Jesus Christ, Our Great High Priest

An Exegetical Paper on Hebrews 4:15-5:10

Introduction

This paper aims to present Jesus Christ as our merciful high priest who is eager and able to help His own in times of great need. Since the exposition of the priesthood of Christ is heavily concentrated in the book of Hebrews, this paper will focus on the exegesis of Hebrews 4:15-5:10, where Jesus is beautifully portrayed as the sympathetic and sinless high priest of those who belong to Him by virtue of faith in Him. In this passage we will see that we who are united with Christ by faith are exhorted to 'draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need' (Heb. 4:16).

In this paper we will first of all explore on the pertinent historical context and literary genre of the book, including the literary context of the text. Then, we will seek to explain the meaning of the passage in its context, observing its structure, summarizing the author's idea verse by verse or section by section, making connections within the text and to the broader context of the book and other parts of the Scripture, noting the literary devices used, if any, and synthesizing the message of the passage in a statement or two. Lastly, we will make a brief summary and one remark relating the significance of the passage to the Christian life.

Historical Context and Literary Genre of Hebrews

The Letter to the Hebrews is one Biblical book which does not explicitly identify its recipients, author, as well as date of composition. This makes it tough for scholars to give definitive conclusions as to the book's historical background. Though there are some external evidences available to help us determine the background data, this paper would only limit on the internal evidences as we explore on the introductory matters.

Definitely the audience of this letter are members of the Christian community (Heb. 6:9-10; 10:39) who have been in the faith for quite sometime but did not fully mature (5:11-6:3). The letter also shows the recipients' 'enlightenment' or conversion (10:32), their consequent sufferings as a result of embracing Christ by faith and their 'compassion on those in prison' (10:32-34), including their love for God 'in serving the saints' (6:10). However, they are now tempted to drift away from their faith in God (2:1; 3:12; 10:23) due to some kind of struggle or crisis (10:23-39; 12:3-13). This situation must have given the author reason and occasion to write this letter. Since his various warnings are quite serious (in 2:1; 3:12; 10:26-31; 12:25-29), we may safely conclude that the readers are facing great temptation to forsake their faith in Jesus because of this hardship. More-over, since the writer's various exhortations to hold on and to persevere are equally vigorous (in 2:1; 3:1; 4:1,11; 4:14-16, 10:19-25, 12:1-3), we may also reasonably say that the struggle these Christians face are really faith-shaking.

Maybe it is not totally incorrect to say that the readers come from Jewish background or at least familiar with the Jewish religion. The fact that the author always appeals to the Old Testament to argue his case (cf. 1:5-13; 2:6-8,12, 13; 3:7-11, 15; 5:1-6; 8:8-12; 11:4-38; etc.) is an evidence that the readers know the Jewish Scripture well or could have even been part of the Jewish religion. If so, these Jewish Christians are being tempted to revert to their old religious belief or practice, not only because of the hardship they face as Christians, but also due to lack of proper understanding of who Jesus is and what it means to be His follower (6:1-3).

As to the author, his name is not mentioned in the letter unlike in the other letters of the New Testament, say Romans or Galatians. Though Belgic Confession Article IV lists Hebrews as one of Paul's letters, there are external and internal evidences against Pauline authorship. Some recent studies suggest the possibility of dual authorship of Hebrews based on the repeated use of the pronoun 'we' throughout the letter (cf. 2:5; 5:11; 6:9, 11; 8:1; 9:5; 13:18). It is not entirely impossible, and even if this is so one author must have been more prominent than the other, as signaled by the change of 'we' to 'I' in 13:19, 22-23. Whoever may have penned this important letter, we know that he is known to the recipients and is compassionate toward them, as a tender shepherd who patiently warns and exhorts them to persevere in the faith, reminding them that even Christ has suffered but is now glorified in the presence of God (12:1-2). On the basis of the content and style of the letter, we can also say that the author is quite competent in his knowledge of the Holy Scripture and the literary conventions of his time. Even Clement of Alexandria, who assumed Paul's authorship of the book, attested that Hebrews is composed in elegant Greek style.

