The master preacher scholar Fred Craddock once called the books of Hebrews and Revelation, “the literature most intimidating to readers of the New Testament.” After all, Hebrews’ Preacher packs his letter with tightly woven arguments that assume familiarity with Israel’s wilderness life.
As Craddock also notes, however, even Hebrews’ writer seems to sense that his book is difficult to understand. After all, after ending this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson with a reference to Melchizedek, he quickly adds, “it is hard to explain” (11).
The book of Hebrews’ central theme is that Jesus Christ’s saving work is that of a priest. Yet that theme may sound strange to even biblically sensitive ears. After all, Jesus was from the tribe of Judah, not Levi. Nor did Jesus serve at the altar or perform any sacred rites in the temple like Israel’s high priests did.
It’s helpful, then, for Hebrews’ proclaimers to note that a high priest was basically an intermediary between God and God’s people. People chose the high priest to act on behalf of them by offering God gifts and sacrifices for their sins. The high priest, however, also represented God to God’s people through his words and actions. God, in fact, often spoke to God’s people directly through God’s chosen high priest.
Of course, our 21st century culture sometimes talks and listens to God as casually as it might to a next door neighbor. So it’s hard for at least some of our contemporaries to think of needing an intermediary to speak for God to us or to God for us. God’s Old Testament people, however, at their best, understood that the almost infinite gap between our holy, awesome God and sinful creatures like us created the need for such a go-between.
As one scholar notes, we’re aware of the chasm between some famous people and us. After all, we’d think twice about just sauntering up to people like President Biden, Sidney Crosby, or Beyonce. In fact, we realize we’d need a go-between who could put in a good word for us with them.
Yet in our most honest moments, Christians recognize that a far greater gap lies between the Lord who both made and cares for everything that God created and us. Whether we walk through a magnificent old-growth forest or peer through a microscope, we sense how puny we are.
Of course, we naturally like to think of ourselves as important. After all, God created us in God’s image. Many of us come to church once if not twice most weeks. Jesus’ friends support the church’s work. We also try to live good and honest lives.
Yet when God’s adopted sons and daughters are honest with ourselves and each other, we have to admit that we’ve stubbornly disobeyed God’s will for us. While God is holy, we’re sometimes thoroughly unholy. While God is righteous, even God’s beloved people have been unrighteous.
On top of that, while we occupy just a tiny corner of God’s creation, not even our relatively tiny planet can contain the Lord. So when we think of the immense gap between God and us, we sense that we need someone who will “put in a good word” for us with the Lord.
So is Jesus that “high priest”? Verse 5 insists that he “did not take upon himself” that glory. This was an important assertion because Israelites didn’t just volunteer be a priest, like we might volunteer to be a chaperone for our child’s field trip. Someone had to choose people to be priests.
Yet there was more to being a high priest than just being chosen by God. He also had to be one of God’s adopted sons. After all, high priests had to, as verse 2 notes, “deal gently with those who are ignorant and going astray, because they were also “subject to weakness.” High priests could relate to peoples’ sins and limitations because they wrestled with their own sinfulness and limitedness.
While Hebrews answers that Jesus qualifies as a human high priest, as Craddock notes, it’s not an “easy ‘yes’.” In verse 5, after all, Hebrews’ author affirms the rest of the New Testament’s message that Jesus was God. Yet Hebrews’ author seems to sense that those who like to sing that the baby Jesus made “no crying” struggle with the idea of Jesus’ humanity.
In fact, in chapter 2 he especially stresses the theme of Jesus’ humanity. In verse 14 Hebrews’ author says Jesus “shared our humanity.” What’s more, according to verse 17, Jesus was “made like his brothers [and sisters] in every way.”
So he isn’t just able to help his adopted siblings because he was just like us, except that he was perfect. The ascended Christ also understands our “weakness.” So Jesus can relate to and help with whatever Hebrews 5’s proclaimers and hearers are enduring.
After all, in verses 7 and following of our text we read that Jesus himself “offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death.” It’s as if he begged God to let him out of his obligation to suffer so horribly.
