4. Jesus, our Sympathetic High Priest (Hebrews 4:14-5:10)

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Audio (25:56)

Domenico Tiepolo, detail of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane: The Second Prayer (c. 1786-1790)
Domenico Tiepolo (17271804), detail of "Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane: The Second Prayer" (c. 1786-1790). Pen and wash, Private Indiana Collection. Larger detail.

A high priest may not mean much to you. We don't have high priests. Bishops, and archbishops, perhaps, but not high priests. However, the writer of Hebrews is seeking to win back the hearts of Jews who are being tempted to turn back to Judaism. Though they are Hellenistic Jews, expatriates from their homeland, far from Jerusalem, they still feel bound by ties of nostalgia to the sacrificial system that still functioned in the glorious golden Second Temple built by Herod the Great. The high priest in Jerusalem felt like a kind of patriarch, perhaps like the Pope is to Catholics or the Patriarch is to the Orthodox.

Hold Fast to Your Confession (4:14)

So the author of Hebrews writes to them about Jesus as the "great high priest" (verse 14). Indeed, Hebrews is the only book of the Bible that develops this part of Jesus' ministry. The writer has hinted at Jesus as high priest already -- "a merciful and faithful high priest" (2:17) and "the apostle and high priest of our confession" (3:1, NRSV). Now he begins to develop this theme in earnest:

"14Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess." (4:14)

The writer names "Jesus the Son of God" and now begins to point out how he functions as high priest, but even more fully and completely than any earthly high priest. He is distinguished by:

  1. Being designated a "great" (megas) high priest, and as
  2. Having "gone through1" (NIV) or "passed through" (NRSV, KJV) the heavens.

In light of that, the readers are exhorted to "hold firmly" (NIV) or "hold fast" (NRSV, KJV) to the faith they confess, similar to other exhortations to "hold on" (3:6), "hold firmly" (3:14), and "hold unswervingly" (10:23). In this case he uses the verb krateō. The primary idea is exercise of power, used in several ways, "attain, hold, seize control, restrain." Here it has the idea "to adhere strongly, hold" ... of commitment to someone or something, "hold fast to" ... and hence "remain closely united."2

And what are they to hold fast to? Their "confession" (homologia), "statement of allegiance, as content of an action, confession, acknowledgment that one makes,"3 used here and in 10:23. In the ancient Greek papyri, the word takes on the sense of a "compact or agreement of a legal character."4 In the New Testament, one meaning of the verb is "to make solemn statements of faith, to confess something in faith."4 Paul calls on Timothy to recall his own public confession as an encouragement to "take hold of the eternal life:"

"Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses. In the sight of God, who gives life to everything, and of Christ Jesus, who while testifying before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep this command without spot or blame until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ...." (1 Timothy 6:12-14)

Many church traditions, both Protestant and Catholic, have stressed the importance of confessions and creeds which expressed one's faith. As a boy, I grew up reciting the Apostles Creed every Sunday, which succinctly summarized the faith I profess:

"I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord...."

Many churches recite the Nicene Creed weekly as part of their worship. Even non-creedal churches usually ask those who join the church to make a confession of their faith before church leaders and then the whole church. The basic confession, of course, is "Jesus is Lord!" (Romans 10:9; 1 Corinthians 12:3). The writer of Hebrews exhorts his readers: "hold fast to our confession" (4:14, NRSV).

Q1. (Hebrews 4:14) What is so important about "holding fast to our confession." What is our confession or profession of faith? Why is maintaining this confession so vital?



A Sympathetic High Priest (4:15)

While he strongly affirms Jesus' divinity (for example, Hebrews 1:1-4), now the writer begins to emphasize the importance of Jesus' humanity. As a result, in Hebrews we have some of the most profound reflections in the Bible concerning the human side of the God-Man. Our author begins by asserting that Jesus' mercy is based on his humanity:

"For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are -- yet was without sin." (4:15)

"Sympathize" (NIV, NRSV), "be touched with the feelings of" (KJV) is sumpatheō (from which we get our word "sympathy"), "'having the same pathos' and hence 'sharing the same experience, suffering,' and then 'having fellow feeling.'"5 Vincent observes, "This is more than knowledge of human infirmity. It is feeling it by reason of a common experience with men."6

