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Hebrews 4

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

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Verses 1-2


Malachi 3:13; Hebrews 3:13-19; Hebrews 4:1-2

This is another charge to the doubters among the pious remnant of Israel, who, seeing the success of the wicked, said it is vain to serve God. Deuteronomy was their Canon, and Deuteronomy said that if men sinned they decayed, if they were righteous they prospered. How different were the facts of experience! The evil men succeeded: the good won no gain by their goodness, nor did their mourning for the sins of their people work any effect. Bitterest of all, they had to congratulate wickedness in high places, and Jehovah Himself suffered it to go unpunished. Such things, says "Malachi," "spake they that feared God to each other"-tempted thereto by the dogmatic form of their religion, and forgetful of all that Jeremiah and the Evangelist of the Exile had taught them of the value of righteous sufferings. Nor does "Malachi" remind them of this. His message is that the Lord remembers them, has their names written before Him, and when the day of His action comes they shall be separated from the wicked and spared. This is simply to transfer the fulfillment of the promise of Deuteronomy to the future and to another dispensation. Prophecy still works within the Law.

The Apocalypse of this last judgment is one of the grandest in all Scripture To the wicked it shall be a terrible fire, root and branch shall they be burned out, but to the righteous a fair morning of God, as when dawn comes to those who have been sick and sleepless through the black night, and its beams bring healing, even as to the popular belief of Israel it was the rays of the morning sun which distilled the dew. They break into life and energy, like young calves leaping from the dark pen into the early sunshine. To this morning landscape a grim figure is added. They shall tread down the wicked and the arrogant like ashes beneath their feet.

"Your words are hard upon Me, saith Jehovah. Ye say, ‘What have we said against Thee?’ Ye have said, ‘It is vain to serve God,’ and ‘What gain is it to us to have kept His charge, or to have walked in funeral garb before Jehovah of Hosts? Even now we have got to congratulate the arrogant; yea, the workers of wickedness are fortified; yea, they tempt God and escape!’ Such things spake they that fear Jehovah to each other. But Jehovah gave ear and heard, and a book of remembrance {Ezekiel 8:9} was written before Him about those who fear Jehovah, and those who keep in His Name. And they shall be Mine own property, saith Jehovah of Hosts, in the day when I rise to action, and I will spare them even as a man spares his son that serves him. And ye shall once more see the difference between righteous and wicked, between him that serves God and him that does not serve Him."

"For, lo! the day is coming that shall burn like a furnace, and all the overweening and every one that works wickedness shall be as stubble, and the day that is coming shall devour them, saith Jehovah of Hosts, so that there be left them neither root nor branch. But to you that fear My Name the Sun of Righteousness shall rise with healing in His wings, and ye shall go forth and leap {Habakkuk 1:8} like calves of the stall. And ye shall tread down the wicked, for they shall be as ashes beneath the soles of your feet, in the day that I begin to do, saith Jehovah of Hosts."

Verses 1-13



Hebrews 3:1 - Hebrews 4:13 (R.V.).

"Wherefore, holy brethren, partakers of a heavenly calling, consider the Apostle and High-priest of our confession, even Jesus; who was faithful to Him that appointed Him as also was Moses in all his house. For He hath been counted worthy of more glory than Moses, by so much as he that built the house hath more honour than the house. For every house is builded by some one; but He that built all things is God. And Moses indeed was faithful in all his house as a servant, for a testimony of those things which were afterward to be spoken; but Christ as a Son, over His house; Whose house are we, if we hold fast our boldness and the glorying of our hope firm unto the end. Wherefore, even as the Holy Ghost saith,

To-day if ye shall hear His voice, Harden not your hearts, as in the provocation, Like as in the day of the temptation in the wilderness, Wherewith your fathers tempted Me by proving Me, And saw My works forty years. Wherefore I was displeased with this generation, And said, They do always err in their heart: But they did not know My ways; As I sware in My wrath, They shall not enter into My rest.

Take heed, brethren, lest haply there shall be in any one of you an evil heart of unbelief, in falling away from the living God: but exhort one another day by day, so long as it is called today; lest any one of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin: for we are become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our confidence firm unto the end: while it is said,

To-day if ye shall hear His voice, Harden not your hearts, as in the provocation.

For who, when they heard, did provoke? nay, did not all they that came out of Egypt by Moses? And with whom was He displeased forty years? was it not with them that sinned, whose carcases fell in the wilderness? And to whom sware He that they should not enter into His rest, but to them that were disobedient? And we see that they were not able to enter in because of unbelief.

