Resources » Asbury Bible Commentary » Part III: The New Testament » HEBREWS » Commentary » IV. Third Point: “A Priest Forever” (4:14–7:28)

IV. Third Point: “A Priest Forever” (4:14–7:28)

The purpose of religion is to provide communion with God. While it is our sure hope to enter the Sabbath-rest of God some day, even Today through Christ we may approach God's throne (4:16). Moses approached with great fear and trembling (Ex 3:6; cf. Ac 7:32), but we may approach with confidence because Jesus has passed from earth to heaven to assume humanity's destiny in the presence of God.

Our High Priest sees our blemishes and our weaknesses. He knows our mixed responses to his Word. He knows our limitations and our adverse circumstances; he shared them and proved himself victorious over them (4:15). That is, he faced what we face, and much more, without ever taking the easy way out. In fact, that is precisely what temptation and sin offer us—the path of least resistance. The High Priest most sympathetic to the human condition is the One who has himself experienced, more than anyone else, the unremitting onslaught of temptation. We have such a high priest, and he remains at the altar of God to offer mercy and grace now. His mercy covers our nakedness and shortcomings; his grace sustains and supports us in adversity (4:16). With this in mind, again the plea is given to hold fast to professed faith in Christ.

The high priest represents the people and their concerns before God while sharing their unhappy lot. To the author of Hebrews, the human condition is marked not so much by “original sin” as “original weakness” (5:2; cf. 4:15), that finite creatureliness that leaves humanity defenseless before sin's deceit (see 3:13). Were the human constitution equipped to fend off the Tempter's wiles in its own strength, Christ's passion would be superfluous. Under the covenant of Moses, the only remedy for the human plight was repeated sacrifices for sin (5:3), since the weakness inherent in humanity remained unchanged. High priests served to meet the ongoing need for atonement.

In quoting Ps 110:4, the high priesthood of Jesus is now presented for consideration (5:6), though already introduced in 2:17; 3:1; 4:14. The author approaches this theme from a singular given: the glorification of Christ is his heavenly enthronement. The indisputable fact is that the Resurrection proclaims his entitlement at the hand of God. Jesus never claimed high priestly honor for himself in his earthly life (5:5). God conferred upon Christ, once for all, the glory and title of eternal High Priest in exalting him to the heavenly throne (5:6; cf. 1:3, 8-9, 13; 2:9). Here the author equates the Son's investiture to high priesthood with his glorification, because he adjoins Ps 2:7 to Ps 110:4.

Jesus is the great High Priest. God called him to a special position of unique sonship (5:5), a divine appointment Jesus would have forfeited had he relied on his own strength. For he too shared our weaknesses (see also 2:14, 17; 4:15), but he relied on God to grant him the strength he lacked, just as we must do. This is the reason mention is made of his prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears (5:7). The all-knowing and all-powerful has no need of petition and no reason to cry. But Jesus fully shared our limitations. Ever reliant upon God, he was able to resist sin and submit to the divine will. The Gethsemane experience echoed in 5:7 was only the final and greatest of the tests Jesus endured. Had he failed God at any point after receiving his call, however early or late in life, he could not have become the eternal High Priest. His unwavering submission to the will of God won him vindication against the wrongful death he suffered. God delivered him from death rather than merely from dying (5:7). That greater victory was for us (see 2:14-15).

Jesus comprehended the Father's will through prayer, but he learned the utter challenge of obedience through what he suffered (5:8). Son by appointment though he was (see 1:2), obedience did not come naturally to him thereby. Appointment to high office offers no security against failure. Still, it is wrong to conclude that, in learning obedience, he must have progressed from initial disobedience. The author cannot allow that, since Jesus was sinless (see 4:15; 7:26). Likewise, it is wrong to conclude that, in being perfected, initially at least he must have been imperfect. These facile antitheses are the hollow constructs of shallow reasoning.

