Father Callan’s Commentary on Hebrews 1:1-6

NOTE: Father Callan uses the chapter and verse numbering of the Psalms as found in the Greek Septuagint (LXX); Latin Vulgate, and Douay-Rheims Bible. Scholars are still not in agreement on how to divide the Psalter, but since most modern translations follow the numbering in the Masoretic text for the sake of uniformity, I’ve changed Fr. Callan’s numbering. Also, I’ve included his summaries of verse 1-3 and 4-14 in this post to help provide context.

A Summary of Hebrews 1:1-3

1-3. With no personal references or salutations, as was customary in ordinary letters, the author here plunges at once into the theme of his book, stating immediately the thesis he intends to prove, namely, that the New Covenant is more excellent than the Old Covenant. The writer here replies to the twofold question: What is the relation between the Old Testament and the New, between Christ and God? The revelation of the Old Testament was fragmentary and piecemeal, having been given at widely separated times, through a great variety of means and agents, and at most it was incomplete; whereas the revelation of the New Testament is complete and final, having been given to the world through God’s own Son, whom the Father made the heir of all things, through whom the world was created, who is of the very essence of Divinity and conserves and sustains all creation, and who, having redeemed mankind, is now seated as man in the place of honor and majesty at the Everlasting Father’s right hand.

Heb 1:1  God, who, at sundry times and in divers manners, spoke in times past to the fathers by the prophets, last of all,

God. By the use of this term the author, from the very outset of his letter, professes his belief in and assures his readers of the divine origin of the Old Testament Dispensation; the same God who spoke of old through the Prophets has spoken of late through His Son.

At sundry times, etc. The meaning is, fragmentarily, by many partial revelations; and by a great variety of methods and means of communication. God revealed Himself and His will gradually, part by part, according to the increasing capacity and fitness of the human race to receive His unveiling. Under the pre-Gospel dispensations He spoke first to Adam, then to Noe, then to a great array of succeeding messengers, like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, and the long line of Prophets strictly so called; and His message to these patriarchs, legislators, historians, and seers was delivered in many ways—by words, by dreams, by visions, by symbolic actions, and the like.

In times past, i.e., under the old dispensations; the writer has especially in mind the Old Testament Dispensation, from Abraham, the Father of the Hebrew people, to Malachy, the last of the Old Law Prophets.

The fathers, i.e., the ancestors of the writer and the readers of this Epistle,

Prophets. The term is here used in a wide sense, embracing all those who, before the Gospel era, received revelations from God to be communicated to mankind.

Heb 1:2  In these days, hath spoken to us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the world.

In contrast with the many mediums and methods employed for communicating divine messages to man under the Old Testament Dispensation, the Gospel revelation has been made through one person and in one way only, namely, through Christ, the Incarate Son of God. The superiority and finality of the new revelation are here set over against the fragmentariness and incompleteness of the previous revelations.

In these days, i.e., in the period which has succeeded to the era of the Prophets and inaugurated the Messianic age. This period is also called “the fullness of time” (1 Cor 10:11; Gal 4:4; 2 Tim 3:1), because in it God has given His complete and final revelation, a revelation to which nothing shall be added in this world, though it will be more and more unfolded and explained
by the teaching of the Church as time goes on and as necessity requires.

By his Son. Literally, “in a Son,” i.e., in one who, unlike the Prophets, had the very nature of God Himself, and who consequently is the natural “heir of all things.” But the Son whom the Father “hath appointed heir of all things,” i.e., the Lord Jesus Christ, has two natures, divine and human; and according to His divine nature He needed not to be made an heir, but was from eternity the natural heir of the Father, whose common essence, power, dominion, etc. He shared. It was, therefore, according to His human nature that the Son was “appointed heir of all things” by the Eternal Father, received from the Father “all power in heaven and on earth” (Matt 11:27, 28:18; John 13:3, 17:2), and
had all things put under His feet, as had been promised far back in Old Testament days (Psalm 8:8), and as St. Paul has repeatedly taught in his other letters ( 1 Cor 15:26; Eph 1:22; Phil 2:9), Of course, this supreme and universal dominion over all things will not be exercised to its full extent by our Lord until His Second Coming at the end of time (see Heb 2:8 below; 1 Cor 15:24 ff.).

