Pfitzner interprets Hebrews as a passionate appeal directed by its author to a community that is in danger of surrendering the distinctiveness of its faith. Through an examination of its structure, rhetorical devices, and arguments, he shows Hebrews to be a splendid example of extended exhortation, with a recurring pattern of formal introduction, scriptural quotation, exposition, and application. By seeing the message of Hebrews as a "word exhortation" (13:22) to a community in crisis, Pfitzner is able to set its distinctive Christology firmly in its original social, historical, and cultural context.
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Victor C. Pfitzner is Professor of New Testament and Principal, Lutheran School of Theology, North Adelaide, South Australia.
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Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Hebrews
By Victor C. Pfitzner
Abingdon PressCopyright © 1997 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
God's Final Revelation in the Son (1:1–2:18)
The opening two chapters form a unified discourse. An opening statement (1:1-4) climaxes in the assertion of the Son's superiority over angels that is documented in a chain of scriptural quotations, framed by rhetorical questions (1:5, 13). The description of angels as serving those who receive salvation (1:14) provides the link to the exhortation not to neglect salvation (2:1-4). The following exposition deals with the Son's subjection under the angels (2:5-9), paving the way for the first major conclusion of the Letter that links the Son to his brothers and sisters (2:10-18). The opening of the section placed the Son with God; the conclusion identifies him with humanity.
The section's unity is served by its focus on the Son (1:2, 5; in 2:10-14), yet God is the prime subject as the author of past and final revelation (1:12a). The Son's glory is first described in terms of his relation to God (heir; exact imprint; right hand; 1:2b-3). It is God who testifies to the Son in Scripture (1:5-13), confirms the preaching of the gospel (2:4), and makes the Son lower than the angels (2:9-10).
The opening discourse is marked by contrasts: of past with final revelation (1:1-2; 2:2-3); of the Son with angels; of the preexistent and exalted Son with the subjected Son. The former is defined in terms of glory, power, honor (1:3; 2:9), God's majesty (1:3, 13), throne, scepter and power (1:8), and superiority and greater excellence (1:4). The latter is characterized as lower (2:9), flesh and blood (2:14), and as suffering fear of death, bondage, temptation, and death itself (2:9-10, 15, 18).
All contrasts serve to extol the exalted Son. The elevated language in 1:1-4, the citing of Scripture, the picture of angels as "ministering spirits" (see 1:14), the focus on the holy name that is to be adored and proclaimed (1:4; 2:12), and the picture of Christas representative of both God and humanity (2:10-18), make this opening a fitting prelude to the Letter as a call to worship.
The Thematic Statement (1:1-4)
The opening exordium (one sentence written in Greek) has striking literary features. The opening statement consists of two parallel lines, the first marked by alliteration. To show the effect we may paraphrase thus: In p lural ways God p reviously spoke to the p atriarchs by the p rophets.
More striking is the structure of the passage. Though the subject changes from God (vv. 1-2) to the Son (vv. 3-4), it has a concentric symmetry (see Lane 1991, 6-7):
A: God spoke to our ancestors by prophets ... to us by a Son (vv. 12a)
B: whom he appointed heir of all things (v. 2b)
C: through whom he also created the worlds (v. 2c)
C': as the reflection of God's glory and exact imprint of God's very being, he sustains all things by his powerful word (v. 3a, b)
B': when he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high (v. 3c)
A': having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs (v. 4).
The framing statements (A/A') outline the superiority of the Son over other agents of revelation (angels; prophets). Further framing statements (B/B') picture the royal status of the Son with allusions to the Letter's key psalms (Pss 2:8; 110:1). Core statements (C/C') speak of the divine Son as the Wisdom-agent of creation. Including the brief reference to "purification for sins" in B', the four central statements picture Christ as royal Son, divine Wisdom, and royal Priest.
