There are two titles that the author of Hebrews attributes to Jesus that are extremely important for our understanding of who he is and what he has done. Those two titles are Son of God and high priest. Both are used in Heb. 5:1-10. In verses 5 and 8, he is referred to as the Son of God; in verses 5, 6, and 10 as high priest. Both titles are Scriptural, that is, they derive from OT predictions concerning the Christ. In this text, the author refers in particular to two Psalms in order to ground his understanding of the Messiah: Psalms 2 and 110.
Christ is the eternal Son of God. Remember that “begotten” in Psalm 2:7 and Heb. 5:5 is not a reference to his birth in the manger or to his becoming a man. Nor is it a reference to his becoming, at some distant point in time in the past, the Son of God. Rather, it is a reference to our Lord’s enthronement in heaven after having conquered death. This does not mean that this is when he became the Son of God, for the Father declared him to be his Son at the announcement of his incarnation, at his baptism, and at the Mount of Transfiguration. It is just that, at his resurrection and ascension, our Lord was invested with the honor that belonged to him as the Son of God and which he temporarily laid aside in order to accomplish his earthly mission.
You see hints of this in verse 8: “Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered”. If the Sonship of Christ were only a reference to his incarnate manhood, then his learning obedience by the things which he suffered would be a necessary part of his Sonship, but in verse 8 it is understood that his obedience and his sufferings were things essentially incompatible with it. This is why the verse begins with “though he were a Son.” In other words, you would not expect that the one who is the Son to have to learn obedience or to suffer. Nevertheless, we are told that he voluntarily took them on in order to accomplish the salvation of his people (cf. Phil. 2:5-11). It was a part of the “becoming poor” of him who was eternally rich, so that we might through his poverty becomes truly rich (cf. 2 Cor. 8:9).
The Son of God is that name which tells us who the Lord Jesus Christ is in relation to God the Father. It therefore describes an eternal relation. There was never a time when our Lord was not the Son and never a time when the Father was not the Father of the Son. It is not a title that he took on but a description of who he is in an essential and eternal sense. And it points us to his divinity: that he is one with the Father and shares equally with him in the essence of the Godhead.
I recently heard a Muslim preacher say that the reason he was not a Christian was that Jesus never claimed to be God. But this is false, for when he claimed to be the Son of God he was claiming to be God. You see this, for example, in John 10. There, our Lord repeatedly refers to God as his Father (something, by the way, that none of Jesus’ contemporaries did), and then he says this: “I and my Father are one” (Jn. 10:30). To this his enemies responded by picking up stones to stone him – they clearly thought he had just uttered a blasphemy. When our Lord asks them why they are doing this, they respond: “For a good work we stone thee not; but for blasphemy; and because that thou, being a man, makest thyself God” (10:33). In other words, our Lord’s contemporaries understood the claim to be the Son of God as a claim to be God. But it doesn’t keep him from affirming it: “I said, I am the Son of God” (36).
Now some folks will turn to something our Lord says later as a refutation that Son of God implies equality with God. They will refer to John 14:28, where our Lord says, “If ye loved me, ye would rejoice, because I said, I go unto the Father: for my Father is greater than I.” However, this is clearly a reference to our Lord’s future ascension into heaven (“I go unto the Father”) where he will receive the glory that he had laid aside as a part of his earthly ministry (cf. Jn 17:1-3). At the moment when the Lord spoke these words, he was still suffering and learning obedience and as such his Father was greater than he – greater in the sense of his exalted status in heaven. In ascending to the Father, he was also ascending to the greatness of the Father, and this was the reason why his disciples should rejoice.
This is very important and grasping the truth that Jesus is in fact the eternal Son of God is essential for a true and saving understanding of who Jesus is. To refuse to receive him as such is to reject him, and to reject him is to turn away from the only source of eternal salvation. This is what the apostle John would later write: “Whosoever denieth the Son, the same hath not the Father; but he that acknowledgeth the Son hath the Father also” (1 Jn. 2:23).
And yet, as important as it is that we embrace Jesus as the Son of God, it is equally important that we understand what he did in terms of his designation as high priest. Alongside the confession of Jesus as God’s Son in Psalm 2:7, we also have the confession of Jesus as high priest in Psalm 110:4, “Thou art a priest forever after the order of Melchisedec” (Heb. 5:6, 10). God is speaking in this Psalm, and our Lord in the gospels says that the one to whom he is speaking is the Messiah, David’s Lord (and thus to himself; see, for example, Mt. 22:41-45). Now we are going to hear a lot more about this mysterious man, Melchisedec, in chapter 7. But for now the point is simply that the Messiah, Jesus Christ, was ordained to be a priest, and that to understand who Jesus is and what he does we need to understand him in the categories of the priesthood.
