Deferring Angels & Jesus
by Jack Wald | September 24th, 2000

Hebrews 1:1 – 2:18

Did you hear about the man who picked up a youthful hitchhiker and had a wonderful conversation with him. Then at some point in the conversation, the hitchhiker said, “Jesus is coming soon,” and when the man looked over at the hitchhiker, he had disappeared. An angel!

That is an often repeated story that may or may not have any basis in fact – but the fact that it is often repeated tells us something.

We, at least in the United States, are fascinated with angels. There are television shows about angels, people walk around wearing angel pins, books are written about relating to your guardian angel, they even have conferences where people come to learn more about angels. If you go to the internet and search for angels, prepare to spend some time sorting through all the options available to you. We are a culture fascinated with angels.

Well some things do not change. Two thousand years ago, in the culture to which the Letter to the Hebrews was written, angels were similarly a cultural fascination. So much so that the writer of Hebrews felt compelled to put the position of angels in perspective.

The Jewish culture in the beginning of the first millennium had a highly developed understanding of angels. There were millions and millions of angels. The Hebrew and Greek words for angel both mean “messenger” and this was viewed as their principal task, bringing God’s Word to humans on earth. They intervened for God in the events of history. There were two hundred angels who controlled the movement of the stars. There was an angel who controlled the never-ending succession of the years and months and days. There was an angel, a mighty prince, who was over the sea. There were angels of the frost, the dew, the rain, the snow, the hail, the thunder and lightening. There were angels who were wardens of hell and torturers of the damned. There were recording angels who wrote down in books every single word which every person spoke. Every nation had it’s guardian angel and every individual had his guardian angel.

It begins to sound like Greek and Roman and Norse mythology doesn’t it? Thor the Norse god of thunder, Aphrodite the Greek goddess of love and Neptune the Roman god of the sea.

During the Middle Ages, theologians developed a hierarchy of angels. They were classified in the following nine ranks (beginning with the lowest): angels, archangels, principalities, powers, virtues, dominations, thrones, cherubim, and seraphim.

Angels have been the focus of much speculation and attention. What does the Bible actually say about angels?

What we know about angels comes incidentally to us from Scripture. There is no teaching, per se, about angels but we do pick up pieces of information here and there.

Very briefly:
1. Angels are spiritual beings created by God and under his authority
Col 1:16 in talking about Jesus says this:
For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.
Angels were created by God for his purposes and they serve him according to his will.

2. Angels carry out God’s work by bringing God’s messages to people
In Luke 1:26 we read what probably first comes to your mind when you hear this:
In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee,  27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.

3. Angels carry out God’s work by protecting God’s people. In Daniel 6 Daniel has been thrown into the lion’s den because he prayed to someone other than King Darius. The next morning the king came to see what had happened and called out to Daniel.
Daniel answered, “O king, live forever!  22 My God sent his angel, and he shut the mouths of the lions.

4. Angels carry out God’s work by offering encouragement In Genesis 16 we read about Hagar, the maidservant of Sarah who was driven away because of Sarah’s jealousy of Hagar who bore Abraham a son while she was still barren.
The angel of the LORD found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur.  8 And he said, “Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?”
And the angel of the Lord proceeded to give her words of encouragement.

5. Angels carry out God’s work by giving guidance. In Exodus 14 Israel is making its escape from Egypt when they come to the Red Sea and are stuck there with the army of Pharaoh pursuing them and we pick up this interesting detail:
Then the angel of God, who had been traveling in front of Israel’s army, withdrew and went behind them.
The angel who had been guiding them on their way, now shifts to a role of defense against the pursuing army.

6. Angels carry out God’s work by carrying out punishment. In II Samuel 24 we read of God’s punishment against Israel because of David’s sin. A plague strikes Israel and moves across the land.
When the angel stretched out his hand to destroy Jerusalem, the LORD was grieved because of the calamity and said to the angel who was afflicting the people, “Enough! Withdraw your hand.”

7. Angels carry out God’s work by patrolling the earth. In a vision of Zechariah, we pick up this information about some angels Zechariah sees in his vision:
9 I asked, “What are these, my lord?”
The angel who was talking with me answered, “I will show you what they are.”
10 Then the man standing among the myrtle trees explained, “They are the ones the LORD has sent to go throughout the earth.”
11 And they reported to the angel of the LORD, who was standing among the myrtle trees, “We have gone throughout the earth and found the whole world at rest and in peace.”
This fits with the information we pick up from Jacob’s dream when he sees a ladder going up into heaven with angels ascending and descending.

