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Scaling the Heights of Hebrews 1:3

There are certain passages in Scripture that effortlessly rocket our thoughts and affections into the heavenlies where Christ is. Paul’s letters are brimming with such passages: Colossians 1:15-20, Ephesians 1:3-14, 1 Corinthians 15:42-49, Philippians 3:20-21, and so on. Think also of the glorious visions of John in Revelation, such as the Lion of Judah breaking the seal of the scroll that contained God’s sovereign purposes for history, a feat which had otherwise stilled the entire cosmos (Rev. 5), or the pristine and impregnable New Jerusalem whose light outshines 10,000 suns for its lamp is the Lamb (Rev. 21). But one passage in particular that comes to mind is the epic opening of the letter to the Hebrews:

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance [ἀπαύγασμα] of the glory of God and the exact imprint [χαρακτὴρ] of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. 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 (Heb. 1:1-4, ESV).

This passage is not meant to be a fascinating cloud that we speculate about from afar, but a mighty mountain in our minds and hearts that stabilizes and secures us in all situations, so that we can hold fast our confession of Christ to the end. Calvin gets at this in his Institutes when he writes,

We are called to a knowledge of God: not that knowledge which, content with empty speculation, merely flits in the brain, but that which will be sound and fruitful if we duly perceive it, and if it takes root in the heart. For the Lord manifests himself by his powers, the force of which we feel within ourselves and the benefits of which we enjoy.

So more than just admiring this passage from a distance, we need to actually begin scaling its heights and obtain a magnificent, life-transforming vision of the One in whom God has spoken in these last days, whose blood has inaugurated a new and better covenant, whose priestly ministry on our behalf is in the heavens where he forever intercedes for us, and who has opened the way for us to worship and serve the living God. It’s not enough to know that he has done all these things; we also need to know who exactly he is that qualifies him to save to the uttermost all those who come to God through him and to assure us that his world-inaugurating ministry will not fail or falter.

If you’ve ever gone mountain-climbing, a tour guide is usually helpful. One such guide for scaling Hebrews 1:1-4 is (as you might have guessed) Geerhardus Vos. While he has much to say about all four verses, we’ll only follow him over the terrain of the two phrases in the first part of verse 3: “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (ESV). The article will simply organize and summarize his thoughts on pp. 80-83 in his book The Teaching of the Epistle to the Hebrews and then briefly expand his insight to bear on the teaching of the letter as a whole.

Two Possible Uses: Theological or Cosmical?

Vos begins by pointing out that the author of Hebrews has either of two uses in mind that will guide our translation and interpretation:

  1. Trinitarian-Theological Use: the author represents the second Person as the effulgence of God’s glory. This use would be ontological: expressing the relation within the Godhead (ad intra).
  2. Cosmical-Representation Use: the author shows how the glory of God is carried into the world of creation. This use would be economic: expressing the relation between God and the world (ad extra).

“The Radiance of the Glory of God”

Regarding the first phrase—”the radiance of the glory of God” (ESV)—there are two possible translations of the word απαύγασμα (“radiance”). When combined with the two possible uses—theological or cosmical—a 4×4 matrix of interpretation emerges:

απαύγασμα

Trinitarian-Theological

Cosmical

“Refulgence” shining back (e.g., the moon reflecting the sun)

Marks the Son as a separate person in the divine Trinity Christ is immanent in the world, duplicating the glory of God in the world

“Effulgence” (e.g., the mere tail of a comet)

Refers to the eternal generation of the Son from the Father Christ is carrying God’s glory into the world, never being detached from God

 

According to Vos, “effulgence” has stronger support.

“The Exact Imprint of his Nature”

In the second phrase—”the exact imprint of his nature” (ESV)—χαρακτὴρ (“exact imprint”) is a noun that can have either an active or passive meaning. The active meaning corresponds with the cosmical use, while the passive the trinitarian-theological. Furthermore, the passive meaning can be subdivided into either “character” or “impression.”

