Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

21 Sep 2015

Hebrews and the revelation of the Son

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Have you ever noticed that the writer of Hebrews never directly quotes from Jesus?[1] Of course, the New Testament epistles do not contain many quotations directly from Jesus. This is understandable in the case of Paul who probably never met the pre-resurrected Christ. Though even in Paul’s case, he does reference the words of Jesus (I Cor. 11:23-26). And we cannot really know how often Paul is directly quoting what the resurrected Christ said to Paul (2 Cor 12:9). Unsurprisingly, we do see more quotations from those who knew Jesus during his First Advent (e.g., Peter).

I am aware that we need to be careful about judging ancient literature by modern standards.[2] Nevertheless, I want to make the argument that the lack of Jesus’ words in Hebrews is rather striking. Notice how Hebrews begins: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he created the world” (1:1-2, ESV). There is much to unpack here, but for our purposes we will focus on the implied contrast. The author of Hebrews (AH) compares the revelation of the prophets with the revelation of the Son. His point through the sermon/epistle[3] is that the revelation through the Son is better[4] revelation than the revelation through the prophets. But if so, why is there no direct verbal quotation of this revelation?

Let’s try to answer this question by starting with an examination of the comparisons made in Hebrews 1:1-2:

Prophetic Revelation Son Revelation
Timing of Revelation Given long ago Given in the last days[5]
Recipients of Revelation Our Fathers “Us”—1st century believers
Channel of Revelation By the Prophets By the Son
Mode of Revelation In many ways ———

You will notice that there is a clean, one to one comparison for the timing, recipients and channel of revelation. But did the AH forget to make a comparison between the mode of revelation? Clearly he makes the beginning of a comparison by mentioning the “many ways” Old Testament revelation was delivered. In my estimation, the AH did provide the second aspect of the comparison, and this fact provides the interpretive clue as to why the AH can claim to magnify the revelation of the Son even when he never directly quotes from Jesus’ verbal teaching. The mode of this last days “speaking” is not predominantly verbal; it is typological. Typological refers to the use of types. A type is like a shadow that hints at the reality of something similar to but greater than the shadow—the thing that is responsible for the shadow. In this case, the revelation of the Son is better than the revelation through the prophets (yes, even Moses Heb. 3:1-6) because it both fulfills and supersedes that prior revelation.

In what ways does Jesus fulfill the typology presented in the prophetic revelation? The chief example used in Hebrews concerns the priesthood (Heb. 7-10). Only Hebrews calls Jesus a (high) priest (though the concept of His sacrificial offering is present elsewhere in the NT). Using the Melchizedekian priesthood derived from Genesis 14, the AH shows how the OT prophesied (Ps. 110:1,6) about a coming king who would be a priest after the order of Melchizedek. Jesus’ priesthood is the full reality for which the Levitical priesthood was merely the shadow. Even the Melchizedekian priesthood was a shadow of Jesus’ ultimate priesthood, for Melchizedek himself is said to “resemble the Son of God” (Heb. 7:3).

Much more could be said about the use of typology in Hebrews, but the main point here is to suggest that the AH believed the mode of God’s revelation through the Son was not so much what the Son said as what the Son did. It also could be said that it is not what the Son said but who the Son is. In this light, it is no longer surprising that the AH does not quote Jesus’ verbal teaching directly.

[1] Following many in the early church and the majority of biblical scholars today, I assume non-Pauline authorship of Hebrews. Regardless of authorship, in the book of Hebrews, there are no direct quotations of Jesus.
[2] I am thinking here of judging the Bible on the basis of modern copyright laws or, more particularly, on the basis of modern frequency of attribution.
[3] Most interpreters agree that Hebrews was originally a sermon that was later transcribed for wider distribution.
[4] Better (κρειττων) is used thirteen times in the New Testament. Hebrews is responsible for eleven of the occurrences.
[5] This word refers to more than the AH’s lifetime. It has eschatological implications that we cannot develop here.

2 Responses

  1. Tim Miller

    Yes, chapter 2 does refer to the mode of revelation. However, the comparison at the beginning of the book stresses the Son Himself as the revelation. This certainly does not take away from what the Son said, but it does provide the emphasis that the Author of Hebrews was interested in fleshing out.

    Thanks for the comment, Paul.