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Themes in Hebrews – Lesson 4 Part 1


Continuing the lecture series in Hebrews. Please remember that these notes were written to be spoken, not for written delivery. They are the notes from a course on Hebrews given at Ballynahinch Congregational Church. Lecture four is too long for one post, so it will be posted in three sections. Read Hebrews 5 & 6.

Themes in Hebrews – Lesson 4

Text. Hebrews 5 & 6
A quick overview. The Hebrews Christians, possibly in Italy, are facing a fierce period of persecution, and they are worried. Who wouldn’t be? A suggestion must have been made in the church, that they would be better off returning to their old Judaistic religion. After all Jews enjoyed a measure of protection, and they had so much in their favour. The Jews had angels watching over them. The Jews had Abraham. The Jews had Moses. All that the Christians seem to have is Jesus!

So, the author goes on to explain that Jesus is far superior to the angels, and far superior to the prophets (for Moses was the greatest of the prophets). Because Jesus is superior, we must never go back to anything we had before. The great test of our salvation is that we will persevere, right to the end of life, and we will enter into the rest that God has prepared for us. To help us, the author tells us that we must read God’s Word, and we must pray. There’s yet another temptation to apostatise…

1. The Jews Have a High Priest. Hebrews 4:14-5:9
This course is Themes in Hebrews. We’ve seen two of those themes; the superiority of Christ and the perseverance of the believer. This theme, the Great High Priesthood of Christ is one of the major themes of the book. (The concept of Christ as our Great High Priest is Hebrews’ primary contribution to NT thought). Because of its importance we need to spend some time on this, and this is our introduction to the theme.

Many people value a ‘figurehead’. Nationally, we have great affection for HM the Queen. We value her sense of duty and her dignity. She embodies the values of the nation. Her 2011 Christmas Day Speech was an inspiration; a call for the nation to return to faith in Christ. In times of national distress the reigning monarch became a great asset to the nation. During the Second World War, the role of the king was to inspire the troops and the general population, to give the people courage and comfort, to be with them in a time of great need.
In NI, in past days, many evangelicals regarded Ian Paisley as a figurehead. Even if they did not belong to his denomination, or agree with his politics, they did see him as someone who would be uncompromising in his stand for Christian truth and Christian values.

The Jews had a religious figurehead. They had the High Priest at Jerusalem. He was their leader, a man who not only acted as their priest, as their supreme religious leader, but was an inspiration to them. He embodied and symbolised their national identity and national aspirations. He was someone to look up to, and to follow in times of difficulty. Wouldn’t the Hebrew Christians in Italy be better off returning to their Judaism, so that they would have the comfort of looking to a great national leader when this awful persecution worsened? The Hebrew Author says NO! We have a better High Priest, for we have Jesus. But how could Jesus be a High Priest? Jesus was of the tribe of Judah, and people of that tribe were debarred from serving as priests. So Hebrews sets out the qualifications of a High Priest, and then goes on to show how Jesus not only meets those qualifications but exceeds them.

The qualifications of the High Priest

He must be a man. 5:1 For every high priest taken from among men is ordained for men in things pertaining to God, that he may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins. So the purpose of the Priest is to represent men before God. To adequately perform that task he must be a man himself. Now this may be stating the obvious, but it is vitally important, for Christ, in his humanity, in his incarnation, took upon himself perfect manhood, so the he could bear our sins, as our representative at Calvary. The priest was TAKEN FROM AMONG MEN. So was Christ.
Note carefully the spiritual task of the OT priest, so that we can compare it with the work of Christ. He was to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. But which sins? It’s important to note that in the OT economy sacrifices without repentance on the part of the one making the sacrifice was ineffective in dealing with sin. Consider…

