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
The author makes his point in chapter 2. "Therefore," he says, because Christ is so great, "we must pay more careful attention ... to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away." We need to anchor our boat, or the currents will take it 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 spoken by angels was binding..." What message was that? It was the law of Moses. Angels were involved in giving the law (Deut. 33:2-3; Acts 7:53; Gal. 3:19). It was under the law of Moses that "every violation and disobedience received its just punishment."
But "how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?" (v. 3). If the message of angels was binding (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, 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 attentive enough to the message of Jesus. They believed in Jesus as the Christ, but they hadn’t thought about his significance. They were so busy with Moses that they were not hearing Jesus.
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 believe 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 their attention now. He has explained why his message is worth listening to. It’s about a salvation that is more important than Moses.
Verse 3: "This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him." The author and the readers had learned about Jesus from others. (This is one reason that scholars think that Paul did not write the book of Hebrews. Paul had been taught by the Lord, not by others.)
"God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will" (v. 4). The people had accepted Jesus as the resurrected Son of God, but 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?
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. But before the author explains this, he lays a foundation. He reviews the fact that Jesus was human.
Jesus the human
In verse 5 he writes, "It is not to angels that he has subjected the world to come, about which we are speaking." To support this point, he quotes Psalm 8:4-5: "But there is a place where someone has testified: ‘What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the angels; you crowned him with glory and honor and put everything under his feet.’ "
The psalm says everything will be put under humans. But the Son of God is the heir of everything (Heb. 1:2). That means that he must be human. Jesus had to be made lower than the angels at one stage, crowned with glory and honor at another stage. He is the representative and the pioneer, the trail blazer, for all other humans.
"In putting everything under him [humanity], God left nothing that is not subject to him. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him. But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor" (Heb. 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 he suffered 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.
Of course, Jesus’ death is far more significant than just as an example. Verse 9 tells 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 later.
Many children to glory
Jesus is our representative not only in death but also in ruling the universe. The journey he has taken, we will also take. 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.
"In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering" (v. 10). God’s plan is for many children to be given glory. To save us, the Messiah had to become one of us, and die.
Verse 11: "Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers." Jesus makes humans holy, and he became a human.
Psalm 22, a messianic psalm, supports that. Verse 22, as quoted in Hebrews, says, "I will declare your name to my brothers; in the presence of the congregation I will sing your praises." 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 Isa. 8:17: "I will put my trust in him." (Isa. 8 is also a messianic passage; verse 14 is about the stone of stumbling.) Even the Messiah had to trust in God. He depended on God to take care of him after death.
The next verse, Isa. 8:18, also says that we are in Christ’s family. "Again he says, ‘Here am I, and the children God has given me.’ " The image has changed from brothers to children, but the point is still the same: Christ is a human, just as we are. If we hope to be exalted in the way that he was, we need to follow him.
Verse 14: "Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds 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.
Jesus freed "those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death" (v. 15). 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.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com
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This article was written by Michael Morrison in 2002. Copyright Grace Communion International. All rights reserved.
"For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants" (v. 16). Jesus wanted to save us, so he became one of us. "For this reason, he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people" (v. 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 suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted" (v. 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.
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.
Questions for application
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?