Darren L. Slider
Crowned with Glory and Honor
Crowned with Glory and Honor
Father in heaven, grant that your Holy Spirit may now speak to our hearts and strengthen us with the eternal reality of the truth as it is in Christ Jesus. Bring us continually to a saving knowledge of Him who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, for in His name we ask it. Amen.
The epistle to the Hebrews is the only book in the New Testament whose author is not immediately obvious from either the title or the text as a whole. Christians in general, and Adventists in particular, have traditionally assigned the authorship of Hebrews to the apostle Paul. This assignment is at present controversial in scholarly circles, but most of the arguments against it are based on Hebrews’ great difference in style from the other Pauline epistles. This epistle is, for example, much more clearly worded and tightly organized than others attributed to Paul. Also, it dispenses with the usual salutation and benediction at the very beginning, instead coming straight to the point.
However, even if the truth of such arguments be granted, it must also be said that the style of a single author may vary a great deal from one of his works to another, depending on his end in writing them. Most of Paul’s epistles to churches that the Spirit has preserved for us in the New Testament are written to congregations which he himself had established on his missionary journeys. The apostle meant for these letters to provide counsel and encouragement to these congregations, whom he could not visit in person nearly as often as he would have liked (especially while he was in prison). His letters to them deal with the particular struggles which they are undergoing and questions which they are asking at the time he is writing to them.
Hebrews, on the other hand, is addressed to no congregation in particular and is apparently written with a broader audience in mind. Over ninety per cent of it is a cogent and sustained argument for the superiority of the Christian faith over a legalistic Judaism into which many Jewish converts were backsliding. It is written in a high style, ornate with a panoply of Old Testament quotations, passionate exhortations, and stern admonitions, all of which are directed to persuade its audience of the grandeur of the truth in Christ Jesus and the urgent necessity of following Him to the end. There is no reason to suppose that Paul, with his extensive knowledge of the Scriptures and of the Jewish faith, and his burning desire that his fellow countrymen might share with him the faith of Jesus (expressed with considerable ardor in Romans 9-11), might not have written such a thing. We shall therefore proceed on the assumption that he did.
This assumption fits well with the strong intuition that the Epistle to the Hebrews was written before the destruction of Jerusalem by Roman armies in AD 70. It seems impossible that, given the subject of the epistle, such an event would go unmentioned. Paul himself was martyred several years prior to this, during the reign of Nero. Beyond this, it is difficult to say exactly when the epistle was written.
The apostle comes directly to the crux of the argument in his opening statement, as found in verses one through four of the first chapter of Hebrews:
Mincing no words, Paul focuses immediately on Jesus Christ Himself as the center of the superiority of the Christian faith, and, in particular, as God’s greatest mode of His revelation of Himself to His people. The passage begins by pointing out that, until what the apostle calls “these last days,” God has spoken by the prophets “at various times and in various ways.” The greatest and most conspicuous of these “ways” in which God spoke by his prophets is the ministry of the angels. The angels figured in almost every great event of the Old Testament dispensation, from Abraham at Mount Moriah to Moses at the burning bush to the apocalyptic visions of Daniel and Zechariah to the Annunciation of the Incarnation to the virgin Mary. Paul therefore proceeds to argue that the revelation of God in Jesus Christ surpasses the greatest ministry heretofore known, that of the angels, and therefore all others as well.
He does this by praising the excellent greatness of the Son of God. The Father has “appointed” His Son “heir of all things” in two respects: because of what the Son is in His divine nature, and because of what He has accomplished in His human nature. For we hold by faith that the Son, by that grandest of all miracles, the Incarnation, has these two radically different natures united in His one person.
Through Him, then, God “made the worlds.” The apostle reiterates this point later in the epistle: “By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible” (11:3). The Greek for “worlds” in both places is aiones, which translates literally as “ages.” We can see from its use in the latter passage that the word, though it literally refers to long periods of time, also comprehends all matter and energy: “the things which are seen.” Through the Son God thus creates time, space, and all things contained in them—including the angels, to whom we shall return in a moment.
