First, Jesus of Nazareth was a lay person. Anyone living in Palestine during his earthly lifetime would have known him as a lay person. They would also have known him as a craftsman, like his father Joseph, and, toward the end of his young life, people would perceive that he took on the role of a prophet, someone who spoke with the authority of a special messenger of God. They would not have taken him for one of the priests of the Jerusalem temple, a member of the tribe of Aaron, especially trained to preside at the temple sacrifices. No, he was a lay person of the tribe of Judah, of the house of David. So, later on, when Jewish Christians heard this passage of the Letter to the Hebrews read, they knew exactly what the author was saying: Jesus of Nazareth, now raised from the dead and recognized as Messiah and the eternal Son of God, filled the role of the temple high priest in a transcendent way. Like the high priest of the temple system, he now functions as a go-between or mediator between the covenant people and their God. But better than any high priest who ever existed, he is the perfect high priest in several ways.
He chose to undergo arrest, false accusation before the highest religious and civil authorities, mocked by the keepers of law and order, tortured, and submitted by the most dishonoring form of capital punishment in the repertoire of the Roman Empire. The author of the letter to the Hebrews, shows how Jesus experienced human vulnerability in Gethsemane:
“He was heard”? Not in the sense that he was protected from that total human rejection and from death, but ‘heard’ in the sense that he was sustained in his suffering and, three days later, raised from death into a new way of existing called resurrection.
“Learned obedience” and “was made perfect” can sounds strange to our ears. Was Jesus not already perfect as he was? And what did he have to learn? Yet it was part of being human that he did indeed learn. He learned his mother-tongue from his mother and craftsmanship from his father; and he learned what human suffering feels like from being a suffering human being. In what sense was he “made perfect”? He became the perfect mediator between humanity and the divine not only being divine and human in the abstract but learning what it is to be human from the inside, in suffering solidarity. That is what made him perfect in the role of high priest. That is why the author ends our passage with the strange phrase declared by God high priest according to the order of Melchizedek. Jesus is such a perfect go-between between us and the Father that the author has to reach for the image of a different kind of high priest in order to express his thought. So he says that he is “high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.” Melchizedek was the mysterious figure in Genesis 14 who blessed Abram in the name of the creator long before there was a Hebrew temple and any temple priests at all.
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