THE CHRISTOLOGY OF HEBREWS

Posted on February 12,2016 (originally written December 10, 2012)

  
Many people know of the apostle Paul and his high view of the man known as Jesus, for many “key Pauline passages reveal a lofty yet humane view of Jesus.”[1] Paul is widely known of even in non-Christian circles as one of the founders of the Christian faith. This of course should not be surprising since he wrote nearly half of the New Testament. However, there is another author in the New Testament (NT) that also presents a spectacular view of Christ while maintaining the reality of His humanity that is far less known of, quite possibly because his name is not known for certain. This author is the author of Hebrews. To be sure, Dr. David L. Allen has presented a superb case for asserting that the author of the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts, Paul’s long time physician and personal companion Luke, wrote the book of Hebrews.[2] However, ultimately the authorship of Hebrews is anonymous and so it is at best a guessing game as to who wrote it. The more important issue is not who wrote it, but what they wrote in it. The book of Hebrews develops an incredibly glorious Christology that can be seen few other places in Scripture, for the author of Hebrews truly saw Christ as someone more unique than anyone else that has ever lived or will ever live. Jesus is truly sinless, fully human, fully God, completely faithful, and the greatest High Priest who never, ever changes. In this paper there is first going to be a brief discussion of the organization of the Christological material found in Hebrews, followed by some of the historical circumstances that led the author of Hebrews to write about this theme, namely Christology. After that there will be a discussion of several verses found in Hebrews and how they contribute to the Christology found therein, including Hebrews 2:17, 4:15, 3:6, 7:17, and 13:8. There will also be a brief look at how Christology is developed in several other NT books, including John, Philippians, and Luke, some of which will be integrated directly into the sections mentioned above regarding Hebrews passages, and there will be a quick look at a few Old Testament (OT) passages that relate to the Christology of Hebrews and how understanding these passages can help one to better comprehend the Christology found in the book of Hebrews (this will be in the section regarding Hebrews 7:17). Finally, there will be a brief discussion of how this theme, namely Christology, bears on both my life personally and also on the life and practice of the church, followed by some concluding remarks. While it would certainly benefit the readers of this paper if the various passages of Scripture were to be directly quoted as they are being discussed, due to the short length of this paper, and the large amount of material to be covered, the passages will not be quoted unless absolutely necessary.
Organization of Christological Material in Hebrews
            The author of Hebrews presents first and foremost the superiority of Christ compared to the prophets (1:1-3). After that he moves on to compare Christ to angels (1:4-14; 2:5), Moses (3:1-6), Joshua (4:6-11), and the OT priesthood and high priest (4:14-5:10; 7:1-28), and he shows Christ to be superior to all of them. Finally, he presents Christ as superior to the sacrificial system and sanctuary (8:1-10:18). The author of Hebrews also provides various characteristics of Christ throughout these chapters, including His sinless nature (4:15), the fact that He is utterly faithful (3:16), that He is the High Priest after the order of Melchizedek (7:17), and that He is human in every way (2:17). While there are other aspects of Christ mentioned in Hebrews to be sure, the only other one that will be mentioned here for time’s sake is that He is the same forever, that is, He never changes (13:8). 
Historical Circumstances that Led to the Writing of Hebrews and Its Christology
            There were several occasions that led to the need for the author of Hebrews to write to the church. One of these occasions was that there was a need to address “the problem of apostasy among the recipients.”[3] Other circumstances that led to the need to write the book of Hebrews was “to bolster the resolve of Christians facing persecution,” “to challenge the believers to move to maturity, in terms of theological understanding and practical obedience,” and “to address friction between the members of the church and their leaders.”4 Now, while each of these circumstances go beyond Christology in a number of ways, they nevertheless can all easily be seen to have a stake in a well-developed Christology, such as is found in the book of Hebrews. For instance, the need to address friction within church membership, while this is covered in Hebrews, has directly to do with the Christology in the book of Hebrews in that the believers need to realize that their Savior is not merely some other god, but rather He is Someone supremely significant and they therefore must heed the need to seek unity so that they can set a good example for the world as His people. The other circumstances and occasions mentioned above have similarly to do with the Christology of Hebrews, while also dealing with other topics discussed in the book. It must be remembered that Hebrews is not a Christology textbook, but rather an epistle to the church, and so it therefore has a much more practical element than many scholars seem to realize when discussing simply the Christology of the book. Now, having said that, Christology is the topic of this paper, and so to it this paper will remain committed in its conversation. Now, the most important occasions mentioned above that led the author of Hebrews to write about Christology is the need to challenge the believers to move to maturity in theological understanding.
