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Hebrews 2 - Jesus is superior to the angels (1:5 - 2:18)

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Also available:

Introduction
1: Superior Revelation (1:1-4) 2: Superior to angels (1:5 - 2:18)
3: A Superior Rest (3:1 - 4:19) 4: A Superior Priesthood (4:14 - 7:28)
5: A Superior Covenant (8:1 - 10:18) 6: The Better Way of Faith (10:19 - 12:39)
7: Practical Instructions (13:1-25)

In the study of the Book of Hebrews, there are not many difficult passages, but the great need is to unpack the arguments carefully, in order to get at the core of what the author is saying. We need to determine what the main point of each paragraph is, as well as the way the paragraph links back to the previous one and on to the next. This will enable us to see how the author develops his argument. It is also important to see why he is using each quotation of the OT, and the way the quotation contributes to the argument.

Why all this talk about angels?

This passage can seem very obscure to us today. We can wonder why the author uses two chapters talking about angels. Amongst the Jews there was great interest in angels. During the 400 'silent years', God seemed to have become very distant, therefore they thought they needed intermediaries. Angels were believed to bridge the gulf between man and God. Angels brought God’s word to mankind, and carried their prayers back to God. Jewish teachers described millions of different angels: 200 angels who controlled the movements of the stars, an angel who controlled succession of days, months and years, a mighty angel over the sea, and angels of frost, dew, rain, snow, hail, thunder, lightning and other aspects of the weather. They taught that there were recording angels who wrote down every spoken word, destroying angels, angels of punishment, torturers of the damned, and that each nation, individual and child had a guardian angel.

This led to a tendency to worship angels. Paul warned the Colossians, “Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels.” (Col 2:18). Even the Apostle John had to be rebuked in the Book of Revelation when he fell down to worship the angel on two different occasions (Rev 19:10, 22:8).

This over-emphasis on angels still continues today. Both Islam and the Mormons claim their revelation was given through an angel, and both give only a limited position to Jesus. The Catholic church emphasises angels, while the Protestant church ignores them almost totally, perhaps as an over-reaction.

What are angels?

Angels are spiritual beings created by God, which are greater and more powerful than human beings. The word 'angel' is a transliteration of the Greek word angelos, which means 'messenger', a word which can be used both for human messengers and for supernatural beings. In the NT, angels were spokesmen for God: they announced Jesus’ birth to the shepherds (Lk 2:13), an angel told Philip to go down the Gaza road (Acts 8:26) and told Cornelius to get Peter (Acts 10:3). Angels also strengthened and encouraged Jesus in the wilderness (Mt 4:11) and in Gethsemane (Lk 22:43). An angel also released Peter from prison (Acts 12:7) and killed King Herod Agrippa I (Acts 12:23). They seem to act as God’s agents when God wanted to do something in the world.

To a Jew, angels were the highest order of creation, but the author argues that angels are mere messengers, in contrast to Jesus being the Son of God. In chapter 1, he uses a collection of quotations from the OT to show that Jesus is greater than the angels (1:5-14), then in chapter 2, he declares that during his incarnation, Jesus came down to our level, so he was for a little while lower than the angels.

Angels are probably being discussed because the readers did not understand how God could become a man, so they probably considered Jesus to be an angel, probably the greatest angel. They also could not understand how God could suffer such a shameful death, this explains the discussion on the humanity of Jesus and the reason why he came as a man and died (ch 2).

Scripture shows that Jesus is higher than the angels (1:5-14)

Seven passages from the OT are quoted in Hebrews chapter 1 to show that Jesus is superior to angels. Each are introduced as something God has said, as part of the many and various ways that God has spoken (1:1). There is an interchange between the Son and the angels: first three quotations about the Son (v5-6), one about angels (v7), three more about the Son (v8-13), and a final question about angels (v14).

The first asks a question by quoting the strongly Messianic Psalm 2:7 (1:5a). Angels are often called 'sons (plural) of God', but never 'my son' (singular). Jesus has a unique relationship with the Father as his only begotten son.

