An Exposition of Hebrews
by A. W. Pink
Christ Superior to Aaron
The first ten verses of Hebrews 5 present to us a subject of such vast and vital importance that we dare not hurry over our exposition of them. They bring to’ our view the person of the Lord Jesus and His official work as the great High Priest of God’s people. They set forth His intrinsic sufficiency for the discharge of the honorous but arduous functions of that office. They show us His right and title for the executing thereof. They reveal His full qualifications thereunto. They make known the nature and costliness of His sacrificial work. They declare the triumphant issue thereof. Yet plain as is their testimony, the subject of which they treat is so dimly apprehended by most Christians today, that we deem it necessary to devote a lengthy introduction to the setting forth of the principal features belonging to the Priesthood of Christ.
Let us begin by asking the question, Why did God ordain the office of priesthood? Wherein lay the necessity for it? The first and most obvious answer is, Because of sin. Sin created a breech between a holy God and His sinful creatures. Were God to advance toward them in His essential character it could only be in judgment, involving their sure destruction; for He "will by no means clear the guilty" (Ex. 34:7). Nor was the sinner capable of making the slightest advance toward God, for he was "alienated from the life of God" (Eph. 4:18), and thus, "dead in trespasses and sins" (Eph. 2:1); and as such, not only powerless to perform a spiritual act, but completely devoid of all spiritual aspirations. Looked at in himself, the case of fallen man was utterly hopeless.
But God has designs of grace unto men, not unto all men, but unto a remnant of them chosen out of a fallen race. Had God shown grace to all of Adam’s descendants, the glory of His grace had been clouded, for it would have looked as though the provisions of grace were something which were due men from God, because of His having failed to preserve them from falling into sin. But grace is unmerited favor, something to which no creature is entitled, something which he cannot in any wise claim from God. Therefore it must be exercised in a sovereign manner by the Author of it (Ex. 33:19), that grace may appear to be grace (Rom. 11:6).
But in determining to show grace unto that people whom He had chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4, 2 Tim. 1:9), God must act in harmony with His own perfections. The sin of His people could not be ignored. Justice clamored for its punishment. If they were to be delivered from its penal consequences, it could only be by an adequate satisfaction being made for them. Without blood shedding there is no remission of sins. An atonement was a fundamental necessity. Grace could not be shown at the expense of justice; no, grace must "reign through righteousness" (Rom. 5:21). Grace could only be exercised on the ground of accomplished redemption (Rom. 3:24).
And who was capable of rendering a perfect satisfaction unto the law of God? Who was qualified to meet all the demands of Divine holiness, if a sinful people were to be redeemed consistently with its claims? Who was competent both to assume the responsibilities of that people, and discharge them to the full satisfaction of the Most High? Who was able both to honor the rights of the Almighty, and yet enter sympathetically into the weakness and needs of those who were to be saved? Clearly, the only solution to this problem and the only answer to these questions lay in a Mediator, one who had both ability and title to act on God’s behalf and on theirs. For this reason was the Son of God appointed to be made in the likeness of sin’s flesh, that as the God-man He might be a "merciful and faithful High Priest" (Heb. 2:17); for mediatorship is the chief thing in priesthood.
Now this is what is brought before us in the opening verse of Hebrews 5. There we are shown three parties: on the one side God, on the other side men, and the high priest as the connecting link between: "For every high priest taken from among men is ordained for men in things pertaining to God, that he may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins" (verse 1). No correct conception of priesthood can exist where this double relation and this double service are not perceived. In Christ alone is this perfectly made good. He is the one connecting link between Heaven and earth, the only Mediator between God and "men" (1 Tim. 2:5). From Deity above, He is the Mediator downward to men beneath; and from men below, He is the Head upward to God. Priesthood is the alone channel of living relationship with a holy God. Solemn and awful proof of this is found in the fact that Satan, and then Adam, fell because there was no Mediator who stood between them and God, to maintain them in their standing before Him.
