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Hebrews 5

Layman's Bible CommentaryLayman's Bible Commentary

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Verses 1-4


Hebrews 5:1 to Hebrews 7:28

Qualifications of a High Priest (5:1-10)

Appointment and Humanity (5:1-4)

We have now arrived at the central and most important section of the letter, that which deals with the nature of the Son’s high priesthood and with his work. These two subjects will occupy five and a half chapters, or a bit more than two-fifths of the book.

In the present section the author selects for his purpose two qualifications of the high priest — namely, his divine appointment and his humanity. The high priest, he points out, is from the side of man and is to act for man, even as the prophet was from the side of God and was appointed to act as God’s spokesman (vs. 1). The high priest thus becomes a true representative of man before God, "since he himself is beset with weakness" such as is experienced by all men. The high priest is human, because he shares the weakness of the men whom he represents before God. He is himself a sinner and "is bound to offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people" (vs. 3).

Actually the only day in the entire Jewish year when it was incumbent upon the high priest to offer sacrifices was the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16). On this day the high priest offered a bull "as a sin offering for himself . . . and for his house" (Leviticus 16:6). Some of the blood of the bull" he took and sprinkled on the mercy seat in the Holy of Holies (Leviticus 16:14). Only thereafter was he qualified to kill "the goat of the sin offering which is for the people" and to take "its blood within the veil," sprinkling it upon the mercy seat in the Holy of Holies (Leviticus 16:15). In the Jewish Mishnah (the law book which gives us a view of the contemporary Jewish customs) one entire book is devoted to the exact manner of the high priest’s functioning on the Day of Atonement. And both Old Testament and Mishnah paint for us a striking picture in accord with Hebrews’ delineation of the high priest and his work: he is a servant of the people, acting on their behalf, and one with them in standing in need of forgiveness and salvation.

The present passage abounds with references of an accurate nature, showing a good knowledge of Jewish law. For example, the "gifts and sacrifices" of verse 1 are probably the "cereal offering" and "flesh" sacrifices specified under the Law (Leviticus 2:1; Leviticus 2:4; Leviticus 7:12; Leviticus 7:15-18). Again, it is likely that "the ignorant and wayward" specifies the two classes of sinners recognized under the Law — namely, those who committed offenses against the Law through ignorance (Leviticus 4:2; Leviticus 5:14; Leviticus 5:17), and sinners "with a high hand," that is, those who voluntarily disobeyed the Law although it was known to them (Numbers 15:30).

The second qualification of the high priest is that of divine appointment (vss. 1, 4). Actually only Aaron among Jewish high priests was personally called by God (Exodus 28:1). Thereafter, the high priest was a member of the tribe of Levi, which was descended lineally from Aaron. But the selection of a particular high priest was confused throughout the history of Judaism following the Exile. Under the Maccabean princes, for example, the high priesthood had been seized as the prerogative of the ruling house. Under the Romans, the high priest was often appointed by the provincial government of Judea. Actually his inauguration was accomplished either by anointing or by investiture.

The Jews generally accepted as high priest one drawn from the tribe of Levi, and therefore they recognized such a one as qualified for the office by the mere fact of birth. The author of Hebrews suggests that the High Priest acknowledged by the Christian Church is one who occupies the office with the same high qualification enjoyed by Aaron at its inception — the call of God alone.

Verses 5-10

Fulfillment by the Son (5:5-10)

The author now shows that the two qualifications of high priesthood above indicated (humanity and the divine call) are both fulfilled in the case of Jesus Christ. In asserting the divine appointment, the author makes use of two royal Psalms (Psalms 2:7; Psalms 110:4). The first of the quotations ("Thou art my Son, today I have begotten thee") probably is intended to have reference to the voice which spoke from heaven to Jesus at his baptism. However, as reported by Mark (1:11) that voice employed only the first part of the quotation from Psalms 2:7 ("Thou art my . . . Son"), substituting for the second part of the verse a clause from the Greek translation of Isaiah 42:1 ("my beloved, in whom I am well pleased"). For the quotation from Isaiah, which refers to the ordination of the Suffering Servant, Hebrews substitutes Psalms 110:4 ("Thou art a priest for ever, after the order of Melchizedek"). It seems certain that Jesus applied Psalms 110 to himself (see Mark 12:36). Possibly, therefore, the author of Hebrews understood Jesus to mean that the eternal Father had used the words of this Psalm in speaking to his eternal Son, applying their significance to him.

