An Exposition of Hebrews
A. W. Pink
The Superiority of Christ over the Prophets
Before taking up the study of the opening verses of our Epistle, let us adduce further evidence that the apostle Paul was the writer of it. To begin with, note its Pauline characteristics. First, a numerical one. There is a striking parallel between his enumeration in Romans 8:35-39 and in Hebrews 12:18-24. In the former he draws up a list of the things which shall not separate the saint from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus. If the reader will count them, he will find they are seventeen in number, but divided into a seven and a ten. The first seven are given in verse 35, the second ten in Hebrews 10:38, 39. In Hebrews 12:18-23 he draws a contrast between Mount Sinai and Mount Sion, and he mentions seventeen details, and again the seventeen is divided into a seven and a ten. In Hebrews 10:18, 19, he names seven things which the saints are not "come unto"; while in Hebrews 10:22-24 he mentions ten things they have "come unto," viz., to Mount Sion, the City of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, an innumerable company of angels, the general Assembly, the Church of the Firstborn, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator, to the Blood of sprinkling. Compare also Galatians 5:19-21, where the apostle, when describing the "works of the flesh," enumerates seventeen. So far as we are aware, no other Epistle writer of the New Testament used this number seventeen in such a manner.
Again; the terms which he used. We single out one only. In Hebrews 2:10 he speaks of the many sons which Christ is bringing to glory. Now Paul is the only New Testament writer that employs the term "sons." The others used a different Greek word meaning "children."
For doctrinal parallelisms compare Romans 8:16, with Hebrews 10:15, and 1 Corinthians 3:13 with Hebrews 5:12-14, and who can doubt that the Holy Spirit used the same penman in both cases?
Note a devotional correspondency. In Hebrews 13:18, the writer of this Epistle says, "Pray for us." In his other Epistles we find Paul, more than once, making a similar request; but no other Epistle-writer is placed on record as soliciting prayer!
Finally, it is to be noted that Timothy was the companion of the writer of this Epistle, see Hebrews 13:23. We know of no hint anywhere that Timothy was the fellow-worker of anyone else but the apostle Paul: that he companied with him is clear from 2 Corinthians 1:1, Colossians 1:1, 1 Thessalonians 3:1, 2.
In addition to the many Pauline characteristics stamped on this Epistle, we may further observe that it was written by one who had been in "bonds" (see Hebrews 10:34); by one who was now sundered from Jewish believers (Heb. 13:19)—would not this indicate that Paul wrote this Epistle while in his hired house in Rome (Acts 28:30)? Again; here is a striking fact, which will have more force with some readers than others: if the Epistle to the Hebrews was not written by the apostle Paul, then the New Testament contains only thirteen Epistles from his pen—a number which, in Scripture, is ever associated with evil! But if Hebrews was also written by him, this brings the total number of his Epistles to fourteen, i.e., 7 x 2—seven being the number of perfection and two of witness. Thus, a perfect witness was given by this beloved servant of the Lord to Jew and Gentile!
In the last place, there is one other evidence that the apostle Paul penned the Hebrews’ Epistle which is still more conclusive. In 2 Thessalonians 3:17, 18 we read, "The salutation of Paul with mine own hand, which is the token in every Epistle, so I write, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all." Now, if the reader will turn to the closing verse of each of the first thirteen Epistles of this apostle, it will be found that this "token" is given in each one. Then, if he will refer to the close of the Epistles of James, Peter, John and Jude, he will discover a noticeable absence of it. Thus it was a distinctive "token" of the apostle Paul. It served to identify his writings. When, then at the close of Hebrews we read "grace be with you all" the proof is conclusive and complete that none other than Paul’s hand originally wrote this Epistle.
Ere passing from this point a word should be added concerning the distinctive suitability of Paul as the penman of this Epistle. In our little work "Why Four Gospels" (pages 20-22), we have called attention to the wisdom of God displayed in the selection of the four men He employed to write the Gospels. In each one we may clearly perceive a special personal fitness for the task before him. Thus it is here. All through the Epistle of Hebrews Christ is presented as the glorified One in Heaven. Now, it was there the apostle Paul first saw the Lord (Acts 26:19); who, then, was so well suited, so experimentally equipped, to present to the Hebrews the rejected Messiah at God’s right hand! He had seen Him there; and with the exceptions of Stephen, and later, John of Patmos, he was the only one who had or has!