To understand what Jesus underwent in life, we must begin with two equivalent statements. In 2:10 the author declares that God made Jesus perfect through suffering. In 5:8-9 he says Jesus learned obedience through suffering and was perfected. Both passages state that Jesus underwent a process of perfecting by clinging to God through adversity. In other words, the call of God drew him forward, and the grace of God sustained him in the face of mounting odds and growing opposition. In the process, he learned to respond more exactingly to the will of God. Jesus' perfection was his unflagging willingness to obey God as the difficulties and demands increased. His was, so to speak, a perfection in process.

Modern thought typically views perfection as an unattainable ideal, following ancient Platonism. Jesus' perfection is thereby attributed to his divinity. He is viewed as a special case, and we do not share his advantages. Our perfection must be awaited until the life to come.

Neither the author of Hebrews nor Wesley follows this line of thought, however. A Jewish Christian, the writer of Hebrews viewed perfection much as did the Qumran community and the prophets before his time. Perfection comes by God's grace in faithfulness to his covenant (see Ps 51; Jer 31:33-34; Eze 36:23-27). Jesus is precisely a case in point. The obedience necessary to covenant faithfulness was possible only by the operation of God's grace, even for him. Life had to be lived in unwavering trust (see 2:13; 3:2), not in himself but in God. By trusting and obeying God at every point, Jesus learned more and more fully the perfect response to the divine will. God taught him what obedience entailed. He had no advantage over us; in fact, he shared all our human limitations (cf. 2:14, 17; 4:15). But the grace and power of God were upon him as never before in human experience. When his life was taken, the perfecting process was ended. Ever having remained faithful, he became the perfect offering of humanity to God, once for all. In receiving Jesus, God received all those with whom he identified (see 2:9-10, 17), who thereafter have come to heed his call (5:9). In resurrecting him, God bestowed on him the everlasting title of high priest in the order of Melchizedek (v. 10).

The author's intention is to explain more fully this priestly entitlement. However, he is writing to people whose spiritual faculties have been stunted (5:11). Unlike Jesus, they are responding to adversity by shrinking from the sterner challenges of faith (cf. 10:35-39; 12:3-13, 25). By now, the leading of God's grace should have taught them deep insight and moral fortitude; instead, they are failing to grasp the basic pronouncements delivered by the prophets (see 1:1), let alone those imparted by the Son (see 1:2). The author himself is compelled to teach them these elementary points again (5:12) in the epistle's six major points. He accuses them of being infantile, literally, inexperienced and untried (apeiros) in God's program of righteousness (5:13). Jesus, though, was tried (pepeirasmenos) in all respects (see 4:15). The Word illumines the proper path; the faithful learn its landmarks, turns, and ascents. Seasoned travelers (teleioi) on the righteous road have trained faculties and fine moral discrimination, long tried and true (5:14; cf. 12:11). The addressees have not used the faculties God gave them to perceive and do what is right. Now they must be admonished, since they have not properly digested the prophetic pronouncements and the words of Christ.

What is the wrong these people are contemplating? It amounts to a forfeiture of the grace of God offered in Christ Jesus (see 12:15), a refusal to hear the word God speaks today (see 12:25). Judaism, their ancestral religion, is sanctioned by Rome, and the attractive option in the present dilemma is to return to the safety it offers. When faced with exposure and persecution for being Christians, some would back away from Christ to save themselves.

The author will have none of their expedient. God has provided only one way to safety, and that way lies forward through adversity (see 12:1-13). There can be no looking back now. He calls his audience to leave the first step and scale the heights (6:1). They have had problems embracing the teaching originally delivered by Christ (not “about Christ”; see 2:3), and it is long past the time when they should have allowed God to bear them on to his own perfection.

Notoriously misunderstood is 6:1 because perfection (teleiotēs; not mere maturity here) is commonly viewed in terms of an unattainable ideal rather than relational dynamics. Consequently, two important clues are commonly passed over. First, the verb (pherō) is in the present tense (denoting continuous action, not momentary crisis) in the middle/passive voice, and here it means “to be borne along” by a power outside and greater than self. Westcott (p. 145) conveys the sense in remarking, “The thought is not primarily of personal effort, ‘let us go on,’ ‘let us press’ . . . , but of personal surrender to an active influence.” Second, the goal is the state of perfection (teleiotēs) God alone enjoys, not to be confused with the process of perfection (teleiōsis) by which God brings us to the attainment of that goal. By God's grace, this is much more than moral maturity; it is relational dynamics directed in terms of purposed divinity.

