There are compliments and there are insults. In between comes the backhanded compliment. This appears to be an honest compliment, but ends with an insult like the back of a hand across the face. One example is, “You look good for your age.” It starts with a compliment about appearance, but ends with a reminder of how old you really are. “You look really nice today.” Yes, but does that mean you don’t look nice other days? “Congratulations on the new job. I didn’t think you would get it.” Clearly the person making the statement was less than complimentary about the other person’s talents.
Then there is another class of compliment/insult. It uses the same words, but depends on how you say them. In this class there is a song recently on Christian radio that says, “Nothing is better than you, Lord. Nothing is better than you.” It was obviously meant as a compliment, but said differently it could be construed as an insult.
How could that phrase be insulting? By stating that “nothing” is better than you. “I would rather have nothing than to be associated with you.”
Jesus had fasted forty days and the devil came to tempt him. The first temptation was to turn rocks to bread, which by now he desperately needed. The second temptation involved jumping off the temple so that the angels could protect him from certain death. Those were some very real temptations which Jesus answered by scripture. The third temptation involved receiving power over all the nations.
Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me. (Matt 4:8-9)
To this Jesus replied, “Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.” Essentially, he said that the devil could offer him everything, but he need take nothing rather than worship the devil. “Nothing” is better than the devil.
We face all the same temptations that Jesus did: daily needs, self-preservation, and fame. We need to remember that “nothing” is better than giving in to temptation. That is because nothing is better than following God.
That is the other side of the statement. It is the true side. The early Jewish followers of Jesus were faced with a dilemma. They had been raised in a culture that included animal sacrifices administered by a priesthood of descendants of Levi. If, as is likely, it was written before the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, their Jewish friends probably expected them to continue in that culture. The letter we know as the book of Hebrews was written to Jewish Christians so that they could explain to their friends that they had found a better way, which was foretold and symbolized in their native culture. The whole point of the letter is that the old ways were good, but nothing is better than Jesus. The angels are not better. The priesthood is not better. The sacrifices are not better. The faith is not better. Truly, to put it in a way that cannot be misconstrued, there is nothing better than Jesus.
While Hebrews was written to Messianic Jews, it bears the same message to Gentiles. Wealth is not better. Fame is not better. Personal accomplishments are not better. Just as there was nothing bad about the Jewish sacrificial system, there is nothing inherently bad about these things. But, “what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.” (Jas 4:14) These things can be good, but are at best only temporary. Jesus, however, “sitteth on the right hand of God” (Col 3:1) forever.
Thus we can truly say to the devil, “’Nothing’ is better than you.” And to Jesus we can say, “Nothing is better than you.