Let us fear therefore, lest haply, a promise being left of entering into His rest, any one of you should seem to have come short of it. For indeed we have had good tidings preached unto us, even as also they: but the word of hearing did not profit them, because they were not united by faith with them that heard. For we which have believed do enter into that rest; even as He hath said,

As I sware in My wrath, They shall not enter into My rest: although the works were finished from the foundation of the world.

For He hath said somewhere of the seventh day on this wise,

And God rested on the seventh day from all His works;

and in this place again,

They shall not enter into My rest.

Seeing therefore it remaineth that some should enter thereinto, and they to whom the good tidings were before preached failed to enter in because of disobedience, He again defineth a certain day, saying in David, after so long a time, To-day, as it hath been before said,

To-day if ye shall hear His voice, Harden not your hearts.

For if Joshua had given them rest, he would not have spoken afterward of another day. There remaineth therefore a sabbath rest for the people of God. For he that is entered into his rest hath himself also rested from his works, as God did from His. Let us therefore give diligence to enter into that rest, that no man fall after the same example of disobedience. For the word of God is living, and active, and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing even to the dividing of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and quick to discern the thoughts and intents of the heart. And there is no creature that is not manifest in His sight: but all things are naked and laid open before the eyes of Him with Whom we have to do."

The broad foundation of Christianity has now been laid in the person of the Son, God-Man. In the subsequent chapters of the Epistle this doctrine is made to throw light on the mutual relations of the two dispensations.

The first deduction is that the Mosaic dispensation was itself created by Christ; that the threats and promises of the Old Testament live on into the New; that the central idea of the Hebrew religion, the idea of the Sabbath rest, is realised in its inmost meaning in Christ only; that the word of God is ever full of living energy. Hereafter the Apostle will not be slow to expose the wide difference between the two dispensations. But it is equally true and not less important that the old covenant was the vesture of truths which remain when the garment has been changed.

At the outset the writer’s tone is influenced by this doctrine. He turns his treatise unconsciously into an epistle. He addresses his readers as brethren, holy indeed, but not holy after the pattern of their former exclusiveness; for their holiness is inseparably linked with their common brotherhood. They are partakers with the Gentile Churches in a heavenly call. Startling words! Hebrews holy in virtue of their sharing with Greeks and barbarians, bond and free, in a common call from high Heaven, which sees all earth as a level plain beneath! The middle wall of partition has been broken down to the ground. Yet soothing words, and full of encouragement! The Apostle and his leaders were standing near the end of the Apostolic age, when the Hebrew Christians were despondent, weak, and despised, both by reason of national calamities and because of their inferiority to their sister Churches among the Gentiles. The Apostle does not bluntly assure them of their equality, but gently addresses them as partakers of a heavenly call. His words are the reverse of St. Paul’s language to the Ephesians, who are reminded that the Gentiles are partakers in the privileges of Israel. Those who sometimes were far off have been made nigh; the strangers and sojourners are henceforth fellow-citizens with the saints and of the household of God. Here, on the contrary, Hebrew Christians are encouraged with the assurance that they partake in the privileges of all believers. If the wild olive tree has been grafted in among the branches and made partaker of the root, the branches, broken off that the wild olive might be grafted in, are themselves in consequence grafted into their own olive tree. Through God’s mercy to the Gentiles, Israel also has obtained mercy.

The Apostle addresses them with affection. But his behest is sharp and urgent: "Consider the Apostle and High-priest of our profession, Jesus." Consider intently, or, to borrow a modern word that has sometimes been abused, Realise Jesus. Dwell not with abstractions and theories. Fear not imaginary dangers. Make Jesus Christ a reality before the eyes of your mind. To do this well will be more convincing than external evidences. To behold the glory of the temple, linger not to admire the strong buttresses without, but enter. Realisation of Christ may be said to be the gist of the whole Epistle.

This spiritual vision is not ecstasy. We realise Christ as Apostle and as High-priest. We behold Him when His words are a message to us from God, and when He carries our supplications to God. Revelation and prayer are the two opposite poles of communion with the Father. The dispensation of Moses rested on these two pillars,--apostleship and priesthood. But the fundamental conceptions of the Old Testament centre in Jesus. Though our author has distinguished between God’s revelation in the prophets and His revelation in a Son, he teaches also that even the prophets received their message through the Son. Though he contrasts in what follows of the Epistle the high-priesthood of Aaron with Christ’s, still he regards Aaron’s office as utterly meaningless apart from Christ. The words "Apostle and High-priest" pave the way, therefore, to the most prominent truth in this section of the Epistle: that whatever is best in the Old Testament has been assimilated and inspired with new energy by the Gospel.

