Angels intrigue–and have done so a long time. In Scripture, we find angels in Genesis, Revelation, and many books in between. Scholars tell us that by the NT era, angels were an important part of a theological system that would compete for attention with orthodox Christianity. Indeed this ‘incipient Gnosticism’ was behind–several say–the writing of epistles like Colossians.
In subsequent centuries, angels appear on canvas and in poems; they serve as plot devices in popular books and show up on many screens. Their function varies, and depictions? Everything from cuddly putti to avenging warriors. Wings (like British or Australian accents) are common.
Fascination with angels is one more indicator of an openness to a ‘world’ different from the physical one where we order skinny decaf lattes (the ‘why bother?’ in cafe parlance) and play cricket; we may not see or touch this world routinely, but we know that it exists. And it’s not just a phase or craze; intrigue with angels goes way back.
The first chapter of Hebrews is full of angels. The book’s author accepts them as real, and describes them matter-of-factly. Those descriptions both inform and surprise: he calls angels spirits, and flames of fire (1:7, quoting Psalm 104:4); he says they are servants–ministering spirits–sent on behalf of the inheritors of salvation (1:14).
But these introductions and descriptions are not gratuitous, to boost ratings or fan speculation. Hebrews talks about angels to put them in their place. Apparently some were suggesting–or more–that angels were on par with Jesus, or more. An easy leap in some respects: Jesus had not been that impressive in life, but if you want to talk about ‘spiritual things’, then angels–now there’s a story. Hebrews cuts this off at the knees by acknowledging the reality of angels and then explaining how they compare with the Lord.
The book opens on this triumphant, confident note: Jesus stands above all. Angels, Abraham, Moses–cite whatever/whomever you choose as an exemplar of greatness–Jesus is more. Without getting too far out over the tips of our skiis here, it’s worth looking ahead a bit to see that this author wants to set Jesus up like this not simply to overwhelm, but to inculcate a sense of worship, awe, gratitude. If you put angels at the peak–or Moses, or Abraham–this writer would say, you set your sights too low.
Which, apparently, was happening among those to whom this book was addressed. They were, at least, entertaining the option that something/someone might be greater than Christ, and this writer will have none of that. What’s really interesting, though, is how he deals with this situation.
He does not stigmatize, criticize, or belittle his readers for adopting or considering such views. This, too: each ‘competitor’–angels, Abraham, Moses–is treated with respect. He will elevate Jesus, but not at the expense of others. What implications might we draw from such an approach?