Sermon preached on Hebrews 4:15-5:10 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 5/27/2018 in Novato, CA.
“To Become High Priest”
In last week’s passage, we read the end of chapter 4 and were presented with Jesus the merciful high priest that brings us aid from God. Today, as we dig into chapter 5, we see this theme of Jesus being such a priest begin to be expanded upon. As Hebrews teaches us about Christ as a priest, the book will do so with a lot of comparisons with the Aaronic priesthood that they had under the old covenant. This old covenant priesthood was a type and shadow of the priesthood that would come in the Christ. That means there are certainly similarities with the Aaronic priesthood that help us understand what Christ came to do. But that means there are also differences that shows us how Christ’s priestly ministry was superior to anything available under the old covenant. So then, in today’s passage we’ll see these similarities and differences associated with two aspects of Christ’s priesthood: his divine appointment, and his compassionate ministry.
Let’s begin then with Jesus’ divine appointment to the priesthood. We’ll start by looking at verse 4 regarding the old covenant Aaronic priesthood. There we find an important principle: no one makes himself priest. That would be presumptuous and an illegitimate priesthood. To be a priest is to be a mediator between God and man. Though we can think of how in one sense, the priest is especially representing humans before God, in verse 4 we see that it is God who picks the priest. God authorizes someone to be a priest. As verse 4 says, “no man takes this honor to himself” and it points to Aaron as an example. Aaron did not promote himself to be a priest of God. Rather, we find in Exodus 28 that God set apart Aaron and his descendants to serve as the priestly order for the nation of Israel under the old covenant. The fact that God is the one to select his priests, reminds us what we see in verse 1. A priest’s ministry is unto God. That means, like what we see at the end of chapter 4, a priest seeks mercy and grace from God for the people he represents. His ministry is one unto God, and so it makes sense why God would be the one to establish a priesthood and to define its terms.
Hebrews then applies this to Christ’s priesthood in verse 5. “So also Christ did not glorify himself to become High Priest.” Jesus did not proclaim himself priest. God declared him to be his priest. We could think of many examples of this as recorded in the history found in the gospels. For example, we could think of the words of commendation that the Father spoke when Jesus got baptized by John at the Jordan. Or, we could think of the similar words of commendation that the Father spoke at Jesus’ transfiguration. We could remember all the mighty signs and wonders that Jesus performed and how Jesus said those were acts by which God testified to Jesus’ identity, calling, and mission. We could even remember how God tore the temple curtain when Jesus offered himself as a sacrifice on the cross – surely that also affirmed that Jesus was a priest called by God. I am certain the book of Hebrews has not forgotten such amazing testimony to Jesus’ divine calling. Yet, Hebrews yet again offers its argument not from the New Testament scriptures, but from the Old Testament. In verse 5, it quotes from Psalm 2:7. In verse 6, it quotes from Psalm 110:4. Both of these psalms were by this time widely understood in the church as being Scripture about the Messiah. Hebrews then helps us to see their significance with regard to Jesus’ calling as a priest.
Regarding Psalm 2, various allusions and quotes of it can be found in the New Testament and applied to Jesus. Here in Hebrews 1, the author already quoted this same line from Psalm 2 with God saying to the Messiah, “You are My Son, Today I have begotten You.” There, in Hebrews 1, we saw that Hebrews was commenting on the way the Messiah was exalted with the name above every name after his death, resurrection, and ascension. In other words, when God speaks in Psalm 2 about the Messiah being his son, he’s not referring to the fact of Jesus’ sonship as the eternal Son of God. Rather, that was kingly adoption language where the Messiah was being crowned with the kingdom of God as the declared adopted heir of God. Again, this is language regarding the incarnate Messiah, that this human was being exalted as king over God’s kingdom. To the point in today’s passage, that was not an honor Jesus bestowed upon himself. God bestowed that honor upon Jesus.
And yet, if you are paying close attention, you might recognize that Psalm 2 doesn’t speak about a priest. There’s nothing per se priestly in Psalm 2. It’s a royal psalm. It’s about the Messiah being a king. For God to say to the Christ that “Today I have begotten you,” reflects the kingly authority Jesus was bestowed through his obedience and victory at the cross. The verse right before in Psalm 2 is explicit in this regard. God says there in Psalm 2:6, “I have set My King On My holy hill of Zion”. So, if the Psalm 2 quote is about Jesus being installed by God as a king, why does Hebrews quote that here? Well, it’s because of the next quote – the one from Psalm 110.