1. To begin, we must understand the actual position of the founders of the two dispensations. Neither Moses nor Christ set about originating, designing, constructing, from his own impulse and for his own purposes. Both acted for God, and were consciously under His directing eye.[38] "It is required in stewards that a man be found faithful."[39] They have but to obey, and leave the unity and harmony of the plan to another. To use an illustration, every house is built by some one or other.[40] The design has been conceived in the brain of the architect. He is the real builder, though he employs masons and joiners to put the materials together according to his plan. This applies to the subject in hand; for God is the Architect of all things. He realises His own ideas as well through the seeming originality of thinkers as through the willing obedience of workers. Now, the dispensation of the old covenant was one part of God’s design. To build this portion of the house He found a faithful servant in Moses. The dispensation of the new covenant is but another, though more excellent, part of the same design; and Jesus was not less faithful to finish the structure. The unity of the design was in the mind of God.

Moses was faithful when he refused the treasures of Egypt, and chose affliction with the people of God and the reproach of His Christ. He was faithful when he chided the people in the wilderness for their unbelief, and when he interceded for them again with God. Christ also was faithful to His God when He despised the shame and endured the Cross.

Yet we must acknowledge a difference. God has accounted Jesus worthy of greater honour than Moses, inasmuch as Moses was part of the house, and that part the pre-existent Christ erected. Moses was "made" all that he became by Christ, but Christ was "made"[41] all that He became--God-Man--by God. Moreover, though Moses was greater than all the other servants of God before Christ, because they were placed in subordinate positions, while he was faithful in the whole house, yet even he was but a servant, whereas Christ was Son. Moses was in the house, it is true; but the Son was placed over the house. The work which Moses had to do was to uphold the authority of the Son, to witness, that is, to the things which would afterwards be spoken unto us by God in His Son, Jesus Christ.[42]

The Apostle seems to delight in his illustration of the house, and continues to use it with a fresh meaning. This house, or, if you please, this household, are we Christians. We are the house in which Moses showed the utmost faithfulness as servant. We are the circumcision, we the true Israel of God. If, then, we turn away from Christ to Moses, that faithful servant himself will have none of us. That we may be God’s house, we must lay fast hold of our Christian confidence and the boasting of our hope out-and-out to the end.

2. Again, the threatenings of the Old Testament for disobedience to God apply with full force to apostasy from Christ. They are the authoritative voice of the Holy Spirit. The Apostle is reminded by the words which he has just used, "We are God’s house," of the Psalmist’s joyful exclamation, "He is our God, and we are the people of His pasture, and the sheep of His hand."[43] Then follows in the Psalm a warning, which the Apostle considers it equally necessary to address to the Hebrew Christians: "To-day, if indeed you still hear His voice (for it is possible He may no longer speak), harden not your hearts, as you did in Meribah, rightly called,--the place of contention. Your fathers, far from trusting Me when I put them to the test, turned upon Me and put Me to the test, and that although they saw My works during forty years." Forty years,--ominous number! The readers would at once call to mind that forty years within a little had now passed since their Lord had gone through the heavens to the right hand of the Father. What if, after all, the old belief proves true that He returns to judgment after waiting for precisely the same period for which He had patiently endured their fathers’ unbelief in the wilderness! God is still living, and He is the same God. He Who sware in His wrath that the fathers should not enter into the rest of Canaan is the same in His anger, the same in His mercy. Exhort one another. In the wilderness God dealt with individuals. He does so still. See that there be no evil heart, which is unbelief, in any one of you at any time while the call, "To-day!" is sounded in your ears. For sin weakens the sense of individual guilt, and thus deceives men by hardening their hearts.[44] All that came out of Egypt provoked God to anger. But they provoked Him, not in the mass, but one by one, and one by one, with palsied limbs,[45] they fell in the wilderness, as men fall exhausted on the march. Thus, for their persistent unbelief, God sware they should not enter into His rest--"His," for He kept the key still in His own hand. But persistent unbelief made them incapable of entering. If God were still willing to cut off for them the waters of Jordan, they could not[46] enter in because of unbelief.

3. Similarly, the promises of God are still in force. Indeed, the steadfastness of the threatenings involves the continuance of the promises, and the rejection of the promises ensures the fulfilment of every threatening. As much as this is expressed in the opening words of Hebrews 4:1-16 : "A promise being left to us, let us therefore fear."

