The bible is the story line of God’s restoration plan following the fall of Adam. The restoration is centred on Jesus Christ the ‘last Adam.’ We’ve seen in Hebrews thus far that Jesus is above the angels, he is God (chapter 1), but whilst he is God is he fully human too (chapter 2).
Should the Hebrews revere Jesus even more than the man who essentially founded their nation (Moses)? – yes they should, Jesus is greater than Moses (chapter 3). Part of Jesus’ role is as High Priest who need not offer for his own sin, because he is without sin, despite this, he understands our situation as sinful human beings because he himself suffered (chapter 4). In this 5th chapter, the writer provides more information about the role of Jesus as High Priest.
- Jesus as High Priest
Throughout the history of the Hebrews, there have been three major roles or offices that God has appointed for the benefit of the nation. Firstly, the role of prophet. The prophet was to speak God’s words to the people. We recently studied the book of Jeremiah and it was notable that Jeremiah spoke repeatedly to the people on behalf of God: it wasn’t much fun (being a prophet) as the people continually ignored God’s word. It is notable that the role of prophet was usually a single purpose role: to speak on behalf of God. Rarely would a prophet hold dual roles such as king and prophet. The exceptions of Moses and King David prove the rule. As we saw in chapter 1, Jesus fulfils the role of prophet: ‘ but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son (Hebrews 1:2).’ Just as the prophets spoke to the nation, so Jesus did too. His message was similar to that of the prophets: repent! Have a change of mind. Jesus’ role as a prophet was foreseen as the nation was about to enter the promised land: ‘18 I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites, and I will put my words in his mouth. He will tell them everything I command him. 19 I myself will call to account anyone who does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name (Deuteronomy 18).’
Jesus was not just a prophet, but also a king. In Hebrews chapter 1, he is introduced as the eternal king: Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever; a sceptre of justice will be the sceptre of your kingdom (Hebrews 1:8).’ The whole point of the preaching of John the Baptist, the disciples and Jesus himself was to invite the Jews to accept their king. They first needed to repent: the kingdom was indeed at hand – the king was actually amongst them! The rejection was unambiguous: Pilate attached a notice to the cross on which Jesus was crucified: ‘This is the king of the Jews!’ As the parable indicated they had said ‘we will not have this man to rule over us (Luke 19).’ As the writer to the Hebrews explains, Jesus may not yet be king, but he will take his rightful throne when the time is right.
The writer has thus built a picture of Jesus as prophet and king, and at the end of chapter 4 he says something very surprising to knowledgeable Hebrews. He states that Jesus is ‘a great high priest (Hebrews 4: 14).’ It seems quite natural for us as Christians to talk about Jesus as prophet, priest and king, but in Hebrew history, there was simply never a combination of the role of king and priest. The reason is relatively straightforward; the kingly line was to come through the tribe of Judah and the priestly line was to come through Levi. As Jacob was on his deathbed and he addressed each of his sons in turn he said to Judah: ‘10 The sceptre will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he to whom it belongs shall come and the obedience of the nations shall be his.’ Thus, the king would come from the tribe of Judah. Conversely the priests and the high priest were to come from the tribe of Levi: ‘10 Appoint Aaron and his sons to serve as priests; anyone else who approaches the sanctuary is to be put to death.’ As it happened there was one king who tried to act as priest. King Uzziah, was recorded as a king who ‘did what was right in the eyes of the Lord (1 Chronicles 26:4).’ Nonetheless, Uzziah didn’t always get things right. I heard a former senior government adviser mention that when advisers and others get into positions of power it can be an intoxicating experience, she mentioned that sometimes the power brings out the worst in people. For Uzziah, after he had established himself and had become powerful, pride began to corrupt his thinking. He knew that it was forbidden for the king to fulfil the duties of a priest. Just burning a little incense wouldn’t a problem surely? When Uzziah did this very thing, knowing it was wrong, he paid a rapid price for his disobedience: he immediately broke out in a very visible skin condition – he was ushered out (not against his will!) by the other priests when they saw what had happened. Under the Old Covenant arrangement, kings and priests are separate roles!
We will discover in this 5th chapter and more fully in the 7th chapter that Jesus would be a High Priest. How can this work? Read on….
- The Aaronic priesthood and Jesus’ priesthood
The writer to the Hebrews has at the end of chapter 4 described how Jesus is a High Priest who can sympathise with us as he also suffered, but noting that Jesus never sinned. Jesus is now contrasted with the Aaronic priesthood. The Aaronic High priest is selected from men as a representative of men before God, the priest’s job is to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He too is able to deal gently with those who go astray, because he himself is subject to sinful weakness. The Aaronic priest however is inadequate in that such priests are sinful men. Their sympathy with the sinner is a measured sympathy (Greek word used is metripatheo – a measured or incomplete emmpathy), in contrast to Jesus’ sympathy which is without measure. This is rather like doctors who treat social problems such as depression when they themselves are prone to such illnesses. Because the high priests from Aaron’s line were sinful men, they had to sacrifice for their own sins first! In contrast Jesus’ sacrifice is a once and for all sacrifice.