As to the date of the letter, one strong possible marker is the destruction of Jerusalem temple in A.D. 70. Since the letter does not mention about the temple's destruction, it is sensible to conclude that the letter must have been written prior to this event. This conclusion, though not decisive, is reasonably based on the fact that Hebrews always speaks of the levitical system in the present tense (note especially 5:1-4; 7:20, 23, 27, 28; 8:3, 4, 13; 9:6, 13; 10:2-3, 11). Now the Greek present tense may not necessarily refer to present time, but the authors' argument in Hebrews 10:1-2, which indicates that temple sacrifices still exist, would not make sense if the temple and the sacrificial system were not there anymore.

As to its literary genre, Hebrews is considered a letter, but it seems more appropriate to classify the book as a written Christian sermon, filled with exhortations and warnings based on doctrinal expositions on the supreme and unique person and work of Jesus Christ. It contains some epistolary elements, like the benediction in 13:20-21 and the greetings in 13:22-24, but essentially it is an extended early Christian homily or 'word of exhortation' (13:22) and was probably intended to be read or preached to the recipients. The main theme of this exhortation is for believers to hold fast in their confession of faith in Jesus, their perfect mediator and 'the supreme, unique Son of God and priest of [their] faith.' He is God's final and complete word of revelation (1:1-2) and the one who 'has pioneered the way for humanity to enter God's presence.' The rest of the book expounds this theme and calls its readers to obedience in Christ and perseverance in the faith based on this rich Christological message.

Literary Context of Hebrews 4:15-5:10

The main burden of this paper is to exegete Hebrews 4:15-5:10 with the aim of presenting Jesus as the merciful high priest (Greek, ἀρχιερεὺς) who is able to sympathize with the believers in their weaknesses. This passage is part of a larger section, which begins from 3:1 until 10:39, that constitutes the discussion on the major theme of Hebrews, i.e., the person and work of the Son of God as the Great High Priest in the order of Melchizedek.

The explicit idea of Christ's high priestly identity was paraenetically mentioned in Hebrews 2:17, where He is portrayed as one who 'had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest [ἐλεήμων καὶ πιστὸς ἀρχιερεὺς] in the service of God (emphasis mine).' Then from 3:1 the author starts to make an appeal to 'consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession, who is faithful to him who appointed him'. This faithfulness of Christ as high priest serves as the author's anchor in calling the readers to faithfulness and watchfulness in 3:12a, 'lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading them to fall away from the living God' (3:12b). The same challenge, stated in another way, is heralded by the author in Hebrews 4:11 saying, “Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.” In Hebrews 4:14 the author rounds up the subject of Christ's faithfulness as the believers' great high priest who 'has passed through the heavens'. He then issues a very sobering challenge to his hearers saying, '[L]et us hold fast our confession.' According to Calvin the word ὁμολογία (confession) 'is used by metonymy for faith.' In effect, what the author is saying to them is this, “You believed at one time that Jesus is our high priest who entered the presence of God in heaven to secure our salvation and remains there; now I urge you not to give up that confidence in Him.” So Hebrews 4:14 serves more as a climactic verse in an inclusio, concluding the previous section on the faithfulness of Christ as the great high priest which begins back in 3:1. Not until this idea has been adequately explained that the author starts to move on to prove the person and work of Christ as a merciful high priest in a new section. The notion that Jesus is the believers' merciful high priest is the theme of Hebrews 4:15-5:10. And that's the focus of the following paragraphs.

Exegesis of Hebrews 4:15-5:10

Our pericope in English begins with the word 'For', though in Greek it is the second word. The conjunction γάρ (for) is a postpositive which introduces an explanation to an anticipated misconception of Christ's high priestly ministry in the heavenly temple. The possible misunderstanding may be expressed this way, “If Christ is now highly exalted in his heavenly ministry, how can He effectively minister to those who are struggling against sin and temptation on earth?” Thus the author's intention is to show that Christ's state of exaltation in heaven as high priest is not separated from his state of humiliation as human being who walked on the face of the earth. For in his human nature Christ has been tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin (v.15). Therefore as one who has endured and prevailed over temptations (v.15), Jesus Christ is our perfect high priest who identifies with us in our suffering and temptation (cf. 2:18). Not only that, since He also has ascended to and entered heaven, the real temple (v.14; cf. 6:19-20 and 9:24), He now invites us to 'draw near the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need' (v.16).

