If you’re ever taking a course on logic you’ll probably hear the following question asked as an example of a loaded question: “Are you still beating your wife?” The reason that is an example of what’s called a “loaded question” is because it’s a yes or no question that most people can’t simply answer with a “yes” or a “no.” And the reason they can’t simply give a yes or no answer is because the question is loaded with an assumption, isn’t it? The assumption is not only that the responder is married but that he has beaten his wife at some point in the past. Consequently, if you instinctively answer “No” or “Of course not,” horrified at the mere idea of beating your wife, then you would have unintentionally granted the assumption of the questioner that at some point in the past you were beating your wife.
The example is used in logic courses in order to illustrate that sometimes when we are in the midst of hearing an argument, we need to challenge the assumptions or premises that someone else is making. Sometimes our interaction requires us saying, “Actually, I need to go back to the very first point you made (or assumption you’re making) because you’re wrong right out of the gate.” And it may be that the author of Hebrews knew that the recipients of this letter may have been tempted to say just that at this point in his argument. Let me explain what I mean.
The particular temptation that the recipients of this letter were battling was the temptation to go back and put themselves under the old covenant. That was the time before Christ came, lived, died, was raised, and ascended back to the Father. And during that time the way that God’s people related to him was quite a bit different than the way that we relate to him. The Lord set up a central place for worship—the temple (and before that, the tabernacle). And the manner in which they worshiped involved all kinds of sacrifices, including, on the day of atonement, the sacrifice of a bull as a sin offering for the priest and his house as well as the sacrifice of a goat for the sins of the people. But it’s not as if anyone could just march into the temple and offer the sacrifice of a goat. Only the high priest could make this sacrifice and only he could enter the most holy place within the temple to make that sacrifice on one day out of the year.
So, when we say that the recipients of this letter were tempted to go back and put themselves under the practices administered under the old covenant, this is the kind of thing we’re thinking about—the temple, the high priest, and the sacrifices of animals for sins. Therefore, in a letter where the author is showing that Jesus is superior to everything practiced under the old covenant (because it all pointed to him), he notes time and time again that Jesus is our high priest. He made allusion to this truth in the opening verses of chapter 1, explicitly stated it in 2:17, and really began to flesh out Christ’s work within that category of high priest in 4:14-16.
But it’s at this very point that the recipients of the letter could be saying, “Whoa! Hold on a second. You’re assuming in this argument that Jesus is qualified to be a high priest, and we’re not so sure he is. We want to challenge your argument at its most basic level.” And if that’s their thinking, they’ve got a fair point. After all, the high priest, under the old covenant, had to meet a multitude of qualifications, and it isn’t quite clear that Jesus meets those qualifications. Therefore, beginning in our text this morning, the author of Hebrews argues for his premise, namely, that Jesus is indeed our high priest and meets every qualification for being so. It’s an argument he’ll begin in these verses and finish in chapter 7, after allowing himself an aside to remind his hearers of the gravity of their situation in 5:11 through most of chapter 6.
It’s as if the author wants to leave no room at all for his hearers to be able to question his argument about Christ’s superiority to the old covenant and wants to provide for them solid footing for persevering and holding on to their confession that Christ is Lord and obeying him. Therefore, as we follow in his argument this morning, these verses can serve the same purpose for us in helping to establish a firm footing for us as we recognize the superiority of Christ to all things and in press on to know and love him more.
As we look to these verses, they break down into two sections. In verses 1-4 the author simply reviews for us the qualifications, nature, and work of the high priest under the old covenant. Then, in verses 5-10, the author turns to showing the qualifications, nature, and work of Jesus in light of what he’s just laid out in verses 1-4. Moreover, there is a certain symmetry to each of these two sections. You can break down verses 1-4 further into three sections. We have the discussion of the high priest dealing with sin, why he is able to deal gently with the people, and the nature of his appointment as high priest. When you then get to verses 5-10, we have these same three truths laid out in reverse order. It begins with the nature of Christ’s appointment as priest, then moves to why he can deal gently with those whom he represents, and finally deals with the nature of his addressing sin. So, let’s walk through each in turn, and we’ll climax with the way in which Christ has dealt with our sins and provides us salvation. First, then, let’s start with the high priest under the old covenant.
The high priest under the old covenant
He was set apart to deal with sins.
