Christ better than the angels (Heb. 1:4-14)
There is a story set in the days when Texas was still very much a frontier state, a story about a town that was in the grip of a riot that had gotten completely out of control. Local law enforcement couldn’t do anything about it, and so they used the telegraph to send a message to the state authorities asking for help from the Texas Rangers. The reply came back that they would receive help and it would be coming on the afternoon train. Well, the town fathers waited with bated breath for the train to arrive. Finally, the train came puffing into town, but they were immediately crestfallen when they saw just one man step off the train. They approached him and, seeing the Texas Ranger badge on his chest, asked him, “Where are all the others? Why is there only one of you?” The ranger wasn’t even phased. He responded, “Well, there’s only one riot, isn’t there?”
Now that is a legend, although, in my opinion, a good one! However, there is a story in the Bible that is even better than that, and it isn’t a legend. It is the story of the Assyrian invasion of Judah in the 8th century B.C. during the reign of good king Hezekiah. You can read about it in 2 Kings 18-19 and 2 Chronicles 32. We are told that the Assyrian king had invaded Judah, had captured many of its walled cities, and then sent one of his officials to threaten Hezekiah and to bully him into surrendering the capitol city Jerusalem. This official was so confident of the victory that the Assyrian army would achieve over Hezekiah and his tiny army that he boasted that not even the God of Israel would not be able to save them. And that, of course, was his fatal mistake.
I love the response of Hezekiah. It’s an example for all of us to follow. He took the communication from the Assyrians and put it before the Lord: “And Hezekiah received the letter of the hand of the messengers, and read it: and Hezekiah went up into the house of the LORD, and spread it before the LORD” (2 Kings 19:14). In other words, Hezekiah sent up a prayer-telegram asking for help. This was certainly out of his hands – he needed God’s help.
God helped him, and here is how he did it. We are told, “And it came to pass that night, that the angel of the LORD went out, and smote in the camp of the Assyrians an hundred fourscore and five thousand (185,000): and when they arose early in the morning, behold, they were all dead corpses” (2 Kings 19:35). This is better than one ranger, one riot. Here you have one angel, one army.
There is another story similar to it that is related in the life of the prophet Elisha. This prophet was able to use the supernatural insight given to him by God to tell the Israelite king about the secret plans of the Syrian king and therefore to save the Israelites from disaster time and time again. Finally, the Syrian king got wind of this and sent an entire army to arrest Elisha who was then at the city of Dothan. When Elisha’s servant got up the next morning and looked out, all he could see was the city surrounded by the soldiers and the horses and chariots of the enemy. He immediately got Elisha, and said to him, “Alas, my master! How shall we do?” Elisha simply asked the Lord to open the eyes of his servant, and this is what happened: “And the LORD opened the eyes of the young man; and he saw: and, behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha” (2 Kings 6:15-17). No need to fear when you have angelic chariots of fire surrounding you!
As these stories indicate, angels can be an interesting study in the Bible. They are spiritual beings who, though they can appear in physical form from time to time, are nevertheless “spirits” (Heb. 1:14), or incorporeal beings. But they are not just harmless apparitions; these created spiritual beings possess incredible intelligence and power. We know they are highly intellectual because fallen angels (demons, led by Satan) are able to dupe and deceive even the most intelligent of human beings (cf. 2 Cor. 4:3). What is true of fallen angels (namely, great intellectual capability) must be true of unfallen, or elect, angels.
They are also very powerful, as the above accounts confirm. They are said to “excel in strength”: “Bless the LORD, ye his angels, that excel in strength, that do his commandments, hearkening unto the voice of his word” (Ps. 103:20). They are called “powers” in Col. 1:16 and Eph. 1:21. The apostle Peter tells us that angels are “greater in power and might” than their human counterparts (2 Pet. 2:11), and when people are confronted by angels, they often are overwhelmed by a sense of their power and might, like the soldiers at the tomb of Jesus (Mt. 28:2-4). They often bring the judgments of God upon the wicked, like Herod, who was struck down by an angel of the Lord because he did not give God the glory (Acts 12:23).
