Jesus' Unique Appointment as High Priest
1 For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. 2 He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness. 3 Because of this he is obligated to offer sacrifice for his own sins just as he does for those of the people. 4 And no one takes this honor for himself, but only when called by God, just as Aaron was. 5 So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”; 6 as he says also in another place, “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.” 7 In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. 8 Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. 9 And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, 10 being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.
News from Headquarters
In times of war, soldiers will sometimes consider defecting. Battles on the front lines weaken even the strongest men. Fellow units suffer great loss. Fear causes one to doubt victory is even possible. Siding with the opposition looks more and more rewarding. So some soldiers begin to waver in loyalty. Perhaps some quit fighting. They entertain what abandoning their cause in favor of the other side looks like.
Imagine you are there. Imagine the pressures you’d feel with every enemy advance. Imagine the exhaustion. Imagine wanting to quit and join the opposition. But then imagine receiving news from headquarters. The battle to determine the war has been fought and won by your Captain. A few outlying battles remain, including the one you’re fighting. But every blessing he promised will now come true for those loyal to his cause. Your labors, your sweat and blood, your friends’ sacrifices—none of them happened in vain. All of a sudden the opposition’s promises are empty. Your courage is renewed. You find yourself compelled by good news to endure.
Hebrews is news from headquarters for the church. Some Jews had become Christians. But now they’re wavering in their commitment to Jesus. Part of that is due to their own passivity. They’re beginning to believe the opposition. The other part is due to persecution. Enemies do awful things to persuade them to forsake Jesus—imprisonment, mistreatment, plundering their property.[i] So they begin to question: “Why keep suffering? Wouldn’t our old ways in Judaism be easier? Didn’t God speak in the old covenant as well? Why bother with Jesus if it means so much sacrifice?”
But then they get a letter from headquarters. God, the Holy Spirit, has good news: your Captain, your King—he secured victory. The decisive battle was fought and won. More than that, he knows your needs. He fought the frontlines himself. He sympathizes with you and rules to give you every grace you need. That’s how this letter functions. In renews our confidence by announcing Jesus’ greatness, Jesus’ victory.
Last time in Hebrews, the writer introduced a new section. Chapters 5-10 explain why Jesus’ priesthood is greater than that of Aaron, why Jesus’ priesthood involves better promises, why Jesus’ priesthood begins a better covenant. That’s really crucial for someone on the brink of abandoning Jesus for their old ways in Judaism. You can even hear the opposition, “Jesus? How is Jesus better? How can he offer a sacrifice for your sins? He wasn’t like Aaron. Priests come from Levi’s tribe not Judah.”
So in the face of the opposition, in the face of temptations to revert, Hebrews develops Jesus’ superior priesthood to encourage the church not to let go. To help the church see that Jesus, and Jesus alone, is the source of our eternal salvation. The old priestly order was but a pointer to Jesus’ superior work.
The High Priest’s Calling and Duty
The first four verses outline several characteristics of the high priest under the Law. Then verses 5-10 connect Jesus with those characteristics only to show why Jesus’ priesthood is so much greater. So let’s look first at several characteristics of the high priest under the Law. First, his appointment by God. Verse 1 says, “Every high priest chosen from among men is appointed…” Both “chosen” and “appointed” are passive. Meaning, the high priest was acted upon. He wasn’t appointed by his own doing, but by someone else’s doing. That someone else then gets named in verse 4: “No one takes this honor for himself, but only when called by God, just as Aaron was.”
Now, any survey of Israel’s history will turn up instances when men took that office by political power. Hebrews is speaking ideally. Ideally, the way God set things up, was that God alone chose the high priest. And you can see this play out with Aaron. God chose Aaron and none of the rest. Some of the people challenged that. Some tried to burn incense and the ground swallowed them up. Others grumbled. So the Lord had twelve staffs from each household set in the tent of meeting, and God caused only Aaron’s staff to bloom. It was a sign: God chose Aaron. The high priesthood was by divine appointment. You don’t question God’s appointment.
