Comments, Observations, and Questions
I doubt that most preachers will chose this lectionary reading for their sermon on this fifth Sunday of Lent. Hebrews is just plain tough to preach. For one thing it is so complex, dealing as it does with long forgotten aspects of the Jewish faith. Sermons on Hebrews require detailed explanations of things like the Jewish sacrificial system before we ever get to the Christian point.
The other thing that makes Hebrews a preacher’s challenge is its political incorrectness. I mean, the main message of Hebrews is that the Christian faith is better than the Jewish faith. The author uses the words “better” or “superior” some 15 times. His point is that the readers would be foolish to leave their Christian faith for their former Jewish faith, because Jesus and the salvation he brought is simply better than anything in the admittedly God-given faith of Israel. Of course, everyone knows that it is politically incorrect today to claim that any religion is better than another. The preacher who chooses this text will need skill and courage. Let me see if I can help.
In the reading for today, the author begins another major point in his superiority argument by claiming that Jesus is a better high priest than anything the Aaronic priesthood could offer. He has broached that subject in Hebrews 4:15, when he said that Jesus is the great sympathetic high priest. Knowing his audience well, he could easily imagine them saying, “That can’t be. Jesus is not from the tribe of Levi. He was not descended from Aaron. Only such men can be high priests! Jesus isn’t qualified.” So, before he can proceed any further, our author spends these 10 verses showcasing Jesus qualifications for the job.
If this seems an irrelevant discussion for our day, consider the Presidential campaign going on in the U.S. Yes, we are nearly 2 years away from Election Day, but already the campaign has begun. There are perhaps 20 Republican candidates, some declared, others only distant possibilities, while the Democrats have maybe 3, though that may well grow. One of the main questions being debated has to do with qualifications. (Oh yes, there’s also that whole matter of competing visions for America, which has its parallel in the competing visions of salvation in Hebrews. I’ll say more about that later.) But the question about qualifications is central in this election. The most grandiose plan is meaningless if the candidate isn’t qualified to make the plan happen. That raises the huge question, what exactly are the qualifications for the office of President?
That’s the question raised in verses 1-4 of our text about the office of high priest. Verses 5-10 then show how Jesus is qualified. The job of high priest was, in the words of verse 1, “to represent them (God’s people) in matters related to God.” To do that job, a high priest had to be (1) “selected from among men” and (2) “appointed” by God to (3) “offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.” The author lays out his case with what feels like painstaking slowness, but he must establish beyond question that Jesus really is a great high priest, or the whole plan of salvation comes to nothing.
If the high priest weren’t genuinely human, he couldn’t represent humans before God. If he weren’t subject to all the weaknesses of the human condition, he couldn’t deal gently with those who are ignorant and going astray. Indeed, the high priests of the Aaronic line were so subject to weakness that they had to offer a sacrifice for their own sins before they could offer sacrifices for the sins of the people. (Heb. 7:27 will point out that this was not the case for Jesus, because he was sinless.)
Second, if the high priest weren’t appointed by God, he couldn’t come into the presence of God on behalf of the people. In ancient Israel, no one would dare to waltz into the presence of a holy God who is a consuming fire (think of Uzzah who inadvertently touched the ark in I Chronicles 13 and was struck down on the spot). Only those whom God had called and ordained were allowed to enter the Holy of Holies to make atonement for the sins of the people. “No one takes this honor upon himself; he must be called by God, just as Aaron was.” That was true in theory, in theology, but for the last few centuries BCE many high priests had been appointed by other humans, ranging from corrupt civil officials to members of the family. But a legitimate high priest had to be God sent in every way.
Third, the high priest must offer sacrifices to God for the sins of the people, a subject on which Hebrews spills a lot of ink. (Our author has a startlingly new vision of the salvation obtained by the once for all sacrifice presented by Jesus. Rather than being temporal and earthly, the salvation brought by Jesus is eternal and spiritual.) But, of course, the high priest can’t offer that atoning sacrifice at all if he isn’t fully qualified to be a high priest.
