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Bible Commentaries

Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament

Hebrews 5

 

 

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Introduction

Verse 1

Hebrews 5:1. For resumes the subject of discussion (see Hebrews 4:15), and gives a reason why Christ should possess the qualities here described (Hebrews 5:5).

Every priest. The reasoning is suggested by the case of the Aaronic priesthood, and refers in detail to that; but the words are applicable to all priesthoods (i.e to all who act for others in things pertaining to God).

Taken as he is from among men affirms part of the quality of a priest, and is so regarded by most commentators: others render the expression, as apparently does the English Version, ‘when taken’ (i.e. every merely human priest); and suppose that there is a contrast between human priests and the Son of God. But the former is the juster view, for the writer goes on to claim for Christ also the same human qualities in a higher degree (Hebrews 5:7, etc.).

Is ordained; properly, ‘is appointed;’ ‘ordained even as Aaron was [ordained],’ misleads. Ordination in any technical sense is not here, but Divine appointment simply.

For men, i.e on behalf of, not in the stead of. This last is indeed a possible meaning of the preposition in certain combinations (He was made a curse for us, etc.), but is not in the word itself, nor is it appropriate here.

In things pertaining to God; literally, ‘things Godward,’ our interests and business in relation to Him.

Both gifts and sacrifices for sins are naturally the offerings or gifts of the law other than sin offerings and the sacrifices; ‘for sins’ belonging to the last only (see the same combination in Hebrews 8:3 and Hebrews 9:9), and not, as Alford supposes, to both. It is true, however, that the ‘sacrifices’ were also gifts, the victim being the property of the offerer, and sometimes only gifts, and not properly sacrifices (for sin); while the gift was sometimes of the nature of a sacrifice. Both the ideas are blended in the work of our Lord, ‘who gave Himself for us.’ On the other hand, we are said, without any reference to sin-offering, to present our bodies living sacrifices (Romans 12:1). The fact is that the old Homeric meaning of the word to sacrifice ( θύω) was to burn wine, etc., in the fire to the gods; its secondary meaning, to slay in sacrifice. From that one root came a double set of derivatives—incense, to burn incense, altar of incense (Thyine wood, Thus, etc.); and to sacrifice, to offer sacrifice, altar of sacrifice, etc.; and hence sacrifice is often and naturally used in the New Testament in the figurative sense, especially in St. Paul (Ephesians 5:2; Philippians 4:18).—To offer is the technical word common in this Epistle, but Alford says it is never found in St. Paul. The noun, however, is found (Romans 15:16; Ephesians 5:2), though appropriately with another verb ‘present,’ ‘give,’ either because the sense is figurative (see above), and the ordinary verb would be too sacrificial, or because in the last passage he wants to call attention to the fact that Christ is offerer as well as victim.


Verse 2

Hebrews 5:2. Who; rather, being one able to have compassion; literally, to be reasonably compassionate towards—a word found in the New Testament only here. The Stoic prided himself on being apathetic in relation to sin and misery, as he held the gods were. A sympathetic or emotional nature rejoices with those that rejoice, and weeps with those that weep. The true position of a priest in relation to those who are not only suffering, but are also guilty, is between the two. His is a blended feeling of sorrow and blame. Were there no sorrow, there would be no fitness for the office manward; were there no blame, there would be no holiness, and so no fitness for the office Godward. As standing between man and God, he feels (we may say it with reverence) for both; and herein consists His noblest quality.

With the ignorant and the erring. The persons for whom the priest acts are not innocent, or the function would cease; they are sinners, and are described as ignorant and out of the way (erring or, it may be, led out of the way). The first word is milder than the second, and describes an ignorance that may be without sin, though it is oftener an ignorance that is more or less sinful (see Leviticus 4:13; Leviticus 5:18). There is generally sin in it, though not the sin of a wilful perverseness (‘I did it ignorantly in unbelief,’ 1 Timothy 1:13). The second word, though stronger than the first, is milder than is consistent with wilful conscious sin; it is going astray, or (in the passive voice) being led astray (see 1 Corinthians 6:9; Galatians 6:7; 2 Timothy 3:13). Possibly these words describe the feeling of the priest, who is supposed to be a man and himself a sinner (see next clause) towards those who are sinners, and who he may say are after all ‘ignorant and deluded.’ More probably, however, the words describe the real character of those for whom he is to act. All men are blameably ignorant, and are out of the way; every sin is want of knowledge, as well as want of wisdom; we all have gone astray, and for all the priest acts; those being excepted who are presumptuous and defiant sinners for whom no sacrifice could be accepted. The very office of the priest implies some desire to be forgiven, or at all events the cessation of perverse persistence in sin. Sympathy for all such is the duty and the qualification of the true priest; made the more easy that he is himself beset with infirmity, and the more obligatory that he himself needs the same treatment. The infirmity here spoken of is clearly moral weakness, which makes men capable of sin, and leads to it.


