Christ in the Epistle to the Hebrews

Ernest W. Burch, Mitchell, So. Dak.


It is probably vain to speculate as to who were the first readers of this Epistle. But it is easy to see that the occasion of it was the existing need of emphasis upon the spiritual presence of Christ in the world. Very likely in this second half of the first century, a generation after Jesus had arisen from the dead, too many still put their faith in the historical Jesus and bemoaned the fact that he had died. Hence the emphasis in our Epistle upon the “throne of grace,” the Session at the right hand of God, and the “sameness” of Christ, “yesterday, to-day, and forever.”

Jesus is presented under each of three different aspects. He is Son, King, and Priest. It will be convenient to study the exposition in that order.

Jesus The Son

This is the first name that greets the reader. On the one hand, “the prophets,” by whom revelation came in the past; on the other, the son (a son) in whom all revelation finds its climax. The latter is supreme among prophets, distinguished men like Moses and Aaron, even among angels (3:2–5; 4:8).

Congruous with the statement that the Son is begotten (1:5) he is said to be heir of all things, and to bear such an unique likeness to the Father that he is “the effulgence of his glory, and the very image of his substance” (1:3). One is reminded of what Jesus himself said to his contemporaries, “He that beholdeth me beholdeth him that sent me” (John 12:45). And to Philip, when he asked, “Lord, show us the Father,” the answer was, “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father” (John 14:9).

It is not at all likely that the first readers of the Epistle to the Hebrews questioned whether Jesus enjoyed an “eternal preexistence” or not. The writer’s high purpose was achieved when he had shown that the Son was entitled to any appellation or characteristic that befits God. He is a sorry quibbler who can read the first chapter of Hebrews and doubt the essential divinity of Christ.

A being who was present and creatively active at the creation (1:2) not only of this earth, but of “the worlds.” and who sustains an immanent relation to creation, yea, “upholding all things by the word of his power” (1:3), needs not to have his divinity interpreted, or explained away.

The term “son” as here used does not seem to refer to the human nature of Jesus, although our writer is very fond of showing the reality of the human side of the Lord. The term “son “seems rather to be chosen to relate this humanly conditioned and natured man to the divine Father of all. Certainly the choice of the human name Jesus leads the writer to magnify the facts of his human experience. His human ancestry appears in 7:14: “It is evident that our Lord hath sprung out of Judah.” He was surrounded and beset by human conditions of suffering and even death. This is made apparent repeatedly in the Epistle. The son is “made perfect through suffering,” and partakes of the besetments of his brethren, being made like them in all things, else he could not properly sympathize with or help them (2:17, 18; 5:2).

The reference to the perfection of Jesus and his mastery of obedience through his human experience points to immaturity in his humanity, but nowhere implies that he was ever disobedient or imperfect morally. The immaturity may be reflected in the confession, “Of that day and hour knoweth . . . not even . . . the Son, but the Father only” (Matt. 24:36). And another of the Synoptics (Luke 2:52) tells us that Jesus “advanced in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.”

No doubt the man who wrote the Epistle under review was familiar with much of the synoptic material; in fact, he gives us at times even further details than there set forth. He knew of the temptation (2:18; 4:15); and in reference to the agony in the garden (5:7–10) he says: “Who in the days of his flesh, having offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death, and having been heard for his godly fear, though he was a Son, yet learned obedience by the things which he suffered.” “Tempted in all points, like as we are,” points to a knowledge of more than the three typical temptations of the wilderness.

In the view of this writer, the name “Son “was applicable a generation after his death. Whatever it predicates of Jesus still inheres in him. For to sin deliberately against Christ is to “crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame” (6:6).

Jesus As King

The references to the kingship of Jesus are indirect rather than direct, as in the case of his sonship. The disappointment of a band of disciples who had hoped that “this was he who should have redeemed Israel “lingered fully a generation after the ascension. The First Gospel had as its chief aim, doubtless, the establishment of Jesus as the King of the Jews and to vindicate the ancient prophecies as fulfilled, after all, in his life and death. Our writer would turn the attention of his friends in the Gospel from the details of a life lived in the flesh to a life lived in and with them, from the historical Jesus to the mystically present Christ. Hence his emphasis upon the “Session “of Christ at the right hand of the Father and the practical value of the “throne of grace.”

The “Session” is mentioned at least twelve times, in such phrases as: “sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high” (1:3); “sat down on the right hand of God” (10:13); “Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever” (1:8); and “entered . . . into heaven itself” (9:24). (So 1:13; 4:14; 7:26; 8:1; 2:9; 4:16, and other places.)

The analogy between Melchizedek and Jesus carries with it royal dignity as well as priestly functions. The Messianic expectation of the Jews was cast in the kingly form, hence the necessity for our writer to emphasize the real kingly nature of Jesus. The Epistle dwells little upon the details of the passion of Christ, even passing over the resurrection without a mention, unless it be the benediction in 13:20, “who brought again from the dead the great shepherd of the sheep.”

