At the end of Hebrews 4, the author gives this exhortation: since we have a high priest who can sympathize with our needs, and is able to help us, we should boldly go to the throne of grace, confident that he will help us (4:14-16). In chapters 5, 6 and 7, he gives evidence that Jesus is our high priest. At the beginning of chapter 8, he summarizes his point as “we have such a high priest” (NRSV throughout). This is the main topic for these three chapters.
The length of the discussion suggests that the author thinks that this topic is at the heart of the problem his readers had. They were struggling in their faith, struggling in their commitment to Christ, because they did not understand his role as a high priest, as the key link in their connection with God. Jesus is the Messiah, they might have said, and he might be in heaven, but what does that have to do with us? Does it make any difference?
Yes, it does. Not only does it give us confidence that God wants us to come to him, it also affects the way we worship and the people we worship with. But before the author gets to those details, he wants to build a solid foundation for it, proving that Jesus is our high priest. Hebrews is the only book in the Bible that calls Jesus a high priest. (Although Paul talks about Jesus interceding for us [Romans 8:34], he does not use the term “high priest.”)
Chosen for service (verses 1-6)
He begins by discussing in general terms the function of a high priest: “Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.” Although pagan religions had high priests, they were probably not in view here – the discussion throughout Hebrews is on the old covenant priests. They served to represent the people in their relationship to God, specifically to offer sacrifices.
The high priest “is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness.” This statement may have provoked a mild protest (“humpf”) with the readers, since the Levitical priests of the first century were known more for political maneuvering than for being gentle. (John 7:49 reports the attitude of the Pharisees – they thought that people ignorant of the law were accursed. It is likely that the upper-class priests shared the sentiment.)
The author’s point is that a high priest ought to be gentle. The Levitical high priest is in the same situation as the people: in need of God’s mercy. He sins, “and because of this he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people.” On the Day of Atonement, the high priest had to sacrifice for his own sins before he could do anything for the nation as a whole (Leviticus 16:11).
He was not superior to the people, but one of them. This is shown also in the way that he was chosen – not by being better than others, but simply by God’s choice: “One does not presume to take this honor, but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was.” In the same way, Jesus did not appoint himself (although he was fully qualified to do so) – he had been appointed by the Father:
So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”; as he says also in another place, “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.” (quotes from Psalms 2:7 and 110:4)
This is the first mention in Hebrews of the mysterious person named Melchizedek. Here, it is a teaser. As he does with several other topics, the author first mentions him, and comes back to it later. The reader might think, “What’s that about? I hope he explains what that means.” So the author will come back to it shortly, after piquing their interest, and will explore it in more detail later – in this case, in chapter 7.
Of all Old Testament quotes in the New Testament, Psalm 110:1 is the most common. But only Hebrews quotes verse 4, which refers (without any explanation) to a priesthood that is outside of the Levitical order. First-century Jews had various speculations about Melchizedek as an end-time figure, but there was no consistent view. Consequently, any mention of Melchizedek was likely to arouse the interest of the audience. The author will have to explain what he means.
Power through weakness (verses 7-10)
But he keeps them in suspense. First he talks about the qualifications of Jesus to sympathize with people who are weak: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.”
This may refer to Jesus’ agonized prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:40-46), but we might also wonder: If Jesus was praying to be saved from death, how can the author say that “he was heard”? The author knows that God allowed Jesus to die. Jesus was saved from death by going through it and being brought back to life; that was the reason he had come (Hebrews 2:14-15).
“Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.” Jesus did not use his position to benefit himself – he willingly placed himself in the circumstance all humans experience. Although he had always been obedient to the Father, he experienced what it is like to be obedient even in situations of suffering. As a human, he grew in his relationship with God (see Luke 2:52). He can relate to the struggles other people have, so he “is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself [was] subject to weakness.”
Now, “having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” Jesus was already perfect in one sense, but not in another. He was always perfect in morality, and he therefore never sinned (Hebrews 4:15). But the Greek word for perfect also means complete; here it seems to refer to Jesus’ ability to be our high priest. Through his sufferings, he completed the qualifications of being able to represent humans before God (see Hebrews 2:10).
Not only could he represent humanity, he could also save everyone. We are not saved by our obedience, but this verse implies that those who are saved also obey, albeit always imperfectly. (It does not comment on the status of those who do not even desire to obey.) The important point here is that Jesus is the source of the salvation that all humans need.
The author then connects the role of Savior to the role of high priest: “having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.” The Melchizedekian high priest does not just offer rituals to picture salvation – he has the power to bring salvation. He is a human who can empathize with weakness, but he also has power to overcome it.
Get ready to learn! (verses 11-14)
The author has mentioned Melchizedek again, but he is not yet ready to get into the details. First, he wants to ready the readers for a significant new teaching. “About this we have much to say that is hard to explain.” Why is it difficult to explain this doctrine? It is because the readers might not want to learn: “…since you have become dull in understanding.”
It is not that they could not learn, but because they were not interested in learning more about Jesus. Unfortunately, that happens to some Christians today: they are dull in their desire to learn more about the faith. They want Christianity to be intellectually easy – “easy enough for a 10-year-old child to understand.” Christianity is easy enough for children, but our author is saying that we should not be content to remain as children in our understanding. We should want to grow, not coast.
“For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic elements of the oracles of God.” The readers had been Christians for a long time; they should be active, not passive. With some exaggeration, the author says they need to start all over. He will list some of the “basic elements” in the next paragraph (6:1-3), but he also says that he will not rehearse them. The chief problem is their willingness to learn, not their lack of a foundation.
He uses a metaphor that other first-century teachers did: “You need milk, not solid food.” Although they should have been taking some initiative and seeking to understand more, they were acting like intellectual babies, and the food had to be brought to them in an easy-to-digest way. This was not meant to put the audience down, but to stir them up, to call them to listen more attentively.
“For everyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is unskilled in the word of righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil.” The author assumes that the readers want to be counted as mature; they want to know the difference between good and evil. Just as he does in 2:1-3, he is calling them to attention. He is drawing near to the heart of what he wants to say – the heart of the problem he is addressing – the key doctrine that will tell them why they should remain faithful to Christ rather than going into any other religious option.
Things to think about
- Do you think of Jesus as a person of weakness, who wept and suffered? (verses 7-8)
- Why is it important to us that Jesus “learned obedience through what he suffered”? (verse 8)
- If Christians today are tired of learning, what is the best way to encourage them to be interested again? (verse 11)