Reformed Perspectives Magazine, Volume 10, Number 22, May 25 to May 31 2008

Hebrews 5:1-10

A Sermon

By Rev. Scott Lindsay

We are continuing this morning in our study of the Letter to the Hebrews, picking up at verse 1 of chapter 5 and working through to verse 10. As we have seen in previous studies, if you had to come up with a brief summary of what this letter was about it would have to be: "Christ is better." Because what the author of Hebrews is trying to do with his letter is demonstrate to his readers the uniqueness and superiority of Jesus. And the reason he is doing this is because the people to whom he is writing are under a great deal of pressure to abandon their Christian faith.

In particular, as the recipients of this letter were most likely Jewish or at least very familiar with the Jewish religion, they were under pressure not only to abandon Christianity but also to embrace or re-embrace the Old Testament system of priests and temples and sacrifices that apparently many of them once observed. As a result, the approach that the writer has taken to stop people from drifting away into these things has been to show how Jesus is greater than anything his readers might be tempted to abandon Jesus FOR. He wants his readers to see that going back would also mean going backwards. It would not bring them closer to God, nor would it mean that they were any safer. On the contrary, it would be moving them further away from God and would place them in greater peril than that which they presently faced.

To be sure, such a move might temporarily remove them from the persecutions and troubles they were currently facing. But at what price? At the price of God's wrath. To put it another way, abandoning Christ would, as the saying goes, move them from the frying pan into the fire and render them liable for a judgment and wrath in the next life that would make anything they faced now pale in comparison.

So, the writer of Hebrews wants them to keep hanging on to Jesus. So far he has encouraged them to do that by showing the superiority of Jesus' revelation to any other revelation they have received. He has shown Jesus superiority to angels. He has shown Jesus' superiority to the prophets in general and to Moses in particular.

In the section before us this morning, the writer puts his energies into demonstrating Jesus' superiority in yet another way - that is his superiority as a high priest to any other high priest that has ever been - or could ever be. We have already looked at the beginning of this part of his argument when we looked at chapter 4:14-16 and we will continue on with that this morning and, indeed, will be looking at different aspects of this same point for the next 5 chapters of Hebrews.

So, let us continue seeing what the writer of Hebrews has to say on this very important subject. However, before we do that, let us pray together.

Now, in our previous study we looked at a couple of different ways that Jesus is superior as a high priest. We saw, firstly, that while an ordinary high priest could only approach God through the earthly temple - which was only a symbol of the heavens - Jesus passed through the heavens themselves into the very presence of God - and not just for a moment, but has a permanent place there at the right hand of God the Father.

The second thing we saw was that because Jesus took on our human flesh and in that flesh faced every temptation you and I have ever faced - but he faced them better, and more fully, and at a greater intensity, and without EVER giving in. Because of that, he had a superior understanding of the power of evil and temptation.

In the verses, we just read there are at least three other areas in which Christ's priesthood can be shown to be superior. These other three areas are:

1) The functions of the priesthood, and in particular the priest's sacrificial work.

2) The role of the priest as a representative of the people and his ability to identify with and relate to the people on whose behalf he ministers.

3) The priest's appointment - the means by which he came to be a priest.

Now, the first point - having to do with the sacrificial functions of the priesthood - that point, and how Christ's sacrificial work is superior - will be made better and more fully understood later on in this letter, around chapter 9 and following. So, we will not be saying much about that this morning. The third point - the fact that the high priest's office is an appointed office and how Christ's appointment is superior, and all the stuff having to do with this mysterious figure named Melchizedek - that will also be addressed more fully later on - in chapter 7 - and so we will wait until we get there to say more about that.

Accordingly, we are going to spend the bulk of our time this morning thinking about the second or middle idea of the three introduced here - the one having to do with the person of Jesus as a representative for his people and his ability to identify with and relate to those same people on whose behalf he ministers.

Now, in order to talk about that, I want to draw your attention to a structural component of this passage which, I believe, is helpful in understanding what is going on. What am I talking about? Well, when you look at the arrangement of ideas in this passage, what you find is an identifiable symmetry and pattern to the whole thing. So, for example, in the first four verses, there appear these three ideas that we have already talked about, and in this order:

1) In verse 1, we see these comments about the nature and function of the high priests work.

2) In verses 2 and 3, we see statements about the person of the high priest and his ability to relate to the people on whose behalf he ministers.

3) In verse 4, we see these statements about the high priests appointment.