But they also bring God’s mercies to God’s people. We are told that, “He [God] shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways. They shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone” (Ps. 91:11-12). In fact, there is this wonderful passage in the text we are considering this morning, which describes angels as “ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation” (Heb. 1:14). An angel not only struck Herod down; it was also an angel that saved the apostle Peter from Herod’s hands (Acts 12:1-17). Though we are not to worship angels or put our trust in angels, the Lord has revealed this aspect of their ministry in order to encourage us. The fact is that we may have many enemies arrayed against us (including spiritual ones, Eph. 6:10-12), yet we need to remember that on our side are all the hosts of heaven. We may not be able to see them, but they are there and we know that because God’s word has revealed it. We should never think we are alone. God is with his people, and his angels are always at his beck and call, to do his bidding for the glory of his name and the good of his people.
Angels are also an example for us. They are those “that do his [God’s] commandments, hearkening unto the voice of his word” (Ps. 103:20). When our Lord tells us to pray that God’s will is done, he tells us to pray that it be done “in earth as it is in heaven” where the angels are. They perfectly and immediately do his will. John Newton once said something along the lines that if God told one angel to sweep a floor and another angel to rule a kingdom, both angels would do God’s will equally cheerfully and it would not even occur to the angel who was told to sweep that he should complain for having the more menial duty. They would both look at their tasks in one light and in one light only: that they were doing God’s will. That should be our attitude as well.
Now some people have thought that Hebrews 1 was written to counteract a tendency to worship angels. I doubt that. Rather, what the author is trying to do here is to show that, great as angels are, Jesus is better. Since the Law was mediated by angels (2:2), to go back to the Law apart from Christ would be to prefer angles over Jesus. So the author does not want them to do this. But to see the force of this argument, we need to really consider, as we have been doing, just how great angels are. I think it was John Piper who said that we should not think of the Seraphim (which I think are a specific type of angel) as chubby babies with wings, floating around God; rather, we should think of them more along the lines of the Blue Angels whose sonic boom shook the temple when they cried, “Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isa. 6:3). Even John the apostle fell down on his face and started to worship an angel – not once, but twice – though the angel prevented him from doing so (Rev. 19:10; 22:8-9).
Angels are amazing creatures. But that is what they are: as awesome as we might think that they are, they are only created beings. Jesus is better: “Being made so much better than the angels” (Heb. 1:4). How is he better? In this text, the author outlines four distinct ways in which our Lord is better than the angels.
Better in his Perfections
The first way our Lord is better than the angles is in his name: “as he hath by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they” (4). Now I say that means he is better in his perfections because the name of God is connected with his glory and his glory is simply the public display of his perfections (cf. Exod. 33:18-19; 34:5-7). So there is this tight connection in the Bible between the name of God and his perfections. To say that Jesus has a better name than the angels is to say that his perfections, his attributes, far excel that of the angels.
What name is this? It is the name of Son, as the following Scripture proofs show (5). We considered last time just what this means in verses 1-3. We saw that the title of Son of God is the title of one who is in fact God. On the other hand, angels are never called by this name: “For unto which of the angels said he [God] at any time, Thou are my Son, this day have I begotten thee? And again, I will be to him a Father, and he shall be to me a Son?” (5). This proves his point since the author knows that his readers share the his conviction that Scripture is the word of God.
He has quoted Ps. 2:7 and 2 Sam. 7:14, both texts which were understood to be Messianic: that is, these are prophesies about the Christ. It could of course be argued that both passages are, on one level, about the Davidic king. But the promise to David was that one of his descendants would rule over God’s kingdom forever, and therefore it was understood that promises to the Davidic king are ultimately fulfilled, not in someone like Solomon, but in Christ (see, for example, 2 Sam. 7:16). This is why Isaiah would write about the coming Christ (who would be the Mighty God): “Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it, with judgment and with justice from henceforth forever” (Isa. 9:7). And it is the reason why the angel Gabriel would tell Mary, Jesus’ mother: “He [Jesus] shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David” (Lk. 1:32). So though it is true that each of David’s heirs were in one sense a son of God in a derivative sense, none of them were the Son of God in the truest and ultimate sense. Only Jesus could truly claim that title. Certainly angels could not.
