Our Great High Priest

There are times in all of our lives when we will need someone to intercede for us. The most obvious example would be when a lawyer must intercede for us in a case that comes before the court. We need someone who knows the law and how it applies to our situation.

There are times when we need someone to intercede with our car when it isn’t working (mechanic); we need someone to intercede for us when we aren’t feeling well (Doctor). We may need a parent to intercede with school officials. These various intercessors vary in their importance.

In the Jewish faith the most significant intercessor was the High Priest. He was not merely the head of the organization (like the Pope), the High Priest literally stood before the presence of God on behalf of the people!

We are looking at a section of Hebrews that argues that Jesus is our High Priest and is a superior, better and perfect High Priest. Here’s our text: Hebrews 5:1-4

Every high priest is a man chosen to represent other people in their dealings with God. He presents their gifts to God and offers sacrifices for their sins. And he is able to deal gently with ignorant and wayward people because he himself is subject to the same weaknesses. That is why he must offer sacrifices for his own sins as well as theirs.

And no one can become a high priest simply because he wants such an honor. He must be called by God for this work, just as Aaron was

The Qualifications of a High Priest

Our author reminds us of the qualifications of a High Priest. The first is simple: The High Priest must be like us. In this case the High Priest needed to be human. He must have a real link to man and a real link to God.

This seems obvious to us but this needs to be stated so we will better understand why the Son of God (Jesus) needed to become a man. Our representative needed to be linked to humanity or He wouldn’t really be representing us.

Would you want a machine (like an iPad) representing you in a courtroom? This machine might have extensive knowledge about the law but you still wouldn’t want it defending you. You would want someone to represent you who could weigh motives, understand your heart, and look at the law in terms of the unique circumstances of your case. In much the same way, we need someone like us to represent us before the Father.

Think about when a church is looking for a Pastor. We look for someone who is not just educated (like the computer in the previous illustration) but also someone with life experience. You want someone who has been beaten up a little and educated by life. Kent Hughes writes,

Life’s stresses and joys and misunderstandings and victories and humiliations humanize him. Raising children – busy schedules – sticky telephones – bills – these better qualify him to represent his people in “matters related to God”.[1]

We want a mediator who understands our situation. Anyone who would be our High Priest must be like us.

The second qualification is that the priest had sympathy, “he is able to deal gently with ignorant and wayward people because he himself is subject to the same weaknesses.”

The High Priest needed to be aware of the fact that he was a sinful person himself. In fact, the law required that he make sacrifice for his own sins on the Day of Atonement before he could make a sacrifice for the sins of the people. When the High Priest did his job it was something personal. He was not detached. He knew he was one of those who needed the forgiveness that could come only through the sacrifices offered for inadvertent sin.

We are a much more sympathetic friend, parent, teacher, or High Priest, when we recognize that we struggle just like those whom we represent. When we feel superior to another person, our ability to sympathize can quickly turn to judgment.

Third, the High Priest had to be Chosen for the job. You couldn’t just “apply” for the job of High Priest. You had to be chosen and set apart by God. The High Priest was chosen by virtue of a line of descent and by a conclusion that the person was “free from defect” (and there was a list of potential defects). The High Priest had to be a descendent of Aaron, the brother of Moses who was established by God as the first High Priest. So, a High Priest had to be from the tribe of Levi, he needed to be a descendant of Aaron, and He had to be deemed acceptable by God Himself.

Pastor’s often talk about being “called” to ministry. It is common for new believers to feel they should become Pastors or missionaries. They want to tell others about Jesus and feel the best way to do that is to stand on a platform and preach to a large group of people. However, many of these people are actually being called to serve God in much different ways than pastoral ministry.

Frankly, I believe there are some Pastors who are not called. (Sadly, there are some Pastors who don’t even understand the message of the gospel). They took the job because they want to help people. Unfortunately, they would have helped more if they had become a social worker or counselor.

