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Hebrews 4:12-5:14

Roger Hahn

The ideas that appear in the last part of chapter 4 of Hebrews are clear and compelling. The flow of thought is less clear. There is great disagreement among those who outline the book of Hebrews about where the divisions belong in Hebrews 4:10-15. It is difficult to observe an immediate and obvious connection between Hebrews 4:12-13 and the verses immediately before or after them. It seems most logical to treat those verses separately and to recognize the role that they play in the transition of thought from the argument that Jesus is superior to Moses to the argument that Jesus is a superior priest to the priesthood of Judaism. The argument for Jesus' superiority to that priesthood then runs from Hebrews 4:14 to the end of chapter 7.

Accountability to the Word - Hebrews 4:12-13

Verse 12 makes a statement about the Word of God and verse 13 describes the accountability of all creation to that Word. It is most likely that these verses are connected to the preceding context. Hebrews 4:11 had called the readers diligently to attempt to enter the promised rest. It was a word of exhortation and the verse concluded expressing the fear that some of the readers would fall into disobedience like that of the Israelites in the wilderness. The description of the Word of God and especially the statement of accountability in verse 13 reinforce the exhortation of verse 11.

The author's meaning when he speaks of the "Word of God" in verse 12 has been seen in different ways. The two most typical ways of understanding need some clarification. At a popular level the most common way of understanding the Word of God is to see it simply as the Bible. The Bible as we know it - with a New Testament - did not exist at the time Hebrews was written. It is most likely that the author did have the Old Testament Scriptures in mind, though he does not appear to be referring to the whole of that Scripture, but to the passage from Psalm 95 that he had quoted in Hebrews 3:7-11.

A second interpretation that is often presented is that the Word of God refers to Jesus. This view is built on John 1:1 where Jesus is described as the "Word" or the Divine Logos (the Greek word for "word"). This view can be supported by the fact that the author, in Hebrews 1:1-3, had contrasted the way God had spoken through the prophets with the way he had spoken through his Son. It is also true that all the statements made about the Word of God in verses 12-13 could be correctly made about Jesus. However, Hebrews does not normally refer to Jesus this way.

The point of mentioning the Word of God in verse 12 is that the effective and powerful word of judgment spoken to the Exodus generation is also effective and powerful in the day of the readers of Hebrews (and in our day). As he concludes his use of Psalm 95:7b-11 the author wants his readers to know that refusing to hear and obey God is just as serious and dangerous now as it was in the day of their ancestors. God spoke a word of judgment that finally led to the death of a whole generation of Israelites in the wilderness. The writer wanted his readers to know that the same God was still speaking the same message to them.

This is a dynamic and exciting way of understanding the Word of God. We might say that the Word of God is not alive and effective because it is inspired Scripture, but Scripture is inspired, alive, and effective because it is a word from God. The power does not lie in a doctrine of inspiration, but in the reality of being addressed by God. When God begins to speak - to really communicate - to an individual through Scripture then that Scripture is a living and effective Word of God.

The author describes the Word of God as living. This word was most often ascribed to God in the Old Testament. The author was thinking of Scripture in terms of a lively and effective impact. The word effective comes from the Greek root behind the English word "energetic." The picture is not of frenzied energy going off in every direction at once, but it is a picture of effective energy that has all the resources to accomplish its goal.

In Isaiah 55:11 God declares that his word that he sends out will not return to him empty or void, but will accomplish the goal for which it was spoken. The Old Testament understood that the spoken word of God was effective; it accomplished things. God spoke and the world came into existence. God spoke a word of blessing and good happened in people's lives. God spoke a word of condemnation and punishment and distress came into people's lives. The author of Hebrews is convinced the same powerful effectiveness will accompany God's written word - not because it is Scripture - but because it still the same God who speaks through that written word. Our doctrine that Scripture is the inspired Word of God does not need argument or defense. Rather we must simply proclaim the Scriptures and release them in the world and in our lives to be effective and powerful.

The author of Hebrews also compares the Word of God to a sword. But it is sharper than any two-edged sword because it has the ability to penetrate, cut through, and divide in the human heart. A sword can cut and divide physically, but the Word of God accomplishes its work within the essence of the human being. It was not the author's purpose to make a literal statement about dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow. None of his other comments suggest that he had a mental image of a human being divided into various parts, two of which were labeled soul and spirit (see Body and Soul: Greek and Hebraic Tensions in Scripture). Rather, he is speaking in picture language to say that "the word of God probes the inmost recesses of our spiritual being and brings the subconscious motives to light" (Bruce, p. 113). The thoughts and intentions of the heart are evaluated and discerned by the Word of God. It should be clear that it is not simply the words of Scripture on a page that do such spiritual surgery, but the Holy Spirit takes Scripture and uses it to discern the very depth of our motivations and thoughts.