But how can the author talk about Christ inheriting this name? Or what does it mean that he was begotten on a certain day? Does this indicate that Jesus was not always the Son of God? No. I think both expressions point to the fact that at his resurrection the eternal Son of God, who had become incarnate and in so doing had hidden certain aspects of his glory and his divinity for a time, came to possess – as the incarnate Son of God – the fullest enjoyment of his rights as God’s only Son.
To see this, note that the one who came to earth did not become the Son of God by the incarnation, for it was the Son of God who came to be born as a man (Rom. 8:3; Jn. 3:16). He was announced as Son at his birth (Lk. 1:32), at his baptism (Mt. 3:17), and at the Transfiguration (Mt. 17:5). But it was his resurrection and ascension that truly revealed him to be what he always was: the Son of God. This is why Paul would write that God’s Son was “declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:4). In fact, Paul quotes Ps 2:7 (which our author quotes in verse 5) in his sermon in Acts 13, applying it to the resurrection of Christ from the dead (Acts 13:33). The point is, if there was any doubt that he was who he said he was, the resurrection should have dispelled those doubts forever.
What name does Christ possess? It is the name above all names (Phil. 2:9)!
Better in his Praise
However, not only is Christ superior to the angels in his name, he is also superior to the angels in the worship which is given to him. This is the point of verse 6: “And again, when he bringeth in the firstbegotten into the world, he saith, And let all the angels of God worship him.” This is a quote from the Septuagint version of Deut. 32:43 (which is not in the Masoretic Text so it doesn’t usually appear in English translations), although it also sounds similar to Ps. 97:7.
The title “firstbegotten” is a reference to Christ. Our Lord is several times referred to by this title (or something similar) in the NT. For example, in Col. 1:15, our Lord is called “the firstborn [same word] of every creature.” In Rev. 1:5, he is called “the first begotten of the dead.” And in Rom. 8:29, the apostle Paul says the Jesus is “the firstborn among many brethren.” In each of these places, the reference is to the preeminence of Christ. Here, “first” does not point to someone who is first in a temporal sequence, but to someone who is first in rank or honor. In the ancient world, the firstborn son had privileges that none of the other sons had. So when the NT says that Jesus is the first born or the first begotten, it is saying that he holds a position of honor above all of creation.
This is an unmistakable reference to the angelic announcement to the shepherds of the Savior’s birth (Lk. 2:9-14). Even at the very beginning of our Savior’s earthly life, he is worshipped by the angels. When the firstborn is brought into the world, the angels of God obey and worship his Son.
We would of course expect this sense he is the one who created all things and upholds all things (1:2-3). We would expect this of one who is the radiance of the Father’s glory as the eternal Son. Because of this, he is – unlike angels – worthy of worship and honor. He is worthy of praise. And this is exactly what we find happening in heaven: the Lamb and Lion is receiving worship. This following description of a scene in heaven is very instructive because here you see angels worshipping Jesus (and not the other way round). You also see our Lord described in terms that only God could be described by: “And I beheld, and I heard the voice of many angels round about the throne and the beasts and the elders: and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand and thousands of thousands; saying with a loud voice, Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honor, and glory, and blessing. And every creature which is in heaven and on the earth, and under the earth, and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, heard I saying, Blessing, and honor, and glory, and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb forever and ever. And the four beasts said, Amen. And the four and twenty elders fell down and worshipped him that liveth forever and ever” (Rev. 5:11-14).
