This lesson examines what the writer of Hebrews says about the 4th element of the Jewish religion, the priesthood, and especially the High Priest.
In his argument encouraging Jewish Christians to remain faithful to Christ, the author of the book of Hebrews divides his letter into two sections:
- He shows that the glory of Christ is greater than the glory of the Jewish religion and all of its parts. In the last several chapters we have covered three of these parts: the Jewish prophets, the Jewish concept of angels, and one of the great Jewish leaders, Moses.
- In the second section the author will talk about the glory of the church (Jesus’ body) and what keeps it glorious.
In this chapter we will examine what he says about the fourth part of the Jewish religion: the priesthood and, especially, the High Priest. This is a long passage where the writer will touch on three specific topics:
- Jesus as High Priest, greater than Aaron, the first High Priest appointed by God through Moses.
- The writer again rebukes and warns his readers concerning unfaithfulness. He admonishes them not to abandon the superior High Priest who is Jesus. There is none greater than Him.
- Jesus is a different kind of high priest (not like Aaron, but rather like Melchizedek).
Jesus is a High Priest – Hebrews 4:14-5:10
In the previous section the author was reminding his readers not to ignore the warning contained in God’s Word concerning disobedience and disbelief. He told them that because of this, Moses’ followers had not entered their “rest” in the promised land. The suggestion was that they were in danger of the same fate if they disbelieved and disobeyed their leader, Jesus, and would not enter the true promised land and true rest which was heaven.
In verses 14-16 he changes gears and encourages them to renew their efforts to go forward towards this rest/promise because they have a helper who is already there awaiting them and helping them to enter in. This is the key idea in this section. It is with this device that the author introduces the idea that Jesus is also a high priest. He boldly makes his summary idea in one concise statement.
14Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.
- Christians have a great high priest. No Jewish high priest is referred to as great. The unspoken suggestion was that the Jewish religion was superior because it had a priestly system. Priests who could go before God on behalf of the people to thank, make requests and atone for sin. The author states that Christians also have a high priest.
- The Christian’s high priest is in heaven. While Jewish priests served here on earth, the Christian’s representative is in heaven appealing to God on his behalf.
- Jesus is that high priest. He is the Son of God and serves as high priest for His people.
- The people should be encouraged. If their high priest is already in heaven, they need to maintain their faith.
15For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.
Even though Jesus, as Son of God and high priest, is in heaven with God, this does not mean He cannot relate to the problems of human suffering and failure. He, as a man, was tested by Satan and by the limits of humanity and did not sin. The suggestion is that in Him we have the perfect mediator. One who can understand and sympathize with our weaknesses but, at the same time, can stand boldly before God on man’s behalf because He Himself has no guilt or condemnation due to sin.
16Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
Since Jesus knows the power of sin (He was tested), the weakness of men (He was fully human) and the mercy of God (He had a divine nature), His followers can approach God with confidence. He has gone before them and prepared the way and now tells them that if they come in His name, they will find mercy and God’s help when they need it.
Introduction to Aaron – Hebrews 5:1-4
In chapter five the author introduces Aaron, Moses’ brother, who was the first high priest. If he is to make a comparison to Jesus, he needs to describe who Aaron was and what he did. Originally, the ones who offered sacrifices to God as a form of worship were the heads of families. We often read about instances where Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their sons offered animal sacrifices to thank or make pledges to God (Genesis 12:7-8; Genesis 35:7). The basic idea behind a sacrifice of any kind was that something was transferred from the physical realm to the spiritual realm through death or destruction. Death or destruction was the passageway from this dimension to the spiritual or unseen dimension. For example:
- Adam and Eve – Atonement for sin transferred from them to God through death of an animal (Genesis 3:21).
- Noah – Thanksgiving for safety through flood transferred from earth to heaven by animal sacrifice (Genesis 8:20).
- Jacob – Vow to have only God as his God transferred to spiritual realm by pouring out (destroying) oil on a pillar (Genesis 28:18).
When God gave the Law to Moses, He also included a more formalized system of sacrifices that contained specific instructions concerning the reasons, times, manners and materials to be used in the practice of sacrifice. Much of this information is contained in the book of Leviticus. The Jewish religious system of worship was built around the activity of sacrificing to God a variety of animals and produce in order to express (transfer from physical to spiritual) different things. Sacrifices that expressed thanksgiving, purification, atonement, blessing, etc. In Leviticus 1:6 we read the instructions for the preparation of sacrifices such as burnt offerings, peace offerings, sin offerings and guilt offerings, to name a few.