Verse 3

Hebrews 5:3. And by reason hereof (the true reading, though requiring no change in the English Version), i.e the infirmity with which he is himself compassed.

He ought (under a double obligation, ethical and legal, with special reference in this instance to the first).

As for the people even, so also for himself. The reasoning applies to the Aaronic Priesthood, and also to all human priests. The provisions of the Jewish law in this respect are very clear (Leviticus 4:3-12), and especially for the service of the great day of Atonement, when the priest confessed for himself and his house, then for the priesthood in general, and then for all Israel (Leviticus 16). Whether all this applies to Christ has been much discussed. Some have regarded it as spoken of human priests as distinguished from Christ; but it is more natural to regard it as true of all high priests in general, and then to allow the writer himself to show how far the Priesthood of Christ is like others, and how far it is unique; this he does as his argument proceeds (Hebrews 5:7-8, and chap. Hebrews 7:28).


Verse 4

Hebrews 5:4. A priest, moreover, who is God’s agent as well as man’s, has his appointment not from himself nor from man, but from God.

And none taketh this honour (the office, as the word frequently means) to himself (upon himself, as we now say), i.e legally, acceptably to the chief party in this arrangement; but when called of God, even as Aaron was. The Divine ordinance which made Aaron and his sons high priests continued long in the theocracy, and was vindicated against the usurpation of other Levites and of kings (Numbers 16:17; 2 Chronicles 26:16-21). But long before the date of this Epistle the ordinance had been broken, and the Roman power contemptuously set it aside. Some have thought that the writer rebukes these irregularities in this verse, but probably he is speaking of what was in fact the law and the proprieties of the case without any side-reference to later abuses. Who are to present offerings to God, and whom God will accept, are questions that belong clearly to God Himself. We must carefully distinguish, however, between the prophetical office and the priestly. All Christians that have the Gospel may prophesy; every man who has found the cross is competent and is authorised, nay, is even required to tell others the road. Warnings against preaching the Gospel, derived from the history of Korah and Abiram, are specially inappropriate under a dispensation when all are commanded to tell what God has done for them, when not only the Spirit and the Bride, but every one that heareth is to say, Come. The real lesson lies in another direction. We have under the Gospel one Priest only in the deeper sense of that word, a Mediator and a sacrifice, who has made complete atonement for sin. The usurpation of His office is on the part of those who assume to themselves the name of priests, and pretend to offer sacrifice for the sins of the living and the dead. Here is the sin of Korah; the more guilty as Christ is greater than Aaron, and as His perfect sacrifice is superior to the shadowy sacrifices of the ancient Law.


Verse 5

Hebrews 5:5. These requisites of the high priests are all found in Christ, and found in Him in such a degree as proves Him to be superior to all others.

Thus Christ also (as well as others) glorified not himself, took not the honour upon Himself (see John 8:54) to be made High Priest, but he (the Father) who spake to him: Thou art my Son; I have this day begotten thee. He it was that made Him Priest, and made Him Priest in the very passage that speaks of Him as ‘Son;’ the ‘Only-begotten.’ This deeper meaning which regards the Sonship that Christ had before His incarnation as itself having reference to redemption, and to Christ’s place therein, is favoured by the Fathers. Others who regard the quotation as giving honour to the Son without making that honour an assertion of His Priesthood, interpret simply Christ did not Himself assume the office of Priest; God who acknowledges Him as His Son in a sense that raises Him above all creatures, God gives Him the office.


