Hebrews 5:1-10: These verses continue the stream of thought from the end of chapter 4, a meditation on Jesus as a high priest, a high priest who is compassionate. Jesus as the Christ, like the high priest in Jerusalem, was called by God to this position, and as a high priest he deals gently with others. Jesus was called by God into the position of high priest by virtue of his relation to God as son. Verses 5 and 6 make use of two psalms that have their origins in the installation of the king of Israel. The language of “you are my son” is from Psalm 2 (v. 7). The language of being a high priest after the order of Melchizedek is from Psalm 110 (v. 4). Melchizedek is the traditional priest-king of Salem (Genesis 14). Jesus behavior in offering up prayers, with a particular allusion to the Garden of Gethsemane, is noted and it is akin to the priestly prayers offered for all the people by a high priest. Yet Jesus suffered, and this makes him able to be a compassionate high priest. He knows suffering. His suffering love, his priestly behavior even in life, made him “the source of eternal salvation.” God has worked through Jesus to bring new life to others. This language has the potential to be more or less moving to us today. We have not been raised on the language of the high priest and may not be as touched by some of these images as were the original hearers of these words.
Hebrews 5:11-14: Perhaps even the original hearers were not as moved by these words as the writer thought they should be. Perhaps we have some shift in thinking in these verses, for we move now to exhortation and concern that some are falling away from the faith. The language about Jesus as a priest in the mold of Melchizedek will be picked up again in chapter 7. Maybe it is a little of both. Anyway, the writer moves from his explication of Jesus as high priest to exhortation and encouragement, along with expressing a little frustration.
If the readers are finding all this a little dry and esoteric, maybe it is because they “have become dull in understanding.” The writer uses two analogies to make his point – they are like people who should be teachers but remain only students and they are like infants needing milk not yet ready for solid food. Such words, at their best, are invitations to self-reflection.
Hebrews 6:1-12: After diagnosing the readers as a little behind where they should be, the writer encourages them to “go on toward perfection.” It is interesting that the educational metaphor continues. For John Wesley, going on to perfection had to do with being made perfect in love, and such perfection fits less well with the educational metaphor. No doubt the writer has more in mind that intellectual learning – something more like perfection in love. Such perfection does have an intellectual component, however. Failing to press on to a mature understanding of their faith, the readers seem deliberately to subscribe only to those elements of Christianity that overlap with Judaism. The basic teaching about Christ consists of six items also taught by Pharisaic Judaism: repentance from dead works, faith towards God, instruction about baptisms (washings), laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment (New Interpreter’s
Study Bible). Whatever the precise meaning of all this, it is clear that the writer expects growth in faith and life, and is frustrated that such growth is slow in coming.
The writer’s frustration with the slow growth of his readers comes out even more clearly in his view that those who have begun the journey of faith in Christ – who have been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come – cannot be restored if they have fallen away. It is as if they are crucifying Christ again, holding him in contempt. The description of what Christian faith offers is very moving, very powerful. It is almost as if the writer were saying, “How can you turn away from this?” The question can be raised, what does it mean to say a person cannot be restored again to repentance? Eugene Peterson renders this, “they can’t start over as if nothing happened.” The history of Christian faith has made allowance for the restoration to Christian faith and community those who have fallen away. Of course, the writer does not include his readers in the category of those who have fallen so far. His warning is rhetorical, arguing grave danger awaits those who stray too far. His concern is pastoral, not speculative. To use these verses to exclude persons from the possibility to come back to faith is to misuse them. Their point is precisely to encourage a deeper faith, a stronger growth in faith. The writer, in fact, is “confident of better things in your case.”
The rhetorical strategy shifts. The writer moves from warning the readers about grave danger to building them up. God will not overlook their work and their love. They are encouraged to keep on, to build on this good work. In my experience, this strategy to motivate people works much more effectively than grave warnings. There may be circumstances in which that strategy needs to be employed, however. Again, the point of this whole section is encouragement to keep the faith, to grow in faith and love, to continue in faith and patience so that one will inherit the promises.
Hebrews 6:13-20: Another Hebrew Scripture reference is used to elaborate on what it means to inherit the promises. God made a promise to Abraham, and Abraham inherited this promise because he patiently endured. Such behavior is encouraged. The writer wants to assure the readers that God’s promise if good, that God will continue to work for God’s dream for the world. We are to be encouraged, to keep the faith, “to seize the hope set before us.” The hope we have in God as we know God in Jesus the Christ is to be “an anchor of the soul.” The author will shift images and thus move back toward the discussion of Jesus as high priest.