Why can Jesus be sympathetic? Because he has shared the weaknesses of human nature. He knows what it's like to be tempted. "Weaknesses" (NIV, NRSV) or "infirmities" (KJV) is astheneia, "incapacity for something or experience of limitation, weakness."7 Part of that "weakness" is the ability to be tempted, to be tested. Jesus entered fully into our experience of temptation. "Tempted" (NIV, KJV) or "tested" (NRSV) (peirazō) means "to endeavor to discover the nature or character of something by testing, try, make trial of, put to the test." Also "to entice to improper behavior, tempt."8

The Gospels give us two glimpses into this temptation. Jesus' forty days of testing in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11) included Satan's "enticement to improper behavior." In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus fought his own recoil from bearing sin on the cross. Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" (Newmarket Films, 2004) casts this experience as a temptation from Satan (as it may have been), though Scripture doesn't disclose the source of the struggle.

The point is that Jesus' experience was both like ours and unlike our own:

  • Tempted. He was tempted "just as we are" (NIV, homoitēs), the "state of being similar to something, likeness, similarity, agreement" here, "in quite the same way."9
  • Without sin. The writer of Hebrews affirms Jesus' sinlessness (also 7:26; 2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Peter 2:22 quoting Isaiah 53:9; 1 John 3:5).

Q2. (Hebrews 4:15) In what ways did Jesus share our weaknesses? In what ways was Jesus tempted? Because we know he didn't sin, were his temptations easier or more difficult than ours? Do we have any temptations he didn't have? Why does it comfort us that he can sympathize with our temptations and weaknesses?




Approaching the Throne of Grace (4:16)

Having laid the foundation of Jesus as a high priest who:

  • Is "great,"
  • Has "passed through the heavens,"
  • Understands temptation because he has experienced it himself, and
  • Is sympathetic to our situation,

the writer now exhorts us:

"Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need." (4:16)

Instead of shying away out of fear -- or in the readers' case, uncertainty -- we are to come to the High Priest boldly, confidently, readily. Let's examine this remarkable exhortation a bit further.

We are told to "approach"10 the throne,11 a key concept in Hebrews (7:25; 10:1, 22; and 11:6) as well as in Paul's writings (Ephesians 2:18; 3:12). The image is of the throne room of an absolute Near Eastern monarch. No one can approach the king unless he is invited to -- upon pain of death. Recall the risk that Esther took in coming before her husband, King Xerxes, without being first summoned (Esther 4:11-16). The exhortation of the writer of Hebrews is radical when you think about it. We who are sinful -- by nature as well as by deed -- are invited to approach the throne of the King of all kings and the Lord of all lords.

How should we approach? With trepidation? With fear? No. With "boldness," parrēsia, "a state of boldness and confidence, courage, confidence, boldness, fearlessness, especially in the presence of persons of high rank." The word is used here and 10:19. How amazing!

Why boldness? Because it is not a throne of judgment for us, but a throne where grace is dispensed freely. "Grace" is charis, "practical application of goodwill, (a sign of) favor, gracious deed/gift, benefaction, divine favor."13

What can we expect when we come? What will we find14? The writer describes the blessings of this throne in a four-fold expression:

  1. Mercy (eleos), "kindness or concern expressed for someone in need, mercy, compassion, pity, clemency."15
  2. Grace (charis), "goodwill, favor"
  3. Help (boētheia), "assistance offered to meet a need, help."16
  4. Timely help (eukairos), "pertaining to time that is considered a favorable occasion for some event or circumstance, well-timed, suitable."17 

When you're in trouble, don't hesitate. When you come to Jesus' throne in prayer you'll find a sympathetic ear, divine pardon for your sins, and timely aid whatever your trouble may be. Why wait? The High Priest who is King is calling you to approach his generous throne so he can give you his rest.

Q3. (Hebrews 4:16) Why should we approach the "throne of grace" with boldness and confidence? What are the promises contained in this verse? On what basis is God able to offer us unrestrained mercy and grace for our sins while still retaining his justice as judge?




