Hebrews Week 3
By Rob Wall
Paul T. Walls Professor of Scripture and Wesleyan Studies
Read this week’s Scripture: Hebrews 1:5-2:18
Paul writes that Christ is the sole referent of Israel’s Scripture; every Old Testament figure and event point to him (Romans 10:4; Acts 17:1–4). The New Testament teaches us that when we read Scripture rightly, the Old Testament discloses the very promise that Christ fulfills — the very word his life and work articulate. God’s Word disclosed long ago through the prophets in many different ways (Hebrews 1:1) is now picked up and read again “in these final days” (1:2) as a witness to Jesus. It is Jesus in whom God’s Word to Israel is made personal and perfect, and through whom God’s promises for Israel are fulfilled.
Israel’s biblical story is a first telling of our story. The pattern of Israel’s salvation, plotted by its exodus, wilderness journey, and entry into the Promised Land depicts God’s way of salvation now brokered by the Son. Echoes of this biblical story narrated in Scripture’s Pentateuch (Genesis–Deuteronomy) reverberate from this letter to the Hebrews. We are the “Hebrews” addressed by this letter, grafted onto Israel by faith in Christ (cf. Romans 11:13–23).
William Faulkner’s great line, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” (Requiem for a Nun), serves to remind us that Israel’s past is “not even past” but remains the reference point for our present Christian existence. This letter’s use of the Old Testament’s most elemental story of Israel’s salvation, when read by the Lord’s disciples “in these final days” (Hebrews 1:2), confirms the apostles’ witness of the incarnate One (cf. 1 John 1:1–3).
Readers note that the meaning Hebrews gives to Old Testament texts is often at odds with the plain sense communicated by those texts in the context of the Old Testament narrative. Yes and no. This may be true when the passages are interpreted in the historical context of their first audiences. But when they are reread as Christian Scripture they focus on the living Jesus and his current disciples living “in these final days” (Hebrews 1:2), and not an ancient Israel living “in the past.” While scholars agree that the Preacher is careful to quote the sacred text accurately, his selection of biblical materials intends to support his Christological affirmations. This is what his Christian congregation (including us) requires to secure their devotion to God for the long haul to heaven.
The Son of God is Greater Than Angels
For this reason, the string of Old Testament texts spread across Hebrews 1:5–13 quote God’s answer to the Preacher’s initial question, “when did God ever say to any of the angels: You are my Son. Today I have become your Father?” (1:5). Of course, his question is rhetorical and posed to amplify the prior statement that God gives a title to the exalted Son that God would never give to angels [see Author’s Note 1]. While angels perform similar roles in God’s way of ordering creation — since both Christ and angels “serve those who are going to inherit salvation” (1:14) — Scripture deconstructs this facile comparison by disclosing that Jesus is God’s exalted and eternal Son who is worshiped and adored by Christians.
Scholars refer to a string of connected quotes from Scripture as a “catena.” The rhetorical effect catenae have upon readers is to form an impression that Scripture supports the author’s claims. But don’t miss the forest through the trees: the cumulative effect of this particular catena (1:5–13) is to secure the import of the title God gives the Son (1:4), which confirms the excellence of his ministry (revelatory and redemptive) as the heavenly messenger God has dispatched from heaven to serve the saved (1:14).
This argument of Christ’s excellence is easily made in comparison to angels. (1) The Son enjoys an intimate relationship with God His Father, similar to the one expressed in God’s relationship with David (1:5; cf. Psalm 2:7; 2 Samuel 7:14). Angels do not. (2) Angels worship the Son, not the reverse (Hebrews 1:6; cf. Deuteronomy 32:43). (3) Angels are only “messengers” (“messenger” is the literal meaning of the Greek word that is translated “angel”) and therefore have limited roles to perform in the work of salvation when compared to the messianic role performed by the Son (Hebrews 1:7; cf. Psalm 104:4). (4) The Son shares God’s throne and rules over the real world brought into existence and sustained by His powerful word (Hebrews 1:10; cf. 1:2–3). (5) Unlike angels, whose existence began at God’s creation of all things, the Son’s reign is eternal (1:11; cf. Psalm 102:25–27). His reign is therefore characterized by divine attributes such as justice (Hebrews 1:8) and righteousness (1:9a). It is his divine persona that disposes the Son against disobedient behavior (1:9b; cf. Psalm 45:6–7).
These Christological affirmations lead the Preacher to his summary claim, anchored by Psalm 110:1, that the enthroned Son is worshiped as the Lord of all God’s creatures. Unlike all other covenant mediators, human and angelic, only the Son has the chops to mediate God’s ultimate victory over sin and death.
