Reformed Perspectives Magazine, Volume 10, Number 7, February 10 to February 16, 2008

Hebrews 1:5-14

A Sermon

By Scott Lindsay

We live in a culture that has an on-going fascination with angels. To be sure, the level of that fascination waxes and wanes, as is the case with many things, but in recent years it has risen to a new level of prominence. Moreover, while there are surely a number of reasons for this, chief among them would have to be the influence of the television media through such programs as Touched by an Angel, which ran for about 10 years on one of the major networks.

Now, on the one hand, with so much that is unhelpful on television these days, one is reluctant to single out programs like Touched by an Angel because it was/is one of the few out there that sends the message that there is a God and that this God loves people.

However, it is because of its uniqueness in this regard that it was, and continues to be, at best, a very mixed bag and at worst, a clever deception. Part of the problem with these sorts of things is their context. Because this show was relatively "positive" compared to the other shows around it, people were reluctant to say much about it or to question whether or not the view of God and angels and life and death that it was presenting was, in fact, accurate - which sadly, it was NOT.

The basic message of the show, week by week, was that there are a lot of messed up, hurting people in the world and that everybody makes mistakes. Nevertheless, never fear, God loves you so, whatever you do, don't lose any sleep over that. The important thing in life is to learn from your mistakes. God is there to help you with this - which he does through his ever-present angels who are forever posing as doctors, school teachers, homeless people, etc. — but in the end, while God is certainly willing to nudge you in the right direction, you must reform yourself because there is only so much that God can do. However, if you do these things, if you make the right choices, eat your vegetables, forgive people and are a good person, then you should have no fear of death and will go to heaven when it is all over. That, in short, was the premise of the show that was portrayed through hundreds of different scenarios.

That this was the premise of the show was further demonstrated over the years by the various talk show appearances and interviews in which the main actors participated. One of the principle actors, Della Reese, is in real life an ordained minister in the Unity Church, which believes, among other silly things, that the Koran, the Bible, the Torah, the Upanishads, and various other holy books are all the same, that Christ is in all people, and that we can all be Christ. Reese was not only an actor, but was involved in some of the writing and direction of the program. Her statements to various TV personalities over the years, including, of course, the ever-present Oprah, have revealed a clear departure from biblical Christianity, and confirm the show's self-help agenda. As she said in one program, "The angels in the show don't come to fix people in trouble. They come to teach them how to fix themselves."

The net effect of the program accordingly is to encourage its viewers that God already loves them - no matter what - and that all they need to do is try a little harder and be nice to people. This love of God is, of course, divorced from any connection to Christ and the cross so that people are basically confirmed in their state of alienation from God, but safely anaesthetized from any proper concern by the program's warm assurances and soothing soundtrack.

Anyway, with programs like this around, there is no small amount of confusion as to what God and in particular, angels, are really like. As the passage before us this morning talks about angels, I hope to spend a little bit of time clearing up some of the confusion about them, in order that we can better understand what Hebrews is saying to us about Jesus.

So, our basic structure this morning will be to spend some time thinking about angels in the Bible, keeping in mind the context into which this letter was most likely written. After that we will look at the relationship and comparison between Jesus and the angels, and which is highlighted by this morning's passage. Before we do any of that, however, let us pray.....

Father in heaven, as we turn to ask for your help, we do so acknowledging the great lengths to which you have already gone to speak to us. We thank you that you have not only created the world and set your plan in motion, but that you have let us "in" on at least a portion of that plan and have shared with us truths that we would have been oblivious to otherwise. We thank you for your Son, Jesus, and the Scriptures which point to him. And we thank you for your Spirit, and ask now that the spirit that first enlivened us and brought us to you, will now illumine us and bring understanding to our hearts. We pray this for Christ's sake, Amen.

Thinking about Angels

As part of the background to understanding the passage before us this morning, we need to spend a couple minutes looking at the various roles and functions that angels have held in the Bible and, in doing so, we are greatly helped by the late PCA pastor and scholar, James Boice in his book, "Foundations of the Faith."

For starters, Boice tells us, the generic description of "angel" comes from a word that means "messenger." In the Old Testament, these "messengers of God" are mentioned over 100 times, and in the New Testament over 160 times. The Bible demonstrates that angels are intelligent, personal, created beings, which, although immaterial themselves, can interact with God's creation, can speak, and reason, and can offer praise and worship to God. They are typically unseen but on rare occasions have been visible.

