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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.

Crowned with Thorns
The second main literary unit of the book of Hebrews consists of three paragraphs that highlight Christ’s solidarity with his church, his victory over the Devil, and his qualifications for the priesthood. Jesus was fully human like his people, “apart from sin” and, therefore, was well able to die on their behalf. Because he suffered as they now do, he 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 man. “Habitable earth” translates the noun oikoumené, a term that means the “habitable earth,” 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 verses refer to things that are being subjected “beneath your feet.” The passage from the Psalms expresses wonderment at God’s creation and the high place that God gave Adam or humanity over it.

Man was a “little lower than God,” having been made in His image and placed over the creation in order to “take dominion over it.” The original context of the Psalm must be borne in mind. The Hebrew text of Psalm 8:5 reads, “little lower than God.” The later translators of the Greek Septuagint version changed “God” to “angels.” The Author’s citation is from the Greek Septuagint.

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 that right through 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, “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 Psalm celebrates God’s “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, a plan that was 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.”  Mankind has not fulfilled that mission (“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 Jesus (“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. 

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. Christ’s exaltation 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. 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 Christ’s death means divine grace for mankind. 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).

Champion” or archégos refers to anyone who leads.  It may mean “leader,” “author,” “originator,” “captain,” “champion,” or “pioneer.” In this context, Jesus achieves victory over the Devil and “liberates” 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 that of achieving moral perfection but, rather, 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 suffering God “perfected” or qualified Jesus to become a high priest (verse 17). “Sufferings” has his death in view, as borne out by the declaration in verse 9 that 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 Christians are all of one nature, he freely calls them brethren. This stresses the solidarity of Jesus with human believers and anticipates later statements that 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 letter’s opening claim that Jesus has “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 the Devil’s tyranny. Jesus is “laying hold of” the “seed of Abraham.” Verse 17 alludes to Isaiah 41:8-9, which explains the use of this phrase:

(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 Christ’s incarnation 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, instead, followers of Jesus. This explains the use of “seed of Abraham.” The words are meant to comfort the Author’s audience.
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 that he be just like his brethren to qualify for this priestly ministry. This phrase anticipates two later sections of the letter that highlight Christ’s faithfulness and priestly character (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 is the direct object of hilaskesthai; what is “expiated” are the sins that separate men and women from God. The idea of appeasing or “propitiating” God’s wrath is not present in the context.

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

The high priest entered the Holy of Holies with sacrificial blood to apply it to the Sanctuary and altar in order to remove the stain of the nation’s sin.  Rather than appease God’s wrath, the blood removed the cause of the broken fellowship between God and His people.

This passage presents four key reasons why it was necessary for Jesus to be a full and genuine human being, and to participate in death (Hebrews 2:5-18): 
  1. To experience death on behalf of others.
  2. To bring God’s “many sons to glory.”
  3. To achieve victory over the Devil and liberate believers from the tyranny of death.
  4. 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 Christ’s priesthood and sacrifice in the later chapters of the letter to the Hebrews.

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