To prove the identity of the promises under the two dispensations, the Apostle singles out one promise, which may be considered most significant of the national no less than the religious life of Israel. The Greek mind was ever on the alert for something new. Its character was movement. But the ideal of the Old Testament is rest. Christ came into touch with the people at once when He began His public ministry with an invitation to the weary and heavy-laden to come unto Him, and with the promise that He would give them rest. Near the close of His ministry He explained and fulfilled the promise by giving to His disciples peace. The object of our author, in the difficult chapter now under consideration, is to show that the idea most characteristic of the old covenant finds its true and highest realisation in Christ. After the manner of St. Paul, who, in more than one passage, teaches that through the fall of Israel salvation is come unto the Gentiles, the writer of this Epistle also argues that the promise of rest still remains, because it was not fulfilled under the Old Testament in consequence of Israel’s unbelief. The word of promise was a gospel[47] to them, as it is to us. But it did not profit them, because they did not assimilate[48] the promise by faith. Their history from the beginning consists of continued renewals of the promise on the part of God and persistent rejections on the part of Israel, ending in the hardening of their hearts. Every time the promise is renewed, it is presented in a higher and more spiritual form. Every rejection inevitably leads to grosser views and more hopeless unbelief. So entirely false is the fable of the Sibyl! God does not burn some of the leaves when His promises have been rejected, and come back with fewer offers at a higher price. His method is to offer more and better on the same conditions. But it is the nature of unbelief to cause the heart to wax gross, to blind the spiritual vision, until in the end the rich, spiritual promises of God and the earthly, dark unbelief of the sinner stand in extremest contrast.

At first the promise is presented in the negative form of rest from labour. Even the Creator condescended thus to rest. But what such rest can be to God it were vain for man to try to conceive. We know that, as soon as the foundations of the world were laid and the work of creation was ended, God ceased from this form of activity. But when this negative rest had been attained, it was far from realising God’s idea of rest either for Himself or for man. For, though these works of God, the material universe, were finished from the laying of the world’s foundations to the crowning of the edifice,[49] God still speaks of another rest, and threatens to shut some men out for their unbelief. Our Lord told the Pharisees, whose notion of the Sabbath was the negative one, that He desired His Sabbath rest to be like that of His Father, Who "worketh hitherto." The Jewish Sabbath, it appears, therefore, is the most crude and elementary form of God’s promised rest.

The promise is next presented as the rest of Canaan.[50] This is a stage in advance in the development of the idea. It is not mere abstention from secular labour, and the consecration of inactivity. The rest now consists in the enjoyment of material prosperity, the proud consciousness of national power, the growth of a peculiar civilization, the rise of great men and eminent saints, and all this won by Israel under the leadership of their Jesus, who was in this respect a type of ours. But even in this second garden of Eden Israel did not attain unto God’s rest. Worldliness became their snare.

But God still called to them by the mouth of the Psalmist, long after they had entered on the possession of Canaan. This only proves that the true rest was still unattained, and God’s promise not yet fulfilled. The form which the rest of God now assumed is not expressly stated in our passage. But we have not far to go in search of it. The first Psalm, which is the introduction to all the Psalms, declares the blessedness of contemplation. The Sabbath is seldom mentioned by the Psalmist. Its place is taken by the sanctuary, in which rest of soul is found in meditating on God’s law and beholding the Lord’s beauty.[51] The call is at last urgent. "To-day!" It is the last invitation. It lingers in the ears in ever fainter voice of prophet after prophet, until the prophet’s face turns towards the east to announce the break of dawn and the coming of the perfect rest in Jesus Christ. God’s promise was never fulfilled to Israel, because of their unbelief. But shall their unbelief make the faithfulness of God of none effect? God forbid. The gifts and calling of God are without repentance. The promise that has failed of fulfilment in the lower form must find its accomplishment in the higher. Even a prayer is the more heard for every delay. God’s mill grinds slowly, but for that reason grinds small. What is the inference? Surely it is that the Sabbath rest still remains for the true people of God. This Sabbath rest St. Paul prayed that the true Israel, who glory, not in their circumcision, but in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, might receive: "Peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God."[52]

The faithfulness of God to fulfil His promise in its higher form is proved by His having accomplished it in its more elementary forms to every one that believed. "For he that entered into God’s rest did actually rest from his works"[53]--that is to say, received the blessings of the Sabbath--as truly as God rested from the work of creation. The Apostle’s practical inference is couched in language almost paradoxical: "Let us strive to enter into God’s rest"--not indeed into the rest of the Old Testament, but into the better rest which God now offers in His Son.

