A Better High Priest (Heb. 5:1-10)
In Hebrews 5:1-10, our Lord is compared and contrasted with the Aaronic priesthood. In the first four verses, we have a description of this priesthood; what follows in verses 5-10 is the way our Lord’s high priesthood corresponded to that of Aaron’s. In particular, the author of Hebrews gives us two main reasons why the priests ordained under the Mosaic covenant were fitted for the office to which they were appointed, and then he follows that with our Lord’s superior suitability for the high priesthood and how he really is a greater and better high priest for us.
First of all, the Aaronic priests were fitted to their office because they were men (1-2). A priest was ordained for men and as such needed to be taken from among men. An angel could not mediate between God and men in this way. Also, because priests were men, they were able to “have compassion on the ignorant and on them that are out of the way.” However, part of the reason the priests could sympathize with sinners is that they themselves were sinners, and the “infirmity” of verse 3 is an infirmity arising from the moral frailty of the Levitical priests. Hence, they not only had to offer sin offerings for others, but they also had to do so for themselves as well (3).
Second, the Aaronic priests were fitted to their office because they were ordained by God to it (4). It was not something you could take upon yourself; priesthood is an office that only makes sense if you are chosen by God to it. After all, priests are mediators between God and man, and if God does not recognize the mediator, what good is it to have one?
The fact that God is the one who ordained the Aaronic priesthood for what are the two greatest needs of humanity, but which we have lost as a result of our sinfulness and brokenness, shows us how much God cares about these things. We primarily need to have our relationship with God restored and which has been severed by sin. Hence the need for atonement and hence the need for a priest. But we also need to have our relationship with our fellow man restored (cf. Eph. 2:11-22). We need to have God’s favor, but we also need human companionship and compassion as well. We need God’s presence and we need the arm of a fellow human around our shoulder, so to speak. The priest was meant to give both, and God ordained him to give both. We need God’s fellowship and we need human fellowship; God knows that and he has provided for that.
But as good as a priest was, the fact is that he could never provide for either of these things perfectly. The atonement provided in the Mosaic covenant was not sufficient in itself to atone for sins. It was figurative and ceremonial and pointed forward the greater sacrifice of Jesus Christ. And the compassion offered by the priest was not only tempered, but also marred by, his own sinfulness. In both categories, however, we see that our Lord can give what the old high priests could only, at the end of the day, point to. And that is the point of verses 5-10.
Like Aaron, our Lord was ordained by God to be a high priest (5-6, 10). As such, Jesus provided atonement, but not merely a figurative atonement that erased ceremonial uncleanness, but a real atonement that provides “eternal salvation” (9). Moreover, our Lord does not give us a fallible human hand of help, for he was “in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin” (4:15; 5:7-8). We've argued that this does not diminish his ability to help; in fact, it increases it.
Our aim in this message is to focus on the way our Lord’s priesthood enables him to have compassion on the ignorant and those out of the way. And this is important; just because someone is willing to help or willing to show compassion does not always mean that their help and compassion are what we really need. After all, how many times have we been hurt by the very people we have reached out to? How many times have those closest to us been the ones who hurt us the worst, often because they were so close to us? Or, how often is it that people just can’t enter into the pain we are experiencing, not only because they’ve never walked in our shoes but because they have never experienced the level of suffering we are enduring? It is one thing to endure affliction, but we all know there are various levels of suffering and affliction. Some people at least seem to breeze through life; others seem to be stuck in a kind of quicksand of pain and anguish. Some people seem to never have a sad day in their life; others seem to always be fighting a losing battle against the swirling mist of depression and despair. Of course, we should be careful not to judge someone by what their experience appears to be to us. Some folks are better at hiding grief and pain than others.
However, the point is that when we are in distress, often the compassion that encourages us the best is compassion coming from someone who has been through the fire – maybe not the same fire, but real and hot fire nonetheless. And we tend to listen to the advice of those who have been through the fire, when they share with us how they made it through. When someone comes to you out of the furnace of affliction and you can almost smell their smoke-tinged soul, you are going to listen. They made it through and you want to hear what they have to say about it, especially when you are there as well.
