Friday, March 2, 2007

Hebrews 1:1-4—masterful start to a breathtaking epistle

In the history of literature, many books are rightly famed for their masterful opening lines. Hebrews should rank among the very best. Consider:
Πολυμερῶς καὶ πολυτρόπως πάλαι ὁ θεὸς λαλήσας τοῖς πατράσιν ἐν τοῖς προφήταις 2 ἐπ᾽ ἐσχάτου τῶν ἡμερῶν τούτων ἐλάλησεν ἡμῖν ἐν υἱῷ, ὃν ἔθηκεν κληρονόμον πάντων, δι᾽ οὗ καὶ ἐποίησεν τοὺς αἰῶνας· 3 ὃς ὢν ἀπαύγασμα τῆς δόξης καὶ χαρακτὴρ τῆς ὑποστάσεως αὐτοῦ, φέρων τε τὰ πάντα τῷ ῥήματι τῆς δυνάμεως αὐτοῦ, καθαρισμὸν τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν ποιησάμενος ἐκάθισεν ἐν δεξιᾷ τῆς μεγαλωσύνης ἐν ὑψηλοῖς, 4 τοσούτῳ κρείττων γενόμενος τῶν ἀγγέλων ὅσῳ διαφορώτερον παρ᾽ αὐτοὺς κεκληρονόμηκεν ὄνομα.
This post won't be much more than a gushy admiration for the inspired writer's style in constructing one of the commanding openings of all time. If the writer is anyone named in Scripture, the description we have of Apollos as Ἰουδαῖος ...Ἀλεξανδρεὺς τῷ γένει, ἀνὴρ λόγιος (Acts 18:24) surely fits. Whoever he was, God found in him a man whose providential gifts, elevated by the Spirit's inspiration, were equal to very lofty themes.

Note how the writer starts with three adverbs (Πολυμερῶς, πολυτρόπως, πάλαι) followed by an aorist participle (λαλήσας), and does not bring out a finite verb until what is our second verse (ἐλάλησεν). A literal translation makes for difficult English, and many versions smooth it out—thus losing (in my opinion) the intended impact.

If the writer had meant to say "Long ago God spoke many times and in many ways to our ancestors through the prophets" (NLT), or "In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways" (TNIV), he could have done so. But he chose not to, and his choice (again, in my view) should be reflected in the translation. To go in the other direction suggests to the English reader that the writer is making two independent statements: God spoke in this way; now God spoke in another way.

Surely it will be argued that we have to adopt some such convention, even as the more literal versions do (ESV: "Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets"), but I demur. The author's emphasis is not equally divided between the two assertions. His emphasis is on God's speaking to us Son-wise (ἐλάλησεν ἡμῖν ἐν υἱῷ). Everything is subordinated to that pivotal event.

And this same could be said for the book as a whole. This is the writer's argument: all was preparation for Christ. Everything is overshadowed by Christ. Master-wordsmith that he was, he sets this all up for us in the opening words.

So he says "In many portions and in many manners of old God having spoken to the fathers in the prophets, at the last of these days He spoke to us in the Son." That's very rough English, and indeed it might be another case where it's best to translate it one way, and then explain it. A preacher could say,
"The way the writer phrases himself, his great emphasis is on God's word in Christ. Everything else is subordinated to that. How has God spoken in Christ? He has done so, having spoken at many times over a space of millennia, and in many manners by vision and symbol, in years gone by. After these epochs of gradual and multiform accumulative revelation, God has spoken in a final and definitive manner. This climactic revelation is not partial, it is not under many guises, and it is not solely mediated. It is direct, and it is final. The former is backdrop to the latter. God spoke to us in one who was—not merely an angel, nor prophet, nor a symbol, nor a type, but—a Son."
All my readers know that we could go on and on about the marvels of this passage. I'll just note one more facet to bolster my argument that it sets the stage for the whole book. It's that note in v. 3—καθαρισμὸν τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν ποιησάμενος ἐκάθισεν ἐν δεξιᾷ τῆς μεγαλωσύνης ἐν ὑψηλοῖς. This alludes to Psalm 110, which some have said (justifiably) is the background text for the entire book. The verb καθίζω occurs in three other pivotal passages (8:1; 10:12; 12:2). It marks Christ off from all others. Angels are not invited to sit at God's right hand; priests could never sit, because their work was never done.

Only Christ is God's "right-hand Man," only Christ accomplished perfect and eternal atonement, and so only Christ ἐκάθισεν ἐν δεξιᾷ τῆς μεγαλωσύνης ἐν ὑψηλοῖς. It is the magnificence of this Christ that these magnificent opening words serve to spotlight. One can only gaze and marvel—and then try, with our vastly inferior gifts, to convey to others the wonders that are unveiled here.


Matthew S. Harmon said...


Thanks for giving an example of working in the Greek helps one to see what you are noting. As you note even the best of the English translations cannot easily bring this out.

For those who might be interested, D.A. Carson has a series of expositional messages on Hebrews under a series titled "Jesus is Better." Six of those messages are available for purchase (sorry, not free downloard!) at this link:


Stefan Ewing said...

Good stuff, and that is a very interesting exegesis (or as I have read it called, "extra Jesus"). Jesus has been with us since the beginning of all. It is so true that we see foreshadowings of him in places like the Psalms. Wow.

Hebrews and Romans together are—in this humble sinner's opinion—the foundation texts of the Christian faith...all the more so for someone like me who was raised as an atheist Jew, and led to believe that Christians had it all wrong!

After years of reading both the Old and New Testaments without understanding, God led me to study Hebrews and through the Holy Spirit, he gave me eyes to see. Then he led me to Romans—especially Romans 11, and when our pastor preached on the olive tree metaphor, I thought God was speaking directly to me. It wasn't but a few days later that I surrendered to Christ and he saved me!

Hebrews and Romans together are the key to understanding God's revealed word in history...and Hebrews 1:1-4 kicks it all off.

DJP said...

What a terrific testimony, Sewing. Thanks for sharing that.

Funny thing, that expression "atheist Jew." I work with a Jewish lady who exploded when I referred in passing to a "Jewish friend at church." She told me that this whole "Jewish Christian" business was [expletive deleted].

But I bet you dimes to donuts she'd have no problem with "atheist Jew."

Stefan Ewing said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stefan Ewing said...

Yes, you've got it exactly right! There are too many ironies. For the first time in my life, I turn back fully to the God of my ancestors; yet for the first time in my life, there are many who would no longer consider me to be a Jew.