Summary of the Text
“What, then, does the author intend to communicate in verses 1-4? He proclaims that an authoritative and authentic high priest must both identify with and be distinct from those to whom he ministers.”
David P. Nystrom, New International Version Application Commentary
Introduction: When I read Hebrews in general, and our passage today in particular, I could not help but think of Irving Berlin’s famous show tune “Anything you can do, I can do better.” Hebrews demonstrates over and again that the law of Moses and the Aaronic priestly system are ultimately inferior to the priestly work of Christ. In other words, anything the old high priest can do, Christ has done better.
That is the subject of our passage today. But before we jump into an analysis of the text, it seems important to ask, what is the purpose of such a text? And how does such a text impact us its readers today. Ultimately, this passage is about authority. Is Jesus really the great high priest who takes away our sins, not once a year, but for all time? And then the follow-up question, do we trust him enough to give our lives to Him in gratitude for all he has done for us? These are the questions we ought to ask as we consider not just the content of this passage, but how it might speak to us today.
Two Major Contextual Pieces to our Text: There are two contextual pieces that are integral to a deep understanding of this text. The first are two passages from the Psalms that clearly have influenced the writer in their understanding of the high priesthood of Jesus. The first is from Psalm 2 and the second Psalm 110.
6 “I have installed my king
on Zion, my holy mountain.”
7 I will proclaim the Lord’s decree:
He said to me, “You are my son;
today I have become your father.
4 The Lord has sworn
and will not change his mind:
“You are a priest forever,
in the order of Melchizedek.”
We will come back to each of these passages throughout our discussion, but they make up a significant part of the background in which our text is written. Secondly, our passage is written in a chiastic pattern. A Chiasm is a literary pattern used to both accentuate the point being made by the writer as well as a mnemonic device. This is what it looks like in James 5:1-10:
A The old office of high priest (v.1)
B The sacrifice offered by the high priest (v.1)
C The weakness of the high priest (vv.2-3)
D The appointment of the high priest (v.4)
D The appointment of Christ, the new priest (vv.5-6)
C The suffering of the new priest (v.7-8)
B The sacrificial provision of the new priest (v.9)
A The new office of high priest (v.10)
As you can see, the pattern in this passage, the chiasm is being used to accentuate both the similarities and the differences between the old high priest and the new (Christ). Thus for the remainder of this summary, I will be working through these pairings to better understand the passage.
Function of the High Priest: The author of Hebrews begins by describing the role and function of the old high priest. He begins with exactly what we would expect, the high priest acts as an intermediary before God, and offers gifts and sacrifices to atone for their sins.
Jesus similarly acts as an intermediary before God on behalf of the people. The biggest difference being that the high priest would sacrifice an animal for the sins of the people, whereas Jesus is the sacrifice himself. James adds one further detail, that the priesthood of Jesus is from the line of Melchizedek. What exactly this means is unclear, though clearly the author of Hebrews sees the line of Melchizedek as superior to the Aaronic line of priests. It could be that this is related to the fact that the line of Melchizedek comes before the Aaronic line, and that Abraham, the father of the Jewish faith.
Qualification 1 of the High Priest: While the function and qualifications are somewhat interchangeable, we see an interesting tack taken here by the author of Hebrews. Here in verse 2 is a focus on the compassion and connection necessary for the role of high priest.
“He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray,a since he himself is subject to weakness.”
Donald Guthrie, (Tyndale) in his commentary on Hebrews summarizes verse 2: “The high priest was not only representative of the better sections of society, but also of the worse. The two descriptions – ignorant (agnoousi) and wayward (planoœmenois) – may point to the origin and characteristic of the kind of sin with which the high priest can deal.”
It isn’t difficult to connect this aspect of the high priest’s ministry with Jesus’ as well. Jesus’ ministry was often directed towards those in the outer circles of Jewish society. Those whose sin made them disconnected from the established religious groups of the day.
This is how the author of Hebrews describes Jesus’ earthly ministry (vs.7): “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.”
We see in Christ’s priestly ministry the same faithfulness and work (offering prayers and petitions) as the old high priest. To this is added his suffering on behalf of humanity.