God provided the details concerning the killing and preparation of the animal, how to actually offer the sacrifice, the order in which it was to be presented, and what other items were to accompany the sacrifice. It was complex, demanding, expensive and time consuming. Some sacrifices had to be done every day, others on special occasions. In addition to these, the priests had to offer the sacrifices that the people brought to them as well.
God also appointed a specific person and family to carry out these tasks, as well as a specific place where things were to be done (tabernacle/temple). Aaron, Moses’ brother from the tribe of Levi, along with his sons were the first ones appointed by God to this role. Sacrificing would no longer be done by the heads of each family, but by a high priest on behalf of all the families. The important point to remember here is that this task/ministry was only given to Aaron and his sons and their descendants. According to God’s Law, only the descendants of Aaron could serve as priests. This is why they called it the Aaronic priesthood. The high priest also had an elaborate rite of purification and dress that we read about in Leviticus 8:6-9,
6Then Moses had Aaron and his sons come near and washed them with water. 7He put the tunic on him and girded him with the sash, and clothed him with the robe and put the ephod on him; and he girded him with the artistic band of the ephod, with which he tied it to him. 8He then placed the breastpiece on him, and in the breastpiece he put the Urim and the Thummim. 9He also placed the turban on his head, and on the turban, at its front, he placed the golden plate, the holy crown, just as the Lord had commanded Moses.
- Turban/crown – He wore a turban made of linen with a blue laced ribbon which held a golden plate which had the words, “HOLINESS TO THE LORD.” This was a constant reminder of his separation and calling to serve God and the people (Exodus 28:36-38).
- Onyx stones – One stone on each shoulder secured by a strap that served to hold the front and back of the checkered and embroidered ephod. The names of six tribes of Israel were engraved on each stone. Names placed in order of birth (six oldest on the right and six youngest on the left – Josephus). This meant that the high priest carried the names of the tribes before the Lord when ministering in their name (Exodus 26:6-14).
- Braided chains – These were made of gold and, along with the ribbons, were used to hold the breastplate in place. The breastplate had rings in each corner and the chains were attached from these to the shoulder plates that held the onyx stones (Exodus 28:14).
- Breastplate – This was a piece of elaborately finished cloth of the same material as the ephod. It was twice as long as it was wide but folded over to form a square (about 9″X9″) and provide an inner pocket or pouch. As I said, it had rings in each corner from which chains and ribbons were attached to secure it into place. On the breastplate were fastened 12 precious stones (sardius, topaz, emerald, turquoise, sapphire, diamond, jacinth, agate, amethyst, beryl, onyx and jasper) all set in gold. On each stone was engraved the name of one of the tribes of Israel. The idea was that the people and their needs were always close to the high priest’s heart and before the Lord constantly (Exodus 28:15-29).
- Urim/thummin – Urim = lights / thummin = perfection. It is thought that there were precious gems placed inside the pocket of the breastplate. Not much is known about these, but since this was before the time of prophets, it may be that the priest used these in some way to discern a “yes” or “no” answer from the Lord (Exodus 28:30; Numbers 27:31).
- Ephod – An over-garment made of linen with gold, blue, purple and scarlet threading. It was woven together and worn as a tunic. It had a front and back panel and held together by the gold clasps on the shoulders that had the onyx stones (Exodus 28:6-14).
- Sash/girdle – The sash/girdle held the ephod in place securely tied. When the high priest was “girded” or “sashed” it meant he was fully clothed in all of his high priestly attire. It was made of golden threads as well as blue, purple, and scarlet linen (Exodus 28:6-14).
- Robe – Was worn under the ephod. It was a plain blue sleeveless garment, reinforced at the neck. It extended below the ephod (Exodus 28:31-35).
- Bells – Bells of gold were sewn on the hem and could be heard as the priest moved about. The people could know that the high priest had not been struck dead while in the service of the Lord and their offering was acceptable (Exodus 28:35).
- Pomegranates – A row of pomegranates were embroidered on the hem of the robe in between the bells. They symbolized fruitfulness (abundant seeds) and God’s word as sweet and pleasant food (Exodus 39:24).
- Tunic – Basic linen tunic as undergarment. (Leviticus 8:6-9)
- Barefoot – The high priest wore no shoes when entering the holy place because this was considered holy ground.
And so, when the author speaks of the high priest, this is the grand image that his readers have of this person, his exalted position and his ministry.