The oneness of the dispensations has been proved. They are one in their design, in their threatenings, in their promises. If we seek the fundamental ground of this threefold unity, we shall find it in the fact that both dispensations are parts of a Divine revelation. God has spoken, and the word of God does not pass away. "Think not," said our Lord, "that I came to destroy the Law or the prophets; I came not to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass away from the Law till all things be accomplished."[54] On another occasion He says, "Heaven and earth shall pass away, but My words shall not pass away."[55] These passages teach us that the words of God through Moses and in the Son are equally immutable. Many features of the old covenant may be transient; but, if it is a word of God, it abides in its essential nature through all changes. For "the word of God is living,"[56] because He Who speaks the word is the living God. It acts with mighty energy,[57] like the silent laws of nature, which destroy or save alive according as men obey or disobey them. It cuts like a sword whetted on each side of the blade, piercing through to the place where the natural life of the soul divides[58] from, or passes into, the supernatural life of the spirit. For it is revelation that has made known to man his possession of the spiritual faculty. The word "spirit" is used by heathen writers. But in their books it means only the air we breathe. The very conception of the spiritual is enshrined in the bosom of God’s word. Revelation has separated between the life of heathenism and the life of the Church, between the natural man and the spiritual, between the darkness that comprehended it not and the children of the light who received it and thus became children of God. Further, the word of God pierces to the joints that connect the natural and the supernatural.[59] It does not ignore the former. On the contrary, it addresses itself to man’s reason and conscience, in order to erect the supernatural upon nature. Where reason stops short, the word of God appeals to the supernatural faculty of faith; and when conscience grows blunt, the word makes conscience, like itself, sharper than any two-edged sword. Once more, the word of God pierces to the marrow.[60] It reveals to man the innermost meaning of his own nature and of the supernatural planted within him. The truest morality and the highest spirituality are both the direct product of God’s revelation.

But all this is true in its practical application to every man individually. The power of the word of God to create distinct dispensations and yet maintain their fundamental unity, to distinguish between masses of men and yet cause all the separate threads of human history to converge and at last meet, is the same power which judges the inmost thoughts and inmost purposes of the heart. These it surveys with critical judgment.[61] If its eye is keen, its range of vision is also wide. No created thing but is seen and manifest. The surface is bared, and the depth within is opened up before it. As the upturned neck of the sacrificial beast lay bare to the eye of God,[62] so are we exposed to the eye of Him to Whom we have to give our account.[63]


[38] Hebrews 3:2.

[39] 1 Corinthians 4:2.

[40] Hebrews 3:4.

[41] poiêsanti.

[42] Hebrews 3:5.

[43] Psalms 95:7, sqq.

[44] Hebrews 2:13.

[45] ta kôla. Cf. Hebrews 12:12.

[46] ouk êdynêthêsan (Hebrews 3:19).

[47] euêngelismeno (Hebrews 4:2).

[48] Reading synkekerasmenos.

[49] Hebrews 4:3.

[50] Hebrews 4:8.

[51] Psalms 27:4.

[52] Galatians 6:16.

[53] Hebrews 4:10.

[54] Matthew 5:17-18.

[55] Matthew 24:35.

[56] Hebrews 4:12.

[57] energês.

[58] merismou.

[59] harmôn.

[60] myelôn.

[61] kritikos.

[62] tetrachêlismena (Hebrews 4:13).

[63] ho logos.

Verses 3-5


Malachi 4:4-6; Hebrews 4:3-5

With his last word the prophet significantly calls upon the people to remember the Law. This is their one hope before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord. But, in order that the Law may have full effect, Prophecy will be sent to bring it home to the hearts of the people-Prophecy in the person of her founder and most drastic representative. Nothing could better gather up than this conjunction does that mingling of Law and of Prophecy which we have seen to be so characteristic of the work of "Malachi." Only we must not overlook the fact that "Malachi" expects this prophecy, which with the Law is to work the conversion of the people, not in the continuance of the prophetic succession by the appearance of original personalities, developing further the great principles of their order, but in the return of the first prophet Elijah. This is surely the confession of Prophecy that the number of her servants is exhausted and her message to Israel fulfilled. She can now do no more for the people than she has done. But she will summon up her old energy and fire in the return of her most powerful personality, and make one grand effort to convert the nation before the Lord come and strike it with judgment.

"Remember the Torah of Moses, My servant, with which I charged him in Horeb for all Israel: statutes and judgments. Lo! I am sending to you Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and terrible day of Jehovah. And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the sons, and the heart of the sons to their fathers, ere I come and strike the land with the Ban."

