Hebrews Week 5
By Rob Wall
Paul T. Walls Professor of Scripture and Wesleyan Studies
Read this week’s Scripture: Hebrews 4:14–5:10
Empathy is the capacity to understand and identify with the experiences of another. Whether this is a trait that evolved as a critical attribute of human nature, as some neurobiologists contend, or a learned behavior developed during our formation, empathy is a necessary element for cultivating community. America’s most influential biologist, E. O. Wilson, studied ant colonies and observed that the practices which build well-functioning groups, such as cooperation and competition, require empathy. This understanding of another’s intentions is necessary in order to make wise decisions about others, whether friends or foes.
President Obama famously noted that an “empathy deficit” is the most pressing political problem for America. Empathy holds the key to our success by tackling the variety of conflicts that stand at the center of social problems. Rightly or wrongly, our president blames the opposition to fair-minded resolutions of societal dysfunction on a “lack of empathy” for the poor and powerless.
Remember the Wilderness
This week’s Lectio drills down on this letter’s pivot point. In fact, Hebrews 4:14–5:10 is one of Scripture’s most important examinations of Christ’s working relationship with His disciples. The opening “Also” (4:14) is the translation of a conjunction that draws an inference from the preceding passage. Recall from last week’s Lectio that the spiritual crisis facing this letter’s intended readers draws upon the Old Testament’s most famous narrative of God’s saving grace: God’s covenant people, whom God promises to bless forever, have exited the deadly land of captivity (cf. Hebrews 4: 2–4) only to face the hardships of a bleak wilderness of suffering and temptation. Their hardships occasion a spiritual testing of their devotion to God. Navigating a wilderness requires steady attentiveness to God’s Word, the community’s compass toward fulfilled promise. Believers can feel tempted to abandon God especially in those hard moments when we feel as though God has abandoned the community.
The importance of the story of Israel’s wilderness wandering for understanding Hebrews bears repeating. The Old Testament retelling of this episode makes two points. In one retelling, the wilderness is the place where Israel enjoys the benefits of being God’s covenant people. In a setting where seemingly everything needed is lacking, God demonstrates God’s faithfulness over and over again by providing for Israel’s spiritual and material needs. In this way God teaches Israel what covenant-keeping looks like at ground level.
But in another telling, the wilderness is a place of Israel’s grumbling and disobedience. In fact, Hebrews exploits Psalms (e.g., Psalm 94:7–11; 77; 105) that emphasize this negative perspective of the wilderness sojourn. Especially pivotal in this retelling is the incident of the Golden Calf rebellion (Exodus 32–34), in which the exodus generation loses its way and so also loses the promise of God’s blessing. In fact, this negative view of the wilderness, contrary to the main emphasis of Judaism, attracts the attention of New Testament witnesses (cf. Acts 7; 1 Corinthians 10).
In my reading of Hebrews, the Preacher achieves something of a balanced view. Without question he addresses his readers as “Hebrews” — a chosen, covenanted community whom God has saved from death (exodus) and to whom God promises eternal life (Promised Land). Even in this present age of wilderness, the exalted Son’s empathy for our condition mediates God’s gracious presence. And yet the wilderness is also a place of temptation, of spiritual failure, of lost promises. While, according to both Scripture and the apostolic testimony of the incarnate One, God is ever faithful to promises made to Israel, any believer living out disobedience can forfeit what is promised. Remember the exodus generation who lost its way in the wilderness and didn’t make it into the Promised Land!
The repetition of “today” sounds this warning to readers. They are living in a wilderness of their own with new temptations to face and costly choices to make for God’s sake — as are we in 21st-century Seattle. We read Scripture as God’s Word in the present tense. We are the children of the wilderness. Heaven is our Promised Land, and Hebrews warns us that it is a hard trek getting there. Believers sometimes fail God, and there are consequences to spiritual failure. The Psalmist’s reading of the exodus story concentrates on a people’s loss of promised salvation, warning readers that Christian existence features not only transforming experiences of God’s grace, but also persistent testing of faith that challenges the congregation’s loyalty to God.