The abrupt change of subject and rare vocabulary in verse 3a and 3b, the elevated language of verses 3-4, and the christological pattern of preexistence-humiliation-exaltation, reflected elsewhere in the New Testament (Phil 2:6-11; Col 1:15-20; 1 Tim 3:16; 1 Pet 3:18-22; see also Heb 5:8-10), have given rise to the suggestion that these two verses are based on an early credal hymn (see Attridge 1989, 41-42; Ellingworth 1993, 96-98). But much of the language is so typical of Hebrews that it is impossible to distill the exact form of an original hymn or creed.
* * *
A clear message results from reading verses 1-2a and 3c-4 as one statement: final revelation has come with the Son who suffered to purify us from sin, but is now exalted in heaven. The reference to the Son as medium of creation (v. 2c) is also clear, but do the statements that speak of the Son being appointed as heir (v. 2b) and as reflecting God's glory and being (v. 3a, b) refer to his preexistence or to his exaltation? And why do these verses climax with a comparison between the exalted Son and angels?
1-2a: Despite beginning with an elaborate contrast, the Letter connects past and present revelation. Past revelation was not defective; it was the penultimate, not the ultimate word from God. There is also continuity between the ancestors and the audience. The former are the patriarchs and all in Israel's history who received the word of promise and held to it in faith (Heb 11). Those in the past had nothing but the promise; the present generation has the promise realized as it hears God speaking the climactic word in Christ (see 11:39-40). The phrase "last days" recalls the prophetic vision of God's decisive intervention in Israel's history (Isa 2:2; Jer 23:20; 49:39) and the common Jewish and early Christian distinction between two ages of redemptive history. With the Son's coming, a new age has begun (Heb 9:26).
The contrast between communication "in many and various ways by the prophets" and revelation "by a Son" is made more striking by the brevity of the second phrase. Revelation through prophets was promissory in character; it was incomplete, not faulty. By contrast, God's ultimate word through the Son is unique and final. As in 7:23-24, the contrast is between the many and the one. The Old Testament speaks of many sons/children of God: Israel (Exod 4:22); angels (Gen 6:2); the king (Ps 2:7). "A Son" does not imply that he is one among many children (as in 2:10-14). The absence of the definite article draws attention to the generic difference between a Son and any other agent of revelation, especially angels (2:2).
4: Structural analysis has shown that verse 4 forms a closing bracket, with elements running parallel to verses 1-2a. The implied contrast between the excellent and more excellent in verse 1 now becomes explicit, with angels replacing the prophets as agents of revelation. The common motif of revelation is underlined by the mention of the "name" given to the exalted Son. Thus, the purpose of verse 4 is not to denigrate the angels. The rhetorical function of the comparison is to extol the Son. The suggestion that the author is rejecting a heretical Christology that viewed Christ as an angelic figure lacks any support from the rest of Hebrews (see Lane 1991, 8; Attridge 1989, 5152). Another proposal, that the author wishes to counteract the worship of angels, has to propose some connection between the Colossian heresy (see Col 2:18) and Hebrews. Yet the Letter makes no negative statement about angels; it simply affirms the tradition that the acquisition of a new name places Christ above the angels (Eph 1:20-21; Phil 2:9-10; 1 Pet 3:22).
The superiority of Christ is represented in the more excellent name received at his exaltation. Since the next verse cites Ps 2:7, the name must be "Son" (as in Heb 5:5), not "high priest" (5:10), or "Lord" (Phil 2:9-11). The author sees no tension between the identification of the Son with preexistent Wisdom (Heb 1:2c-3b) and his acclamation as Son at his exaltation. The inheritance of the "name" marks the completion of his messianic mission. God's holy name was once revealed in order that Israel could call on it in worship, prayer, and praise (Exod 3:14-15; Heb 2:12); now the revelation of the Son's name means new worship. Those who acknowledge his name offer the new sacrifice of praise to God (13:15), one that angels also offer (1:6; 12:22).
2b, 3c: These intermediary phrases (= B/B') express the Son's uniqueness. Only he has been appointed "heir of all things" (v. 2b). Since verse 5 cites Ps 2:7, the writer here has verse 8 of that psalm in mind: "Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage." The writer sees Ps 2 as referring to the exaltation of the messianic King to whom everything has been subjected (2:5-9).