We can refer to these three ideas as: A, B, and C, in that order. That is verses 1-4. From verse 5 on through verse 10, the writer of Hebrews talks about these same three things as they relate to Jesus, but he does so in reverse order, starting with C, going to B, and then ending with A. Now, of course, it is not as wooden as all that. It is not an absolutely rigid pattern. However, the structure is certainly there.

Now this pattern of ABC followed by CBA - that pattern appears very frequently in the structure of many passages in the Bible. In fact, it occurs so frequently that Bible scholars have given it a name - a chiasm. Now there is no need to go on and on about chiasms and I only mention them so that I can say this: When you discover a chiasm, it can often be very helpful in understanding the flow of thought and the overall meaning of a passage. Moreover, I think this particular feature IS helpful for us to look at this morning because it helps us better understand the "B" sections of this passage.

And it helps us in precisely this way: If the middle section contained in verses 2-3 is talking about the person of the high priest and his ability to relate to the people on whose behalf he ministers then that means its corresponding "B" section - verses 7-8 - is also telling us something about the person of the high priest and - in this case - about Jesus as our high priest and about his greater ability to relate to the people on whose behalf he ministers. And it is this "chiastic" structure of this passage that helps us to see that this is where things are generally heading.

Nevertheless, we want something more than a general statement of things, don't we? So, lets' look at some of the details of these corresponding "B" sections to see if there is more that can be gleaned from these verses.

In verses 2 and 3, we are told something very important about the high priests that served under the old sacrificial system. We are told that they were able to deal gently with both those who sinned in their ignorance, as well as those who consciously wandered from God's ways. We are told that the reason they are able to do this is because they too were beset with such weaknesses themselves. They too were sinful men and the humbling acknowledgment of that affected the way they responded to fellow sinners - i.e., with gentleness. It also affected the way they carried out the sacrifices - having to deal firstly with their own sin before they could stand before God as a representative of God's people.

Now, as we have just seen, because of the structuring in this passage we know that verses 7-8 are addressing the same sorts of things with regard to Jesus as our high priest. However, as you read those verses, it may not be immediately apparent how this is the case. However, I think as we break them down a little further, this will become more clear.

Firstly, think about what these verses are referring to. Listen to the language being used here:

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. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.
Now the phrase, "In the days of his flesh" refers to the time of Jesus' dwelling on earth. During that time Jesus offered up loud cries and supplications. Following that the next phrase of interest is "loud cries and supplications" which, admittedly, could refer to a number of different moments in Jesus life.

However, that description - "loud cries and supplications" - combined with the talk about "the one who was able to save him from death" and his "learning obedience through what he suffered" — all of those things combined, together with the immediate context of these verses which talks about the sacrificial work of the high priest - all of that combined leads us to think, about one event in particular - and that is the time when, right before he was arrested, Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane, praying in anguish, to his Father in Heaven, asking that his Father might save and deliver him from what he was facing. Do you remember this? Do you remember Jesus' prayer on that occasion? He said,

Luke 22:42-44 "Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done." And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.
What was the "cup" that Jesus was referring to? Well, it was the cup of God's wrath and judgment that he would "drink" when, in deference and obedience to the will of his Father, he offered himself up as a sacrifice for the sins of his people. Therefore, verses 7-8 are recalling for us this tragic moment in Jesus' life, when he was preparing to perform the central task of his high priestly work.

And whereas verses 2-3 talk about the former high priests being able to identify with the weakness and suffering of their people as they carried out their sacrifices because they too were fellow sinners, verses 7-8 show us that Jesus also identified with the weakness and suffering of his people as he did his high priestly work - although in a different way, and for different reasons.

The former priests point of identity and contact with their people was their shared sinfulness and shared experience of the suffering that results from such sin and disobedience. Jesus' point of contact with his people was his shared humanity with them and the suffering which he too endured - not because of disobedience, but because of his obedience - a suffering that, in the end, was far greater than anything you or I could possibly imagine.

And in order to fully understand the suffering of Christ's obedience and what that says about his person and his ability to identify with those on whose behalf he carries out his high priestly work - in order to better understand that we need to set the obedience of Christ within its Old Testament context. As is so often the case, that means we need to go back to the very beginning, to the garden and the agenda-setting events that took place there with Adam and Eve.

In the beginning, before sin and evil were part of the picture, Adam and Eve were created and set within God's garden paradise and given the task of multiplying his images and managing his creation on God's behalf. At some point subsequent to that commissioning - how long it was we have no idea - but at some point afterward Adam and Eve were tempted by Satan and they both caved in to that temptation, and fell into sin.

