Strength for the Journey #2 (Hebrews 1:5-2:18)

Our text for today has a great deal to say about angels and their place in the divine scheme of things. But what comes to your mind when the word is used? How do you visualize angels? What do you know about angels?

Angels are referred to in thirty-four of the Bible’s sixty-six books, being mentioned 108 times in the Old Testament and 165 times in the New Testament. They are real and must be important in God’s sovereign plan for the achievement of his will. To deny their existence ultimately seems to entail a physicalistic world-view that rejects the reality of a spiritual realm altogether (cf. Acts 23:8).

If I asked you to specify the three angels whose names are contained in Scripture, I hope you would not say Tess, Monica, and Andrew! Yet I would not be surprised to find that most of us have some ideas about angels that have come more from It’s a Wonderful Life or the New Age Movement than from the Bible. Here’s a brief summary of the few things I think I know about angels.

A Few Things About Angels

The Greek term angelos (Heb. mal’ak) simply means “messenger,” and sometimes ordinary human beings are angel-messengers in the Bible. John the Baptist was an angel-messenger who carried word of the Messiah’s soon arrival (Mal. 3:1). Indeed, John once sent some of his disciples to ask Jesus a question, and the Greek text uses a form of the word angelos (NIV, “messengers”) of them at Luke 7:24.

Typically, however, we understand the word to refer to an order of heavenly beings who are superior to humans in power and intelligence. It seems clear that they are not glorified human beings; later the Hebrews preacher will speak of two separate groups who inhabit the heavenly Jerusalem – “thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly” and “spirits of righteous men made perfect” (12:22-24). They were created sometime prior to the creation of the physical cosmos to serve God and “all the angels shouted for joy” when it was created (Job 38:4-7). In their normal state, angels are “ministering spirits” (Heb. 1:14) who do not have flesh-and-bone bodies (cf. Luke 24:37-39). They are normally invisible to humans, even when they may be present in huge numbers to minister on our behalf. But do you remember Elisha’s prayer for his servant to see the armies of angels surrounding them? “Then the Lord opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha” (2 Kings 6:17b).

At a time before the world was created, angels appear to have had a period of testing during which they had to make the choice between faith and unbelief – the same choice we are having to make now. Those who chose not to live under God’s authority – following the lead of one of their own named Satan – were cast down to hell and are more commonly known as “demons” from that point on in Scripture (Matt. 25:41; cf. 2 Pet. 2:4; Jude 6). Those who chose to live in obedience to God have continued to give him glory, reveal divine purposes to human beings, and otherwise work on behalf of the salvation of their earthly counterparts. Sometimes they take bodily form – without wings! – as in the days of Abraham (Gen. 18:1ff); more often they appear in the dazzling brilliance of their spirit forms – as when they announced the birth of Jesus to shepherds in the field (Luke 2:8ff).

One thing is for sure, the angels in biblical accounts are not cute, chubby infants with wings! They are always full-grown, powerful, awe-inspiring creatures. The typical response of any human being who ever saw one – from the shepherds to John on Patmos (Rev. 19:10) – was to fall down in absolute terror. To say the least, nobody ever reached out his hand to chuck an angel’s chin!

Now I’ll bet you have a dozen questions you’d like to ask about angels at this point. Am I right? Please don’t be offended or miss the point I’m going to make here. But I’ve “set you up” to try to make the point I think our writer was pursuing in this long section of Hebrews. Are you fascinated by angels? Get over it. They can’t do enough to meet your needs. Instead, pay attention to Jesus. He’s the Real Thing – as much superior to the angels as Heaven is greater than Earth!

Fascination With Angels

So why do you think we are captivated by thoughts of angels? Was it Frank Peretti’s books that got our attention? Was it Billy Graham’s best-selling Angels? Was it the New Age Movement? Has the CBS program Touched By an Angel caused some people to think and talk about angels for the first time since their childhood? All these things – and a dozen more that you might name – have played their role in getting angel-talk going in our culture. But I think there is something more fundamental still.