Hebrews 2:17
            Hebrews 2:17 makes it eternally clear that Jesus was a man in every way, fully human in other words. This is something that some other religions in ancient times, such as Gnosticism, denied, for they argued that Jesus was merely a spirit, since they were infatuated with Plato’s idea of dualism which teaches that the everything material, including the body, is evil, and everything spiritual, or non-material is good,[4] and since Jesus is God the Gnostics argued that He could not have had a physical body, for that would have corrupted Him and His perfection, according to them. However, as this passage explicitly states in Hebrews 2:17, Jesus had to be like his brothers (humans) in every way so that He could make an adequate propitiation for His people, namely Christians. Walter A. Elwell and Philip Comfort echo this sentiment when they write that “the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews notes that this fact qualifies Jesus to act as High Priest and to intercede on behalf of his people (2:18; 4:15).”[5]  So, unless Jesus was fully human, He could not have been a legitimate sacrifice and High Priest on humanity’s behalf. 
            Philippians 2:7 also states that Jesus came to earth in the likeness of man. In this Philippians passage, the point “is not to show what kind of body Christ assumed, but that, when he might have justly asserted his divinity, he was pleased to exhibit nothing but the attributes of a mean and despised man.”[6] In other words Paul is showing in this verse that Christ chose to become fully human even though He could have simply remained fully divine, and that not only did Christ become fully human, but human in the most meager of circumstances, as a carpenter, rather than as a king or someone with a lofty social status of some sort. Christ was a human in the humblest of settings, making it clear that He understands human poverty and weakness. Paul here is also pointing to the humility that Christ exhibited in becoming such a human in light of His true divinity.[7]
Hebrews 4:15
            Hebrews 4:15 makes it clear that Jesus the Christ was a sinless man who has been tested just as humanity has, and therefore that He understands human struggles and weaknesses. The Greek terminology and grammar in this verse emphasizes the completed state of Christ’s having been tested and the continuing results of that testing,[8] namely His never-ending ability to understand and empathize with humanity. The terminology and grammar also suggest an exact correspondence between Christ’s being tested and humanity’s testing and temptations,[9] and so it can rightly be said that there is no area of human temptation that Christ is unaware of or unable to empathize with. It is true that James 1:13 says that God cannot be tempted by evil, but it must be remembered that Jesus was not only God, but man also, and His human nature was fully susceptible to temptation, which is a big part of what this passage here in Hebrews 4:15 is attempting to convey. While it may be hard to understand how this is so, it is nevertheless something that Scripture teaches and so it must be upheld as fact, namely that Jesus’ divine nature cannot be tempted, but that His human nature was indeed tempted in every way that humans are tempted. 
            Now it does not seem as though this passage is meant to be taken completely literally, in that Jesus was literally tempted in every single way that every single person has or will be tempted, for his human nature would have had to have been limited by his spatial and time restrictions, for He was a first century Jew living in the Middle East. So, for instance, He simply could not have been tempted to jump off of some cliff in California (or what is now known as California) into the ocean for fun, or for any other reason, because He was never physically in that area of the world during his days as a human on earth. Therefore this passage should be taken as a sort of general statement meaning that His experience regarding temptation is equal to humanity’s in the sense of severity or level of temptation, such as how hard it is to overcome it, for this fits the facts better than a literal rendering and so is the preferred interpretation of this passage.
