Lectionary Commentaries for October 17, 2021
Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 10:35-45

Luis Menéndez-Antuña

Mark continues here with a series of teachings that seek to lay out how the prospective community should organize its structure, particularly around governance issues. At a fundamental level, the questions are: What criteria should the Christian community implement to rule itself? Who should be the leader or make decisions in the assembly? 

The narrative follows a simple pattern: the sons of the Zebedee pose a question to the teacher (10:35), inaugurating a dialogue where Jesus gives a response intended to offer the criteria for such governance. The dialogue progresses from a simple question about a literal sitting at the table to broader criteria about community ruling. Without claiming literary dependence, Mark uses here a Johannine technique whereby the punchline relies on a misunderstanding between a literal dimension (sit at the table) and a theological one (sit next to Christ).  

I have argued elsewhere that Mark is a gospel informed by pain, torture, and trauma. Jesus dies the death of the enslaved in a torturous process that ends up annihilating, as is the case during the process of lengthy torture, his subjectivity, his world, and his language. Let us think about the following question: how does literature convey the incommunicable nature of pain intimately associated with torture? 

Biblical scholars and liberation theologians have emphasized the political dimensions of such torture. Recent scholarship has emphasized the race, gender, sexual, and class components of Jesus’ torture: as a male Jew, Mark depicts Jesus’ torture as a continuous process with hints of sexual abuse. Jesus goes through the death of a slave. Liberation theologians have expanded the category of the “crucified” to talk about “el pueblo crucificado.” Such a theological move emphasizes two critical points: a) it makes explicit that Jesus’ death was not a willful act, but rather the culmination of a political process intent on eliminating his subversive movement and b) Jesus’ message inaugurated a move that, at least initially, sat at odds with Greco-Roman ideals of authority.  

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, request of Jesus to be seated next to him “in glory” (10:37). Jesus’ response brings to the fore the main topic that weaves together the whole gospel of Mark. Scholars have long considered Mark “the gospel of the cross” because other main topics such as the temple, discipleship, and Christology resort back to the reality of the cross as the grounding criteria of interpretation. Although Mark features the apostles as the main models of discipleship, the gospel also presents them as flawed characters. Think, for example, of Peter, who continuously misunderstands Jesus’ messianism (Mark 8:27-9:1). Peters’ rebuke triggers Jesus to lay out the theological dimensions of the discipleship model, which essentially consists of following Jesus to the cross. Such teachings, however, fail. At the peak of the Gospel, Mark is explicit about Peter failing to follow his teacher to the cross (Mark 14:72). In the end, Jesus stands by himself, abandoned by the most prominent apostle and the rest of the disciples. 

In this passage, we encounter a theologized version of the “cross” as the criteria for following Jesus. To the disciples’ request, Jesus responds: “are you able to take my cup? Or to undergo the baptism which I am to undergo?” (Mark 10:38). The disciples’ response is bold, and Jesus does not disavow it. Instead, Jesus resorts to a principle of undecidability about who may occupy the authority’s chair: “it is not for me to give but to those for whom it has been made ready” (10:40). This is an enigmatic saying that has been traditionally interpreted as Jesus conferring authority to God. I would like to suggest a supplementary reading. 

If it is true that Mark is a gospel inflected by torture, pain, and trauma, and if it is the case that Jesus’ call for discipleship includes a call to experience such realities (“you will drink from the cup from which I take and the baptism which I am about to undergo you will undergo,” Mark 10:39), it follows that there is no known answer on the other side of such experience. From the testimonies of those who have gone through torture, we know that their past, present, and future worlds collapse under the heavy yoke of extreme pain and cruelty. 