Above we have said, that Christ is the one connecting link between Heaven and earth, that He alone bridges the chasm between God and His people, considered as fallen and mined sinners. Our last sentence really sums up the whole of Hebrews chapters 1 and 2. There we have a lengthy argument setting forth the relation between the two natures in Christ, the Divine and the human, and the needs-be of both to fit Him for the priestly office. He must be the Son of God in human nature. He must "in all things be made like unto His brethren" in order that He might be "a merciful and faithful High Priest;" in order that He might "make propitiation for the sins of the people;" and in order that He might be "able to succor them that are tempted." Hebrews 2:17, 18 brings us to the climax of the apostle’s argument in those two chapters.
The priestly work of Christ was to "make propitiation for the sins of the people." It was to render a complete satisfaction to God on behalf of all their liabilities. It was to "magnify the law and make it honorable." (Isa. 42:21). In order to do this it was necessary for the law to be kept, to be perfectly obeyed in thought, word and deed. Accordingly, the Son of God was "made under the law" (Gal. 4:4), and "fulfilled" its requirements (Matthew 5:17). And this perfect obedience of Christ, performed substitutionally and officially, is now imputed to His people: as it is written, "By the obedience of One shall many be (legally) made righteous" (Rom. 5:19). But "magnifying the law" also involved His enduring its penalty on the behalf of His peoples’ violation of its precepts, and this He suffered, and so "redeemed us from the curse of the law" by "being made a curse for us" (Gal. 3:13).
To sum up now the ground we have covered. 1. The occasion of Christ’s priesthood was sin: it was this which alienated the creature from the Creator. 2. The source of Christ’s priesthood was grace: rebels were not entitled to it; such a wondrous provision proceeded solely from the Divine favor. 3. The Junction of Christ’s priesthood is mediation, to come between, to officiate for men God-wards. 4. The qualification for perfect priesthood is a God-man: none but God could meet the requirements of God; none but Man could meet the needs of men. 5. The work of priesthood is to make propitiation for sin. To these we may add: 6. The design of priesthood is that the claims of God may be honored, the person of Christ glorified, and His people redeemed. 7. The outcome of His priesthood is the maintaining of His people in the favor of God. Other subsidiary points will come before us, D.V., in the later chapters.
Verses 8, 9 of Hebrews 5 complete the passage which was before us in the preceding article. That we may the better perceive their scope and meaning, let us recapitulate the teaching of the earlier verses. In this first division of Hebrews 5 the apostle’s design was to show how that Christ fulfilled the Aaronic type. First, He had been Divinely called or appointed to the priestly office (verses 4-6). Second, to fit Him for compassion on behalf of those for whom He officiated, He was "compassed with (sinless) infirmity" (verses 3, 7). Third, He had "offered" to God, as Priest, "as for the people so also for himself" (verse 3), "strong crying and tears" (verse 7). That which is now to be before us, brings out still other perfections of Christ which qualified Him to fill the sacerdotal office, and also makes known the happy issues therefrom.
"Though He were a Son, yet learned He obedience by the things which He suffered" (verse 8). In view of His unspeakable humiliation, portrayed in the previous verse, the Divine dignity of our High Priest is here mentioned both to guard and enhance His glory. "The things discoursed in the foregoing verse seem to have an inconsistency with the account given us concerning the person of Jesus Christ at the entrance of this Epistle. For He is therein declared to be the Son of God, and that in such a glorious manner as to be deservedly exalted above all the angels in heaven. Here He is represented as in a low, distressed condition, humbly, as it were, begging for His life, and pleading with ‘strong crying and tears’ before Him who was able to deliver Him. These things might seem unto the Hebrews to have some kind of repugnancy unto one another. And, indeed, they are a ‘stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense,’ unto many at this day; they are not able to reconcile them in their carnal minds and reasonings . . .
"The aim of the apostle in this place is, not to repel the objections of unbelievers, but to instruct the faith of those who do believe in the truth of these things. For He doth not only manifest that they were all possible, upon the account of His participation of flesh and blood, who was in Himself the eternal Son of God; but also that the whole of the humiliation and distress therein ascribed unto Him was necessary, with respect unto the office which He had undertaken to discharge, and the work which was committed unto Him. And this he doth in the next ensuing and following verses" (Dr. John Owen).
"Though He were a Son, yet learned He obedience by the things which He suffered" (verse 8). First, what relation does this statement bear to the passage of which it is a part? Second, what is the particular "obedience" here referred to? Third, in what sense did the Son "learn obedience"? Fourth, how did the things "which He suffered" teach Him obedience? Fifth, what are the practical lessons here pointed for us? These are some of the questions raised by our verse which call for answer.
