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 bound to offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people. 4 And one does not take the honor upon himself, but he is called by God, just as Aaron was. 5 So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but he (lit. he that said unto him) was appointed by him who said to him, “Thou are my Son, today I have begotten thee”; 6 as he says in another place, “Thou art a priest for ever, after the order of Melchizedek.” 7 Who in the days of his flesh offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and was heard for his godly fear. 8 Though 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.
The author of Hebrews has been carefully unfolding the significance of Jesus being our great high priest. He begins his letter by describing Jesus as the word that God has spoken to us in these last days. He calls Him our high priest for the first time in 2:17. The author understands that all that has happened in the history of Israel’s relationship with God up until now has been a sign and a preparation for what God would do for us in Jesus Christ. What the author is particularly interested in describing in this letter is how Jesus fulfills and completes all of what God was doing in the system of worship that He gave to the Hebrews. With this focus, the author wants his readers to understand that, with Jesus we don’t just have another message from God in a long series of them. With Jesus, all that has gone before is completed by the Son of God himself, in person. So all that has preceded therefore has been relativized by Him, that, has its value only in relationship to Him.
When the triune God created, it was because He had decided that He did not want to be without us. As I have said earlier, it was God’s grace that led to the formation of the people of Israel and of their relationship with Him. He created humanity for relationship with Himself. God reached into the world He had created when he spoke to Abraham to form a people who would be a nation of priests to all the families of the earth.
When God had Moses lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, He made a covenant with them as a people, renewing the covenant He had made earlier with their forefathers. He promised that He would be their God and they would be His people. And God provided all that was needed for them to enter into real relationship with Himself. God gave them the law that was to help them to live in such a way as to know and receive His gracious work in their lives.
And God, furthermore, gave them all the instructions for their worship. He gave minutely detailed directions on the building of the tabernacle and all that it contained, the sacrificial system, and festivals and holy days. James Torrance, in his book Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace (IVP), calls these instructions ordinances of grace. God didn’t want them to try and appease Him, or to be in any way thrown back on themselves to figure out how to draw near to Him and enjoy His presence in their midst. He fully enabled them, sinful and broken as they were, to have Him, so holy and other than they were, to live with them in their midst.
The way that God provided for them to draw near to Him is seen most clearly in the high priest and the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur was the one day in the year when the high priest would enter the holy of holies, into the very presence of God, with sacrifices for himself and on behalf of the entire nation. He would enter the holy of holies, bearing the names of the twelve tribes of Israel on his shoulders and breast. He would take the blood of the sacrifice in, on behalf of himself and all the people, and intercede for them to God.
Israel and its worship provides the context of this passage, where the author continues to unfold how it is that he can say that Jesus is our great high priest, our final and perfect high priest. To help his Jewish readers, the author needs to clearly and completely show how it is that Jesus, from the line of David, is be the One who fulfills the high priestly office and the Day of Atonement.
So let’s take a look at this passage first in light of what the author has said previously. We need to note all the details the author gives here about Israel’s high priest. First of all, we learn that the high priest was chosen from among men to act on their behalf. The high priest was not to be from another group or to be one who was separated from, over or against, those he is representing. He comes before God and acts on behalf of the nation as an actual member of the nation. Previously the author told us that Jesus is truly and really one of us, taking on our flesh and blood. Jesus is of our human tribe truly and really, so he can act on our behalf, as our representative, before God as one of us.
Second, the author expounds on the significance of this point in the next sentence, “He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness.” The Greek that is here translated “deal gently” has the same root as “sympathize” from the previous section. It has a different prefix, though, and is sometimes translated “have compassion.” In other words, the high priest, chosen among men, is able to be patient and gentle rather than condescending because he himself is surrounded and hampered by his own weaknesses.
Now concerning Jesus, remember that the author spoke of the greatness of Jesus because He knows all of our temptations from the inside out and sympathizes, suffers with us, in our weaknesses so that now we ourselves can draw near the throne of grace. Jesus knows us from the inside out since he is one of us even to the point of suffering temptation. It is on the basis of that solidarity with us that he has compassion and can sympathize with us as he represents us to God.
