The clear teaching of these opening verses is that Jesus is incomparably better than all that went before him. Hebrews actually uses the term for superior twelve times throughout the letter, from 1:4 to 12:24. This is a key matter of revelation - Jesus is greater than anyone or anything to which he might be compared.
The Muslim call, 'Allah hu aqbar', which Christians usually assume means, 'God is Great', is actually very clever indeed. I am not trying to elevate the Muslim faith, but just to point out something of importance as we come to this letter. The Arabic phrase actually means, 'God is Greater.' If you ask a Muslim, 'Greater than what?', the answer given is, 'Greater than anything you care to name.' This claim made by Muslims for Allah is in fact true only for Jesus!
Much of Jewish thought in Jesus' day supposed that all time and life was divided into two ages - known as the present age and the age to come. The present age is one of struggle and defeat, but the age to come will see God's perfect order and joy established in the world. The 'Day of the Lord' separates the two ages, bringing about these last days, and it is the time when the Messiah enters history and brings the age to come into reality. Jesus has done exactly that.
According to Jewish beliefs, the last of the biblical prophets was Malachi, who died centuries before Jesus was born. The Jewish people and the world needed the Messiah to come to live out the life of God among us. The prophets spoke about God's love, glory and power, etc., but Jesus personified it all.
The prophets were God's great messengers before the coming of the Messiah, but now God is able to communicate with us at the deepest level because his Son has come and begun the supernatural transformation of the world. So we note that Hebrews focuses on the status of Jesus as God's own Son - his mission, reign, obedience and perfect nature (1:2, 3, 5, 8; 3:6; 4:14; 5:8; 7:3, 28). The age to come has already begun. As Jesus said after his baptism: 'The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!' (Mark 1:15)
All of the various ways added together would not begin to compare with the depth and richness of revelation which has come in Jesus.
God so loves the Son that he has made him the heir of all things. This goes far beyond the promise of inheriting the nations of the earth given in Psalm 2:8, a Psalm which is used in this opening chapter of Hebrews. Only God can give this gift to Jesus (Matt. 4:8-10), and those who fully share Jesus' life are also promised a share in this inheritance with him (Rom. 8:17).
Hebrews delights to reveal that Jesus inherits what he was instrumental in creating in the first place. The Son is the one through whom (God) made the universe. Paul and John also teach us this important truth (Col. 1:16; John 1:3). This letter has been written to believers in trouble, but just as Jesus was the means by whom God created order and beauty out of the primeval chaos, so he will be able to bring stability and purpose to the difficult life of believers then and now.
It is worth pausing for a moment to draw attention to the way in which Hebrews is saturated in the teaching of the Hebrew Bible. The opening chapter is already full of references and allusions, and we note in particular the value given to the Psalms as a treasure house for revelation about the Son of God. The Scriptures of the Jewish people are simply assumed to be centred upon and pointing towards Jesus. Jesus himself gave the lead in this interpretation on the way to Emmaus (Luke 24:27).
It was important to Hebrews to establish at the outset that the angels, though a wonderful creation of God's, were far below Jesus in authority and glory. By Jesus' time the Jewish people had a sophisticated theology of angels who served as the mediators between the transcendent God in heaven and his people on earth below. There was even the belief in some quarters that angels carried Israel's prayers to God. Perhaps the believers to whom Hebrews was written came from a background which highlighted the significance of angels, and therefore needed to be given particular help.
There is in fact only one mediator - the Son of God himself (see 1 Tim. 2:5-6).
The Son's name is superior to that of the angels, and this refers to his status and authority. In Philippians 2:9-11 we learn that God gave Jesus 'the name that is above every name', the very name of 'Lord'. This was the title reserved by Jewish people for God himself!
We must remember that the angels are part of God's creation, and therefore cannot be compared with the eternal Son. This contrast is alluded to in verses 7-9. The Son's throne is everlasting, but the angels come and go like winds or flames of fire. Two famous Jewish texts relate angels to wind and fire in this way (4 Ezra 8:20-21; Yalkut Shim'oni 2:11:3).