We do not have any idea how many angels there are, but the numbers must be fairly significant, judging from the descriptions of them in places like Luke's Gospel and in the Book of Revelation. There also appears to be some sort of order or hierarchy within the angelic realm as well as different types of angels. This is seen, for example, in places like Jude 9 — where Michael is described as an Archangel — meaning that he is the "head" or has some sort of authority over the remaining angels.

The only other elect angel that is named in the Bible is Gabriel, who also seems to have a special role, being given the task of making extremely important announcements to various personages such Zechariah and Mary.

Beyond this we also have the cherubim and seraphim, which are probably different names for the same entity, and which seem to have the special task of guarding and protecting things. These are the angels that, for instance, guarded the entrance back into Eden, preventing Adam and Eve from returning and are the ones which were depicted in gold on the cover to the Ark of the Covenant in the days of Moses, which was just this really special storage box.

As far as what angels do, there are at least three general things that can be said about this. The main and most obvious thing they do is to praise God. We see this in places like Isaiah and Revelation which describe angels declaring out loud the holiness of God. Which means, among other things, that there is a continual chorus of praise being offered up to God — and the angels are the ones doing it? So, when we gather together, as we are now, and we begin singing to God, we are, in fact, joining in with praise that is already in progress.

A second thing that angels do is serve God, in all sorts of ways. For example, we know from a speech made by a guy named Stephen in the book of Acts that when the law was given to the people of Israel through Moses angels were involved in that event. Angels were also involved in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. An angel was involved in God's revelation to the prophet Daniel. In the days of King Hezekiah, an angel destroyed 185,000 Assyrian soldiers in order to deliver Jerusalem from invading armies. In the New Testament, angels brought the announcement of Christ's birth to the shepherds. Angles ministered to Christ after his temptation, and they appeared at Jesus' empty tomb to announce Jesus' resurrection to the women who were there. Angels served, and continue to serve God in all sorts of ways.

A third thing that angels do, which is related to and often overlaps with their service to God, is to assist and defend God's people. Psalm 34 says that "the angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them." Matthew 18:10 says, "See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven" — indicating by these words some sort of protective/overseeing function on the part of the angels.

Now there are, of course, a lot of other things that could be said about angels. For instance, the whole reality of fallen angels which is the category in which Satan and his demons would be found. However, for our own purposes this morning, this very quick overview will be sufficient to give us some idea of the scope and significance of angels within the plan and purpose of God.

Alongside this rather elementary overview of angels within Scripture, there is another thing that we need to remember if we want to get at the significance of this passage, and it is this: We must keep in mind the likely context of the people to whom this letter was originally written. They were people who were certainly familiar with the Old Testament. They were people who, at least some of them, had been influenced by some of the teachings found in the Dead Sea Scrolls - teachings which gave a more prominent role to angels than to any other person that God would one day send to accomplish his purposes.

Finally, they were a people who were under a great deal of pressure and experiencing persecution. In that fearful situation, some of them were being tempted to abandon their Christian beliefs and return to something safe and un-persecuted or at least less persecuted — like Judaism.

However, that may have been a tricky maneuver for some of them to make. On the one hand, they could not deny the reality of their Christian experience. There certainly seemed to be something in it and something to all that Jesus had said and done while he was here. On the other hand, they simply could not go back to their former way of life in Judaism, still clinging to this belief that Jesus was the Messiah — the Jews would have none of that.

So, as one commentator (Lucas) has suggested, they may well have attempted some compromised position saying that perhaps Jesus was NOT the Messiah after all, but he was certainly something very special — like an angel, but even more than that — like the greatest angel of all time. This sort of compromised viewpoint — whatever precise form it took — may have been a very attractive temptation for people who were tired, and exhausted, and fearful of the persecution and continued hardship they would face for clinging to their faith.

Over against all of that, then, we can now turn to Hebrews 1:3-14 and perhaps better understand what the writer of this letter is saying and why he is bothering to say it......

Jesus and the Angels

Clearly, with language like this, the writer of Hebrews wants his readers to see that there is a difference between the Son (Jesus) and the angels. The means by which the writer makes this point is by quoting from various Old Testament passages to support his teaching about Jesus being distinct from and superior to angels.