What are some of the signs of one who is called? First, there must be a passion for the Lord and for His Word and a love for God’s people (these both need to be present!) Second, there should be clear evidence that God has gifted you for this calling. In others words, there needs to be some kind of external confirmation. People should be able to see that God has equipped you for the unique responsibilities of pastoral ministry. (This is what ordination services are about) Third, there should be a sense of compulsion. In other words, there will be a sense that you won’t be fulfilled doing anything else.

I remember reading a book as a teenager that advised: “If you think you are called to Pastoral ministry and can do anything else, you ought to do it. The person truly called will not feel any peace in life until he is doing what God has called him to do.” It was good advice I’ve passed on again and again.

So, the High Priest was a man who understood his own weakness and sinfulness and was especially called to this position.

Christ Meets These Qualifications

The focus changes in our text. Our author contends that all these qualifications are now applied to Jesus. The argument is that Jesus is not only qualified but uniquely qualified. He is a superior High Priest. Jesus was not only a priest, He was also a King.

We see first that Jesus was Chosen by God. It was the Lord himself who placed Jesus in the role of King and Priest.

That is why Christ did not honor himself by assuming he could become High Priest. No, he was chosen by God, who said to him,

“You are my Son. Today I have become your Father.”

And in another passage God said to him, “You are a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek.”

We are told Jesus was chosen by God. That is a little beyond what our minds can fully comprehend but I hope we “get it” as much as possible. Jesus was God’s chosen representative. He was the King that had been promised for centuries. Jesus was Jewish, from the tribe of Judah, and also a descendent of David. He met those qualifications.

But the text also explains how Jesus can be both a priest and a King. In Jewish thought this was impossible. The King came from the descendants of Judah and the priests came from the descendants of Levi. The High Priest as we said, was even more restricted. He came from the line of Aaron, the descendant of Levi.

Jesus we are told was to be a priest of a different order: the order of Melchizedek. Right now this may mean absolutely nothing to you! When we get to Hebrews 7 we will talk much more about Melchizedek.

Melchizedek was not an Israelite. He was a priest whom we meet in the story of Abraham. He showed up after an important victory and Abraham (the Father of the Jews) honored him and gave him a tenth of the spoils.

It will be argued in Hebrews 7 that the fact that Abraham (the predecessor of Aaron) paid tithes to Melchizedek means he was Abraham’s (and by extension . . . his descendent Aaron’s) superior. Melchizedek was both a King and a Priest.

Since Jesus is of the order of Melchizedek he too can be viewed as the King the world was waiting for AND the bridge between God and man that is needed.

The next qualification met by Jesus was sympathetic to our needs.

While Jesus was here on earth, he offered prayers and pleadings, with a loud cry and tears, to the one who could rescue him from death. And God heard his prayers because of his deep reverence for God. Even though Jesus was God’s Son, he learned obedience from the things he suffered. In this way, God qualified him as a perfect High Priest, and he became the source of eternal salvation for all those who obey him. 10 And God designated him to be a High Priest in the order of Melchizedek.

We are told Jesus understood suffering. He prayed with a loud cry and tears. The reference is certainly to the Garden when Jesus asked that the cup be removed from Him. Jesus knew what was ahead and prayed for the Father to deliver Him.

Again, these are profound and mind-stretching concepts for us to grasp. The point is that Jesus’ suffering was real. He understood temptation (as we saw last week), and now we see that He understands pain.

The next phrase is confusing, “he learned obedience from the things he suffered.” This raises some issues for us. Doesn’t it? We have already been taught at the end of chapter 4 that Jesus faced every temptation we have faced but He did not sin. On the surface this passage seems to teach that since Jesus learned obedience he moved from disobedience to obedience or from impurity to purity.

This is not what the passage is teaching at all! It is not saying that Jesus was at one time not obedient and he learned how to be obedient. The author is trying to tell us that Jesus gained the empathy he needed to be our High Priest by the things He suffered.

N.T. Wright used a great illustration. Imagine a man who owned a company. It is a big operation and he wanted his son to someday take over the company. However, the only way the Son would be ready to do so was if he started at the very bottom of the company and learned the business from the ground up.