Another characteristic was the high priest’s solidarity with the people. Verse 1 says he was “chosen from among men…to act on behalf of men.” In the Old Testament, the high priest represented the people before God. He stood before God on their behalf. But in order to represent them, he had to be one of them.
Verse 2 explains this even further: “he can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness.” He had to treat their sins with utter seriousness—after all, he bore their judgment before the Lord. Yet at the same time, he had to remember he too shared in their weakness. He too had his own sins to deal with. He too needed a sacrifice for his sins.
Now, be careful not to read Jesus into the picture too quickly. It may be true that Jesus deals with us gently. It may be true that Jesus shared in our natural weakness—the frailty of our humanity; a body that gets tired, that feels sorrow, that experiences pain, that can suffer death. But it’s not true that Jesus shares in any moral weakness. Already, 4:15 clarified that Jesus was like us in every way, only without sin. Verses 8-9 will also serve as a great contrast between Jesus and every other high priest who came before. Here he simply highlights the high priest’s solidarity with the people, and now he’s making a few extra notes for that later contrast with Jesus.
Before getting there, though, we need to see one further characteristic: the high priest’s sacrifice for sins. Verse 1, he’s appointed “to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.” Then again verse 3: “Because of this [i.e., because he himself was beset with weakness] he is obligated to offer sacrifice for his own sins just as he does for those of the people.” Once a year in Israel the high priest would enter the Most Holy Place. He represented the people before God; and he did so to atone for the people’s sins, his own included. When you see the phrase “for sins,” you need to think atonement for sins. Atonement has to do with God resolving the sin problem.
God is holy. His law is perfect. The problem is that people break it. They sin. They’re ignorant and wayward, as verse 2 puts it. Because God is holy, he can’t overlook sin. Sin deserves death. That’s the punishment. The wages of sin is death, the Bible says.
At the same time, God chooses to love sinners and bring them into his presence. But the only way they can enter his presence is by the death of another in their place. This is where atonement and the priesthood enters the picture. The high priest would offer the blood of bulls and goats to atone for the people’s sin. They deserve to die. But atonement had to do with inflicting the death penalty for sin upon another in your place. It wasn’t just about blood being spilt, but blood signifying the death of another in your place. “This death substitutes for the death I deserve.” That was the point.
Every year on the Day of Atonement, the sacrifices of the high priest taught the people about their need for atonement. And it also revealed the God who provides atonement. Now, some of you are jumping ahead and asking, “But wait a minute, I thought Hebrews 10:4 says it’s impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. How did those sacrifices atone for sin at all?” The answer is that they atoned for sin “only by way of anticipation.”[ii] They anticipated the greater sacrifice of Jesus. They anticipated the work of a far greater high priest. And that’s where he heads next.
Christ’s Greater Calling and Duty
Appointed by God, solidarity with the people, sacrifice for sins. Now, let’s see how he develops each of these in relation to Christ’s superior priesthood. To begin, we see that Christ was appointed by God…but he has a far greater kind of appointment.
Verse 5, “So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest…” See the connection? Verse 4, “no one takes this honor for himself.” Verse 5, “Christ did not exalt himself.” Jesus didn’t vie for his priestly position. Rather, verse 5 says, “he was appointed by him who said to him, ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you.’”
Now, immediately we start to see a contrast. Jesus’ priesthood must be of a different sort, a superior sort. Because no priest in Israel could boast of also being God’s Son. He’s quoting Psalm 2:7 and it’s the second time we’ve seen it. We covered it first in 1:5. Psalm 2 describes God installing his Davidic king, his representative-Son. The nations rage, but God makes this awesome decree. He swears that his Son would rule; his Son would gain world-wide dominion. This all pointed to Jesus. At his resurrection and ascension, God installed Jesus as the true King in David’s line. He’s the true representative-Son. In the fullest way possible, to see Jesus’ rule is to see God.
