The focus of the Book of Hebrews is perseverance. It’s about finding strength to press on in the faith when things get difficult. Our text this morning starts off in a rather unexpected way—insisting on the Son’s superiority over the angels.
It may not strike us as immediately obvious how the Son’s superiority over the angels has anything to do with persevering in the faith. If you were to come up to me after the service and say, “I’m thinking about abandoning the faith.” And I responded by saying, “No way, don’t give up. Jesus is better than the angels!” You probably wouldn’t say, “You’re right. I’m staying.” But that’s where the author of Hebrews starts.
That raises a bit of a challenge for the preacher to figure out how to tie this all together. Normally, I like to start my sermons by posing a question or two that we’re all interested in and use that to help frame the sermon. Our framing question this morning is “Why does the author of Hebrews start by asserting that Jesus is superior to the angels?” I’m not sure that’s a very compelling question, but don’t worry—it’s heading somewhere compelling.
So here’s what I want to do with our sermon today. I want to do a bit more teaching on the front end about what angels have to do with anything; why does the author of Hebrews start here with the superiority of the Son over the angels? What is driving his thoughts? Then, I’m going to offer two points of application for how I think that applies to us in our context.
It's hard to make sense of what's going on in this passage and why the author is beginning the way he is if we don't understand the context. The author in Hebrews is writing his letter to a group of devout Jews who have become followers of Jesus. They believe that Jesus is the long-awaited Jewish Messiah, but their newfound faith in Jesus has come with a cost.
When Christianity first came onto the scene in the earliest days it was seen primarily as another sect within Judaism. But increasingly, this group of Jewish Jesus worshipers came to be seen as something distinct from Judaism.
This created a problem for all those Jewish believers following Jesus. Under Judaism in the Roman Empire, the imperial powers had given a special allowance to the Jewish people so they didn't have to worship the Roman gods. But as these Jesus-following Jews came to be seen as separate from the Jewish main tradition, their worship exemption was now taken away.
They were beginning to get pressure from the Roman authorities. They were also getting pressure from the traditional Jewish faith that they had left behind. So they were caught between a rock and a hard place. The Jews they used to be part of viewed them as apostates, and the Romans authorities were beginning to view them as insurrectionists for failing to worship the Roman gods.
So the important point in all of this is they are thinking of going back to Judaism to alleviate the pressure from both sides. They are not thinking about giving up on God, but about going back to Judaism, retracing their steps and going back to where they were when they first heard about Jesus.
So the burden of the author and the focus of Hebrews is to show these Jesus-believing Jews that what they have gained in Jesus is better than what they have left behind.
Why Start with ‘Jesus Is Better than the Angels’?
So there is the context, and then we begin with Hebrews 1. The entire first chapter is dedicated to showing the superiority of Jesus over the angels.
The best way for the author to make his case is to establish the deity of Jesus. Obviously, if the Son is divine, then the Son is superior to the angels. So throughout the chapter, the author affirms in the strongest way possible the deity of Jesus. Incidentally, if you are ever dialoguing with someone who wants to know if the Bible affirms the deity of Jesus, Hebrews 1 is one of the principal texts you can use to demonstrate the deity of Jesus Christ. But in our case, the author is specifically affirming the deity of Jesus Christ because he wants to show that Jesus is better than the angels.
He begins in verse 1 by noting that though God’s revelation first came through the prophets, it has now come to us through his Son. He is not even mentioning Jesus by name in this first chapter, but we know that he is referring to Jesus when he talks about his Son.
The Son is the heir of all things, the one through whom the world was created. The act of creation throughout Scripture is ascribed specifically to God; it’s never ascribed to angelic beings. So to say that the Son is the agent of creation is to ascribe deity to the Son; it’s to insist upon his divine identity.
To drive home the point of the Son’s divine identity, the author says in verse 3 that the Son is the radiance of the glory of God, the exact representation of his being. The Son is the mirror image of the divine essence. So if you want to know what God is like, you look at the Son and see the exact representation, the exact picture of God himself.
Not only is the Son the one who created the world, the author says, but he is the one who still upholds it by his power, who having made atonement for sin is now seated at the right hand of God. It’s the highest position that can be conceived in the heavens. All this within the first three verses.
Then in verse 4, we are introduced to the angels. Jesus in his divine identity is more excellent than the angels.
