The biggest theological controversy in the history of the church has been whether or not Jesus is God. The institutional church doctrine of the Trinity—that God is three co-equal and co-eternal Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—emerged later as a subset of this controversy to escape the charge of worshipping two Gods: the Father and Jesus. Leading Trinitarian theologians who have written on these subjects in the past century list between five and nine New Testament texts which they think provide major support that Jesus is God, and one of them is Hebrews 1.8. It is an Old Testament (OT) quotation, and it says, “But of the Son he [God] says, ‘Your throne, O God, is forever and ever.’” To understand this text, it helps to first grasp the overall theme of the book, whose author remains anonymous.
The book of Hebrews was obviously written to Jews by an articulate Jewish believer in Jesus. Prior to the time of Jesus, Jews were known mostly as religious people who believed there is only one true and living God, which later became known as monotheism. Jews distinguished themselves by this belief because most people all around them believed in many gods/Gods and sons and daughters of gods/Gods, which is called polytheism. Their rich mythology was full of legends and stories about their gods/Gods.
If the early Jewish Christians had believed Jesus was God, that would have been a bigger controversy in Israel than what the largely Gentile church later experienced about this subject. Thus, the author of Hebrews certainly did not intend to say Jesus is God. If he did, it would have been unconscionable not to try to prove it, and it is doubtful his book would have been accepted.
Instead, the author of Hebrews makes it very clear what his purpose is for writing this book. It is to prove that Jesus is superior. In most of the book he tries to prove it. He says Jesus is superior to angels (Heb 1.4—2.18), Moses (3.1-19), and all priests (4.14—5.10; 7.1—9.28). Thus, it would have been superfluous for the author to so argue if he believed Jesus was God. In that case, he should have been giving reasons to prove that Jesus is God.
The author of Hebrews begins his book by saying Jesus is “the exact representation of his [God’s] being” (Heb 1.3). The word “representation” translates charakter in the Greek text, from which we obviously derive our word “character.” He also says of God, “in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe” (v. 2). The author does not mean Jesus preexisted as God, but that when God made the universe he planned for Jesus to rule it.
For Jesus to be “the exact representation” of God, he cannot be God. The author here means the same thing Jesus did when he said to his disciples Philip and Thomas, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14.9). Did Jesus mean he was the Father? Not at all! The New Testament (NT) constantly distinguishes Jesus and God the Father as two separate persons, and so does Jesus. Instead, Jesus then explained what he meant by saying twice, “I am in the Father, and (that) the Father is in me” (vv. 10-11). This is called God-in-Christ Christology. God being in Christ is not the same as Christ being God.
The author of Hebrews then says of Jesus’ atoning crucifixion death, “After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. So he became as much superior to the angels” (Heb 1.4). The author refers to when Jesus ascended to heaven forty days after his resurrection and sat down at the right of God on God’s throne, called “the session.” Notice he says at that time Jesus became “superior to the angels.” But if Jesus was God, he already was superior to angels. Plus, the NT’s repeated mention of Jesus’ session is often stated, as it is here, as if it was the first time he sat by God.
In Heb 1.5-13, the author quotes six Old Testament (OT) texts to prove that Jesus is superior to angels. One of them he applies to Jesus says, “Let all God’s angels worship him” (v. 6). When we think of the word “worship” we usually think only God is deserving of it, so that this text would imply Jesus is God. But “worship,” here, translates proskuneo in the Greek text, which means “bow down,” “bend the knee,” or “lie prostrate.” So, proskuneo refers to a physical act, whereas we usually think of the word “worship” only as indicating an inner attitude. Thus, the author of Hebrews merely means here that the angels should bow down before Jesus, not that they should believe he is God. It is the same meaning Paul states in Phil 2.10-11 (cf. Isa 45.23), “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Throughout Hebrews, the author does much quoting of the OT. He quotes Ps 8.4-5, which says God made man inferior to angels, and applies it to Jesus by saying, “You made him a little lower than the angels; you crowned him with glory and honor and put everything under his feet” (Heb 2.7-8). But if Jesus was both God and man, he was not inferior to angels since a God-man is greater than them. (The last clause refers to Jesus’ session as stated in Ps 110.1. It says, “The lord says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.’” Jesus’ enemies being made a footstool for his feet refer to his second coming as a warrior-king, which the remainder of the psalm makes clear.) Then the author of Hebrews writes, “But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death” (v. 9). So, Jesus being glorified and honored by God inviting him to sit with him on his heavenly throne is obviously a first-time experience. What is the reason for his being so honored? Not that he’s God, but that he “suffered death” for others.
The author of Hebrews next says of Jesus, “it was fitting that God,… should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering” (Heb 2.10). But if Jesus was God, he was already perfect so that he could not have been made “perfect through suffering.” Incidentally, the servant is not greater than his/her master. Since Jesus was a “servant” to God (Ac 3.13, 26; 4.27, 30; cf. Isa 52.13; 53.11), and Jesus suffered in obedience to God, God must also suffer.
Christians who believe Jesus is God sometimes assert he had to be God to save us. But they are not able to offer any rationale for this argument or scriptural support for it. The truth is just the opposite. The author of Hebrews makes it clear that Jesus had to be totally man, and thus not God, to save us. He writes, “Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers. He says, ‘I will declare your name to my brothers’…. For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God” (Heb 2.11-12, 17). But if Jesus was a God-man, he was not like other men. Thus, how could any of them be his brothers? Rather, Jesus was totally human “in every way” except he was without sin.
Finally, the author of Hebrews says of Jesus, “Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Heb 2.18). And he soon adds, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin” (4.15; cf. 7.26). All three synoptic gospels record that Jesus was genuinely tempted by Satan (Matt. 4.1-11; Mark 1.12-13; Luke 4.1-13). By being sinless, Jesus was qualified to go to the cross to bear our sins and thus become the Lamb of God who can save us. But if Jesus was tempted to sin just as we are, how could he have been God? For Jesus’ own brother in the flesh, James, writes, “God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone” (James 1.13).
[Next week, I'll treat Heb 1.8. These Wednesday posts are condensations of my 600 pp. book The Restitution of Jesus Christ (2008). Incidentally, I was a Trinitarian Christian for 22 years until I discovered that the Bible does not say God is three persons or that Jesus is God.]
 All scripture quotations are from the New International Version (NIV) unless otherwise stated.