Heb. 10:26 For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins.
Lev. 4:2 Speak unto the children of Israel, saying, If a soul shall sin through ignorance against any of the commandments of the LORD concerning things which ought not to be done, and shall do against any of them.
Lev. 4:26 And he shall burn all his fat upon the altar, as the fat of the sacrifice of peace offerings: and the priest shall make an atonement for him as concerning his sin, and it shall be forgiven him.
Numbers 22-31 And if ye have erred, and not observed all these commandments, which the LORD hath spoken unto Moses, 23Even all that the LORD hath commanded you by the hand of Moses, from the day that the LORD commanded Moses, and henceforward among your generations; 24Then it shall be, if ought be committed by ignorance without the knowledge of the congregation, that all the congregation shall offer one young bullock for a burnt offering, for a sweet savour unto the LORD, with his meat offering, and his drink offering, according to the manner, and one kid of the goats for a sin offering. 25And the priest shall make an atonement for all the congregation of the children of Israel, and it shall be forgiven them; for it is ignorance: and they shall bring their offering, a sacrifice made by fire unto the LORD, and their sin offering before the LORD, for their ignorance: 26And it shall be forgiven all the congregation of the children of Israel, and the stranger that sojourneth among them; seeing all the people were in ignorance. 27¶And if any soul sin through ignorance, then he shall bring a she goat of the first year for a sin offering. 28And the priest shall make an atonement for the soul that sinneth ignorantly, when he sinneth by ignorance before the LORD, to make an atonement for him; and it shall be forgiven him. 29Ye shall have one law for him that sinneth through ignorance, both for him that is born among the children of Israel, and for the stranger that sojourneth among them. 30¶But the soul that doeth ought presumptuously, whether he be born in the land, or a stranger, the same reproacheth the LORD; and that soul shall be cut off from among his people. 31Because he hath despised the word of the LORD, and hath broken his commandment, that soul shall utterly be cut off; his iniquity shall be upon him.
Deut 17:12And the man that will do presumptuously, and will not hearken unto the priest that standeth to minister there before the LORD thy God, or unto the judge, even that man shall die: and thou shalt put away the evil from Israel.

So for sins of presumption, there was no forgiveness. Now in Israel, what was the difference between sins of ignorance and sins of presumption? Sins of ignorance were caused by lack of knowledge, by anger or passion, by overwhelming temptation, – sins for which we are sorry, and desire to repent. Sins of presumption were cold, calculated sin, for which a person is not sorry; it is open rebellion against God.

So, the priest’s function was to show a way for the sinner to come back to God, so long as he was willing to acknowledge his sin and repent. Hebs 5:2 Who can have compassion on the ignorant, and on them that are out of the way; for that he himself also is compassed with infirmity. Of course, it was imperfect, as we shall see later.

He must have empathy with other men.

KJV Hebs 5:2 Who can have compassion on the ignorant, and on them that are out of the way; for that he himself also is compassed with infirmity
ESV Hebs 5:2 He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness.

The greek word rendered ‘have compassion’ is unusual. It is μετριοπαθειν. METRIPATHEIN. the root is the word ‘pathos’. It means ‘feeling’ or ’emotion’. So a-pathos would be NOT feeling, (apathy), sympathy = feeling the same. Metripathein seems to mean feeling correctly about someone – having the right feeling for their circumstances. It seems to be better rendered as ’empathy’ without involvement. So, being patient with angry people, without losing your temper. To bear with someone without becoming frustrated with them. It is the correct medium, between extravagant grief and unfeeling indifference. It is the quality of empathy that a priest must have to understand exact what his people are going through.

Matthew Henry: He must be one that can have compassion on two sorts of persons:– (1.) On the ignorant, or those that are guilty of sins of ignorance. He must be one who can find in his heart to pity them, and intercede with God for them, one that is willing to instruct those that are dull of understanding. (2.) On those that are out of the way, out of the way of truth, duty, and happiness; and he must be one who has tenderness enough to lead them back from the by-paths of error, sin, and misery, into the right way: this will require great patience and compassion, even the compassion of a God.