Christ underwent the same process. He attained the goal only by remaining obedient through sufferings even unto death (see 2:10; 5:8). God also will bear us through the adversities of life to the ultimate attainment of his own perfection, provided we allow him continuously to work his will in our lives. This perfective process is impeded by any unwillingness to surrender one's heart and mind, will and understanding to God's leading. To move beyond spiritual infancy, we must accept not only the original teaching of Jesus, but also the prompting of the Spirit, and that might unsettle us and pull us beyond our familiar moorings. Perfection is the relational dynamics of Spirit-led living; Jesus called it the kingdom of God. As such, it is itself the goal, having no predefined end to its movement, no exhaustion of its forward momentum.

Wiley represents many proponents of Wesleyan theology in commenting on this passage. His first point is that “the redemptive process is twofold because sin is twofold. (1) It is an act which requires forgiveness, and (2) it is a state or condition of the heart known as inbred sin or inherited depravity, which can be removed only by cleansing. . . . It is for this reason that we speak of Christian perfection as ‘a second blessing, properly so-called’” (p. 206). Contrary to Wiley, the author of Hebrews knows nothing of inherited depravity nor of perfection as the removal of such. Wiley makes a sharp distinction between sin and infirmity: “This distinction is based upon a difference between sin and its consequences. Sin, whether in act or in state, is removed in this present life by the all-atoning blood of Jesus; but the consequences of sin manifest in weakness and infirmity will be removed only at the time of the resurrection” (p. 209). The author of Hebrews would disagree, viewing weakness as an element of the created human condition, mere creatureliness vulnerable to sin's greater power (without divine assistance).

The Jewish Christians to whom this epistle was sent were having difficulty accepting tribulation as part of the path ordained by God for their perfecting. They were in retreat. They questioned Christ's teachings on fundamental points: repentance and faith (see Mk 1:15), the futility of rites of cleansing (see Mk 7:1-8; cf. Heb 9:10), the laying on of hands (see Mk 7:31-37), the resurrection from the dead (see Mk 12:18-27); and eternal judgment (see Mk 8:34-38). These were the familiar moorings of Jewish religious practice and theological debate. The author interestingly qualifies repentance in terms of dead works (ergoi nekroi, 6:1). These are not acts that lead to death (contrary to the niv) but acts that perpetuate death. The author understands death to be perpetuated by the former covenant in the repeated demand for blood sacrifices (see 9:13-14). Jesus' call for repentance and faith in God, then, is a call to leave the deadness of the former covenant and believe the Gospel. In believing Christ's Gospel and surrendering to his leading, we are thus borne along to God's perfection. This, indeed, is God's good pleasure to accomplish for us (6:3).

The third of five severe passages in this epistle, 6:4-8 flows from the rejection of God's good pleasure. God desires to bear us along to his own perfection and to the enjoyment of his own Sabbath-rest. What more can God do for us than he has already done in Jesus Christ? He freely offers us the light of his glory, his indwelling Spirit, and his victorious power. To reject this heavenly gift (v. 4) is to strike one's own path to salvation (even if through Moses). This falling away (v. 6) is more than a mere lapse into sin; it is ultimately self-destructive. The impossibility of God renewing their repentance is due to their willful independence. God, by sovereign self-limitation, forces no one to keep his heavenly gift. If Christ is rejected, no alternative remains. The former covenant has been superseded (see 8:13).

The Calvinist doctrine of eternal security questions the possibility posed here that one who receives the Holy Spirit can commit apostasy. Arminian-Wesleyan theology acknowledges that possibility, if God's grace is refused. Disillusionment with Christ sealed his crucifixion; it is no different when his own abandon him.

