Jesus ­ The Better Divine-Human High Priest
Hebrews 4:14 ­ 5:10

This is a series of studies that explore the meaning of the Epistle to the Hebrews.

©2001 by James A. Fowler. All rights reserved.

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Paul had previously given his readers a clue that he intended to address how Jesus Christ is the better High Priest of God. In the context of explaining that Jesus is the "better Man for man" (2:5-18), Paul noted that "He (Jesus) had to be made like His brethren in all things, that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people" (2:17). He continued by writing, "Therefore, holy brethren, partakers of a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the Apostle and High Priest of our confession" (3:1). The topic of Jesus as "the better high priest" is a primary, if not the predominant, theme of this epistle, mentioned, as noted, in 2:17 and 3:1, considered preliminarily in 4:14­5:10 (the passage presently being exegeted), and dealt with at length in the four chapters 7:1­10:18. Taken together, these passages comprise over thirty-three percent (33%) of the epistle.

Reading these words almost two millennia after the termination of the high priesthood function in the Jewish religion, it is necessary that we recall the importance of this priestly office in the history of Judaism. The position of High Priest or Chief Priest was implemented in the Levitical regulations that God revealed to the Israelites people through Moses (cf. Lev. 21:10; Numb. 35:25). The first high priest was Aaron, the brother of Moses, and the succession of subsequent high priests was transferred to a son (usually the eldest son) of the previous high priest (cf. Ezra 7:1-5). The lineage of the Jewish high priesthood was originally determined by heritage of birth, and the duration was for the lifetime of the high priest. One of the prominent high priests in the Aaronic succession was Zadok, who served during the transition of the royal throne from David to Solomon (cf. I Kings 1:32-48). Subsequent high priests often linked their hereditary right to the high priesthood through Zadok.

After the exile of the Hebrew people in Babylon and their return to Canaan, the absence of a king in the line of David allowed the high priest to assume a position of defining importance to the people of Israel, often effectively serving as both priest and king. In the second century B.C., when Antiochus IV Epiphanes (215-163 B.C.), king of Syria, invaded Palestine, there was a power struggle between Onias II, the last high priest in legitimate Aaronic succession, and Jason, who though from a priestly family, was appointed by Antiochus IV Epiphanes to serve as high priest (175-172 B.C.). Menelaus, from a non-priestly family, was subsequently appointed high priest by Antiochus, and served from 172-163 B.C. The atrocities of Antiochus IV Epiphanes in killing Jewish leaders, pillaging the temple, establishing pagan religion in the temple, and sacrificing a pig on the altar, led to the Maccabean Revolt (cf. I, II Macabbees). When Jonathan the Hasmonean assumed the robes of the high priesthood in 153 B.C., he was not from the Aaronic-Zadokian lineage, and the newly formed Pharisee movement protested the legitimacy of his high priesthood.

By the time of Herod the Great, Roman king of Judea (37-4 B.C.), the Jewish high priesthood was granted by appointment of the Roman king from among candidates in the Levitical priesthood, though not necessarily from the Aaronic-Zadokian family line. During the first century A.D., Herod Agrippa I, Herod of Chalcis, and Herod Agrippa II granted the high priestly office to a few wealthy priestly families with arbitrary depositions and appointments. The Jewish Talmud indicates that the high priest purchased the office from the Roman government in an annual auction to the highest bidder. The high priest continued to perform ceremonial duties in the temple at Jerusalem, especially on the occasion of the annual Day of Atonement, and served as a liaison between the Jewish people and the Roman government. This wealthy group of high priestly families was unscrupulous and took advantage of the common people by graft and assumption of others' property. "During the 106 years between 37 B.C. and 70 A.D., 28 high priests discharged the office, and 25 of them were of non-legitimate priestly families." 1

Knowing that the high priests purchased their position from the Roman government, and being the victims of their avarice, the people of Palestine regarded them with suspicion and contempt. As the anti-Roman sentiment grew in the middle part of the first century, the high priests were increasingly suspected to be Roman collaborators and traitors. The Pharisees, always concerned with the Law, still wanted the high priesthood returned to the Aaronic and Zadokian descendants. The Zealots exploited that conservative desire to foment revolutionary aspirations of insurrection against Rome, promising that the success of such revolution would reestablish the legitimate high priest in the temple and reestablish the Jewish nation with a king in the Davidic line.

That was the situation when Paul wrote this epistle to the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. The Judean Christians were being pressured to join the cause celebre to reestablish their ethnic rights in the land. It would have been very difficult to avoid getting drawn into the political, racial, and religious tidal wave of discontent. Paul wrote to explain to these Christians that what they had received in Jesus Christ was superior to all the utopian dreams being offered by the revolutionaries. Jesus is better than Moses in leading the People of God into faithfulness (3:1-19). Jesus is better than Joshua in ushering the People of God into divine Rest (4:1-13). Now Paul will explain that Jesus is better than Aaron, for He is the fulfillment of God's intent for a High Priest, serving as the universal and eternal High Priest in the order of Melchizedek. From Paul's perspective, to seek after the physical phenomena was but a backward reversion to the pictorial prefigurings that preliminarily pointed to Jesus Christ. Paul wanted the Christians of Jerusalem to understand that the intents and promises of God for His People were all fulfilled in the Person and work of Jesus Christ, who now served as the more effective Divine-human High Priest. Traditional Jewish thinking would have questioned how Jesus could serve as high priest since He did not have Aaronic and Zadokian heritage, and was from the tribe of Judah (cf. Matt. 1:3; Lk. 3:33) rather than the priestly tribe of Levi. Paul's explanation was that the previous high priesthood of Melchizedek took precedence, allowing Jesus to serve as the spiritual fulfillment of the ultimate High Priest of God, as well as the King of Kings in the fulfillment of David's royal rule.