But get this. This same Father who decreed his Son’s kingship, also decreed his Son’s priesthood. That’s where verse 6 comes in. The argument goes like this: Christ didn’t appoint himself. The Father who said this in Psalm 2 did. How do we know? Because the Father also says this about the same person in Psalm 110: “You’re a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.” He brings these two Psalms together.
We’ll spend some more time in Psalm 110 when we get to chapter 7. In the meantime, go home and read Psalm 2 and Psalm 110 together. You’ll find many similarities. Both speak about the Christ. Which is why he uses the title Christ in verse 5. Christ isn’t Jesus’ last name. It’s the role he fills. Christ means anointed one, especially God’s anointed king. That’s what Psalms 2 and 110 are all about. Both anticipate a king in David’s line. Both guarantee that God’s king will have world-wide dominion. And—this is key—both include a word of decree, God swearing something to his anointed one.
But that’s also where the one difference appears. In Psalm 2, God decrees his Son as forever-king. In Psalm 110, God decrees his Son as forever-priest. In other words, the two psalms together reveal that God’s anointed one, his Christ, would be a priest-king. Which is exactly why Melchizedek comes into the picture.
Again, chapter 7 will go into more detail. For now, suffice it to say that Melchizedek is a king that pops out of nowhere in Genesis 14. Abraham had defeated several kings in battle. Melchizedek then shows up. He’s the king of Salem. He brings out some bread and wine. He blesses Abraham. Abraham then offers him tithes. But what’s interesting is that Genesis 14:18 also says this: “He was priest of God Most High.”
He’s a king; he’s a priest. And chapter 7 will show why the priestly order Melichizedek represents is superior to that of Aaron. In other words, yes, Jesus wasn’t from the tribe of Levi. That’s because he’s of a superior priestly order, an order better than Levi’s—more on that in chapter 7. Also, don’t miss that verse 6 says, “You are a priest forever…” There will be no end to Jesus’ priesthood. He lives forever.
So Christ was appointed by God like Aaron—that’s where they’re similar. But he was appointed by God into a superior priesthood after the order of Melchizedek. He is a priest-king who reigns forever. He won’t ever need a successor. He won’t ever need a priest to come behind him and make another sacrifice. His was perfect, full, final. His is a forever-priest. That’s where Christ’s appointment is far greater.
Next, we see Christ’s solidarity with the people. But once again we also see him accomplishing something far greater in that state. Verses 7-9 describe his path of obedience in the face of suffering. Divine appointment doesn’t mean an easy life. Verse 7 says, “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.”
That’s a remarkable sentence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience. You won’t appreciate these verses if you’ve forgotten what he rehearsed in chapter 1. Although he created the world, he learned obedience. Although he’s the radiance of God’s glory, he learned obedience. Although he upholds the universe by the word of his power, he learned obedience. Although he’s the eternal God, the one angels worship and serve, the person of the Son learned obedience through what he suffered.
High priests had to act with humility—that was verse 2. But there’s no greater display of humility than the One to whom belongs all our obedience becoming a man to learn obedience. As God the Son he didn’t need to learn anything—he knows all things perfectly. But choosing to become a man meant learning to obey within the limitations of a human body, including a human mind. Everything he learned in suffering, he learned by constant dependence on his Father through suffering.
Now we must be careful. Never did he suffer for what he did wrong—he was without sin. The learning has to do with everything the Father kept revealing to him in order to complete his mission. If there was ever a time we see this most clearly, it’s in the Garden of Gethsemane. That’s not the only time he prayed with loud cries and tears. But we see them most pointedly in Gethsemane as he draws nearer to the cross.
What does he pray? “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36). That’s an example of the Son learning obedience through what he suffered. Not just the physical sufferings, but far greater—the cup of God’s wrath stood before him. He would soon bear the weight of the world’s sins. He would cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”—he would know that experience as a man. Yet through that suffering he learns what obedience requires of him in that moment. At all costs, he remains faithful.