This argument is further strengthened by the author's use of litotes, a literary device that affirms something by negating its contrary, usually by using the double negative οὐ and μὴ. In trying to convey how Jesus' battle with temptations enables him to relate to our weaknesses, the author writes in verse 15, “οὐ γὰρ ἔχομεν ἀρχιερέα μὴ δυνάμενον συμπαθῆσαι ταῖς ἀσθενείαις ἡμῶν,” translated as 'For we do not have a high priest who is not able to sympathize with our weaknesses.' The double negative underscores the empathy and compassion of Jesus to those who are beset by their many weaknesses. Besides, the word συμπαθῆσαι, an aorist active infinitive, is from the verb συμπαθέω which is 'used most often of family affection' and simply means 'to feel sympathy with.' This verb must not be understood in a psychological sense but 'in an an experiential sense: our high priest suffers together with the one who is being tested, and brings active help' (emphasis his). Thus the preacher emphasizes the fact that Christ is the kind of high priest who is one of us and sympathetic to us because, not only was He 'made like his brothers in every respect (2:17), but He too was tempted 'in every way as we are (v.15)' (πάντα καθ= ὁμοιότητα), though unlike us, He was without sin.

This sinlessness of Christ is parallel to the idea of His faithfulness to God in 3:2, which proves that though He was in every way tempted like us He remained untouched by sin for He has triumphed over sin and has 'learned obedience through what he suffered' (5:8), namely temptation, as Hebrews 2:18 says, 'he himself has suffered to be tempted.' That kind of mediator therefore is the perfect one who can truly help us because, on the one hand, He can fully sympathize with us for He too was tempted, and on the other hand, He can effectively plead for our case before God by virtue of His sinlessness. In fact His sinlessness through temptation and suffering, as Robert Letham accurately points out, enables Him to sympathize with our struggles and equips Him to represent us before God, since He knows the problems we face. But I think Christ's sinlessness in this context is best interpreted if we think of His duty as the high priest who is going to offer a 'once for all' sacrifice at the heavenly temple. Unlike the old covenant high priest who has to purify himself by offering a sacrifice for his sins before he enters the most holy place of the earthly tabernacle/temple (5:3-4), Christ is sinless and worthy to approach the mercy seat of God, bringing Himself as the sacrifice for His own people before the heavenly altar. Thus the author summons his hearers in verse 16 'to draw near with confidence' (προσερχώμεθα οὖν μετὰ παρρησίας) the throne of grace for there they will find their great high priest ready to minister to them with mercy (v.16) because He paved the way for them by His perfect sacrifice.

This theme of Christ being a merciful sinless high priest to a mercy-needing sin-beset people continues to unfold as we move to the succeeding verses, Hebrews 5:1-10. Here we will see the appointment of, the requirement for, and the duty of an Old Testament high priest (5:1-4) and how these things are applied to Christ in far more excellent and distinct fashion than the regular levitical high priest. In doing so the author attempts to prove Christ's exalted and unique office as high priest.

The postpositive γάρ (for) at the beginning of 5:1 shows the connection between 4:15-16 and 5:1-10. Here the author further develops the idea of Christ's person and work as high priest who is not only sympathetic to those who are like Him in His humanity, whom He represents before the throne of God, but most of all as the sinless high priest and perfect sacrifice, rolled into one, who 'became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him' (5:9). “For”, the author begins to argue,
every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. 2 He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness. 3 Because of this he is obligated to offer sacrifice for his own sins just as he does for those of the people. 4 And no one takes this honor for himself, but only when called by God, just as Aaron was (Heb. 5:1-4).

In this first four verse of Hebrews 5, we are supplied with the honorable designation, qualifications and functions of old covenant high priest, beginning with Aaron. As to his qualification, the high priest must be, first of all, chosen from among men (v.1a); and second of all, he must be appointed or called by God (vv.1b, 4b), but not assume the office for himself (v.4a). His functions are: (1) to act on behalf of men in relation to God (1b), particularly in offering gifts and sacrifices for his own sins and those of the people (v.3); and (2) to deal gently with 'the ignorant and wayward' (v.2), that is, those who 'ignorantly go astray.' These priestly qualifications and functions are set in various parts of the Old Testament, particularly in Exodus 29, Leviticus chapters 4, 8 and 9. The most significant chapter on the function of the high priest is Leviticus 16, where connection to the observance of the Day of Atonement is being made. The Day of Atonement is the time when Aaron, including all the high priests after him, enters the most Holy Place once a year to offer a bloody sacrifice for the sins of the people, after he himself has offered a sacrifice for his own sins.

