God’s Ultimate Word
Throughout history, God has spoken at many times and in many ways, and many others have as well. But in this passage, we learn there is one ultimate word of God, and God has now spoken it.
Hebrews 1-8 (WBC), William Lane
Hebrews: Evangelical Biblical Theology Commentary, Thomas Schreiner
Hebrews, John Owen
We recently celebrated 60 years since the March on Washington of 1963, the event during which the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his most famous speech, known to most of us as the “I have a dream” speech. After the speech, a young man from the audience complimented King on the speech, and in return, King gave him his own written copy of the speech. That young man is named George Raveling, who is now a retired college basketball coach. Years after the speech was given and it became known that Raveling had King’s written copy of the speech, someone offered him $3 million for it, and he turned it down. He’s turned down many offers for it. Why? And why would someone offer $3 million for it? King gave many speeches; he was a preacher, after all. And in fact, Martin Luther King isn’t the only speaker in history. Plenty throughout history have tried their hand at standing up in front of a crowd and delivering a message to them. So why offer $3 million for this speech? And perhaps even more crazy, why turn it down? Because this wasn’t just any speech. This was Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech, one of the greatest orators who has ever lived. And among all his speeches, this wasn’t just any speech. It was his ultimate speech.
Today we’re beginning a series of sermons through the book of Hebrews, Lord willing. We don’t know who the human author of it was; I’ll just call him “the author” throughout the series, and we don’t even know exactly to whom it was addressed, though there are good reasons to believe it was to a church made up of largely ethnically Jewish Christians who were tempted to turn from Christ back to the Judaism with which they were familiar. It is a letter, but it is not like most letters. As we’ll see today as we examine the opening to the letter, it doesn’t contain any formal greeting like we’d expect from a letter. What it is, rather, is a speech, written down for its intended audience, not unlike the written copy George Raveling has of King’s speech. And in the opening on which we’ll focus today, we see that not unlike Reverend King, the true God, the God who made everything, including Reverend King, is a speaking God, who has spoken at many times and in many ways. Yet he too, amid all he’s said, and amid all the other voices who have spoken in his creation, he too has an ultimate speech, an ultimate word, which he has spoken to us in these last days. George Raveling may be the only one who has Reverend King’s ultimate speech, but we have the ultimate word of God, because it is the final word of God, and because it is the greatest word of God.
It is the final word of God
Our passage today, which begins the whole book of Hebrews, begins with a contrast: 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. The thing they each have in common is the speaker: It was God who spoke to the fathers by the prophets long ago, and it is God who in these last days has spoken to us by his Son. So nothing in this passage is meant to denigrate the prior speech of God: The word of God is the word of God, however it’s spoken, whenever it’s spoken, and therefore is worthy of our utmost reverence. Nonetheless, there are real differences in this case, and the differences are not the speaker of the word, but the time of the speech, the audience, and the one through whom God spoke.
Long ago, God spoke by the prophets, but in these last days, he has spoken by his Son. From the vantage point of Hebrews, the time of God’s speech through the prophets was long ago. It was widely recognized even by the Jews of the period that God’s speech through the prophets ended about 400 years prior to the coming of Christ with the last book of the Old Testament, Malachi. 400 years ago from today America didn’t yet exist as a nation, we hadn’t discovered electricity, and the average life expectancy was 30 to 40 years. That was a long time ago. So here, from the vantage point of Hebrews, it was long ago that God spoke to the fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son. After 400 years of silence, the writer to the Hebrews says God has now spoken in their days, but it is not only in their days; he sees their days as the last days. In the Bible, the last days are the climax of the story of God’s plan of salvation. They are the days in which God’s Son has come, spoken, made purification for sins, and risen again, as we’ll see as we continue in this passage.
