20 October 2015

Hebrews 5:1-10

“Having been made perfect, [Jesus] 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.” (vv. 9-10)

Psalm: Psalm 113


Jesus is our great high priest (Hebrews 4:14-16). This idea is central to the letter to the Hebrews, and exploring it opens many doors in our understanding of Jesus' role in bringing us closer to God.

For the people of Israel, priests belonged to the family of Aaron, chosen by God to stand between God and the people as intermediaries or mediators (Exodus 28:1). This meant that their responsibility was to offer sacrifices, in a system of worship centred on the Temple in Jerusalem. Above all, it was through sacrifice that people expressed their closeness to God, whether giving thanks or seeking purification from uncleanness (cf Luke 2:22) or forgiveness of sin (expiation).

From Old Testament times, a hierarchical structure had emerged in which certain priests were recognised as 'chief priests'. At the very top of the pyramid was the High Priest, who held considerable political power as well as religious prestige. The writer to the Hebrews is particularly concerned with the High Priest's role on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), when he entered the Holy of Holies alone, in an ancient ritual described in Leviticus (Leviticus 16). Through this special sacrifice, the high priest atoned for his sins and the sins of the whole people.

The writer focuses on the links between the Jewish High Priest and Jesus himself: both are chosen by God, both can sympathise with the weakness of others because they share one common humanity. Then, however, the writer moves away from this comparison and looks in a different direction, comparing Jesus to a different priest, Melchizedek, whose story is told at Genesis 14:18-20. Melchizedek is both priest and king, ruling in Salem, a name meaning simply 'peace', sometimes used also for Jerusalem. When Melchizedek meets Abraham, he offers him bread and wine, and blesses him. The parallels with Jesus' royal priesthood are obvious, and the writer highlights this in verse 6 by quoting Psalm 110:4: "You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek".

The writer will go on to explain how Jesus replaces the Jewish priesthood, taking on himself the role of mediating between us and God. If we set this in the context of this week's theme 'Fullness of Life', we can see that the central source of such fullness is our relationship with God, mediated through Jesus.

To Ponder

  • Where in today's world do we encounter mediators?
  • How important (or not) is it to be aware of our spiritual leaders' weaknesses as well as their strengths? Why?

Bible notes author

The Revd Caroline Wickens

Caroline is a Methodist presbyter, currently serving as superintendent of the Dudley and Netherton Circuit just outside Wolverhampton. She is married to Andrew, an Anglican priest, and has two teenage children.