One of the glorious things that happened after Moses led the people out of Egyptian slavery is that God expressed his willingness to dwell amidst his people. He would dwell with his people, in the middle of their camp, in a tent called the tabernacle (which was later replaced by a more permanent structure called the temple). Now, we know that God is everywhere, but it was only there in one room of the tabernacle that God would manifest his presence to the people and allow his glory to dwell in a special way. And this is a big deal that raises a question. How?
We’re forced to ask this question because God is holy, and we certainly are not. Think of our call to worship that we read last week, for example, from Isaiah 6. Isaiah sees the Lord high and lifted up, with angelic beings declaring that he is the Holy, Holy, Holy God. And what is Isaiah’s first response? His response is to recognize that he’s in trouble. He’s about to bear the judgment of God. That’s what he’s acknowledging when he says, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclear lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Is. 6:5).
What Isaiah is acknowledging is that an unholy person like himself cannot be in the presence of a holy God. And since his eyes were now beholding the King, the Lord of hosts, it can only mean one thing. He is about to face divine judgment. That is what is meant by, “Woe!”
So, if that’s true that a holy God cannot casually and simply dwell in the midst of an unholy people without the people bearing his judgment, then how did God plan to dwell amidst his people Israel, in the middle of their camp, in the midst of the tabernacle? The answer is the priesthood. This is what the author of Hebrews is referring to when he says, “For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins” (v. 1).
God chose Aaron and his sons to be the priests, or representatives for the people, before God. And they would make possible God’s presence among his people because they would make offerings and sacrifices to atone for the people’s sin. Even their garments represented this. The Lord told Moses to make them wear a breastpiece called the “breastpiece of judgment” with twelve stones around them, showing that they represented the twelve tribes of Israel. And as the Lord said this to Moses, he noted, “Thus Aaron shall bear the judgment of the people of Israel on his heart before the Lord regularly” (Exodus 28:30). And these priests would offer sacrifices regularly. Two one-year-old lambs, for example, were to be slaughtered and offered as a sacrifice to the Lord every day, amidst many other offerings and sacrifices. Needless to say, the priesthood was a bloody business.
And every offering and sacrifice that the priest did was a reminder that an unholy people cannot merely dwell in the presence of a holy God. There must be atonement for their sins. But for God to create the priesthood and allow certain men to offer these sacrifices was incredibly gracious, wasn’t it? It meant that God was providing a means so that he might dwell right in the midst of his unholy people. And so the priest, as a means of God’s grace, was a crucial and necessary person who fulfilled the crucial and necessary task of offering gifts and sacrifices for sins.
But this raises another question, doesn’t it? If the priest’s role was this bloody task of offering sacrifices all the time because of the sins of his people, how did he keep from being bitter all the time at these sinful people? How did he not just rail against them constantly? And the answer to this question is the next issue the author of Hebrews notes.
He could deal gently with the people because he sinned too.
My guess is that more than one pastor has thought to himself after a hard meeting, “Man, my life would be a lot easier if people would quit sinning.” But of course, any self-aware pastor makes that statement in jest because he knows that his life would be a whole lot easier if he would quit sinning as well. So it is with the high priest under the old covenant. The author of Hebrews writes in verses 2-3, “He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself if beset with weakness. Because of this he is obligated to offer sacrifice for his own sins just as he does for those of the people.”
One reason the high priest wasn’t bitter at the people for causing him to spend a good portion of his life slaughtering animals and offering sacrifices is because his own sins contributed to the need for sacrifices as well. In fact, on the day of atonement when the high priest would enter the most holy place in the tabernacle, the first sacrifice he made of a bull was solely for himself and his household. There was no way he could blame the need for that sacrifice on anyone else. That one was solely on him and his household.
But the blessing of this clear awareness of his own struggles with sin—for no one loves God and neighbor perfectly—is that he could deal gently with the people. He would have been slow to cast judgment on his fellow Israelites in their struggles and quick to sympathize with them. He knew their weaknesses well because he knew his own weaknesses. And this made him a fitting representative for the people before God.
But on that note of a fitting representative, the Lord was very particular about who served as high priest it was only the one called and appointed by God.
He had to be called and appointed by God.
This is the point of verse 4 where we read, “And no one takes this honor for himself, but only when called by God, just as Aaron was.”