Isn’t this what the apostle Paul said? “Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of all mercies, and the God of all comfort; who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God” (2 Cor. 1:3-4).
What does this have to do with Hebrews 5? Again, one of the things I think the author is telling us here is that Jesus can do perfectly what the priests under the law could only do imperfectly. They could have compassion on the weak and ignorant. What about Jesus? This is where verses 7-8 are so important. In particular, they help us to see how it is that our Lord can be touched with the feeling of our infirmities and how he was in all points tempted like as we are yet without sin (4:15). Also, they give us an example for how we should deal with our difficulties as well.
Now I need to say something here about that last sentence. Some Christian writers and thinkers seem to believe that setting Christ forward as an example is always bad. They tell us that this undermines the gospel. They say that Christ did not come to set an example for good works but to provide an expiation for the guilt arising from our bad works. But this is imbalanced. It is true that our Lord is not just an example, and that we should never primarily interpret the cross in that light. But to say that nothing our Lord did is an example that we should follow frankly flies in the face of the NT (see, for example, 1 Pet. 2:21). And so though we don’t want to gut the grace of the gospel by making it mainly about becoming better people, neither do we want to go to the opposite extreme and turn the grace of God into lasciviousness (cf. Jude 4). Jesus is our high priest who makes atonement for our sins, and yet even in that role he provides for us the best of examples as well.
Very well then, we want to look at these two things this morning. First, we want to consider our Lord’s experience and how he entered into our weakness and how this positions him to be the very best source of compassion and encouragement and strengthening and grace. And then second, we want to see how our Lord’s example shows us the way to deal with the suffering we find in our own lives.
Our Lord’s experience
Look at verse 7: “Who in the days of his flesh, when he had offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death, and was heard in that he feared.” I want us to consider a couple of phrases embedded in this text. They are: “days of his flesh” and “strong crying and tears.” These two phrases point us to the boiling furnace of suffering that our Lord went through and which uniquely positioned and equipped him to be a high priest who can have compassion on us and be touched with the feeling of our infirmities.
The days of his flesh
We should be careful that we don’t interpret this phrase wrongly. It doesn’t mean that after his death when our Lord ascended into heaven that he ascended as a bodiless, ethereal spirit. No, our Lord ascended into heaven in a body. He was able to have the apostle Thomas touch him, after he had risen from the dead. Rather, “flesh” here is a reference to a body which is susceptible to and crippled by the effects of living in a sinful and cursed and fallen world. It means mortality. It means that “the moment we are born we all begin to die.” It means having bodies which are broken and susceptible to disease and pain. It means having minds which are vulnerable to anguish and sorrow and discouragement and depression.
The apostle Paul uses the word “flesh” in this way to refer to our bodies as they are before their resurrection. It is important to see that resurrection implies that though there is real continuity between the body I have now and the body I will have after it is raised from the dead, nevertheless there is also real discontinuity – discontinuity in the sense that our bodies then will no longer be afflicted by the ravages of the curse. Hence, Paul writes, “So also is the resurrection of the dead. It [our physical body] is sown in corruption; it [note the continuity – it is the same “it”!] is raised in incorruption: it is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power: it is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body and there is a spiritual body” (1 Cor. 15:42-44). Then notice what he says in verse 50: “Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption.”
There you see that word “flesh” again. The context demonstrates that what flesh means is having a body that is subject to corruption and decay, to dishonor and ugliness, to weakness and sickness and disease. It is called a “natural body” because this is what we are born with; it is contrasted to a “spiritual body” because this is the body we will have as a result of the work of the Holy Spirit raising it from the dead (and not because it is mere spirit, cf. Rom. 8:9-10).
This is what it meant, then, when we read of “the days of his flesh.” It is a reference to our Lord’s experience of taking to himself "a true body and a reasonable soul" that was subject to the ravages of a fallen world, under the curse of death and mortality. Though he never participated in the sin that we are all guilty of, yet he did participate fully in the endurance of sin’s effects in terms of the curse. He was tempted in all points, like as we are, yet without sin. That is what this means. Hence when the prophet says that “he is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Isa. 53:3), he means that our Lord really did feel the rejection and the grief. And when he wrote, “Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken of God, and affliction” (53:4), we are to understand that the grief, sorrow, and affliction were very real and not at all imagined. Or, to use the language of Hebrews, “as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same” (Heb. 2:14). “Wherefore in all things it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God” and thus “able to succour them that are tempted” (2:17-18).