Things don’t happen in a vacuum. People don’t talk about angels, crystals, UFOs, or channeling for any sustained period of time unless they are seeking something transcendent and spiritual to give meaning to their lives. And for a decade or more now, talk of such things has been commonplace in TV shows, newsmagazines, and radio talk shows. People want to believe in something – something grand, something powerful, something spectacular.

What people don’t want to believe is that it is in the everyday drudgery of their lives that God is working out his will for them. What they don’t want to believe is that they must prepare for suffering over glory, persecution over triumph. What you and I don’t want to believe is that we are going to have to keep experiencing our dull jobs, troubled marriages, crowded hospitals, and busy funeral homes. We want a health-and-wealth gospel with quick fixes for all our troubles. And if we just had Tess or Gabriel or, who knows, maybe even Satan himself to whom we could “sell our souls” and then barter, some people would embrace it. Anything is better than the slow and painful pace at which some of us are having to travel in our faith. Give me an angel, a dazzling flash of light, and swift victory!

If the Hebrews sermon was preached originally to a Jewish audience, some of his hearers were weary of being without families, being shunned by old friends, being unwelcome at the synagogue. They were tired of being taunted for their faith in a crucified Messiah.

If the Hebrews letter was written originally to a Gentile community, some of them were frustrated that Christianity hadn’t made their lives easy either. They were being made fun of by their old pagan buddies for “not enjoying the good times” with them anymore. They were being vilified for believing in a Savior who was Jewish instead of Gentile, a backwoods preacher rather than a sophisticated philosopher, a Nazarene instead of an Athenian or Roman.

If the Hebrews material is being heard or read for the first time by a 21st-century American, he or she will probably think one of the popular books on angels is more interesting. It tells this jaded, burned-out-on-materialism, and turned-off-by-humanism person that crystals, meditation, and angel-guides are the sure-fire answer to all their personal and family, business and career problems. Just buy our $39.95 book or attend our three-day workshop for $279.99 – and find out how easy it is to re-focus, re-energize, and re-juvenate your life.

Don’t you wish – some days at least – that it was that easy? To lose weight? To learn French? To get rid of your debts? To have a good marriage? To have stable, secure children? To establish yourself in a new career? To have a solid spiritual life?

For all I can tell, this preacher’s insistence that Jesus is superior to angels could be his reaction to angel-worship. It could be a corrective to some doctrine that interpreted Jesus as an angel rather than the Son of God. (Jehovah’s Witnesses teach this unorthodox doctrine in our own time and claim that Jesus of Nazareth was the angel Michael come in human form.) A negative reaction to either of those views certainly would be justified.

But what if he was reacting against either the superstitious longing for powerful angelic intervention to rescue them from suffering or the still-common tendency to seek certain sorts of ecstatic religious experience (i.e., entrancing worship of the sort angels experience around the throne) in these verses? What if he is not deprecating angels but trying to help his hearers envision Jesus’ non-glamorous, non-ecstatic route of perfection through suffering as superior to their shallow, sure-to-fail expectation of a quick fix to their problems?

The Theme in View

I confess to dreading this section of Hebrews when first thinking about preaching it. Why did our writer throw in all this angel business into a letter designed to give strength for the journey of faith? But what if it isn’t “thrown in”? What if it is central to his theme? What if it opens Hebrews with the magnificent truth that disciples are not greater than their Teacher – and that we must find strength by means of suffering and, like Jesus, be made spiritually whole by means of faithfulness under pressure?

Why, that’s it! Dazzling angels aren’t the role model for faith; Jesus’ life is our paradigm. Powerful angels – whether with or without wings – didn’t purchase our redemption; Jesus did. Glorious angels with amazing powers aren’t our hope; humble, faithful Jesus is our hope. Angels with impervious spiritual bodies make us envy them when we get cancer, bleed, cry, and die; flesh-and-blood Jesus knows our frailties and will stand with us when we suffer from frailty or persecution. Angels aren’t our solution; Jesus is our everything!

The weary congregation of Hebrews longed for a gospel without a cross, a redemption without sacrifice, a faith without pain – something pristine and holy, something that does not exhaust the faith with calls to put one foot in front of the other in daily obedience, something beautiful like an image of God in an unspoiled heaven surrounded by lovely angels singing untroubled hymns. Anything but a weeping, suffering Jesus marching through tragic history with his head bowed and his face bloodied.