The Hebrew term for angel is simply a word which means a 'messenger', and at the end of the day that is what angels are. They are ministering spirits sent to serve. But note the grace of God in that he also sends his angels to serve those who belong to Jesus. The early believers knew about the reality of angels in their lives as we see in the book of Acts (5:19, 8:26, 10:3, 12:23, 27:23-24).
The angels actually live to worship and serve the Son. The reference here in verse 6 is to the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible (the Jewish Septuagint), and could be from Deuteronomy 32:43a or Psalm 97:7b. The Hebrew text doesn't use the term for angels, but speaks of 'gods'. We are taught here that Jesus is worthy of the same worship as God the Father.
Jesus is worthy because he is the radiance of God's glory. The word for radiance can mean a bright reflection, or as is more likely here, a shining forth. In Israel's history the glory of God was an almost visible manifestation of the overpowering presence of God. It guided them and assured them of God's blessing (see Exod. 24:15-17; 33:18-23; Lev. 9:5-6, 23). This glory is now seen overwhelmingly in the person of Jesus.
Jesus is also worthy because he is the exact representation of God's being. In 2 Corinthians 4:4 and Colossians 1:15 Jesus is described as the 'image' of God, using a word which gives us the English term, 'icon'. However Hebrews uses a word which occurs nowhere else in the New Testament, and which gives us the English word, 'character'. It is a word which means the exact detail and expression of the original. If we want to know what our Father is like then we pay attention to Jesus.
After... he sat down shows us that, worthy and glorious though the Son is, there is a sense in which the Father honoured and glorified him even more when he proved his love for us by dying for our sins on the cross. It was 'after' he purified us that he sat in the place of honour at the right hand of the Father. This staggering truth is developed throughout Hebrews, as elsewhere (see Phil. 2:9).
Right at the opening of the letter the readers are encouraged to remember that this Jesus will never change, and that he will be with them in every situation (12b). This was a word of comfort which Jesus himself gave to his disciples (Matt. 28:20b), and it also helps to close Hebrews (13:8). We need to hold on to that same promise.
We are urged to pay more careful attention to the word of God brought to us in Jesus because otherwise we are in danger of missing our only hope for salvation. In fact the vocabulary used in verse 1 is also used to speak about mooring ships (as well as paying attention) and the drift caused by winds and tides if ships are not moored (as well as drifting in attention). If we don't anchor ourselves in the word of God then we can miss the only safe haven there is - namely Jesus himself.
The community which received this letter was evidently in need of this warning, since there are no less than five such warnings in the letter (2:1-4; 3:7-4:13; 5:11-6:12; 10:19-39; 12:1-13:22). Here they are alerted to the twin attitudes of violation and disobedience. The first word refers to crossing a line which has been clearly drawn - wilful breaking of laws. The second term was originally used of flawed hearing, then what might be called half-hearted listening, and finally the attitude of purposefully filtering out what the hearer did not want to hear. It is about closing one's ears to God's voice.
The real question is, 'how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation'? It is important that we realise that people do not spend eternity in separation from God because of the sin of rejecting Jesus. That fate comes to people who do not let Jesus rescue them from it. We are all sinners by definition, and are all heading for eternal punishment unless Jesus rescues us - this is the meaning of salvation.
In one sense this salvation is already a reality for those who belong to Jesus (2:10; 5:9), and in another sense the full rescue is yet to come (1:14; 6:9; 9:28).
The signs, wonders and various miracles were the classic testimonies to the truth of the Gospel which was preached by the apostolic witnesses. The same three words are found in Acts 2:22 and 2 Corinthians 12:12. But we must also note Acts 2:43; 4:30; 5:12; 6:8; 14:3; 15:12.
As Paul writes at one point, the gifts of the Holy Spirit are all given by the one Holy Spirit for the sake of the community of believers (1 Cor. 12:4, 11).
The full gospel is that Jesus can transform our lives by rescuing us from certain death, and that the Holy Spirit can further transform our new lives with gifts which he deems appropriate for us.
Angels are important to Hebrews, because they were clearly very significant for the recipients of the letter. Some Jewish groups believed that angels were instrumental in bringing God's word to Israel, a belief expressed in the Septuagint version of Deuteronomy 33:2, which mentions angels where the original Hebrew does not. The focus on angels was particularly marked by the community of pious Jews who lived at Qumran, on the shores of the Dead Sea, and Hebrews may have been written to a group of such people who became believers in Jesus.