If you think of the story of this present creation like a chapter book, the first chapter is God’s creation of it. Some Christians think that’s a pretty short chapter: 6 24-hour days, others think that’s a really long chapter, even billions of years; I won’t get into that debate here. Then the second chapter is the fall into sin, which all agree is a really short chapter: Those events happen within the span of one day. Then you’ve got maybe 1500 years between the sin of Adam and the flood in the days of Noah, maybe another 300 between the flood and the call of Abraham, and so on. I won’t rehearse it all, but my point is that you have these various chapters of varying lengths, and the chapter in which God’s Son becomes man is the final chapter, which means 2000 years removed from the writing of Hebrews, we are still in this chapter! Last means last. If the author and his audience were in the last days, so are we.
And that means the way the word of God came to them is similar to how we should expect it to come to us. That’s the next set of contrasts we can notice: The audience and the medium. Long ago, God spoke to “our fathers” the writer says, and there the reference is to the fathers of the Jewish nation, their ancestors. The reason we call the book of Hebrews the book of Hebrews is that it does seem the original audience was largely ethnically Jewish Christians, such that the author can speak to them of their common fathers. The Jews quite rightly had a high regard for the writings of the Old Testament: In them was recorded what God said to their fathers through the prophets. But what the author of the letter now wants to help them see is that God has spoken to us in these last days through a different medium: His Son. In chapter 2, he gives us a bit more of a play-by-play of how that happened. Look about half way through verse 3 of chapter 2: There he says the message of salvation was declared at first by the Lord, and then it was attested to them by those who heard, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.
So here’s the chain of revelation as it were: God’s Son came to earth and became a man; his name is Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ, while on earth, spoke a message that chapter 2 calls a message of “great salvation”. It was Jesus who said that everyone who sins is a slave to sin (John 8:34), it was Jesus who said that he came to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45), it was Jesus who said that he must die and on the third day rise again (Mark 8:31), and it was Jesus who called all who heard him to repent and believe in the gospel (Mark 1:15). Not only that, but after his resurrection, he spent 40 days teaching those he appointed to be witnesses (Acts 1:1-3, 10:41-42), and promised to give them his Spirit, to teach them all things and call back to their memory the things he’d said to them (John 14:26). So the author and his audience didn’t personally hear the message directly from the incarnate Christ, but the message they heard was the message spoken by the incarnate Christ and attested to them by those who heard, and God himself bore witness to them by giving miraculous signs and wonders alongside their message.
So, what about us, then, who are here today? Can we say, with the author, that in these last days, God has spoken to us by his Son? Yes, we can, because we too live in the last days, and though we have not heard the words of the incarnate Christ while he was on earth, neither had the author or his audience, and yet he can still say, God has spoken to us by his Son because they heard the message the Son proclaimed as those who heard it relayed it to them, and we too have that message relayed to us in the writings of those who heard, the writings which make up our New Testaments. The author of Hebrews wrote this letter, and now we have it, so that we too can hear the same message of great salvation that was declared at first by the Lord and that was then attested to the author and his audience. And, therefore, brothers and sisters, in these last days…God has spoken…to us by his Son.
Does that mean we can now forget about what God spoke to the fathers by the prophets long ago? No; those words are God’s words too. Both in Jesus’ preaching and in the letter to the Hebrews we see the writings of the Old Testament very much still treated as God’s word and appealed to as authoritative over our lives. However, we must now interpret them through the lenses of God’s final word, that which he has spoken to us in these last days by his Son. We cannot read the Old Testament flat, as though if it says it there, we can directly apply it in the same way to our lives today, and this still happens in all kinds of ways today. Recently there’s been a surge of Christian Nationalism, in which some want to say that because the Old Testament had anti-blasphemy laws, modern nation-states should too, or because the Old Testament outlawed idolatry, modern nation-states should too. On the other end of the political spectrum, some want to say that because there were tribal allotments of land to the entire nation of Israel, modern nation-states should provide property to every person in their territory. Then there are the more cliché, garden-variety attempts to take verses like Proverbs 3:9-10, which says, “Honor the LORD with your wealth and with the firstfruits of all your produce; then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine” and read them as though God is promising that as long as you are generous with your giving, God will make you materially rich. Whatever the individual merits of any of these policies, I simply want to point out what they all have in common: They all listen to what God spoke to the fathers by the prophets long ago without listening to what God has spoken to us by his Son in these last days. Since God has spoken to us in these last days by his Son, we must now interpret everything God said before through those lenses.
