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10 September 2019

Humanity and Priesthood of Jesus

SYNOPSIS - The priesthood of Jesus is valid and trustworthy because he was a genuine human being who partook of the same death as all men - Hebrews 2:5-18

Cross Photo by Hugo Fergusson on Unsplash
Hugo Fergusson on Unsplash
The second literary unit of the book of Hebrews is comprised of three paragraphs that highlight the solidarity of the Son with his church, his victory over the Devil, and his qualifications for the priesthood. Jesus was a complete human being, just like his people, only “apart from sin.” Therefore, he was well suited to die on their behalf. Because he suffered for them, he also is fully qualified to intercede for them as their high priest (Hebrews 2:5-18).

The subject changes from his superiority over the angels to his solidarity with humanity.  It was not to angels that God subjected the “coming habitable earth,” but to man. “Habitable earth” translates the Greek noun oikoumené, a term that means the “inhabited” or “habitable earth” in Greco-Roman usage, the civilized world in distinction from its more barbaric regions.
  • (Hebrews 2:5-9) – “For not unto messengers hath he subjected the coming habitable earth of which we are speaking; But one somewhere hath borne witness, saying—What is man, that thou shouldst make mention of him? Or the son of man, that thou shouldst put him in charge? Thou hast made him less, some little, than messengers, With glory and honour hast thou crowned him — [And hast set him over the works of thy hands]; All things hast thou subjected beneath his feet. For in subjecting [to him] the all things, nothing left he to him unsubjected; But now, not yet, do we see to him the all things subjected. But Jesus, made some little less than messengers, we do behold: by reason of the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honour, to the end that, by favour of God, in behalf of every one, he might taste of death” – (The Emphasized Bible).
The author introduces his argument by citing Psalm 8:3-6. In the previous section, he quoted Psalm 110:1 - Both Old Testament passages refer to things that are being subjected “beneath your feet.” The one from the eighth Psalm expresses wonderment at God’s creation and the high place that He gave humanity over it.

Man was a “little lower than God,” having been made in His image and placed over the creation to “take dominion over it.” The original context of the Psalm must be borne in mind. The Hebrew text reads - “Little lower than God.” The later translators of the Greek Septuagint version changed “God” to “angels.” The citation in Hebrews is from the Greek Septuagint version.

By repeating the word oikoumené used previously in Hebrews 1:6 (“the coming habitable earth”), the author changes the perspective of the passage from the original creation to the coming New Creation.  God intended man to take dominion, but Adam forfeited his right to do so through his disobedience, therefore we “do not yet see all things subjected to him,” that is, to humanity in general.

Made him some little less than angels.” This clause translates a verb that means, “to make less; to lower.” The idea is that man became less or lower in status than angels. “Him” is singular but used collectively here for all humanity. It is the direct object of the verb “lessen.”  There is no sense of “make” or “create” in the Greek verb; rather, the idea is to “decrease; to lessen.”

The eighth Psalm celebrates the “crowning of man with glory and honor.” The inference is either that Adam was originally crowned with glory but lost it, or that God intended man to become endued with glory, but a plan derailed by Adam’s sin. The original Psalm was not about the Messiah but the intended rule of humanity over the creation. The rest of the argument hinges on this understanding.

The role of man in the “coming habitable earth” is to fulfill God’s original mandate for man to “take dominion over the earth.” So far, humanity has failed to fulfill that task (“But now, not yet do we see all things subjected to him”). The “not yet” indicates not only that humanity must fulfill this role, but that the promised subjection will be achieved by the man appointed by Yahweh (“Whom God has appointed heir of everything”).

For now, Christians see Jesus who has been exalted to God’s right hand and made “heir of all things.” Just as Adam, Jesus was “made a little lower than angels”; unlike Adam, he has “been crowned with glory and honor,” above all, because he endured “the suffering of death” on behalf of his people.

His Crucifixion
His Crucifixion
The passage does NOT equate Christ’s “
suffering” and “death” with humiliation. Instead, his death on behalf of humanity was “fitting,” the very reason that he was “crowned with glory.” His suffering “completed” or “perfected” him. The exaltation of the Son came because of his faithfulness in death. No mention is made of his glory prior to his suffering and death, whatever they may have been.

The book of Hebrews portrays Christ’s superiority as something he achieved through his human life, suffering, and his shameful death. He became superior to the angels, having gone beyond them to inherit a more distinguished name. God exalted him because of his faithful obedience, (“you loved righteousness and hated lawlessness, for this cause has God anointed you with the oil of exultation beyond your partners”).

The next paragraph presents the reason why his death means divine grace for humanity. Having purposed to bring His children into glory, it became “fitting” to “complete” their champion through suffering. It was “fitting” to make Jesus “complete through suffering” because he and men are “all from one.”
  • (Hebrews 2:10-13) – “For it was becoming in him — For the sake of whom are the all things, and by means of whom are the all things, — when many sons unto glory he would lead, The Princely Leader of their salvation, through sufferings, to make perfect. For both he that maketh holy, and they who are being made holy, are all of One; For which cause, he is not ashamed to be calling them brethren,  saying — I will declare thy name unto my brethren, in the midst of an assembly, will I sing praise unto thee; and again — I will be confident upon him; and again — Lo! I and the children which unto me God, hath given” – (The Emphasized Bible).
"Princely leaderor archégos refers to anyone who leads.  It may mean “leader,” “author,” “originator,” “captain,” “champion,” or “pioneer.” In this context, Jesus achieved victory over the Devil and “liberated” his brethren from the dominion of death, making “champion” the more probable sense.