It is important to understand that, though Paul says in one place that God created the worlds by His Son, and says in another place that the worlds were framed by the word of God, the two expressions are in perfect and beautiful harmony with one another. The apostle John, at the very beginning of his gospel, is powerfully illuminating here:
So the Son is the very Word through which the worlds were framed, by whom God made the worlds. “And the Word was God”: the Father and the Son (together with the Holy Spirit), though distinct persons, are yet one God, the God who created all that is not He.
How are the Father and the Son (in the Son’s divine nature) distinct, then? Paul gives us two illustrations of the relation between Them.
First, the Son is “the brightness of His [the Father’s] glory.” In the realm of physical light, that which is glorious is a beautiful pattern, as it were, which radiates bright light—for example, a mountain sunrise with shades of red, purple, and orange. The bright light is not, in substance, different from the glory; it expresses the glory to those who are looking on the scene. Of course, such a sunrise is still glorious and bright even if nobody is there to see it, but, granted the presence of a witness, the glory cannot be known apart from the brightness. Likewise, the Father and the Son are the same God, but we, the creatures He has freely created, cannot know the Father apart from the Son. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). The Son is born from the Father from all eternity, even as the brightness shines forth in the glory without perceptible delay, as the prophet Micah says: “Whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting” (Micah 5:2).
Second, the Son is “the express image of His person.” The phrase “express image” translates a Greek word that occurs only here in the New Testament: charakter. It is, indeed, where we get our word “character.” Recall that John calls the Son God’s Word. A character, like a word, signifies the understanding of the mind. When God understands God, that understanding is called His Word. This Word is such a perfect understanding of God that the Word also, as John says, is God. God who understands is the Father; God who is understood is the Son. They are the same God, but different persons. The Word is called Son much as we call our understanding of something a “concept” or “conception.” For us this is a metaphor, but with the Father and the Son it is deepest Truth.
Paul goes on to say that Christ upholds “all things by the word of His power.” This echoes what he says in Colossians 1:16, 17:
Not only does the Son bring all things into existence, He maintains them in that existence. All that is created is what we call contingent: none of it has to exist. Stars, planets, trees, animals, human beings, and angels, to name only a few—any or all of these might not have existed. God did not have to create any of them. These things began to exist because He wished them to begin to exist. Likewise, once these things exist, they need not continue to exist. Their existence is completely borrowed: they only have it because God gave it to them. If God did not will that everything that is continue to be, all would instantly vanish. As it says in Psalm 104:
And as the apostle said to the Greek philosophers assembled on Mars Hill in Athens: “In Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Only God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—exists necessarily. Because of what He is, it is not possible that God could not exist. This is what He meant when, at the burning bush, He gave Moses His name: “I AM THAT I AM” (Exodus 3:14). The eternal Son shares that name; as He said, “Before Abraham was, I AM” (John 8:58).
Having praised the divinity of the Son, Paul goes on to consider what the Son accomplished in His humanity: “When He had by Himself purged our sins, [He] sat down at the right hand of the majesty on high.” What Paul means when he says, “by Himself purged our sins,” he will explain at greater length later in the epistle when he discusses the Old Testament sacrificial system in some detail. What the Son as man did “for us men, and for our salvation” is as important, to us, as the greatness of His divinity. Because of our fallenness, we cannot really appreciate Him as God apart from what He did to save us as man. It is as man that He “sat down at the right hand of the majesty on high, having become so much better than the angels, as He has by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they.”
Later on, we will consider what the apostle meant by “having become so much better than the angels.” The Son clearly is, in His divine nature, everlastingly superior to the angels. To this point Paul now returns in verse five, where, in order to persuade his Jewish audience of this, He applies to Christ a series of quotations from the Old Testament Scriptures:
“You are My Son, today I have begotten You.” This comes from verse seven of the second psalm, which Paul’s hearers will recognize clearly as a Messianic prophecy. Indeed, verse two refers to the LORD and “His Anointed”; “Anointed” translates the Hebrew word Messiah. It is as though Paul says here: None of the angels is called “Son,” or is said to be “begotten” by God. As if to highlight the continuity of Paul’s thought, the next verse of the psalm, which Paul does not quote, points back to verse five: “Ask of Me, and I will give You the nations for Your inheritance.” The apostle has just said that the Son had “become so much better than the angels, as He has by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they.” The inheritance of the nations of the earth is one He receives as man: as God He naturally rules over them and restrains them, but as a man here on earth He was a Jewish subject of the Roman Empire. But one day He shall rule all the nations even as man, as Paul will say again later.
