March 16, 2015
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments and Observations
“Sir, we would see Jesus.” With all due apologies to the many pastors out there who need to be addressed as “Ma’am” and not “Sir,” those of us who preach in various churches have seen those words—lifted up out of John 12:21—emblazoned on many pulpits, often on a small brass plate visible to the preacher alone. (The first time I saw this on a pulpit when I was a seminarian, I somewhat cheekily wondered in my mind if I should go and take a seat in the front pew seeing as the congregation was clearly expecting someone else to show up!)
“Sir, we would see Jesus.” It was some Greeks who first said this line. Probably they said it in Greek, too, which is why they approached a disciple who had a Greek name and who had grown up in a town, Bethsaida, that had a mixed population of Jews and Greeks. Maybe these seekers didn’t speak Aramaic and so needed to find the one disciple they knew could interpret for them. It is not clear whether these Greek-speaking people were Jewish converts or Gentiles who had come to Jerusalem to take in the Passover sights and sounds. But whoever they were, they had heard of Jesus and wanted a formal introduction.
That hardly made them unique at that precise moment, however. Jesus was rumored to have recently raised a man named Lazarus from the dead. The man had been moldering in a tomb for four days already when this rabbi from Nazareth reportedly called him out of that grave. Indeed, John's gospel presents the New Testament’s single most understated account of the Triumphal Entry. John has abridged and streamlined this story, leaving out most of what you can find in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. This entry was an important event to be sure, but in John the recent raising of Lazarus looms much larger, including for these Greek strangers. They simply must see the man who could do what Jesus recently did.
So they make their request to Philip, who in turn pulls his brother Andrew into the action as well. The two of them then go to Jesus and ask him, “Lord, do you have a minute? Some Greek tourists want your autograph or something.”
But it is just here where the story makes an odd turn.
There is no indication that Jesus paid much attention to Philip or Andrew; no indication he ever meets the very people who first said, “Sir, we would see Jesus.” Indeed, there is a quirky irony that in verse 21 there is a request to see Jesus and yet in verse 36 (just beyond where this lection technically ends), we are told that Jesus hid himself from those Greeks and everyone else–indeed, in John’s gospel Jesus will not appear in public again until he does so nailed to a cross.
Why would Jesus hide? Why would he duck away from some earnest seekers? Because Jesus’ “hour” had come. The time to see him had come and gone. Now it was time for him to be “hidden” in death, which is just what Jesus goes on to say. “My heart is troubled.” And then he says that it’s time to die, time to go the way of a kernel of wheat so that greater fruitfulness could be generated.
Well, the crowds didn’t like this one bit (and neither did the disciples, as subsequent chapters in John will make abundantly clear). “Hold up there a sec,” they all shout in verse 34, “we’ve always been taught that when Messiah showed up, he’d remain with us forever. So what’s all this talk about death and departures? Do you want to be the Christ or don’t you? Because if you do, you’d best start playing along with our political dreams, Jesus!”
In reply Jesus says something about light and darkness, something I’m sure not one person in ten understood. And no sooner does Jesus, the Light of the world, say this, and he hides himself. So far as we know, the Greeks who asked to see Jesus never did. It’s another one of those delicious ironies.
But suppose a few days later those same Greeks passed by that scarecrow figure impaled on a spit of wood at Skull Hill. Jesus couldn’t hide himself from anyone that day. He was on public display, literally nailed down at last. Conversely, however, Jesus could not go to anyone himself, either. You had to come to him that day if you wanted to see him. The question is: would anyone bother, would anyone dare, could anyone stomach the sight? “When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself,” Jesus predicted in verse 32. Just in case we were tempted to think that this “lifting up” meant the glory of Easter or the Ascension or something, John inserts his own voice into the text once again in verse 33 to remind us that it was his raw and hideous death Jesus was referring to there.
Jesus would draw all people to himself on that cross, but would anyone come? Would anyone let themselves be drawn, or would they hide their faces, turn aside, run away, look for someone else who appeared to be going somewhere worth following? “Sir, we would see Jesus” the Greeks said to Philip. In a way, everything Jesus said in verses 23-36 was an extended answer to that request, as though Jesus were saying to these Greeks, “It’s OK that you want to see me, but wait a few days. I invite you to come and see me Friday afternoon. You won’t be able to miss me. You’ll know me when you see me. I’ll be the suffering and dying one. But I hope you’ll come by to see me anyway.”
