|Fascinated by Angels? (Hebrews 1:5-2:18)
Fascinated by Angels
Sermon Summary from Ministers: At no time more than in recent memory, we seem to be fascinated by angels and dream of perhaps being touched by an angel presence. Some situations are so frustrating that such a dream is understandable. But the one working on our behalf is so much greater!
This is a huge block of material, but it proceeds with a central thought. The central thought is the comparison of the Son with the angels. It is obvious that the theological point is that the Son is greater (superior) to the angels, but the rationale is a bit surprising in the second half of the material. He is greater because he is incarnate and thus able to help in ways that angels cannot help.
This one of the larger blocks of material that we will be asked to teach as we proceed through the seventeen weeks of classroom studies. This is packed full of theologically meaningful and significant points. There are just too many to cover. The only thing more difficult than teaching it in one hour would be to preach it in 20-30 minutes. Nevertheless, the central point lends itself to many applications and a focused theological point.
In general, I would see this block in three sections: (1) The Son is greater than the angels because he shares the reality of God [1:5-14]; (2) Therefore, do not neglect the word of God that comes through the Son [2:1-4]; and (3) The Son was made lower than the angels for our sake [2:5-18]. Indeed, part of the greatness of the Son is not simply his divine nature, but that he was willing to share our humanity and suffering in order to atone for sin and deliver us from Satan’s death hold on us. The Son is greater than the angels because he was willing to be one of us at his own expense and for our sake. The selfless humiliation of the Son is a dimension of his greatness.
Yet, it might puzzle us why the preacher spends so much time on the relationship of the Son to angels. Some have thought it was because his audience was predisposed to worship angels, or that they were consumed with speculation about angels, or that they believed Jesus was some kind of angel. There may be some truth in all of these points, but it seems Hebrews 2:1-4 gives us the focus for understanding why this discussion about angels is so important. It is the comparison between the word that comes through the Son and the word that came through angels. If the word that came through angels was weighty and authoritative, then the word that comes through the Son is even more so!
The speculation about, worship of and a low Christology might linger in the background, but it is background. In the foreground is the comparison of the word spoken. If those who neglected the word through angels were punished for disobedience, it is precarious—to say the least—to neglect the word of God that comes from his Son.
I will offer some brief notes on the three major sections of this block of material.
1. Hebrews 1:5-14
William Lane offers a brief summary of the argument of this section that is quite helpful. I adapted and extended some of his language from his book Call to Commitment (p. 35) in the chart below.
The Son is Greater than the Angels
|Category||Theological Point||Hebrews||OT Quote|
|Name||His name is "Son"||1:5||Ps. 2:7; 2 Sam. 7:14|
|Dignity||Even the angels worship the Son||1:6||Ps. 97:7|
|Nature||The Son is eternal||1:7-9||Ps. 45:6-7|
|Nature||The Son is unchanging||1:10-12||Ps. 102:25-27|
|Function||The Son reigns as angels serve||1:13-14||Ps. 110:1|
The chart summarizes the point of each section and how the preacher uses an Old Testament citation to support his theological point.
The preacher uses Scripture, which is his Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. Today we refer to this as the Septuagint. This was the Bible of the early church, and the preacher assumes its authority and place in the Christian community.
His use of Scripture is Christological, that is, he reads the Old Testament through the lens of Jesus, the lens of God’s word through the Son. He assumes the messianic character of each of these texts, which he quotes. He does not think of “messianic” in the sense of predictive prophecy, but of the relationship of the Father, Son and angels. It is a theological use of the Old Testament rather than a predictive. These texts do not predict the Messiah but they do speak about the Son or to the Son.
a. Hebrews 1:5. The preacher is interested in the “name”—Son. Both Ps. 2:7 and 2 Sam 7:14 were regarded as messianic in early Judaism (Qumran documents [Dead Sea Scrolls material] indicate this. But the preacher’s point is that “Son” belongs to Jesus, not to angels. They are not sons, but Jesus has been named Son. The preacher uses “Son” to refer to the pre-existent one (e.g., “though he were a Son…” in Hebrews 5:8), but uses “Son” to refer to the exalted one. “Today” may be an allusion to the exaltation of Jesus. The Son is son both by virtue of his divine nature and his obedient submission.
