The Preeminence of Christ

And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence.—Colossians 1:18

A verse by verse Bible study in Hebrews 1

One of the finest examples of topical Bible study is the entire book of Hebrews. The unnamed author step by step shows the superiority of the ministry of Christ to all that preceded him. Progressively he compares Jesus to the angels, to Moses, and to Aaron. After displaying how the priesthood of Melchizedec is better than the Aaronic, he continues by demonstrating how the realities pictured by Israel’s ancient tabernacle outshine the types that indicate them.

Superiority of Christ’s Words—Verses 1 to 3

God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds; Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high.

An epistle often starts with the author’s name. Only here and in the Johanine epistles are there exceptions to this rule. Even the book of Revelation, after an introductory phrase, starts with the author’s name, "John."

The author of Hebrews, treating the sensitive subject of the superiority of the gospel to the law, decided to appeal to a higher authority, both to give added strength to his reasoning and to eliminate any biases which might be attached to the use of his own name. He calls attention to the fact that the Old Testament was not written as one continuous treatise. Written over a two thousand year period by a number of authors in 39 separate books, it was not meant to convey a step by step outline of God’s plan but, rather, a source book of data from which truths could be extracted and arranged.

The prophetic revelation was given hint by hint. God revealed to Adam that the Messiah would come from the seed of the woman; to Abraham, that he should spring from his loins; to Jacob, that he should be of the tribe of Judah; to David, that he would be the heir of his throne; to Micah, that he would be born in Bethlehem; and to Isaiah, that he should be born of a virgin.

Not only did the times vary but the manner of revelation as well. Some prophets were directly inspired while others had dreams or were given visions. Some spoke directly, some in poetic metaphor, and still others acted out their prophecies. Now, the author of Hebrews continues, was the time for a clearer vision.

No longer would Jehovah’s spokesman be a servant, but he would have his own Son speak for him. The Son would not only have the authority of position, "heir of all things," but would have the authority of being an eye-witness of all, the one "by whom also he made the worlds."

The contrast is not only between Jesus and the prophets of old. In the balance of the chapter the author also compares Jesus as a spokesman with the angels who carried out a similar function. The specific angels to whom he refers are apparently those mentioned in 2:2-5 and were angelic forces active in the giving of the law at Sinai. (See also Acts 7:53 and Gal. 3:19).

The two phrases in verse three are well rendered in the Revised Version of the Bible, "He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature." The authority of Christ’s words are magnified by the even greater glory which they reflect and authenticated by his bearing the exact impression of God’s own nature, the divine—"far above all principalities and powers" (Eph. 1:21).

His right to this position of second highest power in the entire universe was attained by his "more excellent" ministry of providing redemption for man’s sins through his death on the cross.

A More Excellent Name—Verses 4 and 5

Being made so much better than the angels, as he hath by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they. For unto which of the angels said he at any time, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee? And again, I will be to him a Father, and he shall be to me a Son?

In the customs of our day an inheritance is a right to property after the death of another, usually an ancestor. The usage of this term in the Bible is different. It merely shows the continuity of possession of the inherited object within the family line. In the text under consideration the word shows the family relationship by which Jesus achieved his exaltation. We know not how many ranks of angels there are. Some are indeed very powerful. The highest ranks of the angelic hosts appear to have been filled by Lucifer and Gabriel. Yet none of these could claim the same family position of Jesus. He was uniquely the "only begotten" Son of God.

The writer evinces two Old Testament quotes to support his point. The first is very direct and is taken from a passage that both Jews and Christians view as a Messianic Psalm. It is from Psalm 2:7, "I will declare the decree: the LORD hath said unto me, Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee."

The second quote, however, is more difficult to trace. There are three texts with these words: 2 Samuel 7:14; 1 Chronicles 17:13 and 22:10. However, all three refer in context to Solomon as the one chosen by God to build the temple for which David longed. A fourth reference with similar terminology is found in Psalm 89:26, 27 and refers to King David himself.