Questions to Ponder/Issues to Address
“Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains a single seed.” Actually, literally translated, this says, “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains alone.” It remains monos, solo, alone, a mono-seed. “But if it dies, it produces much fruit.” A single kernel of wheat all by itself is lonely but also ineffective. When I used to do farm work while growing up, sometimes I’d grab a jacket that maybe I’d not worn in a while and sometimes when I put my hands in the pockets, I’d find a kernel of wheat or corn. It had fallen in there unbeknownst to me in the course of my work. And it could have stayed in that pocket forever but it would have been alone and unproductive. It could do no good there.
One way or another, for a kernel of wheat to do any good, it has to die. Either it gets sunk into a harrowed trench of soil and buried so it can then sprout and grow or it gets threshed and ground into flour with which to make bread. Either way, a mono-kernel off by itself will do no good. It has to die, Jesus says, if new life is to be produced.
In John 12 we know Jesus is referring primarily to himself. Paradoxically and against every messianic anticipation, he was going to have to sink deep into death if he was ever going to give life to anyone. But lest we think this is only about Jesus, our Lord also makes clear that this is to be our pattern too. There is a line in John 12:26 that we often hear quoted in quite sunny ways: “Where I am, my servant will also be.” Typically we hear this quoted at funerals and so these words convey the idea that the deceased person is now in glory with the Lord Jesus. And although that may be a legitimate extension of John 12, I think the real meaning here is that if Jesus is the seed that dies in the soil of this earth, then if we are to be servant followers of Jesus, that is where we must go as well.
“When I am lifted up,” Jesus goes on to say, “I will draw all people to myself.” And just in case you are tempted to interpret this up-lifted status to mean something glitzy, John sticks in a little commentary in verse 33 to make clear that the “lifting up” Jesus had in mind was the cross. Ultimately Jesus would get lifted up in the ascension into heaven, but the first ten feet of the ascension came by way of a cross. Jesus’ upward journey started when the Roman soldiers hoisted him up skyward at the Place of the Skull.
So if you want to fly off into glory with Jesus, you’ve got to be part of the first ten feet of the trip as well. You can’t prop up a stepladder on the side of the cross, climb it, and then meet Jesus at the top for the balance of the journey to glory. You’ve got to be crucified with him. You have to be the kernel who gets buried into death with him. “Where I am, my servant will also be.” But as a servant, it is not up to you to pick and choose the times and places you want to be with Jesus. You are with him always and everywhere or you are with him never and nowhere.
Unless a kernel of wheat falls, falls down, gets buried into the earth and dies, it’s lonely and alone. But if it dies, it may well produce a great cloud of witnesses, a host of life, a cornucopia of good kingdom fruit. Whether or not the world cares for the kind of fruit that emerges from the servant pattern of dying and rising with Christ, Jesus assures us that this is fruit that lasts forever.
As Richard Burridge helpfully points out in the Eerdmans The Lectionary Commentary (2001), John employs a bit of a double-entendre here in John 12 even as he did in last week’s Gospel lection from John 3. The Greek verb hypsoun means both “exalted” and (more literally) “lifted up.” The typical image you would get from a verse like John 12:32 of someone being lifted up in exaltation would be like what you often see at a baseball game after a pitcher throws the final pitch in what proves to be a no-hitter game. His teammates swarm the pitcher’s mound, lift the jubilant man to their collective shoulders, and so exalt his achievement as they carry him off the field. Jesus, of course, has a rather different idea as to what kind of “lifting up” will lead to his exaltation (and it is by no means what you would at first expect!).
According to an old adage, the brave man tastes death but once whereas the coward tastes death many times before he finally dies. In the movie Saving Private Ryan we see this proverbial dynamic at work. Most of the soldiers in that story are stout of heart. They have passed through many harrowing battles but without regret because they know they conducted themselves well. Although some of these brave men die before the story is finished, nevertheless up until that final fatal moment, they had not experienced the kind of psychological death that is exhibited over and over by the character of Corporal Upham.
Upham was a translator in a safe clerical position before getting swept up into the real war. But this young, naive, and innocent corporal was unprepared for combat and so regularly froze up in terror. In one of the film’s most excruciating scenes, Upham is seen cowering on a staircase, paralyzed by fear, even as he listens to the death cries of one of his comrades who is being slowly killed by a German soldier at the top of the stairs. His cowardice prevents Upham from saving his friend’s life. After the man is dead, the German who killed him casually walks past Upham on the steps. Upham is such a pathetic figure that the enemy just leaves him alone. In the gut-wrenching sobs that Upham then heaves forth, you sense that in a real way this man is dying on the inside. The brave man tastes death just once, the coward dies again and again.
