The book of Hebrews was written to first century Christian Jews who were contemplating returning to Judaism because of the persecution they were facing. The author encourages them to be faithful by demonstrating that Jesus Christ was superior to every element of their former Jewish religion. He begins by showing how Jesus is superior in position and nature to the prophets. Then he goes on to demonstrate that according to Old Testament prophecy, Jesus the Messiah was considered greater than the angels. This was an important point for the Jews since angels represented a significant part of their contact with supernatural beings, and they may have been tempted to consider Jesus as an angelic being and not a divine one. Once the author describes Jesus' rightful place at the right hand of God, far above the position of the angels, he warns his readers about the significance of this. He then explains the reasons why this exalted Jesus took, for a while at least, a position lower than the angels. This was another idea difficult for Jews to accept.
We need to understand that the author uses several devices to introduce material in his epistle. In Hebrews 1:4-2:18 the general idea is that Jesus is greater than the angels, but within this general theme he introduces another idea which he will not elaborate upon for another several chapters. He usually does this at the end of the chapter, so be ready for it when we get there: I call it a "hook word" or "billboarding." For example, in chapter 1:14, in talking about angels, the author mentions the idea of angels serving those who are inheriting salvation, this is the "hook" word. In chapter 2 he elaborates not on angels, but he uses the introduction of the word to make a parenthetical statement about salvation.
Salvation: A Warning
For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it.
- Hebrews 2:1
We must pay attention to what we have heard and avoid the danger of "drifting away" from it. Like an arrow that slips from the bow or a boat slips past a safe harbor. The idea is of drifting away from truth.
For if the word spoken through angels proved unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just penalty,
- Hebrews 2:2
The reason why we must pay closer attention to what was spoken through the angels (spoken by angels to Abraham, spoken to Lot by angels concerning the destruction of Sodom, the Law given to Moses through the angels, Galatians 3:19), was required to be obeyed, and God punished without exception those who disobeyed.
3 how will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? After it was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard, 4 God also testifying with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will.
- Hebrews 2:3-4
How will they escape who neglect the words given by the Son who is higher than angels? Not only spoken by the Son, but preached by the Apostles and confirmed by miracles. If God punished those who disobeyed the word spoken by angels, imagine the result for those who neglect (neglect refers to believers because disbelievers "reject") God's word:
- the word of salvation, forgiveness/eternal life (superior to law)
- spoken by the Son (superior to angels)
- confirmed by Apostles and miracles
The warning is that if even the angels didn't escape punishment, those who neglect the word spoken by Jesus will not escape either. Once the warning is given, the author moves along with his discussion.
He's described Jesus' position above the angels and now will explain why Jesus took, for awhile, a position below them - man's position. He does this by first explaining the position that man has according to God.
For He did not subject to angels the world to come, concerning which we are speaking.
- Hebrews 2:5
In speaking of man, the author alludes to the fact that in the future man will inherit with Christ a new world order, not the angels! The new heavens and earth where Christ is King and will have His disciples reigning with Him, not the angels.
6 But one has testified somewhere, saying,
"What is man, that You remember him?
Or the son of man, that You are concerned about him?
7 "You have made him for a little while lower than the angels;
You have crowned him with glory and honor,
And have appointed him over the works of Your hands;
8 You have put all things in subjection under his feet."
- Hebrews 2:6-8a
The vague introduction here was a common literary device that emphasized divine origin. In modern parlance we would say, "The Bible says..." The Jews were familiar with this psalm (Psalm 8:4-6). The psalm in its original context referred to man and his position in God's creation. Man's original position was at the head of creation, below the angels, with dominion over the earth (Genesis 1:26-30). God isn't putting angels in charge of the world to come, He's putting man - man who was originally in charge of creation.
For in subjecting all things to him, He left nothing that is not subject to him. But now we do not yet see all things subjected to him.
- Hebrews 2:8b
This passage summarizes the idea that all things are subject to man. What isn't written but understood is that man fell from this position through sin and his dominion was severely cut back (Genesis 3:16; 17-19). The author says that we don't see man as that ruler now, but he hints at man's return to glory. Also, before describing Jesus' position below the angels for a time, he will first explain man's situation and hope for future return to glory.
In the following verses the writer describes Jesus' position and the reasons why He took the low position. In the original context, the psalm in verses 6-8 talked about man, but now the author takes this scripture and shows how Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of these words. In a historic sense the passage refers to man as a human being, but in a prophetic sense it speaks of Christ. The author now matches the facts of Jesus' life and death to give the passage its prophetic meaning. (Aside from its historic meaning.)
But we do see Him who was made for a little while lower than the angels, namely, Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone.
