The teaching of the priesthood of Christ is what makes Hebrews unique and fascinating. It would have been so for the original audience, as well. They wanted to retreat into Judaism, in part, because they would have a priest to intercede for them. There was comfort in that. We saw in 2:17 that Jesus became for us a merciful and faithful high priest. Then, the author explains each one of these two attributes in reverse order. First, he focuses on the faithful high priest in 3:1-4:15, which we just saw. Second, he focuses on the merciful high priest in 4:15-5:10.
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”; 6 as he says also in another place, “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.”
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.
The priesthood is an institution of mercy from God. It brings us close to God through atonement for our sins. With it, we find peace. Without it, we have only separation. It is not true to say it is no longer needed. It is truer to say we need a different kind of priesthood: an eternal one.
To explain the eternal priesthood of Christ, the author takes us back to the temporary priesthood of Israel. He explains the office of the priesthood (v. 1), the connection between the priest and the people (v. 2-3), and the call from God (v. 4). Then, to explain how Jesus compares, he explains Jesus’ priesthood in reverse order. Notice the “So also” in verse 5. Jesus had a call from God (v. 5-6), there is a connection between Jesus and the people (v. 7-8), and he has fulfilled the office of the priesthood (v. 9-10).
Jesus did not come to do away with the law or the priesthood. He came to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17). He entered our world and made himself like us, taking the form of his people’s institutions and customs. Jesus didn’t come in like a wrecking ball, tearing down the temple with violent actions. He replaced it with himself. Because of him, the temple and the priesthood could be destroyed without us losing God. Once the curtain was torn in the temple, it was no longer needed. When it fell years later, what collapsed was a building, not the presence of God in the world.
The mention of Jesus as a priest after the order of Melchizedek means Jesus is an eternal high priest (we will discuss this in more detail in future weeks). That has important implications. This means that the priesthood existed in the Old Testament because it gave us the categories by which we could understand Jesus. Jesus wasn’t made to fit into an existing priesthood; the priesthood was made to explain Jesus.
He Learned Obedience Through What He Suffered
Though Jesus never sinned, he did expose himself to weakness. The experience of Jesus included suffering. Look at verses 7-8. “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.” How did Jesus learn obedience through what he suffered?
When my oldest son, Jack, was three years old he took three things with him everywhere he went: his blanky and two stuffed dogs named Be-yo and Other Be-yo. One Sunday morning as we were getting ready for church he found a backpack and asked if he could fill it with toys to take in the car. I said yes. He went about filling it and soon was ready to go. I had a class to teach that morning, and we were already running a bit behind.
As we were driving down the street, Jack took out each toy. About ten minutes away from home he asked with worry in his voice, “Dada, did you get blanky and Be-yos?” I replied, “No, I you always get them.” With his lower lip dipping a bit now, he asked, “Can we go back?” But we didn’t have time to go back.
I wanted to go get them, but we couldn’t. I also knew he would be ok without them. A few minutes later I looked back at him and saw tears welling in his eyes. But he didn’t make a sound. He sat there, silently obeying my words. He didn’t fight back or negotiate. He learned obedience through what he suffered.
It is possible to learn obedience through suffering without our sin being the result of the suffering. Some things will come into our lives like a forgotten Be-yo, and we will wonder what happened. How did we get here? What must we have done? The answer may be that we’ve done nothing extraordinarily sinful, but there is a lesson to be learned. If Jesus, being perfect, had to learn, we, being sinful, must learn too.
In suffering, we learn obedience. We learn what it’s like to trust in the goodness and love of God. We learn to trust him in all things – not only in good things. In the darkness, God can be trusted because he is working all things together for our good (Romans 8:28). Though some terrible things may be included in that “all things,” taken together with the whole of our life, God will work it ultimately for our good and his glory.
So, when suffering comes, as it inevitably will, we can suffer under the mercy of God. And somehow through it all, he’s bringing us to a closer experience of himself. When we suffer, our heart breaks open to God in ways that it can’t otherwise. And what has Jesus given us at a time such as that? A throne of grace.
In verse 10, the author mentions Melchizedek. By doing this, he begins his ascent into what he really wants to say. Then he interrupts himself. It’s as if he takes a timeout, calls the team over to the sidelines, and lets them know what’s on his mind. They’re about to hear something that is vitally important but right now they’re just not listening. He realizes we only listen when we want to. So he labors to make them want to listen.
