We all need a priest. But not the kind we see today in fancy robes and funny hats—those who claim to be God’s representatives to modern society. We need a perfect and sinless priest to represent us before a holy God who is “angry with the wicked every day” (Psalm 7:11, NKJV) and “will by no means clear the guilty” (Numbers 14:18). We need a representative to stand for us in the place where our sinful lives could not possibly survive—someone to successfully petition God for mercy, kindness, and compassion on our behalf. And the Pharisees understood this better than most.
Among the first things a Jew might have asked about another religion were, “Who is your high priest? Who mediates between you and God? Who offers the sacrifices to atone for your sins?” A Jew during the time of the early church may well have asked a Christian, “How are your sins going to be pardoned when you have no one offering sacrifices and no one interceding for you? How can you claim that this New Covenant supersedes and is superior to the Old Covenant made through Moses, when it leaves you without a high priest?”
The Christian would have replied, “But we do have a high priest, a perfect High Priest. He has offered sacrifice for our sins. He does not confine Himself to an earthly temple, nor does He have to sacrifice yearly, much less daily. He made one sacrifice that atones for all sins ever committed by His people, from the beginning to the end of time. That is how great a high priest He is and how great His sacrifice was. Not only that, but our High Priest is seated at the right hand of God and continually intercedes for those of us who belong to Him.”
The heart of the book of Hebrews (chapters 5–9) focuses on Jesus’ high priesthood. His superior priesthood, more than anything else, makes the New Covenant better than the Old. He has done what all the priests together of the old economy did not do and could never have done.
For every high priest taken from among men is appointed on behalf of men in things pertaining to God, in order to offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins; he can deal gently with the ignorant and misguided, since he himself also is beset with weakness; and because of it he is obligated to offer sacrifices for sins, as for the people, so also for himself. And no one takes the honor to himself, but receives it when he is called by God, even as Aaron was.
So also Christ did not glorify Himself so as to become a high priest, but He who said to Him, “You are My Son, today I have begotten You”; just as He says also in another passage, “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” In the days of His flesh, He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His piety. Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered. And having been made perfect, He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation, being designated by God as a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek. (Hebrews 5:1–10)
The priests under the Old Covenant were bridge builders to God. Men could not come directly into God’s presence, and God therefore appointed certain men to be ushers, as it were, to bring men into His presence. The way to God was opened only as the priests offered sacrifices—day in and day out, year after year—presenting the blood of animals to God. The priests were God’s mediators.
But with the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross, the need for the Temple and for the Levitical priesthood was ended. There was no longer a requirement for a high priest such as those who succeeded Aaron, or for any merely human priest at all. Jesus was both High Priest and sacrifice, and provided eternally for man an opening into God’s presence. At His crucifixion, the curtain of the Temple was torn in two, exposing the Holy of Holies to anyone who would come to God through the Son. In one perfect act of sacrifice, Jesus Christ accomplished what thousands upon thousands of sacrifices by a multitude of priests could never accomplish. He opened the way to God permanently, so that any man at any time by faith in Christ might enter into God’s presence.
Hebrews 5:1–4 states the three basic qualifications for a Jewish high priest. He was appointed by God, offered sacrifices on their behalf, and was sympathetic with those to whom he ministered. The following six verses show how Jesus Christ fulfills those qualifications. And we’ll consider those in the days ahead.
(Adapted from The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Hebrews)