STUDIES IN HEBREWS

© Rosemary Bardsley, 2002

STUDY SIX: JESUS, OUR GREAT HIGH PRIEST

A. HEBREWS 4:14-16: AN INTRODUCTION

Here the writer links all that he has said in chapters 3 and 4 back to chapter 2 where he had identified Jesus Christ as a 'merciful and faithful high priest' who, by his real and perfect humanity, is qualified to 'make atonement for the sins of the people'. He argues:

[1] 'we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens' . Here the writer anticipates a great truth that he will expand shortly, that Jesus has not gone into the symbolic presence of God in the tabernacle or temple, as the earthly high priests did, but he has gone into the real presence of God: not just through the curtain, but through the heavens.

[2] 'he is Jesus the Son of God' : this great high priest, is, as we have seen, a real human being - he is 'Jesus' - the human son of a human mother, who walked in our dust, cried our tears, and bled our blood. But he is also more than this: he is the Son of God, as the writer has shown in 1:1-14 and 3:1-6.

[3] 'therefore ... let us hold firmly to the faith we profess . ' Therefore, the writer exhorts us, since we have such a high priest, fully and perfectly qualified to represent us as man in the presence of God, and at the same time the exalted divine Son of God who came down to earth specifically to do this for us, 'let us hold firmly to the faith we profess'. The sheer excellence of our great high priest and his qualifications ought to stir and stimulate us to hold fast to the faith in him that we have professed. Why? Because no one could be more committed to our good, no one could be better qualified; no one more equipped to represent us in the presence of God; no one more capable of obtaining eternal salvation for us. To scorn this high priest is to scorn the ultimate high priest. To reject or turn aside from this provision of God is to make the final and absolute rejection of God.

[4] because this high priest 'can sympathize with our weaknesses' because he 'has been tempted in every way just as we are - yet without sin'. Here we have an expansion of the qualifications of our great high priest: he 'can sympathize with our weaknesses'. Why? How come he understands our weaknesses so intimately that he sympathizes with them? Is he not perfect and without sin? How can a perfect, sinless person feel what imperfect people feel? Because this perfect person was not perfect because of a unrealistic, monastic removal from the world and its temptations; this perfect person was no cloistered, head in the sand ascetic severed from the hurly-burly of human existence. Rather, this perfect person, this flesh-and-blood Jesus lived among us (John 1:14) - as John recorded in 1 John 1:1 'That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched ... ' - this perfect person experienced our rejection and treachery and hatred, he heard our scorn and accusations, he felt our whips and our mocking thorns and our nails. All of this without sin.

But not only this: this high priest, this perfect man, was pushed to the very limit of temptation's power by the great deceiver, until the tempter gave in. At the beginning and the end of his ministry Jesus' commitment to his Father's will was tested by the devil. The pressure to give up their faith that the readers of this letter were experiencing was nothing compared to the pressure the devil put on Jesus to deviate from and avoid the way of the cross appointed by the Father. This high priest knows. He knows what that kind of pressure, that kind of testing is like. He knows what it feels like to shrink from the shame and the suffering. He, who did not give in and give up, knows why and how we feel. He knows the strength and the power of temptation and testing because he endured them in their ultimate intensity.

[5] 'therefore we should approach the throne of grace with confidence so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.' With such a high priest only one response is appropriate: absolute confidence. Rather than being shaken by the pressure by the Jews to put confidence of salvation in ritual performance, rather than being tormented by the possibility of defection under the intense persecution by the Romans, these Hebrew believers are encouraged to a bold confidence in their secure relationship with God based on the absolute integrity and supremacy of their great high priest, Jesus, the Son of God, and the absolute effectiveness of his mediatorial role on their behalf. Let us note the significance of the writer's choice of words:

(a) He describes God's throne as 'the throne of grace' - for those who believe in Jesus Christ it is no longer a throne of judgement, where a strict tit-for-tat justice will be meted out and sin receive the just and legal punishment it deserves. Because of the sin-bearing, substitutionary death of Christ God's throne is, for those who have acknowledged Christ, 'a throne of grace'. As Paul has pointed out in Romans 5:21 grace reigns. Grace is the operating principle in the kingdom of Jesus Christ, of which every believer is a member.

(b) Not content with describing God's throne as 'the throne of grace' which in itself should be sufficient to instil confidence, the writer goes on to assure us that, rather than receiving judgement and condemnation, we will 'receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need'. 'Mercy' refers to God's recognition of our weakness, inability and need and his doing whatever is necessary for our good and our survival, despite anything in us that might disqualify us from his favour. 'Grace' is the act of God in which he chooses not to pay us out or reward/punish us according to what we deserve, but to grant us absolute freedom from that deserved penalty.

