What did it mean for Jesus to become human? Among the primary passages that discuss the implications of the incarnation, one is found at the beginning of the book of Hebrews. It may be somewhat complicated to fully unravel, but enlightening when we take the time. There is a little phrase that should give us a moment of pause, “But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus (Heb. 2:9).” What does that short phrase, “lower than the angels” mean? If Jesus is God, then why, and how, could he have ever been lower than anything?
Even more, in the context of this passage, the author is making an argument for why Jesus is superior to angels. Throughout the book of Hebrews, the author will explain why Jesus is superior to angels, Moses, other priests, the Old Covenant and previous “heroes of the faith.” Why in the midst of his argument for the superiority of Christ, does he say that Jesus was “made lower than the angels?"
What we see in the second chapter of Hebrews is that Jesus being made lower than the angels is one of the very reasons he is in fact superior to them. The first argument is that Jesus is superior to angels in his sovereignty (Heb 1:5-14), and the second is that Jesus is superior to them in his suffering (Heb 2:5-18). Here, we will focus on the suffering side of the equation and look at three reasons Jesus was “made lower than the angels."
So he could be like us
In the incarnation, Jesus was “made like his brothers in every respect (Heb 2:17).” Jesus took on human flesh, and did not reject the many implications that came with this new form. Jesus got hungry and tired, and he needed to eat and rest. Later in Hebrews, it says that Jesus was “one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin (Heb 4:15).” Jesus experienced temptation. He can relate with us in our temptation. Yet, he was without sin, so he can show us the way, and he can make atonement of our imperfections. Jesus "had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted (Heb 2:17-18).”
Jesus becoming like us means that God has not kept himself from the suffering of his people. Jesus experienced what it means to be human. He can fully relate. He is not removed and far off. He had to be made like us, so he could make full propitiation for our sins. One aspect of the completion of Jesus’ saving work was his being made like us, so he could suffer and die on our behalf.
So he could taste death for us
At present, we can not see the fully glory of Jesus. Nothing has been left outside the control of Jesus, however we do not yet see everything in subjection to him (Heb 2:8-9). “But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone (Heb 2:9).”
Jesus was made lower than the angels, so he could die for us, tasting death for everyone. Jesus was not kept from even the harshest of suffering, death itself. So that “through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery (Heb 2:14-15).”
In becoming like us, Jesus was able to taste death for us. He was able to die as a human and experience all of what that means. In so doing, Jesus tasted death for us, so that through his death he could conquer the one who had the power of death, that is, the devil. Through his dying we can have life.
So he could be made perfect through suffering
Jesus was perfect when he came to earth. He did not need to die in order to become perfect, but Hebrews 2:10 says “For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect though suffering.” How do we reconcile Jesus’ perfect divinity with the statement that he was “made perfect?” In commenting on this verse, Craig Blomberg writes, “The Son of God was ontologically perfect already, but he had not fully experienced all stages of human life until he died. So now he acquired an additional kind of perfection as well, one that some understand as fulfillment, completing of consecration."
The suffering that Jesus experienced in his death fulfilled and completed the work he came to do. While it did not make him any more perfect in his essence, he did perfect the work he came to do. The process of his innocent death and eventual resurrection, was the final stage in his perfect life. He become human, he experienced the limitations of a human body, he was tempted, he suffered and he ultimately died. All this works toward his glory and perfect work.
What are the implications?
Being made lower than angels, for a time, actually contributes to Jesus being superior to angels for all time. In his suffering, Jesus is glorified and made perfect. Jesus became like his brothers, so he could perfect his brothers and taste death on their behalf. This should cause us to marvel at the good and glorious God we serve.
Second, there is a warning at the beginning of this chapter (Heb 2:1-4). If the message delivered by angels, which in Jewish tradition the Mosaic Law was believed to have been mediated by angels, if that message required retribution for disobedience, how much more now that we have a more sure testimony. Jesus has brought a new message of hope and deliverance. We must not reject it, but take notice of our need for him. We must "pay much closer attention,” and fully embrace the message of Jesus, reminding ourselves often of the work he accomplished and our need for him.