I’m not sure, but it may be that the assumption of this question is that there is some key to answering the question from outside the book of Hebrews in the first-century milieu. I’m not sure, but that’s often the case, so let me just say a word about that assumption. I want to say something about the role of information from the first century coming from outside the Bible and used to interpret the Bible.
What I want to say is this: in, I dare say, 99 percent of the cases where something from outside the Bible might inform the meaning of what’s in the Bible, it’s the precise details and context of the biblical text itself that finally determine whether information from outside the Bible is decisive or not. That’s very crucial.
“The gold mine is under your nose, and it’s in English.”
Usually, what we read from first-century documents applies very generally, rather than with any precise specificity, to our particular New Testament author or our particular document or our particular text and context. When it comes down to deciding on the meaning of the text, it’s almost always the case that the words and phrases and flow of thought in this book, combined with what the author has said elsewhere, decide the meaning.
And I say that so that the average reader of the Bible doesn’t operate on the assumption that there’s this gold mine of discovery just waiting to be had about the meaning of this text outside the Bible. “If I just had hours and hours and knew some languages! Oh, I could mine this gold mine of insight for the text from outside the Bible.” No. The gold mine is under your nose, and it’s in English. It’s in English! And if for every hour you spend poking around in first-century documents outside the Bible, you spend one hundred hours ransacking the details of the author’s words — the New Testament author’s words and phrases and sentences and logical connections and flow of thought and wider views in his writings — you will find vast riches of gold you would never find if you switched and spent an hour with the Bible and one hundred hours outside.
Some scholars will go on debating until doomsday how much angel worship there was in the first century as a possible background to Hebrews, and what form it took, and how much the apostles may have encountered it. But we know that already from Colossians 2:18: “Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels.” And from John’s temptation in Revelation 22:8–9: “I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who showed them to me, but he said to me, ‘You must not do that! . . . Worship God.’”
But is that the background for the book of Hebrews? Do we know for sure that the churches this book was sent to were dealing with that temptation? No, we don’t know that. It would be sheer guesswork to draw, from the general fact that there was such a thing as angel worship in the first century, the specific conclusion that that’s the reason there’s such focus on putting Jesus above angels in the book of Hebrews.
Now, here’s where it gets really practical: a preacher who stands up and makes a big deal out of first-century angel worship as the background of Hebrews is like a miner carrying scraps of gold shavings into the gold mine of Hebrews, where the walls are bright with veins of pure gold, waiting to be dug out.
So, let me mention several veins of gold for our friend who asked this question — veins that he can dig into when we’re done.
First, he suggests that it might be better for the writer to focus on the deity of Christ than to focus on his superiority to angels. Hmm. Well, evidently not, because that’s not what he did. And I think the author of Hebrews would respond by saying, “I’m not talking about angels as an alternative to talking about the deity of Christ; I’m talking about angels as a means of talking about the deity of Christ. One way to teach the deity of Christ in my situation is to disabuse people of any notion at all that he’s a top angel.”
So, he says in Hebrews 1:6, “Let all God’s angels worship him.” Whoa, I love that sentence. That sentence is not an alternative to talking about the deity of Christ; it’s a thunderclap showing the deity of Christ. Let every angelic being in heaven and hell fall on their faces and worship Jesus, very God of very God. You don’t dare worship what is not God.
The author takes an Old Testament idea, which might lead some people to elevate angels more highly than they should, and he turns it around so that it has the exact opposite effect. He refers in Hebrews 2:2 to the Mosaic law coming to us through angels. And then he says that since the law through angels came with such authority and consequence, how much more the message declared to us by the Lord (Hebrews 2:1–4)? In other words, if you’re impressed with the role of angels in giving the law, be a thousand times more impressed with the role of Jesus in giving the gospel.
“Who knows what cultures are waiting for this message about angels that may blow things wide open for the gospel?”
In exalting Jesus above angels, he helps us know the proper place not just of Jesus, but of angels — angels themselves — and the proper place of ourselves. In other words, more is going on here than just the superiority of Jesus over angels. So, for example, in Hebrews 1:14, when you demote angels from competing with the Son of God for glory, then they can have their true glory, which is — amazingly — to be our servants. Amazing. He says, “Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?”
So, these competitors with the Son of God for glory turn out to be our servants. Oh my goodness. More is going on than we think. The author has multiple reasons for talking about angels.
Final observation (and I’m leaving out some really juicy ones, by the way): keep in mind that sometimes the Bible says things that seem very foreign to our experience, and we wonder why such an emphasis might be there. For example, not many people in the West today are wrestling with whether Jesus’s relationship to angels is this or that. But don’t assume that will be the case when the Bible is translated and read in hundreds of other cultures where this particular emphasis might be exactly what the Holy Spirit will use to awaken an entire people group to the reality of Christ’s greatness.
And the reason I point to that is because I remember the story of how useless one missionary thought the genealogies were in the beginning of Matthew, and then he read them to a Stone Age tribe, and they were all ears; they were riveted. And in the end, they said, “Well then, he’s not just a spirit!” And it was the genealogies that broke the back of unbelief and a thousand years of darkness. Who knows what cultures are waiting for this message about angels in Hebrews that may blow things wide open for the gospel?