From the perspective of historical hindsight we can look back to see the false promises being offered to the Christians of Jerusalem by the Zealot revolutionaries. Soon after this letter was written the Zealots took control of Jerusalem during the war that raged from 66-70 A.D. When they did so, they killed many from the wealthy high-priestly families. A new high priest was selected by random lot from among the priestly families. His name was Phinehas ben Samuel, a stonemason by trade. He was the last to serve as Jewish high priest, for the position was terminated in 70 A.D. when the Romans destroyed the temple in Jerusalem and decimated the Jewish people in Palestine, rendering the Jewish high priesthood as but an historical phenomenon.

Paul's assertion that Jesus is the universal, permanent High Priest of God was the only viable option that his Christians readers in Jerusalem had. Almost two millennia after Paul's writing, Jesus continues to serve as the eternal Divine-human High Priest of God, verifying Paul's words to the Hebrews, and allowing for "a kingdom of priests" (Exod. 19:6) as God intended, a "royal priesthood" (I Peter 2:9) inclusive of all Christians identified with Jesus Christ, functioning as the "priesthood of all believers" in the Body of Christ, the Church.

4:14 - "Since then" the Spirit of Christ lives in the Christian as the living Word of God who penetrates to the core of our being and knows our every thought and intent (4:12,13), "we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God,". Christians have a High Priest who is better and superior to the Judaic high priesthood, which had been politically corrupted for centuries. The high priesthood of Jesus, standing as the Man closest to God representing man before God, is of a different order that transcends the physical priesthood that functioned in the temple at Jerusalem. The high priests of the old covenant passed through the outer courts and the Holy Place into the Holy of Holies of the temple once a year on the Day of Atonement. Jesus, the High Priest par excellence, has passed through the ultimate Holy of Holies, the very presence of God, having come from God (Jn. 6:38,42; 8:42; 17:18) and returned to (Jn. 14:3,4; 16:5,10; 17:5,13) the presence of God the Father, as He is in Himself the Son of God (cf. 1:2,5,8; 3:6). The divine Son of God (cf. Jn. 10:30; 14:10) has become the human High Priest on behalf of all mankind. This integration of the divine Son and the human high priest (cf. 5:5,6,8,10) is central to Paul's argument. The ontological Being of the divine Son is expressed in the operational function of the human high priest as could only be accomplished in the God-man, Jesus Christ. As God, who alone can forgive sin, Jesus served as the human high priest representative of man before God the Father, becoming the only sufficient sacrifice that satisfied the death consequences of man's sin before God. Having accomplished what God the Father had sent Him, as the Son of God, to do (Jn. 17:4; 19:30), He "passed through the heavens" and ascended again to take His rightful place seated at the right hand of the Majesty in the heavens (cf. 1:3; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2), thereby opening the way for all those "in Him" to enter into the Holy of Holies of God's heavenly presence also (cf. Jn. 14:2-6; Heb. 10:19-23).

On the basis of this superior and supreme high priesthood function of Jesus, the Son of God, Paul encouraged the Jerusalem Christians, saying, "We should hold fast our confession." The precarious political situation in Jerusalem was such that prevailing winds of public opinion were clinging to the false hopes of revolutionary triumph over Rome. Paul wanted these embattled Christian brethren to cling to their confession of Jesus Christ instead of the false physical hopes. They had confessed Jesus as Lord (Rom. 10:9), agreeing and concurring with God that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, the only basis of redemption from sin and the restoration of humanity to function as God intended. As Paul repeats later in the epistle, "Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful" (10:23).

4:15 - The Jewish Christians in Palestine were vulnerable and susceptible to the temptation to revert to the physical aspirations of their kinsmen. No doubt they were sympathetic to their plight and their plea to join the effort to overthrow the oppression of the Romans. The frailty of human perseverance could easily have capitulated in volitional weakness.

Paul wanted to emphasize that even though Jesus was the supreme High Priest who had passed through the heavens (14), He was not aloof, remote and transcendent to the extent that He was unable to understand what the Jerusalem Christians were being confronted with. "For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses," The high priest was always human, and Jesus was "made like His brethren in all things" (2:17), in complete solidarity with human experience, qualifying Him to serve as high priestly intercessor. The double negative of "do not...cannot" constitutes a positive expression of Jesus' ability to sympathize with the tough choice that the Jerusalem Christians were being asked to make in holding fast their confession. Such sympathy was not just an emotional feeling, but was the result of physical identification with humanity faced with life and death choices. The "weaknesses" with which Jesus could empathetically identify were not physical lack of strength, but the human vulnerability of volitional perseverance, the fallible and fickle weakness of the human will in continuing to choose God's way. The only way for the Christian to overcome such volitional lack of strength (the Greek word for "weakness" is asthenos, meaning "no strength") is to rely on "Him who strengthens us" (Phil. 4:13).

