THE BROAD CONTEXT:
The author identified neither himself nor the people to whom he was writing. However, the content of the book, including the frequent references to the Hebrew Scriptures, makes it clear that he was writing to Jewish Christians who were sorely tempted to leave the Christian church and revert to Jewish worship.
There were a number of reasons why these Jewish Christians might have been tempted to return to Judaism:
- Families and friends surely pressured them. This could have taken many forms––expressions of disapproval, shunning, disinheritance, etc.
- They would have missed the elaborate rituals and furnishings of the Jewish Temple and the synagogues. Christians didn’t have church buildings in those days, but met in the homes of fellow Christians. Compared to Jewish worship, Christian worship must have seemed spare––even poor.
- Those who had enjoyed special status in Judaism would miss the prestige and influence that they once enjoyed. Luke tells us that “a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7). Whether they could have become Jewish priests again is open to question, but some would likely be tempted to return if they thought that would be a possibility.
The author spends the first ten and a half chapters of this thirteen chapter book (1:1 – 10:18) emphasizing the superiority of Christ and the new covenant to Moses and the old covenant.
THE IMMEDIATE CONTEXT:
The author implored, “Beware, brothers, lest perhaps there be in any one of you an evil heart of unbelief, in falling away from the living God” (3:12). He reminded them of the Israelite rebellion in the wilderness, and God refusing to allow them entry into the Promised Land “because of unbelief” (3:19). He then raised his concern that “anyone of you should seem to have come short of a promise of entering into his rest” (4:1ff.). He concluded, “Let us therefore give diligence to enter into that rest, lest anyone fall after the same example of disobedience” (4:11).
He went on to say that “the word of God is living, and active, and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing even to the dividing of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and is able to discern the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (4:12).
HEBREWS 4:14-16. HAVING THEN A GREAT HIGH PRIEST
14 Having then a great high priest, who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold tightly to our confession. 15 For we don’t have a high priest who can’t be touched with the feeling of our infirmities, but one who has been in all points tempted like we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us therefore draw near with boldness to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy, and may find grace for help in time of need.
“Having then a great high priest, who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God” (v. 14a). In Israel, the high priest was responsible for administering the sacrificial system that God had established for various purposes, atonement for sins being the most important. Only the high priest was allowed into the Holy of Holies––the dwelling place of God––and then only on the Day of Atonement. He presided over the Sanhedrin, the highest authority over all matters in Israel, both religious and civil.
Jesus assumed the role of high priest––our intermediary with God and the ultimate arbiter of salvation.
The author notes that Jesus is a great high priest––one “who has passed through the heavens.” He is thus superior to earthly high priests, whose access to God’s presence was limited to one day a year in the Holy of Holies.
“let us hold tightly to our confession” (homologia) (v. 14b). The Greek word homologia combines homou (together with) and lego (to say), so it has the sense of a shared belief or confession. Paul uses this word in 2 Corinthians 9:13, where he defines the homologia (confession) as “the Good News of Jesus Christ.”
The Christian community was allowed to differ on many things, but the central tenet of their faith was “the Good News of Jesus Christ.” This was the one thing on which they could and must agree.
The author of Hebrews says that, since Jesus is our high priest, who has passed through the heavens, we can and must hold tightly to our confession of faith.
“For we don’t have a high priest who can’t be touched with the feeling of our infirmities” (v. 15a). A more literal translation would be “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses.”
The word “for” ties this verse to that which preceded it. We can put our faith in Jesus, because he has walked in our shoes––has experienced life as we know it from birth to death––has experienced hunger and thirst and a primitive world with stables and dusty roads and crosses.
“but one who has been in all points tempted like we are, yet without sin” (v. 15; see also 2:18). Each of the Synoptic Gospels has an account of Jesus’ temptations at the beginning of his ministry (Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13), but we shouldn’t imagine that those were his only temptations. Luke tells us that, “When the devil had completed every temptation, he departed from (Jesus) until another time” (Luke 4:13).
