Pastor Chris Tweitmann
(SLIDE #1) Angels. This time of year, angels are everywhere.
(SLIDE #2) Their gilded images adorn the front of Christmas cards.
The outline of what we have to come to envision angels to look like
– beautiful humans with wings always surrounded by glowing light,
complete with halos, harps, and flowing white gowns (SLIDE #3)
– decorate our rooftops, our stockings hung by the fireplace,
and the ornaments on our Christmas trees. (SLIDE #4)
Nearly all of the classic, beloved Christmas carols make some reference to angels.
(SLIDE #5) In their lilting refrains, two of them in particular,
“Angels We Have Heard on High” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,”
specifically focus on these heavenly creatures.
Angels abound during this holiday season
because they pop up all over the Christmas story.
An angel conveyed the news to an aging priest named Zachariah, he & his wife, Elizabeth, would bear a son named John, the forerunner of the coming Messiah.
(SLIDE #6) An angel surprised a young, engaged but unmarried girl named Mary with
the news of her pregnancy & the explanation of exactly who that child would be.
It was an angel who reassured and redirected Joseph in his disappointment
with his spouse as he planned to divorce Mary quietly. (SLIDE #7)
It was an angel who proclaimed the glad tidings to shepherds
on a hillside outside of Bethlehem, that unto all a Savior had been born.
It’s hard to imagine Christmas without these divine messengers who herald
this “good news of great joy for all the people” – the birth of Jesus Christ.
As we continue our Advent series considering the first three chapters of
the letter to the Hebrews as part of our preparation to celebrate Jesus’ birthday,
we find mention of angels here as well.
However, as we are about to hear, for the community that is receiving this letter, angels aren’t just a part of the Christmas story, the coming of Christ is
being perceived as the arrival of an angel among us. (SLIDES #8 – #12)
Again, the gist of this portion of the letter is this.
The writer is addressing some Christians who were starting to believe that
seeing Jesus as the coming to earth as an angel was the best way
of understanding who Jesus is.
A little later on, we will address why many were viewing Jesus in this way.
But for now, as angels have inspired all sorts of imaginative stories and depictions over the centuries, let’s briefly review what the Bible does tell us about angels,
with some of this information coming from this portion of the letter.
Let’s separate fact from fiction. (SLIDE #13)
The Hebrew word for Angel is, “מַלְאָך” which is pronounced “mal-awk.”
Its literal translation is, “messenger.”
An angel is a messenger of God. One who does the service of God.
In the OT, these “messengers of God” are mentioned over 100 times,
and in the New Testament over 160 times.
The Bible demonstrates that angels are intelligent, rational, created beings,
albeit immaterial ones – meaning, they have no bodies and are but pure spirit.
(SLIDE #14) Our traditional depiction of angels has been shaped largely
by European artists who created the standard image of an angel
as a man with wings and usually also a halo.
This image has endured from the 4th century AD to the present day. (SLIDE #15)
But notice in this passage, in verse 7 and again, in verse 14,
how angels are referred to as spirits – capable of taking on forms of fire and light.
Despite being immaterial, the scriptures indicate angels can interact with
God’s creation, speaking, reasoning, and intervening in specific situations.
Biblically, angels are typically unseen, but on rare occasions,
God makes them visible in bodily form to others.
The scriptures do not tell us how many angels exist, but based on every biblical reference describing them in places like Deuteronomy, the Gospel of Luke, and
the book of Revelation, it appears the total number of angels is beyond counting.
There also appears to be some sort of order or hierarchy
within the angelic realm as well as different types of angels.
For example, in the book of Jude, Michael is described as an archangel
— meaning he is the “head,” having some sort of authority over the remaining angels.
Michael also is called “one of the chief princes” in the OT book of Daniel and
the archangel Michael appears to lead God’s angelic army in Revelation 12.
The only other angel named in the Bible is Gabriel, who also seems to have
a special role, being given the task of making extremely important announcements to various personages such Zechariah & Mary.
As far as what angels do,
there are at least two general tasks biblically attributed to angels. (SLIDE #16)
The first and central thing angels do is worship and praise God.
We see this in places like Isaiah & Revelation which describe angels as offering
a continual, out loud, chorus of declaration about the holiness & glory of the Lord.
This repeated chorus of praise is detailed in calling out the specific,
distinctively perfect, and incomparable goodness of the character of God.
The second thing angels do is serve God, in all sorts of ways.