Jesus, the supreme High Priest, could sympathize with the volitional vulnerabilities of the Palestinian Christians for He was "one having been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin." The Greek word for "tempt" (peirazo) has a root meaning of "piercing in order to test or examine," but when used in reference to sin (as it is here), the English word that conveys a solicitation to sin is the word "tempt." The Christians in Judea were being sorely tempted to take the path of least resistance and to "give in" to the pressures being brought to bear upon them, and it would have been the easiest course of action to claim to lack the strength to resist and to hold fast to their confession of Jesus. Functioning as a man during His redemptive mission on earth, Jesus was likewise vulnerable to the temptation to choose to take the path of least resistance, to avoid the ostracism and the rejection of His own Jewish peoples, and that in the midst of life and death choices. But Jesus "held fast" to His confession of divine identity, and when faced with death declared, "Father, if You are willing, let this cup (of suffering and death) pass from Me; yet not My will, but Thine be done" (Matt. 26:39; Mk. 14:36; Lk. 22:42). Paul was asking the beleaguered Christians in Jerusalem to find their strength in Jesus Christ, and to "hold fast" as Jesus Himself had "held fast" when faced with temptation.

Some have questioned whether Jesus could actually be tempted to sin. They reason that since Jesus is God, and "God cannot be tempted by evil" (James 1:13), therefore Jesus experienced a trial of testing, but it was not a temptation to sin. The context of Paul's reference to Jesus' identification with the volitional vulnerabilities of humanity, and the statement that the solicitation to sin did not result in a choice to sin in Jesus' experience, serve as an exegetical dismissal of those who would deny Jesus' real temptation to sin. Theologically, this theory of impeccability that posits that it was not possible for Jesus to sin is based on a deficient Christology that fails to account for Jesus' functional humanity (the very emphasis that Paul is making in this passage concerning the human high priesthood of Jesus). Calvinistic theology, in general, tends to overemphasize the deity of Jesus to the neglect of His functional humanity and the human responsibility that Jesus faced in making choices of faith. The remarks of W. Ian Thomas are pertinent here:

"It is no explanation to suggest that though tempted the Lord Jesus Christ was not tempted with evil, but only in the sense that He was tested ­ for the statement "yet without sin," clearly indicates that the nature of the temptation was such that it would have led to sin had it not been resisted."
"...inherent in His willingness to be made Man, was the willingness of the Lord Jesus Christ to be made subject to temptation, for strange as it may seem, inherent in man's capacity to be godly is man's very capacity to sin!
" was not as God that Christ was tempted, but as Man" 2

How can it be said that Jesus was "tempted in all things according to the likeness" of our temptations? Obviously there are external situations (trials) that Jesus never confronted, i.e. automobile traffic, marriage, parenting, technology, etc. But "made like His brethren (humanity) in all things" (2:17), He was "tempted in all things as we are" ­ tempted to make decisions to act and react contrary (outside of) the character and behavior derived out of God, which constitutes sin in its broadest sense. The "all things" of Jesus' temptation are not the same circumstances, but are the same manner of being solicited to choose selfish action and reaction. In the wilderness (Matt. 4:1-11; Lk. 4:1-13), Jesus was solicited to choose personal aspiration, personal gratification, and personal reputation (cf. I John 2:16) instead of being the available vessel of God's ministry of redemption. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus appears to have been tempted to react with fight and fright and flight, rather than choosing to give His life a ransom for all men (Matt. 20:28; I Tim. 2:6). It might even be argued that Jesus was tempted beyond the likeness of normal human temptations, being tempted to opt out of His functional subordination as man, and to act independently out of His inherent deity, in which case He would not have been totally identified with the experiences of mankind, and could not have fulfilled his redemptive and intercessory work on our behalf. Such is but hypothetical speculation, for the facts of the matter are that though "tempted in all things as we are," He was "yet without sin," choosing not to succumb to the solicitations to sin, but to functionally subordinate Himself in receptivity to God.

Some have argued that Jesus could not be "tempted as we are" because He did not share the fallen nature of fallen humanity. He was never a "natural man" (I Cor. 2:14), "by nature a child of wrath" (Eph. 2:3), spiritually constituted as a "sinner" (Rom. 5:19), as all the rest of humanity has been constituted by the Fall. Granted, Jesus did not partake of fallen humanity in the sense of being spiritually "dead in trespasses and sins" (Eph. 2:1,5), but He did come "in the likeness of sinful flesh" (Rom. 8:2) in the sense of being vulnerable to temptation and liable to mortality. The argument is specious, though, because the solicitation to sinful choices and actions does not require a fallen spiritual nature. Adam is the case in point, for he was tempted to sin prior to the Fall. Jesus, the "second man" (I Cor. 15:47) and the "last Adam" (I Cor. 15:45), in whom Satan had no foothold (Jn. 14:30), could be tempted to sin by the external solicitations of the Tempter, as was the first Adam. Others have argued that Jesus' temptations are not the same as those Christians confront because He did not share in the patterned propensities to selfishness and sinfulness in the desires of His soul ­ what Paul seems to identify as the "flesh" in a behavioral sense (cf. Rom. 7:18­8:13; Gal. 5:13-21). Granted, Jesus had no such patterning of sinfulness, but, again, the argument is not valid because Adam did not have such either when he was tempted to sin originally.

