Winter 1985, Vol. 37, pp. 336-347.

Jerry Harvill:
      Focus on Jesus: The Letter to the Hebrews

The titles attributed to Jesus in the Epistle to the Hebrews paint a rich and vivid picture of the One to whom we Christians look for our salvation.

Reverend Harville, of Lexington, Kentucky, is currently working for a Ph.D. in communications and journalism at the University of Kentucky. He also teaches part-time and does freelance writing.

IN apostolic times there were those who found it hard to concentrate their minds and their lives on Jesus. Past involvements and memories proved to be strong distractions, especially in times of stress or disillusionment. The Epistle to the Hebrews, with its emphasis upon the finality of the Christian system as mediated in the Son, was designed to challenge distracted Christians to rivet their eyes on Jesus. They are told not only to "see" him (2:9), but, beyond that, to perceive his significance and his spiritual meaning (3:1). Furthermore, they are urged to make a habit of looking away from all else and focusing exclusively upon Jesus (12:2). According to Hebrews, "looking to Jesus" is not a Christian option but a way of life.

It ought to be the same today. But the truth is that we, too, are easily distracted; we, too, need reminders to focus habitually on Jesus. No less than the first readers, we today need the Christ-centered teaching of the Epistle to the Hebrews. To achieve this important and critical focus on Jesus there is no better place to begin than with a study of the Epistle to the Hebrews, and no better way to start that study than by surveying the names and titles attributed to Jesus in this epistle.

What, then, do we see when we focus on Jesus? At least seventeen names or titles are ascribed to Jesus in Hebrews, each adding its own distinctive element to the exceedingly rich doctrine of Christ contained in this New Testament book. Five of these justify classification as "major" titles, while the remaining twelve fall into a "minor" category. We shall examine them in the order of the frequency of their occurrence, thus simultaneously gaining insight into the lines of emphasis in the epistle.


The most frequent title applied to Jesus in the Epistle to the Hebrews is "High Priest" (archiereus). Taken together with the simpler form, "priest" (hiereus), the title is used of Jesus thirteen times (2:17; 3:1; 4:14, 15; 5:5, 10; 6:20; 7:26; 8:1; 9:11; "priest," 5:6; 7:21; 10:21). Only once (3:1) is the definite article used ("the high priest"), thus indicating it is the essential quality or function of priesthood which the author intended to stress as characteristic of Jesus.

Nowhere else in the New Testament is Jesus called our High Priest. This, however, is the distinctive feature of Hebrews and the main point of the book (8:1). It is to the Epistle to the Hebrews that we owe this potent conceptual imagery, now so familiar to Christian thought.

The doctrine of Jesus' High Priestly ministry is directly bound up with the reality of his humanity, and cannot be understood apart from that doctrine (see especially chapters 2 and 4). This is so because it is the essence of priesthood to form a link between humanity and God: they are selected from among human beings to function on their behalf in God-ward matters (Heb. 5:1). Because Jesus is at the same time both man and God, he is himself the perfect ideal of which every form of priesthood is a symbol. He fully represents God to humanity, and humanity to God. Because of this, the writer insists that distraction from Jesus is out of the question, since every alternative is empty by comparison. Jesus' priesthood is better than the Aaronic (5:1-7:28), is related to a better covenant (8:1-13), involves a better sanctuary (9:1-12), as well as a better sacrifice (9:13-10:18), and is based on better promises (10:19-12:3). In fact, the Christian's sole confidence in addressing God is that, and only that, he has "a great priest over the house of God" (10:19-22).

Therefore, when we see Jesus we see our High Priest. We see accomplished in him God's ideal for humankind, the ideal union between God and humanity (2:10ff). We see him whose perfect humanity makes representation for us before God (7:24, 25), and whose perfect sacrifice makes us pure for personal access to the throne room itself (9:14; 10:19-22).

