‘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.’ (Hebrews 5:7 NIV)
The curious reference to the ‘reverent submission’ of Jesus in Hebrews 5:7 needs some consideration. In the Greek the word is εὐλαβείας (eulabeias), and is translated in numerous ways: the NKJV translates the word as ‘godly fear’, the NLT as ‘deep reverence’ and the American Standard version as ‘piety.’ The word appears in ancient texts such as Aristophanes’ poem Birds, line 376, where he writes ‘Caution (εὐλαβείας) is what saves a state’. Εὐλαβείᾳ is also mentioned in line 782 of Euripedes’ Phoenician Women as a goddess who could save a city (Thebes). It was a word, then, familiar to the ancient world and, albeit it had strong associations with Greek mythologies, it had clearly passed into New Testament Greek by the time the writer of Hebrews penned his letter.
At first sight the choice of words seems appropriate – the verse comes immediately after a discussion concerning the role of the High Priest and a parallel seems to be being drawn between the way the High Priest approached God, and the way Jesus approached God;
‘Every high priest is selected from among the people and is appointed to represent the people in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.’ (Hebrews 5:1)
There is a clear disparity in the comparison, however, the High Priest approached God as part of a highly controlled ritual, and only once a year, in a manner that perfectly embodied ‘caution’ – the Old Testament is littered with examples of those who lacked caution in approaching God, such as king Uzziah and the sons of Aaron! In contrast, Jesus is described as approaching God in a way seemingly divorced from the ceremonial practices of the Levites and the temple. Indeed, the book of Hebrews identifies him as belonging to a completely different order, the order of Melchizedek. Interpreted in this light Hebrews 5:7 fits perfectly with the wider message of the book of Hebrews, namely, that the way of the law and the priesthood with its system of sacrifice and meticulous adherence to the Levitical laws, was superseded by a better way, the way of Christ – who was the perfect sacrifice, and who tore the veil to open up the way for us to enter into God’s presence with ‘freedom and confidence’ (Ephesians 3:12). Jesus, then, through his death and resurrection refashioned what it meant to ‘approach God’.
Importantly, Jesus’ behaviour, as described in Hebrews 5:7, does not seem “reverent” in the “εὐλαβείας” sense of reverence – he is described as offering up ‘loud cries and tears’ to God. Jesus then, I would argue, was not ‘heard’ because of his ‘piety’ or an outward expression of ‘holy fear’, but rather he was ‘heard’ because he prayed out of a heart of intimacy towards a God who he knew could ‘save him from death’. In short, his heartfelt prayers were ‘powerful and effective’ (James 5:16) and embodied a new, free and dynamic way of approaching God. And so, in the hands of Jesus, εὐλαβείας, or ‘reverent submission’ has been reshaped and is not rooted in fear and dread, as suggested by the original meaning of the word, but rather it is representative of a call to a relationship with God that it grounded in humanity, authenticity and sincerity. This, I would argue, is true reverence.