Commentary on Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9
Most days we insulate ourselves from death, choosing to ignore our own mortality and that of those we love. But the readings from Good Friday place the horror of death squarely before our eyes as we focus on the crucifixion of Jesus. In facing Jesus’ death on the cross, however, we discover resources for our own faithful living and dying.
The epistle reading from Hebrews unfolds in two parts (4:14-16; 5:7-9). The first section of the reading marks the beginning of a major section of this biblical sermon (4:14-10:39) that examines the author’s main point: Jesus, the Son who is seated at God’s right hand, is our high priest (8:1).
Jesus’ identity as priest points in two directions, underscoring his relationship both with God and with human beings. On the one hand, Jesus is the exalted Son of God, “the great high priest who has passed through the heavens” (4:14). Jesus as Son now ministers in the heavenly sanctuary (8:2) and so is able to save human beings for all time (7:25). On the other hand, as a human being, Jesus experienced the full range of testing that we ourselves know. He identifies fully with our frailty and limitations (4:15).
That identification includes our fear of death, as the second passage from Hebrews 5:7-9 makes clear. During his earthly life, Jesus prayed fervently to God “with loud cries and tears,” and he trusted God was able to deliver him from death (5:7). Some interpreters connect this experience of prayer to Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-46; Mark 14:32-42; Luke 22:40-46), some to Jesus’ prayer from the cross (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34), and others to language often used to characterize the prayers of the righteous. The exact reference is not essential. What matters is that in his prayers, Jesus stands with us as mortal, facing death. This solidarity reveals that Jesus, like us, is vulnerable and finite. In our final trial, Jesus provides a model for us, crying out to God for help. He shows us that in moments of crisis and peril we can find solace and strength in prayer. Because of his reverence, God heard his prayers. God’s answer did not mean God spared Jesus the experience of death, but rather that death’s power over him was not permanent.
Jesus’ identification with humanity extends as well to his learning “obedience through what he suffered” (5:8). As Jesus responds to and obeys God’s call, that submission includes his paschal suffering and death (2:9, 10; 9:26; 13:21). He does not cling to any prerogatives as God’s Son, but fully embraces his human lot. As a result, he becomes a model for all of us who also learn through suffering.
In addition, Jesus becomes “the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” (5:9). The gift of salvation is fundamentally an experience of grace. That affirmation returns us to the opening words of this reading. Jesus’ own experience of suffering and death underscores that he has known every kind of testing we experience (2:17-18; 4:15). This ability to identify with us equips him for service as our compassionate high priest. But as our forerunner, Jesus has also entered into God’s presence in the holy place on our behalf (6:19-20; 9:12, 24). As a result, he has charted “a new and living way” for us to approach God (10:20).
Because Jesus has identified with us and opened new access to God’s presence, we are empowered and called to respond with confidence. The author of Hebrews sets out our response in terms of two imperatives that sum up his message: we are to hold fast and to move forward.
The first imperative is to hold fast to our confession (4:14). This word of encouragement recalls the description of Jesus as “the apostle and high priest of our confession” (3:1). Our declaration of faith in God and Christ is also the ground of our hope (10:23). Because Jesus, who is the content of our confession, is faithful even in the face of hostility (2:17; 12:2-3), we too can hold fast as we face obstacles and opposition. Jesus’ faithfulness calls forth our own.
The second imperative is to approach God’s throne (4:16). Those who approach or draw near to God do so for the purpose of worship (Exodus 16:9; 34:32; Leviticus 9:5; Numbers 10:3-4). In a fundamental sense, all of Hebrews is a call to worship God. In addition to repeated reminders to draw near (4:16; 7:25; 10:22; 11:6; 12:18,22), the author counsels against the opposite movement of “turning away” or “shrinking back” (3:12; 6:6; 10:38-39). Countering our reluctance to approach God due to judgment and exposure (4:12-13), the author encourages boldness because Jesus is our sympathetic high priest whose presence with God assures our needs are met with mercy and grace in our time of need (4:16).
In these two brief passages, the author of Hebrews connects Jesus’ experiences with our own, reminding us that the testing of the cross connects to our own. Jesus’ role as high priest means he identifies with us but also represents us before God (5:1). His identification with us includes our mortality. But now, as exalted Son, he has passed through the heavens (4:14) and into God’s presence. When we approach God in prayer and worship, alongside us stands one who knows our experiences of weakness and mortality from the inside. His presence gives us confidence so that we can hold fast to our confession of faith even in the midst of trial and draw near to God who offers us the help we need.
April 7, 2023