Hebrews 1:1-4: The writer begins by affirming the common Judaic tradition of his recipients. He affirms that God once spoke through the prophets. However, more important to this writer is that now, “in these last days” God has spoken “to us by a Son.” The phrase “a Son” is the better translation, not “his Son.” The writer subtly begins to make a case for staying true to Christian faith, not return to the pre-Jesus Judaic faith which was their root. The “Son” is described in some detail – as one through whom God created the world, as a reflection of God’s glory, as an imprint of God being, as the sustaining force in the world. The writer ends by noting the superiority of the Son to angels.
Hebrews 1:5-14: Apparently one religious alternative being offered to the Hebrew Christians was one in which angels were held to be the primary intermediaries between God and persons. It is rather amazing how often in the religious history of the West, some kind of intermediary between God and human beings is sought. Our vision of God is frequently of a being rather removed, distant, so “other” that we have a difficult time relating to this God. Within the Christian tradition we have a long history of praying to Mary or other saints as intercessors on our behalf. Angels are another popular choice. It obviously has a long history, including the recipients of this letter. However, in this case, the author thinks that the view of angels held by some demotes Christ to an inappropriate role in genuine Christian faith.
Why all this attention to angels? We have to assume that asserting Christ’s superiority over angels is important for both writer and readers. It is not a matter of debating the existence or nonexistence of angels; these beings were common to the assumed worlds of early Judaism, Christianity, and other religions of the Near East. (People’s New Testament Commentary)
The remainder of this chapter consists of quotes from the Hebrew Scriptures – seven of them, as follows: verse 5 – Psalm 2:7 and II Samuel 7:14; verse 6 – Deuteronomy 32:43; verse 7 – Psalm 104:4; verses 8-9 – Psalm 45:6-7; verses 10-12 – Psalm 102:25-27; verse 13 – Psalm 110:1. All these are used to make the case that the Son is superior to angels. If you look the verses up and there seems to be some discrepancy between the version here and the version in the Bible, that may be because the writer of Hebrews makes use of the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures whereas our versions are based in Hebrew versions of the text. The chapter ends with the writer asserting that angels are “in divine service.” The Son, on the other hand is enthroned with God.
Hebrews 2:1-4: This opening discourse on angels and the superiority of the Son is brought together in a practical application. “Therefore, we must pay greater attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it.” Drifting away can be as problematic to the life of faith as an outright abandonment of it. It may be more pernicious. We lose interest, we slowly move away and before long we find ourselves in a place we would rather not be. The writer again makes a case from shared Jewish tradition, what has been declared through the angels was the Law (a tradition had developed within Judaism that angels were involved in the transmission of the Law). The writer’s understanding of the Law was that it demanded a penalty for every transgression – which may or may not be the best reading of the Law. In any event, a great salvation has come through “the Lord” – Jesus as the Christ. The truth of the message of Christ was confirmed by those who heard him, by the signs and wonders and miracles “God added” and by the gifts of the Holy Spirit among the followers of Jesus. Truth seems to have a very practical dimension – does it make a positive difference in people’s lives?
Hebrews 2:5-18: The writer returns to the topic of angels. He begins by making note of the status of human beings as described in Psalm 8, a marvelous piece of writing and a grand status for human beings. Human beings will somehow have great significance in the “coming world.” That world is still coming. Human beings have not attained the status intended by God – we don’t see it yet. What we see, according to the writer, is Jesus. Jesus was human, a little lower than the angels, and he suffered death. Yet he is now exalted. Part of the wonder of Christian faith is that it made a tragic and in many ways shameful death a path to significant status. The human Jesus, executed shamefully, is now crowned with glory and honor. In some way, not yet explained, God’s grace can work to make Jesus’ death a way of tasting death for everyone.
The writer elaborates. He deems it fitting that God, “for whom and through whom all things exist” (quite a grand philosophical notion of God) should make “the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering.” We may find this a little challenging, but recall that this community of Christians is suffering. Suffering is not an option for them, and the writer is offering a very assuring word. They suffer, but so did Jesus. Many Christians throughout history have discovered great comfort in the picture of a God who suffers with them in Jesus. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead put it beautifully, describing God as the great companion—the fellow-sufferer who understands (Process and Reality). The writer of Hebrews goes on to make even stronger the connection between Jesus and the followers of Jesus – they are brothers and sisters with a common parent in God.
Coming back to angels, the writer asserts that Jesus, in freeing persons from the fear of death, did that for human persons and not for angels. Freeing persons from the fear of death is yet another New Testament image for what salvation is all about. It is a rich concept. Consider how fear of death can be enslaving. What would Martin Luther King, Jr. have accomplished had he let threats against his person get the better of him? Not long ago, I heard the story of Gene Robinson, an Episcopal bishop – the first gay man to be consecrated a bishop in the Episcopal Church. Whatever you think about the appropriateness of that, Bishop Robinson is a courageous person in living out his convictions in the face of vicious threats to his life. Fear of death can enslave us and Jesus came to free us from such fear. Perhaps part of the fear of death for some of the recipients of this letter was fear of the judgment of God. If their religious landscape was filled with images of a judging God who would not forgive a transgression if the appropriate sacrifice were not made (and this is a distortion of Judaism, but perhaps not an uncommon one for some at the time), then they needed to hear a message of forgiveness. The writer evokes Jesus as a high priest, always on duty making the appropriate sacrifice in order that persons might be forgiven. The writer of Hebrews creatively uses images and symbols from Judaism to interpret Christian faith. Jesus is not only the high priest, but the sacrifice as well. Only in Hebrews do we find this image for Jesus, Jesus as high priest. Jesus is a high priest who can sympathize with those on whose behalf he works.