JESUS THE GREATER HIGH PRIEST
Hebrews 5 continues the discussion of Jesus as our great high priest that began in 4:14. (We know this because verse one begins with the word “for”.) He especially works to explain how Jesus sympathizes with our weaknesses. In 5:1-10 the writer explains first that it is the humanity of the priest that makes him able to sympathize with people, then that the Father appointed Jesus as high priest, and finally that Jesus became perfected in his humanity by suffering and thus was competent to bring salvation to his people.
Humanity Makes the Priest
The Old Testament high priest was a man. That is what “chosen from among men” means in verse 1. The man had to be a descendant of Aaron according to Exodus 28-29. He acted on behalf of men and women toward God. He offered sacrifices to obtain God’s atonement of the sin of the men and women of Israel.
This high priest could deal gently with the ignorant and wayward (ESV) or those going astray (NIV). The writer tells us that is because he himself has weaknesses. In other words, the priest is an effective and kind minister because he understands temptation and how easy it is to fall into sin. This was certainly true of Aaron. He let the Israelites make the golden calves and proclaimed “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of Egypt”. (Exodus 32:4) Moses said Aaron led them into a great sin. (Exodus 32:21) So, Aaron committed the sin of idolatry. Then, in Numbers 12, Aaron and Miriam opposed Moses out of pride and jealousy. So, Aaron understood the weakness of the people because he was weak.
As a side note, that is how we all should be with our Christian brothers and sisters. We do not let them slide away into sin because we do not want to confront it. But we also do not rush to condemnation. We admonish them, we plead with them, we try to get them to repent and resume their walk with Christ. We can do this because we know we ourselves are weak and sinful.
The Father Appoints The High Priest
You cannot declare yourself the high priest. It drives me crazy when men or women appoint themselves as bishops or apostles instead of being called by the church. Well the writer here points out that God only can appoint the high priest. No man can appoint himself. God appointed Aaron and his sons. Then, in Numbers 25 he narrowed that to the line of Phineas after he killed the man committing adultery with the Midianite woman in the camp of Israel.
That calling and choosing by God was observed by the Jews all through their history until the time of the Romans, when the Roman governor or king over Judea interfered with the process and, ultimately, destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple and the geneaological records.
Of course, today there are those who believe the temple will be rebuilt complete with a priesthood and sacrifices. The problem is there is no hereditary high priest available. Jews who believe the temple will be rebuilt tend to believe it will be rebuilt when the Messiah returns and either he or a newly constituted Sanhedrin will appoint a high priest. My personal opinion is that this is a mistake and they did not understand that Jesus would fulfill the role of high priest.
So, if the high priest has to be chosen by God and must be from the line of Aaron and Phineas, the first question the Jewish audience has is “how then did Jesus, of the tribe of Judah, become high priest? Did he just appoint himself?” And the writer answered that question by saying “no, Jesus did not appoint himself, God the Father did”. (5:5) And he quoted an Old Testament verse to prove it.
Christ did not appoint himself to be high priest. No one can claim that he, as a man, set himself up above the sons of Aaron. Jesus was not a Levite. He was descended from Judah. He was from the line of kings, not the line of priests. But, in Christ, these offices are united and fulfilled. He is prophet, priest and king.
So, the Father appointed the Son, Jesus, as a high priest. The writer quotes Psalm 110:4 in Hebrews 5:6 to prove this point. It says that God appointed Jesus his son as a priest after the order of Melchizedek.
Now in Psalm 110, David records one person talking to another person, both referred to in the English Bible as “Lord”. Psalm 110:1 says “The LORD says to my Lord…”. But in the English Bible, the first use of the word is in all capital letters (LORD). This is a convention used when the name of the Father is meant. Some of the versions explain this in the preface.
For example, the preface in my old NIV (New International Version) says “In regard to the divine name YHWH, commonly referred to as the Tetragrammaton, the translators adopted the device used in most English versions of rendering the name as “LORD” in capital letters to distinguish it from Adonai, another Hebrew word rendered “Lord” for which small letters are used. “
We believe that the Lord’s name “YHWH” is probably pronounced Yahweh. So, Psalm 110:1 says literally “Yahweh says to Adonai…”. The Father says to the Son, you are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek. (110:1-4)
The Father not only appointed Jesus as Son, but also as a priest forever. But, even Jesus cannot be an Aaronic priest, since he is not descended from Aaron. Rather, he is appointed a priest after the order of Melchizedek.
