Jesus was crucified to death. Such an inglorious death was the epitome of weakness. But the case the Preacher from Hebrews has been making (and doubt not that Hebrews is but the sermonic work of a preacher inspired by the Holy Spirit) is that Jesus—in His weakness—is stronger and greater than Moses, the angels, and now in chapter 5 the Jewish High Priest’s and even Melchizedek.
The fact of Jesus being the greatest of all priests in the greatest of all orders of priesthood, means He is the consummate pastor for those (like to whom the Preacher of Hebrews was addressing) in need of a powerful and availing shepherd. Jesus, though apparently weak in crucifixion, turns out to be the most powerful, compassionate, invested, and accomplished pastor. Indeed, He turns out to be the Good Shepherd (compare Ezekiel 34 and Psalm 23).
Thomas G. Long’s commentary on this text within the Interpretation series will prove a preacher’s trusted guide. Long brings out the existential tension of resorting to God’s crucified shepherd as one’s enduring pastor:
“In the gospel of Mark, when the centurion saw Jesus die, he exclaimed, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’ a statement that can serve as an expression of irony: ‘That is the Son of God?’—or as a statement of faith, or both. In similar fashion, when the Preacher announced Jesus was the “great high priest,” he knew the potential for irony; he knew that lying deep within his congregation is a weary resistance to this truth: ‘The suffering, rejected, defeated Jesus is a great high priest? Some great high priest.’”
To substantiate this truth, the Preacher delineates Jesus’ credentials. He begins by stating the qualifications and service of the Levitical priesthood. They are repetitive, temporary, replaced, and—significantly—he must apply his own service to himself, “...on account of sins, just as for the people” (5:3). On each point where the Levitical priesthood proved lacking, Jesus brings fulfillment through perfection. He was “made perfect” through suffering (5:8-9). He eclipses the Levitical priesthood in every way, having been appointed by God to the vocation of the great high priest. If he eclipses those who were adequate pastors for the people, how much more will Jesus prove to be the unmatched apex of pastoral care — truly, God’s Good Shepherd.
On each point where the Levitical priesthood proved lacking, Jesus brings fulfillment through perfection.
While the Levitical priesthood was part of a temporary order belonging to the covenant established at Sinai, Jesus’ priesthood is “for eternity” (5:6), bringing not temporary reprieve but “eternal salvation” (5:9). Long comments, “It is this superiority of Christ to the former high priest that pushes the passage toward its dramatic climax: Jesus is ‘a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek’ (5:10), a crucial but enigmatic claim that will be later elaborated in detail in 6:20—7:28.”
Like last week’s Ephesians 2:1-10 pericope, Hebrews 5:1-10 is chiastic in structure, purposed to present three sets of comparisons and contrasts between the Levitical priesthood and the Melchizedek priesthood, of which Jesus is the zenith. The contrasts first treat the function of the high priest (A 5:1, A’ 5:9-10), then the person of the high priest (B 5:2-3, B’ 5:7-8), then lastly the appointment of the high priest (C 5:4-6).
The function of the Levitical high priest is superseded by Christ when Jesus proves not only an everlasting mediator but the source of salvation itself (5:9). Indeed, while the old high priesthood made repeated sacrifices, Christ offered Himself up once and for all and effects an eternal salvation (a theme further developed in chapter 9).
The person of the high priest had the responsibility of the care of souls, in addition to his liturgical or cultic role. But the Levitical priesthood was inherently flawed: The high priests needed to make atonement for their own sins. They possessed inherent human weakness. To be sure, this constituted a sympathetic point of contact with others. But Jesus outpaces them: “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to Him who was able to save Him from death, and He was heard” (5:7). And He was heard. Jesus’ prayers are heard. For whom does Jesus pray? He prays for you. Knowing your greatest needs and troubles, Jesus prays for you and His prayers are heard and availing. Have confidence. Indeed, have faith in Jesus — He is the good and compassion pastor for you.
Long makes one more important point. “Jesus through His suffering fulfills the pastoral role of the high priest... Suffering is not sin; suffering is built into the human condition. Limitation and weakness are not sin; they too, are part of what it means to be human. Jesus, as a human being, suffered and was limited and was weak, but His pain taught Him obedience, not faithless despair.” Jesus, then, can lead, can shepherd us all home to our heavenly Father, for He cares for us, knowing our weakness and infirmity.
Finally, Jesus was appointed by the Father with an everlasting priesthood, not like the life-span priesthood of the Levites. This is because Christ’s priesthood is based upon divine Sonship. Consequently, He is the eternal High Priest and never fails.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in Hebrews 5:1-10.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Hebrews 5:1-10.
Lectionary Podcast-Dr. Arthur Just of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Hebrews 5:1-10.