But third, the author continues regarding the former priests, “he is bound to offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people.” All preceding high priests entered the holy of holies bringing blood to atone not only for his people’s sins, but for his own as well. This high priest is deeply connected to his people, even in their sin, needing for himself what all Israel needs. But this aspect of all merely human priests highlights the great contrast with Christ’s priesthood. This description links back most closely with the section we last studied. Jesus, the Son of God, truly became one of us, one among men, to act on our behalf. Jesus is in that way like Israel’s former high priests. He, however, has no sin of his own that needs to be atoned for. Although like us in confronting temptation, it is not on the basis of being a sinner that he is our high priest. Unlike all those who preceded him, Jesus took on our temptations but conquered them all. Jesus knows even more profoundly what temptation to evil is really all about that we or any of Israel’s high priests. He wrestled with evil to the end, never surrendering to it. He knows temptation to the extent that he, as one of us, can and did overcome it in every instance!
So it seems to me that Jesus’ “sympathizing” with us is also different and far superior to all other high priests. They sympathize because their experiences are like ours. They have their own weaknesses, their own temptations, their own failures in the face of temptation. And so they need, as well, to be atoned for like we do. What is theirs is like ours. So they can be patient and gentle.
But Jesus’ mediation and sympathy is much deeper and accomplishes so much more. Jesus does not have his own sin, he does not have his own weaknesses. He does not need his own atonement. Remember, we have been told that He has been made like us, has seized a hold of us in our fallen, sinful nature, and fully suffers with us in our weakness. He actually takes on our own nature and human experience, he takes on our temptations. No human priest has ever done that! Jesus compassion far exceeds that of other humans. He makes as his own what is ours! Other priests had their own weaknesses and failures which were similar to those they represented and so they were able to be patient with those they served. But even with all that similarity, they didn’t exactly feel the pain of those they served. But that is exactly what Jesus does: feels our weakness, our pain. He unites himself to us in a way that no human being can do. And so he represents us, actually and really, to God.
Now there is a further difference we have to account for as well. Jesus, one with us as one of us, overcame temptation, the temptations we face. No high priest has faced our temptations and overcome them all. Jesus knows the depth of temptation and evil and also conquers it in our place and on our behalf as one of us, one with us. And this does not put distance between Jesus and us, but rather shows the depths of his power and compassion towards us. He endured all this not for himself, but for us. He is both closer to us but also far superior in what he has accomplished for us than any other high priest. He stands in our midst, one of us, not surrounded by His own weaknesses, but making ours His own in such a way as to actually redeem and heal us. Jesus completes and fulfills what all the former high priests only foreshadowed.
The last point made in this passage about the high priest is that God calls him to this office, just as He called Aaron. This is an act of God’s grace. Aaron didn’t proclaim himself high priest. He took on the office in response to God’s call. And even though there have been many generations of high priests since Aaron, the author reminds his readers that the very nature of the office is that it is established by God Himself. (The writer of Hebrews is here speaking of the Old Testament law on the succession of the high priest. In his own day, the office was given as a political favor by the Romans.)
Now let’s look at what the author tells us about Jesus as high priest. First of all, Jesus, like the high priests before Him, did not exalt Himself to this office. When Jesus became our high priest, it was the work of the same God who instituted the office in the first place, and called men to fill it.
Notice what the author says next. Instead of simply stating that Christ like Aaron and the other high priests were called by God, he gives two statements from the Psalms that recall God speaking to His Messiah. The author refers to Jesus here by His title, “Christ,” which is Greek for Messiah. God affirms that this One is His Son (quoting Psalm 2:7 again) just as He declares that He is “‘a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek’” (Psalm 110:4). It is as the Son that He is the high priest. In discussing this passage, theologian T. F. Torrance said, “That Christ is God’s eternal Son, God’s self-revelation or Word, is the primary emphasis of this epistle, and it is only when the author has made that clear that he moves on to speak of Christ as our high priest, but in such a way as to show that Christ’s high priesthood is part of his Sonship and has no independent status or function” (Atonement, p.78). Jesus alone is the Son-of-God-High-Priest. All others, even if appointed by God (and so anointed) are merely sons of men.