Should it be asked, Why is the apostle Paul’s name omitted from the preface to this Epistle? a threefold answer may be suggested. First, it is addressed, primarily, to converted "Hebrews," and Paul was not characteristically or essentially an apostle to them: he was the apostle to the Gentiles. Second, the inscribing of his name at the beginning of this Epistle would, probably, have prejudiced many Jewish readers against it (cf. Acts 21:27, 28; 22:17-22). Third, the supreme purpose of the Epistle is to exalt Christ, and in this Epistle He is the "Apostle," see Hebrews 3:1. Therefore the impropriety of Paul making mention of his own apostleship. But let us now turn to the contents of the Epistle:
Hebrews 1:1-3. These verses are not only a preface, but they contain a summary of the doctrinal section of the Epistle. The keynote is struck at once. Here we are shown, briefly but conclusively, the superiority of Christianity over Judaism. The apostle introduces his theme in a manner least calculated to provoke the antipathy of his Jewish readers. He begins by acknowledging that Judaism was of Divine authority: it was God who had spoken to their fathers. "He confirms and seals the doctrine which was held by the Hebrews, that unto them had been committed the oracles of God; and that in the writings of Moses and the prophets they possessed the Scripture which could not be broken, in which God had displayed unto them His will" (Adolph Saphir). It is worthy of note that the Gospels open with a summary of Old Testament history from Abraham to David, from David to the Captivity, and from the Captivity to Jesus, the Immanuel predicted by Isaiah (see Matthew 1), and that the Epistles also begin by telling us that the Gospel expounded by the prophets had been "promised afore by God’s prophets in the Holy Scriptures" (Rom. 1:1-3).
Having affirmed that God had spoken to the fathers by the prophets, the apostle at once points out that God has now spoken to us by His Son. "The great object of the Epistle is to describe the contrast between the old and new covenants. But this contrast is based upon their unity. It is impossible for us rightly to understand the contrast unless we know first the resemblance. The new covenant is contrasted with the old covenant, not in the way in which the light of the knowledge of God is contrasted with the darkness and ignorance of heathenism, for the old covenant is also of God, and is therefore possessed of Divine glory. Beautiful is the night in which the moon and the stars of prophecy and types are shining; but when the sun arises then we forget the hours of watchfulness and expectancy, and in the clear and joyous light of day there is revealed to us the reality and substance of the eternal and heavenly sanctuary" (Adolph Saphir). Let us now examine these opening verses word by word.
"God" (verse 1). The particular reference is to the Father, as the words "by (His) Son" in verse 2 intimate. Yet the other Persons of the Trinity are not excluded. In Old Testament times the Godhead spoke by the Son, see Exodus 3:2, 5; 1 Corinthians 10:9; and by the Holy Spirit, see Acts 28:26, Hebrews 3:7, etc. Being a Trinity in Unity, one Person is often said to work by Another. A striking example of this is found in Genesis 19:24, where Jehovah the Son is said to have rained down fire from Jehovah the Father.
"God . . . spake." (verse 1). Deity is not speechless. The true and living God, unlike the idols of the heathen, is no dumb Being. The God of Scripture, unlike that absolute and impersonal "first Cause" of philosophers and evolutionists, is not silent. At the beginning of earth’s history we find Him speaking: "God said, Let there be light: and there was light" (Genesis 1:4). "He spake and it was done, He commanded and it stood fast" (Psalm 33:9). To men He spake, and still speaks. For this we can never be sufficiently thankful.
"God who at sundry times . . . spake" (verse 1). Not once or twice, but many times, did God speak. The Greek for "at sundry times" literally means "by many parts," which necessarily implies, some at one time, some at another. From Abraham to Malachi was a period of fifteen hundred years, and during that time God spake frequently: to some a few words, to others many. The apostle was here paving the way for making manifest the superiority of Christianity. The Divine revelation vouchsafed under the Mosaic economy was but fragmentary. The Jew desired to set Moses against Christ (John 9:28). The apostle acknowledges that God had spoken to Israel. But how? Had He communicated to them the fullness of His mind? Nay. The Old Testament revelation was but the refracted rays, not the light unbroken and complete. As illustrations of this we may refer to the gradual making known of the Divine character through His different titles, or to the prophesies concerning the coming Messiah. It was "here a little and there a little."
