God’s Preeminent Word (Hebrews 1:4-14)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Michael Servetus was a Spanish theologian whose unorthodox teachings were declared to be heretical. He was condemned to death in 1553 for his heresies. As the flames rose that fateful day, he prayed, “Oh Jesus, Son of eternal God, have pity on me.” A more fitting prayer would have been: “Oh Jesus, eternal Son of God, have pity on me.”

The difference between these two prayers may seem minimal, but in fact it is vital. If Jesus is not the eternal Son of God then He could not have helped Servetus.

The fact is, what you believe about Jesus matters—not to Him, but to you, and eternally so. The apostle John wrote, “Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves Him who begot also loves him who is begotten of Him” (1 John 5:1). Again, he urged his readers, “He who believes in the Son of God has the witness in himself; he who does not believe God has made Him a liar, because he has not believed the testimony that God has given of His Son. And this is the testimony: that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life” (vv. 10-12). Clearly, what we believe about Jesus Christ has eternal consequences.

The writer of Hebrews knew this. He wrote because he was concerned that his readers might be tempted to look for salvation in a mediator other than Jesus Christ. His burden was to point them to the supremacy of Jesus Christ as God’s appointed Saviour. He wanted to persuade them to partake of the new wine of the gospel and to quit saying, “The old is better.” He wanted to persuade them to believe and to keep believing that Jesus is the eternal Son of God sent to be their Saviour.

In order to persuade them, the author stresses Jesus as God’s final Word (vv. 1-2a), Jesus as God’s pastoral Word (vv. 2b-3) and Jesus as God’s preeminent Word (vv. 4-14). In vv. 1-3, seven divine descriptions are given of Christ. In v. 4, a preeminent claim is made in the light of the sevenfold description. In vv. 5-14, seven Old Testament texts are used to substantiate this claim of preeminence.

We will study this under two major headings and then conclude with some practical applications. May we come away with a greater confidence that Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God.

God’s Incomparable Word

In v. 4, the writer speaks of Christ as God’s incomparable Word. He moves from absolute terms to comparative terms. After making purification for sins, Christ sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high (v. 3) “having become so much better than the angels, as He has by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they” (vv. 4).

A Better Nature

Christ is incomparable because, firstly, He has a better nature. The writer claims that Christ has “become so much better than the angels.” The term “better” means “superior,” “more excellent,” or “preeminent.”

This is the first of many “betters” in Hebrews. The author speaks of a better hope (6:9; 7:78, 19), a better testament (7:22), a better covenant (8:6), A better sacrifice (9:23), a better possession (10:34), a better country (11:16), a better resurrection (11:35) and a better atonement (12:24). Along the way, other comparisons are made that show Christ is “better”: Moses, Melchizedek, Levitical priesthood, etc. As Morris says, “This strong emphasis on what is ‘better’ arises from the author’s deep conviction that Jesus Christ is ‘better’ and that he has accomplished something ‘better’ than anyone else.”1

But what is implied by “having become so much better”? This may seem to suggest that Christ was at one time not better than the angels but that he has “become” so. In fact, this terminology has nothing to do with His “origin.” He is eternal. Instead, it speaks of His being exalted so high after His humiliation (see Philippians 2:5-11). There is a veiled reference here to His incarnation.

Jesus, God’s Son, is said to be better than the “angels.” The Bible universally assumes the existence of angels, but why should they be mentioned in this particular context?

Angels were significant in Jewish history. It was “the Angel of the LORD” who appeared to Moses in the burning bush and instructed him to return to Egypt (Exodus 3:1-2ff). Later, it was “the Angel of God” who protected Israel at the Red Sea (Exodus 14:19). Again, it was, literally, the “angel of the LORD” who conversed with Abraham concerning the destruction of Sodom, and two more angels who actually were sent to rescue Lot. Angels are mentioned some 117 times in the Old Testament, and a further 178 times in the New.