That’s how we usually think in this world. So what are we to make of Jesus’ words in John 12 that indicate that not only does death produce life, followers of Jesus will lead lives of self-denial and perpetual death in their Christ-like efforts to bring more life to the world, too? The gospel so often goes in different directions from the rest of the world. Do we preachers always remember this, though? Perhaps it is the brave person who faces death every day for Jesus’ sake and for the sake of the Gospel.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Everybody likes what follows the words “The days are coming” in verse 31 of this passage. A bit more dodgy and difficult to understand, however, is what follows that identical phrase in verse 27. Because there the last thing mentioned is that if ever it had been true that the children suffered for the sins of their fathers and mothers, from now on everyone would die for their own sin, thank you very much.
Well, I guess that’s kind of good news. Still, I’d just as soon find out that my sins will be forgiven and no longer debited to my account. True, I don’t want anyone else—especially my kids—to get punished or to suffer on account of what I do. But I’m still not overly wild about suffering on and on for my sins myself either! Sin is not a problem I can take care of on my own—a point that ought come as no surprise to anyone especially during the Season of Lent—and so if I cannot on my own get over my tendency to sin, then I need some better news than just the revelation that at least only I will, as verse 30 bluntly puts it, “die for my own sin.”
It’s a good thing Jeremiah wasn’t finished in detailing what the coming days would bring! Because what comes next is shot through with a whole lot more hope. Because if it’s true, as the Scriptures tells us, that “the heart is deceitful above all things” and that a good deal of what I do wrong in my life stems from what’s wrong with my inmost dispositions in my heart, then it’s good news to hear that God is going to give me something of a heart transplant. Somehow, Jeremiah predicts, a time will come when knowledge of God will be placed right within our inmost being, which is exactly where we need it most. But not only in my heart will I receive knowledge, but also in my mind. Heart and mind: both are going to get an infusion of God’s goodness in ways that will lead us to life (and not inevitably to the death for our sins that was mentioned in verse 30).
Former Calvin Seminary President Neal Plantinga once pointed out that in the New Testament when Jesus quotes the first and great commandment about loving the Lord our God, he changes it just a bit. Every pious Jew raised on the Shema of Deuteronomy 6 knew full well that proper wording: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” That’s the kind of sacred formula you just don’t mess with. And if you do, everyone would notice in a heartbeat.
But that’s what Jesus does. Jesus, when queried, said the first and great commandment is to love the Lord your God “with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” Surely his listeners gasped.
As Plantinga said, it would be as arresting as tucking your child into bed one night only to hear him say in his bedtime prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my brain to keep.”
But maybe Jesus was thinking of Jeremiah 31 when he introduced his subtle riff on the great commandment and especially Jeremiah’s inclusion of not just heart (that much you already got in the Shema) but also the mind. Jeremiah says that a key benefit of God’s new way of relating to humanity will be that no longer will anyone need to teach his neighbor about God—everyone will already know. That is not the kind of emotional talk one would associate with the human heart. We’re not told that neighbors would no longer need to try to get each other to love God or to feel a certain way about God. No, we’re told that the issue would center on what people know, on what they understand.
True, that Hebrew verb for “to know” is yada, which carries with it something more than a merely academic or intellectual component. (“Adam knew Eve and she conceived . . .” As any eye-rolling middle schooler could tell you, Adam obviously knew her pretty well!) So we cannot deny that heart and mind co-mingle in the Hebrew understanding of knowledge in ways they do not so naturally go together in our more Western mindset (or heartset, as the case may be).
Still, there is no denying that when Jeremiah pointed forward to this new covenant and this new way of God’s interacting with us, knowledge loomed pretty large in it all. But since we’re not Gnostics (that’s been declared a bad idea for quite some while now . . .), we may wonder what to make of this, especially this late in the Season of Lent. If nothing else, Lent is surely a time to realize that salvation is not about what we do or what we accomplish and it most certainly is not about what we know or what we understand. In fact, Lent reminds us that salvation came through one of the most counterintuitive events ever: the death of God’s beloved Son.
The Gospel Lectionary reading for this same Sunday in Lent shows Jesus declaring all kinds of things that no one could grasp at the time (and even all these centuries later, we have to admit that being “exalted on a cross” is a strikingly odd thing to ponder. To quote Plantinga again, it’s like being “enthroned on an electric chair” or being “honored by a firing squad.”) Salvation came through something we frankly could not understand. It certainly is not about knowledge.
