Our song said in the second verse, "No Angel could His place have taken, highest of the high though he." Have you noticed how popular angels currently are in our culture? In entertainment there have been many cases in recent years where angels have been the main characters in movies or in television programs. As I was working on this study, someone was even telling me about an advertising campaign which has been ongoing lately in which someone is driving a Lexus along the road and there beside each tire as they travel along is an angel. I haven't seen the ad, but that tells you something of the popular thinking. There is something about the thought of having angels that we can make what we want them to be which is attractive to us. Perhaps at times this is even more attractive than having an almighty Lord who can send those angels to do whatever he will.
I notice that in the epistle to the Hebrews in the New Testament, this theme is the one the writer begins with in chapters 1 and 2. It is interesting in looking at this great part of the New Testament that it is a letter written clearly to some people who are Christians, but who are weary Christians. Some of them have grown nearly burnt out. Some of them are thinking of turning away from Jesus as if he were not exciting enough and not impressive enough anymore, and turning instead to intermediaries between God and man like angels. The fact that the Hebrew writer has to devote as much space to this as he does tells us something of the drawing power of this idea. To have creatures that we can envision as being close to us and involved in our lives, to have those who have power to oversee us, to have heavenly beings that we can turn into kind of caricatures that look cute and have wings that cause them to do whatever we want them to do for us - that apparently was a captivating idea to tired Christians. Perhaps it still can be that way in life, and maybe that is one of the reasons why it has such an appeal in our culture.
The Hebrew writer, though, begins with this theme in order to emphasize to us one mighty fact - we have been given a great salvation in Jesus, and we ought to treasure it. This morning we are going to look at the message in Hebrews 1 and 2, and obviously in a longer text like this, we will not be able to dwell on every word or idea that is here. I want to ask you to notice with me three points to start with that are made in this context.
The first point that stands out is that our Lord Jesus Christ is far superior to the angels or any other beings that there are anywhere. The Hebrew writer uses a series of quotes from the Old Testament to contrast the place of the angels and the place of Jesus, and to stress that Jesus has a name more excellent than theirs and that he is superior to them. First, he says that Jesus is the Son of God, while the angels are not. Look at verse 5 of chapter 1. "For to which of the angels did God ever say "You are my Son. Today I have begotten you?" The answer, of course, is to no angel nor to anyone else has that ever been said other than Jesus. It is a quote from Psalm 2, verse 7, and it is interesting that the first thing that pops into our minds is, "Ah, hah, the birth of Jesus." But did you realize that in Acts 13, verse 33, the apostle Paul takes this and applies it directly to the resurrection of Jesus? There is where Jesus is declared to be the Son of God with power, according to Romans 1, verse 4. "For again, I will be to him a father and he shall be to me a son" at the end of verse 5. No angel ever had anything like that said to him. Instead, notice the second thought that stands out in verse 6, the angels worship him, the passage says. "And again, when he brings the first born into the world, he says, 'Let all God's angels worship him.'" That idea comes from a statement in the Greek version of the Old Testament from Deuteronomy 32, verse 43. And the idea is used by the Hebrew writer to stress the fact that the angels, rather than being superior to Jesus or rather than being equal to Jesus, instead fall down and worship him. In fact, in the New Testament, when the angels appear and when man would be tempted to worship an angel, the angels prohibit it, and say instead, "worship God." You see that in the book of Revelation, especially with the apostle John.
In the third place you will notice the fact emphasized that the Son of God, Jesus, has a place of divine authority, that he rules over all things from the right hand of the throne of God while angels, instead, are sent to do his bidding, to be servants. Of the angels he says he makes his angels winds and his ministers a flame of fire. That statement comes from Psalm 104, verse 4, to show that angels go to do whatever they are sent to do. The word itself means messengers. Messengers are beings you send to do something for you. And then in Hebrews 1, verse 14, the point is made that "angels are ministering spirits sent to serve for the sake of those who have had salvation," emphasizing that they are ministering spirits who are sent by the Lord himself. On the other hand, look at Jesus in these two great quotes. First, in verses 8 and 9, "But of the Son, he says: Your throne, O God, is forever and ever." Let's stop there just to observe how impressive it is that a statement that says "Your throne, O God" is taken and applied to Jesus. We think of the Father, but the Hebrew writer, in citing Psalm 45:6,7, said it refers to Jesus. "The scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom." We just sang about submitting to that ruling scepter. "You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness. Therefore, your God has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions." The next quote is from Psalm 102. "You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the work of your hands." Notice that Jesus has ascribed to him the work of creator here. All things were made through him. "Without him was not anything made that has been made," John says in John, chapter 1. "They (that is the heavens and earth) will perish, but you remain; they will wear out like a garment; like a robe you will roll them up; like a garment they will be changed; but you are the same and your years will have no end." Notice the superiority of Jesus over the angels. He is a Son. They are serving spirits. He is worshiped by them. He rules with the authority of the King. They are sent to do whatever he bids them to do. Our Lord is far superior to the angels.
