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.
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:
In chapter 4, the author has been emphasizing the superiority of the high priesthood of Jesus Christ over the high priesthood of Aaron (of the tribe of Levi). He said, “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” (4:15).
He went on to say, “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” (v. 16).
HEBREWS 5:1-5. YOU ARE MY SON
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.”
“For every high priest” (v. 1a). 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, religious and civil, in Israel.
“being taken from among men, is appointed for men in things pertaining to God” (v. 1b). The high priest was a man, appointed by God to serve men “in things pertaining to God.” While hopefully he was a good man (compared with other men), he was no super man––no flawless saint.
“that he may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins” (v. 1c). What distinguished gifts and offerings? Given the importance of the Jewish sacrificial system with its animal sacrifices, those are surely what is meant here by sacrifices. Gifts would most likely involve offerings other than animal sacrifices, such as meal offerings.
These gifts and sacrifices would be for various purposes, the most important being atonement for sin.
“The high priest can deal gently with those who are ignorant and going astray, because he himself is also surrounded (Greek: perikeimai) with weakness” (v. 2).
The word perikeimai (surrounded) combines two Greek words, peri (around) and keimai (to lie or put). Perikeimai has the sense of being surrounded by or encircled by or encompassed by. The high priest lived his life surrounded by temptation––swimming in a polluted sea––just like everyone else.
So the high priest was able to deal gently with or have compassion for ignorant and weak people, because he himself suffered from ignorance and weakness.
- The high priest would be better schooled than most people, so there is a sense in which he would not share their ignorance. However, education doesn’t necessarily equate to wisdom, and the high priest would be subject to sin, just as would his fellow Israelites.
- His temple service would, in most cases, strengthen the high priest to avoid some of the sins of weakness that plagued his fellowmen––but not always.
The sins of highly placed clergy are all too familiar to us. With regard to some, such as television evangelists, we are likely to say, “Well, what could you expect!”
But I had a seminary professor who was elevated to the bishopric––one of the youngest and most able of the bishops. But a few years later he resigned for unspecified reasons, widely thought to involve sexual sin. A professor at another school was called to a large church in a university town. After a few years, he was fired when it became apparent that he was a serial adulterer. The second man was young, and both men were charismatic personalities––which made them attractive to women.
Perhaps the best that we can say is that Satan is especially diligent in attacking Christians in high places––prominent people––people whose sins are likely to cause public scandal. Such people need to be especially diligent about avoiding temptation.
The term “elder,” comes to mind. The fires of passion burn less fiercely as we age. While that doesn’t guarantee good behavior, it makes it less likely that we will stumble.
“Because of this, he must offer sacrifices for sins for the people, as well as for himself” (v. 3). Leviticus says:
“Aaron shall present the bull of the sin offering, which is FOR HIMSELF, and shall make atonement FOR HIMSELF and for his house, and shall kill the bull of the sin offering which is FOR HIMSELF…. No one shall be in the Tent of Meeting when he enters to make atonement in the Holy Place, until he comes out, and has made atonement FOR HIMSELF AND for his household, and for all the assembly of Israel…. Then he shall bathe himself in water in a holy place, and put on his garments, and come out and offer his burnt offering and the burnt offering of the people, and make atonement FOR HIMSELF and for the people. …and he shall make atonement FOR THE PRIESTS and for all the people of the assembly” (Leviticus 16:11, 17, 24, 33).
So it is clear that God considered the high priest and the other priests to be sinners in need of atonement––just as was true of the rest of the people.
“Nobody takes this honor on himself, but he is called by God, just like Aaron was” (v. 4). Note that the author of Hebrews acknowledges the honor associated with the priesthood––especially the high priesthood.
The priesthood was not an elected office, obtained by political campaigning and a democratic process. The priesthood was a calling. The high priest was called by God to render service to God’s people.