Jesus was fully human and fully vulnerable to the temptations to sin that "are common to man" (I Cor. 10:13). Functioning as a man, He chose not to succumb to such temptation, relying instead on God the Father in Him to manifest righteousness. Therefore, no one, and in particular, no Christian, can claim that "Jesus could live like He did, because He was God; but I am incapable of such avoidance of sin, because I am just human." This is an illegitimate cop-out. Jesus lived every moment in time for thirty-three years "without sin," not because He was God (though He was), but because He was a man who chose not to submit to Satan's solicitations to sin, but rather to submit Himself to God the Father (James 4:7) and the expression of divine character in the human behavior of the Son. These chosen actions, Paul argues, allowed Him to serve as the supreme High Priest of God for all mankind.

That Jesus was "without sin" does not mean, therefore, that Jesus was "without temptation to sin," or "without a sin-nature," or "without the patterning of sin in the 'flesh'," but refers to Jesus having been fully tempted to sin without succumbing to the solicitations of sin, and without manifesting sinful character and behavior. Later in the epistle Paul will note that Jesus was a "high priest, holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners" (7:26), and thus capable of "offering Himself without blemish" (9:14). To the Corinthians, Paul explained that Jesus "knew no sin" (II Cor. 5:21). The Apostle John wrote that "in Him there is no sin" (I John 3:5), and the Apostle Peter, quoting from Isaiah 53:9, indicated that Christ "committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth" (I Peter 2:22). The sinlessness of Jesus was not merely passive avoidance of sin, but was the perfect expression of the divine character of perfection in the behavior of the man, Christ Jesus, as He was receptive to allow the Father to work in Him (John 14:10). Jesus could thus legitimately declare, "I always do those things which are pleasing to Him" (John 8:29).

4:16 - Continuing his appeal to the Jerusalem Christians, Paul writes, "Let us therefore" (because we have such a sinless High Priest who can sympathize with our weaknesses) "draw near with confidence to the throne of grace,..." The redemptive and restorative work of Jesus Christ allows Christians to have free, unrestricted access to the presence of God. In the old covenant the Jewish high priest had access to the "mercy-seat" in the Holy of Holies of the tabernacle and temple just once a year on the Day of Atonement. In the new covenant arrangement, Jesus is the High Priest who by the sacrifice of Himself has opened the way for all Christians to be priests (I Pet. 2:9; Rev. 1:6), the "priesthood of all believers," with immediate, always available, unending personal access to God's presence and provision. Throughout this epistle Paul implores the Christians in Jerusalem to "draw near to God" (7:19) "with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith" (10:22), for they "have confidence to enter the Holy Place" (10:19) of God's presence based on Christ's High Priesthood. Paul seeks to discourage these brethren from seeking to reinstall the Aaronic-Zadokian high priesthood of the Jewish temple with its annual mediated access to the mercy-seat. Instead, he desires that the Christians of Judea should prayerfully and worshipfully approach the "throne of grace," "the throne of the Majesty in the heavens" (8:1), the very presence of God, directly with a bold, freedom of speech in personal communion.

The God of the Christian is not a remote, impersonal god seated on a judgment-seat to be approached in cowering fear. Rather, He is a loving and personal God with whom Christians are relationally united through Christ, and to whom we can freely approach His "throne of grace," confident that He will "freely give us all things" (Rom. 8:32) in the free-flow of His sufficiency, "that we may receive mercy and may find grace to help in time of need." Jesus, "the merciful and faithful high priest" (2:17) "is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted" (2:18), and the Christian will continually discover the provision and empowering of God's grace-activity as he/she is receptive to such in faith. We are not left defenseless and helpless as orphans (John 14:18). "The Lord is our Helper" (13:6), providing everything necessary "in time of need." The Jerusalem Christians were certainly confronted with a "time of need" as the battle cries of revolution were sounding, and they were being pressured to declare their loyalties. They needed to "draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, in order to receive mercy and discover God's grace in their time of need."

5:1 - As Paul did in his discussion of the superiority of Jesus Christ over Moses (3:1-6), he again notes first the similarities and then the dissimilarities with the old covenant prototype. Comparing the similarities of Christ's high priesthood to the Judaic high priesthood in verses 1-5a, Paul then contrasts the uniqueness and superiority of Christ's high priesthood, noting the dissimilarities in verses 5b-10. The contrasted dissimilarities will be further developed in chapters 7-10 of the epistle.

