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- Verses 5:1-5. These verses offer a commentary on the office of a high priest. The author is setting up a contrast between the earthly high priest of the temple and Christ as a cosmic high priest. He starts by talking about the high priest strictly in terms of his liturgical function. He is ordained to perform particular ordinances: gifts and sacrifices for sins. The sacrifice for sins is particularly important. It references the high priest’s role in the expiation of the sins of the nation. In this role, the high priest is a mediator between man and God, a role that the author also places Christ in.
- Verse 5:2.' The author now moves away from the formal understanding of the high priest’s role to a more humane understanding. It is the priest’s weakness – “compassed with infirmity” – that gives him compassion on the sinfulness of the people. Notice that this creates another parallel with Christ, who is referred to in Heb 4:15 as “touched with the feelings of our infirmities” and “tempted like we are”.
- Verse 5:3.
This verse sets up a contrast between Christ and the high priest. Whereas the mortal high priest makes an offering for his sins and the sins of the people, Christ is without sin. In a sense, we see Christ as a purification of the high priest, carrying his understanding and compassion for weakness and sinfulness but not his sinfulness itself.
"And by reason hereof . . .": That is, by reason of the high priest's infirmity (v. 2).
". . . he ought, as for the people, so also for himself, to offer for sins.": The high priest should make an offering for his own sins (cf. Lev 16:6 and Lev 16:11) as well as for the sins of the people (cf. Lev 16:15).
- Verses 5:4-5. This is a favorite Mormon proof text for the necessity of priesthood ordination. In context, what is interesting is the extent to which the author sees being called from something beyond oneself as important. The virtue of the high priest lies not only in his compassion and sacrifice, but also in his passivity: he does not reach for the office; it is bestowed upon him. In the very next verse this idea is expanded upon with reference to Christ who “glorified not himself to be made an high priest” (v. 5). The Revised Standard Version translates this language from verse 5 as “he did not confer on himself the glory of becoming high priest.” The meaning is subtly different, as it suggests not an absence of glory in being high priest – it is indeed a glory – but rather that it was not taken up for its own sake.
The virtue of passivity—of receiving the glory of the high priesthood rather than taking it—that is emphasized in these verses contrasts with the exhortation in Heb 4:16, "Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.” The tension cannot be avoided by arguing that the grace spoken of is wholly different than the glory of the high priesthood. The reason is that coming to the throne of grace is about entering the presence of God to receive mercy. Yet this is precisely the office of the high priesthood alluded to in verse 1. The sin offering was brought by the high priest into the presence of God—the Holy of Holies—on the Day of Atonement. In a sense, the exhortation of 4:16 is an exhortation to perform a priestly function.
One possible answer is that salvation through Christ is ultimately being conceptualized as a kind of temple-related priesthood. Or rather, the temple and priesthood are being offered as a model—and enactment—of salvation through Christ. At this point the exegesis admittedly becomes quite speculative (perhaps a strong misreading in Harold Bloom's terms), but the exortation in 4:16 may be an invitation for the believers themselves to become priests, entering in the the Holy of Holies of the temple, a place from which they were categorically excluded under the law of Moses. In other words, the assertiveness called for in 4:16 is a new understanding of temple worship, from the passivity of the old service, where a single priest was chosen to enter symbolically into God's presence, with the rest of the nation passively looking on, to a new service were all believers are invited to put aside the awe and horror associated with entry into God's presence, and couragously go beyond the veil into the Holy of Holies. At this point, there is a uniquely LDS twist on the interpretation of Hebrews. Traditionally, Christians have interpreated the references to the "Melchisedec" priesthood of Christ in spiritual, metaphorical, and cosmic terms. The Restoration, however, suggests a much more literal reading, namely that the priesthood is actually confered on individuals who then use it to recieve their temple endowments and enter -- symbolically, like the Levitical high priest -- the presence of God. In other words, we are invited to boldly go where in the past only the one chosen high priest of Israel could go: ritually into the presence of God.
Another possibility is that boldly (parrhesia) in "come boldly unto the throne of God" is not mean to suggest an assertiveness in approaching God that stands in contrast to the passivity recommended in these verses. Instead boldly in 4:16 may be better understood to mean openly, frankly, i.e., without concealment. In that view, instead of interpreting 4:16 as a suggestion, for example, that we should boldly march to the temple, 4:16 counsels us to open ourselves to God as we approach his throne. This intepretation makes 4:16 a natural continuation of the ideas about God discerning thoughts and intents in 4:12 and having "all things . . . naked and opened" unto him in 4:13.
