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Angelic “Worship” of Christ in Hebrews 1:6

February 3, 2015

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.

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15 Comments
  1. Chris S permalink

    Professor Hurtado,

    Since the book of Hebrews seems to open with the idea of the Son pre-exsiting with God before creation (since the world was created through the Son), it is unclear to me why the command of God to the angels is even required. If Jesus pre-existed before the angels were created, the angels would have been commanded to worship the Son before the Son was brought into the world. (likely at their very inception).

    Why would God command the angels to worship or reverance the Son when He (i.e. the Father) brings the Son into the world if the devotion was already occuring in heaven before the Son was sent?

    • As Allen notes, commentators have explored various options as to what is meant in Heb 1:6 by “when he brings the firstborn into the world [oikoumene].” Allen (cogently in my view) sides with those who propose that the reference is to the installation of the risen Jesus “at God’s right hand”, i.e., in his role thereafter as the enthroned Son (with reference to 1:3-4). So, on this view, 1:6 refers to Jesus’ installation and the required angelic obeisance.

      • Chris S permalink

        Would such a view suggest that the Son was not worshipped by angels until the installation? Or was the Son worshipped prior to the installation in any capacity in his pre-existant state?

      • It’s interesting that NT texts don’t display an interest in such speculative matters. They link the “pre-existent” Jesus with creation, but little else. The emphasis instead is on Jesus’ installation as “Lord” to whom all must now give obeisance.

  2. Donald Jacobs permalink

    I am not sure why this really matters? The text of Hebrews neither requires that the word be taken in its highest sense, nor does the rest of the NT favour it. Dunn pointed out in his excellent wee book “Did the First Christians Worship Jesus?” that proskynein is used for God and others alike throughout the NT. The word that is reserved for deity is latreuein as stated in Matt 4:10 and Luke 4:8, and it is a word that is never used about Jesus. You would think such an important distinction between reverence for Jesus and God would merit discussion in a book like Lord Jesus Christ: Early Christian Devotion, but I don’t find it.

    • Donald: Two quick responses. First, it’s never been in dispute that proskynein can be used in a variety of ways, and that’s why I don’t find Dunn’s note to that effect all that important. As with any word, it’s the sentences in which it’s used that tell us what is meant, and in this case who’s being given “worship” and what that means. (Don’t forget that the older English marriage ceremony has the husband promise, “I will worship you with my body”, and it’s clear that didn’t mean “cultic” worship!)
      So, you’re quite wrong to dismiss Allen’s study, which focuses on the proper question: How are we to understand the divine command to the angels to proskynein the Son? Some loose generalizing statement such as yours is . . . simple-minded. Precise exegesis is always in order.
      Second, you’re also quite wrong that I haven’t noted distinctions between the reverence given to Jesus and to God. Indeed, I’ve persistently noted (from my 1988 book, One God, One Lord onward) that the worship of Jesus is with reference to God, and as the image/son of God. Jesus is not worshipped as a second deity, but as the unique expression of the one deity. So, e.g., in Philip 2:9-11, the universal reverence to be given to Jesus as Kyrios is “to the glory of God the Father”. I’m afraid you’ll need to read actually what I’ve published before you make such sniping claims.

  3. Judy Diehl permalink

    Just a note to say that I am so proud of my Edinburgh class-mates — in this case, David, Chris and Dieter! They are all doing well!

  4. Richard Brown permalink

    Not having the article, I tread cautiously: the entire section 1:5-14 seems sympathetic to Christ as the “manifest YHWH”. The weight of vs.6 opening “when moreover again” is considerable: is the bestowing of Divine Status (& awarding of the Divine Name) coronation of His resurrected tranformation? Recall “firstBorn from the dead” as being “again” born into the world? Then Vs.8 even weightier – applying Ps.45:6 ; “your throne, oh God”. It feels as if the entire opening declaration is a “bombshell” attention-step riveting holy & fearful attention to Christ the Exalted One. Afterward a digressionary review of His earthly walk ensues?

    • Well, “manifest YHWH” may go beyond what seems to me explicit in the text. But, in general, yes, the text is making bold, striking claims about Jesus’ status and significance. No question.

  5. bee permalink

    When texts are open to two theologies I find that is deliberate

    • I have no idea what you’re talking about. I’m afraid you’ll have to be more clear for me.

  6. Given Hebrews affinity for Psalm 110:1, could this “high status” be a reference to Jesus’ place in the Divine Council as co-regent?

    • By “high status”, I refer to the explicit expressions that we have in Hebrews, from chap 1 onward. There is the note of enthronement with/beside God in 1:3-4, and again in 1:8-9. But then the text also emphasizes Jesus as ideal/true/final high priest, true/final sacrifice, etc. as well.

  7. Spencer Cummins permalink

    Larry,
    Thank you for your insightful words about The Book of Hebrews today and high christology. Practically, how does the high christology of Hebrews help you worship in church?
    Thanks,
    Spencer

    • Well, Spencer, the focus on this blog site isn’t about contemporary worship but historical understanding of ancient believers, their beliefs, practices, etc.

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