"God who . . . in divers manner spake" (verse 1). The majority of the commentators regard these words as referring to the various ways in which God revealed Himself to the prophets—sometimes directly, at others indirectly—through an angel (Genesis 19:1, etc.); sometimes audibly, at others in dreams and visions. But, with Dr. J. Brown, we believe that the particular point here is how God spake to the fathers by the prophets, and not how He has made known His mind to the prophets themselves. "The revelation was sometimes communicated by typical representations and emblematical actions, sometimes in a continued parable, at other times by separate figures, at other times—though comparatively rarely—in plain explicit language. The revelation has sometimes the form of a narrative, at other times that of a prediction, at other times that of an argumentative discourse; sometimes it is given in prose, at other times in poetry" (Dr. J. B.). Thus we may see here an illustration of the sovereignty of God: He did not act uniformly or confine Himself to any one method of speaking to the fathers. He spake by way of promise and prediction, by types and symbols, by commandments and precepts, by warnings and exhortations.
"God . . . spake in times past unto the fathers by the prophets" (verse 1). Thus the apostle sets his seal upon the Divine inspiration and authority of the Old Testament Scriptures. The "fathers" here goes right back to the beginning of God’s dealings with the Hebrews—cf. Luke 1:55. To "the fathers" God spake "by," or more literally and precisely, "in" the prophets. This denotes that God possessed their hearts, controlled their minds, ordered their tongues, so that they spake not their own words, but His words—see 2 Peter 1:21. At times the prophets were themselves conscious of this, see 2 Samuel 23:2, etc. We may add that the word "prophet" signifies the mouthpiece of God: see Genesis 20:7, Exodus 7:1, John 4:19—she recognized God was speaking to her; Acts 3:21!
"God . . . hath in these last days spoken unto us by"—better "in (His) Son" (verse 2). "Having thus described the Jewish revelation he goes on to give an account of the Christians, and begins it in an antithetical form. The God who spake to ‘the fathers’ now speaks to ‘us.’ The God who spake in ‘times past,’ now speaks in these ‘last days.’ The God who spake ‘by the prophets,’ now speaks ‘by His Son.’ There is nothing in the description of the Gospel revelation that answers to the two phrases ‘at sundry times,’ and ‘in divers manners’; but the ideas which they necessarily suggest to the mind are, the completeness of the Gospel revelation compared with the imperfection of the Jewish, and the simplicity and clearness of the Gospel revelation compared with the multi-formity and obscurity of the Jewish" (Dr. J. Brown).
"This manifesting of God’s will by parts (‘at sundry times,’ etc.), is here (verse 1) noted by way of distinction and difference from God’s revealing His will under the Gospel; which was all at one time, viz., the times of His Son’s being on earth; for then the whole counsel of God was made known so far as was meet for the Church to know it while this world continueth. In this respect Christ said, ‘All things that I have heard of My Father, I have made known to you’ (John 15:15), and ‘the Comforter shall teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance whatsoever I have said unto you’ (Heb. 14:26). The woman of Samaria understood this much: ‘When the Messiah is come, He will tell us all things’ (John 4:25). Objection: the apostles had many things revealed to them later. Answer: those were no other things than what Christ had revealed before, while He lived" (Dr. Gouge).
The central point of contrast here is between the Old Testament "prophets" and Christ "the Son." Though the Holy Spirit has not here developed the details of this contrast, we can ourselves, by going back to the Old Testament, supply them. Mr. Saphir has strikingly summarized them under seven heads. "First, they were many: one succeeded another: they lived in different periods. Second, they gave out God’s revelation in ‘divers manners’—similitudes, visions, symbols. Each prophet had his peculiar gift and character. Their stature and capacity varied. Third, they were sinful men—Isaiah 6:5, Daniel 10:8. Fourth, they did not possess the Spirit constantly. The ‘word’ came to them, but they did not possess the Word! Fifth, they did not understand the heights and depths of their own message—1 Peter 1:10. Sixth, still less did they comprehend the whole of God’s revelation in Old Testament times. Seventh, like John the Baptist they had to testify ‘I am not the Light, I am only sent to bear witness of the Light.’" Now, the very opposite was the case in all these respects with the "Son." Though the revelation which God gave the prophets is equally inspired and authoritative, yet that through His Son possesses a greater dignity and value, for He has revealed all the secrets of the Father’s heart, the fullness of His counsel, and the riches of His grace.
