The author has spoken several times already in this epistle concerning Christ as a priest. Christ is our priest because He has purged our sins — that is part of His more excellent name (1:3). In this He was the sin-offering as well as the administrating officer (2:9). His identification with His people is seen not only in His tasting death for all men but also in His being made like them in all respects. Because Christ has suffered and been tempted, He is a merciful and faithful high priest, able to help those who are tempted (2:17-18).
As high priest, Christ is faithful to God as well as sympathetic to man. In this He is like Moses, though by position He is far superior to that man of God (3:1-6). His sacrificial death has been accomplished and Christ is now in heaven. As our great high priest, He sympathizes with our plight and supplies mercy and grace to meet our needs (4:14-16). Chapter five presents Christ once more as priest, this time in terms of His divine appointment, and with a word of introduction to the particular kind of priesthood into which He has entered.
5:1. For indicates that what follows is based on the final remarks of chapter four. Every high priest in the Jewish order is taken from among men and is a man himself. The high priest’s ministry involves both God and man. He is ordained or appointed or divinely named for the sake of men. That is, he works on their behalf and, we might even say, in their stead. He also serves in things pertaining to God. The high priest’s central function is making offerings to God for sins.
Gifts and sacrifices stand for the total offerings of the high priest to God on behalf of the people (see also 8:3; 9:9). Some have explained gifts as non-blood offerings and sacrifices as blood offerings. This is not consistent, however, with other passages (Genesis 4:3-4 in the Greek Old Testament, for example) where these words appear with the meanings exactly reversed. A better distinction is made in terms of purpose. Gifts are thank-offerings (eucharistic); sacrifices are sin-offerings (expiatory). If this is in the author’s mind, for sins modifies only sacrifices in the sentence and not both terms.
5:2. The high priest must be able to have compassion. Literally he “measures his feelings” with the people. He is not excessively swayed by harsh justice, nor moved overmuch by indulgent pity. He must measure his feelings in view of the people’s responsibilities on the one hand, but in view of their circumstances and weaknesses on the other. Himself a man, he is aware of human weakness. Appointed by God for divine service, he is aware of God’s just and holy demands. The Levitical high priest served in a very exalted and holy position. His was a representative role: representing God among the people, and representing the people before God (Exodus 28:29-30, 36-43; see Leviticus 16).
Priestly offerings were for the benefit of the ignorant, that is, those whose sin was unknown to them at the time they committed it, and for those who were out of the way, which is the literal meaning of erring. The original construction of this verse suggests that both terms refer to the same people, those who err through ignorance. The point is that priestly service and offerings were for sins of weakness or ignorance. There was no sacrifice for presumptuous sins (Numbers 15:30-31; see verses 22ff in the same chapter). The Hebrews author later gives a similar warning to those under the new covenant (10:26-29).
It was necessary for the priest to be compassionate, for he also was compassed or surrounded with infirmity or weakness. A play on the word may be intended here, for the same word which means “surrounded” at other times means “clothed.” The priest was separated from his fellow Jews and was distinguished from them by the holy robes of his office. Yet he was one of them in weakness and sin. Here was an imperfection of the Old Testament priesthood – the priest, like every other man, was clothed in weakness. The fact that he also wore priestly robes did not change that! It remained for Christ to serve as perfect priest through His own sinlessness and to offer a perfect sacrifice which could remove sins forever.
5:3. The Levitical priest was obligated to offer a sacrifice for himself as well as one for the people. Though he was called by God and was appointed to a sacred office, he was still a sinner himself.
5:4. No man among the Jews took the priesthood to himself. The priests were appointed of God, as signified in the divine appointment of Aaron their head (Exodus 28:1).
5:5. Nor did Christ glorify himself by taking the office of high priest presumptuously, but He was so honored or glorified by God the Father. Two Messianic psalms are quoted here and applied to Jesus Christ as Son and priest. The first is Psalm 2:7, which was used to prove Christ’s Sonship in 1:5 (see the notes there on this quotation).
5:6. The second quotation is from Psalm 110:4, and will figure prominently in the discussion of the next two chapters of Hebrews. As Psalm two joined the position of Son to that of King, so Psalm 110 related the functions of King and Priest. By using both these passages, the writer shows Christ to be Son (which in chapter one had the significance of Prophet), Priest (which he is about to discuss) and King. Our author used the first verse of Psalm 110 in 1:13 and in the verses now following he will discuss verse four of that psalm.
God said to Christ in His resurrection, “Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee” (Acts 13:33). At the same time, according to the present passage, He constituted Him high priest. Here the emphasis will be on the eternal nature of Christ’s priesthood (“thou art a priest forever”); Acts 13 also stresses Christ’s unending life (verses 34-37). Here the eternal priesthood of Christ means continual salvation for His people (7:23-25); the “therefore” of Acts 13:38 shows the same consequential blessing.