In order to figure out why the author is talking about the angels here, let’s look at the role of angels in the Jewish tradition. Angels function throughout Jewish history as powerful servants of God, as expressions of God’s mighty power and judgments in the world.
We can recount many examples from the Old Testament, but perhaps you recall that two angels came and rescued Lot and his family from Sodom, and then these angels destroyed it with hellfire. An angel of judgment killed thousands of Israelites as punishment for David’s sin during the census that he had taken. A destroying angel was sent to break the siege that the Assyrians had set around Jerusalem, striking dead around 180,000 Assyrian soldiers.
So angels make regular and powerful, even if not frequent, appearances in the Old Testament.
During the time span between the close of the Old Testament, which would have been about 400 BC, and the opening up of the New Testament and Jesus’ coming, interest in angels significantly increased in the Jewish tradition. Jewish writers developed intricate and involved angelologies, speculating about angelic names, spheres of responsibility, and levels of angelic power. These authors described in detail the deeds of wicked angels as well as the righteous acts of deliverance of the good angels. So by the time that we get to Hebrews, there is a lot of speculation about angels.
During this intertestamental period, a certain fascination with angels develops. Angels are increasingly fixated upon as expressions of God’s divine power and authority. God, of course, was all-powerful; angels didn’t replace God, but they were next in line.
So our author is at pains to show that Jesus is greater than angels. Read verses 5–7: Jesus is the Son and the angels are the servants (or the ministers).
(Read Hebrews 1:5-6)
So Jesus the Son is the object of angelic worship. The angels, as great as they are, are merely winds, just ministers of flame and fire. They serve God, but they worship the Son. So Jesus is the Son; the angels are the servants.
Now notice verses 8–9: Jesus sits on the throne of God and wields the divine scepter of authority over and above the angels. It’s interesting how the author takes passages that are ascribed to God in the Old Testament and says that these apply to the Son.
In verse 8 he says, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom.” So the one that has the authority is the Son. Then he says, “Therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.” Who are the companions, if not the angelic host of heaven? Jesus sits above the hosts of the heavens.
In verses 10–13, the Son is not only the ruler of the heavens, not only the Son of God himself, but he is the creator of the heavens, which is the habitation of the angels. “You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the work of your hands” (v. 9). It’s an interesting passage to apply to Jesus because the heavens are seen as the habitation of angels. So Jesus is the one who has made the home that the angels inhabit, and this heavenly home will perish, but the Son will remain (v. 11). The heavens will wear out like garments, like a robe; Jesus will roll them up but the Son is the same forever and ever.
The Son’s greater power and authority over the angels is not greater in the same way that an archangel’s power is greater than the power of a regular rank and file angel—as though Jesus was a really strong angel, the highest of all angels.
That actually was one of the earliest heresies in the Christian church when they were trying to articulate Jesus’ identity. Some said he was the highest of all that God had made, the greatest of all the angels. Clearly, the author of Hebrews is insisting that Jesus is not just the highest of all angels. He is the Lord and Creator of angels. Jesus’ power and authority eclipse the power and authority of the highest angel in the same way and to the same degree that God’s power and authority eclipses the power and authority of an angel. So what God is to angels, the Son is to angels. The Son is over angels with the power of the Creator over the creature.
The author isn’t discounting the greatness of the angels. In fact, that would be counter to his purpose. The angels have great power, but the power of the Son is greater. The power of the Son is the power of God himself.
So here’s the punchline then for why the author is starting his letter in this way. For these Jesus-believing Jews, his message was: Don’t go back to relying on the power of angels to deliver you when you have access to the power of the Son. You are going back to a lesser power. You’re thinking about going back to the Jewish faith. And there, the greatest power of the Jewish faith, next to God himself, is the power of the angels. But you have moved beyond the power of angels and you have laid hold of the power of the Creator of angels—the Son of God himself! Don’t go back!
Under the provisions of the New Covenant, these early Jewish Christians now had the provisions of the Son of God himself. To abandon their faith in Christ and return to their old way of life was to trade out the divine power and authority of the eternal Son, and the protection that came with it, for the lesser power of heavenly creatures. Don’t give up the Son of God for the mere servants of God.
We can understand how that would make sense and would have appeal and be relevant to the context of the early Jewish followers of Jesus who were thinking of going back to Judaism. They needed to be reminded that what they had laid hold of in Jesus was greater than what they had left behind.
