Jesus intercedes for us (Jan. 18, 2015)

Scripture Passage and Lesson Focus: Hebrews 4:14-5:10 

Although some early Christian interpreters attributed the epistle to the Hebrews to the apostle Paul, most commentators today believe that its Greek style and theological perspective indicate that Paul was not its author. Whoever the author was, it is clear that the dominant theme of this epistle is the high priestly role of Jesus. The anonymous writer assumes the audience is familiar with the Hebrew scriptures and the role of the Jewish high priest as one who intercedes for the people in the temple in Jerusalem. The main point throughout the epistle is the superiority of Jesus as our intercessor compared to the obsolete role of the Jewish high priests.

Hebrews 4:14-16 — Boldness in God’s presence 

Few passages in Scripture offer more comfort and reassurance for troubled Christians than this one. What a blessing it is to know that the resurrected Jesus was once incarnate as a human being “who in every respect has been tested as we are.”

The human Jesus experienced the same emotions, the same frustrations and the same desires and aspirations that we human beings experience – with one major difference. Sin, such an ever-present reality in our lives, had no hold on Jesus. The unknown author of Hebrews says that our sinless savior Jesus understands our human weakness because he once shared our human nature (cf. 2:17-18).

Therefore Christians need not be anxious in the presence of God. On the contrary we can approach God boldly, confident that God’s outstretched hand offers mercy and grace. God’s grace brings us help just when we need it most.

Hebrews 5:1-4 — God once chose a human high priest 

The author reminds the Jewish Christian readers (hearers) to remember the role of the high priest: to offer sacrifices for sin on behalf of the people. A human priest can empathize with the human beings on whose behalf he offers sacrifices because the priest is himself human. And because he is human he must also offer sacrifices for his own sins. Priests are not self-appointed, but called by God the way Aaron was called (Exodus 28:1; Leviticus 8:1-9). The purpose of this reminder is to show how Jesus was a priest who shared some important characteristics of Jewish priests. At the same time, Jesus became a unique priest as the next section of our text explains.

Hebrews 5:5-10 — Jesus: our unique priest 

Like the Jewish high priests, Jesus did not appoint himself, but was

called by God. The author quotes two verses from Scripture that confirm the appointment of Jesus as a very special priest. In Psalm 2:7 God says, “You are my son, today I have begotten you.” In Psalm 110:4 God identifies Jesus as “a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” This verse is one of only two places in the Old Testament that refer to the mysterious figure Melchizedek. The author will deal more fully with Melchizedek in chapter seven of this epistle. The point here is that during his earthly ministry Jesus was a priest who suffered for the redemption of his people.

Jesus’ suffering is described here in terms that are reminiscent of the account of Jesus’ agony in Gethsemane recorded in all three of the synoptic gospels. Jesus’ cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” could also have been in the author’s mind. Christ’s identity as God’s Son did not exempt him from learning to be obedient in the face of suffering.

That obedient suffering demonstrated that Jesus was “perfect” according to the NRSV translation of an ambiguous verbal form in verse 9. John Calvin preferred to translate the participial phrase to say that Jesus was “sanctified” by his obedience. In my view, the author is saying that Jesus fully and perfectly completed his obedient service following the will of his father and he thereby became “the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” The author concludes that God designated Jesus as “a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.”

For discussion 

What characteristics or qualities of Jesus as our high priest are mentioned in Hebrews 4:14-5:10? What does the description of Jesus as “having been made perfect” mean to you? Wasn’t Jesus the perfect Son of God from the beginning? John Calvin commented on Hebrews 4:15, “Whenever we are laboring under the infirmities of our flesh, let us bear in mind that the Son of God experienced them too, to encourage us by his power in case we are overwhelmed by them.” Has there been a time in your life when these words would have been helpful?

JAMES A. BRASHLER is professor emeritus of Bible at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.