So dad put him in the mailroom, then in the warehouse, driving a truck, then out making sales, and then in various tasks in administration. Even after he is finally promoted to his corner office the learning will continue as he learns how to manage a workforce and all the intricacies of the business.

Wright applies the illustration this way,

If Jesus is to be his son, he must learn what this creation business is about, what it will take to rescue it from the mess it has got itself into. He must get to know its depths as well as its heights. He must learn what it means to be his father’s obedient son; and that will mean suffering, not because God is a sadist who simply wants to see his dear son having a rough time of it, but because the world which God made and loves is a dark and wicked place and the son must suffer its sorrow and pain in order to rescue it.

That’s what verse 9 means when it says that Jesus was ‘made complete and perfect’ (it’s just one word in the Greek). It doesn’t mean that he was “imperfect’ before in the sense of being sinful, but that he needed to attain the full stature of Sonship through experiencing the pain and grief of the father himself over his world gone wrong. He became truly and fully what in his nature he already was.”

What Does This all this Mean to Us?

became the source of eternal salvation for all those who obey him (v. 5:9)

The work of the Jewish High Priest was important, but it resulted only in temporary relief. The work of the King/Priest provided an eternal benefit.

We will see later in the book of Hebrews a comparison between the sacrifice offered by the priest and the sacrifice offered by Jesus. The Jewish priest could pay for unintentional sin but could not clear the conscience (or change the sin nature) in people. Jesus provided a sacrifice that was permanent and complete.

The last words, “for all those who obey him” can be troubling. Does this mean that the only people who benefit from the sacrifice of Jesus are those who no longer sin?  Absolutely not. We will continue to battle sin until we stand with Jesus on the final day.

What we are being told is that those who have genuine faith will be those who are seeking to follow Him. True faith is not a declaration as much as it is a change of direction in life. We do not try to obey in order to get to Heaven; we pursue obedience because we have become convinced that Jesus is worth following. We recognize that what He commands is good for us.


The first conclusion we should draw is this: we must never forget what makes us a child of God. We cannot make ourselves right with God. We are made a child of God not because we “push the right buttons”, or because we said some “magic words”, or even because we felt a certain way or had a certain experience; we are able to be children of God because Jesus died for us.

This is the message of the Gospel. This is the message we must proclaim: something happened in history that has made forgiveness and new life possible. Our Lord came into our world becoming fully human, and then He gave His life as a payment for our sin. He traded His life for ours. He is able to do this because of the value of His position as Son of God. He is of infinite worth.

But He not only died (everyone dies), He also came back from the dead. He tells us that if we will embrace Him and follow Him; if we will welcome (rather than push away) His love and grace; we will be made right with God.

These facts are what make up the gospel. This is the news we proclaim. We do not proclaim our experience, we proclaim historical events that changed not only the world . . . but also eternity. We are not proclaiming our philosophy or theory, we are proclaiming what actually happened. It is not theoretical, it is real!

Second, we are reminded that we too will learn obedience through the trials and tests of life. The argument (which will be made in Hebrews 12) is this: if Jesus learned obedience from what He suffered; why should we be surprised that we must learn through suffering as well?

Are you going through a time of testing right now? Are circumstances knocking you flat? Here’s a question to ask: “What can you learn from this situation?” or “How can you draw closer to the Lord through your circumstance?” God wants to teach us. He wants to guide us and lead us. He wants us to fulfill the rich potential which He had for us when He made us.

You don’t have to go through this time alone. The times of suffering should drive us to trust the Lord even more. We must cling to Him with all our might. He is the perfect and sufficient High Priest. His actions on our behalf make is possible to stop focusing on our sin, and instead begin living the life of freedom that comes from turning to Jesus our sufficient and superior High Priest.

[1] Kent Hughes Hebrews: An Anchor for the Soul Vol 1 (Wheaton: Crossway 1993) p. 137

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