"In these last days" (verse 2). This expression is not to be taken absolutely, but is a contrast from "in time past." The ministry of Christ marked "the last days." That which the Holy Spirit was pressing upon the Hebrews was the finality of the Gospel revelation. Through the "prophets" God had given predictions and foreshadowings; in the Son, the fulfillment and substance. The "fullness of time" had come when God sent forth His Son (Gal. 4:4). He has nothing now in reserve. He has no further revelation to make. Christ is the final Spokesman of Deity. The written Word is now complete. In conclusion, note how Christ divides history: everything before pointed toward Him, everything since points back to Him; He is the Center of all God’s counsels.
"Spoken unto us" (verse 2). "The pronoun us refers directly to the Jews of that age, to which class belonged both the writer and his readers; but the statement is equally true in reference to all, in every succeeding age, to whom the word of this salvation comes. God, in the completed revelation of His will, respecting the salvation of men through Christ Jesus, is still speaking to all who have an opportunity of reading the New Testament or of hearing the Gospel" (Dr. J. Brown).
"In (His) Son" (verse 2). Christ is the "Son of God" in two respects. First, eternally so, as the second Person in the Trinity, very God of very God. Second, He is also the "Son as incarnate." When He took upon Him sinless human nature He did not cease to be God, nor did He (as some blasphemously teach) "empty" Himself of His Divine attributes, which are inseparable from the Divine Being. "God was manifest in flesh" (1 Timothy 3:16). Before His Birth, God sent an angel to Mary, saying, "He (the Word become flesh) shall be called the Son of God" (Luke 1:35). The One born in Bethlehem’s manger was the same Divine Person as had subsisted from all eternity, though He had now taken unto Him another, an additional nature, the human. But so perfect is the union between the Divine and the human natures in Christ that, in some instances, the properties of the one are ascribed to the other: see John 3:13, Romans 5:10. It is in the second of these respects that our blessed Savior is viewed in our present passage—as the Mediator, the God-man, God "spake" in and through Him: see John 17:8, 14, etc.
Summarizing what has been said, we may note how that this opening sentence of our Epistle points a threefold contrast between the communications which God has made through Judaism and through Christianity. First, in their respective characters: the one was fragmentary and incomplete; the other perfect and final. Second, in the instruments which He employed: in the former, it was sinful men; in the latter, His holy Son. Third, in the periods selected: the one was "in time past," the other in "these last days," intimating that God has now fully expressed Himself, that He has nothing in reserve. But is there not here something deeper and more blessed? We believe there is. Let us endeavor to set it forth.
That which is central and vital in these opening verses is God speaking. A silent God is an unknown God: God "speaking" is God expressing, revealing Himself. All that we know or can now know of God is what He has revealed of Himself through His Word. But the opening verse of Hebrews presents a contrast between God’s "speakings." To Israel He gave a revelation of Himself in "time past"; to them He also gave another in "these last days." What, then, was the character of these two distinct revelations?
As we all know, God’s Word is divided into two main sections, the Old and the New Testaments. Now, it is instructive to note that the distinctive character in which God is revealed in them strikingly corresponds to those two words about Him recorded in the first Epistle of John; "God is light" (Heb. 1:5); "God is love" (Heb. 4:8). Mark attentively the order of these two statements which make known to us what God actually is in Himself.
"God is light." It was in this character that He was revealed in Old Testament times. What is the very first thing we hear Him saying in His Word? This: "Let there be light" (Gen. 1:3). In what character does He appear to our fallen first parents in Genesis 3? As "light," as the holy One, uncompromisingly judging sin. In what character was He revealed at the flood? As the "light," unsparingly dealing with that which was evil. How ‘did He make Himself known to Israel at Sinai? As the One who is "light." And so we might go on through the whole Old Testament. We do not say that His love was entirely unknown, but most assuredly it was not fully revealed. That which was characteristic of the revelation of the Divine character in the Mosaic dispensation was God as light.
"God is love." It is in this character that He stands revealed in New Testament times. To make known His love. God sent forth the Son of His love. It is only in Christ that love is fully unveiled. Not that the light was absent; that could not be, seeing that He was and is God Himself. The love which he exercised and manifested was ever an holy love. But just as "God is light" was the characteristic revelation in Old Testament times, so "God is love" is characteristic of the New Testament revelation. In the final analysis, this is the contrast pointed to in the opening verses of Hebrews. In the prophets God "spoke" (revealed Himself) as light: the requirements, claims, demands of his holiness being insisted upon. But in the Son it is the sweet accents of love that we hear. It is the affections of God which the Son has expressed, appealing to ours; hence, it is by the heart, and not the head, that God can be known.
