“For in subjecting everything to him, he left nothing that is not subject to him. As it is, we do not yet see everything subjected to him. But we do see Jesus – made lower than the angels for a short time so that by God’s grace he might taste death for everyone – crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
What is it that makes Jesus so great? That, perhaps more than just about anything else, is the question the author of Hebrews is seeking to answer over the course of his letter. While there are several good answers to the question generally and three in particular to which he gives the lion’s share of his attention, we see his arguing for one here that may not be something we think about all that often. Let’s dig in to what he’s talking about this morning.
When we think about the kinds of things that make someone great, the big and the flashy rise easily to the top of our lists. We think of people who have amassed great fortunes. Consider how many people think of Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates or Warren Buffet as some of the greatest men of this generation and the last. Yes, they have all created enormous companies that have changed the world, but mostly people just think about them in terms of their wealth. We think about folks like Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden. Agree with their politics or not, they all ascended to the highest seat of power, arguably, in the entire world. In the minds of many, that makes them great. Perhaps your mind goes to some religious leader or another who has had a particularly great impact on the world (or even just on your own life). Maybe you think about an especially notable athlete. You’re either Team Lebron or Team Jordan (the correct answer is Team Jordan, but that’s a debate for another time). These kinds of things and more like them are the criteria by which we typically define greatness.
In his letter to the Colossian believers, Paul described Jesus this way: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For everything was created by him, in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities – all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and by him all things hold together. He is also the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile everything to himself, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”
Writing to the Philippians, Paul said of Jesus that God “highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow – in heaven and on earth and under the earth – and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
I don’t know about you, but that all strikes me as pretty high praise. Paul seems to be glorifying Jesus to a position higher than any other creature in all of creation. He is before and above all things. My goodness, Paul even gives Him credit for holding all of creation together. It was made by Him and for Him. There is no one greater or more glorious than Jesus. And yet, when you think about the kinds of things that make Him so great, the list of criteria is a bit different from ours.
During His brief time walking around on earth, Jesus didn’t apparently accomplish very much at all. Oh, He had His fifteen minutes of fame. He attracted huge crowds and the ire of the elite for a couple of years, but in the end, He didn’t have any of that. And in the first thirty years of His life He was a nobody. Historically speaking, we know about His birth, a brief three-day snapshot from when He was twelve, and nothing else until He was thirty. Then He lived for just three more years before being put to death on a cross. Do you have any concept of how many people were put to death on crosses? Thousands and thousands. As far as the world was concerned at that time, Jesus was a nobody who did nothing and would quickly be forgotten on the dustbin of history. People who get put to death by the state tend not to be remembered unless they did something superlatively bad and Jesus definitely doesn’t check that box.
In other words, according to the ways we most often measure greatness, there isn’t really anything about Him that should have warranted the kinds of descriptions Paul attributes to Him. And yet in kingdom terms, it is precisely His death that starts His meteoric rise to greatness. These kingdom terms, though, have tended to be tough for the average person whose views on greatness have been shaped by the world to buy. When the apostle Paul was writing his first letter to the believers in ancient Corinth, when describing the Gospel he had come preaching to them, he said this: “But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles.”
For the Jews of Paul’s day, the ideas that Jesus was Messiah and that Jesus died went together about as well as oil and water. The Messiah wasn’t going to die. Period. The Messiah was going to be a conquering hero. As far as the Jews in the first century thought, Jesus’ death on the cross proved beyond a shadow of doubt that He wasn’t the Messiah. Even His own followers were completely disillusioned by His death. They were sad about it, but it also meant they were wrong about Him. For the Gentiles of Paul’s day, on the other hand, the notion that a god could be somehow subject to human judgment and suffer such ignominy was just crazy talk. It was such a silly idea that most folks wouldn’t even give it the time of day. Those who would generally on did so they could mock it.
And yet, Paul goes on to add this: “Yet to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God, because God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”
Here in Hebrews, the author is unpacking his quoting Psalm 8. This is all in the context of explaining why Jesus is greater than the angels. He’s using Psalm 8 (“You made him lower than the angels for a short time; you crowned him with glory and honor and subjected everything under his feet.”) to help him explain how Jesus could be greater than the angels in glory in an ultimate sense even though in the minds of his audience, the exact opposite seems to be true. He’s explaining the glory of Jesus in spite of the fact that the world still looks like it does. What he argues is that Jesus’ death is precisely what makes Him so great.
Listen again to what he says: “But we do see Jesus – made lower than the angels for a short time so that by God’s grace he might taste death for everyone – crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death.” God lowered Jesus’ apparent esteem so that even the angels seemed more glorious than Him for a season so that He “might taste death for everyone.” That is, God took on human flesh in Christ (and humans are definitely lower than angels…for now) so that He could die in our place. But He is now crowned with glory and honor because He suffered death. Again, His death is what makes Him great.
But why? Why would His death be the thing that makes Him so great? Because He rose again. Death was and always has been the great foe of humanity. Jesus defeated death decisively. When He died, He did not stay dead. Death’s grip had always been like iron. When Jesus rose on the third day, though, He did not merely loosen death’s iron grip. He shattered it. He broke it so thoroughly that it cannot any longer hold anyone who doesn’t voluntarily remain held by it by refusing to place their trust in His shattering of it. Had Jesus not died, He couldn’t have risen, and His greatness would be severely muted.
There’s more. Jesus’ death reflects the incredible humility and love of our God. His love for us was and is so great that He was willing to pay Himself the price we owed in order to have our relationship with Him restored to its pre-sin glory. His humility was such that He wasn’t willing to delegate that terrible duty to anyone else. He took it on Himself.
This is all part of the folly of the cross for Gentiles Paul mentioned. In their mind, the idea that the gods loved people was silly. To add to that the thought they served people themselves just made it worse. That they would serve them by dying for them was insane. It was insane…and insanely attractive. It speaks of the value this God believes you have. A God who would die for you in order to defeat death so you didn’t have to face its terrible power would have to be the greatest, most glorious God there is. He is definitely a God worth following. Well, He is definitely a God worth following. He is worthy of your devotion and praise. He is worthy of your life.