Hebrews 5:7,8 - Suffering Servant ... Saved Sinners
Every time we celebrate the Supper of our Lord we remember the inexpressible suffering of our Saviour. The Form words it so beautifully: “We cherish the blessed memory of the bitter death of Thy dear Son Jesus Christ.” It is not that we derive pleasure from remembering Christ in His pain and agony. That is not our motive at all. God has commanded us to search the entire Scriptures, not just those sections about the resurrection and ascension of Christ but also those about His humiliation and death. Since the Holy Spirit revealed facts about the suffering of Christ to David, Isaiah, Matthew and others, then we are obligated to try and understand that suffering, however difficult that may be. And difficult it is because no human being has ever suffered anything that could vaguely compare with what Christ had to undergo. No one can say from their own experiences: “I know exactly what He was going through back then.” His passion is totally unique. It has and will have no sequel in history. Christ is not our “friend” in affliction. He is our Lord in redemption. That’s the significance for us: His suffering is intimately connected with our salvation.
It appears that the Hebrews were for the greatest part Christianized Jews who were having difficulties accepting the high priesthood of Jesus Christ. For centuries they had accepted the sacrifices and the prayers offered up on their behalf by the sons of Aaron, the true legitimate priesthood according to the law. Now, suddenly, all that was abolished by the one sacrifice of Jesus of Nazareth, a man not even from the tribe of Levi. How, they were wondering, do we justify that obvious discrepancy? Who now mediates between us and God – Aaron’s son or Mary’s? This is an important issue because the mediatorial work of the high priest was connected with the atonement of their sins before God. If you have the wrong high priest, you have the wrong atonement. And if you have the wrong atonement, then you do not share in the forgiveness of sins and life eternal.
The author to the Hebrews, therefore, devotes his entire letter to explaining how Christ is indeed their only authentic high priest. In chapter 5 he demonstrates this truth by comparing Christ to the high priesthood of Aaron. Just as Aaron was called by God so Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest but He was appointed by God. The writer proves this to them from Scripture, citing Psalm 2 and Psalm 110. This Jesus is actually far superior to Aaron because He is the King-priest: royal son of the Most High God and at the same time an eternal priest after the order of Melchizedek.
Both Aaron and Christ, then, have a divine calling. But they also share something else. Both have the necessary quality of a high priest. Both are sympathetic toward the people whom they represent before the throne of God. Aaron can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward since “he himself is beset with weakness” (v.2). That has its counterpart in verses 7 and 8 which reveal something of the complete humanity of Christ. He suffered as a true man, in body and soul, and therefore is able to sympathize with our weaknesses.
In the Days of His Flesh
“In the days of his flesh,” we read, “Jesus offered up prayers and supplication...” The “days of his flesh” designates that timeframe when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The author has to stipulate here that he means the period of Christ’s earthly ministry because in chapter 4:14 he had said: “We have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens...” There in heaven He makes intercession for us before the Father. He does this in His glorified body.
But the point now is that on earth Christ in His humanity was of the same nature as His fellow men. He had a weak body that was subject to pain and death, to mental anxiety and spiritual torment. The same aches and emotions that we feel Christ also experienced but then, of course, much more acutely since none of His senses were dulled by the guilt or pollution of sin. The gospels mention His hunger, anger, sorrow, joy, and fatigue. But even more than that, the fact that He constantly turned to the Father in prayer shows how much He was like you and me. He was not some kind of “superman” who solved His own problems and was completely independent from God! No, for then He would not be like us in all things. He was God and yet He emptied Himself. The source of His strength and His comfort was in God. That’s why you constantly find references in the gospels to Jesus withdrawing alone to pray. If only we prayed as much as the Son of Man!
He Offered Up Prayers and Supplications
He “offered up” prayers and supplications. The context indicates that the author has in mind a particular occasion rather than a general practice, since these prayers and supplications were offered up with loud cries and tears, that is, in a situation of extreme anguish. Besides that, they were addressed to Him who “was able to save Him from death” which implies a situation in which Christ was facing the prospect of death.
The occasion intended here must be Christ’s agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. He offered up “prayers and supplications.” Both words together stress the intensity with which he prayed. On the night of His betrayal, Jesus said, “My soul is very sorrowful even to death, remain here and watch.” Christ was coming face to face now with the awful reality of the cross. Sure, He knew for years already the bitter death that awaited Him. At the beginning of His ministry He said to Nicodemus: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up” (John 3:14). Then it was not His hour, but now the hour had come. Jesus sensed the overwhelming horror of the ordeal that lay before Him, so He fell upon the ground and prayed. From Luke’s account we read, “And being in agony He prayed more earnestly” (22:44). Three times He besought His Father that the cup might be removed. He did so, says the author of Hebrews, with “loud cries and tears.” These words testify that Christ did not have an “iron heart.” He prayed this petition with fervency and ardor. He poured out His soul to God – loud cries, tears, prayers and supplications. Notice that in the depths of His suffering He continues seeking the living God. Here is the perfect fulfilment of the words of David in Psalm 56, “When I am afraid, I put my trust in Thee. In God whose word I praise...”
He prays in faith and out of the natural relationship that He holds with God, “Father, I am your Son. Can that not be taken into consideration? With Thee all things are possible.” Perhaps you have asked yourself: “Why does Christ offer up such prayers when He knows so well that His death on the cross has been decreed from eternity? How could Christ even ask that the cup be removed knowing that God’s decree is unchangeable?” God’s eternal counsel and will, however, was not made ABOUT the Son, but WITH the Son. Unlike us He had an active role in that eternal decree. He willingly offered Himself as a sacrifice for sin. With the shadow of the cross looming over His head the Son must still say, “To do Thy will O God is my delight.” He may not just suffer death as His fate. He must accept it as His righteous judgment.