And, we must reject all other claims to speak on God’s behalf. Last means last. The message God spoke to them by his Son is the last message until Jesus returns. Again, that doesn’t mean the Son is the last speaker per se, for we have seen that even in the example of the Hebrews, the message the Son proclaimed was attested to them by those who heard, not directly by the incarnate Son. Yet it was the same message, and wherever that message is proclaimed now, God is still speaking by his Son. But where a different message is proclaimed, you can be sure that it is not God. So Paul writes in Galatians 1:9 – “If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.” When Muhammad claimed to receive a revelation from God 600 years after God spoke by his Son, we know he was wrong. When Joseph Smith claimed to receive a revelation from God 1800 years after God spoke by his Son, we know he was wrong. Maybe they were deceived by demonic forces, maybe they deceived themselves, maybe they intentionally deceived their followers; we don’t know that, but we know this much for certain: God did not speak by Muhammad, or by Joseph Smith, because in these last days, God has spoken by his Son.
From this text we can begin to see, then, both the necessity and sufficiency of scripture. Reformed theologians have historically spoken of 4 characteristics of scripture: sufficiency, clarity, authority, necessity; you can remember them with the acronym SCAN. I’ll just talk briefly about necessity and sufficiency today. Scripture is necessary for us because it is in scripture that we have the attestation of those who heard the word of the Lord when he was incarnate on earth. It is through scripture that God speaks to us by his Son, just as it was through those who attested to the Hebrews that God spoke to them by his Son. And scripture is sufficient because God’s speech through his Son is his final speech, and in scripture we have the attestation to it from those who heard. Nothing ought to be nor can be added to it because the people who heard the message simply aren’t on earth anymore. God ensured that the essential content of the message he proclaimed by the Son was written down for us, so that now we need no substantially new word from him, nor will we get one. How’s that hit you? Does it seem kind of boring to you, perhaps something of a letdown? Some may feel, “I thought relationship with God was supposed to be something living, active, dynamic.” Indeed it is, but have you ever considered that something can be living and active without being in a constant process of change, without needing constant addition of new things? You know, like the living God for example, who is life itself, and who yet never changes, nor adds anything substantially to himself? He needs no improvement, and therefore he never changes, though he is very much living and active. So also, his Word, now fully revealed, though very much living and active (Heb 4:12), cannot be improved upon, because it is not only his final word; it is his greatest word. Let’s talk about that next.
It is the greatest word of God
So after the contrast of verse 1 and the beginning of verse 2, after the author tells us that in these last days God has spoken to us by his Son, he spends the rest of verse 2 through the end of verse 4 describing this Son, all driving toward the conclusion that he has become as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. In other words, the message God spoke to us by his Son is the greatest word of God because the Son is the greatest being by whom God could possibly speak. Long ago God spoke by the prophets, and next week as we get into chapter 2 we’ll see that God also delivered his law by angels. And angels were highly regarded by the Jews of that day. Scripture teaches that God made man in his image and gave him dominion over all the earth (Gen 1:26-28). On earth, man is the greatest being, and yet in Psalm 8, we read that man was made a little lower than the angels (Psalm 8:5). Nonetheless, the Son is even greater than the angels, and therefore the word God spoke by him is his greatest word. Why?
First, in verse 2, we see that the Son was appointed by God to be the heir of all things. Here the reference is to Psalm 2:7, where God says to his Son: “Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.” These Hebrew Christians would have been familiar with such a Psalm, and historically many saw it as a reference merely to Israel’s earthly king, David or one of his sons, and the promise, then, was of the worldwide extension of the king’s rule. And that’s true as far as it goes: This text in Hebrews confirms that God has promised to give his Son all things as His inheritance, and God’s Son did come in the flesh as a descendant of David to rule on his throne. But the author here now reads that text that God spoke to the fathers by the prophets through the lenses of what God has now spoken to us by his Son, and he sees that the Son to whom God promised all things was not merely the son of David, but the Son of God, the one through whom also he created the world, as verse 2 goes on to say.
