Sunday, May 10, 2015

Hebrews 2


Last week, in Hebrews chapter 1, we saw how the book of Hebrews begins:  by identifying Jesus as the Son of God, who is the “character”—the impress or exact likeness—of the Father.  Because of this, he is infinitely greater than any of the angels.  And to prove it, Hebrews quotes verse after verse from the Bible, to show that Jesus is far greater than the angels.  The angels are spiritual servants, but Jesus rules and reigns at the right hand of the Father in heaven.


The verses quoted in Hebrews are used in a way that assumes we already know something about them.  It’s as if I were to say to you, “for God so loved the world.”  There’s no need for me to say the rest of the verse (“that he gave his only begotten son, that everyone who believes in him will not perish, but will have eternal life,” John 3:16), because you already know it, you already know why it’s important.  Or if I said, “greater is he that is in me” you already know the verse (1 John 4:4).  Or if I say, “all things work together for good...,”  you know the rest of the verse (Rom. 8:28).

When Hebrews mentions a verse like this, with just a few words, it tells us that these were verses that were extremely important to the early Christians.  Everybody knew them.  But unfortunately, many of these verses and passages are no longer so well known to us.  This means we have to do some digging to get the point of the message.  We still have a ways to go to catch up to our spiritual ancestors in the faith.  But because Hebrews quotes all these verses directly, instead of just hinting to them, it gives us a chance to get up to speed with the early Jewish Christians in understanding this important message to the Church.

So why was it so important for the book of Hebrews to start out by making clear the relationship between Jesus and the angels?  We mentioned already that in the early days, Jesus’ exact position in relation to the angels was not clear for many people.  Many people had a very exalted view of angels—some of them even worshipped angels, either Jewish groups that worshipped the angels of the Bible, or Gentile groups that worshipped the false gods of the world that are in fact fallen angels.  But the writer of Hebrews had an additional reason to be very clear about Jesus’ relationship to the angels:  and he begins to talk about it in chapter 2.

Hebrews 2:1:  “Because of this, it is even more necessary for us to pay attention to the things we have heard, lest we drift away (from the truth).”

We didn’t talk at all last week about the who, what, and where of the book of Hebrews.  Instead we just dove right into the book.  But as we can see from this verse, it was written to a group of people that were in danger of backsliding from the faith.  And one thing that is clear from the book, and even from the section we’re about to read, is that this was a group of Jewish Christians, or as we would call them today, Messianic Jews.  And that’s why the book is traditionally called “To the Hebrews.”  It was written to Jewish believers in Yeshua, in Jesus.  

Hebrews 2:2:  “For if the word spoken through angels was trustworthy, and every sin and disobedience received a just punishment,”

What is “the word spoken through angels”?  This is talking about the Law of Moses—the Old Testament.  In the time of Jesus, it was generally believed by the Jewish people that the Law was given to Moses by angels.  And in the Law, as you know, every sin has a penalty attached.  For example, the penalty for murder was death.  The penalty for adultery was death.  The penalty for theft was returning four or five times as much.  For other kinds of sin, especially those that were unintentional, you brought a sacrifice.  So for every sin, there was a penalty, and usually a very strong penalty.  Well, if that’s the way it was in the Old Testament:  

Hebrews 2:3:  “how will we escape, having neglected so great a salvation, which after it was at first spoken by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those listening (to him),”

If the penalty for sin was great in the Old Testament, how much greater will it be in the New Testament?  Where the reward is greater—our salvation, so the punishment will also be greater.  The Law was spoken through angels, the gospel was given to us by Jesus himself, the Son of God, who told it to his disciples.  And since Jesus is far greater than the angels, then we need to take the gospel even more seriously than the Old Testament.  

Hebrews 2:4:  “God also bearing witness with signs and wonders and acts of power and distributions of the Holy Spirit according to his will.”

The truth of the gospel was confirmed not only by the words of Jesus and those who heard him, but also through the signs, wonders, and miracles that accompanied the message.  This included the gifts of the Holy Spirit that were operating among them.

