JESUS THE GREATER AND COMPASSIONATE HIGH PRIEST
Verse 14 is the beginning a passage that goes through 7:28 (although the topic continues throughout the book). It is an exposition of Psalm 110:4. That topic is that Jesus is a greater high priest than Aaron. It is also that Jesus, despite being great, is a compassionate high priest.
If you did not come from a Jewish background, you might wonder why that is important. But, remember that the original audience here is Jewish. The people who received this letter were Jews who had either professed faith in Christ or at least had heard the gospel and were meeting with the church. The writer wanted them to stay firm in their faith in Christ and not return to Judaism.
But this is not a solely historical lesson for us Gentiles. We will learn about Jesus ministry as our high priest. It is also one of the “offices” Jesus holds. We have seen Jesus as prophet, priest and king. This passage is about Jesus as priest and, specifically, as our high priest.
First, let’s review the history of the priesthood. The priesthood was established during the exodus from Egypt. The Jews did not want to deal with God face to face. They constantly grumbled against God. Moses constantly interceded for them. Then, when God came to Mount Sinai to establish the covenant, they asked Moses to speak to God for them because they were afraid. Moses acted as a priest.
But when God formally established the covenantal priesthood, he chose the tribe of Levi to be the priestly family. He had already set aside the Levites to himself because they supported Moses in stopping the worship of the golden calves. (Numbers 14:5-6, 11-13) Aaron was Moses’ brother. He had already acted as a priest, speaking for Moses to Pharaoh. In fact, when God told Moses he sent Aaron to be his spokesman, he said “He shall speak for you to the people and he shall be your mouth and you shall be as God to him.” (Exodus 4:14)
Aaron was then appointed by God to be the first high priest. (Exodus 28:1) The Levitical priests offered the daily offerings. Only the high priest could make the sacrifice on the Day of Atonement. This is described in Leviticus 16. The high priest had to cleanse himself and make atonement for himself and his family, then he could go behind the veil and offer the sacrifice before the Lord. That is because no one could be in the presence of the Lord in a sinful condition.
This shows you how important the priesthood was to Israel. It also shows the supreme importance of the high priest. Only he could bring yearly atonement for Israel.
So now, let’s look at the passage in Hebrews.
Our Sympathetic High Priest
Jesus is our high priest. Hebrews 3:1 says: “Therefore, holy brothers, you who share in a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession…”
The high priest passed through the Tent of Meeting (Tabernacle). He passed through the courtyard to the altar, made sacrifice, then passed into the Holy Place, then passed through the veil to the mercy seat. But Jesus passed through the heavens. (4:14) Later passages will give more detail, but the image is that Jesus ascended through the heavens into the presence of God offering his sacrificial death for our sins.
The implication is that Jesus is a greater high priest than Aaron, for Aaron passed through the earthly temple, but Jesus passed through the heavenly temple into God’s presence. He is, therefore, the great high priest.
Because he is a great high priest, the writer says “let us hold fast our confession”. The NIV says “firmly”. Fast does not mean quick. It means to lock on, as with a fastener. The NIV updated the language for you there so that it would be more understandable. For the Jew, the writer means: do not give up the greater priest for the lesser priest.
We also often give up the greater for the lesser. Whole denominations have given up the glory of Christ and the gospel for “feel good about yourself” theology. Our Catholic friends gave up this glorious blessing of direct access to the Father through his Son and re-established a human priesthood complete with sacrifices.
Verse 15 shows us that, even though Jesus is great high priest, he is a sympathetic high priest. He is sympathetic because he suffered all the trials and temptations we suffer. He took on our flesh. He was fully human. Therefore, he can sympathize. When you are tempted, you can come to Jesus for help and he will sympathize and help you. It is not God’s design that you go it alone in your own strength. That is the meaning of verse 16. Draw near to the throne of grace and receive mercy for your failures and help in your time of need.
The throne of grace is a reference to the place of God’s presence. In the Tabernacle and Temple, it was the mercy seat over the ark. But the throne here is the presence of God, whom believers may approach for grace in our times of need. Yes, he may say what you are doing is wrong, or what you are thinking of doing is wrong and call you to repentance. But he does not judge and pour out wrath. He pours out mercy. He forgives, he strengthens and he guides.
I would guess your normal reaction to sin in your life is to avoid confronting it or bringing it to God. If you bring it to God it is to ask forgiveness and hope you are not punished. But the idea here is that, when tempted or tried, you come to Jesus and say help me! You say “you know what this feels like, give me grace to avoid sin!”
So, here is an example. A few years ago, a political thing happened where I worked. People lied about me behind my back and used the lies to their profit and my detriment. I knew it was going on, although I did not know all that was said. Now, I can tell you that year before this, once I found this out, I would have gone on the warpath. And you do not want me on the warpath. And, if I was harmed, I would retaliate, even if it took years to accomplish.
But, I had changed. The Bible convinced me that I was to love my enemies and trust God to take care of me. So, I did. I even took a Bible to work, opened it to a passage that dealt with the situation, and left it open there as a reminder. Mostly I did okay. But when the anger or fear arose, I went to Jesus and said “I know you know what this feels like. You were betrayed by someone close to you, and you suffered it and trusted God to deliver you. Help me to do the same.” And he did. And it was a spiritual victory empowered by God’s grace and mercy.