The Perfect High Priest

Hebrews 4:14 – 5:10

The Reverend Bryn MacPhail / October 2, 2005


            Have you ever wondered why God took so long to introduce His plan of salvation? If salvation through Christ has always been God’s plan for salvation (see Eph. 1), why would He wait so long into human history to enact this plan?


            While it is difficult to comprehensively answer such a question, the Book of Hebrews provides us with some tremendous insight as to why the plan of salvation has unfolded in the manner it has.


            It appears that, in order for us to understand who Christ is and what He has come to do, it was necessary for there to be some human categories in place. There needed to be a context, there needed to be a backdrop, if we were to properly understand the Person and work of Jesus Christ.


God’s covenant with humanity, which began with Adam, expanded under Abraham, and later Moses, contains important categories for us. It is in this earlier covenant that we learn God wants to have a relationship with humanity. It is in this earlier covenant that we also learn that God has a holy standard—that is, He has a law for us to obey. We learn from the earlier covenant that any failure to comply with God’s law is sin and damages our relationship with Him. And, we learn from this earlier covenant about the necessary steps required to repair our damaged relationship with God. 


Without these categories, without the earlier covenant, it would be extremely difficult for us to discern the purpose for which Jesus came.  If we skip past the Old Testament and try and interpret Jesus apart from Old Testament categories we run the risk of reducing Him to a good teacher, a moral example, or a misunderstood religious leader. If we skip past the Old Testament, it will be hard for us to understand and articulate the meaning of Christ’s death.


We need a context for understanding Jesus. We need a backdrop if we are to make sense of His death—and the Old Testament ably provides in this regard.


            The author of Hebrews understood this and, having made preliminary arguments for the divinity and humanity of Jesus, he now connects his claims to the familiar Old Testament category of the high priest.


            Hebrews chapter five outlines some of the qualifications for the high priest, but this is certainly not to be taken as an exhaustive description of the role. First, we are told that “every high priest (is) taken from among men” (5:1). That is, the high priest must be human. No angel of heaven is permitted to fill this role. The high priest must be human in that his role is a representative one; he is said to be “appointed on behalf of (humanity) in things pertaining to God” (5:1). The author also reminds us that the high priest “is called by God, as Aaron was” (5:4).


            One of the specific roles of the high priest was, each year, to pass from the presence of the people into the inner part of the Temple known as ‘The Holy of Holies’. The Holy of Holies signified the presence of God Almighty. Having made a sacrifice, first for his own sins (5:3) and then for the sins of the people, the high priest would enter ‘The Holy of Holies’ to sprinkle blood on the mercy seat. This was done to symbolically atone for all the sins committed by the people.


            By making this reference, the author of Hebrews wants us to know that Jesus has taken up this office, writing, “since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession” (4:14).


            The grand point that is about to be made is that, in Jesus, we have the perfect high priest. In Jesus, we have a high priest that is like no other.


Unlike the previous high priests who passed from the people to the innermost court of the Temple, Jesus is said to have passed from the people “through the heavens” into the presence of God.


            Unlike all previous high priests who were mere humans, Jesus is presented as fully God (1:3) and fully man (2:11-18).


            Unlike all previous high priests who needed to offer sacrifices for their own sins (5:3), Jesus is said to be altogether “without sin” (4:15).


            Jesus then, is superior to His predecessors in significant ways. And thankfully, this superiority does not mean that Jesus is unable to relate to the common man. Jesus is said to be very much like His predecessors in His ability to identify with the frailties and vulnerabilities of humanity.


            The author describes Jesus as a high priest who is very much able to “sympathize with our weaknesses” and as “One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet is without sin” (4:15).


            This is encouraging to hear. As we sweat and struggle with the demands and obstacles of this life, and as we simultaneously hear the call of God to obey, we need some assurance that God understands our plight. We need the reminder that God knows what it is like to be one of us. Indeed, Jesus experienced the types of temptations that are common to us, but not once did He give in to them.


            Conceivably, someone might object and ask, ‘Since Jesus never gave into temptation can He really appreciate how difficult it is?’ The short answer is ‘Yes’. C.S. Lewis argues that, by never giving in, Jesus, like no other, would appreciate the full force of temptation.


Lewis writes,


A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try and resist temptation know how strong it is. After all, you find out the strength of (an) army by fighting against it, not by giving in. You find out the strength of a wind by trying to walk against it, not by lying down. A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later . . . and Christ, because He was the only man who never yielded to temptation, is the only man who knows to the full what temptation means.


Jesus fully understands what is required to overcome temptation, and Jesus ably appreciates our weaknesses. And the message from Hebrews is that, as our high priest, Jesus intercedes to help us to triumph over our weakness.  Jesus intercedes not only to procure our forgiveness, but He intercedes in order to make available to us the full supply of Divine grace.


            To this end the author of Hebrews implores us, “Let us therefore draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and may find grace in time of need” (4:16).


            First, let us note that there is a throne to be approached. This fact alone should sufficiently arrest our attention. Worldly thrones are not readily approached. I doubt anyone here has touched the throne of a living King or Queen. Citizens are often satisfied having caught just a brief glimpse of the Queen as she passes by. Perhaps we have been among a crowd that has delighted in witnessing the Queen as she smiles and waves. But, approach her throne? Not likely. Those who approach thrones are those from a very select group of dignitaries.


            By contrast, the author of Hebrews explains that the King of the Universe welcomes our approach to the heavenly throne!


            How shall we approach God on His throne? With trepidation? With hesitation? With dread? No! Amazingly, the call to us is to “draw near” to God “with confidence”! The Greek that is employed here can also be translated as “boldness” and connotes a freedom of expression.


            How can this be? How is it that we can approach the God of the Universe without fear? How is it that we, as sinful human beings, can express ourselves freely before this most Holy God?


            We do this only by way of our perfect High Priest, Jesus Christ.


            Without the mediatorial presence of Christ, our High Priest, there can be no approach to the throne. Our bold approach depends entirely upon our connection to the One who has gone from us and has “passed through the heavens” to sit at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.


            The sole basis of our confidence is that Christ, our Brother, has gone ahead of us and that, as a result, the throne of God is not marked by a majesty which overpowers us, but is adorned with grace that assists us (John Calvin).


            As a “throne of grace”, the Heavenly throne is distinguished from earthly thrones. If we were afforded the opportunity to approach an earthly King or Queen, undoubtedly we would approach with a tribute—we would come bearing gifts. By contrast, the Heavenly throne is not a throne for receiving tribute; it is a throne for dispensing the gifts of grace (Charles Spurgeon).


            We are told that at the throne of God we will “receive mercy” and “grace to help (us) in time of need” (4:16). Jesus Christ, as our perfect High Priest, has met one of the conditions for accessing this grace by gaining us entry to the throne room. However, one more condition for receiving this ongoing supply of grace remains.


            If we are to receive mercy, if we are to find grace to help us in our time of need, what is required is that we come to God with confident prayer.


            If we were to always be automatically showered with sufficient Divine grace, there would be no need for this instruction calling us to draw near to God.


            It appears that for God on His throne to dispense the full supply of His grace, He requires that you and I come before Him in earnest prayer. Without prayer we deprive ourselves of the full supply of God’s help.


            Have you trials and temptations?

            Is there trouble anywhere?

            We should never be discouraged:

            Take it to the Lord in prayer.

            Can we find a friend so faithful,

            Who will all our sorrows share?

            Jesus knows our every weakness:

            Take it to the Lord in prayer.


Take your burdens to the throne of grace and expect to be sufficiently helped in your time of need. And as you do, give thanks to Jesus Christ, our perfect High Priest. Amen.