Like the priests from the Aaronic line, Jesus is also appointed. The writer quotes again Psalm 2, a Psalm that concerns Jesus’ kingship: ‘You are my Son; today I have become your Father (verse 5b).’ We met this verse also in chapter 1 relating to Jesus position as being above angels and being appointed as king, he is thus appointed as both king and priest. Perhaps the writer at this point was thinking of how this could be so, since the priesthood and sovereign lines were to be separated, he thus goes back to the Old Testament and quotes Psalm 110:4 – ‘You are a priest for ever, after the order of Melchizedek.’ Presumably the Hebrews knew what this meant, but for us an explanation is needed! Psalm 110 looks forward to a day when the Messiah would rule over this world, this is linked to the Messiah being a priest of the order of Melchizedek. The Psalmist (David) thus indicates a dual role for the Messiah as king and priest. But who is Melchizedek? We must go back to the founding father of Israel, Abraham. You may recall that Lot, Abraham’s nephew chose to associate himself with the disreputable city of Sodom, he and his family ‘pitched their tents near Sodom.’ During that time, there was a fight between two groups of people, Lot was caught up in the fighting and ended up on the losing side, he and his family were captured by the opposing force. In response, Abraham raised an army of 318 men from his own household and set out to rescue Lot. The military campaign was a success: Abraham not only rescued Lot and his family but recovered all the goods taken from the losing cities as well as their women and other captives. It was after this success that Abraham met Melchizedek. Here’s the account in Genesis: ‘18 Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, 19 and he blessed Abram, saying, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. 20And praise be to God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand.” Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything. That’s all that’s in the record. Hebrews 7 has more to say about this, but the key information for now is that Melchizedek was king of Salem (most probably Jerusalem) and priest of God. This priest/king is clearly presented as a forerunner of Jesus – one of an order (or arrangement) of priests that combines the two offices. It seems that the relevance of this is that the Levitical order and its accompanying old covenant law has been superseded by a new arrangement; the New Covenant and a new priestly order (one which combines the office of king and priest). Interestingly, the prophet Zechariah looked forward to a day when these offices would be combined: ‘And he will be a priest on his throne. And there will be harmony between the two (Zechariah 6).’
This tells us something that I believe we miss with our focus on the church and Christian tradition, namely that for the New Covenant to be fully realised, the Messiah needs to occupy the offices of both priest and king. This will only be accomplished when Israel repents in preparation for the coming of the Messiah. For the present, Jesus actively operates as high priest and it is for that reason that we ‘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 (Hebrews 4: 16).’
Having indicated Jesus’ future role as a priest/king of the same order as Melchizedek, the writer to the Hebrews gives his readers some insights into the work of Jesus during his time on earth (NB Jesus is currently now ascended into heaven, awaiting his investiture as king). It seems that it was during his time on earth that Jesus’ credentials needed to become a priest/king. He submitted to God the father. Within the Godhead there is one God and three persons, and within the three persons there is a relationship or a fellowship. We are encouraged today to be assertive and to exercise our rights. There is no doubt that Jesus had every right to do what he wished and yet he submitted to the Father, the Father in turn exalted the Son. This is the character of God – and we can learn from it! This all sounds rather easy, but during Jesus’ time on earth he cried to God to save him from death. I understand that the original test in Greek, indicates that Jesus did not pray that he would avoid death, but rather that he would be rescued out of death itself. In submitting himself in this way, Jesus accomplished his goal (or as the New International Version translates it ‘made perfect (verse 9).’ This death accomplished ‘eternal salvation for all who obey him (verse 9).’ The obedience relates to us believing, as John says; ‘23 And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. (1 John 3:23).’
- Warning against falling away
The issue with the Hebrews was that their past rejection of the Messiah had brought about a spiritual dullness. They had been the olive tree, but as a result of their disobedience their branches had been broken off. One could take the view that since this was a judgment that there was little that they could do to shake off their dullness, but this is simply not the case: the problem was that they did not try to understand. Right through the bible, we read of moral responsibility. This applies to us, just as much as to the Hebrews. It’s of note that in the Corinthian church there was a similar lacking – the reason was not dullness, but rather an affinity for the things of this world. The apostle Paul wrote: ‘I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. Indeed you are still not ready. You are still worldly (1 Corinthians 3: 2-3).’ Similarly, the Hebrews were not ready for solid food, they ought to be teachers, but rather were those who needed to be taught the A, B, Cs of God’s word.
We may have some sympathy with the Hebrews and consider them to be helpless babies, after all we indeed give babies milk and await their growth to the point where they are able to take solid food. Shouldn’t the writer to the Hebrews just give them more time and then they would be ready for grown up food? No. The onus was on the Hebrews to take action. Some of them had, the writer states that ‘by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil (verse 14).’ Whilst this was written to the Hebrews, there’s no doubt that it applies to us too! What are we doing to enable us to be receptive to God’s life enriching solid food?