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The Christology in the Epistle to the Hebrews

Cletus Hull
Hebrews and General Letters: BNTB 685/RTCH 785A
November 23, 2014

Introduction
The Epistle to the Hebrews is a word of exhortation (Heb. 13:22)1 for Christians of all
eras. Within in this letter the author deals extensively with the theological concept of
Christology. The thesis of this paper presents the author of Hebrews argument for the
Christology of Jesus, analyzing the superiority of Christs one sacrifice to those of the old
covenant. This study commences with an overview of the Christology in Hebrews leading to a
high view of the divinity of Christ and understanding the importance of his humanity. After that,
the outline of the paper clearly delineates itself according to the structure in the letter. First,
Christs preexistence as God (Heb. 1:3); second, Christ as Son of God (Heb. 1:2-6; 5:5; 7:3);
third, Christ as High Priest (Heb. 2:7, 4:14-16); fourth, Christ and the prophets (Heb. 1:2); fifth,
Christ and the angels (Heb. 2:8-9); sixth, Christ and Moses (Heb. 3:1-6); seventh, Christ and
Aaron (Heb. 5:1-10); eighth, Christ and Melchizedek (5:6; 6;20; 7:1-28); ninth, Christ and the
ascension (Heb. 7:24-26); and tenth, Christs sacrifice once for all (Heb. 8:1-10; 10:1-18). In
conclusion, the author of the epistle indubitably establishes Jesus as superior through his
Christology.
Christology in Hebrews
The author2 of Hebrews is a theologian par excellence. Frank J. Matera notes, the
unknown author of the Letter to the Hebrews ranks as one of the great theologians of the New

1 All scriptural quotations are from The New International Version of the Bible.

2 In the early centuries of the expansion of Christianity, the Eastern churches considered the letter Pauline while the
Western churches believed the author was unknown. Today, the majority of scholars agree that the author is
unknown to modern readers.

Testament, comparable to Paul and John in the depth of his theological insight.3 His obvious
knowledge of the Jewish system of sacrifice structures his Christological argument employing
the symbols of the temple religion. Udo Schnelle explains that Gods speaking is the foundation
for the Christology of Hebrews; theology proper is the ground of Christology, not the other way
around.4 The person of Jesus Christ conveys Gods definitive communiqu to humankind as
there is no further revelation beyond Christ. Hence, for this reason the Epistle to the Hebrews is
particularly rich in christology5 as the author bases the entire letter on this premise.
Preexistence-God (Heb. 1:3)
The exordium of Hebrews 1:1-4 presents a profound Christological groundwork for the
exhortation. Bauckham identifies that Hebrews 1:1-4 is a single and rather elaborate periodic
sentence, stately in construction, deliberate in its use of rhetorical emphasis, and organized in a
pattern of contrasts.6 The content of this opening of the letter concurs with the Pauline emphases
on Christs eternal standing (Phil. 2:6-11; Col. 1:15-17). George H. Guthrie notes, the preexistence of the Son is emphatically affirmed by the fact that he is said to be the agent through
whom all things were created (1:2). He clearly existed before the material creation. He preceded
successive periods of world history (the ages). Such an exalted Christology is therefore the
3 Frank J. Matera. New Testament Theology: Exploring Diversity and Unity (Louisville: Westminster John Knox,
2007), 335.

4 Udo Schnelle. Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 635.

5 Hughes, Philip E. The Christology of Hebrews. Southwestern Journal of Theology, 28, no. 1 (Fall 1985): 19.

6 Richard Bauckham, Daniel R. Driver, Trevor A. Hart, and Nathan MacDonald, eds. The Epistle to the Hebrews
and Christian Theology. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 72.

starting point for the argument of the epistle.7 Christ presents not only the eternal resolution to
humankinds plight but also Gods eschatological plan for the ages. Thus, the writer is insisting
on the finality of the Christian revelation. What God has made known before is now superseded
by his revelation through his Son.8 Christ is unique, matchless and inimitable.
Son of God (Heb. 1:2-6; 5:5; 7:3)
The first point that the author establishes describes Christ as the Son of God. Karen Jobes
writes, the book of Hebrews presents a Christology that has two focal points: Jesus as Son of
God (understood in its first-century sense) and Jesus as the great and final High Priest of a new
covenant based on his death.9 In this role as the Son, his Lordship is indomitable. Richard
Bauckham mentions, Hebrews attributes to Jesus Christ three main categories of identitySon,
Lord, High Priestand that each of these categories requires Jesus both to share the unique
identity of God.10 These characteristics define his divine being, essence and mission in salvation
history. In effect, the author of Hebrews concludes that within the unity of the tripersonal deity
the Son is eternally the image of God.11 This exclusive notion in heilsgeschichte gives Christ a
unique position.
7 George H. Guthrie. Hebrews, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 47.
8

Ibid., 46.