This is the unexpected and almost incredible confidence that all who trust in Jesus Christ can and should have. It is an absolute confidence. The 'hold firmly' (4:14) and 'approach ... with confidence' (4:16) are expressions of the faith and rest to which the writer is calling us. Such faith and rest, such confidence, are the opposite of the sin/disobedience of unbelief against which we are being warned. The challenge confronts us: do we really trust Jesus Christ? Do we really believe God's word about him? Do we really believe in the total sufficiency of all that he did on the cross? The only alternative is the sin and disobedience of unbelief.

For your meditation: Re-read the previous paragraph and ask yourself the questions listed there. Identify whether or not you are experiencing the confidence and the rest that Jesus promised to give to those who come to him. If you do not have that confidence, if your soul does not have peace in the presence of God, then you need to re-learn the message of the gospel - in respect to both who Jesus is and what Jesus did. Pray that God will open your mind and your heart to understand and embrace the massive, liberating truths contained in this letter to the Hebrews, and, indeed, throughout the entire Scriptures.

B. THE HIGH PRIESTS OF ISRAEL

[In chapters five to ten the writer makes two contrasts: one between the high priests of Israel and Jesus Christ the great high priest, and the other between the ritual, animal sacrifices of the old covenant and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. For the rest of this study we will look first at what the writer says about the high priests of Israel, then at what he says about Melchizedek, then at the priesthood of Jesus Christ. In the next study we will look at the sacrifices of the old covenant and the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus Christ.]

About the high priests of Israel the writer states:

  • 5:1 selected from among men
    appointed to represent men in matters related to God
    appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins
  • 5:2 he is able to deal gently ... because he himself is subject to weakness
  • 5:3 has to offer sacrifices for his own sins as well as those of the people
  • 5:4 must be called and appointed by God
  • 7:11 could not mediate 'perfection'
    established on the basis of the law
  • 7:20 no oaths involved in their appointment
  • 7:23 there were many, because each one died and had to be replaced
  • 7:27 needed to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the people's sins
  • 7:28 weak
  • 8:2 served in a tabernacle set up by man
  • 8:5 served in a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven
  • 8:6-12 ministered under an inferior covenant
  • 8:13 served under a now 'obsolete' covenant.
For study: before studying what the Bible has to say about how much greater our great high priest Jesus Christ is, analyse each of the statements above and try to identify in what ways Jesus is the same or similar to the high priests of Israel and in what ways he is different and greater.

B. MELCHIZEDEK

Read the Old Testament record of the meeting between Abraham and Melchizedek in Genesis 14:18-20.

While contrasting Jesus to the high priests of Israel, the writer to the Hebrews points to a similarity between Jesus and Melchizedek, drawing attention to five facts about Melchizedek:

  • 7:1-2 he was called 'king of righteousness' and 'king of peace'
  • 7:3 his genealogy is unknown - 'without beginning of days',' without end of life', 'a priest forever'
  • 7:4-10 he was greater than Abraham, and therefore greater than Levi (the priestly tribe)
  • 7:13 he was from a different tribe than the priests of Israel
  • 7:16 his role as priest was on the basis of his conformation to regulations about ancestry
Study: Before studying the facts about Jesus Christ, our great high priest, on the basis of the above facts identify ways in which Melchizedek and Jesus Christ are similar.

C. JESUS CHRIST, OUR GREAT HIGH PRIEST

  • 4:14 has 'gone through the heavens' - not just the man-made curtain into the man-made sanctuary
  • 4is the Son of God
  • 4:15 can sympathize with our weaknesses, because he has been tempted in every way, just as we are
  • 5:5-6 was appointed by God
  • 5:7-9 by experiencing the suffering, agony and temptations of man he is qualified as a perfect representative
  • 5:9 he is the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him
  • 5:10 God has designated him high priest 'in the order of Melchizedek'.
  • 6:20 Jesus entered 'the inner sanctuary' on our behalf
    he became high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.
  • 7:11 not in the order of Aaron
  • 7:14 descended from Judah, a tribe from which priests did not come
  • 7:16 his priesthood is based on the power of an indestructible life
  • 7:17 a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.
  • 7:18 his priesthood sets the former law aside
  • 7:19 his priesthood brings about a better hope by which we draw near to God
  • 7:20-21 his priesthood was affirmed by God's oath
  • 7:22 because of this oath Jesus is the guarantee of a better covenant
  • 7:24 the priesthood of Jesus is permanent
  • 7:25 therefore he saves forever (completely) those who come to God through him because his intercession is eternal
  • 7:26 he meets our need - he is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens - not needing to offer sacrifices day after day.
  • 7:27 he sacrificed for our sins once for all when he offered himself
  • 7:28 he, appointed by oath, is perfect forever
  • 8:1 he sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven
  • 8:2 he serves in the 'true tabernacle' set up by God
  • 8:6 he is mediator of a superior covenant, founded on better promises
For your study: Analyse the above list of facts from Hebrews and identify those that assert the superiority of the priesthood of Jesus Christ.