Hebrews 2:5:  “For not to angels did he subject the world that is about to come, about which we are speaking.”

In Hebrew, “the world to come” is olam ha-ba—the time of the resurrection.  The resurrection is the great hope of both the Jewish people and the Christians:  a world in which righteousness and truth will prevail.  But God did not subject the coming Messianic kingdom to angels, but to the Messianic king, King Jesus.  This is another reason why we need to pay even closer attention to Jesus.  

Hebrews 2:6:  “But someone has testified somewhere, saying, "What is man that you remember him, or a son of man that you pay attention to him?”  

Where is this from?  This is a quote from Psalm 8:4.  This is a psalm that talks about the majesty of God in the creation:  “When I see your heavens, the works of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you set in place” (Psa. 8:3).  Then it goes on to the verse quoted in Hebrews:  “What is man that you remember him, and a son of man that you pay attention to him?” (Psa. 8:4)  As you know, the Son of Man is one of the titles of Jesus.  In fact, it’s one of the names he called himself.  So naturally, the early Jewish believers in Jesus saw this verse, and in fact this whole psalm, to be a prophecy about Jesus, the Son of Man.

Psa. 8:5:  “And you have caused him to lack little compared to God, and you have crowned him with glory and honor.”

Hebrews also goes on to quote this verse, too, but it’s a little different in the New Testament:

Hebrews 2:7a:  “You have made him a little lower than the angels, you have crowned him with glory and honor,” 

What’s the difference?  The Hebrew in Psalm 8 says “lack little compared to God,” the Greek says, “a little lower than the angels.”  Why are they different?  There’s a change in perspective between them.   The Hebrew, written in the time of David, is exulting in how wonderful it is to be a human being, that God has put everything under us and makes us rule in this earth.  

But the Greek translation, which comes from the Septuagint, the old Greek that was translated just before the time of Jesus, is not so sure about that point of view any more.  After all, they’ve experienced the exile in Babylon, they’ve been dominated by foreign pagan nations for hundreds of years, nations that worship false gods that seem very important and powerful.  But at the same time, God himself also seems greater than he ever has before, because he is far above all these false gods.  And so when the translators came to this verse, they hesitated.  Does it really mean that man is just a little lower than God?  That was hard for them to accept.  And so they chose the alternate meaning of the word used for God here, Elohim.  They were able to do that because this word, Elohim, can have two completely different meanings.  It can mean the God of the Bible, which it usually does in Scripture, but it can also mean “the gods” plural, as can be seen by its plural ending, “im.”  So the Greek translators went with the second meaning, the gods, which they understood to be fallen angels.

And so they ended up with the translation, “a little lower than the angels.”  It’s not only the ancient Jews that went in this direction.  In the Jewish Publication Society version of 1917, they also chose angels in Psalm 8:5, as have many English versions.  So many still consider this an acceptable translation today, not to mention that this is how it appears in the New Testament.  (The Chinese mentions both options.)  

But if we understand this to mean angels, that’s quite a big change in the meaning of the verse.  It’s a big promotion for the angels and a demotion of people.  People are now lower than angels, instead of being above them.  This is different than what Hebrews itself taught at the end of the last chapter, in Heb. 1:14:  that the job of angels is to minister to us, which implies that they are lower than we are.  So what’s going on here?  

To understand this verse in Psalm 8 correctly, we must look more closely at the way it was translated in Greek and the way it was understood in Greek.   The key point here is that it was not understood to teach that man was created lower than the angels.  The Greek word literally means that he was decreased or diminished.  Now as you know, to be decreased means you must have had something more before that.  So when was man decreased in his position compared to God and the angels?  This must refer to the Fall, when mankind was cast out of the Garden of Eden.  

That this is the true meaning here comes across in the Greek word, “a little”:  a little lower.  In Greek, this word (brachu) can mean a little bit (a little bit lower than the angels), but it can also mean “for a little while” (for a little while lower than the angels).  And this second sense is what the writer of the book of Hebrews has in mind when he interprets this psalm as a prophecy of Jesus:  that Jesus, the Son of Man, was made lower than the angels—but only for a little while.  