The undecidability of who will have a front seat on the other side of such experiences comes from the fact that it ultimately depends on the Father and from the fact that pain is a liminal experience in itself. Victims of torture express that they cannot think of a future beyond the fact that pain destroys their bodies and language. Accordingly, we can interpret Jesus’ words as a raw acknowledgment of such reality: we only know that true discipleship involves following in the steps of Jesus’ crucifixion, but very much like Mark’s original ending insinuates silence (Mark 16:8), so the reality of following in the steps of the cross ends with any expectation of what the future world holds.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 53:4-12

Lisa Wolfe

When I was in seminary there was a joke circulating about a children’s sermon. A pastor was telling the kids a story about a squirrel. Before she could get to the main point, one child already had her hand up, Hermione Granger style. The pastor stopped and called on the child, who blurted out, “I know, I know, the squirrel is Jesus!” After all, anyone paying very close attention knows that all children’s sermon questions can be accurately answered with “Jesus!” 

While there is plenty to unpack here about good and cringe-worthy children’s sermons, my larger point is to highlight the “everything’s about Jesus” view that prevails in Christian biblical interpretation, even of the Hebrew Bible. A big part of my job is widening that lens. 

No offense to Jesus, but we must remember that he arose in the context of a centuries-old religion. If the answer to every biblical question is “Jesus,” then we miss much, including Jesus’ own tradition. What Christians call the Old Testament was Jesus’ Bible, and it pre-existed him. With “Jesus-only” interpretations we risk implicit anti-Semitism by trivializing the stand-alone meanings of Hebrew Bible passages, which are precious to our Jewish neighbors. Furthermore, what if we understand Jesus better by reading his Bible in its own context, rather than through a strictly Christian filter? 

Isaiah 53:4-12 belongs to the final and longest of the so-called “servant songs” material in Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12. These poetic passages describe an unnamed figure who suffers on behalf of Israel. He silently receives brutal punishment from the deity, and it results in redemption, joy, and reward. To Christians, that sounds like Jesus! And that is why–and because—several New Testament authors enlisted parts of the servant songs to contextualize Jesus for the first-century Jewish community. A sample from this passage alone includes Isaiah 53:1//John 12:38; Isaiah 53:4//Matthew 8:17; Isaiah 53:7//Acts 8:32-35; Isaiah 53:9//Matthew 27:57; Isaiah 53:12//Luke 22:37. Furthermore, Paul seems to have been greatly influenced by Isaiah 53 when he wrote the letter to the Romans.1

Considering all this, it is crucial to remember that when Isaiah was written, Jesus was not born yet, and the servant songs were meaningful in their own time and on their own terms. If this passage were only about Jesus, no one would have deemed it a sacred text for centuries before he was born. 

The historical setting of Isaiah 53 is the Babylonian exile of the early 6th century BCE. This was a markedly different context than the 8th century Assyrian domination, which colored the earliest parts of Isaiah. Because this massive book spans three centuries and three different ancient empires, consult a good overview of Isaiah to review the historical context and complexity of the literature.2

Jewish and Christian interpreters have long debated the identity of the servant in Isaiah. In several places that figure is clearly metaphorical for ancient Israel, which had suffered at the hands of the Babylonians (41:8-9; 42:1; 44:1-2, 21; 45:4; 48:20; 49:3). Yet specific details about the servant, such as his physical wounds in Isaiah 53:4-5, compel interpreters to search for a specific individual whom the prophet had in mind.3 Numerous options have been explored, but none have been decisive. 

Isaiah 53:4-12 explains that the suffering of the servant (Israel) in exile was redemptive, but to whom? The identity of “us” in 53:4 is unclear. Perhaps the nations of 52:15 are the recipients of this redemption, illustrating that Israel’s God had a higher purpose for the exile. Or, maybe the redeemed ones were a sub-group of ancient Israelites who were viewed as less righteous than the group associated with the servant, so the suffering of the exiles was meaningful for the larger community. 

In 53:7 and 10, the servant is compared to a sin-offering, comparable to the scapegoat ritual of Leviticus 17—a poignant image during a time when the Temple had been destroyed and such commanded rituals could not be performed. The servant’s death seems to be the topic of 53:9-10a, yet this communal figure receives life anew in 10b-12, and this hopeful emphasis continues into the next chapters. Refrain from finding a squirrel—Jesus—here, and instead note how similar this idea is to Ezekiel’s “dry bones” vision (37). Both describe the revival promised to Israel on the other side of exile.

