Since God is holy and we are sinful, how can we come into His presence in heaven? That question drives all of mankind’s religious efforts. However, there is only one way to have access to our Father in heaven, and that way is through His Son Jesus — the Christ of Scripture. There is no other qualified human being appointed to bring us to God.
This is a major theme of The Epistle to the Hebrews. The writer carefully presents Jesus as the Great High Priest of humanity who mediates God’s New Covenant of salvation. He draws us to this conclusion by explaining that the incarnate Son is God’s greatest revelation regarding His eternal purpose and plan for the creation (1:1-3). He is heaven’s greatest messenger who fulfills heaven’s great gospel message as the prince and pioneer of a redeemed humanity (1:4-2:18). Jesus is God’s faithful Son whom we must fully trust to lead us into salvation rest (3:1-4:13). He is the Apostle of our confession in that regard as 3:1 stated.
But 3:1 also identifies God’s Son as the High Priest of our confession, and 4:14-16 introduced Him as such. There we were told that Jesus has complete access to the Father. He also sympathetically, yet sinlessly, reconciles us to God and gives us access to the Father’s grace to receive righteousness and to live righteously.
Now the writer begins to explain more fully Jesus’ high priestly office (5:1-7:28) and His high priestly ministry (8:1-10:18). Also, as he did while teaching about Jesus’ apostleship, there is again an appeal to the reader to evaluate his or her faith in the Christ God has revealed in His Word to which we are all accountable (cf. 4:11-13).
Hebrews 5:1-11 begins the explanation of Jesus’ high priestly office, and it answers the question that the initial Jewish readers most certainly would have had when considering faith in Christ: “How does Jesus qualify as our High Priest?” We are told that Jesus meets the qualifications of being called by God and being compassionate toward sinners. First, God’s established requirements are presented. Secondly, it is explained how Jesus fulfills them. We consider the requirements in part one of this study.
A Qualified High Priest (5:1-11) – Part I
God’s Requirements (vv. 1-4)
A Priest is Called (vv. 1, 4)
God alone has set the standard for the priestly ministry. While the world’s religions have priests of all sorts, none are qualified to bring sinners to the true and living God in the way He requires. The LORD first established a true priesthood through the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Israel). From the tribe of Jacob’s son, Levi, the LORD “appointed” (v. 1) only Moses’ brother, “Aaron” (v. 4) to perpetuate a priestly line under the Old Covenant of Law (Ex. 28-29).
Aaron and his descendants served to foreshadow Christ as the One who truly brings reconciled sinners to God. While Moses and other prophets represented God to the people with His Word, Aaron and the priesthood acted on behalf of the people before God to help reflect their faith in and obedience to His Word. The ceremonial worship established by God under the Law of Moses emphasized His holiness, the sinner’s transgressions that separate him from God, and the need for an atoning sacrifice. In other words, God is holy and approachable only by a perfect sacrifice offered perfectly.
The Aaronic priesthood was designated by God to lead the people in worship based on these revealed truths. The Levites assisted in the work of the tabernacle, but they could not minister in the holy things (Num. 18:1-7). The temple worship was likely still being led by Levitical priests at the time of this letter.
This is the meaning of verse one when it says, “…every priest taken from among men is appointed for men in the things pertaining to God, that he may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins.” The phrase, “gifts and sacrifices” speaks of the presentation of the sacrifice to honor God. God only accepts worship in the way He has commanded, since it reflects the truth of His redemptive purpose and plan in Christ (Jn. 4:21-26). The Old Testament worship under the Law via the priesthood was a foreshadowing of Christ who is the substance of Old Testament symbolism (Col. 2:17).
The office of a priest cannot be occupied by just anyone. Aaron did “not take this honor to himself,” and neither did any of the men in his family in successive generations. They were “called by God” for His own purpose and glory, and no substitutes were acceptable. Any attempts by others to assume a priestly role — even within the tribe of Levi — were met with God’s judgment (Num. 16-17).
A Priest is Compassionate (vv. 2-3)
Although being chosen by God is one of the qualifications of a high priest, there was nothing special about Aaron and his descendants that qualified them to be chosen. Why the LORD appointed them is unknown and irrelevant to us. What He chose them to do, however, is very significant, and they could not do it unless they were human. A priest of human beings in things pertaining to God must of necessity be human. Why? Because he must be able to compassionately lead sinners to God. He must be able to completely identify with them in order to bring them to worship God who calls sinners to Himself.
Verse two says that a priest, “can have compassion on those who are ignorant and going astray, since he himself is also subject to weakness.” The verb, to “have compassion,” speaks of a moderate, gentle attitude toward someone whose situation you understand. God required priests to be sympathetic toward others, since people are naturally “ignorant” of truth, which fosters sin and leads them away from God (“astray”).
To effectively bring sinners near God, a priest must understand intimately why they go astray. He must know what it is to be “subject to weakness.” That is, he must identify with humanity’s complete inability to do God’s will apart from His supernatural intervention. After all, God created mankind in His image and likeness, and we are totally dependent upon Him for a righteous existence.
Aaron and his lineage were a perpetual line of sinners like the rest of humanity, and they certainly identified when God revealed in His Law that all people have fallen short of His holy standards. Likewise, when the ceremonial portion of the law “required…the people to offer sacrifices for sins,” the priests all understood why they also must offer a sacrifice for themselves (“so also for himself”). They were sinners, too.
So the requirement of compassion toward sinners in and of itself demanded a true understanding of the human condition. But as we learned in verse 15, our Lord Jesus Christ could be sympathetic while at the same time being sinless. He “was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.” He experienced all the natural human desires and the pressures to satisfy them, but He would not and could not do that in violation of God’s will. He yielded Himself to the Father whom He trusted and obeyed without reservation.
As God’s faithful Son, Jesus was sinless in every way. By the aid of the Holy Spirit, He lived a righteous life in complete obedience to God’s law (Lk. 3:22). But the difference between the Captain of our salvation (2:10) and we who need salvation is that He possessed nothing but a righteous nature, which completely and joyfully desired God’s will (Matt. 4:1-11; Jn. 4:34). His inherent righteousness enabled Him to walk in the Spirit and do God’s will from the heart, and that is why He could offer Himself as the sacrifice for sin. He could bear the sins of believers on the cross, and God could regenerate their spirit, producing faith and repentance, and impute His Son’s righteousness to them for justification.
Aaron and his descendants could serve compassionately as priests because they understood those to whom they ministered. But they could do nothing at all to remove the sin which separates sinners from God. They could represent the people to God with their sacrifices, but they themselves needed to offer a sacrifice for their own sins.
The requirements to qualify as a priest are to be called by God and to be compassionate. Aaron’s priestly line certainly met those requirements, but their ministry was ineffective to completely bring sinners into God’s presence. As sinners themselves, they could only bring other sinners to God under the Old Covenant of the Law. However, God established them to paint a clear picture of the One who would and could bring us into God’s presence forever — Jesus, our Great High Priest!
As we will discover in part two of this study (vv. 5-11), Jesus fulfills the requirements to qualify as our High Priest, and His priesthood is eternal. Unlike Aaron’s priesthood, which was restricted to the limitations of the Law, our Great High Priest brings us to God’s throne of grace (v. 16).
Do you have access to the Father in heaven through His Son Jesus Christ? God is holy, and your sin separates you from Him unless you trust Jesus who is your Great High Priest. He is called by God, and He is compassionate toward you. You can be certain that He is qualified to bring you into the Father’s presence.
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