GCI Sermon – October 17, 2021

The High Priest Made Low

Hebrews 5:1-10 ESV

“Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes” is a well-worn cliché about reserving judgment on people. Well-worn enough to have a joke made out of it, “…that way, when you judge him, you’ll be a mile away and you’ll have his shoes!” But even the threadbare quality of the proverb and the tiring humor of the joke tell us that this phrase has been around a long time and is basically universally understood.


It’s no accident that some of the most effective social workers are those who grew up in impoverished communities. It isn’t a coincidence that some of the most mission-driven police officers are those who were criminals in their youth or at least grew up around crime.

Take Edson Arantes do Nascimento (known as Pele), for instance, arguably the best soccer player in history. He learned his sport in the slums of Brazil, playing with a sock stuffed with old rags because his family couldn’t afford a ball. After achieving fame, he never forgot where he came from, donating to philanthropic causes and speaking out against racism. What he learned through that firsthand experience never left him. It became part of who he was.

A similar experience is at the heart of the gospel – Jesus became one of us. His name was Immanuel, “God with us.”

The thematic language of this chapter in Hebrews concerns the Jewish priesthood, so it may seem a bit removed from our experience. But if you look closely, you realize you are reading the story of Jesus very much as a human being – as someone who was walking a mile in our shoes. Even in the midst of the complex religious language around the priesthood, Jesus’ humanity comes through – with “loud cries and tears” (verse 7).

Let’s look at this passage today, even its most peculiar feature Melchizedek, and see what it means to have a high priest who came low. Let’s look at:

  • Christ out of nowhere
  • Christ right here
  • Christ out ahead of us

Christ out of nowhere

Most of us can’t even quite pronounce the name Melchizedek let alone understand why the writer of Hebrews is so excited about him. He is mentioned so casually here that the readers must have had a strong Jewish context to understand the reference.

Melchizedek was a historical person who came essentially out of nowhere to comfort and encourage Abraham, thousands of years before. (See Genesis 14.) Abraham had been through a brutal battle and this disorienting story shows Melchizedek walking up to him in the desert one day:

 And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. (He was priest of God Most High.) And he blessed him and said, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!” And Abram gave him a tenth of everything. (Genesis 14:18-20 ESV)

Abraham, called Abram at the time, was the start of the story of Israel. He was the only one we know of who worshipped the God of Israel and had heard from God. It must have been very lonely, and he was constantly having to convince family members and others that this God was real and cared about them. And then this guy comes from nowhere, speaking the same language about God that Abraham spoke. No one else had experienced that, at least that Abram knew, and suddenly Melchizedek is there. As suddenly as he appears, he disappears from the narrative.

The next place he appears is in a Psalm:

Your people will offer themselves freely on the day of your power, in holy garments; from the womb of the morning, the dew of your youth will be yours.  The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, “You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” (Psalm 110:3-4)

Here the psalmist is writing about a conversation between God and a shadowy priest king figure, who is never fully explained. He then designates this figure a priest in the order of Melchizedek.

So, we have a shadowy figure who is somehow associated with a mysterious personage in an enigmatic exchange. Everybody following?

Distraction is always a temptation here. We want to explore the mystery and try to guess the secret code of scripture and unlock it. But I think that’s counterproductive and leads us away from the heart of what’s being told here. What we see in Hebrews is the writer trying to connect the story of Jesus with the story of Israel and therefore the story of the world. He’s interpreting it with the context he knows, not trying to give us some mystic riddle.

Boiling it down, the author is saying that Jesus is not like the priests they knew, who came from the tribe of Aaron. He is something else entirely, part of the larger, global, and admittedly mysterious world of Melchizedek. Essentially, this story is bigger than us. The gospel is not just a story of the political situation of Israel in that day, nor is it just the story of our own personal devotional journey today – it is all those things, and much more.

Jesus is our best friend who comforts us, loves us and “has a wonderful plan for our lives” (as the Four Spiritual Laws puts it). He’s also the Lord of the universe who holds quantum reality together and strolls through the planets as King. One of the best ways to express that to the audience of Hebrews was to identify him with Melchizedek, a figure somehow greater than even Abraham, which they couldn’t imagine.