Let’s look at this second quote from the Psalms. Like Psalm 2, this is a royal psalm of David, a messianic psalm, and the author has already quoted verse 1 from this psalm (1:13). So God is speaking here to His messiah, descended from David, declaring that he is a high priest. But he is a high priest for ever and after the order of Melchizedek.
Before we can go on, we need to spend some time on Melchizedek. Who is he? Actually he is mentioned only twice in the Old Testament. Melchizedek first appears in Genesis 14:17-20. Abram (Abraham) returns from rescuing Lot who had been taken captive and he is met by the king of Sodom and Melchizedek, the king of Salem. Melchizedek provides bread and wine for Abram and he blesses him, “‘Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand.’” Abram responds by giving Melchizedek a tenth of everything he had. Nothing more is said of him in this passage and the only other time his name appears is in Psalm 110, quoted above.
Melchizedek, then, was a priest-king of Yahweh before there was a nation of Israel and well before the priesthood of Aaron. And the passage in Psalm 110 indicates that the order of his priesthood will continue forever in the Messiah.
It is Jesus, the Messiah, the very Son of God, who is designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek. Jesus fulfills all priesthood forever. No other high priest can accomplish that, not even Melchizedek himself. Jesus’ priesthood is eternal, not temporary. That is, his ministry is for all people and for all time. It will never come to an end so that we’ll never need to transfer over to some other mediator. Nor is it the case that some people will need some mediator other than Jesus.
Next the author turns to the earthly ministry of Jesus. The ministry of the high priest was to offer sacrifices for his sins and those of the people. The author tells us two things about Christ’s ministry “in the days of his flesh.” Instead of sacrifices, Jesus offered up “prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears.” And, “Though he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.”
What does this mean? Well, from the passage itself, it would appear that the author wants us to understand that for Jesus to act on our behalf as our high priest, this is what He did. It seems from the context that Jesus, as our high priest, prays on our behalf. But why with loud cries and tears? And why did He have to learn obedience through what he suffered?
Looking to the end of this section, the writer says that it is through this earthly ministry that Jesus is made perfect and became “the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.” And then he repeats the fact of Jesus being designated by God “a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.” Jesus, in His ministry as our high priest goes through some sort of process of perfection through His life, death, resurrection and ascension (He is the one who has passed through the heavens). The term “became perfect” means to complete or fill, or be consecrated.
This idea that Jesus goes through a process was seen earlier in this epistle. In 2:17 it says that He was made like us in every respect, “so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest…to make expiation for the sins of the people.” And even earlier, in 2:10, the author writes, “For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering.
There are several parallels between these passages and the one we are looking at now. Through His life, His sufferings, His death and resurrection—as One who has entered into our sinful existence and become one of us—Jesus becomes our high priest, the pioneer of our salvation, the one who brings many sons to glory, the source of eternal salvation to us. What Jesus does then as high priest is not exactly the same as what the other high priests did, and what He does has everything to do with Who He is.
T. F. Torrance has this to say: “Christ becomes high priest through maintaining his Sonship faithfully in our existence of sin and weakness. By living out the life of the Son of God within our humanity through his faithfulness, through his suffering obedience and intercession, he becomes our high priest” (Atonement, p.79)
Jesus lives out His relationship with His Father in the midst of our resistance and brokenness, and in so doing forges a way out of our bondage into His freedom. And it was in this turning of humanity around towards God that Jesus suffered. “His obedience was a battle. The temptations make that abundantly clear. It was in agony of blood, ‘with strong cryings and tears’ in the things that he suffered that Jesus learned obedience, bringing his holy relation with sinners to its perfection and completion at last on the cross” (Incarnation, p. 64).
In other words, Jesus priesthood was a lifelong process of taking on a real human existence from birth to death and brining it to its proper end, telos, right relationship with God. Jesus did not just take on a vicarious death for us, but lived a whole vicarious life, one day at a time. The priestly ministry of Christ was not a magic trick done over humanity, but a work of transforming from the inside out a fallen broken humanity and taking it back to God. Humanity was not just saved in the end but actually transformed by him and in him from beginning to end. His entire life was substitutionary not just his death. And in that life that suffered and learned obedience he healed day by day, inch by inch our humanity that also is a daily becoming. No other priest has or ever could do that for us.