It is tempting at this point just to skip to verses 11 and following because folks today are just as “dull of hearing” when it comes to the priesthood of Jesus as the original audience of this letter. How many of us read this and think how exciting it is to think about Jesus as a high priest? How many of us understand just how relevant and important this is?
I think there are a number of reasons why we find it hard to engage in any meaningful sense with these verses. One reason is that many of us view the priesthood as belonging solely to the period of OT sacrifice and as therefore irrelevant to NT Christianity. Our approach to this chapter is an artifact of a pervasive understanding of the OT as having no relevance for the NT Christian. We think that the Mosaic ritual was for folks before Jesus and for the NT church we don’t need to be bothered about such things. Of course, there is some truth to this; we are not under the Old Covenant but under the New Covenant. We no longer have to keep many of the ordinances and prescriptions of the Mosaic Law, especially the ceremonial aspect of the Mosaic Law. But we must never try to untether the NT from the OT. The fact of the matter is that without the OT we will never really understand the NT. After all, didn’t Jesus say of himself, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill” (Mt. 5:17)? In other words, our Lord himself understood what he was doing entirely in terms of the fulfillment of the OT Scriptures. So if we are really going to come to grips with the work of Christ, we must do so in terms of it as the fulfillment of the OT.
Another reason for this lack of appreciation of texts like Hebrews 5 is that careful thinking about the person and work of Jesus is not considered important in our day. We just think that the most general notions of who Jesus is and what he did is sufficient. And though I never want to give the impression that you have to be a systematic theologian to be saved, neither must we go to the opposite extreme and say that it doesn’t matter what you think or how you think about Jesus. The reality is that there is such a thing as preaching “another Jesus” and “another gospel” (2 Cor. 11:4; cf. Gal. 1:6-9), and this other Jesus is a Jesus taught by false prophets who are ministers of Satan (2 Cor. 11:13-15). And we must not think that embracing that Jesus would do us any good. Doctrine matters. What you think about Jesus matters.
So, what does this passage tell us about Jesus? It is all about his being a high priest (Heb. 5:1, 5, 10). A priest was fundamentally a mediator between God and men. You see this in the text in verse 1: a priest, and the high priest in particular, was “ordained for men” –to represent them in their place before God, “in things pertaining to God.” Under the Old Covenant, you didn’t approach God directly, you did so through the priest. He took your offerings and presented them to the Lord. He was your representative before God.
Now this gets at the heart of why we modern people in the Western world are especially unable to understand the importance of a priest. In order to understand the importance of a priest, you have to be able to understand the categories in which the priesthood makes sense. There are three basic things you have to understand correctly if you are going to read this text with any interest. You need to have a correct understanding of who God is, of what man is, and of what sin is.
You see each of these things in verse 1. First, the high priest was “taken from among men” and “ordained for men.” The priesthood is defined here in terms of its relation to men. In other words, there is something about mankind that makes the priesthood necessary. Second, the high priest was “ordained for men in things pertaining to God.” That is, the priest is not representing God to men; it is the other way around. He is representing men to God. He is a mediator between men and God. And what makes that necessary is the third thing: sin. The high priest functions “that he may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins.” I believe that it is precisely because we have become as a culture increasingly alienated from the biblical categories of God, man, and sin that the priesthood of Christ seems so foreign and bizarre to us. What I want to do this morning is to contrast the Biblical accounting of these realities with our own and so show why it is so important that Jesus not only came to save us from our sin but that he did so as a high priest ordained by God.
Who is God?
What do we normally think of when we think of God? Well, we don’t have to wonder what modern American folks, especially those who are younger, think. They’ve been asked, and their answers have been recorded for posterity. They are consistent enough that the sociologists put a name on it: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. What is it, you ask? Well, it has been identified by five key beliefs.
As described by Smith and his team, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism consists of beliefs like these: 1. "A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth." 2. "God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions." 3. "The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about ones self." 4. "God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem." 5. "Good people go to heaven when they die."1
It is called deism because the God of the deists does not get involved in this world; he made it to begin with, but he leaves it up to us to do with it what we will. Now there are all sorts of reasons why people believe that God is this way, but I would suggest that the most plausible reason people see it this way is that this is the kind of God that simply doesn’t get in the way – that is to say, this God doesn’t get in our way. It’s a lot like the constitutional monarchy of Great Britain; they have a monarch, but a monarch without any real power. People want a God, yes; but they want a god that is subservient to the parliament of their own lusts. We want a king, but not a king who really rules over us. The fourth part of the definition goes along with this: that the only time God gets involved in our lives is only when we need him to resolve a problem; and one gets the distinct impression that we (not God) are the ones who decide when God needs to get involved.