The second most frequent title for Jesus in Hebrews is the designation, "son" (huios; eleven times). Indeed, it may be said that this concept colors all the others, for again and again it is precisely because Jesus is Son that the other titles and functions have special meaning (for example, 5:8, 9 -- "Although he was a son he learned obedience through what he suffered . . .").

The full title, "the Son of (the) God," is used 4 times (4:14; 6:6; 7:3, 10:29). In chapter 2 in a quotation from Psalm 8, the phrase "son of man" is applied to Jesus (2:6). Once the absolute, "the Son" (ho huios), is used (1:8).

What is distinctive about Hebrews, however, is its use of the title without the definite article (1 :2; 3:6; 5:5, 8; 7:28). This anarthrous construction with huios occurs nowhere else in the New Testament. As with "High Priest," so here with "Son," the intention is evidently to lay stress on the nature or character, rather than the personality, of Jesus. The point here is that when we see Jesus we see One who is Son, that is, One who possesses all the characteristics and qualities to which that title points.

"Son" in chapter 1 shows us the deity of Jesus: he is the radiance of God's glory and the exact reproduction of God's essence (1:3). What makes God, God, is characteristic of Jesus and is inferred in the title "Son" (cf. Col. 2:9).

In chapter 2 Jesus is viewed from an earthly perspective as Son of Man. As in relation to God, so here in relation to men and women, the Semitic expression "son of . . ." is designed to establish Jesus' character and definitive quality. What makes a human being to be a human being is characteristic of Jesus (2:10-17).

What this means is that, on the one hand, Jesus is not merely a good man pretending to be deity; he is Immanuel, "God with us" (Matt. 1:23); on the other hand, it means Jesus is not God pretending to be human; he is a real human being. We do God no service attempting to safeguard Jesus' deity by denying or minimizing his humanity. It is worth remembering that the first Christological heresy in the early church was not the denial of the deity but the humanity of Christ (that is, Docetism). Nor should we forget that subsequent history is full of well-meaning people who stressed one side of Jesus' nature at the expense of the other, and whose distorted systems are correspondingly impoverished and false. Hebrews insists Jesus can never be merely one or the other; he is both.

This point is confirmed by an important and closely related concept in Hebrews, that of "perfection" (teleiosis), which, when posited of Jesus, does not relate to morals but to functional completeness. Jesus is completely equipped to function as mediator between God and humanity. The certification of Jesus' "perfection" (teleiosis) is the reality and fulness of his sonship: he is not merely like God, for as "Son" he is creator, sustainer, and heir of all things (1 :2, 10); also he is not merely like human beings for as "Son" he authenticates and completes his humanity in real suffering (2:10; 5:8, 9; 7:27, 28). The practical meaning in all of this is that to lose either of these two vital truths is to destroy Jesus' functional completeness as our effective intermediary.

In summary, then, we may say that when we see Jesus we see One who in a unique and double sense is huios, "Son." In his sonship we see, in terms we can grasp, the Godness of God: he is Son of God; he is deity in space and time. Furthermore, in his sonship we see also the ideal humanness of human beings: he is Son of Man. But his humanity is more than real; it is representative. He is the ideal human being, the federal head of a new humanity, the Son of Man. Therefore, Jesus is Son of God; he is Son of Man. He is, however, not two Sons, but one; and in that unity is revealed the ultimate purpose of God and the abiding hope of all women and men.

The third of the frequent titles for Jesus in Hebrews is "Christ" (christos; nine times). Mostly the title occurs with the definite article (the Christ: 3:14; 5:5; 6:1; 9:14, 28; 11:26), only three times without (9:6; 9:11, 24). This indicates it was the office or official status of the Messiah which the author of Hebrews attributed to Jesus. When we see Jesus, we see the Messiah.