9 Karen H. Jobes. Letters to the Church: A Survey of Hebrews and the General Epistles (Grand Rapids: Zondervan,
2011), 108.

10 Bauckham, 18.

11 Hughes, 20.

High Priest (Heb. 5:6)


The second and equally important piece of the Christology in Hebrews uncovers Jesus
Christ as the great High Priest of the new covenant (Heb. 4:14). The earthly high priest offers
atonement but Jesus as the sinless Son of God accomplishes eternal salvation for all people. In
Israels religious history, the priest mediates the relationship between the people and God. Only
one high priest may present ultimate sacrifices to God (Heb. 5:1); however, the author of
Hebrews transfers the concept of high priest to a new level with Christ. For example, Craig R.
Koester notes concerning Jesus origins, Hebrews assumes that historically Jesus came from the
tribe of Judah (7:14). Descent from Judah is noteworthy because it would seem to disqualify
Jesus from the priesthood, but Hebrews reverses the argument by insisting that since Jesus is a
priest, the priesthood based on a Levitical descent has been superseded.12 However, Christ
supersedes the Levitical system of the old covenant as Christs work surpasses the blood
sacrifices of the priest for higher and better promises (Heb. 8:6). Thus, Udo Schnelle remarks,
the major section of Hebrews framed by 4:14-16 and 10:19-23 clearly reveals the basic thesis of
the high-priestly Christology: the sinless suffering Jesus, installed as high priest as the Son of
God passes through the heavens and thereby makes possible free access to god for believers.13
The heavenly eschatological priest guarantees access to the divine throne as the hope for
believers (Heb. 4:16).
Christ and the prophets (Heb. 1:2)

12 Craig R. Koester, Hebrews: The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 2001), 106.

13 Schnelle, 637.

The OT prophet speaks for God. The first major prophet, Moses, learns that his status as
prophet contains a future corollary. Deuteronomy 18:15 specifies the Lord your God will raise
up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. As Karen Jobes
writes, clearly this Son is a superhuman being whose activities far exceed those of even Israels
prophets. The attributes of the Son immediately demolish the thought that Jesus is just another
human prophet in a long line.14 This exhortation in the letter reassures the reader that the
promise, which God prophesied centuries earlier finds fulfillment in the ultimate prophet Jesus
Christ. His voice as a prophet of God speaks explicitly in salvation history.
Christ and the angels (Heb. 2:8-9)
In Hebrews 1:5-13, the author substantiates Christs superiority over
the angels as he weaves a list of quoted verses from the LXX concerning
angels and their comparison to Christ. All the scriptures (Ps. 2:7; 1 Chron.
17:13; Deut. 32:43; Ps. 104:4; Ps. 45:6, 7; Ps. 102:25-27; Ps. 110:1) lead to a
climactic moment describing Christs superiority over the angels, as Psalm 110
demonstrates that the exalted Christ is far superior to the angels. Richard Bauckham aptly notes
in three key respectscreation, sovereignty and worshipthe Son is related to the angels
precisely as God is. The angels themselves acknowledge his divinity in worshipping him.15
Thus, the conclusion with Psalm 110 becomes a picturesque icon of the angelic understanding of
the divinity of Christ.
Christ and Moses (Heb. 3:1-6)
14 Jobes, 63.

