Comments and Observations
In the verse right after our reading, the author admits that what he has just written is “hard to explain.” That is an understatement. It is particularly hard to explain today’s lectionary reading to a 21st century church that isn’t one bit interested in closely reasoned arguments about a “high priest in the order of Melchizedek.” The author of Hebrews thought it was very important to go into this much detail about the high priesthood of Jesus, because, of course, he was writing to second generation Jewish Christians who were being tempted to return to Judaism by, among other things, the attractiveness of the Aaronic priesthood with all its rituals. Hebrews very carefully explains how Jesus is better than anything Judaism had to offer. Unencumbered by the postmodern toleration that is embarrassed by claims of religious superiority, our author says again and again (up to 15 times) that Jesus is better. Here he argues that our “great high priest, who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God (4:14)” is superior to the high priests who serve in the earthly sanctuary.
I can think of two ways to help our listeners care about this passage. The first does not address the political incorrectness of this superiority argument, but it does address the imagination of our 21st century congregations. Let’s paint a verbal picture of the high priest, so our listeners can see in their mind’s eye what these first readers could see with their physical eyes. Lev. 8:7-9 describes the clothing that Moses put on Aaron at his ordination to the priesthood. “He put a tunic on Aaron, tied the sash around him, clothed him with the robe and put the ephod on him. He also tied the ephod to him by its skillfully woven waistband…. He placed the breastpiece on him and put the Urim and Thummim in the breastpiece. Then he placed the turban on Aaron’s head and set the gold plate, the sacred diadem, on the front of it, as the Lord commanded Moses.”
Those last words refer back to that time at Sinai when God gave specific instructions about this clothing. Here’s just one detail, about the breastpiece. “Make it like the ephod: of gold and of blue, purple, and scarlet yarn, and of finely twisted linen….. Then mount four rows of precious stones on it. In the first row there shall be a ruby, a turquoise, a sapphire and an emerald….” (Exodus 28:15ff) In other words, the Aaronic high priest was a sight to behold, elaborately and expensively clothed, as opposed to the invisible Christ who had passed “through the heavens.” Such vivid descriptions might help our modern congregations understand the lure of that old faith and the consequent passion of our writer to prove that Jesus is better.
The second way to help today’s church get into this text is to demonstrate that, even in this postmodern age, we are always concerned about what is better. We want to know which laundry detergent, which car, which stock broker, which college is better. A thoroughgoing postmodernist might point out that we are talking about which college is better for you—not objectively better, just subjectively better. But it’s not that simple. It’s not only a matter of how I feel; there are also facts to consider, like student/professor ratio, scholarships given, majors offered, and money earned by a degree from that college.
Or think about the presidential campaign. People are downright passionate about which candidate is better, the best. So we carefully scrutinize the Clinton email controversy. Does that indicate anything about her honesty? And we tune in to hear Donald Trump. Does his fiery rhetoric tell us anything about his self-control? Such questions about who is better are very important. If we make the wrong choice, the results could be catastrophic, even apocalyptic for America. So we talk endlessly about who has better credentials, who is more qualified, not just for us, but for the country and the world.
That is the concern of our author. Who is the better high priest, not just according to our tastes, but according to God’s plan of salvation for Jews and Gentiles all over the world and for all time? So in our text for this Sunday, our writer spells out the qualifications laid out by God for this exalted office. He begins in verses 1-4 with the Aaronic high priest; he must be thoroughly human so that he can sympathize with the sinful people and he must be called by God to this position.
Then our writer applies those credentials in reverse order to Christ. So first of all, Christ the high priest has been called by God. He “did not take upon himself the glory of becoming a high priest.” Two passages well known to these Jewish Christians are elicited as proof that Jesus is a God ordained high priest. Psalm 2 establishes that Jesus was more than a human being. Though in the next verses the writer will take great pains to establish that Jesus was fully human, by quoting Psalm 2 first our writer is establishing that Jesus was God’s own Son.
The wording of Psalm 2 has caused no little controversy. Some scholars read them as a proof text for an adoptionistic Christology. But the word “become” in the NIV can also ( and probably should) be read as “begotten,” fitting in with classic Athanasian Christology. However latter day scholars might read the text, the original intention was to show these second generation Jewish Christians that their Jesus was fully qualified to be the better high priest they needed. He was, after all, called by God to the position, and even called “Son” by God himself.
But that raised a big question in their minds, because they all knew that every high priest had to come from the line of Aaron. That was not only tradition; it was the God given line of succession. And everyone knew that Jesus did not come from that line. So how could he be a better high priest? Well, argues our writer, Jesus actually came from another priestly line, a prior line, a better line, the line of Melchizedek. He creatively applies Psalm 110 to Jesus; “You are high priest forever in the line of Melchizedek.”
Modern readers will be mystified by this reference, so we will have to spend some time with it, going all the way back to the first occurrence of that name in Genesis 14. As our writer will show in some detail in Hebrews 7, Melchizedek had no apparent birth or death; thus, he was a priest forever. Indeed, he was both priest and king. And when Abraham, the father of all Israel, bowed down to Melchizedek and even gave him tithes, it was as though all Israel, including the Aaronic priesthood, had acknowledged the superiority of Melchizedek. The conclusion of this complex argument is that Jesus is not only a high priest appointed by God, but that he is a far better high priest than any Aaronic high priest. “So why would you think of going back to an inferior priest?!”
