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The Great High Priest

Date: Mar. 19, 2017

Author: Michael Mark

Hebrews 4:14-5:10

Key Verse: Hebrews 4:14

“Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.”

What comes to mind when you think of a priest?  Usually it may be someone who is holy and devout, someone you might go to for spiritual or even practical advice.  You might think of someone who is a servant of God on behalf of the people.  Sadly these days, priests, particularly in the Roman Catholic church, are viewed as corrupt, hypocritical and abusive.  They have even had to issue public apologies for their misconduct in the past.  But ideally, isn’t a priest supposed to be someone you can seek help from, especially in matters that concern the welfare of your soul?  In today’s passage we will learn about a high priest, in other words, the head of all priests.  What comes to mind when you think of a high priest?  Perhaps the Pope?  But in order to understand exactly what a real, genuine high priest is like, and what he is supposed to do, we have to go back in time, and learn about the high priest of the Israel.

The high priest of Israel was given a great honor.  He was the only person who could enter a special room, called the Most Holy Place, only once a year, to make atonement for the sins of the people.  If no atonement for sins was made, the people could die under the wrath of God.  So you see that the high priest was important for the very survival of the nation.  The high priest was like a mediator between man and God.  When he went into that Most Holy Place, you know that you would be safe for another year.  Look at v.14, “Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.”  The old high priest passed through a curtain into the Most Holy Place, and he had to do this year after year.  Our new high priest, Jesus, passed through the sky, and into the heaven, in order to be our Mediator, and he is there forever.  We not only have a high priest, but a great high priest.  And seeing that he is in heaven, in the real Most Holy Place in the presence of God, we know we are safe forever.  This idea of the high priesthood of Jesus is so important, that the next 6 chapters in Hebrews will go further in depth on the same subject.  Today is an introduction of Jesus, the great high priest.

The first four verses in Ch. 5 give us the job description of a high priest.  We can learn here what it is the high priest is supposed to be and what he has to do.  Look at v.1, “Every high priest is selected from among the people and is appointed to represent the people in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.”  The high priest is (no surprise) a human, and is the one who gives offerings to God on behalf of the people.  Specifically he is tasked to make atonement for the sins of the people through the offerings.  Atonement, for those not familiar with the word, is to make up for something wrong.  For example, if you break someone’s phone you could atone for that by replacing their phone.  The atonement for sins required the burning of incense and the sacrifice of an animal (Lev 16).   The farmer doesn’t do this, the merchant doesn’t do this, even the king doesn’t do this – only the high priest is allowed to come before God and make atonement.

In verse 2 we learn a little more about the high priest: “He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness.”  Wow.  Some people can be harsh on those who are weak.  This may be true if it is not a weakness we have.  Allow me to make a confession of my sin.  As some of you may know, my wife has a condition in her eye that causes her great pain from time to time.  In the early years of our marriage it was hard for me to understand, so sometimes I would get upset if she couldn’t work as hard as me, or I would neglect to give her additional care during those times.  I would not be a good high priest.  Actually I need a good high priest to forgive my sins.  I also needed to repent, which I have, and I hope my wife can confirm.  But a good high priest is able, he has the capacity to deal gently with those who are ignorant and going astray.  He doesn’t judge.  He doesn’t get angry.  Those who are ignorant are not those who habitually and willfully sin, but those who inadvertently or involuntarily sin.  The high-handed sinner sometimes requires harsh rebuke.  But inadvertent sins are those we do accidentally, like screaming in an uncharacteristic fit of anger, fearing what really isn’t true, looking down upon someone, or spending too much time on Youtube or facebook (of which I am also guilty).  These sins, the high priest deals with gently.  The high priest makes atonement for sins, whatever they may be (Lev 16:16).

The high priest is able to be tender and mild to a sinner because he himself is subject to weakness.  Because of this he also has to offer sacrifices for his own sins, as well as the sins of the people.  Before the high priest can ask God to clean other people’s sins, he has to clean himself.  The high priest is reminded of his own sins, and therefore is understanding of the sins of others.  This doesn’t apply fully to Jesus, who was sinless, but to any of the descendants of Aaron, this applies.  Now let’s look at the very first high priest, Aaron, and see what his weaknesses were.  In the book of Exodus, Chapter 30, do you remember what he did?  The people pressured Aaron to make an idol, and he did.  When Moses got angry at him and demanded an answer, do you know what Aaron said?  He said, “They gave me their gold, I threw it in the fire, and out came this calf!” (Ex 30:24)  Wow.  Out came the golden calf.  You can see here the high priest, those descended from Aaron, are subject to sin and weakness, as we all are.

Verse 4 might give the most important qualification for the high priest.  It says, “And no one takes this honor on himself, but he receives it when called by God, just as Aaron was.”  The high priest is chosen by God.  The only high priest that is acceptable to God, and therefore the only high priest who can effectively make atonement for sins, is one that God has selected.  That means men cannot choose the high priest.  This separates the high priest of God from any other self declared high priest.  This also ensures that any true high priest will serve the people, and not themselves.  It is an honorable position, and selfishly ambitious men desire it.  The high priesthood began with Aaron, and only Aaron’s descendants were qualified to be high priests.  There was only one high priest at any time, and they were appointed for life terms.  But around the time of the Roman Empire, which was near the time Jesus would come, the government took over the office of the high priest and appointed their own people to hold the position.  By the time Jesus arrived, the high priest was the person who suggested that Jesus should wrongfully be put to death (John 18:14).  The high priesthood belonging to Aaron and his sons was intended only be temporary, however, as God always had in mind to elect a permanent and eternal high priest.