8. Angels carry out God’s work by fighting the forces of evil. In II Kings 6 the prophet Elisha is besieged by the King of Aram, surrounded by his forces. Elisha’s servant is afraid so
Elisha prayed, “O LORD, open his eyes so he may see.” Then the LORD opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.
Jesus also makes mention of this. When Peter draws his sword to defend Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane he says
“Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.  53 Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?

Angels are created by God to serve him and carry out his will. Angels are powerful. Angels have knowledge we would love to have. Angels see God face-to-face while we see just a poor reflection as in a mirror.

We are thrilled by angels and their access to God and their power. Frank Peretti novels and others like them fascinate us because of the descriptions of the supernatural workings of God through his angels.

And it fascinated the Jewish Christians in Rome who were the original recipients of the letter to the Hebrews. These Jewish Christians had experienced persecution under Claudius in 49 AD and were seeing the fires of persecution heat up again under Nero. They were struggling with their faith and thinking of reverting to their Jewish faith with it’s familiar ceremonies and rituals and comfortable synagogues.

The writer of Hebrews wants to focus on Jesus and make the point that there is and never will be any substitute for Jesus. Reverting to Judaism or shifting the focus of attention to someone or something else is a poor substitute for what perfectly satisfies our spiritual needs.

The cult of angels was a powerful cult, angels were highly valued so at the beginning of this letter, the writer of Hebrews begins to build his case for the supremacy of Jesus. As great as angels are, he argues, Jesus is far greater.

He picks six Scriptures, mostly from the Psalms but also II Samuel and Deuteronomy, and makes the following points:
1. Jesus has a unique relationship with the Father that no angel has.
2. Angels worship Jesus, so who is the greater of the two?
3. Jesus is eternal, unlike the angels who are temporal. Jesus has always existed whereas angels were created.
4. Jesus is the creator of the universe in which we live, existing with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit before creation. Angels are part of the creation.
5. Jesus is the ultimate victor, all will sit at his feet. All enemies will be defeated. Jesus will sit on the throne hearing the praises of all creatures from all time. Angels will be those leading in this worship, not the recipients of the praise.
6. Angels are servants of Jesus.

None of this denigrates angels. Angels are wonderful creations of God. But the point is made over and over that as great as angels are, Jesus is incomparably greater.

Jesus is greater than angels. We know that. The Jewish Christians who read this letter knew that. So why worship angels when Jesus is greater?

I think there are two reasons. First, we are attracted to the spectacular. In the USA we love Superman. Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings with a single bound.

We like the idea of angels, soaring down from heaven to bring God’s messages, doing battle with Lucifer and the other fallen angels, protecting us from harm.

But is Jesus spectacular? One possible argument against Jesus being the Messiah, the Eternal Son of God is that if that was the case, why was he born as a baby, in a stable? Why did he live in Palestine in obscurity for thirty years before going into his public ministry? Why did he live like us at all? Why did he sweat when he worked? Why did he have to eat and go to the bathroom just like us? Why was he beaten and mocked? Why did he die on the cross?

These are not the characteristics of a superior being. The angels do not sweat when they work. The angels are not flogged by their enemies.

This is not the way of the superhero. This is not the way of the spectacular. Now if only Jesus had come in like a jet out of the sky with guns blazing, defeating the enemy and stepping triumphantly out of the plane without a hair out of place and without a trace of sweat on his brow. That’s spectacular. That’s more like it. That’s the Son of God!

Somehow, angels seem more elegant than Jesus.

So on the one hand we have elegant, soaring angels. Beautiful, powerful angels. And on the other hand we have Jesus who walked from place to place, sweated and thirsted on a hot day, who suffered the blows and indignities of man and ended his life in agony on the cross.

A second reason why we are attracted to angels is that they don’t cost us anything. Angels do all these great things for us and what is required for us to do? Nothing. Just sit back and enjoy the benefits. We wear our angel pins and thank our guardian angel whenever we have a close accident. So long as our life goes along smoothly, this works just fine.

In contrast, following Jesus costs us something.

Peter gave a courageous and bold answer to the question Jesus asked, “Who do you say I am?” Peter responded, “The Messiah of God.” This shows tremendous courage on the part of Peter and what does Jesus say in response to this? Is it something wonderful like, “Because you have seen me for who I am, you will be honored in my kingdom. You will rule with me in paradise,”?

No. He talks about how he must suffer and die and then says:
“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.  24 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.

Being caught up in the enthusiasm of Jesus’ ministry, people came up to him to join with him. Did Jesus say, “Welcome aboard. Come along and put on your seatbelt because it’s going to be a wild ride.”?

No.

57 As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.”
58 Jesus replied, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”
59 He said to another man, “Follow me.”
But the man replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”
60 Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
61 Still another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say good-by to my family.”
62 Jesus replied, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”

When people wanted to join with Jesus or when they reached a point of tremendous spiritual insight, instead of welcoming and congratulating, Jesus consistently warned about the difficulty ahead. Jesus never minimized the cost of being his disciple.

