Commentary on Hebrews 7:23-28
Many scholars attest that Hebrews is a homily, an eloquent sermon.
Knowing the genre of the text is important for helping us to determine the intent of the author. This knowledge can perhaps lead to a better understanding of the text, as well. After all, reading a sermon is not the same as reading a newspaper or magazine article or a blog post. First, the rhetorical maneuvers of an orator are not always easy to discern in the written word. And yet, we can attempt to read the text with an ear attentive to a way that an audience may have received it.
Homilies are written primarily for two reasons: 1) to encourage the faithful or 2) to influence others to embrace the faith. In both cases, effective homilies are persuasive. For the writer of Hebrews, this “word of exhortation” (Hebrews 13:22) exhibits these qualities. So why would a sermon that is urging suffering believers to keep the faith emphasize the role of Jesus as a priest?
In order to persuade the audience to remain faithful, Hebrew’s author highlights unique attributes of Jesus. In fact, it is only here in the New Testament that we find an explicit reference to the priesthood of Jesus. And in these verses, Jesus’ priesthood is distinguished from every other. Not only is Jesus described as holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens (characteristics that are reiterated throughout the text), his priesthood is also defined as being permanent, unchangeable. This office is certified by God, Godself. What is clear is that Jesus is a priest like no other. There are two aspects about the distinctiveness of this priesthood worth exploring in more detail: its permanency and its efficacy.
Jesus: priest extraordinaire
That Jesus holds his priesthood permanently is significant. We overwhelmingly support term limits. There are not many offices where we want someone to maintain their position indefinitely. Kings and emperors, prime ministers and presidents all perish. Their reigns eventually end when they die. The changing of the guard is important because when the people who hold these roles change, the role itself changes.
An office is subject to the individual who holds it. A rare exception to term limits in the United States is found in the Supreme Court. The rationale for such an appointment is to ensure consistency in the interpretation of law, working with an assumption that judges are impartial. And yet even in this case, death prevents them from holding the office into perpetuity. Jesus, however, is unhindered by death and therefore is an eternal presence. Because Jesus continues as a priest forever, the audience and by extension, you and I, can be assured of an eternal advocate.
Of all of the roles that Jesus plays in the New Testament, it is his priesthood that perhaps more than any other elucidates and clarifies our relationship to God. Historically, the role of a priest, simply put, was to bring offerings and offer sacrifices. As a priest, Jesus makes intercession on our behalf, in fact the writer describes him as “always living for the purpose of pleading for them” — the ones who come through him to God — (Hebrews 7:25). This is why we pray in the name of Jesus, so that Jesus pleads our case.
Jesus did not simply bring a traditional offering, he becomes the ultimate sacrifice, offering his very life. As an appointed Son, Jesus’ priesthood is perfect. It is perfect because it is effective. All of these priestly duties, offerings and sacrifices, are conducted in order to make it possible for us, the believer, to draw close to God, to approach the unapproachable. To know Jesus as a priest is to acknowledge him as a constant mediator, a bridge, our way over and out and through difficult circumstances and into the presence of a loving God.
Jesus: our eternal wingman
How often have we come into the presence of someone, a mere mortal, who seems unapproachable? Their status or position, their posture or their attitude can all lead us to believe that this is a person whom we are not worthy to get close to. Queen Elizabeth, Oprah, Beyoncé, Bono, (insert your favorite celebrity or dignitary here) could all elicit such a response. We may feel intimidated, unworthy, in awe of their gifts and talents. Piercing the boundary of bodyguards and protectors enables some level of proximity, but that alone does not ensure a personal connection.
Now, let’s imagine that a friend grabs you by the hand, walks you up to the person and introduces you. Moreover, what if your friend insists that you are someone that this person needs to know? This is essentially how the writer of Hebrews wants the audience to think of Jesus, the pioneer and finisher of the faith. The one who pierced the veil of the Holy of Holies holds our hands and introduces us to the living God.
Having made the introduction, it is no wonder that the author of Hebrews exclaims that we should approach the throne of grace boldly! (Hebrews 4:16) And yet, Jesus is so much more than our wingman. Jesus lives for the very purpose of pleading for us — not only did he create the opportunity for us to approach God (unlocking the door) he also maintains the possibility for us to come to God (keeping the door open).
Jesus as a priest expands our vision of who he is and what he did and perhaps more importantly what he continues to do. His role as priest reveals to us that we are in constant need of a savior. We are in constant need of God’s grace and mercy and as such Jesus is making intercession on our behalf, reminding us that this grace as mercy is available to us. This is good news to those who are suffering, then and now! Jesus is ever-present to broker the relationship between humanity and God. Just as there is no limit to Jesus’ priesthood; there is no limit to the grace and mercy that God extends to those who approach God.