Jesus: Our Great High Priest, part 1 (Hebrews 5:1-3)

Jesus is the best high priest you could have.  And you say, “So what?”

Why is this important to us?  It was important to the Jews, but why is it important to you and me? 

Among the first thing a Jew might have asked another person about his religion was, “who is your high priest?”  I bet no one has ever asked you, “who is your high priest?”

A Jew during the first century might have asked a new follower of the Way, Christians, “How are your sins going to be pardoned when you have no one offering sacrifices for you?”

So the writer of Hebrews wanted them, and us, to realize, “But we do have a high priest, in fact, a better high priest, the perfect high priest, and His name is Jesus.”

The author from the beginning has been setting up Jesus as the unique Son-who-is-King.  Then he began presenting Jesus as the Son-who-is-High Priest.  This will be the focal point of chapters 5-10.

The Epistle to the Hebrews stands alone among the NT books in calling Christ priest.  The cause for this neglect may perhaps be found in the history of the Jewish people.  Throughout the ages the Jews had expected a king from David’s house.  This king would deliver them from foreign oppression.  And this king, because David’s line was from the tribe of Judah, could not be a priest; priests were descendants of Aaron in the tribe of Levi.  Therefore, Jesus was known as king.  At his birth the wise men called him “king of the Jews” (Mt 2:2), and this appellation was commonplace during the trial and crucifixion of Jesus.  He was not known as priest.  (William Hendriksen & Simon J. Kistemaker, NT Commentary: Hebrews, 135)

The heart of the book focuses on Jesus’ high priesthood.  His superior priesthood makes the New Covenant superior to the Old Covenant.  He has done what all the priests together under the Old Covenant could not do and never could have done.

Within this main section of the book (5:1-10:18) can be discerned two movements: (1) the first addresses the Son’s appointment as high priest according to the order of Melchizedek (5:1-7:28), which is bracketed off by an inclusio (the same elements at beginning and end) and includes an exhortation in 5:11-6:20 which is an exegetical conundrum.  It will take us several weeks to explain that portion of Scripture.

Before enlarging on the consequences of the priesthood of Christ for his readers, the author seeks to show Christ’s qualifications for that role.

When the high priest was donned with all his majestic priestly garments (described in Exodus 28), it was quite a display.  But what was more important were the inner qualifications so necessary for effective ministry.

The writer closed the previous chapter with the statement that we have a high priest in the person of Jesus.  The Jew would immediately object, “Hold it right there!  It takes certain rigid qualifications to be a priest.  Not just anyone can take that title to himself.”

The writer anticipates this objection and so, he pauses to examine three particular aspects of the high priest.  Then, in verses 6-10, he goes back over those same aspects in reverse order, applying them to Jesus.  This type of reverse parallelism is known as a CHIASM (after the Greek letter Chi, which looks like one half of the letter X).  It can be charted like this:

A     The old office of high priest (5:1)

B       The solidarity of the high priest with the people (5:2-3)

C       The humility of the high priest (5:4)

C’      The humility of Christ (5:5-6)

B’      The solidarity of Christ with the people (5:7-8)

A’      The new office of high priest (5:9-10)

The use of chiasm functioned both to emphasize the central elements (humility) and as a mnemonic device to help listeners remember.

The introduction of verse 1, the conclusion in verse 10 and the apex of the chiasm in vv. 4-6 all serve to focus the attention of the theme of Christ’s legitimate appointment to the high priesthood.  In contrasting the Aaronic priesthood in general terms (vv. 1-4) to Christ’s Melchizekian priesthood (vv. 5-10), the author is attempting to show that Jesus is a superior high priest.

Again, the big idea is that Jesus is the best high priest you could have.

1 For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. 2 He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness. 3 Because of this he is obligated to offer sacrifice for his own sins just as he does for those of the people. 4 And no one takes this honor for himself, but only when called by God, just as Aaron was. 5 So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”; 6 as he says also in another place, “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.” 7 In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. 8 Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. 9 And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, 10 being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.

First we see the qualifications of the Earthly High Priest (vv. 1–4)

The writer opens this section by asserting in verses 1–4 the three essential qualifications for one who would aspire to be high priest—namely, solidaritysympathy, and selection.

Solidarity, oneness with humanity, was fundamental to priestly ministry and is explicitly stated in verse 1: “For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins” (cf. Exodus 28:1; Numbers 8:6). 

This was established in Exodus 28:1a, “Then bring near to you Aaron your brother, and his sons with him, from among the people of Israel, to serve me as priests…”

The high priest must originate among the people.  In order to represent mankind He had to become a man.  No angel or celestial being could stand in the place of the high priest.

