A Bible Lesson on Hebrews 4:14-5:10

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

In this passage, the writer of Hebrews returns to his thesis of the utter superiority of Christ. He speaks of the priesthood of Christ in comparison to the Old Testament Levitical priesthood (and by implication, with its system of dealing with man’s fundamental problem of sin). At the end of Chapter 4, the writer states his main theme.

Hebrews 4:14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.

Since we “have” … The “have” is emphatic. We have a “great” high priest. He is great in His essential nature, both truly God and truly human. And He is great in His work. What He has done is far beyond that of any other priest. And this high priest has truly ascended to the Father. He has passed through the heavens. This, is in contrast to the Levitical priests who only once a year could pass through the veil into the Holy of Holies. This great high priest now sees the Father face to face, and this high priest is the man Christ Jesus.

There is a man at the right hand of the Father. That, says the author, ought to cause us to buck up and hold fast. In light of His victory we should be encouraged to carry on. The verb is “to cling to” and indicates that determination is required on our part. Let us hold fast to “our confession.” He’s talking about something public, a public identification of oneself with Christ. We’re given the opportunity to publicly declare ourselves to be His through Christian baptism. And we are daily given opportunities to either confess or deny Him in what we do and what we say. In light of His great essential nature and His office as our high priest, we ought to be resolute and consistent in our confession. And in fact, this is not just an appeal for endurance, but a call for fearless witness.

The writer begins to lay out the qualifications of a proper high priest. A priest is one that stands between God and man, and represents humans before a Holy God. What qualifications ought a high priest then have?

15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.

A high priest must be of the same stuff as those he represents to God. What good would it do us to have a high priest that didn’t have the first idea about our condition? We’ve gone overboard in our time with the notion that between humans “unless you’ve had the exact same experiences as I have, you can’t possibly understand” and routinely use that as an excuse for wallowing in our misery and thinking our situation is uniquely tough, rather than getting on with life. But there is a truth here that if a priest is to represent men and women to God, that person must be of the same stock as us. This Jesus, both fully God and fully human, is qualified.

Christ is able to “sympathize,” literally, “to suffer along with.” With what? To sympathize with our weaknesses. He was subject to the same “weaknesses” we experience. He knew weariness. He had the thoughts “well what’s the use of going on?” He didn’t like pain (of body and of spirit) any more than you and I like pain.

Further, in sharing our humanity and weakness, He has known temptation. That’s one for pausing and thinking over carefully. If indeed, God is the very definition of all that is good and right and true, it would be a contradiction in terms for Him to be tempted. The Father (or pre-incarnate Son, or Spirit) being tempted to evil is nonsense. For the One who is the first cause and center of all things to be tempted to be or do something else is silly. But, the Son chose to share our condition, and as such knew temptation! Yet He came through it without sin. Commentators rightly point out that indeed His temptation was more intense than ours. For one thing, we cave in as temptation is ramping up. We rarely see it at its peak intensity, because we give in early in the climb up the mountain. He did not.

16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Having a high priest that is qualified as knowing “how it is” we may come to the throne of grace. Notice, by the way, that the writer has added a statement here about Christ’s qualification as priest. He is both high priest and king. There’s a throne involved! There’s royal authority here. As the catechism says, He’s prophet, priest, and king.

We need at least two things, mercy and grace. We desperately need forgiveness. And we need strength. Both of these are available to us in Christ.

Hebrews 5:1For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.

Again, a priest functions between God and man. He acts on God’s behalf among humans and upon behalf of humans before God. To do so, he must be of the same stock as those he represents. Not only must he be “from among men,” but the author will elaborate a bit later that he must be “appointed.” And a high priest must offer sacrifices to God to somehow deal with our sin. His main function is not to somehow wrangle goodies from God, but rather to deal with what is fundamental, our basic need of forgiveness.

2 He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness.

He can deal gently. This is something that is hard to get right in translation. It means taking a middle course between apathy and anger. Our sin is serious business. It is not to be yawned or winked at. But Christ, being of the same stock as we sinners, can take this middle course and deal with us gently. This He can do, as He has experience with “weakness,” with frailty. His frailty was physical frailty. A human high priest had both physical frailty and moral frailty. So he too was in a position to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward. In fact

3 Because of this he is obligated to offer sacrifice for his own sins just as he does for those of the people.

A human high priest was in the same boat as those he represented. He was guilty by reason of weakness and giving in. And as such, he had to bring sacrifice for himself before dealing with the situation of the people.

Leviticus 16:11 “Aaron shall present the bull as a sin offering for himself, and shall make atonement for himself and for his house. He shall kill the bull as a sin offering for himself.”

The Levitical priests were in the same condition as those they presented before God. In this matter, Jesus was, a completely different case. But the point here is the solidarity between a high priest and his people.

4 And no one takes this honor for himself, but only when called by God, just as Aaron was.

So here is another point. A proper high priest doesn’t get the job because he applies for it, or because some human appoints him to the office. It is something that can only be conferred by God Himself. That was the case with Aaron and his descendants. Sadly, this was not the case in Judah at the time this was written. The high priesthood had become a corrupt thing handled by politicians. But a pious reader knew that this was not the way things should be.

So too, argues the writer of Hebrews, Jesus is qualified on this account.