In the face of such discernment we can not escape. No one or no thing of creation is hidden from this scrutinizing of the Word of God. Before it all are naked and thus unprotected. We are laid bare before its searching eyes. All are accountable to God in the final analysis.

Verse 13 can be a very intimidating verse to those who feel they have things to hide in their lives. It was written to motivate the first readers of Hebrews to let the Spirit apply Psalm 95 to their own situation. It was a call to faithfulness before the searching of God. That is a serious matter, but it does not have to be an intimidating matter. If we really desire God's will in our lives we will welcome the Holy Spirit applying the scalpel of the Word to our hearts to cut away all that obscures us from seeing if there be any wicked way in us (Psalm 139:23-24). It is because we are totally accountable before God that the author urges his readers, "let us make every effort to enter that rest" in verse 11.

The High Priesthood Of Christ - Hebrews 4:14-6:20

The idea of Jesus as a high priest has already appeared in Hebrews 2:17-18. However, the author now turns his attention to the subject for a thorough treatment. He will present Jesus' high priesthood as an encouragement to his people in Hebrews 4:14-16. In Hebrews 5:1-4 he will describe the qualifications of a high priest and then show in 5:5-10 how Jesus' qualifications meet or exceed the expectations for the high priest. The third section of admonition or exhortation in the book appears in Hebrews 5:11-14.

The Encouragement of Christ's High Priesthood - Hebrews 4:14-16

The author begins this section by stating that we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens. The point that Jesus has passed through the heavens is not clear. Some take it to mean that Jesus has passed on into the heavenly rest that was discussed in the earlier verses of chapter 4. It is also possible to see the phrase as a reference to the Incarnation. Jesus has passed through the heavens as he made his journey to earth to live and die among us. The first meaning may be most likely in the total context of Hebrews. It is consistent with the idea of Jesus the pioneer to affirm that he has now passed through the heavens to the throne of God. We will eventually follow him on that journey. Having arrived there he is now at the right hand of God interceding for his people.

Because Jesus is both interceding for us and inviting us to follow in his footsteps the author can make his exhortation, "let us hold fast the confession." The exact content of the confession is not stated, but it must refer to the affirmation of the basic elements of the Christian faith. The description in this very verse of Jesus as the Son of God is likely to have been part of the confession, though probably not all. The role of Jesus now in heaven interceding for and inviting the readers of Hebrews to follow makes it imperative that they remain true to Christ. For the trailblazer to have made his way to the throne of God and to be there interceding for the readers and for them to then turn back from trust in Christ made no sense at all for the author of Hebrews.

The writer turns in verse 15 from a positive affirmation to a negation. We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses. Positively stated, we do have a sympathetic high priest in Christ. The word sympathize comes directly from a Greek word with roots meaning "to feel with." Christ is able to feel with us in our feelings of weakness, fear, anxiety, insecurity, and being torn between choices that are complicated and difficult. He feels with us and for us in those circumstances because he has been tested in every way like we have been.

 The writer will further elaborate on the testing of Christ later in the book of Hebrews, but here he simply declares that the testing of Jesus was in every respect in the same way that we are tested. The word tested could just as well be translated "tempted" in light of the Greek word in the original text. The concept of enticement to sin is part of the meaning. The advantage of the translation "tested" is that it includes both the enticements to sin which do not come from God and the tests that check out our commitment that are permitted and/or actually sent by God.

This should not be understood to mean that Jesus experienced in identical fashion every specific temptation that any of us have experienced. Rather, he experienced the full range of temptation - its full range of power and its full range of areas of life in which temptation occurs. However, there is one important difference between Jesus' temptation and tests and ours. He experienced those tests and temptations without falling into sin. Because he experienced the same kind, range, and power of temptations that we experience, he is able to be a sympathetic high priest. Because he did not sin, he is able to be a sympathetic high priest.

The author concludes that we should draw near to the throne of grace with confidence and boldness. We will not find rejection and mocking. We will find mercy and timely help. Because Jesus has experienced all the pain and divergent pulls of life, he is both qualified and eager to give us help at the right time and in the right way. Therefore, let us draw near the throne with confidence.

The Qualifications of the High Priest - Hebrews 5:1-4

Before laying out the special qualifications that Christ has to be a better priest than that provided by Judaism, the author makes some general comments about the qualifications for any high priest. The description is taken from the general expectations of the Old Testament. No mention is made of the political and economic considerations that went into the choice of the high priest during the Roman occupation of Palestine from 63 B.C. to A.D. 70.

The author notes that every high priest is human and is appointed by human beings. The priest was to represent the people to God; that could not be done by one who did not know the pressures and trials under which his people lived. The priest was appointed by people to deal with the things pertaining to God. Specifically, the appointment is to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. The Greek word for offer literally meant to "bring forward" but it had become a specialized word for the offering of a sacrifice. Given the specific kinds of sacrifices described in Leviticus 1-7 it would be possible to understand gifts as referring to the peace offering and the cereal offerings and sacrifices as referring to the sin and trespass offerings. However, both the context here and the way Jews spoke of the sacrifices in the intertestamental period suggest that the author is simply making a general reference to the offerings that bring atonement.