1For every high priest taken from among men is appointed on behalf of men in things pertaining to God, in order to offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins; 2he can deal gently with the ignorant and misguided, since he himself also is beset with weakness; 3and because of it he is obligated to offer sacrifices for sins, as for the people, so also for himself. 4And no one takes the honor to himself, but receives it when he is called by God, even as Aaron was.
After reviewing the history and work of the Aaronic priesthood, he notes that they were not all selected on the basis of merit, but rather by the will of God. The author also reminds them that even the priests had to, in the course of their temple service, offer sacrifice for themselves because they also were weak and sinful people, just like the people they represented before God. The idea was that in this way they could understand and sympathize with the people they served. Even Aaron, the first high priest appointed by God, was a weak and sinful man.
Jesus is also a High Priest
The author has already stated this, but in these verses he shows that Jesus has better qualifications to be a high priest than Aaron and his descendants. He mentions two things:
1. Jesus was appointed High Priest
5So also Christ did not glorify Himself so as to become a high priest, but He who said to Him,
“You are My Son,
Today I have begotten You”;
6just as He says also in another passage,
“You are a priest forever
According to the order of Melchizedek.”
Just as Aaron was appointed by God, so was Jesus. He proves his point by quoting two Old Testament scriptures that speak of the Messiah/Son of God and His position (Psalms 2:17; 110:4). The idea is that the Messiah was to be a priest forever, appointed by God along the lines of an Old Testament priest called Melchizedek, not Aaron. In other words, Jesus traces His priestly lineage back to Melchizedek (a person who existed before Aaron), not Aaron. The writer does not explain who this Melchizedek is right away, he merely establishes Christ’s appointment as high priest and His lineage. The author knew that for Jews, another stumbling block to accepting Jesus as a high priestly mediator was that He was descended through His earthly father, Joseph, through the line of Judah, not Levi, where the Aaronic priests came from. He will explain the significance of this lineage later.
2. He was Qualified
7In the days of His flesh, He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His piety. 8Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered. 9And having been made perfect, He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation, 10being designated by God as a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.
In order to qualify as a priest you needed to be appointed by God so as to have a right to stand before Him, and you needed to be able to relate to those whom you represented. Aaron qualified in both respects because he was appointed through Moses, and he was human.
In this section the author shows that in addition to His divine appointment, Jesus qualified as one who knew the sufferings of men because He also suffered greatly. He suffered anguish in the garden before His death and, like all men, prayed to God with tears to help Him in His hour of trial. He suffered the restrictions of a human nature and did only what the Father instructed, thus demonstrating that He knew how to obey. He was never morally imperfect, but His human nature was brought totally into submission to God’s will, even to the point of death. This is the kind of perfection/maturity revealed here.
Jesus qualified as a priest because He was appointed by God to serve in this way, and He, like Aaron, knew well the sufferings and limitations of the human nature (unlike Aaron however, He was perfect – no sin). The author makes his point in verses 9b-10. Because Jesus is qualified in this way, He is able to perform the priestly duties which will result not only in the temporary helping of His people (which is what happened with Aaron and his descendants, and which he will explain at length later), but Jesus is able to give them an eternal, complete salvation. He reiterates the idea of Melchizedek here as a kind of a “book-end” device to round out his opening remarks that revolved around this mysterious character: Melchizedek.
- The author encourages his readers to strive for their hope of rest in heaven assured by the fact that their Lord, Jesus, is already there appealing to God on their behalf as High Priest.
- He reviews the original qualifications for the high priesthood as regards Aaron, the original high priest of Israel. He had to be appointed by God and sympathetic to the people.
- He shows them that Jesus is qualified to be high priest because, as Messiah, He was appointed by God to this office. His priesthood, however, was to be eternal in nature (lineage of Melchizedek), not the temporary lineage of Aaron. Also, as one who took on a human nature, Jesus was able to relate to the sufferings of the people He ministered to. The author’s conclusion is that because of His qualifications, Christians can have confidence in Jesus as their high priest who ministers in heaven on their behalf. By implication the author is saying that the priesthood of Aaron has been replaced by a greater and the more effective one of Jesus. He will explain how and why later.
Although not fully explained yet, the author reassures all Christians in every era that they have someone already in heaven who is pleading their case at the throne of God. What does this spiritual reality mean for us? It means that we need to pray with this idea in mind and not put off dealing with sin because our high priest is in heaven pleading on our behalf. We can be sure that our sins will be dealt with effectively. Finally, we should always approach God with confidence in all matters because we have been assured that we will find grace and mercy there, not condemnation.