Verse 6

Hebrews 5:6. Then follows a correction (according to the second of the above interpretations), or an assertion in plainer terms (according to the first) of this appointment.

Even as also he saith in another (literally, ‘a different’) place; a psalm written with a different purpose; a quotation from the 110th Psalm, which is generally accepted by the Jews themselves as Messianic, showing that if Jesus is the Christ it is by a Divine appointment He holds the character and performs the functions of a Priest—a perpetual Priest—the only Priest—with honours and qualifications higher and greater than those of Aaron.


Verse 7

Hebrews 5:7. In the days of his flesh (‘of His humanity,’ Arabic), i.e during His earthly life, especially in the closing part of it, as contrasted with the glorified state on which He entered when His high-priesthood began.

When he had offered up, etc.; rather, ‘in that He offered up ... . was heard, and though He was a Son . . . learned;’ or, ‘having offered up and being heard . . . He learned obedience,’ etc. All the tenses refer to one and the same process of discipline; they describe His life not in distinct and successive portions, but as a whole, though no doubt the description is specially true of His final agony.

Having offered up is the regular sacrificial word used throughout this Epistle, and it probably implies that while all the sufferings these words describe were fitting our Lord for His priestly office, they were also part of what He had to suffer as the bearer of our sin.

Prayers and supplications. The word for ‘prayers’ expresses a deep feeling of need; the word ‘supplications’ is a term taken from the olive branch wrapped with wool which was held out of old as an earnest entreaty for protection and help, and is a stronger word than the former. ‘Prayers and entreaties’ may represent, therefore, the general sense. Each may involve the other, but they differ in this way: St. Luke (who of the Evangelists dwells most on this human side of Christ’s life) tells us often that Christ prayed, and then again that ‘being in an agony he prayed more earnestly’ (Luke 22:44).

With strong crying and tears; with a most vehement outcry, an outcry of intensest feeling. Such was His first great cry on the cross: ‘My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?’ (Matthew 27:46); and such was the cry that accompanied His last utterance (Luke 23:46). His tears are also once named at least (Luke 19:41), and seem implied in such passages as Matthew 26:38; Matthew 27:46. The very agony of the final struggle has its prelude at an earlier stage (John 12:27), and was not without its parallel even in the wilderness. These prayers and entreaties were addressed unto him that was able to save from death, and he was heard in that he feared. This clause has been variously interpreted. One guide to its meaning is, that whatever it was He prayed for, the Father heard and gave (literally, or by a better equivalent) what he asked. A second guide to its meaning is that the last clause, ‘in that He feared,’ is rightly translated in the English Version. ‘Was heard, and so delivered from that which He feared—either from His own fear, or from the thing He feared,’ though largely supported, is inadmissible.—The word ‘fear’ is used only of the fear of caution, of reverence, of devoted submission, never of the fear of terror. The interpretation of the Authorised Version, adopted by all the Greek expositors, is accepted, after a full examination of passages in ancient writers by Bleek and Alford, and is required in Hebrews 12:28, the only other place where it is found in the New Testament. The adjective, moreover, which is found only in Luke, means always ‘devout’ (Luke 2:25, and Acts). Does it mean, then, that Christ prayed to Him who was able to save from death that He Himself might not die? Impossible—He came to ‘give Himself a ransom for many.’ He knew that He was to be betrayed into the hands of the Gentiles, and was to be scourged and crucified.—With ever-increasing clearness He had announced the fact to His disciples; and if now He prayed for such deliverance, His prayer was not heard. Does it mean that He prayed God to deliver Him from death after having died—a prayer that was fulfilled when the ‘God of Peace,’ God reconciled to the world through the death of His Son, ‘brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus Christ’? So Ebrard, Brown, and others interpret it. But neither is this exactly the meaning. What He prayed to be delivered from was not the mere dying, nor was it the grave into which, when dead, He was to enter. His prayer had rather reference to the agony of the final struggle. As Mediator He saw in death all it involved; the curse of the broken law, the penalty due to sin, the wrath of God, not primarily against Himself as the Holy One, but against the guilty, in whose room He stood, and against Him as He had taken their place. The weight of the Father’s wrath, and the need in that dread hour of continued love to man, and of continued trust in God; the fear lest by one moment of passionate impatience, in forgetfulness of the force of His temptation, through a natural recoil against the injustice and cruelty of His murderers, through possible distrust of Him who now seemed to have left Him to His own unassisted power—these were among the elements of His agony. And He could bear and resist them only through the cautious handling of the solemnities of His position, and by the reverent submission of His entire nature unto God. And God heard Him, not by delivering Him from the necessity of dying, not even by raising Him from the dead, but by strengthening Him to bear all (Luke 22:43), and by making the pangs of death the birth-throes of an endless life for him, and for all who were to believe. Had there been any impatience or distrust. His prayer must have remained unanswered, and His whole work have been frustrated. On the cross was there the deepest prostration of human weakness, and the utmost willingness to bear the burden whereby we are disburdened; as there was also the perfecting of the work and of the discipline which fitted Him to be a Priest, both in relation to God and in relation to ourselves.