Particularly significant for the writer of Hebrews was their role in the giving of the law. The law was given, according to Stephen, “by the direction of angels” (Acts 7:53). Paul agrees that it was “appointed through angels by the hand of a mediator” (Galatians 3:19) and the writer of Hebrews himself speaks of the law as “the word spoken through angels” (Hebrews 2:2).

The Jews held angels in high regard (perhaps too high!) as mediators of the old covenant. It was important for the writer to prove that the mediator of the new covenant was a superior mediator, for a better covenant requires a better mediator.

This better mediator “has by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they.” This is significant, for the angels received their “name” by virtue of creation. Jesus, on the other hand, received His “name” by inheritance. The implication of this is that the angels were created, whereas the Son was not. He existed eternally.

A Better Name

The Son, argues the author, has “a more excellent name” than the angels. Lane translates the second part of this verse: “having been exalted as far above the angels as the name which he has inherited is superior to theirs.”2

You will notice that, while the author is clearly contrasting Jesus with the angels, he has not actually used the name “Jesus” yet. The contrast of names, then, is not “Jesus” versus “angels,” but “Son” versus “angels.”

The word “angels” means “messengers.” A Son, of course, is far better than a messenger. Brown correctly notes, “The angels concerned were but messengers; that was their name and that was their function. Christ has a name superior to the best of angels. He is far more than a mere messenger. He is the Son of God.”3

The Jews understood that the claim to divine sonship was a claim to divinity (see John 10:31-39; 5:18; Matthew 26:63-65).

A “name” in ancient times was far more significant than it often is today. A name was understood to reveal character and therefore nature. Having the name of God indicates that the Son is God. This is the astoundingly true and universal testimony of Scripture (cf. Philippians 2:9-11; Matthew 1:21; Acts 4:12).

Phillips summarises: “In saying that Christ is superior to the angels, the author is again emphasizing the superiority of the new covenant over the old, and therefore the folly of turning back from the gospel.”4

The foundation for all perseverance is a biblical and thus exalted view of the Lord Jesus Christ. The apostles endured affliction because of their exalted view of Christ (see Acts 5:41; 15:26; 21:13). They frequently appealed in their writings to the name of Christ when they instructed their readers to obedience (1 Corinthians 1:10; 5:4ff; 2 Timothy 2:19).

The question before us is, how do we know that His name and nature are preeminent? How do we know that Jesus is the Son of God? This is the fundamental question, for if this is mere opinion then we are fools to persevere; rather, let us eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die. So, on what basis can we be sure of the writer’s testimony?

God’s Inspired Word

God’s inspired Word is the grounds for our belief that Jesus is God’s Incomparable Word (vv. 5-14). God’s inspired Word assures us that Jesus is the Son of God, and this is sufficient.

The writer proves the thesis of v. 4 by appealing to seven Old Testament texts. Phillips observes:

No chapter in the entire New Testament sets forth the divinity of Jesus Christ so thoroughly and fervently as this first chapter of the Book of Hebrews. . . . For the sheer weight of testimony to the divine nature of Christ, there is nothing in all of Scripture like the barrage of Old Testament verses applied to him in Hebrews 1.5

The Old Testament is deeply Christ-centred (Luke 24:25-27, 44) and for this reason there is much continuity between the old and the new covenants. The recipients of this letter needed to see this. The truth was staring them in the face, and the author would now explain it to them. Let’s look at the sixfold Scriptural proof (grounded in sevenfold Scriptural texts) that Jesus is God’s preeminent Word.

Jesus is Declared to Be the Son of God

In v. 5 we see that Jesus is declared to be the Son of God. “For to which of the angels did He ever say: ‘You are My Son, today I have begotten You’? And again: ‘I will be to Him a Father,

And He shall be to Me a Son’?” The author quotes here from Psalm 2:7 and 2 Samuel 7:14.

In Psalm 2:7 David wrote, “I will declare the decree: The LORD has said to Me, ‘You are My Son, today I have begotten You.’”