The rest of the verses in Ch. 5 pick up from this qualification in verse 4, showing that Jesus is a genuine, certified high priest of God.  More than that, he is a great high priest.  He is superior to any high priest that ever was, in every way.  What makes him so great?  We will look at 2 ways Jesus is greater than any high priest.  First, is that he excels them in glory.  Second, is that he excels them in compassion.  Look at v.5, “In the same way, Christ did not take on himself the glory of becoming a high priest.  But God said to him, ‘You are my Son; today I have become your Father.’”  In verse 4, being a high priest was an honor.  In verse 5, there is glory in becoming a high priest.  When God said “You are my Son,” this shows that Jesus is the Son of God, sent to earth to become a high priest.  Jesus didn’t send himself, but God sent him.  Jesus, the eternal Son of God, became a man to become a high priest.  Therefore he fulfills the requirement, that a high priest should be a human being.  So now, not only do we have a new human high priest, but this human is also the Son of God.  How much greater of a high priest can you get than that?  In this very first verse we already see how Jesus is a great high priest.

Verse 6 continues, “And he says in another place, ‘You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.’”  Jesus is declared priest directly by God.  The order of Aaron has passed, Jesus is a priest in the order of Melchizedek.  The significance of this will be expanded upon in Ch. 7.  For now, we can simply note that Jesus’ appointment is not temporary, but is forever.  This is a more glorious priesthood.

We saw how Jesus excels in glory, now we will see how Jesus excels in compassion.  You would think that a high priest appointed by God should be compassionate, but Jesus’ gentleness goes beyond that.  Look at v.7, “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.”  This verse primarily refers to Jesus’ prayer at Gethsemane (Matt 26:36-45).  This was just hours before he would be arrested, tried, and crucified.  He told his disciples “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.”  Going a little farther he fell to his face and prayed “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.  Yet not as I will, but as you will.”  We can learn so much from this prayer, but we see here that Jesus was subject to the same human weaknesses we had when he became a man.  His soul overwhelmed with sorrow, to the point of death.  He was tempted, for sure he was tempted to save himself, to come down from that cross.  But he prayed.  “Not as I will, but as you will.”  Perfect obedience.  He even told his disciples, “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.”  We can see what he prayed for.  He prayed for strength to overcome temptation. He prayed for strength to drink the cup of the wrath of God, down to the dregs, for us.  He was tempted, really tempted, in every way we were, but he did not sin.  And God heard his prayer.  God did not save him from dying, because that was God’s will for him in order to save us.  But God gave him strength to do his will.  We see in Luke 22:43 that an angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him.

Verse 8 continues, and we really see his compassion and interest in us shine through.  Look at v.8, “Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered.”  Son though he was.  He was the Son, the Son of God.  Did he have to suffer?  No he did not.  But then, if he did not suffer, we would not be saved.  He suffered in order to save us.  All of our sins were laid on him.  He came to taste death for us.  In this way, he earned 3 rewards.  One, he took away all our sins.  Two, he pleased God by his perfect obedience.  Therefore, three, he has become the perfect High Priest, and the perfect Mediator.  He could deal with us gently, for he experienced the crushing weight of sin, and he knows how it burdens us every day.  He could also ask God to help us, because he pleased God through obedience.  He obeyed God, even to the point of death.  He suffered, and much of that was also denying himself so that he could do the will of God.  He learned obedience from a human point of view, by sharing in our sufferings.  He was not originally subject to weakness, but he subjected himself to weakness.  Why?  Because he loved us.  For God so loved the world that he sent his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  John 3:16.  Superior glory.  Superior love.

Look at v.9, “and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”  Made perfect could refer to having finished the work, obeying perfectly to the very end, and putting an end to sin.  Or it could refer to Jesus’ resurrection, when his body of weakness was saved and resurrected into a body of glory.  In either case, Jesus is the source of eternal salvation.  Eternal salvation is resurrection into eternal life, and eternal glory.  You can receive eternal life from Jesus Christ.  It is for all who obey him.  Jesus humbled himself, and God exalted him to the highest place (Php 2:8-9).  God made Jesus high priest, and king.  Are you living a new life of obedience to Christ? 

Verse 10 says, “and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek.”  The reference to Melchizedek is important, and will be discussed in Ch. 7, but for now note how God designates Jesus to be high priest.  Interesting word, “designate.”  It sounds like God has assigned and given the role of high priest to Jesus.

Now let’s go back to Ch. 14, v.14-16 to see what this all means to us.  Can we all please read v.14, “Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.”  I pray that after learning more about our great high priest, that your faith may be renewed and strengthened.  We can hold firmly to our faith because of v.15, which reads, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin.”  Jesus is able to help us, he is able to deal gently with us, and he knows how to protect us, and preserve our whole spirits, soul and bodies, keeping them blameless until he comes again (1 Thes 5:23).  So we are encouraged all the more, in v.16, “Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” 

I heard a story about a priest, that whenever this priest would travel, he would take off his collar so that people would not know that he was a priest.  Because when people saw that he was a priest, they would want to speak with him.  We don’t have a high priest who hides from us, but we have one who came to be with us.  We don’t have a high priest who is in any way corrupt, but one whom God appointed, who is perfect.  Jesus’ time in Gethsemane seemed also to be a kind of training to be a high priest.  There he offered up prayers and petitions to God.  He learned to pray for supply from God, and Jesus will ask of God for us, to supply us with every need.  That’s what supplication means (not the official definition, but sounds like); to pray for supply.  So whenever you’re in need, pray to Jesus, your great high priest.  In Christ, you will receive mercy, mercy for your sins, and mercy in your struggles.  You will also find grace to grow and strengthen your faith.  If you need strength to obey God, you will find it in prayer.  Jesus is our great high priest who has enabled us to come to God, and we all have a great high priest.

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