It seems that many assume the letter of Hebrews will help challenge their faith in deeper ways, and because of this I suspect many of us overlook some of the most basic indicators found in its pages. Hebrews, chapter 5, continues the truth of Jesus the Son of God as the great high priest from the tail-end of chapter 4, which establishes a launching point about the mysterious character, Melchizedek. Biblical scholars love to wow people with their deeper insights of Melchizedek. But do we realize that he was brought into the narrative — not as some deeper life discussion — but as a validation of the better priesthood of Jesus? What I’m saying is that up to this point, the letter is still establishing the basic reality that Jesus Christ is the one who was to come, and that his qualification and position as high priest was unlike any that came before him.
You see, the writer is not talking about deeper life here … he’s talking about the basic premise and establishment of Jesus Christ as the one who had been promised. This very premise was, for many of the professing Hebrews, still hanging in the balances. For our listeners who come running to Hebrews to find out what might be missing from their Christian life, let me say this: It’s not about you and your qualifications, it’s about Jesus Christ and his qualifications.
Never forget how the whole tragic history of Israel had come down upon the heads of the generation to whom this letter was addressed. This is the same generation that wavered back and forth concerning whether Jesus was the Christ from the beginning of his ministry to Israel. The people of this generation saw a great light, and many of them were willing to bask in it — for a while. This generation knew about John the baptizer, and they were very familiar with the works of Jesus, his healing of multitudes, his feeding of thousands from scraps, his raising of Lazarus and others from the dead … and then his own death on the cross and resurrection. Many of them had personally experienced these things. I propose that everybody at that time knew somebody who had personally witnessed these things. Consider a few accounts.
When the Jewish leaders had Paul brought before King Agrippa and the new Roman governor of Judea, Paul spoke for himself. He basically presented a short summary of his life’s story. By the time he got to the part about how God spoke to him in a heavenly vision with the mission of declaring the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Festus couldn’t contain his skepticism:
While Paul was saying this in his defense, Festus *said in a loud voice, “Paul, you are out of your mind! Your great learning is driving you mad.” But Paul *said, “I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I utter words of sober truth. For the king knows about these matters, and I speak to him also with confidence, since I am persuaded that none of these things escape his notice; for this has not been done in a corner.” Acts 26:24-26
I find it significant that Festus didn’t come into his position until maybe 30 years after Christ’s death and resurrection. I mean, 3 decades and it was still fresh enough for Paul to have brought it up without any challenge of its authenticity. I realize that skeptics have created a lot of doubt over the years regarding the events that took place at that time, but should we be at all surprised by it? The testimony of Christ’s death and resurrection was so well known that Paul could also present it to the Jews and Greeks who lived in Corinth as a matter-of-fact event that could be verified by a host of witnesses:
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also. 1 Corinthians 15:3-8
Now, if you will indulge me, I’m going to give you a quick review of how the death of Jesus went down because it would have never been far from their memory. I have no doubt that some of those who first heard the letter of Hebrews read were among the group who condemned him after they had so eagerly proclaimed him as king just the week before. Should it ever come as a surprise that it all started with the religious leaders?
Now when morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people conferred together against Jesus to put Him to death; and they bound Him, and led Him away and delivered Him to Pilate the governor. Matthew 27:1-2
But notice how the people were quick to jump right in with their verdict of death.
When Pilate saw that he was accomplishing nothing, but rather that a riot was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this Man’s blood; see to that yourselves.” And all the people said, “His blood shall be on us and on our children!” Matthew 27:24-25
But did the religious leaders continue to own up to their deed? No way. Instead, they pretended ignorance with their indignant accusations toward the apostles:
When they had brought them, they stood them before the Council. The high priest questioned them, saying, “We gave you strict orders not to continue teaching in this name, and yet, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” Acts 5:27-28
I bring all this into the picture to remind our listeners of the mental state of Jews living in or around Israel at that time. The question of Jesus as Messiah, especially among those who at least outwardly professed faith in his name, was not some distant consideration, its testimony hung before them every single day. Some had fully embraced him, others found ways to justify their rejection while appearing to have accepted him — and the whole matter of sacrifices and high priests created an easy facade to hide behind.
