A Son Greater than Angels
Topic: Trinity/Christology Passage: Hebrews 1:5–1:14
We introduced Hebrews last week. Christians are wavering in their commitment to Jesus. They’re weary in suffering. Hebrews exists to compel our perseverance by magnifying Jesus’ greatness.
Today, we’ll see that Jesus is a Son greater than angels. Our culture has some ideas about angels. Depending on your generation, there’s Clarence from It’s A Wonderful Life. When I was growing up, it was Monica from the TV series Touched by An Angel. Then there’s Al “The Boss” from Angels in the Outfield; or Gabriel from Constantine; or Castiel from Supernatural.
Also, we mustn’t forget the local card shop with all the plump cherubs. Visit a cemetery, and quite often you’ll find a statue or two of some angelic figure protecting a grave. A repairman stopped by the house once. We got to talking; I learned his older daughter died a few years prior. But then he went on to explain how he didn’t need to worry anymore; she had earned her wings and was watching over him daily.
Truth is, angels are quite popular. But any glance at Scripture would immediately expose that our culture’s portrait of angels is really pathetic. In Scripture, these creatures may veil themselves as normal-looking humans; but more often they’re glorious beings whose appearance is like lightning, who shake the earth, who cause hardened soldiers to faint like dead men, and just one can strike down 185,000 soldiers in a single night. So glorious is one angel that even John falls down to worship. The angel rebukes John. But still, the angel’s presence compels this reverent posture.
That’s a far cry from our culture’s portrait. These creatures are far more glorious than what our culture makes of them. Jews in the first century would’ve known this. It wasn’t uncommon for the literature being passed around back then to emphasize angels, especially since angels appear so often in Scripture. Yet since the first century, the Christian gospel has had an answer to even the most accurate portrait of angels: Jesus the Son who died and rose again—he’s greater than the angels.
More importantly, Hebrews is making an argument. The argument actually extends to 2:18. In 2:2 his focus is the message delivered by angels. If that word proved reliable, how much more the message God speaks in the Son. In 2:5 his focus is the world to come—God subjects it to Jesus and not to angels. Also, for a little while the Son was made lower than the angels. Why? Verse 16—not to help angels, but to help Abraham’s offspring. Thus, angels become an entry point to preach the cross and exalted Lord.
But before he develops Jesus’ work, he explains Jesus’ person. He does it with seven Old Testament quotes. The quotes support what he said about the Son in verses 2-4, especially verse 4. “Having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. For…” That is, let me demonstrate his superiority; then we get his seven quotes. Some of these we’ve covered before in Acts 13 and in 2 Samuel 7. Also, Hebrews will return to a few. So if I’m briefer on some, that’s why. But I want to take the quotes and group them into four reasons the Son is greater than angels.[i] Number one, Jesus is greater than the angels…
1. Because he is the unique Son in David’s line to manifest the Father’s rule.
Verse 5, “For to which of the angels did God ever say, ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you’? Or again, ‘I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son’?” The first is a quote from Psalm 2:7. The second is from 2 Samuel 7. Both speak of the anointed king in David’s line; and it’s not hard to see why he brings them together: both use the language of son-ship—“you are my Son…he shall be to me a son.”
In what sense, though, are these Scriptures using the language Son? Do they speak first of Jesus’ divine nature as second person of the Trinity? That may lie in the background as verse 2 established. But to race there too quickly would be to miss the narrative thrust developed from 2 Samuel 7:14 through Psalm 2 on to Jesus in his role as God’s Davidic king. So let’s back up to Psalm 2 and consider things further.
In Psalm 2, the nations rage against the Lord and his anointed king. Earthly leaders hate his rule and plot to overthrow God’s king. David, however, finds their plotting a bit ridiculous. After all, God sits in the heavens and laughs—he alone rules with absolute sovereignty. But even more, God gives a special decree: The LORD said to me [i.e., to the Davidic king], ‘You are my Son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”
In other words, God fully intends to manifest his heavenly rule on earth through his anointed king. This king will have God’s Yes every time he prays. This king will spread his kingdom to the ends of the earth. This king will rule the nations with unstoppable power. This king will be God’s Son. But in what sense?
The best help comes from 2 Samuel 7:14, which Hebrews links with Psalm 2. 2 Samuel 7:14 falls right in the middle of God’s covenant with David—God will make him a dynasty, he will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. But something else was this: God promised to relate to the future Davidic king as a father relates to a son.[ii] Point being: as a son imitates his father, the Davidic king was to imitate God. So when God tells the king, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you,” it speaks to God installing him as Davidic king, as representative-Son. He represents God’s rule.
