The ‘word of exhortation’ that exults Jesus as superior (Hebrews 1; Pentecost 19B)

This week, the lectionary takes us into the book of Hebrews—by tradition, considered to be a letter to Jewish believers. Yet this book does not show any clear formal signs of being a letter until right at the very end. There is no opening address; throughout the work, neither author nor recipients are ever identified. The “letter” contains no thanksgiving, no sharing of news at its start, as letters normally did at that time.

Instead, this book begins with a poetic preface, elegantly balancing a series of affirmations; first, about God (long ago God spoke … in these last days God has spoken), and then, about God’s Son (appointed heir … the reflection of God’s glory … the exact imprint of God’s very being). Each of these sections ends with a further affirmation about this Son (he is the agent of God’s creation … he sustains all things). The final section offers more about the Son (he made purification … he sat down at the right hand of the Most High … he became superior to the angels).

This poetic preface (1:1–4) provides a compact statement of the significance of Jesus. This is part of this Sunday’s lectionary passage (1:1–4, 2:5–12). It sets out the position of the author of this book quite clearly: the Son—soon to be identified with Jesus (2:9)—is superior to the angels, with a name more excellent than theirs (1:4). The motif of superiority and greater excellence permeates this work.

After this poetic opening, the work plunges into a didactic string of scripture citations (1:5–14), supporting the claim of the superiority of the Son. This is followed by the first of many direct exhortations (2:1–4), encouraging the readers to “pay greater attention to what we have heard” (2:1). The pattern of alternating teaching and exhortation continues for thirteen chapters, until the final appeal brings the work to an end with a benediction (13:20–21) and a rapid sequence of news, greetings and a final blessing (13:22–25). Finally, right at the very end, the work looks like a letter!

Like the “letter” of Jude, the “letter” to the Hebrews is actually much closer in form and function to a sermon; but it does not share the sectarian aggression of Jude. Like the “letter” of James, the “letter” to the Hebrews provides numerous exhortations and encouragements; indeed, at its end, its author identifies it simply as “a word of exhortation” (13:22).

The author is most certainly not Paul, as some ancient church writers maintained. Despite claims that the work was written by various individuals mentioned in other New Testament books (Apollos? Priscilla? Silvanus?), it is not possible to be absolutely certain about the identity of the author. The single reference to a known individual, Timothy, in the closing greetings (13:23), does not guarantee that the work came from Paul, an associate of Paul, or even a Pauline circle.

Three suggestions for the author of the word of exhortation to the Hebrews: Apollos, Priscilla, and Silvanus. But none of them can be proven
to have been the author.

The use of a refined Greek style, the intense engagement with Hebrew scripture, and the use of typological interpretation (for instance, 8:1–7, 13; 10:1, 11–13) together suggest an educated Hellenistic Jew who had come to faith in Jesus as Messiah and was a powerful preacher of the Gospel.

Somebody like Apollos would be quite apposite to be named as author—he was “an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures … he spoke with burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus” (Acts 18:24–25). Indeed, we learn further that “he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the scriptures that the Messiah is Jesus” (Acts 18:28).

I would love for Apollos to be proven as the author of this word of exhortation. However, apart from the similarity of rhetorical style and interpretive method in Hebrews, there is nothing explicit that will allow us to pin the authorship on the powerful rhetorician, Apollos of Alexandria.

The writer of Hebrews, whoever they are, notes that the message of salvation was “declared at first through the Lord, [then] attested by those who heard him” (2:3), thus acknowledging a chain of tradition lying behind the work. This indicates that it was probably written towards the end of the first century (and thus, a few decades later than when Apollos was active). But by whom, exactly, remains speculation.

Likewise, the precise identity of the recipients cannot be known, although some things can be said about them in rather general terms. The reference to “city” (13:14) might suggest an urban context, whilst notes of the good works carried out by the recipients (10:34; 13:16) and a warning to avoid “the love of money” (13:5) might point to a group with a degree of wealth. But these are fragile links, which can’t be definitive in identifying the audience.

The author indicates that the recipients had experienced “a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to abuse and persecution” (10:32–33)—although not to the point of sacrificing their lives (12:4). As a result of this, some may have “drifted away” (2:1) or “fallen away” (6:4–6) from their faith.

There are occasional flashes of scathing rhetoric in referring to these people: they are in danger of having an “evil, unbelieving heart” and “hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (3:12–13), or they are “crucifying again the Son of God and are holding him up to contempt” (6:6), or they have “spurned the Son of God, profaned the blood of the covenant by which they were sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of grace” (10:29). This is powerful rhetoric.

Elsewhere, however, the author describes such people in more subdued tones, as being “dull in understanding” (5:11) and needing someone to teach them (5:12). This is the task that is undertaken in this word of exhortation.

So this anonymous work to the Hebrews, as we have noted, opens with a soaring poetic description which sets out the hermeneutical stance of the author, as well as the centrality of Jesus in the schema which is to be expounded (1:1–4). Images in these verses are drawn consistently from Hebrew Scripture.

The verses portray a continuing relationship between God and humanity, which has come to a point of fulfilment in “a Son”. What is claimed of this Son has an all-encompassing scope. A number of images are used, pointing to other sections of New Testament texts where traditional Jewish ideas are pressed into the service of proclaiming Jesus.

The imagery of word is central in 1:1–4; this image derives from the prophetic figure of Israel and from the seminal text of Gen 1, and is also prominent at John 1:1–18. Jesus is claimed to be God’s word “in these last days” who “sustains all things” (1:3). As God’s word, Jesus is the one who “created the worlds”, in the same way that Wisdom is the co-worker with God in the process of creation in Proverbs 8, the Wisdom of Solomon, and Sirach 24.

A second image depicts the Son as reflecting the divine glory, the physical manifestation of God’s presence. This image hearkens back to wilderness stories in Exodus and Numbers and receives its clearest New Testament expression at Col 1:15–20. More than this, it is claimed that the Son is “the exact imprint of God’s very being” (1:3), terminology similar to that used in Jewish wisdom literature such as the Wisdom of Solomon 7.

A third term uses cultic imagery to assert that the Son has “made purification for sins” (1:3); the need for purity is familiar from Leviticus and Deuteronomy and runs through the ethical exhortations of Paul. The cultic dimension of understanding the role of Jesus will assume huge proportions as the word of exhortation develops. The image of Jesus as the great high priest will provide the dominant framework for understanding the person and work of Jesus.

A fourth image refers to the Son as having been “appointed heir of all things” (1:2). The language of inheritance reflects a concern of the patriarchal narratives of Genesis—where expected and surprising lines of inheritance are narrated—as well as language picked up by Paul at Rom 8:12–17.

Finally, the superiority of this Son is explicitly asserted, insofar as he has inherited a name “more excellent” than the names of the angels (1:4). He now rests at the right hand of God, a location recognised as a position of power in Exodus 15 and the Psalms, as well as in sayings of Jesus. This motif of superiority—indeed, even supercession—runs throughout the book, and provides both a central element of its theology, and a disturbing dimension of its rhetoric.

This collection of imagery strongly suggests that the author of this book was located within a strongly Jewish sector of the ongoing movement of the followers of Jesus. The arguments advanced in this book reflect the growing tensions and disagreements within the Jewish arena, as the followers of Jesus clash with the teachers of Judaism. We’ll explore those arguments in posts in subsequent weeks.

See also

A priest forever, “after the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 5; Pentecost 21B)