Now, as the Apostle Paul makes clear in Romans 5, when Adam fell, he did not fall alone. Adam was the representative head of all humankind such that his fall was our fall too. All of humanity fell in him and with him. The immediate proof and consequences of that are seen in Genesis 4 with Cain, and then things become progressively worse until by the time you get to Genesis 6 it has become painfully obvious that everyone on the planet had indeed been implicated in Adam's fall.

Well, in the aftermath of that initial sin, curses and consequences were pronounced upon everyone involved, including Satan who was told, in Genesis 3:15, that while what he had done had inflicted a grave blow to humankind, he himself would one day receive a crushing, deathblow from a descendant of Eve's. From that point forward, the wait is on and our gaze is cast upon the horizon of the remainder of the Old Testament, watching for this promised one who would NOT give into Satan as Adam had done.

Well, eventually this ONE does come - and his name is Jesus. As you read the account in Luke's Gospel, you see him clearly setting this out for us to see.

In Luke's Gospel, after relating the account of Jesus' birth, and the preparatory work of John the Baptist, and then the setting-apart baptism of Jesus, you get this long genealogy, this list of who was the son of whom - but with a difference. Whereas in Matthew's gospel the list starts with the oldest person and ends on the most recent descendant, Luke's genealogy begins with the present and works backward — all the way back to Adam. Why does he do this? Because he wants you to remember what Adam did. And because he is about to tell you about the one who was promised because of what Adam did and who, after he came, did not do what Adam did.

So, what is the next story after the genealogy in Luke? Jesus being tempted in the wilderness. By whom? By Satan himself - in person. Sound familiar? It should. Adam, in his representative humanity, is tempted, disobeys, and fails. Jesus, in his representative humanity is also tempted by Satan - not once but three times - but he does not give in, he does not disobey, he does not fail. Here is the obedient one that we have been waiting for, the one that we have been scanning the horizon of the Old Testament for. Here is the "Adam" who will remain faithful to his Father. Here is the promised descendant of Eve who will "crush" the serpent, destroying all his works. Luke highlights all of this for us, underscoring the stunning obedience of Jesus.

It is this stunning obedience that sets him apart as our high priest and uniquely qualifies him to perform his high priestly duties and which gives him a surpassing ability to sympathize with and identify with those on whose behalf he ministers.

If you remember, when we looked at chapter 4, verses 14-16, a couple weeks ago, we saw Jesus' amazing obedience as the one who was tempted in every way, just as we are, yet without sin. And you remember my saying on that occasion that it was precisely the fact that he did not sin that meant that he wrestled with the power of sin and evil at a far greater level than you or I will ever wrestle with it. The person who gives into temptation after 5 minutes has no idea what it is like to wrestle with it for an hour. And thus no one understands the power of the temptation and evil that you and I daily face greater than the one who has never given into it, who has always ridden it out to the very end until the temptation goes away because the tempter - just as in Luke 4 - gives up in defeat.

And now we are reminded, by means of verses 7-8 here, of a further illustration of Jesus' stunning obedience - that which he manifested in the garden of Gethsemane. And lest you miss the significance of this, I want to stop and think about that for a moment.

Here is Jesus, having walked in perfect obedience and faithfulness with his Father from all eternity, including his time here among us. Here is Jesus now facing the purpose for which he came - to drink the "cup" of God's wrath. He knew that this hour was coming. He had spoken about it many times to his disciples. He is not surprised by anything that is going on in this garden.

And yet, amazingly, and as the time for doing it draws near, in anguish, he asks his Father if it might be possible that he might NOT drink this cup. What is that all about? What is going on? Is it death that Jesus fears? Is he afraid of that? If so, then that would make him somewhat less courageous than many women and men in human history who have unflinchingly faced their deaths, seemingly without fear or reservation. Was Jesus less courageous than they? Of course not.

If it was just death - the expiring of life from this human body - if that was all that lay before him then that would have been an entirely different proposition. However, that was not it. It was what his dying would be accompanied by. It is what happened along with the death that gave rise to his humble, but sincere, request that, if possible, God might let him give this a miss. Because it was not just death that Jesus faced, it was the judgment of the living God. And nobody understood what that meant better than Jesus. Nobody.

As a person who was one with Father, who knew and possessed the Father's same holiness, who knew fully and completely the Father's goodness, who understood and shared perfectly the Father's hatred for evil and sin - As one who knew exactly and exhaustively God's power, and what God, in his holy anger was capable of — As one who knew all of that - he saw it coming and said, if it is possible, if there's another way, can we do that - but if not, then I want what you want here.

Let me tell you something: You and I have no earthly idea what it means to face the stored up wrath of a holy Creator against all the sins of his people. We have no idea, and we never will. But Jesus knew. And yet, in the face of that knowledge, with the certainty of that suffering only hours away, he remained faithful and obedient to his Father's will, to the very end.

