If Jesus is the Son of God, why do we bother with anyone else?
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Hebrews 1:1-4
This is one of the very first resources I wrote for our group leaders, and I had a long way to go in decided what kind of resource I wanted it to be.
This Week's Big Idea: Introducing the Book of Hebrews
We simply do not know who wrote the book of Hebrews. Paul has traditionally been named as the author, though recent scholars have made cases both for Luke and for Apollos, both well-educated and well-spoken. We do know roughly when and why it was written - before the destruction of the Temple in 70, but late enough that his audience was persecuted and even compelled return to Judaism, say early 60s. The letter was certainly written to a group of very able Jewish Christians, but who were harboring sentiments of returning to Jewish ritual either because of Nero’s persecution of Christians or because they wanted to “hedge their bets” in earning favor with God.
The letter applies to far more than hesitant Jewish Christians. The author also seems to address Gentile converts who were considering a return to paganism, new converts who displayed no evidence of their commitment, and Jewish converts who were stagnant in their faith. The purpose of the letter is quite simple: Jesus is the Son of God. In light of the evidence supporting that truth, every other religion and every other way of life falls mindlessly short of Christianity.
Hebrews in Today’s World
David Jeremiah gives us the challenge quote for the entire quarter: “Never has the biblical Jesus been dragged through the mud like He is in the current culture.” Is there anything more serious, more horrible, that we could do than give the world a false impression about Jesus? I don’t think there is. We give that false impression through the way we live, but also through our own false understandings. As Christians, it is vital that we know who Jesus is, what He has done, and how we are supposed to live as a result. That is the very purpose of the book of Hebrews, making it the perfect book for us to study while David is teaching us how to be a City on a Hill in our worship services. In the process, the author gives us a very strong case to believe in Jesus as well as some very practical answers to difficult questions that arise in response. This should be an excellent quarter as we tackle some very tough issues together.
Outline of Hebrews
The Superiority of the Son (1-2)
Christ Exalted (1:1-4)
Christ Divine (1:5-14)
Christ Human (2:1-18)
The Superiority of His Faithfulness (3-4)
The Superiority of His Work (5-6)
The Superiority of His Priesthood (7-10)
The Superiority of His Faith (11)
The Superiority of His Way (12)
The Superiority of the Christian Life (13)
Jesus in Today's World
Your Leader Guide recommends doing an internet video search on “Who Is Jesus”. You can certainly do that - just be prepared to be disturbed. Here are some random interview results I found on BlueFishTV:
I don’t really have an opinion of Jesus I believe that religion was created to control the masses.
He was a dude lived back in the day pretty awesome he had a beard.
I think that he is a pretty cool guy he had a peaceful philosophy I think he’s misinterpreted by a lot of people.
I don’t know because I don’t really believe in him so I don’t really think anything of him.
I mean he could have been a real person I mean I am sure he was I mean I am sure he was just good at what he did or something.
I kind of feel that Jesus is a modern day scapegoat.
Jesus was a man from what I figure.
He was just kind of a guy with a really unique positive message that kind of gave a lot of people a lot of hope.
He probably existed but I don’t believe he was the Son of God or anything.
Part 1: God Speaks in Jesus (1:1-2a)
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors by the prophets at different times and in different ways. 2 In these last days, he has spoken to us by his Son.
“Long ago God spoke.” That is such a profound statement that you could spend all class discussing. God spoke the universe into existence. God spoke to Abraham and Moses and Isaiah (the list you get in the Leader Guide is excellent). And most importantly, the false idols of the world do NOT speak (Jeremiah 10). You could spend a lot of time discussing the various ways God spoke in the Old Testament! But that is not really the point of this lesson, so I encourage you not to get bogged down there. Rather, move quickly to the memory verse, “In these last days, He has spoken to us by His Son.” The point of Hebrews is to establish Jesus as the full and final revelation of God, the revelation that truly explains everything else God said and did before.
The lesson uses the doctrine of “progressive revelation” which basically says that over time God more fully reveals His plan. This does NOT mean that God lied before or that He changed His mind. It means that over time humanity was ready to learn more of God’s plan. For example, the Old Testament reveals God the Father and hints and the Son and Spirit. The Gospels reveal the Son and hint further at the Spirit. The rest of the New Testament reveal all three together. But be careful - this can be tricky to explain. See my Watch Out section.
Let me offer one tip. The Leader Guide asks learners to classify Jesus as complete revelation, authoritative revelation, or final revelation (the idea being that all of them are true). These are extremely advanced and nuanced concepts. Be prepared to explain these terms clearly! We don’t want your group to get overwhelmed before you even get to the meat of the lesson!
Aside: Watch Out! (1:1-2a)
Every passage has a few danger zones to be aware of. Nothing to hide! But you want to be aware that your discussion could get sidetracked on them. You want to be prepared to (1) give a quick answer, or (2) say that you don’t have time to answer fully in class, but you can talk about it some other time.
The God who speaks - This could quickly devolve into a comparison of how God speaks to people today. That is not the point! This passage is about how God spoke to the Old Testament prophets. Don’t get sidetracked!
Revelation/Inspiration - You could also get sidetracked with questions about how God “spoke the Bible”. That is an important subject that we will discuss, just not today.
Progressive Revelation - Another very important doctrine that can trip you up. People have used this doctrine to say that God has further revealed things to people after the Bible. The point of Hebrews is the prove that God’s final word is Jesus, so there is no need for any further revelation today.
