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Hebrews 5

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Verse 1





For every high priest, being taken from among men, is appointed for men in things pertaining to God, that he may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins. (Hebrews 5:1)

In the Jewish system, a tremendous weight of significance and emphasis was placed upon the glorious office of the high priest; and, for the encouragement of Christians tempted to revert to Judaism, it was therefore necessary to show that Christ was and is indeed a great high priest, not merely equal, but vastly superior to any of the high priests of Israel. In this and following verses, the author of Hebrews analyzes the high priesthood of Christ in such a manner as to prove that the Christians who had given up the priesthood of Aaron and his successors had, in Christ, received far more than they had lost. In every conceivable comparison, as to rank, character, quality of sacrifice, or whatsoever, the marvelous superiority of Christ is emphatically demonstrated.

He begins with the ordinary qualifications of any high priest, namely, that (1) he should be taken from among people; (2) appointed by God; (3) have tender compassion for those whom he represented; (4) possess an adequate sacrifice; and (5) refrain from taking such an honor unto himself. Then he proceeds to show how, in all of these matters, Christ possessed the most extraordinary qualifications.

Without doubt, the earthly splendor of the Jewish high priest was a factor of seductive influence on Christians, especially those of Jewish background. His rich robes, the extravagantly ornate breastplate, the unique privilege of entering the Holy of Holies on the day of atonement, his status as judge and president of the Sanhedrin, his dramatic influence as the official representative of the Jewish nation, more especially at a time when they had no king, the traditional descent of the office from the sons of Aaron and reaching all the way back to the Exodus, and the grudging respect paid to the office, even by Roman conquerors - all these things and many others elevated the Jewish high priest to a position of isolated splendor in the eyes of the people. "Gifts and sacrifices for sins" has special reference to the day of atonement and to the ceremonial offering of blood, first for the sins of the high priest and then for the sins of all the people. The separate mention of gifts and sacrifices is a distinction between the unbloody offerings and the bloody ones, both classes of which were offered on the day of atonement. Barmby called attention to this distinction in these words, "Though bloodshedding was essential for atonement (Hebrews 9:22), the unbloody [~minchah] formed part of the ceremony of expiation, and this notably on the day of atonement."[1]

Verse 2

Who can bear gently with the ignorant and erring, for that he himself also is encompassed with infirmity.

The need of compassion on the part of a high priest is stressed here, a qualification sadly lacking in many who held that position. Alexander Jannaeus, one particularly heartless priest, was singled out by Bruce, who said of him, "No man in Israel was less disposed to `bear gently with the ignorant and erring' - or anyone else." He further said that from the "fall of the house of Zadok to the destruction of the temple 240 years later, there were very few high priests in Israel who manifested the personal qualities so indispensable to their sacred office."[2] Also, the generation that first received Hebrews were close enough to remember the heartless Annas, remembered for his part in the crucifixion of Christ, and who had begun his career as high priest by putting a man to death, for which injustice he was deposed by Rome and the power to inflict death removed from his office.

Regardless of the failure of many high priests to possess the virtue of compassion mentioned here, that virtue should nevertheless be held prerequisite to the exercise of any meaningful sacred ministry, and far more for that of such an office as high priest. No antidote for a proud and vindictive spirit is quite as effective as a penitent consciousness of one's own sins and shortcomings, an excellent example being Paul, who said, "I have great sorrow and unceasing pain in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were anathema from Christ for my brethren's sake my kinsmen according to the flesh" (Romans 9:2,3).

Verse 3

And by reason thereof is bound, as for the people, so also for himself, to offer for sins.

Here the author touches on one of the great differences between the high priest of Israel and the Lord Jesus Christ; whereas they were, through infirmity and sins, required to offer blood for themselves, Christ, being sinless and undefiled, was laid under no such necessity. Milligan pointed out that this acknowledgment of guilt by the Aaronic priests was not confined to such a special occasion as the day of atonement, but was all-pervasive.

The high priest was required to offer sacrifices for his own sins, as well as for the sins of the people. This he did not only on special occasions and for special offenses (Leviticus 4:3-12), but also in all the regular daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly sacrifices that were offered for the sins of the nation; in all these there was an acknowledgment of his own guilt, as well as the guilt of the brethren.[3]

Although there can be no analogy between the high priesthood of Israel and the office of Christian ministers and teachers, there certainly is, however, the same common bond of the need of forgiveness that unites every teacher of God's word with the people who hear him. Every minister of the truth stands squarely in need of the forgiveness he preaches for others, both the teacher and the taught requiring the same remedy in the blood of Christ and the same loving obedience that it might become their final possession.

Verse 4

And no man taketh the honor to himself, but when he is called of God, even as was Aaron.