So, sure, the Old Testament high priests did make sacrifices for themselves and for the people. They could identify with the people in the suffering and weakness of their disobedience. However, Jesus made exactly ONE sacrifice for his people and he identified with them and with their weakness and suffering in a far greater way, not by joining them in their disobedience, but because of his obedience - his extreme, stunning, breathtaking, blood sweating obedience.

That is what the passage means when it says he "learned obedience through what he suffered." It was not that he was disobedient and then eventually learned to behave himself. That is not what the writer means. We know that because he has already made it clear that Jesus is the one who was tempted but without sin. As one writer (Piper) put it, Jesus' "learning" meant that,

...he moved from being untested to being tested and proven. He moved from obeying without any suffering to obeying through unspeakable suffering. It means that the gold of his natural purity was put in the crucible and melted down with white-hot pain, so that he could learn from experience what suffering is and prove that his purity would persevere.
Think about it, before Jesus took on human flesh, in his pre-incarnate state in heaven with the Father, he had always been faithful and obedient. However, there was no suffering that resulted from his obedience there. There the consequences of faithfulness are all good and enjoyable. It was only here, on earth, as a human being and amidst a fallen humanity, that he experienced for the first time suffering as a consequence of obedience.

Well, that is all we have time for this morning. Let me leave you with three quick applications:

1) Reflect. I want you to reflect on what it means that Jesus is your High Priest. As one writer has said, most of us do not think much of this reality because we have either a pathetic understanding of the holiness and wrath of God, or we have an overly generous view of our own hearts - or possibly both. However, I want you to reflect on the reality that Jesus was/is your high priest - what that meant, what he faced because of it, and why he had to do it. The benefit of these sorts of reflections should be a greater wonder and thankfulness for the mercy of God toward you in his Son, Jesus Christ.

2) Examine. Flowing out of the realities of Christ's obedience, verse 9 says, "And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him." The perfection being talked about here was not the perfection of Jesus' character - he was already perfect. It is the perfection of his role as the Suffering Savior - a role that could not be perfectly fulfilled until he, in fact, underwent the suffering that came because of his obedience. However, Jesus, the obedient Son, became the source of eternal salvation to all those who obey him. The obedience spoken of here is not that which merits one's salvation. In order to come to that conclusion you would have to ignore the entire argument of Hebrews about the sufficiency and superiority of Christ's sacrifice.

Rather, the obedience here is that which is a consequence of salvation. It is the evidence. It is the indicator that the character of Christ - who was obedient to the very end - is also becoming that which characterizes you. That reality is a call to self-examination. Is this obedience that so characterized Christ in his high priestly work - is that obedience evident in me? OR is my profession, in fact, a bare one, unaccompanied by anything else? That is a word for those who are professing believers.

For those who have never professed faith in the Lord Jesus, these words are calling you to do so now and to give evidence of that first and most significant of obediences - which is the obedience of faith - repenting and believing the good news. As one writer describes this (Piper), he says,

One thing is very clear from Hebrews: the will of Christ that has to be obeyed is first and foremost the command to trust him, to hold fast to our hope (3:6), to guard against a heart of unbelief (3:12), to hold fast to our confession (4:14), and to draw near to Christ for help (4:16). In other words, the first and main act of obedience is to believe in the promises of God (3:18—19) and to hope in him. All other obedience, according to Hebrews, is the fruit of this first and root act of obedience (10:34; 11:8, 24—26; 13:5—6, 13—14).
3) Pray. My hope is that one result of a deeper understanding of the nature of Christ as our high priest is that we will become a more prayerful people. One writer (Ligon Duncan), in talking about the high priesthood of Christ makes the point that when you and I go to the Lord, he does not hear us because we deserve it, but because he is merciful. But it is not so with Christ. This same writer goes on to say that,
When Christ comes to the Father, it is not the same kind of intercession as our intercession. It is the intercession of demand. Christ deserves to be heard... That makes the intercession of Christ for us that much more powerful and comforting. Why? Because the Lord MUST hear him - to not do so would be unjust because, in fact, Jesus is the only one who has ever deserved to be heard by the Father, in and of his own merit.

The certainty of Christ's love for us, the superiority of his priestly work, the surpassing ability that he has to understand and sympathize with us in our weakness, and the permanent audience that he, in his faithfulness, has deserved and gained at the Father's right hand - all of these things, as we are convinced of them, will and should lead us to willingly and gladly and quickly and constantly lay our lives before him, in prayer.

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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