Those Jewish people held that the present age was largely under the administration of angelic hosts, led by Michael, and that in the age to come the influence of angels would be even greater. Hebrews acknowledges that in this age people are a little lower than the angels, quoting from Psalm 8, and indeed includes the incarnate Jesus in this diminished role vis-à-vis the angels. But then Hebrews insists that in the world to come, when the purposes of God have been fulfilled, it will be Jesus alone who is in authority.
The little word yet may not seem to be very theological, but it is a key word in this section. The truth is that Jesus' Lordship is not self-evident. But we see Jesus means that we trust Jesus for the future because what we do know about him is already enough to give us grounds for trust.
He goes before us and we are ready to follow him, trusting him. Hebrews uses a wonderful expression for Jesus in this context. It calls him the author of salvation, which is a translation of a Greek term perhaps better translated by 'pioneer'. It is also used of Jesus in Hebrews 12:2 and Acts 3:15; 5:31. It can mean the chief of a group of people, the founder of a city, the person responsible for establishing a school of thought, or someone who blazes the trail for others to follow. Jesus has returned to his place at the right hand of the Father and has opened up the way for us to follow him there.
But that way is a difficult and painful one, not one of escape from suffering. Jesus will only enjoy the highest exaltation because he willingly became lower than the angels and suffered death among us. His suffering is highlighted again in 2:18; 5:8 and 13:12. This is the message also of Revelation 5:9-10 and Philippians 2:6-10, where a key word is the 'therefore' of verse 9. Jesus identifies fully with us in our suffering, and this was a vital lesson for Hebrews' community to learn since they themselves were experiencing serious persecution for their faith.
There are several places in the New Testament where we are encouraged to reflect on the truth that suffering can lead to a significant increase in our maturity as believers (see Jas. 1:2-4; 1 Pet. 1:6-9). We learn to be more like Jesus and we become more able to empathise with and help others who find themselves in various kinds of crisis.
However, something extraordinary is said here in Hebrews. We are told that Jesus himself was made perfect through suffering. It is vital that we avoid the mistake of thinking that this 'perfection' was in the realm of morality. Jesus was always morally and spiritually sinless (see Heb. 4:15; 7:26; 2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 2:22; 1 John 3:5).
The word translated as perfect is from a root which in the New Testament means perfectly fulfilling one's purpose. It is helpful to think about the difference between the potential for fulfilment and the actual realisation of that potential. An engineer may design something which should work perfectly, but only when it has actually worked perfectly in a real life situation will he pronounce it as perfect. A botanist may grow a plant with what looks like a perfect bud, but only when it actually blossoms will she really know that it was perfect.
In the same way, Hebrews teaches us that Jesus somehow fulfilled the potential vast supply of love and commitment for us (which his Father never doubted) when he actually triumphed in prayer at Gethsemane (Matt. 26:39) and went to the cross on our behalf (John 19:30). How could any of us dare to think that we could go through life without sharing in Jesus' sufferings as well as his joy? In the light of what he has gone through for us, how could we ever fail to trust him in every situation?
Through a Messianic interpretation of Psalm 22 and Isaiah 8 Hebrews teaches that all who believe in Jesus are regarded as his brothers and sisters. Jesus identified with us in his earthly life, and his life among us was so real and so intensely lived that he is even now able to fully sympathise with each of us. He is there with us not only in the times of joy and satisfaction but also in our suffering and struggles with temptation. If he himself had not known these experiences then he would not be able to really help us when we need his help.
Note that just as Hebrews has put the angels in their proper perspective in verse 5 of this chapter, so we find the stress here in verse 16 that Jesus did not come to help the angels, but Abraham's descendants. Angels are not subject to the same uncertainties of life and faith; they do not face the challenge of death; and they are not prey to those who seek to persecute the Lord's people. In other words, the full drama of salvation is played out in the human realm, and in particular in the life of Israel.