Some have asked, “What kind of Saviour is this who weeps and wails and trembles and falls on the ground? Why can He not be like other men who have withstood death with poise and composure – like the martyrs in Rome who died at the stake, singing psalms?” The answer lies in that the agony of Christ in Gethsemane was occasioned by something far deeper than the fear of physical death. Any Christian who dies, dies in the comfort that Christ has overcome death and the grave for him. Christ had to look death squarely in the face and triumph over it. He came so that “through death He might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil” (2:14)
What Christ faced was not simply a painful exit from this life. It was the severe judgment of the holy God against sin ... yours and mine. And that judgment is the experience of the second death. In all His innocence and purity He submitted Himself in the place of sinners to the fierceness of God’s wrath. He realized that Golgotha meant an experience incomparable in the horror of its torment. And His whole being – body, soul and mind – shrank back instinctively, “If it be Thy will, remove this cup of gall from me O Father.”
Yes, He prayed with “loud cries and tears” ... because He foresaw the separation that would culminate in that cry from the cross, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me.” The dread with which He approached the cross has to be seen in the light of God’s curse and the necessity to wrestle with the total sum of human pollution and guilt and the very powers of darkness themselves. There on Golgotha the doors of eternal death were thrown open. Nevertheless, Christ retained His meekness and His submission. “If it be Thy will then I will drink the cup of Thy wrath to the last drop. I will go as a Lamb to the slaughter. Wound me for their transgressions; bruise me for their iniquities; cut me off from the land of living so that they may have life forever more.” In a very real way Christ took our sins, the sins of the whole world, upon Himself at Calvary in order that He might bear the judgment of eternal death. God made Him who knew no sin to be sin for our sake, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God. Indeed, what a blessed memory of his bitter suffering!
He was Heard for His Godly Fear
We are told further that Christ prayed “to Him who was able to save Him from death, and He was heard for His godly fear.” The Holy Spirit wants to point out that Christ directed His prayers to the proper address, to the only true God who has power over life and death. Christ in temptation and suffering needed to rely on God in prayer. This underlines the weakness of His lowly flesh. The fact that He was the Son of God did not make it easier for Him to endure suffering or to withstand temptation. It is not the case that whenever He felt pain that His divine nature took over and blocked out all the normal human feelings. How could He sympathize with us if that were true? He felt the suffering and the pain. And through it all He expressed His dependence on the Father by means of literal begging’s, pitiful pleadings with agonized crying and unrestrained tears. Even the Sinless One called upon God who was able to save Him from death.
How were Christ’s prayers in the garden heard? You could argue that He was “saved from death” seeing that on the third day He rose triumphantly over the grave. And yet there is a much more immediate and direct sense. When Christ had finished praying, “Father, if it be Thy will remove this cup” then an angel appeared to Him strengthening Him. The Father heard the prayer of His Son and He sends an angel to encourage Him: “My counsel shall stand. My plan of salvation shall be accomplished. My cup of judgment shall not be removed. Take it and drink to the last drop. Go on to Golgotha. Take up your cross for that is my will.” With this visit from a heavenly servant Christ is given a moment of comfort only so that He can go on to the everlasting punishment that awaits Him. Prof. K. Schilder explains in his Trilogy on the suffering of Christ that the arrival of the angel is a gift of consolation, but on the other it is a deepening of His humiliation and an aggravation of His suffering. Just try to picture the scene. There kneels the LORD of the Angels, who must be strengthened by one of His SERVANTS. He came to die for men but they are sleeping under the olive trees instead of comforting and praying for their Saviour in His atoning agony. The vicarious suffering of Christ was not for angels but for men, and yet an angel is beside Him in His agony.
His prayer was heard, “for His godly fear.” That does not mean He was heard because of His fright of death, rather, He was heard because of His concern for the honour of God. The Father gave heed to Him because He showed reverent submission to God’s will. Even in that black night of misery He prayed, “If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. Father, glorify Thy name.” No longer does He ask for the cup to be removed. The will of God has been revealed – the cup remains.
There was only one way for Him – the way of the cross. There He humbled himself, in body and soul, to the deepest shame and anguish of hell. He was forsaken by God so that we might never more be forsaken by Him. The nadir of His sorrow becomes the zenith of our joy. Through His curse we are blessed. In His death we have life.
That His prayers were heard, even at the lowest point of His suffering, is a guarantee to us that God will hear our prayers for Jesus’ sake. For now He is seated in glory at the right hand of the heavenly Majesty where He prays day and night for us. We have a greater high priest than Aaron. Aaron? He could only enter the holy of holies once per year to bring atonement. But Christ lives and reigns in the holy of holies. He is a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek and the blood of His sacrifice is constantly before the Lord. If He was heard in Gethsemane, when the wrath of God made Him sweat blood, how much more today seated in glory at the Father’s right hand? Let us, then, with confidence draw near to the throne of grace that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
The writer concludes with the words: “Although He was a Son, He learned obedience through what He suffered.” He learned obedience. Learning implies progress and development. Not that Christ advanced in degrees from a disobedient child to an obedient adult. No, He never was disobedient. He always had the desire to do God’s will and He carried out that desire perfectly. With every new experience of temptation, trial and suffering He responded in obedience. Just as He grew in wisdom so He grew in His obedience to God. His was the obedience that results from listening to God’s Word. He not only willingly executed the demands of the law but He also willingly took the penalty of the law. In so doing He fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah, “I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I hid not my face from shame and spitting” (50:6).
Look to Him who learned obedience through suffering. Embrace Him in faith. Confess Him before the world. Obey Him in love. For by His obedience He has become the source of our eternal salvation.