When was the Son of Man made “a little lower than the angels”?  During his life on earth, when he set aside his heavenly powers and became just like us—although without sin.  You could say that he shared our disgrace with us.  But this was only for a “little while,” after which God “crowned him with glory and honor.”  When was he crowned with glory and honor?  At the time of his resurrection and ascension into heaven, when the Father put him on his throne, to rule with him over all creation.

But this incredible comeback story is not only about Jesus.  If you’re part of the Body of Messiah, you, too, will rule and reign with him!  Yes, we too were made a little lower than the angels.  But because of what Jesus has done for us, we will soon be exalted to rule and reign with Messiah!  As it says in 2 Tim. 2:12:  “If we endure, we will also reign with him.”  His resurrection is our resurrection, and his glory will be our glory!  

In 1 Cor. 6:3 it specifically teaches that we will judge angels, which in Biblical language means that we will rule over the angels.  This is similar to what the apostle Paul is talking about in Eph. 2:6:  not only did God make us spiritually alive in our salvation, but he also “raised us up together and seated us together in the heavenlies in Messiah Jesus” (Eph. 2:6).  This is written in the past tense.  It’s something that has already happened:  spiritually, we are already reigning with Messiah!  And in the future, we will reign with him here on earth as well.  

The idea that Jesus came to exalt us is a central idea in Eastern Christianity (Eastern Orthodoxy).  They call this theosis:  that Jesus became man that we might become like God.  Or to put it more accurately, that we might be restored to our position just a little lower than God.  As Peter puts it in 2 Peter 1:4:  “that through these (promises) you may become sharers in the divine nature.”  God wants to share his divine nature with us!  That doesn’t mean we will become God, of course, but rather that we will be united with God in a relationship of unity, of which earthly marriage is a picture.  What an awesome plan this is!  This is also the meaning of being the Body of Messiah.  What he is, we will become!  

As the quote from Psalm 8 continues, which is also quoted in Hebrews:  “and put him in charge over the works of your hands; you subjected all (things) under his feet” (Psalm 8:6).  Jesus is Lord!  And he rules and reigns with the Father right now in heaven!  And in fact, we too, rule and reign spiritually with Messiah right now!  

Let’s go back to where this is quoted in Hebrews 2:8.  After the quote from Psalm 8, it continues, “For in subjecting all things to him, he left nothing that is not subject to him.  But now we do not yet see all things subjected to him” (Heb. 2:8).  When we look around in the world, we do not yet see everything obeying Jesus’ will.  Why not?  As we saw in vs. 5, this is talking about the olam ha-ba, the world to come.  At that time, everything will be in perfect and full obedience to Jesus and to the Father.  So this is still in the future. 

Hebrews 2:9:  “But we do see the one who was made a little lower than the angels, Jesus, because of the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honor, that by the grace of God he might taste death for all.”

We don’t see everything subjected to Jesus yet, but we do see Jesus, the one who was made a little lower than the angels so that he could suffer and die for us.  And because of that suffering, now we see him crowned with glory and honor—far above the angels.  He was exalted because he was decreased.  That’s quite different than the way of the world.  In the world, the ones who receive glory and honor are the strong, the intelligent, the rich.  But in God’s kingdom, glory and honor are connected to suffering.  Why is this?  

The Jewish people saw a picture of this every time they offered up a sacrifice in the Temple:  that through the death and suffering of an animal, they were brought closer to God.  This suffering was a part of the road to holiness.  So when Jesus came to fulfill the Law, his suffering brought infinite good.  And because he brought this infinite good, he is worthy of infinite glory and honor.

Hebrews 2:10:  “For it was fitting for him [the Father], for whom all things exist, and through whom all things exist, in leading many sons to glory, to make perfect (or complete) the founder (or originator) of their salvation through sufferings.”