When people experienced the Davidic heir ruling, they should’ve experienced God’s rule. However, peruse your Old Testament and you’ll be at a loss to find such a king. David never inherited all the nations. Solomon’s rule never covered the earth. No king in Israel represented God’s rule perfectly. Meaning, however often Psalm 2 might’ve been spoken for other kings in David’s line, it ultimately points to a future King who’d actually fill these shoes: a King who represents God’s rule perfectly; a King against whom the nations rage because of his faithfulness; a King who truly manifests God’s presence; a King who is God’s Son in the truest sense.
Hebrews identifies Jesus as this King in David’s line. He rules as God’s Son in the truest sense such that to see him is to see the Father. Of course, when we ask, “When exactly did God install Jesus as this sort of King, this Son in David’s line?” the answer Scripture gives is that it’s bound up with his resurrection and ascension. Paul lays this out clearly in Acts 13:33 and Romans 1. That’s when God installed his King.
That’s not saying the second person of the Trinity was less than Son prior to his resurrection—some have tried to argue this way before. Rather, God sent him as Son and confirmed throughout Jesus’ earthly ministry that he was in fact his Son. But there’s another sense in which the Son had a mission to complete as a man, as the representative Son of David. Inheriting the nations as his possession was contingent on him obeying his Father as a man in his role as David’s heir.
In other words, the right to rule the nations wasn’t given him simply because he was God—in that sense, the Son always ruled the nations. At the same time, the Son earned that right as a man. God rewarded his Son’s obedience with an inheritance of nations and world-wide dominion. No angel can make that boast. No angel was chosen to be heir to David’s throne. No angel could fulfill the unique role of Son. It belongs to Jesus alone. He manifests the Father perfectly. Reason two: Jesus is greater…
2. Because God commands angels to worship his firstborn Son who fulfills Yahweh’s mission to judge and save his people.
Verse 6: “And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he [i.e., God] says, ‘Let all God’s angels worship him.’” Firstborn carries different undertones. It could mean you came first in the family. In terms of inheritance, you rank highest. Other times it speaks to God’s special love for his people: “Israel is my firstborn son.” It was also applied to the heir of David’s throne. God says in Psalm 89:27, “I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth.” It speaks to the king’s preeminence; there’s no one higher. Coming off Psalm 2 and 2 Samuel 7, that meaning fits pretty well—but not in a way that excludes the others.
After all, God’s Son has all the rights to the inheritance—verse 2. Moreover, by the end of Hebrews 12 we are the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven already. There’s a sense in which Jesus is the preeminent Son, the firstborn; and he entered the ultimate inheritance already, that we too might share in it.
That’s what’s going in the rest with God bringing the firstborn into the world. By “world,” it doesn’t seem to mean bringing him into the earth—so as to say God commanded angels to worship Jesus at the incarnation. That’s not what he’s saying here; and 2:5 helps to see that—“it was not to angels that God subjected the world [same Greek word as in verse 6] to come, of which we are speaking.” Then he moves on to explain the heavenly order over which Jesus presently reigns. That’s the world he’s speaking about even here in verse 6—the present heavenly order that will one day swallow the earth. Jesus already rules it. God brought him into that world as a man, as firstborn.
Which helps make sense of the Old Testament quote. Most likely it comes from a Greek translation of Deuteronomy 32:43.[iii] It’s from the Song of Moses, which falls just prior to Israel entering the Promised Land. The Song predicts Israel’s future rebellion and their exile. But I find this important—the Song begins with God being Israel’s father. He even calls them “sons of God.”[iv] In other words, the Song speaks of a Father seeking to build his kingdom through a son, Israel—remember Israel is his firstborn. But no matter how gracious the Father is, the son spurns the Father’s kingdom. The result? God must judge them. He must banish the son—his people—from the Land.
But right towards the end, there’s a shift. God would act again both to judge their enemies and to cleanse their land. That’s when the command comes: “Rejoice with him, O heavens; bow down to him, all gods,” or, in the Greek translation, “let all the angels of God worship him.” Angels were to worship Yahweh when he comes to judge his enemies and cleanse his people’s land.
By applying the passage to Jesus, Hebrews is saying that Jesus fulfills the mission of Yahweh to do just that. Only he does it as Son. He is the faithful firstborn. This Son never spurns his Father; he obeys even to the point of death on a cross to fulfill his Father’s plans. Therefore, God highly exalts him. God brings him into the world to come, the true Promised Land. He reigns over the world to come. He reigns to bring God’s kingdom purposes to pass. Therefore, all heaven must worship the Son—and they do as we see in Revelation 5: “Worthy is the lamb who was slain…”
Never does God command someone to worship an angel. To do so would be blasphemy. But it’s not blasphemy for the Son to receive worship. Why? Because he is one with God the Father. Which leads to reason three: Jesus is greater than angels...
