Friday, October 20, 2006

Second Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: Hebrews 5:1-10

[For an explanation of what this is about and to see the first pass at this weekend's Bible lesson, go here.]

The Bible Lesson: Hebrews 5:1-10
Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness; and because of this he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people. And one does not presume to take this honor, but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was. So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”; as he says also in another place, “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.” In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, 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.

A Few More General Comments:
1. The lesson is part of a larger section of Hebrews identified by many New Testament schoolars. It runs from 4:14 to 5:10. The New Interpreter's Bible (NIB) gives the section the title, Christ the Merciful.

2. In today's lesson, Jesus is identified as both the second Person of the Trinity, the pre-existent God and as our great high priest.

3. The first part of the lesson, vv. 1-4, portray what a priest is. The second part, vv. 5-10, show how Jesus conforms to this image. But, of course, as the sinless Savior Who died and rose, Jesus' priesthood places Him at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.

4. Two psalms heavily influence this passage: Psalm 2, especially verse 7, and Psalm 110, especially verses 1 and 4.

5. This passage is similar to Philippians 2:6-11. The Philippians passage is thought to be an early Christian confessional hymn which Paul included in his letter to the Philippian church. (For more on that Philippians passage, see here and here.) The NIB rightly points out that both passages describe Jesus similarly: pre-existence; humilation; exaltation.

6. Based on Bryan Findlayson's summary of Hebrews' definition of what makes a priest a priest, I sum it up as being composed of three elements:
  • Purpose
  • Sympathy
  • Call
7. Jesus is seen as part of two Old Testament priesthoods, that of Aaron, the brother of Moses, and that of Melchizedek.

8. Melchizedek is a mysterious figure who makes only one actual appearance in the Old Testament. It happens at Genesis 14:17-20:
After his return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley). And King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High. He blessed him and said, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!” And Abram gave him one tenth of everything.
Now, there are several things to be noticed here:
  • Melchizedek is both a king and a priest, attributes that will, centuries later, be associated with Jesus. (Historically, Christians have confessed that besides being Savior/Messiah and God-enfleshed, Jesus is also a Prophet, Priest, and King.
  • He is a king of Salem, a word which, in various forms, means peace in both Hebrew and Arabic.
  • Salem would later become Jerusalem, the site of the temple and the place where God's presence was thought to dwell in the Holy of Holies.
  • Melchizedek brought bread and wine to Abram (soon to be re-named Abraham). Both are important elements in the Passover and in Holy Communion, the latter being the Christian sacrament which Jesus instituted at a Passover celebration just before His crucifixion.
  • In evident gratitude for being delivered from his enemies, Abram begins the practice of tithing--giving ten per cent of his income and property--toward the ministry of this priest of the Most High God. This was the bottom-line giving which all Hebrews were expected to engage in, beyond an additional 10% for the support of the poor.
  • Some Christians have held that Melchizedek was a prototype of Christ, some even suggesting that His was an early unheralded appearance of Christ in human form. I don't believe that. But the New Testament does say that Jesus is a priest in the order of Melchizedek, an order that precedes any other Jewish or Christian priesthood.
  • Melchizedek's appearance at this point in the Old Testament narrative indicates that before God had forged a chosen people from the descendants of Abraham and Sarah, there were people who trusted in Him as the one true God all. (Paul even talks about people who act on the basis of faith in a God to Whom they've never been introduced here.)
9. So, what is a priest anyway? Here's a simple definition, drawn from Hebrews and other places in the Bible:
Priests stand up for people with God and they stand up for God with people.
While there are specially appointed priesthoods--and Hebrews doesn't disdain them, the fact is that all who believe in Jesus Christ and are baptized are part of His priesthood. Peter, at another place in the New Testament, puts it this way:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (First Peter 2:9-10)
Christians are called to be part of, in Martin Luther's phrase, "the priesthood of all believers." Of course, Jesus is our great High Priest, the One Who acts as a living bridge between heaven and earth, between God and us.

10. Jesus' priesthood was perfected through His crucifixion. This doesn't mean that there was something immoral about Jesus that needed perfecting. A better verb than perfect here would be complete. By fulfilling His mission of dying for us, the perfect sinless sacrifice for our sins, Jesus is now able to fully discharge His priesthood as our living bridge to God. Through Him, our prayers are answered and we receive forgiveness of sin and eternal life. Hebrews puts it this way near the beginning of this section of the book:
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. (Hebrews 4:15)

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