It is difficult for us to grasp the depth of meaning surrounding this title for first-century Jewish readers. It is not too much to say that in this term, Christ (Messiah), was focused all the hopes and dreams of the Jewish race. That which gave them courage and hope even in the depths of total national eclipse was God's promise and their dream of the coming Messiah. They had a hope that would not die and it sustained them in their darkest hours. That hope gave the people a future; without it there was no tomorrow (this is essentially Paul's meaning in Eph. 2:12; ". . . without Christ . . . having no hope . . .").

At its simplest, that which distinguished the church from the synagogue was precisely this: the church held Jesus to be the Messiah and claimed that in him the new age had dawned. How thrilling it must have been to first-century Jewish Christians to see in Jesus their dreams and hopes come true, their long-awaited Christ. How incredible that any should "neglect so great salvation" (2:3), or "reject him who warns from heaven" (12:25). Yet this epistle was sent because distracted Jewish Christians needed to learn again to focus on Jesus.

Nowhere else in the New Testament is the doctrine of "the Christ" so fully elaborated as in Hebrews. Each aspect of Jesus' messiahship is connected with its preparatory signs in the Old Testament, Hebrews being eager to show that Jesus took as his inheritance and fulfilled all that was typified in those signs.

The implicit belief that what is everywhere latent in the Old Testament becomes patent in the Christ provides the rationale for the Old Testament quotations used messianically in Hebrews. The writer saw not merely this or that Old Testament text as prophetic, but the whole Book as one vast prophecy. It is assumed that a divine counsel was given to, and is discernible in, the course of the life of Israel; that we can see in "the people of God" signs of the purpose of God for humanity. In this way the whole history is prophetic. Thus those called "christs" (literally, "anointed ones") in the Old Testament-whether kings, prophets, priests, or even the people of Israel as a whole -- were really signposts pointing to him who is consummately the Christ. in Hebrews the nation is gathered up in its perfect representative: the "seed" (plural) in the one "seed" (singular) (Gal. 3:16).

From the Old Testament quotations attributed to Jesus as the Christ an outline can be reconstructed summarizing the highlights of the Christology of Hebrews.

  1. The Divine Sonship of the Christ -- Ps. 2:7/Heb. 1:5; 5:5. II Sam. 7:14/Heb. 1:5. Deut. 32:43; Ps. 97:7/Heb. 1:6.
  2. The Christ the Sovereign of the Divine Kingdom -- Ps. 45:6f./Heb. 1:8f.; cf. 12:28.
  3. The Christ the Revelation of the "Father" (the Lord) -- Ps. 102:25f./Heb. ]:]Off.; cf. 1:2; 11:3.
  4. The Christ the Priest-King of Humanity -- Ps. 110:1/Heb. 1:13; 10:12f. Ps. 110:4/Heb. 5:6, 10; 6:20; 7:11 f.; cf. 1:2, "heir of all things."
  5. The Christ the Son of Man: True, Perfect, Representative Man -- Ps. 8:5f./Heb. 2:6f. Ps. 22:22/Heb. 2:1 If. Ps. 8:17f./Heb. 2:13. Num. 12:7/Heb. 3:1f. Ps. 2:7/Heb. 5:5. Ps. 40:6/Heb. 10:5f.

In this summary outline, and particularly in its climax at point 5, we recognize the Christ fulfilling three marked types of different service: (a) the type of the king rising through tribulation to his throne (2:11f.); (b) the type of the prophet who kept his faith unshaken in the midst of judgments (2:13); and (c) the type of the priest who with perfect obedience does the will of God which he knows with perfect understanding (10:5f.). Here, then, in Jesus, the Christ, is accomplished and fulfilled that which in earlier ages was hinted at in the persons and works of prophet, priest, and king.

We may say that when we see Jesus we see God's "anointed One." We see him who fulfills the destiny of men and women though fallen, and who realizes in his person the types of king, prophet, lawgiver, high priest, and servant. We learn the truth of the ancient maxim concerning the relation of the Old and New Testaments: "The New is in the Old latent; the Old is in the New patent"; or better yet, "Jesus, the Christ, is in the Old latent; the Old is in him patent." Indeed, how inspiring it is to focus on Jesus!

