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Better than angels.
We don’t need Clarence Odbody to tell us what Christ already did.
Throughout the breathtaking opening salvo of Hebrews, the writer means to establish that in Christ is embodied the true and better Prophet of God. Jesus of Nazareth, then, is the One who was foretold who would come bearing God’s full and final word of revelation to man (Deut. 18:18–19). The marvelous fact, though, is that this Word is not only announced but is enfleshed (John 1:14). You might be inclined to assume that the writer would, then, detail the manifold ways in which Jesus is superior to each and every prophet who preceded him. However this course of action might be, though, the writer to the Hebrews proceeds to claim that Jesus is better than the angels. “Having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. For to which of the angels did God ever say, ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you’?” (Heb. 1:4–5). This, to be sure, is a curious course to follow, begging the question, Why was Jesus’s superiority to angels so chiefly on the mind of the writer?
Angels, you see, were highly revered spiritual figures within all epics of Judaism. In fact, both Paul and Stephen make mention of angelic hosts accompanying Yahweh at the declaration of the law on Sinai (Gal. 3:19; Acts 7:53; cf. Ps. 68:17), a point which corresponds with Moses’s own testimony, where, on his deathbed, he recalls that brilliant meeting which was augment by “ten thousands of holy ones” (Deut. 33:1–2). Accordingly, Jewish reverence for God’s angels was tantamount to their esteem of God’s law. It was by angelic intervention that so much of the Jewish story was carried forward. These spiritual beings, of course, feature significantly in God’s self-revelation throughout the Old Testament, they being the primary instrument of God’s power and means of communication prior to the incarnation. But, as the writer of Hebrews maintains, infinitely far above them is the ministry of revelation in God’s Son. And why is that so?
He has a better identity.
In order to prove what he has just asserted — namely, that the Son is superior to the angels — the writer of Hebrews asks a demanding series of rhetorical questions. “Which angel ever received the designation, ‘You are my Son?’” “To which angel did God ever say, ‘I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son?’” The short answer to these Old-Testament-inspired inquiries is none. No other angel or spiritual being was ever regarded so highly, and that is so precisely because Jesus is God’s Son. This is “the name” that is “more excellent than theirs” (Heb. 1:4), the name that is “above every name” (Phil. 2:9). While there are a few occasions where angels are called “sons” (Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7), there is only One True Son of God to whom is given all things and before whom all will bow (John 3:34–35; Phil. 2:10–11).
The language of Christ being “begotten” and being “the firstborn” might, at first, be confusing. Some take hold of such terms and propose that, just like the angels, Jesus is just another of God’s created beings. This heresy is attributed to Arius, the 2nd century false teacher who jolly ole St. Nick may or may not have walloped in the face at Nicea. The crux of this heretical doctrine springs from its insistence that Jesus is just another created being from the God’s good will, thereby making the Son on lesser footing than the Father. This, of course, is patently false. Jesus’s identity as the Son of God ought not to be understood through the paradigm of “offspring.” Rather his identity as God’s Son means he is the one to whom is owed all of the majesty and dignity and glory that heaven and earth can muster. He is the rightful heir of it all. The “father-son” dynamic helps you and I make sense of what occurs when the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, became incarnate as a man.
The Word of God, who is the Son of God, came to earth “in the fullness time,” putting himself on lower ground than the angels, even though he himself is vastly superior to all the angels. Jesus Christ is the only one who receives the title “My Son” because that’s who he is (Luke 3:22; 9:35). He has always been God’s Beloved. He didn’t become “beloved” at some later point. Christ is the incarnate Son of God in whom is found the fullness of deity. Which is just to say: Jesus is co-eternal and co-equal with God himself. He is God enfleshed. “This is the fullness of who I am, manifested to you, for you, in a way you can understand,” we hear the Father say, in effect. Indeed, Jesus’s name as God’s Son is better than any title the angels might possess.
He has a better authority.
The writer presses this point even further in verses 7 and 8, where he contrasts the authority of the angels with the authority of the Son. In short, angels have no authority of their own, except as it is derived from the One who gave it to them — namely, God the Father. It is he who makes them to be what they are and to do what he sets before them to do. “Of the angels he says, ‘He makes his angels winds, and his ministers a flame of fire’” (Heb. 1:7). Indeed, angels are the servants of glory whom God “sends out to serve” (Heb. 1:14). They are the agents of heaven who carry out whatever purpose God has given them: whether that be announcing the Messiah’s birth to a gang of shepherds, or springing an apostle from prison, or raining down judgment on Israel’s enemies. It is the delight of angels to execute that which their Lord has commissioned them to do. Like diplomats from a far country, their authority and ministry is representative of Another.