- Hebrews 2:9
We don't yet see man's glory but we do see Jesus, made for awhile like a man (lower than angels). We also see His glory and honor following His death. His death is a "hook word" that will be discussed in a moment. Without mentioning it specifically, the author refers to the resurrection which was the basis of preaching through which his readers originally came to faith. They don't see man's glory, but they see Jesus, like a man, dying and being raised from the dead to a position of glory and honor. The author will show how this will ultimately mean glory and honor for man also, but first he returns to deal with the subject of death that was introduced earlier.
Death for Everyone
The point that the author is making about Jesus' death is that it was an honorable death; one that led to glory. His death was not a deserved death like man's death (men suffer death as a result of their own sin - Romans 6:23). Jesus' death was substitutionary. It was the sin of others that caused his death and so He suffered a personal death for other people's sins. For this reason He did not suffer a shameful death due to the guilt of personal sin.
This point is important because the death of the Messiah was an obstacle to faith for Jews. The Jewish Messiah was imagined to be a strong leader bringing the nation freedom and prosperity. They stumbled over the fact that Jesus was crucified as a common criminal by a foreign army. This was a very persuasive argument capable of shaking their faith. It is one reason why the author tells them to pay closer attention to the gospel! This is why he mentions that His death was according to the will and purpose of God and was substitutionary in nature.
The author will now explain the relationship between the suffering and death of Jesus and the salvation of man. He does this to make the concept of a "suffering Messiah" acceptable to them. He says three things about the suffering:
1. The suffering was according to God's will
For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things, and through whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to perfect the author of their salvation through sufferings.
- Hebrews 2:10
It was fitting according to God's plan and nature to equip Jesus completely for the task of saving man (bringing sons to glory). In order to save man, death was necessary (he will explain this later). God fully prepared His Son for this suffering by equipping Him with a human body and nature. "Perfect" means to equip completely. The author will go on to say that in His humanity, Jesus was fully human - meaning that He was fully capable of suffering. Jesus is higher and superior to angels, but when He became a man He also fully shared man's inferior position beneath the angels. This was also according to God's will and word.
For both He who sanctifies and those who are sanctified are all from one Father; for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren,
- Hebrews 2:11
Sanctified means to set aside for a special purpose. God's purpose for us is that we become His children. Because of the sanctification we have obtained through the suffering of Jesus, we have become God's children and, for this reason, Jesus can call us His brethren. He comes down to take on our humanity. In doing so He raises us up to take on His spirituality. In this way we become united having the one Father. He is not ashamed of us. At this point the author will quote several Old Testament passages in order to support the idea that Jesus became fully human:
"I will proclaim Your name to My brethren,
In the midst of the congregation I will sing Your praise."
- Hebrews 2:12
This passage comes from Psalm 22:22. It is a prayer asking for deliverance and help, as well as offering praise when the prayer is answered. The author's point being that Jesus also prayed when suffering and now declares salvation among His brethren - like a man.
"I will put My trust in Him."
"Behold, I and the children whom God has given Me."
- Hebrews 2:13
The Old Testament context comes from Isaiah 8:17-18 where the prophet refers to his two sons. Distressed and rejected by a disobedient people, the prophet expressed these words to affirm his faith in God and looked to his two children as witnesses to the salvation God would bring. The author sees David and Isaiah's words as illustration of higher truths:
- The Messiah's complete trust in God as all men should.
- The Messiah's willingness to associate with God's sons as a human.
The writer puts these words into Jesus' mouth to demonstrate that He responded to God as a human. This is done as a defense against accusations that Jesus was merely a vision or angelic being on earth, and not fully man. He is also echoing John's words in John 1:14, "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us..."
The writer of the Hebrew letter adds several Old Testament passages at this point in order to support the idea that what he is saying was in line with what the prophets said concerning the Messiah, that He would be human and that He would suffer, all according to God's will.
2. The results of suffering
The author has established the idea that the incarnation was according to God's plan and, as man, Jesus was fully human. Now he goes on to explain what Jesus accomplished with His suffering.
Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil,
- Hebrews 2:14
He repeats the idea of Jesus' need to become like those He wished to save. He also shows that His death as a human being was necessary in order to destroy Satan's power. Satan has power over death in that he manipulates and seduces man into committing sin, and according to God's Word, sin is punishable by death (Romans 6:23). When it comes to the battle over sin, Satan is more powerful than unregenerated man.
Jesus, on the other hand, was able to resist Satan's attacks and was thus without sin (I Peter 2:22). His death, therefore, was not a punishment for His sins but rather became a payment for the sins of others. We die with a moral debt for sin, and this condition condemns us at judgment. Jesus, on the other hand, dies with no moral debt and so His life offered in death becomes a full payment for the sins of others. Now that there is a payment for sin several things happen:
1. Satan has no power over death because the thing he controls, sin leading to death, now has a neutralizer. Satan continues to lie, seduce and deceive men into sin, but there is now something that removes all sin: the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
2. Men are free from slavery caused by the fear of death.
and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.