b. Hebrews 1:6. While quoting Psalm 97:7 to support the worship of the Son by the angels, the preacher also alludes to Psalm 89:27 in reference to the Son as “firstborn.” This is term of rank and honor. It is a covenantal term and refers to the enthronement of the Son at the right hand of God as God’s royal representative (just as David was in Psalm 89). The reference to the “world” is probably not connected to his incarnation (coming into the human world), but his entrance into the heavenly world at his exaltation. When the preacher refers to the human world, he uses a different word (cosmos). But here he uses a term which we could translation “inhabited world” and is the term used to describe the “world to come” in Hebrews 2:5. His entrance into the heavenly world is his exaltation above the angels so that they respond with worship (as we see in Revelation 5, for example).
c. Hebrews 1:7-12. The angels are servants whose form is dependent upon the will of God. They are transformed in various ways to serve God’s purposes—sometimes wind, sometimes fire, etc. However, the Son is unchanging because his throne is eternal. His throne is an eternal throne, and his nature remains the same (it never grows old). The creation is subject to change, but the Son is not. Thus, the Son is addressed as “God” in this text. This is one of the few texts in the New Testament where the Greek term theos (God) is applied to Jesus (e.g., John 1:1; John 20:28). The point, however, is to ground the faithfulness and reign of Jesus in his eternal nature. We should not read “unchanging” as “unresponsive,” but rather as faithful, stable and unswerving in his righteousness and covenantal commitments.
d. Hebrews 1:13-14. Notice that the rhetoric of 1:13 is the same as 1:5, that is, “to which of the angels did God say….” The preacher rounds out his point. The Son is the reigning king who sits at the right hand of God, but angels are servants who, at God’s bidding, minister to the saints.
2. Hebrews 2:1-4.
The point of this paragraph is quite focused and difficult to miss. It is an exhortation and warning. Notice the connectedness to the previous section: “therefore….” On the one hand, we have the word delivered through angels. On the other hand, we have the word delivered through the Son and confirmed by divine miracles. If one was punished for disobeying the former, then surely those who neglect the latter will be punished as well.
We learn something about the audience in this section. The preacher uses two words that seem to reflect the gradual movement of believers away from the faith. They are “drifting” (like an unmoored ship) and they are “neglecting” the salvation provided by the Son. Their movement away from faith was not a single defiant act of rebellion, but arose out of apathy and neglect. But the result is yet an act of rebellion as they reject the Son and God’s work in him.
The punishment envisioned here is not a punishment for weaknesses of faith, but for the rejection of the faith (as we will see later; e.g., in chapter 3).
3. Hebrews 2:5-18
In this section the Son takes up the cosmic task of setting the world aright by sharing the humanity of his people. That the angels are still under consideration in this section is indicated by 2:5 and 2:16. The contrast continues, and verse 18 identifies Jesus as the real helper of humanity, not the angels. Jesus is qualified to help humanity because he took up humanity in his own person and life. Since he shared our humanity, he is able to help humans in ways that angels cannot. Consequently, Jesus is superior to the angels in his function of “helping” because he became incarnate (e.g., he was enfleshed).
In addition, “death” is a primary them in this section. It dominates humanity; it rules humanity. Humanity is enslaved to it, and fears it. No doubt the prospect of martyrdom might have enhanced this anxiety in the Roman church. Yet, the Son comes to deal with death—he tastes death and redeems us from death. He sets the world back right, as it was in the beginning. He paths a path for us through suffering so that we might again have the glory that is after suffering.
This block of material may be divided into two sections: (a) The Cosmic Task [Hebrews 2:5-9] and (b) Solidarity with Humanity [Hebrews 2:10-18].
a. Hebrews 2:5-9. The preacher quotes Psalm 8:4-6 in Hebrews 2:6b-8a. The Psalm envisions the original creation of humanity. God created them as co-regents with him. He crowned them with glory and honor as his royal representatives, his images on the earth. He gave them benevolent authority over the earth.
However, something happened; something changed. The original intent was frustrated by the loss of authority, dominion and power. What was originally subjected to humanity is now no longer subject to it. Death now reigns over humanity whereas it did not previously.