Yet Jesus also completely submitted to God’s will for him. He did this not only in Gethsemane, to which verse 7 seems to refer, but also throughout his whole life. Of course, as God’s perfect Son, Jesus didn’t deserve to suffer. Yet he willingly went to the cross where he allowed people to unjustly crucify him.
Jesus even somehow learned obedience in a way that God’s adopted children struggle to understand about someone who was already perfectly obedient. By doing so, Hebrews’ author adds, Jesus became the source of our eternal salvation.
So this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers might compare, as Will Willimon invites us to, what Jesus sacrificed with the little sacrifices his adopted siblings make to try to make ourselves right with God. We aim to obey most of the commandments. Jesus, however, resisted Satan’s relentless temptation by perfectly obeying all of God’s commandments.
God’s dearly beloved people give up something of ourselves to do things like support the work of the church and care for people who are materially poor. Jesus, however, gave up all of heaven’s glory to enter our sin-scarred creation as a poor baby to live, die and rise again for our salvation.
If things are going to be right between God and us, Someone Else is going to have to do all the work. Quite simply, Jesus’ friends need God to fix what’s wrong between God and us. Thankfully, then, we don’t have to work and sacrifice to make things right with God. In fact, God’s dearly beloved people can’t make things right with God because Jesus already did that for us. He paid the full price for our reconciliation with God and, as a result, each other.
As Willimon notes, most priests have so much work to do that we never finish making our sacrifices. Christians run back and forth from one worship service to the next, and from one act of mercy to the next. Religious priests stay busy running up to the pulpit lectern, back to our studies and out to our congregations.
Yet Hebrews 10:12 says that when Jesus the high priest offered himself as a one-time sacrifice for our sins, “he sat down,” much like his adopted siblings might sit down after making a meal. Yet once Jesus somehow sat at his Father’s right hand, Christians in a sense got up to joyfully respond to Christ’s finished work with our work on behalf of those about whom God deeply cares.
When Christ sits down, his adopted brothers and sisters stand up to share our faith and go to work with and for vulnerable members of society. When Christ sits down, Christians stand up to care for God’s creation and support the work of our missionaries.
Of course, that work can sometimes be exhausting. Some of Hebrews 5’s proclaimers and hearers will come to worship or class worn out from trying to make sacrifices last week. We’ve given up much to raise children, keep our finances healthy and protect ourselves from the current pandemic. We’re tired.
So those who proclaim and hear Hebrews 5 remember its Preacher’s urging of his first readers to remember that Jesus too went through all of that. He’s able to relate to us because people and things both tired and tempted him too. Jesus, however, perfectly finished that work so that Christians’ work is now merely part of our joyful response.
In one of the Lord’s Supper forms some Reformed Christians say, “We offer this sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.” That effectively summarizes all Christians now really have left to do. Once we’ve received God’s grace with our faith, we only need to offer God our praise and thanksgiving. Because of what Jesus finished for us, the only sacrifices God’s dearly beloved people offer to God are praise and thanksgiving through the way we worship and the way we live.
In an April, 2001 article in the New York Times Magazine entitled, “HOW TO; Get In to See the President,” Richard L. Berke wrote, “It may be easier to get an audience with the pope, or even Madonna, than to get squeezed onto the calendar of the president of the United States. ‘There are 270 million Americans,’ says Andrew Card, President Bush’s chief of staff and No. 1 gatekeeper, ‘and if all of them want five minutes of his time, I think that works out to 1,183 years.’
“About 100 written requests pour into the White House each day. Some people simply seek the thrill of meeting the president. Others want favors or support for their pet issues. There is not a lobbyist in the world who does not covet a photograph of him or herself with the president.”
Hebrews 5’s proclaimers might contrast the restricted access people have to the American president (or Canadian – or any other prime minister) to the unlimited access to himself that God graciously gives God’s adopted children.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 17, 2021
Hebrews 5:1-10 Commentary