χαρακτρ

Trinitarian-Theological

Cosmical

Active

Christ engraves:

The lines on the bottom of the seal which made the impression

Passive

Christ is engraved upon:

Character

Impression

the character on the seal of God His is the image made with the seal, that is, God’s stamp is placed upon the Son so that He as second Person of the Trinity becomes the impression of the first Person, being the character from the seal

Evaluating the Evidence

The probability is in favor of the Trinitarian-theological use, according to Vos, which is also the traditional interpretation. Calvin, for one, takes this position (see Institutes 1.13.2).

  1. The author speaks in terms of being, not in terms of the Son’s doing.
  2. The words are more naturally construed in the theological sense, since “the world” is not mentioned here.
  3. The Son is called the character of the divine substance—to take this cosmically would imply a communicating of the divine substance to the world, which is too pantheistic for Hebrews.

If, however, we accept the cosmical use, we still cannot get rid of the Trinitarian-theological background. We have to still ask, why is the Son a fitting image to act as seal for the world?

Vos’ Conclusion

The first phrase—“the effulgence of his glory” (Vos’ trans.)—expresses the essential unity of the Godhead by reason of the identity of the Father and the Son; we cannot think of the Son without the Father. The Son is, therefore, homoousios with the Father.

The second phrase—“the very image of his substance” (Vos’ trans.)—emphasizes the result, namely, the likeness of the Son to the Father. The Son is, therefore, the monogenes of the Father.

Hebrews 1:3 and the Rest of the Letter

The ontological nature of the Son as described by these two phrases in 1:3 provides the deep theological structure upon which the entire letter to the Hebrews is constructed. It’s here the superior nature of the revelation of the Son to the prophets and angels is justified (1:1ff). It’s here the main point of the letter as it pertains to the effective and everlasting nature of Christ’s high priestly ministry on our behalf finds its foundation (8:1). It’s here the nature of the letter as a word of exhortation or warning is heightened and intensified (13:22). It’s here the New Covenant inaugurated by the Son can rightly be said to far surpass the Old Covenant given through Moses. It’s here the forgiveness of sins by the blood of Christ finds it efficacy and the believer his confidence to draw near to the throne of grace by the access obtained for him.

In a word, the letter to the Hebrews states—maybe more clearly than anywhere else in Scripture—what the church has always been keen to acknowledge, namely that the fullness of salvation that we enjoy requires that our mediator be both truly God and truly man.

Heidelberg Catechism

16. Why must he be truly man and truly righteous? God’s justice demands it: man has sinned, man must pay for his sin, but a sinner can not pay for others.

17. Why must he also be true God? So that, by the power of his divinity, he might bear the weight of God’s anger in his humanity and earn for us and restore to us righteousness and life.

18. And who is this mediator—true God and at the same time truly human and truly righteous? Our Lord Jesus Christ, who was given us to set us completely free and to make us right with God.

Westminster Larger Catechism

38. Why was it requisite that the mediator should be God? It was requisite that the mediator should be God, that he might sustain and keep the human nature from sinking under the infinite wrath of God, and the power of death; give worth and efficacy to his sufferings, obedience, and intercession; and to satisfy God’s justice, procure his favor, purchase a peculiar people, give his Spirit to them, conquer all their enemies, and bring them to everlasting salvation.

39. Why was it requisite that the mediator should be man? It was requisite that the mediator should be man, that he might advance our nature, perform obedience to the law, suffer and make intercession for us in our nature, have a fellow-feeling of our infirmities; that we might receive the adoption of sons, and have comfort and access with boldness unto the throne of grace.

40. Why was it requisite that the mediator should be God and man in one person? It was requisite that the mediator, who was to reconcile God and man, should himself be both God and man, and this in one person, that the proper works of each nature might be accepted of God for us, and relied on by us, as the works of the whole person.

For further study check out Dr. Lane Tipton’s 2014 conference address on Hebrews 1:1-4 and his Sunday school class Christology and Hebrews. We also have a helpful panel discussion that looks at some of the main features and contributions of the letter.

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