Jesus: A Different Kind of Priest (Hebrews 6.13-7.28)

The writer of Hebrews has a big problem. He needs to show how Jesus is our great high priest; however, everyone in his audience would know that high priests come only from the tribe of Levi. He finds a solution to this problem in Psa 110.4:

The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind: “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.”

This psalm originally celebrated God’s support of the king of Israel while also noting the king’s priestly role (see 1 Chr 15.27 where King David does priestly things). Furthermore, this psalm connects the king’s priesthood with another kind of priest, the mysterious Melchizedek.

Outside of Hebrews and Psa 110, the only other reference to Melchizedek is Genesis 14.18-20.

Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High,
and he blessed Abram, saying,

“Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
Creator of heaven and earth.
And blessed be God Most High,
who delivered your enemies into your hand.”

Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything. (Genesis 14.18–20 NIV)

Three verses—that’s it. And those three verses are plopped in the middle of a story about how Abraham defeated five tribal chiefs to rescue his nephew Lot. Thus, just as these verses seem to come out of nowhere, so does Melchizedek.

Melchizedek (whose name is King + Righteousness in Hebrew) the king of Salem (the word for Peace) is a priest of El Elyon (God Most High) who for no reason mentioned blesses Abraham. After the blessing, Abraham gives Melchizedek a tenth of his spoils from the tribal chiefs. Then, just as suddenly, Melchizedek disappears from the Bible until Psa 110.

The preacher of Hebrews follows this logic: Since Jesus is not of the tribe of Levi he should not be able to be a priest of any kind. However, the priest Melchizedek predates the Levitical priesthood. That he blessed Abraham, the great-grandfather of Levi, shows that Melchizedek is greater than Abraham who further confirms this by giving a tenth to Melchizedek. In this way, Levi—who has not been born yet—gave a tenth to Melchizedek. Therefore, Melchizedek is greater than Levi. Consequently the Melchizedekian priesthood is greater than the Levitical priesthood.

Ok, it may not be our logic, but you can still follow it.

The point: Jesus’ priesthood is superior to that of the tribe of Levi.


Arrested Development (Hebrews 5.11-6.12)

Beginning in Hebrews 5.11 and going through 10.25, we have what one commentator calls the “Difficult Discourse.” And it is rather difficult: in it, the author of Hebrews will call his readers “lazy,” he will try to explain how Jesus is a high priest like Melchizedek, and finally he will seek to explain the work of Jesus as our great high priest.

You can almost feel the anger and frustration of the writer as he tells his hearers that they need to grow up. He is also saddened by the condition of his hearers who by this time “ought to be teachers,” but because of the their indifference they need someone to teach them as if they were starting all over again. They can’t handle solid food; they need to be nursed! Like Benjamin Button, they have, against God’s intentions, become babies again!

Some of the indicators of the readers’ immaturity include that they lose their focus on Jesus, they don’t seem to be encouraging one another, they are on the edge of giving up, and they don’t give meeting together the time it deserves.

But the telling sign in this passage is they have not grown beyond “first principles,” such as repenting, faith, teaching about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection, and judgment. These, according to Hebrews, are the “baby” doctrines!

The reason we need to grow up is that growing up is the anecdote to falling away. To give up on God is like re-crucifying Jesus and exposing Jesus to public shame! It’s like ground that receives the good rain only to produce thorns and thistles.

Though a hard word, the preacher of Hebrews holds out that his readers will respond to God’s Word. God will not forget our previous work so we should renew our engagement and effort. This active engagement in God’s mission is what will sustain us to the end.

Sometimes, the hard word is the good news!

Sometimes, it is just what we need to hear.

Jesus: The Sympathetic High Priest (Hebrews 4.14-5.10)

The emphasis of the preacher/author of Hebrews is hard to miss. In a word (or two):

Hold on!

Don’t give up!

Hang in there!

To encourage his congregation, the preacher of this ancient homily has grounded his message in the Word of God: God now speaks through his Son who is better than the angels, better than Moses, and now is a better high priest.

In the text under consideration, the preacher wants his people to see Jesus as the “great high priest” who passed through the heaven (he will explain this later). He emphasizes that Jesus is a sympathetic high priest because he has been tempted in every way we are; however, he is a qualified high priest because he had not sinned as we have—so unlike the high priest of old, Jesus did not need to offer a sacrifice for his own sins before he could take care of the people’s sin. Therefore—and this is important—we should be eager to approach God because we know that we will find mercy and help there.