“I will be to Him a Father, and He shall be to Me a Son” comes from 2 Samuel 7:14. In its original setting, it is spoken by God to David concerning his son Solomon. A reading of the preceding verses (beginning with verse twelve) will show how the apostle can understand this to refer to Christ:
As is established in the gospels, Jesus Christ is the son of David, “coming from his body” in a line of direct descent. How does Jesus “build a house” for the Lord’s name? The key is in His response to the Jews’ request for a sign found in John 2:19-21:
In Christ’s resurrected body God “will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.” As it says of the new Jerusalem in Revelation 22:22: “But I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.”
Paul continues in verse six:
As a direct quotation, this statement does not obviously occur in most English translations of the Old Testament. Nevertheless the margins of several of them (for example, the New King James Version and the New International Version) indicate that this statement is found in the Dead Sea Scrolls among Hebrew manuscripts and, more to the point, in the Greek Septuagint. The Septuagint is the version that New Testament writers, who wrote for Greek-speaking audiences, invariably used when quoting the Old Testament. Given this, a marginal reading of Deuteronomy 32:43 is quite illuminating:
There are no direct Messianic references here. The antecedents of “He” and “His” in this verse are the LORD (v. 36) and God (v. 39). Nevertheless the phrases, “ ‘Rejoice, O Gentiles, with His people,’ ” and “ ‘He will provide atonement for His land and His people’ ” must have jumped right off the scroll at Paul when he was reading it. “ ‘Rejoice, O Gentiles, with His people’ ”—how could the Apostle to the Gentiles have failed to refer this to Jesus Christ? And “ ‘He will provide atonement for His land and His people’ ” certainly resonates strongly with Isaiah 53. Ever since Our Lord opened the eyes of His followers to the Scriptures on the road to Emmaus, after His resurrection, they have shown an astonishing ability to find references to Him even in the most unlikely of Scriptures. Here the apostle turns this tendency to his advantage to show the superiority of the Christ of the New Testament to the ministry of the angels in the Old Testament.
What is more, I was not entirely accurate in my rendering of the Old Testament phrase. The original does not have “let all the angels worship Him”; it actually has “let all the gods worship Him.” We in fact owe the interpretation of these “gods” as angels to the apostle. He was not trying to deceive his hearers; no doubt such an understanding would not, at least on the face of it, have surprised his Hebrew audience. But he uses it in such a way as to force the conclusion that Jesus is God in the highest possible sense, much as Jesus Himself used Psalm 82 (“I have said, ‘You are gods, and all of you sons of the Most High’ ”) to establish the same truth to a Jewish audience in John 10. He also quoted an earlier passage in Deuteronomy in overcoming the third temptation of Satan: “ ‘You shall worship the LORD your God, and Him only you shall serve’ ” (Matthew 4:10). If the Son is not God together with the Father, why are the angels (or the gods) commanded to worship Him?
What is even more, Paul links the command given to the angels to worship Christ with the Incarnation itself. He states in verse six that the command is given when God “brings the firstborn into the world.” This does not mean that the angels worship Him as man per se, but it does highlight the fact that the divine and human natures of the Son are united in one Person. There is one Son of God who is both God and man; there are not two Sons, one of which is divine and the other human. Finally, the apostle was, no doubt, thinking of that praise of God which accompanied the angels’ announcement to the shepherds of Christ’s birth: “ ‘Glory to God in the highest!’ ” (Luke 2:14). Paul understood that this praise was directed not only to the Father, but also to the Son, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit are together one God.
The apostle continues in verse seven:
This comes from Psalm 104, which is a paean of praise to God for His creative and sustaining activity. (It is the same psalm I quoted earlier to show that if God did not maintain His creation in existence after He created it, it would immediately cease to exist.) This verse in particular praises God for creating His angels to reflect, in their own way, the intellect and power which He exemplifies. Paul means to stress here that the angels are God’s ministers. He contrasts this fact with the status of His Son in verses eight and nine:
Verse one of Psalm 45, from which this passage is taken, indicates that the psalm is a “composition concerning the King.” The psalmist identifies no specific king; either a certain king of Israel is intended, or the psalm is meant as a prayer that a certain king (or any king) receive the blessing of God in such a degree as to live up to its lofty praise. In any case, Paul must have noticed that this King is anointed (which gives the Messianic connection) more than His companions. Most importantly, Paul connects the address of the king as “God” to the divine nature of the Son.