So now we can understand chapter 1 and how angels fit into the overall purpose of the letter and why the author begins with angels because angels were a big deal to these folks. But what does this have to do with us? How do we make sense and apply this? There are two points of application that I think we can draw from this.
Hold Fast to Jesus
The first point of application is: Hold fast to Jesus. He offers us more than we’ve left behind.
Not many of us, I suspect, if we are tempted to abandon the faith, are tempted to embrace Judaism. It’s probably not where most of us came from. We’ve come to Christ from a different starting place.
So if we are going to turn away from Jesus and put our toes in the water of moving toward apostasy, we’re going to be more inclined to fall away to the places where we came from. For most of us here, going back means going back to the godless secular life that marked our pre-Christian past. Or perhaps it will mean falling away to a benign marginal religiosity that doesn’t make any impact on our lives, which is pretty much the same thing.
The point of Hebrews 1 still stands: What we possess through faith in Jesus is better than anything that we’ve left behind in our old life. This doesn’t mean that you have to view every aspect of your old life as completely without merit. The author of Hebrews wasn’t saying don’t go back to angels because angels are bad. He’s saying don’t go back to angels because angels are not best. There is something better. The very best of what you had in your old way of life cannot compare with the blessings that we have come to know through Jesus Christ.
This, of course, doesn’t mean that the path of faith is easy or that every blessing that Christ promises to us comes immediately to us (it doesn’t). If every blessing that Christ promised to us came to us immediately, there will be no need for faith, no need to persevere. We would have everything that God had already promised to us. But so many of God blessings and promises wait for us out in the future. That’s why perseverance and faith are necessary.
When we are thinking of jumping ship, when we are tempted to give up and return to our old way of life, here’s a question that we should ask of ourselves. What does our old way of life offer us with respect to the things that matter most to human beings? Things like hope or love or joy or purpose or life or dignity or meaning? Does your former way of life that you would contemplate going back to, does it offer you these things?
Jesus offers lasting hope, unmerited love, endless joy, clear purpose, eternal life, true dignity, and real meaning. The faithless life offers us pleasure instead of purpose, distraction instead of hope, entertainment instead of joy, and ultimately, no matter whatever else it offers us, it offers us death instead of life. The secular versions of the meaning of life don’t even pretend to address the solution to the problem of death. Whatever you fall back to is going to be lesser than the eternal life that is offered to you in Christ.
So I don’t know what the angels are in your life that you are tempted to return to. The things in your old way of life that stand out to you as the high water marks that would compel you to think of going back. I don’t know what those “angels” are, but whatever they are, they cannot hold a candle to whatever God has promised you in Jesus Christ. And faith is choosing to believe that whatever you have in Jesus is better than anything that you have left behind.
It doesn’t mean you don’t have any doubts. All of us, if we are honest, go through seasons of life when we have doubts. I’m thinking of the disciples in John 6 where Jesus’ teachings had gotten increasingly more difficult; his teachings were increasingly more divisive, and those that had been following Jesus were beginning to wonder if they were going to continue to follow Jesus. Many fell away in John 6, when Jesus began to teach that he was the only way to God, and most especially when he taught that we must eat his flesh and drink his blood. It was scandalizing to the Jews of his day; many had fallen away.
Jesus looked at the Twelve and said, “Are you going to fall away too? Are you going to leave me too?” I don’t know what all was going through their minds, but they probably had many of the same doubts, some of the same feelings that their fellow Jewish people had had who were leaving Jesus.
They understood enough to know that there was ultimately no life behind them. They said to Jesus, “Where else are we going to go? You have the words of eternal life. There are no other options for us.” They were wise enough to see that whatever the world would give them would not be able to address the core existential realities of the human experience. Jesus at least was offering it, and they were willing to cast their lots into whatever Jesus was offering them.
So the first application that we can draw from Hebrews 1 is to hold fast to Jesus. He offers us more than anything that we have left behind.
Trust in the Power of Jesus
Here’s the second point of application: Trust in the power of Jesus; it’s greater than any other power.