"Malachi" makes this promise of the Law in the dialect of Deuteronomy: "statutes and judgments with which Jehovah charged Moses for Israel." But the Law he enforces is not that which God delivered to Moses on the plains of Shittim, but that which He gave him in Mount Horeb. And so it came to pass. In a very few years after "Malachi" prophesied Ezra the Scribe brought from Babylon the great Levitical Code, which appears to have been arranged there, while the colony in Jerusalem were still organizing their life under Deuteronomic legislation. In 444 b. c. this Levitical Code, along with Deuteronomy, became by covenant between the people and their God their Canon and Law. And in the next of our prophets, Joel, we shall find its full influence at work.

Verses 14-16



"Having then a great High-priest, Who hath passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we have not a high-priest that cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but One that hath been in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore draw near with boldness unto the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy, and may find grace to help us in time of need. For every high-priest, being taken from among men, is appointed for men in things pertaining to God, that he may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins: who can bear gently with the ignorant and erring, for that he himself also is compassed with infirmity; and by reason thereof is bound, as for the people, so also for himself, to offer for sins. And no man taketh the honour unto himself, but when he is called of God, even as was Aaron. So Christ also glorified not Himself to be made a High-priest, but He that spake unto Him,

Thou art My Son, This day have I begotten Thee:

as He saith also in another place,

Thou art a Priest for ever After the order of Melchizedek.

Who in the days of His flesh, having offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto Him that was able to save Him from death, and having been heard for His godly fear, though He was a Son, yet learned obedience by the things which He suffered; and having been made perfect, He became unto all them that obey Him the Author of eternal salvation; named of God a High-priest after the order of Melchizedek."-- Hebrews 4:14-16; Hebrews 5:1-10 (R.V.)

The results already gained are such as these: that the Son, through Whom God has spoken unto us, is a greater Person than the angels; that Jesus, Whom the Apostle and the Hebrew Christians acknowledge to be Son of God, is the representative Man, endowed, as such, with kingly authority; that the Son of God became man in order that He might be constituted High-priest to make reconciliation for sin; and, finally, that all the purposes of God revealed in the Old Testament, though they have hitherto been accomplished but partially, will not fall to the ground, and will remain in higher forms under the Gospel.

The writer gathers these threads to a head in Hebrews 4:14. The high-priest still remains. If we have the high-priest, we have all that is of lasting worth in the old covenant. For the idea of the covenant is reconciliation with God, and this is embodied and symbolised in the high-priest, inasmuch as he alone entered within the veil on the day of atonement. Having the high-priest in a greater Person, we have all the blessings of the covenant restored to us in a better form. The Epistle to the Hebrews is intended to encourage and comfort men who have lost their all. Judaism was in its death-throes. National independence had already ceased. When the Apostle was writing, the eagles were gathering around the carcase. But when all is lost, all is regained if we "have" the High-priest.

The secret of His abiding for ever is His own greatness. He is a great High-priest; for He has entered into the immediate presence of God, not through the Temple veil, but through the very heavens. In Hebrews 8:1 the Apostle declares this to be the head and front of all he has said: "We have such an High-priest" as He must be "Who is set on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens." He is a great High-priest because He is a Priest on a throne. As the representative Man, Jesus is crowned. His glory is kingly. But the glory bestowed on the Man as King has brought Him into the audience-chamber of God as High-priest. The kingship of Jesus, to Whom all creation is subjected, and Who sits above all creation, has made His priestly service effectual. His exaltation is much more than a reward for His redemptive sufferings. He entered the heaven of God as the sanctuary of which He is Minister. For if He were on earth, He would not be a Priest at all, seeing that He is not of the order of Aaron, to which the earthly priesthood belongs according to the Law.[64] But Christ is not entered into the holy place made with hands, but into the very heaven, now to be manifested before the face of God for us.[65] The Apostle has said that Christ is Son over the house of God. He is also High-priest over the house of God, having authority over it in virtue of His priesthood for it, and administering His priestly functions effectually through His kingship.[66]

The entire structure of the Apostle’s inferences rests on the twofold argument of the first two chapters. Jesus Christ is a great High-priest; that is, King and High-priest in one, because He unites in His own person Son of God and Son of man.