God didn’t create the world through prophets or angels, because great as they were, they too were created. This Son by whom God has now spoken to us is the one by whom God made all things! The mechanics of how God made all things by the Son are not spelled out here, but insofar as the text does call us into the deep end of theology, let’s follow it there with the caution of those who know that when it comes to the knowledge of God, we’re more like doggy paddlers than Michael Phelps. What does it mean that God made all things by his Son? In Genesis 1 we can already see that when God creates, he does so through his Word. He says, “Let there be light,” and there was light (Gen 1:3). Then, in John 1, John tells us that that Word through whom God made all things is the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). In Proverbs 8, wisdom speaks and says that when God made all things, wisdom was beside him, like a master workman (Prov 8:30). What our author here is showing us, then, is that the Word through whom God made all things, the wisdom that was beside him in making all things, bears the relation to God of a Son to a Father. And we can get a clearer sense of what that means from verse 3.
There we see that this Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact imprint of his nature. The image of radiance there conjures up images of the rays of the sun, from which we get the creedal statement regarding the Son, that he is “God of God, light of light, very God of very God”. There is in God one who radiates glory, and one who is the radiance of that glory. Yet the one who is the radiance cannot be a different being, for then he would be a creation of God, and the verse prior to this made very clear that the Son is the one through whom God made the world. Furthermore, scripture is clear throughout that God shares his glory with no other (Isaiah 42:8), that none besides God are even worth of comparison with God (Isaiah 40:18-20), yet here is one who is the very radiance of God’s glory, and who therefore cannot be other than God. He is, in fact, the exact imprint of his nature, and one aspect of God’s nature is oneness: There are no others like him. To be the exact imprint of his nature, then, the Son must be God, although he is the imprint, not the imprinter, the radiance, not the one who radiates.
I told you we were doggy paddling into the deep end, but let’s stay there for just a bit longer. Here we have some of the basic building blocks for the doctrine of the Trinity and, within that, the doctrine of eternal generation. The doctrine of the Trinity teaches that God is one being who exists eternally in three persons: The Father, The Son, and the Holy Spirit. This text doesn’t get into the Holy Spirit, but it does show us a Father and Son who are one in being, and yet who are not the same person: One radiates, the other is the radiance, one presses his imprint, the other is the exact imprint. So why is the Son Son and the Father Father? Because on an analogy to human fathers and sons, though not identical with it, the Son is begotten, not made, by the Father, and the Father is the one who begets the Son. He is not made by the Father, because he is the one through whom all things were made. Rather, the Son is the word of the Father, while the Father speaks, the radiance, while the Father radiates, the exact imprint, while the Father imprints. And even in our text, he simply is these things, and later in Hebrews we see that the Son, like the Father, is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb 13:8), for which reasons we get this idea that the Son is not only begotten by the Father, but eternally begotten, or eternally generated, not according to his essence, which is one with the Father, but according to his person, which is different from the Father. The Father begetting the Son, the Son being begotten of the Father is not something God does in time; it’s who God eternally is.
We don’t pretend to understand all that, but we confess it, we worship God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as such, and here’s the upshot: That Son, the heir of all things, the one through whom God made all things, the one who is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact imprint of his nature, that Son is the one by whom God has spoken to us! We have that word of God. And if you really get that, how can you say, “Meh. Seems kinda boring. When will God say something new to me that really helps me?” And it doesn’t even end there. If you want to see how this Son really helps you, look next at verse 3: he upholds the universe by the word of his power, as verse 3 continues. As God made all things by his Word, so the Son, as an exact representation of God’s nature, now upholds everything God made by his Word. The reason the force of gravity continues to function consistently, the reason the molecules in our bodies continue to sustain life in us, the reason our immaterial souls continue to exist, is because the Son sustains them all by his Word. Isn’t that good news? You ever feel like you have to uphold the universe by the word of your power, or maybe just uphold your family, or even just all the details of your own life by your power? Forget about it. You are not the Son, and he’s upholding the whole universe, including your family and your life, without any trouble, and without any help from you.
