|Our Compassionate High Priest (Hebrews 4:14-5:10)
Our Compassionate High Priest
Minister’s Summary: Gravitating toward his theme of holding on when you feel like giving up, the writer/speaker affirms the sympathetic interest of Jesus in the human plight – a plight he knows from personal experience. His example of obedience through suffering should challenge us to seek his intercession through our own times of crisis.
While Hebrews 1:1-4:13 has focused on the sonship of Jesus as our faithful champion who leads us through the wilderness by his own suffering, Hebrews 4:14-10:18 focuses on the high priesthood of the Son who redeems us from our sins through his suffering. Hebrews 4:14-16 is a transitional text that looks back to themes already introduced (priesthood, sonship, suffering, temptation) but also forward to the major theme of the next section (empathetic high priest who provides grace and mercy).
Hebrews 2:17-18 heralded the Jesus as a “faithful and merciful high priest.” Hebrews 3:1-4:13 emphasized the faithfulness of the Son. Hebrews 4:14-5:10 emphasizes the compassionate (merciful) character of the Son. Our high priest is both faithful and compassionate. He faithfully carried out his task as high priest as he suffered death for everyone, but he compassionately fulfilled his task as an empathetic priest who shared the experience of our suffering (death).
The theme that holds Hebrews 4:14-5:10 together is the compassion of Jesus as our high priest. This compassion enables perseverance as we boldly go before the throne of grace and mercy to receive help in our times of need. Just as the original hearers of this sermon needed grace and mercy in their wilderness and compassion for their weaknesses, so contemporary believers need that same grace and compassion from Jesus. This vision of Jesus as a compassionate high priest encourages us to “hold firmly to the faith we profess” (Hebrew 4:16) and “approach the throne of grace with confidence.” It encourages perseverance and prayer. It emboldens faith with the knowledge that Jesus both cares about and is able to deal with our weaknesses because he himself has experienced those weaknesses.
I have divided our text into three sections. The first contains the exhortation to perseverance and prayer on the basis of the high priestly function of the Son (Hebrews 4:14-16). The second describes the nature of the high priestly status (Hebrews 5:1-6). The third applies this high priestly status to Jesus (Hebrews 5:7-10), though his high priesthood is Melchizedekian rather than Levitical (Aaronic).
1. Hebrews 4:14-16.
This is one of the most powerful texts in Hebrews, and one of the better-known ones. Its striking character is often lost on us because of its familiarity. The shocking nature of the assertion of the Son’s high priesthood is lost on us because it is so common for us to think in these terms. In particular, the Son of God shares our weaknesses! That is an incredible theological statement. If it were not so familiar to us, it would knock us off our feet. But despite its familiarity it has not sunk deeply into our hearts because we still tend to think of Jesus as the “Teflon” human—nothing sticks to him….he did not really hurt….he was not really tempted…he could not have sinned. Unfortunately, Jesus still remains somewhat distant and we seek substitutes for genuine empathy. Medieval Europe found more empathy in Mary than they did Jesus!
This revolutionary theological truth is surrounded in the text by two exhortations. Hebrews 4:14 exhorts hearers to hold on to their confession of faith because we have a “great” (exalted—ascended into the heavens, sitting at the right hand of God) high priest. Hebrews 4:16 exhorts hearers to pray for help in their times of need. Thus, the preacher calls us to perseverance and prayer (boldness in prayer—“frank speech” or to speak openly). The centerpiece between the exhortations is the empathy of the Son of God with humanity as their high priest. Since we have a faithful and merciful high priest—a fellow human who was obedient through his suffering (and thus faithful) and experienced our weaknesses (and thus merciful)—who has been exalted to the right hand of God believers should persevere and pray!
The central assertion is the Son of God is able to “sympathize” (NIV) with our weaknesses. Scholars have debated the exact nuance of the term “sympathize” here. Some have tended to think of it merely in terms of sympathy (to feel for others even though you may not have experienced it yourself), but others have preferred something more along the lines of empathy (to share the same experience with another). The word has this range of meaning. Context must determine its meaning. I prefer empathy because it fits the context better and the word is more experiential than cognitive. It is not simply that Jesus knows about our weaknesses, but that he has experienced our weaknesses. He is empathetic because he, too, has been tempted in every way just as we have. He has shared the experience of temptation.
