Please note that this article is derived from a sermon series on Hebrews given in Bermondsey Gospel Hall, the audio of which can be found here.
We started our series in Hebrews looking at the opening verses together. Two overarching themes of the book are signposted to us within them. Jesus is the superior prophet of God, the one who came to reveal God to us. Jesus is also the superior priest of God, the one who made purification for our sins. The Message and Ministry of the Superior Son. Not only did we see Jesus Christ as a prophet and priest, we also seen that he is a king, seated at the right hand of the Majesty on high. In order to exalt his superiority as a king, we are told he has “become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.”
This is the statement that the writer of Hebrews will develop. Having claimed that Jesus has a superior name, he will spend the rest of the chapter proving it from the Old Testament. This is not a small statement for the author. He doesn’t just want to state this, he wants to show it. He not only wants to proclaim it, he wants to prove it. We are not to just read this and move on, but realise the reality of it. Having covered the Message and Ministry of the Superior Son, we turn now to consider the Name of the Superior Son.
What’s in a name? These days less meaning is associated with names than in the past. Today we pick names for children because of how it sounds rather than what it symbolises. However, a name is more than simply the combination of letters. Even today we acknowledge this with sayings like ‘you will make a bad name for yourself’. We acknowledge that a name can contain the character of the one it describes. It is not only an identifier, it is also your identity. Our Queen is not just called Elizabeth, but Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith. That is her full name, what we use to identify her and to summarise her identity. One commentator defines a name as ‘the outward expression and the pledge and seal of all that a person really and substantially is’ (Saphir). Therefore, when we think of the Name of the Superior Son, we are not just thinking of ‘Jesus’, his identifier, but of his entire identity. Not just what he is called, but who he is. And as we shall see in his case, his identifier indicates his identity.
These verses also introduce us to the idea of superiority, terminology running throughout the book. Indeed, some have summarised Hebrews with the simple phrase ‘Jesus is better’. Already we have seen it implicitly, the superiority of the message and ministry of Jesus over the prophets and priests of the past. However, Jesus is explicitly referred to as superior here for the first time. In the first of thirteen superior statements in the book, Jesus is superior to angels. What is the scope of this superiority? How much superior is he? Jesus is as superior to the angels as the name of Jesus is more excellent than the name of the angels. In order to understand the size of superiority, we must compare their names, these identifiers indicating their identity.
The writer uses a comparison to help us grasp the superiority of the Son. Comparing the name of the angels with the name of the Son. That’s what the writer does in the rest of the chapter; he makes specific comparisons between the name of the angels and the name of the Son from the Old Testament. However, before getting into that I want to consider the generally from the perspective of this single verse. Comparing the name of angels and of Jesus. The Excellent Name of Angels and the More Excellent Name of Jesus.
The Excellent Name of Angels – Significant Servants of God
We must not forget that that is what this verse says. Angels have an excellent name. When considering all the Bible says about angels, we shall see it is clear that they are significant servants of God. What is less clear is why they appear here, not just in this verse but in the first two chapters of Hebrews. The author in the first two chapters of Hebrews seems to have an obsession with angels, mentioning them ten times. Why?
There are generally two explanations as to why angels appear. The first is possible speculations. Some speculate that during this period there was a growing cult within Judaism of angel worship. Jews had started to treat angels as gods. The problem with this is that there isn’t a great deal of evidence, certainly not within the book of Hebrews. Surely such a threat would have been clearly challenged if it existed. Indeed, just like Paul directly warns the Colossians about the false teaching of the ‘worship of angels’ (Colossians 2:18).
The second explanation is much more likely and fits into the argument that the writer is making. Instead of considering the possible speculations, it looks to the previous manifestations. What leads the author to refer to angels is not a misunderstanding, but a correct understanding. He rightly acknowledges their excellence and realises that they provide a perfect benchmark from which to show the superiority of the Son. The superiority of the Son is heightened because he is contracted not with us, sinful and mortal human beings, but with angels, who have been used by God throughout history in extraordinary ways.
Think for a minute of the excellence of angels. We see them introduced in Genesis 3. Mankind has fallen, creation has rejected the creator, God’s purposes and plans seem to have been thwarted, and yet angels still stand by his side ready to serve at his command. He casts Adam and Eve from the garden and sends cherubim to guard the entrance, barring the way to the tree of life. Angels – Guardians of the Garden.
With creation plunged into chaos, Genesis 19 sees a righteous man called Lot caught up in the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah, cities which are to be destroyed by fire from heaven. Before sending that fire, God sends his angels to rescue Lot. And when Lot and his family linger, reluctant to leave the life they love, the angels take them by the hand and lead them outside the city, safe from destruction. Angels – Rescuers of the Righteous.
In Genesis 22, Abraham has laid his beloved son on the alter, the knife is raised ready to pierce the heart of the long-promised child. An angel that cries from heaven, ‘Abraham, Abraham…Do not lay your hand on the boy…because you have done this and not withheld your son, the LORD will bless you, multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore.’ Angels – Proclaimers of Promises.
