Now we come to the section (i.e., 5:1-10) where the author compares Christ with the high priestly order. Verses 1-4 show the general requirements and 5-10 how Jesus matches those. The author does this by a literary device called chiasm (cf. Lane, 111):
A. The old office of the high priest (1)
B. The high priest has a sympathetic human nature (2-3)
C. The high priest is appointed by God (4)
C.’ Jesus is appointed by God (5-6)
C.’ Jesus is appointed by God (5-6)
B.’ Jesus has a sympathetic human nature (7-8)
A.’ The new office of the high priest (9-10)
Three observations can be made in verse 1. First, the high priest is “chosen from among men” (ex anthrōpōn), i.e., he is human. That Jesus was himself human has already been stated in 2:14-18 (cf. also John 1:14). Hughes states that the high priest has to represent his own kind. This was the same under the old order and thus “Moses was to take Aaron and the whole priestly company ‘from among the children of Israel,’ who they were to represent (E. 28:1; Num. 8:6)” (175).
Secondly, he “is appointed to act on behalf of men.” The appointing is not done by the people, but by God Himself as the context makes clear (v. 4). But he is appointed for a reason; he is to represent the people to God.
This relates closely to the third observation: he is “to offer gifts and sacrifices for sin.” Though the “gifts” (peace and cereal offerings) and “sacrifices” (sin and trespass offerings) are naturally distinguished, “in later statements in the OT all sacrifices pertain to the procuring of atonement and the removal of sin (cf. Ezek 45:15-17)” and since the Day of Atonement is the background for the sacrificial discussion of the epistle no distinction has to be seen between the two (Lane, 116).
Now we come to the high priest’s sympathetic nature (verses 2-3). He can be sympathetic towards those he is ministering to, because he himself is weak and has “to offer sacrifice for his own sins” (cf. Lev. 16:6). This is in stark contrast to 4:15 where Jesus is presented to have no sin.
The high priest is compassionate to the “wayward and ignorant.” It is possible to take this phrase a hendiadys meaning “those who go astray through ignorance” (Bruce, 120; Moffat, 62; the OT provision for such sin can be found in Lev 4:2; 5:21-22; Num 15:22-31; Deut 17:12). According to this interpretation there are only those who sin ignorantly and those who rebel against God. For the latter group the sins are not covered under the law of the OT and people who commit such sins are to be excluded from the covenant people of God (cf. Num. 15:27ff.; see Lane, 117).
The author states then (verse 4) that this honor is not taken up by the person but that the high priest is appointed and called by God. The beginning of such a call was with Aaron (cf. Ex.28:1ff.). Side Note: There were other non-Aaronic priests who “in a time of emergency exercised and intercessory and sacrificial ministry like that of Aaronic priests” this was done “by a direct and special call from God, as did Samuel (1 Sam. 7:3-17)” (Bruce, 122).
Verses 5-6: Just as Aaron was appointed by God, so was Christ. Here the author establishes the facts he just talked about in reverse order and in application to Christ (see outline above). The couplet quotation of Ps. 2:7 and 110:4 is now introduced to ascertain Christ’s priesthood – and this priesthood in a superior position. The same God who acclaimed this Jesus as His Son has also appointed the same as everlasting high priest (Bruce, 123). Note that the author who Hebrews lets his readers listen into what God speaks to His Son (O’Brien, 195).
We already encountered Ps. 2:7 in 1:5 where the author begins a chain quotation starting with this very Psalm. The significance of that Psalm is the unique relationship of the Son to the Father, “a uniqueness shown in part by his enthronement as God’s Messiah” (Guthrie, 960). We also saw Ps. 110 previously quoted in 1:13; there however the first verse was quoted.
The author introduces Ps. 110:4 to show the Son’s calling to the high priesthood. Both Psalms are messianic and function as opening sections to the author’s “two main christological movements in the book” (idem.). The first (Ps. 2:7 quoted in 1:5) to show the Son’s superiority to any other person (1:1-5:10) and the latter (Ps. 110:4 quoted in 5:6) to introduce the Son’s superior ministry. This argument will be picked up in chapters 7-10 (especially chapter 7) after the author gives another warning passage (5:11-6:20).
The second comparison or rather the second requirement met by Jesus is his sympathy with fellow humans (starting in verse 7). He can sympathize with our weakness without ever having sinned himself (cf. v. 15). “In the days of his flesh” refers to His earthly ministry where he took on flesh and dwelt among us (cf. John 1:14).
The “prayers and supplications” may reflect the entire earthly existence or especially focusing in on the passion of Christ in Gethsemane (Mat 26:36-46; Mark 14:32-42; Luke 22:40-46; John 12:27-28) and lastly Golgotha. This seems more probable by the adding of “with loud cries and tears” which is not found in the gospels, yet are not far from the imagination for this occasion.