This silence on the great topic so precious to Paul and so elaborately treated in the Synoptics and the Fourth Gospel may be variously explained. The most likely explanation seems to be the desire to impress the reader with the fact of a present and living Christ. To this end, details of the passion and even of the resurrection would only detract. Note the exhortations in the Epistle; as, “Consider . . . Jesus, . . . for he hath been accounted worthy of more glory than Moses. . . . Take heed, . . . lest there shall be in any one of you an evil heart of unbelief, in falling away from the living God” (3:1–12). Again, the “throne” upon which Jesus the King sits is called the “throne of grace.” “Let us- draw near with boldness unto the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy, and may find grace to help in time of need” (iv. 16).

Jesus As Priest

Christ the High Priest appears often in the Epistle. Sometimes the priestly function seems closely interwoven with the royal and filial; for, as the reader is urged to draw near unto the “throne of grace” with boldness, so he is exhorted (10:21 ff.):”Having a great priest over the house of God; let us draw near with a true heart in fulness of faith . . . and so much the more, as ye see the day drawing nigh.”

A remarkable analogy is drawn between a certain Old Testament character, Melchizedek, and Christ. An expression in the One Hundred and Tenth Psalm is coupled with one in the Second Psalm and applied to Jesus (5:5, 6; 7:17):—

“Thou art my Son,
This day have I begotten thee:
As he saith also in another place,
Thou art a priest for ever
After the order of Melchizedek.”

There is scarcely any need, knowing the general manner in which Alexandrian writers used the Old Testament, to find too close a resemblance between Melchizedek and Christ. All one needs to know of the former is that he was not of the regular priestly line, i.e. of the tribe of Levi, as, in fact, Jesus was not (Heb. 7:14). Yet Melchizedek was greater than Levi; for Levi, in the person of his ancestor, Abraham, paid tithes to Melchizedek (7:9, 10), and the lesser pays tithes to the greater. So the priesthood of Jesus has nothing to do with the Levitical priesthood, but is far superior to it. There are many particulars in which that of Christ excels.

In the first place, ordinary priests are men of infirmity (7:28); while Jesus is “holy, guileless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and made higher than the heavens” (7:26). Again, the legal priesthood is inadequate. The argument is: “If there was perfection through the Levitical priesthood, what further need was there that another priest should arise after the order of Melchizedek, and not be reckoned after the order of Aaron?” (7:11). That this new priest is better, yea, even perfect, is confessed in the saying, “Wherefore also he is able to save to the uttermost them that draw-near unto God through him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them” (7:25). The writer has just shown that the priests of the law are continually dying, and that the law itself never made anything perfect (7:19, 23).

As to their respective sacrifices, the Levitical priests go into the holy place of the temple once a year, with certain sacrifices. But these things of themselves do not take away sins. The reader supposedly admits that this ceremony is only a shadow of something real, a type of something to come, since the same thing is done over and over, year after year (10:1). It is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could purify a human heart from sin (10:4).

But the High-priest Jesus never ministered in the Temple at Jerusalem. His sacrifice is not performed at stated times. For once and for all he offered, not the blood of animals, but his own blood (9:23–28). The comparison is clearly shown: “For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the ashes of a heifer . . . sanctify unto the cleanness of the flesh: how much more shall, the blood of Christ . . . cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (9:13, 14).

Furthermore, since the sanctuary in Jerusalem is not the scene of Jesus’ priesthood, we must look elsewhere for the “holy place “into which he entered. The writer identifies it with heaven: “For Christ entered not into a holy place made with hands, like in pattern to the true; but into heaven itself, now to appear before the face of God for us” (9:24).

Practical Results Of This Ministry Of Jesus

The atonement of Christ is a fact apart from all theory. The fact is dependable. “We may have a strong encouragement, who have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before us, which we have as an anchor of the soul” (6:18, 19). Yet it is possible to neglect even so great a salvation as this offered in Christ (2:3).

The death of Christ has more than mere subjective value. This writer believes that “apart from shedding of blood there is 90 remission” (9:22). He plainly states: “Wherefore Jesus also, that he might sanctify the people through his own blood, suffered without the gate” (13:12). The believer must act. “Let us therefore go forth unto him without the camp, bearing his reproach” (13:13). It is necessary to draw near unto God through Jesus before he is able to save to the uttermost.

The divinity of Christ is not a mere speculative dogma with this writer. It is life in and through and for sinful men. He is the Son made perfect, it is true, but perfected through his ministry for men. Hence we have not an high priest who cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities. Jesus has such perfect sympathy with men that he can succor them in their deepest woes and darkest sins.

Only practical lessons come from this treatise, after all. It is a study of the living Christ, ever present because spiritually accessible. If he were on earth bodily Jesus could not be a priest at all (8:4); but the throne of grace, to which access is had by a “new and living way” (10:19), is a universal boon. To paraphrase a remark of Deissmann’s, Christology, as a theological science, stands brooding beside an empty grave: Christianity as a life of hope, the life thought of by our writer, stands face to face with the Living Presence, the Son, the King, but most of all, the Priest, at the Throne of Grace.