Fifth Sunday in Lent

If ordinary human high priests are compassionate and humble, Jesus is even more so

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March 17, 2024

Second Reading
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Commentary on Hebrews 5:5-10

Hebrews is replete with scriptural citations and allusions to the history of Israel. Of all the important figures in that history, why does the author spend so much time on the obscure figure of Melchizedek? This question will likely need to be explored for our pericope to make sense to a contemporary audience, and the response requires diving into an intricate exegetical argument.

Hebrews 5:5–10 is part of the author’s exposition on the role of Jesus as high priest. In 4:14–16, the author speaks of Jesus as our high priest who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses, “who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” In 5:1–4, the author says that indeed, every high priest is able to deal compassionately with the wayward because he himself is subject to weakness and must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people. Moreover, high priests do not presume to take this honor but are called by God. The author is building an argument from the lesser to the greater, a classic Jewish method of interpretation. The idea is that if ordinary human high priests are compassionate and humble, Jesus is even more so.

In 5:5–6, the author says that in the same way (in other words, like ordinary high priests), Christ did not presume to glorify himself in becoming high priest but was appointed by God. The author demonstrates this by quoting Psalm 2:7, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you,” and Psalm 110:4, “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.” 

Psalm 2 was a royal psalm, interpreted by some in first-century Judaism as referring to the Davidic Messiah. Psalm 110 was also seen to be a messianic psalm by early followers of Jesus. Psalm 110:1, “The LORD said to my lord, ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool,’” is frequently cited in the New Testament (Matthew 22:44; Mark 12:36; Luke 20:42–43; Acts 2:34–35; 1 Corinthians 15:25; Hebrews 1:13; 10:13).

The choice of Melchizedek as one who prefigures the high priesthood of Jesus is more fully explained in Hebrews 7, which makes an exegetical argument from Genesis 14:17–20 and Psalm 110:4. In his brief appearance in Genesis 14, King Melchizedek of Salem, called “priest of the Most High God,” meets Abraham as he is returning from defeating King Chedorlaomer of Elam and his allies. Melchizedek shows hospitality to Abraham, bringing him bread and wine, and blesses him in the name of the Most High God. Abraham then gives Melchizedek “one-tenth of everything”—in other words, one-tenth of the spoils of war (Hebrews 7:1-2a).

The author finds significance in the name of Melchizedek, which means “king of righteousness” in Hebrew, and in the fact that he was also king of Salem, which means that he was “king of peace” (7:2b). Salem has the same root as the Hebrew word for peace: shalom. Melchizedek, furthermore, appears without genealogy and without any mention of the beginning or end of his days, leading to the conclusion that he was eternally a priest (7:3; see also Psalm 110:4). 

What’s more, the fact that Abraham offered Melchizedek a tithe means that Levi and all his descendants, who were still in the loins of Abraham, effectively tithed to Melchizedek (7:9–10)! This signifies that Melchizedek’s priesthood is of a higher and more perfect order than the Levitical priesthood (7:11). Jesus, then, who was not of the tribe of Levi but of Judah, belongs to this higher order of the eternal priesthood of Melchizedek (7:13–17), confirmed by an oath from God (7:20): “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest forever’” (7:21, citing Psalm 110:4).  

This discussion of the order of Melchizedek, then, shows that the high priesthood of Jesus is superior to that of the Levitical high priests. The exegetical argument is assumed in the logic of Hebrews 4:14–5:10, where the author argues that if human high priests are merciful toward sinners, Jesus is even more so.

To emphasize the fact that Jesus is able to sympathize with our weaknesses, the author continues in chapter 5 to speak of Jesus suffering and being tested, alluding to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus “offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death” (verse 7) The author maintains that even though Jesus was not saved from death, he was “heard because of his reverent submission.” Even though he was the Son of God, “he learned obedience through what he suffered, and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek” (verses 8–10).

The idea of Jesus “learning” or “being perfected” may be troubling for some believers. Yet the author has already said that Jesus was without sin (4:15). The learning or perfecting process about which the author speaks concerns the maturation that comes with undergoing suffering and persevering in obedience to God. This is important because the author is urging hearers to hold fast to their confession (4:14), to grow in spiritual maturity themselves, and not to become sluggish (5:11–6:12). 

Indeed, the author gives evidence of frustration with those he addresses for their lack of maturity and their laxity in faith and discipleship, even saying that they are babies who still need milk and are not yet ready for solid food! (5:11–14). Yet he encourages readers to “approach the throne of grace with boldness” to receive mercy and grace, knowing that we have a compassionate high priest who truly understands our trials and intercedes for us before God.