However, as the writer to the Hebrews suggests, that’s not the case with the Son:
But of the Son he says, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.” (Heb. 1:8–9)
The Son’s accoutrements consist of a throne, a scepter, and a kingdom — all of which are indicative of his office: the King of Glory (Ps. 24:7–10). Therefore, only the Son is worthy of worship (Heb. 1:6; Ps. 97:7; cf. Rev. 19:10; 22:8–9). Whereas the heavenly host are “God’s ministrants,” R. C. H. Lenski comments, “and no more, the Son is the everlasting King” (51). Angels are at the beck and call of their Lord, while the Son sits in his rightful place of sovereign authority (Heb. 1:3; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2; cf. Matt. 26:64; Col. 3:1; 1 Pet. 3:22). The angels are messengers, the Son is the Magistrate and Monarch of heaven, whose rule is forever unchangeable and unchallengeable (Heb. 1:10–12). Who can question the authority of the Maker? No one.
He has a better ministry.
The author’s penultimate inquiry is one which, likewise, reveals what the Son has been accomplishing from before the foundation of the world. “And to which of the angels,” says the writer, “has he ever said, ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet’?” (Heb. 1:13). The keynote, here, is the image of the enemies of the Son being made his “footstool.” Properly speaking, the image that’s conveyed is that of warrior stomping on the neck of his enemy, a sign of unequivocal, unquestionable victory. “To which of the angels was this ever said?” he asks. “Not even Michal or Gabriel was ever arrayed like this Son!” Indeed, the Son’s ministry is one of cosmic triumph.
It is important to note that the writer of Hebrews is quoting from the Old Testament passage of Psalm 110, which just so happens to be the most often quoted psalm in the entire New Testament (Matt. 26:64; Mark 12:36; 14:62; 16:19; Luke 20:42–43; 22:69; 1 Cor. 15:25; Eph. 1:20; Col. 3:1; Heb. 1:3, 13; 5:6; 6:20; 7:17, 21; 8:1; 10:12–13; 12:2; 1 Pet. 3:22). A significant citation appears in Matthew 22, where, after enduring a litany of questions from the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus asks his own: “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” (Matt. 22:42). The reply is unanimous, “David’s!” But such is when the Lord presses them further:
How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying, “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet’”? If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?” (Matt. 22:43–45)
Jesus’s logic is sound: how could the promised Messiah, the subject of the psalmist’s worship, be rightfully designated the “son of David” when David himself writes that he is his (David’s) own Lord? (Ps. 110:1). Indeed, Jesus’s inquiry so stupefies his audience that “from that day no one dared to question him anymore” (Matt. 22:46). The Savior’s point was to demonstrate that the words of Psalm 110 only make sense if they’re prophetic. You can almost imagine him issuing these words with a finger pointed at himself, as if to say, “He’s here, and he’s me.” Peter, likewise, utilizes Psalm 110 to great effect in his sermon at Pentecost (Acts 2:29–36). As he plainly states, the ministry of the Son was accomplished when Jesus died and rose again.
The writer of Hebrews agrees: the cross of Christ is the site of his unequivocal, unquestionable victory. What might have looked like defeat on the surface was, in actuality, the place where the Son trampled on the neck of Satan and all his cronies. Of which of the angels can this be said? The ministry of the angels is not one of salvation or deliverance, fulfillment or forgiveness. That’s the Son’s ministry. By his passion and resurrection, he has put into motion that to which we all longingly look forward: death’s final defeat and our ultimate deliverance.
Is George Bailey the model?
That Jesus is better than the angels might seem to be a fairly basic truth. You might be tempted to think, “So what? What does all of this have to do with me?” We’re not too far removed from the “hap-happiest season of all,” which means that all those lights and tinsel and garland have returned to their Rubbermaid abodes. It also means that one of the most unbiblical albeit adorable platitudes is, likely, still ringing in your ears. “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings,” Zuzu Bailey says endearingly. That line, of course, precedes the end credits to Frank Capra’s 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life, starring Jimmy Stewart. More often than not, you’re familiar with that film. It’s a regular in almost every “top 10” list of holiday movies, not to mention its frequent billing as one of the most influential films of ever made.
