The first chapter of Hebrews gives a series of Old Testament scriptures to show that Jesus is better than angels. For the most part, the scriptures are just quoted, with no attempt to prove that they are indeed about Jesus Christ. The rapid succession of scriptures appears to be a review of something the readers already believe. The author is reminding them that Jesus, the Son of God, is superior to the angels. Angels are servants, but Christ is the creator and ruler of all.
The recipients of the letter may have thought: Yes, we knew all that. What’s your point?
A superior message (verses 1-3)
The author makes his point in chapter 2. “Therefore,” he says, because Christ is so great, “we must pay greater attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it.” By using the word “drift,” the author is suggesting a nautical image: We need to anchor our boat, or the currents will gradually move us away. We aren’t planning to drift away, but if we aren’t careful, we will. The way to stay anchored is to focus on the message of Jesus.
Verse 2: “For if the message declared through angels was valid…” What message was declared through angels? It was the law of Moses. Angels were involved in giving the law (Deuteronomy 33:2-3; Acts 7:53; Galatians 3:19). It was under the law of Moses that “every transgression or disobedience received a just penalty.”
But “how can we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?” If the message of angels was valid (and it was) and disobedient people were punished, surely we won’t escape if we ignore the message of Christ. This is an argument from the lesser to the greater, a common Jewish method of teaching. If Jesus is better than the angels, then his message is better than theirs. If the message delivered by servants was authoritative, then the message delivered by the Son is even more so.
The readers were attentive to the law of Moses, but they weren’t being attentive enough to the message of Jesus. They believed in Jesus as the Christ, but they hadn’t thought enough about his significance. They were so busy with Moses that they were not hearing Jesus.
Rhetorical strategy (verses 3-4)
In this, Hebrews uses a clever rhetorical strategy. The author begins with concepts the readers agree with, and they go through chapter 1 agreeing with him. Then he takes that point of agreement and turns it into a point of correction. You say that Jesus is great, he says, but you are not acting like it. You are paying too much attention to the old message and not enough to the new.
The author has called for their attention now. He has explained why his message is worth listening to. It’s about salvation, something more important than Moses. This salvation “was declared at first through the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard him.” The author and the readers had learned about Jesus from others. (This is one reason that scholars conclude that Paul did not write the book of Hebrews. In Galatians 1:11-22, Paul insists that he was taught by the Lord, not by others.)
“God added his testimony by signs and wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit, distributed according to his will” (verse 4). The people had seen evidence that what they heard about Jesus was true. They had accepted him as the resurrected Son of God. However, he wasn’t making much difference in their lives and their worship. They never asked, If Jesus is the Son of God, does that change the way we worship? They were still focusing on Moses. As the author will explain in later chapters, the way we approach God has changed enormously. Jesus is in heaven interceding for us. He is our mediator, giving us access to God.
Jesus the human (verses 5-9)
But before the author explains the change in worship, he lays a foundation. He reviews the fact that Jesus was human. In verse 5 he writes, “God did not subject the coming world, about which we are speaking, to angels.” To support this statement, he quotes from the Old Testament Scriptures: “But someone has testified somewhere, ‘What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals, that you care for them? You have made them for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned them with glory and honor, subjecting all things under their feet’” (see Psalm 8:4-5).
The psalm says everything will be put under humans. But the Son of God is the heir of everything (Hebrews 1:2). That means that, to fulfill the Scriptures, he must be human. Jesus had to be made lower than the angels for a time, crowned with glory and honor at a later time. He is the representative and the pioneer, the trailblazer, for all other humans.
“Now in subjecting all things to them [humanity], God left nothing outside their control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor” (Hebrews 2:8-9). We do not yet see glory and honor for other humans, but we do see it for Jesus, our representative.
Why was he so honored? Verse 9 tells us it is “because of the suffering of death.” His example would be meaningful to readers who were facing persecution and threats. In this world, we suffer and die. In the next, we have glory and honor.
However, Jesus’ death is far more significant than just as an example. Verse 9 goes on to tell us that “by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.” He died for us, in our place. The author will enlarge on this concept in a later chapter.
Many children to glory (verses 10-15)
Jesus is our representative not only in death but also in ruling the universe. The journey he has taken, we also participate in. This is the greatness of the salvation that Jesus brings: the greatness of ruling all things. But it comes through death—Jesus had to die, and we have to die, too, before we can enter into glory and reign with Christ.
“It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings.” God’s plan is for many children to be given glory. To save us, the Messiah had to become one of us, and die. “Perfect” here does not mean moral perfection (he was already perfect in that sense), but completion: through his sufferings, he became completely qualified to be our Savior.
“The one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.” Jesus sanctifies us, makes us holy, and because we are made holy, we are part of his family. He has joined himself to us.
Psalm 22:22, a messianic psalm, supports that. As quoted in Hebrews, it says, “I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.” Jesus put himself at our level so he could bring us up to his level. This is the great salvation he offers us, the great salvation we do not want to neglect or drift away from.
Then Hebrews quotes from Isaiah 8:17: “I will put my trust in him.” (Isaiah 8 is also a messianic passage; verse 14 is about the stone of stumbling.) The Messiah had to trust in God. He depended on God to take care of him after death.
The next verse that’s quoted, Isaiah 8:18, also says that we are in Christ’s family. “And again, ‘Here am I and the children whom God has given me.’” The image has changed from siblings to children, but the point is still the same: Christ is a human, just as we are. We should not be embarrassed by the fact that Jesus was a human, even to the point of death. Instead, we should be encouraged, because it is appropriate for our Savior to be one of us, to lead us into glory.
“Since…the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil.” Jesus became human so his death would be effective for us. The devil and death can no longer keep us captive: they have been conquered. We can be confident that Jesus conquered death because he came back from death, which was possible only if he was mortal.
Jesus did this to “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.” Death still strikes us, and it is still an enemy, but it cannot hold us permanently. Jesus gives us courage in the face of death.
Summary (verses 16-18)
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Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
This article was written by Michael Morrison in 2002 and updated in 2016. Copyright Grace Communion International. All rights reserved.
“For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham” (verse 16). Jesus wanted to save us, so he became one of us. Although he was higher than the angels from the beginning, he became temporarily less than an angel. “Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people” (verse 17).
Here the author has come to the end of a section, and he begins to lay a foundation for later parts of the letter. He summarizes by saying that Jesus was fully human so he could save us. He will write more about the atonement in later chapters, and more about Jesus’ mercy and faithfulness. But now he just mentions them as hints of things yet to be discussed. He mentions Jesus as high priest, too, which he will also develop.
But after these hints, he goes back to wrap up this section: “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested” (verse 18). The readers were facing suffering and temptation. They were afraid of death, and the author is saying, Jesus has been there. He can help, because he was one of us. His role as Savior was made complete by these sufferings.
Jesus is not just a heavenly being—he was made flesh so he could suffer and die for us, and pave the way for our exaltation into glory. We are his family, and he will bring us through. On the other side of death is tremendous glory.
Things to think about
- Am I paying careful attention to Jesus, or am I drifting? Is my life focused on the gospel?
- Do I take the great salvation lightly? Do I see my future crowned with glory and honor with Jesus?
- How well do I trust God in the face of trials, or even in day-to-day routines?
- Do I fear death? Do I fear the smaller problems of this world? Do I look to Jesus for help with my temptations?