The Hebrew writer is involved in an extended discussion about the superiority of Jesus to the angels that begins in 1:4 and continues through 2:18. In 1:5-14, he quotes seven Old Testament texts to make his case. He then pauses in 2:1-4 to exhort his readers to “pay the most careful attention” to message about Jesus they have heard. In 2:5 he resumes the discussion by making the point that, “It is not to angels that God has subjected the world to come, about which we are speaking” (see 1:2). He then uses Psalm 8 to make the point that Jesus’ humanity (being made a little lower than the angels), was actually the means by which He was able to win back humanity’s lost glory and dominion. What was lost in Eden has been recovered at Calvary because by the grace of God Christ tasted death “for everyone” (v. 9).
And with those two words, we’re introduced to atonement and specifically the principle of substitution (a principle people with Jewish backgrounds would be well acquainted with). Jesus did something for us that we could not do for ourselves (tasted death). What that means, he will develop. Right now, we simply need to know that He did it. Because of His redemptive work, Jesus was “crowned with glory and honor” (v. 9).
Verses 10-13 function as an aside, a parenthetical comment to expand upon exactly why Jesus had to be made “a little lower than the angels.” He notes that Jesus’ suffering was “fitting” because He became “perfect through what He suffered” (v. 10). He’s not referring to suffering in general but rather the suffering of death (v. 9)—something only humans could experience. It perfected Jesus not in a moral sense but in a priestly one. Until the cross He was “merely” a righteous man, but because He was righteous. That of course, was a magnificent thing that made Him unique among all people past and present and brought glory to God. Nonetheless, it didn’t fulfill His mission which was to become a substitute/“ransom” for many (Matthew 20:28). His “indestructible life” (7:16) qualified Him to become offer His life as a sacrifice for the sins of others—but He had to die for that to become a reality. That’s how He became “perfect through what He suffered.”
Jesus had to become human in order to die a sacrificial death and become the perfect high priest. In doing so, humanity’s lost glory, honor, and dominion was restored. But there’s more. Through His sacrificial death Jesus made atonement (v. 17). Notice the writer has nothing to say about any literal transference of our sins to Jesus and God’s punishment of Him for our sins. The cross was not an electronic funds transfer (McGuiggan), it was Christ bearing our sin and making atonement as the Levitical priesthood had prefigured when they were “making atonement” (NIV) and would ”bear the iniquity” (ESV) of the people (Leviticus 10:17). Does anyone really believe the sins of Israel were transferred to the priest—or to the animal being sacrificed? Moreover, the word the NT writers use for what Christ experienced on the cross is not “punishment” but “suffering.” That’s because Jesus wasn’t being punished—He had done nothing wrong, and God doesn’t punish anyone for the sins someone else committed (Deuteronomy 24:16; Ezekiel 18:20).
Through His sacrifice Jesus also broke “the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (v. 14-15).
The power of death is not the ability to end people’s lives—God is control of that. The power of death is not the ability to determine the eternal destiny of people—God is in control of that. The power of death is Satan’s ability to hold people in slavery through their fear of death.
People fear death because it renders them powerless. Whatever else is true, they recognize they don’t have the power—if they did, they would choose not to die! But they know they are powerless and fear death because they don’t have Someone who can help them on the other side. Though His death and resurrection for our sin—Jesus obliterated all of that. He came out of the tomb as the One who bore our sin and lives again—just as we will. He destroyed Satan’s work (1 John 3:8). He holds the keys to death and Hades (Revelation 1:18).
Last but not least, through His cross work, Jesus has restored our lost glory and dominion. He has brought “many sons and daughters to glory” (v. 10). We haven’t realized it yet, but it has been secured and is coming (see Romans 8:18-25; I Corinthians 15). We live in anticipation of that great day!