Scripture readings: Jer. 31:31-34; Ps. 51:1-12; Heb. 5:5-10; John 12:20-33 Sermon by Ted Johnston (from Heb. 4:14-5:10) (drawing on commentary by Warren Wiersbe in The Bible Expository Commentary and F.F. Bruce in The Epistle to the Hebrews)
Jesus’ Better Priesthood
On this, the 5th Sunday in Lent, our reading in the Epistles takes us to Hebrews 4, where we are reminded that Moses did not lead Israel into the “rest” of the Promised Land. Instead, Joshua led God’s people across the Jordan, though he was unable to lead them into their promised spiritual rest. But what about Aaron, Israel’s first high priest? Could not the Aaronic priesthood of the old covenant with its sacrifices and ceremonies bring troubled souls into the promised rest of God? The Jewish Christians who received the letter we call Hebrews were sorely tempted to believe it could. They were wrong.
Some of these Jewish Christians were leaving Christianity to return to the Jewish religion as a way to escape the severe trials they were facing. After all, any Jew could travel to Jerusalem and see the temple with the priests ministering at the altar. Here was something visible and concrete. In times of persecution, it’s easier to walk by sight than by faith.
A central theme of Hebrews is Jesus’ unique high priesthood, which continues even now in heaven, where he is ministering on behalf of his people. Is the high priesthood of Jesus superior to that of Aaron and his successors? The answer is Yes, and the writer of Hebrews proves this assertion by making four points that we’ll review in this sermon.
1. Jesus is superior in his person and position (Heb. 4:14-16)
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. 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. 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. (Heb. 4:14-16)
Jesus is the GREAT high priest as contrasted with Aaron, who was merely the high priest. In this section of his letter, the author shows that Jesus is superior to Aaron and those who succeeded him as high priest in four ways:
a). Jesus’ person is greater. He is fully God and fully human. He is “Jesus, the Son of God,” with “Jesus” identifying his humanity and his ministry on earth (Jesus means savior), and “Son of God” affirming that he is God. As the unique God-man, Jesus unites humankind to God and brings to humankind all that God has for them.
b). Jesus’ position is greater. Aaron and his successors ministered in the tabernacle and temple on earth, but Jesus “ascended into heaven” (Heb. 4:14), with heaven being the place of God’s dwelling. How much better it is to have a high priest who ministers in a heavenly tabernacle than in a temple made of human hands on earth!
c). Jesus’ throne is greater. His throne is “the throne of grace” (Heb. 4:16). The mercy seat atop the Ark of the Covenant in the temple was God’s throne in Israel, but it was veiled from the common people who were not allowed to enter the temple. Moreover, only the high priest could enter the temple’s holy of holies, and then only on the Day of Atonement. But in Christ, every believer is invited, and even encouraged, to “approach God’s throne of grace with confidence.” What a great throne it is, because our great high priest is ministering there!
d). Jesus’ ministry is greater. Jesus ministers mercy and grace to those who come to him for help. Mercy means God does not give us what we deserve; grace means he gives us what we don’t deserve. No old covenant high priest could minister mercy and grace in the same way. When an Israelite was tempted, he could not easily run to the high priest for help; and he certainly could not enter the holy of holies for God’s help. But as those who have faith in Jesus, we may run to our high priest at any time, in any circumstance, and in him find the help we need.
In the midst of giving these four ways in which Jesus’ high priesthood is superior to Aaron’s, the author of Hebrews gives us two exhortations concerning how we should respond as we face tests and trials:
Resist giving up the faith (Heb. 4:14)
The Jewish Christians were being tempted to turn away from Jesus (Heb. 3:6, 14). It was not a matter of losing their salvation, since salvation through Christ is eternal (Heb. 5:9). Rather, they were tempted to give up their public “profession” of the faith. In returning to the Jewish faith, they would be telling everyone that they had no faith in Christ. Their unbelief would bring reproach to Christ’s name and have dire consequences for their personal walk with Christ. We must resist giving up the faith!