Why does God command the worship of Jesus? He does so because he is God; because he is worthy of it. But he also does so because to see the worth of Christ, to see his infinite value and excellence as we should, means that our affections will correspond to that sight of him with awe and love and trembling and rejoicing and reverence. In other words, you cannot see Christ as he really is and not come away worshipping him. To call upon us to worship Christ is simply to call on us to see our Lord as he really is. There is a tasting and seeing that the Lord is good (Ps. 34:8). And this tasting and seeing will inevitably erupt in praise: “Blessed is the man that trusteth in him!” Or, to put it another way, to see Christ rightly means that we will rejoice in him fully, and to tell someone who is rejoicing not to worship is an unloving thing to do. It is therefore both right and loving for God to command the worship of his Son.
We must pause here and ask ourselves a very important question. How do you see Christ? Do you love him? Do you really see him as worthy of your worship? To withhold the worship of our hearts from the Son of God is just another form of rebellion against him. This is not just an intellectual question we are considering here. The command to worship the Son is not just a command for angels. It is a command for us all. You should worship him and you must worship him; it is both right and good for you to do so. To refuse to do so is simply to give your worship to someone or something else and that is treason against God. Listen to how the psalmist puts it in Psalm 2, which had already been quoted in reference the Son of God twice in Hebrews 1: “Be wise now therefore, O ye kings: be instructed, ye judges of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son [a sign of submission], lest he be angry, and ye perish from the way, when his wrath is kindled but a little. Blessed are all they that put their trust in him” (Ps. 2:10-12).
Better in his Permanence
In verses 7-12, we come to another mark of the superiority of Christ to the angels. It is that, in contrast to angels (as well as every created thing), our Lord is eternal. At the same time, our Lord is unchangeable or immutable in his essential being and character. So he is superior to angels in his eternity and in his immutability.
The author begins by pointing out the ephemeral nature of angels: “And of the angels he saith, Who maketh his angels spirits, and his ministers a flame of fire” (7; quoting Ps. 104:4). The word for “spirits” could be translated by “winds,” which is how the ESV takes it, for example. You might also remember that our Lord compares the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration, a work in which he is sovereign in drawing our hearts to know and love Christ, to the wind (see John 3:8). In fact, the Greek word pneuma can mean both “wind” and “spirit.” In other words, what we have in this verse is a comparison between angels and wind and fire. Now commentators are divided in their opinions as the purpose of this comparison. Some say that the point is that angels are as powerful as wind and fire. That’s possible. But I think, given the context here, the point is rather that, like fire and wind which are by their very nature changeable and ephemeral and transient and fleeting, so are angels. As powerful as wind may be (just think tornado or hurricane) or fire (think about the forest fires that ravage millions of acres), they don’t last very long. In contrast, our Lord is eternal and unchangeable, and that’s the point of the next few OT references in the following verses (8-12).
In verses 8-9, which is a quotation from Ps. 45:6-7, the argument is that our Lord’s throne is eternal and immutable: “But unto the Son, he saith, Thy throne, O God, is forever and ever: a scepter of righteousness is the scepter of thy kingdom. Thou hast loved righteousness, and hated iniquity; therefore God, even thy God, hath anointed thee with the oil of gladness above thy fellows.” By the way, in passing I think it important to pause and see that the Son is explicitly called God here. The one who is addressed as “O God” is the Son. Every now and then you will hear some “scholar” claim that the NT doesn’t ever explicitly claim that Jesus is God. Of course it does. It does so in Jn. 1:1, and it does so here, in Heb. 1:8. And these are not the only places. There is no question that the NT views Jesus Christ as more than just another prophet. He is the Son of God, eternal and unchangeable, which can only be said of God himself.
Our Lord’s throne is eternal which means that in the end his kingdom will win. Don’t let the present eruptions of wickedness and the prevalence of ungodly attitudes shake your confidence in God’s final victory over all his enemies. All the kingdoms of the earth will eventually perish; only God’s will remain. As Luther’s hymn puts it: “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; the body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still: his kingdom is forever.”
