On the distinction between Christ and angels in the letter to the Hebrews.
Hebrews has persisted for centuries as, perhaps, the most robust book in the whole of the second testament. Indeed, the anonymous letter to the Hebrews has been rightly dubbed the most “Old Testament” book of the New Testament, with allusions and references and arguments that pertain to an array of Old Testament ordinances and rites and practices that are now centralized in the person and work of Jesus Christ, who is “the radiance of God’s glory.” (Heb 1:3) From the outset, it is clear that the author of Hebrews possesses a superlative aim in penning this treatise, namely, to showcase the preeminence of Christ as not only the terminal fulfillment of the old covenant but the triumphant victor of a new and better covenant. This demonstration of the supremacy of the Son of God serves to (re)align the hearts of the congregants, whom the author addresses as the “household” of God (Heb 3:6; 10:21), and authenticate the “better hope” through Christ’s superior priesthood which invites all to “draw near to God.” (Heb 7:19)
The author begins his discourse by establishing the distinction between Christ and angels. He writes:
The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact expression of his nature, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high. So he became superior to the angels, just as the name he inherited is more excellent than theirs. (Heb 1:3–4)
It might seem enigmatic or even arbitrary to spend as many words as the author does to contend for the ascendancy of Christ in comparison to angels. The bulk of the first two chapters are largely comprised with this line of reasoning. Much of modern scholarship is, perhaps, not as inundated with conflating the person of Christ with the “ministering spirits” of heaven. (Heb 1:14) However, during the time Hebrews was composed, a large swath of Jewish Christians were enamored with notions of “angelomorphic christology,” which was an early Judaic viewpoint which “associated the status of Jesus with that of the angels (or archangels).”Complicating the identity of Christ was tantamount to forfeiting Christ altogether, as is argued throughout the epistle. In that way, then, “no one element of Judaism can adequately serve as background to the epistle,” as Mikeal Parsons asserts, primarily because the author to the Hebrews was engaging a kaleidoscope of fables and fallacies regarding Christ’s person.
In grappling with christology and angelology, the author of Hebrews intends to demonstrate the necessity of Christ’s divinity and humanity in establishing the new covenant of the gospel. The Son of God is in no way “to be understood to have,” S. F. Noll maintains, “an angelic nature (angel christology) or role (angelomorphic christology).”Indeed, rather, the Son is to be reckoned as significantly before and above angels, as he is the One through whom the universe was formed (Heb. 1:2) and the One whom the angels serve. (Heb 1:5–9, 13) But, by the same token, the Son is also to be seen as made “lower than the angels for a short time so that by God’s grace he might taste death for everyone.” (Heb 2:9; Ps 8:6–8) Therein is established Christ’s assumption of human flesh, his becoming “like his brothers and sisters,” wherein the “glory and honor” of his Messiahship crescendos and the “glory and honor” of his people is obtained through his death-defeating death. (Heb 2:1–18) It is in this way, then, that “the audience is exhorted,” as W. L. Lane attests, “to steadfast endurance and the exercise of eschatological faith that acts in light of the certainty of the future (Heb 11:1–12:3)” — a future which was purchased by none other than the blood of the Majestic Messiah himself.
The diatribe on the Son’s superiority to angels is, therefore, relevant for the modern scholar and student of the Word as it upholds the exultant tension with which faith holds Christ’s divinity and humanity. Hebrews evinces the Son’s heavenly hegemony and earthly humility, both of which are alloyed in the person and work of Jesus Christ, and are nowhere better understood than in his death and resurrection. The author’s argument throughout Hebrews is that Jesus’s identity concretizes the new covenantal construct of grace. “The transcendent dignity of the Son,” Lane continues, “is superior both to the angels (Heb 1:5–14) and to Moses (Heb 3:1–6).”Therefore, the “shadows and dust” of the old system give way to the One who inaugurates “a superior ministry” and a “better covenant” through his own passion and resurrection, thereby securing for his own people “better promises,” namely, eternal life. (Heb 8:5–6) “Christ’s person and work is a unity,” David Schrock affirms in an exceptional essay which examines the priestly upshots of Christ’s resurrection. The entire gambit of the new covenant is death and resurrection. The late Episcopal priest Robert Capon sums up the matter eloquently when he writes:
Salvation is not some felicitous state to which we can lift ourselves by our own bootstraps after the contemplation of sufficiently good examples. It is an utterly new creation into which we are brought by our death in Jesus’ death and our resurrection in his. It comes not out of our own efforts, however well-inspired or successfully pursued, but out of the shipwreck of all human effort whatsoever . . . Death and resurrection are the key to the whole mystery of our redemption. We pray in Jesus’ death and resurrection, we are forgiven in Jesus’ death and resurrection, and we forgive others in Jesus’ death and resurrection. If we attempt any of those things while still trying to preserve our life, we will never manage them. They are possible only because we are dead and our life is hid with Christ in God (Col. 3:3). And they can be celebrated by us only if we accept death as the vehicle of our life in him.
Gert J. Steyn, “Addressing an angelomorphic christological myth in Hebrews?” HTS 59.4 (2003): 1108.
Mikeal C. Parsons, “Son and High Priest: A Study in the Christology of Hebrews,” Evangelical Quarterly 60: (1988): 200.
S. F. Noll, “Angels, Heavenly Beings, Angel Christology,” Dictionary of the Later New Testament & Its Developments, edited by Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 47.
W. L. Lane, “Hebrews,” Dictionary of the Later New Testament & Its Developments, edited by Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 453.
David Schrock, “Resurrection and Priesthood: Christological Soundings from the Book of Hebrews,” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 18.4 (2014): 92.
Robert Capon, The Parables of Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1996), 62, 71.