Jesus: Better than the Angels - Part 1

Series: Hebrews

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Apr 8, 1998

Hebrews 1:4-14

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Let me recap some of the things we have said about this book.  We have said that this book is about persevering in the faith, and that this particular congregation of Christians were Jewish Christians in their background.   They were very much familiar with the approach to religion of Judaism and they were, perhaps, being influenced by the Essene community, that was near the Dead Sea .  This community produced various doctrines and had various converts in the first century, and kept the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were discovered in this century.

At any rate, this particular community of Christians was being tempted, perhaps, to renege on their commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ and to go back to some form of Judaism.  Perhaps they were tempted to have a lower view of Christ than they ought to have, to think of Him as an exalted prophet, not the great Messiah about which Christianity spoke.  So, the author of Hebrews writing to that circumstance, stresses in the very first verses of the book that Christ is a greater revelation of God than is found in any of the prophets.  Then in verses 4-14, he stresses that Christ is greater than any of the angels.

Hebrews 1:1-3 gives us a cavalcade of truths about the Lord Jesus Christ and stresses that God has spoken finally and uniquely in the Son.  It stresses that the manifested glory of God belongs to the Son.  It stresses that the original glory belongs to the Son, that the sustaining power which upholds the universe belongs to the Son, that the work of redemption belongs to the Son, and that the reigning, exalted majesty of God belongs to the Son.  All those things it asserts.  Now if you can image for a few moments as a Jew, hearing those the opening words of a book, I suspect that your first inclination would be to say, “But where does it say that in the Old Testament?” or “Where does it say that, as it were, in the Bible?  Give me some scriptural proof of the things you are saying about the Son.”  That’s precisely what the author of Hebrews is going to do in verses 4-14.  He has made all these assertions and now he is basically saying, “Now let me back up what I have just said.  Let me prove to you from scripture the things that I just said about the Lord Jesus Christ.”  Because his point is to stress the superiority of the Son.  There is nothing greater than the Son; there is no one coming in the future to be expected, greater than the Son. 

Now here in verse 4, there is a comparative statement made.  It says that the Son, having sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much better than the angels, as He inherited a more excellent name than they.  There is a comparative statement.  There is the Son and there is the angel.  And the Son, it says, has become much better than the angels.  Now why would the author of Hebrews introduce the subject of angels here?  He has been arguing Jesus is the superior, the final revelation of God; that He is greater than the prophets; that you see God more clearly in Christ than in all of the law and the prophets.  Why does he introduce angels? 

It is apparently not because this congregation was tempted towards angel worship.  You remember Paul talks about the Colossian Christians being tempted to worship angels.  But there is no indication in the book of Hebrews that any of these people wanted to worship angels.  They all came out of good, orthodox Jewish families and Jews didn’t worship angels.  Only Gentiles would be so foolish as to worship angels.  And that’s, of course, who Paul was dealing with in the Lycus Valley with the Colossians - Gentiles.  But these Jewish Christians were apparently tempted by some contemporary views about angels, to think of angels or maybe a particular angel as being higher or more exalted than Christ. 

The reason we think that is because of what the Essenes taught, and it reasonable to assume that this congregation was in Palestine.  They may well have come into contact with the Essene teachings about the Messiah and about the end time.

Let me recap for you very briefly what the Essenes believed.  They believed that the Old Testament did speak about Messiah.  But the Essenes broke down the Old Testament teaching about Messiah into three categories.  The Essenes taught that there would be a prophet in fulfillment of the messianic promises and there would be a priestly messiah in the line of Aaron, and that there would be a kingly messiah from the line of David.  And the priestly messiah would be in charge of the revitalization of the religion of Israel and the kingly messiah would be in charge of the revitalization of the government and society in Israel. 

But above all those three figures, would be Michael the Archangel who would rule the whole restoration of Israel in fulfillment of the promises of the New Covenant found in Jeremiah and elsewhere in the Old Testament.  Now isn’t it amazing how well that fits precisely with what the author of Hebrews is arguing against.  He wants it very clear that the Lord Jesus Christ, if they considered Him the prophet or the priest or the kingly messiah, whichever they considered Him to be, is not to be thought of as lower than Michael.  He is infinitely higher than Michael. 

That’s the argument by the author of Hebrews.  There is no one who even comes close to the exaltation of the Lord Jesus Christ.  And because he is speaking to people who believe in the authority of the Old Testament, he is going to go right back to the Old Testament and he is going to say, “Let me show you what the Old Testament tells us about the Messiah.  It is fulfilled in the Lord Jesus Christ”  And so that’s the basic argument of the author of Hebrews against this view of angels.  They weren’t wanting to worship angels, but they were viewing Christ lower than the angels, and particularly Michael the Archangel.

