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What about Hebrews 1:1-2?

hebrews 1In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. (Hebrews 1:1-3)

In these verses we read of the eternal glory of the Son. Christ is the Creator and Inheritor of the cosmos. He is the Shining-Out of God's goodness and the perfect Image of the Father. It is the Son's powerful word that sustains all things. But then, what about verse 1? Is this saying that Old Testament saints were ignorant of God's eternal Glory - His Creator, Sustainer, Revealer and Heir?

That would be a strange position to take especially since the writer immediately goes on to quote the OT as a consciously Christ-centred Scripture.  All his quotations in chapter 1 treat the OT as trinitarian revelation with distinct Persons interacting and speaking in the various Scriptures.

1:5 - Psalm 2 is a conversation between Father and Son

1:5 - David's Seed in 2 Samuel 7:14 is the Son

1:6 - Deuteronomy 32:43 concerns the Son

1:8-9 - Psalm 45 is about God the Son, whose 'God' anoints Him

1:10-12 - The Creator Lord of Psalm 102 is the Son

1:13 - Psalm 110 is a conversation between Father and Son

Later he'll call the OT revelation 'the gospel’ (Heb 4:2) and will hold up Moses as one who "chose disgrace for the sake of Christ." (Heb 11:26).

So even within Hebrews 1 it seems out of the question that the writer intends us to think of the OT saints as ignorant of Christ.  How could the OT saints know God without His Eternal Revealer?  How could Scriptures like Psalm 45 be read concerning any other than Christ?  How could Moses forsake the glories of Egypt and choose disgrace, if he was ignorant of the One who makes such choices worthwhile?

And if we move out of Hebrews, what about Matthew 11:27; John 1:18; 14:6; Colossians 1:15. If Christ is the only revelation of the Father (which these verses insist upon), then how can we deny knowledge of Christ to Old Testament saints? Certainly folks like Justin, Irenaeus, Luther, Calvin, Owen and Edwards were adamant that Christ was known and trusted in all ages by the faithful.

So then, what kind of distinction is Hebrews 1:1-2 trying to make?

Well it's a carefully crafted parallel:

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, //
but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son

"In the past" is compared to "in these last days"

"our ancestors" is compared to "us"

"the prophets" is compared to "his Son"

And without doubt something earth-shattering has happened to usher in "these last days." The Son has appeared in a once and for all way (in contrast to the "many and various ways" of the prophetic communications).  He came as His own Prophet to address "us" in a way that He didn't address "our ancestors."

In the past, the Son didn't address Israel. He had His prophets do that for Him.  Think of Jeremiah 1:

4 The word of the Lord came to me, saying,

5 ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I set you apart;
I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.’

6 ‘Alas, Sovereign Lord,’ I said, ‘I do not know how to speak; I am too young.’

7 But the Lord said to me, ‘Do not say, “I am too young.” You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. 8 Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,’ declares the Lord.

9 Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, ‘I have put my words in your mouth.10 See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.’

So the Word of the LORD is spoken of as a Person - a Person with things to say. Additionally He speaks and is addressed as a divine Person - He is "of" the LORD and He is the LORD. And this Divine Word of God puts His words into Jeremiah's mouth so that Jeremiah can take the words of the Word to Israel.

That's how things were "in the past."  "Our ancestors" (as a rule) didn't get to meet the Son.  But occasionally He appeared to the prophets. And the prophets took his words to the nation.

If you were an OT prophet you might have been privileged enough to meet with the Son (like Abraham, Moses, Isaiah etc).  But for "our ancestors" that wasn't their experience.  They listened to the prophets about the Son and trusted Him through that mediated word.

"In these last days" something monumental has happened. The Son has gotten rid of the prophetic middle-men, just as He's gotten rid of the priestly middle-men (see the rest of Hebrews). Now He has appeared as His own 'Jeremiah' in the flesh. The Son has addressed Israel in person.  This once and for all coming has ushered in "the last days".

So it's not that Now we know God through Jesus and before they knew a Christ-less revelation of God. No, Christ is the Representation of God. How could there be Christ-less revelation in the OT?

