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Hebrews 5

Barclay's Daily Study BibleDaily Study Bible

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Verses 1-14

Chapter 5

AT HOME WITH MAN AND GOD ( Hebrews 5:1-10 )

5:1-10 Every high priest who is chosen from among men is appointed on men's behalf to deal with the things which concern God. His task is to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins, in that he himself is able to feel gently to the ignorant and to the wandering because he himself wears the garment of human weakness. By reason of this very weakness it is incumbent upon him, just as he makes sacrifice for the people, so to make sacrifice for sins on his own behalf also. No one takes this honourable position to himself, but he is called by God to it, just as Aaron was. So it was not Christ who gave himself the glory of becoming high priest; but it was God who said to him: "You are my beloved Son; today I have begotten you." Just so he says also in another passage: "You are a priest for ever according to the order of Melchizedek." In the days when he lived this human life of ours he offered prayers and entreaties to him who was able to bring him safely through death with strong crying and with tears. And when he had been heard because of his reverence, although he was a Son, he learned obedience from the sufferings through which he passed. When he had been made fully fit for his appointed task, he became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey him, for he had been designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.

Now Hebrews comes to work out the doctrine which is its special contribution to Christian thought--the doctrine of the High Priesthood of Jesus Christ. This passage sets out three essential qualifications of the priest in any age and in any generation.

(i) A priest is appointed on men's behalf to deal with the things concerning God. A. J. Gossip used to tell his students that when he was ordained to the ministry he felt as if the people were saying to him: "We are for ever involved in the dust and the heat of the day; we have to spend our time getting and spending; we have to serve at the counter, to toil at the desk, to make the wheels of industry go round. We want you to be set apart so that you can go in to the secret place of God and come back every Sunday with a word from him to us." The priest is the link between God and man.

In Israel the priest had one special function, to offer sacrifice for the sins of the people. Sin disturbs the relationship which should exist between man and God and puts up a barrier between them. The sacrifice is meant to restore that relationship and remove that barrier.

But we must note that the Jew was always quite clear, when thinking at his highest, that the sins for which sacrifice could atone were sins of ignorance. The deliberate sin did not find its atonement in sacrifice. The writer to the Hebrews himself says: "For if we sin deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins" ( Hebrews 10:26). This is a conviction that emerges again and again in the sacrificial laws of the Old Testament. Again and again they begin: "If any one sins unwittingly in any of the things which the Lord has commanded not to be done..." ( Leviticus 4:2; Leviticus 4:13). Numbers 15:22-31 is a key passage. There the requisite sacrifices are laid down "if you err unwittingly." But at the end it is laid down: "That person who does anything with a high hand...reviles the Lord...shall be utterly cut off: his iniquity shall be upon him." Deuteronomy 17:12 lays it down: "The man who acts presumptuously...that man shall die."

The sin of ignorance is pardonable; the sin of presumption is not. Nevertheless we must note that by the sin of ignorance the Jews meant more than simply lack of knowledge. They included the sins committed when a man was swept away in a moment of impulse or anger or passion or mastered by some overmastering temptation and the sins followed by repentance. By the sin of presumption they meant the cold, calculated sin for which a man was not in the least sorry, the open-eyed disobedience of God.

So, then, the priest existed to open the way for the sinner back to God--so long as he wanted to come back.

(ii) The priest must be one with men. He must have gone through men's experiences and his sympathy must be with them. At this point the writer to the Hebrews stops to point out--he will later show that this is one of the ways in which Jesus Christ is superior to any earthly priest--that the earthly priest is so one with men that he is under the necessity of offering sacrifice for his own sin before he offers it for the sins of others. The priest must be bound up with men in the bundle of life. In connection with this he used a wonderful word--metriopathein ( G3356) . We have translated it "to feel gently"; but it is really untranslatable.