But why does the Preacher choose angels for this initial comparison to demonstrate Christ’s excellence? The Preacher’s way of interpreting his world is shaped by reading Scripture. This world is inhabited by angels who are given specific tasks to perform. Already during the Reformation, however, Calvin (and other Reformers) found the existence of real angels difficult to swallow in a world shaped by early modernity’s rationalist/empiricist views of the nature and limits of what can be known (epistemology).
For the modern-minded, angels are unbelievable. So even the modern-minded Calvin replaced angels with meteorological phenomena as the medium of God’s Word! The skepticism of our own day toward anything supernatural may lead some readers to romanticize the letter’s repeated mention of angels as the creatures who belong to an ancient author’s make-believe world, used to make a theological point about Jesus. In this view, it’s not the angels but Jesus that counts.
That said, modern readers must understand that within the world of Hebrews, angels are indispensable players in the everyday life of Christians. They are as real as rain in Seattle. More importantly, Scripture speaks of angels as carriers of God’s Word not only to Moses but also to the recipients of the letter (Hebrews 2:2; cf. Acts 7:53). Like the prophets and the Messiah, angels are messengers of God’s Word whose appointment is to help manage the people’s covenant with God. Only in comparison with the Son are angels lightweights within the world of Hebrews. Jesus is the divine messenger whose service to the saved is indispensable at every moment of God’s narrative of salvation: past (exodus), present (wilderness), and future (Promised Land).
A second question is asked in Hebrews 1:14 on the basis of this comparison’s conclusion: if angels aren’t divine, nor given any of the crucial tasks in God’s way of salvation, what important ministry do they perform? Why are they occupants of heaven in the first place? The short answer is that their task is to minister (diakōnia; 1:14) [see Author’s Note 2] to those who are destined to inherit the blessings promised by God to the covenant community. The Preacher’s initial word of exhortation (2:1–9), cued by “therefore” (2:1), suggests this connection: if angels are dispatched from heaven to serve the readers of Hebrews, readers should understand the importance of their appropriate response to the message they receive.
If God uses heaven’s angelic delivery system to reveal the conditions of God’s salvation (2:2), how much more important is it to act upon God’s Word revealed by the Lord’s apostolic delivery system (2:3)! The apostles confirm the fulfillment of God’s promises delivered by angels to the prophets of old. The charismatic experiences that “[vouch] for” (2:4) the reliability of this apostolic word comprise a line of evidence that makes the apostolic claim of Jesus’s lordship impossible to ignore.
This exhortation is not addressed to readers on the verge of rejecting the gospel. Rather, the Preacher is affirming a conversion already experienced by asserting that the law mediated by angels on Mt. Sinai is incomparable to the gospel of Christ mediated by apostles. Both are revelations of the divine word; both are indispensable in the plan of God’s salvation. Yet the implication of the Preacher’s big idea set out in the opening passage (1:1–4) is that the incarnate Word trumps all other versions of God’s message. The community’s rule of faith and life is established by the apostolic testimony of the historical Jesus, the incarnate Son, and is the plumb line for any who seek God’s salvation.
The Preacher’s turn back to the angels in 2:5–9 initially strikes the reader as awkward, especially since the word of exhortation in 2:1–4 concludes the theological point scored in 1:5–14. But evidently the Preacher is not ready to move on to the sermon’s next point. He has one more observation about angels.
As important as angels are in God’s way of salvation, the world to come is not promised for them. The kingdom is for human creation, and the portal into that world has already been opened by the Son who created it (1:2). Angels have no salvation to gain or lose; they are not sinners in need of God’s purifying grace. Human beings have everything to gain or lose by our response to the apostolic testimony of Jesus.
The Historical Human Jesus is the Suffering Messiah
Significantly, the name Jesus is introduced here into the sermon (2:9). In a riff about human beings, the Preacher mentions Jesus to press the importance of his humanity as seen and heard by the apostles. It is their eyewitness testimony of Jesus as God’s suffering Son that confirms God’s message of salvation first announced “through the Lord” (2:3). Critical to the apostles’ testimony is their witness of Jesus’s suffering and messianic death as a holy act of salvation. Jesus died “for [the sins of] everyone” (2:9).
The Preacher’s introduction to his sermon is heard as a sustained celebration of God’s Son. Every paragraph fits together to unfold the nature of Christ. The Church’s practices are ordered by these core beliefs about Jesus. In imitating Him, we worship Him; we read Scripture by His light; we receive the gospel message about Him from these apostles; we continue to experience the transforming effects of our trust in Him as evidence of the gospel’s truth. There remains a final piece to complete the Preacher’s spectacular doxology.