“Hold On to the Confession”
The comparisons Hebrews draws between Christ and Moses (3:1–4:13) and between Christ and Aaron draw attention to the importance of the community’s leaders in guiding a wilderness people toward God’s promised end. Hebrews 4:14–16 offers readers the first of two summaries that bracket the letter’s central argument (see Hebrews 10:19–25). But this passage also functions as a preface to the practical importance of the letter’s opening confession about Jesus. In fact, the exhortation for a wilderness people to “hold on to the confession” (4:14) makes sense only when readers tally all the majestic claims made about Jesus to this point, especially in the letter’s opening doxology (see 1:1–4).
Jesus is God’s Son, the definitive messenger who not only carries God’s message of salvation into the very world He created, but who embodies the saving message proclaimed by the apostles and secured by the Spirit’s witness (2:1–4). He is the suffering but exalted Lord through whom and with whom God’s people experience the promised blessings of God. He becomes one of us to become a high priest for us to wipe away our sins and to help us make it through our spiritual tests and receive the blessings promised to us by God (2:14–18).
But the deep logic of this summary statement is to hold on to our confession about Christ. What we receive from His apostles, who saw this historical Jesus in action and heard His instruction, calibrates the truth about Him. Our right response to the Church’s confession of Jesus is to worship Him: “let’s draw near to the throne” (4:16).
Sandwiched strategically between confession and response is the pivotal Christological claim of this entire letter. Jesus (who is introduced as God’s exalted Son) is our “great [or effective] high priest” (4:14). This is so because He has the capacity — learned from His human experiences — to empathize with the spiritual tests of a wilderness people. This must strike the confessing community as odd, even inconceivable: how can God’s exalted Son, the light of God’s glory and “imprint of God’s being” (Hebrews 1:3), experience the deeply human struggles (suffering, temptation) that test a wilderness people, even if without failing God? But this too is incarnation. Not only does Jesus embody God’s saving message, but He also embodies our most faithful selves. An incarnational Christology meets an empathetic Christology in the Jesus of Nazareth, whom the apostles witnessed and to whom Scripture testifies. This is our confession of faith [see Author’s Note 1].
Jesus and Aaron
The Lord’s comparison with Aaron (5:1–10) is similar in purpose to the Preacher’s earlier comparison with Moses. Both Moses and Aaron performed leading roles in moving the wilderness people forward toward the Promised Land. They are, in this sense, the types of leaders that Jesus more perfectly embodies. What is important to remember in all the Preacher’s comparisons with Christ is that He doesn’t get the job done better than anyone else because He is God — and God, being God, can’t fail us. That argument goes like this: since God’s very nature is perfect, we shouldn’t expect Him to give in to His temptations and sin. Gods can’t sin; their divine nature won’t allow it. The shocking thing about the Preacher’s Christology is that he grounds the Son’s incarnation in human experience rather than in divine nature: “[Jesus] had to be made like his brothers and sisters in every way” (2:17). That is, God’s Son could sin but chose not to as an example for us. God’s Son could die and chose to do so as expiation for us. Grace, people, grace.
Jesus is “just like Aaron” (5:4) in that both are appointed by God to mediate God’s relationship with a wilderness people in priestly ways. Note the lead priest’s résumé: he must be a member of the covenant community appointed by God to take charge of those religious practices (offerings and sacrifices for sin) that tend to the congregation’s right relationship with its holy God (5:1). In the first place, then, the lead priest must be able to identify with his congregation in a way that represents its members and interprets their collective needs before God. These are the priest’s more public religious duties.
But the lead priest must also be an effective pastor who has the personal capacity to guide the misled and teach the ignorant (5:2). The Preacher then adds this extraordinary caveat: the lead priest can be that pastor only because he shares the same human “weakness” with every member of the entire congregation (5:2–3) [see Author’s Note 2]. The Greek word translated “weakness” is the same word used of the empathetic Christ in Hebrews 4:15, whose experiences as a human enable Him to identify with our struggles, mediating their most effective remedy (4:16).