5 So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”;

The writer quotes again (as in Chapter 1) from Psalm 2.

Psalm 2:7 I will tell of the decree: The Lord said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you.

Paul quotes this in Acts 13:33 in his sermon at Pisidian Antioch, as he argues that the resurrection is God’s stamp of approval on Jesus, that in the resurrection, Jesus was “begotten” to a new status as the exalted Man. He is “Son” not only by virtue of His deity, but also by virtue of His status as the first raised by God to live eternally. And it is only the Son of God that can have a rightful place at the right hand of God. If this is just an ordinary man, it makes no sense for Him to be at the right hand of the Father.

6 as he says also in another place, “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.”

The writer quotes another Psalm.

Psalm 110:4 The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, “You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.”

This Messianic Psalm is quoted here to argue that Jesus didn’t campaign for the position of high priest, but was, rather, appointed by the Father. This mysterious person, Melchizedek, was the king and priest of Salem that Abram met and paid tithes to upon rescuing Lot and his family from raiders (see Genesis 14). He’s not described in Scripture as having either forbearer or a successor. He stands alone and he wasn’t of the line of Levitical priests. The author here points to him as God’s special appointment. In this, he was an Old Testament type of Christ. He didn’t get the job because of human choice or succession and he didn’t pass it on. Christ’s priesthood is not only something that came as a direct appointment from the Father, but it is an eternal/permanent matter.

7 In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence.

This is surely a reference to Christ’s agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. And He was heard. He was heard because of His reverence/Godly fear. Christ prayed recognizing that the path that the Father had set, while genuinely the best, certainly would be full of misery. But He also prayed with full commitment to follow the will of the Father. He was heard. He was heard not in that the path was altered or made less painful, but in that He was strengthened for the task. That, because His heart was one of reverence/godly fear.

8 Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.

“Although he was a son” might be better rendered “Son though He was.” The point is that because of His Sonship, we might have not expected Him to suffer. Christ is eternally the Son. And His will has from eternity past been completely in line with that of the Father. He didn’t “learn obedience” in the sense that human children learn obedience as we train them and punish disobedience. Rather, He experienced as a human what it is like to obey in a context where there is temptation to not do so. One of the commentaries I was looking at put it this way: There is a difference between innocence and virtue.

There is a certain quality involved when a required thing has been done, that isn’t yet present before the fact, when there is only a readiness to act. Jesus carried it through, and in a sense, post-Calvary has knowledge/experience He didn’t have pre-Calvary.

9 And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him,

“And being made perfect” doesn’t mean that before suffering Jesus was flawed and somehow suffering purified Him. That’s silly. What it does say is that there is a difference between being ready to suffer in the doing of God’s will and the actual suffering to do God’s will. And Jesus carried it through. He carried it through, and thereby became perfect in the sense of being qualified as Savior and Priest. His suffering accomplished something real and tangible. He didn’t just “learn a lesson.” Rather, His obedience and suffering accomplished eternal salvation for you and me. His obedience learned/experienced accomplished God’s salvation for all humans who will adopt the right heart toward Him, who will bow the knee and share His attitude and continual practice of reverence and godly fear and dependence upon God.

10 being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.

Again, He’s high priest like Melchizedek, both priest and king, without successor, being designated directly by the Father.

Here’s what Raymond Brown says in closing his chapter on this section[1]:

“Before we leave this passage with its moving description of Christ’s total submission, we need a further reminder that obedience was not only necessary for him; it is expected also of us. Salvation is for those who obey him. It is important for us to see that when Jesus surrendered himself entirely to God’s will, he obeyed not only in order to honour God but also to help us to see what obedience is all about. In his exposition of this passage, Calvin says: ‘He did this for our benefit, to give us the instance and the pattern of His own submission. . . If we want the obedience of Christ to be of advantage to us, we must copy it.’

These verses are particularly important at a time when some Christians may find themselves tempted to bypass the con­stant discipline Christ demands in favour of the ‘instant’ or ‘immediate’ holiness offered by some exponents of the Chris­tian life. This is the ‘instant’ age; if a thing is to be had, it must be had now. The idea goes something like this: The promises are there, claim them at this very moment and the prize is yours, whether it is instant sanctification, instant power, or instant healing. We live in an impatient society and the idea of humble submission, patient waiting and steady perseverance does not make a ready appeal. But the way of Christ was the way of persistent obedience. All his life was given to it. He strongly resisted the temptation to have it effected in a spectacular and supernatural moment. He re­solutely pursued the will and purpose of God. He knew that it could not be achieved in a magical minute.

Moreover, he made it clear to his followers that his way was to be their way. There was no other. The only possible route to holiness of life was by way of the cross. When the disciples expressed their horror about his cross, he told them about theirs. ‘If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.’ The act of taking up the cross may well occur initially, and decisively at a precise moment of time. In that sense there is a crisis. But following after Christ and denying oneself is a daily, painful, costly reality that cannot be achieved by a sudden crisis, but only by a lifetime of constantly renewed dedication and obedient responsiveness to all that God requires of his people and equips them to do.”

[1] From The Message of Hebrews, Raymond Brown, 1982, Inter-Varsity Press, ISBN 0-87784-289-2, pp. 101-102.

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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