Nor should we imagine that the devil would tempt Jesus only occasionally. The devil plays a mean game of chess, always anticipating his opponents’ moves and plumbing the depths of his opponents’ weaknesses. He does that with us, and we can be assured that he pulled out every stop in his attempt to undermine Jesus.
Having experienced human life to its fullest, Jesus can sympathize with us when we turn out to be weak––sinful.
Not only can Jesus sympathize, but he can and will help. His God-given mission was not to condemn the world, but to save it (John 3:17).
“Let us therefore draw near with boldness (Greek: parresia) to the throne of grace” (v. 16a). The Greek word parresia comes from two words, pas (all) and rhesis (speaking), and literally has to do with freedom in speaking. However, it evolved to mean confidence or boldness, particularly with regard to speech.
The author encourages us to approach the throne of grace with confidence or boldness––ready to speak. That’s quite a privilege.
If we were invited to approach the throne of the king or queen of Great Britain, we would be obligated to observe strict protocol.
- We would need to use proper wording to accept the invitation.
- Women would wear white gloves and hats, and men would wear morning dress or uniforms (with decorations, of course).
- In the presence of the queen, women would curtsy and men would bow.
- The queen would be addressed as “Her majesty.”
- The king/queen would take the initiative with regard to conversation, and we would NOT be expected to steer the conversation in a different direction. No personal questions, of course! No questions about state policy.
- And that’s only the beginning.
But we are children of God––adopted into God’s family––”heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:14-17). While it is ever so much grander to enter into God’s presence than into the king/queen’s presence, we can do so with the confidence that we have been grafted into God’s family––and that God loves us even more than we love our own children.
We shouldn’t imagine that we will approach God’s throne of grace only after our death and resurrection. Every time we go to God in prayer, we are approaching his throne of grace. While we should be respectful, even as we should be respectful when approaching our earthly father or mother, we can also be honest. In the Psalms and Lamentations, we hear people crying out to God in pain. Even Jesus on the cross cried out, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”––”My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34).
“that we may receive mercy (Greek: eleos), and may find grace (Greek: xaris) for help in time of need” (v. 16b). The Greek words eleos (mercy) and charis (grace) are similar in meaning. Both have roots in the Hebrew word hesed, used in the Old Testament to speak of God’s loving-kindness, mercy, and faithfulness.
Furthermore, both mercy and grace imply that we have not earned God’s favor. Instead, God has bestowed his favor on us freely (whether we call his favor “mercy” or “grace”), in spite of the fact that we have not deserved it. Both grace and mercy result in salvation (Romans 3:24; Titus 3:5).
In his book, Synonyms of the New Testament, R. C. Trench distinguished between charis (grace) and eleos (mercy) by saying that God extends charis (grace) when we are guilty and eleos (mercy) when we are miserable. That is the thinnest of distinctions, however, because guilt and misery so often go together––and the remedy for one will so often be the remedy for both.
In any event, the promise of this verse is that we can expect both mercy and grace when we approach God’s throne.
HEBREWS 5:1-6. A PRIEST AFTER THE ORDER OF MELCHIZEKEK
1 For every high priest, being taken from among men, is appointed for men in things pertaining to God, that he may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins. 2 The high priest can deal gently with those who are ignorant and going astray, because he himself is also surrounded with weakness. 3 Because of this, he must offer sacrifices for sins for the people, as well as for himself. 4 Nobody takes this honor on himself, but he is called by God, just like Aaron was. 5 So also Christ didn’t glorify himself to be made a high priest, but it was he who said to him, “You are my Son. Today I have become your father.”
6 As he says also in another place, “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.”
These verses aren’t in the lectionary reading, but the preacher will do well to be aware of them.
The author is saying that Jesus is superior to the priestly order of Aaron, and gives reasons why. Just as Melchizedek’s priesthood had no succession, so also Jesus’ priesthood is timeless.