3. Because angels merely do God’s bidding, while the Son rules as God & eternal Lord.
Verse 7, “Of the angels he says, ‘He [i.e., God] makes his angels winds, and his ministers a flame of fire.’” That’s from Psalm 104:4. The Psalm speaks of God’s greatness as Creator and Ruler of all things. But it does so with vivid poetry: “He stretches out the heavens like a tent. He lays the beams of his chambers on the waters; he makes the clouds his chariot; he rides on the wings of the wind. He makes his messengers winds, his ministers a flaming fire…” The poetry depicts God preparing creation like a king might build his royal palace. But also, God rules the clouds, the winds, the fire, much like a king driving his chariot.[v] Angels fall within that kind of service.[vi]
By contrast, the Father addresses the Son as “God.” Verse 8: “But of the Son he says, ‘Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom. You’ve loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.’”
That’s Psalm 45:6-7. It’s a love song. It’s addressed to a king and his bride on their wedding day. Very likely, a Davidic king is in mind. It’s full of royal pageantry, glowing descriptions of their entourage. The scribe wishes them many blessings, even future children to perpetuate the throne. It’s the most dazzling language: “You’re the most handsome of the sons of men; grace is poured upon your lips; therefore God has blessed you forever. Gird your sword on your thigh, O mighty one, in your splendor and majesty…” But most striking is what he says to the king in verse 6:
“Your throne, O God, is forever and ever.” Some might say, “Surely he switches objects! He’s not addressing the king as God.” But that won’t work when you consider verse 7: “Therefore God, your God, has anointed you…” The king is still in view. Others will attempt to soften the address with various translations: “Your divine throne;” “God is your throne”—that would be our Jehovah’s Witness neighbors; “Your throne is God’s throne;” “Your throne is like God’s throne.” Some of these may be true theologically, but when all the evidence is weighed—the translation you see in the ESV is most accurate.[vii] It’s also the way Hebrews takes it. Moreover, we shouldn’t forget this language applied to the Davidic king elsewhere: there was a child to be born, a son to be given; he would be called, “Mighty God” (Isa 9:5).
At the same time, Psalm 45 maintains a distinction: “Therefore God, your God…” Also this king will have some royal offspring. So a human king is still in view; but he’s talked about in the most ideal language that again makes you wonder, “What man in Israel could ever fill these shoes? What king ever deserved such an address?
The Holy Spirit inspired such words in view of the king who was coming to make this ideal language a reality. Jesus Christ is the only king in David’s line who embodies the ideals of God’s reign. He alone is gracious, as God is. He’s mighty, as God is. He fights for truth, as God does. He’s upright, as God is. He loves righteousness and hates wickedness, as God does. Even more, he is the God-man. No angel claims that.
Hebrews then goes on to apply the words of Psalm 102. Verse 10, “You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the work of your hands; they will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment, like a robe you will roll them up, like a garment they will be changed. But you are the same, and your years will have no end.”
Psalm 102 is a prayer. The superscription calls it, “A prayer of one afflicted, when he is faint and pours out his complaint.” The man is on the brink of dying. His days have passed away like smoke. “I wither away like grass,” he says. He suffers due to God’s indignation and anger; the Lord has taken him up and thrown him down. But in the midst of his prayer, he turns to the Lord who’s enthroned forever. Even if he dies, he remains confident that God will reign forever; the nations will fear him; the Lord will save his people and build his kingdom and reveal his glory. His prayer will be heard.
Then right at the end is when we get the words that Hebrews quotes: “You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth…” We might ask, “How could Hebrews say that’s talking about the Son, Jesus? He’s clearly talking about the Lord.” Well, according to 1:2, we learned that God created the world through the Son. So he can make the connection on those grounds alone. But there’s something else.
The Greek translation of the Old Testament understands the last five verses of Psalm 102 as God’s answer to the one suffering. God himself is calling this person “Lord,” and reminding him in the face of his sufferings who he really is. He may be at the very end of his life, his enemies may surround him, his days may feel shortened, but “You laid the foundation of the earth…the heavens are the work of your hands.”
