Thursday, December 31, 2015

Thankfulness and Praise in Hebrews 1:4

“…having become as much better than the angels, as He has inherited a more excellent name than they” (Hebrews 1:4).

I am thankful that the Son is not mere messenger.[1] He is the eternal Son of God, one of three divine Persons Who are personally distinct yet at the same time are one God.

Why is the Son’s superiority to angels the first apologetic to which the writer will commit lengthy ink (by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit)? The same reason most of the New Testament letters are written: to address error in practice or confession.

“Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day -  things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind, and not holding fast to the head [Ephesians 1:22; 4:15; 5:23; Colossians 1:18; 2:10], from whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God. If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, ‘Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!’ (which all refer to things destined to perish with use) - in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence” (Colossians 2:16-23). I include this long quote to show that the heresy Paul is fighting is not Gnosticism (some people see Gnosticism on every page of the New Testament, though the text itself doesn’t explicitly speak of this belief-system). The heresy is a Judaizing heresy, like most we encounter in the New Testament. The transition from the old covenant (and all the man-made traditions which had been attached to it) to the new covenant was not easy for the New Testament generation. The very first Church Council (Acts 15) had to address it.[2] This Judaizing heresy apparently included “the worship of angels.” What could this be? We don’t see any examples described for us of this sort of worship in the New Testament. Granted, there are innumerable examples of idolatrous worship in the Old Testament, but surely the Jews of the New Testament were no longer idolatrous, were they?

I think they were. But their idol was a little more difficult to battle.

Let’s look at three interesting passages that reveal something about Jewish thinking in the first century A.D. relevant to our meditation today:
  • “…you who received the law as ordained by angels, and yet did not keep it” (Acts 7:53).
  • “Why the Law then? It was added because of transgressions, having been ordained through angels by the agency of a mediator [Moses], until the Seed [Christ] would come to Whom the promise had been made” (Galatians 3:19).
  • “For if the word spoken through angels proved unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just penalty” (Hebrews 2:2).

We see in Matthew 23:16-22 that there was a tendency among first century A.D. Jewish worshipers to make actions of devotion on lesser things (gold instead of temple, offering instead of altar, temple instead of the temple-Dweller, heaven instead of God and His throne). I believe that’s what’s behind this angel worship: their idol had become the Law by this time (and their interpretations/traditions attached to it), and since angels were part of its revelation to man, angels received adoration.[3] This is why it was important for Paul to attack angel worship in the Church in Colossae, and why the writer of Hebrews wants to be exceedingly clear that Jesus is infinitely greater than angels. Law-worshipers worshiped the angels who brought the Law; Jesus is not just an angelic messenger, but is the Son Who is eternal God.[4]

This is the seventh day of Christmas (swans a-swimming day), and as we continue to remember the coming of the Son into the world, let us make the connection between His humiliation (which began at the incarnation) and exaltation. The only proper response is worship and allegiance.

Because of Jesus’ humiliation from the incarnation to death on the cross, “God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10,11). This is the same point the writer of the letter to the Hebrews has just made: this Son Who is God’s final Word, the Mediator of creation, the One Who came down to earth to make “purification for sins” (1:4), is now the One Who is seated at the highest place of authority in the heavens and earth. Praise Him with great praise, Him Who is infinitely greater than the angels!

“Religious worship is to be given to God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and to Him alone; not to angels, saints, or any other creatures” (1689 Baptist Confession, 22.2). Praise nothing less than God Who is Trinity. As result of His eternally divine nature, worship the Son.

Angels themselves do not permit any to worship them (Revelation 19:10; 22:8,9).[5] They recognize the Creator-creature distinction. They are creatures. Magnificent creatures with power and glory beyond our current comprehension. But just creatures. And creatures are not to be worshiped.

The eternal Son, however, has because of His birth, life, atoning death, resurrection, and ascension, has received a name – CHRIST (God’s anointed serpent-crushing Seed-of-the-woman King of all heaven and all earth). And at that name, let us worship.
One Lord's Day morning earlier this year, I
saw this in the sky over the front yard: a hole in
the clouds permitted the sunrise (behind me)
to shine through. Remarkable.

[1] This is what the word “angel” means: messenger. It means this in the Old Testament Hebrew word (מלאך) and the New Testament Greek word (αγγελος). In fact, the English word is just a cognate borrowed from the Greek.
[2] It’s still a danger today with those Christians who would read the Old Testament other than in the light of Christ as revealed in the New Testament, and those who would build a modern society of laws based on the old covenant civil code.
[3] I think this is what’s behind the phrase “the tongues…of angels” (1 Corinthians 13:1). It’s Hebrew, the language in which the Law of Moses was given. This has a role to play in the greater section 1 Corinthians 12-14 and the tongues controversy, but that’s a tale for another day.
[4] This is a germane point in today’s world because of Islam. In the same passages which condemn Trinitarian theology, Jesus is also relegated to being mere messenger of Allah: “Christ Jesus the son of Mary was (no more than) a Messenger of Allah and His Word, which He bestowed on Mary, and a Spirit proceeding from Him: so believe in Allah and His Messengers. Say not ‘Trinity.’ Desist: it will be better for you, for Allah is One Allah. Glory be to him (for Exalted is He) above having a son. To Him belongs all things in the heavens and on earth…they disbelieve who say: Allah is one of three in a Trinity, for there is no god except One God. If they desist not from their word (of blasphemy), verily a grievous penalty will befall the blasphemers among them. Why turn they not to Allah and seek His forgiveness? For Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful. Christ the son of Mary was no more than a Messenger; many were the Messengers that passed away before him...” (4.171; 5:72-74, Yusef Ali translation). The Muslim Jesus is less than Allah (certainly not of the same divine essence from all eternity), and is in equal status with other supernaturally-given messengers.
[5] Human messengers do not permit this, either, if they are truly messengers of God (Acts 10:25,26; 14:11-15).

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