The 2nd Qualification: The second major qualification of the high priest is the derivation of the call. Can the high priest simply ascend to the priesthood through political power and maneuverings, as the Hasmoneans did following the ouster of the Seleucids (Alexander the Great’s successors who ruled in Israel and the surrounding area prior to the ascendancy of Rome in the region)?
Any true high priest, according to the author of Hebrews, must be chosen by God, as vs.4 describes:
“No one takes this honor on himself, but he receives it when called by God, just as Aaron was. Jesus’ high priesthood is described very similarly: “In the same way, Christ did not take on himself the glory of becoming a high priest. But God said to him, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father.” Notice the similarities to Psalm 110 (find above).
Jesus Made Perfect: And then comes a verse that could easily cause confusion from a “plain sense” reading of the text (vv.8-9):
“Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”
What exactly does this mean? Was Jesus not perfect at some point? David Nystrom (New International Version Application Commentary) provides some helpful context:
We must grasp the significance of the terms perfect and obedience in this passage and see how they fit with the broader biblical concept of the “righteous sufferer.” Rather than conveying the idea of overcoming a moral deficiency, the aorist passive participle teliotheis (translated as “once made perfect” by the NIV) communicates the concept of “finishing” or “completing.”
By making it all the way to the end of his Passion, Jesus was made “complete” in the sense of being able to fulfill his role as our high priest. He finished the course. He drank the full measure of the experience that was needed in order to come before the throne with a sacrifice with which our sins would be addressed. Moreover, that he “learned obedience” means that the Son said “yes” to the Father’s will in an extreme situation that he had not yet encountered.”
In other words, Jesus was not imperfect seeking perfection, but rather completing the work God had set out for Him. That is what the author of Hebrews means when he uses the word teliotheis.
Applying the Text: So how exactly does this passage connect to followers of Jesus Christ in the 21st century? At its heart, this is a passage about authority. Jesus Christ’s authority over those who call him Lord and Savior. This authority is absolute, though it is of course, a gentle yoke (Matt.11:29). Unfortunately, many Christians are comfortable with Jesus as their Savior, though not their Lord. They want to pick and choose which teachings fit with their own religion. (see illustration below). C.S. Lewis put this well in his now-famous collection of essays, God in the Dock:
The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man, the roles are quite reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock. He is quite a kindly judge; if God should have a reasonable defense for being the god who permits war, poverty, and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God’s acquittal. But the important thing is that man is on the bench and God is in the dock.
May this text remind us, that God is the judge, that we are called to be his people full-stop, with no wishy-washy theology.
Stuart Strachan Jr. is an ordained Presbyterian Pastor as well as the founder and lead curator of the Pastor’s Workshop. His primary passion is equipping the saints for the ministry of the church (Ephesians 4). He loves preaching, teaching, and helping churches cast vision for what it means to follow Jesus in the 21st Century. He has served churches in a variety of capacities in California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Washington.
Stu is married to Colleen, who currently serves as a spiritual formation lead at Compassion International in Colorado Springs. Stu and Colleen have two children (Jack and Emma) whom they love deeply.
In his free time, Stu enjoys gardening, golf, reading a good book, and watching baseball.
A Western upbringing tends to stress questioning authority, which is always asking why, why, why.
The modern world detests authority but worships relevance. Our Christian conviction is that the Bible has both authority and relevance, and that the secret of both is Jesus Christ.
John Stott, Culture and the Bible, InterVarsity Press, 1979.
The Transfer of Energy
In physics, power is defined as the transfer of energy. In a light bulb, for example, electricity is transferred into light and heat. A 100-watt light bulb is more powerful than a 60-watt light bulb because there is more energy transferred. The same is true in leadership. It is a leader’s ability to transfer their authority to others that actually gives them their power.
Simon Sinek, What Leaders Can Learn From Mandela’s Selflessness and Sacrifice
Comment: Christ’s authority is not one to simply require obedience, it is an authority, like the analogy of a light bulb, that gives out power. In this way, Jesus’ authority and leadership provide an example, par excellence for our own lives.