“Well, then, since we have a great high priest who has gone right through the heavens, Jesus, God’s son, let us hold firmly to our confession of faith.”
What a sight the high priest must have been in the bright sunlight of Palestine as he approached the Tabernacle – white linen, blue robe – the gold on his turban and chains and in the fabrics he wore, gleaming yellow in the sun – the gems on his shoulders and over his heart lit to their full colors – golden bells ringing musically with each step.
But even more, there was the profound spiritual significance of his vestments. He bore the weight of Israel on his shoulders and over his heart. The bells, says Exodus, were worn so that “The sound of the bells will be heard when he enters the Holy Place before the Lord and when he comes out, so that he will not die” (28:35), for he was to be perpetually ministering. And, of course, the gold-etched “HOLY TO THE LORD” was the summary of the high priest’s great task.
The image of the high priest is a sanctifying picture when seriously contemplated – not just the outward qualifications but the inner qualifications especially. It is these inner qualifications with which our text deals in verses 1-4 before it goes on to demonstrate in verse 5-10 how Christ, our great high priest, meets and supersedes every qualification. Keep the keep the image of the Aaronic high priest before you – because Jesus is the fulfillment of everything he symbolized.
Solidarity, oneness with humanity, was one of the essential qualifications for one who would aspire to be high priest and fundamental to priestly ministry: “Every priest is selected from among men and is appointed to represent them in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifice for sins” (verse 1). It is required that he had to be a living human being – a mortal like everyone else because his primary function was representative. Surely he needed to be linked to God but what is emphasized here is that he must be well-linked to humanity.
Jesus is superior in his priestly solidarity with his people than the Aaronic priesthood: “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” (vv. 7-9).
The prime example of Jesus’ solidarity (his participation fully in the human condition) was his agony in the garden of Gethsemane (verse 7). Jesus placed the exercise of his omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence under the direction of God the Father when he came to earth in the Incarnation. This explains his flashes of supernatural knowledge and power while on earth. Although Jesus was God’s son, he “learned the nature of obedience through what he suffered” (v. 8).
But it also explains how he could undergo the agony of Gethsemane with his full humanity, so that we see his authentic human agony in recoiling from the cross. Mark tells us that Jesus said, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (14:34), for his sorrow was so deep, it threatened death to his human body. Mark takes us even deeper into the terror-filled mystery, telling us: “Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. ‘Abba, Father,’ he said, ‘everything is possible for you, take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (14:35, 36).
His prayer was not to do something other than the Father’s will, but he did say in prayer that if there were a possibility of fulfilling his Messianic mission without the cross, he would opt for that. As a man Christ cried for escape, but as a man he desired the Father’s will even more.
One might think that being God’s son would simply be a matter of sharing God’s rule of the world, living in glory and bliss. No so. The God who is the father of Jesus is the God who made the world in the first place, and he remains deeply committed to his creation, even though it has become wayward and corrupt. If Jesus is be his son, he must learn what this creation business is about, what it will take to rescue it from the mess it has got itself into. He must get to know its depths as well as its heights. He must learn what it means to be his father’s obedient son; and that will mean suffering, not because God is a sadist who simply wants to see his dear son having a rough time of it, but because the world which God made and loves is a dark and wicked place and the son must suffer its sorrow and pain in order to rescue it.
That’s what verse 9 means when it says that Jesus was “made complete and perfect” (it’s just one word in the Greek). It doesn’t mean that he was “imperfect” before in the sense of being sinful, but that he needed to attain the full stature of Sonship through experiencing the pain and grief of the father himself over his world gone wrong. He became truly and fully what in his nature he already was.
This demand for the son to learn what Sonship truly means in practice is at the heart of this qualification for, so to speak the other half of his mandate. Like many other early Christian thinkers, the author of Hebrews brought together biblical passages which spoke of the Messiah as God’s son with one particular Psalm, Psalm 110 which spoke of him also as a priest. In verse 5, he quotes from Psalm 2:7, where God says to the newly installed king of Israel, “you are my son; today I have become your father.” But now he links it with Psalm 110:4, which adds a new and unexpected role: the Messiah is also to be a priest, and a priest of a different “order,” a different type or rank, the “the order of Melchizedek.”
So our author gives us a stupendous truth: Jesus is both eternal King and eternal priest. And it all came to him by the ordaining word of God the Father. Jesus did not seek it! Just as in eternity, he “did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Philippians 2:6, 7), neither he clutch the office of King and high priest. His only goal was to glorify God the Father.
Jesus’ priesthood is, therefore, far superior to that of Aaron. Aaron’s was temporal, but Jesus is a priest of the same kind as Melchizedek. There was no succession of priests and hence no “order” from Melchizedek. Jesus’ priesthood is without ending or beginning!
Christ is our triumphant, eternal Savior. His superior selection as both eternal King and priest, coupled with his superior solidarity with us, makes him far superior to the high priest of old.
The glorious vestments of the Aaronic high priest have always been understood as being emblematic of the ministry of the ultimate high priest, the Lord Jesus Christ. Can you see him resplendent in the glorious white light of a thousand suns in eternity? He bears our names on his shoulders and thus shows his infinite compassion for us. He has borne all our sins in his own priestly body on the tree. In his solidarity with us he bears our present burdens as well. We are always on his heart. Perhaps as he prays for us, he places a places a nail-pierced hand over the precious stones and presses them close. Though seated at the right hand of the Father, the golden bells constantly ring as he ministers on our behalf. And his crown, “HOLINESS TO THE LORD,” will be our crown because that will be the eternal outcome of his work.
This is our high priest in life’s uncertain seas. Jesus preserved in submissive prayer in Gethsemane and was heard, and our prayers will be heard also if we persevere.
What motivations! We have the example of Jesus’ prayers. We have Jesus, “a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek. . .high priest in the order of Melchizedek” (vv. 6, 10). May we avail of ourselves of him day by day!