Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 17, 2024

Hebrews 5:5-10 Commentary

When Jesus’ friends think about his status and work, several things may quickly come to mind. Some Christians readily think of him as the Son of God, Savior and Lord. God’s dearly beloved people may also quickly think of Jesus as a healer, prophet, miracle worker and even a kind of Jewish religious iconoclast.

This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson invites God’s dearly beloved people to consider another role of Jesus about which we may not as quickly think: high priest [archiereus]* (10). Hebrews’ author, after all, brackets this text with references to that role and work.

While the RCL appoints only verses 5-10 for this Sunday, preachers would be wise to also read at least verses 1-4. We, frankly, should, what’s more, consider beginning our Scripture reading with Hebrews 4:14. That expanded reading, after all, doesn’t just provide the context for this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. They also introduce some of this text’s most important themes.

In chapter 5:1-10 Hebrews’ author essentially contrasts the tasks and work of Israel’s high priests with those of Jesus our High Priest. The author carefully points out how while those tasks parallel each other, Jesus performs them far better. The results of his better high priestly work are, what’s more, more consequential than those of his predecessors.

Israel’s high priests were, according to verse 1, “selected from among men and [are] appointed to represent them in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.” In verses 5-6 Hebrews’ author tells us that “Christ also did not take upon himself [ouch heauton] the glory [edoxasen] of becoming a high priest. But God said to him, ‘You are my son [Huois mou]; today I have become your Father [gegenneka se].’ And he says in another place, ‘You are a priest forever [hiereus eis ton aiona] in the order [taxin] of Melchizedek’.”

Verse 5b contains thick theology that preachers will have to let the Spirit help weigh how much of it to explore with our hearers. What’s more, the “order of Melchizedek” (7b) requires a great deal of explanation. Since verses 5a and 6 speak more closely to the issue of Jesus’ high priestly work, preachers may choose to admit that verse 5b is difficult and that verse 7b is quite obscure, and then basically move past them.

After all, one of Hebrews’ author’s main point is that Christ didn’t volunteer to take on the glory of becoming a high priest any more than Israel’s high priests did. He didn’t, as The Message paraphrases verses 5a and 6, “presume to set himself up as high priest.” Christ isn’t like the student in the front row who’s always volunteering him or herself for leadership positions.

Within the mysterious Trinitarian economy, God the Father appointed God the Son to serve as our high priest. God the Father commissioned God’s “Son” for the work of serving as God’s people’s high priest. So Christ is like the student who doesn’t volunteer for a leadership position, but since he’s so qualified to do the work, the teacher appoints him to lead.

In verse 2a Hebrews’ author admits that a high priest is, what’s more “able to deal gently [metriopathein] with those who are ignorant [agnoousin] and going astray [planomenois].” He is able to do this, verse 2b continues, because “he himself is subject to weakness [periketai astheneian].” An Israelite high priest, in fact, had “to offer sacrifices [prospherein] for his own sins [hautou … hemartion], as well as for the sins of the people [laou]” (3).

Hebrews’ author paints a picture of high priests who were empathetic, but also morally flawed. It wasn’t just that the people to whom the high priests ministered were “ignorant” and “going astray.” Those priests also shared the Israelites’ failings.

Christ, by contrast, was “perfect” [teleiothes]” (9).” Any weakness he took on was neither moral nor his natural divine state, but something he volunteered to assume. Any weakness within himself that Christ dealt with was not the result of his sin, but his all-consuming desire to rescue God’s people from our moral weakness.

Hebrews’ author goes on to describe what that rescue looked like. In verse 7 he writes, “During the days of Jesus life [hemerais tes sarkos] on earth, he offered up [prosenenkas] prayers and petitions [deeseis te kai hiketerias] with loud cries and tears [krauges ischyras kai dacryon] to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard …” This draws a picture of a Christ who so deeply loved his people that he literally shouted out to God for us. He also, in The Message’s words, “wept in sorrow” for God’s adopted children.

Yet as preachers move farther into this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson, we encounter some mysterious assertions. It begins already in verse 7b when it asserts that God “heard” [eisakouthes] God’s Son Jesus’s prayers “because of his reverent submission [apo tes eulabeias].” Hebrews essentially insists that God the Father heard Jesus’ prayers because the Son honored God.

Yet the mysterious language just keeps on coming. In fact, few biblical claims are more enigmatic than verses 8’s, “Although he was a Son [kaiper on Huios], he learned obedience [emathen … hypakoen] from what he suffered [aph’ hon epathen].” And perhaps most mysterious of all: Hebrews 9a’s, “Once made perfect [teleiotheis]…” On top of all that, Hebrews 5:9b insists that Jesus became the source of God’s rescue for “all who believe [hypakouousin].”

At this point, preachers have a decision to make. As we listen to the Spirit, we need to decide how carefully to parse out verses 8 and 9’s enigmatic language. We might believe the Spirit is prompting us to choose to focus on the things that the Spirit makes quite clear. Jesus submitted to the Father’s will, though it cost him unspeakably (7b). Though Jesus was and is God’s Son, he suffered immeasurably (8). There is plenty right there for preachers to further explore with our hearers.

What’s more, most of 9b’s assertion is graciously clear. Jesus, Hebrews author reminds us there, “became the source [aitios] of eternal [aioniou] salvation [soterias].” Through Jesus horrific suffering, his friends are rescued, not just now, but forever and ever.

But preachers may also feel the Spirit leading them toward a “deeper dive” into some of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s mysteries. Equipped (most importantly!) by the light-shedding Spirit, as well (secondarily) as a Greek lexicon and perhaps a good commentary or two, preachers might decide to help our hearers think more deeply about at least some of Hebrews 5:5-10’s mysterious claims.

It’s quite clear that Jesus’ obedience is the beating heart of these mysterious assertions. Verse 7 insists that God the Father heard Jesus, God’s Son’s, prayers because of his “submission,” in other words, his obedience. Jesus learned that obedience from what he suffered. Then, once Jesus was made “perfect,” perhaps through that suffering, he became “the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”

Hebrews 5’s preachers want to emphasize that the “perfection” to which Hebrews 5 refers is not moral. After all, Hebrews 4:15 has already asserted that Jesus was “without sin.” The biblical scholar Elisabeth Johnson suggests that Jesus’ perfection was part of his maturation that comes from both experiencing suffering and persevering through it.

Teleiotheis (“perfection”), after all, carries with it an implication of completion or accomplishment. So perhaps Hebrews’ author is saying little more than that once Jesus accomplished what the Father set out for him to do, he became the source of our rescue from sin, Satan and death.

During Lent, Christians follow our adopted Big Brother toward Jerusalem, religious and political courtrooms, Calvary, and, ultimately, to the empty tomb. We follow a suffering Servant who gave everything in order to rescue us for God. So when we suffer for our faith, we know that Jesus has gone there before us. When God raises us from death to life, we know that Jesus has also gone there before us.

*I have here and elsewhere added in brackets the Greek words for the English words the NIV translation uses.


In her book, The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, the author reflects on how the combination of her sickness and her success as an author probably deepened her understanding of how life works. She writes, “I gave up thinking anything could be worked out on its surface. I have found it out, like everybody else, the hard way, and only in the last years as a result of I think two things, sickness and success. One of them alone wouldn’t have done it for me, but the combination was guaranteed.

“I have never been anywhere but sick. In a sense sickness is a place, more instructive than a long trip to Europe, and it’s always a place where there’s no company, where nobody can follow. Sickness before death is a very appropriate thing and I think those who don’t have it miss one of God’s mercies.


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