"For every high priest taken from among men is appointed on behalf of men in things pertaining to God,..." Every high priest was a human representative of mankind before God. Jesus was no exception to this rule. Jesus was fully human, a man "among men," fully identified with, sympathizing with, and representative of all mankind. Every human high priest was appointed, authorized and installed "on behalf of men in things pertaining to God." Despite the historical aberrations when Jewish high priests were appointed by Antiochus Epiphanes and the Roman kings, the intended appointment of high priests was to be divinely authorized selection and deployment. These high priests were representatives on behalf of their fellow men to "minister as priests to God" (cf. Exod. 28:1,3; 29:1).

The responsibility and duty of the high priests was "to offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins" before God. This sacrificial function of the high priests of Judaism was particularly employed on the Day of Atonement on behalf of the transgressions, impurities and sins of the Jewish peoples (cf. Lev. 16:16). Though some have emphasized the difference between "gifts" and "sacrifices," regarding them as cereal offerings versus animal sacrifices, or distinguishing between unbloody and bloody offerings, the differentiation of these words should not be unduly pressed, as they can be used synonymously. All of the "gifts and sacrifices" offered by the high priests of the old covenant were but pictorial prototypes of the singular offerings and sacrifice of Jesus Christ (cf. Heb. 9:11-28; 10:12) within His function as the ultimate high priest in the new covenant. God wearied and was not pleased with the offerings and sacrifices of the old covenant priests (cf. Isa. 1:11,13; Jere. 6:20; Heb. 10:5-10), for He was fully aware that Christ's giving of Himself (cf. Matt. 20:28; Gal. 1:4; 2:20) and sacrifice of Himself (cf. I Cor. 5:7; Heb. 9:26) was the only offering that could effectively deal with man's sin.

Paul wanted the Jerusalem Christians to recognize that the High Priesthood of Jesus Christ had effected God's redemptive intents. There was no reason for them to place any expectation or hope in the reestablishment of the Jewish high priesthood and their sacrificial functions.

5:2 - The similarity of the Jewish high priests and the high priesthood of Jesus is further explained as Paul writes, "he ("every high priest" ­ 5:1) can deal gently with the ignorant and misguided, since he himself also is beset with weakness;..." All high priests (Jesus included), because they were human and thus encompassed by their own human weakness, susceptibility, vulnerability and fallibility can exercise a forbearing and moderated passion toward the ignorant and misguided masses of humanity in their sin. The Jewish high priests were surrounded (cf. 12:1) by their own weakness (Greek asthenos, meaning "lack of strength") and volitional vulnerability (cf. 7:28), which led inevitably to their own sinful actions (cf. 5:3). Jesus could "sympathize with such weakness" and volitional vulnerability of mankind, being "tempted in all ways as we are" as a man (4:15), but His temptation did not lead to sin, allowing Him to be "a Son, made perfect forever" (7:28). In both cases, however, the high priests of Judaism and Jesus the supreme High Priest of God, because they were identified with humanity in such volitional weakness, could fairly and gently respond to the masses of mankind who did not know the way or had wandered from the way of God, being ignorant and deceived. High priests, being human, ought to be able to recognize the limitations of human volition and its inability to self-generate either sinful or righteous character and behavior.

5:3 - "...and because of it (his solidarity with the volitional weakness of humanity) he ("every high priest" ­ 5:1) is obligated to offer ("gifts and sacrifices" ­ 5:1) for sins, as for the people, so also (in the case of the Jewish high priests) for himself." Since the high priest is always human, "taken from among men" (5:1), and personally aware of the volitional vulnerabilities of human choices of receptivity, it is incumbent upon the high priest to offer sacrifices before God for the sins of the people whom he represents. In the case of the Jewish high priest, he also had to offer sacrifice for his own personal sins as well as those of the people (cf. Lev. 4:3; 9:8; 16:6,11; Heb. 7:27; 9:7). In the case of Jesus, who was "without sin" (4:15), a "high priestseparated from sinners" (7:26), He Himself could become the singularly sufficient sinless sacrifice that would suffice as the death consequences for the sins of all mankind forever. The dissimilarity of Jesus and the Jewish high priests is already evident in these initial verses (1-5a) which focus on the similarity of the Judaic and Christic high priesthoods.

5:4 - "And not one (of the high priests) takes the honor (of the high priesthood) unto himself, but is called under God, even as Aaron (was)." High priesthood is not a self-assumed, self-appointed position. Such self-assumption of such a position of honor and glory would evidence arrogant ambition and pride of position or power which would disallow compassionate identification with the people being served. Biblical examples of those who self-assumed a priestly position for themselves (ex. Korah ­ Numb. 16:1-40; Saul ­ I Sam. 13:8-14; Uzziah ­ II Chron. 26:16-23) evidences the extreme displeasure and consequences of God for such self-assumption. The high priesthood is not a self-conferred and self-elected human institution, but was designed by God to be a divine vocation authorized by divine appointment, even as Aaron was originally appointed, anointed and ordained by God to serve as high priest (cf. Numb. 3:3,10; 18:7,8; Ps. 105:26). To be thus "called under God" as high priest involves submitting oneself in dependency and humility to be the vessel that God uses to represent His people to Himself.