A primary way that angels serve the Lord is as messengers – bringing words of warning, assurance, revelation, & frequently, divine announcements of
how the Lord is stepping in and acting on behalf of His children.
God sent three angels, to Abraham and Sarah to tell them,
of Sarah’s pregnancy with a promised son who would be named Isaac.
It was an angel who came to Sarah’s servant Hagar, as she fled into the desert,
to deliver a message of hope that she was not forgotten by God.
An angel inspired the confidence of a discouraged Gideon in the book of Judges,
by greeting Gideon with these words: “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.”
And of course, angels were front & center announcing the gift of the Incarnation
to certain shepherds watching their flocks by night in Bethlehem and then later, appearing before the women at the empty tomb, sharing the news of Resurrection.
In their service to God, we also see examples in the Bible of
angels assisting and defending the Lord’s people.
Angels were involved in the destruction of the wicked cities of Sodom & Gomorrah.
In the days of King Hezekiah, angels defeated 185,000 Assyrian soldiers
to deliver Jerusalem from invading armies.
The prophetic book of Zechariah tells us angels patrol the earth as God’s representatives.
The books of Daniel and Revelation further indicate angels are
front and center in the spiritual battle for this world.
Angels carry out war against demonic forces.
We get a glimpse of this as angels seek to minister to Christ
in the midst of his temptations in the wilderness and during his agonizing prayer
before going to the Cross in the Garden of Gethsemane.
The Bible clearly tells us that God sends angels to protect people,
however, there is no definitive biblical proof for the existence of
specific “guardian angels” assigned to persons.
All we are told biblically, is there are angels all around us, working under
the Lord’s direction, and therefore, sometimes intervening in our life on earth.
(SLIDE #17) In fact, we are cautioned much, much later in this letter
(Hebrews 13:2) to “not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”
So, there can be no doubt angels are real and sometimes among us.
But what the author of this letter wants to make perfectly clear is Jesus was no angel.
That expression, “He’s no angel” typically refers to that person
not behaving well, behaving badly. But that’s not the point being made here.
Previously, at the start of this letter (Hebrews 1:1-4), the writer
powerfully put forward the case for Jesus’ superiority to the prophets
– Jesus being more than a human messenger from God.
Now, the case is being made that Jesus is also superior to
the divine messengers of God, the angels. Jesus is no angel.
The writer of Hebrews goes to a number of OT passages
in order to illustrate the difference between Christ and angels.
The entire basis of the argument is established in verse 5. (SLIDE #18)
Jesus is no angel because Christ alone is revealed uniquely, as God’s Son.
No angel has ever been addressed by or revealed to have such a designation.
From here, from stating what God did NOT say about angels,
the writer continues by outlining what God has said about angels.
In verse 6, we see one of the responsibilities of angels being highlighted
– worshipping and glorifying God. (SLIDE #19)
However, angels are commanded to fulfill this role,
by directing their worship towards Jesus.
This is significant, because again and again, biblically,
we are told only God is worthy of worship.
Jesus is no angel because Jesus is to be worshipped by the angels
as the Son of God – one with the Father and thus fully God in the flesh.
(SLIDE #20) And on that fateful night in Bethlehem, this is exactly what we witness
the angels doing – worshipping Jesus as the Son of God.
Verse 8 emphasizes the reason Christ is worshiped by angels is NOT that Christ
is the Son of God in the sense that we are sons and daughters of God
or angels are created by God. (SLIDE #21)
No, Jesus is the Son of God in the sense that he is God, the Son.
As God, Jesus came down to earth to be with us, making Himself
a little lower than the angels through being incarnated in our flesh.
But this was never a permanent arrangement.
God in Christ came down to reveal the ultimate, created potential of our humanity.
God in Christ came down to bear the burden of our brokenness
and to wipe the slate clean of all our mistakes, our willful acts of disobedience
with divine forgiveness.
God in Christ came down to conquer death, so that our lives could be restored
to their intended purpose – full, abundant, and everlasting life.
However, when the work God came down in Christ to do was finished,
Jesus returned to His rightful place, the position of highest honor and power
and privilege and authority over all creation.
Quoting from Psalm 45, Jesus is described as seated on the throne as king
– the king of whom we have to say God is his God and he is God.
The description of Jesus given here dramatically contrasts with
any human ruler or divine messenger.
The pattern of human history shows, typically, the more powerful a ruler is,
the more likely it will be that he or she will become corrupt
and abuse the power he or she has.
Not so with Christ who is depicted here as ruling with a scepter of uprightness and who is described as a lover of righteousness, and a hater of wickedness.