Come boldly to God for help (Heb. 4:16)
No trial is too great, no temptation too strong, but that Jesus can and will give his people the mercy and grace they need. “But he is so far away!” some may argue. “And he is the perfect Son of God! What can he know about my problems?” But that is a part of his greatness! When Jesus was ministering on earth, he experienced all that we experience, and more. After all, a sinless person would feel temptations and trials in a much greater way than you and I could ever feel them. Jesus, in his humanity, was tempted, yet he never succumbed, he never sinned; and he is able to help us when we are tempted. We must come boldly to God for help!
2. Jesus is superior in his ordination (Heb. 5:1, 4-6)
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…. And no one takes this honor on himself, but he receives it when called by God, just as Aaron was. 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.” And he says in another place, “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.” (Heb. 5:1, 4-6)
No man could appoint himself as a priest, let alone high priest. Aaron was chosen by God to minister on behalf of the people. His main task was at the altar: to offer the sacrifices God had appointed. Unless the sacrifices were offered in the right place, by the right person, at the right times, they were not accepted by God.
The very existence of a priesthood and a system of sacrifices gave evidence of humanity’s estrangement from God. It was an act of grace on God’s part that he instituted the priesthood and sacrificial system of the old covenant. That system was then fulfilled in the person and ministry of Jesus, who is both the sacrifice and the high priest who ministers to God’s people on the basis of his once-for-all self-sacrifice.
As we read here in Heb. 5, Jesus did not appoint himself as high priest. He was appointed by the Father. The quotation in Heb. 5:5 is from Psalm 2:7. This psalm was already quoted in Heb. 1:5 to prove that Jesus is the Son of God. But the emphasis in Heb. 5:5 is on the priesthood of Jesus, not on his deity. What significance, then, does this quotation have for the argument? The answer is found in Acts 13:33–34, where Paul quotes Psalm 2:7 and explains its meaning. The phrase, “Today I have become your Father” refers to Jesus’ resurrection and ascension—by which he rose from the dead in a glorified human body and ascended bodily into heaven to become our great high priest at the throne of grace. When Aaron was ordained to the priesthood, he offered the sacrifices of animals. But Jesus, to become our high priest, offered himself, and then he rose from the dead and ascended!
God the Father not only said, “You are my Son” in Psalm 2:7, he also said, “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek” (Heb. 5:6, quoting Ps. 110:4). This psalm was also quoted earlier in Heb. 1:13 to affirm Jesus’ final victory over his enemies. When Aaron was ordained, God did not speak directly to him and declare his priesthood. But the Father did make this special declaration concerning his Son. Two factors make Christ’s priesthood unique and, therefore, his ordination greater:
a. He is high priest forever
No old covenant priest ministered forever—each died and relinquished the office to a successor. The word “forever” is an important one in Hebrews, used at least six times to affirm that Christ’s high priesthood is forever (Heb. 5:6; 6:20; 7:17, 21, 24, 28). And, since he is priest forever, he gives his people salvation forever (Heb. 7:23–28).
b. He belongs to a different order from old covenant priests
The old covenant priests belonged to the order of Aaron; Jesus belongs to the priestly order of Melchizedek, who is mentioned in Gen. 14:17–24 and Ps. 110:4. His name means “King of Righteousness,” and he was “King of Salem [peace].” He was both a priest and a king—a combination found otherwise only in Jesus.
The reason Jesus can be “a priest forever” is that he belongs to the “order of Melchizedek.” As far as the Old Testament record is concerned, Melchizedek did not die (Heb. 7:1–3). He was a real man, so he did die at some point, though the record is not given to us. Melchizedek is thus a picture for us of Jesus who is a priest forever. But Melchizedek also pictures Jesus as a heavenly high priest. Jesus could never have served as a priest when he was on earth because he did not belong to the tribe of Levi. Jesus was a Jew, of the tribe of Judah. He became the sacrifice on earth that he might become the high priest in heaven.