Other high priests had their own sins to deal with—verse 3. But not Jesus. Jesus remains faithful. He never breaks under the pressure. That’s why chapter 7 will say he didn’t have to make an offering for his own sins. He didn’t have any. That’s why verse 9 says that Jesus was made perfect. That doesn’t mean Jesus was lacking morally. The perfection in view has to do with Jesus’ vocation, with him qualifying as our high priest.
As a man the Son had to be tested. Whatever sufferings he endured throughout the whole of his life—those sufferings were the occasion for his obedience to be tested, proven. He had to experience what conforming to the Father’s will is like moment by moment under the pressures of suffering; and he did it for us to perfection.
That’s why God hears his prayers. He delivered Jesus from death by resurrection. Yes, he went through death first. Even there Jesus had to trust the Lord to raise him. He had to learn what it means to obey the Father even to the point of death on the cross. But the Father then defeated death by resurrection. He vindicated Jesus, proving that he and he alone is qualified to be our great high priest.
Which leads us to the last connection here: Christ’s sacrifice for sin. Like the other high priests, he makes a sacrifice for sins. But his sacrifice is far greater. The other high priests had to keep offering their sacrifices year after year. But Christ only had to offer his sacrifice once. He laid down his own life at the cross. We deserved death—not just physical death but eternal death. Yet in mercy God inflicted the death penalty we deserved on him. He is our true substitute. He provides our true atonement.
As a result, verse 9 says, “he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.” To this point in Hebrews, that salvation includes the purification of your sins, the defeat of the devil’s power over your life, the removal of God’s wrath, and access to the very presence of God. It’s also an eternal salvation. Meaning, it’s a salvation without an end in sight. You experience the blessings of it now and forevermore. Suffering can’t stop it. Persecution can’t deter it. Even the death of these bodies won’t prevent us from experiencing it. As long as Jesus is alive—which is forever—his priestly role in heaven will benefit us and serve our joy in God’s presence.
Preach to yourself the good news of Jesus’ high priesthood.
Do you believe that? Do you believe you have a superior high priest who became the source of your eternal salvation—a high priest who sympathizes with you in your weakness, who knows your frailty, who has felt the seeming absence of God, who made loud cries and tears—just like some of you probably made this week? Do you believe God installed him as high priest on your behalf, to make atonement for you? To serve in resurrection power as your constant help? Then why these fears?
Earlier this week I read from Psalm 112, “[The righteous] is not afraid of bad news; his heart is firm, trusting in the Lord.” My heart isn’t firm. I’m afraid of bad news. I’m afraid of losing more friends to cancer. I’m afraid of somebody else walking away from Jesus. Even on good days I fear bad news, borrowing troubles from tomorrow.
Here’s how this passage encouraged my endurance this week. As my great high priest, Jesus obeyed everywhere that my ungodly fear has kept me from obeying. We are saved by works; they’re just not our own works. We’re saved by Jesus’ works.
As my great high priest, Jesus also made the sacrifice I needed to forgive all my ungodly fear and the sins that come as a result. As my great high priest, Jesus knows fear—more than any other, he knows how fear and hardships can pull the will away from perseverance—but he says, “Not my will but yours be done, Father.” He knows your temptations; he’s able to strengthen you to overcome. As high priest, Jesus will not fail you today, tomorrow, when you’re 40 or 60, or when they finally bury you. His salvation is forever. His priesthood is forever. He stands as our representative.
That’s what we need to be preaching to ourselves. It’s good news from headquarters. That needs to be our meditation throughout the day. Christ’s superior priesthood renews our courage to persevere and not fear when bad news comes. We don’t have to fear the bad news, because the good news holds out so much promise.
Persevere in obeying Jesus, our only source of salvation.
So don’t entertain thoughts about abandoning Jesus’ cause. He alone is the source of eternal salvation. Instead, obey him. Listen to verse 9 again: “being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.” If you don’t obey Jesus, he will not be your eternal salvation. He saves only those who follow him.