Now I want to mention, before we look at this passage in detail, notice how in the first four verses of Hebrews, Christ’s ministry, His work as mediator, is described in terms of a three-fold office.  You remember we talked about in our Shorter Catechism that Christ was a prophet, priest, and king.  Well, notice that in the first four verses of the Book of Hebrews He is described as having a three-fold office. 

Listen to what Phillip Edgcumbe Hughes says, “It has been well observed that in the opening verses of the epistle, we have the Son set before us in the three-fold character of His messianic office.  He is the prophet through Whom God’s final word has been spoken to us: ‘God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers and the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son.’  And so He is the great prophet.”  But it goes on: “As the priest who made purification for our sins, when He had made purification for our sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high and He is spoken of as the King who is enthroned on the right hand of the Majesty on high.”  Bear that in mind, we are going to come back to that in a moment.  But realize it in the very first verses of the Book of Hebrews, chapter 1, that Jesus’ three-fold office is set forth.

Now, the author is going to continue his efforts in instructing his readers in the person and the character of Christ, by making sure that they understand His exalted nature.  The goal of this section, from verses 4 all the way down to verse 14, is to convince and to remind the reader that Christ is better than the angels by a direct appeal to the Old Testament Scriptures.  And in light of contemporary Jewish or Essene views of angels, and the church’s potential defection back into some form of Judaism, God is going to point directly to the superiority and the finality of the Lord Jesus Christ.  The Son, this passage is going to argue, is the Messiah spoken of by the Old Testament.  He is divine, as the Old Testament indicates, and He alone embodies the prophetic, the priestly, and the kingly prophecies about Messiah in the Old Testament.  The Essenes almost got it right.  They knew that the Old Testament spoke about Messiah.  But they broke the Old Testament passages about the Messiah into prophet, priest, and king, because they could not imagine those things being brought together.   They weren’t allowed to be brought together in the Old Testament; and yet in Christ, all three are combined.

 I. Christians acknowledge Christ's superiority over the entire angelic host.

Let’s look at the passage together, beginning in verse 4.  The first thing I would like for you to see tonight, this passage reminds us that Christians acknowledge Christ’s superiority over the entire angelic host.  We have in this passage a comparison of the Son and the angels to show how He is superior.  Notice the phrase, “having become as much better than the angels as He has inherited a more excellent name than they.”

Notice first the Son’s superiority is indicated by the name that He bears.  You know, in the Bible a name indicates the essence of a person, the reputation of a person.  That’s why we are told in the Ten Commandments not to take the name of the Lord God in vain.  In other words, if we are called the people of God, if we are called Christians, if we are called God’s people, we are not to take that name which is His name in a vain, in an empty way.  We are not to take it when there is no reality of us, in fact, being God’s people.  We’re not to take His name in vain.  And so when we are told that the Son has inherited a more excellent name than they, it is saying that the Son is supreme in His essence and in His task.  He shares the very being of God. The Son, the Mediator, has achieved in His exaltation the supreme name of Son and Lord.  The Lord Jesus Christ, the name which is supreme here, is the name of the Son.  It distinguishes Him from the angels.

But again, we ask the question:  Why do we get this comparison between Christ and the angels here?  It’s important because of the preoccupation of these people with the view that there is going to be this great angelic figure who comes at the end time to lead the Messianic cause of Israel.

Let me remind you about the beliefs of the Essenes one more time.  Let me summarize this in the words of Philip Hughes:  “The author’s concern to establish, on biblical grounds, the superiority of the Son to angels was prompted by a tendency in these Hebrew Christians to view with favor teachings similar to those held by the Dead Sea sect at the time.  The eschatological perspective of the latter envisaged the introduction of a hierarchical structure with two messianic figures, of whom the kingly would be subordinate to the Archangel Michael, thus assigning supremacy to an angelic being in the expected kingdom of God.  Against such a background, the necessity of our author to affirm and demonstrate the supremacy of Christ above angelic is obvious.”

So Hebrew’s argumentation is all designed to show the superiority of Christ to the angels.  Now it is interesting that we again live in a time where people are preoccupied with angels.  We mentioned last week and the week before that you can’t into a bookstore and not see a wall rack full of books on angels, most of them pseudo-Christian and New Age.  Many of those books undercut the work of Christ by attributing too great a significance to angels.  I went to the book store purposefully to see what the books on angels were saying and was blown away when I found this book by these two ladies who supposedly get visited by angels all the time and they tell you how to talk to your angels; essentially how to pray to your angels and get guidance from your angels.  Isn’t it interesting that in that teaching, angels are taking the place of God in being the focus, the object of our prayers?  You see things like this all the time in the bookstores.  New Age teaching is replete with instructions on how to commune with your angels.  Of course, the error in this area leads to a devaluation of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Angels are exalted and all sorts of angelic appearances are appealed to as the very essence of spirituality.  Christ is lost in the mix.  Against this kind of thinking, the author of Hebrews in this passage is exalting Christ before our eyes.  He is saying, “What you need to do is go back and look at Christ one more time.”