Guardians of the Garden, Rescuers of the Righteous and Proclaimers of Promises. We could surely go on thinking about the excellent names of the angels. For it was by angels that God brought his people out of Egypt and led them into the land of promise. ‘And when we cried to the Lord, he heard our voice and sent an angel and brought us out of Egypt.’ (Numbers 20:16). ‘Behold, I send an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared.’ (Exodus 23:20). When the people of God were under siege in Jerusalem, surrounded by the armies of Assyria, it was an angel that was sent forth, striking down 185,000 in a single night. It was an angel that shut the mouths of the lions encircling Daniel in the den (Daniel 6:22). And yet above even all these excellent events, there is one that was prized most of all.
Looking back on the moment that the Lord gave the law on Mount Sinai, Stephen explained that the Jews ‘received the law as delivered by angels’ (Acts 7:53). Paul will say the same, in Galatians 3:19, describing the law as ‘put in place through angels’. The law of God, and the great glory of God which it contained, was given through the hands of the angels. And so angels were adored above all as the Servants of Sinai.
As Christians, we know that the greatest accomplishment of angels was not achieved on Sinai, with Moses and tablets of stone, or with Daniel in the den, Israel in Egypt or with the armies of Assyria, but in the backwater town of Nazareth. An angel called Gabriel was given their greatest task. Not to be Guardians of the Garden, Rescuers of the Righteous, Proclaimers of Promises or even Servants of Sinai. Gabriel was called to be a Messenger of the Messiah. For he appeared to a young couple and announced the arrival of a son, a son that they were instructed to give a very specific name. A name that was even more excellent than the name of the angels. For you ‘will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins’ (Matthew 1:21).
Angels have an excellent name. We must not forget that they are significant servants of God. And yet there is one who surpasses them all. Angels could shut the mouths of lions, break the bonds of Egypt, rescue the righteous from danger, and strike down thousands in an instant. But angels could never deal with our sins. They were proclaimers, but not priests. They were servants, not a sacrifice. Like the prophets we seen in verse 1, they could bring a message from God, but they could never bring us to God. And yet as Messengers of the Messiah they came to tell us about the one who could. The one coming to save his people from their sins. The one who has a more excellent name than they.
If you are not a Christian, I don’t want you to miss the significance of that statement. There is someone who has come to save you from your sins. On your own, someday you will stand before not just angels, but God himself and will have to give answer for your every thought word and deed. Every time you have disobeyed or disregarded God will be brought up, and you will be found guilty of sin, for which the punishment is death. Eternal death. And yet angels have come to announce that there is one who can save you from the punishment, power and presence of your sins. ‘You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins’ (Matthew 1:21). And not just that there is one, but that there is only one. There is only one person who can save you from your sins. God’s word tells that ‘there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.’ (Acts 4:12). There is only one name that if you trust, hope, believe in, there only name by which God offers salvation, will forgive you all of your sins, and it is the name of Jesus. And God promises in his word that ‘everyone who call on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ (Romans 10:13).
The More Excellent Name of Jesus - Superior Son of God
What is this more excellent name of Jesus? That is the question the writer to the Hebrews spends the rest of the chapter answering. We will consider that over the next three weeks when we see the writer emphasise three separate aspects of this superior name. In verses 5-6 we see Jesus called the Divine Son, in verses 7-12 we see him named the Eternal Son and in verses 13-14 we see him presented as the Royal Son. However, at this stage I am less concerned with the aspects of the name than I am with the acquiring of it. How did the Son secure this superior name? Verse 4 states the Son has ‘become’ superior and the name is ‘inherited’.
How do you make a name for yourself? Walking around the area we live in, there are a number of individuals who have made names for themselves through great achievements. The name of Brunel is found all around the area in the name of roads, pubs and buildings. It belongs to Isambard Brunel, a revolutionary engineer who was at the heart of the industrial revolution, building ships, railways, bridges and tunnels. However, before it belonged to the son, it belonged to the father, for his father was also a famous engineer and was given knighthood for his achievements. His name was changed to Sir Brunel as because of what he had done. Indeed, that has always been the case. Since the very beginning, in Genesis 11 we find men coming together to build the tower of Babel in order to make a name for themselves (Genesis 11:4).
What did Jesus do to secure his superior name? Well contrary to what we might expect, in order to become superior, Hebrews tells us that he first had to become inferior. Before he could be declared superior to angels, we became in a way inferior to them. Hebrews 2:9 records, ‘But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honour…’. Before he could be crowned with glory and honour, superior to the angels, Jesus had to become lower than them, inferior to them. His exultation followed his humiliation. He had to step down before he could step back up.
