24 March 2015

Hebrews 5:5-10

“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.” (vv. 7-10)

Psalm: Psalm 129


This passage from Hebrews 5 seems almost enigmatic when read apart from Hebrews 5:1-4. The central section of the chapter, describing Christ as a high priest, builds directly on the verses that precede it. In Hebrews 5:1 the author states that high priests are chosen from among human beings to look after the things of God. The text goes on in remaining verses to argue that when the high priest offers sacrifices on behalf of the people, he is also offering a sacrifice for his own weaknesses.

 The imagery here refers to the high priest in the Temple in Jerusalem, who offered sacrifices for the sins of the people and for his own sins. The high priest was believed to stand in the descending line from Aaron, the brother of Moses, who was chosen for this role in Exodus (Exodus 28:1). The imagery also refers to a system of sacrificial atonement. Sacrifices were made in the Temple for particular ritual needs in order to restore purity. One might remember the offering of two turtledoves that Mary and Joseph brought to the Temple when Jesus was presented for circumcision (Luke 2:24). This sacrifice would redeem Mary, who was considered ritually unclean after giving birth. On high holy days, the high priest would offer sacrifices to God on behalf of the whole nation. Again, one might think of references in the Gospels to the day of purification during Passover when the unblemished lambs were sacrificed for the sake of the people (Mark 14:12; Luke 22:7).

Hebrews refers to Christ as a high priest, appointed by God for the role of offering sacrifice. The Son is incarnate in Jesus Christ for this purpose, of being a priest forever. Instead of offering sacrifices of other creatures, he offers himself. Through his prayers, tears, cries, and suffering, he becomes the source of salvation for all who obey him.

There are brief mentions here of Melchizedek. These are largely quotes from Psalm 110:4. The figure of Melchizedek from the stories of Abraham in Genesis (Genesis 14:18) is somewhat of a mystery. His name means 'King of Righteousness.' In Jewish apocalyptic literature, such as the Second Book of Enoch, he is a figure who will announce the Day of Atonement and prepare the people for judgement. In some Jewish rabbinical traditions, he is born from a virgin mother. In other traditions there is a suggestion that he has eternal life. Hebrews mentions Melchizedek several times (Hebrews 5:6, 10; 6: 20; 7: 1, 10, 11, 15, 17) in reference to Christ, who is the holy and eternal high priest. The mention of Melchizedek is likely meant to emphasise the eternal quality of Christ's sacrificial priesthood.

To Ponder

  • What impact do references to Christ's sacrifice have on you?
  • How do you handle unfamiliar phrases, such as "the order of Melchizedek", when they appear in a biblical text?


Bible notes author

The Revd Dr Cindy Wesley

Cindy Wesley is the director of studies at Wesley House in Cambridge. She is responsible for the life of the chapel and for advising students about their courses and modules.