Theological care should be taken preaching this passage, which makes the claim of divinely mandated redemptive suffering for the servant. Yes, here and elsewhere ancient Israelites made sense of their exilic suffering by viewing it as redemptive and necessary. Note there is no claim for this as the explanation for all suffering. (Job took on that idea.) The belief that all pain is divinely imposed for the sake of some higher good may cruelly trivialize and even blame victims for their suffering, and prevent seeking solutions to end injustice. Indeed, the glorification of the silent and docile victim in this passage may be triggering for some survivors of trauma. 

It is true that sometimes the suffering of one group or individual turns out to be redemptive for another, but by no means is that always the case. It is one thing to discover a God-given transformative outcome on the other side of suffering; blanket assertions that God pre-ordained all suffering as necessary and meaningful have historically resulted in theological justification of violence—1 Peter 2:18-20 even invokes Isaiah 53:4-5 to compel slaves to submit to cruel masters. Preachers have an ethical obligation to question and clarify theology that has inspired violence, whether domestic abuse, slavery, or religiously motivated genocide; even if such theology arose in biblical contexts about servants, or saviors.


  1. See Romans 4:25 and Isaiah 53:11-12. Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 40-55, AB (New York: Doubleday, 2000) 88. 
  2. For instance, see the Commentator’s notes at the beginning of Isaiah in an academic study Bible such as Oxford Annotated Bible, Harper Collins Study Bible or New Interpreter’s Study Bible. Also see J. Blake Couey, “Isaiah “, n.p. [cited 16 Jun 2021]. Online: https://www.bibleodyssey.org:443/people/main-articles/isaiah and H. G. M. Williamson, “How Many Isaiahs Were There?”, n.p. [cited 16 Jun 2021]. Online: https://www.bibleodyssey.org:443/people/related-articles/how-many-isaiahs-were-there
  3.  Raymond F. Collins, “Servant of the Lord, The” in NIDB 5:194. 

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Job 38:1-7 [34-41]

Henry T.C. Sun

I’ve been a public school teacher since August 2008. Part of the requirement for being a public school teacher is a willingness to be observed by my principal and other district administrators. In that context, one of the things I am evaluated on is my classroom management style and skills. And when my principal observes and evaluates me, I am observed and evaluated by my supervisor.

That’s quite a different scenario from fielding a student’s exasperated complaint that I don’t know how to run my classroom. I respond to such a complaint differently than to my principal’s formal evaluation.

Keep that in mind as we look at this week’s lectionary passage from Job 38, which marks the first time since chapter 2 that Yahweh makes a direct appearance in the book.  

In chapters 1-2, Yahweh makes a bet with the heavenly District Attorney (the Satan, hassatan) regarding Job’s faithful loyalty. The Satan proposed that the only reason Job was faithful and loyal to Yahweh was because Yahweh blessed him and protected him. Strip away those blessings and divine protection, and Job “will curse you to your face” (1:11; 2:5).

The Satan is, however, proved wrong. First Job’s blessings, and then Job’s health, are taken away from him, but “in all this Job did not sin” (1:22; 2:10).

But because Job is not aware of this bet, he wants an audience with Yahweh.  He is convinced of his own sinlessness (indeed, the omniscient narrator affirms as much in Job 1:1), confident that he doesn’t deserve to get what he got.

So when God appears in a whirlwind (see also Psalm 50:3; Isaiah 29:6; 66:15; Nahum 1:3; Zechariah 9:14)1 in Job 38, we expect that the legal pleading with God that Job so desperately wants will ensue, and that Job and God will litigate God’s management of the universe in general, and Job’s horrific and unjustified loss in particular.

But as we read Job 38(-41), we are disappointed. Nowhere in these chapters does God take up the first iota of Job’s case. Instead, God talks about the very order of creation itself and what Job doesn’t know about it, as if to say (like a teacher to a complaining student) that Job has no standing to criticize God’s management of the universe.