There it is again:  God’s plan to bring “many sons to glory”—not just Jesus—but all who follow him!  But this plan can only succeed through suffering.  Jesus is the “founder,” the “originator” of our salvation.  But even he had to be “perfected” or “completed” by suffering.  Does this mean that Jesus was not perfect before he suffered?  Yes, even Jesus could not be perfect or complete in his ministry without suffering.  There is no other way to God than through suffering.  Do you want to be complete?  Share the suffering of Jesus.

As Paul put it in Philippians 1:29:  “For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for his sake.”  What does this mean?  That we should whip ourselves at Easter time, as some Christians did in the Middle Ages or still do in a couple of places today?  No of course not.  Jesus suffered for doing good—for helping those in need, for healing those who were sick.  But a wicked and evil world hated him for doing these things.  

If you want to be complete—start doing good to help people.  And don’t give up when people get upset with you for doing it.  Our relatives thought we were crazy when we went to be missionaries in Asia.  Maybe some of your relatives think you’re crazy for becoming a Christian.  Or maybe your co-workers think you’re crazy for being honest and living a godly life.  The world doesn’t understand it when we do good.  Even religious people will sometimes get upset with us when we do what’s right.  But when we keep on serving God and doing good, in spite of opposition and persecution, then we’re sharing the suffering of Jesus.

Hebrews 2:11: “For both he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified are all from one [Father]; for which reason he is not ashamed to call them brothers,”

Our belief in Jesus sets us apart from the world.  It makes us children of God.  That’s the true meaning of holiness or being sanctified—to be set apart to God, which is reflected in how we live.  But even though Jesus is the one who makes us holy, and though he is the only natural Son of God, he is not ashamed to call us his brothers.  Why not?  Because he is bringing us, too, as adopted sons of God, to glory.  And to prove it, Hebrews quotes another verse:  

Heb. 2:12:  “saying, ‘I will proclaim your name to my brothers, in the midst of the assembly I will sing your praise.’”  

Where is this from?  From Psalm 22:22.  We talked about this psalm just the other day.  Of all the prophecies in the book of Psalms, it’s one of the most incredible.  Because even though it was written a thousand years before the time of Jesus, it’s a perfect picture of Jesus on the cross.  In fact, Jesus quoted the first verse of this psalm when he was hanging on the cross:  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1)

Verses 7 and 8 describe exactly what happened when Jesus was on the cross, and the people mocked him:  “All who see me sneer at me; they separate with the lip (make faces), they wag the head, saying, ‘Commit yourself to the LORD; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, because he delights in him’” (Psa. 22:7,8).

Verses 16 and 17 describe his experience on the cross:  “For dogs have surrounded me; a band of evildoers has encompassed me; they pierced my hands and my feet.  I can count all my bones. They look, they stare at me” (Psa. 22:16,17).

And then in vs. 18:  “They divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots” (Psa. 22:18).  This is exactly what happened to Jesus 1,000 years after this psalm was written!  

But this psalm is also an affirmation of victory over suffering.  Because in spite of this horrible torment, vs. 22 says:  “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the assembly I will praise you” (Psa. 22:22).  In other words, the experience of suffering is not the end of the story.  Because he says that he will live to praise God again.  There is life on the other side of suffering.  There is a resurrection.  And Jesus did live.  He rose from the dead and was able to tell of God’s glory to his brothers, in other words to the apostles and other believers.  This is the verse quoted in Hebrews, to prove that Jesus calls us his brothers:  that we are the brothers that he rose from the dead to tell the gospel to.  Psalm 22 was obviously an extremely important passage to the early believers.  

But it doesn’t stop there.  The rule of the Bible is to let everything be confirmed by two or three witnesses.  So to confirm the fact that Jesus calls us his brothers, Hebrews quotes another verse, from Isaiah 8:17-18.  This was another extremely important prophetic section in the early Church.  It’s just before Isaiah’s famous prophecy:   “For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; and the dominion will be on his shoulder; and his name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6).

