In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. Hebrews 1.1-3a.
The term “spitting image” means “exact likeness” and was originally “spit and image.” It had its origins in Genesis 1.27 and 2.7 which tell how God created man, forming him into his own image from the dust of the ground – presumably by spitting into that dust and turning it into clay. Here, the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews asserts in the most unambiguous language he can find that Jesus – God the Son – is the spitting image of God the Father; so that we can be left in no doubt whatsoever that – as A M Ramsey, a former Archbishop of Canterbury once put it – “God is Christlike, and in him is no un-Christlikeness at all.”
I do wish that more people – more Christians in particular – would grasp the full implications of this and begin to take them seriously. For it means that everything, absolutely everything, that we think we know about God – particularly ideas and understandings we have derived from the Old Testament or from preachers and teachers who were expounding the Old Testament – must be held up against the Jesus we encounter in the New Testament and checked for nothing less than total compatibility. If our ideas and beliefs are found wanting; if they fail to measure up and to meet that compatibility test, the consequence is clear. They are quite simply to be abandoned and rejected.
That is surely the force of what is being said in the opening clause of this letter. In the past God spoke polymerōs kai polytropōs – literally, “in many parts and in many ways.” In other words, his revelation of himself was fragmentary, occasional and, above all, progressive. At best, the things the prophets heard and passed on were only partial expressions of the truth – couched in the language and thought-forms forged by the norms and standards and customs of the society of the day. But, by contrast, says the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews, the revelation of God in Jesus is complete, clear and undistorted. He was the apaugasma of God’s glory and the charactēr of God’s very essence.
Apaugasma has two meanings in Greek: it can mean the light which shines out from something (effulgence) or the light which shine back from something (reflection). And though most commentators opt for the first of these meanings, I think that both may be present here. As the church has long proclaimed in its ancient creeds, Jesus is “light from light”; and for sure, in Jesus, we see the light of God shining here on earth. But I believe too that Jesus is also the reflection that we see in the mirror of time, matter and our three-dimensional world of the eternal God who stands looking into that mirror just beyond our line of vision.
This is the thought taken up in the Greek word charactēr. Charactēr is the image and superscription on a coin which corresponds exactly to the device on the die that has been stamped into the molten metal. It is the exact impression that a seal leaves when it has been pressed into warm wax. Paul may talk about Jesus as the eikōn (“image”) of the invisible God (2 Corinthians 4.4, Colossians 1.15) which appears to leave room for some divergence and difference between the thing itself and what is represented, but charactēr leaves no room for any difference whatsoever. As Jesus himself said: “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14.9).
But if this is true then, as I said earlier, we may need to rethink many of our ideas about God. To give just one example: God’s holiness. Many of us, it seems to me, have the idea, picked up from the Old Testament, that God reacts to sin like a lady in a white dress reacts to mud. He retreats from it in horror, fearing that it will sully and contaminate him. But Jesus reveals that exactly the opposite is true. He, Jesus – the exact representation of God – goes out of his way to be the “friend of sinners” and to sit and eat with them; and far from them and their sin contaminating him, he and his holiness purifies and sanctifies them. The mud doesn’t soil the white dress; the white dress disperses and disposes of the mud. (How beautifully that is captured symbolically when Jesus touches lepers. He doesn’t get leprosy but they get cleansed!)
Jesus is the spitting image of God. When we’ve seen him, we’ve seen the Father. God is Christlike, and in him is no un-Christlikeness at all. And it’s time that we really believed it.