Moreover, the tone of the Yahweh speeches is disturbing.  David J. A. Clines rightly observes that “Yahweh’s address has seemed to many to be supercilious, patronizing, or bullying. ‘Tell me, if you have insight’ (38:4), ‘Surely you know!’ (38:5), ‘You know, for you were born in ancient times and the number of your days is great’ (38:21) are all sentences that can hardly be kindly spoken.2

Still, in some sense, Yahweh acknowledges Job’s questions. The language in verse 3, “Gird up your loins like a man” (see also 40:7; Jeremiah 1:17) admits at least that much. The idiom “gird up your loins” in this context refers not to preparing for battle (as it does elsewhere in the Old Testament), but to “preparing for a task,3 which in this case is the questioning that Yahweh is about to throw at Job.  

These questions will cover two basic items:  Yahweh’s design (Hebrew esa; 38:2; see also 42:3) and just governance (Hebrew mishpat; 40:8) of the world,4 and they are all rhetorical.5 Each one expects some negative answer from Job:

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (38:4).

Where is the way to the dwelling of light, and where is the place of darkness?” (38:19).

What is the way to the place where the light is distributed, or where the east wind is scattered upon the earth?” (38:24).

Job’s unstated answer?  “I wasn’t there and I have no idea.”

Who determined its [the earth’s] measurements… Or who stretched the line upon it… Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb? (38:5, 8).

Who has cut a channel for the torrents of rain, and a way for the thunderbolt” (38:25).

Job’s unstated answer? “Not me, that’s for sure.”

And through it all, Yahweh speaks not one word about Job’s lament, not one word about Job’s request for a statement of his sins, not one word about whether Job is right (he has not sinned) or whether his friends are (Job has sinned, and all he need do is admit, confess, and repent).

So what do we do with that?

I want to suggest a few lines of thought that could prove helpful.

First, within the more extensive section (chapters 38-41), there is almost no mention of humankind. As such, it provides a counterpoint to the first creation story, when humankind is the pinnacle of God’s creation, or to Psalm 8, which proclaims that God has made humankind “a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor” (Psalm 8:4-8).  There is no sense in our passage that humankind has any kind of dominion over “the works of [God’s] hands” (Psalm 8:6).

Instead, the creation is discussed as its own valued entity where the sea has its God-given boundaries (38:8-11), where rain falls on the desert sands (38:25-27), and where animals hunt for prey in order to feed their young (38:39-41). Scripture does not speak with one voice about a human-centric view of creation where we are its lords6 and it is our servant.

Second, the mention of boundaries in verse 10 (Hebrew huqq; see also Psalm 148:6 and Proverbs 8:29) suggests that within creation there is room for freedom. The God speeches break down the false dichotomy between unbounded chaos, on the one hand, and absolute mechanistic retribution, on the other. There is a middle way, a way which admits of freedom within limits, a freedom within boundaries that is part of the divine order of creation. The Wesley Study Bible puts it like this: “God does not order the universe in a simplistic mechanical way: in short, the entire basis of the debate between Job and his friends has been conducted on false premises.”

Finally, the questions from Yahweh are more than simply “pulling rank” on God’s part. They underscore just how little Job understands how the universe works (see also Isaiah 40:28 [God’s “understanding is unsearchable”]; 55:8-9 [God’s ways and thoughts are “higher” than ours]7).  This means that Job cannot possibly have the knowledge to stand in judgment over God’s handling of his situation.

That’s a lesson that the church needs to hear often, especially when its members seek to lay blame on marginalized groups (LGBT, pro-choice, etc) for otherwise inexplicable natural catastrophes.8 If Job and his friends didn’t know and understand enough about creation to pronounce “righteous judgment” on Job, neither do any of us know and understand enough about creation to pronounce “righteous judgment” on anyone, despite what our theology leads us to believe.