5:5 - "So also the Christ did not glorify Himself so as to become high priest,..." The Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One, by the very designation of His name, was elected, appointed and anointed by God to be the eternal High Priest of God for mankind. There was no self-elevation, but only a self-emptying (cf. Phil. 2:7) of independent divine prerogatives of function in order to serve as the ultimate divine-human high priest. Jesus did not seek His own glory (cf. Jn. 5:41; 8:50,54), but as the "Elect One" of God (cf. Lk. 23:35), He was "called under God" (5:4) to minister in the dependency and receptivity to God's activity, "doing nothing of His own initiative" (Jn. 5:19,30; 8:28; 12:49; 14:10).

Ministering thus as the available high priest representative of mankind, Jesus "did not glorify Himself ...but He (God the Father) who said to Him, 'THOU ART MY SON, TODAY I HAVE BEGOTTEN THEE;'..." Jesus glorified the Father by accomplishing the word He was given to do (cf. Jn. 17:4), and in glorifying God the Father, He was Himself glorified in Him (Jn. 13:31,32). The subsequent glorification of the Son came in the resurrection victory and Pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit of Christ (cf. Jn. 7:39; 12:16; 13:31). This ties in, then, with the Father's declaration as quoted from Psalm 2:7, "Thou art My Son; Today I have begotten Thee." Paul previously employed this same quotation in arguing the superiority of Jesus over angels (1:5), but now he uses the statement to explain the superiority of Christ's high priesthood over the Judaic high priesthood. This is not a statement about the commencement of the parentage of God the Father in begetting God the Son. Rather, as Paul noted in his message at Antioch of Pisidia (Acts 13:33) when he quoted this same verse, this is a declaration of the glorification of Jesus Christ when God raised Him from the dead (cf. Acts 2:24; Rom. 4:24; 6:4; Eph. 1:20; Col. 2:12) and brought Him out of death into life by resurrection. Jesus "was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead" (Rom. 1:4), a declaration of the Son's empowerment to serve as the eternal divine-human high priest for all mankind. The uniting of the "Son" and "high priest" (cf. 4:14, as well as the quotation from both Psalm 2 in this verse and Psalm 110 in the following verse) reveals the ontological and operation features of Christological essence and function.


5:6 - Continuing to document the superiority of the high priesthood of Jesus, Paul writes, "...just as He (God the Father) says in another (place or passage), 'THOU ART A PRIEST FOREVER ACCORDING TO THE ORDER OF MELCHIZEDEK.'" This quotation from Psalm 110:4 will be a primary and recurring assertion of the superiority of Christ's high priesthood throughout this epistle, mentioned again in 5:10 and 6:20, and quoted again in 7:17 and 21. The Biblical narrative of Melchizedek's priesthood is located in Genesis 14:18-20:

"And Melchizedek, King of Salem, brought out bread and wine. Now he was a priest of God Most High. And he (Melchizedek) blessed him (Abram) and said, 'Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth. And blessed be God Most High, Who has delivered your enemies into your hand.' And he (Abram) gave him (Melchizedek) a tenth of all."

The Melchizedekan priesthood was a non-Jewish and universal priesthood which was archetypical of all priesthood; its priority of time and type making it superior to the Jewish Aaronic and Levitical priesthood. The Jewish high priesthood was provisional and temporary for a specific interim purpose preliminary to the coming of the Messiah in the provincial context of the Hebrew peoples. Soon, within approximately 5 years from the writing of this epistle, it would be historically terminated when the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 A.D. The Melchizedekan priesthood, on the other hand, is not based on generational succession, but is of a divine "order" wherein the divine Messiah assumes the divine priesthood forever, "unto the ages," never to be succeeded and having no successors. The anointed Messianic priesthood of Jesus in the high priestly "order of Melchizedek" is indisputably superior to all other priesthoods, Paul argues. The previous words of Psalm 110:4 are, "The Lord has sworn and will not change His mind." Paul wanted the Christians in Jerusalem to understand the unique superiority of Christ's priesthood as they faced the pressure to join the cause to fight for the reestablishment of an uncorrupted generational Jewish high priest in the Jerusalem temple.

5:7 - To explain the development of Jesus' sympathizing (4:15) sensitivities with mankind, Paul indicated that "In the days of His flesh, He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death,..." In His incarnate, earthly form, in the physicality of bodily human existence, Jesus participated in emotional identification with the anguish and agony of human experience. Contextual examples of such heart-felt emotional entreaties to God the Father might include the experiences in the garden of Gethsemane (cf. Matt. 26:36-46; Mk. 14:32-42; Lk. 22:39-46; Jn. 12:27), as well as the anguish of Golgotha (cf. Matt. 27:33-50; Mk. 15:16-37; Lk. 23:33-46; Jn. 19:17-30), though not to be limited to such.