Not just anyone could serve as a priest in the Old Testament.  In the first place, you had to be a member of the tribe of Levi.  But not everyone in the tribe of Levi qualified.  You also had to be a descendant of the family of Aaron.  Aaron, you will recall, was the brother of Moses.  And only one of the descendants of Aaron was given the privilege of serving as the High Priest.

The emphasis here is on the similarity, or solidarity, between the high priest and the people—he was “one of them.”  This is a continuation of the theme introduced back in 2:10-18 where the Son came down “among humanity” to accomplish reconciliation in our behalf.  Chapter 2 ended with a statement of Christ’s identity with the people as their high priest (2:17-18).

17 Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. 18 For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

This theme popped up again at the end of chapter 4.

14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 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.

And this is why the author of Hebrews unpacks the implications here.

The role of the high priest was to “act on behalf of men in relation to God.”  The high priest stood between God and man as their representative with Him.  As a priest acting “on behalf of men” Luther made this astute and important comment: “It is not enough for a Christian to believe that Christ was instituted high priest to act on behalf of men, unless he also believes that he himself is one of these men for whom Christ was appointed high priest.”

In other words, YOU must believe that you need a high priest, not merely that Jesus is a high priest, just like you must believe that you need a Savior, not merely that Jesus is a Savior.  This is similar to the distinction made in Hebrews 4:14.  It’s not just that there is a high priest available to us, but “we have a great high priest.”  And we have one because we need one!

So Jesus Christ is our go-between with God, our mediator.  As high priest, He functions as our mediator.  The priests under the Old Covenant were bridge builders to God.  Men could not come directly into God’s presence, and God therefore appointed certain men to be ushers, as it were, to bring men into His presence.  The way to God was opened only as the priests offered sacrifices–day in and day out, year after year–presenting the blood of animals to God.  The priests were God’s mediators.  (John MacArthur Jr., The MacArthur NT Commentary: Hebrews, 118)

Let me illustrate for you what a high priest is and does.  The Latin phrase for “high priest” is pontifex maximus.  The word “maximus” means great.  The word “pontifex” is interesting and is itself comprised of two words: “pons” (bridge) and “facio” (to make or build).  A high priest, therefore, is a bridge builder.  He makes a way for man to be connected with God and relate to God.  And what our author is about to unpack for us is that Jesus Christ is the bridge that spans the gap created by our sin, the gap that had separated us from God.  Through his sinless life, sacrificial death, bodily resurrection, and his current ministry of interceding for us at God’s right hand, he has built a bridge for us to get to God!

Christ holds three offices in His mediatorial role: prophet, priest and king.  According to Arthur Pink there seems to be a special importance attached to Christ’s role as priest, which is what is emphasized here in Hebrews.  First, we never read of “our great prophet,” or “our great King,” but we do of “our great High Priest” (Heb 4:14)!  Second, the Holy Spirit nowhere affirms that Christ’s appointment to either His prophetic or His kingly office “glorified” Him; but this is insisted upon in connection with His call to the sacerdotal office (5:5)!  In this priestly role he was exalted.  Third, we read not of the dread solemnity of any divine “oath” in connection with His inauguration to the prophetic or the kingly office, but we do His priestly–“The Lord has sworn, and will not change his mind, You are a priest forever.” (Ps 110:4)!  Thus the priesthood of Christ is invested with supreme importance.  (Arthur W. Pink, An Exposition of Hebrews, 238-9)

In particular, the high priest handled the sacrifices on the Day of Atonement.  Then and there he would offer “gifts and sacrifices for sins.”

The High Priest wore a breastplate on which were inscribed the names of all the tribes of Israel.  This pointed to the fact that his role was to represent all the people in the presence of God.  He alone could enter the Holy of Holies on only one day each year, the Day of Atonement.  On that day he offered sacrifices for the sins of the people and made it possible for them to remain in relationship with God.

On the Day of Atonement the high priest would take two goats and a ram from among the Israelites (Lev. 16:5).  After casting lots for the goats, the high priest slaughters one of the goats as a sin offering “for the people” (16:15), and the other goat is brought forth alive from the tent.  The high priest lays his hands on the head of the “scapegoat,” confessing all the sins of the people before the Lord, then sends the goat away into the desert (16:20-22).  By carrying out this part of God’s instructions for the Day of Atonement the high priest acts before God as a representative on behalf of the people, making atonement for their sins.