The second continues the question in a quotation from 2 Samuel, using words originally addressed by God to David about his son Solomon (1:5b). “I (God) will be his (Solomon’s) father, and he (Solomon) will be my (God’s) son” (2 Sam 7:14). This comes in the context of the important promise made to David that God will establish his throne forever, a promise which looks far beyond David himself, to the coming of the Messiah. The author takes this and sees it being fulfilled completely in Jesus, who is the true son of David. No angel can possibly be described in this way.

The third is a quotation from Psalm 97:7, when God calls the angels to worship his Son (1:6). A similar statement is found in Deut 32:43 in the Septuagint text. If God instructs angels to worship his Son, then the Son must be superior to the angels.

The fourth quotation from Ps 104:4 (1:7), describes the angels, saying that they are merely servants, created by God to obey him.

The fifth quotation is from Ps 45:6-7, and comes in contrast to the fourth, declaring that the Son is the eternal king, sovereign and anointed by God, and who rules in justice (1:8-9).

The sixth is the longest quotation, from Ps 102:25-27, originally addressed to God the Creator, and now applied to the Son (1:10-12). In contrast to the physical creation which wears out like clothes, the Son will remain unchanging and eternal.

The last again asks a question, making the first of several quotations from the Messianic Psalm 110:1 (1:13). Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father (as 1:3), the place of authority and majesty, and all his enemies are made like a footstool for his feet. No angel is ever described in this way. Only the son is allowed to sit in the presence of God, angels can only stand in God’s presence. The writer of the longer ending of Mark probably had this Psalm in mind when he wrote, “Jesus ... was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God” (Mk 16:19). At his trial, Jesus stated that, “you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mk 14:62). Saying this led to him being condemned to death for blasphemy.

The section concludes with a question which defines the job of angels: “spirits in the divine service sent to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation” (v14). Their job is to serve us. The implication is a warning not to worship beings that are there to serve the believers. We should also notice in this passage that salvation is something we are still to inherit in the future. We are saved but we are still not yet saved. We are all on a journey.

What place should angels have in our thinking?

In many Christian circles there is often too much emphasis on demons, an unhealthy interest in the powers of darkness, with the existence of angels being ignored. However it can be right for us to ask God to send his angels, for our protection, or to send them into battle against the powers of darkness. They are stronger than us and they can help us. However it is not right for us to pray to angels, because we do not need any mediators, except Jesus. We can pray directly to God, through Jesus, which is one of the great themes of this book - “to approach the throne of grace with boldness” (4:16).

Warning 1: Do not drift away! (2:1-4)

This is the first of five warnings, which grow in intensity through the book. This first one is relatively mild. It forms a brief digression, with the author’s exposition continuing directly from 1:14 to 2:5. Because Jesus is greater than the angels, we must pay closer attention to what we have heard (the Gospel), so that we do not drift away. The imagery used here is of a ship being untied from its moorings and allowed to float away. This is not talking about outright rejection of the Gospel, or apostasy, but gradually allowing Jesus to have less and less importance in our lives, a gradual subtle drifting away which we may not even notice.

The message declared by angels was the OT law. There is no reference to the law being given by angels in the Exodus account of the events on Mt. Sinai. However, there was a strong Jewish tradition that angels had a major role in the giving of the law, that the law was mediated by angels. Deut 33:2 (especially in the LXX) supports their presence on Sinai, though not as mediators. There are some hints of this belief in the NT. For example, Stephen in his speech said that an angel spoke to Moses on Mt Sinai (Acts 7:38), and that the law was ordained by angels (Acts 7:53), just as Paul claimed that the law was ordained by angels (Gal 3:19).

There is a contrast between the OT law which was merely declared by angels, making it inferior, and the Gospel which was declared by the Lord, making it the greater reality. So the author’s argument is based on chapter 1, that because the Son is superior to angels, who declared the OT law, so the gospel is superior to the law because it was declared by the Lord Jesus.