"Though He were a Son" looks back more immediately to verse 5, where a part of Psalm 2:7 is quoted. "That quotation has also reminded us of the Divine dignity and excellence of Christ as the ground of His everlasting priesthood. Jesus had a Divine commission; He was appointed by the Father because He was the Son; and thus He was possessed of all requisite qualifications for His office. Nevertheless the Son had to ‘learn obedience.’ He must not only possess authority and dignity, but be able to sympathize with the condition of sinners. By entering the circle of human experience He was made a merciful and faithful High Priest, and through suffering fitted for compassionately guiding our highest interests, as well as conducting our cause. The bond of brotherhood, the identity of suffering and sorrow, fitted Him to be touched with the feeling of our infirmities. He was made like unto His brethren (Heb. 2:17); He suffered, that He might be in a position to succor them that are tempted (Heb. 2:18); He was made in all respects like us, with the single exception of personal sinfulness (Heb. 4:15); and He learned obedience by what He suffered. The design of all this was, that He might be a compassionate and sympathizing High Priest" (Professor Smeaton).
Here then is the answer to our first question. In the 8th verse the Holy Spirit is still showing how that which was found in the type (verse 3), is also to be seen in the Antitype. What could more emphatically exemplify the fact that our High Priest was "compassed with infirmity" than to inform us that He not only felt acutely the experiences through which He passed, but also that He "learned obedience" by those very experiences? Nor need we hesitate to go as far as the Spirit of truth has gone; rather must we seek grace to believe all that He has said. None were more jealous of the Son’s glory than He, and none knew so well how His glory had been displayed by His voluntary descent into such unfathomable depths of shame. While holding firmly to Christ’s absolute deity, we must not (through a false conception of His dignity) shrink from following Him in thought and affection into that abyss of humiliation unto which, for our sakes, He came. When Scripture says, "He learned obedience" we must not whittle down these words to mean anything less than they affirm.
"Yet learned He obedience" brings out, very forcibly, the reality of the humanity which the Son assumed. He became true Man. If we bow to the inspired statement that "Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man" (Luke 2:52), why balk—as many have—at He "learned obedience?" True, blessedly true, these words do not signify that there was in Him a will which resisted the law of God, and which needed severe discipline to bring it into subjection. As Calvin well says, "Not that He was driven to this by force, or that He had need of being thus exercised, as the case is with oxen or horses when their ferocity is to be tamed; for He was abundantly willing to render to His Father the obedience which He owed." No, He declared, "I delight to do Thy will, O God" (Ps. 40:8). And again, "My meat is to do the will of Him that sent Me" (John 4:34).
But what is "obedience?" It is subjection to the will of another: it is an owning of the authority of another; it is performing the pleasure of another. This was an entirely new experience for the Son. Before His incarnation, He had Himself occupied the place of authority, of supreme authority. His seat had been the throne of the universe. From it He had issued commands and had enforced obedience. But now He had taken the place of a servant. He had assumed a creature nature. He had become man. And in this new place and role He conducted Himself with befitting submission to Another. He had been "made under the law," and its precepts must be honored by Him. But more: the place He had taken was an official one. He had come here as the Surety of His people. He had come to discharge their liabilities. He had come to work out a perfect righteousness for them; and therefore, as their Representative, He must obey God’s law. As the One who was here to maintain the claims of God, He must "magnify the law and make it honorable," by yielding to it a voluntary, perfect, joyous compliance.
Again; the "obedience" of Christ formed an essential part of His priestly oblation. This was typified of old—though very few have perceived it—in the animals prescribed for sacrifice: they were to be "without spot, without blemish." That denoted their excellency; only the "choice of the flock" (Ezek. 24:5) were presented to God. The antitype of this pointed to far more than the sinlessness of Christ—that were merely negative. It had in view His positive perfections, His active obedience, His personal excellency. When Christ "offered Himself without spot to God" (Heb. 9:14), He presented a Sacrifice which had already fulfilled every preceptive requirement of the law. And it was as Priest that He thus offered Himself to God, thereby fulfilling the Aaronic type. But in all things He has the pre-eminence, for at the cross He was both Offerer and Offering. Thus there is the most intimate connection between the contents of verse 8 and its context, especially with verse 7.