An important rule of prophetic interpretation can be noticed here. The author of Hebrews makes no excuse for applying Old Testament references, not to their original recipients but to their larger counterparts—to the one who would be both "David’s son and David’s Lord" (Matt. 22:45) and "the greater than Solomon" (Matt. 12:42).

The implication is clear. The significant interpretation of the Old Testament references is not to the ones to whom they were addressed but to a greater counterpart, the Messiah of Israel. Both texts are used to establish his familial claim to his newly inherited position at the right hand of the heavenly Father.

Over the Angels—Verses 6 to 9

And again, when he bringeth in the first begotten into the world, he saith, And let all the angels of God worship him. And of the angels he saith, Who maketh his angels spirits, and his ministers a flame of fire. But unto the Son he saith, Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever: a scepter of righteousness is the scepter of thy kingdom. Thou hast loved righteousness, and hated iniquity; therefore God, even thy God, hath anointed thee with the oil of gladness above thy fellows.

The quotation evoked to demonstrate that Christ is to be worshipped by the angels appears to be an amplification of the last phrase of Psalm 97:7, "worship him, all ye gods." Once again, the choice of the quotation is curious. The time setting of the Psalm is when "The LORD reigneth" and when "his lightnings enlightened the world" (vs. 1, 4). These verses seemingly apply to the Messianic reign and not to the time of the first advent.

This confusion may be clarified by several translations of the Hebrew text which change both the word order and the tense. The New American Standard, American Standard, and New King James Bibles phrase it thus: "And when he again brings the first born into the world . . ." These translations suggest an application at the second advent of Christ rather than the first. This accords better with the Psalm source of the quotation. In any case, the point of the Old Testament passage is clear—Messiah’s position is sufficiently higher than that of the angels so that he is deserving of their worship.

In the next pair of citations the author contrasts the offices of angels and the Son. The former are "ministers" while the latter is a king. The Greek word leiturgous denotes a noble position. Rather than being a slave or paid employee, it denotes one who voluntarily offers to serve without remuneration. Professor W. E. Vine says it refers primarily to "one who discharged a public office at his own expense." This is an honorable position and implies a spirit we would do well to emulate. However, it is not to be compared with the position of Christ, who not only has an everlasting throne but whose rule is denoted by righteousness.

The Old Testament quotation is taken from Psalm 45:6, 7. It not only designates Christ as the holder of this exalted position but also lists the qualifications which entitled him to it. "Thou hast loved righteousness, and hated iniquity." It is not enough to desire acts of righteousness but one must also totally oppose acts of unrighteousness. Only with such qualifications can a ruler be fit to root out evil and establish righteousness in its place. Since other scriptures offer the followers of Jesus a share in his throne (Rev. 20:4), it is imperative that these followers develop the same proclivity toward righteousness and detestation of evil.

The term "oil of gladness" contains the thought of "acceptance." "Thou hast made known to me the ways of life; thou shalt make me full of joy with thy countenance" (Acts 2:28; see also Psa. 21:6). There is no implication in the forty-fifth Psalm that Jesus’ "fellows," the other angelic beings, did not also "love righteousness and hate iniquity." The thought, rather, is that Jesus excelled in these attributes to a degree not obtained by his fellows. The verse highlights these characteristics as primary ones for those who would share his throne.

The Foundations—Verses 10 to 12

And, Thou, Lord, in the beginning hast laid the foundation of the earth; and the heavens are the works of thine hands: They shall perish; but thou remainest; and they all shall wax old as doth a garment; And as a vesture shalt thou fold them up, and they shall be changed: but thou art the same, and thy years shall not fail.

The author of our study now proceeds to show the principles of the workmanship of the Messiah. The quotation is from Psalm 102:25-27. Once again the New Testament helps us interpret the Old. The student, without this citation in the book of Hebrews, would find difficulty in understanding this Psalm and might be inclined to look at it as a reference to the writer’s own experiences and time period. However, the citation here definitely defines this Psalm as Messianic.