The film follows the life story of one George Bailey, a young man growing up in small-town Bedford Falls who’s possessed by big goals and even bigger dreams. George’s aspirations are continually thwarted, however, as life seems to constantly get in his way. Friends and family move around without him, with his world staying confined to the Bedford Falls city limits. Later in life, a cynical and jaded George Bailey finds himself in the middle of a bridge late one Christmas Eve night, contemplating suicide. Mishap after mishap has seemingly led him to this pivotal juncture, where ending it all has a macabre appeal. But before George can jump, his “guardian angel,” Clarence Odbody, plunges into the water first, so that George can save him, as is later explained. They spend the rest of the night together, with Clarence showing George what it would’ve been like if George had never been born, leading George to rediscover the true meaning and wonderful value of life itself.
Now, to be unmistakably clear, I adore this movie. In fact, I grew up on it, as my family would watch it together every year on Christmas Eve. It’s a very affecting film that has, I’d say, contributed to a great deal of theological error, mostly because it deals with a tenuous, at best, angelology. Personally — and I know this might be unpopular in some corners of Christendom — I don’t believe in “guardian angels.” Yes, to be sure, God’s angels protect us (2 Kings 6:15–17; Ps. 34:7; 91:11; Matt. 4:11). They are always busy about God’s business, which often means ministering to the needs of his children. But I remain unconvinced that we are assigned a specific “guardian angel” when we are born. And I’m fine if you disagree.
The space angels occupy in the vernacular evangelical faith is more than likely not a very large one. This is owed, in large part, because the church’s position on them have vacillated between wild speculation and cynical unbelief, with some viewing angelic stories as nothing but relics of prescientific discovery. Be that as it may, being faithful to the Word means grappling with these heavenly beings through whom God, at times, sovereignly decides to carry out his will.
The Word and the Spirit.
In many ways, though, angels are representative of our culture’s fascination with “spirituality,” the spiritual realm, and the occult. We Americans like to think that we are not as superstitious as other “less developed” countries. We are not, we think, as susceptible to the fables and foibles of “angelic sightings.” “We’re smarter than that,” we think, “after all, look at our degrees and our discoveries.” And yet, there’s something about angels that continues to enthrall us. Who are they? What do they do? And what do they look like? Like conspiracy theories and UFO encounters, there’s a part of us that thrives on the allure of the obscure. Googling “angel sightings” returns dozens of stories from people who claim they’ve seen an angel. Are any of them true? Or are all of them false? I have no idea.
One “guardian angel advocate,” though, recently offered tips on how to learn your angel’s name, on how to ask them for a sign, and why you should write your guardian angel a letter. To be blunt, all of that is nothing more than sentimentality dressed up as spirituality, which is neither helpful or biblical. I don’t mean to sound so cynical, but I do mean to say: an over-emphasis on angels rather than building our faith can actually collapse our faith. This is not to say that if you believe in guardian angels you aren’t a believer. I’m fine if you’ve studied the Bible and come to that conclusion. What I am urging for, though, is not taking that belief too far. We don’t need to look for signs, sightings, or encounters. We don’t need to furiously hope — and “wish upon a star” — for our guardian angel to protect and provide for us. Why? Because we have something so much better offered to us in the gospel.
We have the Word and the Spirit, both of which are concerned with conveying the gracious willingness of the Son to give up his spot in the heavenlies in order that he might make you and I joint-heirs along with him. Those who believe, then, are made inheritors of all that belongs to the Son (Heb. 1:14; Rom. 8:17). He carries out the Father’s will in a paradigm of subjection and self-surrender (Phil. 2:5–11), in order that a more perfect righteousness might be established, by which and through which sinners can forever be cleansed (Heb. 2:11). We have God’s Son who brings us into union with himself through God’s Spirit. We have the Son of God who has made himself known in the Word of God, which tells us all about the Son’s life, death, and resurrection on our behalf; and how he is coming soon to reclaim his church and bring them to glory with him. We don’t need Clarence Odbody to tell us that — Christ already did. And that’s so much better.
R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of Hebrews (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1961).