Only God had the right to appoint such a thing as a high priest who would represent his people before the presence on high; and only God has the right to name a High Priest for all mankind. This verse lays the premise for showing that Christ too was called and appointed by God to the great office which he exercises on behalf of all people. The misuse of this verse is that of making it apply to the "call" of gospel ministers, or claiming it as a support of so-called lines of succession, or chain-like perpetuation of ecclesiastical authority. No such thoughts are in the verse. Barnes declared that "This has no reference to the call of Christian ministers, and should not be applied to it."[4] Adam Clarke also noted the efforts of some to make such a use of the verse, saying,

For the uninterrupted succession of popes and their bishops in the church who alone have the authority to ordain for the sacerdotal office; and whosoever is not thus appointed is, with them, illegitimate.

But he concluded, "The verse has nothing to do with clerical office, with preaching God's holy word, or administering the sacraments."[5]

The Aaronic priesthood itself did not have an unbroken succession, nor was the appointment of the high priest always by the rules God gave. Herod the Great, Archelaus, and various Roman governors usurped the right of naming the high priest, even deposing Annas and appointing another in his place. Further, the office of the Jewish high priest was divinely scheduled to expire and disappear with the coming of Christ.

[4] Albert Barnes, Notes on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1963), Vol. Hebrews, p. 113.

[5] Adam Clarke, Commentary on the Holy Bible (New York: Carlton and Porter, 1829), p. 717.

Verse 5

So Christ also glorified not himself to be made a high priest, but he that spake unto him, Thou art my Son, This day have I begotten thee: as he saith also in another place, Thou art a priest forever After the order of Melchizedek.

This is one of the most significant declarations about Christ to be found in all the Bible; and, in all probability, the author of Hebrews was the first ever to understand it and to find in this Psalms 110 the Old Testament prophecy that united in a single person the offices of both king and high priest, that is, in the person of Christ. One of the great mysteries of the prophecies of Jesus had always been the apparent contradictions in the Messianic prophecies, some hailing him as "Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace," and others, often by the same writer, extolling him as "a man of sorrows," "despised and rejected of men," "a root out of dry ground," and "acquainted with grief," etc. It was precisely this apparent contradiction that the Pharisees could not and never did understand. Jesus confronted them with it (Matthew 22:41-46) and pressed them for an answer as to how Christ could be both David's Lord and David's son at the same time; but the intelligentsia of Israel never resolved the problem. In order to harmonize the prophecies, they referred them to two different persons, as represented by a glorious king on one hand, and a suffering high priest on the other. Bruce outlined this concept of a dual Messiah thus,

In some strand of Jewish expectation, a distinction was made between the lay Messiah (the Messiah of Israel or prince of the house of David) and the priestly Messiah (the Messiah of Aaron).[6]

The author of Hebrews then did a dramatic, unheard of thing. Having already argued from Psalms 110:1,2 for the universal kingship of Christ the Messiah (Hebrews 1:5), at this point in the epistle he returned to that same Psalms 110 to bring in the fourth verse from which he also proclaimed the universal high priesthood of Christ, showing him to be not of Aaron's line, but an independent high priest of universal dominion "after the order of Melchizedek." Thus was revealed, at last, the mystery of how the suffering high priestly Messiah and the kingly Messiah were one and the same person. Modern religious people would not find that problem an impediment to their believing in Jesus Christ, but it was a powerful deterrent to Christians of Jewish background in the first century. "You cannot accept Christ as your high priest," the Pharisees said, "because, since he does not belong to the posterity of Aaron, he is disqualified from being any kind of priest whatever!" And the only verse in the Bible that clears that up is Psalms 110:4. The Pharisees should have known this; but it was true of them, as it was of the Sadducees, that they did err "not knowing the scriptures nor the power of God" (Matthew 22:29). Speaking of the dramatic problem-solving exegesis set forth in this instance by the inspired author of Hebrews, Bruce said, "Our author takes up verse 4 of the Psalm and applies it to Jesus in a way which, as far as we can tell, was unprecedented in the early church."[7]

The typical nature of Melchizedek and the manner of his foreshadowing the advent of the Saviour is deferred for full discussion later (Hebrews 7:1ff), where the true and amazing likeness is brilliantly detailed. This first mention of it though, is very important because of its bearing upon the question of Christ's qualifications to be the great high priest. The logical weight of the argument springs from the fact that Psalms 2:7ff foretold the Messiah to be a universal ruler over all his enemies (as set forth in Hebrews 1:5), a fact widely known and used among Christians of that age - and now, that same book of Psalms (Psalms 110:4) is brought forward to prove the extraordinary character of Christ's high priesthood. The author put both references side by side, the first hailing him as king, the second as a great high priest forever.

Thou art my Son, This day have I begotten thee (Psalms 2:7). Thou art a priest forever After the order of Melchizedek (Psalms 110:4).