The phrase, Abraham's descendants is found in Isaiah 41:8-16, and this is a rich context for our understanding of the Hebrews passage. The whole Isaiah passage is about Israel as the chosen 'servant' of God, and Abraham's descendants there are encouraged not to be afraid of those who are set to oppose them. The Lord says that he will strengthen and 'help' them. The servant people of God need his understanding and protection. The Believers to whom Hebrews was written also needed this same help from the Lord.
All the same, it is possible at times for us to become so depressed by our fears and inadequacies that we find it hard to really accept that we belong with Jesus. At other times we can become so defeated by our inability to overcome temptations that we fear that Jesus might be reluctant to welcome us into his presence. How could he be happy in our company, as it were?
At times like this we should remember and rejoice in the truth of verse 11. Jesus is not ashamed of us - he calls us his brothers and sisters in spite of the fact that we are going through a long and sometimes difficult process of sanctification. The fact is that this process is very important to Hebrews, and recurs throughout the letter. Paul emphasises the necessity of being 'justified' by God, but Hebrews focuses on the role of Jesus as our 'High Priest', and so has a special interest in the issues of holiness.
Jesus came to deal with our alienation from God. Therefore he had to deal with sin and death, and therefore he had to deal with the work of the devil. Death is shown in the Bible to be the result of sin, and our last and greatest enemy (Gen. 2:17, 3:3-4; Rom. 5:12, 6:23; 1 Cor. 15:21, 26, 56; Rev. 20:14). Not surprisingly, death is within the realm of the devil. It represents the devil's final claim to power over our lives. Jesus had to do away with this power and its hold over us, and so he came to destroy the devil.
As it is put in Colossians 1:13, God has 'rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves'. We are safely accepted into the family of Jesus.
We shall leave for a more appropriate moment the clear tension that there seems to be in recognising Jesus as Israel's true high priest. The priests were all supposed to come from the tribe of Levi, and yet Jesus came from the tribe of Judah! Much of the letter is devoted to explaining this enigma and to helping us to realise the beauty of God's plan in bringing the kingly and priestly roles together in Jesus (see 3:1-6; 4:14; 5:10; 6:19-10:22).
A deeply important issue is reflected in this passage, and we should make sure that we reflect on it. Jesus came to make atonement for our sins. The Greek word used here can either mean to make 'expiation' or 'propitiation'. The former idea is of sins being covered over, as it were, and dealt with in this manner. They are now out of sight and out of God's mind. The latter idea is of the offended party - in this case God - being appeased. The basic problem is seen as not so much sins having to be covered but God's holy and righteous wrath having to be turned away from us.
The translation of the NIV suggests the former understanding of this text, whereas its footnote introduces the possibility of the latter interpretation. We perhaps need to learn that both of these dimensions of what Jesus accomplished on the cross are of vital importance for us. He reconciled us to God (propitiation) and dealt with the sin in our lives (expiation). But what we must not be deceived into believing is that our Father was in any sense reluctant to love or forgive us.
Jesus brought about the reconciliation which was necessary because of the sin in our lives which blocked the Father's full blessing of us. However the Gospel was the Father's plan, not one which Jesus devised in order to save us from an uncaring God. John 3:16 teaches that God so loved us that he sent Jesus to save us. We have just read here in Hebrews 2:10 that God decided to work through Jesus in bringing us to glory.
We should be careful about the message we might be sending unawares when we use posters and car stickers which say: 'Thank God for Jesus!' Jesus is our High Priest, and this is a wonderful picture of Jesus as our great mediator. Priests were mediators between God and the people of Israel, representing each before the other. The New Testament is clear that Jesus is the Mediator who makes possible the purpose of our Father in heaven (see 1 Tim. 2:5-6). Jesus had no agenda nor goal in life which was not our Father's purpose.
This is not at all to devalue Jesus, but to present the reality of the loving relationship between Father and Son which we see in the Scriptures. We shall have cause to see this featured again in the letter to the Hebrews.
In the first two chapters of this letter the focus has been on Jesus' superiority over the angels who played such a vital role in the previous theology of this community of Jewish believers. Now the emphasis shifts to Jesus' superiority over Moses, the founding prophet, as it were, of the Torah faith of the Jewish community. Numbers 12:6-7 shows us God's high esteem for Moses. This is the source of the reference to Moses being faithful in all God's house. We still speak of people founding a 'house' or dynasty.