But the Preacher will not compromise the gospel, will not reduce it to the power of positive thinking.[1]
With this theme in view, the point of all the things said about angels becomes clearer to me. Try it for yourself. See if it makes the reading more plausible in context.

Suppose for a moment that the Christians who first received this word of exhortation had been hearing the message that a truly divine Jesus would fix all your problems – not someday in heaven but now, right now, on earth. “But that he can’t sustain you through these dark days is clear from the fact that he couldn’t even escape injustice, betrayal, suffering, and death himself!” they could have said. “Why, a divine being would not endure such humiliation. If Jesus had been as powerful as, say, even an angel, he would have been impervious to suffering. So he can’t be divine. Give it up!”

So our preacher-writer responds by giving a litany of seven reasons why Jesus is superior to angels – and, thus, why Christians should continue not only to believe in him but to expect their faith to entail suffering. God’s love for you in Jesus won’t exempt you from suffering, but it will sustain you in suffering.

1. Jesus has a superior name to that of any angel. Which of the angels – even Gabriel or Michael – was ever called “Son” by God? (1:4-5). Interestingly, the text quoted from Psalm 2 is not a reference to the day when Jesus was born of Mary but the one on which he was raised from the dead (cf. Acts 13:33). Jesus could not experience the glories of a resurrection without the agonies of the cross and a tomb. Neither can his followers.

2. God has commanded that all his angels worship Jesus (1:6). Doesn’t that identify the Superior One to us? Indeed, our preacher calls Jesus “firstborn” (Gk, prototokos) not because he was born first among the angelic beings but because he created them from his eternal being and power. Prototokos means not that he was the first in a sequence of equals but that he is preeminent over all others.

3. The angels were created to do Jesus’ bidding as his servants (1:7-14). Angels are “servants” (1:7). Indeed, they are “ministering spirits sent to serve those [Christians on earth] who will inherit salvation” (1:14). But at whose command do they act? Before whose throne do they wait? Who will ultimately have his enemies as a footstool for his feet? Jesus!

4. The great danger to earthbound Christians is not that we might fail to know about angels but that we could “ignore such a great salvation” as the one Jesus provided (2:1-4). Indeed, this is the first of five major warnings found in this sermon-epistle. According to Stephen, the Law of Moses was given to Israel with the aid of angels (Acts 7:53; cf. Gal. 3:19); violations and disobedience were not overlooked by God. However, that was then; this is now. “In these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” said the opening lines of the sermon (1:2a). We must not “drift away” from God’s final word to us – Jesus!

5. The world to come has been subjected not to angels but to Jesus (2:5-9). Oh, it is quite true that “at present we do not see everything subject to him” (2:8c). But we must not be misled or deceived by the present situation. Indeed, he was briefly and by his own choice “made a little lower than the angels . . . so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (2:9), but that was not forced on him. He volunteered.

Yet, says this writer in what must be the understatement of the ages, we do not yet see everything subject to him. No, there are many things fallen humans cannot control: the weather, the seasons, the instincts of animals, the tides, our own passions, international events, natural disasters, and on and on. The increasing pollution of the planet, the spread of famines and wars, the toll taken by drugs, accidents and disease, all tell the story of a lost destiny.

But almost with a shout the author cries, But we see Jesus! He is the last hope of a dying race. And that hope lies both in his death and his humanity. He alone, as a human being, managed to fulfill what was intended for us from the beginning. . . . He is the Last Adam, living and acting as God intended us to act when he made us in the beginning.[2]
Because of Jesus’ triumph, the Father has declared that all things in the redeemed world that are going to be shared by all his children will be ideal for humanity and subjected to the Son in all its details.