One is tempted to find an intentional antithesis between the awe-inspiring description of the word of God in the previous verse and the tender language of the verse that follows. Is the word a living, energising power? The High-priest too is living and powerful, great and dwelling above the heavens. Does the word pierce to our innermost being? The High-priest sympathises with our weaknesses, or, in the beautiful paraphrase of the English Version, "is touched with a feeling of our infirmities." Does the word judge? The High-priest can be equitable, inasmuch as He has been tempted like as we are tempted, and that without sin.[67]

On the last-mentioned point much might be said. He was tempted to sin, but withstood the temptation. He had true and complete humanity, and human nature, as such and alone, is capable of sin. Shall we, therefore, admit that Jesus was capable of sin? But He was Son of God. Christ was Man, but not a human Person. He was a Divine Person, and therefore absolutely and eternally incapable of sin; for sin is the act and property of a person, not of a mere nature apart from the persons who have that nature. Having assumed humanity, the Divine person of the Son of God was truly tempted, like as we are. He felt the power of the temptation, which appealed in every case, not to a sinful lust, but to a sinless want and natural desire. But to have yielded to Satan and satisfied a sinless appetite at his suggestion would have been a sin. It would argue want of faith in God. Moreover, He strove against the tempter with the weapons of prayer and the word of God. He conquered by His faith. Far from lessening the force of the trial, His being Son of God rendered His humanity capable of being tempted to the very utmost limit of all temptation. We dare not say that mere man would certainly have yielded to the sore trials that beset Jesus. But we do say that mere man would never have felt the temptation so keenly. Neither did His Divine greatness lessen His sympathy. Holy men have a wellspring of pity in their hearts, to which ordinary men are total strangers. The infinitely holy Son of God had infinite pity. These are the sources of His power to succour the tempted,--the reality of His temptations as He was Son of man, the intensity of them as He was Son of God, and the compassion of One Who was both Son of God and Son of man.

Our author is wont to break off suddenly and intersperse his arguments with affectionate words of exhortation. He does so here. It is still the same urgent command: Do not let go the anchor. Hold fast your profession of Christ as Son of God and Son of man, as Priest and King. Let us draw nearer, and that boldly, unto this great High-priest, Who is enthroned on the mercy-seat, that we may obtain the pity which, in our sense of utter helplessness, we seek, and find more than we seek or hope for, even His grace to help us. Only linger not till it be too late. His aid must be sought in time.[68] "Today" is still the call.

Pity and helping grace, sympathy and authority--in these two excellences all the qualifications of a high-priest are comprised. It was so under the old covenant. Every high-priest was taken from among men that he might sympathise, and was appointed by God that he might have authority to act on behalf of men.

1. The high-priest under the Law is himself beset by the infirmities of sinful human nature, the infirmities at least for which alone the Law provides a sacrifice, sins of ignorance and inadvertence.[69] Thus only can he form a fair and equitable judgment[70] when men go astray. The thought wears the appearance of novelty. No use is apparently made of it in the Old Testament. The notion of the high-priest’s Divine appointment overshadowed that of his human sympathy. His sinfulness is acknowledged, and Aaron is commanded to offer sacrifice for himself and for the sins of the people.[71] But the author of this Epistle states the reason why a sinful man was made high-priest. He has told us that the Law was given through angels. But no angel interposed as high-priest between the sinner and God. Sympathy would be wanting to the angel. But the very infirmity that gave the high-priest his power of sympathy made sacrifice necessary for the high-priest himself. This was the fatal defect. How can he bestow forgiveness who must seek the like forgiveness?

In the case of the great High-priest, Jesus the Son of God, the end must be sought in another way. He is not so taken from the stock of humanity as to be stained with sin. He is not one of many men, any one of whom might have been chosen. On the contrary, He is holy, innocent, stainless, separated in character and position before God from the sinners around Him.[72] He has no need to offer sacrifice for any sin of His own, but only for the sins of the people; and this He did once for all when He offered up Himself. For the Law makes mere men, beset with sinful infirmity, priests; but the word of the oath makes the Son Priest, Who has been perfected for His office for ever.[73] In this respect He bears no resemblance to Aaron. Yet God did not leave His people without a type of Jesus in this complete separateness. The Psalmist speaks of Him as a Priest after the order of Melchizedek, and concerning Christ as the Melchizedek Priest the Apostle has more to say hereafter.[74]