Hebrews 3:6
            This next passage will only need a brief mention, as it is fairly simple to comprehend. Hebrews 3:6 states that Christ is faithful. This is a basic statement, but it is eternally significant nonetheless, for if Christ is not faithful then the Christian message is preached in vain and all hope is lost. “Because Jesus is a faithful high priest in the service of God, Christians have the right to approach God and can openly acknowledge their faith as the basis of an unshakable hope.”[10]
Hebrews 7:17
            Due to the fact that this paper has a very limited length, this next passage must be dealt with on a very cursory level. There is just too much that could be said on this passage and not enough space in this paper to say it all. Now, Hebrews 7:17 makes it clear that Christ is the High Priest after the order of Melchizedek. Melchizedek was a man that the patriarch Abraham interacted with in ancient times, and He is mentioned in Genesis 14 and in Psalm 110. In Genesis 14 Abraham pays a tithe to Melchizedek, indicating that he was submitting to Melchizedek and that he wanted to honor him. To the first century Jewish Christians, to whom the book of Hebrews was primarily written, this would have meant that Melchizedek was greater than Abraham, but Abraham was considered the greatest in the Jewish religion as its founder, along with possibly Moses as a close second or maybe a tie as being equally important. But
Melchizedek is clearly greater than Abraham, for Abraham paid him a tithe. Without getting too technical for the sake of time, let it simply be said that the author of Hebrews is asserting that Jesus is a priest in the line of Melchizedek, meaning essentially that just as the first Jew, the patriarch of the Jewish religion, Abraham, paid tribute to Melchizedek, so the Christians are to pay “tribute” to Jesus, for He is after the order of Melchizedek and so He is better than and has preeminence over Abraham also, as did Melchizedek. This is something that the Jews would have understood the implications of quite easily, considering the prominent place that Abraham and the OT held in their lives and religion.
            Psalm 110 is a Messianic Psalm and in verse 4 it states that the one being spoken of, the coming Priestly King, Jesus, is a priest like Melchizedek. This again signifies that Christ is superior to the patriarch Abraham, and as such it can also be said that since Abraham was the first patriarch of Judaism, and therefore also a symbol or representation of Judaism, Jesus, being greater than Abraham, is greater than the Jewish religion also. Once one understands these OT passages, and when one keeps them in mind while looking at Hebrews 7:17, one can rightly understand that Jesus is superior to both the patriarchs and the Jewish religion, and since nothing was considered more sacred or great to the Jews at that time than the patriarchs and their religion (other than of course their God), this would have been an eye opener to the Jews regarding just how great Jesus the Christ really was and is. This presented an incredibly high view of Christology to the Jews, higher than they had probably heard of before.
Hebrews 13:8
            Hebrews 13:8 is so important and concise that it can and should be quoted in full here. It says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (HCSB).” The noble preacher of the first American great awakening, Jonathan Edwards, had this to say about this passage in one of his infamous sermons: “When it is said that Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever, by yesterday is meant all time past, by today, the time present, and by forever, all that is future, from the present time to eternity (emphasis original).”[11] This may seem obvious, but one cannot overstress the comprehensive nature of this claim here in this verse, for if Christ were to change at any point in time then He would necessarily not be God, because God never changes (Mal. 3:6). This passage is therefore a statement of Christ’s divinity, for everything except God is necessarily contingent and therefore must change continually, for nothing but God caused itself, and therefore all things other than God are contingent and changing, for to be caused is to be contingent, and to be contingent is to be changing. There is of course not time for an adequate defense of the cosmological argument here, so suffice it to say that an adequate validation of such an argument does exist, such as in Dr. Winfried Corduan’s book No Doubt About It: The Case for Christianity.[12]
Christology in the Gospel of Luke
            In Luke 1:35 an angel tells Mary that her son Jesus would be called the “Son of God.”
This is significant because Son of God is a “term used to express the deity of Jesus of Nazareth as the unique divine Son.[13] This is again important since Jesus’ deity was a critical aspect His life and purpose, for had He not been God in the flesh He could not have lived a perfect life (Rom. 3:23) and been the perfect sacrifice for humanity, because He would not have been a “lamb without blemish,” and God does not accept imperfect sacrifices (Ex. 12:5; Lev. 1:3; Deut.
17:1). So, what is one of the things that the Gospel of Luke contributes to the theme of Christology? Well, right from the very beginning it teaches that Jesus the Christ is divine and so it is possible for Him to fulfill His purpose of being the way through which people can be redeemed and have hope in God (1 Pet. 1:17-21).