So you have a choice between elegant, soaring angels and sweating, suffering Jesus. You have a choice between following angels at no cost or you can follow Jesus for which there is a cost to be paid, even suffering and perhaps premature death.

So why worship Jesus? Why decide to follow Jesus? Given the choice, why not take the easier, more comfortable route?

Let’s say that someone decides to worship angels. Where does that get that person in the end? A person who spends his life worshiping angels, adoring the spectacular, wearing his or her angel pin, ends life with his or her biggest problem unresolved. There is still separation from God that has to be dealt with and angels are not capable of solving that problem.

It may be fun to worship angels. It may be intriguing and exciting. It may even be fulfilling and lead a person to have a happier life. But so what? You can have the most wonderful time packing for a trip and take a limousine to the harbor and have an elegant meal by the dock – but if you don’t have a boat to get across the ocean, it is not going to be much of a trip.

Jesus is the boat that takes us from this world to our eternal home and no one else in history has been or will ever be capable of doing that for us. Jesus does for us what angels could never do.

And this is why I think the writer of Hebrews follows this section on Jesus being greater than angels with the section of Jesus being made like us.

He provides two great reasons for following Jesus: Jesus is greater than angels and in fact greater than any creature in the history of creation; and secondly Jesus is the only possible person who could solve our problem of being separated from God.

In light of this, the writer of Hebrews warns us.
We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.

These Jewish Christians were drifting away from Jesus. Life was difficult and it is only human to move away from trouble and difficulty and move toward comfort and ease. If I put a match to your finger, your instinct is to jerk your hand away. None of us like to suffer so these Jewish Christians who were being harassed and persecuted were drifting away from Jesus.

Drifting is slow and often unnoticeable. You lay down on a rubber raft in the ocean and relax and next thing you know, you have drifted far away from where you started. Drifting is slow and unnoticeable – until you look up at a fixed point and see that you have moved.

We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.

Christ is the fixed point for we who are Christians and one of the reasons it is important for us to read our Bibles devotionally and come to Sunday worship services is that in doing these things, we are reminded of where we want to be and can see how we have drifted away.

The Jewish Christians of Rome were facing harassment so they drifted back to Judaism.

Having fellowship with certain people is uncomfortable for us so one morning we decide to stay home. Then we go to church for the next two Sundays but then we have a conversation in church with someone who offends us with what they say and we stay home the next Sunday. We try to make Sunday morning holy by reading the Bible and listening to some praise songs on a CD, but then it is the Olympics and it is easy to stay home to watch the Olympics and before you know it, it has been six months since you’ve been to church and now going to church takes great energy and initiative and it rarely happens.

You are bored with reading the Bible and want that extra sleep, so one morning you dispense with Bible reading and prayer. The next morning that pattern repeats. Late night TV prevents you from getting to bed on time and pretty soon you have established a pattern of not reading your Bible and make do with prayers as you drive to work or to the store.

You can start off with giving a tithe to God, but then one month, there were extra bills so your giving gets slighted and you say, “I’ll make it up next month.” Then some good friends invite you to go out to dinner with them and you go ahead and now for a second month you are a bit short for your giving to God’s work. Then after not having gone on vacation for two years, you splurge and bit by bit, what you give to God gets smaller and smaller.

You can start off with a firm commitment to Christ. But then your friends accuse you of being intolerant in your faith and challenge you to consider the other religions in the world. You begin to study these other religions and appreciate the truth you find in them. You begin to say that Jesus is wonderful but there are other great religious leaders. You move toward saying that Jesus is one way to God but there are many others and after some years you begin to doubt that Jesus is really the Eternal Son of God.

You are married and have a friendship with a person of the opposite sex. You enjoy being with each other. You share with this person who is so interested in what you have to say. You get together for lunch. You buy that person a birthday present. And bit by bit, you move into an illicit relationship of adultery.

In business you take a client out to lunch to win his or her favor. Then you begin to bring small presents – a pen, a coffee mug. Then it moves to tickets to a ball game and theater and over time the line has been crossed from what is acceptable to bribery.

It is easy for us to drift into complacency about Christ, into a habit of sin we had once rejected, to compromise our morals, to neglect Christian service.

We are excellent drifters so we need the focus the Letter to the Hebrews provides.

The good news is that in God’s grace, it is never too late for us to look up at Jesus and see how far we have drifted away. We can always come back. We can always take up our cross and follow him.

In what way have you drifted from Jesus? Lift up your eyes to Jesus. Focus on him and come back.

Turn your eyes upon Jesus.