Strong crying and tears
Though “the days of his flesh” is a way of capturing all our Lord’s earthly experience in one fell swoop, this phrase – “strong crying and tears” – captures a particular instance of it. The word for “crying” here is interesting. By itself it could refer not only to crying, but to loud crying. This is not a whimper. But then you add the adjective “strong” to that and you have a picture of someone almost screaming in pain and torment. It is, in fact, the word used in the Septuagint in Exod. 3:7 to describe the cries of the Israelites as they groaned under Egyptian slavery.
Though we can’t be sure it refers exclusively to events in the Garden of Gethsemane right before our Lord was captured, it certainly includes it. One reason for thinking of the events in the Garden is that our Lord is said to cry to “him that was able to save him from death.” It was the prospect of death that he was facing that led him to agonize so intensely in his soul and which squeezed him psychologically and emotionally so hard that he could not help but cry that cry that can only come with tears.
By the way, one thing we do need to write off immediately – that this reference to crying and tears is proof that Jesus was a wimp or that he was what we might sometimes call a sort of cry-baby. Perish the thought! No, even the strongest men and women cannot hold back the tears when they are face with terrible trials. There are griefs that no one can hold within without going insane. It is not necessarily a sign of strength to say that you have never shed a tear. Maybe it is rather a sign that you have lost your humanity, rather than a sign of human strength.
Nevertheless, others have pointed to the fact that our Lord was still not as strong as other men and women have shown themselves to be when faced with death – even Christian martyrs! How many people have gone to their deaths – whether as a martyr or as a soldier on a battlefield – and faced death, even the most painful death, with bravery and a stiff upper-lip? And yet, we have this picture of Christ doubled over with fear and anxiety, begging God to let this cup pass from him: “And he was withdrawn from them about a stone’s cast, and kneeled down, and prayed, Saying, Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done. And there appeared an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Lk. 22:41-44). In Matthew’s account, our Lord is recorded as saying, “My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death” (Mt. 26:38; cf. Mk. 14:34). Sorrow, agony, sweat, while begging his Father to avert death on a cross. What are we to make of that?
What we are to make of it is that our Lord faced something no man or woman has ever faced this side of death. And I would venture to say that even those in hell have not had to face what our Lord faced. It is one thing to endure something over a long period of time (try eternity!); but to take an eternity of suffering and squeeze it into a few hours on the cross – that no one has ever endured, except Jesus Christ. He looked into the very face of death, death on a cross, death that would come upon him because he would hang there with the sins of men upon his shoulders, and there really was no other way to psychologically anticipate that without strong crying and tears. Unlike some people, Jesus did not avoid reality by denying it existed. He looked hell square in the face, took the cup filled with damnation, and drank it dry. We really have no idea what that was like, the level and intensity of his suffering and pain. You simply cannot compare Jesus with anyone else, no matter what kind of death they have endured.
And be careful that you do not exhaust the sufferings of Christ in terms of the flogging and the crucifixion. That was a very terrible and painful and shameful way to die – there is no doubt about that. But you will notice that the Gospels don’t really do what Mel Gibson did; they don’t focus on that. Rather, they focus on the fact that God withdrew his presence – his presence of blessing – as our Lord hung there as the sin offering for men (cf. Mt. 27:45-46; Mk. 15:33-34; Lk. 23:44-46; Jn. 19:30). Our Lord’s sufferings were almost surely as unseen as they were seen, and he received the blows not only upon his physical body but upon his mind and soul and spirit.
But, my friend, here is solace for you and me. Jesus endured this so that his elect won’t have to. He went to the cross and went to the utter limits of pain and suffering – physical and mental and spiritual – so that those who receive him as Lord and Savior by faith will not ever have to navigate the infinite ocean of eternal death.
