Hebrews (Part 03) – Better than the Angels

08/03/2009 06:48

Hebrews 1 begins with the contrast of God’s revelation in the past through the prophets but now through Christ. This puts us in mind of John 1:1 in which Christ is presented as the Word. The revealing Word, Christ, surpasses the Law and prophets in making manifest the righteousness of God (Romans 3:21-22). In the old covenant we actually see God’s revelation through prophets (direct revelation), priests (in the symbolism of their religious activities), and angels (in their ministrations among us). The author of Hebrews, therefore, structures the argument for Christ’s superiority using these three groups for comparison.


From the outset, we must understand that the argument for Christ’s superiority does not have his deity in mind. The author is a Christian—most likely a Christian Jew—who is writing to Jews—Jews that had heard of Christ and were most likely lukewarm about embracing him, though not stubbornly opposed. Of course, the primacy of God was not a new concept for the Jews. The concern of the letter’s author, then, was not to correct some misgiving about God’s supremacy over angels, prophets, and priests. Rather, the superiority of Christ in his humanity is the issue.


We noticed in our last discussion that the first verses of Hebrews speak of Christ with his humanity in view.


He bears God’s image

-1:3a He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature


He holds dominion over creation 

-1:2c through whom also he created the world

-1:3b he upholds the universe by the word of his power


He rules over all creation—his inheritance

-1:2b whom [God] appointed heir of all things

-1:3c he sat down at the right hand of the majesty on high


These verses speak of Christ as a man without sin. These are the same descriptions that can characterize all of humanity that is without sin. Remember that in Genesis God made Adam and Eve in his image. He gave them dominion over creation. And we know now that with Christ’s righteousness on us we will reign with him (2 Timothy 2:12).


It is, however, after this introduction that the author of Hebrews begins the argument that Christ is better than angels, prophets, and priests. Verse 4 tells us that Christ has inherited a name more excellent than that of the angels. He is Son. Our discussion last time recounted the meaning of Christ’s sonship. His role as Son was in view throughout the Covenant of Creation (from the start of time to its end). As Son he issues forth from God, accomplishing the work involved with creation. We know God created the world through the Son. We see the Son in Christophanies in the Old Testament. And I believe we can assume, because of the consistent correlation of activity among the Trinity, that God as well parted the Red Sea through the Son, sent manna from heaven through the Son, protected his own from the fiery furnace and the lion’s den through the Son, etc. The Son is active “uphold[ing] the universe by the word of his power.”


How did Christ become Son? His inheritance of the name came from his perfect life and obedience to death. Through that he became Son so that he “was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:4). The relationship of Son to Father is the relationship of Christ in his perfect humanity to God. And that sonship—that relationship—is what the angels do not have. Although man was created lower than the angels (Psalm 8), through his sonship, Christ is superior in patrimony.


Verse 6 begins a new section or a new part of the argument that Christ is superior to the angels. Although many have speculated that the phrase “when he brings the first born into the world,” refers to the nativity or to the ascension or to the second coming, I believe that both the Greek and our understanding of Christ’s sonship give us a better clue. The word for “when” does not necessarily refer to a specific point in time, but can have the meaning of “whenever.” Thus, I may say, “Whenever I go to sleep, I dream.” But I could mean the same thing in saying, “When I go to sleep, I dream.” That word in Greek can also mean “as long as” or “at the time of.” My point is that this phrase does not necessarily depict a point in time such as the nativity or the second coming, but rather has the “whenever” aspect of the Son’s interaction with the world. Supporting this claim is the reference that the author of Hebrews cites. “Let all God’s angels worship him” is a quote not from Matthew or Luke at the nativity or from Revelation at the second coming, but rather it is from Deuteronomy 32 as part of Moses’ song about God. This phrase may not appear in your version of the Old Testament because most English versions are translated from the Masoretic text (see summary Hebrews (Part 2)). The Masoretic text does not have this phrase in Deuteronomy 32. However, the Septuagint does. It is found in Deuteronomy 32:43. The first half of the verse translated from the Septuagint is as follows:


“Rejoice, ye heavens, with him, and let all the angels of God worship him; rejoice ye Gentiles, with his people, and let all the sons of God strengthen themselves in him.”


The point of the Hebrews’ author is that although mankind was created “a little lower than the angels,” Christ’s position is above them. The angels worship him. Continuing this thought, verse 7 quotes Psalm 104. In that Psalm, God is praised and the angels, in contrast, are shown to be his messengers—“He makes his angels winds, and his ministers a flame of fire.”


To contrast this subservient position of the angels, the Son is said, in verse 8, to be on the throne. This verse is often used to prove that Jesus is God. Using the 2nd person singular, Jesus is called God in the opening line. But later in the next verse, still addressing him in the 2nd person, Jesus is told that “God, your God, has anointed you.” This, it is claimed, proves that Jesus is God while not the same person as God the Father. I don’t believe these verses should be used as a proving point for Christ’s deity. Let’s go back to Psalm 45 from which we get this quote. Psalm 45 is a song written by the sons of Korah for the king (45:1). Thus, the address in verse 6—“Your throne, O God, is forever and ever”—is made to the king and not to God. Yes, the Hebrew word is elohim which is a name for God. But that word is also translated at times judges, angels, and rulers. Psalm 45 has an earthly ruler in mind when addressing him as elohim. But we know from Hebrews that this Psalm is also about Christ. But it is not speaking of Christ as God. It is speaking of Christ as ruling king. He is the King of kings—but he is so in his humanity. This is the second point of the author of Hebrews. The first was that the Son is superior to the angels in patrimony. The second is that the Son is superior to the angels in position.


Hebrews 1:10 begins the third point of chapter 1. The quoted texts this time extol Christ for his work in dominion over the earth. Resulting from his work, the Son is told to sit at the right hand of God while his enemies are defeated. That is a privilege no angel has. Therefore, by patrimony, position, and privilege, Christ is proved superior to the angels.


The concluding verse of Hebrews 1 serves to transition to the subject of chapter 2. But we shouldn’t hurry by and miss the implication. The angels, this verse tells us, are spirits sent to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation. That’s us! Why the change from a focus on Christ to speaking about us? Remember, we were discussing Christ in his humanity—as the perfect man. The salvation, then, that Christ brings clothes us in his righteousness. We become perfect through Christ. We are the image of God. We were given dominion over creation. We will reign with Christ. By patrimony, position, and privilege, we are sons of God!


The thought carries through to chapter 2. The author urges the Jews (and all of us) to pay focused attention on Christ and his message. The message in the past came through angels (Acts 7:53; Galatians 3:19). If the message from angels (who have just been proved inferior to Christ) is reliable and carries just retribution, how much more important then is this message from the superior Son who brings salvation—and, so great a salvation that we will be called sons of God. This salvation was declared by Christ, preached by his disciples/apostles, and borne witness by God through signs, miracles, and gifts.


Hebrews 2:5 assures us that God did not intend to subject the world to angels. (The phrase “world to come,” I believe is better translated “intended world” to keep with the context.) Here, the author quotes from Psalm 8. Man was created lower than the angels—but note the change from the Old Testament text. In Hebrews we see the fuller meaning of the Hebrew word that man was created lower for a little while. God has always had our fullest relationship with him as the target. We were created to be sons of God in the full relational sense.


Verse 8 tells us that everything is put in subjection under our feet. However, at present, the verse goes on to say, everything is not yet under our control. Verse 9 changes subject from generic man to the perfect man. Jesus was made like man a little lower than the angels, he was crowned with glory and honor. But his glory and honor came in his obedience to death so that many sons would come to glory. This is the perfect work of Christ.