The solution to this cosmic problem is that Jesus became incarnate (made lower than the angels) and took up the task God had given to humanity. He is now at work to subject everything (including death) to himself. For this reason, he tasted death so that he might conquer it. As a result of his obedience, he is crowned with the glory and honor that was God’s original intent in creation itself. The glory and honor that humanity lost when they sinned, Jesus has regained by his obedient suffering for us. In an allusion to Psalm 110:1, the Son will reign until every enemy (including death) is put under his feet.
b. Hebrews 2:10-18. Death is a primary point in this section. The Son has come to bring other sons to glory as he redeems us from death and the fear of it. Yet, the Son does this through suffering. He does not escape suffering, but endures it for the sake of the greater goal. Thus, the Son is our champion, our pioneer, who goes before us and conquers for us. He does this as our brother—one who shares our humanity with us.
While the Son is unique, yet he brings us into relationship with God as “sons” too. The Son enables us to be sons (children) of God. He does this as our archegon! This is a difficult Greek word to translate because it has a broad range of meaning in Hellenistic Judaism. Suggested possibilities are leader, pioneer, author, pathfinder, trailblazer and guide. Lane, in his commentary (and Guthrie agrees) suggests the background is the “divine hero” of Hellenism, such as Hercules who is called both an archegon and “savior” in the literature. He suggests the translation “champion,” just as Hercules wrestled with Death. Jesus faced death and conquered it; he cleared a path for us so that death would not ultimately claim us. This assurance is important in the light of the prospects of martyrdom the Roman church faced.
Yet, Jesus faced death through suffering. He was “perfected” in his suffering. This does not mean something in him erroneous or faulty was corrected through his suffering, but that he was completed or “made whole” by his suffering. He finished the race and carried out his task. This will be an important theme in Hebrews, to which we will return in later lessons when we have more time to discuss it.
The “shared brotherhood” of Jesus with humanity is important to the preacher. If he is to be a “champion,” he must share their reality in some sense. He joins humanity in order to win their place, to return humanity to its original glory in creation. The quotations in Hebrews 2:12-13 are intended to support the “shared” condition of Jesus and humanity as children (brothers) of God. The quotes are from Psalm 22:22; Isaiah 8:17-18. The first quotation locates Jesus among his brothers as a redeemed community in which he testifies about the greatness of God. The second quotation expresses the trust that Jesus had in God and shares with his brothers. Jesus, too, depended upon the greatness and faithfulness of God so that in his suffering he cried to him and trusted him. The third quotation shifts the metaphor. Now Jesus is the head of a family--he has children. God has given Jesus children through his suffering and exaltation. Whether Jesus is regarded as leader of the family or as brother to the family, it suggests a shared relationship, a familial relationship. Intimacy is the point.
Verses 14-15 speak directly to the point about death. This was the object of the Son’s work—to destroy death by breaking the power of Satan and to destroy the fear of death that lurked in the hearts of believers. The reference to Satan and the fear of death suits the situation of a persecuted community, but it also suits the condition of humanity at large. Satan held the power of death until it was wrested away from him by Jesus’ own suffering, and the fear of death is the common plight of humanity. Jesus, however, inaugurates a new death. We do not fear death because an angel will rescue us, but we do not fear death because Jesus has conquered the one who holds death. Jesus now has the keys of Hades.
Verse 17, in a summary way, identifies why the suffering of the Son dealt with death. The Son became human so that he might share humanity and act as high priest. But he became a high priest in order to make atonement. His act, as a faithful high priest, made “propitiation” for the sins of his people. This is a much-debated word, and it has been variously translated (e.g., “to make atonement,” “to make an atoning sacrifice”). “Propitiation” means to avert wrath or anger. In the best sense of the word, the suffering of the Son offered himself as the object of divine punishment for sin. In this way, God propitiated himself through the Son instead of punishing us with the punishment we deserved. On the atonement of Christ, you might want to read my article on atonement.
The final point of the text in verse 18 is, I think, climactic. Who will help believers in their struggles, trials and temptations? Will angels help? Well, yes, but only the Son can provide the kind of empathetic help that overcomes the struggle against sin, temptation and death. Ultimately, the Son is our helper; not the angels. This is connected to his “faithfulness” (he persevered in his obedience to the Father, even to the point of death) and “compassion” (perhaps a reference to his empathy as a human being). He models and is able to help those who are suffering because he has experienced suffering. He is a champion of endurance because he endured.