The writer pushes further in verses 10 – 12, (SLIDE #22)
Jesus is no an angel because he is the eternal Creator of all things.
Angels are servants of God – subordinate in status and fleeting and transitory,
While angels are compared to things created things like wind
– that exert force but then vaporize or like the flames of fire
that burn with power but then flicker out, Jesus, by contrast,
is described as unchanging and everlasting.
Whereas angels, who as messengers travel from one place to another,
are finite and limited to one place at one time, the divine Christ is
described as omnipresent – as the Creator who was there at the beginning,
as the One who stands before and beyond all things.
Notice how the writer envisions the whole universe as some sort of robe
or garment, like an old pair of jeans, that will eventually wear out and fade away but then goes on to state no matter how many might come and go
Christ will still be there — steady, solid, immovable, eternal. (SLIDE #23)
For Jesus, quoting Psalms 102 and 110, is pictured as the King of Kings,
treating His enemies as a footstool.
This image comes out of the ancient practice of a victorious king
placing his foot on the neck of a defeated king to dramatize his triumph.
Christ’s victory through the Cross and the Resurrection
in establishing the Kingdom of God on earth is absolute and total.
All resistance to His authority is being put down.
All who oppose the grace, mercy, love, & truth of God
will be brought into submission.
Jesus is no angel because angels are dispatched to do His bidding as king.
With a patchwork of Old Testament quotations,
the writer of this letter crafts a hymn of praise for Jesus.
And doing so, with every one of these high and lofty references,
it would be inappropriate unless Jesus is God.
Which of course, begs the question,
why were some believers thinking Jesus was just an angel in disguise?
Some argue, this was due to the problem of angel worship at that time.
In fact, a reference is made in Paul’s letter to the Colossians (2:18) about this concern.
In Jewish thought, angels were understood to be
the highest and most exalted of all of God’s created beings.
In particular, angels were associated with the giving of the Torah,
the Mosaic Law in early Judaism.
The first Christian martyr, Stephen,
makes reference to this tradition in his speech in Acts, chapter 7.
Added to this, angels had grown in popularity
from the 2nd century B.C. through the first century A.D.
People appear to have been influenced by some of the teachings
we’ve discovered in the Dead Sea Scrolls – teachings which gave
a more prominent role to angels than to any other person
that God had sent to accomplish His purposes.
Even today, angelology, the study of angels both good and evil (demons), continues to fascinate and confuse many Christians.
Like the original recipients of this letter, some believers can become obsessed with the names and activities of angels to the point of spiritual paranoia.
Some groups, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, actually view Christ
as being nothing more than an angel of the Lord.
However, I don’t think the problem here is angel worship per se.
The way I read this letter, the issue here is most likely not a problem with angels. It is a problem with Jesus.
The problem being addressed is not elevating the significance of angels
as much as it is NOT elevating the significance, the glory of Christ.
As we get deeper in this letter, we’ll discover
this was a community of people under a great deal of pressure.
Experiencing persecution, they were exhausted & fearful of continued hardship.
In the midst of all their struggles,
they were wrestling with the challenge of following Jesus.
This weary congregation was tired of a gospel that involved suffering
– of a faith that grew out of trial and pain,
of a redemption that required sacrifice – dying to oneself.
They were looking for a way to embrace the victory of the Resurrection
without the battle of the Cross.
On the one hand, they could not deny the reality of their Christian experience.
There certainly seemed to be something in it and something to all
that Jesus had said and done while He was here.
On the other hand, they simply could not go back to their former way of life
in Judaism, still clinging to this belief that Jesus was the Messiah
— because the Jews would have none of that.
And so, it appears many were attempting to live out of a compromised position saying, perhaps Jesus was NOT the Messiah after all,
but he was certainly something very special — like an angel,
even more than that — like the greatest angel of all time.
In response, the writer of this letter pushes back,
Jesus is the Son of God in a way that no angel ever was or is.
“Okay, this is fascinating but what does any of this have to do with us?”
While our own circumstances may be somewhat different,
we, like the original recipients of this letter, can be tempted to adopt
a diminished view of Jesus in our lives.
But unlike the circumstances of this Hebrew audience, we do not face
any external pressure or persecution to lessen the significance of Christ.
No, the temptation we face is a subtle but nagging internal one
to make Jesus less than He is in our lives.
It’s the temptation to “round off” the more uncomfortable edges of Jesus.
