- Christ as a High Priest has his mandate from Heaven: his mission on Earth was to deal with Sin once and for all (vv 1-3)
- Christ is able to respond to this mission not by scale but by categorically being a victor over Sin (vv 4-10)
- We must move past trivialities and dive deep into getting to know Christ. We can’t become what we don’t understand. (11-14)
As I was preparing for this sermon over the past week I was constantly thinking of the issue of responsibility as an individual and our responsibility as a community. This responsibility isn’t some nebulous idea about ethical living. Responsibility is an ability to respond. So responsible Christian living is a life of a Christian where he/she is able to respond properly in a given situation, whether that is a situation that requires service, silence, compassion, understanding, training, rebuke or a full-fledged revolt against the powers that be.
So naturally the question arises: How can a Christian and a community grow in responsible living?
Let’s see how Hebrews 5 addresses the issue of growing in responsible Christian life.
Vv 1-10: The Responsibility of a High Priest and how Jesus is able to respond as a Great High Priest
Looking back at the previous 4 chapters, we see that the preacher calls his listeners/readers to keep their eyes focused on Christ, to not forget the Gospel, not to lose heart while facing problems because Christ is the Great High Priest who understands suffering, and is able to deal with their sins.
But for a community of believers that have seen plenty of problems, starting from discouragement, to battling false teachings, to perhaps suffering poverty, mockery, persecution etc. keeping high spirits and being confident in Christ seems like a tall order. It’s easy to trust Christ while everything’s ok. But it gets quite difficult when all you see is the earthly Christ being mocked, Him being beaten and ridiculed, Him being crucified and buried.
There’s no big challenge to believe that Christ the man understands suffering. There are no big issues in believing that if he’d see us today he’d be able to feel compassion for people in need, whatever the need may be. But the challenge is to look at the cross and see Christ as God-in-flesh. It’s a challenge to believe that this frail crucified man is also the Creator of the universe, who has set the record straight by placing himself as a sacrifice for all of humanity, for any sin that’s ever been done and will be done.
So for a congregation that’s at their wits end and the last communal act they’d like to do is to just give up meeting together, it’s of crucial importance to see Christ not only within the realm of time but to understand that His existence is a complex one and spans beyond time. He did exist in time, and within this linear time, He is now gone, and we are all awaiting the completion of salvation in the second coming of Christ.
But on the other hand, Christ the Son exists outside of time, unbound by the limitations of space and linear existence. So although salvation has not happened yet in terms of linear time; outside of time, all is completed and Christ is seated at the throne and He is constantly pouring in His invitation to people to enter His rest/peace/Shalom.
In vv 1-3 we get to see how the preacher explains the role and calling of high priests. They are selected by the community so that he’d represent their needs before God by bringing sacrifices for his own sins, as well as for the sins of the community. In a sense, the high priest is the peoples’ advocate in the courtroom of God. The high priests were people selected by people, to represent the people before God.
But in vv 4-10 there is a clear cut and shift in mode of thinking. This “no-one” is actually two words: a very powerful, fist-bang on the table sort of negation and a pronoun 3rd person singular. So the readers in the original Greek language would hear this negation very loud and very clear. This forceful language puts a break in the text. What’s to follow does draws meaning from the previous verses, but what’s to be said further on does not pass meaning back to the previous text. What this means is that even though the Interpretation commentary says that Christ brought sacrifices for himself, in reality, the text doesn’t allow for such an interpretation.
Why is this so important? If Christ did bring sacrifices for himself and for all of humanity then Christ has sins to repent from too, just like any other high priest would do. But the text forbids such interpretation. This strong negation (ook, in Greek) acts like a one-directional valve for the meaning of the text. Vv 1-3 set the stage for vv 4-10, but they don’t loop back into 1-3. It’s like gravity: it pulls down but won’t push up. Christ is the perfect High Priest so He’s nothing like other high priests who sacrificed for their sins too.
The analogy of the high priest flows only thus far: They’re not self-appointed. They’re chosen to be mediators. Christ too is set aside as the Great High Priest, to bring the ultimate sacrifice to the heavenly altar, and solve the problem of humanity’s sin once and for all. But Christ’s sacrifice is for humanity, and he is exempt from humanity. He is the High Priest and the lamb, but not part of the people. Christ is the author of atonement, not a recipient of atonement, as were other high priests.
Also, Christ is unlike any other high priest because Christ’s mandate is not from people, but from God. Christ’s sacrifice is not only covering/masking sin but it is strong/holy/effective enough to eradicate sin as an issue between mankind and God. Lastly, Christ’s holy sacrifice is placed on the timeless altar so it deals with all sins within time, i.e it covers for all past, present and future sins because the cross is trans-dimensional. The cross is firmly placed in history, but it spans across history, beyond time into eternity. This is why Christ as the perfect high priest is so qualified to eradicate the problem of sin once and for all.
He, as a sacrifice and as the high priest, is just as timeless as we are time-bound. It is this trans-dimensional existence of Christ, who is God-in-flesh, that makes his sacrifice and high-priestly atonement effective for all people, for all time.
