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Is Jesus an Angel? Hebrews 1, the Incarnation and Jehovah's Witnesses

by Brant Pitre December 27, 2019 0 Comments



 

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Transcript:

And here we have a passage taken from the letter to the Hebrews. Now if you recall, almost all the second readings from Ordinary Time are taken from the letters of St. Paul. And many of them are from the letter to the Hebrews, which unlike the other letters attributed to Paul, is actually anonymous. There is actually a division in the tradition of the Church. Among the Greek-speaking fathers, Hebrews was always regarded as written by Paul. Among the Latin-speaking fathers, there was some skepticism about whether Paul wrote this or not. So the lectionary today treats the document as anonymous and just says, “A reading from the letter to the Hebrews.” Although in the west, it has traditionally been attributed to Paul.

In any case, so I’ll just say Hebrews. In the letter to the Hebrews 1:1-6, the Church gives us the opening from this very famous letter, which begins by focusing on the mystery (again) of what in Johannine language we would call the incarnation, the mystery of Christmas. And this is the reading for today. It says this:

In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power. When he had made 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 obtained is more excellent than theirs.

For to what angel did God ever say,“Thou art my Son, today I have begotten thee”? Or again, “I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son”? And again, when he brings the first-born into the world, he says, “Let all God’s angels worship him.”

So, what’s going on here? Well, obviously again, this is a different angle—a different way of speaking about the mystery of the Incarnation in the language of Hebrews. And in this case, the imagery that the letter to the Hebrews uses is fascinating. It describes the Son as the one who was appointed heir of all things and through whom God created the world.

Now think about that for just a minute. The person that we’re celebrating on the feast of Christmas isn’t just the long awaited Davidic Messiah. He isn’t just the king of Israel or the hope of the nations. That baby in the manger at Bethlehem is also the One through whom the world was created. This is really important. When we’re looking at the mystery of the identity of Jesus, and we ask ourselves, “Is He creature or is He creator?”...He’s on the creator side of the creature/creator line. He’s the One through whom the whole universe was made. And then what Hebrews says is:

He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power. (Hebrews 1:3a)

Now think about that. So the mystery of Christmas is that the same baby who is a helpless child in the manger, is also the one who bears the very stamp—and the Greek word here is charaktēr, we get the word “character” in English from that. He bears the very stamp of the nature of God. And it’s interesting...the Greek word here is hypostasis, which can mean either nature or person. It’s actually going to go on to be a very important term in the later development of the doctrine of the Trinity—that Jesus isn’t just fully man. He’s also fully divine. He’s a divine person, a divine hypostasis.

So in the letter to the Hebrews, what it’s revealing here is that the one who is the Son of God—Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah—is also a divine person. He bears the very stamp of the divine nature. He’s the One through whom the universe was made, and yet He comes to us as a little baby. And while He’s laying in that manger, He’s also sustaining the entire universe at the same time.

I like to emphasize this with my students sometimes. It is interesting that in the providence of God, Jesus comes in this world and is taken into the home of St. Joseph as His foster father, who is a carpenter—or in Greek a tektōn. He’s a builder. And of course Jesus Himself goes on to become a tektōn, a builder as well. And I think it’s fascinating, because just as in the human sphere, both Jesus and His father are tektōns. They’re builders; they build things. So too in the divine realm, the Son who bears the glory and the stamp of His father’s hypostasis, who bears the very stamp of the nature of God the Father...both the Son and the Father are also builders. But in this case, what Hebrews is saying, what is it that they built? Well, they built the universe. It’s the One who made the stars who now comes in the world as a child. It’s the One who sustains the whole cosmos, who we now worship and celebrate on the feast of Christmas.

And so what the letter of Hebrews here is doing—and again, in its own language, which is a little different than the language of St. John—is revealing to us the mystery of the incarnation. And it’s really important...you’ll notice this. Well, you might not think about this as much, but one of the first issues that had to be dealt with when proclaiming the Gospel to certain Jewish believers, was to clarify that Jesus is not one of the angels. That is very important. That when we call Him Son of God, we don’t mean that He’s the Son of God in the same way that the angels are.

Because when you think about it, if you look at the Old Testament...in the Old Testament, the Israelites are called the son of God in Exodus 4. But the first beings to be called sons of God (like in the book of Job) are the angels. So when the early Christians, like St. Paul, are going and preaching the Good News of the birth of Jesus to Jewish audiences, and they say that He is the Son of God, they have to clarify that by calling Him Son of God, they don’t mean that He is one of the angels, and that’s what Hebrews is saying here. That He is:

...as much superior to angels as the name he has obtained is more excellent than theirs. (Hebrews 1:4)

And he goes on to give examples:

For to what angel did God ever say, “Thou art my Son, today I have begotten thee?” (Hebrews 1:5a)

So He is the only begotten Son of God (as we say in the Creed), which marks Him out as different than the angels, because the angels are all created sons of God. But Jesus is not created. The Son is not created. He is eternally begotten of the Father. He is Son from all eternity. He always has been Son, He always will be Son, and He’s the Son through whom all of the world, all creatures (including the angels) were made.

Now you might be thinking, “Now why does that matter anymore?” Well, to this day, there are groups, various sects—for example, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses—who will actually assert that Jesus is a creature, that the Son is a creature. He’s not the creator, and that in fact, He’s the highest of the angels. And that’s a heresy, obviously. That’s an error...it’s a Christological heresy that goes back to some of the most ancient times, to the first century AD. Some people were confused. Well, is Jesus the Son of God? Is He the creator or is He a creature? Is He an angelic Son of God or is He the eternal Son of God?

And so on this feast of Christmas, what we celebrate is the fact that when we proclaim Jesus, that baby in the manager, not just to be the Messiah, but to be the Son of God, we mean that He is the One through whom the universe was made, including the angels. He is the maker of all things and the redeemer of all human beings. The One who came in the manger is also the One who made purification for sins in His cross and who sat down at the right hand of the majesty of God on high in His ascension—which reveals too, if you sit at the right hand of the king, you have equal authority with that king. And that’s what we celebrate on this feast of the birth of our King, the feast of Christmas.



Brant Pitre
Brant Pitre

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