Thursday, August 6, 2015

Sermon: Hebrews 1:1–4

This is the audio and polished manuscript of a sermon I preached on March 1, 2015 at Raiford Road Church in Macclenny, FL. Indented portions were not included in the actual sermon.


The book of Hebrews is fascinating in a number of different ways. And when you compare Hebrews to the rest of the New Testament, you find that it’s a very unique book. One thing that makes the book of Hebrews unique is its original audience – the people to whom the book was first written. Hebrews was written to Jewish converts to Christianity. These were people who had been previously committed to Judaism, but had come to accept that Jesus was indeed the promised Messiah. They were Jews who had become Christians.

When you understand that this was the original audience, it sheds light on a number of passages in the book where the readers are being admonished about their apparent temptations to renounce the faith. These Jewish people likely had much easier lives before they became Christians. But now that they are Christians, they have to deal with the troubles of persecution, or even the sadness of being rejected by their own family members. So it’s easy to see why these people might have been tempted to go back to the old ways.

So the writer admonishes his readers: Don’t renounce Jesus. Don’t turn your back on him. Stay faithful, like your fathers stayed faithful (Heb. 11).

Another thing that makes Hebrews unique is the fact that it’s anonymous. Whoever it was who wrote this book apparently didn’t feel the need to identify himself anywhere in it. So a lot of different ideas get thrown around now about who the author might have been. Some people wonder if the author was Luke. Other people wonder if it was Apollos. Some people say it might have been Barnabus, who was Paul’s companion. Some people speculate that maybe a woman wrote Hebrews. Who knows?

Now, for my own part, I’m more than happy to believe that Paul was the one who wrote Hebrews. From a historical perspective, this has been the most common view, and I think there are good reasons for it.
I do recognize that the writer of Hebrews sometimes doesn’t sound like the Paul that we know from Romans or Galatians or 1 Timothy, but I think that’s mainly because of the distinct audience that he’s writing to. 
To draw an analogy: When I was in seminary, I wrote a lot of academic papers. And since I was writing academic papers for academic professors, I wrote in a very academic way. These papers were very formal and (typically) very boring. Yet if you were to read things that I write on Facebook, or a blog post, or in personal emails, those things typically doesn’t sound academic at all. I’ll use informal language. I might use slang, or crack jokes here and there. And it won’t sound at all like my academic papers. Because I write differently depending on who I’m writing to or what I’m writing for. 
In a similar way, in Hebrews, Paul is writing specifically to his fellow Jews, to people who share his Jewish heritage. So I think it’s possible that we’re simply seeing a different side of Paul that we’re not used to seeing in his other letters written for a predominantly Gentile audience. Paul writes differently depending on his audience or purpose, just like you or I would.
But this is just my opinion. And since not everyone agrees about who the author of Hebrews is, tonight I’ll simply call him what he normally gets called, namely “the writer.” Because I think we can all agree that understanding what God is saying to us in the text of Hebrews is more important than knowing who it was that God used to put it down in writing.


Verse 1: “God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets . . . .” At various times in the past, and in all kinds of different ways, God spoke to his people in the Old Testament — and he spoke to them by the prophets. We could go all over the Old Testament looking at the different ways in which God spoke to his people through the prophets, but a few examples will suffice.

The first person to be identified as a prophet in Scripture was Abraham. Abraham was one of these prophets through whom God spoke. Sometimes we might get the idea that when God spoke in the Old Testament, it was with a booming voice from the clouds, something that James Earl Jones would likely be hired to do in a movie. But the text usually doesn’t tell us that it was anything like that. Sometimes God spoke to Abraham through dreams and visions.

A really mysterious case would be Genesis 18, where Abraham is sitting outside of his tent one day when three men show up — and one of these men is apparently “the Lord.” Abraham talks to him like he’s the Lord, and he talks back to Abraham like he’s the Lord (or at least someone who speaks directly on the Lord’s behalf. And the other two men are the angels who go down to Sodom and warn Lot to get out of the city before God destroys it.) So in that particular instance, God apparently spoke to Abraham in the form of a relatively normal-looking person. God makes himself known in whatever way he pleases.

Then think of all the ways God spoke and made himself known through the prophet Moses. God spoke to Moses in the burning bush. God spoke loudly through the plagues that were unleashed on Egypt. God spoke through his rescue of the children of Israel and the parting of the Red Sea. I joked earlier about the booming voice idea, but make no mistake that God sometimes revealed himself in ways that were spectacularly miraculous and plainly visible to everyone involved.