The Greeks defined a virtue as the mean between two extremes. On either hand there was an extreme into which a man might fall; in between there was the right way. So the Greeks defined metriopatheia (the corresponding noun) as the mean between extravagant grief and utter indifference. It was feeling about men in the right way. W. M. Macgregor defined it as "the mid-course between explosions of anger and lazy indulgence." Plutarch spoke of that patience which was the child of metriopatheia. He spoke of it as that sympathetic feeling which enabled a man to raise up and to save, to spare and to hear. Another Greek blames a man for having no metriopatheia and for therefore refusing to be reconciled with someone who had differed from him. It is a wonderful word. It means the ability to bear with people without getting irritated; it means the ability not to lose one's temper with people when they are foolish and will not learn and do the same thing over and over again. It describes the attitude to others which does not issue in anger at their fault and which does not condone it, but which to the end of the day spends itself in a gentle yet powerful sympathy which by its very patience directs a man back to the right way. No man can ever deal with his fellow-men unless he has this strong and patient, God-given metriopatheia.

(iii) The third essential of a priest is this--no man appoints himself to the priesthood; his appointment is of God. The priesthood is not an office which a man takes; it is a privilege and a glory to which he is called. The ministry of God among men is neither a job nor a career but a calling. A man ought to be able to look back and say, not, "I chose this work," but rather, "God chose me and gave me this work to do."

The writer to the Hebrews goes on to show how Jesus Christ fulfils the great conditions of the priesthood.

(i) He takes the last one first. Jesus did not choose his task; God chose him for it. At the Baptism there came to Jesus the voice which said: "You are my Son; today I have begotten you" ( Psalms 2:7).

(ii) Jesus has gone through the bitterest experiences of men and understands manhood in all its strength and weakness. The writer to the Hebrews has four great thoughts about him.

(a) He remembers Jesus in Gethsemane. That is what he is thinking of when he speaks of Jesus' prayers and entreaties, his tears and his cry. The word he uses for cry (krauge, G2906) is very significant. It is a cry which a man does not choose to utter but is wrung from him in the stress of some tremendous tension or searing pain. So, then, the writer to the Hebrews says that there is no agony of the human spirit through which Jesus has not come. The rabbis had a saying: "There are three kinds of prayers, each loftier than the preceding--prayer, crying and tears. Prayer is made in silence; crying with raised voice; but tears overcome all things." Jesus knew even the desperate prayer of tears.

(b) Jesus learned from all his experiences because he met them all with reverence. The Greek phrase for "He learned from what he suffered" is a linguistic jingle--emathen ( G3129) aph' ( G575) hon ( G3739) epathen ( G3958) . And this is a thought which keeps recurring in the Greek thinkers. They are always connecting mathein ( G3129) , to learn, and pathein ( G3958) , to suffer. Aeschylus, the earliest of the great Greek dramatists, had as a kind of continual text: "Learning comes from suffering" (pathei mathos). He calls suffering a kind of savage grace from the gods. Herodotus declared that his sufferings were acharista mathemata, ungracious ways of learning. A modern poet says of the poets:

"We learned in suffering what we teach in song."

God speaks to men in many experiences of life, and not least in those which try their hearts and souls. But we can hear his voice only when we accept in reverence what comes to us. If we accept it with resentment, the rebellious cries of our own heart make us deaf to the voice of God.

(c) By means of the experiences through which he passed, the King James Version says that Jesus was made perfect (teleioun, G5048) . Teleioun is the verb of the adjective teleios ( G5046) . Teleios can quite correctly be translated "perfect" so long as we remember what the Greek meant by that perfection. To him a thing was teleios ( G5046) if it perfectly carried out the purpose for which it was designed. When he used the word he was not thinking in terms of abstract and metaphysical perfection; he was thinking in terms of function. What the writer to the Hebrews is saying is that all the experiences of suffering through which Jesus passed perfectly fitted him to become the Saviour of men.

(d) The salvation which Jesus brought is an eternal salvation. It is something which keeps a man safe both in time and in eternity. With Christ a man is safe for ever. There are no circumstances that can pluck him from Christ's hand.