By whom also he made the world. The Son is considered here according to His divine nature, in which He is equal to the Father, having the same power and operation. Creation, like all the works of God ad extra, is common to all the three Divine Persons; and hence the Son or the Holy Ghost is just as much the efficient cause of creation as the Father is. See on Col 1:16.

The world. Literally, “the ages,” which means all the things of time. The cosmos is the material world considered in its order, beauty and harmony.

Heb 1:3  Who being the brightness of his glory and the figure of his substance and upholding all things by the word of his power, making purgation of sins, sitteth on the right hand of the majesty on high:

Having spoken in the preceding verse of what the Father has done for and through the Son, the author in this verse goes on to describe the Son in Himself, in His relation to the Father, and in His work and triumph as man. Two figures are employed to describe the Son as God; first. He is “the brightness of his glory,” or better, “the effulgence of his glory,” i.e., the shining-forth of the light and majesty of the Father, somewhat as the light streams from the sun, though substantially and infinitely more perfectly. He is Light of light and God of God, as we say in the Creed. The same figure is used in the Book of Wisdom to describe Uncreated Wisdom (Wis 7:26). In this phrase we are taught the following doctrines: (a) that the Son is consubstantial and co-eternal with the Father, and yet distinct from Him; (b) that the Son proceeds from the Father by nature, and not through the Father’s free will; (c) that the Father in generating the Son does not sufifer any change or imperfection. Cf. St. Thomas and Theophylact, h. I.

The very image of his substance. This second figure used to describe the Son is different. “Image” here means the impress made on a seal by a stamp cut by a die, which therefore exactly reproduces the original in all its perfection; and the application of the figure would be that the Son has the same identical nature, substance, perfections, and all else that the Father has, except of course the relationship of paternity by which He is distinguished from the Father. Thus, our Lord said to Philip: “He that seeth me seeth the Father also” (John 14:9).

Substance means God’s being, nature, essence.

Upholding all things. The writer now begins to describe the work of the Son, first, as regards all creation, of which He is the sustainer and conserver (see on Col 1:17), and then as the Redeemer of man. The Son is not only the creator of the universe, He is also its conserver, in whom “all things consist” (Col 1:17).

The word of his power means the command of His power, or His powerful command, by which He sustains all things.

Having made a purgation of sins means when He had cleansed mankind from their sins, alluding to the Jewish sacrifices or sin offerings on the Day of Atonement, when the priest made a purification of sins by sprinkling some of the blood of the victims upon the mercy-seat.

Sitteth on the right hand. More literally, “sat down,” or “took his seat on the right hand.” The metaphor describes our Lord’s entry as man into peaceful and triumphant possession of His kingdom and His session in the highest place of honor next to the Divinity (see on Eph 1:20; Col 3:1). By His sufferings and death our Lord not only satisfied for our sins, but also merited for Himself as man the highest exaltation (see on Phil 2:8 ff.; Luke 24:26).

In these opening verses are indicated the three Messianic offices of our Saviour: Prophet (ver. 1-2), Priest and King (ver. 3).

A Summary of Hebrews 1:4-14

4-14. With verse 4 begins the Dogmatic Part of the Epistle (1:4-10:18), on which see Introduction, 5:B. In these verses and in Chapter 2 the writer shows the superiority of Christ to the angels, which is his first great argument in proof of his thesis, namely, the superiority of the New Covenant to the Old. In this present section he first states his proposition, that Christ is superior to the angels (ver. 4), and then proves it by showing (a) that Christ is the natural Son of God (ver. 5-6), and (b) that the angels are only ministering spirits, whereas Christ is the King, Creator, and triumphant Lord of all things (ver. 7-14).

To appreciate the force of the argument developed in the rest of this and in the following Chapter, we must bear in mind that according to Jewish tradition and belief the old revelation, known as the Old Law, was given by God to Moses on Sinai through the hands of angels (Deut 33:2; Acts 7:53; Gal 3:19) and to the people of Israel through Moses, and that, consequently, the angels and Moses were the intermediaries of the Old Law; whereas the new revelation has been given to the world through Christ, who is the Son of God and the Creator of the angels and of all things, and that therefore the New Law must be far superior to the Old Law: the superiority of the medium or mediator proves the superiority of the revelation.

Heb 1:4  Being made so much better than the angels as he hath inherited a more excellent name than they.