Qualifications for High Priest (5:1-4)

Now the author further discusses the importance of two qualifications of being high priest:

  1. He is able to sympathize with the weakness of other human beings -- which he clarified in 4:15 (5:1-3)
  2. He is appointed by God (5:4-6)

A Gentle High Priest (5:1-3)

He begins by further developing the rationale for having a human high priest:

"1Every high priest is selected from among men and is appointed to represent them in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. 2He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness. 3This is why he has to offer sacrifices for his own sins, as well as for the sins of the people." (5:1-3)

A human priest who must answer for his own sins is quite willing to "deal gently"18 with others who sin. Other sinners are characterized as:

  • Ignorant (agnoeō) "to be ignorant of," here "to be unaware about one's wrongdoing, lapse/do wrong/sin unintentionally."19 
  • Going astray (NIV), "wayward" (NRSV), is planaō, here "go astray, be deluded."20

The high priest himself is "subject to" weakness (NRSV, NIV) or "compassed with" (KJV), literally "surrounded by" weakness. Here it is used figuratively, "be beset by weakness."21 Because of his own weakness, he is "obligated"22 to make offerings for sins -- the people's sins and his own. He has no choice. A human high priest is necessary in God's plan.

A Priest Forever in the Order of Melchizedek (5:4-6)

Jesus is that human high priest. But there is a difficulty. Priests came exclusively from the tribe of Levi, from among the descendants of Aaron, not the tribe of Judah as was Jesus' lineage. So our writer begins to lay out his scriptural basis for Christ's high priesthood. Jesus fulfills the high priesthood of Melchizedek, not that of Aaron. In verses 5-6 he quotes both Psalms 2:7 and 110:4.

"4No one takes this honor23 upon himself; he must be called24 by God, just as Aaron was. 5So Christ also did not take upon himself the glory25 of becoming a high priest. But God said to him,
    'You are my Son;
    today I have become your Father26' [quoting Psalm 2:7]
6And he says in another place,
    'You are a priest forever,
    in the order27 of Melchizedek.' [quoting Psalm 110:4]" (5:4-16)

When we get to Hebrews 7, we'll consider in greater depth the basis of the writer's claim that Jesus is a high priest "in the order of Melchizedek." But the bare bones of the argument are, essentially:

  1. Melchizedek was "King of Salem" (i.e., Jerusalem) and "priest of the Most High God" (Genesis 14:18).
  2. Thus, when David conquered Jerusalem centuries later he became heir to both the kingship of Jerusalem and (at least in a titular capacity) the priesthood of the Most High God, as affirmed in Psalm 110:4.28
  3. Thus David combined in his person, at least in theory, authority as both king and priest. David's successor, the Messiah, bore these honors, as well.

Jesus' Cries to God Were Heard (5:7)

The final section of the passage is surprising, shocking, difficult to understand. Here our author is amplifying and underscoring his insistence that Jesus in his humanity fulfilled the qualification of high priest that he be able to identify with those he represents before God, by

  • Fervent prayers with tears.
  • His piety and reverent submission to God.
  • Learning obedience.
  • Suffering.
  • Being made perfect in death.

Let's look at verse 7:

"During the days of Jesus' life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission."29 (5:7)

Jesus' humanity is a strong emphasis here. The writer could be referring to Jesus' agonizing prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before he was crucified. "Prayers" (deēseis30) is a common word for prayer in general. "Petitions" (hiketēria, NIV) and "supplications" (NRSV, KJV) refers to the custom in Greece of coming to a person asking for aid holding an olive branch entwined with white wool and fillets, identifying the person making the request as a supliant.31

But in Gethsemane Jesus' prayer wasn't answered. He was not delivered from death. The cup was not removed from him. However, his prayer that the Father's will be done was answered. Perhaps the best way to understand this verse as referring more generally to the whole course of Christ's humiliation, passion, and resurrection. In Psalm 22, the first verse of which Jesus quoted from the cross, we see a general description of Jesus' humiliation and, in a Christological interpretation, his resurrection -- surely the complete salvation from death.32

Learning Obedience through Suffering (5:8)

"Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered...." (5:8)

