The atoning high priest (Hebrews 2:17-18)

Hebrews’ meditation on Jesus continues, hovering around the idea that Jesus helps. We can miss how breath-taking this idea is, because we have grown to assume it; we might even take it for granted. But divine interest, concern, engagement? This is not a common notion in Greek mythology, or baal worship. Commonly, gods are fickle, demanding.

To consider Jesus as one who helps is to touch on the heart of God–what Michael Gorman speaks about as the cruciform nature of God. Service, blessing, grace–this cluster of activity and attitude characterizes God, and sends God toward humanity–which is what this writer is stressing. Jesus came, took on flesh; Jesus helps.

Made in human form (2:17), Jesus was then able to become a merciful and faithful high priest. That function is one we know a bit about from OT data; Hebrews will start there in explaining Jesus, but then go on to amplify what it means to be high priest. Notice, for instance, that Jesus is high priest in service to God–there is never any doubt as to whose plan Jesus follows.

The writer next inserts and, stringing together with Jesus’ function as high priest something else Jesus does: He makes atonement for the sins of the people. As if pondering Jesus’ priestly nature weren’t enough to keep a reader occupied–now we’re faced with the atonement He effects.

Atonement is a hot topic these days, and not easily unpacked in the context of a blog post  (I wrote a bit more about this for the book on glory)–but strangely enough, it is not a matter of great interest here in Hebrews. That is not, of course, to say that the writer downplays atonement, but rather to observe that of the topics he choses to address in this section, atonement is not one he goes after specifically. Indeed, for the next few chapters, it is Jesus’ function as high priest that keeps coming to the fore.

We might key in on the priest’s responsibility to bring sacrifice–and that is certainly a direction this writer will head. But this particular section closes with another mention of suffering and solidarity: He is able to help those who are being tempted because He went through the same ordeal.

There is more going on here than a reminder of why Jesus can be empathetic, or even that He is. Recollection of Jesus’ suffering when He was tempted also takes us back to examine how He got through it. It is another nod to Spirit, who strengthened Jesus when He faced ordeals–the very Spirit who is also available to followers of Jesus when they encounter similar difficulties. Jesus helps, then, by nudging us to depend on Spirit as He did.

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