Another thing you might notice about this view of things is that God simply wants people to be nice (moral in the vaguest sense). Now I would suggest that what they mean by this has nothing to do with holiness in a Biblical sense. It corresponds to what they think is the main purpose of life: “to be happy and to feel good about oneself.” In other words, being nice to me means allowing me to be happy and to feel good about myself, and you are not nice (and therefore bad) when you do not allow me to be happy and to feel good about myself. It would follow in this worldview that if God is going to get involved with our lives, he would be expected to help us feel good about ourselves.
And of course good people go to heaven when they die – and as long as you are sufficiently nice, you don’t have anything to worry about.
What does this tell us about God? It paints a picture of a God who exists to support our own dreams and decisions. We are totally obsessed with ourselves and if we want God at all, we just want enough God to support our own love affair with ourselves. In particular, this is not a God to be reckoned with, this is not a God to be feared, not a God to be concerned about. The focus is not on what God thinks of us; the focus is on how we feel about ourselves. This is the therapeutic part of the modern religion: God exists to massage our egos and to help us feel good about ourselves. In other words, God exists to serve man and his goals, desires, interests, and dreams.
Now if this is the way you think about God, the priesthood of Christ is going to appear bizarre and unnecessary and irrelevant. In Moral Therapeutic Deism (MTD), God exists to serve us. But in the priestly view of things, we exist to serve God. In MTD, what matters is what we want. But in the priestly (and Biblical) view, what finally and ultimately matters is what God desires. In MTD, man is preeminent, but in the Biblical world of priests and sacrifices, God is preeminent. In other words, the modern accounting of things is exactly backwards from the Biblical view of things.
The problem with the modern view of things is just that: it is a man-made and modern view of God. It is the human attempt to make God in our image. However, if we really want to know who God is, we need to let him tell us who he is, instead of projecting upon him what we wish he was. And he has done exactly that in the Bible. What does the Bible say about God?
First of all, it tells us that God created everything, which indeed is affirmed by MTD, but it doesn’t follow through with the implications of this. God is the only Being in the universe that exists necessarily; that is, who does not depend upon anyone or anything for his existence. In a real sense, all of the Bible is simply an unpacking of Gen. 1:1, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” He does not exist in time and he did not ever begin to exist. He is completely self-sufficient. He does not need you or me, and he does not exist to serve you or me.
Some people give the impression that God needed the creation and that’s why he created it. But that doesn’t even come close. The creation cannot fill a need in God since all the creation depends upon God. Whatever it could be that God gets out of the creation would simply be something that originated in himself to begin with. King David understood this, and this is how he put it when he was preparing for the temple and had received generous gifts from fellow Israelites for that purpose: “Blessed be thou, LORD God of Israel our father, for ever and ever. Thine, O LORD, is the greatness, and the power, and the glory, and the victory, and the majesty: for all that is in the heaven and in the earth is thine; thine is the kingdom, O LORD, and thou art exalted as head above all. Both riches and honor come of thee and thou reignest over all; and in thine hand is power and might; and in thine hand it is to make great, and to give strength unto all. Now therefore, our God, we thank thee, and praise thy glorious name. But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able to offer so willingly after this sort? For all things come of thee, and of thine own have we given thee” (2 Chron. 29:10-14).
It is not God who depends upon us; it is we who depend upon God. In him we live, and move, and have our being. He holds our every breath in his hand.
And he is holy. In the vision that Isaiah saw of God (Isa. 6) and that the apostle John saw in his own vision (Rev. 4:8), God is addressed as, “Holy, holy, holy.” There is no other attribute of God that is repeated this way, not even love. This suggests that holiness is the fundamental attribute of God, and it is when we consider that holiness is not just a term that points us to God’s moral purity (though it is partly that), but fundamentally to say that God is holy is to talk about the otherness of God, his transcendence. It is the sum of all his glorious attributes (note the second part of the anthem of the Seraphim in Isa. 6: “the whole earth is filled with his glory”). God is not fundamentally like us. Though it is true that we are made in God’s image, this is a far cry from saying that we are like God in every way. We are not. There is and will always be an infinite distance between man and God. He alone is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. He alone is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable.
In the modern accounting of things, man is primary – his wants, desires, and dreams. But we could only begin to say this because we have reduced God to a feathery being who exists just to make us happy. However, the God of the Bible is primary, not man. He does not exist to make us happy – we exist because it pleased him to make us (Rev. 4:11). And when we see reality in this way, which is as it really is, what we will inevitably be faced with is that God is the one “with whom we have to do” (Heb. 4:13). And we will understand two things: it is infinitely more important for this God to be pleased with me than it is for me to be pleased with myself, and second, that it is folly to think that I can approach him on my own terms.
If this is the case, we need a mediator; we need someone to come between us and God. And therefore it is good news to learn that Jesus came to be a high priest – and as such to represent men to God and to bring us to God.
What is man?