As I suggested earlier, let’s keep in mind the basic nature of the approach made by the writer of Hebrews regarding the priesthood of Jesus the Son of God. Please realize right up front that this priesthood has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with our modern-day versions. You see, once Jesus the Son of God offered himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the people, the need for those previous, ineffective sacrifices — the kind that pointed to the coming once-for-all sacrifice of Christ — the need simply vanished. Using the same analogy as found in Galatians 3 where Paul likened the Law to a tutor or nanny, imagine the former priesthood in terms of a childhood nanny who keeps coming back to teach you the ABCs or to wipe your runny nose or to help you put on your clothes or help you go potty. Do you get the picture?
Now, I know many Christians today still labor under the delusion that they haven’t gotten past the elemental need for continued sin-sacrifices, along with laws and principles to keep them in line. And for those of you who are listening right now, this exact matter is the whole point of the Hebrews letter. For those among the Hebrews who belonged to Christ had been duped by the prevailing lie that nothing of substantial value regarding sin had actually taken place through Jesus’ sacrifice. Oh, no doubt as a community they all sang songs, preached messages, and offered prayers about his gracious sacrifice, but as long as the saints saw themselves as still needing those daily sacrifices for sins, they were giving into the lie of those who “trampled under foot the Son of God, and … regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant.” The whole force of the Hebrews message was to stir the saints to remove themselves from the false premise of those who gathered around an earthly form of Jesus. Instead, the writer ends up prompting them to “go out to Him outside the camp, bearing his reproach.”
Jesus as high priest according to the order of Melchizedek
Do we really understand what it meant when Jesus became “the great high priest who has passed through the heavens?” He wasn’t just added to the roster of high priests who came before him, as if he was one among many. Rather he came as the fulfillment of that which had been hinted at down through the centuries. The high priests who came before Jesus Christ were merely shadow realities of that which he brought about. In other words, they were previews of what was to come, which is true offering that would bring about the full forgiveness of sins.
ADAM? ANYTHING ABOUT REAL FORGIVENESS OF SINS THAT YOU’D LIKE TO BRING UP?
Jesus as high priest must be understood in terms of both similarity and dissimilarity.
How were they alike?
Could sympathize with our weaknesses
Tempted in all things just as we are
Offered sacrifices to God
Can deal gently with the ignorant and misguided
Does not take the honor of the priesthood to himself, but must be called by God
How were they different?
Christ was without sin
He offered himself as a sacrifice
He passed through the heavens into the very presence of God
His sacrifice ended all sacrifice for sins
His priesthood was perpetual.
And this is why the writer brought up the order of Melchizedek in the first place. I want you to realize something here: there is a direct relationship found in what the writer want to tell these Hebrews about Melchizedek’s priesthood that extends from this point onward. And no, it’s not just a side issue thrown in for Biblical scholars to discuss amongst themselves. The fact that it’s often considered as fodder for theological debate underlines our misunderstanding of the whole letter. It has everything to do with upcoming statements about being dull of hearing and pressing on to maturity and the falling away. That means that you can’t understand anything that comes after this without recognizing the premise of Melchizedek’s priesthood — and I don’t mean in some huffy-puffy, I’m-a-theological-scholar kind of way. I’m telling you right now that under grace, we have been given to understand this truth without even having to mention the name Melchizedek. We have no reason to be intimidated by those who think they have some higher understanding over us.
You see, the priesthood of Israel came through Aaron, Moses’ brother-in-law, and it passed down through the lineage of Levi. Do we see the distinction he made between the priesthood that existed up to the time of Christ? The priests taken from among men had to first offer up sacrifice for their own sins first.
In the days of His flesh, He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His piety. Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered. And having been made perfect, He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation, being designated by God as a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek. Hebrews 5:7-10
Why, oh why, did they become dull of hearing … and how does that connect with obedience? NEXT WEEK: OBEDIENCE