So these are just a few of the kinds of things the writer of Hebrews has in mind here as he mentions the various ways that God previously spoke to his people through the prophets. This pattern will continue right through the Old Testament with prophets like Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and all the minor prophets. This is the way God spoke to his people in the past.

But then, in verse 2, an important contrast will be made: God has “in these last days spoken unto us by his Son.” This is being presented as something far superior to any other kind of revelation that God had given in the past. When God revealed himself through his Son, this was better than any of those times in the Old Testament when God revealed himself by the prophets. God didn’t send us just another prophet; he sent his own Son.

I used to work as a security guard in an office building in Durham, NC. Occasionally, patrol officers would come by the building and do a site inspection. The officer conducting the inspection was typically someone of more-or-less the same rank as I was. But regardless of who was conducting the inspection, it was almost always a very routine thing.

But I can remember one day someone showed up to do a site inspection, and I didn’t recognize him. He didn’t even have on a uniform. In the course of the inspection, I discovered that he was actually the son of the president of the security company that I worked for. And all of a sudden, that “routine” site inspection took on much greater significance. Because here was the son of the person who had the highest authority in the company. Here was a person who had a significant status that no other site inspector had. In the same way, it was certainly a big deal when God’s Son came into the world. Here was a person far greater and far superior to any of the prophets who had come before.

And right here at the beginning of Hebrews, we’re seeing what I think is the most predominant theme of the entire book, and it’s this simple truth: Jesus is better. I can’t think of any three words that better summarize the message of Hebrews. Jesus is better than the Old Testament prophets. Later on in this chapter, he’s greater than the angels. Then later in the book, his new covenant is greater than the old covenant. Again and again throughout Hebrews, the writer is telling us that Jesus is better.

Notice that the writer refers to his own time period as the “last days.” In verse 2, he says, “in these last days, God has spoken by his Son.” What are we to make of that? You often hear a lot of speculation about this kind of thing today. And Christians often want to know: Are we living in the last days? And based what we see here in this passage, I think the answer is clearly yes. We are living in the last days – and we have been for a very long time.

In fact, there have been two thousand years worth of last days since Hebrews was written, and for all I know, we’ve got two thousand more years of last days ahead of us. The “last days,” in this sense, refers to the final era of human history. This is the last stage of God’s redemptive plan for humanity – this period of time between the death and resurrection of Christ and his second coming. These are the last days.

Verse 2 also says that the Son has been “appointed the heir of all things.” God the Father has given all dominion and all authority to the Son. The Son owns everything. In fact, the writer goes on to say that the Son is the one “by whom God made the worlds.”  I like the way John expresses this same truth at the beginning of his gospel. Referring to the Son, he says, “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:3). In other words, everything that was made, was made through the Son. And the implication there is that the Son does not belong in that category of “things that were made.” Because the Son was not made. He was not created. He is not a creature. Rather, he is the creator.

In verse 3, the writer of Hebrews is still talking about the Son: “Who being the brightness of his glory” – that’s the brightness of God’s glory.The Son radiates the glory of the Father. I think of that memorable passage from Isaiah 6, where Isaiah beholds a glorious vision of the Lord sitting on his throne, high and lifted up, and the train of his robe filled the temple. The seraphim were calling out to one another, saying, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” And what’s really amazing is that John says in John 12:41, that when Isaiah saw that famous vision, he was seeing the glory of Jesus.

In verse 3, the writer refers to the Son as “the express image of [God’s] person.” Other translations will say he is the “exact imprint” of God’s “nature.” The Greek word that’s used here is karakter. And I was struck when I saw this word, because it looks just like our word character. Originally, this Greek word referred to a stamping tool. Normally a stamp will have a picture or a symbol or some words on it. And when you stamp it down onto some paper, what do you get? You get an exact copy of what’s on the stamp.

In a similar way, the Son perfectly represents the character of God. Jesus’s mercy and compassion for the lost perfectly reflects God the Father’s mercy and compassion. And Jesus’s fierce anger toward sin – think of his response to the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, or the defiling of the temple – perfectly reflects God the Father’s fierce anger toward sin. Do you want to know what God is like? Look at Jesus. Do you want to get to know God? Get to know Jesus. He’s the express image of God’s person.