Melchizedek is a much deeper theological discussion that we don’t have the right to ignore just because it’s complex; however, the error on the other side is to become obsessed with it and let the mystery of it distract us. Neither extreme is helpful. For now, the point is that the mystery of Jesus is greater than any system we try to cram him into.

Christ right here

Chapter breaks, verse numbers and subtitles weren’t in the original manuscripts of scripture and can sometimes be unhelpful. The discussion here of Jesus as High Priest actually starts in the end of chapter 4, where it says:

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. (Hebrews 4:15 ESV)

The author then turns to discussing earthly priests, which were probably a familiar class of people to the original audience. They grew up with priests, and the temple life was woven right into their own. The author reminds them that a priest can identify with them:

He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness. Because of this he is obligated to offer sacrifice for his own sins just as he does for those of the people. (Hebrews 5:2-3 ESV)

So the priest is able to empathize with the people because he is one of them. The priests were the people’s representatives before God and kept the ritual connection to the God of Israel. Their role was vital and highly respected, and the author here reminds the reader that the priests are just people, even to the point that they had to give sacrifices to cover their own sins. Because of this they could “deal gently” with the people – because they are just like the people they serve.

Read about a page of the history of Israel and you’ll find out that priests often forgot that, and let their pastoral spirits be choked by pride. Look around the greater church for a minute, and you’ll see examples of pastors who seem to forget to practice humility. But the author of Hebrews points to the true reality that these people are just that – people.

The exception is with Jesus. The priests are just people because they are sinful and corrupt just like the rest of us, but Jesus never was. Jesus never sinned, and therefore didn’t have the experience of sin that – ideally – birthed empathy in the priests.

But what he did experience was the results of sin. And that is the subtle theme the author is getting across here. Jesus experienced the pain, hunger, sickness, anxiety, fatigue, fear and every other aspect of living in the fallen world – though he never participated in the sin that brought it on.

He didn’t share our sin, but he did share our weakness. He knew the limited, sometimes frightening life of living in this fallen world. Therefore, he knows us. He isn’t a superhero who dropped in, fixed everything and left. He was born into our world and knew the fear and weakness of our world to the point that it killed him.

  • When you are tired, know that “Jesus, wearied as he was from his journey, was sitting beside the well. It was about the sixth hour.” John 4:6 ESV
  • When you are scared, know that “And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.” Luke 22:44 ESV
  • When you feel like God has abandoned you, hear Jesus say: “Why have you forsaken me?” Matthew 27:46 ESV.
  • When you weep, remember, “Jesus wept.” John 11:35 ESV

Christ is right here—Jesus was and is right with us. He can truly say, “I know how you feel.”

Christ out ahead of us

Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. (Hebrews 5:8 ESV)

This verse makes most of us do a double take. How could Jesus learn obedience? Wasn’t he already perfect? What did he need to learn?

Again, Jesus was one of us. Although he never sinned, he learned to be human by becoming one. He learned life by the same skinned knees and sleepless nights and false starts that we do.

He went through the full experience of being prepared for his vocation as the savior of humanity. The uncertainty and confusion of human life was the way there. The details of how exactly all this happened, we don’t know, but we know he was thoroughly one of us.

Instead of scorching the earth and starting over, God worked through our brokenness to heal it. Jesus blazed the trail of what it means to be human—to show us how to be who we were created to be, and to make it possible through his death and resurrection.

This is Jesus out ahead of us, fixing the world from the inside.

One commentator said it well: “Creation got spoken into being. Salvation got shrieked into being.” God could have wiped us out and started over, that would have been much easier. But instead, he brought and is bringing the new humanity to birth with all the shrieks and sweat and blood it takes for that to happen.

Christ out of nowhere—The mysteries of Jesus and the gospel are far too big for us to understand. The gospel isn’t just a pleasant message telling us to love each other—it’s world-transforming, radioactive, somehow familiar and completely strange at the same time.

Christ right here—Jesus walked among us in the weakness caused by sin he never committed. He knows what it means to be human and so still walks among us by the Spirit—lovingly patient. He knows what we’re dealing with in the human experience. He’s been here.

Christ out ahead of us—God didn’t start the story over; he wrote himself into it. The creator of humanity became human to show us what it means to truly be human. He blazed a trail we could never blaze and now the point is to follow.

The high priest was made low—correcting, healing and ultimately affirming what it means to be human.



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