And what this means is that there is no suffering that we can bring to Christ and say to him, “You just don’t know what it’s like to suffer this much.” That’s foolish talk. That’s like comparing a number in the single digits to infinity. In fact, rate your pain and anguish at any number and there is still an infinity of numbers beyond that. Jesus took it to infinity; you cannot justly compare your suffering to his. But it does give us this precious reality: that no matter how painful the suffering you are enduring or have endured – and no matter how little understood you feel yourself to be by your fellow man – there is one to whom you may take your suffering. You may take it to Jesus. I may not be able to sympathize with you, but there is one who can – the Lord Jesus Christ.
Our Lord’s Example
We not only have our Lord’s experience, but we also have our Lord’s example. Now the first thing we should always do is not to ask ourselves what we can do about our sin and our suffering, but to take our sin and suffering to Jesus. We are to look to him for atonement and to look to him to give you grace for your suffering and hope in your suffering. But that does not mean that we don’t also look to him as the supreme example. And that’s what I want to consider with you now. What did our Lord do when faced with suffering that would end in death? He did three things. And what we will see is that these are three things we can do and should do.
First of all, he prayed. He “offered up prayers and supplications . . . unto him that was able to save him from death.” If this is a reference to events in the Garden of Gethsemane, then we have even more information about this. We are told that he went and prayed on three different occasions. We are told that he prayed very simple prayers. And we are told that he repeated the first prayer on the second and third occasions.
This is so encouraging to me. So often we think that unless we come up with very ornate prayers, God isn’t going to be interested. Or if we don’t pray long prayers (though be careful here – don’t take this as an argument against long prayers, for sometimes our Lord prayed all night!), God won’t hear us. But he did hear his Son: “and was heard in that he feared.”
By the way, what does that mean? He “was heard in that he feared.” The word “feared” here is the word eulabeias and means “reverence” or “godly fear.” It is the same word used in Heb. 12:28, “Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear.” This is not, therefore, fear in the sense of terror or being afraid. One way to translate this would be: “he was heard because of his godly reverence.”
Now God doesn’t hear our prayers because we are “good enough.” But because we are righteous in Christ and because he is doing a work of grace in the hearts of his people so that they are becoming progressively more holy, God does hear our prayers. At the same time, let us not think that we can sin with impunity and then come to God in prayer when we need his help. It is the “effectual fervent prayer of the righteous man” that avails much.
So pray, brothers and sisters. When you are faced with painful and grievous trials, pray, take them to the Lord who can truly sympathize and show true compassion.
Second, note that our Lord prayed in faith. You see this in the words, “unto him that was able to save him from death.” In other words, when our Lord prayed to the Father, and brought before him the painful anticipation of death, he did so while trusting that his Father “was able to save him from death.” And, by the way, we know what happened. God did save his Son from death. Three days later, he rose from the dead.
Our Lord shows us the way we should pray, too. We need to pray in faith. We need to trust in God as we navigate suffering. We may not understand why we are having to go what we are going through. But one thing we can be confident in – that God is in control, that he will work all things for our good, and that the worst thing that can happen to us, eternal death and judgment, has already been decisively dealt with through the person and work of Christ.
Finally, our Lord never stopped obeying his Father, despite the sufferings he went through. In fact, we are told in verse 8: “Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered.” Now we shouldn’t think that learning obedience means that Christ went from being disobedient to being obedient. Rather, this is a reference to the earthly experience of our incarnate Lord which was new to him. As a man, he had to learn obedience and he had to suffer – and he had to learn to carry out his Father’s will through and in suffering. He did it without sin, but he learned it in the sense that this was a new experience for him.
But what an example for us. In fact, isn’t this what the apostle Peter points us to? “For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps: who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously” (1 Pet. 2:21-23). It is in suffering and trials that the devil puts us in the rack and presses us to deny Christ. He whispers in our ears that it is not worth it to obey God when it brings so much suffering. But let us, as the apostle encourages us to do, take our Lord for an example (cf. Heb. 12:1,ff). Don’t stop obeying, don’t stop believing, don’t stop praying.
Our Lord is the very best high priest. He can do what the Aaronic priests could not. He can do what no other man or woman in history can do. He brings us to God and he supports us with his love and grace and compassion. How could we want to take refuge in anyone or anything else? Let us find our rest and our hope and grace in the only place where we can find eternal rest and hope and grace: in Jesus Christ.