The author of the Book of Hebrews frequently invokes metaphors, figures of speech, and quotations from the Psalms and Prophets in order to describe the person of Jesus Christ. One of the metaphors is the Greek word from which the English word character finds its root. In Hebrews 1:3, some translators translate the Greek term as “the express image” (KJV), “exact representation” (NIV), or “exact imprint” (ESV).
The literal sense of character was used when one spoke of minting coins, sealing wax, and writing letters of the alphabet. When a seal was placed on melted wax, the image on the seal was molded into the wax. In Greek literature, one would write something like “the seal and the character of the seal.” It is from this literal usage that the English translators derive the translation “exact imprint,” for the character of the seal is the imprint of the seal.
Figuratively, the word character refers to persons. In common English, one might say, “He could be my twin!” In Greek that would be, “He is my character.” This concept is applied to theatre as well. One who plays a character is pretending to be someone else. This discussion of usage raises the question, “which sense is the author of Hebrews using”?
Since the author is speaking of persons, then one might conclude that the Son and Father are somehow like twins. Jesus responded to Philip: “He who has seen me, has seen the Father” (Jn 14:9). In Hebrews, however, the word substance poses a problem to this idea. The author is not discussing two persons who look alike; he is discussing two persons who are of the same nature. It is like an author writing, “the seal of gold and the character of the gold of the seal.” So in Hebrews, we have the substance of deity and the character of the substance of deity. The Son does not merely reflect the image of the Father—the Son is of the same substance as the father. As the Nicene Creed proclaims of Jesus, “very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.”