Christology in the Gospel of John
            In John 1:1-14 the apostle John states that in the beginning the Word was God (1:1), and that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (1:14). The Word in this passage, as verse 14 makes clear, refers to Jesus, for He is the only God that is said to have become human (flesh) in the Bible. So, John also makes it clear, and explicitly so, that Jesus was divine, equal to God. Also, in John 10:30 Jesus says, “I and the Father are one (NIV).” Here Jesus was saying that He was equal to God, namely the God of Judaism, the God of the OT, whom He refers to as the Father. The same things that were said above regarding Christology in the Gospel of Luke can be said of these passages in John also. Jesus is shown to be God in the flesh, and as such is perfect and able to be a sacrifice for the remission of human sin, since God only accepts perfect sacrifices, and the only legitimate payment for human sin is a human, for no other creatures or parts of creation are moral but humanity and spirits, and the payment must be equal to the sin, namely human for human. That is logical and that is how God chose to do it, plain and simple.
How This Information Bears On Me and On the Church
            Hebrews presents Christ as fully human, able to empathize with humanity and its struggles, as well as One who is greater than even the patriarch of the Jewish religion, and even greater than the Jewish religion itself, which the Christian religion finds its origins in. I will certainly, after having written this paper, be more careful to give greater attention to the book of Hebrews in my personal studies. As for the church, I have heard very few sermons preached on the book of Hebrews, and that needs to change, for the very rationale for many great things about Christ are  revealed in this wonderful book. The church needs to take Hebrews more seriously, for it is full of Christology, and Christ is the one that we serve, so if we want to know Christ better, which we should, then we should all study Hebrews more often.
Conclusion
            In conclusion, in this paper there has been a discussion of how some of the various passages related to Christology in Hebrews are organized, and also what occasions led the author of Hebrews to write what he did. Hebrews 2:17, 4:15, 3:6, 7:17, and 13:8 and how they contribute to the Christology of the Bible was also discussed. There has also been a look at some other passages from three other NT books and how they relate to these passages and to
Christology. This paper also discussed several OT passages in relation to Hebrews 7:17 and how understanding these OT passages helps one to better understand the Christology of Hebrews. After that there was a brief discussion of how the Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of John contribute to the theme of Christology, followed finally by a brief discussion of how this information relates to and should affect both myself and the church. It has been shown in this paper that it can never be overstated that Jesus is truly sinless, fully human, fully God, completely faithful, and the greatest High Priest who never, ever changes.
 
  

The church needs to take Hebrews more seriously, for it is full of Christology, and Christ is the one that we serve, so if we want to know Christ better, which we should, then we should all study Hebrews more often.


Bibliography
Allen, David L. Lukan Authorship of Hebrews. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010.
Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008.
Comfort, Philip, and Walter A. Elwell. The Complete Book of Who’s Who in the Bible. Carol Stream: Tyndale House Publishers, 2004.
Corduan, Winfried. No Doubt About It: The Case for Christianity. Nashville: B&H Publishers, 1997.
Edwards, Jonathan. Sermons of Jonathan Edwards. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2005.
Elwell, Walter A., and Philip Wesley Comfort. Tyndale Bible Dictionary. Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 2001.
Elwell, Walter A., and Robert W. Yarbrough. Encountering the New Testament. Grand Rapids:
Baker Academic, 2005.
Geisler, Norman L. Baker Encyclopedia of Apologetics. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1999.
Guthrie, George D. The Zondervan Illustrated Bible Background Commentary: Hebrews. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002.
Rogers Jr., Cleon L., and Cleon L. Rogers III. The New Linguistic and Exegetical Key to the Greek New Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998.
 
Notes
[1] Walter A. Elwell and Robert W. Yarbrough, Encountering the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 264.
[2] David L. Allen, Lukan Authorship of Hebrews (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010).
[3] George D. Guthrie, The Zondervan Illustrated Bible Background Commentary: Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 3. 4 Ibid.
[4] Norman L. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1999), 274.
[5] Philip Comfort and Walter A. Elwell, The Complete Book of Who’s Who in the Bible (Carol Stream: Tyndale House Publishers, 2004).297.
[6] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008), 305.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Cleon L. Rogers Jr. and Cleon L. Rogers III, The New Linguistic and Exegetical Key to the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 525.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Jonathan Edwards, Sermons of Jonathan Edwards (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2005), 230.
[12] Winfried Corduan, No Doubt About It: The Case for Christianity (Nashville: B&H Publishers, 1997), 109-119.
[13] Walter A. Elwell and Philip Wesley Comfort, Tyndale Bible Dictionary (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 2001), 1212.