Jesus has shared our weaknesses in that he has been tempted in every way like we have. He has the shared experience of temptation, though without sin. Some have watered down this point by underestimating Jesus’ own experience of temptation. “After all,” it is thought, “he could not have experienced temptation as I have because he did not sin. If only he had truly been tempted, or experienced the exact same temptation I have, then he would have sinned…if he was really human.” But this misses the point. It is better to say that Jesus experienced temptation more deeply than we ever have. When we face temptation, we never feel its full power or pull because we give in too quickly. We say “uncle” and the temptation is over. But Jesus, who never said “uncle,” experienced the full force of temptation as Satan pulled out all the stops. It is more correct to say that Jesus experienced temptation more deeply and more acutely than we ever have, and yet without sin. Jesus understands. He knows temptation. He knows weakness. Nevertheless, he was faithful. But with the experience, Jesus is more than “faithful.” He is also compassionate; our “merciful” high priest who dispenses mercy and grace to those who cry out for help in times of need.
2. Hebrews 5:1-6.
In order to appreciate this assertion that Jesus, the Son of God, is our faithful and merciful high priest, the preacher reminds his hearers about the Levitical high priesthood. In particular, he notes two aspects.
First, high priests are human beings. They share the human experience, including weaknesses. They are humans representing humans before God and to God. They represent humans authentically because they share the experience of humanity. They are humans. Consequently, they “deal gently” with sins of ignorance and weakness because they know the frailty of fallen humanity. Implied, of course, is the reality under the Mosaic covenant (and in the wilderness experience of Hebrews 3:16-19) that rebellion is not coddled but punished (cf. Numbers 15:30-31).
Second, God calls high priests. They are not self-appointed, but rather divinely appointed. Aaron was called as priest and began the Levitical order. The Son was also called to be a priest, just as Aaron was. Notice the preacher refers to him as “Christ” in Hebrews 5:5 rather than “Jesus” or “Son” (which are his normal terms up to this point). No doubt “Christ” emphasizes the “anointed” status of the Son. He is the “anointed one”—even anointed to be priest as God’s Messiah.
The introduction of Aaron at this point means that the preacher has now reminded his hearers of all the major figures at the beginning of the Mosaic covenant (angels, Moses and Aaron). And, at every point, the Son is superior because he is Son.
Hebrews 5:5 recalls the language of Hebrews 1:5 (quotation of Psalm 2:7). Jesus is no mere high priest from among humanity. Rather, he is the Son of God. He is “Jesus, the Son of God” (Hebrews 4:14).
Moreover, he is not a Levitical priest. He is a priest “in the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 5:6; quoting Psalm 110:4—the preacher had earlier quoted Psalm 110:1 in Hebrews 1:13). Thus, while the preacher introduces Aaron, he quickly notes how Jesus’ priesthood supersedes the Aaronic priesthood. The priesthood of Jesus is “forever” and it is from a different “order.”
However, at this point, the preacher does belabor the superiority, as he will in Hebrews 7. Instead, he seeks to emphasize the “compassionate” or merciful character of Jesus as high priest through the shared experience of obedient suffering, even though he was a Son. He does, however, reiterate the Melchizedekian dignity of his priesthood in Hebrews 5:10—and is ready to explain it except that his audience is not ready to hear it (Hebrews 5:11).
3. Hebrews 5:7-10.
The empathetic Jesus offered prayers and petitions during his wilderness experience, during his days of suffering. These prayers and petitions were accompanied with loud cries and tears. This is the preacher’s description of Gethsemane when the Son beseeched God to save him from death. The agony of Gethsemane was existential and subjective. It was inward. The inner person of Jesus agonized over the decision to obey the will of God.