HEBREWS 5:7-9. THE AUTHOR OF ETERNAL SALVATION
7 He, in the days of his flesh, having offered up prayers and petitions with strong crying and tears to him who was able to save him from death, and having been heard for his godly fear, 8 though he was a Son, yet learned obedience by the things which he suffered. 9 Having been made perfect, he became to all of those who obey him the author of eternal salvation.
“He, in the days of his flesh” (v. 7a). With these words, the author reminds us that Jesus was a flesh-and-blood historical figure.
“having offered up prayers and petitions with strong crying and tears to him who was able to save him from death, and having been heard for his godly fear” (Greek: eulabeia) (v. 7b). The Greek word eulabeia would better be translated “reverence” or “devotion” rather than “fear.” The word for fear is phobos.
At the Mount of Olives, Jesus prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” An angel came to strengthen him, and Jesus, “in agony, prayed more earnestly. His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground” (Luke 22:42-43; see also Matthew 26:38-39; Mark 14:34-36).
If we might be inclined to interpret Jesus’ prayer and perspiration as weakness, we need to remember that he followed through with the cross to save the world from its sin. As an old First Sergeant once said to me, “Courage isn’t lack of fear, but doing what is needed in spite of fear.”
“though he was a Son, yet learned obedience by the things which he suffered” (v. 8). We are surprised to see that Jesus “learned obedience.” Wasn’t he always obedient?
But Luke gives us a glimpse of Jesus as a boy, going with Mary and Joseph to Jerusalem, where he separated himself from Mary and Joseph to amaze the teachers in the temple with his understanding. Mary and Joseph went a day’s journey before they realized that he was missing––and then had to make the journey back to the city, worrying all the way.
When they found Jesus, Mary asked, “Son, why have you treated us this way? Behold, your father and I were anxiously looking for you”––and Jesus cheekily replied, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?”––an answer that wouldn’t have passed muster with my earthly father, I can assure you. But then Luke tells us:
“And (Jesus) went down with them, and came to Nazareth.
He was subject to them,
and his mother kept all these sayings in her heart.
And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature,
and in favor with God and men” (Luke 2:42-52).
So from the beginning, Jesus had to grow in four ways––in understanding and physique––and spiritually and socially.
But the growth that the author mentions in this verse is growth in obedience. Even though Jesus prayed that the Father might remove the cup of suffering from him, he did so knowing that the Father would not and could not do that without aborting the purpose of Jesus’ incarnation. As much as Jesus would have liked to avoid the cross, he did what was required––and grew in the process of overcoming his fear.
“Having been made perfect, he became to all of those who obey him the author of eternal salvation” (v. 9). Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, yes, the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:7-8). In doing so, he ushered in the possibility of salvation for all mankind.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Abraham, William J., in Van Harn, Roger E. (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts: The Second Readings, Acts and the Epistles (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001)
Barclay, William, Daily Study Bible: Hebrews (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1976)
Bruce, F.F. The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1990)
Cockerill, Gareth Lee, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012)
Cousar, Charles B. in Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; McCann, J. Clinton; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV – Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994)
Craddock, Fred, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 12 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998)
Evans, Louis H., Jr., The Preacher’s Commentary: Hebrews (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1985)
Gench, Frances Taylor, Westminster Bible Commentary: Hebrews and James, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996)
Guthrie, Donald, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: Hebrews, Vol. 15 (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1983)
Holladay, Carl R., Preaching Through the Christian Year C (Valley Forge, Trinity Press, 1994).
Lane, William L., Word Biblical Commentary: Hebrews 9-13, Vol. 47b (Dallas: Word Books, 1991)
Long, Thomas G., Interpretation: Hebrews (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1997)
MacArthur, John, Jr., The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Hebrews (Chicago: The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, 1983)
McKnight, Edgar V., Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Hebrew-James (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2004)
O’Brien, Peter T., Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Letter to the Hebrews (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009)
Pfitzner, Victor C., Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Hebrews (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997)
We welcome your feedback! [email protected]
Copyright 2016, Richard Niell Donovan