This first description of the Son's dignity, with reference to Ps 2, corresponds to verse 3c, which picks up a motif from Ps 110:1. God says to the king: "Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool" (cf. Heb 1:13; 5:5-6 again links Pss 2 and 110 as enthronement texts). The early church confessed that the risen and exalted Lord sat down at God's "right hand" (Heb 8:1; 10:12-13; 12:2; see also Rom 8:34; Eph 1:20; Col 3:1). "Right hand" and "Majesty" are respectful circumlocution for God's power and person (cf. Heb 8:1).
In other hymnic formulations (5:7-8; Phil 2:7-8), Christ's suffering and death figure prominently. The point of this exordium is the superiority and uniqueness of the Son as preexistent Wisdom and exalted King, so his earthly ministry is touched on with pointed brevity: "he ... made purification for sins." This short phrase, detailed in 8:1-10:18, is left undeveloped since its main function is to provide a link to what follows. Christ's death and exaltation are linked in that the sacrifice of his life is completed with the offering of his blood in the heavenly sanctuary (9:12; 10:12). His resurrection (see 13:20) and session in glory declare his death and blood to be effective (13:20).
2c-3b: These core statements (C/C') show how the Son's exaltation fittingly corresponds to his eternal power. They describe the Son as the creative word, identified with preexistent Wisdom (cf. Heb 11:3; John 1:3; Col 1:16). Behind this identification lies the picture of divine Wisdom as God's agent in creation (Prov 8:22-31). Wisdom traditions also lie behind the description of the Son as "reflection of God's glory" and "exact imprint of God's very being." Wisdom is "a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty ... a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness" (Wis 7:25-26).
Changing the metaphor, the Son bears the stamp of God's own divine being as the imprint on a seal or coin corresponds exactly to the die. While not calling Christ the "image of God" (see Col 1:15), Hebrews asserts that only the Son who bears the very being and essence of God can serve as agent of creation and revelation (cf. John 1:1-3, 18). The agent of creation shares God's providential care of the world: he "sustains all things" (cf. Col 1:16-17).
* * *
With its rich depiction of Christ as God's agent in creation, providence, revelation, and redemption, the exordium is a fitting prelude to the entire Letter. It sounds the theme of revelation. Since the Letter is a scriptural argument, it must establish that God has spoken in the past through the prophetic word. New revelation does not invalidate all that was revealed in the past, but puts it into proper perspective as word of promise. Christ is the hermeneutical key to the Old Testament, so it is important for the author to establish both continuity and discontinuity in revelation.
The second dominant theme is the exaltation of Christ. Descriptions of his preexistent power and glory serve to confirm the appropriateness of his present rule. The rhetorical movement in the opening two chapters takes the audience from the dignity bestowed on the Son at his heavenly enthronement, to his lowliness in suffering and death. Yet the writer is not concerned merely with the powerful effect created by contrasting Christ in glory and in suffering. His concern is pastoral. The heavier brushstrokes in his portrait of Christ depict his present status, for it is the exalted Son and High Priest on whom the audience can call now (4:14-16).
Finally, the exordium sounds the theme of worship. Adoration is the fitting response to one who reflects divine glory, who is eternal Wisdom and King of all. The "name" (v. 4) is the revealed Son who is to be proclaimed and adored (cf. 2:12; 13:15). The readers are to cling without wavering to this name, and can do this in the knowledge that he sustains them (v. 3).
The Son's Superiority over the Angels (1:5-14)
To support the thesis of verse 4, seven Old Testament texts are cited—five from the writer's favorite book, the Psalter. Parallel rhetorical questions preface the first and last quotations (vv. 5, 13) to form an inclusio, indicating that all texts in this chain of quotations illustrate the one theme: God's own pronouncements show the superiority of the Son over the angels.