Now let me point you to one other previous phrase in verse 4:  “Having become as much better than the angels.”  What in the world does that phrase mean?  We have already said that in the first three verses, the author of Hebrews argues the Son is equal with God.  He is eternal.  How can you talk about the eternal Son having become much better than the angels.  Isn’t that the strangest language?  There was a famous heretic in the fourth century of Christianity named Arius, who built his whole view of Christ, and taught that Christ was an exalted angelic created being.  But he utterly misunderstood what the author of Hebrews was saying.  The point is not that Jesus was a creature, not that He was exalted to some sort of a super-angelic status because of His deeds. I mean, these words are striking in light of what we have already been told about the Lord Jesus Christ.  The testimony to Jesus’ deity in the first three verses of Hebrews is absolutely clear.  You can disagree with the first three verses of Hebrews and say “I don’t believe in the deity of Christ.”  But there is no way that you can say those verses don’t teach the deity of Christ. 

Let me quote from a famous neo-orthodox scholar.  This is not an evangelical.  This is a neo-orthodox scholar, Oscar Cullmann.  Listen to what he says: “Jesus’ deity is more powerfully asserted in Hebrews than in other New Testament writing except perhaps for the Gospel of John.”  I think that’s a fair statement.  You can’t get away from the Book of Hebrews, thinking that the author of Hebrews thinks that Jesus is anybody else but the very God.  So what does this phrase mean, “Having become much better than the angels”?

It means this.  That Christ was exalted by the Father as the result of His perfect completion of the work of redemption on our behalf.  And that, in and of itself, is the consequence of the eternal covenant which God the Father and God the Son made before the foundation of the world for the sake of our salvation.  It is an amazing thing that is being stressed here.  The Lord Jesus Christ earned the right to receive His inheritance by His obedience, and that is going to be stressed throughout the book.  In Hebrews 5:8, the author is going to say, “Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He had suffered.”  And he goes on to argue that He purchased us through His work. 

By the way, that is why it is ridiculous to talk about earning our salvation ourselves.  How can we earn what Christ has already earned for us?  How can we add to what Christ has already earned?  Christ worked for our salvation.  We receive it by free grace.  That’s why it is such an offence for people to say, “Well, you know, I think I am going to go to heaven because of my good works.”  Christ earned salvation for all who believe in Him.  None of us work for our salvation because Christ has worked for our salvation.

So, the author of Hebrews presses these points home in this little phrase in verse 4.  These people in the congregation of the Hebrews, attacked by this view apparently, that the Old Testament Messianic teaching was fulfilled in the end time by Michael the Archangel, being above all the other messianic figures.  Listen again to what Everett Ferguson says: “The Qumran community lived under a strong eschatological expectation.  They believed that they were living in the last days and they interpreted the prophets as referring to their time.  They looked forward to the coming of a prophet and the messiahs of Aaron and of Israel, the priests and the kings, and so they apparently failed to appreciate Christ’s triple office of prophet, priest, and king.”

Against that, the author of Hebrews stresses Christ, Himself, is Prophet, Priest, and King.  Along with the congregation of the Hebrews, we, ourselves, have to be careful that we don’t underestimate the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ. 

Unfortunately, that is a constant temptation  — to underestimate who Jesus is, the completeness of His work.  There are so many Christians in the world today who believe that you have to add a little something to the work of Christ in order to be saved.  Well, after you get finished listening to this description in verses 4 - 14 on the Lord Jesus Christ, I don’t see how anyone can think that they can add a little something to what this Person has done.  But, you see, we begin to doubt the sufficiency of Christ and we begin to think that we need to add to His work, and by adding to His work, you know what we end up doing?  We end up taking away from His work and we end up building our salvation on our own merits rather than on Jesus Christ.  So we need to be very careful about making sure we do not underestimate the exalted nature of Christ.

II. Christ's superiority may be demonstrated scripturally in five ways.

Let’s begin this section in verse 5.  Notice in this section that there are seven Old Testament quotations, from verse 5 - 14.  They are piled up to demonstrate those startling claims of Hebrews 1:1-3 and to advance five important truths about Christ which are contained in this passage.