Again in verse 3, “he upholds the universe by the word of his power.” Every moment of every hour of every day the entire cosmos, the entire universe, is being held together by the word of Jesus. He spoke the world into existence and he sustains the world at every moment by his word.

The rest of our passage says, “After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.” So once Jesus had completed his atoning work on the cross for our sins, and had risen again from the dead, he ascended into heaven and he sat down at the right hand of God, and his sitting down expressed that his work was finished, for now.

And the name that he has inherited from the Father, namely his status as the Son, means that he is far superior to the angels. In fact, he’s the one that angels worship, as it’ll say later in this chapter. And if you haven’t done the math yet, all of these things tell us very clearly that Jesus is God. We believe in one God, who exists in three distinct persons. So Jesus is not God the Father. The Son is distinct from the Father – he’s a different divine person. But the Son is just as much God as the Father is, and so the Son is worthy of the same worship. And yet it is only one God that we worship. And that’s what we call a mystery.


Now that we’ve walked step by step through the text, I want to reflect on some of the ways that we can take the truths of this passage and apply them directly to the way that we think and live as Christians. And the first truth that I would like to reflect on is the truth that . . .

1. God speaks. The New Testament scholar D. A. Carson is fond of saying that “God is a talking God.” God talks. He is not a silent God. He’s a God who makes himself known to mankind. He did not create the world only to stand back and let the world run mechanically on its own, leaving human beings to blindly feel their way through life, trying to discern for themselves the right way to live. That isn’t what God did. Rather, he spoke and made himself known to the world.

This obviously sets God apart from false idols, because an idol cannot speak. I love the way that Isaiah ridicules idol worship in Isaiah 44. The person who makes an idol will take some wood, and with a portion of that wood he’ll make a fire to warm himself. But then he’ll use the rest of that wood to make an idol, and he’ll fall down before that idol and say to it, “Deliver me! For you are my god!” And it’s only a piece of wood! An idol can’t deliver you. An idol can’t even communicate. It can’t make itself known. But the living God – he speaks. He makes himself known.

And I can’t think of a truth that is more directly relevant to our current cultural climate. I don’t have to tell you that we live in a day and age that is morally confused, to say the very least. One of the most controversial issues we face in our day is the issue of homosexuality, and specifically homosexual marriage. And we’ve gotten to a place as a society where florists who provide flower arrangements for weddings, or bakers who make cakes for weddings, might be legally obligated to help celebrate something that God has said he abominates.

And that’s just one issue. Consider also the issue of abortion – which has been so deceitfully described as a “women’s rights” issue. It’s striking to me that Christians, and others who are pro-life, have spent a great deal of effort over the years trying to establish that what we call a “fetus” in the womb is actually a human life; because we felt sure that if we could convince people that a fetus is a human life, then surely that would make them want to stop supporting abortion.

But then a couple of years ago, a woman named Mary Elizabeth Williams writes a article where she admits that she’s always believed that a fetus is a human life, and yet that has never made her any less committed to the idea that abortion should be a woman’s right. We underestimated how stubborn wickedness can be.

Our nation is filled with people, including lawmakers, who are utterly godless in their worldview. And in midst of this cultural decay that we’re witnessing all around us, we have the arrogance to think that all of this means we have progressed as a society. We call evil good, and good evil. And God does not have pleasant things to say about people who do that.

Christian people, who seek to be salt and light in a dark world and speak out against immorality and injustice, hear a constant refrain from those with a secular mindset. And it’s almost always something along the lines of: “Who are you to say?” “Who are you to say what is right and wrong for me?” And they might have point, were it not for the fact that this world is not the product of blind chance occurrences taking place over billions of years. And this is not a world where mankind has been left to discern for himself what he thinks is right and wrong for him.

This is not that kind of world. This is the world that God made. And I don’t mean some generic idea of God that even vaguely religious people are comfortable with, but the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. That’s whose world this is. And he spoke into this world that he created – to our fathers by the prophets, and to us by his Son. God speaks. God makes himself known, and he makes his will known. If we lose sight of this basic fact, then we lose any true foundation for speaking truth into our culture.

2. The supremacy of the Son. The second truth from this passage that I’d like to reflect on is the supremacy of the Son, or the sovereignty of Jesus, or the preeminence of Christ (to use a phrase that Paul uses in Colossians). Jesus has inherited all things from God the Father. He is the creator and sustainer of all things, upholding the universe at every moment by the word of his power. Paul says it this way in Colossians: “By him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities – all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:16-17).