THE REFUSAL TO GROW UP ( Hebrews 5:11-14 )

5:11-14 The story which has been laid upon me to tell you about this matter is a long story, difficult to tell and difficult to grasp, for your ears have become dull. For, indeed, at a stage when you ought to be teachers because of the length of time that has passed since you first heard the gospel, you still need someone to tell you the simple elements of the very beginning of the message of God. You have sunk into a state when you need milk and not solid food; for when anyone is at the stage of participating in milk feeding, he does not really know what Christian righteousness is, for he is only a child. For solid food is for those who have reached maturity, those who, through the development of the right kind of habit, have reached a stage when their perceptions are trained to distinguish between good and evil.

Here the writer to the Hebrews deals with the difficulties which confront him in attempting to get across an adequate conception of Christianity to his hearers.

He is confronted with two difficulties. First, the full orb of the Christian faith is by no means an easy thing to grasp nor can it be teamed in a day. Second, the hearing of his hearers is dull. The word he uses (nothros, G3576) is full of meaning. It means slow-moving in mind, torpid in understanding, dull of hearing, witlessly forgetful. It can be used of the numbed limbs of an animal which is ill. It can be used of a person who has the imperceptive nature of a stone. Now this has something to say to everyone whose business it is to preach and to teach; in fact, it has something to say to everyone whose business it is to think and that means that it has something to say to everyone who is a real person. It often happens that we dodge teaching something because it is difficult; we defend ourselves by saying that our hearers would never grasp it. It is one of the tragedies of the Church that there is so little attempt to teach new knowledge and new thought. It is true that such teaching is difficult. It is true that often it means meeting the lethargy of the lazy mind and the embattled prejudice of the shut mind. But the task remains. The writer to the Hebrews did not shirk to bring his message, even if it was difficult and the minds of his hearers were slow. He regarded it as his supreme responsibility to pass on the truth he knew.

His complaint is that his hearers have been Christians for many years and are still babes no nearer maturity. The contrast between the immature Christian and the child, between milk and solid food, often occurs in the New Testament ( 1 Peter 2:2; 1 Corinthians 2:6; 1 Corinthians 3:2; 1 Corinthians 14:20; Ephesians 4:13 ff.). Hebrews says that by now they should be teachers. It is not necessary to take that literally. To say that a man was able to teach was the Greek way of saying that he had a mature grasp of a subject. The writer says that they still need someone to teach them the simple elements (stoicheia, G4747) of Christianity. This word has a variety of meanings. In grammar it means the letters of the alphabet, the A B C; in physics it means the four basic elements of which the world is composed; in geometry it means the elements of proof like the point and the straight line; in philosophy it means the first elementary principles with which the students begin. It is the sorrow of the writer to the Hebrews that after many years of Christianity his people have never got past the rudiments; they are like children who do not know the difference between right and wrong.

Here he is face to face with a problem which haunts the Church in every generation, that of the Christian who refuses to grow up.

(i) The Christian can refuse to grow up in knowledge. He can be guilty of what someone called "the culpable incapacity resulting from the neglect of opportunity." There are people who keep on saying that what was good enough for their fathers is good enough for them. There are Christians in whose faith there has been no development for thirty or forty or fifty or sixty years. There are Christians who have deliberately refused to try to understand the advances that Biblical scholarship and theological thought have made. They are grown men and women and yet insist on remaining content with the religious development of a child.

They are like a surgeon who refuses to use the new techniques of surgery, refuses to use the new anesthetics, refuses to use any new equipment and says: "What was good enough for Lister is good enough for me." They are like a physician who refuses to use any of the new drugs and says: "What I learned as a student fifty years ago is good enough for me." In religious things it is still worse. God is infinite; the riches of Christ are unsearchable; and to the end of the day we should be moving forward.

(ii) There are people who have never grown up in behaviour. It may be forgivable in a child to sulk or to be liable to fits of temper, but there are many adults who are just as childish in their behaviour.

A case of arrested development is always a pathetic thing; and the world is full of people whose religious development has been arrested. They stopped learning years ago and their conduct is that of a child. It is true that Jesus said the greatest thing in the world is the childlike spirit; but there is a tremendous difference between the childlike and the childish spirit. Peter Pan makes a charming play on the stage; but the man who will not grow up makes a tragedy in real life. Let us have a care lest we are still in the religion of childhood when we should have reached the faith of maturity.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

Bibliographical Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Hebrews 5". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". 1956-1959.