Below in tabular form is a comparison of the high priests of Israel and Jesus Christ our great high priest. The central column indicates similarity by a a and contrast by a r. In the column referring to the high priests of Israel comments that are not referenced, but are deduced from general Bible knowledge or as the essential logical opposites are in this colour.

Ref
High priests of Israel
 
Jesus, our Great High Priest
Ref

8:5

They entered the earthly sanctuary - the part of the tabernacle/temple that symbolized God's presence. It is described as a 'shadow' and 'copy' of the real thing.

r

Jesus has entered the real presence of God on our behalf.

4:14

6:19,20

8:1-2

9:11,24

They were only human.

r

He is the Son of God

4:14

5:1-2

They were qualified to represent us as high priests because they were humans, subject to weakness, just like us.

a

He was qualified to represent us as our high priest, and can sympathize with our weaknesses because he was fully human and was tempted in every way just as we are.

4:15;

2:9-18

5:7-9

5:1-4

They were appointed by God

a

He was appointed by God

5:5,6

5:3; 7:27; 9:7

They had to offer sacrifices for their own sins

r

He did not need first to offer sacrifices for his own sins, because he had no sin

7:26-27

4:15

The 'salvation' they mediated was temporary and ritual.

r

He is the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him

5:9

7:5-14

They are high priests in the order of Aaron/Levi, whose ancestor, Abraham, paid tithes to Melchizedek.

r

God has designated him a priest in the order of Melchizedek

5:6,10

7:1-11

7:5

They were of the tribe of Levi

r

He was from the tribe of Judah

7:14

7:23

Their high priesthood has to be constantly renewed because they grow old and die.

r

He is high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek; he lives forever and has a permanent priesthood.

5:6; 6:20

7:15-17

7:24

7:11,19

10:1

Perfection could not be attained through these priests

r

He has made perfect forever those who are being made holy

10:14

7:16

Their priesthood was on the basis of a regulation about ancestry

r

His priesthood was on the basis of the power of an indestructible life

7:16

7:18,19

The regulations concerning their priesthood were part of a 'weak and useless' system of law.

r

His priesthood introduces a better hope by which we draw near to God

7:18,19

Their priesthood, based on regulations, was only effective within the boundaries of those regulations, and was dependent on the fulfilment of those regulations.

r

His priesthood sets aside the regulations which were the basis of the former priesthood.

7:18

7:20

They were made priests without any oath

r

He became a priest by God's oath

7:20-22

The covenant under which these priests ministered was inferior.

r

Because of God's oath affirming the priesthood of Christ, he is the guarantee of a better covenant.

7:22

These priests could only ever have a temporary priesthood, and mediate a temporary and partial salvation.

r

Because he lives forever, and has a permanent priesthood, he can save us completely (forever) because he is always alive as our intercessor or mediator

7:24,25

These priests could never meet our needs because of their own sinfulness.

r

Because he is holy, blameless, pure, set apart form sinners, exalted above the heavens he meets our need.

7:26

7:27-28

9:25

10:11

They had to offer sacrifices day after day

r

He offered one sacrifice once-for-all

7:27-28

9:25-26

10:12

7:28

The law appointed as priests men who were weak

r

The oath appointed the Son who was made perfect forever

7:28

Their work was always incomplete and repetitive.

r

His exercises his priestly intercession from his position of authority: he has permanently 'sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven'

8:1

8:7

There was something wrong with the first covenant under which they served.

r

His ministry, and the covenant he mediates, are superior; they are founded on better promises

8:6

8:13

They served under a covenant that is 'obsolete and aging and will soon disappear'.

r

This covenant is 'new' and makes the other obsolete.

8:13

For your study: Make a list in your own words of the comparisons and contrasts listed above that seem to you to be the most important and significant.

The writer has given us an impressive statement of the utter superiority of the high priesthood of Jesus Christ. He has done so to make clear to his original readers, and to us, the sheer foolishness of reverting from this most excellent high priest, Jesus Christ, to, originally, the lesser priesthood of the old covenant rituals, or, in our present era, any other religious system. In Jesus Christ, as we have seen, we have the ultimate high priest. Nothing can better him. He is the one to whom all the other priests in the Levitical system pointed forward. He is the reality of which their priesthood was a mere shadow. His mediation in the presence of God on our behalf is complete, comprehensive, eternal and absolutely effective. Its validity and integrity is guaranteed.