So why would Jeremiah say—and Jesus later riff on the great commandment—that our minds are so centrally involved after all? How might this work? More specifically, how might this work in a Lenten sermon?
Maybe this way: Jeremiah says that previously the Israelites broke God’s covenant (and presumably also his divine heart) despite all that God had done for them in bringing them out of Egypt, etc. God had done great things for them and yet . . . something went wrong. What was it? Jeremiah hints—actually, he pretty well declares—that it was finally a lack of internalizing the true nature of God. Somehow God and the Israelites remained oddly separated from each other. Maybe that’s part of the reason why they sent Moses up the mountain at Sinai even as they kept a very safe distance (a distance that proved to be the opposite of safe in the end as that same distance soon enough led them to swap out Yahweh for a Golden Calf). And then there were all those laws that kept everyone well away from the inner sanctum of the Temple where God was said to sit on the Ark—these laws were necessary perhaps but they did have a tendency to eclipse certain other features about God that the people were supposed to pick up on and mediate on.
What other features? The lovingkindness of God, the chesed of Yahweh that the Psalms and other parts of the Old Testament make clear was God’s #1 attribute. They were supposed to internalize the idea that God is love, that God is grace, that God has great enthusiasm for human life and is powerfully intent on seeing that life flourish.
But that is what they seemed never to understand. They kept thinking God was a monarch in a distant throneroom. God kept telling them he loved them as though they were his very bride (see the “husband” reference in also Jeremiah 31:32), that he had raised them and taught them to walk as though they were his precious children, the apple of his eye (cf. Hosea 11). Somehow God had to get this knowledge across to them in ways that would be so intellectually startling as to be also emotionally overwhelming. Only then could knowledge in that Hebrew sense of yada penetrate and engulf both hearts and minds. Because when you know how much this gracious God loves you, then you will love this God right back.
“When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself,” Jesus said in John 12. He meant being lifted up on a spit of wood, of course, and that is ordinarily a mighty repulsive spectacle, not one that draws most people in. And indeed, all by itself a bloodied scarecrow of a figure atop a place called “Skull Hill” is that from which people hide their faces.
But when you know, when you understand, what is behind that hideous death—when the grace of it all starts to shine through—then not only do you uncover your face, you find tears streaming down that same face. God had to go to considerable lengths to make clear his love for us. But once he did so in Jesus the Christ, the knowledge of what that meant soon started to spread like wildfire in a way the knowledge of God had never before done. Because not only did that display teach us a lot about God that we never really knew before, it also told us about the last thing Jeremiah mentions in this passage: our sins have been forgiven, too. Nothing stands between God and us now. We have no old business to attend to, no outstanding debts to make us keep our distance from the holy mountain.
It doesn’t matter whether you are one of the greatest people around or one of the least of all peoples, once you know and understand that gospel message, you won’t need anyone to come up and say to you, “Know the Lord!”
You already will.
In his book, Engaging God’s World, Neal Plantinga approaches the entire matter of education from the starting point of our fondest wishes and deepest longings. More than we know, the things we want to know touch (and even stem from) also our hearts. Most of the time we maybe are too busy, too preoccupied, too distracted to be in touch with such ponderous matters. In the rush of the everyday on our way to work, fighting traffic on the highway, fielding the umpteenth phone call in a row that has kept us from our work, perhaps in the midst of all that we focus only on the momentary.
Whether by accident or by design, most days are hectic enough that we can keep ourselves from listening to our deepest yearnings. But every once in a while something may call us up short. A piece of music stabs at our hearts and reminds us of such a profound beauty that suddenly the mundane nature of our work-a-day world seems tawdry by comparison. It reminds us that beyond this particular moment, we pine for something else.
In the novel and movie The Shawshank Redemption, a lifelong convict nicknamed Red, keeps telling his fellow prisoner, Andy, to stop talking about hope since in prison, hope is a dangerous thing. It’s better to live without hope than to have a hope that will torment you by virtue of it’s not being fulfilled. But then at one point in the story Andy barricades himself in the warden’s office, flips on the Shawshank prison P.A. system, and plays a portion of a Mozart opera, bringing the entire prison to a standstill as each prisoner listens to the aria. And even Red, the one who resisted all talk of hopes or dreams, could not resist this spot of beauty. And so Red muses, “I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singin’ about. I like to think they were singin’ about something so beautiful it can’t be expressed in words, and it makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you, those voices soared, higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away. For the briefest of moments, every last man at Shawshank was free.”
