Meditations in Hebrews 5: 27. The Nature of the High Priest
Heb 5:1,2 Every high priest is selected from among men and is appointed to represent them in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness.
The High Priest’s Humanity: I think I have said before that I am not comfortable with the concept of the High Priest in the New Testament but it may be because he is a figure at the heart of the Jewish Law there in the Old Testament but he is a figure the writer to these Jewish Christians uses to speak more about Jesus. In the previous chapter the writer had said, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses,” (4;15) and now he emphasizes again the humanity of the High Priest and how that humanity is there for us as we might have encountered him: “Every high priest is selected from among men and is appointed to represent them in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness.” (v.1,2) i.e.
a) the High Priest is a human being who
b) is to represent us to God by
c) offering gifts and sacrifices so that
d) in his humanity he can deal with us gently when we get it wrong because
e) he himself is prone to the same sorts of things.
That was the human high priest of the Old Testament period and it was because of his humanity that, “he has to offer sacrifices for his own sins, as well as for the sins of the people.” (v.3) Now there is also something else about this man which is of great significance: “No one takes this honor upon himself; he must be called by God, just as Aaron was.” (v.4)
Jesus appointed as High Priest: Now he is going to apply this teaching to Jesus: “So Christ also did not take upon himself the glory of becoming a high priest.” (v.5a) i.e. Christ did not choose of his own accord to act as our high priest, and to ‘prove’ that from Scripture (in continuing rabbinical teaching style that we noted earlier) he is going to quote yet again from the prophetic psalms: “But God said to him, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father.(or ‘today I have begotten you’, v.5b quoting Psa 2:7 again). We’ve seen that quote before (1:5) and he simply uses it to establish the direct relationship between the Father and Son and the fact that the Son is obeying the calling of the Father who is supreme in the Godhead.
Melchizedek? So he shows the Son called by the Father, and so now he is going to link him to the priesthood, but it is NOT the Aaronic priesthood: “And he says in another place, “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.” (v.6 quoting Psa 110:4) Now we encounter here, yet again, a slightly frustrating approach of our writer in this book because again he makes a brief comment and does not explain it yet. We’ll have to wait two chapters before he explains this. He’s already done this is the way that several times before he mentioned Jesus being our high priest but didn’t explain it at all. Indeed we are going to have to wait some time before he is really going to open up on that thought.
Jesus operating as High Priest: Having said that, he does now give us a small glimpse of the activity of the high priest, and specifically Jesus as our high priest as he goes on, “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.” (v.7) We assume this has got to be a reference to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus cried out in prayer so passionately that he literally sweated (see Mt 26:38-39 and Lk 22:44) and possibly on the Cross as he prayed (Mt 27:46) anguishing over the burden of carrying the world’s Sin.
The writer explains more fully what was happening: “Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek.” (v.8-10) The JBP paraphrase version puts it well: “ His prayers were heard; he was freed from his shrinking from death but, Son though he was, he had to prove the meaning of obedience through all that he suffered. Then, when he had been proved the perfect Son, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who should obey him.”
The first part of that is particularly helpful – that Jesus prayed that he might not have to face an awful death, but was given the grace to do that. He had already declared, “Not my will but yours be done” and in that sense he had backed off backing away from or refusing death, but his prayers were answered in that he was given the ability to face this most terrible of times.
We have already covered references to him being perfect – see the previous meditation where that comes up (2:10) and will be seen again (7:28) and amazingly he will go on to say we too have been made perfect through Jesus’ suffering.
Recap: So to recap what we have seen so far: The role of high priest was to bring man to God. The human high priest was able to do this with a measure of compassion because he himself was also a weak human being. Jesus did it when he came to earth and prayed as part of the process of going to the Cross which was for us, and the writer will expand on that later. Note that the writer has moved away from proving that Jesus was and is greater than angels, or even Moses, and moved on to explaining in Jewish terms Jesus’ ministry. All the while he is doing this, in the background, from time to time comes the explanation that he is doing this so that our faith might be strengthened by this understanding and we be less likely or less vulnerable to fall away. It is the use of theology to build confidence in Christ and faith in the believer. May that be what it does in us.