The catena presents three pairs of texts and one concluding text. The first pair deals with the Son's status (v. 5), the second with the function of angels (vv. 6-7), the third concerns the conditions of the Son's eternal reign (vv. 8-12). A final text recalls the Son's session at God's right hand, thus linking the end of the quotation chain (v. 13) with the letter's opening statement (v. 3; see G. Guthrie 1994, 61).
A concluding statement by the writer provides a link between the catena (v. 14 restates v. 7) and the exhortation in 2:1-4 (the link word in 1:14 and 2:3 is "salvation"). There are also links with the opening exordium. The first and last quotations cite the coronation psalms (Ps 2:7 in v. 5; Ps 110:1 in v. 13) that have been alluded to in 1:2, 3. Also the core statements of the exordium are echoed in the quotations: the Son is agent of creation (v. 2c = v. 10); his glory and being are eternal (v. 3a, b = vv. 11-12). However, the bracket formed by quotations from Pss 2 and 110 in verses 5 and 13 shows that all texts refer to Christ as enthroned King.
* * *
The texts contain God's own confession to the messianic King. Though the ultimate word is through the Son (Heb 1:1), prior revelation speaks about the Son. The first pair of texts (Ps 2:7 and 2 Sam 7:14 are linked also in the Qumran scrolls; see 4QFlor 10.11, 18-19) forms a neat chiasm (Son/Father/Father/Son). Psalm 2:7 is an ancient recognition formula, originally addressed to a king as heir to the Davidic covenant expressed in 2 Sam 7:12-16. Our author is interested only in its application to the messianic King in the "today" of his exaltation (Heb 1:3-4, 13). He is surely aware that angels are called "sons of God" (Gen 6:2, 4; Pss 29:1; 89:7; Job 1:6), but the rhetorical question in verse 5 reminds his audience that no angel has ever been addressed by God as "my son."
Psalm 2:7 finds varied application in the New Testament. Combined with Isa 42:1, it lies behind the acclamation of Jesus at his baptism (Mark 1:11 and par.) and transfiguration (Mark 9:7 and par.). The psalm is also linked with Jesus' resurrection (Acts 13:33; cf. Rom 1:4). Hebrews links it with the heavenly enthronement of the Son (Heb 1:3) as God's public proclamation that the King has completed his mission.
The second pair of texts (vv. 6-7) states the divinely ordained function of angels: they serve; the Son rules (vv. 8-9). The first quotation bears some resemblance to the Greek version of Ps 97:7 (LXX: 96:7): "Worship him, all his angels," but is more closely related to Deut 32:43 LXX: "Let the sons of God worship him. Rejoice, you nations, with his people, and let all the angels of God ascribe strength to him." Possibly the author quoted it from the popular version of the "Hymn of Moses" in the book of Odes (2:43), which was appended to the Greek Psalter (a similar wording appears in 4QDeut 32:43).
In the original text the angels are summoned to worship God; here they are called to worship the "firstborn" Son who can be addressed as both God (Heb 1:8) and Lord (Heb 1:10). A messianic interpretation of Deut 32:43 (= Odes 2:43) may have been suggested by the last line that speaks of the Lord purifying the land of his people; purification is also the work of the Son (Heb 1:3).
The NRSV correctly places a comma after "again" in verse 6a, since Hebrews commonly uses the word to link quotations (see 2:13a, b; 4:5; 10:30). The enthronement setting established by the inclusio of verses 5 and 13 must apply also to verse 6. The angels adore the Son at his exaltation (Phil 2:10-11).
In Ps 89:27-29 the title "firstborn" is given to the king who is promised a kingdom that will last as long as the heavens endure. The connection with Ps 2:7 and 2 Sam 7:14 (Heb 1:5) is clear; the theme of the eternal kingdom, contrasted with the temporary heavens, will be developed in 1:8-12. It is thus unlikely that the author is alluding to Deut 6:10 and 11:29, which speak of God "bringing" firstborn Israel (Exod 4:22; Hos 11:1; Jer 31:9) into the promised land. The Son of Heb 1 is the final heir of the Nathan prophecy, not a new Israel.
Excerpted from Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Hebrews by Victor C. Pfitzner. Copyright © 1997 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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