These last days - Any time someone sees “last days” they might want to talk about end times. Don’t get sidetracked there. The Bible authors regularly refer to their present time as the last days, mainly to say that everything is in place for Christ’s second coming and the last day. That is not the point of this passage!
Part 2: God Is Revealed in Jesus (1:2b-4)
God has appointed him heir of all things and made the universe through him. 3 The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact expression of his nature, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high. 4 So he became superior to the angels, just as the name he inherited is more excellent than theirs.
Your Leader Guide accurately says that these are some of the most amazing and difficult verses in all the Bible, truly packed with very technical and complex doctrine. You can’t cover everything in depth (although your Leader Guide is an excellent summary!); here are some additional highlights to consider:
Heir. As the Son of God, Jesus is the heir. He did not become the heir at a point in time! The word for “appointed” simply indicates a state of being. Jesus has eternally been the heir of all things - the highest possible position.
Made the universe. Compare to John 1:1-3 and Colossians 1:16.
Radiance of God’s glory. Think of the Transfiguration here; when Jesus says to Philip, “The one who has seen Me has seen the Father” is more about His work, which is better captured in the next phrase. Someone likened the Trinity to God as the sun, Christ as the light from the sun, the Spirit as the heat. That’s not a bad illustration. It breaks down at the electromagnetic level, but who’s counting?
Exact expression of His nature. It is true that this hearkens to the process of making a coin (which is a great illustration, by the way). Jesus perfectly reveals the nature of God, whom we cannot see. “Nature” is a difficult word and was the catalyst for several major arguments in the early church. The Nicene Creed (attached) was written in part to clarify what the word meant.
Sustaining all things. Astrophysicists have posited the existence of a mysterious entity called “dark matter” to explain how the universe doesn’t fly into oblivion. Particle physicists have likewise sought the Higgs-Boson or “god particle” to similarly explain subatomic structure. Eventually someone will have to admit that the universe requires regular activity of mysterious forces to continue its existence. However He chooses to do it, Jesus holds the universe together now and always.
Making purification. This is so important that I give it its own section.
Sat down at the right hand. “Sat down” indicates a completed work (all the more remarkable that He stood up for Stephen the martyr), and the “right hand” is the place of honor. Only one person sits at the right hand of the King.
Higher in rank / superior name. I strongly encourage you NOT to get sidetracked by a discussion about angels. You just don’t have time. But know that angel worship/ritual was a problem among Jews (see Colossians 2). We do NOT know what “name” the author meant for Jesus (it does not have to be Yahweh). It could just mean that Jesus’ person was superior to any angel. But remember that Jesus has a name that only He knows (see Revelation 19:12).
Every one of these aspects is designed to show the superiority of Christ to everything in creation, leading us to put our faith in Him and not turn back.
Please save the majority of your time for these verses. I don’t think there is anything more important we could talk about in Bible study than Jesus. These verses beautifully summarize who He is and what He has done. It does seem that your best approach is simply to let class members try to explain how these verses give a complete picture of the person and work of Christ. Just make sure they hit all of them (and keep them from getting off track)
I like the suggestion of having class members find their own object lesson for each attribute of Christ (heir/picture of child; radiance/flashlight; expression/coin or key; sustaining/bookbinding or shirt seam; purification/stain). Ask your class what other objects they would like to use if they were trying to explain to someone who Jesus is.
A shirt stain is an excellent illustration. We all have clothing stains that we simply cannot remove. Well, Jesus CAN completely remove the stain. And if we stain the shirt again, He will clean it again. Don’t reduce Jesus to the ultimate dry-cleaners, but that illustration might help you explain that point.
I recommend bringing things back around to whatever you talked about at the beginning. Hopefully, you talked about things people get wrong about Jesus. If you made a list of those things, you can walk back through them and ask your class how these verses correct those misunderstandings. (If you need help, try these examples: to Mormons, Jesus is the brother of the devil; to Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jesus is the supreme angel; to many new agers, Jesus simply knew God better than anyone else; to Muslims, Jesus is the second-best prophet.)
If you have time, you can take your application to the level of discipleship. If Christ is all of these things, what does that mean to me? Not just as someone responsible to Jesus but someone who is supposed to be like Jesus!
Aside: Making Purification
Based on the structure of the verse, this is the high point of Hebrews 1:3 -- the most important part of Jesus’ character. In the context of Hebrews, this clearly means being cleansed with respect to sin. This is the greatest work of Christ and the one demanding our commitment and devotion. However, the genitive “for sins” does not mean “from sin”! Christ’s purification has taken our sin away (particular the consequences thereof); that does not mean we will never go back and stain ourselves with sin. As we grow in understanding of the Lordship of Christ in our lives, the stain of our sin will more and more horrify us, driving us to confess and repent of it.
Aside: Watch Out! (1:2b-4)
Has appointed / became higher - These words do NOT imply that Jesus was “promoted”. He was always who he is. However, the author does highlight the importance of the act of atonement, something that happened in time.
Nature - Here is how I summarize the early debates: if Christ and God have the same divine essence, how can they be distinct beings? but if they have different essences, how is Christ God in the same way as God the Father? See how that gets tricky? The solution was to say that they have the same essence / being / nature, but different persons.
Higher in rank than angels - This does NOT mean that Jesus is comparable to an angel. He is a superior being, as the rest of chapter 1 explains.
Closing Thoughts: The Nicene Creed (381)
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.
Who, for us for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.
And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father [and the Son]; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets.
And I believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.