Now you need to understand at this point the perspective and approach that the author of Hebrews takes to the Old Testament. It is one which you and I on our own perhaps would never have taken if we had not received these God-inspired New Testament scriptures which show us over and again how Jesus is the sub-text, if you will, the central interpretive fact behind all of Scripture, and the reality toward which Scripture, as a whole, is pointing. Yet, while you and I would have never have worked this out, God has shown us that this is so. This drastically affects the way the writer of Hebrews, and we with him, should understand Old Testament passages. As one commentator puts it,

When the writer of Hebrews chapter 1 comes to the [Old Testament] he looks beyond [the] original meaning and, without denying the validity of that original context, extracts a further and more important message from the words. It is not that he super imposes on the text a meaning it was not intended to convey; he brings out a truth already there. He believes that Christ is everywhere present in the OT, though that might not necessarily have been discerned by the original writers and readers....
Therefore, with that perspective in hand, the writer of Hebrews goes to a number of Old Testament passages in order to illustrate the difference between Christ and angels in several ways. For example, in verse 5, this difference is brought out when the writer of Hebrews makes the point that there must be a distinction between the Son and angels because of the very special way that God has spoken of Christ and to Christ as His Son and of Himself as Christ's Father. Therefore, the writer of Hebrews makes his point in a sort of negative way, pointing out that God has NEVER spoken to any angel like that. Indeed, as verse 6 points out, God's word to the angels in the presence of the first-born son is to worship him.

Another way the distinction between Jesus and angels is illustrated is by the very functional, almost instrumental fashion in which angels are referred to, such as we see in verse 7 (a quote of Psalm 104:4) which is simply saying that when God makes use of things like winds and fire, the means by which he does so is through the agency of angels. This truth is echoed at the end of chapter 1, in verse 14, which is not an Old Testament quotation, but which voices the same reality we see in verse 7: the instrumental role of angels sent out by God to minister to those who are to inherit salvation — his chosen people.

A further way the distinction between Jesus and angels, and indeed the superiority of Jesus to the angels, is highlighted here is by references to passages which speak about Jesus the Son in terms that are really only suitable for one who is Himself equivalent to God. For example, in verse 8, the writer of Hebrews quotes from Psalm 45 which, in its original context, refers to the marriage of a ruler and his bride, but in doing so uses some language that could not possibly refer to a mere human ruler and must, therefore, have a deeper fulfillment in view. The ultimate referent of this exalted language is, of course, God, and even more specifically as the writer of Hebrews shows us God's Son.

Look now at verse 8 and 9. As you read this, you see these high and lofty references to Christ. He is seen as one who is enthroned in heaven, whose rule is eternal and unchallenged. Further, he is seen not only as an eternal ruler but as a just ruler which is a great contrast to human rulers and authorities, isn't it? The pattern of human history shows that, typically, the more powerful a ruler is, the more likely it will be that he or she will become corrupt and abuse the power they have. Not so with Christ who is depicted here as ruling with a scepter of uprightness and who is described as a lover of righteousness, and a hater of wickedness.

In addition, as if he has not already said enough, the writer then goes on in verses 10-13 to strengthen his case. Quoting Psalm 102 and Psalm 110, he refers to Christ, again, in ways only suitable for one who is God Himself as the Creator who was there at the beginning, as the One who stands before and beyond all things. Indeed, the writer envisions the universe as some sort of robe or garment that will eventually wear out and fade away.

Just as you and I, for example, might go through countless pairs of blue jeans that eventually wear out and get one too many rips in them so the writer of Hebrews envisions the whole universe(s) as things that might be created and then eventually wear out and fade, like an old pair of jeans — and yet no matter how many might come and go Christ would still be there — steady, solid, immovable. Then there is verse 13, which is simply a repeat of a reference already seen in verse 3 to Christ being seated at the right hand of God. This was/is the position of highest honor and power and privilege and authority in the heavens.

The question which gets asked two times in this passage, one near the end here in verse 13 and one at the beginning, in verse 5, is a telling one: " which of the angels has He (God) ever said....." these sorts of things that are being said of Christ? The answer, of course, is that none of the angels have been spoken about or to in this way. And this is because these sorts of things are only appropriate for One who is clearly NOT an angel — God's Son, Jesus Christ.

Some Conclusions

At the end of the day, the writer of Hebrews makes his point. Jesus is not an angel and is, in fact, far superior to them. This, as we have seen, was significant for the original audience on several fronts because: (1) it addressed some faulty theology circling around about the role of angels, (2) it addressed the problem that some were being tempted to return to Judaism, and (3) in seeking to find some middle ground that would ease the difficulty of that transition back to Judaism some were, it seems, being tempted to adopt a less exalted view of Jesus that would get them out of the hot seat of Jewish persecution, but which would still allow them to retain some validity to their experience of Jesus — at least that's what some of them were hoping. Rather than hold on to a true perspective on Christ as the Messiah of God, they would regard him as perhaps a very unique and special Angel of God.