And in time, he entered into that universe to provide the help we really need, as we see next in verse 3: He made purification for sins. If you’re here today and you aren’t yet a Christian, you aren’t repenting of your sins and resting upon Jesus alone for salvation, you may be looking for all kinds of things from Jesus and thinking there are all kinds of needs in your life that maybe he can satisfy, but the thing you need more than anything else is this right here: Purification for sins. You and I and everyone else in this room are not God; the Son is the one through whom all things were made, and we are among the things that were made. Yet we have rebelled against the one who made us, and that shows itself in the many ways in which we have disobeyed his commands in thought, word, and deed, both by what we have done and what we have left undone. The Bible calls that sin, and what sin does is it defiles us. Perhaps in your life your conscience has even reminded you of this, and after doing certain things you knew to be violations even of your own professed moral standards, you felt dirty. That dirty feeling comes upon and can exercise such power over us because deep down, we truly have dirty hearts. And what we need, then, is not to accumulate voices to convince ourselves that we aren’t dirty. What we need is purification, and that’s what the Son came to provide. Though he was the one truly pure human who ever lived, he took the defilement of our sins upon himself on the cross, and became an unclean dead body for us. After making such a purification for sins, he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, to sit down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, thus displaying that his work of purification was finished. Now to whoever would confess their sins, turn from them, and receive Christ, God promises a full cleansing of all your sins, past, present, and future, because Christ already made purification for them all. Receive him today, and your sins will be cleansed.
This is the message God has spoken to us by his Son in these last days, and this Son now sits at his right hand, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. I mentioned earlier that God made man a little lower than the angels, and though the Son came down to that level, and went even lower, all the way to death on a cross, he is now seated far above the angels, and has received the name above theirs, which we’ll see next week is the name of Son, for to which of the angels did God ever say, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you”? as verse 5 says. Of course, he was eternally Son as God, the one through whom the world was made, and even as man, at his baptism, The Father said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:17). But at his resurrection, ascension, and enthronement at the Father’s right hand, he came into the firstfruits of the privileges of his sonship, and so was declared God’s Son in a new way (cf. Rom 1:4). As in England Charles was always the son of Elizabeth, but only recently took the throne and received the title of king, so the man Christ Jesus was always the divine Son of God, and was the earthly son by his birth from the line of David, but only was enthroned as man above the angels when he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high. And that Son, that is the Son by whom God has spoken to us in these last days. We not only have the final word of God, we have the greatest word of God, because it is the Word spoken to us by the greatest possible being.
So to whom are you listening today? We all have a lot of voices in our lives, the proliferation of media has only multiplied the number of those voices. There are the voices on your television, the voices on your favorite podcasts, voices on the internet, voices that still speak through those old-fashioned artifacts of technology called books. Then there are those voices you hear of people you know personally, maybe also through the internet, or the phone, or in person: A boss, a co-worker, a neighbor, a sibling, a parent, a spouse, a friend, even a pastor or fellow church member. Their words may be elegant, funny, able to induce powerful emotions, inspiring, or exciting, but if any of them are claiming to speak on God’s behalf and it can’t be deduced from the words of scripture, reject it. We have God’s final word. And even if someone isn’t claiming to speak on God’s behalf, if what they’re saying contradicts the words of scripture, reject it. However great they seem, they aren’t greater than God’s Son. He is the only heir of all things, the only one through whom all things were made, the only one who upholds all things, the only radiance of God’s glory and exact imprint of his nature, the only one who made purification for sins, and the only one now seated at the right hand of the majesty on high, and that Son, is the one by whom God has spoken to us in these last days. We have the ultimate word of God; listen to it above all others.