1. The text affirms the reality and ministry of angels. We do not want to undermine the significance of angelic ministry. They do minister to God’s saints. However, angels are not the focus of the text. Angels are discussed only to point to the dignity and exaltation of the Son. Angels always have a secondary focus in Scripture. They are messengers. They are protectors. They carry out the will of God. They are never the main point. They are never the main characters in the story. When we focus on angels to the distraction of the main point, or we focus on angels so that they supplant God or detract from the dignity of the Son, then we undermine the very function of angels. For all the concern that people have for “guardian angels” and seeking the touch of an angel, the people of God should be more focused on the “guardian God” and the touch of God. God may use angels, but it is God who is at work through his Son by his Spirit. We should never lose sight of the Son when we think about angels. It is the Son who is the real “helper” of humanity—he atoned and even now helps his people (Heb. 2:18).
2. The text affirms the divinity and humanity of Jesus, the Son of God. It appears the preacher uses “Son” to describe the divinity (chapter 1) and when he turns his attention to his humanity, he utilizes the name “Jesus” (chapter 2). However, the unity between Son and Jesus is clear. Jesus is the Son of God through whom God created the world but also through whom God made atonement through the suffering of Jesus. Hebrews 1-2 is a confession of the divinity and humanity of the one we call “Savior.” As divine, he is eternal and unchanging in his righteousness and covenantal commitment. As human, he is the one who shared our humanity in order to redeem us from death by tasting death for us. As the pre-existent one who became human, he has been exalted to the right hand of God because his work for our sake. The same one through whom God created the world is the same one who was made a little lower than the angels—Jesus, the Son of God.
3. The hearers gain confidence from the dignity and obedience of the Son. Discouraged believers are reassured of the faithfulness of the Son and they are moved by the Son’s voluntary humiliation. They gain strength from the work of the Son to destroy death and atone for sin, and they are encouraged by the Son’s role as helper in our times of testing and trial. The Son is the unchanging, committed one who seeks to bring other sons to glory, redeem them from death and help them through their trials.
There are many options for teaching this text. It is so full of important points and theological reflections that it is difficult to know where to begin and what to do.
At the center of the text is the contrast between angels and the Son. There is the contrast in chapter one between angelic nature and function and the divine nature and function of the Son. In chapter two the contrast continues as the Son is willing to be incarnate and help humanity in ways that angels cannot. The Son is the heir of the world to come; he is the firstborn. He redeemed humanity. Consequently, I think if we are to teach this text we should pay close attention to the dignity of the Son in contrast to the angels.
One option is to begin by letting the class talk about angels. Guthrie has some interesting points about the current climate surrounding angels. Speculation about angels and the felt need for angels is rampant in our culture. Why is this the case? What does this reflect about our cultural needs? And when Christians are caught up into this, what does this reflect about our theology?
Some attention in class should be given to why the Son is superior to the angels, and why this is significant. Why was it significant for the preacher, and why is it a significant point for us?
Your Navigator study series book has some good questions if you want to pursue some of those paths. It has more questions than you could possibly cover in a class period. So, you will need to select a thread to follow through the text. I will probably follow a thread like this:
Starter Point: angels and our culture; are we more enamored with Jesus or angels? Our culture is fascinated with angels, but the Son is the one whom God has appointed heir. He is superior to the angels in name, dignity, nature and function. But it is not simply his divinity that exalts him above the angels. Rather, it is his incarnation. Through the incarnation, the Son empathizes with humanity, shares their painful condition and tastes death. As a result, he is exalted above the angels even though he was made lower them incarnationally. He is greater than the angels because he redeemed us from death and made atonement for our sins….and, more, he is able to help us with our temptations and trials in ways that angels cannot.
If the word that came through angels was great, how much more important is the word that come through the Son who worked our redemption from death! Therefore, hang on to your faith.
Applications abound here. There are many theological applications regarding angels, incarnation and atonement. For example, what do we learn about angels? How should we regard angels?
But I think I will concentrate on the nature of the incarnation. Here the preacher lays the theological ground for the empathy of our high priest. He knows us because he has experienced suffering with us and for us. There are some good questions in the Navipress book to help you here, as well as on other sections.
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