Strictly speaking, the personal name "Jesus" is not a Christological title. Its frequency in Hebrews, however, and its implications for the historical reality of the Christ render any study of Hebrews' doctrine of Christ inadequate without consideration of it.


Up to the beginning of the second century C.E., the name, Jesus, was common among the Jews. Among the seventy-two translators of the Greek Old Testament, three bear the name Iesous. Josephus, the Jewish historian, mentions at least twenty persons of this name, among them ten contemporaries of Jesus. Burial inscriptions from the vicinity of Jerusalem, dating no later than the second century C.E., preserve at least five instances of the Hebrew name (yesu'=Jeshua), and one of the corresponding Greek form, Iesous.

This general frequency is reflected in the New Testament, where at least three different persons besides our Lord are referred to by this name (Luke 3:29; Acts 7:45 and Heb. 4:8; Col. 4:11). Because the name was common, Jesus was distinguished from others during his lifetime by additions such as "from Nazareth of Galilee" (Matt. 21:11) or, simply, "the Nazarene" (John 19:19; cf. Matt. 2:23).

For our purposes it is important to notice that the Hebrew name (of which the Greek, Iesous, is merely an attempted transliteration) derives from a verb which means "to deliver, save, set free." Christians know it was no accident our Lord was given this name (see Luke 1:31ff.). Indeed, in his case, it is his person and work which have ultimately illuminated and defined the name itself.

In the Epistle to the Hebrews, "Jesus" is used ten times (2:9; 3:1; 4:14; 6:20; 7:22; 10:19; 12:2; 12:24; 13:12, 20; see also "Jesus Christ" -- 10:10; 13:8, 21). In eight of these it furnishes the key to the writer's argument and is placed in the emphatic position at the end of the clause (2:9; 3:1; 6:20; 7:22; 10:19; 12:2, 24; 13:20). The point here is that even in Hebrews, the focus of which is upon the exalted, heavenly ministry of Christ, there is no loss of the historical Jesus, nothing but the closest continuity between the pre-existent, historic, and the exalted Christ. In Hebrews, it is "Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today,, and forever" (13:8).

In Hebrews, therefore, when we "see Jesus" we are reminded of the historical reality of the figure of Jesus as portrayed in the Gospels. We see a real person who at a real time and a real place had a real birth and real ancestors (Heb. 7:14); who had real social relations with real people (2:3); who faced real opposition from foes who really did not like him (12:3); who experienced real pain, which made him cry in agony real tears (5:7); who knew real fear (5:7) and what it means to have real trust in God (2:13; 12:2). There is here none of the "other worldly," innocuous unreality often surrounding our portrayal of him, but the hard, crisp lines of not-always-pleasant reality. Here are the sights, the smells, the sounds of real life.

In this portrait is a corrective against every move to isolate the "Christ of faith" from the "Jesus of history," for Hebrews reminds us that even in his exaltation he remains "Our Lord, Jesus" (13:20).

Thus we are reminded even in the personal name of Jesus that religion, like our Lord, was never intended to be airy-fairy and isolated from real life. We will do him service to remove from him and ourselves the special "temple clothes" we have affected in his name, and follow him back to the place to which his very name points us: the market-place of everyday life.

The last of the frequent titles for Jesus in Hebrews is "Lord" (Kurios). Some five times it is ascribed to Jesus, once in an Old Testament quotation (1:10; 2:3; 7:14; 12:14; 13:20). Nowhere else in the New Testament does the absolute form of the phrase "our Lord" (7:14), occur. Since this title is generally well known and is often the subject of sermons and articles, only a couple of points will be touched on here.