The warning follows this, if you obeyed the law given by angels (the shadow), how much more should you obey the message from the Son of God (the reality). And how much more is the punishment for neglecting or despising the gospel. 'How much more' is a frequently used argument in Hebrews.

The consequences of ignoring or drifting away from the gospel is more serious than forsaking the law. If the OT law was valid and every disobedience was punished (v2), how shall we escape if we ignore the gospel of grace? Remember the readers were being tempted to drift away from the gospel back to the physical safety of Judaism. If we fail to keep to the gospel, we inevitably drift aimlessly back under the law and therefore under punishment. Under the OT, the punishment was physical death, while in the NT there is a greater penalty - eternal spiritual death. There is no hope if we lose the gospel. We need to keep the gospel of grace central to our lives, our teaching and our preaching, otherwise we drift off course.

The gospel was declared by the Lord during Jesus’ earthly ministry (v3). There are many allusions in the Book of Hebrews to Jesus’ earthly ministry, more than all the other letters. The rest of chapter 2 has an emphasis on Jesus’ humanity during the incarnation. Those who heard him were the twelve disciples and others who passed the message to the author of Hebrews, to those with him, and to his readers. This verse effectively excludes any of the twelve disciples, or Paul, from being the author of this book. In Galatians, Paul makes a strong point of being an eye-witness of the resurrected Jesus (Gal 1:13-17).

There are two witnesses to confirm the word of salvation. The first are those who heard him, the eye-witnesses, and the second is God himself, who confirms the message by signs and wonders (miracles and gifts). The gifts of Holy Spirit (v4) are distributed according to his own will (cf 1 Cor 12:11). There is an important lesson here, the gifts are not distributed according to man’s capabilities or desires, but as the Spirit decides. The Spirit cannot be manipulated or forced.

During the incarnation, he become lower than angels (2:5-18)

Even though Jesus is superior to the angels, for a little while he came down to our level below the angels, in order to raise us to the place of dominion God originally intended us to have, but which was lost through our sin. This was achieved through his suffering and death, which means that Jesus identifies with us fully, particularly when we are being tested.

The incarnation (2:5-9)

The coming world (v5) is the age of the Messiah, which Jesus inaugurated during his incarnation, but which is not yet present in its fullness. This coming world will not be subject to angels, but will be subject to the Son and to saved mankind. Jews understood this world to be under the government of angels (eg. Dan 10:20-21, 12:1). Paul and other NT writers saw that the unsaved world was under the control of spiritual powers, which he calls principalities and powers (eg. Eph 6:12).

In chapter 1, the author showed Jesus to be superior to angels. Now, in chapter 2, he shows that for a little while, Jesus became the Son of Man, lower than the angels, identifying with mankind in their frustration and suffering. Because of this, and because of his death and resurrection, he became fully qualified (perfect) to be our saviour. The result is that everything will be in subjection to him and to those he has saved.

The author of Hebrews quotes Ps 8:4-6 to show the original intended status and dignity of mankind and that Jesus came down to our position during his incarnation. This quotation is from the Greek Septuagint LXX and is slightly different from our OT.

What is man that you are mindful of him
or the son of man that you visit him?
You made him a little less than the angels
(‘God’ in Hebrew) - The Hebrew elohim can be a divine being or angels)
and have crowned him with glory and honour
(and you have set him over the works of your hands)
- not quoted
you have put all things under his feet.

Psalm 8 is about the glories of creation, and about the place of mankind in that creation, particularly about the place mankind originally had before the fall. The Psalmist looks in wonder and awe at the heavens (8:3), which are described as the work of God’s fingers. Then comes a great contrast (v4) - this awesome Creator cares about insignificant human beings. In this context, the son of man (8:4), is not a title of Jesus, but a description of human beings. The Hebrew is 'son of Adam', often used by God in the Book of Ezekiel to address Ezekiel himself, and to remind him of his mortality.