3. Jesus is superior in his sympathy (Heb. 5:2, 7-8)
He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness…. 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. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered…. (Heb. 5:2, 7-8)
Every old covenant high priest had to minister to people who were sinners: those “ignorant and… going astray” (Heb. 5:2). They should have been able to identify with such sinners, for they were also sinners, as attested by the fact that on the Day of Atonement they had to offer a sacrifice for themselves before they offered one for the nation. Sadly, our own sin often blinds us to the need of other sinners and we become judgmental rather than being empathetic. Not so with Jesus, who shares fully in our humanity, yet is without sin. In this way, he empathizes with us in a way that is not clouded or diminished. He is able perfectly to meet our need when we sin.
Jesus was prepared for this high priestly ministry during his journey in the flesh on this earth (Heb. 5:7–8). He experienced fully the infirmities of our fallen nature, yet without sin. He knew what it was to grow and mature, to experience extreme hunger and thirst, as well as weariness. He also faced temptations to sin and persecution at the hands of sinful men.
But how could the perfect Son of God “learn obedience”? In the same way any son does: by the experiences of life. We must remember that our Lord, in his earthly walk, lived by faith in the Father’s will. As God, he needed to learn nothing. But as the Son of God come in human flesh, he had to experience that which his people experience, so that he might be able to minister to them as their high priest. He did not need to learn how to obey because it would be impossible for God to be disobedient. Rather, as God clothed in human flesh, he had to learn what was involved in human obedience. In this way, he identifies fully and empathetically with us.
Jesus’ preparation involved his experience of death. The writer of Hebrews focuses on our Lord’s experience in the Garden of Gethsemane (Heb. 5:7), where he bore the excruciating weight of the sins of the world. In the garden he did not pray to be saved from death, but out of death; and God answered (“heard” Heb. 5:7) his prayer by raising him from the dead (the issue addressed in the Old Testament quote in Heb. 5:5). Our great high priest understands our need, suffers with us and for us, and gives us the grace needed to face each trial.
4. Jesus offered a superior sacrifice (Heb. 5:3, 9-10)
This is why he has to offer sacrifices for his own sins, as well as for the sins of the people…. and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek (Heb. 5:3, 9-10)
Two important issues are involved here. First, Jesus did not need to offer any sacrifices for himself. On the Day of Atonement, the high priest first had to sacrifice for himself; and then he could offer sacrifices for the nation. Since Jesus is the sinless Son of God, there was no need for him to sacrifice for himself. He was in perfect fellowship with the Father and needed no cleansing. Second, Jesus’ sacrifice was once and for all, whereas the old covenant sacrifices had to be repeated over and over. Furthermore, those sacrifices could only cover sins; they could not cleanse sins. It required the sacrifice of the spotless Lamb of God for sin to be cleansed and removed.
Because he is the sinless, eternal Son of God, and because he offered a perfect sacrifice, Jesus is the “source of eternal salvation” (Heb. 5:9). No old covenant priest could offer that. The phrase “once made perfect” does not suggest that Jesus was ever imperfect. The word means “made complete.” Through suffering, Jesus was equipped for his heavenly ministry as our high priest. He is able in every way to save, keep and strengthen his people.
Does the phrase “all who obey him” (Heb. 5:9) suggest that, if we do not obey him, we may lose our salvation? The answer is no—in view here is the idea of trusting Jesus to save us. In the New Testament to obey Jesus is to put our faith in him. In doing that, we experience his eternal salvation, which is the continuous ministry of our high priest who keeps, disciplines and strengthens us, even through times of doubt and trial.
Clearly, Jesus’ high priesthood is superior to that of Aaron and his successors under the old covenant. Thus it would be foolish for anyone to return to the inferiorities of the Law when they could enjoy the superiorities of Jesus and his new covenant. Amen.