The title has a Jewish as well as a Greek background, both of which are significant for its meaning in the New Testament. To Greek-speaking Jews in New Testament times the title kurios was familiar as the name of Jehovah in their Greek Old Testament. This is particularly relevant to the Book of Hebrews since all of its quotations are taken from the Greek version (the Septuagint), indicating familiarity with this translation on the part of both author and readers. When Hebrews refers to Jesus as "the Lord," it is identifying him with the God of the Old Testament. And that is to say that, for a first-century Jewish-Christian reader, Jesus inherited a name than which none could be more excellent (1:4).

The title "Lord" was also very important in the ancient non-Jewish world. It is the special title for the Roman emperor. Indeed, its use by the votaries of the emperor cults may well have provoked the early Christian community to the counterformulation KURIOS IESOUS, "Jesus is Lord" (for example, Rom. 10:9; 1 Cor. 12:3). Here the name "Jesus" has been deliberately substituted for the name of the emperor, and signifies the early Christians' conscious allegiance to none but the King of kings and Lord of lords.

No one in the ancient world could have said lightly, "Jesus is Lord." If he or she were a Jew, as the first believers were, to confess that "Jesus is Lord" was to identify Jesus with the God of their fathers, and to place him at the center of their historic faith (cf. the Jewish Shema [Deut. 6:4-9] repeated daily). If he or she were a Gentile, to say "Jesus is Lord" was to attribute to Jesus the honor reserved for the emperor.

When we focus on Jesus we see The Lord. We see him who brought the God of the fathers among men and women. We see him whose honor and power surpass that of the emperor.


Let us now attempt to gather up the threads of our study to this point. The five titles or names for Jesus used with frequency have now been considered. These five form the guidelines within which the Christology of the Epistle to the Hebrews is developed. When we focus on Jesus we see our High Priest, the Son, the Messiah-Christ, the Jesus of history, and the Lord.

The main point of Hebrews, reflected in the frequency of occurrence as well as by express statement (9:1), is Jesus as High Priest. When we see Jesus, however, we see more than his unique heavenly ministry as our "great priest over the house of God." We see his unique dual nature as "the Son." We see his unique historic heritage as "the Christ." We see his historical reality as "Jesus." And, finally, we see his unique eternal glory as "the Lord." Surely, to "see Jesus" in this manner is for the Christian the fullness of joy.

There remains a series of titles mostly occurring but one time each and generally unique in the New Testament. These serve to fill out and complete Hebrews' picture of Christ. Six of these relate to Jesus' person and status, while the remaining five define his work and function.

Among the remaining titles used of Jesus in Hebrews there are those which, having the definite article, indicate something of Jesus' person and official status. There are four of these, with which two others will be included because of a conceptual affinity.

"The Sanctifier" (ho hagiazon). In chapter 2, in a passage stressing the kinship between Christ and Christians, it is said: "for both He that sanctifieth and they that are sanctified are all of One; for which cause He is not ashamed to call them brethren . . ." (2:11).

The statement echoes the "Law of Holiness" contained in Lev. 17-26, where, with slight variations, the refrain recurs, "Ye are holy (hagios) because I the Lord your God am holy (hagios)." In fact, in the Greek Old Testament, at Lev. 21:8, Jehovah is called, ho hagiazon, "the Sanctifier." It is the prerogative of God to make the people God's very own by bringing them into vital relationship with the divine being.

In Hebrews Jesus is assigned this divine prerogative. The full meaning of Jesus' position as ho hagiazon is not developed until chapter 9, where we learn that to be "sanctified" is to be brought into the presence of God through the self-sacrifice of Christ.

What this means is that when we focus on Jesus we see "the Sanctifier" who, at the cost of his blood, has brought us into the presence of God.

"The Apostle" (ho apostolos). In chapter 3:1 we are told to " . . consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession." This section of Hebrews involves a comparison and contrast between Jesus and Moses designed to demonstrate Jesus' superiority.

This is the only place in the New Testament that Jesus is called "apostle." Here apostolos carries associations of authority. It refers to more than a mere envoy, and suggests an ambassador or representative sent with powers, authorized to speak in the name of the one who dispatched him or her.