God made man a little lower than the angels (v7). Mankind is the highest physical created being, whose dignity is given by God. Only when we see this, do we give man his true dignity. Evolution denies the dignity of man and tends to reduce people to the level of animals. If you give God his proper place, recognising his majesty, power and authority as the Creator of universe, then man will have his right place, which is of great dignity, as being created in God’s image.

God has given human beings dominion over the earth (8:6), looking back to the creation account of mankind (Gen 1:26-28): Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created mankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

Mankind was created to have dominion, which was at least partly lost through the fall. God intends to restore that dominion in the world to come. Through the fall, man lost his place of dignity and fell into bondage to spiritual powers, sin and the devil. The good news is that because of his death and resurrection, Jesus has that dominion now, as he claimed after the resurrection, “All authority has been given to me ...” (Mt 28:18).

The purpose of the incarnation of Jesus was to restore our fallen state back to the ideal of Psalm 8 and Gen 1:26. We can experience this at least in part now, while we wait for the fullness in the future. Paul describes Jesus as the last Adam (Rom 5), who reversed what the first Adam did. Jesus was the first man to fulfil human destiny completely, and we enter this destiny as we see Jesus. This is only possible because he actually came and identified with us, by tasting all human sufferings, temptation and death, which angels cannot do. Because Jesus tasted death, as separation from God, death is now a defeated foe, so we are free from the fear of death (v15). Jesus came down to our level to rescue us from the defeat of sin and death, by destroying the power of the devil (v14).

So far, the author has been describing man’s situation (v5-8), now he brings a great contrast. “As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them (mankind), but we do see Jesus” (v9). One of the key themes of the book is that Jesus is exalted, glorified, and sitting at the right hand of God. However, Jesus came as a real human, who therefore understands us and our situation.

Jesus, for a little while was made lower than the angels (v9) during his incarnation, but is now crowned with glory and honour. He was crowned because of his suffering and death. His suffering and death led to glory. There is no other way. Later the author says, “for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross” (12:2). This was true for Jesus, but is also true for the believers (Rom 6:8, 2 Tim 2:11-12). The original readers of the book were suffering persecution. Jesus also suffered, and for both, the suffering came before the glory. Jesus can therefore identify with us fully in our humanity.

Table to illustrate the incarnation

Period Position of Son
OT Father    Son

Angels

Mankind
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Jn 1:1)
Incarnation Father

Angels

Mankind     Jesus
“The Word became flesh” (Jn 1:14)
“For a little while lower than the angels” (2:9)
“Suffered and was tempted in every way” (4:15)
Now Father      * SON *

Angels

Mankind
“Now crowned with glory and honour” (2:9)
“Sit at my right hand” (1:13)
“Made perfect through sufferings” (2:10)

Jesus our perfect pioneer (2:10-13)

A pioneer is someone who leads the way, so others can follow behind them. Jesus led the way into the presence of the Father, so we can now follow him there.

One potentially confusing statement is that Jesus was made perfect through suffering (v10). Jesus was and is morally perfect (sinless) (7:26), needing no sacrifice for his own sins, so how was he made perfect? A study in the Book of Hebrews of the word 'perfect' shows it means a completion of a process or qualification, rather than being morally perfect. (See the word study at the end of this chapter) It means to carry out fully the purpose for which the person or thing was designed. In the context of Hebrews it means to achieve access to God, and to enjoy unbroken communion with him. By his suffering and death, Jesus became fully complete, and legally and officially qualified to become the pioneer of man’s salvation. His life and work were brought to completion (made perfect) through him experiencing human suffering, temptation and death. It was not possible without. The author’s statement that it was fitting that Jesus suffer and die (v10) stands in sharp contrast to the prevalent Jewish concept of a Messiah who cannot suffer. Jesus was the pioneer. He trail-blazed the way of salvation to bring children to glory, by going before us and opening the way. We can be saved only because he suffered and died.

Because of the incarnation and his suffering, we can identify with Christ as his brothers. “The one who sanctifies (Jesus) and those who are sanctified (us) all have one Father (God)” (v11). We are all members of the same family. This shows God’s sovereign work in sanctification, we cannot do it ourselves. OT scriptures are quoted to show our oneness with Christ as brothers (2:11-12) and children (2:13). The author takes words of Isaiah about his family, and applies them to Jesus.