And it’s just after another important prophecy, in Isaiah 8:14:  “And he will be a sanctuary; and to the two houses of Israel, a stone of striking and a rock of stumbling, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem.”  This, too, is a famous prophecy; that Jesus is the rock of stumbling over which many in Israel have stumbled.  Jesus himself mentioned it (Matt. 11:6, Luke 7:23).  Paul quotes from it in Romans (Rom. 9:32,33) and 1 Corinthians (1 Cor. 1:23).  Peter quotes from it in 1 Peter (1 Pet. 2:8).  This was obviously an especially meaningful passage for Jewish believers in Jesus.  It helped explain why there was so much hostility from their fellow Jews when they became believers in Jesus.  

But the prophecy doesn’t stop there.  It continues:  “Bind up a testimony, seal a law among my disciples” (Isa. 8:16).  Whose disciples are these?  The disciples of the stumbling block:  the disciples of Jesus.  We are to protect and preserve the testimony of his words; we are to seal his teachings—his law—in our hearts.  This is not talking about the old Law, but the new law of the Spirit that is kept by his disciples while Israel is in disobedience.  

Isa. 8:17:  “And I will wait for the LORD, the one hiding his face from the house of Jacob; and I will endure for him (I will put my confidence in him LXX).”

Israel is in disobedience, but I will endure for the Lord (the Greek says, “I will put my confidence in him”).  The second half of this verse is the first part of the quote in Hebrews: “I will put my confidence in him.”  Hebrews says that this is spoken by Jesus himself.  Jesus is the one who stood up for the truth when all Israel was in disobedience.  Even after Israel had rejected him and turned him over to death, he endured; he continued to trust in the Lord.  

And then he goes on to the second part quoted in Hebrews:  “Here I am and the children that the LORD has given me to be signs and wonders in Israel from the LORD of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion” (Isa. 8:18).  Who is speaking?  According to the book of Hebrews, this is still Jesus speaking.  Here he is—despite their rejection, even despite death, he is still here.  He is raised from the dead.  And who are his children?  We are, believers from among the Jews as well as all the nations of the world!  We are to be signs and wonders in Israel and to the ends of the earth—a testimony to Israel to make Israel jealous, as Paul puts it in Rom. 11:11.  

We are the ones, as Hebrews put it a few verses back (Heb. 2:4), through whom God testifies to the truth of the gospel through signs and wonders performed by the Holy Spirit.  The Church is a miraculous sign to Israel and the world.  And it’s really true.  Israelis are amazed at all the Christians that come through from every nation.  They’re amazed at the love so many Christians now have for them, after centuries of hatred.  And because of this, the book of Hebrews says, Jesus is not ashamed to call us his children.  This is the point that the writer of Hebrews is making:  in Jesus’ exaltation, God has exalted us, too, because we are his brothers!  

And in the end, when Jesus is sitting on his throne in the world to come, in the Messianic kingdom, we too will be revealed in glory (Eph. 5:27).  Wow!  That will be an amazing day.  We who were made lower than the angels, who by faith reign now spiritually with Messiah, will also reign physically with him on the earth.  

 Let’s go back to Heb. 2:14:

Hebrews 2:14:  “Since then the children have shared in blood and flesh, he himself in the same way also participated in the same, that through death he might make powerless the one having the power of death, that is, the devil;”

To be a saving sacrifice, Jesus had to become flesh and blood.  You can’t be a sacrifice if you’re only a spirit.  That’s why Jesus took on humanity to live with us, and also to die for us.  But he didn’t stay dead.  By being victorious over death, he defeated the one with the power of death, the devil.  

Hebrews 2:15: “and might deliver them, all those who by fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.”

Jesus’ resurrection is the proof and promise of our own resurrection.  So there is no reason to fear death any more.  

Hebrews 2:16:  “For he is not concerned with angels, of course, but he is concerned with the seed of Abraham.”

The salvation provided by Jesus is not for angels.  So who is it for?  “The seed of Abraham.”  In prophecy, the seed of Abraham usually points to the Messiah.  But this also carries a deeper meaning, for we are the body of Messiah.  The prophecies about the seed of Abraham also point to us.  We are part of who he is.  