When we see Jesus, we see him who was sent as Heaven's representative, whose voice carries the authority of God. He comes with the call of God from heaven, to heaven; the Apostle of our faith.

"The Author" (ho archegos). Twice in Hebrews Jesus is called "the Author" or "the Captain" (2:10; 12:2). The title is archegos, which can mean either "source" or "leader." In the Greek Old Testament, it is commonly used in the sense of "chief," or "head," of a tribe or family. In Greek literature it is used of heroes venerated as founders of cities.

Closely related to archegos are two other titles in Hebrews. Jesus is called "Source" (aitios): He is the "author (aitios) of external salvation" (5:9). The other related title is "Forerunner" (prodromos): Jesus, as our prodromos, has gone on ahead into heaven on our behalf (6:20).

Taken together, these titles demonstrate that Jesus is both source and leader. When we see Jesus we see One who himself first takes part in that which he establishes. Because he has gone on ahead, we know our own ultimate arrival is assured.

"The Shepherd" (ho poimen). In Heb. 13:20, Jesus is referred to as "the great Shepherd of the sheep." The title comes in the middle of a prayer which concludes with an ascription of eternal glory to Jesus Christ (13:21).

When we focus on Jesus, we see not merely a shepherd, but the Shepherd who is great, whose glory evokes praise forever.

Summing up, then, we find much revealed in these six titles as to the person and status of Jesus. Seeing him as "Sanctifier," we see him whose person gives Us access to God; as "Apostle," we see Heaven's representative whose voice is the voice of God; as "Author," we see him who has established the glory of sonship; as "Shepherd," we see our Great Provider whose glory is eternal.


In the last place there is a series of five titles lacking the definite article and suggesting aspects of Jesus' work and function.

"Surety" (enguos). In Heb. 7:22 we learn that Jesus is our surety, or guarantee, of a better covenant. Tire term enguos is common in the papyri for "bond" or "bail." It is probably derived from an old word for "hand," suggesting the sense "what is put in the hand as security." When Christians focus on Jesus, they see their guarantee that the promised "new covenant" is theirs (see chapters 8, 10).

"Heir" (kleronomos). In the prologue to Hebrews, we learn that Jesus is heir (kleronomos) of all things (1:2). The importance of this for the Christian is that, as the Christ has shared our lot (2:14), so now we have become sharers of him (3:14). When we focus on Jesus, we see him who provides our inheritance.

"Minister" (leitourgos). At the heart of the message of Hebrews is this impressive statement: "Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a High Priest, One who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a Minister (leitourgos) in the sanctuary . . ." (9:1, 2). When we see Jesus, we see him whose service in heaven gives us hope on earth.

"Mediator" (mesites). Twice in Hebrews Jesus is said to be "mediator" of a new covenant (9:15; 12:24). The mesites is the person in the middle who brings two people together. Jesus is the intermediary who has brought a new relationship between God and humankind. This covenant relationship is "new" in point of time (neos, 12:24), as well as "new" in quality (kainos, 9:15). In Jesus we see our source for a new relationship with God.

Finisher (teleiotes). In Heb. 12:2 Jesus is identified as both the "author" or "cause" (archegos) of our faith, as well as the "finisher" (teleiotes). This intended contrast suggests the sense "consummator." Teleiosis, "perfection," connotes functional completeness when used of Jesus in Hebrews, and may carry a similar connotation here. Jesus' work involves not just beginnings, but endings. He does not merely initiate the Christian pilgrimage; he sees it through to completion. In Jesus we see both the start and the end of the Christian race.

Summarizing the minor titles in Hebrews, we may say that it is because of who Jesus is as the Sanctifier, the Apostle, the Author-Pioneer, and the Great Shepherd, that we may look to him to provide certain great things in our Christian experience. He is our source for security (enguos), inheritance (kleronomos), heavenly service (leitourgos), introduction-mediation (mesites), and wholeness-perfection (teleiotes).