Through the years I have been perplexed by a great many passages in the Scriptures, but perhaps none so more than Hebrews 5:5-10. It had always struck me as one that seemingly flies in the face of a lot of theological commitments about who Jesus is, at least on the surface of things.
In the same way, Christ did not take on himself the glory of becoming a high priest.
But God said to him,
“You are my Son;
today I have become your Father.”
And he says in another place,
“You are a priest forever,
in the order of Melchizedek.”
During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek. [1. Hebrews 5:5-10 NIV]
One of the aspects that had always given me difficulty is where Jesus is spoken as being a Son, yet still had to learn obedience from what he suffered. By doing so, the Son is said to be made perfect. Now, one might say that this is referring to the human nature of Jesus being made perfect, but at the same time the human nature of Jesus is hypostatically united with the Son who is perfect, which makes such an answer seem a little too easy.
Earlier in the Letter to the Hebrews Jesus is spoken of in this manner:
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. [2. Hebrews 4:15 NIV]
Perhaps it is simply because I so closely align the idea of sinlessness with perfection that this passage has always vexed me. Even though it is set up completely within the framework of Jesus performing a priestly function, I suppose I have never truly tried to understand how obedience, sinlessness and being made perfect might relate to that specifically.
Earlier in the year I was reading Pope Benedict XVI’s book Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance to Jerusalem to Resurrection, and ran across a fairly profound insight on this very topic. The question Benedict raises is one that is often raised in the modern world- the language of the Scriptures is steeped in atonement, but is this even a reasonable concept anymore?
Does it not raise the spectre of antiquated hopes and ignorance, images of a blood thirsty God who cannot be sated? Does not the logic of atonement mean that it must be infinite? Can such a cruel caricature have any relevance for the existential realities faced in the present?
Benedict draws out the notion that the crucified Jesus is referred to by Paul as the hilasterion, a term which was used to refer to the covering on the Ark of the Covenant where the blood was sprinkled. In ancient times, that which was clean was defiled by being touched by that which unclean, but here the logic is reversed.
In Jesus’ Passion, all the filth of the world touches the infinitely pure one, the soul of Jesus Christ and, hence, the Son of God himself… Through this contact, the filth of the world is truly absorbed, wiped out, and transformed in the pain of infinite love. Because infinite good is now at hand in the man Jesus, the counterweight to all wickedness is present and active within world history, and the good is always infinitely greater than the mass of evil, however terrible it may be. [3. Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth Volume II p. 231]
Jesus gives a new meaning to hilasterion in that the entire structure of how the world is supposed to work is turned upside down. By the Word of God coming into our world and sharing our nature, that very touch transforms that which it has assumed from the inside out. Our sinfulness does not defile the Word or drag him down to be merely like us; rather, the Word cleanses us and makes us more truly like him.
In the use of the term hilasterion with reference to Jesus, it becomes evident that the real forgiveness accomplished on the Cross functions in exactly the opposite direction. The reality of evil and injustice that disfigures the world and at the same time distorts the image of God- this reality exists, through our sin. It cannot simply be ignored; it must be addressed. But here is not a case of a cruel God demanding the infinite. It is exactly the opposite: God himself becomes the locus of reconciliation, and in the person of the Son takes the suffering upon himself. God himself grants his infinite purity to the world. [4. ibid. p. 232]
It is in this sense that Jesus the Son as high priest truly begins to demonstrate the depth of love that flows from the concept of atonement, and begins to shed light on how the Son was made perfect. Benedict XVI begins by stating:
It is through his cries, his tears and his prayers that Jesus does what the high priest is meant to do: he holds up to God the anguish of existence. He brings man before God. [5. ibid. p. 164]
In the very existential movements of Jesus’ life he functioned as a priest, for who else but the one who came from heaven could raise up to God the anguish of the world? Obedience is not only learned by being contrasted with disobedience, but is rather far better characterized by the constant and continual ‘Yes’ to the will of the Father.
Benedict XVI brings out one final insight that really gets to the heart of my previous dilemma with this passage. In reflecting on Jesus’ being made perfect, he notes that in the Books of Moses, the phrase ‘make perfect’ was used exclusively to mean to consecrate as priest. [6. ibid. p. 164] It is in Jesus’ Yes to the will of the Father despite the suffering and anguish that it will bring in which he is made perfect, in which his consecration as priest is complete. In this way, he does not move from imperfection to perfection, as if something had to be supplied which he lacked, but rather culminates the very reason for the Incarnation.
The Son of God has reached down and taken our nature upon himself, and now as priest can raise that same nature to the infinite God so that it need not remain what it was in its decay and privation, but be transformed forever. Benedict XVI ends this powerful insight in this way:
From the Cross, new life comes to us. On the Cross, Jesus becomes the source of life for himself and for all. On the Cross, death is conquered. The granting of Jesus’ prayer concerns all mankind, his obedience becomes life for all. [7. ibid. p. 166]