Verses 7-10

Hebrews 5:7-10. Having shown how Christ has one qualification for the Priesthood, the authority of a Divine appointment, based in part upon His relation to the Father, the writer now reverts to the other qualifications, His fitness to bear with our infirmities, and to sympathize with us in suffering. The four verses really make one sentence. Stripped of its modifying clauses, it is briefly: ‘Who, though He was, in His own nature, Son, yet learned obedience by the things which He suffered, and being perfect (having completed the sacrifice He had to offer, and finished the training that was to fit Him for His office), He became the author (the cause) of eternal salvation to all who obey Him, being publicly, solemnly addressed as High Priest after the order of Melchisedec.’


Verse 8

Hebrews 5:8. Though he were a Son; more accurately, ‘though he was Son’ (there is no conditional thought expressed, but a strong assertion); literally, though being [in His own nature] Son, yet learned he his obedience (not obedience simply, but the obedience He practised, or the obedience which was to fit Him for His office) by (really the source of His knowledge) the things which he suffered.

Son. The absence of the article again calls attention to His relation to the Father (see Hebrews 1:2).

Learned by suffering. There is in the Greek a play upon the words (comp. παθηματα μαθηματα, troubles our best teachersdiscipline essential to discipleship).


Verse 9

Hebrews 5:9. Being made perfect, not only brought to the end, the completion of His learning and suffering, but having acquired all the necessary merit, power, and sympathy needed in His office after His obedience unto death.

He became the author (literally, the cause, the personal principle) of eternal salvation. A salvation not partial or temporal, like the atonements of the law, but a complete and ever-enduring deliverance from evil in all its forms and in every degree. It is the salvation of the soul which is immortal. It is the opposite of eternal condemnation. It takes in grace and glory; and Christ is its author or cause through the lasting virtue of His blood and righteousness, His obedience and suffering, His intercession and gifts.

To all who obey him, who believe the truth He reveals, who live under the influence of it, and who acknowledge Him as their Master and Lord. His obedience unto death is the ground of our hope, and His obedience unto death is the model to which our life is to be conformed.


Verse 10

Hebrews 5:10. Being called of God; rather, being addressed (not the same word as in Hebrews 5:4) by God as High Priest: the title of honour wherewith the Son made perfect through suffering was saluted by the Father openly and solemnly when He made Him sit at His own right hand. Christ was Priest on earth (see Hebrews 5:6) when He made oblation of Himself unto God; but having now entered the heavenly sanctuary, He was publicly received by God as High Priest, the priestly and high-priestly offices being united in Him.

After the order of Melchizedek, there being a resemblance in many particulars between the two, and especially in the antiquity, the dignity, the perpetuity of their respective offices, with the usual fuller depth of meaning in the antitype, the reality, than in the shadowy symbol.