Time would fail me were I to try to explicate all or even most of this beautiful psalm along the lines that the apostle has sketched here. Other and better writers (Augustine, for one) have already spent entire sermons doing so. I will content myself with two further points.
First, notice verses two through five:
The King’s attributes in this glorious passage have one in mind of New Testament descriptions of Christ. For example, with respect to grace, there is John 1:14:
And as to humility, Paul says in Philippians 2:5-8:
Second, verse one of the psalm contains the rejoicing of the inspired poet who feels he has found just the right thing to say:
“My heart is overflowing with a good theme.” In Hebrew, the heart referred more to the mind than to the emotions, with which it is associated in English. Where we would say, “My heart is breaking,” a Hebrew writer would have said, oddly enough, “My bowels are troubled for him,” as in the King James for Jeremiah 31:20. The Hebrew word here translated as theme is dabar. Dabar has several shades of meaning and is variously translated in the Old Testament, but the vast majority of the time it is rendered, “word.” In the Greek Septuagint, dabar translates as logos, which is not only its nearest equivalent, but is also the original in John, chapter 1: “In the beginning was the Word.” As early as the second century, Christian writers saw in this verse a connection to the eternal birth of the Son from the Father. The dabar, the logos, the word of the psalmist is a poem that overflows from his mind. In the beginning, the Word of the Father is a Divine person, the Son, who is begotten in the Divine self-understanding.
The apostle adds to the passage from Psalm 45 another quote which he applies to the Son, this time from Psalm 102:
Psalm 102 is, in the words of the psalmist, “a prayer of the afflicted, when he is overwhelmed and pours out his complaint before the LORD.” By the end of the psalm he takes comfort in the awesome majesty of God’s creative power and eternity. There is no obvious Messianic reference in the psalm as a whole. Nevertheless, Paul has already asserted that God made the worlds through His Son, so He has no trouble seeing Christ in any Old Testament passage which praises God as Creator. Indeed, where the psalmist says, “You, LORD, in the beginning laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of Your hands,” he has one in mind of Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”
It is clear that the New Testament writers understood this “beginning” as referring to Jesus Christ. To John (in Revelation) Christ says that He is “the Beginning and the End” and, tellingly, calls Himself “the Beginning of the Creation of God,” referring directly to Genesis 1:1. In the verse following the Colossians 1 passage quoted above, after stating that all things were created through Christ, Paul himself goes on to call Him “the beginning.” That Paul should link Psalm 102 to the Son when he read there “in the beginning” is thus not at all difficult to imagine.
The apostle continues the argument in verse thirteen:
This is part of the first verse of Psalm 110, to which the apostle will return in chapter five when he discusses at some length the priesthood of Christ. Our Lord Himself uses the entire first verse to devastating effect in his final argument with the Pharisees, as recorded in Matthew 22:41-46:
Jesus did not, of course, intend to deny that the Messiah is the Son of David. He was able to put the Pharisees in a conundrum because they were committed to the belief that the Messiah is only the Son of David, and not also the Son of God. They hoped by this limited interpretation to deny that Jesus was the Christ and to avoid taking seriously His claim to be the Son of God. He proceeded to trap them with the very words of David, “The LORD said to my Lord.” The Pharisees could not deny that the following words, “ ‘Sit at My right hand, till I make Your enemies Your footstool’,” referred to the Messiah, because a conqueror of the enemies of Israel was primarily what the Jews of Christ’s day looked for in a Messiah. But neither could they get past the fact that David calls his son “Lord,” if in fact the Messiah is only his son, and not also the Son of God.
The apostle Paul, though he quotes only the second half of the verse, has a similar intention in the first chapter of Hebrews: Christ is of such an exalted nature that He is said to sit at the right hand of God awaiting the final conquest of His enemies. It is not possible that any of the angels attain to such an exalted position, for, as the apostle asks rhetorically in verse fourteen, “Are they not all ministering spirits sent forth to minister to those who will inherit salvation?”
