Having established that a “Sabbath rest remains for the people of God” (4.9), the author exhorted his audience to “be diligent to enter that rest” (4.10) knowing that not only is the “word of God… living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword” (4.11) but that no one is hidden from His sight (4.12). But lest they despair that they too couldn’t enter His promised rest, the author returned to the hope and confidence they can find with Jesus as their high priest (4.14-16).
The office of the high priest is of great importance in Hebrews, the term for “high priest”, ἀρχιερεύς, being found 17 times in the letter. Jesus was first introduced as our high priest in Hebrews 2.17 where we are told that Jesus’ human existence was necessary so He could “become a merciful and faithful high priest”. Then again we are exhorted in Hebrews 3.1 to “consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession.” And that very consideration may have caused some confusion among the original audience: they knew who the priests were and that the High Priest was to be a descendant of Aaron, from the tribe of Levi. How could Jesus fulfill the role of high priest? The author begins to explain that very question in this section be first revealing three essential qualifications of the high priest and then explaining how Jesus met each one.
The high priest must be one of the people (Hebrews 5.1,5-6).
This point is established in Hebrews 5.1. Not only is the high priest “taken from among men” but He is “appointed” (more on this later) “on behalf of men in things pertaining to God.” I believe the NLT captures the idea of the passage: “Every high priest is a man chosen to represent other people in their dealings with God.” The high priest since he is a man, but appointed by God, can serve as an intermediary between the two. And he does so by offerings “gifts and sacrifices for sins.”
Aaron was the first high priest chosen by God from among the people (see Exodus 28.1) and the priesthood was to be kept among Aaron’s descendants (Exodus 29.9). They were God’s chosen intermediaries, but it was apparent early on that they could not fulfill the role perfectly. Two of Aaron’s sons were killed for offering strange fire (Numbers 10.4) and Aaron would die in the wilderness because of his failings (Numbers 20.23-29). But the Lord had another in mind who would perfectly fill the role of high priest.
The Hebrew author uses two OT passages to establish that Christ meets the qualifications laid out in vs. 1. First, in vs. 5 he references Psalm 2.7. The Christ is God’s “Son” and is “begotten”. His humanity means He can be “taken from among men”. However, His status as God’s Son also paves the way for the author’s later point that Jesus ministers in a heavenly sanctuary, not an earthly one.
The second passage referenced is Psalm 110.4, and this passage explains how the Christ could be high priest, even though He did not descend from Aaron. Melchizedek is referenced only twice in the OT: Genesis 14.18-20 and Psalm 110.1-5. The Genesis narrative reveals that Melchizedek was priest-king of Salem. Psalm 110 is a psalm of David which emphasizes both the rule and the priesthood of the Messiah. Significantly, it was David who conquered Jerusalem (i.e. Salem, see 2Samuel 5.6-9). The promise of the Lord was that the descendant of David would fulfill the priest-king office of Melchizedek.
Much more will be said in later passages to show how Jesus is the perfect mediator between God and man. But no-one need to doubt that Jesus meets the qualification of one “taken from among men”.
The high priest must be able to sympathize with the people (Hebrews 5.2-3,7-9).
The reason why the high priest must be “taken from among men” is explored further in vss. 2-3 and is deserving of a close examination:
- “he can deal gently”: The word for “deal gently with” “It refers to taking the middle course between apathy and anger. A true high priest is not indifferent to moral lapses; neither is he harsh. He ‘is able’ to take this position only because he himself shares in the same ‘weakness’ as the sinners on whom he has compassion.” (Leon Morris, Expositors Bible Commentary).
- “with the ignorant and misguided”: the compassion of the high priest was for those who sinned through ignorance or error (Leviticus 4.2; Hebrews 9.7), not for those who sinned wilfully (see Numbers 15.30-31).
- “he himself also is beset with weakness”: in the case of Aaron and his sons, the weakness of the high priest was his own moral frailty. He needed atonement and forgiveness just as much as the people.
- “obligated to offer sacrifices for sins… for himself”: no time was this more clear than on the Day of Atonement when Aaron first had to atone for his own sins (see Leviticus 16.6,11).
Jesus was not beset by the same moral weakness as the Aaronic priesthood, but He can still sympathize with man as is made clear in vss. 7-9:
- “offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying…”: While not explicitly said, this likely refers to Jesus’ experience in Gethsemane (Luke 22.41-44). Also has a backdrop in such psalms as Psalm 116.1-8; 22.1-2,15,23-24). “There are three kinds of prayers, each loftier than the preceding: prayer, crying, and tears. Prayer is made in silence: crying with raised voice; but tears overcome all things (‘there is no door through which tears do not pass’).” (Leon Morris quoting a rabbinic saying, EBC).
- “He was heard because of His piety”: ultimately, Jesus’ prayer was that the Father’s will be done. Jesus was heard; the Father’s will was done, even though it mean suffering for His Son.
- “He learned obedience from the things which He suffered”: this is not saying that Jesus had been disobedient, but in going through with the Father’s plan, Jesus was given the opportunity to “learn obedience” by suffering. “Sons of high position in the ancient world were honored and advanced on the basis of their status. Yet Jesus’ relationship with the Father did not make for an easy appointment to high priesthood.” (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Background Commentary)
- “having been made perfect”: complete, able to serve as high priest.
- “became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation”: Jesus “learned obedience” and can now bring salvation to those who obey.
The high priest must be appointed by God (Hebrews 5.4,10).
During the first century and while Jerusalem was under Roman occupation, the office of the high priest was typically granted to the person who offered the most money to the Roman officials. However, man was not supposed to take this honor on themselves, but it was for the one whom God chose. God chose Aaron (Exodus 28.1-3) and others who tried to take the honor on themselves were severely punished (see Numbers 16).
Jesus did not take the honor on Himself (vs. 10). He was chosen by God to priest, not after the line of Aaron, but according to the order of Melchizedek. Much more about this will be said in following chapters.
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