What does that mean?
Here again we must dive into the Old Testament to understand the reference. Look at Genesis 14. Abraham’s nephew, Lot, got caught up in the war of kings. Lot’s side lost and he was captured. Abraham defeated the armies and rescued Lot. Afterward, Melchizedek, the king of Salem, came out to meet Abraham with bread and wine. Moses tells us Melchizedek was a priest of the Most High God. Abraham gave him a tenth of all he had taken as spoils and received a blessing from him.
The only other time we hear of Melchizedek in the Old Testament is in Psalm 110:4. In that Psalm, David prophesied the appointment of Jesus as priest. The writer of Hebrews now says Jesus is the fulfillment of Psalm 110:4. He is David’s “Lord” in Psalm 100:1. He is the one appointed priest by the Father forever.
The writer of Hebrews was actually not the first one to say this. Jesus applied Psalm 110 to himself in Matthew 22:41-46.
I cannot resist a theological side note there. If God the Father would not violate his oath to give the priesthood to the Levites and the high priest office to Aaron’s descendants even when he appointed his son, Jesus, he certainly will not violate that oath and appointment with anyone else. Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon religion, claimed God gave him the priesthoods of both Aaron and Melchizedek. This would violate God’s oath to Aaron first of all. And second, it would put Joseph Smith on the level of stature as Christ.
Jesus Perfected as Priest
Verses 7-9 again deal with Jesus’ humanity and sympathy. Remember that 4:14 has already stated that Jesus is sympathetic to our weaknesses and 5:2 has said the high priest can deal gently because he himself suffered weakness.
So Verse 7 tells us that Jesus, in the flesh, prayed with loud cries and tears. I think this is a reference to Jesus praying on the Mount of Olives the night of his arrest. Read Luke 22:41-44 and Mark 14:33-36. Jesus suffered as he anticipated the cross. He said “My soul is sorrowful, even to death”. (Mark 14:34) He prayed that God would save him if that could be his will. He said “remove this cup from me”. The “cup” is the cup of God’s wrath that would fall on him on the cross. He bore the wrath of God for our sins to bring us atonement.
What does this mean? I think this means Jesus was tempted in his flesh to avoid the cross. It would be demeaning and humiliating. It would hurt horrifically. He would die physical death. And, instead of basking in the love of the Father, he for the first time would feel the full weight of his wrath as he paid the penalty for sin.
But, as the writer said in Hebrews 4:14, he was tempted but he did not sin. He prayed “if you are willing”. And then he said “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” (Luke 22:42).
It was not the Father’s will for Jesus to avoid the cross. And Jesus accepted the Father’s will and did not sin. Verse 7 refers to his “reverence” in the ESV and “reverent submission” in the NIV.
The Father did rescue him, but only after death. He raised him from death and the grave. And note that although the Father insisted on his will, he still sent an angel to strengthen Jesus so he could face this trial.
Verse 9 says Jesus was made perfect by suffering. This does not mean he was sinful and got rid of his sin by suffering. It means he became the complete and perfect priest and savior by suffering temptation and conquering it. He suffered so he could identify with us in our humanity. When verse 8 says “although he was a son”, he means he suffered in his humanity despite his exalted position as son. This again is what Philippians 2 means when it says Jesus did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but took on human flesh and became obedient to the point of death. Philippians 2 is really a parallel passage to Hebrews 5 in its theological point. He learned what it felt like to obey God even if the result is death.
And since he was perfected as a human being, and thus as our high priest, he could perform the ultimate priestly act (offering himself as a sacrifice for us) and become the source of salvation to all who obey him.
He is a greater high priest than Aaron for two reasons. First, he is a priest forever, not just during one life time. Second, he faced temptation but did not sin, being obedient even to death.
We obey him by believing he is the Son of God and following him in obedience. We take up our cross and follow him. (Luke 9:23)
And please notice he said “the” source, not “a” source. Jesus claimed to be the exclusive way to salvation and the communion with the Father. He said I am “the” way. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6)
Believe in Jesus. Have restored fellowship with the Father. Commit to follow Jesus. Receive eternal life!