In weaving the analogy between the role of Jesus and that of the Old Testament high priest, the preacher seeks to clarify a couple of points. First, like the high priest, Jesus is called from among the people (his brothers; so chapter 2). So he understands us because he is one of us. Second, high priests are not self-appointed and neither was Jesus. God appointed him as stated in Psa 110:4.

Yet what really touches the Hebrews preacher is the sheer humanness of Jesus’ ministry. He prayed and prayed with weeping tears to the one who could save him from death—and God heard him. This invites some reflection since when Jesus prayed he was seeking another route other than his death but in the ends submits: “Your will not mine.”

Still, in a rather cryptic statement, the author of Hebrews says the Son “learned obedience from what he suffered.” How could the Son—who did not sin—learn obedience? Perhaps obedience goes beyond just doing what is commanded; maybe it is deeper than that. Perhaps it has something to do with lining our wishes, desires, and wants up with God’s.

“Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Heb 4.16)

The Son’s House (Hebrews 3.1-6)

Some sermons require a lot of those who are listening. And so is the case with the sermon we call the Letter to the Hebrews. However, this sermon is worth the effort.

So far the preacher has announced that God has spoken today through his Son who is better than angels who brought the law. Therefore, this Son deserves our careful attention. By becoming human, this Son became a little lower than the angels to identify with us, willingly claiming us as his siblings, so that he can be our great high priest. So little by little the case of Christ is being made.

“Therefore, holy brothers, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess. He was faithful to the one who appointed him, just as Moses was faithful in all God’s house. Jesus has been found worthy of greater honor than Moses, just as the builder of a house has greater honor than the house itself. For every house is built by someone, but God is the builder of everything. Moses was faithful as a servant in all God’s house, testifying to what would be said in the future. But Christ is faithful as a son over God’s house. And we are his house, if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast.” (Hebrews 3.1–6 NIV)

In his next move, the preacher of Hebrews calls on his “holy” brothers and sisters—who “share in the heavenly calling—to stay focused on Jesus, our high priest who now is also our “apostle.” This last descriptor reminds us of the “sent” nature of Jesus’ mission.

What follows is a comparison between the ministry of Jesus and Moses, the historic liberator of the Jewish people. The comparison is simple. Moses was a faithful servant in God’s house; yet Jesus was a faithful Son in the house. Conclusion: Jesus is better than Moses.

Furthermore, Moses testified to what could be in the future; in other words, Moses looked forward to the ministry of Jesus. The Hebrews writer will have much to say about this.

In this text, our ancient sermonizer started with the idea that the followers of Jesus “share in the heavenly calling.” Because of the high priesthood of Jesus, we now share in Jesus’ status. This is a hard thought for most Christians but it is what the text says.

Therefore, when the preacher finishes this text, he notes that this house over which Jesus has been faithful is us! We are that house and Jesus is in the house!  That is, “if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast.”

So, let us keep our eyes on Jesus!

Bringing Many to Glory (Hebrews 2.5-18)

Long before verse numbers were added to the Bible, the Hebrews writer used a less than helpful method of citation: “…there is a place where someone has testified.” Some place in the Bible it says… This some place happens to be Psalms 8.4-5:

… what is man that you are mindful of him,

the son of man that you care for him?

You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings

and crowned him with glory and honor.

You made him ruler over the works of your hands;

you put everything under his feet” (Psalms 8:4–6 NIV)

The psalmist ponders why God would be so concerned about humanity. Because the psalmist speak of “man” in the collective sense, the Hebrews writer can take advantage of the singular, which he applies, as you might expect from this ancient preacher, to Jesus.

In becoming human, Jesus became a little lower than the angels (following the LXX), but now he has been exalted far above them. Notice as you read Hebrews that the author wants us to understand that it was the Man Jesus who was exalted.

The logic of what follow may be difficult for modern readers to follow. It goes something like this: Jesus was exalted because he died > because he died, he can somehow experience death for everyone > by doing this he will bring many children to glory > since he is the “author of their salvation” > who is somehow made perfect by suffering.

Did you follow that? It’s OK, if you did not.

The big picture is that this Jesus who was made a little lower than angels in becoming human and is now exalted can fully identify with those who belong to him.

How’s that? Better?

Jesus and his followers now belong to the same family and Jesus is not embarrassed to claim them as his siblings. It is precisely Jesus’ humanness that makes him “able to help those who are being tempted.” It is this that makes him the perfect priest we all need.

Jesus understands what you are going through. He has been through it himself. Now, the writer of Hebrews claims, Jesus, in his exalted state, remains our Man in heaven.