Some of you might ask, “Wait, I thought he saves us by faith alone?” Yes! He most certainly does. But any genuine faith isn’t a faith that remains alone. Genuine faith will produce obedience. If we say he’s King, then we must bow. If we confess him as Lord, then our cry also becomes, “Not my will but yours be done, O Lord.”
This is not obedience, so that he becomes your high priest. This is—he’s already my great high priest; how could I not obey him! He’s marvelous! His work is perfect. His worth is compelling! Many of you are good examples for us to follow in obeying Jesus. I know you’d also be the ones to say how sinful you really are. True enough. But the Lord’s grace is at work in your life. Your obedience teaches us that Christ is worthy of all our devotion. Your obedience helps us join you on the frontlines. Your obedience displays that Jesus is a faithful high priest and that he strengthens his people in the midst of sufferings. [Have we not seen this in Dale the last two weeks?!]
Draw near to the throne of grace for help in time of need.
Obedience will come at a cost. It will involve suffering—we follow in the footsteps of Jesus this way. Obedience to Jesus puts a target on your back. Obedience means a life that’s counter-cultural and will draw hatred from the world. Obedience will mean loving others when perhaps no love is given in return. We will exhaust ourselves caring for others, and many times nobody recognizes it. Many times there’s no immediate reward, it seems. How are you going to make it and not give up?
By drawing near to the throne of grace for help. Versus 1-10 serve the exhortation of 4:16. “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. For every high priest…” Meaning, he’s explaining Jesus’ priesthood even further, so that you have all the more confidence to draw near for help. He opened the way for you to God’s throne of grace.
Not to draw near means we think very little of his great sacrifice. Not to draw near means we make a whole lot about our circumstances and very little about God’s ability to help. I don’t know the exact problem that you’re facing today. I don’t know how you’re suffering exactly in the path of obedience. But I do know God’s grace is sufficient to help you in it, and as high priest Jesus has given you access to it. As high priest, Jesus meets you in your times of need. So draw near to him in prayer. Ask him for help. Seek his face with loud cries and tears. Our Father hears us.
Remember that Jesus knows what you need in suffering.
One last word. When you walk this path of obedience and encounter various sufferings, remember that you have a Savior who knows suffering. He knows the struggle of submitting to the Father’s will in the face of trial and hardship and sorrow upon sorrow. One of the hardest things in the Christian life is learning to obey the Father in the face of suffering, learning how to say “not my will but yours be done.”
When everything seems against you, when everything goes dark, when your spouse walks away, when your body keeps failing, when your kids won’t listen, when you lose your job and can’t find another one, when injustice prevails, when your husband keeps crushing your spirit, when your insides what to become your outsides and the doctors don’t know what to do—and yet even in those moments we’re called to submit ourselves to the Father’s will. His will of patience, trust, mercy toward enemies, thanksgiving in all circumstances, not reviling in return, humble devotion to his plan even if that plan involves more suffering and sorrow.
We cry and sometimes scream into our pillow at night, “Father, I know all things are possible for you. If possible, please save my child. Please restore my marriage. Please turn my husband. Please grant me a job to support my family. Please heal and strengthen this body. Please convert my persecutors.” And then no answer comes. Perhaps some of those things aren’t his will to do right away, or maybe ever in your lifetime. Jesus, your great high priest, knows what it’s like to walk through that, to say “Father, if possible, remove this cup from me,” and the cup isn’t removed. In those moments he learned to say, “Not my will but yours be done.”
More than personal escape from suffering, he wanted his Father glorified and you happy in his Father’s presence. He understands what you’re going through. He’s perfectly suited to help you. He knows the grace you need to persevere. He will help you say with him in suffering, “Not my will but yours be done.” Give thanks for your great high priest. May he strengthen us even now as we take the Supper together.
[i] Heb 10:33-34; 13:3.
[ii] Robert Yarbrough, “Atonement,” in NDBT.