Yet, though he was a Son, he obeyed. The text says he “learned obedience.” He learned from what he suffered and learned through his suffering. This was a fairly common expression in Greek since “suffering” and “learning” invited a play on words due to their similar sounds. Particularly, for Jesus, the suffering under consideration here is his death. Consequently, the main point appears to be that Jesus, aided through the struggle by prayer, decided to obey the Father’s will through suffering death on the cross. He decided to obey, and thus learned obedience. Obedience was not automatic; it was a decision.
But that decision perfected his obedience—his obedience went all the way. He completed his task and as a result he was exalted to the right hand of God as high priest. There he became our champion and the source of our salvation. He became our high priest who made atonement for sin and is now able to help those who are being tempted (Hebrews 2:17-18).
Several theological themes emerge in this section, which are important for shaping our lives as the people of God.
First, the incarnate Son is an empathetic priest. Certainly he sympathizes with his people (he hurts when they hurt, just as we hurt when we see someone hurting), but more than that he empathizes. Empathy is about shared experience, as, for example, when two people share the experience of losing a child or a spouse. Empathy means that you have walked in another’s moccasins. You have “been there, done that.”
God did not look upon our suffering at a distance. Rather, God came near in Jesus. The Son learned obedience through suffering and through his humanity shared our experience and our suffering. God learned what it was like to hunger, thirst, be tempted and died. God experienced new realities through the incarnation. Of course, God sympathized with humanity’s suffering before the incarnation, and God even suffered empathetically before the incarnation as he grieved over his fallen world and experienced wounded love (his spouse left him, and his children rebelled). But in the incarnation God entered new experiences—temptation, hunger, thirst and death.
Jesus is an insider when it comes to our suffering. He was no mere sympathetic spectator. He suffered. He was tempted. He entered and shared the human experience with all its weaknesses and frailties. He knows the sting of death and the pull of temptation. He knows the hurts and pains of life in a fallen world.
This reality means that Jesus is able to help us in our temptations/trials because he himself was tempted/tried (Hebrews 2:18). Our compassionate high priest understands us as an insider, not an outsider. Our high priest has shared our weaknesses. Thus, we approach him with boldness because we know he is compassionate. We approach with the assurance of grace and mercy because he understands us.
Second, in the wilderness, prayer becomes our means of involving God in our situation. We cry out to God in the midst of our trials and hurts. We approach God in the wilderness with boldness, and we approach to receive grace and mercy. Our model is the Son himself.
The Son, who understands our weaknesses because he himself has experienced those weaknesses, knows lament within his own experience. The preacher’s description of Gethsemane is vivid and striking. It reflects the agony of the experience of weakness. It involves “loud cries” and “tears” as we struggle to do the will of God and hope to be heard by the God who seems sometimes so distant. The Son models lament and the struggle to obey. Though he was Son, yet he learned to obey through suffering.
Just as the Son struggle through prayer, so the preacher exhorts us to go boldly to the throne of grace to receive the help we need in our own struggles. God heard his Son and answered his prayer. God’s answer did not involve the avoidance of suffering and death, but the strength to endure it. In the same way, God hears our prayers and provides strength for the struggle. We receive help, though it may not be the help we had desired (since we desire to avoid suffering). Rather, it is the help we need that empowers our endurance and perseverance. Jesus was heard, and so we will be heard as well.
I would not want to limit the “approach” to the throne of Grace to prayer. It certainly has liturgical and priestly overtones as well. It is the entrance into the “Holy of Holies” as we approach God liturgically as priests. It is to “draw near” (cf. Hebrews 10:22). The idea of “throne” also engenders a vision of a royal throne room that we approach to receive aide. The meshing of these images deepens the significance of this moment—priestly, royal, liturgical, and prayerful. It lifts us up to the sublime experience of divine presence.
Third, another key theme is submissive obedience. The Son was heard because he prayed out of a disposition of submissive obedience. The Son was perfected as the champion of our salvation because he was obedient. And the Son saves those who obey.