The exact nature of the obedience which Christ learned through suffering has been much discussed. Many commentators hold the view that it was His obedience as Priest whereby He became qualified for His office and the consequent sympathy of which He became capable. He learned to feel what obedience involved, and so became a merciful High Priest in things pertaining to God. The idea that His obedience to the Divine law generally was increased by suffering seems to many inconsistent with His Divine nature and His personal holiness. But the language of the 8th verse seems to mean more than this explanation allows. He learned His obedience, not sympathy merely, nor merely priestly fitness for His work. Though Son, with all the love and trust of a Divine Son, He yet acquired and manifested a measure of obedience which else had been unattainable. Our Lord was man, proper man as well as God, and we must not so confound the two natures as to modify the attributes of either. As man He had an intellect like our own. He grew in wisdom, nay, even in favour with God and man. He had the faculty whereby He perceived the relation in which as man He stood to others, and felt the duties that relation involved. He had a will to decide His choice, and affections to impel Him to act. He was subject like ourselves to the great law of habit, whereby active principles become stronger through exercise, and are freed from exhaustion or made mighty through meditation and prayer. As man, the second Adam was as capable of growth in holiness as the first. He was made, moreover, under the law subject to its requirements. Created under it, He was to be judged by it; and though this subjection was His own act, it was as complete as if He had claimed His descent entirely from the first transgressor. In this condition He was personally liable for all His acts. To Him the warning came as to us: ‘Indignation and wrath upon every soul of man that doeth evil.’ Under this law, and subject to this condition, Christ appeared. If He fulfil the law with absolute perfection He is accepted, and for us there is hope. If He fail, if through His own weakness, the force of temptation, the subtilty of the tempter, He be seduced in thought or in feeling, even for one moment, from the narrow path of perfect holiness, our ruin becomes irremediable and complete; and the blessed God is left to deplore the ruin which His own frustrated benevolence has made only the more touching and profound. One impatient desire, one selfish thought, one sinful feeling, would have done it all. His suffering was obedience, His obedience was intensest suffering from the beginning of His public ministry even to its close; and if He was subject to the laws of human growth, faculties strengthened by reason of use, emotion made more mighty and more tender, obedience more easy by repetition, we may say that as Christ was truly man His obedience was learned and perfected by suffering. This view of the human life of our Lord, and the awful responsibility which attached to every act and feeling of His life, amid forces of evil unparalleled in human history, gives us a higher conception of His sufferings than anything besides. Such suffering strengthened, developed, perfected His own nature, even as ours is to be perfected, while it fits Him in the highest degree to understand our struggles and to sympathize with them.


Verse 11

Hebrews 5:11. Of whom; that is, of Melchisedec, in his superiority to Aaron, and as the type of Christ. The other interpretations, ‘of Christ,’ and ‘of which thing,’ are hardly defensible grammatically; the explanation just given is grammatically preferable, and is the same in sense.

We, not the writer and Timothy, but (as elsewhere in the Epistle, Hebrews 2:5, Hebrews 6:9; Hebrews 6:11, and as is common in Paul’s Epistles) the writer himself.

Have many things (literally, have much) to say, and hard to be uttered; rather, hard to explain to you.

Seeing (since) ye are become (having lost the quick sense of your new life, and relapsed, in part at least, into your old state) dull in your hearing (not easily made to understand).

For while ye ought, on account of the time, to be teachers, etc. Thirty years had passed since Pentecost, and some of you may have heard Christ the Lord; His apostles you have certainly heard. Churches were first formed among you, and most of you became believers years ago. Nor only a long time, but a trying time also; ‘distress of nations,’ men’s hearts failing them for fear, ‘the’ shaking’ foretold by the prophet. The nature of the time (not the length only) ought to have produced serious thought, earnest inquiry, and better understanding of what was coming upon the earth. They had not only made no progress,—they had retrograded.

Ye have need that one teach you what is the nature of (or, that some one teach you) the very first principles of the oracles of God. The first rendering is adopted by most commentators, ancient and modern, though the second is adopted by Bleek, Alford, and others, in neither case does it mean ‘what are the first principles,’ but rather, what quality and meaning they have. The oracles of God in the plural means generally what God revealed,—the Divine utterance (Acts 7:38; Romans 3:2),—while in the singular it meant that part where the revelation was given. The meaning here is not quite the same as in Hebrews 6:1 : ‘the doctrine of Christ,’ though this meaning is implied. The Jews had sacrifices and ritual, a material temple, prophecies clearly foretelling the life and death of our Lord, and rudimentary Christianity; but though they had embraced the Gospel, they were failing to see what their own economy really meant, and they were in danger of going back from the Spirit to the flesh, from the reality to the type, overlooking the significance of the simplest parts of their system,—‘the elements,’ as the Apostle Paul calls them also (Galatians 4:3; Galatians 4:9). The description here given may mean the plain doctrines of the Gospel, such as are specified in the first verse of the next chapter; but the peculiar language of this verse (‘elements,’ ‘oracles’) points rather to the significance of the elementary rites and truths of Judaism itself, the very things he goes on in later chapters to explain. Christianity is the Law unveiled, and you would understand the general principles of the new economy if you rightly understood the old; a like rebuke may be seen in Luke 24:25-27.