On this view, there is not so much a tension between passivity and assertiveness, rather the passivity in being called of God is one facet of a broader submission to and unity with God that we should strive for by also "hold[ing] fast our profession" of God (4:14), relating to God's infirmities (4:15), opening ourselves to God (4:16), offering prayers to God (5:7), and learning and suffering like God (5:8).
- Verses 5:6, 10: Melchisedec. This was quite likely a title rather than a proper name. It means "King of Righteousness."
- Verse 5:6. Verse 6 quotes from Psalm 110, which reads in its entirety:
The LORD says to my lord: Sit at my right hand, till I make your enemies your footstool. The LORD sent forth from Zion your mighty scepter Rule in the midst of your foes!
Your people will offer themselves freely on the day you lead your host upon the holy mountains. From the womb of the morning like dew your youth will come to you. The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind, You are a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.
The Lord is at your right hand; he will chasten kings on the day of his wrath. He will execute judgment among the nations, filling them with corpses; He will shatter chiefs over the wide earth. He will drink from the brook by the way; therefore he will lift up his head. (RSV)
This is a royal psalm, most likely composed for a coronation. In applying it to Christ, the author does a number of things. First, he identifies Christ's priesthood as different than the priesthood of the mortal high priest. It is Melchizedek rather than Aaronic. Second, Christ is identified with the priest-king, who combines both religious and political authority. In contrast, the high priest of vv. 1-4 is not a king. Third, the meaning of Jesus's title as Christ, i.e. "the annointed one," is explained by the reference to this psalm, for at his coronation a king (like a high priest at his ordination) was annointed with oil.
The introduction of a Melchisedec priesthood also hits on a theme that will show up later in the discussion of the temple, namely the notion that the temple on earth is a model of the temple in the heavens. In a sense, Christ becomes the heavenly model of the earthly high priest. Some have suggested that the presistence of this imagery betrays a latent Platonism in Hebrews, with the heavenly being real, and the earthly being but a shadow. It is not clear, however, that the author is ascribing some sort of lesser reality to either the earthly high priest or the earthly temple. Interestingly, the Restoration scriptures do not read the dualism between Aaronic priesthood and "Melchisedec" priesthood in ontological terms but rather in legal terms. It is not that one priesthood is real and the other is a copy, but rather that one priesthood carries greater authority, subsuming the powers of the lesser priesthood in its own greater powers. The powers of the lower priesthood, however, are nevertheless very real.
- Verse 5:7: In that he feared. This phrase is translated "because of his piety" in the NASV and "for his godly fear" in the RSV (cf. footnote d).
- Verses 5:7-8. Here we have what looks like a reference to Chirst's prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. Notice that this again emphasizes Christ's personal suffering, what in philosophical terms might be called his passability. Notice, that we get a reference not to sweat that came like drops of blood, but to tears. The image of the weeping God also occurs in Moses, when God shows Enoch the wickedness of the world and weeps in sorrow (Moses 7:28). This notion of Christ's empathy through suffering seems to be a central part of how the author understands the Atonement, coupling it with his interpretation of Christ as a sin offering and mediating high priest. We thus have a soteriology that contains both empathic and substitutionary ideas.
- Verse 5:9. The reference here to "eternal salvation" is important. In a sense, the Levitical high priest was also the author of the salvation of the nation each year when he took the sin offering into the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur. This salvation, however, was limited. It lasted only the year and had to be repeated annually to maintain the reconcilliation between Israel and God. As high priest Christ also makes a sin offering—of his own blood and sacrifice—but the salvation obtained is eternal rather than annual.
Points to ponder
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- Verse 5:2: "Have compassion on." The Greek term translated “have compassion on” is “metriopathein.” It does not appear anywhere else in the New Testament. It does pop up, however, as a technical term in Stoic philosophy where it is defined as the proper mean between passion and lack of feeling.
- Verses 5:6, 10. Why is is the reference to a priest "after the order of Melchisedec" repeated in v. 6 and v. 10?
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- Verse 7: Passibility. See Exploring Mormon Thought: The Attributes of God by Blake Ostler, chapter 2 (B6 and C8) for more on passibility in Mormon theology.
- Does God Suffer? by Thomas G. Weinandy Copyright (c) 2001 First Things 117 (November 2001): 35-41. This article argues, from a general Christian perspective, why God should be viewed as impassible. Gives a good overview of the main issues and trends regarding this issue over the years.
Footnotes are not required but are encouraged for factual assertions that average readers cannot easily evaluate for themselves, such as the date of King Solomon’s death or the nuanced definition of a Greek word. In contrast, insights rarely benefit from footnoting, and the focus of this page should always remain on the scriptures themselves rather than what someone has said about them. Links are actively encouraged on all sections of this page, and links to authoritative sources are preferable to footnotes.