That brings our author to Jesus’ qualifications for this highest office. He will prove that Jesus is qualified because he is a high priest after the order of Melchizedek and because he learned obedience through suffering, two seemingly contradictory ideas that hint at the reality of the Incarnation. First, he begins by pointing out that “Christ did not take upon himself the glory of becoming a high priest. But God said to him, ‘You are my Son; today I have become your Father.’ And he says in another place, ‘You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.’” Reaching back into the Old Testament, the author finds two texts that all Jews and Christians knew were prophecies of the Messiah, and he claims that both of them were talking about Jesus.
We’ve already heard Hebrews’ claim that Jesus was the Son of God (very clearly in Hebrews 1:1-4 and suggested in 2:17), but this is the first time we hear about “the order of Melchizedek.” This is crucial to the argument, because, of course, Jesus was not from the line of Aaron. Jesus was from a higher line, says Hebrews, the line or the order of Melchizedek, which made him a superior high priest. The name Melchizedek won’t mean much to most modern Christians, since he only appears a few times in the Old Testament. But in order to preach Christ faithfully and passionately from this text, it will pay to take a little time to flesh him out.
Melchizedek first appears early in Genesis (14), long before the Aaronic priesthood began. In fact, he appeared long before Israel came into being, when Israel was no more than a promise to a childless Abraham. Melchizedek was the king of Jerusalem and priest of the Most High God, to whom Father Abraham bowed down and presented tithes. So clearly Melchizedek was superior to Abraham. We know nothing else about him—not his birth, not his death. Indeed, he seems almost eternal (cf. 7:3), which is part of the point in calling Jesus a high priest after the order of Melchizedek. Jesus isn’t an ordinary human high priest like those born into Aaron’s line; he is the eternal High Priest who is also the king of Jerusalem. Indeed, his name means king of righteousness and king of peace (Heb. 7:2).
Having made that glorious claim, Hebrews turns to a seemingly contradictory claim about Jesus. He was genuinely human. “In the days of his life on earth (literally, of his sarx), he offered up prayers and petitions to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.” We often read in the Gospels about Jesus habit of spending much time in prayer, but our text is probably a reference to the unique time of Lent and the agonized prayers of Gethsemane and Golgotha. Though he knew what was coming (had, in fact, known it from eternity), he cried out for salvation as the horror of God-forsakenness loomed in the darkness. Like all human beings, Jesus knew what it meant to cry out to God in fear and anguish as he faced (eternal) death. Thus, he was fully qualified to be our high priest, able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and going astray.
But he didn’t go astray and become disobedient. “Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation (a new vision of salvation, much more glorious than the Jewish hope) for all who obey him….” This, of course, is another way of repeating Heb. 4:15, “yet was without sin.” But here the author takes that thought much deeper, into the depths of the mystery of Incarnation.
Verse 8 raises all kinds of theological issues (which I’ll say more about below), but the point of them all is stated clearly in verse 9 in that word, “made perfect.” The Greek word there is teleioo, which has the sense of finished or completed. That word doesn’t mean that Jesus became morally perfect. He already was, as the Son of God. It means that he finished his race (cf. Hebrews 12:1,2), completed his mission of becoming a perfect human being, thus reversing the course of Adam’s life. (This is the kind of verse that led Iranaeus to his recapitulation theory of the atonement.)
Adam had been perfect but fell into imperfection. In order to fully represent Adam’s fallen race, the Son of God had to become a perfect man. He couldn’t do that until he had lived in the flesh, faced the rigors of temptation, endured the sufferings that come with sin, and remained perfectly obedient through his entire life. Then, because he was completely and perfectly human, he could genuinely stand in our place and represent us to God, with no need to offer a sacrifice for his own sins. So, concludes the writer, God designated him to be a high priest in the order of Melchizedek, perfectly qualified to be the high priest all of us need (a thought the author fleshes out in Hebrews 7:24-28).