15 Bauckham, 25.

The exhortation specifically invokes the prophet Moses. The authors interest in reaching
the Jewish audience has great significance, appealing to the magnitude of Moses contribution to
Judaism. H.W. Attridge writes in The Epistle to the Hebrews and Christian Theology, the cult
based on the revelation to Moses functioned as a symbol () of the time of the true
High Priests sacrifice (9:9). Moses blood sacrifices established a principle that a covenant needs
such an inaugural event, but that blood of goats and calves (9:12) was inferior to the blood of
the Son, which inaugurated the new covenant.16 Moses as the unquestioned leader of the law of
Israel intercedes for the people and places himself before God on their behalf. However, the
authors intention remains in the superiority of Christ over Moses. Guthrie enumerates Moses
never achieved his aim of leading the Israelites into the promised land; this too is in strong
contrast to the completed work of Christ, which is so strongly stressed later in the epistle.17 This
great Old Testament prophet has his proper place in Israels history, but God, in his Son, holds a
higher purpose for salvation history in his people. Hughes writes, Moses was faithful in Gods
house as a servant, whereas Christ was faithful over Gods house as a son.18 As the author of the
epistle appeals to this familiar household name, revelation humankind finds salvation in the
revelation of Christ. Hughes adds, thus in the full blaze of the surpassing glory of Christ and his

16

Ibid., 101.

17 Guthrie, 96.

18 Hughes, 23.

grace, the glory of Moses and his law have ceased to be glorious (cf. 2 Cor. 3:9f).19 The scale of
Moses influence would certainly emphasize the aim of the exhortation.
Christ and Aaron (Heb. 5:1-10)
The annals of Israels history elevate Moses to a substantial position, yet, his brother
Aaron as a high priest experienced a noted priestly role with the people. In fact, Aaron has the
status of high priest that Moses does not enjoy. Guthrie notes, the high priest is essentially a
representative of man; he is chosen from among men (literally taken from men). It is because he
is identified by nature with men that he can act and plead on their behalf. This was fundamental
to the Aaronic priesthood.20 As the author develops his case with reference to Aaron, the
attention that a priest gives is in comparison of Christs care for humanity. Hughes remarks, the
Aaronic or levitical line was soley priestly; in no sense was it a line of kings; and in any case the
prophets clearly proclaimed that the messianic king was to be of the lineage of David.21 Yet, the
sin of Aaron places him in a different category in comparison to Christ. Bruce elucidates:
Jesus, unlike Aaron and his successors, was confirmed in office by the oath of God. Jesus
is immortal, whereas the priests of Aarons line die one by one. Jesus is sinless, whereas
the priests of Aarons line have to present a sin-offering for their own cleansing before
they can present for the people. Their sacrificial service must constantly be repeated
because it is never truly effective; Jesus, by the single sacrifice of Himself, put away His
peoples sin forever.22

19 Ibid.

20 Guthrie, 125.

21 Hughes, 24.

22 F.F. Bruce. The Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), xx-xxi.

Thus, Jesus fulfillment as High Priest demonstrates his superiority to the Aaronic priesthood.
Christ and Melchizedek (Heb. 5:6; 6:20; 7:1-28, Gen. 14; Ps. 110)
The Jewish readers would know Moses and Aaron as historical characters in their history.
Subsequently, the mention of mysterious Melchizedek adds a new dimension of theological
insight to the Christological argument. His aura and obscurity place his mention in a new
echelon. Karen Jobes notes that some interpreters throughout Jewish history have understood
Melchizedek to be a supernatural being (e.g., the Dead Sea Scrolls, 2 Enoch, and some rabbinic
writings).23 In addition, Mealand relates, Qumran texts describe Melchizedek as a heavenly
deliver.24 However, in Genesis, Abraham accepts his priesthood by giving tithes to the king of
Salem. Richard Bauckham rightly observes, the most distinctive contribution of Hebrews to
Christology is, of course, its understanding of Jesus as Melchizedekian High Priest.25 In
Hebrews 5:6, the author writes that Christ is a priest in the order of Melchizedek (quoting
Psalm 110:4). Melchizedeks mystery (unlike Aarons known history in Israel) creates an
enduring priesthood containing no succession as Aarons levitical line reveals. Hence, the
exhortation suitably compares Christ to Melchizedek as priest. Karen Jobes adds, the
mysterious Melchizedek is mentioned only ten times in the Bible, and eight of those times are in
Hebrews where he is presented as an analogy for the priesthood of Jesus Christ (Gen. 14:18; Psa.
110:4; Heb. 5:6,10; 6;20; 7:1,10,11,15, 17).26 Though scripture is silent on Melchizedeks