The high priest must also be able to deal gently with the ignorant and the erring ones. It was important that the high priest not only carry out the performance of the rituals with precision and dignity; he must also have the inward sympathy and discernment to know how to deal with each individual according to that person's needs.

The word translated deal gently means to restrain, control and change one's own feelings. It referred to the golden mean between indifference and sickening sweetness. It spoke of tolerance that understands the range and reality of real human problems but is not indulgent of that which goes beyond the normal. A priest who was repulsed by rather typical human failings will not be able to help the person because of his own disgust for them.

The ability to deal sympathetically and yet redemptively was to be directed toward the ignorant and erring ones. This way of describing those needing the help of the priest appears to arise from Numbers 15:27-31. There an important distinction is made between those who sin unwittingly - by error and/or ignorance - and those who sin "with a high hand" - arrogantly and presumptuously acting against God. The atonement and the ministry of the high priest is for those who sin unwittingly.

The high priest is beset by weakness. The verb literally means that he is clothed in or surrounded by weakness. The human priest is also susceptible to sin so that he is obligated to offer sacrifices for himself as well as for his people. That intensity of identification with a sinful people means that no priest presumes to take this honor. Though the appointment to the priesthood is by human beings according to verse 1, the call or summons to the priestly role is from God. No one in his or her right mind seeks the privilege of building bridges from humankind to God. To represent people to God is arrogant enough. To represent God to the people is a task to great to seek. One must be called by God.

Christ's Qualifications for the High Priesthood - Hebrews 5:5-10

The author turns to describe the way Christ fulfills the qualifications of high priest. Just as every high priest humbly does not seek the office, so Christ humbly did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest but was appointed. The concept of glory was mentioned several times in Hebrews 2 and the author had stated in 3:3 that Jesus was "worthy of more glory than Moses." However, here Christ refuses to seek the glory of the priesthood for himself. The author then quotes Psalm 2:7, "You are my son, today I have begotten you." No further argument was thought necessary since the author had already quoted this verse in Hebrews 1:5.

To the modern and analytic reader the question of how Psalm 2:7 supports the argument of Jesus as a high priest will arise since Psalm 2:7 speaks of the Son rather than of a priest. The author of Hebrews immediately solved the problem by quoting Psalm 110:4 in verse 6. At first glance You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek seems to have little to do with Psalm 2:7. However, both emphasize the pronoun you and in Jewish patterns of Scripture interpretation two Scripture passages that shared a common word could be used to interpret each other. The major development of Psalm 110:4 will be deferred to chapter 7.

Not only did Jesus demonstrate the high priestly quality of humility he also demonstrated sympathy as verse 7 will state. He offered prayer and supplications with loud cries and tears. The word offered is the same verb that was used in Hebrews 5:1. However, the mention of prayer  and supplications implies a closer relationship with God than that characterized by "gifts and sacrifices." The sympathy that Hebrews 5:3 had described is reflected in loud cries and tears. Since the writer states that these loud cries and tears are directed to the one who was able to save him from death, there has been much speculation that this was referring to Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane.

The final phrase in verse 7 that he was heard because of his humble devotion would fit well with such a view. The author's main point is to show the ability of Jesus to sympathize with us. The possible reference to the prayer in the Garden should remind us there we see Jesus struggling in ways that enable him to relate to us. As Hebrews 4:15 had declared, "he was tested in every respect like we are."

The Gethsemane theme may be continued in verse 8, being a son he learned obedience through what he suffered. The phrase being a son represents a Greek construction that can be interpreted in more than one way. It can legitimately be translated, "although he was a son," and some believe it should be "although he was the Son." Their point is that Jesus' unique status as Son of God might have fairly exempted him from suffering and learning obedience. But even though he had that status he learned obedience like we do, painfully.

Others would argue that the phrase should be translated, "because he was a son, he learned obedience." In this view the point is the close identification between Jesus the trailblazer and those sons and daughters of God who follow in his footsteps. Support for this view may be found in Hebrews 12:5-11. Either way, the text states that Jesus was discipled (the literal meaning of learned) in obedience by what he suffered.

The real point is that the readers should not abandon their faith in Christ because of their suffering. After all, as their great high priest Jesus could sympathize with them because he had already suffered. With fairness he could ask them to remain faithful because he had also learned obedience in his sufferings. Verse 9 then describes that learning obedience through suffering as having perfected Jesus. He had become all that a priest could ever be by having learned obedience through suffering and thus he was qualified to become the source of eternal salvation for all those who obey him. Jesus will be the source of salvation only for those who obey. The constant theme of this book to trust Christ, to obey him by even risking one's life for him, comes through again.

