Understanding Jesus as high priest is important for Hebrews’ writer. While that may tell us something about his original audience (some scholars look at the priests in/near Jerusalem who, according to Acts 6:7, became obedient to the faith as among the likely recipients of this letter), it certainly indicates an on-going interest and fascination with Jesus’ connection to the priesthood. In this section, we are reminded of three criteria for serving in this way.
First, the high priest (where ‘high’ distinguishes among the rest of the group) is selected from among men. No small matter this, when it comes to speaking of Jesus, since the humanity of Jesus was questioned early and often. So our writer includes this requirement, with the distinct implication that Jesus met it. Indeed, it is exactly this humanity that will give rise to important questions about how Jesus functioned while on earth–as we’ll see at 5:8.
Second, the high priest is appointed. That is, the priest does not act on his own accord, or out of a personal desire or whim. He must be recognized and placed by another. Typically, appointment for priests leaned on Aaron’s placement into this role by Moses, acting on God’s behalf; subsequent members of Aaron’s family appealed to this historical event. In Jesus’ case, the appointment comes from God–as happened with Aaron–but many generations later. So while priests who followed Aaron did not expect a direct divine appointment, when it came to Jesus, God spoke specifically and in the moment. This affirmed Jesus as God’s selection; it also indicated that even one outside the Aaronic line could so serve. Hebrews’ author will supply the precedent by saying that Jesus’ priesthood follows the order of Melchizedek.
Third, the high priest is able to deal gently with those he represents. This quality is further expanded by saying the high priest is subject to weakness, and will himself offer sacrifices. Of these, the latter readily applies to Jesus–but the former: in what sense is it meaningful to speak of Jesus’ weakness?
The first of the three criteria receives no further attention here by the writer: that point has already been made (see 2:11, 14, 17, etc.). The second is affirmed by quoting relevant OT passages, which our writer then applies to Jesus. And the third? That becomes a matter of attention in 5:7-8.
We know of some occasions when Jesus offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries, because of accounts in the Gospels. One cannot help but speculate, however, that this writer was aware of other examples. The description is reminiscent of Psalmists who often cried out; like them, such cries by Jesus were not simply thrown into the wind, but specifically aimed at God. A sign of weakness? In this writer’s eyes, yes–but weakness is not a problem, not even a sin, so much as a condition: humans are, by definition, weak. Or, to put it differently, humanity has implicit needs. Chief among them? The need for reliance upon God-which starts with an awareness of one’s lack, and continues by making space for God’s presence. There is, then, an inherent weakness, but one which can be remedied by turning to and being filled by God.
Jesus does this.
He was heard because of his reverent submission; he learned obedience. With such phrases, this writer wants us to consider that Jesus was not a god pretending to walk around as a man, or a mystic with delusional aspirations, but One who willingly–even gladly–embraced fully the human condition. The only exception? He was without sin (Hebrews 4:15); otherwise, Jesus understood and experienced humanity fully.
He submitted–that is, Jesus bent His will to the Father’s; He chose to let another lead. He learned–because prior to the incarnation, Jesus had not had these experiences, and as a man, He subjected Himself to going through what people faced. But, some will ask, was He not omniscient–that is, did Jesus not always know everything? We’re in deep water here, where scholars and people of good hearts have long explored the nature of Jesus. So suffice to say (and here I am making several leaps) that to take this text at face value means we will have to reckon in some meaningful way with Jesus’ education as a man, which itself suggests that there were things He did not yet know.
In a commentary on Hebrews, the estimable F. F. Bruce reminds us that Jesus “was granted no exemption from the common law that learning comes by suffering.” In so doing, Bruce links Jesus’ education with His general experience on a dark planet and His specific ordeal at the cross. Such difficulties as He encountered led to Jesus being made perfect, another phrase that can keep us up nights.
We shudder at the thought that Jesus might not have been perfect, that is, without any hint of moral failure. And such rectitude is exactly what Hebrews’ writer will affirm in several places. But the ‘perfection’ in view here is of a different sort: it has to do more with completeness. We’re hearing in what otherwise sounds like a puzzling passage that Jesus needed to go through some things–the cross, to be sure, but more broadly the fullness of a human experience that only incarnation could provide–in order to become the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.
Writing like this ushers us into God’s deep purposes, where we do not understand all that is going on as fully as we might like–but where we can still respond in awe, worship, obedience, and love. Further, as we hear of Jesus’ obedience (see Philippians 2:8), we can also be encouraged regarding our own situation: whatever Jesus drew on for such ability (and I’ve mentioned Spirit as the likely source of His power) is also available to us. Indeed, that is one of this writer’s key points: He became like us so that we might become like Him.