But our author isn’t done yet, not by a long shot. A high priest also had to be able to sympathize with the people, because he had to be able “to represent them in matters related to God….” (verse 2) A good high priest “is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness.” But how on earth could that be true of Jesus, if he is, indeed, the Son of God? Here the high Christology of Hebrews seems to be an obstacle in this complex teaching about the high priesthood of Jesus. If he isn’t fully human, one of us in every way, then he cannot represent us in matters related to God. If he is so high and lifted up, he is of no use to us.
Hebrews speaks to that very real problem, using language so daring that it challenges our understanding of the Incarnation. If Jesus was indeed fully God, how could he “learn obedience” and be “made perfect?” Presumably God’s will was his own will since he was God’s Son. So how could he obey it? Verse 7 solves this theological problem by pointing not to his eternal divinity, but to his historical incarnation. “During the days of Jesus life on earth” is literally “in the days of his flesh (the word is sarkos in Greek)….” Echoing that great kenosis hymn in Philippians 2, Hebrews claims that something radical happened when “the Word was made flesh.” God in the flesh did not cease to be God, but became fully human. As such, Jesus suffered all that we humans suffer.
A careful probing of these controversial words in verses 7-8 should be very fruitful in helping our 21st century audience see how Jesus is a better Savior. These difficult words speak to the question, “What kind of high priest do you want?” I want one who understands from experience what it’s like to be me. So often in our deepest suffering, we look up to the God is supposedly in charge of this mess and ask, Why? What kind of God lets children suffer? The Gospel according to Hebrews answers: “the God who became one of us so fully that he knows what it’s like to cry out to God ‘with loud cries and fears….’” Some say this refers specifically to the Gethsemane experience, but there is no textual indication that it is limited to that. If Jesus is really like me, then he spent many a night crying out in fear. The God in charge of this world has experienced your life on the deepest level, deeper than a merely human priest ever could.
Some of the phrases that follow in verses 7-8 are “hard to explain.” Jesus prayed “to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.” But, didn’t Jesus die? Yes, but death could not hold him (Acts 2:24). So his apparently unanswered prayer was, in fact, answered in a more glorious way. This speaks to our “unanswered prayers.”
Again, though he was a/the Son, he “learned obedience from what he suffered….” But wasn’t God’s own Son always obedient from all eternity. Yes, but in the days of his flesh, as a flesh and blood human being faced with temptation and troubles, he learned to be obedient even when it caused suffering. This speaks to our moral struggles. Jesus gets what it’s like to be us in a morally corrupt world.
And once again, our text says that God in the flesh was “once made perfect….” But wasn’t he already perfect. Of course, but this isn’t talking about moral perfection. It is talking about perfectly fulfilling his role as high priest, perfectly completing the task of representing us in matters relating to God. He couldn’t do that until and unless he obeyed and suffered and died. Because he did all that perfectly, he was qualified to “become the source of eternal salvation….”
Note again the superiority of Jesus’ priesthood. The Aaronic priests could offer only temporary salvation; all the sacrifices and rituals had to be repeated again and again. As our writer will say over and over, Jesus did his work once and for all, thus providing a completed salvation that lasts forever. Hebrews speaks also of eternal redemption (9:12), eternal inheritance (9:15), and eternal covenant (13:20). As F.F. Bruce put it, the salvation won by this High Priest is eternal “because it is based upon the once for all, accomplished, never to be repeated, and permanently valid sacrifice of Christ,” the great High Priest after the order of Melchizedek. In a world filled with solutions that work only for a while, with answers that go out of date when the questions change, with a confusing parade of the latest and best way to problems of the human race, this difficult passage points to something better than all that.
After all the indicatives of this complicated text, there is one implied imperative. Writing to folks who were thinking of leaving the Christian faith, our writer says that Jesus is the source of eternal salvation “for all who obey him….” That doesn’t mean that we are saved by our works. After all this talk about the work of Christ, our writer would be horrified if we came to that conclusion. “Jesus paid it all; all to him we owe.” What we owe him is a steady faith, a faith that hangs in there when we are tempted to leave, a faith that works itself out in a life of obedience. Saving faith is not just a head full of complicated doctrine; it is feet faithfully following the One who “in the days of his flesh” prayed, and cried, and feared, and submitted, and suffered, and obeyed unto death, even death on the cross.
Tracing our lineage can be a parlor game (we call it “Dutch bingo” in my tradition), an engrossing hobby (think of all the on-line sites that help fill out your family tree), or a matter of life and death (think of all the bloodshed in the battle between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in the Middle East). Many of our congregants don’t know that the major point of contention between Sunnis and Shiites is simply a question of succession. Who is the rightful leader of the Muslim people? Sunnis say that Abu Bakr, the adviser of the prophet Muhammad, was the rightful successor or caliph. Shiites favor Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and son in law. Ali and his successors are called imams, who not only lead the Shiites but also are considered descendants of Muhammad. Which line is the legitimate one? The world has suffered much over that question. Such things make all the difference in the world and in heaven. That is the claim of Hebrews for that High Priest in the line of Melchizedek, who was called “The King of Peace.” (Hebrews 7:2)
From an on-line site comes this lovely quote from the Taize community. “The gospel does not give us an abstract theory as to why we suffer or why God does not intervene. Rather, the Gospel shows us the life of a human person. Fully human, but also fully Son of God. Fully obedient to God and in total solidarity with humanity. Thus, as the author of Hebrews says, ‘Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.’” (Hebrews 12:2)
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 18, 2015
Hebrews 5:1-10 Commentary