  1. “The storm wind or whirlwind is a consistent motif in theophany portrayals” (TDOT 10:295).
  2. David J. A. Clines, “Job 38-42” (WBC 18B; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011) 3:1088.  Translations are Clines’ own.
  3. NIDOTTE 1:344; see also TDOT 4:442 (“At home and at rest, the belt around the long outer garment was taken off; putting it on and tucking up the garment made its wearer ready for activity, and was done before setting out on a journey or going to work”).
  4. Norman C. Habel, Job (OTL; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1985), 529.
  5. Habel, Job, 530-32, provides a helpful table that correlates elements of the Yahweh speeches with prior elements from Job’s conversations.
  6. As suggested by the politically loaded expression, “dominion” (Hebrew radah be) in Genesis 1:26. Psalm 8:6 uses a different but similarly political idiom (tamshilehu be, ‘you have installed him as lord over’).
  7. For Isaiah 40:28, see TDOT 5:150; on Isaiah 55:8-9, see Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66 (OTL; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1969), pp 288-89.
  8. A good historical survey of these types of responses can be found at https://www.huffpost.com/entry/god-and-natural-disasters-its-the-gays-fault_b_2068817 (accessed 31 March 2020). This article obviously predates the COVID-19 pandemic.


Commentary on Psalm 91:9-16

J. Clinton McCann, Jr.

Although it is not entirely unique in the Psalter, the most striking thing about Psalm 91 is that it ends with a divine speech in verses 14-16.1

Usually when God speaks in the Psalms, it is to express divine displeasure and to call people to account. See, for instance, Psalms 50:7-23; 81:6-16; and 95:8-11, although it is interesting that 50:15, 23 and 81:16 suggest that God “will deliver,” “will show … salvation,” and “would satisfy,” if the people will listen and respond faithfully. It is perhaps not coincidental that the very things that Psalms 50:15, 23 and 81:16 anticipate are what God explicitly promises in 91:14-16 (the Hebrew verb translated “deliver” in 50:15 is rendered as “rescued” in 91:15).

Indeed, the exact verbal links among these three psalms that contain divine address—Psalms 50, 81, and 91—are striking enough to suggest that Psalms 50 and 81 intentionally anticipate Psalm 91; or perhaps more precisely, they anticipate Psalms 90-91 at the beginning of Book IV of the Psalter.

Psalm 89 at the end of Book III has articulated the crisis of exile by relating the failure of the Davidic covenant (see verses 38-51). In what seems to be an intentional response, Book IV begins with a prayer attributed to Moses, as if Moses were interceding for the people in exile as he did for the wilderness generation when the covenant was in jeopardy (see Exodus 32:1-14, and see the commentary on Psalm 90:12-17, Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost).

Following upon Psalm 90, Psalm 91:14-16 seems to suggest that the prayer of Moses has been answered. Verse 16a—”With long life I will satisfy them”—is an especially appropriate response to the petition of 90:14, repeating the verb “satisfy” and offering “long life” to people who in Psalm 90 were acutely aware of human transience. In response to Moses’ intercession, God promises to do the things that Psalms 50 and 81 have said that God had been wanting to do all along, but that God apparently was unable to effect among an inattentive and uncooperative people.

The contrast between the divine address in 90:14-16 and the earlier divine speech in Psalms 50 and 81 suggests that the people’s response to God is crucial, in terms of whether or not they experience the deliverance, salvation, and satisfaction that God wills for them. This does not mean that God will deliver the people only when they obey and thus deserve God’s favor.

Rather, it suggests that the favor God always offers will be ineffective among an unreceptive, untrusting people. Thus, it is crucial that the divine promises in Psalm 91:14-16 are preceded in verses 1-13 by an eloquent profession of trust. Again, it is as if the prayer of Moses in Psalm 90 has been answered—that is, the people have been able to “gain a wise heart” (90:12), which means they have renounced autonomy and thus have fully entrusted themselves and their future to God. Indeed, it is precisely such trust that constitutes deliverance, salvation, and satisfaction (see Psalm 9:9-10).

To be sure, readers and interpreters of Psalm 91 have not always understood this. Rather, the promises expressed in verses 1-13 and reinforced by the divine address in verses 14-16 have often been understood as something like a magical guarantee against any form of opposition or distress. Granted, several of the promises seem to point in this direction, including verses 9-13 that begin the lection for the day; however, we are dealing here with poetic hyperbole.