6. Jesus – not angels – has made our redemption possible by suffering (2:10-13). Do critics and skeptics point to the suffering of Jesus and urge contempt? Do they say that a divine being could not have suffered death? To the contrary, there is nothing tainted or unworthy about the material universe or life in physical form. The very idea that some might have thought so is a strong indication that people with a background in Greek philosophy rather than Jewish Scripture are being addressed here. The Hebrew Bible never regards matter, flesh, or human form deficient in itself. Certain Greek views held that very thing.[3]

More important to the point at hand, however, is that not only are matter and human form not inherently deficient but neither is suffering a curse that leads to destruction. In the case of Jesus, God’s purpose to bring “many sons to glory” was accomplished only when he was permitted to “make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering” (2:10b). Thus should suffering be regarded as a divine failure in our lives? Can God not use it for holy purposes in our experience? Jesus was “perfect” in his divine being and sinless character prior to suffering; he was perfected for his role as Savior only by means of it. So believers are “perfect” in our standing before God by virtue of the imputed righteousness of Jesus; we are perfected for our role as Christ-imitators only when we show ourselves willing to suffer for doing what is right.

The writer uses the word archegos of Jesus at verse 11: Jesus was made the “author” of salvation through his suffering. Archegos signifies one who is a trailblazer into new territory or a commander who goes ahead of his troops to mark the path. Angels have observed our suffering; Jesus has lived it. Angels have wept for our suffering; Jesus has felt it. The path of faithful endurance and continued obedience to his Father in the face of suffering is clearly marked by Jesus’ footsteps. The preacher of the Hebrews sermon is asking nothing of his first- or twenty-first-century hearers than Jesus himself gave his Father. He walked the talk.

7. Jesus alone is qualified to be our “high priest” and to “help those who are being tempted” by weakness, pressure, and suffering (2:14-18). It is interesting that this writer says what all humans know about death: it has been Satan’s ultimate threat against the human race. Jesus faced him down, dared him to do his worst, and then defeated him in his resurrection! Angels did not do this for humans; Jesus did. Angels did not even understand the fear of bodily decay, suffering, and death; Jesus does. Thus he functions as our “high priest” – a role introduced here and developed in great detail later in the sermon-letter – with the utmost compassion: “Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (2:18).

Conclusion

This section of Hebrews finally makes sense to me. It isn’t an invitation to angelology. It isn’t an “excursus” in which the speaker forgot his theme, only to return after a couple of chapters. It is central to the thesis of the epistle. You can’t follow Christ without suffering, but your suffering has a point. It is perfecting you as a disciple, just as Jesus’ suffering perfected him as the trailblazer for your future. So don’t despair. Instead, draw closer to him to receive strength for your journey. Don’t wait to be touched by an angel, for you have already been touched, claimed, and vouchsafed victory over the worst Satan could think to bring against you. If Jesus was refined and completed by the things he endured by faith in the Father, know for sure that your own brief agonies will achieve the same for you. Your God is faithful.

Jesus bears the scars of the cross, the scars of human suffering and death, and “he was tested by what he suffered” (2:18). For all of us who must still face suffering, for all of us who must still trudge to the cemetery in sorrow, we are not without comfort and help, for the great high priest who sits on the throne of glory has been there, too. He bears the scars of his testing, and he “is able to help those who are tested” (2:18).[4]
Salvation is a process, not any one event along the way. And the process cannot be complete without struggle. So your crisis is not a lack of God’s love. Neither is it the sign of your failure as a disciple. It is the grinding stone of human experience that polishes heaven’s precious jewels. It is simply your signal to draw near to Jesus and to take heart from his experience with suffering.

When you finally see the God of the Universe, he will not ask about your diplomas or degrees. He will not inspect you for medals or ribbons. He will look for the things about you that resemble his One Perfect Son. Your kindness to those closest to you. Your love for strangers. Your faithfulness in hard times. And, yes, your scars.
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[1] Thomas G. Long, Hebrews (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1997), p.22.
[2] Ray C. Stedman, Hebrews (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), p.39.
[3] Although some would mistakenly call this view Platonism, there is nothing of this in the writings of Plato. Neo-Platonism either reinterpreted or misinterpreted Plato’s cosmology to the point that they regarded matter as deficient and only “pure spirit” to be untainted by it. The implications of this Greek view for medieval Christian theology and a variety of doctrines still current in Christian thought have been profoundly negative.
[4] Long, Hebrews, p.45.



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