Whether we know it or not at any given moment, what we all most want to know about life is that we are loved, that there is meaning. The things we most dearly want to know have a whole lot to do with the things we most intently feel and long for. Maybe that’s why the knowledge of God that Jeremiah talked about and that Jesus talked about in places like Matthew 22 always go beyond just what we know to what we also need to feel and to understand—to understand not in the cerebral pathways of our brains but in the deepest fibers of our very being.
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments and Questions
Psalm 51 is what Old Testament scholar James Mays calls a “liturgy of the broken heart.” Like so many of the psalms, it’s the prayer of someone who is in deep trouble. Here, however, the psalmist doesn’t complain to God about God or other people. He admits he alone has caused the trouble about which he prays.
People have traditionally linked Psalm 51 to David’s sin of taking Bathsheba and Nathan’s prophetic response to it. Its superscription even explicitly makes that link. Yet even if it’s a later addition by biblical editors, even if David didn’t pray Psalm 51, he, as J. Clifton McCann, Jr. notes, could and should have prayed it.
Psalm 51’s first five verses quickly heap “sin” synonyms on top of each other. Yet Psalm 51 begins with a plea for grace. The psalmist immediately pleads for forgiveness of her sin. However, she begs, in language that anticipates Luke 18:13’s tax collector’s prayer, for God’s mercy. She recognizes she doesn’t deserve God’s forgiveness. She doesn’t even claim she’ll somehow do better tomorrow or that her sin isn’t completely her fault. Instead we can almost picture the psalmist as scarcely being even able to look up to God as she begs God to have mercy on her.
The psalmist recognizes his only hope for forgiveness lies in God’s unfailing love and great compassion. This hope recalls Exodus 34’s account of the aftermath of Israel’s worship of the golden calf. When Moses trudges back up Mount Sinai to receive a second set of tablets of God’s law, the Lord passes in front of him, saying, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands …”
The grace-filled beginning of Psalm 51’s prayer of confession mirrors in some ways the context of Christians’ confession of sin. God’s sons and daughters don’t confess our sins desperately hoping God will somehow change God’s mind about and forgive us. No, we humbly make our confession, pleading for God’s mercy on the basis of God’s forgiveness already graciously given in Jesus Christ.
Yet those who preach and teach Psalm 51 may want to help hearers reflect on our culture, society and own natural reluctance to accept responsibility for wrongdoing. Such reluctance is, of course, as old as humanity’s sin itself. After all, Eve blamed the serpent for tricking her into sinning and Adam blamed Eve for giving him some fruit. Since then people have constantly blamed other people or things for their sins. Few refrains are more familiar to our culture than, “Don’t blame me. It’s his (or her or their or its) fault.” We naturally have little interest in joining the psalmist in admitting “I have sinned.”
The psalmist offers no excuses for her sins. She doesn’t even use euphemistic phrases such as, “Wrong was done” or “Mistakes were made.” She’s very straightforward in her talk about “my transgressions,” “all my iniquity” and “my sin.” The poet pictures her sin as a kind of figurative stain on her life and conscience that she needs God to scrub away. After all, she begs God to “blot out,” “wash away” and “cleanse me.” It’s the image of ancient people washing dishes or clothing and modern people using various detergents and stain removers on stubborn stains.
His sin is so real and pervasive that the psalmist confesses that it’s always before him, in other words, always on his mind. He’s constantly aware that he’s sinned not just against other people, but also against God. In fact, he admits that he’s only sinned against the Lord. Rather than seeing this as an attempt to evade the hurt he’s caused other people, we can see this as an admission that the primary one the psalmist has hurt by his rebellion is the God who created and cares for him. After all, as James Mays writes, “It’s the divine oversight of human life that makes talk about sin meaningful and necessary.”
The stain that is her sin is, in fact, so pervasive that the psalmist admits it was somehow a part of her even at her conception. Of course, systematic theologians may have reason for seeing this admission as evidence for the doctrine of original sin. However, the psalmist probably isn’t thinking so systematically. She’s simply confessing her sin isn’t some kind of aberration, out of character for her. She admits her sins spring from her natural sinfulness, her lifelong inclination to rebel against God’s good will and purposes. The psalmist confesses she isn’t just a sinner; she’s also sinful.
In fact, the psalmist is so aware of the pervasiveness of his sinfulness and sin that he longs for a radical transformation. Often psalmists plead for a change in their situations. This psalmist desires a change in himself. He knows that he has sinned against God and done what is evil in God’s sight. However, he desires “truth in the inner parts,” “wisdom in the inmost place,” “a pure heart” and “a steadfast spirit.”