The author wishes to say that our Lord was himself aware of appointment from God as high-priestly Messiah. Jesus did not choose these high offices for himself. But equally he was not unaware of his divine appointment. He had good reason, as he was addressed by the heavenly voice, to know himself both Messiah and High Priest of his people.

The second qualification for the high priesthood (humanity) was also met by Jesus Christ. For although, as we have already seen, he was in his essential being Son of God (1:1-4), nonetheless he "learned obedience through what he suffered" (5:8). In this connection Hebrews lays particular stress upon the "prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears" which Jesus offered "to him who was able to save him from death" (vs. 7). Undoubtedly the reference here is particularly to the Gethsemane experience (Matthew 26:36-46). Our author conceives of Jesus as having been "heard for his godly fear" (vs. 7) on this occasion, a reference to the nature of Jesus’ prayer, which was to the effect that his Father’s will and not his own should be accomplished. The resignation of man’s will to God is a fundamental characteristic of "godly fear" in the biblical sense of that term (Genesis 3:17; Hebrews 3:16; Hebrews 4:6; Hebrews 4:11). That Jesus "learned obedience" through his sufferings is a characteristic teaching also of the Apostle Paul (Philippians 2:5-11).

The phrase "made perfect" (vs. 9) has the sense in the Greek of "having attained a previously determined goal." The meaning here is that Jesus obediently accepted the suffering which was laid upon him by the sinful condition of the world into which, at the Father’s command, he had entered. The result of this utter obedience to his Father regardless of cost was our Lord’s maturing to the point where he became worthy of being "the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him" (vs. 9). There is no indication in verse 10 of the point of time at which Jesus was "designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek," but the logic of the author’s argument would suggest that such designation was the result of the obedience and the consequent maturing process which has just been described. It has been suggested that God’s appointment of Jesus as High Priest came at the Ascension and was synchronous with his entrance into the heavenly tabernacle. Such a view, however, probably goes beyond the chronological interest of the author. Rather, the logical sequence is what he is concerned to stress here.

Verses 11-14

Qualifications of Mature Sons (5:11-6:20)

Teachers of the Word of Righteousness (5:11-14)

This long section (Hebrews 5:11 to Hebrews 6:20) disrupts the author’s description of the Son’s high priesthood. Verse 10 is clearly repeated at 6:20, and thereafter the argument is taken up in chapter 7. This is, however, in accordance with the author’s general plan of mingling hortatory with didactic sections in his letter. Further, it has the effect once again of throwing into relief the contrast between "Son" and "sons" which runs through the letter.

It is quite apparent from the description of the author’s readers that they are by no means new converts. Considerable time has elapsed since they became Christians, and "by this time" they should themselves have been ready to become teachers of others. He is keenly disappointed to discover that again they require to be taught "the first principles of God’s word" (vs. 12). The word translated "principles" here is the common Greek expression equivalent to our English ABC’s and was applied in similar fashion to the rudiments of any branch of learning. The branch here intended is in verse 11 called in the Greek simply "the word" ("much to say"). In verse 13 it becomes "the word of righteousness" and in Hebrews 6:1, "the elementary doctrines of Christ" or, as the Greek has it, "the elementary word of Christ." This is certainly to be identified with "the message which they heard" (Hebrews 4:2) and "the word of God" (Hebrews 4:12), and consequently with the gospel, which was under discussion in chapters 3 and 4.

The message which the author says he is concerned to transmit to his readers is "the word of righteousness" (vs. 13). This is a word which, as he remarks, is fit not for a "child" but rather "for the mature." His general meaning here is clear, but his use of the qualifying phrase "of righteousness" is the more striking inasmuch as it is not a common one in this letter. We have seen the word "righteousness" thus far only in 1:9, where it was employed in connection with the description of the eternal Christ who loves righteousness and hates iniquity. It is perhaps significant that the next passage in which the word is used is at 7:2, where the author translates Melchizedek as "king of righteousness." Obviously teaching with regard to such a high priest might well be termed "the word of righteousness." But the author is also aware of "the righteousness which comes by faith" (Hebrews 11:7; Hebrews 12:11). Moreover, the mature who are ready to receive such a word are those who, according to the author, "have their faculties trained by practice to distinguish good from evil." Perhaps, therefore, we should see in the use of the term here a reference to the total demand of God upon human life, which elsewhere in Scripture is termed "righteousness" (see Matthew 3:15).

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Hebrews 5". "Layman's Bible Commentary".