Hebrews (Part 05) – Jesus, the Appointed High Priest

08/03/2009 06:52

Verse 14 of chapter 4 seems rather abrupt in turning our attention to the thought of Christ as high priest. The suddenness, however, may be striking to only us 21st century Christians. Remember that one of the reasons we believe that the recipients of this epistle were Jewish Christians is because of the familiarity presumed concerning Jewish religious culture and heritage. The focus of this chapter and the previous one has been on entering the rest of God. We have already discussed that that rest is relationship with God. God had “rested” after six days of creation, culminating in the creation of humanity. His purpose for creation was to have relationship with mankind; thus, after Adam and Eve were created that sixth day, God entered into his rest. But mankind fell, breaking relationship with God. Through Christ’s work in reconciling us to God through the New Covenant, we through faith enter that relationship—that rest—with God.


In the Jewish mindset, however, people get to God through an intermediary—the high priest. The author’s discussion of coming to God, therefore, naturally puts the Jew in mind of a high priest conduit in getting there. Verse 14, then, slips right into that discussion of high priest without much introduction. Our high priest is Jesus, the Son of God. The author specifies his title of Son drawing in all the inferences developed in the previous chapters. Jesus is Son—the one who is better than angels and prophets. Jesus is Son—the one who inherits all the heavenly glory. Jesus is Son—the one who shared in flesh and blood to become a sacrifice for sin. This Son is also high priest who will conduct us “through the heavens” (through the veil) straight to the Holy of Holies—the throne room of God.


The author’s emphasis in the next couple of verses is interesting. We realize (and so does the author) that Jesus is both God and man. I think, however, that most of us (and probably most Christians of all times) tend to think of Jesus as God a little more than we think of him as man. Sure a major focus we have is on Christ’s sinless life, death, and resurrection, but somehow that picture becomes more understandable to us thinking of Jesus as God. Sure he lived a sinless life, we reason; he’s God! Of course, he could die and be resurrected; he’s God! But the author of Hebrews changes the emphasis. Yes, he is God, but the focus all along in Hebrews so far is on Jesus as man. And these verses discussing his high priesthood are no exception.


There is fear in approaching God while stained with sin. God is holy, righteous, just, and pure. Sin’s shame hangs on us like a wet blanket as we approach our Maker, Father, Sustainer, and Authority. But our high priest goes with us. This high priest knows our weaknesses—he was weak himself! He felt those same emotions and temptations, albeit without sinning. But this high priest can and does sympathize with us. This high priest brought a sacrifice for those very sins for which we feel shame. Therefore, reasons the author, we can approach God boldly, openly, and with confidence.  


The opening of chapter 5 provides a little more background concerning the high priest. This theme of Christ’s priestly work will direct the discussion all the way through chapter 8. Here at the beginning the author’s first main point is that Jesus, as a man, can sympathize with our weakness. Verses 4 through 6 reveal that a high priest does not assume the position on his own, but must be called (appointed) by God. Christ was appointed high priest, just as Aaron was (5:4) and just as Melchizedek was (5:6).


Verses 7 through 10 provide the reasoning behind God’s designation of Jesus as high priest. The author tells us in verse 7 that during his earthly life, Jesus (the man), in agony of spirit, cried out to God to save him from death. This refers to the garden scene on the night of his arrest. Jesus prayed that God would “let this cup pass from [him]” (Matthew 26:39). That cup, Hebrews explains, was death. But I think that the death in mind is not merely the physical death to which his body would be subjected, but the spiritual break that he as a man would experience from God. This certainly is a mystery. The death (break with God) in Jesus the man occurring without a break in the Trinity is a spiritual construct although reasonable, beyond definitive description.


Physical death marks the permanency of a person’s spiritual death. After physical death, there is no reprieve; there is no possibility of redemption. That person, no longer offered life through faith, is spiritually dead for eternity. This permanency of spiritual death, I believe, is what Jesus agonized over in the Garden. Yes, he knew beforehand that God would raise him (Matthew 20:19). However, Jesus the man, facing the day of his death, understanding through all his weakness, suffering, and temptation that God the Spirit had been with him giving him strength, now would embark on the cruelest of physical torture, the agony of physical death, and the loss of the Holy Spirit’s succor at the same time. God would leave him. Jesus cried out in agony that this would not be forever. And God heard him.


Hebrews 5:7 states that God heard his cry. Further, God heard him because of his obedience in suffering. The last word of verse 7 translated in the ESV as reverence is the Greek word eulabeia. It has a double meaning of caution and circumspection while also denoting dread and anxiety. Christ’s obedience (circumspection of faith and action) while in his fleshly temptation and suffering (anxious dread) is the very reason God heard the prayer of Jesus. Although at times we may say that God heard a prayer but answered it in a different way from that which we had initially desired, the use of “heard” in 5:7 means that God answered his prayer just as he asked. Jesus asked that God would receive him back after this physical and spiritual death. God said yes; he heard him because of Jesus’ obedient suffering. Acts 2:27 tells us that God would not allow “his holy one” to see corruption. That obedient suffering Son never sinned. He suffered—endured—all trials and temptations in perfect obedience. He was holy. Therefore, God heard his prayer and did resurrect Christ because of his holy, obedient, perfect soul.


Verse 8 solidifies this point. He was the Son of God, but his obedience came through suffering. And with that obedience, making him perfect (complete, demonstrably faithful), he became the “source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (5:9).


