Friday, February 8, 2013

Theological Confusion in Hebrews 1

A friend of mine was reading Hebrews 1:1-6, and it left her a bit confused about two theological elements in it.  So, she asked for my help.  I thought my answer to her might be helpful to some of you, as well.

As always, let's start by reading the passage.*
* (I happen to have an older version of the NASB handy today, so please excuse the Thous and Thees.)

1 God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways,

2 in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world.

3 And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power.  When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high;

4 having become as much better than the angels, as He has inherited a more excellent name than they.

5 For to which of the angels did He ever say, "THOU ART MY SON, TODAY I HAVE BEGOTTEN THEE"?  And again, "I WILL BE A FATHER TO HIM AND HE SHALL BE A SON TO ME"?

Old Testament Contradiction?

Her first question came about when she checked out the Old Testament verses referenced in verse 5 (signified by capital letters in the NASB).  The first one, Psalm 2:7, makes sense, but the second, 2 Samuel 7:14, reads, "I will be a father to him and he will be a son to me; when he commits iniquity, I will correct him with the rod of men and the strokes of the sons of men."

Clearly, we know the author of Hebrews can't be implying that Jesus committed iniquity, because only a few chapters later, he blatantly states that Jesus never sinned.  So why reference those verses?

The first thing to understand is that verse and chapter divisions are an arbitrary organizational method imposed by men.  The original Hebrew Scriptures were giant blocks of text with no verses, chapters, or even punctuation (excepting instances like the Psalms, of course, which were divided up more).  In our American minds, it is perfectly acceptable to apply one chapter to Christ but not the last verse of the previous chapter or the next verse of the following chapter - yet we find it weird that New Testament writers frequently reference "half" a "verse."  But, logically, these two approaches are no different, and the original readers (Hebrew Christians) would surely have been familiar with it.  So, for New Testament writers, applying half a verse to Christ did not require applying the entire verse.

Second, if you read the Psalms and 2 Samuel references in their entire context, you'll see that they're talking directly about David and Solomon, Israel's two big-dog kings.  Throughout Scripture, those two are repeatedly pointed to regarding God's promise that one of David's bloodline would reign over Israel forever, and Christ as the fulfillment of that promise is also a heavily repeated theme (in fact, those two chapters themselves are examples of the notion).  So, to the original Hebrew readers, the author referencing those verses would be seen as a succinct way to communicate that Christ is the fulfillment of that prophetic promise for David's descendants (specifically, Descendant) to reign permanently.

Third, look at the 2 Samuel verse again with these facts in mind: (1) Our iniquities were laid on Christ (1 Peter 2:24), (2) He was beaten with a rod (Mark 15:19), and (3) He was scourged (whipped - given strokes) (Mark 15:15).  In all of this, Jesus really did fulfill every aspect of that prophetic verse!

So, if you're reading your Bible, check out an Old Testament reference, and are confused when the entirety of it doesn't seem to apply in the New Testament situation, remember that in original readers' culture there wasn't reason for it to have to, and step back to consider how the overall meaning of that Old Testament passage might relate to the New Testament point.

Became Higher than the Angels?
These verses in Hebrews also beg the question, How did Jesus become "as much better than the angels"?  As God, He's always been higher than the angels - right?
Well, "become" is in the aorist participle in the original Greek, a verb tense is difficult to translate into English.  This level of Biblical Greek is beyond my knowledge, but from what I can gather, it's kind of like a different dimension of past events.  So, when we read "become," that's not really what it means.
Second, if you read on to Hebrews 2:6-9, you'll find that while Christ was a Man, He was temporarily of lower station than the angels.  So:
Before incarnation = higher than angels
During incarnation = lower than angels
After incarnation = higher than angels again.
This last state explains why He "has become as much better than the angels" - He ascended into heaven again.
But then, of course, there's the fact that God is outside of time, so both states of higher and lower kind of existed at once, hence an untranslatable verb tense.  And a God who's far too big for our human minds to fully understand. :-)
If something stumps you as you're reading your Bible, feel free to e-mail me!  I'll e-mail you back as soon as I get time, and if I think the topic might be of wide interest, I might include it on the blog. :-)

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