Here, again, Christ’s superiority is demonstrated scripturally in five ways.  The author of Hebrews appeals to the Old Testament.  First in verses 4 and 5 he quotes from two Old Testament passages:  Psalm 2:7 and II Samuel 7:14.  Notice his words:  “Having become as much better than the angels as He has inherited a more excellent name than they.  For to which of the angels did He ever say, ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten You?’ And again, ‘I will be a Father to Him and He shall be a Son to Me.’”

The first quotation, “You are My son, this day I have begotten You,” comes from Psalm 2:7.  Before he quotes that passage, he says these words: “He has become much better; He has inherited a name.”  And what we have said is, that is not saying that Jesus was at one time not equal with God and later He became equal with God.  That is speaking about what He received as a result of His work as mediator.  He and the Father had agreed, before the foundation of the world and the covenant of redemption, to work on behalf of our salvation. And so, in fulfillment of His work of salvation, He receives this name.  

Look at Psalm 2:7.  In this passage, there is direct reference to the Davidic monarch.  “I will surely tell of the decree of the Lord; He said to Me, ‘Thou art my Son, today I have begotten Thee.  Ask of Me, and I will surely give the nations as Thine inheritance, and the very ends of the earth as Thy possession.”

In this passage, David and his line are in view; and yet, the author of Hebrews says that ultimately this Psalm applies to Jesus.  Ultimately this Psalm is pointing to the Lord Jesus Christ.  He is the Son of the Father  (“You are My Son”).  And, therefore, listen to this beautiful phrase, “All sonship before God is concentrated in the Person of Christ, and Christian believers are designated sons only by virtue of the fact that they are incorporated into Christ and made one with Him; that is, the Son is uniquely related to the Heavenly Father.  He is uniquely the Son of God, not simply of a higher quality.  He is of a different genus.”  The Son is absolutely unique; and so if we want to participate in the blessings of Sonship, we must be related to Him by faith.

Notice the second phrase from Psalm 2:7: “This day I have begotten Thee.”  That phrase refers to the resurrection, to the ascension, to the enthronement of Christ at the right hand of God the Father Almighty and ultimately to His heavenly reign at the right hand.”  That passage is saying that Christ is shown to be superior to all the angels because of His resurrection, because of His ascension.  Without denying that the Son is eternally the Son, the author of Hebrews is stressing that the Son is displayed to be uniquely related to the Heavenly Father by the resurrection, by the ascension, by His enthronement at the right hand and by His heavenly session as He rules.

There are some practical applications of this for us.  If we want sonship, if we want fellowship with God, then we must find it in Christ.  We must trust in Christ because He alone has that unique fellowship with God.  And whatever fellowship with God that we have, we must have it through Him. 

Furthermore, as we remember to celebrate the resurrection of Christ on Easter and on every Sunday, it ought to be a tremendous encouragement to our faith.  Look at the next phrase: “I will be a Father to Him and He shall be a Son to Me.”  In that passage, we are being told that because that passage is fulfilled in the Lord Jesus Christ - that in Him all the ancient promises that God would set a king from the line of David on the throne who would reign forever - this passage is saying that those promises are fulfilled in Jesus Christ.  They are saying that those promises prophesied through Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Micah, and the other Old Testament passages about the Messiah are fulfilled in Jesus Christ.  Therefore, without denying that He has ever been the eternal Son of God, equal with God in power and glory, these promises are addressed to Jesus, not simply as the eternal Son of God, but as our Messiah.  Therefore, because they are addressed to Him as our Messiah, it enables us to participate in the blessings which He has earned. 

That is a very hard concept.  Let me try and say it more simply.  These promises are not merely given to the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity.  They are given to the Son in His capacity as our representative.  Because these promises are heaped on Him as our representative, they are our promises too.  Now, that’s an incredible thought.  Every time you remember the resurrection, you remember that the resurrection itself is a promise to you.  In fact, in the very next passage, He is going to be called the “first-born.”  And that “first-born” there refers to His being the first-born from the dead.  And if He is the first-born from the dead, then there must be some others coming after Him.  And guess who they are?  All those who believe in Christ.  So this passage is heaping upon you tremendous encouragement, that the promises of God to Jesus as the Messiah are yours as you trust in Him.  I cannot think of a more fabulous thing in the world.  And the author of Hebrews is saying, “Michael is better than who?  You have got to be joking.  This is the Messiah to Whom the promises of eternal fellowship with God and glory are given and the promises are yours in Him.”  Now that’s a reason to remain a Christian, and I hope you will today, and in all the trials of life that tempt you to think that Christ is less satisfying than He actually is.  Because, in fact, He is not less satisfying, He is beyond all that we could ask or think and no man could have thought up something like this.

Let’s look to Him in prayer. 

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