Today’s question comes to us from a listener named Austin. “Hello, Pastor John! In my Bible study I’ve been stumped by the phrase that says Jesus ‘has become’ much superior to angels (Hebrews 1:4). If Jesus has eternally existed as God, how do I understand this passage and theme that seems to pop up in Hebrews?”
Radiance of God’s Glory
The first thing I’d say is that I love this kind of question. I think it’s so important that we not gloss over apparent difficulties and just read on and let them dangle.
“The authority Jesus always had in terms of omnipotence is now used on the basis of his blood and righteousness to give eternal life.”
The text that Austin is referring to is found in Hebrews 1:4. It’s interesting that you don’t have to leave this text, its immediate context, in order to see that in the mind of the writer, the Son of God has always existed as superior to angels. How does he then become superior if he’s always superior? So let me read it.
I’ll start at Hebrews 1:3: “He [that is, the Son of God] is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature.” No angel could ever have that said about themselves. “And he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs” (Hebrews 1:3).
None of that can be said of any angel. The Son of God is by nature God, and the Son upholds the universe. So in what sense then did he become superior to angels? Here’s what verse 4 goes on to say: “After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs” (Hebrews 1:3–4).
Two Massive Realities
Two massive realities explain this sentence in which the Son of God becomes superior to angels. The first massive reality is the incarnation. The second one is the triumph of the God-man over sin and death and Satan by his death and resurrection.
The incarnation is the first reality that explains how he becomes superior to angels. The incarnate Son of God is a new reality. The God-man, Jesus Christ, did not exist before the incarnation. He didn’t exist from all eternity. That is, the God-man, the union of divine and human nature, didn’t exist from all eternity as the God-man. The God-man can become superior to angels, which, in fact, he did, by virtue of his divine nature, but especially his triumphant work on the cross.
That leads us to the second great reality, which is probably the one that gets the most focus in the New Testament. The second reality that makes sense out of the Son of God becoming superior to angels is that he did what no angels could ever do. In his divine-human nature, he went to the cross, and he bore the sins of his people.
He disarmed the angelic principalities and powers, and defeated death, and rose from the dead, and is enthroned with a new authority to do what only God can do because of what he did as the God-man on the cross.
All Authority in Heaven and Earth
The very question that Austin is asking is also raised in other places. This may help to bring in another way of asking the same kind of thing. For example, in Matthew 28:18, Jesus says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Well, didn’t he always have, as the Son of God, authority over everything?
“The death and resurrection of Jesus disarmed the authorities and powers and brought them into a new kind of subjection.”
He did. But by virtue of his death and resurrection, it says that an authority was given to Jesus. What he didn’t have before was this: he gets the authority now as the God-man to exercise his eternal omnipotence in the service of a blood-bought people to whom he now becomes the agent of mercy because of what he did on the cross. That’s a new authority.
John 17:1–2 says it like this: “Glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him.” The authority that he always had in terms of omnipotence is now used on the basis of his blood and righteousness to give eternal life. He couldn’t do that before he did his saving work. And so that’s a new authority, or a new exercise of authority, on the analogy of becoming superior.
Messiah and Son
Here’s a couple more examples of this kind of thing. Peter cries out on the day of Pentecost, “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36). The Son of God has always been Lord of the universe, but the crucified and risen Christ is now installed in a new office as Lord and Messiah over his redeemed people. In this way, he becomes superior to angels.
In Romans 1:3–4, Paul says that the gospel concerns the “Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.” By the resurrection, an event in history, the God-man, Jesus, is declared to be the Son of God in a new way — namely, in power over sin, over death, over evil. In that way, his newness — the newness of his Sonship — becomes superior to angels in a way he didn’t experience before.
Lord of the Living and the Dead
In 1 Peter 3:21–22, we see that baptism is an appeal to God for a clear conscience “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.” The death and resurrection of Jesus disarmed the angels, disarmed the authorities and powers, and brought them into a new kind of subjection to the Son of God, who had stripped them of the one weapon with which they could damn us — namely, unforgiven sin. In this way, he shows his superiority over all the angels.
“If Christ had not died and lived again, he would not hold the office of saving Lord over his people.”
One more example. Romans 14:9 says, “For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.” Of course, he was always Lord, but he did something in dying and rising that made him Lord in a new way. If Christ had not died and lived again, he would not hold the office of saving Lord over his people. There would be no salvation, and there would be no saving lordship in the universe, had Jesus not died and risen from the dead.
In all these ways, the God-man who died and rose again for sinners has attained a new level, a new kind of relationship, to angels and to man as superior to angels in a way that didn’t exist before.