Shrugging Atlas

Peter O’Brien’s new Hebrews commentary in the Pillar series is delightful and I’ve been reading it straight through. Tonight I have a few moments and I wanted to post his comments on Hebrews 1:3b: “he [Christ] upholds the universe by the word of his power.” This has always been a fascinating text for me (along with Col. 1:17).

O’Brien writes:

Not only is Jesus Christ the agent of creation (v. 2c); he also sustains the universe he has made. This Lord is not like the god of the deists, who, having created the world, then proceeded to let it run on its own. He is personally and continually involved in sustaining it.

Then he adds this:

The immediate context, however, suggests the additional nuance of the Son’s ‘carrying’ all things to their appointed end or goal. The notion of direction or purpose seems to be included. The author, then, is not referring to the passive support of a burden like the Greek god Atlas bearing the dead weight of the world on his shoulders. Rather, the language implies a ‘bearing’ that includes movement and progress towards an objective.

So what is this objective?

Moreover, if this nuance of direction is present,* then the Son’s bearing all things (i.e., time and space) to their appointed ends looks forward to his work of redemption, which is described in the next line (v. 3c). The Son’s sustaining all things is not simply the backdrop to or the precursor of his redemptive work. His cleansing of sins is an important objective of Christ’s providential work.

In other words the picture we get in Hebrews 1:3 is of a Savior who sustains the world for the purpose of dying for the world.


* Some commentators agree (Westcott, P.E. Hughes) but others disagree (Ellingworth). Ellingworth takes “upholds” more along the lines of bearing dead weight or preventing something from falling. O’Brien argues the case contextually by suggestion that “upholds” is in a line of progression that leads to “making purification” and that leads to “sat down.”

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