The phrase “source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” raises its own question. Eternal salvation, it would seem according to this verse, belongs to only those “who obey him.” What is this obedience to Christ that must be performed in order to gain eternal salvation? Does the author argue for a works-based salvation? The short answer is no. Obedience is applicable to both works and faith.

From the very beginning, God required obedience of both faith and works in relationship with him. Adam and Eve received the command not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. They had to obey by their works. But the very nature of the command required first an obedience in faith. They had to believe that what God told them was good, right, appropriate, and authoritative. They had faith in God for all that and as a consequence they obeyed in action (works). But that day came when listening to the serpent and reasoning within her own heart, Eve removed faith from God and placed it in herself. Without faith in God, trusting her own mind on what was good and right and appropriate, she disobeyed also in action, eating the fruit. Adam followed a similar process.


The series of covenants God subsequently established in the Old Testament all met with the same failure because all the children of those first parents were corrupted, depraved, lacking spiritual perception. They all continually broke trust in God and disobeyed in action, breaking all the covenant obligations. But then Jesus came. He kept faith in God. Accordingly, he was obedient in all covenant obligations. Beyond that, he took upon himself the sin of the world, died for it, and was resurrected, completing payment. And now he tells us to believe. When obedient in faith, we receive Christ’s righteousness (his covenant-fulfilling obedience). We do not perform works of righteousness to earn salvation. Christ’s obedient righteousness in performing those works is accounted to us as we obey in faith.


The question, however, that has rocked the Christian world back and forth for centuries concerns the origination of this obedience of faith. Is faith God-given or is it individually derived? The Arminian says that God’s gift is salvation and we generate our own faith. The Calvinist counters by saying that as totally depraved creatures since the fall, we can’t generate a spiritual response such as faith in God. Calvinists say that faith must be a gift from God. But the Arminian fires back that coerced faith means coerced love. And coerced love is not love in its purest form. Again, the Calvinist replies that faith is not coerced, but rather is the natural response to a regenerated heart. Therefore, the Calvinist argues that regeneration precedes faith in the logical order of an individual’s salvation.


Both views have problems. The Calvinist strongest point is his first—the Bible does seem to proclaim the total inability of fallen humanity. Without God, it is impossible to please him. Thus, without God, it is impossible to have faith. But I believe an alternative view may hold to certain basics of both Calvinism and Arminianism while circumventing the difficulties each system seems unable to avoid.


Faith Electionism maintains the total depravity (and inability) of humanity to choose in favor of God. Fallen mankind simply does not have the required spiritual perception. Faith Electionism, however, also maintains that coerced love is not love at all. The difference between Faith Electionism and Calvinism is not in how it answers that difficulty, but rather in the degree.


Calvinism claims regeneration logically precedes faith. But the Bible tells us in Romans 5:1 that we are “justified by faith.” Regeneration is the act of God in making us righteous. Justification is the declaration of God that we are righteous. That declaration by God of justification is made because of the act of regeneration. So, how can Paul say that we are justified by faith? Aren’t we logically justified by regeneration? Here is where the logical order is important. If faith precedes regeneration (which subsequently precedes justification), we can logically state that justification is by faith. Faith is a necessary component in the logical stream toward justification. In other words, since regeneration requires faith and justification requires regeneration, justification therefore requires (or is by) faith. In the Calvinist’s logical stream, however, faith requires regeneration, but justification by its very definition requires regeneration (not faith). Therefore, the Calvinist’s logical order of regeneration—faith—justification does not conclude (as Paul does) that we are justified by faith.


Faith Electionism does not have this problem. Faith Electionism maintains the biblical order of faith—regeneration—justification. However, agreeing with the Calvinist that total depravity will not allow faith without God’s intervention, the Faith Electionist believes that God provides enlightening grace so that the totally depraved soul is capable of faith in Christ. This enlightening or revelatory grace is what we see in Romans 1. From Romans 1 we understand that all humanity is given by God the understanding (enlightening or revelatory grace) that he is (exists). As individuals rebel against the idea (choosing rather to maintain faith in themselves), God gives them up (ESV) or gives them over (KJV) to sin. In other words, he moves away; he withdraws his enlightening work and, logically so, their sin increases. Alternately, based on the positive faith response of the individual, God provides additional enlightening or revelatory grace to the soul, allowing further faith response. This enlightening / faith response work is not contractual bargaining or any intellectual or negotiable pursuit. It is merely God’s interaction with humanity to accomplish his will. Therefore, the Faith Electionist’s logical order is enlightening grace—faith—regeneration (salvific grace)—justification.


Faith is not a work; therefore, faith does not earn or merit or even deserve salvation. God acts sovereignly because he maintains absolute control in accomplishing his prioritized will (see blog summaries Prelude to Romans 9 – Sovereignty 6/10/08 and Intro to Romans 9 – Key Concepts 6/19/08).  Thus, Faith Electionism maintains Scripture’s emphasis on the faith requirement without making God disingenuous or sacrificing God’s total activity or control in the salvation process. Furthermore, Faith Electionism fits seamlessly into the explanation of Hebrews 5:9—that obedience (in faith) is required of us (not given to us) in order to take part in eternal salvation.


Verse 10 concludes the reasoning of verses 7 through 9, explaining why God designated Jesus as high priest after the order of Melchizedek.