connected by various themes that are present in the greater contexts of the passages. For more information about this, see G. K. Beale andD. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament use of the Old Testament.
- How has Jesus become “as much superior to angels”, sitting “at the right hand of the Majesty on High”?
- What role does Psalm 110 play in this opening?
- How has Jesus become the founder of our salvation?
- What role did suffering play in Jesus’ exultation?
Through the opening argument of the epistle, the Hebrew writer shows that Jesus has been exalted to the position of power, sitting at the right hand of God, having become much superior to the angels. This evaluation was accomplished through His incarnation, His suffering and death, and His resurrection of glory. The author will use this to set up his argument as to why Jesus is a great High Priest, being able to empathize with us through our sufferings because he had taken on flesh and suffered as we suffer. This was the ultimate plan of God, a plan that took all the other players by surprise, that through suffering, Jesus has been perfected. Our character, too, like our Lord’s is made through suffering, a point the Hebrew writer will return to at the end of his epistle. I hope you will explore this question further, as this is not a comprehenisve answer.
- Contrast Jesus and the angels as per the author’s argument.
Jesus has been exalted to the right hand on high, equated with YHWH and demonstrably shown to be superior to the angels, who are ministers of YHWH.
Conclusion: Why does the Hebrew writer make this argument?
- What is the point of the author’s argument that Jesus is superior to the angels?
I think the ultimate purpose behind the Hebrew writer’s argument is found in 2:1-4:
“Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.”
This feeds off a common Jewish tradition that the Law was mediated through angels. We can see this tradition in other parts of the New Testament such as in Stephen’s sermon to the Jews in Acts 7 (see Acts 7:37-38, 51-53). This is perhaps derived from an interpretation of Deut. 33:1-5, which could be taken as to place angels on Mt. Sinai when the Law was delivered. Since the Jews held the Law in such prominence and it proved to be reliable, and this word was mediated through angels, how much more should we listen to the Son, namely Jesus, who has been demonstrably shown to be superior to the angels, and through whom God has spoken to us in these last days, as per 1:1-4. Someone greater than angels had come and spoken, thus setting up later arguments, through which Jesus will be shown to be superior to Moses and the priests, and through whom would come a superior covenant to bring the people back into covenantal relationship with their God.
I hope you have found this study helpful, and that you will continue with us as we work our way through the book of Hebrews.
Suggested Reading: Hebrews 1-2, Psalm 8, 45, 110, Deuteronomy 32.
“I will tell of your name to my brothers;
in the midst of the congregation, I will sing your praise.”
Major Reference: G. K. Beale, D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament use of the Old Testament. Baker Books, 2007.