In other words, the entire psalm is likened to that of a Son who suffers greatly in the path of obedience, who experiences the throws of God’s wrath, who prays for God’s kingdom to come, and then hears the reassurance of his heavenly Father, “You laid the foundation of the earth…They will perish but you will remain…They will pass away but you are the same and your years have no end.”[viii] Sound like anyone you know? Sounds a whole lot like our Savior, doesn’t it? His sufferings. His prayers in the garden. His death under God’s wrath in our place. His Father with him all the way. His prayers being heard. The kingdom established. God’s glory revealed to the nations.
Hebrews sees both that God created the world through the Son, and that God addresses this sufferer in Psalm 102 as “Lord”—the same Lord who created everything and yet entered the world to suffer, pray, and die to create worshipers for his glory. He puts two and two together and makes a fitting connection to Jesus. As Son, Jesus is this Lord, unlike angels who are but winds and flames of fire. Reason four, Jesus is greater…
4. Because God enthroned the Son to the place of highest honor.
Verse 13, “And to which of the angels has [God] ever said, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”? I won’t linger here very long, since Hebrews will explain it further later. But it’s from Psalm 110:1. To sit at a king’s right hand was to sit in the place of honor. Applied to the Lord, it’s the place of absolute honor, absolute rule. That’s where Jesus sits now by virtue of his exaltation.
We might ask, though, “How’d the writer of Hebrews get there? Would that be the conclusion you draw when reading Psalm 110?” I think he gets there because of the teachings of Jesus. Wasn’t it Jesus in Luke 20:41-44 who asks, “How can they say that the Christ is David’s son? For David himself says in the Book of Psalms, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”’ David thus calls him Lord, so how is he his son?” What’s Jesus getting at?
What Jesus is pressing them to consider is whether they have room in their theology for the Messiah to be more than just Son of David, but also Lord of David. Psalm 110 brought together two things about the future Messiah: he would be both the Son of David and the Lord who shares Yahweh’s throne. That’s why Hebrews applies Psalm 110 to Jesus: Jesus himself did. Jesus taught his apostles how to read the Psalms in light of himself. And then they taught the writer of Hebrews. In Jesus Christ, we get both the Son of David and the Lord who was exalted to Yahweh’s throne. Again, it’s not that the Son never exercised that authority before, but that now he exercises that authority as a man. No angel possesses such authority. Jesus shares God’s throne.
Don’t ignore the Son! He is Lord and his just punishment is coming.
David’s heir, worthy of worship, eternal Lord, seated at God’s right hand—Jesus is greater than angels. How should that argument impact us? Very soon a sharp warning will come. In 2:3 he moves from the lesser to the greater: if God’s message through angels proved reliable, and every disobedience received a just penalty, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? According to verse 13, God is making all Jesus’ enemies a footstool for his feet. Eventually his judgment will fall.
If you neglect Jesus, if you ignore him, if you think little of him, if he doesn’t impress you, how much more will his just punishment fall on you. That’s where he’s going. Great vision of Jesus’ supremacy over angels—so you don’t neglect his words, his authority, his lordship. He is Lord, beloved. In your home, in your marriage, in your friendships, in your studies, in your workplace—he calls the shots. We can’t call him Lord and remain unchanged, unmoved, unimpressed by his lordship.
Worship the Son! He is worthy of our praise.
Rather, we must worship the Son. I’m not just talking about showing up Sunday morning to sing. That declarative worship in song and confession is but one piece. Our demonstrative worship—what Romans 12 calls offering our bodies as living sacrifices—that’s the New Testament emphasis. Hebrews 12 also calls us to offer God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, because we’ve received an unshakable kingdom in Christ. Reverence and awe is the fitting response to Jesus’ lordship.
This is a distinguishing mark of Christianity: we worship Jesus as God. If you asked pagans of the second and third centuries, “What distinguished Christianity from all other religions?” the pagans would answer, “The exclusive worship of Jesus.” They thought it was ridiculous, but they knew. Even more, they knew it was subversive. Because here’s the thing: the true worship of Jesus can’t be privatized.
When you surrender all loyalties to Jesus, by necessity that will affect your public discourse and engagement. To worship him means to go his way, to follow his words, to uphold his justice, even when the world hates it. But by doing so, here’s what you become. You become a people who faithfully represent on earth what the heavenly multitudes already see of Jesus’ worth right now. You become a people who foreshadow what the world to come will reveal about Jesus’ worth. All history is working toward the universal worship of Jesus. So let’s give him the praise and glory and honor due him.
Imitate how Jesus and the apostles interpret the Old Testament.