The keyword in Psalm 91 is “refuge” (see verses 2, 4, 9; see also 2:12; 5:11; 7:1; 11:1; 16:1, and often in the prayers for help), which assumes the need for protection and help.  And the protection and help that God promises assumes the existence of all manner of trouble and opposition, especially in verses 3-13—enemies, illness, and ferocious attack by people and animals (although the animals in verse 13 may be metaphors for human opponents).

As for verses 14-16, it is to be noted that the divine promises are stated primarily by seven finite verbs. Since the number seven often symbolizes fullness or completion, this is probably not coincidental—that is, God promises complete assurance. But there is an eighth element in verses 14-16; and it stands out by virtue of being near the center of the sequence, as well as by being the one promise stated in a verbless clause.

It is the middle element of verse 15; and a literal translation is as follows: “with him [am] I in trouble” (emphasis added). As the added emphasis indicates, the divine promise assumes the existence of trouble and opposition. In short, the deliverance, salvation, and satisfaction that God promises do not mean a care-free, unopposed life. Rather, those who fully entrust themselves to God experience deliverance, salvation, and satisfaction in the midst of opposition and trouble.

The context of the Psalter reinforces this conclusion. The righteous prayers of the psalmist are never without opposition or trouble (which, of course, is why the prayers for help are generally known as laments, complaints, or protests). Then too, this conclusion is reinforced by the way verses 11-12 show up in the New Testament.

In Matthew 4:5-7 and Luke 4:9-12, the devil cites verses 11-12 in an attempt to entice Jesus to throw himself down from the top of the Temple. While it is interesting to see that the devil knows the Psalms, his misappropriation of verses 11-12 is instructive. Jesus’ refusal to embrace the devil’s interpretation suggests that to claim the promises of verses 11-12 for self-serving purposes is unfaithful. It amounts to testing God rather than trusting God. Jesus will not claim the promises of Psalm 91 as a way to avoid suffering.  Rather, when Jesus claims the promise of divine protection and help, it is from the cross (see Luke 23:46, quoting Psalm 31:5).

In conclusion, it should be noted that the promise at the heart of the divine address—”with him [am] I in trouble” (verse 15)—is the same promise that lies at the heart of another of the Psalter’s most eloquent psalms of assurance/trust: “for you are with me” (Psalm 23:4).

This promise comes, of course, in the midst of “the darkest valley.” As the psalmists knew, and as Jesus revealed as well, the delivering, saving, satisfying presence of God does not prevent trouble, opposition, and suffering. Rather, it promises the strength to persevere, endure, and overcome (see Romans 8:31-39).


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Oct. 21, 2012.

Second Reading

Commentary on Hebrews 5:1-10

Frank L. Crouch

How often do congregations hear a sermon that uses Hebrews as its primary text? This Sunday gives preachers a reason to bring this book’s challenging, grace-filled voice into congregational life. It presents itself as not being aimed at beginners but as moving beyond basics into deeper dimensions of faith (see Hebrews 5:11-17). We all have our own needs for someone “to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward” elements of our lives (Hebrews 5:2). This book offers a rich resource for that purpose.

Hebrews is more sermon than epistle. It emphases some different connections to tradition than what we find in Paul or the Gospels yet still draws heavily from scriptures common to Jewish and Christian communities of that day. It seeks to connect primarily with Diaspora Judaism or Jewish people who consider themselves to be followers of Jesus.1 Both literally and metaphorically, it addresses people living outside of their homeland. In that sense, it speaks especially to those who feel dislocated—either geographically or in the grip of personal struggles or changes in the contexts of their lives. 

Hebrews does not align itself with orthodox religious practices and authorities of its day. It looks away from the Temple (as all had to do after its destruction in 70 CE) and points back to the Exodus, back to the tabernacle in the wilderness. Then it looks further back, beyond the Exodus to Abraham, to the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. Then, in its most radical (and radically relevant) move, it points beyond Abraham to an almost unknown “priest of the God most High” named Melchizedek. 

