I had to wrestle with this text more than usual in my preparation. Because of teaching I had been surrounded by growing up, my mind kept wanting to do things with this text that on the surface felt natural, but only made the text more and more confusing the closer I looked at it. After some time digging as best as I could into the original languages and getting help from my study mentor (who is fluent in Hebrew and Greek and a marvelous teacher), I've arrived at an understanding of the text that I think makes much better sense (both in context and when compared to the rest of scripture) than the ideas I started out with.
In previous verses, Jesus was compared to the angels and prophets and found to be superior to them in every way. He is also shown to be a brother to humanity, as a fellow human himself. His purpose in earthly life was not to stand alongside angels as a fellow angel, but alongside humans as a fellow human.
The "offspring of Abraham" may refer to Jesus' initial priority for Israel, although Jesus came to help many more, and one could argue that all believers are in mind here when referring to "the offspring of Abraham." (See Genesis 12:2-3, Romans 4:11,16, 9:8, Galatians 3:29)
In order to function as an intermediary between humans and Yahweh (in others words, as a "high priest"), Jesus had to become human in every sense of the word. Even so, he was not sinful. This is an indirect indication that sin is not a defining "human" characteristic. It's only a defining characteristic of "broken humanity".
Jesus was, however, limited in his capabilities while on earth. This makes it possible for him to be merciful to us, not just out of intellectual awareness of our weakness, but through experience of it himself.
We don't use the word "propitiation" every day. But to propitiate basically means "to make favorable toward". Jesus makes God favorable toward us, despite our sin.
This verse is a comfort to me. I used to think that it was easy for Jesus to always do the right thing. But verses like this one indicate that it wasn't. Jesus knew that feeling we all have when faced with a choice to obey or disobey God. That feeling of agony that says, "If you don't do the thing you want to do right now you're going to be miserable, or depressed, or you'll explode!" That feeling that becomes stronger and stronger if not expelled or given in to. And as we all know it's much easier to give into it. But Jesus knew the pain and suffering of not giving in, of NEVER giving in to that feeling. And he still knows that pain all too well as we experience it right now.
Note that the book of Hebrews is addressing believers: "holy brothers" and those who have made a "confession".
Looking closer, this verse refers to the audience of believers as "holy", meaning "set apart for the purposes of God".
Believers currently, on an ongoing basis, share a "heavenly calling", which they can choose to answer or not. (I believe if this "heavenly calling" referred to the initial call to trust in Jesus for rescue from hell, the text would read not in the present tense but in the past tense: "you who answered the heavenly calling".)
In this context of "purpose" and "calling", believers are asked to consider Jesus, as both an apostle (one who is sent by God for a purpose) and a high priest. The author will direct attention to Jesus as high priest a little later, but for now focuses on him as one sent by Yahweh for a purpose.
Jesus is worthy of considering as an apostle because he has more glory than Moses. Moses managed well what he was given in life. He was a servant in God's metaphorical household and even helped pave the way for Christ through his words and writing. But Jesus is the entitled Son in God's household. He was also also faithful with all he was given in life. Not only that, Jesus is the Creator of life itself! (Hebrews 2:1)
Jesus is our example, and we should aim to be faithful with what God has purposed us to do, just as Jesus was.
Now if you're wondering about the part I spent time wrestling over, you'll find it in verse 6.
"And we are his house if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope."
I don't know about you, but all this business with houses was a confusing mess to me when I first started looking at it. At first, it seemed simple. I thought, "Oh, okay. 'House=People of God' or 'God's children'. Moses was faithful among those in God's house in his day, and so was Jesus, right?"
But as I started to look more closely and try to carry that idea through, the text started sounding clunky and confusing. Almost random. What I didn't realize is that I was once again the victim of years of bad teaching I had absorbed and applied to this passage.
Let's back up a bit to 3:2...
Jesus "was faithful to him who appointed him, just as Moses also was faithful in all God’s house."
This is a reference to Numbers 12:7, in which the Hebrew word for "house" or "household" can also refer to "household affairs" rather than the people that make up the household. I believe this understanding of both words used for "house" (The Hebrew in Numbers 12:7 AND the Greek in Hebrews chapter 3), provides the most natural and straightforward reading of both texts.
The idea of "house" meaning "household affairs" fits in perfectly with the context of both Jesus and Moses being faithful in the purposes they were sent for. Moses and Jesus were both faithful in all of God's household affairs.
If we try to say that "house=people/children of God", as many commentaries do, the wording becomes clunky and strange, (Moses was "faithful in all God's people"? Jesus was "faithful over God's children"?) and the implication surfaces that we are not God's children or God's people if we don't "hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope." (3:6) Which doesn't work with the rest of scriptural teaching.
A single moment of decision to believe that Jesus is who he says he is and did what he said he did results in eternal life. It's a done deal. A transaction immediately referred to in the past tense.
(John 5:24, ESV) Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.
(John 3:16, ESV) “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
This eternal life is a free gift.
(Romans 6:23, ESV) For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
God's gifts cannot be undone. Even by God himself.
(Romans 11:29, ESV) For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.
(2 Timothy 2:13, ESV) if we are faithless, he remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself.
For all these reasons and more, this passage in Hebrews becomes a disaster if we try to push a "house=people/children" view onto it, or attempt to make it about salvation from hell.
As Christian geeks, we know a boat load about insecurity already. This passage is not about being insecure in where we stand with Yahweh, the God of the universe. The truth is, God leaned forward in breathless anticipation of that first moment of faith and then scooped us up and spun around laughing, NEVER to let go of his child again, even if he's kicking and screaming.
The writer of Hebrews is putting a spotlight on the faithfulness of Jesus, as an example to us. Like Jesus, we are meant to pursue faithfulness in the calling Yahweh presents us with every day. This passage is about Jesus, who stepped out of his comfort zone every day of his life, enduring social rejection, awkward stares and judgment, all without ever lashing out, becoming defensive or hatefully judgmental in return. He endured the pain of always choosing what God desired so that he could invite us into a life that's better than what we desire.
Every moment we can choose to reject that "heavenly calling" and wait for eternal life on the sidelines. Or we can accept it, holding fast to our confidence and hope in Jesus, so we can become a part of what God is doing in his household right now.