Here’s another inference we can draw: imitate how Jesus and the apostles interpret the Old Testament. Jesus taught the apostles how to interpret the Old Testament; the apostles passed on that teaching to the writer of Hebrews and his community. Now we benefit from it. Notice how he views the Old Testament. It’s God’s very word: “to which of the angels did God ever say;” “and again…he [i.e., God] says;” “or of the angels he [i.e., God] says;” and so on. God speaks by the Old Testament.
Also notice the Old Testament’s unified message. He quotes from several Psalms here. But he also quotes from Deuteronomy and Samuel. Meaning, he quotes from all three major portions of the Hebrew Bible—the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. All of them bear witness about the Son, and in a way that’s consistent, cohesive, and forms a coherent narrative.
The narrative centers on the person and work of God’s Son. If we’re going to know Jesus truly, then we have to know Jesus according to the Scriptures. I don’t want to be like the Jews in John 5:39. Jesus said, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me.” If you read the Scriptures for any other purpose than knowing Jesus Christ—his person, his work, his kingdom, his glory—you don’t read the Scriptures rightly. Here in Hebrews, you will find a good teacher. Let Hebrews teach you how to read your Old Testament well.
Reason with others about Jesus’ unique identity with/as God.
Something else: reason with others about Jesus’ identity with and as God. Hebrews 1 gives us plenty to discuss with our neighbors. Some are Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons or Unitarians or Muslims—really anybody who denies that Jesus is God.
The website JW.org asks the question, “Who is Michael the Archangel?” Part of their answer is correct in that Michael is depicted battling wicked angels. But they also add this error. Quote: “the Bible indicates that Michael is another name for Jesus Christ, before and after his life on earth.” For Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jesus is the Archangel Michael. This also fits their teaching that Jesus was a created being—a high being; one we should even bow before with reverence. But not God, they’d say.
Hebrews 1, when treated properly, would disagree. Jesus is no archangel. He made the archangel and all the other countless hosts. Work through these passages with your neighbors to show them that Jesus is God. Not only does Jesus share Yahweh’s identity as Lord. As Son, Jesus also performs the functions of Yahweh—Jesus too is the sole Creator, Ruler, Savior, and Judge.
Make angels an entry point to preaching Jesus’ supremacy.
And one more inference: make angels an entry point to preaching Jesus’ supremacy—and really his cross and exaltation too. As I mentioned before, angels are quite popular. Many want a supernatural helper of some kind, just as long as that helper doesn’t make absolute claims on your life. Also, our Catholic neighbors teach in their catechism about guardian angels. That’s not so bad in itself—only, verse 14 suggests we don’t have just one. The Lord commissions them all to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation! Where it gets bad is when everyone’s talking about their personal angels and nobody talks about the Son who rules them.
Again, Hebrews 1 has answers. The answer isn’t to deny that angels exist, or to deny they may be involved, but to proclaim Jesus’ superiority over them. Angels didn’t create the world; the Son did. Angels can’t truly identify with us and our sufferings; the Son did. Angels can’t atone for human sin; in his death, the Son did. Angels don’t rule the world to come; the Son does. Who’s the better helper? It’s Jesus. Put your trust in him. He commissions angels for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation. To have Jesus, is to have the Lord of all the heavenly hosts himself.
[i] Others group them in threes based on word connections. I’m just going with the punctuation of the Greek—which isn’t inspired but provided some helpful breaks.
[ii] That promise builds on the way God related to Israel as a father relates to a son (Exod 4:22-23; Deut 14:1; Hos 11:1). Psalm 89:26 also shows the future Davidic king relating to God as his Father: “He shall cry to me, ‘You are my Father, my God, and the Rock of my salvation.’ And I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth.”
[iii] Psalm 97:7 (LXX 96:7) is perhaps another option. However, see the work by Gareth Lee Cockerill, “Hebrews 1:6: Source and Significance,” BBR 9 (1999): 51-64. Cockerill argues that the writer of Hebrews follows a Greek translation of the Hebrew text represented by the Qumran Scroll 4QDeut32.
[iv] Deut 32:6, 8, 18.
[v] See Willem A. VanGemeren, Psalms, EBC 5 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 764.
[vi] The Psalm is grouped with Psalm 103:20-21, which also beckons the Lord’s angels to bless the Lord—they who do God’s word; they who do God’s will.
[vii] Here, I’m indebted to Murray J. Harris, “The Translation of Elohim in Psalm 45:6-7,” TynBul 35 (1984): 65-89.
[viii] See the discussion in F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 22; Derek Kidner, Psalms 73-150, TOTC (Downers Grove: IVP, 1975; reprint, 2008), 395-96.