Second Reading: Hebrews 2:14-18
Higher Than the Angels
14 Since people share the same blood and flesh, Jesus shares them in the same way. So, he defeated the devil who has the power of death with death itself. 15 And he freed everyone who was bound to live with the fear of death. 16 After all, Jesus didn't focus on the angels, but on us, the sons and daughters of Abraham. 17 God told his Son he should be like us in every way, so he could become a merciful high priest, someone we could trust. He serves God so he could forgive the sins of the people. 18 As he was tempted when he suffered, he is able to help us when we are tempted.
14 Since children have taken a share in blood and flesh, and he, in like manner, shared in the same (things), that, through death, he might utterly defeat the one having the might of death, this is the devil, 15 and release these, all as many as were bonded to live in slavery with the fear of death. 16 For indeed he is not concerned with the angels, but he is concerned with the seeds of Abraham. 17 Wherefore he was obligated (by God) to be like to the brethren in every way, so that he might become a merciful and trustworthy high priest, (giving) things to God for the expiation of sins for the people. 18 For in what he suffered, being tempted, he is able to help those being tempted.
Toward the end of the first century, an anonymous author wrote the letter known as "Hebrews." Since there was no formal salutation or ending, this book was not a formal letter. But it did try to address problems within the Christian communities, like many of the Pauline letters.
At the time Hebrews was written, Christianity was changing from a Jewish sect into a Gentile movement. While most Jewish Christians received their Gentile brethren with open arms, many resisted the change in culture they were witnessing. Some may have even given up, renounced Jesus as the Messiah, and returned to the mainline synagogues.
Christians were not the only group that were suffering from a shift in cultures. After the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD by the Romans, Judaism itself was undergoing change. Pharisees took a leadership role and sought to return the faithful to their roots. Strict adherence to the Law. And a rejection of any novelty, including the new cult of the Nazarene. So, Jewish Christians were excommunicated. Faced with alienation from fellow countrymen and a shifting landscape within their own faith communities, Jewish Christians needed reasons to believe.
In Hebrews 2, the author tried to answer two questions of the doubters. What was the place of Jesus as the Messiah? And, what was the place of the believer? The first question implied the relationship between Jesus and God. The second question implied the relationship of the believer with God.
To answer the first question, we must investigate the world view of first century Jewish Christians. In ancient cultures, people saw the world as a hierarchy of powers. An all-powerful God sat at the top of this list. Then came different spirits (which Jews recognized as "angels") which controlled forces of nature. Third came humanity. Animals and plants came last. Within each layer of the hierarchy (besides the top) were sublayers. For example, the spirit realm which controlled natural forces could be benevolent (God's angels) or malevolent (demons), depending upon their relationship to humanity. Since humanity was beneath the layer of the spirit, men and women were subject to their whims. Misfortune, disease, and death were the results of evil spirits.
Where did the Jesus the Christ stand in this hierarchy? Hebrews stated his place was above the angels. In this sense, Hebrews (like the Christian movement itself) had "spiritualized" the role of the Messiah. He was not a political "Son of David" or a reforming "High Priest." These were earthly images. No, he was like the heavenly "Son of Man" figure in Daniel 7. Jesus came from the people in his ministry and death. Then God raised him up and seated him at his right, to come again in judgment. The "Second Coming" would fulfill Daniel's vision, not the others. With the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD and the dispersion of the Jews after Rome's "Great Jewish Wars," the realization of earthly images for the Messiah seemed less and less likely. But the "heavenly" image for the Christ was the basis for the role of Jesus in Hebrews. He would be the Son of God and the true High Priest because of his direct relationship with the Father.
How does the author of Hebrews answer the second question? What relationship does the believer have with God? Because the process of salvation began with Messiah living with the people, as one of the people, he could become a "merciful and trustworthy" High Priest for the people. In other words, his intercession would be heard directly by God the Father, even before the angels' petitions. In the minds of Hebrews' readers, humanity rose above the level of the angels and demons. With Jesus as the only mediator, his followers were truly children of God.
We might not envision the world as a hierarchy of spirits. After 2000 years of the same message, we might even take our place before God for granted. But we should take the words of Hebrews to heart. Ours place before God depends upon the place of Jesus, his Son. Not only is he our mediator, he is our example, because he was one of us. This is the Christian vision of salvation. One like us. One for us before God. One forever loved and favored by God. He is our example for life. He is our link to the Almighty.
How do you see you place before God? How has your faith in Christ changed your outlook? How has the example of Jesus encouraged you?