Aaron was not only called of God (Exodus 28:1), he was also confirmed as God’s chosen one by a miracle of new life. When Korah, Dathan and Abiram questioned Aaron’s authority and office (Numbers 16:1-3), the ground opened beneath them and their families, swallowing them alive, and a fire from God consumed their followers (verses 31-35). God then confirmed Aaron’s appointment by making his rod (a piece of dead wood) come to life again, bear buds, bloom blossoms and yield almonds (Numbers 17).
Christ was called by God to be high priest. He, too, was confirmed by a miracle of new life. His dead body, wrapped in burial clothes and entombed for three days, was given life by the power of God. He now lives to make priestly intercession for His people, through the merits of His own sacrificial blood.
Woe to any person who questions Christ’s divine appointment or loses confidence in His sacred work of redemption! The “gainsaying of Korah” is still a present danger (Jude 11). The first readers of Hebrews were urged to put their confidence in Christ as God’s appointed high priest divinely-appointed, all-sufficient and everlasting. That exhortation is no less needful today among those claiming to follow Him.
5:7. Who refers to Christ, not Melchizedek. In the days of his flesh refers to the earthly life of Christ in a human body. It is the time of His flesh and blood (2:14) when He partook of the seed of Abraham (2:16). This was the time in which He was in all points tempted (4:15).
Chapter ten will detail the significance of Christ’s fleshly body. Here the intent is to demonstrate what was stated in verse five: Christ did not take the office of high priest to Himself but was given the position by God. It was not attained by arrogant assumption but by obedient suffering. Suffering and obedience are joined in the verses which follow and together are related to salvation, first in the life of Christ and then in the lives of those He saves.
Four terms express the intensity of Christ’s suffering in the face of death. Prayers signify pleadings or beggings, with reference to a need. Supplications stress the act of imploring or asking. Strong crying shows the depth of these calls for help. Tears are not mentioned in the Gospel accounts of Gethsemane, but were certainly visible on that occasion as an external indication of the utter agony of soul within the Lord (Matthew 26:36-44; Mark 14:3241; Luke 22:39-45).
These prayers were offered to him that was able to save him from death, that is, the Father (see notes at 2:12-13). Some commentators see two prayers here: that God would save Christ from death on the cross, or that He would save Him from death by resurrection if the first prayer was not answered. Lenski correctly notes that Jesus is nowhere pictured as praying for the resurrection. On that basis he argues strongly for the first sense only. God was able to save the Son from the cross – by twelve legions of angels, if necessary (Matthew 26:53). But it was not the Father’s will to do that, nor was it in accord with the Scriptures, as Jesus Himself had pointed out to His disciples (Matthew 26:54).
The statement that Christ was heard in these prayers is confusing to some, but need not be when thought is given to the actual prayer of the Lord. Christ did not pray simply that the cup of suffering might pass Him by, though that was included in His request (see references above). His primary prayer — and this is the writer’s chief point in this verse — was for the will of God to be done! That prayer was answered — by the death, yes, and by the resurrection of the Son who willingly submitted to the Father’s sovereign will! See the references given above, also John 12:23-33. Again there may be an allusion to Psalm 22, where the speaker cries to God (verse two) and is heard (verse 24). See the comments at 2:12 on that psalm.
Christ was heard in that he feared. Literally the text says, “because of (His) reverent fear” or “fearful reverence.” “If it be possible, let this cup pass from me,” prayed the Savior, with strong crying and tears. But with the same intensity He respectfully and fearfully climaxed that prayer, “nevertheless, not my will, but thine be done!”
We are dealing here with the perfect obedience of the Son of God. This is an obedience unto death, an obedience perfected only in suffering. In. the face of such absolute dedication to God’s will — and that at the cost of all personal claims and human ambitions or even life — in the face of this divine obedience angels weep, demons shudder and sinful man must cry out in abject remorse, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
How inadequate all our obedience is in this light! How meager our dedication to the Father’s will! How far short of God’s glory and the Savior’s example we see our own self-willed lives! Our Lord did not presume anything of His own accord. He did not hold back anything in His obedience and submission to the Father’s perfect will. With every ounce of His deepest feeling He threw Himself in His Father’s arms, there to depend on the Father’s strength as He exclaimed simply, “Thy will be done!”
5:8. Yet being the Son — that more excellent Son of chapter one — Christ learned obedience. The Greek here says “the” obedience, as if to underscore the thought. Christ learned obedience in experiencing absolute submission to God’s will. This does not mean that His life ever contained any element of rebellion or disobedience, for it did not. He came for the purpose of doing God’s will (Hebrews 10:7) and He finished what He came to do (John 17:4).
Learned here translates rather a word kin to that from which we have “disciple” and “discipline.” Christ was the disciple, par excellence. He experienced the full discipline of obedience — even in suffering. By His suffering He learned experientially what full obedience means. In this He learned and qualified to sanctify those who should put their trust in Him. He is now perfectly able to help them when they are tempted (see 2:17-18).
5:9. Christ was made perfect, not in a moral sense, but for the business of saving. He then became the author or source of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him. By the obedience learned only in suffering, Christ was made complete as Captain of salvation (2:10). By the same suffering and obedience He was perfected as Source of eternal salvation. “Captain” signifies “pioneer,” and Christ has already gone ahead to enter the eternal glory which will be shared one day by the “many sons” (2:10; see 6:20).
