After mankind fell into sin and condemnation in the Garden of Eden, God, in grace, made a road back to himself. This plan and pathway would involve representatives who could appear before God only in very strict and precise ways. To violate such would be to bring down the just judgment of God.
This method involved blood payment as substitutionary sacrifice—it being ultimately (in the nation of Israel) accomplished on a particular day by one particular representative of the people. This was the role of the high priest. And all of this was a foreshadowing of the perfect sacrifice of Christ who brought all of the elements together in one person—the perfect sacrifice and perfect priest in one package… the son of God.
More details will come later in subsequent chapters, but the writer in chapter five begins to talk about the role of a high priest … looking back to Israel’s history in the Old Testament economy.
5:1 – 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. 2 He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness. 3 This is why he has to offer sacrifices for his own sins, as well as for the sins of the people. 4 And no one takes this honor on himself, but he receives it when called by God, just as Aaron was.
The 12 tribes of Israel are named after the 12 sons of Israel (Jacob). Although there is no tribe of Joseph, as he received a double portion in his sons Ephraim and Manassas. And we recall that there is no tribe of Levi, at least not in terms of the acquisition of land and numbering of the 12. Rather, Levi’s family was to serve throughout the nation as spiritual leaders and priests. Moses was of the tribe of Levi, therefore also his brother Aaron—and the family of Aaron was selected by God to be appointed as the high priest. Thus there was always one from this lineage who had this role of particularly representing the nation, especially on the Day of Atonement, that we will discuss in great detail later in this series. So, God selected who was the one particular person who could come and represent the people before Him.
The priest, being a sinner himself, was able to “deal gently” because he understood the weaknesses of the people, having the same inherited problem. So he had to offer sacrifices also for himself. This is the point: the high priest who represented the people needed a high priest for himself, because he was a sinner as well!
All of this is to say that, though Aaron was rightly chosen by God and he did not set himself up, the system was inherently flawed. This introduces the following argument that a better priesthood was needed and that this is what Christ fulfilled.
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.”
6 And he says in another place, “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.”
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. 8 Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered 9 and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him 10 and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek.
Like all high priests, Jesus was called by God to the role; he did not set himself up for this. Quoting from Psalm 2, the writer says of Jesus as a priest that he was the son of God. Nothing like this had ever been true of any other priest, so Jesus was unique in this regard.
Specifically beyond that, the writer (in quoting Ps. 110) says that Jesus was of a category of priesthood that was not Levitical, but was rather of a higher order called that of Melchizedek (Jesus was of the tribe of Judah, and all of this gets greater detail in chapter seven.).
But just because Jesus was of a higher order, and though he was perfect and thus qualified as the perfect sacrifice and priest, this did not mean he could not sympathize with those whom he represented. Like all mankind, he suffered the weakness of the human condition, yet did so without sin. He learned obedience, meaning he submitted in obedience to the Father to the point of death, carrying the sins of the world through his work on the cross.
So in looking to Jesus as our mediator with God, he embodied the best of all worlds. He is the superior high priest who is able to understand our weaknesses and needs, and is qualified and able to perfectly represent us before God in a way no other priest could.
So don’t throw away confident faith in such a prefect and great resource. And the warning against such immediately follows in chapter six, before the writer returns to greater details about how Christ is the ultimate high priest as was merely prefigured in the Old Testament system.
The application for us today is to know and trust that we are never cut off from God. We have perfect access to Him through Christ Jesus.