"Yet learned He obedience." The incarnate Son actually entered into the experience of what it was to obey. He denied Himself, He renounced His own will, He "pleased not Himself" (Rom. 15:3). There was no insubordination in Him, nothing disinclined to God’s law; instead, His obedience was voluntary and hearty. But by being "made under the law" as Man, He "learned" what Divine righteousness required of Him; by receiving commandment to lay down His life (John 10:18), He "learned" the extent of that obedience which holiness demanded. Again; as the God-man, Christ "learned" obedience experimentally. As we learn the sweetness or bitterness of food by actually tasting it, so He learned what submission is by yielding to the Father’s will. "But, moreover, there was still somewhat peculiar in that obedience which the Son of God is said to learn from His own sufferings, namely, what it is for a sinless person to suffer for sinners, ‘the Just for the unjust.’ The obedience herein was peculiar unto Him, nor do we know, nor can we have an experience of the ways and paths of it" (Dr. John Owen).
"By the things which He suffered" announces the means by which He learned obedience. Everything that Christ suffered, from first to last, during the days of His flesh, is here included. His entire course was one of suffering, and He had the experience of obedience in it all. Every scene through which He passed provided occasion for the exercise of those graces wherein obedience consists. Meekness and lowliness (Matthew 11:29), self-denial (Rom. 15:3), patience (Rev. 1:9), faith (Heb. 2:13), were habitually resident in His holy nature, but they were only capable of exercise by reason of His suffering. As His suffering increased, so His obedience grew in extent and intensity, by the very pressure brought to bear upon it; the hotter the conflict grew, the more His inward submission was manifested outwardly (compare Isaiah 50:6, 7). There was not only sufferings passively endured, but obedience in suffering, and that the most amazing and unparalleled.
To sum up now the important teachings of this wonderful verse: He who personally was high above all obedience, stooped so low as to enter the place of obedience. In that place He learned, by His sufferings, the actual experience of obedience—He obeyed. Hereby we learn what was required to the right discharge of Surety-ship: there must needs be both an active and a passive obedience vicariously rendered. The opening word "though" intimates that the high dignity of His person did not exempt Him from the humiliation which our salvation involved. The word "yet" is a note of exclamation, to deepen our sense of wonderment at His infinite condescension on our behalf, for in His place of servitude He never ceased to be the Lord of glory. "He was no less God when He died, than when He was ‘declared to be the Son of God with power, by the resurrection from the dead,’ Romans 1:4’ (Dr. John Owen).
And what are the practical lessons here pointed for us? First, our Redeemer has left us an example that we should follow His steps. He has shown us how to wear our creature nature: complete and unquestioning subjection to God is that which is required of us. Second, Christ has hereby taught us the extent to which God ought to be submitted unto: He was "obedient unto death." Third, obedience to God cost something: "Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution" (2 Tim. 3:12). Fourth, sufferings undergone according to the will of God are highly instructive. Christ Himself learned by the things which He suffered; much more may we do so, who have so much more to learn (Heb. 12:10, 11). Fifth, God’s love for us does not exempt from suffering. Though the Son of His love, Christ was not spared great sorrows and trials: sufficient for the disciple to be as his Master.
"And being made perfect, He became the Author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey Him" (verse 9). "The apostle having declared the sufferings of Christ as our High Priest, in His offering of Himself, with the necessity thereof, proceeds now to declare both what was effected thereby, and what was the especial design of God therein. And this in general was that, the Lord Christ, considering our lost condition, might be every way fitted to be a ‘perfect cause of eternal salvation unto all that obey Him,’ There are, therefore, two things in the words, both which God aimed at and accomplished in the sufferings of Christ. 1. On His own part, that He might be ‘made perfect;’ not absolutely, but with respect unto the administration of His office in the behalf of sinners. 2. With respect unto believers, that He might be unto them the ‘Author of eternal salvation’" (Dr. John Owen). This is a good epitome of the teaching of the 9th verse, but a number of things in it call for fuller elucidation.