Yet the psalmist also implies she can’t make this change on her own. She suggests that only the God who created and cares for her can transform her. So she longs for God to cleanse her with “hyssop” so that she can be clean. She desires that God wash her so that she’s whiter than snow. So Psalm 51 features a dramatic contrast between sin as stain and forgiveness as cleanness. It’s as if the psalmist couldn’t make any starker the contrast between the condition of sinfulness and that of forgiveness.
The psalmist’s life has been marked by consistent rebellion against God and missing of obedience’s target. However, he longs for an obedience and faithfulness that is even more “steadfast.” In other words, the psalmist pleads with God to give him what James Limburg calls a brand new beginning and a fresh start. In the light of the New Testament, we’d add that we long for a new spirit that has been washed in Jesus Christ’s blood and remodeled by the Holy Spirit.
Modern confession sometimes falls dreadfully short of the psalmist’s in today’s lesson. In the March 14, 2007 New York Times John Broder lists some examples in his article, “A Favorite for Foul-Ups: ‘Mistakes Were Made’.”
Broder refers to United States Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales who “fell back on a classic Washington linguistic construct … when he acknowledged ‘mistakes were made’ in the  dismissal of eight federal prosecutors’.” Broder adds, “The phrase sounds like a confession of error or even contrition, but in fact it is not quite either one. The speaker is not accepting personal responsibility or pointing the finger at anyone else.”
However, lest we assume such “contrition” is the exclusive domain of one political party, Broder also notes, “Just 36 hours into his administration Mr. Clinton used that terminology when he withdrew the nomination of Zoe Baird as attorney general. In January 1997, he [also] acknowledged that the White House should not have invited the nation’s senior banking regulator to a meeting where Mr. Clinton and prominent bankers discussed banking policy in the presence of the Democratic Party’s senior fund-raiser. ‘Mistakes were made here by people who either did it deliberately or inadvertently,’ he said.”
Author: Stan Mast
Comments, Observations, and Questions
I doubt that most preachers will chose this lectionary reading for their sermon on this fifth Sunday of Lent. Hebrews is just plain tough to preach. For one thing it is so complex, dealing as it does with long forgotten aspects of the Jewish faith. Sermons on Hebrews require detailed explanations of things like the Jewish sacrificial system before we ever get to the Christian point.
The other thing that makes Hebrews a preacher’s challenge is its political incorrectness. I mean, the main message of Hebrews is that the Christian faith is better than the Jewish faith. The author uses the words “better” or “superior” some 15 times. His point is that the readers would be foolish to leave their Christian faith for their former Jewish faith, because Jesus and the salvation he brought is simply better than anything in the admittedly God-given faith of Israel. Of course, everyone knows that it is politically incorrect today to claim that any religion is better than another. The preacher who chooses this text will need skill and courage. Let me see if I can help.
In the reading for today, the author begins another major point in his superiority argument by claiming that Jesus is a better high priest than anything the Aaronic priesthood could offer. He has broached that subject in Hebrews 4:15, when he said that Jesus is the great sympathetic high priest. Knowing his audience well, he could easily imagine them saying, “That can’t be. Jesus is not from the tribe of Levi. He was not descended from Aaron. Only such men can be high priests! Jesus isn’t qualified.” So, before he can proceed any further, our author spends these 10 verses showcasing Jesus qualifications for the job.
If this seems an irrelevant discussion for our day, consider the Presidential campaign going on in the U.S. Yes, we are nearly 2 years away from Election Day, but already the campaign has begun. There are perhaps 20 Republican candidates, some declared, others only distant possibilities, while the Democrats have maybe 3, though that may well grow. One of the main questions being debated has to do with qualifications. (Oh yes, there’s also that whole matter of competing visions for America, which has its parallel in the competing visions of salvation in Hebrews. I’ll say more about that later.) But the question about qualifications is central in this election. The most grandiose plan is meaningless if the candidate isn’t qualified to make the plan happen. That raises the huge question, what exactly are the qualifications for the office of President?
That’s the question raised in verses 1-4 of our text about the office of high priest. Verses 5-10 then show how Jesus is qualified. The job of high priest was, in the words of verse 1, “to represent them (God’s people) in matters related to God.” To do that job, a high priest had to be (1) “selected from among men” and (2) “appointed” by God to (3) “offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.” The author lays out his case with what feels like painstaking slowness, but he must establish beyond question that Jesus really is a great high priest, or the whole plan of salvation comes to nothing.