"God . . . hath in these last days spoken unto us by (His) Son." It will be noted that the word "His" is in italics, which means there is no corresponding word in the original. But the omission of this word makes the sentence obscure; nor are we helped very much when we learn that the preposition "by" should be "in." "God hath spoken in Son." Yet really, this is not so obscure as at first it seems. Were a friend to tell you that he had visited a certain church, and that the preacher "spoke in Latin," you would have no difficulty in understanding what he meant: "spoke in Latin would intimate that that particular language marked his utterance. Such is the thought here. "In Son" has reference to that which characterized God’s revelation. The thought of the contrast is that God, who of old had spoken prophet-wise, now speaks son-wise. The thought is similar to that expressed in 1 Timothy 3:16, "God was manifest in flesh," the words "in flesh" referring to that which characterized the Divine manifestation. God was not manifested in intangible and invisible ether, nor did He appear in angelic form; but "in flesh." So He has now spoken "in Son," Son-wisely.
The whole revelation and manifestation of God is now in Christ; He alone reveals the Father’s heart. It is not only that Christ declared or delivered God’s message, but that He himself was and is God’s message. All that God has to say to us is in His Son: all His thoughts, counsels, promises, gifts, are to be found in the Lord Jesus. Take the perfect life of Christ, His deportment, His ways; that is God "speaking"—revealing Himself—to us. Take His miracles, revealing His tender compassion, displaying His mighty power; they are God "speaking" to us. Take His death, commending to us the love of God, in that while we were yet sinners, He died for us; that is God "speaking" to us. Take His resurrection, triumphing over the grave, vanquishing him who had the power of death, coming forth as the "first fruits of them that slept"—the "earnest" of the "harvest" to follow; that is God "speaking" to us.
That which is so blessed in this opening sentence of the Hebrews’ Epistle, and which it is so important that our hearts should lay hold of, is, that God has come out in an entirely new character—Son-wise. It is not so much that God speaks to us in the Son, but God addresses Himself to us in Son-like character, that is, in the character of love. God might have spoken "Almighty-wise," as He did at Sinai; but that would have terrified and overwhelmed us. God might have spoken "Judge-wise," as He will at the great white Throne; but that would have condemned us, and forever banished us from His presence. But, blessed be His name, He has spoken "Son-wise," in the tenderest relation which He could possibly assume.
What was the announcement from Heaven as soon as the Son was revealed? "Unto you is born"—what? Not a "Judge," or even a "Teacher," but "a Savior, which is Christ the Lord" (Luke 2:11). There we have the heart of God revealed.
It is the character in which God "spoke" or revealed Himself which this opening sentence of our Epistle emphasizes. He has appeared before us in the person of His beloved Son, to bring us a knowledge of the Divine affections, and this in order to engage our affections. In the very nature of the case there can be nothing higher. Through Christ, God is now fully, perfectly, finally revealed.
We lose much if we fail to keep constantly in mind the fact that Christ is God—"God manliest in flesh." We profess to believe that He is Divine, the second person of the blessed Trinity. But it is to be feared that often we forget this when reading the record of His earthly life or when pondering the words which fell from His lips. How necessary it is when taking up a passage in the Gospels to realize that there it is God "speaking" to us "Son-wise," God’s affections made known.
Take the familiar words of Luke 19:10, "The Son of man is come to seek and to save that which is lost." But who was this "Son of man?" It was God "manifested in flesh"; it was God revealing Himself in His "Son" character. Thus, this well-known verse shows us the heart of God, yearning over His fallen creatures. Take, again, that precious word of Matthew 11:28, "Come unto Me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" Those words were uttered by "Jesus of Nazareth," yet they illustrate what is said in Hebrews 1:2: it was God "speaking" Son-wisely, i.e., bringing to poor sinners a knowledge of Divine affections. Let us re-read the four Gospels with this glorious truth before us.
Cannot we now discern the wondrous and blessed contrast pointed in the opening verses of Hebrews? How different are the two revelations which God has made of His character. In Old Testament times God "spoke," revealed Himself, according to what He is as light; and this, in keeping with the fact that it was "in the prophets"—those who made known His mind. In New Testament times God has "spoken," revealed Himself, according to what He is as love; and this, in keeping with the fact that it was "in Son" He is now made known. May we not only bow before Him in reverence and godly fear, but may our hearts be drawn out to Him in fervent love and adoration.