In this passage, the author of Hebrews begins a lengthy argument or exposition about the priestly status of Jesus. He’ll start the case here, then take a brief break and make a side point later in the next chapters, and then continue the point a bit more after that. Since his intended audience are those who still hold fast to orthodox Jewish beliefs, but who are also, if not already Christians, at least receptive to the idea that Jesus is their promised Messiah, the author is still building a case for the humanity, divinity, and now priestly credentials of Jesus. Here is Hebrews 4:14-5:10.
14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
1 For 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. 5 So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you” [cf. 2 Samuel 7:14; Psalm 89:26-27]; 6 as he says also in another place, “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.” [cf. Psalm 110:4] 7 In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. 8 Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. 9 And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, 10 being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.
He starts out by pointing out that Jesus can be considered a “great high priest who has passed through the heavens”. Now to understand the significance of this statement you must recall the Old Testament law about the high priest and the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle (and later the temple) were constructed according to a specific plan that God revealed to Moses (Exodus 25:40). The Tabernacle had an outer courtyard in which the offerings were received and prepared. This area was accessible by Levitical priests. Then, the main tent of the Tabernacle was divided into two sections, the Holy place, and the Holy of Holies (or Most Holy Place). The Holy place held the lampstand, the bread, and the incense altar. The Holy of Holies held the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark represented the Throne of God where the High Priest was to seek Atonement for the nation. He, and only He, could enter this inner room, and only during the one designated Day of Atonement during the year. If he entered at any other time, or in an unworthy manner, he would forfeit his life.
Now, since the Holy of Holies was to serve as a picture of heaven (e.g. God’s throne room) and only the high priest could ever legitimately enter there and return, then Jesus, who originated in heaven, came to earth, and returned to heaven, thereby demonstrating the right to freely enter and leave, he therefore is entitled to bear the designation of high priest.
The readers are then urged to “hold fast our confession”. This carries the idea of having confidence that the high priest’s atonement is sufficient. There was always the element of concern among the Israelites as to whether or not the high priest’s atonement would be sufficient to atone for his or their sins. There is no question of this with Jesus. His resurrection from the dead was proof that God had found his sacrifice acceptable.
Another point the author makes is that Jesus is able to relate with us in the matter of temptation. He says the Jesus “in every respect as been tempted as we are, yet without sin”. I used to struggle a bit with this, thinking “well sure, he may have been tempted, but He was God – of course he didn’t sin.” The author anticipates this kind of a response, which he continues addressing in the next chapter.
He asserts first that every high priest receives his appointment to the office by God. He then goes back to points made earlier from various Psalms that the Messiah (Jesus) was ordained and selected by God to be a priest. He mentions Melchizedek, who was a priest/king of Salem in Abraham’s day. The author returns to a discussion of Melchizedek in a few chapters, so I’ll wait until then to discuss those points.
Secondly, he asserts that high priests, who are human, are able to relate to human weakness, but must offer sacrifices to cover their own sins before they are able to offer sacrifices for others. This was stipulated in the law about the Day of Atonement. It would then stand to reason that this would serve to humble the priest to make him more sympathetic to the sins of others because of having to acknowledge his own sin first.
Third, he points out that a high priest cannot self-select himself for the position, but it has to be done through God’s direct calling. Aaron (Moses’ brother) was the designated by God as the first high priest, and his descendants were the ones who were to continue the role.
The author then applies these three points to Jesus. He was sympathetic to the human condition (“with loud cries and tears”), he was chosen by God (“You are a priest forever”), and he did not self-select this role (“although he was a son, he learned obedience”).
Then comes a statement which goes back to my potential objection earlier – that Jesus did not sin (he didn’t), but he was God – of course he didn’t. I haven’t really considered the possibility that Jesus COULD have sinned. But the author of Hebrews states “he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect … .” Jesus was already perfect, right? But Paul reminds us in his letter to the Philippians that Jesus, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8) There’s that word “obedience” again.
Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:17-20):
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus came to fulfill (complete; obey) the Law. He is the only human ever to do so, and therefore the only human to “earn” his way into heaven. I believe he did so, not because he was God (which he is), but because he fully knew God and fully loved Him and therefore could fully obey Him OUT OF SHEER LOVE. Jesus has been in God’s presence. Jesus knows what God’s love truly is. Jesus sees the big overarching plan of God. And yes, Jesus had every ability and opportunity to sin, to turn his back on God, to selfishly choose to do his own will. Yet he deliberately chose to obey. He learned, by becoming fully human, what it means to obey in the face of temptation. He recognized the lure of sin as what it is and chose to say no to the temporary pleasure of selfish disobedience because of the greater love he had for God. His life was confirmed as “perfect” upon his death, having successfully completed the journey through the sea of temptation called life.
The author once again mentions Melchizedek, as he has several times already, but he doesn’t develop that argument for a while yet. The rest of chapter 5 and chapter 6 represent a break from this line of reasoning, but we’ll return with it in Chapter 7.