If the high priest weren’t genuinely human, he couldn’t represent humans before God. If he weren’t subject to all the weaknesses of the human condition, he couldn’t deal gently with those who are ignorant and going astray. Indeed, the high priests of the Aaronic line were so subject to weakness that they had to offer a sacrifice for their own sins before they could offer sacrifices for the sins of the people. (Heb. 7:27 will point out that this was not the case for Jesus, because he was sinless.)
Second, if the high priest weren’t appointed by God, he couldn’t come into the presence of God on behalf of the people. In ancient Israel, no one would dare to waltz into the presence of a holy God who is a consuming fire (think of Uzzah who inadvertently touched the ark in I Chronicles 13 and was struck down on the spot). Only those whom God had called and ordained were allowed to enter the Holy of Holies to make atonement for the sins of the people. “No one takes this honor upon himself; he must be called by God, just as Aaron was.” That was true in theory, in theology, but for the last few centuries BCE many high priests had been appointed by other humans, ranging from corrupt civil officials to members of the family. But a legitimate high priest had to be God sent in every way.
Third, the high priest must offer sacrifices to God for the sins of the people, a subject on which Hebrews spills a lot of ink. (Our author has a startlingly new vision of the salvation obtained by the once for all sacrifice presented by Jesus. Rather than being temporal and earthly, the salvation brought by Jesus is eternal and spiritual.) But, of course, the high priest can’t offer that atoning sacrifice at all if he isn’t fully qualified to be a high priest.
That brings our author to Jesus’ qualifications for this highest office. He will prove that Jesus is qualified because he is a high priest after the order of Melchizedek and because he learned obedience through suffering, two seemingly contradictory ideas that hint at the reality of the Incarnation. First, he begins by pointing out that “Christ did not take upon himself the glory of becoming a high priest. But God said to him, ‘You are my Son; today I have become your Father.’ And he says in another place, ‘You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.’” Reaching back into the Old Testament, the author finds two texts that all Jews and Christians knew were prophecies of the Messiah, and he claims that both of them were talking about Jesus.
We’ve already heard Hebrews’ claim that Jesus was the Son of God (very clearly in Hebrews 1:1-4 and suggested in 2:17), but this is the first time we hear about “the order of Melchizedek.” This is crucial to the argument, because, of course, Jesus was not from the line of Aaron. Jesus was from a higher line, says Hebrews, the line or the order of Melchizedek, which made him a superior high priest. The name Melchizedek won’t mean much to most modern Christians, since he only appears a few times in the Old Testament. But in order to preach Christ faithfully and passionately from this text, it will pay to take a little time to flesh him out.
Melchizedek first appears early in Genesis (14), long before the Aaronic priesthood began. In fact, he appeared long before Israel came into being, when Israel was no more than a promise to a childless Abraham. Melchizedek was the king of Jerusalem and priest of the Most High God, to whom Father Abraham bowed down and presented tithes. So clearly Melchizedek was superior to Abraham. We know nothing else about him—not his birth, not his death. Indeed, he seems almost eternal (cf. 7:3), which is part of the point in calling Jesus a high priest after the order of Melchizedek. Jesus isn’t an ordinary human high priest like those born into Aaron’s line; he is the eternal High Priest who is also the king of Jerusalem. Indeed, his name means king of righteousness and king of peace (Heb. 7:2).
Having made that glorious claim, Hebrews turns to a seemingly contradictory claim about Jesus. He was genuinely human. “In the days of his life on earth (literally, of his sarx), he offered up prayers and petitions to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.” We often read in the Gospels about Jesus habit of spending much time in prayer, but our text is probably a reference to the unique time of Lent and the agonized prayers of Gethsemane and Golgotha. Though he knew what was coming (had, in fact, known it from eternity), he cried out for salvation as the horror of God-forsakenness loomed in the darkness. Like all human beings, Jesus knew what it meant to cry out to God in fear and anguish as he faced (eternal) death. Thus, he was fully qualified to be our high priest, able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and going astray.
But he didn’t go astray and become disobedient. “Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation (a new vision of salvation, much more glorious than the Jewish hope) for all who obey him….” This, of course, is another way of repeating Heb. 4:15, “yet was without sin.” But here the author takes that thought much deeper, into the depths of the mystery of Incarnation.
Verse 8 raises all kinds of theological issues (which I’ll say more about below), but the point of them all is stated clearly in verse 9 in that word, “made perfect.” The Greek word there is teleioo, which has the sense of finished or completed. That word doesn’t mean that Jesus became morally perfect. He already was, as the Son of God. It means that he finished his race (cf. Hebrews 12:1,2), completed his mission of becoming a perfect human being, thus reversing the course of Adam’s life. (This is the kind of verse that led Iranaeus to his recapitulation theory of the atonement.)