The second thing we need to get right is a proper understanding of man. When you read Genesis 1, you realize that man is not just another animal. I know that is the way modern man likes to speak of himself, and the bad theory of Darwinian evolution has only served to reinforce this wrong idea. But we are not another animal, and this is shown in the fact that man and woman are made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26). Now we must not misunderstand this to mean that we are equal with God, or even that we are made into little “gods.” But one of the things it means is that we are able to enter into a relationship with God. You can see this in that unlike the rest of the creation, God enters into covenant with Adam and Eve.
But what it also means is that we have a purpose for existing, and that this purpose is not something that we assign to ourselves but given to us by our Creator. Or, in the words of Psalm 8, we are crowned with glory and honor because God has crowned us with glory and honor – it is not something which we bestow upon ourselves. This means that just as God is independent of everything outside of himself, including man, man himself is radically dependent upon God for purpose and dignity and identity as well as our very being. It is folly to think that we don’t need God or that we could get along without him. God may not need me but I need God for everything, for life and breath, but especially for eternal life. For there is no eternal life apart from a relationship with the eternal God.
This leads to the next point, which is,
What is sin?
“Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.”2 God, not man, determines the conditions by which we relate to him. He established this at the very beginning with Adam and Eve. In his generosity, God gave them the privilege (it wasn’t an inherent right they could demand from God) to eat from every tree in the garden in which he placed them, with the exception of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. If they ate from that tree, they would die. Now there has been a lot of confusion as to the designation “Tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Does it mean that by eating this tree, man would obtain an experiential knowledge of good and evil? No, because by knowing good and evil, men become like God (cf. Gen. 3:22). Rather, it means that, “By violating the command of God and eating of the tree, they would make themselves like God in the sense that they would position themselves outside and above the law and, like God, determine and judge for themselves what good and evil was.”3 Only God has the right to determine what is good and what is evil, and it is rebellion against God when we take it upon ourselves to decide for ourselves what is best and good for us. But this is exactly what Adam and Eve did when they took the fruit. And it is what we do every time we sin.
It is evil to sin thus against God. And it is only our blindness and folly that we do not see that such choices merit God’s eternal displeasure and judgment. This is what has happened: by our sin we are cut off from God, justly separated from his goodness and love and favor. We can no longer draw near to God. Like Adam, we must hide ourselves at his approach. Thus we see our need for a mediator. This is not something we can fix ourselves. This is something that must be done for us. We need someone who can offer before God and to God an atonement for sin.
Jesus our high priest
We will consider in more detail later how Jesus is a better high priest, better than Aaron. But for now, I want us to bring together the above considerations so that we can see that we need Jesus to be a high priest for us. Because of the transcendence of God, because of the debt we have incurred by our sin against God as those who have defaced the image of God in ourselves, we need someone who can bring us to God, not for judgment but for salvation. We need someone who can become the author of eternal salvation for us (Heb. 5:9).
We need a high priest. I think it is important to see that Jesus is not just a priest, but that he is a high priest. What is the significance of that? It is significant in the sense that it was only the high priest who was allowed to enter the Holy of holies. He was the only one who, once a year on the Day of Atonement, would take the blood of the sacrifice and bring it to the Ark and sprinkle it there in the very presence of God himself. In doing so, the sins of Israel, all of them, were symbolically purged. In fact, in order to make the picture clearer, two goats were chosen, one for the blood sacrifice and then the scapegoat which would be released into the wilderness.
Here is what would happen: “And Aaron shall bring the goat upon which the LORD’s lot fell, and offer him for a sin offering. But the goat, on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat, shall be presented alive before the LORD, to make an atonement with him, and to let him go for a scapegoat into the wilderness. . .. And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness: and the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness” (Lev. 16:9-10, 21- 22).
Even so, by designating Jesus as our high priest, we are being told that he has made an atonement for our sins, the thing that separates us from God. He does not do this by simply being a martyr. The cross is not primarily an example of endurance or selflessness or even an example of love for others. It all these of course, but fundamentally, the cross was the place on which Jesus bore the sins of his people, of those who believe in him. Except this time the transfer of sins from us to him was not symbolic, it was real. And he didn’t just bear them away into the desert but he put them away forever.
Now where are you this morning? Do you stand outside the congregation of God’s people? For the high priest didn’t offer for just anyone; he offered for the people of God. Are you one of his? I will tell you how you know it: do you see that you are a sinner and that you cannot save yourself? Do you see that your sins really do merit God’s judgment upon you? Do you loathe yourself for your sin? Then, my friend, the Bible tells you to look to Christ, to trust in him to be your high priest. And the Bible also says that all who believe on him will never be ashamed. As the prophet put it, “Look unto me and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth”! (Isa. 45:22).
2 Shorter Catechism, Q. 14.
3 Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 3: Sin and Salvation in Christ (Baker, 2006), p. 33.