Read Part 1.
A Qualified High Priest
Suppose you knew that someone was hidden around a corner, but you could see the shadow. If you really wanted to know something about the person, you could learn a good bit by examining the shadow. The shadow would reveal the outline of the person, but the revelation would be limited. It would lack details and it would probably distort the form. One thing you would know, however. The head of the shadow would correspond to the head of the person, chest to chest, knees to knees, and wherever the feet of the shadow ended, the feet of the person would begin.
The Old Testament high priests functioned as shadows of Christ. They gave people a glimpse of an outline that they would never otherwise have seen, even though they distorted the particulars. How could the details not be obscure when finite and sinful men were used to foreshadow the priesthood of Jesus?
Hebrews 5 is structured like a shadow that leads to a person. The shadow—the Levitical high priests—appears in the first four verses. Point by point, the writer describes certain essentials of their priesthood. Beginning in verse five, however, the reality appears, and the reality is Jesus Christ. In a striking mirror image, the writer reverses the same points that he has already covered, using them to explain the priesthood of Jesus. Along the way, the writer teaches an important lesson about the incarnation.
The point at which the shadow switches to the reality occurs in verses 4 and 5. That comparison has to do with the authority for high priesthood. First, the writer reminds his readers of what they all knew, namely that no one takes the honor of high priesthood for himself. Only those who are called by God can be priests.
Old Testament Israel had no recruiting offices for the priesthood. It was not a position for which anyone could volunteer. Those who tried to volunteer without proper authority met with disastrous consequences. When Uzziah intruded into the priestly office, he was struck with leprosy. Only the sons of Aaron could serve as priests. They were the ones whom God had called. Only they had the right to offer sacrifices in the tabernacle and temple.
Priests are not human volunteers. They are divinely appointed. Even though He was not a son of Aaron, Jesus Christ met this qualification. He did not simply volunteer to be a priest. God appointed Him. To prove this point, the writer cites Psalm 2:7 and Psalm 110:4, both of which are messianic. Any Israelite who knew the Psalms should have known that Messiah would be appointed as a high priest.
Divine appointment is critical for an effective priesthood, but it is not the only qualification. The function of a priest is to represent sinful humans before God. To do this effectively, the priest has to be able to sympathize with sinners and to deal gently with them. He has to experience the same weakness as those whom he represents. In the imagery of Hebrews 5:2, weakness is like a garment that the priest must wear.
The weakness of the Aaronic priests was demonstrated through their sinfulness (Heb 5:3). In the Old Testament, the priest had to offer sacrifice for his own sins just as he did for the sins of the people. To do this, he had to stand with his hand on the head of the sacrifice, confessing his sins as the sacrifice was killed. Hearing the priest confess his sins would certainly make it easier for the people when they came to offer their own sacrifices and to confess their own sins.
While Jesus never sinned, He did “wear weakness” in order to qualify as a priest. During His humiliation (or, as the writer puts it, “in the days of his flesh”) the Lord Jesus experienced the full gamut of human frailty (Heb 5:7). As the apostle Paul states in Philippians 2:7, He came to be in the likeness of humans. To His eternal divine nature, He added a human nature that was complete in every essential. It was not a sinful nature because sin is not essential to humanity, but it was a weak nature.
At this point, theologians walk a razor’s edge in articulating the self-emptying of Christ. He is one person in two natures, a human nature and a divine nature. He can never abandon either nature and can never lay aside either nature’s attributes. The properties of each nature communicate to the person, but they do not communicate to the other nature. Consequently, whatever is predicated of the person must be predicated according to one nature or the other, and these predications can lead to perplexing conundrums. Christ the person is eternal according to His divine nature, but temporal according to His human nature. He is omnipresent according to His divine nature but local according to His human nature. He is omniscient according to His divine nature but limited in knowledge according to His human nature.
During His kenosis, Jesus Christ acquired all of the limitations (but not sins) of humanity by the addition of His human nature. He also voluntarily submitted Himself to the will of His Father, taking the form of a slave (Phil 2:7). In other words, He freely chose to limit the exercise of His divine powers except where and when He was directed by the Father. This choice left Him open to the complete experience of human weakness. According to His human nature, Jesus Christ was as utterly dependent upon the Father and upon the Holy Spirit as any Christian is today.
Consequently, when Jesus encountered afflictions and temptations, He did not simply rush into a nearby phone booth and emerge as “Deity Man.” Instead, He did exactly what God expects all humans to do. He cast Himself upon His Father. He cried out to God, sometimes with heart-rending intensity. Faced with the dread prospect of death, he offered up prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears, knowing that His Father was able to save Him (Heb 5:7). What is more, God heard the cries of His Son, who proved Himself to be genuinely pious. As no other human, Jesus Christ learned obedience by what He suffered (Heb 5:8). Incidentally, this human obedience became the ground for the righteousness that God now imputes to sinners when they believe.
His perfect obedience, learned through suffering, is what qualifies the Lord Jesus to act as our priest. What does a high priest do? Every high priest is chosen from among humans in order to offer gifts and sacrifices in behalf of humans because of their sins (Heb 5:1). Because the Aaronic high priests of the Old Testament were sinful humans, and because their sacrifices were finite and imperfect, they could never present a truly efficacious offering for sins. However, because Christ has been made perfect, i.e., because He learned human obedience through His suffering, He is able to offer the sacrifice that truly propitiates God’s justice and expiates human sin. He has become the source of eternal salvation to all who obey Him (Heb 5:9).
The true humanity of Jesus Christ is absolutely essential to His high priesthood. If He had not experienced the full depths of human weakness, He would not be qualified to represent us before God. Because He did enter into our weakness, however, wearing it like a garment, He fully understands and sympathizes with our weaknesses. He did not sin, but He understands what we face when we do sin. Furthermore, His obedience has gained for Him the righteousness that is imputed to us for our salvation. All of this could happen only if He became truly and fully human.
We believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man; God of the Substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and Man of the substance of His mother, born in the world; Perfect God and perfect Man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting. Equal to the Father as touching His Godhead, and inferior to the Father as touching His manhood; Who, although He be God and Man, yet He is not two, but one Christ: One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking the manhood into God; One altogether; not by confusion of Substance, but by unity of Person. For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man, so God and Man is one Christ; Who suffered for our salvation.
All Praise to Jesus’ Hallowed Name
Martin Luther (1561–1595), translated Richard Massie
All praise to Jesus’ hallowed Name
Who of virgin pure became
True man for us! The angels sing
As the glad news to earth they bring.
Th’Eternal Father’s only Son
For a manger leaves His throne
Disguised in our poor flesh and blood
See now the everlasting Good.
He whom the world could not inwrap
Yonder lies in Mary’s lap;
He is become an infant small,
Who by His might upholdeth all.
Th’Eternal Light, come down from heav’n,
Hath to us new sunshine giv’n;
It shineth in the midst of night,
And maketh us the sons of light.
The Father’s Son, God everblest,
In the world became a guest;
He leads us from this vale of tears,
And makes us in his kingdom heirs.
He came to earth so mean and poor,
Man to pity and restore,
And make us rich in heaven above,
Equal with angels through his love.
All this He did to show His grace
To our poor and sinful race;
For this let Christendom adore
And praise His name for evermore.