Did Jesus pray that He might be delivered from death by crucifixion? He did pray, "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup (of suffering or death) pass from Me" (Matt. 26:39; Mk. 14:35.36). John records Jesus' words, "Now My soul has become troubled; and what shall I say, 'Father, save Me from this hour?' But for this purpose I came to this hour" (John 12:27). Jesus knew that He "came to give His life a ransom for many" (Matt. 20:28; cf. I Tim. 2:6). Were Jesus' supplicatory prayers requests to be kept from physical death? Or were they requests to be preserved in the midst of "being made sin" (II Cor. 5:21), becoming the cursed (Gal. 3:13) recipient of the judgment of God against all sin, and experiencing the separation that caused Him to cry, "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?" (Matt. 27:46; Ps. 2:1)? Or was Jesus praying, not only for Himself but in priestly concern for others, that He would be "made safe" by being raised out of death by resurrection in order to effect such for all men? Peter proclaimed that "God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power" (Acts 2:24).

Paul goes on to record that "He (Jesus) was heard because of His piety." As the word "piety" has so many negative connotations in the English language, perhaps a better translation would be "reverence" (cf. Heb. 12:28) or "devotion" (cf. Acts 8:2). Does this mean that God the Father responded to Jesus' prayers because He was sinless (cf. 4:15) and could not be held in death's power (cf. Acts 2:24)? As the context refers to Jesus' human agony and anguish in the midst of death, is the reference to Jesus' "reverence" or "devotion" better understood to be His volitional dependence upon God which allowed Him to say, "Not My will, but Thine be done" (Matt. 26:39,42; Mk. 14:36), whereby He submitted to death by crucifixion and thereby in His priestly role made the sufficient and acceptable sacrifice for the sins of all mankind, and was raised out of death by resurrection to restore God's life to receptive humanity? We need not make this an either-or determination.

5:8 - "Although He was a Son," ontologically one with God the Father in the Triune Godhead, and inherently and intrinsically divine, he functioned as a man having emptied Himself of the independent function of divine prerogatives of operational action (cf. Phil. 2:7), and "He learned obedience from the things which He suffered." Divine function, operating as it does in the omniscience of knowing all things, has nothing to "learn." Neither does the absolute sovereignty of divine function "listen under" (Greek word hupakouo) another in "obedience." But having chosen to function as a man in identification with all mankind, Jesus the Son "kept increasing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man" (Lk. 2:52) as a young man, and continued to "learn obedience" in all the experiences of earthly, human existence. In the context of the most intense pressures of temptation unto disobedience and sin (4:15), Jesus responded in the "obedience of faith" (cf. Rom. 1:5; 16:26), "obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross" (Phil. 2:8), allowing "the obedience of the One" (Rom. 5:19) to be the basis of righteousness for all men. For 33 years in time "the man, Christ Jesus" (I Tim. 2:5) "listened under" God in obedience and was receptive to all that God the Father wanted to do in Him by faith. The particularly difficult context for "learning obedience" was in the pathos of suffering that led to His crucifixion (cf. 2:9,10; 9:26; 13:12 for connection of suffering and death). The "suffering of death" (2:9) could only be experienced by One who had identified fully with humanity in mortality.

Paul wanted his readers in the church at Jerusalem to understand the full identification of Jesus with their sufferings. They were a suffering community continuing to "learn obedience from the things which they suffered," and continuing to need to apprehend that Christ's suffering unto death had effected a sinless sacrifice as part of His high priestly function, which effected "eternal salvation" (5:9). The divine logic of life out of death, exaltation out of humiliation, and glorification out of suffering (cf. comments on 2:9), could be realized in their own lives, though not with the same redemptive effects as in the life and work of the Savior.

5:9 - The Son "learned obedience from the things which He suffered, and having been made perfect, He became to all those obeying Him the source of eternal salvation." Was Jesus not already perfect (cf. comments on 2:10)? Yes, He was "perfect in Being" as the God-man in whom the Spirit of God dwelt from His supernatural conception. He was also "perfect in behavior" as He exercised the "obedience of faith" in receptivity to God's activity in the man for every moment in time for 33 years, "without sin" (4:15). But it was by the "suffering of death" (2:9), when He was "obedient unto death, even death on a cross" (Phil. 2:8), that Jesus was made "perfect in benefit" by serving as the sinless sacrifice sufficient for the sins of mankind. By thus making the high priestly sacrifice for all human sin, the "Son, made perfect forever" (7:28) accomplished the perfect end objective of God for man, and cried out victoriously, "It is finished?" (Jn. 19:30).

By His death wherein He took the death consequences of man's sin, Jesus set in motion the restoration of divine life to man by resurrection, and "He became to all those obeying Him the source of eternal salvation." As the Redeemer-Savior, Jesus is "the source of eternal salvation," for such salvation is derived only from Him. To indicate that Jesus is the "source" of salvation is not to imply that He is an objectified "dispenser" of a commodity called "salvation." No, He is the author (cf. 2:10) and originator of a dynamic salvation, the essence of which is integrally united with His ongoing functional presence and action as Savior. Salvation is not a static package of an entity called "eternal life," the benefits of which are alleged to be enjoyed in the future. Rather, salvation is the dynamic activity of the risen and living Lord Jesus as He "makes safe" the Christian from misused humanity in order that the Christian might function as God intends, by allowing the "eternal life" of Christ (cf. Jn. 1:4; 5:26; 11:25; 14:6), the "saving life of Christ" (cf. Rom. 5:10) the Savior, to be operative in the Christian individual. This is "eternal" salvation because the eternality of God's character, both qualitative as well as quantitative, is dynamically operative in the Christian.

