“What is the meaning of Hebrews 2:16, ‘For verily he took not on him the nature of angels; but he took on him the seed of Abraham’?”
In order to appreciate the passage (as much as is possible from the limited information available), one has to have a grasp of the argument that the inspired writer has made thus far in his epistle to the Hebrews.
An overall consideration of the book makes it clear that certain Jewish teachers of the first century sought to seduce Hebrew Christians away from their commitment to Christ. They wanted to deflect them back to the Mosaic system. The entire book is designed to be an argument against the validity of such a persuasion.
The first chapter constitutes an argument based upon the superiority of Jesus Christ over angels. At the core of the proposition is the fact that the law of Moses was conveyed to the Israelite people through the instrumentality of angels (cf. 2:2; Acts 7:53; Galatians 3:19). By way of contrast, however, the new covenant came directly from Christ. The new covenant, therefore, was clearly superior to the old covenant in terms of the mode of its conveyance.
This is the thrust of the argument that begins chapter 2. Note the expression “more earnest heed” in comparing the punishments merited in violation of these respective systems. Compare the phrase “sorer punishment” in 10:29. No less than a dozen times within the document, the new regime is referred to by the use of the comparative term, “better.” The new is “better” than the old.
In chapter 2, the writer notes that though Christ is superior to angels, by means of the incarnation he assumed a role “a little lower than” these heavenly creatures. This “human” existence enabled the Savior to be subjected to the suffering and death of the cross, thus effecting a plan for mankind’s redemption (vv. 9-10).
Subsequently, Jesus’ bond with the earthly family of God is depicted gloriously. He calls us “brothers,” and is not ashamed of the relationship. He joins with Christians in placing confidence in the heavenly Father. The Lord, in coming to earth, shared in the human nature, that through death he might destroy Satan ultimately.
The Mysterious Text
It is out of this background that the mysterious verse 16 takes its rise. The Greek text, rather literally rendered, runs like this: “For it certainly is not to angels that he takes hold, but he takes hold of the seed of Abraham.” The Greek verb, rendered “takes hold of,” is the same in both segments of the passage.
The King James translators rendered the verse: “For verily he took not on him the nature of angels; but he took on him the seed of Abraham.” The emphasized portion reveals that these venerable scholars imported a good deal of interpretation into the text. Not even the New King James Version stays with that rendition. It reads: “For indeed He does not give aid to angels, but he does give aid to the seed of Abraham.”
The best linguistic evidence indicates that the verb epilambano (twice used in this text, and in the present tense) signifies to “take hold of,” likely in the sense of delivering one from peril (cf. 8:9). It suggests “to draw someone to oneself to help” (Delling, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, G. Kittel, ed., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967, IV, p. 9). Thus, the thrust of the text may be this.
The mission of Christ is not intended to be for the reclamation of fallen angels (cf. Matthew 25:41; 2 Peter 2:4; Jude 6); rather, the Savior’s death benefits only the “seed of Abraham.” It seems rather obvious that the “seed of Abraham” in this context is a reference to Abraham’s spiritual seed — Christians, both of Hebrew and Gentile ancestry (cf. Galatians 3:7,29).
But why are angels mentioned in connection with Christ’s earthly ministry? F.F. Bruce suggested that the reference to Jesus “passing by” the angels, is but another point in emphasizing the angels’ inferiority to the Lord (The Epistle to the Hebrews — Revised, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990, p. 87).
This passage, however, opens up a truly puzzling question. It seems to imply that there is no plan of salvation for fallen angels — at least not one with which Jesus Christ has any connection. Many commentators skip this baffling comment, since there is no biblical background explanation for it. Coffman, however, has some excellent observations on the passage and we introduce them here for our readers’ reflections.
“Why did Christ elect to enter the arena of human life as a man and to suffer and die for human redemption, whereas it is revealed that he made no such decision or movement on behalf of fallen angels who also had sinned? People have offered learned explanations why such should have been so, alleging that angels sinned with their eyes open, whereas man was deceived, and that angels found the source of temptations within themselves and not from an external source, as in the case of man; but the view here is that it is a part of the mystery ‘hidden before times eternal!’ and that it does not lie within the periphery of complete finite understanding. The forgiveness which God provided for man is absolutely unique, there being no precedent of any such thing in heaven or upon earth. Where, in all the universe, is there such a thing as the forgiveness of sins, apart from Christ our Lord? ? How utterly unaccountable, therefore, is the heavenly grace exhibited on behalf of sinful man, a grace conveyed at such awful cost!” (Burton Coffman, Commentary on Hebrews, Austin, TX: Firm Foundation, 1971, pp. 58-59).