Of course, Paul does not want his hearers to think that he regards the angels as mere despised members of the servant class. They are, after all, God’s greatest means of revelation prior to the Incarnation, by no means to be taken lightly, even though the Son of God is more exalted than they. This is the point of the apostle’s first stern admonition to his hearers at the beginning of chapter two:
“How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?” This is the pertinent question for us today. While most of us here present are in little danger of renouncing our faith in Christ to become orthodox Jews, we are nevertheless in constant danger of drifting away. The lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life are operating today at least as vigorously as they did in the Roman Empire of the apostle who warned us about them. Indeed, the rampant corruption in the world is fast making our day like the days of Noah to which Our Lord compared the last days before His return. Pride, envy, anger, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust—once called the seven deadly sins—are not only no longer disrespectable, they are positively glorified by the entertainment industry which bombards us from all sides with the sights and sounds of enticement to pleasure. “Therefore,” as the apostle says, “we must give more earnest heed to the things we have heard.”
In verses five through nine, Paul, speaking of the world to come, makes his final comparison between the Son and the angels:
This exegesis of Psalm 8 is arguably the most remarkable interpretation of Old Testament Scripture in the epistle so far. The “one who testifies” in this “certain place” is that same David who also wrote Psalm 110, which the apostle just quoted before pausing to give the solemn warning of which we just spoke. Paul starts by quoting verse four: “What is man that You are mindful of him, and the son of man that You visit him?” We are used to hearing this verse read together with the preceding verse:
We usually read this familiar psalm the way David probably understood it when he wrote it: With the psalmist, we look up at the night sky, wonder at the vast splendor and majesty of the stars, and suddenly feel small and unimportant, asking ourselves why God bothers about us at all. We go on to marvel at the fact that God created man, in the person of Adam, to rule over all of God’s physical creation.
This is where the apostle, ever the evangelist, sees by the inspiration of the Spirit that there is more to the psalm than meets the eye. He is well aware that Adam forfeited his vassal dominion over the creation when he fell into sin and condemned himself and his descendants to death. If man as a whole is to regain this dominion, Someone must rescue him from the freely chosen sin and death which he cannot now escape by himself. That Someone must be a man: a new Adam is needed. As the apostle says in Romans 5:18-21:
Jesus Christ is the second Adam, the One who reverses the effects of the first Adam’s fall and restores man to his rightful place and indeed beyond: “Where sin abounded, grace abounded much more.” Paul is thus able to see Christ as the unexpected fulfillment of Psalm 8: He is both “made a little lower than the angels” and “crowned with glory and honor.” As the apostle says in verses eight and nine:
First, Paul notes that, as man, as our representative, the Son does not yet have all things put under Him: this will take place, as the apostle says in verse five, “in the world to come.” This is the inheritance spoken of earlier: in His humanity, “made a little lower than the angels,” He (and we along with Him) will reign over all creation, even as, in His divinity which He inherits from the Father eternally, He created all that is and sustains it according to His will. Why is the man Christ Jesus “crowned with glory and honor”? “For the suffering of death,” as the apostle says. This is truly a glorious mystery of our faith: the greatest good of all results from the humility, degradation, suffering and death of the innocent Son of God. For this free act of grace and salvation He—and we—are crowned with glory and honor. From this great redemptive act of suffering all other such acts derive their meaning, goodness, and beauty. As the apostle says with the utmost grandeur in another place:
Thus we see how Paul the apostle has, in the Spirit, answered the question that David the psalmist asked in the same Spirit: “What is man that You are mindful of him, or the son of man that You take care of him?” Man is the family of the Lord Jesus Christ, man is the new creation, man is, in the person of our Savior, God and the Son of God. Thus we may understand the words of another psalm: “I said, ‘You are gods, and all of you sons of the Most High’ ” (Psalm 82:6). Sons of God not by nature, but by adoption: “not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God,” as John says.
Therefore, by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ, let us indeed give the more earnest heed to the things we have heard, lest we drift away, lest we neglect so great a salvation. Let us instead work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure (cf. Philippians 2:12, 13). In the most blessed Name of the Lord Jesus Christ our Savior, the eternal Word of God made flesh, God with us, Amen.
Author’s Note: I presented this sermon at the Handley Seventh-day Adventist Church on Saturday, September 15, 2001.