Therefore Jesus can sympathise, and can help us in all our negative experiences (sorrow, temptation, grief, death ...) by being our Great High Priest. A priest is a mediator between sinful man and a holy God, to establish a relationship between them. A priest needs to identify with sinful mankind.

'Sanctifies' is another key word in Hebrews. It is used here (v11) in a wider sense than we normally use this word. In Christian terms, we think about it as the process of becoming more Christlike after salvation, but in the Book of Hebrews it has a much wider meaning. It describes the whole process, from being saved, being set apart as holy people for God, and ultimately being glorified in his presence.

Our liberation from sin, death and the devil (2:14-18)

Jesus became human, experienced human death and rose from the dead. By this he achieved two victorious acts. The first was that he destroyed the devil, who had power over death (v14) and became qualified to become our high priest. In the present time, the devil has not been destroyed, but he has been rendered powerless when we are in partnership with Jesus.

The second was that he destroyed the fear of death (v15), which in many ways is the root of all fear. The glorious news is that we do not need to fear death. At our physical death, our walk with Jesus carries on, and gets even better. Jesus came to nulify the fall and to remove its effects, now in part, and fully in the future.

He came to help men (not angels) (v16), implying that he was not just another angel. He had to become completely human to be able to help us, by being a merciful high priest (an argument expanded in chapters 5 and 7), and to be a sacrifice of atonement, or propitiation, for sins (which is expanded upon in chapters 9 - 10). His experience of suffering and temptation results in the fact that he can help us when we are being tested (v18), because he can identify with us in every way. There now follows a long digression of exhortation and warning before he returns to the theme of Jesus being the great high priest in chapter 5.

Use of the word 'perfect' in Hebrews

As noted in the introduction, the word translated into English as 'perfect' is based on the Greek word for 'end', and is found eighteen times through the book (2:10, 5:9, 7:11,19,28, 9:9,11, 10:1,14, 11:40, 12:23). The word has a wide range of meanings including: to execute fully, to reach the end of something, to finish, to consummate, to reach the goal, or to become qualified. In this book, it does not appear to be used to mean moral sinlessness.

These are the three main lessons from the way this word is used in the Book of Hebrews:

1. Jesus made perfect

Jesus was made perfect through his suffering and obedience, qualifying him and giving him the authority to become God’s means of salvation. The pioneer of salvation (Jesus) was made perfect through suffering (2:10). The Son learned obedience through what he suffered, and being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation (5:9). The word of oath appoints a Son who has been made perfect for ever (7:28). Jesus is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith (12:2).

2. Believers made perfect

The obedience of Jesus also enables the believers to be made perfect, and therefore permitted to have access into the real presence of God. By a single offering Jesus perfected for all time those who are sanctified (10:14). Apart from us, they (the heroes of faith in ch 11) should not be made perfect (11:40). You have come to Mt. Zion, and the spirits of just men made perfect (12:23). In a prayer: may Jesus equip you (make you perfect) with everything good that you may do his will (13:21). Solid food is only for the mature (perfect) (5:14), then urging them to go on to maturity (perfection - KJV) (6:1).

3. Perfection was not possible through law

Through the OT law it was not possible to be made perfect. Perfection had not been attainable through the Levitical law (7:11). The law made nothing perfect (7:19). Gifts and sacrifices cannot perfect the conscience of the worshipper (9:9). The law, a shadow of realities, cannot make perfect those who draw near (10:1). The greater and more perfect tent (9:11).

Also available:

Introduction
1: Superior Revelation (1:1-4) 2: Superior to angels (1:5 - 2:18)
3: A Superior Rest (3:1 - 4:19) 4: A Superior Priesthood (4:14 - 7:28)
5: A Superior Covenant (8:1 - 10:18) 6: The Better Way of Faith (10:19 - 12:39)
7: Practical Instructions (13:1-25)