We learn obedience to our fathers by bearing the consequences of our actions, whether by his swift punishment or the natural consequences of poor decisions. But Jesus' learning is different. Though Jesus has the status of Son, yet he too walks the path of obedience in suffering. "Learn" (manthanō) means here, "to come to a realization, with implication of taking place less through instruction than through experience or practice, learn appropriate to oneself."33 Luke records, "And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men" (Luke 2:52), describing Jesus' process of learning. Guthrie says:

"[Luke] means that by a progressive process he showed by his obedience to the Father's will a continuous making of God's will his own, reaching its climax in his approach to death."34

"Obedience" (hupakoē), is "a state of being in compliance, obedience (one listens and follows instructions)."35 For Jesus, sufferings were an integral part of his obedience. As Bruce puts it:

"He set out from the start on the path of obedience to God, and learned by the sufferings which came his way in consequence just what obedience to God involved in practice in the conditions of human life on earth."36

Q4. (Hebrews 5:8) In what sense did Jesus "learn obedience from what he suffered"? How did Jesus' learning process differ from ours, since he didn't sin and suffer the consequences of his sin -- the way we usually learn?




Being Made Perfect (5:9-10)

Last in a series of profound verses, our author discusses how Jesus was made perfect:

"8Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered 9 and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him 10and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek." (5:8-10)

"Made perfect" is teleioō, which expresses the idea of fulfillment or reaching a goal.37 It means here, "to overcome or supplant an imperfect state of things by one that is free from objection, bring to an end, bring to its goal/accomplishment."38 We discussed this word previously in 2:10, which has similarities with the verse we are studying:

"In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering." (2:10)

Hebrews has a lot to say about maturity and perfection (5:14, 6:1; 7:11, 19, 28; 9:9, 11; 10:1, 14; 11:40; 12:2, 23). Christ's "perfection" came about through his death, followed by his resurrection and exaltation. In his suffering and death he understands what we are going through, what we face. Our "perfection" will culminate in death and glorification in the presence of God, but our journey to that place is replete with suffering.

Q5. (Hebrews 5:9) In verse 9, what does "made perfect" refer to, since it obviously isn't talking about Jesus' moral growth and perfection? (Hint: The word teleioō means "bring something to its goal or accomplishment.")




Source of Eternal Salvation (5:9-10)

"... 9And, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him 10and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek." (5:9-10)

We see Jesus' death. Our author sees what it resulted in -- salvation and Christ's high priestly office. First, Jesus is the "source of eternal salvation." "Source" (NIV, NRSV) or "author" (KJV) is aitios, "the cause, source."39 Like a spring high up in the mountains, our salvation flows from him.

Notice those to whom it flows: "all who obey him." The verb is hupakouō, "to follow instructions, obey, follow, be subject to."40 Christianity is not at its core a belief system to which we adhere, but a relationship with the living Christ, to whom we listen with our spirits, follow with our actions, and obey with our hearts.

Second, Jesus' being made perfect resulted in him being appointed41 by God as high priest on our behalf, a topic he develops further in chapter 6 of this study (Hebrews 6:13-7:28).

When you look back on the verses we have studied in 4:14-5:10, you see how exceedingly rich they are in helping us understand the importance of Jesus' becoming human. Jesus lived out his destiny among us not as a kind of superman dressed as Clark Kent, village carpenter. He, the divine Son of God, was also fully human. He lived out his destiny here on earth as we must -- by the power of the Holy Spirit -- through suffering and obedience.

Hebrews: Discipleship Lessons, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson (paperback and e-book formats)
Lessons are also available in e-book and paperback formats.

As such he is not just a wonder to behold, but our Prototype, one who has blazed the trail before us, "the Author and Perfecter of our faith." Over the centuries, and with his fresh and vital voice speaking to our spirits today, Jesus calls, "Follow me."


Father, thank you for sending Jesus for our salvation. We are so grateful. But we are grateful too for the assurance that we can follow in the footsteps of the Son of Man and reach the perfection you have for us. Help us, guide us. Encourage us, as you continually do. Thank you for picking us up and restoring us to the path when we stray or fall. Thank you for your infinite patience and unfathomable love. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.