A problem remains, however. In this Psalm the actor appears to be Jehovah, while the author of Hebrews refers it to Jesus. Apparently it illustrates the cooperation between the Father and the Son in the creative works.

While it is tempting to apply this text to the creative works of the seven days of Genesis one, such an interpretation presents a difficulty. The Bible specifically states that "the earth abideth forever" (Eccl. 1:4) and that God made it "not in vain, he formed it to be inhabited" (Isa. 45:18). Therefore "the earth" must be taken in a metaphorical sense for the society that lives upon the earth. This society is based upon two foundation stones. The first is vertical, governing man’s relationship to God, and can be summarized in the single word "obedience." The second is horizontal, governing man’s relations with his fellow, and is summarized in the principles of marriage found in Genesis 2:24, "Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh."

As time went on and men multiplied, these fundamental principles were embodied in the ten commandments, the first four of which were Godward and the last six manward. Still later Jesus capsulated the lesson in two commandments. "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets" (Matt. 22:37-40).

With the introduction of sin these fundamental principles stopped governing men and they fell backward into sin. While the verb for "perish" used in the book of Hebrews implies complete destruction, the verb in the original Psalm has a far different thought. Professor Strong, commenting on the word, #6, says it means "properly, to wander away; i.e., lose oneself; by implication, to perish."

Man wandered far away from these principles and they ceased being operative in his life. Like an old garment, they decayed from lack of use. But rather than being destroyed, they are "folded up" for future use. These same principles will be reintroduced in Christ’s kingdom.

Similarly, the word translated "changed" (Strong’s #2498) has a wide variety of meanings, including to "pass through," as a flood or whirlwind; and to "destroy." However the sense of the word in this passage under study is more likely the same as that given to it in Isaiah 40:31, where it is translated renew—"... they shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles . . ."

The fundamental principles which govern both man’s relationship with God and with each other will be renewed by this Messiah for the simple reason that his government shall be as eternal as it is universal—for "thy years shall not fail."

The Final Promise—Verses 13 and 14

But to which of the angels said he at any time, Sit on my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool? Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation?

The study of the preeminence of Christ concludes with the writer’s forceful use of Psalm 110:1. Here the identification of the Psalm with the Messiah was well recognized. Jesus’ application of it to Messiah in both Matthew 22:42-46 and Mark 12:35-37 was unchallenged by the listening Pharisees. The position of being at the "right hand" is an undisputed metaphor for the position of top favor. This concluding argument is thus the apex of the evidence the writer has accumulated.

In the final verse of the chapter he again borrows language from Psalm 104:4. However he broadens the concept from showing merely the preeminence of the Messiah to the angels, but also the preeminence of all "who shall be heirs of salvation" to the angelic hosts. By using the aforementioned Psalm instead of others, which would perhaps serve even better (see Psa. 34:7), he identifies the church with the Messiah.

This identification of a multi-membered Messiah was the great "mystery" of the Christian church (Col. 1:26, 27); namely, that Christ is not one but many members (1 Cor. 12:14).

Having established this groundwork, the writer of Hebrews is poised to further comparisons between the office of the Messiah with the great heroes of the Hebrew religion. Thus he seeks to prepare his Jewish readers to accept a radical change in their beliefs; yet not so much a change as a progression of development, for their rich religious history and the words of their inspired prophets all pointed forward to this Messiah whom he proclaimed to have been in their very midst—Jesus of Nazareth.

Principles of Study

A study of the first chapter of Hebrews is not only enlightening to a comprehension of the writer’s theme but also illuminates the principles of study used in the early church. Their great familiarity with the "Old Testament" allowed them to build the mighty concepts upon which the Christian religion would be based. Their use of the Jewish writings to bolster their arguments sheds great light on the proper use we are to make of biblical texts to support those themes that are so important to the Christian and to his salvation.