All the above qualifications are met in the person and work of Christ for, first of all, He is a man, 'made like his brothers in every respect' (2:17); and second of all, He 'did not exalt himself to be made a high priest' (v.5a) but was appointed by God who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you” (v.5; cf. Ps.2:7) and “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek” (v.6; cf. Ps.110:4). The priestly functions above are also present in Christ in a far better way. First, although He was God's Son, 'he learned obedience through what he suffered' (v.8). What this means is that, as the great high priest of the new covenant He is perfect both in His being God and human. For 'in the days of his flesh' (v.7) He walked in complete obedience through temptation and suffering, especially through His ultimate sacrifice of death on the cross.

Throughout His earthly days Jesus Christ acted 'on behalf of men in relation to God' (v.2b) and He offered a 'once for all' sacrifice for sins, not for His own sin since He is without sin, so that in His death He 'became the source of eternal salvation of all who obey Him'. The words of Belgic Confession Article XXI capture the essence of what we confess about this truth, “We believe that Jesus Christ is ordained with an oath to be an everlasting High Priest, after the order of Melchizedek; and that He has presented Himself in our behalf before the Father, to appease His wrath by His full satisfaction, by offering Himself on the tree of the cross, and pouring out His precious blood to purge away our sins.” In contrast to the sacrifices made by the old covenant priests and high priests which 'cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper' (9:9) and 'it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins' (10:4), Christ's bloody sacrifice, that is, His sacrificial substitutionary death, has secured eternal redemption for those who believe and are united in Him. Thus His sacrifice not only revealed the reality of the old covenant sacrifices but also repealed all those sacrifices 'once for all' (8:1-7, 13). That's how Christ's mediatorial work surpasses that of the old covenant priesthood.

Another high priestly function which Christ has fulfilled is His gentle dealing with those who are ignorantly wayward, even those who are beset by their weaknesses. In essence Hebrews 5:7 shows 'how Jesus came to be the compassionate high priest of our salvation.' Without being lost in the intricacies and long history of interpretation of verse 7, we will focus on answering the questions, 'What did Christ pray for and how did God answer him?' The text and its immediate context, as well as John 12:27-28 and 17:5 seem to indicate that Christ prays for God's will to be done in His sacrificial death, so that by His complete obedience unto death, God would glorify Him in His resurrection and subsequent ascension to heaven. God heard that prayer of Jesus for in His obedience (or reverence, v.7) God has exalted Him and given Him a title of honor, that is, to be an eternal high priest in the order of Melchizedek (cf. v.6, 10, which allude to Psalm 110).

The remaining question now is, 'How does this fact enables Christ to minister to those who are beset by weakness?' Here I want to bring the discussion on Jesus' effective intercessory ministry 'in the days of his flesh.' Both Psalm 22 and the Gospel accounts on Christ's passionate prayers are alluded in verse 7. What all these add up to is that, just as Christ, 'because of his reverence' (v.7) was heard by God in His prayer for His glorification after His suffering, God would also hear His high priestly prayers on behalf of His people. I think specifically of Christ's effective intercession on Peter's behalf in Luke 22:31-32, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers." Jesus' high priestly prayer in John 17 also comes to mind where He says, “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.” Now since Christ knows exactly our needs and struggles, and since He continues to intercede for us right in the throne of grace, how else can He not help those who are struggling and wavering? Thus He is far better than the earthly high priest for He not only sympathizes with His people, He works effectively in them so that when they approach God in prayer through Him and for His sake, they truly 'receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need' (4:16).

Conclusion

Jesus is our great high priest because He was divinely appointed by God. He is merciful because He knows what it means to be tempted and to endure suffering, even death on the cross. Not only that, He is also our powerful high priest who has overcome temptations and sufferings by His faithfulness and obedience to the will of His Father, even unto death. Jesus Christ, our great high priest is truly able to help us in times of need because He continually intercedes for us at the throne of grace, where the Father is seated, calling us to draw near to God in prayer. These thoughts are great incentives for us to persevere in the faith no matter how hard our situations are. We must therefore boldly approach God through our merciful mediator, for in Christ, our High Priest, we will surely find great help.

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