The question returns, How, then, can the Son of God sympathise with sinful man? He can sympathise with our sinless infirmities because He is true Man. But that He, the sinless One, may be able to sympathise with sinful infirmities, He must be made sin for us and face death as a sin-offering. The High-priest Himself becomes the sacrifice which He offers. Special trials beset Him. His life on earth is pre-eminently "days of the flesh,"[75] so despised is He, a very Man of sorrows. When He could not acquire the power of sympathy by offering atonement for Himself, because He needed it not, He offered prayers and supplications with a strong cry and tears to Him Who was able to save Him out of death. But why the strong cries and bitter weeping? Can we suppose for a moment that He was only afraid of physical pain? Or did He dread the shame of the Cross? Our author elsewhere says that He despised it. Shall we say that Jesus Christ had less moral courage than Socrates or His own martyr-servant, St. Ignatius? At the same time, let us confine ourselves strictly to the words of Scripture, lest by any gloss of our own we ascribe to Christ’s death what is required by the exigencies of a ready-made theory. "Being in an agony, He prayed more earnestly; and His sweat became as it were great drops of blood falling down upon the ground."[76] Is this the attitude of a martyr? The Apostle himself explains it. "Though He was a Son," to Whom obedience to His Father’s command that He should lay down His life was natural and joyful, yet He learned His obedience, special and peculiar as it was, by the things which He suffered.[77] He was perfecting Himself to be our High-priest. By these acts of priestly offering He was rendering Himself fit to be the sacrifice offered. Because there was in His prayers and supplications, in His crying and weeping, this element of entire self-surrender to His Father’s will, which is the truest piety,[78] His prayers were heard. He prayed to be delivered out of His death. He prayed for the glory which He had with His Father before the world was. At the same time He piously resigned Himself to die as a sacrifice, and left it to God to decide whether He would raise Him from death or leave His soul in Hades. Because of this perfect self-abnegation, His sacrifice was complete; and, on the other hand, because of the same entire self-denial, God did deliver Him out of death and made Him an eternal Priest. His prayers were not only heard, but became the foundation and beginning of His priestly intercession on behalf of others.

2. The second essential qualification of a high-priest was authority to act for men in things pertaining to God, and in His name to absolve the penitent sinner. Prayer was free to all God’s people and even to the stranger that came out of a far country for the sake of the God of Israel’s name. But guilt, by its very nature, involves the need, not merely of reconciling the sinner, but primarily of reconciling God. Hence the necessity of a Divine appointment. For how can man bring his sacrifice to God or know that God has accepted it unless God Himself appoints the mediator and through him pronounces the sinner absolved? It is true, if man only is to be reconciled, a Divinely appointed prophet will be enough, who will declare God’s fatherly love and so remove the sinner’s unbelief and slay his enmity. But the Epistle to the Hebrews teaches that God appoints a high-priest. This of itself is fatal to the theory that God needs not to be reconciled. In the sense of having this Divine authorization, the priestly office is here said to be an honour, which no man takes upon himself, but accepts when called thereunto by God.[79]

How does this apply to the great High-priest Who has passed through the heavens? He also glorified not Himself to become High-priest. The Apostle has changed the word.[80] To Aaron it was an honour to be high-priest. He was authorized to act for God and for men. But to Christ it was more than an honour, more than an external authority conferred upon Him. It was part of the glory inseparable from His Sonship. He Who said to Him, "Thou art My Son," made Him thereby potentially High-priest. His office springs from His personality, and is not, as in the case of Aaron, a prerogative superadded. The author has cited the second Psalm in a previous passage[81] to prove the kingly greatness of the Son, and here again he cites the same words to describe His priestly character. His priesthood is not "from men," and, therefore, does not pass away from Him to others; and this eternal, independent priesthood of Christ is typified in the king-priest Melchizedek. Before He began to act in His priestly office God said to Him, "Thou art a Priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek." When He has been perfected and learned His obedience[82] by the things which He suffered, God still addresses Him as a High-priest according to the order of Melchizedek.


[64] Hebrews 8:4.

[65] Hebrews 9:24.

[66] Cf. Hebrews 10:21.

[67] Hebrews 4:15


[68] eukairon (Hebrews 4:16).

[69] Hebrews 5:1-2.

[70] metriopathein.

[71] Leviticus 16:6.

[72] Hebrews 7:26.

[73] Hebrews 7:28.

[74] Hebrews 5:10-11.

[75] Hebrews 5:7.

[76] Luke 22:44. The genuineness of the verse is not quite certain.

[77] Cf. John 10:18.

[78] apo tês eulabeias (Hebrews 5:7).

[79] Hebrews 5:4.

[80] timên (Hebrews 5:4); edoxasen (Hebrews 5:5).

[81] Hebrews 1:5.

[82] tên hypakoên (Hebrews 5:8).

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Hebrews 4". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/hebrews-4.html.
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