The underlying presupposition: the gap needs to be bridged
How can we find God? How can we creatures of space and time discover the Creator who is beyond space and time? How can the finite encounter the infinite? This is the perennial question of religion. The Jews rightly saw that the fundamental barrier between God and humankind is a moral problem rather than a spatial or temporal problem. The fact is that we are sinful creatures, and it is our sin which separates us from our Maker.
How can this barrier be overcome? How can men and women, who by nature are sinful, enter into a relationship with God, who by nature is holy? For the Jews the answer was to be found in the sacrificial system. The only way in which sin could be dealt with was through the offering up of many and varied sacrifices. For, in the words of Hebs 9.22: “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins”.
The Jewish high priest v Jesus our high priest
It is within this context that priests – and above all the high priest – have a key role to play. For priests by definition were ‘bridge-builders’ (pontifex) between God and humankind. They are in the business of making atonement for sin: “Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins” (5.1).
In standing before God, priests represent their fellows to God. They are ‘mediators’. So too are angels. But whereas angels represent God to us – priests represent humankind to God
Jesus, however, is the high priest ‘par excellence’. Witherington: “Jesus exceeds the high priestly job description and surpasses all rivals and comparisons”.
Priests represent the people
Priests are able to represent us because they are one with us. They are “chosen from among mortals” (ex anthropon) (5.5). Their very humanity is a qualification for office.
In the OT the priest had to be Jewish males taken from the house of Aaron (Ex 29.9,44; Hum 18.1-7) – but here in Hebs 5 the emphasis is upon the priest’s general connectedness with humankind. “He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness; and because of this he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for the people” (5.2).
Incidentally, note the limitation of the Jewish sacrificial system: in the OT sin-offerings were only effective for sins which were unwitting and unintentional. Hence the reference here to “the ignorant and wayward”. By contrast Paul declared that “by this Jesus everyone who believes is set free from all those sins from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses” (Acts 13.99). Jesus, according to the author of Hebs, is a “merciful high priest” (2.7) and so he writes “Let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (4.6)
Priests are called by God
Secondly, in order to represent their fellows before God, priests had to be ‘authorised’. This authorisation came through a through a process of human selection whereby they were recognised as “called by God” to this form of service (5.4). It was this ‘divine appointment’ which enabled them to offer sacrifices “on behalf of” their fellows (huper anthropon) (5.1).
Jesus too is a high priest – but as the author of Hebrews emphasises – he is ‘superior’ to any other priest.
- He was appointed directly by God. He did not go through any priestly selection process. Rather, God declared “You are my Son, today I have begotten you” (2.5//Ps 2.7). Jesus is God’s Son not because of any human parentage – but by divine appointment.
- God by-passed the normal selection criteria. For unlike normal Jewish priests, Jesus was not a descendant of Aaron (though not mentioned here, he was in fact a descendant of David). Instead he “a priest for ever, according to the order of Melchizedek” (5.6//Ps 110.4). Who was Melchizedek? Such a question would probably stump most Brain of Britain contestants. As to Gen 14, as Abraham came back from battle, Melchizedek met him and blessed him: thereupon Abraham gave him one tenth of everything he had. Mentioned in Ps 110, the DSS would suggest that he became a type of Messiah. The significance of Jesus being a priest “in the priestly order of Melchizedek” (GNB) is developed in Hebs 7. Suffice it say, here in Hebs 5 it was precisely because of Jesus being a high priest in the order of Melchizedek that he was able to offer “eternal salvation” (5.9) – “not the temporary expedient of short-term atonement by one sacrifice after another” (Witherington).
Jesus our great example
Jesus too shared our humanity – but unlike the high priests of the Jewish system, he did not share our weakness – he did not sin.
5.7: In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission”. Although there may have been a number of times when Jesus “cried out in pain and wept in sorrow” (The Message), almost certainly this is a reference to Gethsemane: see esp Luke 22.44: “In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling to the ground”. What did Jesus pray for? First and foremost he prayed for deliverance from death: “remove this cup from me” (Luke 22.42). How then was he “heard”? He was Heard” not in the sense that he was saved ‘from dying’, but rather ‘from’ or ‘out of’ (ex) the state or realm of death. The fact that Jesus was not spared qualifies him perfectly to sympathise with his followers – “We know that our High Priest was tested in the same way and did not seek any escape by supernatural means that was not available to us” (Peter O’Brien). “If we ask why our author refers to this episode from the life of Jesus, the answer is likely to because it provides a paradigm for the audience to follow in their own trials, suffering and possible martyrological death. Here is simply another way that Jesus is seen as their pioneer or trailblazer” (Ben Witherington)
“He was heard because of his reverent submission”. This prayer was heard when Jesus said ‘nevertheless your will be done’ (Donald Hagner)
5.7: “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered”. There is an aural wordplay: emathen (he learned) and epathen (he suffered). This is not to suggest that Jesus had previously been disobedient, and now needed to grasp what it meant to obey the will of God. Rather, “Authentic obedience is practised in particular, concrete circumstances. So, as Jesus encountered fresh situations – and the focus of the text is on his suffering – his faithfulness to God was challenged, and his unfailing obedience to the Father’s will was tested again and again” (O’Brien). Witherington: “Here we are talking about a sort of completion of ministerial training, his preparation to be high priest in heaven. Instead of a ‘trial sermon’, he had a trial sacrifice – of himself”
5.9: “Having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him”
- Jesus was “made perfect” not in a moral sense – but rather in the sense he became fully equipped.
- Salvation is dependent upon obedience. See, for instance, 4.6: “Those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience”; 4.11 “Let us therefore make every effort… so that no one may fall through such disobedience…”. FF Bruce: “There is something appropriate in the fact that the salvation which was procured by the obedience of the Redeemer should be made available to the obedience of the redeemed”.
- What experiences of pain and sorrow have you known? When have you cried out to God?
- Learning comes through suffering – to what extent has this been your experience? Stephen Pattison, a pastoral theologian, wrote: “The hard, yet joyful lesson to be learnt is that good, and indeed successful, Christian ministry which follows in the steps of its founder is born not from skill, power and knowledge, but from the experience of inadequacy, rejection and sorrow transformed by the love of God and then offered to others”.
- “Recognizing that God brought Jesus out of suffering to glory assures them [the readers] that God will also bring glory to his other sons and daughters who persevere” (Peter O’Brien). To what extent does the example of Jesus offer inspiration to Christians today?