Author here means “source,” as it is only from Christ, and through Him, and by His work of obedience that those “sons” will share in the glory He now has as Son. Author may also be translated “cause,” suggesting that Christ’s perfect obedience is the cause of our salvation, not our own imperfect obedience, though this very verse affirms the fact of obedience on our part if we are recipients of the salvation He has made a reality. The English connection between “author” and “authority” is not in our word here, though Christ certainly has all authority as Son and Lord (Matthew 28:18; Philippians 2:9-11).
Christ is author or cause or source of salvation to them that obey him. It is always the case that blessing follows obedience, though sometimes the obedience of one man secures blessing for another. Abraham’s obedience was the basis on which God blessed his descendants (Genesis 22:15-18; Deuteronomy 4:37; 9:4-6). How much more does Christ’s obedience — a perfect obedience — result in the perfect salvation of all who share sonship with Him (see Romans 5:19). Yet those who share Christ’s sonship and His righteousness (Isaiah 61:9-11; Jeremiah 23:5-6; 33:15-16; I Corinthians 1:30; II Corinthians 5:21; Philippians 3:9) must and will share also with Him in faithful obedience to God an obedience in which He led the way, set the example and obtained salvation for those who follow.
5:10. Because Christ did not glorify Himself to be made a high priest (verse five), choosing instead the submissiveness of suffering, He was called or greeted by God as high priest after the order of Melchizedek. Melchizedek held the double office of priest-king, a privilege denied the priestly offspring of Levi or the royal heirs of Judah that is, until Christ came. Now He, the prophet-Son, serves also as high priest and as king.
5:11. Having introduced Melchizedek, our author immediately leaves him for the moment. He attributes this digression in thought to the dullness of his hearers. After a warning and exhortation in chapter six, he will return to a detailed analysis of Melchizedek’s priesthood in chapter seven. There he will show Melchizedek’s office to be unlike that of Aaron’s sons, but of the same sort as the Son’s which it prefigures.
We have many things to say is literally “the discourse or conversation is much or long.” Hard to be uttered does not mean that the writer had difficulty expressing himself, but that his discourse concerning Melchizedek would be interpreted or explained only with elaboration, for which his readers were not prepared. The transmitter was working well but the receivers needed repairs!
Dull of hearing is literally “sluggish or numb in ears (hearing).” Lenski remarks: “Unbelief closes the ears; incipient unbelief dulls them.” These readers had not fallen into apostate unbelief but were apparently drifting in that direction. Our author pauses long enough to point this out to them and to sharpen their dull ears.
5:12. For indicates the cause of his statement. With reference to the time which has passed since they became Christians, his readers should have become teachers. The word here indicates clock-time, not merely “occasion” (as in Romans 13:11 and other places).
Rather than this, however, they still had need for someone to teach them again. It is not in difficult matters alone that they are ignorant. They need instruction in first principles, the rudimentary matters, the spiritual ABC’s.
How well this indictment fits so many in the church today. How many there are now who should have been teaching others long ago yet who continually need teaching in elementary principles. Some people are simply dull of hearing; others are “ever learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (II Timothy 3:7). The first need to be sharpened; the second are to be rejected (II Timothy 3:5). The recipients of Hebrews were at the first point but not yet to the second.
They were in need of milk, not strong meat or solid food. Milk is a predigested food, suited for one who lacks ability to receive and digest his own nourishment. The spiritual milk-baby is not able to learn and digest his own spiritual food. He depends on someone else to do most of his learning and thinking for him. This is a beginning point, to be sure, but it should not characterize those who for the time ought to be able to teach others.
A certain measure of the blame for this condition must be put on some among the teachers and preachers who have not led the babes to stronger food. When the bottle is administered at every feeding time, and often the same formula warmed over, the hungry souls cannot be expected to develop into maturity. Let each teacher and preacher learn from this context as well, to follow our author’s example as he himself leaves the first principles to carry his readers on to maturity and perfection.
5:13. The spiritual infant who still partakes milk is unskillful or inexperienced in the word of righteousness. As an infant is without experience in eating strong food so long as he remains with milk alone, so the believer who never has experience in teaching others will remain in need of simple nourishment himself. This is not condoned but condemned
5:14. Strong meat is for the one who is of full age, the perfect or mature person. The mature Christian by reason of use or exercise has his senses exercised to discern both good and evil.
Senses translates a word which give us our “aesthetics,” though here it has a figurative meaning. Exercised is from a word family which gives “gymnasium,” and suggest perhaps that maturity in spiritual discernment comes only through regular workouts.
To discern good and evil represents the ability and/or the authority to make independent moral choices (see Genesis 3:5, 22; Deuteronomy 1:39; II Samuel 14:17; 19:35; I Kings 3:9; Isaiah 7:16). The Christian is to mature to the point of making his own moral judgements; he is to learn to discern the Lord’s will in each circumstance of his own life (see Romans 12:2; Ephesians 5:10, 17; I Thessalonians 4:1-4).
Next: Chapter Six