Last week, we began our Lenten reflections with an honest appraisal of the state of mind that we often bring to this important season. We noted that the book of Hebrews calls us to turn our attention towards Jesus precisely in the context of the fear and frustration that grips our lives. We sought to heed the call of this ancient document by looking at its first four verses, which function not only as a device for grabbing the reader’s attention but also as an introduction to the document’s main themes.
Those themes remain in view as we look now at the rest of Hebrews 1. The author of Hebrews sets up a contrast at the end of verse four between “the Son” and angels. The point is not to satisfy anyone’s curiosity about angels. It is to use standard assumptions about angels (that they are glorious and powerful representatives of God) as a starting point for a discussion of Jesus.
The argument of chapter one is dense and is peppered with quotations from the Old Testament. Nevertheless, it quickly emerges that Jesus is superior to angels in at least three ways. First, Jesus is functionally superior to the angels. It is a point that the writer of Hebrews introduces in verses two and three, and he returns to it later in the chapter when he quotes from Psalm 102.
But what do we mean that Jesus is functionally superior to the angels? From an ontological perspective, we would say that Jesus stands on God’s side of the gulf that separates Him from everything in the created order. But this is not exactly how the writer of Hebrews puts it. Instead, he talks about what “the Son” does. Specifically, he is the means through which God created the universe, and he is somehow involved in maintaining the continuing existence of all that is.
Using the quote from Psalm 102, the writer of Hebrews adds an important corollary to this proposition about the functional superiority of “the Son.” Unlike the created order, Jesus is an enduring presence. He does not corrode. He does not die. He remains the same, just as God does.
The second way that Jesus is superior to the angels is in the status that is ascribed to him by God. This is a point that is first made in verse four and then elaborated through a quote from Psalm 45. Jesus is presented as a ruler—and not just any ruler. He is seated next to God himself, in a position of unparalleled authority.
The reign of this “Son” is described in particular ways. It reflects both “justice” and “righteousness” (this is how the NIV renders the relevant terms). Jesus is no tin-horn dictator. He is a legitimate ruler whose authority is recognized, endorsed, and supported by the Creator of all things.
What does all of this have to do with status? To borrow a line from Paul, “much in every way.” Hebrews was written in a culture that, if anything, was even more status-conscious than our own. Rulers are, by definition, members of the elite. Their status can be resented, but, in general, it cannot be undone.
The way that “the Son” is envisaged certainly evokes ancient (and other) notions of status, but it does so with a significant twist. The status of “the Son” cannot be undermined, but, more importantly, it cannot even be resented. Jesus’ rule is immune to the normal faults and flaws that accompany human exercises of power. His status is entirely deserved, and he uses his status for entirely good purposes.
Third, Jesus is relationally superior to the angels. This is a point that is made throughout the chapter. The angels are “servants” (the Greek word is not the term we translate “slave”). They may be ontologically different from, and more powerful than, any human “servant” of God, but they are servants all the same. Jesus, by contrast, is a “son.” God addresses him directly as such and reinforces His own obligation to be a “Father” to him.
This is the most important point that the writer of Hebrews makes in this section, for it is the foundation upon which the distinctions of status and function stand. The “Son” can be God’s instrument in creation precisely because of the relationship that they share. Jesus can be the ruler of all precisely because he has a particular kind of relationship with God (and because, as is made clear elsewhere, that relationship is made manifest in Jesus’ utter submission to the will of God).
The claims of Hebrews 1 can seem rather esoteric, especially when we are confronted by a plethora of real world problems. It is worth remembering, however, that the writer of Hebrews lays out these points in a document that is intended to address some rather pointed questions on the part of those who follow Christ. We can boil them down to one simple formulation. In the light of all that they were experiencing—and in the light of all that we experience now—why should they, or we, remain committed to Jesus?
The writer of Hebrews could have simply reminded his reader-hearers of all that they would receive when Christ returns. But he seems to have realized that the challenges faced by those who had committed themselves to Christ required a more robust response. Rather than simply trying to motivate them to endurance through the promise of future rewards, this master preacher tries to reframe their view of reality. He is certainly trying to remind them who is really in charge, but he is also trying to give them resources that they can use to properly understand their experiences.
We can use these resources, too—but only if we will take the time to think through what is happening to us and to be honest with ourselves about how it makes us feel. Admitting our despair, and then placing it alongside with the portrait painted by the writer of Hebrews, allows us to see the real sources of our angst and to properly evaluate whether or not those experiences should have the kind of influence over us that they do. The emphatic claim of Hebrews is that they should not, for Christ has come to bring us “salvation” (v. 14), and he stands above all experiences and authorities that come against us.