The second point the Hebrew writer brings up is that Jesus was made for a while a little lower than the angels. This one who was so far superior to the angels becomes, in the story of the Bible, a little lower than them. The Hebrew writer in chapter 2, verse 5, makes the point that it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come, and he quotes from the 8th Psalm to show that God's intention was for man to have dominion over what he had created and for man to have the glory of using the created world to be blessed by it. He says, "What is man that you are mindful of him or the Son of man that you care for him. You made him a little lower than the angels. You crowned him with glory and honor, putting everything in subjection under his feet." Now look at that amazing statement. That is what God's intention was. But the Hebrew writer observes that we don't see everything submitted to man's feet. In fact, rather than our having dominion over what God has made, we are in some ways slaves. The writer is talking about the problem of sin and what sin did in entering creation through the choices of man. We don't have the position that God wanted us to have or that God created us to have or that he intended for us to have, and we don't have it because of the evil effect of wrongdoing, the influence of the evil one. So the Hebrew writer says in verse 9, "but we do see Jesus, who was for a little while made lower than the angels." He was given this position so that he might, through suffering of death, show the grace of God in tasting of death for everyone. He paid the debt that was keeping us from having the position that God wanted us to have. Jesus became a little lower than the angels to make of man what man was meant to be by means of his own suffering. The Hebrew writer says that God made him complete, or perfect, by means of suffering, verse 10. He finished his mission by means of suffering.
Some years ago, J.B. Phillips (more famous for his paraphrase or translation of the scriptures) wrote a little story in which he used an imaginary conversation between angels to show something of the wonder of what the Hebrew writer is saying here. I want to read you a part of what he says. He says that this writing has what he called a "senior angel" and a "very young angel." I doubt that there are any such things. Angels are angels. One is showing the other around the splendors of the universe in Phillips' story. They view the whirling galaxies and the blazing sun. Then they look across the infinite distances of space until at last they encounter one particular galaxy of 500 billion stars. As the two of them drew near to the star which we call our sun and to its circling planets, the senior angel points to a smaller and rather insignificant sphere, turning very slowly on its axis off in space. It looked as dull as a dirty tennis ball to that little angel, whose mind was filled with the size and the glory of what he was seeing. The older one says, "I want you to watch that one in particular," pointing with his finger. "Well, it looks very small and rather dirty to me," says the littler angel. "What's so special about it?" Of course, the senior one begins to explain that this planet that he was pointing to, so small and insignificant and not overly clean, was the renowned "visited planet," he called it. And I pick up the conversation again. "Do you mean that our great and glorious prince went down in person to this fifth-rate little ball? Why should he do a thing like that?" The little angel's face wrinkled in disgust. "Do you mean to tell me," he said, "that he stooped so low as to become one of those creeping, crawling creatures of that floating ball?" The other one answers, "I do, and I don't think he would like for you to call them creeping, crawling creatures in that tone of voice. For strange as it may seem to us, he loves them and he went down to visit them to lift them up to become like him." The little angel looked blank. Such a thought was beyond his comprehension. That is part of what the Hebrew writer means when he says, "What is man that you are mindful of him?" quoting from the Psalm in the Old Testament. Jesus is so superior to the angels, but he became for a little while lower than the angels.
And third, he did it not to help angels, but to help us. The Hebrew writer stresses that point. In Hebrews 2, verse 16, he says, "For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham." And by the descendants of Abraham, he is talking about people who have faith in Christ Jesus and who live in Christ, according to Galatians 3, verses 26-29.
This context shows what the writer means by saying that Jesus helps us. He is pointing out that Jesus became identified with his brethren in every way. Look at chapter 2, verse 11 at the end of the verse, he says, "He is not ashamed to call us or them brothers saying, 'I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise. And again I will put my trust in him and behold I and the children God has given to me." He is quoting from Isaiah 8, verses 16 and 17, in verse 13, and then in verse 12, he is quoting from Psalm 22, the Psalm that speaks more of the crucifixion than any of the other Old Testament Psalms. Jesus became identified with us completely by suffering all that there is to suffer in life. In verse 14 it says, "Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is the devil, and deliver those who through fear of death, were subject to lifelong slavery."