23 Jobes, 105.

24 David L. Mealand, The Christology of the Epistle to the Hebrews. Modern Churchman, 22, no. 4 (1979): 183.

25 Bauckham, 19.

origins, this similarity to Christ and his eternal character mark a contrast to Moses and Aarons
status in the argument for Christs superiority.
Christ and the ascension (Heb. 7:24-26)
Hebrews 7:24-26 expounds, because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood.
Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always
lives to intercede for them. Such a high priest truly meets our needone who is holy, blameless,
pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. This essential stage in the life of Christ
enhances his work as a high priest. The theological significance reveals his saving work on the
cross. Hence, enthronement also indicates the completion of the Sons priestly workhence the
sequence: when he had purges our sins, he sat down.27 Richard Bauckham writes, the telos, of
Christs priestly office in Hebrews is not the offering which takes place in the event of the
crucifixion. That, according to the writer, is the means to the end; it is not yet the end. The end is
to be found in an exaltation to an eternal priesthood.28 Jesus nature as human and divine, the
pioneer and finisher of the faith (Heb. 12:2) complete Gods eternal plan. Thus, these two foci
of Hebrews ChristologyJesus as Son of God and Jesus as Priestcome together for the author
of Hebrews in the ascension, where Christ is both crowned as King of the universe at Gods right
hand and where he presents the final sacrifice of his own blood to God in the true Holy of
Holies.29 Jesus truly becomes the captain of salvation as the ascension celebrates his
efficacious work.
26 Jobes, 103.

27 Ibid, 92.

28 Ibid, 62.

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Christology and Christ the sacrifice once for all (Heb. 8:1-10; 10:1-18)
The author of the epistle writes in Hebrews 8:6 in fact the ministry Jesus has received is
as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, since the
new covenant is established on better promises. This new covenant led by the High Priest Jesus
Christ enters the plight and reality of humankinds sin. His once-for-all sacrifice through his
blood reveals the centerpiece of Christology in Hebrews. In effect, Attridge writes that Hebrews
8:1-10 is the heart of the Christological exposition of Hebrews.30 This sacrifice requires no
repetition or duplication of action. His suffering and death at the crucifixion are a onetime event
never repeated in the future. Concerning his suffering, Hebrews 5:8 remarks Son though he was,
he learned obedience from what he suffered. Attridge explains that suffering and death are not,
however, incompatible with that status; they are, as Hebrews constantly emphasizes, an essential
part of the Sons salvific work.31 Consequently, the death of Jesus is of great significance for
the author.32 The superiority of his death stands sufficient as it deals with the problem of sin
(Heb. 9:12; 10:14, 17).

Conclusion
29 Jobes, 111.
30

H. W. Attridge, Hebrews (Hermeneia; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988), 216.

31

Ibid., 152.

32 Mealand, 182.

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The exhortation in the Epistle to the Hebrews contains warnings, and teachings for the
Jewish believers. Nathan Holsteen expresses that the purpose of Hebrews is to encourage the
recipients to cling to their Christian faith, even in the midst of crisesfor only by faith in Christ
can one find salvation.33 In addition, Hebrews includes incredible insights into the Christology
of Jesus. In fact, the author of Hebrews produced one of the most developed treatments of
Christ in the NT.34 This study develops the following points about the two natures of Christ as
the author of Hebrews has portrayed Christ as a pre-existent eternal, eternal heavenly being
alongside God.35 Hebrews requires understanding from this perspective. As a result, building on
the OT shadows (Heb. 8:5; 10:1) of the angels, Moses, and Aaron, leading to the ascension-opens a new reality for salvation.
Hebrews has a very clear conception of Jesus as both truly God and truly human, like
his Father in every respect and like humans in every respect.36 Salvation in Christ bases its
presuppositions in these notions. Luke Timothy Johnson writes, Hebrews demands taking Jesus
both as fully God and as fully human, if your profession is to be adequate to the mystery he
reveals.37 From his death to his ascension, the readers notice that eternal salvation is for all who
33 Nathan D. Holsteen, The Trinity in the Book of Hebrews. Bibliotheca Sacra, 168 (July-September 2011): 345.