Melchizedek had no standard credentials, no stated pedigree, no letters of reference, and no official backing from anyone, apparently, besides “the God most High.” However, Abraham treats Melchizedek as a genuine connection to the living God, as a conduit of both righteousness and peace (see Hebrews 7:1-10; Genesis 14:17-24). The author of Hebrews does the same, connecting Jesus to Melchizedek’s line of ministry—one without foundation in familiar institutions, not focused on preserving religious structures, theologies, and practices. It seeks only to be faithful to the living God, wherever that leads. 

Describing Jesus as “a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 5:6; 7:17) presents interpretive challenges. Melchizedek plays no other role in scripture outside of the brief mention in Genesis, one verse—Psalm 110:4—that Hebrews quotes as its source of inspiration, and the eight times his name appears in Hebrews. However, Hebrews insistently uses him as a spiritual ideal. He exemplifies God’s freedom—from the beginning until forever—to use otherwise unknown, unexpected, uncredentialed people to bring God’s life-giving power to light. 

God’s freedom—not contingent on institutional expectations or warrants—stands as what we most desire and most fear. We seek and we fear that God will visibly act in new ways and lead us to become who God created us to be. Discernment requires us to weigh a lack of familiar precedents against the call, finally, to trust in God alone.

Throughout Hebrews, we learn little about Melchizedek, but we constantly see Jesus serving as the literal embodiment of what it means to reveal the nature and ways of God. It presents a high Christology from the beginning, opening with a description of Jesus as “heir of all things” through whom God created the universe, the reflection/radiation of God’s glory, and the imprint of God’s essence (Hebrews 1-4). The exact implications of that description are hard to pin down, but it comes close to John 14:9, “whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” 

At the same time, this passage joins Hebrews 2:14-18 and 4:14-16 in describing Jesus as fully human. He was like us in every way, tempted/tested just as we are  (2:17). Yet, unlike us, he was also without sin (4:16). Those passages, and our current passage, hold Jesus’ humanity, and his fulfillment of all that God created us to be, as the reason he can serve as an eternal priest. To import Paul, he, above all others, presented his body as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1). 

Because of how he lived his life “in the flesh,” he understands our suffering, challenges, and fears. He, like us, learned through suffering, and prayed to God “with loud cries and tears” (Hebrews 5:7). He did not emerge from Mary’s womb with an exemption from ignorance or with no chance of ever taking the wrong path. He “learned obedience.” What made him “become” “perfect/complete” and “the source of eternal salvation” grew out of his unflagging trust in and reflection of the God who “is able to save us from death” (5:8-9).

Hebrews’ view of Jesus (along with other New Testament views) generated centuries of controversy over the nature of God and of Christ, long before the 4th and 5th century Councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon “settled” Christological questions. Those questions lie outside Hebrews’ more immediate, practical purposes. Apart from philosophical or theological considerations, Hebrews offers a window into an early Christian community’s experiences of the living God, the living Christ, the living Spirit. It calls on us to seek, as they did, to live our own “days in the flesh” and offer our own “prayers and supplications,” even those offered with “loud cries and tears” to the God who delivers us from desolation and death. 

It’s not about theology as much as about opening ourselves to the fearsome and exhilarating possibility that God will bring us to fullness of life.


  1. In chapters 8-9, Hebrews joins other New Testament passages that assert or imply that Christ’s new covenant makes the old covenant obsolete. The resulting “supercessionism” debates are not merely academic—they have led Christians to violently oppress Jewish people before, during, and after the Holocaust. My short answer to the debates falls on the non-supercessionism side, pointing to texts with a different core message: Romans 11:29 (“the gifts and promises of God are irrevocable”); Mark 9:38-40 and Luke 9:49-50 (“whoever is not against us is for us”) in opposition to Matthew 12:30; and Luke 10:25-28 indicating a shared common core of Judaism and Christianity—Jesus answers the question of how to inherit eternal life and adds nothing to the old covenant’s Love Commandments (Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18), saying only, “do this and you will live.”