You see, Psalm 110 begins as another royal, messianic psalm. This is the one Jesus quotes in the New Testament to show how the Christ would be greater than King David. That’s because Psalm 110 begins in verse 1 with David referring to the Christ as his own Lord. Psalm 110 continues in verse 2 clearly describing the coming Christ as a king. God says this to the Christ in Psalm 110:2, “The LORD sends forth from Zion your mighty scepter. Rule in the midst of your enemies!” And so, Psalm 110 begins very similarly with the royal messianic theme that was found in Psalm 2. But then there is a shift in focus in Psalm 110. It’s seemingly abrupt in the psalm. Verse 4 of Psalm 110 then records God declaring of this same Messiah, “You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” Though Psalm 110 is quoted a number of times in the New Testament and applied to Jesus, it’s only in Hebrews where we find verse 4 quoted in order to drive home the point that this Messianic king will also be a Messianic priest.
Likely, the background to this in Psalm 110 has to do with David conquering Jerusalem and establishing it as his royal city. At the time, Jerusalem had been controlled by the Jebusites, but historically it was where the Old Testament figure Melchizedek had reigned. We don’t know a lot about this Melchizedek, but in Genesis 14:18 we see that, during Abraham’s time, he was a king of Jerusalem who was also a priest of God Most High. So, Psalm 110 surely prophetically connects the dots here. The fact that David had later taken control of Jerusalem meant not only that his house took on the kingship of Jerusalem that Melchizedek had once possessed, but also the priesthood of Melchizedek as well. Of course, this wasn’t something David should have presumed, and Psalm 110 shows that he didn’t presume it. Rather, God’s the one who made this appointment to the Melchizedekian priesthood. Psalm 110 records God declaring that one of David’s descendants would be both king and priest, like Melchizedek. Hebrews rightly applies this to Jesus.
And so, here we learn how Jesus’ appointment to the priesthood is different than Aaron’s. The similarity with Aaron’s priesthood is that they both received divine appointment to office. But with Jesus’ appointment we see that his office would be the dual office of both king and priest. Interestingly, documents have been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls to show that some Jews were expecting two Messiahs, one who would be a king in the line of David, and one who would be a priest in the line of Aaron. I could understand why they might have held that as a possible interpretation of the prophecies in the Old Testament. Yet, Psalm 110 would have amazingly spoken against that. There was going to be a Priestly Messiah. But he would be one and the same as the Kingly Messiah. That is a clear difference with the Aaronic priesthood.
Under the old covenant that might have been hard to understand. The old covenant said the priesthood had to be from the Levites, specifically Aaron’s descendants. We can remember how King Uzziah got in trouble for presuming to take on some of the responsibilities of the Levites. God even struck him with leprosy because of that. How could a Davidic king ever be a high priest then? The answer comes in Psalm 110:4 that its because the Messiah’s priesthood would be of a different order. He would not be a Levitical priest. Jesus’s priestly service wasn’t done in the earthly temple nor according to the old covenant provisions for the priests. Jesus’ priesthood was of a different order. Maybe when Psalm 110 was first received the people might have assumed this Melchizedekian order was a lesser priesthood than the Aaronic. But we see now that it is actually greater. For it is a priesthood serving under a new, better covenant, with a better sacrifice, ordained with better blood.
And so, then we see a final way in which Christ’s appointment as priest is better than the Aaronic appointment. Psalm 110:4 says the appointment is forever. The Aaronic priests could only serve for a time. They’d eventually die and wouldn’t be able to serve forever. In fact, with regards to the Levites in general, Numbers 8:24-25 says that the Levites could only actively serve in the temple from ages 25 to 50. But Jesus has been given his charge from God to serve as a priest forever. As the resurrected Lord of glory, he started that priestly service at the cross and has continued it ever since.
Let me give a final point of application before we turn to the second half of message for today. We’ve seen here that no one should ever presume a leadership position of this sort in Christ’s church. I think of how some have tried to that, declaring themselves as some apostle, or as some self-declared minister, and taking an authority in the church that is not theirs to have. That’s presumptuous and wrong. And yet, I would remind us all of God’s declaration to us in 1 Peter 1:9. There, it declares that Christians are a royal priesthood. A royal priesthood. What Jesus is – a king priest – in our union with him, we share in that. We are part of a royal priesthood. That’s not an honor we take upon ourselves. It’s one God has given us. Praise the Lord!
So then, let’s move now to our second half of today’s message. We looked at the aspect of Jesus’ divine appointment to the priesthood. Now let’s look at the other aspect of his priesthood mentioned here: that Jesus is a compassionate and merciful priest. Again, we start with seeing the similarity of this under the old covenant. Back then, the Aaronic priests were also merciful and compassionate. We see this in verses 1-3. Realize this is about dealing with sin. Verse 1 points out how the Aaronic priesthood served the people by bringing offerings to God for sin. That sort of ministry is inherently a ministry of mercy – it’s seeking mercy from God in light of the fact that the people represented by the priest have sinned against God. The priest seeks mercy from God for them. But as verse 2 goes on to say, this compassion is more than that. It says that these human priests themselves are sinners against God. Thus, it says in verse 3 that their priestly ministry is not only for the people, but also for themselves. They must offer offerings for sin for themselves too. Leviticus 16:6, for example, has that as a specific provision under the old covenant – that the priests must give offerings specifically for their sins! And so, going back to verse 2, that means that these human priests can relate to the people they are representing. They can and should have compassion on the people who struggle with sin because they know personally what that is like. They too struggle with sin and need mercy and compassion. So, these human priests were merciful and compassionate in both that they sought such mercy from God, but also in their ability to have sympathy and pity for the people themselves that they served. Their common sin nature with the people they represented should have promoted this sympathy.
