When I prepare to preach a passage, I like to start by looking at the original language and determining whether or not it seems to me that the biblical interpreters (who are far more educated and experienced in this discipline of interpretation than I am) have come up with the same end result I would have deciphered on my own (with my many limitations). Most of the time, it’s close. When it isn’t, there is great room for charity and discussion and consideration regarding how we might otherwise read the sacred ancient words. Every once in awhile, I am astounded, left wondering why certain phrases were added or deleted or changed. As I worked through this particular passage, I felt a little of all of that. Here’s my paraphrase:
Priests have existed in great numbers, but they haven’t remained forever, because they died; but now Jesus’ priesthood can never be broken, because his life transcends time. Therefore, he has the power to save, continually, as he reaches toward humanity and humanity reaches toward God. This is the purpose of a priest.
It is fitting for such a high priest to be holy; innocent down to the intention, causing no harm; separated from sin; exalted to heaven. It is no longer necessary for this high priest to carry up a sacrifice for his own sin and then for the sins of the people. Indeed, he did this once and for all when he carried up himself.
The assigned law appoints a person, in his or her frailty, as a priest, but the word that affirms that oath, makes that person a [child], completed in perfection for this time.
Often, I have heard this passage preached as an atonement theory, but four different possibilities for preaching this passage in fresh and new ways are evident to me.
Temporality and Resurrection:
The importance of time (and the transcendence thereof) permeates this passage from beginning to end. Humanity is temporal. We live. With any luck, we live well, as many of the referenced priests did. Then we die. A traditional interpretation holds the life of Jesus in tension to that of humanity, stating, “but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood.”[i] This is true. This is important. But there is also something more to parse. These same words can mean that Jesus’ priesthood is unbreakable, because he transcends time, and an important piece of this is resurrection. I think it is especially relevant, because Jesus diddie. Our belief in an incarnational God who understands what it is to be human, at its deepest depths and highest heights, hinges not only on a God who is eternal but on a savior who is with us in all things, including suffering and death. Resurrection is, of course, our hope for the future, but there must be something now, as well.
The Power to Save Continually:
The very little word, εἰς [eis] throws a wrench into this passage. It is often translated as “completely” or “forever,” but there is something about the original intention that may not be quite so static in nature. Eis is ordinarily used when describing action—something is in motion. It is, indeed, used to speak of propelling something into a state of reached purpose and result, but it seems more perpetual than terminal. Do we believe that Jesus has the power to save ultimately and conclusively? Of course (see: resurrection)! But do we also believe Jesus has the power to save continually? I sure hope so, because in the midst of all the brokenness that is the world and us in it, we need salvation that acts on our behalf and with our participation, every single day.
Admittedly, this is the part that borders on the language of atonement. The NIV alludes to a high priest who “truly meets our need.”[ii] I don’t specifically find that in the study of this passage, but I can certainly see how it is implied by the perfect sacrifice Jesus sets as an example for us. Why do any of us sacrifice except to meet the needs of another? In the gospel passage for today, Jesus asks the question, “What do you want me to do for you?”[iii] I would venture to say this is answered in the words of the author of Hebrews. Be holy and innocent, cause us no harm, be sinless and exalted, that there may be no need for the everlasting system of atonement, to which we can never live up. We need your example and your grace, for you are the only one who can offer it fully, once and for all.
Self-sacrifice is intriguing, though, because it doesn’t tend to be an offering without consequence for the recipient. Instead, it draws us into the desire to live our own lives for the sake of others. This is no easy, substitutionary lesson in salvation.
What Does this Mean for Us:
The last part of this passage is actually a bit baffling to me. It is always… always… interpreted and used in such a way that the final words refer to Jesus, alone, a reiteration affirming his priesthood forever. This is, of course, good stuff! However, this time around I saw something different. I saw how this might also be translated to confirm the calling that God has given to humanity, as the priesthood of believers. The law appoints people, in all their fragility, as priests, but the word affirms the oath and makes (perhaps those very same people) children, perfected for this very time. I can’t help but think of Esther, who is encouraged to take her place in history and redemption, “for such a time as this.”[iv] Jesus is, indeed, our high priest forever, offering himself for our sake. The result is that we must also live into our potential to intercede for the world that is crying out all around us.
[i]Hebrews 7:24 (NIV) [ii]Hebrews 7:26 [iii]Mark 10:51 [iv]Esther 4:14