"And being made perfect." The word, "perfect" is one which is found frequently in this Epistle. It signifies "to consummate" or "complete." It also means "to dedicate" or "fully consecrate." Our present passage contains its second occurrence, the first being in Hebrews 2:10, to which we must refer the reader. There the verb is used actively with respect to the Father: it became Him to "make perfect" the Captain of our salvation. Here it is used passively, telling of the effect of that act of God on the person of Christ; by His suffering He was "perfected." It has reference to the setting apart of Christ as Priest. "The legal high priests were consecrated by the sufferings and deaths of the beasts which were offered in sacrifice at their consecration (Ex. 29). But it belonged unto the perfection of the priesthood of Christ to be consecrated in and by His own sufferings" (Dr. John Owen). It is most important to note that the reference here is to what took place in "the days of His flesh," not at His resurrection or ascension—verses 7-9 form one complete statement. The Greek is even more emphatic than the A.V.: "And having been perfected became to those that obey Him all, the Author of salvation eternal." It was not in heaven that He was "perfected," but before He "became the Author of salvation"—cf. Hebrews 10:14, which affirms our oneness with Him in His approved obedience and accomplished sacrifice.
"And being made perfect" does not contemplate any change wrought in His person, but speaks of His being fully qualified to officiate as Priest, to present Himself to God as a perfect sacrifice for the sins of His people. His official "perfecting" was accomplished in and by means of His sufferings. By His offering up of Himself He was consecrated to the priestly office, and by the active presentation of His sacrifice to God He discharged the essential function thereof. Thus, the inspired declaration we are now considering furnishes another flat contradiction (cf. Hebrews 2:17) of those who affirm that Christ was not constituted and consecrated High Priest till His resurrection. True, there were other acts and duties pertaining to His sacerdotal office yet to be performed, but these depend for their efficacy on His previous sufferings; those He was now made meet for. The "being made perfect" or "consecrated" to the priestly office at the Cross, finds a parallel in our Lord’s own words, "For their sakes I sanctify (dedicate) Myself" (John 17:19). "Here is the ultimate end why it was necessary for Christ to suffer: that He might thus become initiated into His priesthood" (John Calvin).
"He became the Author of eternal salvation." "Having thus been made perfect through such intense, obediental, pious suffering—having thus obtained all the merit, all the power and authority, all the sympathy, which are necessary to the discharge of the high priestly functions of Savior, ‘He is become the Author of eternal salvation.’ This is the second statement which the apostle makes in illustration of the principle, that our Lord has proved Himself qualified for the office to which He has been divinely appointed by a successful discharge of its functions, the subsidiary clause, ‘being made perfect,’ connects this second statement with the first; showing how our Lord’s ‘learning obedience by the things which He suffered in the days of His flesh’—His humbled state led to His being now, in His exalted state, ‘the Author of salvation to all who obey Him’.... ‘Being made perfect’ is just equivalent to ‘having thus obtained’ every necessary qualification for actually saving them" (Dr. J. Brown).
The "Author of salvation" conveys a slightly different thought than the "Captain of salvation" in Hebrews 2:10. There it is Christ actually conducting many sons, by the powerful administration of His Word and Spirit, unto glory. Here it is the work of Christ as the meritorious and efficient Cause of their salvation. It was the perfect satisfaction which He rendered to God, the propitiatory sacrifice of Himself, which has secured the eternal deliverance of His people from the penal consequences of their sins. By His expiation He became the purchaser and procurer of our redemption. His intercession and His gift of the Spirit are the effects and fruits of His perfect oblation. "He has done everything that is necessary to make the salvation of His people consistent with, and illustrative of, the perfections of the Divine character and the principles of the Divine government; and He actually does save His people from guilt, depravity and misery—He actually makes them really holy and happy hereafter" (Dr. J. Brown).
The salvation which Christ has procured and now secures unto all His people, is here said to be an "eternal" one. First of all, none other was suited unto us. By virtue of the nature which we have received from God, we are made for eternal duration. But by sin we made ourselves obnoxious to eternal damnation, being by nature "the children of wrath, even as others" (Eph. 2:3). Therefore an eternal salvation was our deep and dire need. Second, the merits of our Savior being infinite, required from the hand of Justice a corresponding salvation, one infinite in value and in duration: cf. Hebrews 9:12. Third, the salvation procured by our great High Priest is here contrasted with that obtained by the Levitical high priest: the atonement which Aaron made, held good for one year only (Lev. 16); but that which Christ has accomplished, is of eternal validity.