The Father declared Jesus to be His “Son” by the resurrection from the dead (cf. Romans 1:4; Acts 13:33). The word “begotten” has caused some angst because we tend to think that someone comes into existence when they are “begotten.” That is not how the author expects us to understand the word here, however. As Bruce explains, “In view of the emphasis laid throughout the epistle on the occasion of Christ’s exaltation and enthronement, it is probably that he thought of this occasion as the day when He was vested with His royal dignity as Son of God.”6 Jones adds that the term serves to highlight the contrast between Jesus as a “Royal-Son” and a “created angel.”7 And the Nicene Creed simply states that Jesus was “begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.”

In Psalm 2:7 we read, “You are My Son.” This is clearly a reference to Christ, and on at least two separate occasions in His earthly ministry—baptism and transfiguration—did God speak from heaven, “This is My beloved Son.” According to the testimony of the New Testament, the Father testified the same at His resurrection and ascension, which was followed by His coronation. Without being flippant, we might say that, in the resurrection and ascension, God proudly declared, “That’s My boy!”

The second quote is lifted from 2 Samuel 7:14, where God, speaking of David’s son Solomon and ultimately of his greater Son Jesus, promised David, “I will be his Father, and he shall be My son. If he commits iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men and with the blows of the sons of men.”

Solomon fulfilled this prophecy in one sense, but ultimately, argues the writer of Hebrews, it pointed to one greater than Solomon. It was Messianic. Jesus is of one essence with the Father, yet a distinct person. Jesus, not angels, fulfils this prophecy.

Jesus is Worshipped as the Son of God

Verse 6, quoting Psalm 97:7, shows us that Jesus is worshipped as the Son of God. “But when He again brings the firstborn into the world, He says: ‘Let all the angels of God worship Him.’”

Once again, the term “firstborn” has been understood by some as problematic. The term has nothing to do with time but rather with position. MacArthur notes, “It is not a description but a title, meaning “the chief one.’”8 The meaning, says Bruce, is that “He exists before all creation and . . . all creation is his heritage.”9 Colossians 1:15, 18 and Romans 8:29 use similar terminology.

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, angels worshipfully announced the birth to the shepherds (Luke 2:8-14). They were simply messengers of His birth, but He was the Son who was worshipped. Morris concludes, “Christ is possessed of a greater dignity than any other being, so great indeed that he must be classed with God rather than with men.”10

The disciples saw something of this; they at least heard this. At one point in his ministry, Jesus quoted Isaiah 6 as a reference to Him (John 12:39-41). When Isaiah saw the Lord high and lifted up, with the train of His glory filling the heavenly throne room, he was seeing Christ. And seeing the glory of Christ, the prophet cried, “Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts” (Isaiah 6:4).

Though the disciples never saw Jesus in quite the same light that Isaiah did, they were nonetheless impressed with His transcendence. At one point in an early encounter with Jesus, Peter cried, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” (Luke 5:8). When John saw the exalted Jesus in the revelation given to him on Patmos, he “fell at His feet as dead” (Revelation 1:17). As Andrews helpfully notes, “If the angels revere Jesus Christ as God, so should we. He is the friend of sinners, but we should never presume upon His friendship.”11

Jesus is Enthroned as the Son of God

Third, we see that Jesus is enthroned as the Son of God. The author, quoting Psalms 104:4 and 45:6-7, writes,

And of the angels He says: “Who makes His angels spirits and His ministers a flame of fire.” But to the Son He says: “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever; a sceptre of righteousness is the sceptre of Your kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated lawlessness; therefore God, Your God, has anointed You with the oil of gladness more than Your companions.”

(Hebrews 1:7-9)

The comparison is between angels who serve the throne (v. 7) and Jesus who is seated on the throne (vv. 8-9)!

The writer speaks of the angels as “spirits and His ministers a flame of fire.” That is, the angels serve God—and Jesus is God!

The Son, by stark contrast, has an eternal throne, from which He rules righteously. By loving righteousness and hating lawlessness, Jesus Christ proved that He was King of the universe and the Son of God. When tempted, angels fell. Jesus did not—and will not. Even the Roman centurion guarding Him at the cross acknowledged this (Matthew 27:54).