It is significant, particularly in the light of the theme of “faithfulness” in Hebrews 3-4, which the high priest is compassionate and deals gently with those who sin ignorantly and go astray out of weakness. The high priest does not deal gently with the rebellious—they cannot enter the rest (Hebrews 3:16-19), and they are subject to severe punishment (Hebrews 2:1-4). There is a difference between sins of weakness and the sin of rebellion.
Faithfulness involves a disposition of obedience; it is submissive faith. It is a trust in God’s promises that seeks to follow Jesus as the champion of our faith. It is an obedient lifestyle. Yet, we recognize that weaknesses engender sin in our lives. Our high priest is compassion with regarding weakness and deals gently with it. An obedient lifestyle does not exclude weaknesses, but it does exclude rebellion.
The Son saves those who obey. We must not water down this term. It is about faithfulness. It is about following Jesus. Those who seek to enter the rest of God must hear the word of promise with faith, obey God and follow Jesus into the wilderness.
Our hope, however, is that just as Jesus obeyed in his wilderness experience (he was faithful), and was consequently exalted as God’s heir, so through our obedience (faithfulness) God will exalt us as fellow-heir with his Son because the Son has pioneered a way for us.
In summary, our empathetic high priest was also a faithful priest who calls his people to faithful obedience as well. His empathy means that he compassionately deals with our weaknesses and is ready mercifully help us when we turn to his throne of grace. We are called to perseverance and prayer because the Son himself persevered through prayer as he decided to remain God’s faithful Son in Gethsemane.
Perseverance and Prayer—these are the two exhortations in this section. The key, it seems to me, is to devise a pedagogical way of settling those two themes into the hearts of our people. The way the preacher of Hebrews does it is by pointing to the empathetic character of our high priest who himself persevered through prayer. He endured his suffering and remained God’s faithful Son through prayer.
This suggests a couple of options to me. One option might be to concentrate on the idea of prayer as a means of perseverance and how Jesus models that path for us. This option might even begin with Matthew 26:36-46 where we see Jesus struggle through three stages of resolve as he is overcome with grief at the prospect that lies before him: (1) if it is possible, please take it away—an aversion to the prospect [Matt. 26:39]; (2) if it is not possible, I will submit—still a hesitation [Matt. 26:42]; and (3) here comes my betrayer—let me do what I have come to do [Matt. 26:46].
This option would open up possibilities of talking about how prayer enables perseverance, and the nature of prayer in the midst of struggle. Can we pray with “loud cries” and “tears”? Can we petition God to change his mind about our suffering and struggles? How does God “hear” us and “answer” us in the midst of these kinds of prayers? How do such prayers reflect a “boldness”? What is our expectation in prayer—an expectation for “mercy” and “grace” at the throne? What kind of “help” do we expect in our time of need?
Ultimately, with this option, we still want to ground the boldness of prayer in the high priesthood of Jesus and his compassion. But we can get to that point through talking about prayer, the practice of prayer and our life of prayer in the context of Jesus as a model.
A second option for teaching this material is to concentrate squarely on the empathetic character of Jesus. In this option, prayer would be one application of the theology of Jesus’ high priesthood.
This option would tend to discuss the nature of Jesus “empathy” with us and his experience as human being. You might address such questions as the nature of temptation for Jesus, and how is this a help for us? How does the temptation of Jesus encourage us? Do we really connect with Jesus, or do we have some “Teflon” notion of Jesus’ resistance to sin? Is he really an example for us in this situation? In other words, how much of an incarnation was the incarnation? Did he really become like us?
Can we really drawn strength from the fact that Jesus resisted temptation? After all, he was the Son of God…do we have the same ability that he had? Are we called to the same kind of faithfulness that Jesus was? In this context, what does it mean for Jesus to “learn obedience”?
This option, then, would turn more on the help this text offers us theologically for understanding and resisting temptation based on the model of Jesus. Thus, it would concentrate more on the theme of perseverance (Hebrews 4:13) and resisting the temptation to “give up.”
There might be some combination of these two themes that you might pursue. Many options are open to you. Be sure to check out your Navipress book for further ideas.