Note that Moses is set apart from all other prophets in that Moses heard God in a direct way of some sort and saw 'the form of the Lord'. The Jewish community then and now would find it hard to imagine how anyone could get closer to God than this. It is important for Hebrews to meet the challenge that Moses might still be the high prophet for Jewish believers in Jesus. Jesus is not only the supreme King and High Priest of Israel, but he is also the supreme Prophet. Therefore although it might seem like an anticlimax to some Christians to move from angels to Moses, this was a significant point for Hebrews to make.
Of course Moses was only a servant in God's house. God's eulogy for Moses, if we can call it that, stresses this fact: 'Moses my servant is dead.' (Josh. 1:2). There is no dishonour in being a servant of God - quite the contrary - but it cannot compare with being God's Son.
The Son is faithful in welcoming us to be part of God's household (verse 6). This metaphor is used elsewhere in the New Testament, and expresses a key truth for us to learn (see Eph. 2:19-22; 1 Tim. 3:15; 1 Pet. 4:17). We are brothers and sisters of Jesus (2:11, 17; 3:1) whom he loves and acknowledges. But more than this, we are honoured by the extraordinary title of holy brothers. This is as a result of Jesus' work in us (2:11).
The root meaning of the Hebrew term behind the biblical concept of 'holiness' is of separateness from everyday life and use. People, objects or places which are described as holy are holy by association with the Lord - since only he is holy in and of himself. When someone or something is set apart for the service of God then it is holy. Therefore although the process of becoming holy (sanctification) is a lifelong one, with none of us ever reaching a fully sanctified state here on earth, in another sense we become holy as soon as we commit our lives to the Lord and his service.
This is why Hebrews can go on immediately to say that the holy brothers are those who share in the heavenly calling. We are now on a different (separate) path from the one on which we were walking, even though we may be only at the start of our journey on that path. The word translated by the phrase 'who share in' is one which appears elsewhere in the letter (3:14; 6:4; 12:10). It focuses on the blessing or the privilege which is shared rather than on anything which the sharers might have in common in themselves. Once again we see the reinforcement of the teaching that we have nothing in ourselves to boast about: we are holy because of the fact that we belong to the Lord.
Therefore it is appropriate that Hebrews says to his congregation: fix your thoughts on Jesus. The term means to focus one's attention firmly on the matter at hand in order to fully comprehend the lessons to be learned. Jesus himself urged this same attitude in his teaching (see Luke 12:24, 27 where the term found here in Hebrews is also found. It is also used in Hebrews 10:24 to emphasise the need to really care enough for our brothers and sisters to work hard at helping them to live lives for the Lord). In the case of Hebrews 3:1 we are taught that only Jesus can make the necessary difference in our lives, and so we must commit ourselves to him in order to find salvation.
Hebrews employs here a title for Jesus which is unique in the New Testament. He refers to him by the title apostle. The term literally means 'someone who is sent out'. In Jesus' day it was used in the Jewish community to refer to the envoys of the Sanhedrin, the high court of the Jewish religious authorities. It also came to be used in the same way that we would speak of 'ambassadors' from one nation or authority to another.
The 'apostle' was invested with the complete trust and authority of the person who sent him. He spoke for his master. To receive him was to receive his master, and in the same manner, to abuse or reject the apostle was to insult and reject the master.
The consequence of rejecting Jesus as God's great apostle is more serious than anything else could possibly be. To reject the apostle is to reject the one who sent him. As we think again of Moses we remember the passage where God promises to send another prophet like Moses (Deut. 18:15-19). This superior prophet will have God's very words put in his mouth, as we read there, and God says: 'If anyone does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name, I myself will call him to account.'
Moses was also called and 'sent out' by God (Exod. 3:4, 10, 14), but his mission was but the shadow of the greater Exodus which Jesus undertook on our behalf. Our part in this wonderful journey with Jesus is to trust him and believe all his words and deeds. As Hebrews puts it, we are to hold on to our courage and... hope. Ours is to follow where he leads.