Adam had been perfect but fell into imperfection. In order to fully represent Adam’s fallen race, the Son of God had to become a perfect man. He couldn’t do that until he had lived in the flesh, faced the rigors of temptation, endured the sufferings that come with sin, and remained perfectly obedient through his entire life. Then, because he was completely and perfectly human, he could genuinely stand in our place and represent us to God, with no need to offer a sacrifice for his own sins. So, concludes the writer, God designated him to be a high priest in the order of Melchizedek, perfectly qualified to be the high priest all of us need (a thought the author fleshes out in Hebrews 7:24-28).
This text fairly bristles with theological issues. The words of verse 5 about God declaring Jesus to be his Son and becoming his Father raise all kinds of questions about the divinity of Christ. It would be easy to read those words in an adoptionistic way, if one forgets the opening words of this letter which can’t be read that way. A careful reading reveals that “become” is the word “begotten,” as in “begotten not made.” Most commentators take the declaration of Jesus Sonship to be a reference to Jesus’ baptism (cf. Matthew 3:17) or his resurrection (cf. Romans 1:4) or even his ascension/coronation (cf. Phil. 2:9-11) when he was publicly acknowledged as the Son whom the Father had begotten from all eternity.
What we have here is something like the kenotic theology of Philippians 2. How much did the Son of God empty himself and become human? Well, he had to learn obedience. That doesn’t mean that he had to unlearn disobedience by suffering for it, the way a child learns to be obedient by being punished for disobedience. He was perfectly obedient from all eternity, but he hadn’t ever suffered for his obedience. For that to happen, he had to become fully human, live among sinful humans in a fallen world, and suffer the consequences of being obedient in that kind of world. The ultimate test of obedience comes when my obedience will cost me dearly, when I suffer for doing right. The cross was the consequence and the epitome of his obedience. As eternal God he knew perfect obedience within the perichoresis of the Trinity. As incarnate God, he had to learn obedience experientially by being faced with temptation and resisting it to the point of pain, and then suffering precisely because his obedience was such an affront to wicked humans. Only by learning obedience that way could he fully represent us.
The Greek of this epistle is the most elevated Greek of the entire New Testament, so it’s not surprising to find the author using literary devices to make his point. For example, he has a nice play on words as he talks about Jesus learning obedience by suffering. “Learned” is emathen and “suffered” is epathen, a bit like “no pain, no gain.” We might wonder why the author says that we must “obey” Christ in verse 9, rather than “trust.” It’s probably because he has just made such a point of obedience in verse 8. Our salvation is achieved through his obedience and it is received through ours. No “easy believe-ism” here. And speaking of salvation, it is fascinating that the Christ who cried out to the one who could save (sodzein) him from death became the source of eternal salvation (soteria). The God who could save Jesus did as not save him from death, precisely so that we could be saved by his death.
In The Chosen, Chaim Potok’s masterful portrait of Hasidic Jews, the Reb, the revered leader of the community, is kind to everyone except his son, a wonderfully gifted young man beloved by all. In fact, the Reb won’t speak to his son at all. His silence persists for years and causes the young man untold agony. Finally, the Reb explains his silence. He could see how gifted his son was and this father knew that someday his boy would become a great leader in the community. But the Reb was afraid that his son’s giftedness might make him haughty and hard. So, he said, “I was silent so that you would suffer and would be able to be sympathetic with the suffering of your people.” Thus, he would be able to deal gently with the ignorant and straying, just like Jesus.
Speaking of learning obedience through suffering, I think of the two grandchildren I see the most. Owen and Emmit are 7 and 4 respectively and have the usual sibling rivalry. It is easy for Owen to do what his Dad says if it is something he wants to do because it’s fun. “Owen, get in the truck. We’re going to the swimming pool.” No problem. Owen is in the truck way before Dad is. Who wouldn’t obey a command that leads to pleasure? But if Dad says, “Owen, share your Ninjago figures with Emmit,” that’s another matter, because parting with his beloved Ninjagos is painful. What if Emmit won’t give them back? What if he loses one? What if he breaks one? It’s when obedience might cause pain that it gets difficult. That’s when obedience is really obedience, not just self-service. When we obey in spite of the pain, we mature into complete (teleios) human beings who live not just for ourselves, but for others. Even if it means death, as it did for Jesus.