Aaron was Moses’ brother, whom Yahweh appointed as Moses’ spokesman when Moses claimed to be “slow of speech and slow of tongue” (Exodus 4:10-16). He was the one who instigated the making of the golden calf (Exodus 32), but was apparently forgiven and continued as Moses’ second-in-command. While Moses was on the mountain receiving God’s commandments, God told Moses to call Aaron and Aaron’s sons to serve God as priests (Exodus 28:1ff.).
Later, Aaron and his sons were tasked with doing all the work of the most holy place––to include making atonement for Israel (1 Chronicles 6:49; see also 1 Chronicles 23:12b). The other priests were tasked with assisting Aaron and his descendants (1 Chronicles 23:28; 24:1ff.).
So Aaron was well acquainted with sin, having crafted the golden calf and encouraged the people to bring sacrifices to it (Exodus 32:4-6). As a result, he could sympathize with others who committed sins.
“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'” (v. 5). Keep in mind that the author is interested in showing Jewish Christians that Jesus and the new covenant are superior to Moses and the old covenant. In this verse, (using the title Christ or Messiah instead of Jesus’ name), he notes that:
- Christ didn’t glorify himself to be a high priest. Just as Aaron submitted to a call by God, so also did Christ.
- God said to Christ, “You are my Son. Today I have become your father” (Psalm 2:7)––something that God never said to Aaron or Aaron’s descendants.
HEBREWS 5:6. YOU ARE A PRIEST FOREVER
6 As he says also in another place, “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.”
“As he says also in another place, ‘You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek'” (v. 6; see also v. 10; 6:20). This quotation comes from Psalm 110:4. Jesus interpreted this psalm as messianic in Matthew 22:44. Peter did the same in his Pentecostal sermon at Acts 2:34––and the author of Hebrews did so at Hebrews 1:13.
We first hear of Melchizedek in Genesis. A group of four kings led by Chedorlaomer waged battle against a group of five rebellious kings (to include the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah) who had served as their vassals. Chedorlaomer and his allies defeated Sodom, and took Lot (Abram’s nephew) captive. Abram took three hundred eighteen trained men to free Lot, and was successful, recovering Lot and his fellow captives along with their goods. The king of Sodom went out to meet Abram (Genesis 14:14-17). Then:
“Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine:
and he was priest of God Most High.
He blessed (Abram),
and said, ‘Blessed be Abram of God Most High,
possessor of heaven and earth:
and blessed be God Most High,
who has delivered your enemies into your hand.’
Abram gave him a tenth of all” (Genesis 14:18-20).
Salem, of which Melchizedek was king, is identified as Jerusalem in Psalm 76:2.
Later, the author of Hebrews will tell us that Melchizedek means “king of righteousness”––and that, as king of Salem, he is also “king of peace” (7:2) (the Hebrew word salem means “peaceful” or “secure”).
He will also tell us that Melchizedek was “without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but made like the Son of God, remains a priest continually” (7:3).
Abram’s tithe to Melchizedek and Melchizedek’s blessing of Abram suggest that Melchizedek was superior to Abram, and that is how the author of Hebrews interprets it, saying, “the lesser is blessed by the greater” (7:4, 7).
The author notes that Jesus was of the tribe of Judah rather than Levi, the priestly tribe (7:14), and interprets Psalm 110:4 to mean that there has been an annulling of the commandment to appoint priests from the tribe of Levi “because of its weakness and uselessness” (7:18). He says:
“Jesus has become the collateral of a better covenant.
Many, indeed, have been made priests,
because they are hindered from continuing by death.
But (Jesus), because he lives forever,
has his priesthood unchangeable.
Therefore he is also able to save to the uttermost
those who draw near to God through him,
seeing that he lives forever
to make intercession for them” (7:22-25).
HEBREWS 5:7-10. A HIGH PRIEST AFTER THE ORDER OF MELCHIZEDEK
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, 10 named by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.
“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.
“named by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek” (v. 10). See the comments on verse 6 above.
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Copyright 2016, Richard Niell Donovan