When God showed Abraham the stars of heaven and said, so will your seed be, this was not just a prophecy of earthly Israel (Gen. 15:5).  God said that Abraham would be a father of many nations.  In fact, it includes all those from every nation that put their trust in the God of Abraham and in his seed the Messiah.   

Hebrews 2:17:  “This is why he had to be made like his brothers in all things, that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the things of God, in order to make reconciliation for the sins of the people.”

This, too, shows Jesus’ complete identification with humanity.  He had to be like us “in all things.”  Only in this way could he become our high priest.  A high priest represents man before God.  So for Jesus to be our high priest, he had to become human like us and experience the weakness of our lives, so that he can represent us before God.  

Hebrews 2:18:  “For in that he himself has suffered, having been tempted, he is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted.”

Part of being human is to suffer temptation.  We all suffer temptation every day, maybe even many times a day.  That is what it is to be human.  In his humanity, Jesus also experienced temptation, though he never gave in to that temptation.  But he knows exactly what it is.  That’s why he’s able to help us.  And with his help, we, too, can be victorious over sin.  That’s God’s plan for our lives:  to resist temptation, to be victorious over sin, just like Jesus was.  Of course, we can’t do this perfectly on our own.  That’s why we need Jesus.  And if we stumble, God forbid, he is there as our high priest, bringing his own blood as a sacrifice for us, to obtain forgiveness from God.  

Does this mean that we’re free to sin?  Is it permission to sin all the time and not feel guilty?  Of course not.  Forgiveness draws us close to God again.  It brings his power and his presence back into our lives.  It reminds us how terrible it is to be separated from God, and how foolish it was of us to do anything that removes us from the fullness of his presence.  It reminds us how terrible it would be to be removed eternally from God.  And so God’s forgiveness makes us grow stronger in our commitment to love God and to serve God.  His great forgiveness makes us love him more and more.  And the greater our love for him, the greater our strength to resist temptation.  How about you?  Are you growing stronger in your love of God?    

Amen?  Today we’ve seen why it’s so important to straighten out in our minds the relationship between Jesus and the angels.  Because just as much greater as he is than the angels, so is the New Law of Messiah greater than the Law of Moses.  It’s a greater revelation that brings a more intimate relationship with God; it brings more of the power of God into our lives.  But with that more intimate relationship, with that greater power, also comes greater responsibility.  If the Law of Moses dealt forcefully with disobedience, how much more terrible would it be to turn away from the truth of Messiah?  For the truth of the gospel is not just something we’ve studied in a textbook.  It’s a truth that we’ve experienced in our lives, that we’ve seen demonstrated in signs and wonders; it’s something that has touched us in the deepest part of our being.  

And it’s a truth not just concerning this world, but the world to come.  In that world, the angels will not rule, but Jesus will, with whom we too will reign.    Yes, he was made a little lower than the angels, but now he is crowned with glory and honor, as we will also be.  In his exaltation, we are exalted.  That’s why he came:  to exalt us, to give us victory over sin and death and raise us up above the angels to our rightful place with him.  Even if we stumble and fall, he is there as our high priest to restore us to life and restore us to God, so that we can draw closer to him than we ever were before.  

The book of Hebrews is not finished exalting Jesus and explaining the relationship between the Law of Moses and the New Law of the Messiah.  But we’ll have to leave the rest for another day.  

Let’s pray:  Lord please help us in the struggles we face in our lives to grow closer to you.  You are our victory in the midst of trial.  You are our strength when we are weak.  You are our resurrection when the shadow of death comes upon us.  You are our future and hope for the life to come.  Help us, Lord, never to drift away from you, but rather to turn toward you with all of our hearts and our minds, our soul and our strength, that we might receive everything you have for us, and that we might become everything you want us to be.  Lord we also ask that you would meet the individual needs of all who are here today, for we all have so many needs in our lives.  Thank you for giving us victory in every area of our lives.  We also lift up those who are being persecuted for your name’s sake in so many places.  Comfort those who mourn, provide for those in need, we pray.  In Jesus’ name.

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