Being made. Better, “having become,” i.e., the Son having become in His human nature, from the first moment of the Incarnation, as much superior to the angels as His name is greater than theirs. According to St. Chrysostom and other Greek Fathers, “having become” here means “having been shown to be.” The expression would thus refer to the glorification which our Lord merited by His passion and death (John 15:8; Rom 1:4; Phil 2:9), by which He was shown to be the true Son of God.

So much, a classic expression in Greek and characteristic of this letter; it is not found in the other Epistles of St. Paul.

Better means a superiority of perfection and excellence. The word occurs thirteen times in this Epistle but only three times in the other Pauline letters, and then somewhat differently.

Hath inherited, as man. See on Phil 2:9.

A more excellent name, which was that of Son of God, and which our Lord received according to His human nature from the first moment of the Incarnation, but which according to His divine nature He possessed from eternity. The author says that our Lord “inherited” this name, to show that it was due Him by reason of His origin, and not by grace (St. Thomas), The name “angel” means messenger, legate; but Jesus Christ has the name of Son of God; therefore, His name is far superior to that of the angels.

Heb 1:5  For to which of the angels hath he said at any time: Thou art my Son, to-day have I begotten thee? And again: I will be to him a Father, and he shall be to me a Son?

In verses 5-14 the Apostle cites seven texts of the Old Testament, of which the first three prove that our Lord was the true Son of God (ver. 5-6), the next three that He was King and Creator (ver. 7-12), and the last that He is seated on the right hand of the Father (ver. 13-14). These texts constitute five arguments showing the superiority of Christ to the angels.

It may be said here once for all that the author of this Epistle invariably quotes the Old Testament according to the Septuagint version, and never according to the Hebrew original; his Bible was the LXX. And this was the usual practice of St. Paul.

The two texts cited in the present verse are respectively from Psalm 2:7 and 2 Sam 7:14. Psalm 2 is understood as Messianic in its literal sense throughout the New Testament (Acts 4:25, 28, 13:33; Apoc 2:27 fif., 12:5, 19:15), and hence in the words, “Thou art my Son, etc.,” the Eternal Father is addressing His Son, whom He has begotten from eternity. The expression “this day” signifies the abiding present of eternity, where there is no past or future; the opinion which understands it of the time of our Lord’s Resurrection or Ascension has little support.

In the second quotation the Prophet Nathan, speaking in the name of God, is announcing to King David that the honor of building a Temple to God will be reserved to one of his successors, whose throne will be eternal and to whom God will be “a Father, etc.” In their literal sense the Prophet’s words refer to King Solomon, but in their spiritual sense, which is that intended by the Holy Ghost, they refer to the Messiah, of whom Solomon was a figure and in whom alone they can be understood in their full significance. The argument from these two texts is that, while the angels may be spoken of in Scripture as sons of God in a wide sense, as adopted sons, they are never so addressed in the strict and natural sense of the term in which it is here applied to Christ.

Heb 1:6  And again, when he bringeth in the first begotten into the world, he saith: And let all the angels of God adore him.

And again. According to some, these words are used to introduce another Scripture quotation, and the words that follow refer to our Lord’s First Coming at the time of the Incarnation, which was announced by an angel (Luke 2:10 ff.); but the majority of interpreters understand the reference to be to our Lord’s Second Coming in judgment at the end of the world, and make the verse read: “And when he again bringeth the first-born, etc.” The Scripture references are to Psalm 97:7, and the LXX of Deut 32:43, which describe the Coming of the Lord in judgment. The argument is that God commands the angels to worship Christ, which shows how far they are inferior to Him, who deserves the worship of latria. As God, our Lord is the “only-begotten of the Father” (John 1:14), but as man He is “the first-born amongst many brethren,” i.e., adopted brethren (Rom 8:29).

Into the world, which belongs to the Son by inheritance.

He saith, i.e., God the Father said.

And let all the angels, etc. The “and” is not in Psalm 97:7, but it is in the LXX of Deut 32:43. The Psalmist, describing Jehovah who comes to judge the world, invites all the angels to adore Him. St. Paul here shows the words have a Messianic sense, and so applies them under divine inspiration to our Lord, true God and true man, the Supreme Judge of the living and the dead.

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One Response to Father Callan’s Commentary on Hebrews 1:1-6

  1. Pingback: Resources for Christmas Mass During the Day | stjoeofoblog

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