Exodus 28:1, 3; 29:1 stressed that the high priest was appointed for God, but in this verse the writer said that he was appointed for people.  Both statements are true.

Verses 2 and 3 expresses the high priest’s sympathy with his people:

2 He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness. 3 Because of this he is obligated to offer sacrifice for his own sins just as he does for those of the people.

Verse 2 shows the sympathy of the priest, expressed to the greatest degree in Jesus Christ, as we saw back in Hebrews 4:14-16.

You see, the high priest had to offer a special sacrifice for himself and his household before he could offer the goat sacrifices in behalf of his people.  In this regard, the Old Testament reads:

Aaron shall present the bull as a sin offering for himself, and shall make atonement for himself and for his house. He shall kill the bull as a sin offering for himself. (Leviticus 16:11)

The Mishna records this prayer by a priest, which probably reflect something of the ancient Aaronic prayer:

O God, I have committed iniquity and transgressed and sinned before thee, I and my house and the children of Aaron, thy holy people. O God, forgive, I pray, the iniquities and transgressions and sins which I have committed and transgressed and sinned before thee, I and my house.” (M Yoma 4:2)

This was followed by the high priest taking the blood of the sacrifice into the Holy of Holies and sprinkling some on the mercy seat and then sprinkling more seven times before the seat (Leviticus 16:6–14, esp. v. 14; cf. Leviticus 4:3–12; 9:7).  It was only after taking care of his own sins that he dared offer sacrifice for his people on the Day of Atonement.  The ideal high priest knew he was a sinner through and through—and thus was equipped to “deal gently” with his sinful people.  He did not elevate himself above them, but ministered with sympathetic grace as a priestly sinner on behalf of other sinners.

The necessity stems from the priest’s being “beset with weakness” (v. 2b).  The Greek word translated “beset” (perikeimai) means “to be surrounded” by something, like a millstone tied around the neck (Mark 9:42; Luke 17:2) or the witnesses that surround us in Hebrews 12:1.  The priest’s weaknesses close in on him and leave him no way out, thus obligating him to first offer sacrifices for his own sins.  He shared in the universal “community of weakness” of all mankind.

Remember, it is in this respect alone that Christ did not exactly correspond to the qualifications and characteristics of high priest in this passage (cf. 7:27).  He IS able to sympathize because He has endured the temptations, yet without sinning.  To have been a fellow sinner would be of no worth to us.

This facing of temptation, however, has redemptive value in that it enables him to “deal gently with the ignorant and wayward.”  And in this we have something most beautiful, because the word translated “deal gently” was used classically to define a course of conduct that was the middle course between anger and apathy, between being incensed at sin or laissez-faire about sin.  It meant “wise, gentle, patient restraint.”  Such a high priest was compassionate and sensitive.  He dealt gently with his people.

There is a remarkable parallel between the chemistry that produces the ability to “deal gently” (awareness of weakness plus sinfulness equals gentleness) and the first three Beatitudes.  There an awareness of weakness —“Blessed are the poor in spirit [those who realize there is nothing within themselves to commend them to God], for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”—is combined with an awareness of sin —“Blessed are those who mourn [over their sins and the sins of the world], for they shall be comforted”—to produce gentleness —“Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:3–5 NASB).

When one is truly aware that he or she is a sinner and couples this with the interior awareness of human weakness, this person will deal gently with others.  Conversely, a harsh, judgmental, unsympathetic spirit is a telltale indication that one has outgrown his sense of weakness and awareness of sin.  Many evangelicals fall to this syndrome after humbly coming to Christ at conversion, for their initial experience of sanctification deludes them into imagining they are better than others.  Such arrogance, however, actually disqualifies them from spiritual ministry.  What a beautiful priestly quality it is to “deal gently” with those falling into sin.  How wonderful a priest like this would be.

Edwin Friedman, in his book Generation to Generation, says that a good leader will be a “non-anxious presence,” meaning that he or she can keep control of their emotions and not allow the tensions around them to dictate their emotions, yet he or she also does not draw away from the situation, but stays connected people.

This is what the ideal high priest was supposed to do.  It is what Jesus does for us.

Published by

Lamar Austin

I've graduated from Citadel Bible College in Ozark, Arkansas, with a B. A. Then got my M. Div. and Th. M. at Capital Bible Seminary in Lanham, MD. I finished with a D. Min. degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, but keep on learning. I pastored at Chinese Christian Church of Greater Washington, D. C., was on staff at East Evangelical Free Church in Wichita, KS, tried to plant an EFC in Little Rock, before moving back home to Mena, where I now pastor my home church, Grace Bible Church

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