The Greek verb rendered “perfected” means, “to complete, accomplish, finish; to bring to an end, perfect, fulfill.” The idea is not to achieve moral perfection but to bring something to a state of completion. This sense is confirmed by the application of the same verb to Jesus in Hebrews 5:9 (“And being completed, he became the author of everlasting salvation for all them who obey him”).
Through the suffering of the Son, God “perfected” or qualified him to become a high priest (verse 17). “Sufferings” has his death in view, as borne out by the declaration in verse 9 - God determined that Jesus “should taste of death for every man.”
Jesus is the one who “sanctifies” believers (“They that are being sanctified”). Because he and the saints are of the same human nature, he freely calls them "brethren." This stresses his solidarity with human believers and anticipates the later statements about how believers are sanctified “through the offering of the body of Jesus” - (Hebrews 10:10).

Three citations from the Old Testament are placed on the lips of Jesus to stress his kinship with believers:
  1. (2 Samuel 22:3) – “My God, was my rock, I sought refuge in him, — My shield and my horn of salvation, my high tower, and my refuge, My Saviour! from violence thou didst save me.
  2. (Psalm 22:22) – “I will declare thy Name unto my brethren, — In the midst of the convocation, will I praise thee.
  3. (Isaiah 8:17-18) – “I will therefore long for Yahweh, Who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob, — And will wait, for him. Lo! I and the children whom Yahweh hath given me, are for signs and for wonders in Israel, — from Yahweh of hosts, who is making his habitation in Mount Zion.”
The third paragraph presents Jesus as the faithful high priest. The ground for this was laid in the opening claim of the letter - Jesus “achieved purification of sin.” To fulfill this role, he participated fully in the nature and suffering of humanity. The phrase “flesh and blood” is a Semitic idiom for human mortality. Since believers are mortal, Jesus “partook” of the same fate to identify completely with humanity.
  • (Hebrews 2:14-18) – “Seeing, therefore, the children have received a fellowship of blood and flesh, he also, in like manner, took partnership in the same, — in order that, through death, — he might paralyse him that held the dominion of death, that is, the Adversary, — And might release these — as many as, by fear of death, were all their lifetime liable to bondage. For not surely of messengers is he laying hold, but of Abraham’s seed he is laying hold. Whence he was obliged in every way, unto the brethren, to be made like, that he might become a merciful and faithful high-priest in the things pertaining unto God, — for the making of propitiation for the sins of the people. For, in that he suffered when tested, he is able unto them who are being tested, to give succor” – (The Emphasized Bible).
The Devil had the “dominion” of death or kratos, a strong Greek word that denotes “hold, power, force, dominion.” The English term “tyranny” captures the sense. Paradoxically, through his own death, Jesus invalidated this "tyranny." And he is “laying hold of the seed of Abraham.” Verse 17 alludes to Isaiah 41:8-9, which explains the use of this phrase in Hebrews:
  • (Isaiah 41:8-9) – “But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, the seed of Abraham my friend, you whom I have laid hold of from the ends of the earth, and called from the corners thereof, and said unto you, You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast thee away.”
This does not refer to the "incarnation" of Jesus but to his ongoing effort to “lay hold of” his brethren as their priestly mediator (Verse 18). Because he endured the same temptations, he is well equipped to help them when they are “tempted”. Under discussion is not humanity in general, but followers of Jesus in particular. This explains the use of the “seed of Abraham.” The words are meant to comfort the Author’s audience (Elsewhere, the New Testament teaches that believers in Jesus constitute the true seed of Abraham).
Jesus was obliged to be made like his brethren “in every way.” For him to become “a merciful and faithful high priest,” it was necessary for him to be just like his brethren and, in this way, to qualify for the priestly ministry he now holds. This phrase anticipates two later sections of the letter that highlight the faithfulness and priestly character of Jesus (Hebrews 4:15-5:10).
Solidarity with humanity is mandatory for the office of the high priest - He represents men before God by mediating and offering “gifts” on their behalf. To do this faithfully, he must be one with them. Under the Levitical system, faithfulness was vital to the proper performance of one’s priestly service (1 Samuel 2:35, Hebrews 8:3).

As a high priest, Jesus expiates the sins of his people (hilaskesthai). “Sins” is in the accusative case and the direct object of hilaskesthai - What is “expiated” is the sin that separates men and women from God. The idea of appeasing or “propitiating” God’s wrath is not present in the context.

The high priest of the Levitical system presided over the sacrifices offered on the Day of Atonement to expiate the sins of Israel and cleanse the sanctuary from ritual impurity. The death of a sacrificial animal was only a first step in the process - (Leviticus16:16-19, 30-33).

The high priest entered the Holy of Holies with sacrificial blood and applied it to the Sanctuary and altar to remove the stain of the sins of Israel.  Rather than appease Divine wrath, the blood removed the cause of the broken fellowship between God and His people.

The second chapter of Hebrews presents four key reasons why it was necessary for Jesus to be a full and a genuine human being, and to suffer and die - (Hebrews 2:5-18):
  • To experience death on behalf of others.
  • To bring God’s “many sons to glory.”
  • To achieve victory over the Devil and liberate believers from the tyranny of death.
  • To qualify him to be a faithful and compassionate high priest.
The presentation of Jesus as a high priest prepares the audience for the full exposition of his priesthood and sacrifice in the later chapters of the letter to the Hebrews.

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