In the divine scheme, blessing produces further blessing (6:7). Rain enables parched soil to yield produce. But blessings do not flow unabated to those who abandon the divine plan. At some point it becomes useless to cultivate ground that steadfastly bears noxious weeds (cf. 12:15). God eventually must honor one's steadfast decision to reject Christ. Without his salvation, the end for that one is the consuming fire (6:8; cf. 10:27; 12:29). In the case of the recipients of the letter, God's blessing is yet evident in their continuing service (6:10). The danger is that some should begin to lag in their demonstrated concern for other Christians, since that would readily identify them as Christians too. Sluggards (nōthroi) shrink from the hope set before them in Christ (6:12; cf. 10:39), but faith shows patient endurance (cf. 10:36). The promised inheritance of faith is the corporate enjoyment of God's perfection (see 11:39-40).

Abraham is the biblical example of patient faith. In Ge 13 God promised childless Abram that he would be blessed with many descendants. Only many years later, in old age, did Sarah give birth to Isaac. The story shows that Abraham's faith consisted in patience and endurance; persevering, he received what God had promised (6:15). Later still, God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac on Mount Moriah, and Abraham obeyed. As the knife was raised to slay the child of promise, God intervened and provided a ram instead. Again Abraham proved his obedience in faith. In staying his hand, God reaffirmed the promise by swearing an oath which the author quotes in 6:14. God did this to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear (v. 17) to Abraham, Isaac, and their descendants. The promise and the oath are unchangeable; God cannot go back on them (v. 18).

They find their fulfillment in the hope offered to us, a sure hope resting on the unchanging nature of his purpose to bless us. Nor is that hope a mere longing for future blessing. Even now we may take hold of it and enter the heavenly Holy of Holies. In prayer and supplication we may go behind the veil to receive strength and encouragement from Jesus our High Priest, eternally ministering on our behalf (6:19-20). This hope is much better for the people of promise than the momentary access of their earthly representative once each year (see 9:7).

Now the author begins the topic he set out to address in 5:8-11, the priesthood of Christ in the succession of Melchizedek. King of Salem and priest of God Most High, in Ge 14 Melchizedek appears in the narrative suddenly and disappears two verses later as the story line moves on. Bringing bread and wine, he blesses Abraham and receives a tithe of his battle spoils. The author finds meaning in Melchizedek's name, translated “king of righteousness.” Moreover, as “king of Salem” (from s̆ālôm, which means “peace”), he is declared to be “king of peace” (7:2). The implication is that Melchizedek prefigures Christ.

The silence of Genesis concerning Melchizedek's genealogy and life is also meaningful to the author. It is as though this priest of God enters salvation history from beyond. The man serves God yet does so outside the covenant relationship God inaugurated with Abraham in Ge 12. No mention is made concerning the beginning or end of Melchizedek's walk with God. It is as though he comes to Abraham through the veil of eternity, only to leave through it again. That is why the author says, Like the Son of God he remains a priest forever (7:3).

Is the author constructing a fanciful argument that can bear no weight, finding meaning as he does in the silence of the Genesis narrative? Actually, he is on solid ground. Long before his time, an earlier Jewish theologian had declared Melchizedek to be alive eternally: “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek” (Ps 110:4). The author of Hebrews is only reiterating the psalmist's claim concerning the Messiah, now applying it specifically to Jesus.

Of course, Melchizedek is greater than the patriarch of the people of faith, for the greater receives tribute from the lesser (7:4, 7). Since all high priests trace their succession from Levi, Abraham's descendant, in no way can the priesthood of Melchizedek be construed to derive from the Levitical line. Furthermore, because Melchizedek receives the tithe from Abraham, he receives it from the promised seed of Abraham as well, and this includes Levi (vv. 9-10). Thus, the author argues that a priestly succession functions above and apart from the Levitical succession.