The Third Exhortation - Hebrews 5:11-14

The author closes his discussion of Jesus' qualifications to be high priest by alluding to Melchizedek again in verse 10. It is clearly the author's intent to develop his argument regarding Melchizedek, but his fear for the fragile spiritual commitment of his readers causes him to turn aside for a more specific exhortation to them. He states that they have become sluggish in hearing. This is normally interpreted as slowness or dullness of understanding, but the Jewish mind held hearing and obeying in close relationship. It is not their intellect for which the author fears, but their obedience. Obedience leads to understanding. When we require understanding before obeying we limit the spiritual growth that is available to us.

The author states in verse 12 that his readers should have already grown to the maturity by which they could have been teachers instead of needing to be taught. He uses the metaphor of milk for simple teaching and meat or solid food for more advanced teaching. Paul had used the same figure of speech in 1 Corinthians 3:1-2. In the most severe words thus far the author directly charged his readers with spiritual infancy. They are unskilled in the matter of righteousness. What he wants is believers who are trained by obedience to distinguish good and evil. That is, he wants Christians who know how to make the tough choices between eternal salvation and temporary comfort, between painful obedience and the road of least resistance.

He describes people who are able to make such choices as mature. The Greek word is "perfect." Once again this word does not refer to an absolute perfection that would mean that they could never improve. Rather, it means that they were walking in all the light they had, they were obeying all that God was asking them to do. Biblical perfection is a life of obedience learned by walking in the footsteps of the Son who learned obedience through what he suffered and was thus perfected (verses 8-9). Biblical perfection is Christlikeness.

Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion

These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.

As you begin each day pray that the Lord would speak to you through his Holy Spirit as you open yourself to his word.

First Day: Read the notes on Hebrews 4:12-5:14. Look up the Scripture references that are given.

1. Identify one or two new thoughts that seemed important to you. Why were they important?

2. Select a truth for which you see a personal application in your own life. How does that truth apply to you?

3. Write a brief prayer asking God to teach you obedience and lead beyond milk to solid food.

Second Day: Read Hebrews 6:1-20. Now focus in on Hebrews 6:1-3.

1. What would you identify as the basic teachings about Christ? How would your list compare with the list in verses 1 and 2?

2. Some versions translate verse 1, "Let us go on to maturity," while others have, "let us go on to perfection," and others have "go on to completion." In the light of the context of Hebrews what do you think the author wants his readers to do?

3. Are there things in your life that hinder you or cause you to resist going on to maturity or perfection in your Christian life? What are they? Are they worth hanging on to? What can you do to move beyond them?

Third Day: Read Hebrews 6:1-20. Focus on Hebrews 6:4-8.

1. As you read verses 4-6 what is it that makes restoration to repentance impossible? In your mind what would be involved in crucifying Christ again?

2. What phrases does the author use to describe a Christian in these verses? Do you sense that those phrases describe your Christian life? What desires do these phrases awaken in you for your life with Christ?

3. How do verses 7 and 8 fit into the author's pattern of thought? Do they strengthen his point? How?

Fourth Day: Read Hebrews 6:1-20. Turn your focus to Hebrews 6:9-12.

1. Is the author pessimistic or optimistic for his readers? What makes you answer the way you do?

2. Verse 12 speaks of becoming imitators of people of faith and patience who inherited the promise. List some people whose Christian lives make you want to imitate them. What characteristics of these people do you want to imitate?

3. Verse 11 calls for diligence in the Christian life. Write a prayer asking God to help you find the energy and the will to diligent follow the pattern of Christ and those whom you would like to imitate.

Fifth Day: Read Hebrews 6:1-20. Focus in on Hebrews 6:13-18.

1. The author's reference to Abraham appears to be dependent on Genesis 22:16-18. What were the promises of God that He gave Abraham in those verses from Genesis?

2. Read Genesis 22:1-18. How does that story impact you when you think about the pressures in your life to not obey God totally? How would the story impact the readers of Hebrews?

3. Does the unchangeable nature of God offer you hope in the difficult circumstances of your life? Why?

Sixth Day: Read Hebrews 6:1-20. Focus in on Hebrews 6:17-20.

1. The focus verses emphasize hope. How would you describe the Christian hope? Does this context of Hebrews offer a special way of thinking about that hope?

2. The writer calls that hope the anchor of the soul, the aid against drifting (Hebrews 2:1). What are the anchors of your spiritual life? Do they hold you secure? How?

3. Verses 19 and 20 speak of entering the inner sanctuary. Write a brief prayer asking the Lord to help you follow the footsteps of Jesus and to anchor your soul in the very presence of God.

-Roger Hahn, Copyright © 2011, Roger Hahn and the Christian Resource Institute
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