Jesus as YHWH
Christianity has long proclaimed the divinity of Jesus Christ. A central biblical passage often cited in support of this doctrine is found in the opening verses of John 1. Certainly, the introduction to John’s Gospel presents a sublime affirmation of Christ’s divinity. There is, however, another passage that may present the divinity of Christ with even greater theological richness: Hebrews 1.
To understand what is going on in Hebrews 1, a bit of context is helpful. The author of Hebrews was writing to first-century Jewish believers who were apparently considering renouncing their faith in Christ due to persecution from both the Roman Empire and traditional Judaism. It appears they were thinking of forsaking Christ to reabsorb into traditional Judaism so as to minimize one flank of persecutory conflict. The author of Hebrews thus seeks to persuade them to faithfully endure instead of renouncing Christ. His primary strategy was to present evidences of the superiority of Christ to the temple-based Judaism to which they might return. In short, Jesus is argued to be better than angels (Hebrews 1). He is better than Moses and Joshua (Hebrews 3 and 4). He has a better priesthood with a better covenant based on better promises with better sacrifices (Hebrews 5 to 9). Thus, why would one want to renounce the better to return to the lesser? It is in the introduction to the book, followed by the argument for the superiority of Christ over angels, where appears a rich depiction of the deity of Christ.
Hebrews 1 opens by informing the reader that God has spoken in various ways through the prophets but in these last days through His Son. The first descriptor of the Son is that He is the agent through whom God created the world (1:2). Hebrews thus confirms a significant New Testament theme found in places such as Colossians 1:16 and John 1:3: Christ is Creator and is, therefore, God.
John 1 especially makes this connection that all that was made was made through the Word (Christ); thus, He is Creator. At the same time, that Word is declared not only to have been with God (Theos) but also “was”—the Greek tense gives a continuous, ongoing sense of “was”—God (Theos). In Isaiah 40, creation is what distinguishes God from the idol. God creates; the idol is made (vss. 18–28). Some may contend that the New Testament depicts God as creating through Christ; and thus God, not Christ, is the real Creator. This will be addressed later in Hebrews 1, but, as mentioned before, John clearly sees Christ’s role in creation as revealing His full divinity. Paul follows the same pattern with Christ as Creator in Colossians 1:16, and being fully God in verse 19.
The second characteristic of Christ in Hebrews 1 is that He is the “exact imprint” of the divine nature, making Him the radiance and glory of God (vs. 3, ESV). The Greek word translated as “exact imprint” is the same as that from which we get our English word, character. Specifically, the Greek word referred to an engraved form such as might be carved into a stamping device or like the character on a typewriter hammer. When such characters are pressed into a medium, they make a mirror-image in their exact likeness. Thus, Christ is metaphorically depicted as the mirror-image representation of God. If you see the one, you know what the other is. The reason Christ can mirror-image God to the creation is precisely because He is God. A lesser being could never fully or adequately mirror an infinite Deity.
The third characteristic of Christ in Hebrews 1 is that He is the One who sustains the universe (vs. 3). This concept is also recorded in Colossians 1:17, where all things hold together because of Christ. In Old Testament theology, it is God—YHWH—who sustains this world and life on it (Ps. 104:27; 145:15). Jesus is thus again depicted as possessing and exercising a uniquely divine attribute. He is God.
Next, the author of Hebrews records that after Christ made purification for sins—a chronological marker pointing to the Cross—He sat down at the right hand of God, inheriting a superior name to angels (vss. 3 and 4). This introduces a key theme in Hebrews; namely, the inauguration of Christ into His Kingly-Priestly office, later highlighted through the Melchizedek typology in Hebrews 5 to 7. When God does speak about the Son in Hebrews 1:5, it is a quote from the royal coronation ceremony in Psalm 2. Thus, in Hebrews 1:5 to 13 are statements made by God about Christ at this installation into the post-crucifixion, post-resurrection heavenly office of King-Priest. Of the four coronation statements made by God, at least two point to the full deity of Christ, for this is ultimately what makes Him better than the angels.
A key reason that Christ is superior to angels is that in Hebrews 1:6, God commanded the angels to worship Christ, the firstborn, when He was brought into the “world” (KJV). Most English translations render this as “world,” but this is not the world of the Genesis creation. Rather, the same Greek word is used again in Hebrews 2:5, where it is meant as the “world to come” (KJV), which is subjected, not to angels but to Christ. Thus, in Hebrews 1, Christ is being installed as King of the eschatological kingdom in heaven and yet to come to earth. But the bigger point is this: When Christ was installed, the angels were commanded by God to worship Him.