"To all them that obey Him" describes those who are the beneficiaries of our High Priest’s atonement. "The expression is emphatical. To all and every one of them that obey Him; not any one of them shall be exempted from a share and interest in this salvation; nor shall any one of any other sort be admitted thereunto" (Dr. John Owen). It is not all men universally, but those only who bow to His scepter. The recipients of His great salvation are here spoken of according to the terms of human accountability. All who hear the Gospel are commanded to believe (1 John 3:23); such is their responsibility. The "obedience" of this verse is an evangelical, not a legal one: it is the "obedience of faith" (Rom. 16:26). So also in Acts 5:32 we read of the Holy Spirit "whom God hath given to them that obey Him." But this "obedience" is not to be restricted to the initial act, but takes in the whole life of faith. A Christian, in contradistinction from a non-Christian, is one who obeys Christ (John 14:23). The "all them that obey Him" of Hebrews 5:9 is in opposition to "yet learned He obedience" in the previous verse: it identifies the members with their Head!
Before taking up the next verse, let us seek to point out how that the passage which has been before us, not only shows Christ provided the substance of what was foreshadowed by the Levitical priests, but also how that He excelled them at every point, thus demonstrating the immeasurable superiority of Christ over Aaron. First, Aaron was but a man (verse 1); Christ, the "Son." Second, Aaron offered "sacrifices" (verse 1); Christ offered one perfect sacrifice, once for all. Third, Aaron was "compassed with infirmity" (verse 2); Christ was the "mighty" One (Ps. 89:19). Fourth, Aaron needed to offer for his own sins (verse 3); Christ was sinless. Fifth, Aaron offered a sacrifice external to himself; Christ offered Himself. Sixth, Aaron effected only a temporary salvation. Christ secured an eternal one. Seventh, Aaron’s atonement was for Israel only; Christ’s for "all them that obey Him."
"Called of God an high priest after the order of Melchizedek" (verse 10). This verse forms the transition between the first division of Hebrews 5, and its second which extends to the end of chapter 7—the second being interrupted by a lengthy parenthesis. In the first section treating of our Lord’s priesthood, the apostle has amplified his statement in Hebrews 2:17, 18, and has furnished proof that Christ fulfilled the Aaronic type. In the second section wherein he treats of our Lord’s sacerdotal office, he amplifies his declaration in Hebrews 4:15, and shows that in Christ we have not only an High Priest, but "a great High Priest." The different aspects of his theme treated of in these two divisions of Hebrews 5 is intimated by the variation to be noted in verses 6,10. In the former he says, "Thou art a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek," but in verse 10 he adds, "Called of God an High Priest after the order of Melchizedek."
The Greek word for "called" in verse 10 is entirely different from the one used in verse 4, "called of God." The former signifies to ordain or appoint; the latter to salute or greet. To the right understanding of the purport of verse 10, it is essential to observe carefully the exact point at which this statement is introduced: it is not till after the declarations that Christ had "offered up" (verse 7), had "learned obedience" (verse 7), had been "made perfect," and had become "the Author of salvation" (verse 9), we are told that God saluted Christ as "High Priest after the order of Melchizedek." What is found in verse 6 does not in any wise weaken the force of this, still less does it clash with it. In verses 5, 6 the Spirit is not treating of the order of Christ’s priesthood, but is furnishing proof that He had been called to that office by God Himself.
We do not propose to offer an exposition of the contents of this 10th verse on the present occasion, but content ourselves with directing attention to the important fact that it was consequent upon His being officially "made perfect" and becoming "the Author of eternal salvation," that Christ was saluted by God as "High Priest after the order of Melchizedek." This act of God’s followed the Savior’s death and resurrection. It was God’s greeting of the glorious Conqueror of sin and death. Hence the propriety of His new title. If the reader refers to Genesis 14 he will find that the historical Melchizedek first comes on the scene to greet Abraham after his notable conquest of Chedorlaomer and his allies. It was upon his "return from the slaughter" of the kings, that Melchizedek appeared and blessed him. Thus he owned Abraham’s triumph. In like manner, God has greeted the mighty Victor. May the Spirit of God fit our hearts and minds for a profounder insight of His living oracles.