Paul elaborates on this fully when writing to the Philippians, ‘Christ Jesus…though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.’ (Philippians 2:5-7). And not just born to live as a man, but born to die as a man, in fact to die in the place of every man. Paul continues, ‘And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.’ (Philippians 2:8). The humiliation of Jesus Christ started in a stable and culminated at the cross. It started on that night, long ago, when angels came forth to declare ‘Glory to God in the highest, peace to men on earth’. When the sky was rent with light from heaven and by that star leading the magi to Bethlehem. But that was just the beginning, for the journey of his humiliation ended when he was nailed to a wooden cross to face the scorn of sinners rather than the praise of angels, that day when darkness fell across the land and the mother who had held him so close and laid him in the manger stood and watched from afar. And yet, in a reversal of our expectations, the humiliating and gory cross resulted in the honour and glory of a crown. That’s what Hebrews records, ‘Jesus, crowned with glory and honour because of the suffering of death…’ (Hebrews 2:9).
Just like Brunel received his name as a result of his great accomplishments, like his father before him, Jesus Christ received, inherited a name, because of his achievement. For the cross was the superior work of the Son. It was the task that no angel could accomplish. Only Jesus could save his people from their sins. Only Christ could bear the sin of men and satisfy the justice of God. Only Jesus could take your place on the cross. Only Jesus could accomplish salvation, defeating death and the devil, triumphing over evil and earning for us forgiveness with God. That is why we sing often sing the following together as a local church, ‘Thy name we love, Lord Jesus, God’s lamb thou wast ordained, to bear our sin, thyself all clean, and hast our guilt sustained…thou wast the “Man of sorrows”, our grief, too, thous didst bear it, our bitter cup, thou drankest up, the thorny crown didst wear it.’ (W Yerbury).
And having accomplished such a work, Hebrews tells us he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, inheriting a name that corresponded to the work that he had done, superior to that of the angels. Paul fleshes out this truth in Philippians, ‘becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.’ (Philippians 2:8-11). A name that is above every other name. The Name of the Superior Son, not only superior to angels, but supreme over all. ‘At the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow, every tongue confess him, King of glory now’. (C Noel) The Name of the Superior Son. O how it is more excellent than even that of the angels for he has done that which is more excellent that they!
As we close I wonder if you see the significance of the name of the superior son. For the superiority of the Son, the supremacy of the Saviour, is the most significant reality in our universe. If Jesus Christ is superior to all things, he is supreme over all things. And if he is supreme over all things, he is significant for all things. Do you understand that? He is not only the spring from which all streams flow, but is the sea into which all things go. He is at the top of the tree, he is relevant for every aspect of creation. For creation is his. He made it all, he sustains it all and he will inherit it all because he saved it all. That is why Abraham Kuyper, Dutch theologian and prime minister, could declare ‘There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry mine!’ Everything is about Jesus, because everything is Jesus’. He is over and owns all things. He is our supreme sovereign.
If you are a Christian, you have taken this name of the Superior Son for yourself. You have renamed yourself with his name. You have connected yourself to that name that is above every other name. And now you must live accordingly. What does that look like? Well, take a look at the early Christian approach to the name of the superior son. Just after that statement in Acts 4:12 of the salvation that can only be found in the name of Jesus, Peter and John were dragged before the religious authorities and instructed ‘not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus’ (Acts 4:18). They explain that they cannot but do anything but speak and teach of what they have seen and heard. The very next chapter, having continued to teach and speak of Jesus, they were taken and beaten and given the same warning. Luke records that walking away from that beating they went ‘rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonour for the name.’ (Acts 5:41) They would rejoice that they were worthy to suffer for the name of the superior son. Not only that, but later in the book we see that the Christians are described as ‘men who…risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ (Acts 15:26). To be a Christian means that the most important reality in your life is the name of the Lord Jesus. You do everything in relation to his name, for the sake of his name. You aren’t worried about your own name or needs, your own security or comfort, you will risk your life for the sake of his name. As a Christian, the purpose of your life changes from being about yourself to being about him.
Not only as a Christian, but as a church together the core, central aim of our gathering together is for the name of the Superior Son. This church is not about our names individually, or our name corporately, but the name of Jesus. Indeed, that is what draws us together, we gather together in his name as Paul describes, ‘When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus’ (1 Corinthians 5:4). And gathering together in his name, he seek to bring glory and honour to his name, Paul would write in Romans of the great charge that the apostles started and we are to complete, ‘to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations.’ (Romans 1:5).
If we are Christians, our lives are first and foremost about the name of the Superior Son, and we lay down whatever it takes to see that name honoured and worshipped. As a church our mission together is the same, we are to be all about Jesus, everything we do directed to the great end of glorifying him, for his is the superior son, he is the supreme saviour. He has a more excellent name than angels, a name that is above every other name. And so we are to echo, both individually and corporately, the words of Charles Spurgeon, who was echoing the words of George Whitfield before him, ‘Let my name perish; but let Christ’s name last forever.’