Forever means that Christ has no successor as high priest, that as long as the sun, moon and stars endure, and to the remotest generations of people, he is still the great and only high priest. His work will never suffer any interruption nor be diminished in any way until all enemies have been put under his feet, and until the last redeemed sinners have entered the eternal abodes. Priests of Aaron's line were, like all men, subject to mortality and death; but not so with him who ever lives to make intercession for his own.

[6] F. F. Bruce, op. cit., p. 94.

[7] Ibid., p. 94.

Verse 7

Who in the days of his flesh, having offered up prayers and supplication with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death, and having been heard for his godly fear.

This verse speaks of the agony in Gethsemane where the godly soul of Jesus recoiled at the disgusting and repugnant death looming ahead of him on the cross; for surely, the "cup" mentioned there could mean nothing if not the approaching agony. Some hesitate to apply this passage thus, due to the fact that Christ prayed for the cup to be removed ("if it be thy will" etc.); but it was not removed. The obvious answer lies in the perfect humanity of Jesus which reacted to the impending death exactly as this passage says. That the "cup" was not the present agony in the garden but the cross itself is explicit in the fact that, after the agony was passed, Jesus still proposed to drink the cup; for, when Peter would have defended him, he said, "Put up the sword into the sheath: the cup which the Father hath given me, shall I not drink it?" (John 18:11). Thus Christ's prayer was truly heard; and, although the specific petition to remove the cup was not granted, it is declared that angels came and strengthened him; and here is seen God's method of answering prayers in some instances, in which he sends not a lighter load but a stronger heart to bear it. It was thus with Jesus, and many after him have found it even so.

Having already proved Christ's right of kingship, demonstrating from the Old Testament scriptures that Christ was truly the Messiah prince of the house of David, and also that he was a priest forever of the independent and perpetual order of Melchizedek, the author in this verse stresses the mercy and sympathetic understanding of Jesus, as testified in the sorrows and agonies through which our Lord passed.

Godly fear comes from a Greek expression in which many learned scholars have found occasion to differ as to its exact meaning; but whatever the technical meaning of these words, Christians can be sure that nothing unworthy of the Lord is denoted. If it refers to the natural dread and fear of death, such was not dishonorable in Jesus who thus tasted of the instinctive feelings of all people; if it means the fear of God, it becomes a synonym of reverence and piety. Perhaps the New English Bible (1961) has given the best translation, making the words read "humble submission."

Verse 8

Though he was a Son, yet learned obedience by the things which he suffered.

In a sense, all people learn obedience by the things which they suffer. Usually people learn obedience through the disastrous consequences of their disobedience; but not so with Christ. From the first he set forth on a course of the most absolute and perfect obedience; and the sufferings which he endured were the consequence of that obedience, as witness his sufferings on the cross. To learn obedience, as here, implies the tasting of every consequence of obedience. The savage antagonisms of a sinful and rebellious world against all truth and honor were pointed squarely against him who knew no sin. His perfect obedience was the cause of bitter hatred against him and provided the occasion for every blow that fell upon his person. That hatred of Christ was exactly in the pattern of the hatred of Abel, who was murdered by his brother Cain; "And wherefore slew he him? because his works were evil, and his brother's righteous" (1 John 3:12).

Verse 9

And having been made perfect, he became unto all them that obey him the author of eternal salvation.

Christ's being made perfect should not be understood in the sense that he was not previously perfect but as an emphasis upon the perfection of his qualifications of sympathy, love, mercy and understanding, which were so necessary in a high priest, and which could not be possessed fully by any person except one who had suffered. Amazingly, though most sufferers have travail because of sin, sometimes their own, and often of others, such is the terrible mystery of evil that even perfect obedience, as in that of Christ, also results in an overwhelming tide of sufferings. "There is something appropriate in the fact that the salvation which was procured by the obedience of the Redeemer should be made available to the obedience of the redeemed."[8]

Eternal salvation brings to mind other things mentioned in this epistle: "eternal redemption" (Hebrews 9:12), "eternal inheritance" (Hebrews 9:15), and "eternal covenant" (Hebrews 13:20). The word "author" is translated from the Greek word "cause," as a glance at the English Revised Version (1885) margin will show. Some think that the idea of "pioneer" is also included; but, in any case, Christ is the source, fountain head, procurer and administrator of redemption.

We cannot leave this verse without stressing the obedience which is so forcibly enjoined. That the disobedient have any prospect whatever of salvation is a delusion and a snare. If the Son and such a Son, learned obedience through suffering, how much more necessary is it that all of his followers obey him even at the cost of suffering and death. Paul thundered this anathema against the disobedient:

And to you that are afflicted, rest with us, at the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven with the angels of his power in flaming fire, rendering vengeance to them that know not God, and to them that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus; who shall suffer punishment, even eternal destruction from the face of the Lord and from the glory of his might (2 Thessalonians 1:7-9).