The first (2:10) and last (2:18) lines of this concluding paragraph emphasize the controversial centerpiece of what the apostles witnessed and proclaimed: the Messiah suffered. The controversy is how any reasonable person reconciles that Jesus, the very imprint of God’s majesty and nature (1:3), is this historical Jesus (2:9) who suffered and was executed by His opponents. Surely gods don’t die! Surely saviors don’t suffer apparent defeats. Saviors win. Gods live forever. Paul admits ironically that most folks, religious and secular, consider the very idea of a suffering savior utter foolishness (1 Corinthians 1:22–23). Yet this theological shockwave signals one of Scripture’s most important testimonies of Christ (Hebrews 2:10–18).
Let’s shift down a gear or two to get more traction as we navigate our way through this crucial passage. Again, the Preacher’s challenge is to explain to his congregation (and to us) what is central to the confession of faith: God’s Son is Jesus of Nazareth, who suffered and died for our sins as the Christ. The Preacher’s initial explanation is cued by the phrase “it was appropriate” (2:10). That is, against common sense (see 1 Corinthians 1:23), God’s normal pattern for saving people is for the deliverer to suffer so that his people might live. God’s sovereignty is exercised by suffering (rather than heroic power) to lead God’s people out of evil and toward the Promised Land (2:10). Think Moses. Think Jesus.
Up to this point, Hebrews has emphasized the Son’s incomparable excellence. Hebrews has agreed with the grand sentiment of our confession that the Son is “Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father” (Nicene Creed). But this final introductory piece now shifts from the Son’s upward mobility (exaltation) to His downward mobility (suffering) to make this letter’s most extraordinary claim: God’s Son suffered in order to be made perfect and become “the pioneer of salvation” (2:10).
The Son’s incarnation completes His preparation for His future work as creation’s Savior and Lord. The very idea that the Second Person of the Holy Trinity has room to grow — to be made perfect — is a stunning, even unsettling claim, and its huge implications for our present relationship with Him require careful reflection. We will explore this further as the Lectio series unfolds.
Suffering, Testing, and Temptation
The Greek word that the CEB translates as “pioneer” (2:10) (or in other translations “captain,” “leader,” “author,” or “ruler”) is best understood in this context to mean an exemplar or guide. Jesus leads his disciples by personal example. He guides them into communion with God (i.e., glory) by embodying a way to live for God through the ordinary experiences of life, including hardship and heartbreak.
According to Hebrews 2:18, Jesus suffers in order “to help those who are being tempted” because of their suffering. Readers are now introduced to another perspective on the Son’s incarnation [see Author’s Note 3]. In this case, Jesus not only personifies God’s revelatory word — He is both God’s messenger and the message of salvation — but He also exemplifies in His own battle with temptation the sanctifying faithfulness to the “one source” (2:11) “for whom and through whom everything exists” (2:10; cf. 1:2).
This connection between human suffering and spiritual temptation is a logical one that is found throughout Scripture. This is territory often occupied by the evil one (2:14). The Gospel witness (other than John’s Gospel) plots the story of Jesus by His steady encounters with demonic resistance. He is persistently tempted to step off the messianic path to avoid conflict, suffering, and death. His devotion to God is repeatedly tested by His suffering and rejection, and yet He is without a single act of unfaithfulness.
Clearly the Preacher’s word of exhortation targets believers who suffer loss because of their religion. Being a Christian is a hard devotion when Christ’s rivals are culturally prominent and powerful. There are constant tugs from all directions that seek to subvert the believer’s allegiance to Jesus. This is the “suffering” of which the Preacher speaks (2:9,10,18). Suffering is a way of talking about spiritual testing, which often occasions our doubting the goodness of God. And the Preacher uses this to radically redefine how we think of the Son’s incarnation. In sharing our flesh and blood, Jesus faced the same battles we do.
We trivialize this bold idea if we collapse the human and the divine, as though Jesus’s faithfulness to God is a function of his deity. One might suggest that He couldn’t have given in to His temptations — as though His deity exempts Him from free will. But if this were so, Jesus would cease being an exemplar for the rest of us who are humans, not gods! People have choices: we can choose to give in to temptation and sin against God, or not.
The Preacher believes that when Israel’s transcendent God became one of us in Jesus of Nazareth, God really did become one of us — “made like [us] in every way” (2:17). He was born into a human family and initiated into His family’s Jewish faith, He apprenticed for His carpenter father, He suffered, His loyalty to the Father was tested, and throughout His ministry He had to make real choices about whether to follow God’s plan of salvation or not.