This text fairly bristles with theological issues. The words of verse 5 about God declaring Jesus to be his Son and becoming his Father raise all kinds of questions about the divinity of Christ. It would be easy to read those words in an adoptionistic way, if one forgets the opening words of this letter which can’t be read that way. A careful reading reveals that “become” is the word “begotten,” as in “begotten not made.” Most commentators take the declaration of Jesus Sonship to be a reference to Jesus’ baptism (cf. Matthew 3:17) or his resurrection (cf. Romans 1:4) or even his ascension/coronation (cf. Phil. 2:9-11) when he was publicly acknowledged as the Son whom the Father had begotten from all eternity.
What we have here is something like the kenotic theology of Philippians 2. How much did the Son of God empty himself and become human? Well, he had to learn obedience. That doesn’t mean that he had to unlearn disobedience by suffering for it, the way a child learns to be obedient by being punished for disobedience. He was perfectly obedient from all eternity, but he hadn’t ever suffered for his obedience. For that to happen, he had to become fully human, live among sinful humans in a fallen world, and suffer the consequences of being obedient in that kind of world. The ultimate test of obedience comes when my obedience will cost me dearly, when I suffer for doing right. The cross was the consequence and the epitome of his obedience. As eternal God he knew perfect obedience within the perichoresis of the Trinity. As incarnate God, he had to learn obedience experientially by being faced with temptation and resisting it to the point of pain, and then suffering precisely because his obedience was such an affront to wicked humans. Only by learning obedience that way could he fully represent us.
The Greek of this epistle is the most elevated Greek of the entire New Testament, so it’s not surprising to find the author using literary devices to make his point. For example, he has a nice play on words as he talks about Jesus learning obedience by suffering. “Learned” is emathen and “suffered” is epathen, a bit like “no pain, no gain.” We might wonder why the author says that we must “obey” Christ in verse 9, rather than “trust.” It’s probably because he has just made such a point of obedience in verse 8. Our salvation is achieved through his obedience and it is received through ours. No “easy believe-ism” here. And speaking of salvation, it is fascinating that the Christ who cried out to the one who could save (sodzein) him from death became the source of eternal salvation (soteria). The God who could save Jesus did as not save him from death, precisely so that we could be saved by his death.
In The Chosen, Chaim Potok’s masterful portrait of Hasidic Jews, the Reb, the revered leader of the community, is kind to everyone except his son, a wonderfully gifted young man beloved by all. In fact, the Reb won’t speak to his son at all. His silence persists for years and causes the young man untold agony. Finally, the Reb explains his silence. He could see how gifted his son was and this father knew that someday his boy would become a great leader in the community. But the Reb was afraid that his son’s giftedness might make him haughty and hard. So, he said, “I was silent so that you would suffer and would be able to be sympathetic with the suffering of your people.” Thus, he would be able to deal gently with the ignorant and straying, just like Jesus.
Speaking of learning obedience through suffering, I think of the two grandchildren I see the most. Owen and Emmit are 7 and 4 respectively and have the usual sibling rivalry. It is easy for Owen to do what his Dad says if it is something he wants to do because it’s fun. “Owen, get in the truck. We’re going to the swimming pool.” No problem. Owen is in the truck way before Dad is. Who wouldn’t obey a command that leads to pleasure? But if Dad says, “Owen, share your Ninjago figures with Emmit,” that’s another matter, because parting with his beloved Ninjagos is painful. What if Emmit won’t give them back? What if he loses one? What if he breaks one? It’s when obedience might cause pain that it gets difficult. That’s when obedience is really obedience, not just self-service. When we obey in spite of the pain, we mature into complete (teleios) human beings who live not just for ourselves, but for others. Even if it means death, as it did for Jesus.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 22, 2015
Hebrews 5:1-10 Commentary