Key Verses

"For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are -- yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need." (Hebrews 4:15-16)

"Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him." (Hebrews 5:8-9)


  1. Dierchomai, "of movement through something, go through" (BDAG 244, 1.b.α.).
  2. Krateō, BDAG 564-565, 6.a.
  3. Homologia, BDAG 709, 2.
  4. Otto Michel, homologeō, TDNT 5:199-220.
  5. Wilhelm Michaelis, pascho, ktl., 5:904-939. "To have/show sympathy with, sympathize with" (sumpatheō, BDAG 958).
  6. Vincent, in loc.
  7. In addition, "lack of confidence or feeling of inadequacy, weakness" as here. Also used in Hebrews 5:2 and 11:34 (astheneia, BDAG 142, meanings 2 and 3).
  8. Peirazō, BDAG 793.
  9. Homoitēs, BDAG 707.
  10. "Approach" proserchomai, "to move towards, approach" here "of approach to or entry into a deity's presence, approach," used several places in Hebrews, here and in (BDAG 878, 1.b.).
  11. "Throne" is thronos, "chair, seat" generally. Then specifically a chair set aside for one of high status, "throne." Here and at 1:8; 8:1; 12:2 (BDAG 460).
  12. Parrēsia, BDAG 781-782, 3.b.
  13. Charis, BDAG 1078-1081, 3.b.
  14. "Find" is euriskō, "find," here "to attain a state or condition, find (for oneself), obtain" (BDAG 411-412, 3.).
  15. Eleos, BDAG 316.
  16. Boētheia is from boētheō, "to render assistance to someone in need, furnish aid" (BDAG 180).
  17. Eukairos, BDAG 407.
  18. "Deal gently" is metriopatheō, ""moderate one's feelings, deal gently" from metrios, "moderate" + paschō, "to feel, suffer" (BDAG 643).
  19. Agnoeō, BDAG 12-13, 4.
  20. Planaō, BDAG 821-822, 2.c.
  21. Perikeimai, BDAG 801-802, 2.b.
  22. Opheilō "be obligated" with the infinitive following, "one must, one ought" (BDAG 743, 2.a.β.).
  23. "Honor" is timē, "honor," here "place of honor, (honorable) office" (BDAG 1005, 2.d.).
  24. "Called" is kaleō, "From the meanings 'summon' and invite' there develops the extended sense, 'choose for receipt of a special benefit or experience, call'" (BDAG 503, 4.).
  25. "Glorify" is doxazō, "to cause to have splendid greatness, clothe in splendor, glorify," here "he did not presume for himself the prestige of the high priesthood" (BDAG 258, 2.).
  26. "Become a father" is the Perfect tense of gennaō, "become the parent of, beget" (BDAG 193-194, 1b.).
  27. "Order" is taxis, which as the basic meaning of "an arrangement of things in sequence." Here it means, "an arrangement in which someone ... functions, arrangement, nature, manner, condition, outward aspect" (BDAG 989, 4.).
  28. Bruce, Hebrews, pp. 124-125.
  29. "Reverent submission" (NIV, NRSV) or "piety" (KJV) is eulabeia, "reverent awe in the presence of God, awe, fear of God," here and at Hebrews 12:28. (BDAG 407). Westcott remarks, "More commonly it expresses reverent and thoughtful shrinking from over-boldness, which is compatible with true courage" (Hebrews, p. 127).
  30. Deēseis, "urgent request to meet a need, exclusively addressed to God, prayer" (BDAG 213).
  31. Hiketēria, "supplication," from hiketēs, "supliant" from hikō, "to come to one" (Robertson, in. loc.; Thayer, 301, 2).
  32. Bruce, Hebrews, pp. 128-129.
  33. Manthanō, BDAG 615.
  34. Guthrie, Hebrews, p. 131.
  35. Hupakoē, BDAG 1028.
  36. Bruce, Hebrews, p. 131.
  37. Ellingworth, Hebrews, p. 294.
  38. On 5:9 and 7:28, the lexicographer says, "This is usually understood to mean the completion and perfection of Jesus by the overcoming of earthly limitations" (teleioō, BDAG 996).
  39. Aitios, BDAG 31. We get our word "etiology" from this root.
  40. Hupakouō, BDAG 1028.
  41. "Designated" (NIV, NRSV) or "called" (KJV) is prosagoreuō, "to refer to someone by name or some other term, call, name, designate" (BDAG 875).

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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