If the prayer in Gethsemane is in view the question now occurs “In what sense did God hear Jesus because of (or “in account of”; cf. Moffat, 65) his reverent/godly fear?” Peterson states that “[t]he answer to his prayer of submission was strength to endure the bitter ordeal facing him and then the triumph and glory of his resurrection” (in loc.). Christ knew very well that his ministry on earth included the cross, but the intense emotion on the last night made him fall on his face before the Father saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Mt. 26:39) and then little later, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done” (v. 42). Thus the answer was the giving of strength and maybe the saving “from the realm of death” as ek thanatou was also understood in the OT (cf. Lane, 120). Ellingworth (288) writes:
[I]f the reference is solely or mainly to Gethsemane, Jesus’ prayer (the content of which is not specified in Hebrews) included both the petition, εἰ δυνατόν [ei dunaton], to be protected from death, and also the act of submission to the Father’s will. In Hebrews, the following words confirm that the suffering which led to his “learning” (v. 8) and “being perfected” (v. 9) had already begun, thereby suggesting that Jesus prayed for safe deliverance out of death at the end.
“Although he was son” (verse 8; or as Moffat says it would be better translated “Son though he was”, 66; so also O’Brien, 200) is now the author’s attention. In 12:5ff he will say that every son has to suffer the disciplines of his father by the fact that they are sons; yet here he describes Jesus “although he was the Son” as being the one who suffered. Even he had to suffer. Jesus entered the world in submission to his Father will knowing where his path would lead. A close parallel is seen in Phil. 2:6-8 where Paul writes that “he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even the death on a cross” (cf. Moffat, 67).
The obedience talked of here does not imply former disobedience! Lane observes that “it is obedience to the call to suffer death in accordance with the revealed will of God [found especially in the Psalms]…Jesus freely accepted the suffering of death because of Scripture…” (121). As Jesus was encountering new situation – as we all do – each day obedience had to be “leaned”; “authentic obedience is practiced in particular, concrete circumstances” (O’Brien, 201).
The suffering was not caused by any disobedience on Jesus part but was part of the obedience to God (Bruce, 131). He suffered because he was obedient (the very nature of becoming human includes such a weakness) and in that process he also learned to be obedient (Morris, 50). This learning is an achieving of personal reality (Hughes, 186).
Verses 9-10: As the phrase “he learned obedience through suffering” does not imply any kind of disobedience, so does the phrase “being made perfect” not imply any kind of imperfection. It rather means “qualified” or “made completely adequate” (for a more detailed account of perfection in the book of Hebrews see e.g. Moises Silva, “Perfection and Eschatology in Hebrews,” Westminster Theological Journal 39.1 : 60-71). He was then “fully qualified to be the Savior and High Priest of his people” (Bruce, 132).
The outcome of his perfection and perfect sacrifice is that he became “the source of eternal salvation” (cf. 2:10). Through his sacrifice on the cross many sons can be brought to glory. It is interesting to observe that the word “perfect” (teleiōtheis) used here and the word in Jesus last words of “It is finished (tetelestai)” have the same Greek root. The author might well have “a side-allusion […] to the death-association of these terms” (Moffat, 67). Through his obedience and suffering he became the author of our salvation.
The last phrase in verse 9 is of utter significance to the author. He writes that Jesus “became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (emphasis mine). As we have noted in the earlier section (3:7-4:13), obedience and faith, and thus disobedience and unbelief, are closely related. To believe in Jesus Christ means to obey him. Westcott puts it this way, “continuous active obedience is the sign of real faith (contrast 4:3 οἱ πιστεύσαντες [hoi pisteuantes]). The obedience of the believer to Christ answers to the obedience of the Son to the Father. By obedience fellowship is made complete” (131). Bruce also succinctly writes: “There is something appropriate in the fact that the salvation which was procured by the obedience of the Redeemer should be made available to the obedience of the redeemed” (133).
In verse10 the author rounds up the argument writing about the Melchizedekian priesthood which he will resume by the end of chapter 6 and develop fully in chapter 7.
Let us remember what Peter said in Acts 4:12 (“And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved”) and flee to this name in time of need who can save to the uttermost. Jesus is our High Priest and was such by God’s appointment. Let us strive to follow in his obedience so that we might be found in the same!
Bruce, F. F. The Epistle to the Hebrews. New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990.
Ellingworth, P. The Epistle to the Hebrews : A Commentary on the Greek Text. Grand Rapids; Carlisle England: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 1993.
Guthrie, George H. “Hebrews.” Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. Ed. G.K. Beale and D. A. Carson. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007.
Hughes, Philip Edgcumbe. A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews. Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 1977.
Lane, William L. Hebrews. 1-8. Word Biblical Commentary, v. 47A. Dallas, Tex: Word Books, 1991.
Moffat, James. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews. Edinburgh: Clark, 1948.
Morris, Leon. “Hebrews.” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. With the New International Version of the Holy Bible, Hebrews–Revelation Volume 12. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, v. 12. Ed. Frank Ely Gaebelein. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Pub. House, 1981.
O’Brien, Peter T. The Letter to the Hebrews. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; 2010.
Peterson, David. “Hebrews.” New Bible Commentary : 21st Century Edition, 4th ed. Ed. D.A. Carson, et al. Leicester, England; Downers Grove, USA: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994.
Westcott, B.F. ed. The Epistle to the Hebrews the Greek Text with Notes and Essays. 3rd ed. London: Macmillan, 1920.