To be “weak” is not the same as to sin. It is an essential feature of our mortality — this capacity to be misled out of ignorance. Universities like ours depend on it! We assume it! We require it as a reason for our existence! We are in the business of educating and guiding our students into responsible adulthood. To presume God’s Son required no education and arrived a ready-made messiah is to miss the narrative plotline of the fourfold gospel and the Preacher’s point in Hebrews. The Son became one of us, and like us His suffering and temptations schooled Him. He learned to obey His Father’s will (5:8) in the same way we learn to obey God through the school of hard knocks.
Yet Jesus did so without sinning. Obedience is a cultivated practice. Enabled by the Spirit’s sanctifying presence, we choose to obey God over and over again until it becomes a spiritual routine. The Lord’s comparison to Aaron does not turn on this priestly credential. Jesus had to be educated. His classroom was His Passion, beginning with His last temptation in the garden, where He struggled mightily with His priestly calling to offer Himself to God as a sacrifice for our sins. We’ll explore this further in coming Lectios.
The God Who Learns
For the moment, the Preacher is content to capture the stunning paradox that is central to this letter and the spiritual crisis it addresses: “Although [Jesus is God’s] Son, he learned obedience from what he suffered” (5:8; cf. Psalm 119:71–73). A contrast between the two phrases is stipulated. That is, it shouldn’t be expected that Jesus, being God, should need to go to school to learn anything. Right? Doesn’t God know all things? Well, no, evidently not. And this paradox is the pivot point of the Preacher’s empathetic Christology: the incarnation of God’s Son is a learning experience. Jesus becomes one of us to learn what makes people fail God in order to help people obey God [see Author’s Note 3].
Let’s step back to figure this move out. What a learning God lacks is an intimate acquaintance with human experience. God made us. God made our world. Scripture presents God as a careful observer of people and of this world. God knows our frailties and failures and gets what triggers them. We might allow that God has an academic knowledge of human existence. Moreover, Scripture presents God as the lover of all that God makes, and has made us to return God’s love fully — with all our heart, strength, soul, and mind.
But before God’s Son became Jesus of Nazareth to dwell among us, the triune God had never experienced mortality. God observed it from the beginning in the Garden of Eden; God knew about it and understood it. But God hadn’t yet experienced the human condition firsthand. That’s what’s lacking on God’s résumé: human experience, up close and personal.
I doubt any of us disputes the importance of experience in shaping our understanding of life. I doubt any of us depends only on observation or book reading to learn about life. Wesley surely didn’t. He recognized that the biblical revelation of God’s Word or the teachings of the Church could get us only so far. Those tools are indispensable, but more is needed. We need to learn God inwardly through our experience of God’s loving presence and empowering grace in worship and life [see Author’s Note 4]. Jesus’s experiences of human life formed His capacity to get inside our heads and empathize with us. God becomes one of us so that we might know God better, but God also becomes one of us so that God might know us inside and out.
Jesus the Empathetic Priest
For this reason, God calls the Son to the priesthood of Melchizedek (5:5–6) in order that He might shroud Himself in humanity’s weakness, learning the lessons of mortality and the human struggles of obeying God’s will. By doing so the Son contributes to the triune God’s capacity to know us and to love us with all of God’s heart, strength, soul, and mind.
Moreover, if the Lord is to be an effective lead pastor for His wilderness congregation — to understand why people are so easily misled — He had to become a person like us so that we might become like Him.
Jesus has intimate acquaintance with these tests because of His human experience, and, as exalted Son, He is in a position to take on Aaron’s role and help a wilderness congregation journey to God’s Promised Land. The Son’s learning curve enables His pastoral care of His disciples as they make their bumpy way through the wilderness to the Promised Land. The confidence with which we approach God’s throne room for help to pass our spiritual tests (4:16) is grounded in the exalted One we find there. It is not His majestic deity that inspires this confidence but His priestly empathy to “deal gently” and knowingly with our spiritual deficits (5:2).
The Greek word for “learning” (manthano) refers to the student’s learning process of discovering truth by being taught well. Paul repeats the word for emphasis in his famous exhortation to Timothy to “continue with the things you have learned [manthano] and found convincing. You know who taught [manthano] you” (2 Timothy 3:14). The Son learns to obey His Father’s will by a curriculum of human experiences, which includes frailty and suffering, ridicule and rejection, and ultimately death.