One writer described just some of the things that Jesus partook of in order to be fully identified with us. Let me read you part of the list: He was conceived of a mother who was not yet married; being born in a stable, the worst of the conditions that you could have entering the world; being born to very poor parents, as we learn from Luke 2; having his life threatened as a baby - danger, as we learn from Matthew 2; being the cause of unimaginable sorrow to the one he loved most - his mother -her heart was pierced; having to be moved and shifted about as a baby with his parents going from one place to another; being reared in a place which had a low reputation - Nazareth; apparently having his earthly father die during his youth - I believe that to be the case (it is implied in the New Testament story); having to support his mother and brothers and sisters; having no home, not even a place to lay his head; being hated and opposed by religious leaders; being charged with insanity; being charged with demon possession; being opposed by his own family; being rejected, hated, and opposed by some of his listeners; being betrayed by a close friend; being left alone, rejected and forsaken by all his friends; being tried before the high court of the land on the charge of treason; being executed by crucifixion, which is the worst possible death. I mention that to you in order to read what the Hebrew writer then says in verses 17 and 18, "Therefore, he had to be made like his brothers in every respect so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God; to make propitiation for the sins of the people; because he himself has suffered being tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted." Jesus went through all of that in order to serve as our great high priest. He paid a price that needed to be paid to give the help that needed to be received. He is better than the angels - far superior. He was made a little lower than the angels in order to help not angels, but us.
Now let's apply that text, just very briefly, to our own hearts and lives for just a minute. In Hebrews 2, verses 1-4, the Hebrew writer offers an important word of encouragement to every one of his readers. It centers around the fact that we have been given such a great salvation, according to verse 3. The Hebrew writer says because of that, we should pay much closer attention to what we have heard. His answer to the weariness of these readers that made angels attractive to them as objects of devotion and worship, was for them to pay closer attention, not to something new, but to what they have already heard about the suffering of Jesus and about who Jesus was. He reminds them here that that is because of the great salvation that they have been given.
And then he says to them secondly, "You want to be careful that you don't drift away from it like a boat passing by safe harbor, like a car on the ice, sliding toward danger." No one wants to drift away from something so precious. And he reminds his readers that that message, the law which is given first through angels (according to Galatians 3, verse 19 and Acts 7, verse 53) if someone stepped across that law or if someone neglected that law, he received a just recompense of reward for every disobedience. Then he says that we have been given something greater - a message that came to us through Jesus and not angels, a message that was witnessed by those who heard it, and a message which was confirmed by God through signs and miracles and wonders. Of how much sorer punishment would be worthy if we were to drift away from that kind of salvation? It is thought provoking.
I ran across something in a little book written by Philip Yancey - "The Jesus I Never Knew." He tells in it the story of the Jesuit missionary, Matteo Ricci, who went to China in the 16th century. He brought along samples of religious art that he intended to use to illustrate the Christian story to people who had never heard it. It seemed to him like a good idea. The Chinese, though, readily adopted the portraits of the mother holding her little child, but when he produced paintings of the crucifixion and tried to explain that the God man had grown up only to be executed, the audience reacted with revulsion and horror. They much preferred the mother, and they insisted on worshiping her rather than the crucified God. And then Yancey observed this, "I realized that we in Christian countries go much the same thing. We observe a mellow, domesticated holiday purged of any hint of scandal. Above all, we purge from it any reminder of how the story that began at Bethlehem turned out to be Calvary."
We don't want to fall victim to the same thing that happened to the Hebrew's readers, leaving Jesus to focus on the angels. We don't want to ignore the greatness of the fact that our salvation happened in the suffering of Jesus and not merely in some sort of a holiday that the New Testament says nothing about. The Lord's people gather on the Lord's day to remember the Lord's death for a reason. That is the orientation that we need to live our lives. It is not a very good show, but it is a powerful truth.
Today I remind you that we have been given a great salvation. No angel could have taken his place. And what he accomplished there is not offered to angels but to us. If you this morning would embrace it by obedient faith, if you are ready today to be baptized into Christ, if you are someone who drifted away from that great salvation and need to come home to it, if we can help you today, won't you step out right now while we stand and sing together?