This effective perfectness is revealed through His conduct during his suffering. Even though he had the capacity to skip the cross and go to the crown, he didn’t. The temptation in the desert was a real alternative, because if it was not an option it would not really be a temptation in the first place. So while the text reads “He was made perfect through his suffering” we’re not really talking about adding something onto Christ that he wouldn’t have had without the suffering. It’s more an issue of realization/revelation of an existing capacity of Christ, a capacity to respond properly.
In more human terms, we could say that these verses reveal that Christ acted responsibly. Dissecting the very word Responsibility gets us to a compound word, response-ability, or, an ability to respond to a situation. This situation from a timeless perspective was salvation of mankind through a sacrifice of God himself on the timeless altar. Christ was able to respond to this call because he is the perfect human being, without sin, AND he as God has life that is big enough to cover for the issue of sin once and for all.
The weight of Sin of all people of all times was so big that no amount of sacrifices on the earthly altars would ever offer a counter-weight. But God as the source of life, has life not in terms of quantity, but in terms of quality. God IS life. He is the author of life. So by categorization, it’s not that Christ had “enough” life to be a counterweight. The life He placed on this made-up scale not only tipped the scale in our favor, it smashed the scale altogether.
This is why the powerful language in the gospels makes perfect sense when Christ says “I have overcome the world” He’s not saying I’ve battled and somehow managed to beat the world. There was no real cosmic battle between God and Satan. No battle of good and evil. Christ does not have an equally powerful opponent in Satan so that there’d even be a need of a battle. By the very being of God-ness, Christ is victorious over Satan just as a super-tanker is victorious over a blow-up orange boat: in terms of speed, durability, capacity to haul weight etc. There’s no point in even comparing the two. There’s no sense in even thinking that the boat would ever win. There’s no point in ever thinking that somehow Satan would be able to overpower Christ. By the sheer effectiveness of His will Christ is victorious outside of time.
So Christ as our High Priest, who’s mandate comes from God, is not made perfect through suffering. We only get to see that he really is perfect since he had the ability to respond properly to all those mockings, beating and ultimately death. He did not skip the cross even though he had the physical ability to do so.
His mission this first time on Earth wasn’t to bear the crown but to bear the cross. And he did it. It is this high priest that now in a timeless fashion is both on the altar and on the throne. So when the going gets tough, we need to remember that we don’t have some flimsy weakling of a high priest who’s just as sinful as we are. We have God himself as our Savior, who not only tips the scale in our favor, he smashes the scale into non-existence.
Wherever we are, whatever we suffer, He is with us. And as He was revealed to be able to respond in a crisis situation, so we through our suffering need to discover just how able we too are to respond to situations.
Vv 11-14: Shape up. There’s much more to Christ and Christianity than “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life”
These verses are hard to stomach. The preacher, as previously, waltzes through some solid theological teaching at one side, and very practical down-to-earth advice for Christian living. And after a meaty pack of Christology, he moves now to a practical living part.
The practical living here is revolutionary in terms of what usually people in churches see as spiritual growth. Unlike the expected growth to be described in terms of: I quit smoking, I don’t swear any more, I got back to my wife, I voted Republican etc…. the epistle always gets us back to an idea that spiritual growth is tied to growth in understanding the person of Christ. Growth in knowing Christ is growth in knowing God, and we have a fancy name for this kind of growth: theo-logical growth.
As one professor once said: You can’t practice what you don’t know/understand. We can’t grow in Christ-likeness if we don’t grow in the knowledge of Christ. Being a disciple of Christ revolves around spending time to get to know Christ. Just as we can’t grow as couples if we don’t get to know one another deeper and deeper, so it is with Christian growth. What flows out of this knowing Christ are things like talking to others about Christ, loving the neighbor, helping people and so on.
This section basically calls Christians lazy slackers who aren’t really interested in diving deep in the person of Christ. It looks like they’ve tasted a bit of Christ’s greatness, and they seem to be just fine with what they have. There’s no stirring of the spirit to get to know more and more, to grow in a relationship with Christ. This shallow knowledge of Christ naturally results with a simplistic, shallow discipleship where stuff’s OK while things are fine.
Wrapping it all up
When the going gets tough, when testing hits us like flash-flood, our shallow foundation set on sandy shores gets swiped away and our life crumbles. We crumple up like a little baby, crying helplessly, without the capacity to look past the immediate situation and onto Christ, without an ability to respond to the situation. In that regard, since we are not able to respond as christians, we as christians live an irresponsible life.
The flip side is our answer to the question of What is Responsible Christian Living: It is a life that springs from the ever-growing intimate knowledge of who Christ is in all His personality as a God-in-flesh. This life will then radiate with the love and peace of God that transcends understanding. It will be a life focused on loving the neighbor in effective ways like: praying for peace and courage to move forward, actionable advice for a crisis situation, lending a hand in hard times of whatever sort etc.
This is the Christian life we’re called to live out.