The whole movement of Hebrews 1 is to emphasize that Jesus has greater power and authority over the angels—the greatest conceivable power of the Old Covenant. Now when we moderns think about power, most of us are not inclined to think of angelic power as the quintessential power. Most of us in this room, when we think of power, tend to think about earthly power such as political power. Or the public power that comes from fame. Or the physical power of the athlete. Or the financial power of Wall Street. Or the lethal power of weapons of war. These tend to be the powers of the modern world. So even though we might not be as preoccupied with angelic power as were the first readers of Hebrews, we are nonetheless concerned with power.
We too need to be reminded that the truest and greatest power, the power of God himself, resides in Jesus. Just as there is no angelic power that can compare with Jesus, how much less is there any earthly power that can compare with Jesus.
Some of us crave power for ourselves. But the vast majority of us do not so much crave power for ourselves as much as we want to simply rest and secure ourselves in the protective power of others. Whether it’s the power of our parents, of a boss, a husband, a pastor, a government, a coach, or a dominant member of our peer group. There are powers within our lives that we can saddle up to, that provide a protective covering over us, that give us a sense of security and peace.
We all intuitively sense our own vulnerability in being human beings. And it’s innate to the human condition to gravitate toward powers greater than ourselves as a means of self-preservation, the same way that we’re drawn to a campfire on a cold winter’s night. There are whole movements of social theory that base themselves on this psychology. I think they’re probably right. And there is nothing inherently wrong in all this, in fact.
That we seek out greater powers to protect us is, in many ways, how God has ordered the world. But it becomes a problem when we place the full weight of our trust in lesser and finite powers, and we forget, or allow ourselves to forget, that the fountain of all true power is found in the Son. It becomes a problem for us when we venerate lesser powers over the true power of God. We can know that we’ve gotten our dependencies a little mixed up when we find ourselves tempted to follow or appease earthly powers, even if that means compromising the integrity of our faith.
I think, if we are honest, all of us have been in positions like that. Where the powers that we are looking to protect us, to give us a sense of security, we have a vested interest in appeasing those powers, of venerating those powers, of acknowledging and providing allegiance to those powers. But those powers are not perfect. Even the best of them are at times going to push us, either subtly, implicitly or explicitly, to do things that are a compromise to our faith.
What are the powers around you that you venerate, that you do not like to upset? How tempted are you to compromise the integrity of your faith in order to appease these powers? Take a moment and reflect on this.
What are the positions, institutions, the persons of power in your life who you don’t want to get on the wrong side of, the powers that you work to make sure you are in good relationship with? It might not be evil powers, but what are those powers and how tempted are you to follow them even into places of sin or compromise to stay on their good side? That’s when you know you are venerating lesser powers over and above the Son. What lengths are you willing to go in order to secure the favor of a parent, boss, teacher, or someone within your social circle?
Allegiance to earthly powers is not bad. In fact, it’s often right. God calls us to give allegiance to earthly powers: to honor the king, to honor our parents. But it becomes bad when our allegiance to earthly powers trumps the true power of the Son because there is no president, no athlete, no entertainer, no wealthy person, no parents, no employer, no pastor, no-one who has power even comparable or in the same class as the power of Jesus.
He is the one who upholds the world, and not just the world, but your world and my world, by the might of the word of his power. He is the one whose power we should cozy up to. He is the one whose power we can come under who provides the ultimate protection. He is the one whose power we can give allegiance to and never worry that he will ask us to do things that will compromise the integrity of who we are as human beings. He is the greatest power in the universe, and whatever powers that could be conceived in this world, whether powers that we have left behind—as the Jewish Christians had left behind the angels—or whatever powers we might yet leave behind, Jesus is the greater power to whom we owe allegiance.
So as we consider this question of persevering in the faith and sticking out in allegiance to Jesus, and we think about the message of Hebrews 1, I think at least it’s two-fold: First, to hold fast to Jesus because he offers us more than what we’ve left behind. Don’t go back. Don’t go back to something that’s lesser when Jesus offers you the greatness of God.
And secondly, trust in the power of Jesus; it’s greater than the angels. Whatever powers you’d be inclined to cozy up to in life, don’t cozy up to them in ways that compromise the integrity of your faith.
Jesus is worthy to be followed. He is worthy to give our allegiance to; he is worth leaving behind our past in order to embrace the promise of all that he offers us in the future.
Gerald Hiestand is the senior pastor at Calvary Memorial Church in Oak Park, Illinois, and the cofounder and director of the Center for Pastor Theologians.