Not only is our Lord’s throne eternal and unchangeable, but he is also eternal and unchangeable in his life. That’s the point of verses 10-12, which is a quotation from the 102nd Psalm. It’s interesting that every other OT passage which is quoted here in reference to Christ, comes from the Messianic Psalms or from a Messianic prophecy. But this Psalm is not a Messianic Psalm: it’s just a Psalm which celebrates God as the God who rescues the afflicted. It’s like our author doesn’t see the need to connect his point to Psalms which are explicitly Messianic in order to demonstrate that the Son shares the nature and the worship of God; he goes directly to a passage about God and applies it to Christ. In other words, he doesn’t need to make the point that the Son is God; that point is already made. All he wants to do now is simply to say that since Christ is God he possesses all the attributes of God, including his incommunicable ones, like immutability.1
He is the creator of all things. He is the one who laid the foundation of the earth and made the heavens (10), but whereas they will perish, he will remain (11). And whereas they will be folded up like a garment and changed, he remains the same and his years will not end (12). All that we see around us in changing and changeable. It is the very nature of the creature to be mutable. The things around us that seem to be the most solid and unchanging are in fact changing. The Rocky Mountains are decaying slowly. Mount Everest, on the other hand, is still growing. And one day, everything in this universe will be changed like a garment and will be succeeded by a New Heavens and a New Earth (cf. 2 Pet. 3:13). But God does not change. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:8). Isn’t that comforting? Can you find such a solid foundation on which to rest your hopes in any other place or person? Of course not. Only in God can we find a permanent basis for our hope and trust. Everything around you may change, but God does not change. Trust in him, look to him. “Change and decay in all around I see: O Thou that changest not, abide with me!”
Better in his Princely Rule
Finally, this chapter closes with one more comparison and contrast between the Son of God and the angels of God (13-14). Here in verse 13, Psalm 110 is quoted, which is one of the most – if not the most – quoted or alluded to Psalm in all the NT. It is explicitly quoted or referred to in a dozen other places in this epistle alone (cf. 1:3; 5:6, 10; 6:20; 7:3, 11, 17, 21; 8:1; 10:12, 13; 12:2). It is clear that this Psalm was viewed as Messianic, even by our Lord himself (Mk. 12:35, ff). The point is that no angel was ever invited to sit at the right hand of the Majesty on high (1:3). This is a position of privilege that belongs to Christ alone. He alone is enthroned; he alone is Lord of lords and King of kings. The angels not only worship him; they also bow down to him and obey him. So should we!
Angels are not sovereign, they are servants: “Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation?” (14). Our Lord is the author of salvation; but these are the servants for those our Lord has saved.
Now think about this for a moment with me. We began by looking at the incredible power and intelligence of angelic beings. In the presence of angels even the holiest men have been overcome with shock and awe. But what we are told is that, even so, angels are appointed by God to be the servants of his elect and redeemed people. My friends, this ought to amaze us. We are totally and completely unworthy in ourselves. We who are the heirs of salvation are nevertheless messy people with lots of problems. We are dumb sheep. Angels don’t wait on us and surround us and protect us because we are better than they are. That’s not the case. They do so because God loves us that much. And that ought to cause us to thank God for his grace and his mercy and his faithfulness. It ought to cause us to stop doubting his commitment to the good of his people. Angels help us because they are sent by God to help us. They are a window into the love that God has for us. Let that cause us to love him more. He literally moves heaven and earth to give support and hep to his people.
Where are you? Are you an heir of salvation? Can you claim such blessings? Not everyone is an heir of salvation! Only those who belong to Christ, only those who relate to the Father through his Son can come to him. Jesus our Lord has said, “I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger, and he that believeth on me shall never thirst” (Jn. 6:35). He went on to say these very encouraging words: “All that the Father giveth to me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out” (Jn. 6:37). Yes, we must affirm that only those who are drawn by the Father effectually through the Spirit can come (Jn 6:44). But that does not mean that you have no responsibility to come. What it means is that those who do come do not have themselves to praise; God alone ought to be praised for our coming to Christ. That, however, does not mean that you should not come. You should come and come now on the basis of the promise of the Son of God himself: those who come will find life; those who come will never be cast out. May we all take up the confession of the apostle Peter: when our Lord asked him if he also would walk away from him, he responded: “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Jn. 6:68-69). May the Lord enable all of us to make such a confession!