Like a coach rallying his team in the final seconds of the big game, he huddles them up, looks in their eyes, and tells them exactly what he sees, beginning with discouragement but ending with some of the most encouraging words in the entire letter. Commentator Gareth Lee Cockerill breaks the argument into sections: the author shames the readers (5:11-6:3), warns them (6:4-8), encourages them (6:9-12), and then assures them (6:13-20).
He Shames the Readers
11 About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. 12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, 13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.
1 Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, 2 and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. 3 And this we will do if God permits.
What’s going on here? Remember the context of this audience. They are facing persecution. In doing so, they are beginning to fall back. They aren’t standing for Christ when it matters most. They are looking out at the world and, like the Israelites on the edge of the Promised Land, saying, “There are giants in the land. We cannot win. Let’s retreat.”
They can’t do this! Christ means too much. The gospel is too valuable. Their lives are too precious. Christ has saved them. It’s time to act like it, and in doing so, see how God might advance the gospel. Jesus said, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28).
To awaken his readers, the author says some hard things in Hebrews 5:11-14:
- You have become dull (5:11)
- You ought to be teachers by now (5:12)
- You need the basic principles again (5:12)
- You need milk, not solid food (5:12)
- You are unskilled (5:13)
- You are acting like a child (5:13)
- You have failed to train yourself (5:14)
They knew better. These Christians were not untaught. They were not without understanding. They had received and learned the doctrines of Christianity. Their problem wasn’t a matter of knowledge; it was a matter of the heart.
“Let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity” is not a call to abandon the foundational truths of the Christian faith. It is not a call to “move on” from the gospel. That’s impossible. What the author is urging is for these Christians to go deeper with Christ than they have ever gone before. They need to use their knowledge.
A solider at war cannot act as if he does not know how to operate his gun. He knows. The question is whether he will use it. Will he advance the front line or will he fall back? The one thing a soldier must never do is retreat, but just as bad as retreating is staying still. Holding the line is one thing, there is courage in that, but hanging in the background while the fighting rages is a disgrace to the one you’re fighting for.
Jesus has saved us from something and to something. In between our salvation and our glorification, there is a battle to be fought. Are you fighting? Are you following your captain? Is Jesus worth it to you? Are you listening to him? He has considered you worthy to be his. Accept the call.
He Warns the Readers
4 For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. 7 For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. 8 But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned.
Two questions arise immediately: Is the author saying one can lose their salvation? Who is he describing here?
If we keep the whole Bible in mind, we know that it is impossible for anyone who is saved by God to lose their salvation. There are simply too many texts that proclaim eternal salvation. (Psalm 138:8; Isaiah 46:4; Jeremiah 32:40; Romans 11:29; Philippians 1:6; 2 Timothy 4:18; John 6:39-40, 10:27-29; Romans 8:28-31, 8:35-39; Hebrews 7:25, 10:14)
Therefore, we can look at these verses without hesitation and without fear that our doctrine of the perseverance of the saints might be destroyed. God is not a capricious God. He is unchangeable. If you have been saved, you have been saved before the foundation of the world. There is a book of life that was written before the world was created and your name is in that book (Revelation 13:8). The question is not “can I lose my salvation” but “do I have salvation”? As Paul says, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith” (2 Corinthians 13:5).
Now, who is he describing? The author is clearly writing to Christians. We know that without a doubt. Therefore, he’s writing to Christians to warn them of what would happen were they to leave Christ. Christ will not be re-crucified. If you reject him, there is no hope.
Let’s look at the text. Notice how he describes these people. They have once been enlightened (v. 4). They tasted the heavenly gift (v. 4). They shared in the Holy Spirit (v. 4). They tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come (v. 5). Then they have fallen away (v. 6).
John Owen, the great Puritan pastor, helps us understand this passage.
“It is clear they are not true and sincere believers. There is no mention of faith or believing. There is nothing which makes us think they have any special relation to God in Christ. They are no where described as ‘being called according to God’s purpose.’ They are not described as having been born again. They are not described as being justified, or sanctified, or united to Christ, or the sons of God by adoption.
On the other hand, they are described as ground on which the rain often falls, but which bears nothing but thorns and briers (v. 7). But this is not true of real believers, for faith itself is a herb especially grown in Christ’s enclosed garden. The writer of this epistle, describing true believers, distinguished them from apostates. In believers he is confident of finding better things, things that accompany salvation (v. 9). Believers are known by their ‘work and labor of love’, because it is true faith alone which works by love (v. 10). But not one of these things is said of the apostates.