Jesus is Unchanging as the Son of God

Quoting Psalm 102:25-27, the author also speaks of Jesus as the unchanging Son of God. He writes,

And: “You, LORD, in the beginning laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of Your hands. They will perish, but You remain; and they will all grow old like a garment; like a cloak You will fold them up, and they will be changed. But You are the same, and Your years will not fail.”

(Hebrews 1:10-12)

The “LORD” here is a reference Jesus Christ! He is the Creator and thus Creator of the angels. In fact, they observed Him creating (Job 38:4-7).

All creation is subject to change and degeneration, but not the Creator. Creation perishes, but the Creator remains. As the writer will say a little later, Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever (13:8).

As noted above, the angels themselves were subject to change, as evidenced by the fact that many of them fell. But the Son is unchangeable. As Guthrie says, “In the face of the disintegration everywhere else, the unchangeable character of the Son stands out in unmistakable contrast.”12

In sum, we see that Jesus is a timeless, transcendent being. He is, therefore, always relevant! There is disintegration in our world, but He rules—and He laughs at those who try to resist His authority. We may indeed be heading for a day of intensive opposition as the secularists minority seem to be winning, but Jesus is ruling and we have every reason to hope. We can sing with Habakkuk:

Though the fig tree may not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines; though the labour of the olive may fail, and the fields yield no food; though the flock may be cut off from the fold, and there be no herd in the stalls—yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation. The Lord God is my strength; He will make my feet like deer’s feet, and He will make me walk on my high hills.

(Habakkuk 3:17-19)

If God can bring good and glory out of the grotesqueness of the cross, we have every reason for hope in our day. No trial we face surprises Him. The Word of God is relevant and lives and abides forever!

In the light of this, be careful how you treat Him! “What they do need to understand is the fearful danger to which they will be exposed if they treat this salvation lightly.” (Andrews) Be careful how you respond to the King of the universe.

Jesus is Vindicated as the Son of God

In vv. 13-14, the author cites Psalm 110:1 to show Jesus vindicated as the Son of God.

But to which of the angels has He ever said: “Sit at My right hand, till I make Your enemies Your footstool”? Are they not all ministering spirits sent forth to minister for those who will inherit salvation?

(Hebrews 1:13-14)

Psalm 110 is the most frequently cited psalm in the New Testament. It shows that Jesus sits while angels are always seen either standing (awaiting orders—see Luke 1:19; Revelation 18:2; Daniel 7:10) or bowing at God’s throne. The Son seated is a mark of Christ’s superior dignity. And He will remain seated until His enemies have been made his “footstool.” A footstool refers to utter subjection. The picture is of a king with his foot on the neck of his defeated enemies (see Joshua 10:16-25).

Perhaps this testimony from the Father Himself is the greatest proof of Christ’s deity. The Father will vindicate His Son. Don’t be on the wrong side! Be careful how you treat His Son.

Jesus’ enemies—sin, Satan, spiritual wickedness in high places, death—will all be defeated. The writer contrasts this picture with the position of angels in v. 14. Jones notes, “Far from being superior to him they are not even superior to believers, because they stoop to serve them.”13 For two thousand years, history has witnessed something of this vindication. One day, it will be witnessed completely (Revelation 11:15-16).

Incredibly, the angels are ministers to believers, who are described here as “those who will inherit salvation.” We are heirs of Christ’s glorious and victorious inheritance! Would to God that our understanding would be enlightened to know the hope of this calling and the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints (Ephesians 1:18).

