“After making purification for sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high. So He became higher in rank than the angels, just as the name He inherited is superior to theirs.” Hebrews 1:3-4
The author of Hebrews spends the majority of chapter one explaining how Christ is superior to the angels. This may seem like an unusual argument for the author to have to make; we have no issues today understanding that Jesus is superior to all the beings in heaven. We know that Christ is the Creator and that the angels are part of His creation. As such, it is easy for us to see that Christ is superior.
The early Jewish believers, however, did not have the benefit of 2,000 years of Christian theology and thinking to aid them, as we do today. In fact, they were trying to make sense of thousands of years of their own religious tradition and teachings in light of the Gospel and God’s new revelation through Jesus. The early believers were the ones who were having to figure out Christian theology as they went along. The author of Hebrews wrote this letter, in part, to help the early believers do just that.
The claim that Jesus was superior to the angels was a necessary claim for the author to make. There had long been a belief within Judaism that the angels were the peak of God’s creation. It was believed that angels were superior to humanity because the angels resided in Heaven with God and served Him. Due to this close proximity to God, it was thought that the angels had to be better than humans; they would not be allowed so close to God if they were not. There was another reason for this lofty view of angels. Throughout the Bible, especially the Old Testament, there are numerous episodes in which God communicated messages to certain men and women, and these messages were communicated through angels. Time and time again, God would send an angel to tell people a message that God needed them to hear. This led, over time, people to think that angles must be important–for if they weren’t, then why would God use them to do such important work?
This is the mindset that the author of Hebrews was writing to correct. The author needed the Jewish believers in Christ to understand that Christ is God. Jesus is not less than God, He is not inferior to God, but that He is God. Jesus was the incarnation of God; He was God in the form of a man. The author also needed these believers to understand that when Christ became a man, He did not lose any of His divinity. Jesus was not 50% man, and 50% God. In taking on flesh, Christ did not put away His power and authority. As hard as it is for us to comprehend, Christ was both fully man and fully God. The author of Hebrews wanted the Hebrew Christians to understand this so that they could see that Jesus is the God that the angels serve and worship. Once they grasped that, they would realize that Christ is superior to the angels.
After explaining how Christ is superior to the angels, the author of Hebrews then gives a word of warning in chapter 2:1-4. The author warns the readers to pay closer attention to the words that Christ is speaking to us now than had bee paid to the previous messages from God. The message being spoken to us now is superior to the old messages, and because of that, the believers had to be all the more diligent in listening and obeying it. If the message was ignored, they would “drift away” from this important message of salvation and would float away into judgment.
Though the tradition of believing the angels were superior to Christ may seem silly to us today, it was a real issue that had to be addressed and corrected. The core issue was that the Hebrew believers were coming from a tradition that put an unnecessary focus on the angels. They were focusing on beings who were not meant to be focused upon. After all, the word “angel” comes from the Greek word angelos, which simply means “messenger,” and that is all that the angels are: they are God’s messengers. They are not beings that should be revered or worshipped.
The mistake that the Hebrew believers were making was that they were paying more attention to the messengers than to the One who sent the messengers. This is an issue we still wrestle with today. While we might understand who Christ is, we often make the same mistake of focusing more on the messengers that are sent to us than on Christ. We have our preferred theological views and systems and approaches, and we tend to focus only upon making Scripture fit our understanding of what it should say. Often we prefer to listen to how other individuals interpret the Bible instead of allowing the Biblical texts to speak for themselves.
This highlights the danger that the author of Hebrews hinted at. We must pay close attention to what Christ says to us and not only listen to what people tell us He said. If we only listen to the interpretations of other people, we run the genuine risk of drifting away wherever the currents of bad teaching carry us. We must, instead, focus upon Christ and listen diligently and intently to what He says to us. We must pay close attention to Him and not allow other voices to distract us. We must listen to the message that is sent to us by Him, and not focus on the messengers who brought it to us.
Artwork: Detail of an Angel by Giotto, c. 1300