Of believers, the writer of this epistle asserts their eternal preservation because of the righteousness and faithfulness of God, and because of the immutability of his counsel concerning them (vv. 10, 17, 18). In all these and in many other ways, believers are distinguished from apostates.”
Stuart Olyott, the British pastor and author, urges us to keep Jesus’ parable of the sower in mind.
“A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. 5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, 6 but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. 7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8 Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. (Matthew 13:3-8)"
The author of Hebrews uses the same agricultural imagery. When he wants to tell us how to distinguish between a true believer and a faker, he uses imagery of rain falling on land in verses 7-8. The land that produces a crop receives a blessing. They are proving that they are saved. The land that bears only thorns and thistles is worthless and will be burned in the end. They are proving that they are not saved. Our faith is proven. The fruit we bear will reveal the true state of our heart. Bearing fruit is not the way to God. Fruit doesn’t create faith; it just proves that the faith is real.
These verses have been provided as a sharp warning for what would happen if any were to abandon the faith they have said to hold. If they depart and want nothing to do with Christ, they are putting their souls in utter peril. Jesus has died once. He will not die again for sins. You cannot crucify again the Son of God.
Warnings are necessary in the Christian life. Because we are prone to drift, we need one another to encourage and exhort us along the way. We don’t need subtle hints. We need dramatic warnings. Charles Spurgeon helps us understand the necessity of warnings in the Christian life:
“If God has put it in, he has put it in for wise reasons and for excellent purposes. Let me show you why. First, O Christian, it is put in to keep thee from falling away. God preserves his children from falling away; but he keeps them by the use of means; and one of these is, the terrors of the law, showing them what would happen if they were to fall away. There is a deep precipice: what is the best way to keep any one from going down there? Why, to tell him that if he did he would inevitably be dashed to pieces. In some old castle there is a deep cellar, where there is a vast amount of fixed air and gas, which would kill anybody who went down. What does the guide say? ‘If you go down you will never come up alive.’ Who thinks of going down? The very fact of the guide telling us what the consequences would be, keeps us from it. Our friend puts away from us a cup of arsenic; he does not want us to drink it, but he says, ‘If you drink it, it will kill you.’ Does he suppose for a moment that we should drink it. No; he tells us the consequences, and he is sure we will not do it. So God says, ‘My child, if you fall over this precipice you will be dashed to pieces.’ What does the child do? He says, ‘Father, keep me; hold thou me up, and I shall be safe.’ It leads the believer to greater dependence on God, to a holy fear and caution, because he knows that if he were to fall away he could not be renewed, and he stands far away from that great gulf, because he knows that if he were to fall into it there would be no salvation for him.”
He Encourages the Readers
Hebrews 6:9-12 ends this section on a positive note.
9 Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation. 10 For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do. 11 And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, 12 so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.
The author is saying to them, “You are real Christians. I’ve seen the fruit. Don’t hide it. Show it to everyone. Though it may cost your life, Jesus is worth it. Jesus Christ was not ashamed to call you his brother. He took on flesh to save you. Don’t despise him. Don’t hold him up to contempt. Don’t ignore him. Listen to him and see all that he is for you.”
He Assures the Readers
13 For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself, 14 saying, “Surely I will bless you and multiply you.” 15 And thus Abraham, having patiently waited, obtained the promise. 16 For people swear by something greater than themselves, and in all their disputes an oath is final for confirmation. 17 So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, 18 so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. 19 We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, 20 where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.
These verses end the brief interlude with a reminder of how Abraham trusted God. Abraham was old. Sarah was old. They were well beyond child bearing years. But Abraham believed God. He looked at himself and despite what he saw he trusted God. True faith looks at what the world is and sees through it to the mighty hand of God who can do impossible things.
Do you realize that God desires to show convincingly to you the unchangeable character of his purpose? Jesus is the final proof of that. He didn’t stop with his life on earth. He continues with his life in heaven. Jesus Christ, our Great High Priest, is the anchor of our soul, sure and steadfast. He has entered the inner place, heaven, behind the curtain. He did this on our behalf so that we would know beyond the shadow of a doubt that God’s purposes are for our good. God loves us so much that he created a world in which he could show it and a story in which he could say it.
Hebrews 4:14-16 show us the mercy of our Great High Priest. Hebrews 6:13-20 show us the certainty of God’s promise. In between there are expositions and warnings and encouragements, but the bookends are the goodness of God. Jesus is for you. He wants to help you. Listen to him. Consider him. Trust him. Fall in love with him all over again.