It should count as a bit of an irony that just beyond the end of the assigned lection in Hebrews 5 we find the writer giving his readers a bit of a rebuke. “You probably don’t understand what I just wrote,” verse 11 essentially begins, “and that’s too bad because by now you should be mature enough to get it. But you don’t. I still have to feed you infant formula instead of a nice juicy Gospel steak!”
Ouch! That’s a bit of a zinger there, and it must have stung. But I say it is ironic because truth be told, what we read in Hebrews 5:5-10 is actually . . . a little difficult! Two thousand years later and there are still some things here to make even us trained pastors scratch our heads a bit.
Here is a brief list of the possible difficulties:
— Is the writer suggesting that the person we know as Jesus became a Son at some point in a way he had not been before? Wasn’t that kind of what Arius thought? Isn’t this the Adoptionist school of Christology? And weren’t both rejected by the church long ago?
— How exactly did the Son “learn obedience” and at some point “become perfect?” Doesn’t this also mess with classic Christology on the divinity of Jesus? Weren’t the Councils of Nicea and Chalcedon all over these questions?
— Aren’t we saved by grace? So why does this writer say that you get saved by being obedient?
— Where in the Gospels is there any hint that Jesus becomes a latter-day Melchizedek figure? And secondarily, given the murky nature of Melchizedek to begin with, does it really help clarify the identity of Jesus by making this comparison?
Speaking for myself, I like to think I can handle the solid food of the Gospel but . . . this passage maybe puts me back in the infant formula category after all!
Of course, Scripture interprets Scripture. This is a key element of all biblical hermeneutics. So we will not be wrong to view Hebrews 5 through a theological lens that has been created by lots of other biblical material from elsewhere in the New Testament and even in how the Church along the ages has interpreted all such matters. So for the sake of argument let’s assume that the other parts of the New Testament that clearly testify to the divinity of Jesus as the eternal Son of God are correct. Let’s stipulate that as a divine being, Jesus was perfect and though he could be tempted in his human nature, any obedience he learned was also tied in with that part of his unified person. And let’s believe that we are saved by grace but—as the Apostle James pointed out—that gracious salvation inevitably issues in a lot of obedient living to the glory of God.
Setting aside, then, any idea that these six verses vitiate the Church’s longstanding orthodox views on the person of the Messiah and his being fully divine and fully human, what can we glean from these verses as we near the end of the Lenten Season? Well, it seems that the primary thrust of this passage says at least two pretty important things: first, salvation was difficult to achieve even for God and second, a major part of that difficulty was that it inevitably involved a whole lot of suffering (again, even for the Son of God).
First, then: salvation was hard to achieve. As Neal Plantinga has often observed, biblically speaking you’d have to conclude that God’s original act of creation was a lot easier to pull off than the salvation of all that once things went south in this creation. In the beginning God spoke and, POOF, it was. Snap, snap, snap, it all came together. “Let there be . . .” God said over and over, and it was. Just like that. But not with redemption. No, God’s plan to salvage this creation took longer, involved far more people and far more steps. And before it was all finished it took the Son of God’s screaming into a cosmic void of dereliction before things turned around.
Creation got spoken into being. Salvation got shrieked into being.
Why is that? Perhaps a myriad of things could be suggested but maybe just one idea will suffice for this sermon commentary: Once God made a universe of creatures with free will, he bound himself to all that and to all the complexities that would be attendant on dealing with such beings. God wanted to maintain the original integrity of all that he made and so he could not just look at the wreckage of a fallen world and decide to lay down a whole new layer of brand new blacktop to start over. You could not just pave over the wreckage. The pieces had to come back together in ways that would still honor the original intention for the whole thing. And that’s hard. Whatever else sin and evil may be, never underestimate how perilous they are, how difficult it is to extract life back out of a creation that keeps choosing death.
Second, that is why that same project of redemption involves so much suffering. Because suffering is what we wrought in our sinfulness. We alienated ourselves from our only Source of true life, from the One whose dearest desire was a cosmos of shalom and of delight and of flourishing. Having cut ourselves off from all that, the result was only misery, death, decay, entropy.
And the kicker of it all is that somehow things were not going to be made right again without the problem getting resolved from the inside out. Waving a magic wand was not going to work. Forcing one’s way into this mess from the outside was going to be oddly ineffective in the long run. The suffering that afflicts this world had to be met head on and on its own terms. It had to be absorbed by the One being who would not be consumed by it. History’s endless cycle of retaliation and vengeance had to be snapped and it could only be snapped by Someone’s absorbing all of that evil and having the enormous strength to NOT hit back and so perpetuate the sick cycle. More than that, the One who effected this salvation needed to show all the other creatures that he was not above it all, that his was a very knowing, empathetic salvation. The things that vex us, wound us, disintegrate us, and finally kill us are not unknown commodities to God now. He’s been there. Right in the middle of it all.
Salvation is finally not some other-worldly fantasy. It’s not pie in the sky by and by or some misplaced sense of optimism. No, it emerges smack from the midst of the painful realities we all know only too well. He is now the King of Righteousness—the meaning of “Melchizedek”—but only because he passed through all that suffering. No righteousness without suffering first. It is a surprising message that even God had to do it this way but tenderly comforting too.
So preach on this text for Lent. Preach it to the hurting people in your congregation who can only but be encouraged to be reminded yet again what a compassionate, empathetic Savior Jesus is. “Been there, done that” has become a quick and easy—almost flippant—way to try to express some sense of solidarity or empathy with others. But when that gets applied to no less than the Son of God—who has passed through every human travail and then some—then “Been there, done that” is magnified beyond measure to mind-numbing dimensions of divine love and care. We are never alone in our pain. Tell people that. We know we are never alone because in Lent we follow Jesus clear to that horrid cross. We see him learning that obedience of which Hebrews 5 speaks. We see him gaining for us a perfection in also his human nature that has forever eluded our grasp.
This is a hard, meaty text. It ain’t baby milk! And yet it contains something pastorally sublime and profoundly comforting. Salvation will redeem us from our suffering because first it has passed clean through all that suffering. Preach that and there won’t be an honest soul in the congregation who would not affirm how very, very badly they needed to hear exactly this message.
[Note: We have additional Lenten Resources, worship ideas, and Sample Sermons on our Year B Lent and Easter page.]
Pastor Roger VanHarn told a story in one of his books, a story that tells two truths: God refuses to brush aside our suffering and by entering into it, he saved us in a most compelling and loving way.
It seems that one December afternoon just before Christmas vacation was to begin a group of parents stood in the lobby of a preschool, waiting to claim their children. When the bell rang, the youngsters ran from the classroom, each child carrying in his or her hands a special “surprise”–a brightly wrapped package containing a project that each child had diligently been working on for weeks to give Mom and Dad for Christmas. One little boy was trying to run, put on his coat, and wave all at the same time. He slipped and fell, the “surprise” flying out of his hands and landing on the tile floor with an obvious ceramic crash. There was a moment of stunned silence which was immediately followed by the little one’s inconsolable wail of tears. The boy’s father immediately tried to be strong so as to comfort the little guy, kneeling down and saying, “It’s OK, son. It really doesn’t matter. It’s OK. It doesn’t matter.” But the boy’s mother was wiser about such things. She swept the little boy into her arms and said, “Oh, but it does matter. It matters a very, very great deal!” And she wept with her son.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 18, 2018
Hebrews 5:1-10 Commentary