Worship is to be offered only to a Deity, one who creates. Hence, the contrast of God the Creator versus idols, which are made, as in Isaiah 40. Likewise, the first angel calls the world to worship the Creator (Rev. 14:6). Paul condemns the Gentiles for worshiping “the creature instead of the Creator” (Rom. 1:25, NIV). Twice in Revelation, John falls down to worship an angel who immediately instructs him not to do this but to worship only God.
It must be assumed that this angel was commanded to worship Christ at His installation into His heavenly offices. Was God commanding the angels to sin, or was Christ truly God and entitled to worship? Since it was God who commanded the worship of Christ, there can be only one answer: Christ must be Deity and is to be worshiped. Thus, unlike the angel, when Thomas fell before Jesus and confessed him as Lord and God, Jesus did nothing to prevent it, receiving the worship instead. Similarly, the heavenly host worships the Lamb in Revelation 5, without intervention from God or the Lamb. Since He is legitimately worshiped, Christ must be fully God. The fact that God commanded Christ to be worshiped speaks volumes about Christ’s divinity.
The next major statement God makes in Hebrews 1 about the Son during this inauguration is in verse 8, quoting from Psalm 45:6 and 7: “Of the Son he [God the Father] says, ‘Your throne, O God, is forever and ever’” (ESV). The Father calls the Son “God.” This is from a coronation psalm that depicts the coronation of the Son—Christ—into His heavenly kingship. In the psalm, “O God” (elohim) likely refers to the king being anointed, so some may argue that this is not evidence of the deity of Christ. Because the psalm is about the king that God appoints, however, this one quotation may not be a definitive affirmation of Christ’s deity. On the other hand, that this king’s throne was “forever and ever” may point to the real King, God, and thus may point to the deity of Christ. Though this passage may be ambiguous concerning the deity of Christ, the concluding affirmation in Hebrews 1 leaves no doubt on the question.
The final statement by God the Father about the Son is found in Hebrews 1:10 to 12, quoting Psalm 102:25 to 27. Three areas of affirmation directly ascribe full deity to the Son. First, God tells the Son that the creation is the work of His (i.e., the Son’s) fingers. The Son is not merely a semi-divine instrument used by God to create the universe. Rather, Christ is declared by God Himself to be the active Creator. Given that creation is an identifying marker of divinity, here the Father affirms this marker as a characteristic of the Son, thus proclaiming the Son’s full deity.
Second, there is the contrast between the temporality of the creation and the eternity of the Son. “Your years have no end” (Ps. 102:27, NRSV). In the cited psalm is a prayer to God, using the sacred name, YHWH. In the first 11 verses, the psalmist depicts his desperate situation to YHWH: “Hear my prayer, O YHWH” (vs. 1, KJV). Thus, in the psalm, it is YHWH whose years have no end. God now declares that the Son possesses this divine characteristic.
Following the flow of the psalm, in verse 12, the psalmist shifts from cataloging his troubles to addressing the Lord using the sacred name seven times from there through verse 22. YHWH is the intended audience of this prayer. Thus, in the Hebrew text, verse 25 opens, “you laid the foundation.” The Septuagint (LXX),* however, adds “Lord”—kurios—to the phrase for clarity: “You [LORD] laid the foundation” (LXX). The eight total times YHWH appears in the Hebrew text of this chapter, the LXX substitutes the Greek Adonai for the sacred name. By addressing verse 25 (verse 26 in the LXX) to “you LORD,” it is clear that the translators to Greek recognized that this prayer continues to be addressed to YHWH. It is crucially important, then, that in Hebrews 1, this verse is recording what the Father says about the Son at the post-resurrection coronation in heaven. It is the Father who says to the Son, “Your throne, O YHWH.” The Father thus calls the Son by the sacred name. Jesus Christ is declared to be YHWH by God the Father. Hebrews 1 thus makes perhaps the most radical, absolute claim for the deity of Christ in the entire New Testament. Jesus is YHWH. Other New Testament passages link Christ to the YHWH identity as well, which will be addressed in Part 2 of this column.
According to Hebrews 1, Christ created and sustains the universe, and is the exact mirror image view of God’s nature. The angels were commanded by God to worship Christ, and worship must be offered only to God. Christ must be full Deity for this command to be morally proper. The Son is eternal as God. Finally, the Father applies the most sacred name to Christ Himself. Jesus is called YHWH by His Father. He cannot be some kind of lesser deity, sub-deity, or creation of YHWH. He is fully and rightfully entitled to the sacred name.
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