Now if Jesus is the creator and sustainer of all things, then certainly he owns all things and rules over all things. This includes world governments, and every world leader, whether we’re talking about Kim Jong Un, Vladimir Putin, or Barack Obama. All of them are subject to Jesus, whether they acknowledge him as king or not.

There was a Dutch theologian named Abraham Kuyper who made a famous statement that should run deep into the bones of every Christian. Kuyper said this: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” In other words, go find any square of this world that we live in, any square inch of this universe, and no matter which square inch you find, you will have found the territory of Jesus. He asserts his authority over that square inch, so that nothing is outside of his dominion. There is no neutral ground anywhere in the universe.

In a popular sermon clip, John Piper gives a long list of spheres of human life that Christ is King over – things like education, politics, the entertainment industry, etc. At one place, he makes the powerful statement that Christ is sovereign over every academic institution, no matter what they teach.

And this is a truth that should impact every day of our lives as Christians. Do you go to work with an understanding of how the work that you do intersects with your Christianity? How it relates to your total commitment to the Lord Jesus in all that you do, and how it relates to his supremacy and his sovereignty over all things?

Young people, college students, do you think about your education in terms of how it relates to Jesus? And I’m not just talking about a seminary or Bible college kind of education. I got my bachelor’s degree in “Christian Studies,” but in all reality, it doesn’t matter what field you’re studying – for the Christian, it’s all Christian Studies.

Parents, as your children are educated, whether that’s at home or through another institution, are you helping them to see how everything that we learn is ultimately related to Jesus? As Colossians says, all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Jesus. He’s where all knowledge ultimately comes from.

We learn to read because it makes so many treasures of wisdom and knowledge available to us – first and foremost in God’s word itself, which we must read; but also in other books that we learn from. We learn about mathematics so that we can understand the order with which Jesus has created the world, and so that we can think precisely with the minds that he’s given us, and utilize the order of this world to do good.

In our day, the field of science has become something like a modern tower of Babel. If you recall that story, mankind was building a tower that was intended to reach to the heavens and show how great they were. (And what’s funny is that the text says God “came down” to see what these little prideful creatures of his were doing.) But nowadays it seems like many people look to science in a similar way. They’re under the impression that the more and more we know about the world through science, the less and less need there is for God. Which is completely wrong-headed. Rather, the more we know about science, the more we marvel at God and the world that he made, and the more we can utilize the resources of this world to do good for his glory.

So the point is this: Everything that we involve ourselves with should be connected to and understood in terms of our Christian faith, because Jesus is supreme over all things.

Another way that we are helped by the truth of the supremacy of the Son is in realizing and knowing in your heart that Jesus really is better than anything that you might be looking to or searching for to give you happiness and fulfillment. For the original audience of Hebrews, this would have been the old Jewish ways that were so familiar. They had easier lives before they became Christians. Things were more comfortable for them in traditional Judaism. But the writer wants them to see and to know that Jesus is far better than those things.

You and I are probably looking to different things to give us happiness and fulfillment. I can remember years ago watching American Idol and thinking to myself, “I wish I were famous!” I suppose that’s a pretty common human desire, the desire to be famous. And it’s basically just a desire to be known. We want to be known by people. And we get the idea that if we’re known and appreciated by lots people in this world, then that will make us happy and fulfilled.

But the Christian corrective to that faulty way of thinking, is to truly realize who it is that you are known by. You are known by the risen Lord of heaven and earth, who is seated at the right hand of the majesty on high, who has inherited all things and sustains all things at every moment by the word of his power. In light of that, how in the world could I ever be consumed with a desire to be known by people? I’m known and loved and cherished by the most famous of all persons. The most glorious angels in heaven adore and worship this Jesus. He’s what they talk about night and day.

And if you’re a Christian, then this Jesus is who you’re known by. Be amazed at that fact, and let it absolutely transform the way that you think and live. He is far better than anything we might be looking for to give us happiness and fulfillment.

That’s what I have for you tonight. Let’s pray together.

Prayer: Father, thank you so much for your Son, and for revealing yourself to your people – first to our fathers by the prophets, and then to us by your Son Jesus. We pray now for this time of response, that our hearts would respond to the word that has been preached, and that your Son would receive all of the glory and honor that he deserves. We pray these things in his mighty name. Amen.

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