There is a profound shift between the prophetic age and the arrival of the Son. But that shift is not about Christ becoming  Mediator. It's about Him clearing away those temporary middle-men of the Mosaic Covenant.  He is the eternal Radiance of God's glory (as Hebrews 1 affirms). Therefore all knowledge of God has always involved Him.  As Calvin has said:

“Holy men of old knew God only by beholding Him in His Son as in a mirror.  When I say this, I mean that God has never manifested Himself to men in any other way than through the Son, that is, His sole wisdom, light and truth.  From this fountain Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and others drank all that they had of heavenly teaching.  From the same fountain, all the prophets have also drawn every heavenly oracle that they have given forth. (Institutes IV.8.5)

8 thoughts on “What about Hebrews 1:1-2?

  1. Rich Owen

    Yes. I've heard that one wheeled out on a number of occasions to try and suggest that OT saints didn't know anything about Christ, the gospel or a Trinitarian revelation of God.

    If ever there was eisogesis, that's it.

    It simply speaks of the delivery method, not the content of what was spoken.

  2. Kyle Walton

    Glen, I think it is maybe helpful to understand the prologue within the context of the purpose of the book of Hebrews- namely to encourage those Jews to fully embrace the gospel and let go of the commands and practices commanded at Sinai. In the Jews minds there was a question- which was to be preferred? Fully embrace this johnny come lately gospel word, or fall back to their traditional mosaic covenant practices (still thought to be binding and delivered in such ominous fashion at Sinai)?

    Throughout Hebrews, the Author stresses the lesser/ imperfect/ shadow is giving way to the much greater/ perfect/ reality- always planned to be the case, and this should have been self evident to the Jews from the nature of the mosaic practices themselves (i.e. many of them have misinterpreted the meaning of many of those mosaic practices).

    The prologue (v1-2) then is the declaration of the preeminence of the message of these last days compared to the old covenant message at Sinai.

    This is first proved in the rest of chapter 1 by the showing the preeminence of the one who delivered it- God the Son himself, in comparison to the angels who delivered the old covenant at Sinai. The references from the OT are not primarily about proving the deity of Jesus out of the OT, but proving his preeminence compared to the angels. And that is why he can issue the starkest of warnings at the start of chapter 2:

    "Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?"

    Sorry this sounding log-winded and pedantic. The point I wanted to make is:

    You say: "There is a profound shift between the prophetic age and the arrival of the Son. But that shift is not about Christ becoming Mediator. It’s about Him clearing away those temporary middle-men of the OT."

    I say, this is true, but the shift (in context in Hebrews) is away from mosaic covenant to the gospel age where all the promises are fully consummated in Christ.

    Having said all that, I wholly agree the way of salvation and hope of the OT saints was fixed only on the coming Christ. Nor do I think the old testament saints were ignorant of Christ (or at least the saints among them weren't).

    Great ministry you do here.

  3. Glen

    Hi Kyle, nice to hear from you, Yes I should have said "He clears away those temporary middle-men of the old *covenant*"

    I might fix the post accordingly.

    Thanks!

  4. Andy Cordle

    Thanks for this Glen, really helpful. So the new thing in the last days is the "face to face for all people" nature of Jesus' revelation of God, not the fact that God suddenly decided to communicate through his Son. So you could say that in a sense the Bible's story is one of progressive revelation - but like Rich said, the progression is in the method of communication and immediacy of access, not in the content of what's communicated.

  5. Brian Midmore

    Donald Rumsfeld famously listed his different types of knowledge: Known knowns; known unknowns and unknown unknowns. In theology we might add unknown knowns. Although it is quite easy theologically to argue that OT saints knew the Messiah through creation and revelation wasn't this knowledge to a great extent an unknown knowledge of Jesus the Messiah. All men and women even now know Jesus the Messiah through creation but they don't know they know him.

  6. Glen

    Hi Brian,

    Well John 1:9 would say that Christ enlightens everyone. Yet the very next verse says that most of "His own" did not recognize or receive Him. Verse 12 then states that, nevertheless, some did recognize and receive Him (v12f).

    Therefore the kind of "knowing" that everyone has still leaves unbelievers ignorant in the most meaningful sense. But even "His own" could come to know Him in a way that is much superior to the general "enlightenment" of the world. This is the kind of "knowing" I claim for the OT saints - something greater than general enlightenment. A genuine recognition and reception of Christ - even before "the Word became flesh".

  7. Glen

    Andy - yes the progress of Heb 1:1-2 is one of method of delivery. But more generally I'm happy to say that information about Christ progresses throughout the OT (there's more info by Malachi than Exodus!). But I'd reject any assertion that it progresses from a sub-Christian level (i.e. that it emerges from a 'knowledge of God' that is ignorant of Christ, the divine Mediator).

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