Jesus Saves because He is the Son of God

Finally, let us note that it is precisely because He is the Son of God that Jesus is able to grant “salvation” (v. 14). The term “salvation” is used seven times in this letter, though it is never explained what is meant by it. The meaning is assumed. Salvation is to be saved from sin—the penalty, power, pleasures and presence of sin. Only the Son can accomplish this. As Brown notes, “Angels can serve us (1:14), but they cannot save us. His name is more excellent because he is not only a Son but a Saviour.”14

Consider: Because Jesus is preeminent, He is powerful to save. “He has no equal in the purpose of God and is therefore to have no rival in the esteem of his people.”13 Do you trust Him? Love Him?

Concluding Applications

As we draw this study to a close, allow me to briefly mention a few concluding applications.

First, note that the conclusion is inescapable: The Son is fully God. Therefore, the salvation He provides is certain and secure (2:1). Those who have the Son inherit His life (cf. v. 14 with 1 John 5:12). As Phillips says, “If these things are true of the Son, then he is worthy of all our trust. We would be foolish in the extreme not to turn for our salvation to such a mighty Saviour.”16

If you have Christ, then you have all. “As God had no greater messenger than His Son, He had no further message beyond the gospel.”17 The gospel is not Christ plus anything. Do not dishonour Christ by claiming you need more.

Second, we need to maintain the exalted view of Christ if we will persevere. Someone has noted that the lofty views of Christ enthroned served as a magnet for the author’s thoughts.18 In other words, his remembrance of who Christ is pulled everything together and gave assurance and perseverance.

When life does not make sense, is not “fair,” a right view of Christ gives us the ability to persevere with joy and peace. I was burdened recently with a matter for which I had been praying, and for which our church had been praying, for some time. I had been praying, and we had been praying, for an outcome in a particular situation that I was convinced was the best. God saw fit to answer otherwise. I didn’t understand what he was doing, but as I was reading Micah in my devotions I was struck by the words of 6:8: “He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” In this particular situation, I (and we) had done justly and loved mercy, and I realised that, despite God not answering according to my desires, it was time now to walk humbly with God.

God’s preeminent Word is a powerful, peace-producing and persevering Word.

Finally, if you want proof that Jesus is the Son of God, and therefore the Saviour, then study the Word of God. The Word of God, says the writer elsewhere, “is living and powerful, and sharper than any two- edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).

Josh McDowell was once a determined atheist, who had little time for the claims of God’s Word. He grew irritated at the persistence of believing acquaintances who sought to evangelise him, and so one day he decided that he would set out to study the Bible so as to prove it wrong. By the time he concluded his studies he was a believer. Many others have shared this testimony. God’s Word is powerful, and we do not need any other arguments to prove that the Son is who He claimed to be.

Don’t shy away from proclaiming His Word. Don’t neglect the opportunity to read God’s Word to be saved! You must be born again and this requires the Word of God (James 1:17).

Conclusion

Indeed, Servetus needed to realise that there is a world of difference between “Jesus, Son of eternal God” and “Jesus, eternal Son of God.” Our hope lies in the fact that Jesus is indeed the eternal Son of God. May we worship Him as such.

Show 18 footnotes

  1. Leon Morris, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 12:16.
  2. Edgar Andrews, A Glorious High Throne: Hebrews Simply Explained (Darlington: Evangelical Press, 2003), 43.
  3. Raymond Brown, The Message of Hebrews: The Bible Speaks Today (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2000), 40.
  4. Richard D. Phillips, Hebrews: Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2006), 27.
  5. Phillips, Hebrews, 37.
  6. F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews: The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 13.
  7. Hywel R. Jones, Let’s Study Hebrews (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2002), 12.
  8. John F. MacArthur, Jr., Hebrews: The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: The Moody Bible Institute, 1983), 30.
  9. Phillips, Hebrews, 31.
  10. Morris, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12:17.
  11. Andrews, A Glorious High Throne, 49.
  12. Donald Guthrie, Hebrews: Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 1983), 82.
  13. Jones, Let’s Study Hebrews, 14.
  14. Brown, The Message of Hebrews, 43.
  15. Jones, Let’s Study Hebrews, 14.
  16. Phillips, Hebrews, 40.
  17. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, 26.
  18. Andrews, A Glorious High Throne, 65.