posted on Jan, 27 2017 @ 05:16 PM
“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and
discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom
we have to do” (Hebrews ch4 vv12-13).
The epistle to the Hebrews was written to Jewish Christians, perhaps to a specific Jewish church.
The message of the letter is that Christ has brought “completeness”.
That is, God is making available, through him, a much greater and more decisive revelation than anything they have received from him previously.
In the third and fourth chapters, the writer exhorts them to hold firm to their faith in Christ, and not to neglect the opportunity of entering into
“the promised rest”.
Then, at the end of the exhortation, he adds the words which I quoted at the beginning.
These words are relevant whenever there is a question of examining the conscience.
They can be used on their own, detached from the context, and it’s possible that the writer is quoting them from another source.
In their present setting, they serve two purposes, forming the link between two portions of the letter.
On the one hand, the writer has been warning his readers against having an evil and unbelieving heart.
These words show that if anyone does have an evil and unbelieving heart, God will know about it.
They cannot hope to escape undetected.
This reinforces the moral that we must hold our hearts firm in the faith.
On the other hand, they can also show that God understands us thoroughly enough to know our weaknesses and to help us to work through them and
overcome the “evil and unbelieving heart”.
This prepares the way for a presentation of the priestly role of Jesus.
The original discussion of his nature had reached the point of emphasising his humanity, which had been “tested” to the point of death (ch2
The writer now picks up what was said about him in ch3 v1, by calling him a “great High Priest”.
“Great” is not part of the title. It emphasises his dignity in comparison with his ordinary predecessors.
He is one who has “passed through the heavens”. The word “heaven” is ambiguous in the New Testament. The heavens are the location of the
heavenly bodies (and their associated spirits), but the word is also used for the place where God dwells. The writer takes Jesus through the
subordinate heavens and beyond them, right up to the place of God.
Yet this does not mean that he is detached from us, unable to feel our weaknesses.
He remains one who has experienced human life.
He has been tested [PEPEIRASMENON] as we are tested.
This word is frequently translated as “tempted”, but that can be misleading.
Our common understanding of “temptation” combines two kinds of prompting, one external and the other internal.
The external prompting is the opportunity of doing something wrong, supplied by another person or by the situation.
The other prompting is our own response, in which we feel drawn to the possibility.
We don’t normally bother to distinguish between the two, because our experience tells us that they go together.
We say “I was tempted”, meaning “I felt the temptation”.
But the New Testament “testing” is only referring to the external prompt. That is the case in the so-called “temptation” of Jesus in the
wilderness, and also when James is talking about “testing” and whether it comes from God.
This passage, too, is about the experience of “testing”.
For the writer adds that the experience was “without sin” [CHORIS HAMARTIAS].
Pre-existing sin was not affecting his decision-making, and there was no sin in the result.
Since the same writer who says that Jesus was “without sin” has also just said that he is able to “sympathise with our weaknesses”, there is
evidently no conflict between the two statements.
The reason is that sympathy needs to share the experience of testing, not the feeling of sin itself.
As commentators have remarked, nobody who sins has ever undergone the fullest possible measure of “testing”, because they have, by definition,
given in before that point was reached.
Only someone who resists to the end will have experienced its full power.
And because we have such a High Priest, the writer assures us that we can confidently approach what he calls “the throne of grace” (instead of
fearing it as a “throne of judgement”).
There we will find both mercy and grace.
Mercy is forgiveness for what we have done in the past, while grace is given to help us now and in the future.
In the next chapter, he compares this High Priest with the ordinary High Priests “chosen from among men” as the successors of Aaron.
These priests have the function of acting for the people by offering gifts and sacrifices to God.
Later chapters will explain how Jesus does the same thing, more perfectly.
The ordinary High Priest “can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness”.
The previous passage has shown how Jesus does the same thing more perfectly, without the necessity of offering additional sacrifice for his own
In fact this comparison treats the ordinary High Priest very generously, because I don’t find in the laws of Moses any suggestion that “dealing
gently with sinners” was part of their expected role. (ch5 vv1-3)
Finally, the successors of Aaron do not appoint themselves, but are duly appointed.
(Obviously this is the ideal situation, again, because counter-examples could have been found from history.)
So the writer now explains how the appointment of Christ as High Priest was carried out.
It was announced in the Psalms.
One Psalm, already quoted at the beginning of the letter, announces him as Son (that is, he did not exalt himself).
There follows his further appointment as “High Priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek” (that is, he did not appoint himself). (vv4-6)
The appointment was worked through in two stages, as described in the long and complex sentence which fills vv7-10.
“In the days of his flesh”, he learned obedience.
The statement that Jesus “learned obedience” does not mean that his previous condition was disobedience.
Rather, his previous condition was authority. “Although he was a Son”.
This is the same point that Paul was making, when he said that Jesus was “in the form of God”, but took upon himself, in becoming man, “the
form of a servant” (Philippians ch2 vv6-7).
“Through suffering”; as elsewhere in this letter, this refers to the suffering of death, which he accepted in obedience.
He had previously been offering up loud prayers and supplications to the one who could save him from death, which seems to point to Gethsemane.
And his prayers were heard because of his “fear” of God (so they cannot have been sinful in themselves).
“Being made perfect” [TELEIOTHEIS], he became the source of eternal salvation to all who give him the same kind of obedience.
Again, this is not about achieving moral perfection, after a condition of imperfection.
Rather, he was made “complete” and “finished” in his task, which had previously been incomplete and unfinished.
This may be an allusion to the “It is finished!” [TETELESTHAI] spoken on the cross.
Therefore he is both strong enough, and sympathetic enough, to sustain our confidence and hope, as we journey towards the same “completeness”.