“After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.” Hebrews 1:3-4
In the previous blog, we looked at how the writer of Hebrews concluded the seven in-depth statements regarding the Messiah, Jesus. Beginning in verse four, he makes a series of comparisons between the main features and personages of the Old Testament and that of the New. This encompasses the major portion of the letter.
The first comparison the writer makes is between the Messiah and the angels. “After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.” Most people reading that statement (that Jesus is greater than the angels) would not find it surprising. After all, most of the church world would heartily agree with that statement. But if you were a first-century Jew, that was a radical statement. Why? Because Jews venerated angels to a position rivaling that of Messiah Himself.
One of the heresies the Early Church had to deal with was Gnosticism, a generic term for teaching which, among other things, elevated angels. At the time the apostle Paul wrote the Colossian letter, the believers insisted on the worship of angels (Colossians 2:18). “They form his heavenly court and honor him with perpetual worship. But the angels can also act as intermediaries to lead the man who aspires to knowledge to the One; they instruct and support him in mystical experiences, most often throughout his journey to heaven: they are the agents of revelation” (Google, What is the Gnostic View of Angels?”).
But it is more likely that these believers to whom the letter was written were Jews who held views similar to the Dead Sea Sect at that time. “The eschatological perspective of the latter envisaged the introduction of a hierarchical structure with two messianic figures, of whom the kingly would be subordinate to the priestly messiah, and both of whom would be subordinate to the archangel Michael, thus assigning supremacy to an angelic being in the expected kingdom” (The Epistle to the Hebrews, Philip Edgecumbe Hughes, page 53). Against this background it becomes obvious why the author stresses that “it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come” (Hebrews 2:5).
In the Galatian letter, the apostle Paul referred to the fact that the Law was put in place through angels by an intermediary: “Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary” (Galatians 3:19). This is undoubtedly a reference that the Law was given through the agency of angels, a fact that seems confirmed by Stephen in the sermon whereby he offered up his life —“you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it” (Acts 7:53). It is in this context that the author speaks of the law as the “message spoken through angels” referring to the fact that each message was “binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment” (Hebrews 2:2).
What does the author mean when he says that the Son has inherited a name more excellent than that of the angels“? (1:4). It is the fact that Messiah has inherited the name Son, a name which was never placed on an angel. This is made clear in verse five when the author quotes Psalm 2:7; “For to which of the angels did God ever say, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you?”
Many people mistakenly assume that the term begotten refers to Messiah’s coming into the world through the Incarnation. Based on this, some have erroneously concluded that until the Incarnation, Messiah was not a Son. But nothing could be further from the truth. Before coming into this world, Jesus was the eternal Son of God, the blessed Second Person of the Godhead. The reference to his having been begotten is a reference to his resurrection, not the Incarnation: “Concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:3-4 italics mine).
Here is a summary of the author’s statement regarding the superiority of the Son above the angels from the Tyndale Commentary:
“He concentrates first on the name, which is again surprising. The modern saying, ‘What’s in a name?’ certainly did not apply then, for names were more than a means of distinguishing people; they were means of saying something about those people. The name described the nature. But what is the name which he has obtained? Since Jesus Christ has already been introduced as the Son, and this idea is the theme in the following Old Testament quotations, it is clear that the more excellent name is that of Son, which implies the closest and most intimate relationship. Since to the world at that time, the name of ‘angel’ was so highly honored as symbolic for a divine messenger, it may be that some were calling Jesus Christ by the name of ‘angel’ and making him no higher than the spiritual beings who were believed to influence the affairs of men. The idea of him as Son is much more exalted” (Tyndale Commentary Complete, Vol 15: Heb, p. 75).