He must also be compassed with infirmity; and so be able from himself feelingly to consider our frame, and to sympathise with us. Now, listen to what Hebrews tells his readers about Jesus…
Heb. 4:14-16 Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession. For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.
Heb. 5:7 Who in the days of his flesh, when he had offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death, and was heard in that he feared;

So Jesus perfectly meets the requirement for empathy, and to illustrate this point the Hebrew author reminds of of Christ’s agony in Gethsemane. Hebrews says that he ‘learned’ from this. Now, I’m not quite sure how or what Christ learned obedience (in the sense of ‘knowledge’ in that he was, in his divinity, omniscient) but perhaps that ‘learning’ was not academic, but ‘experiential – learning suffering.’ One thing is certain, suffering teaches us all lessons.

The reference to his being made perfect is also important. 8Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered; 9And being made perfect, (ESV 8Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. 9And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him)
The Greek word rendered perfect is τελειωθεις. The root is teleios – (like telephone, telescope, etc) the implication here is not that he was imperfect and was made perfect through his suffering, but rather that he was prepared by God to perfectly (ultimately) carry out his purpose.
Matthew Henry again, Thus Christ was qualified. He took upon him our sinless infirmities; and this gives us great encouragement to apply ourselves to him under every affliction; for in all the afflictions of his people he is afflicted.

He must be chosen for the task.
Hebrews 5:4-6 And no man taketh this honour unto himself, but he that is called of God, as was Aaron. So also Christ glorified not himself to be made an high priest; but he that said unto him, Thou art my Son, to day have I begotten thee. As he saith also in another place, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec.
No-one chooses this work for himself. Only God can ordain someone to this office. Surely we can see that Jesus is God’s Chosen One, for the task of redeeming humanity from the curse of sin, and restoring mankind to God. Hebrews makes that clear, when he writes, ‘So also Christ glorified not himself to be made an high priest.’ Jesus himself had declared, in John 8:50: And I seek not mine own glory: there is one that seeketh and judgeth.
The Author is quoting the OT Scripture again… Psalm 2:7-12 I will declare the decree: the LORD hath said unto me, Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee. Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession. Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel. Be wise now therefore, O ye kings: be instructed, ye judges of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and ye perish from the way, when his wrath is kindled but a little. Blessed are all they that put their trust in him.

But we still have this major problem. A High Priest cannot come from the tribe of Judah. He MUST be of Aaron’s line. How could the Hebrews ever accept that Jesus was a better High Priest than the earthly High Priest in Jerusalem? The Author clinches it in verses 6-10 when he tells the Hebrew Christians that Jesus is a High Priest of an order that is better than Aaron’s.

Hebrews 5:6-10, As he saith also in another place, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec. Who in the days of his flesh, when he had offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death, and was heard in that he feared; Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered; And being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him; Called of God an high priest after the order of Melchisedec.

The High Priest in Jerusalem is a temporary priesthood, Christ’s priesthood is eternal! Again, Matthew Henry summarises this beautifully, “God the Father appointed him a priest of a higher order than that of Aaron. The priesthood of Aaron was to be but temporary; the priesthood of Christ was to be perpetual: the priesthood of Aaron was to be successive, descending from the fathers to the children; the priesthood of Christ, after the order of Melchisedec, was to be personal, and the high priest immortal as to his office, without descent, having neither beginning of days nor end of life”. The Author is reminding the Hebrew believers of Psalm 110:4: The LORD hath sworn, and will not repent, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.

So the Christians facing persecution in Italy have a figurehead, someone to look to, and to follow. Someone who understands them and helps them in time of need and who pleads their case before God’s immediate presence. That One is Jesus, and we must never go back to what is inferior, when we have Christ. We shall return to the subject of Christ’s position as Great High Priest later, and to look again at the concept of the Priesthood of Melchizedek.

First, in Part 2, a warning against spiritual stagnation. I’ll post it on Monday!

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