Commentary on Hebrews 5:5-10
There are many images of Jesus that have captured our imaginations — Jesus as a baby, a shepherd, a carpenter, and a teacher.
However, Jesus as priest would not likely make my top 5 list. Yet, here in Hebrews 5, Jesus is described as a priest, a high priest in the order of Melchizedek. God appoints him into a priesthood that endures forever.
Most scholars agree that the genre of Hebrews is a homily or a sermon as suggested by the writer who refers to the text as a “word of exhortation” (Hebrews 13:22). Knowing this is important to understanding the work the writer is trying to do. The writer is attempting to persuade or encourage the audience to remain faithful. Christ’s faithfulness becomes paradigmatic. The audience, then, should aspire to be like Christ. As such, remaining faithful particularly in the face of adversity becomes the overarching theme of the sermon.
The writer begins at the very beginning of time, grafting the audience into a lineage of kinship with the ancestors and appealing to Jewish history throughout the sermon. For example, throughout Hebrews the writer makes it clear that Jesus is to be read into particular psalms. In this pericope (Hebrews 5:5-10), allusions to Psalm 2:7 and Psalm 110:4 are apparent. Read through the lens of the sermon writer, “You are my son; today I have begotten you,” affirms Jesus as God’s anointed son. Similarly, “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchezidek” affirms Jesus’ royal and priestly roles.
In fact, in Genesis 14:18-20, we encounter King Melchezidek. Here, Melchezidek, whose name means, “my king is righteous,”1 is described as “a priest of God Most High.” He pronounces a blessing over Abraham. Little more is known about Melchezidek in the biblical tradition; however, the sermon writer only introduces him here in Hebrews 5 and elaborates on his significance in Hebrews 7. What does his priesthood teach us about Jesus’?
The office of the high priest was held in great regard in antiquity. Priests stand between God and God’s people. They are mediators. In fact, “the Latin word for priest pontifex, means ‘bridge maker.’”2 I find the concept of priests or preachers as bridge makers to be appealing. Standing in a gap sounds passive. However, bridge building is a tangible image that elucidates the meticulous work of priests. This image enables us to visualize a process, one that takes time to complete and even when it is done, perhaps still needs revitalizing.
The sermon writer not only wanted his audience to understand Jesus as a bridge builder extraordinaire, but he also intended for us to understand Jesus’ priesthood as unique. As David DeSilva observes: “His goal is to display Jesus’ piety as an essential qualification for the high priesthood, which God confirmed through hearing Jesus’ prayer.”3 That is, Jesus’ faithfulness is demonstrated through his prayer.
Connecting the earthly Jesus to the heavenly Christ, the sermon informs us that: “In the days of his flesh, both prayers and pleadings, he offered up to the one who was able to save him from death, with a loud cry and tears he was heard because of his piety.” In the days of his flesh Jesus prayed fervently and once he ascends to heaven, the writer reveals that: “consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:25). These earthly prayers are pleads; Jesus is crying out to God. We recognize this Jesus from the Garden of Gethsemane.
I would suggest that like the psalms to which the writer alludes, it is in the tradition of the psalmists that Jesus cries out to the God of our salvation for help. For the one who is able to save him can surely save us. Knowing that Jesus prayed and prays for us should be reassuring to an audience that is experiencing suffering.
Jesus was not only a pray-er; his prayers were effective and answered because of his piety. Jesus, the high priest, son of God, submitted himself and learned obedience in order to become “the source of eternal salvation.” We often associate the salvific work of Christ with the blood he shed on Calvary, and rightly so; but in this text we learn that Jesus learns through what he suffered.
To learn through what one has suffered is a Greek proverb pathei mathos4 similar to our adage “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Our hardships may not kill us, but they can certainly shape us. This is not to say that suffering is desirable or even necessary. In fact, there are situations, such as domestic violence, when it’s condemnable. Yet, as the ancient audience who heard/read this sermon, our lives’ challenges — (sicknesses, struggles, and wrestlings) whatever they may be — should not isolate us. They should usher us into prayer; as we pray we discipline ourselves spiritually.
It is not the suffering that develops our piety; it is the discipline of doing the work. We are called into relationship, through communication — after all, this is what prayer is — and as a result we move closer to the source of our eternal salvation. Prayer is the iron for that bridge that connects us to God.
During this Lenten season, as we anticipate the death of Jesus and resurrection of the Christ, perhaps we can invite the image of a pious pray-er upon which to reflect. As the example for us to follow, Jesus cried out not simply for himself, but for us all. In this way, Jesus did not only build a bridge connecting us to God (as a high priest), but he also builds bridges, connecting us to each other. For it is in community that our faith is established and affirmed; it is in community that our suffering is alleviated; and I believe that it is in community that our salvation will be realized.
Jesus, then and there, as well as here and now, prayed for us, makes intercession on our behalf. Having someone in our corner, being our rock when we find ourselves in hard places provides an example for how we are to act likewise. Can you be a rock? Will you build a bridge?
- See Hebrews 7.
- David D. DeSilva, Perseverance in Gratitude: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Epistle ‘to the Hebrews’ (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2000), 187.
- DeSilva, 191.
- For a historical perspective, see https://perceiverations.wordpress.com/about-2/some-terms-explained/