Most writers unfold their dramas gradually, holding in reserve their highest themes. Not so the writer to the Hebrews, as he pens his great epistle.
The full brilliance of his subject bursts upon us at the outset. Spurning all introductions, and with a devastating economy of words, he sets before us the surpassing glory of Christ. The full impact of this portrayal is found in verses 2-4, but the writer’s opening words are no less important. For here he shows us Christ both as the messenger and the message of God.
Christ the messenger
The epistle begins abruptly.‘God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son’ (1:1-2). The word translated ‘by’ signifies ‘by means of’ or, more literally, ‘in’. God spoke in the prophets as he now speaks in his Son. The writer seems to put Christ and the Old Testament prophets on the same level as messengers from God. Why is this?
There is no intention of diminishing Christ by comparing him to the prophets. Rather, by making no distinction at this point, the writer exalts the prophetic ministry. He does not equate the prophets themselves with Christ; he likens the prophetic word to God’s self-revelation in his Son. Thus the Old Testament Scriptures are to be received and honoured as the word of the Lord, for God spoke through them, just as truly as he now speaks through Christ. And little wonder, for these Old Testament writings are those that testify of Christ (John 5:39).
The clear distinction between Christ and the prophets is brought out in the book of Malachi. ‘Behold, I send My messenger, and he will prepare the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple, even the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight’ (Malachi 3:1).In this passage, Malachi shows us two messengers. The first was John the Baptist, who prepared the way for Christ. The second was Christ himself, the messenger of the covenant. John was the last in line of the prophetic messengers who, by their spoken and written words alike, pointed away from themselves to the ultimate messenger, Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God.
What does it mean, then, that Christ was ‘the messenger of the covenant’? Firstly, the Lord Jesus Christ came to reveal a new covenant. The reality and glory of the new covenant are the central themes of Hebrews. This new covenant is nothing other than the gospel of Christ. It had been foretold throughout the Old Testament, both directly and in types and symbols, but its full glory remained hidden. The prophets themselves sought to know ‘what … the Spirit of Christ who was in them was indicating’ when he spoke through them (1 Peter 1:11). Indeed, Peter continues, even the angels desired to know more about these things! The full disclosure of the gospel came through the teaching of Christ himself and later through the apostles and New Testament prophets (Galatians 1:12; Ephesians 3:2-5; Hebrews 2:3). This new-covenant revelation is preserved for us explicitly in the New Testament Scriptures.
Secondly, Christ came to inaugurate the new covenant. Throughout Old Testament history the promised covenant was for the future (1 Peter 1:10-12). But Christ came ‘in these last days’ to fulfil the promises and to usher in a new era, an era when men would no longer have to say ‘know the Lord’, but when God’s people would all know him, from the least to the greatest (Jeremiah 31:33-34). As Paul writes to the Galatians, ‘When the fulness of the time had come, God sent forth his Son … to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons’ (Galatians 4:4-5).
Thirdly, Christ came to enable the new covenant. It was the new covenant made in his blood, and until that blood had been shed it could not come into force. It was the covenant of promise, namely ‘the promise of the Spirit’ (Galatians 3:14), but the Spirit could not be given until Christ had been glorified and had ascended on high (John 7:39; 17:1). It was the covenant of grace, and the grace of Christ was only fully manifested in his death and resurrection (2 Corinthians 8:9). This does not mean that none who lived before Christ could benefit from the new covenant. Quite the reverse, for Old Testament believers were justified by faith in the coming Messiah, just as we look back to the finished work of Christ. However, their enjoyment of the new covenant was posthumous. As Hebrews puts it later, ‘God [has] provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us’ (Hebrews 11:40; emphasis added).
If Christ is the ultimate messenger from God, we must listen to him and him alone. Today we are confronted by many ‘messengers’, each claiming to show us the way to God. All religions lead to God, they tell us, and we must study and absorb their teachings. Jesus warned us that many false (literally, pseudo-) ‘Christs’ would arise, drawing men after themselves, and his words have proven true (Matthew 24:24). A syncretic society affords many opportunities to create ‘designer religions’ for ourselves. A multiplicity of sects provides a religious supermarket, where we may pick and choose to our heart’s content, if all we want is ‘religion’. But only Christ brings the message of God. ‘This is my beloved Son,’’ said the Father, ‘hear him’ (Mark 9:7).
Christ the message of God
Although no distinction is made in verse 1 between the prophets and Christ in regard to the process of revelation, we know from John 1:1-5 that Christ is, in a special way, the Word of God. He is not only the messenger of the covenant, but the message itself. He is the ‘Word of life’ and ‘that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us’ (1 John 1:1-2). God speaks to us not only through Jesus Christ, but ‘in’ him, for he is in himself the utterance of God, the embodiment of his divine nature and eternal purpose.
One who is only a messenger is a ‘go-between’. He directs attention away from himself to (a) the sender of the message and (b) the content of the message. Christ certainly directs our attention to God, but only by pointing to himself. ‘I am the way, the truth and the life,’ he declares. ‘No one comes to the Father except through me’ (John 14:6). It is to Christ that we must apply for salvation, and it is in Christ that we may find that salvation. This is why the genuine gospel must always focus upon the Lord Jesus Christ. When the apostles preached, they preached ‘Christ and him crucified’, considering it unnecessary to ‘know anything’ other than his divine person and his atoning work (1 Corinthians 2:2).
It is very easy to be sidetracked from the purity of this apostolic message. The Athenians of old ‘spent their time in nothing else but .. telling or hearing some new thing’ (Acts 17:21). So people today demand novelty in religion. They want to know, ‘What’s new?’ rather than ‘What’s true?’ Thus it is old-fashioned to believe that Scripture is the infallible Word of God; that man is dead in trespasses and sins; that he abides under the wrath of a holy God; that he faces eternal condemnation; that God chose by grace to redeem a great multitude from among mankind; that Christ shed his blood for these elect; that he rose physically from the dead to justify them; that he will come again in judgement and that the dead will return to face that awful day. It is not sufficient (they say) to simply preach Christ. We must communicate the gospel by drama, music and art. We must provide for those who prefer discussion to doctrine, pop music to preaching, and spiritual ‘highs’ to spiritual hunger. But we must not be side tracked from Christ. Only he is God’s word to a fallen race, and only by seeking him can we discover what God has to say to us.