The law was given to the people to delineate the way of perfection. It provided bounds for proper relationship to God and the enjoyment of his blessings. Every Jew understood this, from the clergy in exile at Qumran to the housewives across the land who prepared for the Day of Atonement by removing every last vestige of leaven from the home. The author does not argue the point but merely presents it as a fact understood by all with no need of support (7:11). He argues that perfection could not be maintained (not attained, as in the niv) through the offices of the Levitical priesthood. God in his grace provided perfection through covenant relationship. Obedience to the law and the prescribed sacrifices were the means for its maintenance. Why then did God send another priest in the succession of Melchizedek? The only possible conclusion is that it was necessary because the Aaronic priesthood and the covenant of Moses were powerless to change disobedient humanity. The law prescribed holiness (see Lev 19:2); it did not produce it (7:19). The Aaronic sacrificial system temporarily filled the gap, but a better expedient was needed, one which would fulfill the law's demand rather than abide human failings. That expedient would change both the law's priestly provisions (vv. 12, 18) and the human capacity to meet its demands.

Under Mosaic Law Jesus had no claim to priestly office (7:13-14). But like Melchizedek he suddenly appeared, and he is declared to be alive (cf. v. 8). He became a priest, not on the basis of . . . ancestry but on the basis of the power of an indestructible life (v. 16). The display of God's power that raised and exalted Christ to the right hand of Majesty on high (see 1:3) can only mean that another priest like Melchizedek has entered into his appointed office. God's oracular declaration is now shown to be true: “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek” (7:17; Ps 110:4). The Mosaic legislation has been set aside, with it the Aaronic priesthood, because it shares humanity's weakness and inability to maintain perfection (7:18-19). Our perfection is assured only because of the better hope that is ours in Christ, the one High Priest who makes it possible for us to approach God.

In accordance with his declared purpose, God has done it all himself. He swore an oath (see Ps 110:4) that could apply to no priest in the succession of Aaron (7:20). That oath can apply only to One who comes in the succession of Melchizedek. Now it is plain why so much was made of the divine oath to Abraham in 6:13-20. Just as God could not go back on his promise to provide Abraham many descendants, so much the more he cannot go back on his oath to himself to make Jesus the eternal High Priest in the order of Melchizedek (7:21). The divine oath is what assures us that a better covenant is in place (v. 22), one providing us the perfection God requires.

The new covenant is better because of the better High Priest. All Aaronic priests saw limited tenure (7:23); Christ's priesthood and intercession on our behalf are unending. They offered atonement perpetually; Jesus offered atonement in perpetuity. They served in human weakness; Jesus serves in God's absolute power. Jesus saves to the uttermost (v. 25). We have a better High Priest: who is holy, hence substantively one with God; who is blameless, yet intentionally one with humanity; who is pure, thus purifying us (cf. 2:11; 10:10); who is set apart from sinners, thus able to remove our sin (7:26; cf. 10:1-2). Unholy, blameworthy, defiled by sin, we have no hope of bettering ourselves to the point of being acceptable to a holy God. Even the Aaronic high priest offered sacrifices on the Day of Atonement for his own sins as well as those of the people (7:27). Sinless himself, Jesus' self-offering was entirely for the sins of others, all-embracing and perfect; thus no subsequent sacrifice is required.

Like every human being, every high priest is beset with weakness (7:28; cf. 4:15; 5:2). In comparison with divine standards, all flesh and blood is weak and dependent. Not inbred depravity, it simply is not possible to live divinely within human capacity. We share Adam's original weakness, not as a consequence of the Fall but as a condition of creatureliness. Weakness is the inability to maintain perfection without divine assistance. The Aaronic priesthood offered no remedy for this.

The Mosaic covenant, in appointing men to the office of high priest, made no adequate provision for their weaknesses. The divine oath subsequently uttered through the psalmist has appointed to this office the Son, who has been perfected forever (7:28). Christ shared our weaknesses (see 2:14, 17; 4:15; 5:7), but through the oath of God, divine power sustained him in living out his divine appointment. No one else could accomplish precisely what Jesus did on our behalf. His calling was unique as the Pioneer (cf. 2:10; 6:20; 10:20) and Perfecter (cf. 5:7-9; 10:14; 12:2) of humanity in faith. Now Jesus has entered into his office as High Priest forever, having been perfected in the sense that God has brought him to his divine destiny without his once becoming entangled in sin and without his leaving any aspect of his divinely appointed work unfinished. The proof for human observance is to be found in his resurrection and exaltation in accordance with Pss 8 and 110.