The reading of the fourfold Gospel witness, which tells the story of these things, frames any reading of Hebrews. Jesus’s authentic human experiences become a crucial part of His résumé as God’s Son. And this is precisely why the Jesus we receive in faith and about whom we read in Scripture can now guide rank-and-file Christians in holiness toward eternal glory.
Jesus as High Priest and Sacrifice
Both the Preacher and Paul address the difficult problem of people’s fear of death. Folks have always been slaves of death (2:15), spending billions of dollars avoiding death for as long as humanly possible. It’s also the essential commitment of every form of nihilism and atheism, in which death replaces heaven as the endgame of life. Paul’s response is to remind his readers that the Messiah Jesus died as a sacrifice for sin to repeal our death sentence. God accepts Jesus’s sacrifice because of His faithfulness and our faith in Him (see Romans 3:21–26). Moreover, this same loving God has poured out the Spirit into our hearts so that we may experience God’s victory over death in profoundly existential and personal ways (see Romans 5:1–10).
From here the Preacher plots an uncommon course. Jesus defeats evil and death by becoming human in order to assume the role of Israel’s “merciful and faithful high priest in things relating to [God’s salvation]” (2:16–17). This theme is one of the most powerful contributions this book makes to Scripture’s witness of Christ. We will seek to develop its implications for Christian discipleship in future Lectios.
The Preacher’s introduction of Christ’s priestly vocation in this passage is set out in comprehensive terms: He is a “merciful and faithful high priest” (2:17). These are the twin attributes of any effective covenant mediator. The Son’s faithfulness to God, witnessed by His “obedien[ce] to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8), secures God’s merciful response toward sinners and also God’s exaltation of the risen Jesus (cf. Philippians 2:9–11). These divine actions toward Jesus — God’s acceptance of His sacrifice and God’s subsequent exaltation of Him — together assure God’s people of their forgiveness and liberate them from the paralyzing fear of dying (cf. Hebrews 2:15; Romans 3:22–26).
I’ll conclude with two final thoughts to consider. According to Scripture, a faithful high priest prepares God’s people for battle against God’s enemies. Sin and death are not only humanity’s fiercest foes, but also God’s chief rivals (Revelation 20:13–14; 1 Corinthians 15:24–26). The priestly Son’s battle with the evil one (cf. Hebrews 2:14) is waged on behalf of God to destroy the forces that subvert hope for heaven (cf. 2:15). The messianic priest’s self-sacrifice, an act of His faithfulness to God (cf. Romans 3:22; 5:18–19; Galatians 2:16), “wipe[s] away the sins of the people” (2:17) and presents the happy prospect of a forgiven people’s sanctified life with God.
This same merciful high priest pastors God’s people, now released from the power of sin, to defeat their temptation to sin as they trust in God’s message of salvation. The Son learned the ways of God at ground level during a lifetime of suffering. He was made perfect (2:10) to mediate God’s sanctifying grace to those suffering (2:11, 18).
The Preacher’s image of a priestly Son rendering pastoral care to those who are suffering is nicely captured by the Greek word boētheō. This word is earlier used in the poignant story of the Gentile woman who pleads her sick daughter’s case to a merciful Jesus in Matthew 15:25: “help [boētheō] me.” Life’s heartaches often test our loyalty to God. The Son made perfect by His suffering stands now in an exalted position at God’s right hand — not only to receive our pleas for help, but also to render priestly care in a knowing, effective way.
Questions for Further Discussion
- How might angels, as the Preacher and Dr. Wall describe them, function in twenty-first century society? Have you encountered literal or metaphorical angels in your life? Think about how their messages compared to the apostolic message of the New Testament. In other words, how did their messages support the “big idea” of Jesus Christ the Lord of all?
- Very often we humans are tested by the question: “If God is good, why would God allow bad things to happen?” How might Jesus’s incarnation, temptation, and suffering, as presented by the Preacher in Hebrews 2:10–18, reframe this question? In other words, what does it mean that our good God experienced bad things along with us?
- What do you think “slavery to the fear of death” looks like in our society, in your community, and in your own life? How does Jesus’s testing and suffering offer freedom?
- The Preacher introduces the idea of Jesus Christ as High Priest in this week’s passage, and we will get into it more as the series goes on. Is the role of a priest a familiar image in your tradition? Based on this introductory reading, what are the characteristics and functions of a High Priest? Is there anyone in your individual or communal life who performs these functions?
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