The conditional element of this living salvation is noted in the phrase, " all those obeying Him...". The dynamic saving activity of the Savior cannot be statically assented to or received. Nor is it universally applied apart from the freedom of human receptivity. The Christian must continue to "listen under" (Greek word hupakouo) the Lord Jesus in the dependence of submission in order to continue to be receptive to the dynamic activity of the Savior in faith. But let it be noted that Christ's obedience (5:8) allows for, and becomes the basis of, the Christian's obedience. The living, saving "Obedient One," Jesus Christ, lives in the Christian individual, providing everything necessary for the Christian to "listen under" and respond in the "obedience of faith" in order to allow the indwelling Christ to live out His life in sanctification (cf. 10:7-18).

The Christians in Palestine who received this letter from Paul were suffering in a physical situation that was not very "safe." Paul was assuring them that they were "made safe" in Jesus Christ, not only for a future deliverance and life beyond this life, but "made safe" to function by "listening under" the direction of the living Savior, in order to be faithfully receptive to the eternal character of God expressed in their obedient behavior, even in the midst of unsettling circumstances of ostracism and imminent war.

5:10 - Paul returns to his them of Jesus as divine-human high priest, indicating that by His life and death Jesus "has been designated under God as a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek." This is an obvious reference to his previous citation of Psalm 110:4 (cf. 5:6) which he attributed to God the Father in reference to God the Son. The Melchizedekan high priesthood theme will be picked up again in 6:20, and more fully developed in 7:1-28. As noted in the comments of 5:6, the "order of Melchizedek" is a kind or arrangement of priesthood that is of a divine "order." The only known participants in that "order" of priesthood were Melchizedek and Jesus Christ. It is, therefore, not a group designation, as when one refers to the "Franciscan order," for example.

The statement of Jesus "being designated under God" as a high priest in the divine order of Melchizedek has precipitated much discussion of the timing of God the Father's designation or declaration, authorization or appointment, installation or investiture of Jesus as high priest representing mankind under God. Was Jesus functioning as high priest through His life on earth (cf. 5:7-9), or was He designated a high priest at His death (cf. 10:11,12), at His resurrection, or when He ascended into heaven (cf. 6:19,20; 8:1-4)? Or was Jesus "a priest forever" (5:6), "holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens" (7:26)? Undue specification of the space/time context of Christ's high priesthood should be avoided, as it only produces man-made theological and eschatological limitations on the work of Christ.

Concluding Remarks:

The Jerusalem Christians who first received this letter were greatly tempted to revert back to their Judaic practices in accepting the false hopes of the Zealot revolutionaries. Paul, writing from Rome, understood their temptation, and wanted them to realize that Jesus had identified with mankind by becoming susceptible to the volitional vulnerabilities of temptation. The living Lord Jesus functioning as high priest in His intercessory work could sympathize with their weaknesses (4:15) and "lack of strength," having been "tempted in all things" as they were in their human temptations. Paul wanted to encourage those first century Christians that Jesus "deals gently" (5:2) with their weakness, which should make them comfortable to "draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, in order to find mercy and grace to help in their time of need" (4:16). Only by God's grace activity could they expect to "keep on obeying" (5:9) by "listening under" God as they were "led by the Spirit" (Rom. 8:14) and responding in the receptivity of faithful obedience. Thus they would find the living Lord Jesus to be the "source of their eternal salvation" (5:9), as they were "made safe" by the eternality of Christ's character operative in their behavior, despite the external circumstances.

As Christians today, we continue to be tempted in the midst of our circumstances ­ tempted to react with violence, anxiety or desertion (fight, fright or flight). We must understand that it is not wrong to be tempted, for that is just part of the human experience, just as Jesus was tempted, "yet without sin" (4:15). We should not deny or decry our weakness of volitional vulnerability or that we have "times of need" (4:16), for if we cannot recognize our "times of need" we will not likely recognize God's grace sufficiency in the midst of such. Christ, as our living high priest, sympathizes with our weaknesses (4:15), "suffering together with us" therein. He "deals gently" with us in a "moderated passion" that does not ignore us with a "silent treatment" or attack us with a "sledgehammer approach," but compassionately loves us with a gentle concern for our highest well-being. Such gracious provision should make us comfortable to "hold fast our confession" (4:14), and to "draw near with confidence to the throne of grace" (4:16), availing ourselves of the illimitable resources of God's grace as Christ continues to function intercessorily for us in His high priestly work. As we "keep on obeying" (5:9) by relying on the Obedient One, Jesus Christ, we enjoy the "eternal salvation" that functions dynamically as the Eternal Savior lives in and through us.


1    Kittel, Gerhard (editor), Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Article on "archiereus"
      by Gottlob Schrenk. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1972. pg. 268.
2    Thomas, W. Ian, The Mystery of Godliness. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House. 1972.
      pgs. 48,49.

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