Angelic “Worship” of Christ in Hebrews 1:6
David Allen has produced a careful, patient analysis of Hebrews 1:6, where angels are commanded (by God) to “worship/reverence” Jesus, and recent scholarly discussion of the text: “Who, What, and Why? The Worship of the Firstborn in Hebrews 1:6,” in Mark, Manuscripts, and Monotheism: Essays in Honor of Larry W. Hurtado, eds. Chris Keith and Dieter T. Roth (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2014), 159-75.
As Allen notes, the verse is tantalizingly subject to different nuances, as reflected in recent scholarly studies. It forms one link in a chain of biblical texts cited in Hebrews 1:5-13, the net force of which seems to be to underscore the high status of Jesus, in particular contrasting his status with that of angels. The preceding statements in Hebrews 1 certainly ascribe to Jesus a remarkable and unique status and role, as, for example, “the effulgence of the glory and the direct imprint of the being” of God (1:3). This contrast of “the Son” (Jesus) with angels is then expressed dramatically in 1:6, where it appears that God commands them to reverence “the firstborn”.
Part of the ambiguity of the verse is in the word used: “proskynein,” which, in wider ancient Greek usage, can cover a variety of reverential actions ranging from the worship given to deities to the obeisance shown to rulers, to the reverence given to various social superiors (e.g., slaves to their masters). On the other hand, if the author intended here simply to indicate that angels were required to acknowledge the superiority of “the Firstborn,” it might be a bit redundant, as that point is made rather clearly prior to 1:6. But, as reflected in current scholarly discussion of the matter, there is no complete consensus on what to make of the reverential action portrayed in Heb 1:6, whether it represents the robust “worship” given to divine beings or . . . something less.
Allen also notes the lack of other direct/explicit references to worship given to Jesus in Hebrews, and finds that curious, given the otherwise high status ascribed to Jesus by the author. But Allen proposes that Heb 13:21 just might be another text where Jesus is recipient of a kind of worship, if you take the doxology there as directed to Jesus (and not to God). But 13:21 also is a bit ambiguous, or at least has been read in both ways by current scholars.
In my view, the lack of explicit reference in Hebrews to Jesus as recipient of “worship” (of the kind signifying divine status) may be a corollary of the author’s emphasis in this exhortation/treatise on Jesus as fully human, and so the ideal high priest and also ideal model for believers. In trying to draw conclusions about what the author of Hebrews may have thought about Jesus as co-recipient of “worship” by believers, we need to examine assumptions. In particular, can we assume that what an author writes in a given text (with clear pastoral/hortatory purposes) is indicative of the full extent of that author’s beliefs and approved devotional practices? Granted, Hebrews doesn’t explicitly refer to the worship of Jesus in early Christian circles. But there is also nothing in the text to suggest that the author would disapprove of such worship either. There is the danger of argument from silence either way.
So (as Allen basically judges), it’s probably best not to make the question of whether Jesus was co-recipient of worship in early Christian circles rest too heavily on Hebrews. On the one hand, Jesus is ascribed a “high” status such that it is difficult to imagine what more could be said to exalt him further. On the other hand, for whatever reason, the author does not explicitly say whether he does or doesn’t know of and approve of the sort of devotional practices that are already presupposed in Paul’s letters. So, it’s probably wise simply to take the text as written, with its fascinating combination of “high Christology” and strong emphasis also on Jesus as the ultimate agent of redemption.