Jesus the Perfect Priest
For all their similarities, there are blatant differences between Aaron and Jesus. Aaron sinned; Jesus did not (Hebrews 4:15). Rather than offering a sin sacrifice to purify Himself from sin’s contamination, as Aaron did (5:3), Jesus offers a sacrifice of worship to God in faithful devotion (5:7; cf. 4:16) [see Author’s Note 5]. Jesus obeys God rather than giving in to temptation (5:8). The Preacher claims that as a result, “he had been made perfect [and] he became the source of eternal salvation for everyone who obeys him” (5:9). Let’s shift down a gear and unpack this claim more carefully.
The claim of Jesus’s perfection (cf. 2:10) intends to give confidence to a people for whom confidence is lacking. And who can blame them? The intended readers of Hebrews are promised a glorious future with God that lacks for nothing (cf. James 1:4). Yet their present condition is the opposite; they are indeed a wilderness people still a very long way from their promised future. This contradiction is personified by Jesus, God’s exalted Son, who first suffers but then is “made perfect” (Hebrews 5:9) — the Sanctifier of the sanctified.
The meaning of the verb “made perfect” is debated among scholars. The Greek idea of “perfection” (telos) has many layers of potential meaning. Rather than personal perfection, the word can refer to the completion of a process. In the immediate context, it may refer to the completion of Jesus’s graduate apprenticeship into the human condition — His Master of Divinity degree in pastoral care. The faithfulness He learns from suffering is made complete by His death and exaltation. If His education targets His priestly calling, then its completion includes the circumstance of His ongoing ministry as lead pastor of the wilderness congregation (cf. 2:10).
The Source of Eternal Salvation
Jesus becomes “the source of eternal salvation” for those who obey God’s will (5:9). This is not in a Pauline sense — that Jesus’s faithfulness to God on the Cross secures the salvation from sin for all who believe. Rather, the Preacher claims that Jesus perfects those pastoral skills that enable Him to be what God appointed Him to become: an effective “high priest according to the order of Melchizedek” for a people on the move to the Promised Land (5:10).
Paul underscores for us all the importance of trusting Jesus. For him, the signal act of Christian discipleship is the congregation’s public profession of Jesus as risen Lord (cf. Romans 10:9). Notice the Preacher doesn’t say that the exalted Jesus is the source of salvation for everyone who believes Him. Rather, he says Jesus is the source for those who obey Him as God’s incarnate Word. We’re in the wilderness, people. We’ve already been saved from death in the exodus of the Cross. We now are camping out in the foothills of Mt. Sinai where God commands us to live into our election as God’s people. Only then will we see the Promised Land. Some don’t make it because they fail God’s covenant.
Luke repeats the Greek word translated as “source” in Hebrews 5:9 in the narrative of Jesus’s Roman trial (cf. Luke 23:4, 14, 22), where it refers to someone who takes responsibility for an act — in this case, Jesus is found not guilty of the legal charges leveled against Him. The Preacher’s use of the word carries this same sense of taking responsibility for some act. In this case, however, Jesus takes responsibility for “eternal salvation” (5:9).
The question remains: how does Jesus do this? We may look ahead in Hebrews to the great passage about Jesus’s priestly act of offering His own body as a blood sacrifice for sin (following a pattern of forgiveness set out in Leviticus). But in this setting Jesus obeys His calling as lead priest of a wilderness people by practicing pastoral care.
Questions for Further Discussion
- Does the notion of empathy at the beginning of this Lectio change your view of Jesus’s sacrifice? How might an “empathetic Christology” inform relationships between people, or between congregations and communities? How might you begin to practice empathy in your life or in the life of your congregation?
- The role of pastor or priest in modern-day churches looks different than the role of High Priest in the Old Testament. What characteristics of Jesus as High Priest might a pastor adopt today? In light of Jesus the High Priest, what practices or attitudes might a pastor let go of?
- What characteristics of a pastor/priest might be particularly helpful to a congregation in a literal or metaphorical wilderness?
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