And are become (as in Hebrews 5:11) such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat (solid food). You have gone back into a second childhood, and need to understand the pictures and shadows of the ancient Law,—things intended for the infant state of the Church,—or, possibly, need to study again those easier parts of the Gospel which men accept at the beginning of the Divine life. The Fathers generally understood by ‘milk’ and by ‘first principles’ the Incarnation; but that is itself a profound mystery, and the writer has already affirmed and discussed it. The comparison of doctrines to milk and food is common in Philo, and is found in both Testaments. St. Paul uses both in 1 Corinthians 3:1-2.


Verses 11-20

CHAP. Hebrews 5:11 to Hebrews 6:20. The writer, knowing how unprepared his readers were to admit that the Aaronic priesthood was inferior to that of Melchisedec and to that of Christ (who was the antitype of both), interrupts his argument by remonstrating with them on their spiritual ignorance (Hebrews 5:11-14), and urges them to attain higher knowledge (Hebrews 6:1-3), by the danger of apostasy (Hebrews 6:4-8), by his own hope of them founded on their former zeal (Hebrews 6:9-12), and by the encouragement which God’s promise and oath give to persevering faith (Hebrews 6:12-20).


Verse 13-14

Hebrews 5:13-14 give the reason why the further teaching is hard to explain.

For every one who useth milk (takes it as his ordinary food, and can digest nothing else) is unskilled (literally, inexperienced) in the word of righteousness; not in the Gospel as the true and righteous word (Grotius, Brown, and others); not in rightly ordered speech (Delitzsch); not quite the word of righteousness, as Melchisedec is king of righteousness, as if there were a play upon the words (Bleek); but rather, that message, that Gospel of which righteousness, imputed and imparted, in its double form of justification and holiness, is the central truth. The man who fails to see the spiritual significance of the law, or, having once seen it, goes back to his old condition of imperfect vision, neither knows the burden of human guilt and the consequent need of Divine atonement, nor the necessity of true holiness.

For he is a babe (an infant), and takes the same place among spiritual seers as an infant takes in the perception of worldly interests.

Hebrews 5:14. But solid food belongs to the full grown, to the spiritually mature (so the word often means in Greek writers). It is the same word in Hebrews 6:1 (‘let us go on unto perfection’). Then follows the description of them.

Even those who by reason of (by virtue of, not by means of) use (their long use, their habit) have their senses (properly their organs of sense, i.e the inner organs of the soul) exercised (by spiritual gymnastics; only it is healthy work also, and not play; comp. 1 Timothy 4:7, and Hebrews 12:11) to discern (literally, ‘with the view to discriminate between’) good and evil. To discern what is good and noble and what is bad and mischievous. The child is easily imposed upon: he may be induced to take even poison if it is sweetened .to his taste; but a man has learnt by the discrimination which practice gives to make a distinction between things which differ, to ‘refuse the evil and choose the good,’ the very discrimination in which children fail (Deuteronomy 1:39; Isaiah 7:16).

To have time for learning, time which is rich in lessons, and make no progress, is itself retrogression. Growth is the condition of all healthy life, physical, mental, spiritual. Not to grow in grace is to become dull and feeble; it is to retain in the system what ought to be replaced by new or added knowledge or feeling. It makes men specially susceptible to disease, and is the sure precursor of decay. The apostolic guard against apostasy is here and elsewhere to grow in grace and in the knowledge of Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18).

 


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Bibliography Information
Schaff, Philip. "Commentary on Hebrews 5:4". "Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/scn/hebrews-5.html. 1879-90.

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