- Hebrews 2:15
Before, there was no solution to sin, and so death was inevitable. Because of Jesus' cross and its payment for sin, men no longer needed to be afraid of the condemnation they faced. There was now a payment for sin. Without condemnation and death as their inevitable end, men were free to be sons of God and take their place with Christ in the heavenly realm.
The third thing the author says regarding Jesus' suffering:
3. The suffering Messiah is the "correct" view of the Jewish Messiah
Remember, the original point in all of this was to show that a suffering Messiah was honorable and legitimate because the idea of Jesus' crucifixion caused much doubt to Jews. In the last verses the author goes on to show that far from being a shameful thing for the Messiah to suffer, it was actually the ultimate fulfillment of every aspect of their Jewish religious system, and a perfect sign that the Messiah could help them now (as they suffered persecution).
For assuredly He does not give help to angels, but He gives help to the descendant of Abraham.
- Hebrews 2:16
Jews understood their position below angels, their need for a savior as sinful men and God's promise of salvation. In verse 16 the author establishes that man (Jews in particular) needs salvation and God offered it to them, not angels (final reference to them), and that Jesus' suffering was for them, not angels.
Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.
- Hebrews 2:17
Now he refers to what they knew about how God dealt with sin - by the offering of a sacrifice by a priest (the Jewish sacricial system). Note that another "hook word" has appeared that he will expand on later: high priest. The priest was a "go-between" or mediator between God and the people. On the one hand, he was human and understood human weakness. On the other, he was set aside for exclusive service by God to offer sacrifices on behalf of the people. The priests served exclusively in the temple. They had no other work nor did they own land or were involved in commerce.
The argument was that Jesus had to become a human and experience suffering and temptation so that, like the priest, He would be able to understand man's weakness and empathize with him. Like the priests, Jesus offered a sacrifice on behalf of the people. Here the author shows how Jesus is similar to the high priest, but later he will demonstrate how Jesus is superior to the high priest. The point in this verse, however, is that according to Jewish religion, a sacrifice for sin was an honorable thing ordained by God in order to deal with sin. The author states that the death of Christ for the sins of men, by comparison, is also an honorable thing totally in line within the Jewish system. Later on he will show how Jesus' sacrifice is superior, but for now he only wants to demonstrate that Jesus' sacrifice is not a shameful thing.
For since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted.
- Hebrews 2:18
At the end of this section there is an exhortation. Since the human Savior suffered (as part of His work to save man from sin) it means that He is able to understand and help with human suffering. He subtly refers to their persecution and reminds them that a suffering savior is well qualified to help them with this burden.
Within the context of the idea that Jesus is greater than angels, the author introduces the concept that He was also, for a time, lower than angels, and during that time shared not only in human nature but human suffering as well. Without taking his eye off of the ideas that Jesus was the divine son of God and exalted above the angels, the author adds the following things about Jesus when He, for a time, took a position below the angels as a human being:
- This was according to God's plan. The Messiah had to become human (lower than angels) in order to save man.
- His suffering produced important and necessary results: A - Destruction of Satan's power over sin and death; B - Freedom for mankind to become children of God.
- His suffering was in accordance with the basic concepts of the Jewish religion.
We've learned a lot about the theology of Jesus' incarnation and His atonement, and how these were the true fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy as well as the real substance of the Jewish sacrificial system. But we are not Jews, what lessons can we, as modern day Christians draw from all of this?
- We must pay attention to what we have heard. We, today, must also be careful to pay attention to what Jesus teaches lest we drift away from it. They were not paying attention to the Word! They were tempted with arguments that it was shameful for a Messiah to die on the cross. In our age we are tempted to abandon our faith by sophisticated philosophies that repudiate God's Word, cast doubt upon the deity of Christ and the reality of sin, and judgment by scoffers and mockers. We must pay closer and closer attention to God's Word lest "we" drift away.
- We must not be afraid. God has freed us from sin and death through His elaborate plan in Jesus. We must no longer be afraid of death, sin or failure because we are free from the consequences of these things. We need to learn to live like sons and daughters of God because in Christ we will reach our ultimate potential. Let us not judge ourselves too quickly, let us wait for the end and, if we are faithful, we will wear a crown!
- We must put all of our trust in Jesus. Jesus came to share our human experience so He could effectively help us. How foolish we are when we ignore the Lord who sits above all authority and power in heaven, and rely on other things to rescue us! These Jews were being tempted to return to their temple ritual and law to save themselves from persecution. Little did they know that only a few years after they read this letter, the temple and all that was precious in the Jewish religion was to be utterly destroyed by a Roman army (70 AD).
We need to stop trusting earthly things that will ultimately be destroyed and begin to trust in the only One who can save us from eternal destruction: the glorious Jesus Christ!