I mean, when’s the last time we considered not just all Jesus did for us,
but really pay attention to everything Jesus taught us and told us
in terms of following Him, in living for Him?
Jesus says and does a lot of things for which we praise Him.
The offer of grace and forgiveness.
The security of unconditional love and the assurance of eternal hope.
The promise of healing and life beyond death. Praise you, Jesus!
But Jesus also says and does a lot of things that make us
uncomfortable, nervous, even downright angry.
It’s not about what you look like on the outside, the appearance you project,
it’s what is going on inside of us, all the stuff we try to hide, that matters.
Stop judging all the stuff that’s wrong with everyone else
and be honest about your own problems and come clean.
Forgive those who persecute you and turn the other cheek. Love your enemies.
Give away what you have been given to serve others.
Be willing to offer your very life not just for friends but for strangers,
outsiders, people with whom you wouldn’t normally associate.
Jesus says and does much that perplexes us, confronts us, that challenges us,
that time and again exposes us for the frauds and fakers we often are.
Therefore, it can be tempting to be selective – to hear what we want to hear,
to see only what we care to see – from Jesus. (SLIDE #24)
At this time of year, especially, everyone loves baby Jesus
– cute, cuddly, and unable to speak.
Baby Jesus, who we can choose when to pick up and hold
and when to put down and hush. (SLIDE #25)
This version of Jesus is more manageable, more palatable, more controllable than the Jesus who grows up and tells us to take up our Cross and follow Him.
Which Jesus are we coming to worship this Christmas
– the Jesus as we would like him to be,
the Jesus that frankly fits better with the world
we feel comfortable IN or want to fit INTO,
the Jesus who validates the personal pursuits of our private kingdoms,
in other words, the Jesus of our imaginations
the Jesus of the Incarnation,
the Jesus who calls us to seek first the Kingdom of God,
the Jesus who tells us to be in the world but not of this world,
the Jesus who was born to rescue us from our selfish need
to destroy ourselves and judge and battle against other people,
the Jesus who lived to die so all persons could be free,
the Jesus who rose again so that none might perish
but instead experience eternal life,
the Jesus who is coming back to bring heaven finally, once and for all, to earth, and in so doing, making all things new,
the Jesus who refuses to be rounded off at the edges,
who defies our superficial definitions,
and who, resists all our efforts to “edit” him – to make Him fit into our image
but instead, works through His Holy Spirit, to transform us into His.
(SLIDE #26) Jesus Christ is infinitely superior to angels.
Angels were created not to compete with Christ,
but to worship Christ and serve him.
Perhaps we can learn something from the angels that will counter the temptation to somehow lessen the significance of Jesus in our lives and this world.
We can join their worship that is already in progress,
the continual chorus of praise the angels offered up to God in Christ
through the lifting up not only of our voices in song
but of our lives in a posture of thanksgiving and rejoicing to the Lord.
If the angels find it their highest joy to praise God continuously,
shouldn’t we, too?
The chief way angels worship the Lord on the earth is by serving Christ
– being messengers of the Gospel and always pointing to Jesus
so that all would hold fast to Him – would love, trust, and treasure Him,
and finally reach Christ in the fullness of our salvation.
Is the offering of our lives – how we speak,
the way we carry and conduct ourselves before others, bringing glory to Christ
or diminishing the true reflection of His goodness to others?
I’m not talking about being fake happy – happy, clappy, sappy Christians
who throw out trite bummer sticker slogans disguised as biblical revelation.
I’m talking about the willingness to have eyes to see and ears to hear
the cries of this world, to enter into the darkness of the suffering and
the chaos of another person, & not to offer them platitudes but to extend to them real, tangible, compassionate help – to be present for them, to be willing to go the distance with them – as a reflection of Immanuel, God in Christ with us & for us.
At Christmas time, how are we seeking to encourage and help others
in the name of Jesus – to tangibly and practically extend love and compassion, grace and mercy – and thus point to the real and living hope of Christ?
Angels are among us.
The universe all around us is filled with these messengers, these helpers.
Jesus wants us to be encouraged and hopeful.
That is why this chapter ends with this amazing promise – that these angels, these heavenly worshipers are – all of them—sent to serve us
so that we would arrive safely at home.
Like the angels, we have been born anew, we have been empowered,
we have been sent as expressive worshippers and humble servants
in pointing and leading others to Christ, in declaring the good news about Jesus far and wide, in spreading the Gospel to the ends of the end of the earth.
Gloria in excelsis, Deo. Amen.