Therefore, how verses 3-14 of chapter 1 might address circumstances like that now seems to be clearer. However, how these verses impact upon US is another matter altogether. Simply put, we do not find ourselves in the same set of circumstances as the original audience. At least not with regard to some of the details. To be sure, there are some faulty views of angels out there — as depicted in TV shows like Touched by an Angel, and numerous Hollywood films. These faulty viewpoints do need addressing and that is a sort of minor theme which we could take up.

However, the more significant background situation, the one involving persecution and the resulting temptation to abandon the faith, we do not really have that dynamic going on in any sort of overt fashion. However, while our own circumstances are somewhat different, there is still an underlying dynamic that was operational and which is still operational in our own day, namely this: The original recipients of this letter were being tempted to adopt, and perhaps some had already adopted, a diminished view of Jesus, in order to cope with the specific pressures and hardships they faced.

Therefore, I think that if there is a point of contact for us in this text — it is at least here. In other words, there is a pressure not nearly as severe, mind you, as it was for the Hebrew audience, but there is still a subtle and increasing pressure in our own day to adopt a different and even diminished view of Jesus; something more palatable, more socially acceptable. Something that is less than the Jesus who IS. I have seen this sort of thing played out, and perhaps you have too, on numerous occasions when, for example, some professing Christian does something which makes them famous and are then invited to appear on all sorts of talk shows, at which point the talk show hosts will invariably bring up one of Jesus' more radical teachings about judgment and hell and then sort of back the Christian into a corner on some prickly point of orthodox Christian theology.

Now, to be sure, sometimes the person being interviewed in these situations will give great responses to the questions they are asked — even the tricky ones. I thank God whenever that happens. But more times than I would care to count, what takes place is that when the interviewer asks something about one of Jesus' more radical claims — like, for example, his being the only way to God — then often the Christian will at that point cave in and under the pressure of the moment, modify their view of Jesus right then and there. Now, I don't think this is any sort of unforgivable sin and I'm quite sure we've all done this more times than we care to admit.

Thankfully, most Christians never get put in such a public arena as that. However, the same sort of pressure can often come in very personal, one on one situations — during a conversation over lunch one day at the club, or beside the pool one afternoon, or in the break room at work, or in a discussion taking place in a philosophy class. In these and other situations, what often happens is that the prickly question gets asked and then people look to you as the "token and tolerated Christian" in the group. In that moment, you see, the temptation can be very great to sort of "round off" the more uncomfortable edges of Jesus a little bit, to make him more presentable. Every time we do that we are doing, in principle, the same thing that the original recipients of this letter were doing: trading the real Jesus, the one in Scripture, for a lesser, diminished Jesus who is, in the end, simply the Jesus of our imaginations.

Well, what should our response be to these things? For starters, do not start looking for some truck to throw yourself under. As I have already said, I think the truth is that every Christian has had times when they were tested in this regard and failed miserably. If this is you, and I am quite sure it is then you need to know that there is mercy and forgiveness at the cross of Jesus.

However, the constructive response to this situation, I believe, is to take our cue from the writer to the Hebrews. What does he do? He takes his readers to the scriptures in order to counter any sort of diminished belief they might have about Jesus. That sort of reflex action of turning to what God has told us is that reflex is meant to be ours as well. Indeed, this is the very conclusion that the writer of Hebrews actually gets to in verse 1 of chapter 2, "Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it...."

How do we do that? How do WE pay more attention to what we have heard? As we saw last week, by learning to listen with our eyes, looking into the clear portrait that the Scriptures give us of the Lord Jesus Christ. When we do that, we will be regularly confronted, challenged, overjoyed, rebuked, and pleasantly perplexed as we come face to face with a Jesus who says and does a lot of things that we are glad about, but who also says and does a lot of things that we personally wish he had not said and done because they expose us for the frauds and fakers that we are. On the other hand, a Jesus who, conversely, failed to say or do things that we wish he had done or said because then we would have been validated in our private pursuits of our personal kingdoms.

However, when you keep coming back to the Jesus of scripture, then what you get is a Jesus who refuses to be rounded off at the edges, who resists your superficial categories, and who, at times, defies your best definitions. When we drift away from the scriptures, the more we do that, the more we tend to resort to the Jesus of our imaginations, to Jesus as we would like him to be, to a view of Jesus that quite frankly fits better with the world that we feel comfortable IN, or want to fit INTO.

Nevertheless, friends, that is NOT the Jesus who is real. And that is not the Jesus who will satisfy. That is the Jesus that the people who received this letter were dangerously and disastrously close to embracing. Let me urge you once more: Look again to Christ. Look at THIS Christ, who is exalted and glorious, who is eternal and unchangeable, who resists all our efforts to "edit" him, and for those reasons alone, deserves our deepest devotion, and our highest worship.

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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