On the other hand, we have Jesus Christ. He too is described as being a sympathetic priest, back at the end of chapter 4. There were read how because he was not only divine but also human, he went through all the sorts of sufferings and miseries and temptations that are common to the human experience. As it says in 4:15 that he was tempted in all points as we are. Yet, there we see a difference again between him and the Aaronic priesthood. Jesus was without sin; even with all the temptations, he didn’t sin. So then, verses 7-9 describe this further. We read there of how Jesus, during his time on earth, offered prayers and supplications to the one who could save him from death. We see the passion of these prayers when it says they were offered with vehement cries and tears. Note that it at the same time says these prayers were offered with godly fear; in other words, they were spoken in reverence not in grumbling. When we read this description of Jesus’ prayer life, we think especially of the suffering he underwent at the cross. We can imagine that Jesus’ prayer life like this was something that characterized his entire time on earth. Surely, for example, when he was tempted in the wilderness, he had such a prayer life. But the description here of praying to the one who could deliver him from death, especially reminds us of a setting like Gethsemane. That’s when he prayed right before his arrest and his death on the cross. That’s when he prayed that if it be God’s will that he be delivered from the cup of his wrath. We remember the agony that fell upon him there, where his sweat was like drops of blood. Of course, it wasn’t God’s will to keep him from that cup. But God did hear and receive his prayer. In such prayer, Jesus found the strength he needed to endure the cross. Ultimately God did even deliver Jesus from death, raising him up on the third day. And so, Jesus knew all our sorts of temptations, but stayed obedient to God. This is seen in the full with the cross. There Jesus obeyed God even to the point of death. That’s why theologians refer to Jesus going to the cross as his passive obedience.
That obedience language is seen in verse 8. There it speaks in general of the obedience Jesus learned through his suffering. Learned here is surely meant in the sense of learning firsthand by experience what it means for one to suffer yet stay obedient and faithful to God. Jesus had learned from the Scripture and by the Spirit that the path of the Messiah was one that required suffering, to culminate with the suffering of the cross. That obedience then was completed when he willingly went to the cross. Even to the last minute he received temptation to call down help from heaven and be saved from the cross. But he obeyed and gave up his life as that perfect sacrifice for sin. At that point of the cross, he was coming fully into that role as priest as he offered himself on the cross.
So then, when verse 9 speaks of him being perfected, it’s often been understood in this sense, of completing his obedience unto God in order to secure our salvation at the cross; that his passive, suffering, obedience was part of his work to atone for our sins, so he could save us. That is true enough, though, I would remind you that back in chapter 2, verse 10, we had seen this same word for perfected also in conjunction with his suffering at the cross. I had made the scholarly case that the Greek Word used for “perfected” likely was making use of a Hebrew idiom to refer to a priest’s ordination and consecration. That likely is the preferred understanding here too in verse 9. Jesus’ consecration or ordination to the priesthood came via his suffering, culminating at his offering of himself on the cross. It was in this ordination to the priesthood that Jesus “became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey him”, verse 9.
That’s of course where we see the point of compassion driven home with regard to Jesus. The passage started by noting his sympathy with us, but unlike the Aaronic priests, Jesus relates to us all the way with the exception of actually experiencing sin. And yet that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have compassion and mercy for us. Rather, it was in that obedience that he secured the greatest measure of mercy for us. By being the perfect, sinless sacrifice, he secured an atonement for sin that the Aaronic priests never could. This fact will be stated more fully in Hebrews as we keep on studying through the book.
So then, see this compassionate, merciful, and sympathetic priest we have in Jesus. He is neither harsh nor indifferent to our struggles. He doesn’t treat us with disdain and exasperation as his saved ones. Rather, he continues as our high priest forever, to help and aid us in our time of need.
In conclusion, I point us back to the fact that we have been appointed in the new covenant as a royal priesthood. May Christ be our example of what that looks like, in the sense of living in and learning obedience through suffering, during our days in this world. And also in the sense of sympathetically pointing people to the mercy and salvation and help offered in Jesus. And so then may Christ not only be our pattern for our service in this royal priesthood. May he also be our source of help and strength in living in the faith now in this world. In our union with our Great High Priest, call out to him in faith, day by day, until the day God ushers us into that glorious world to come.
Copyright © 2018 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.