“In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son …” In these opening words the author of Hebrews begins one of the richest theological writings in the entire Bible. Hebrews does not have much to say about Jesus’s entrance into the world, and his actual birth not at all, but the opening line goes to the very heart of the incarnation: God spoke through his Son, Jesus. This is the very essence of the Christmas story.
In so many ways, the book of Hebrews is like Paul with a focus is on what Jesus accomplished on the cross. Hebrews is distinct from Paul–it emphasizes that on the cross, Jesus acted as the high priest making atonement for the people and was the sacrifice himself. As a consequence, Jesus is forever our eternal high priest and the once-for-all sacrifice on our behalf. Paul never put it quite this way. The closest he came was Roman 3:25.
But for both Paul and Hebrews, without the incarnation, Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross does not happen. And like Paul, Hebrews does not ignore the incarnation, though the references are few. The book is one big comparison, showing how Jesus is superior to angels, Moses, Abraham, and the Levitical high priest. All of these comparisons, except perhaps angels, assume the humanity of Jesus. And in fact, Jesus is referred to by his name Jesus, by “Christ” (Messiah), and by Son—all mentioned in the usual Christmas stories.
Jesus as Son and Messiah. Hebrews refers to Jesus as Son or Son of God thirteen times if we include Old Testament quotations. “Son” is the pre-eminent identification for Jesus and is of supreme significance, especially in chapters one and two where the author argues that the Son is supreme over the angels. God has spoken to us in a Son (1:2) who (is):
Heir of all things (1:2)
The radiance of the glory of God (1:3)
The exact imprint of his nature (1:3)
Upholds the universe by the word of his power (1:3)
Called Son (1:5)
Worshipped by the angels (1:6)
The anointed one (Messiah) (1:9)
Sits with God on his throne (1:8, 13)
This list from Hebrews 1 concerning the pre-existent Son who will come as Messiah is followed in Hebrews 2:6-9 with the incarnation and the cross:
For it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come, of which we are speaking. It has been testified somewhere,“What is man, that you are mindful of him, or the son of man, that you care for him? You made him for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned him with glory and honor, putting everything in subjection under his feet.” Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone (ESV).
Jesus in the incarnation is for a while “a little lower than the angels,” and in that state carries out his task to redeem humanity. In Hebrews 2:14, the reason for the incarnation is given: “Therefore he had to be in every way like his brothers, so that he could be a merciful and faithful high priest in the things of God to atone for the sins of the people.” Jesus had to come and be like us, so he could take our place!
Jesus’s human lineage. Hebrews mentions David a couple of times, but not with reference to Jesus’s descent. Instead, Hebrews goes back a ways. Jesus is a descendent of David’s forbear Judah: “For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests.” Hebrews argues that Jesus was a priest, but one of a different kind. Jesus was a priest of the order of Melchizedek! As Hebrews points out, Melchizedek means “King of Righteousness.” Further, this mysterious figure in Genesis was recognized by Abraham as “priest of the most high God.” But even more, Melchizedek was king of Salem, later Jerusalem, where David was king. In invoking Melchizedek, the author of Hebrews weaves divine mystery with the notion that the Messiah would be the perfect priest and king. He draws on the Messianic psalm, Psalm 110, to push home his point.
If the purpose of the Christmas stories is to tell of God’s coming as a human to this world, to redeem use from our brokenness and sin, then Hebrews fits the bill just like so many others.