34 R. Martin and P. H. Davids. eds., Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments (Downers Grove,
IL: InterVarsity, 1997), 173.

35 Mealand, 185.

36 Bauckham, 18.

37 Luke Timothy Johnson, Hebrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006), 55.

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will receive it. Again, Johnson clarifies on the one side, Jesus is the one who brings salvation to
humanity (apostle, cause, sanctifier, shepherd, minister, builder, guarantor). On the other side,
Jesus is also a human being who reaches first what all seek (heir, firstborn, pioneer, forerunner,
perfecter). As the one who accomplishes both, he is preeminently the mediator.38 The salvific
language for Christ remains robust throughout corpus of the epistle.
The paraentic purpose and exhortation of the Christology of Hebrews summarizes the
authors belief, asserting that Jesus is the the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set
before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne
of God (Heb. 12:2). Jesus blazes the trail of faith and runs the race with endurance. Johnson
claims, the Son relates to the sons as their pioneer and perfecter only because he is eternally and
by nature the bearer of a more excellent name.39 The new covenant replaces the ineffective
blood of animals with the purifying and superior blood of Jesus. Certainly, Christ goes before
God as High Priest for all humankind securing the path for salvation and eternal life.
In conclusion, the ultimate issue has to do with the Sons preexistence; that is, does an
author consider Christ to have had existence as (or with) with God before coming into our
history for the purposes of redemption which included at the end his resurrection and subsequent
exaltation to the right hand of God.40 The goal of the exhortation reveals the reasons for Christs

38 Ibid., 49.

39 Ibid., 79.

40 Gordon Fee, Pauline Christology: An Exegetical-Theological Study (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2007), 9.

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work as a believer receives salvation. The liturgical calendar for the church, with seasons such as
Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, the Ascension disclose the function and nature of Jesus and his
Christology. Hughes discerns, the Son is presented in the three functions of his messianic office:
as Prophet (he himself is the divine Word), as Priest (he made purification for our sins), and as
King (he is enthroned in glory).41 Thus, the epistle to the Hebrews unveils the entire salvific
work of Christ as superior to all images from the old covenant.
Accordingly, Hebrews 10:19-23 recaps the Christology of the letter:
Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by
the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his
body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God
with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts
sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure
water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.
The Christological argument of the letter forever grounds itself in Jesus accomplished work.
Hebrews 13:8 proclaims Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. In other
words, this scripture shares a symbolic three-stage christology42 in that Christ accomplishment
in the past, is available today and in the future. Certainly, he is the same ( ) as eternal
Godpast, present and future (Rev. 1:4; 8; 4:8; 11:17; 16:5). Lastly, the thesis establishes that
the superiority of Christ in Hebrews remains complete in Gods eternal purpose.

41 Hughes, 21.

42 Attridge, 393.

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BIBLIOGRAPHY
Attridge, H. W. Hebrews. Hermeneia; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988.
Bauckham, Richard, Daniel R. Driver, Trevor A. Hart, and Nathan MacDonald, eds. The Epistle
to the Hebrews and Christian Theology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009.
Bruce, F.F. The Epistle to the Hebrews. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990.
Fee, Gordon. Pauline Christology: An Exegetical-Theological Study. Peabody: Hendrickson,
2007.
Guthrie, George H. Hebrews, NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998.
Jobes, Karen H. Letters to the Church: A Survey of Hebrews and the General Epistles. Grand
Rapids: Zondervan, 2011.
Johnson, Luke Timothy. Hebrews. Louisville: Westminister JohnKnox, 2006.
Koester, Craig R. Hebrews. Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday, 2001.
Martin R., and P. H. Davids. eds. Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments.
Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1997.
Matera, Frank J. New Testament Theology: Exploring Diversity and Unity. Louisville:
Westminster John Knox, 2007.
Schnelle, Udo. Theology of the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009.
Articles
Holsteen, Nathan D. The Trinity in the Book of Hebrews. Bibliotheca Sacra, 168 (JulySeptember 2011): 334-346.
Hughes, Philip E. The Christology of Hebrews. Southwestern Journal of Theology, 28, no. 1
(Fall 1985): 19-27.

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Mealand, David L. The Christology of the Epistle to the Hebrews. Modern Churchman, 22, no.
4 (1979): 180-185.