The scriptural exhortation to obedience is not merely that it shall be until death, but unto death. "Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee the crown of life" (Revelation 2:10).

Verse 10

Named of God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.

Here the author picks up the thread of argument relative to the high priesthood of Christ, intending to return a few verses later with a further elaboration of it; but characteristically of the author, he interrupts himself to deliver the third of five great exhortations in the epistle. It is precisely this trait which suggests Paul as the author.

Named of God indicates that Christ's being made a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek was none of the author's doing; it had not been conceived by any of Christ's followers, but it was an act of God himself; and there it was in the sacred scriptures, embedded as in a matrix, and only waiting for the fullness of time when the mind of inspiration would illuminate it with a finger of light, as is done in this very passage. The deduction that all were expected to make is quite obvious, namely, that Christ's high priesthood was no less of God than was that of Aaron, and over and beyond that, was in many remarkable particulars superior to it.


The balance of Hebrews 5 and all of Hebrews 6 are given to an extensive exhortation for the purpose of arousing the disciples from their lethargy and setting their feet firmly on the road to spiritual maturity. They had simply not developed as should have been expected; and, although sufficient time had elapsed since their conversion that they should have been by that time able teachers of the word of God, such was far from being true of them. They had made themselves content with a knowledge of the rudimentary things of faith and of the first principles of the gospel and had not gone forward to acquire a genuine mastery of the faith. That elementary character of their faith looms in the writer's mind, at this point, as an actual impediment to their understanding of the marvelous things he was writing; and before proceeding with such advanced teaching, he takes time out to protest their incompetence to understand it!

Verse 11

Of whom we have many things to say, and hard of interpretation, seeing ye are become dull of hearing.

One can have sympathy with original readers of Hebrews, for not merely unto them but to many in our own times and in all ages, the writer's words are properly said to be "hard of interpretation." This is true of the thoughts of Melchizedek, which seem to have precipitated this word from the author; and it is also true of many other things in the epistle, such as the teaching on chastisement (Hebrews 12:7), etc. The importance of the communication, however, is so great and the need of the people to understand it is so urgent that, after a rebuke to them, he goes ahead with the argument anyway.

Verse 12

For when by reason of the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need again that some one teach you the rudiments of the first principles of the oracles of God; and have become such as have need of milk and not of solid food.

That the knowledge of spiritual things may be classified as elementary and advanced is explicit in the words "milk" and "solid food." Perhaps there is even a more advanced classification to be discerned in the words of Paul who said, "For the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God" (1 Corinthians 2:10). The metaphor of milk and solid food will be noted under Hebrews 5:13-14.

It should be noted specifically that there are certain elementary, basic, and foundational truths in the Christian system that should be known and received by all. These things are called here "rudiments" and "first principles"; and there is not the slightest hint in this place and elsewhere that these basic things are not important; but, on the other hand, they are projected as vital. Indeed, the author states that the people need to be taught all that again. "Ye have need again" that someone teach you, etc. An outline of Christian fundamentals is given in the next chapter, and each of them will be more fully studied there.

Verse 13

For everyone that partaketh of milk is without experience in the word of righteousness; for he is a babe. But solid food is for full grown men, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern good and evil.

Peter referred to young Christians as "newborn babes," admonishing them to "long for the spiritual milk which is without guile, that ye may grow thereby unto salvation" (1 Peter 2:2). Paul used the same metaphor and extended it thus, "I fed you with milk, not with meat; for ye were not able to bear it; nay, not even now are ye able; for ye are yet carnal" (1 Corinthians 3:2,3). The metaphor of children and full-grown men is also used in Ephesians 4:13,14, where Paul admonished his readers to attain the stature of "full-grown men" and that they should be no longer "children."

From the passage before us, it is plain that spiritual maturity is not simply a matter of time. Many who have been Christians many years may be in the condition of these Hebrew Christians. True spiritual growth is the result of prayer, study, meditation, faithfulness, diligence, exercise, and the successful struggle against temptations. The need for spiritual maturity is implicit in the confusion of the complex and sinful world in which people live. Matters of right and wrong do not always appear as checkerboard squares of black and white, there being many gray areas where the proper discovery of what is right and wrong can be a far more difficult matter. The great loss to the spiritual infant is that he may be misled, an eventuality that becomes certain unless he attains some degree of spiritual maturity. The church needs full-grown people, people who are not blown about by every wind of doctrine, people who have triumphed over the flesh, people of deep and loving personality, able to comfort the weak and the discouraged, and prepared to stand against all obstacles whatsoever. The pity of the present age of the church is seen in congregations of spiritual infants, uninstructed in the weightier things of the true faith, and indeed utterly ignorant of them, incapable of recognizing the most arrogant heresies, even those that deny the Lord, and still, after so many years, possessing only the most elementary knowledge of Christianity.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Hebrews 5". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.