In ancient Israel little boys didn’t grow up thinking, “Maybe I’ll choose to be a high priest one day.” It didn’t matter how attracted he might have been to their tasks or envious of the opportunity to step foot in the most holy place that the high priest got to do once a year. No one could just choose to be a high priest. You had to be called and appointed by God to that role, and the Lord chose Aaron and his sons exclusively for that task. It wasn’t a popularity contest but a result of God’s sovereign choice.
So, that’s who the high priest was. He was set aside to deal with sins so that a holy God might dwell with an unholy people. He was able to sympathize and deal gently with those he represented because he was beset with weaknesses himself. And, finally, he was appointed by God to this task. With that said, then, does Jesus really qualify to be called our high priest? If not, then everything the author of Hebrews is attempting to do in this letter fails, and these struggling believers are right. But what we see is that not only does Jesus meet the qualifications, but he exceeds them. Let's take them as the author of Hebrews does, in reverse order.
Jesus as a high priest
Jesus is appointed by God to this office.
Remember how we said that little Jewish boys under the old covenant could just exalt themselves to the position of high priest? Well, neither did Jesus. The author of Hebrews writes in verses 5-6, “So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him, ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you’; as he says also in another place, ‘You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.’”
Now, we’ll get to the importance of Melchizedek in a few weeks as we look at chapter 7, but notice what the author of Hebrews does here. He first quotes from Psalm 2:7, which establishes a couple of things. If you’ll remember from when we looked at this text in Hebrews 1:5, this is a reference to God appointing one of David’s sons as his king who would reign over the world. Consequently, when applied to Jesus, it’s a reminder that as the God-man, Jesus fulfills the role promised to David’s great son. He is the Messiah. And on that day when God raised Jesus from the dead, he appointed him in that moment as his king over all the world. As God, the Son always had all authority. As a human being (i.e. the God-man) he is installed as king over the world, which is why Jesus says in Matthew 28:18, after his resurrection, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” It had been given to him because God had installed him as the human king over the world, the Messiah. Therefore, that language of “begotten” is Psalm 2:7 is best understood as “appointed”; Christ is appointed as human king.
Now, with that reminder that Jesus is the human king (which is important because, as 5:1 reminded us, “every high priest is chosen from among men), the author of Hebrews now notes that as a human king, Jesus was also appointed a priest by God. He does this by quoting from Psalm 110:4, which we know is about the Messiah because David begins that psalm by saying, “The Lord says to my Lord.” And Jesus himself reminded the crowds that David here is calling the Messiah, who is David’s son, David’s Lord.
Therefore having reminded us that Jesus is the Messiah through the quotation of Psalm 2:7, he then shows us that God appointed the Messiah as a priest in Psalm 110:4, solidifying Jesus measuring up to the qualification of being appointed by God to the position of high priest. It doesn’t get much clearer than God saying to you, “You are a priest forever.” Thus, Jesus meets qualification number 1. But how about being able to sympathize and deal gently with those whom he represents?
Jesus knows what it’s like to suffer.
Under the old covenant, the high priest could deal gently with the people because he knew their weaknesses in his own body. How about Jesus? In verses 7-8 the author writes, “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.”
We saw this two weeks ago, but it’s a precious truth; Jesus knows what it’s like to suffer and struggle. In fact, the text tells us that he learned obedience through what he suffered. Now, that doesn’t mean that Jesus went from being disobedient at one point in his life to obedient at another time. Rather, it means that his obedience was lived out in concrete ways through instances of suffering until it escalated in his obedience to the point of death on the cross. That is to say, he wasn’t asked to go to the cross at age twelve. Nor when he went to the cross was it the first time he’d obeyed in the midst of suffering. Rather, the Father led him through concrete acts of obedience in the midst of suffering throughout his life. And when he cried out to the Father, the Father saved him, not by preventing death but by raising him from the grave.
But the fact that Jesus went through this means that he is able to sympathize with us in our suffering. He knows what it’s like to obey in the midst of intense suffering. Throughout his life he offered prayers to his Father through loud cries and tears. Have you ever thought about that? Crying out in pain and sorrow with tears streaming down his face was a normal and regular experience in Jesus’ life. He knows what it’s like to be where you are. He knows what it’s like to be called to pick yourself up another day and walk in obedience when you don’t feel like you can do anything more than cry. He knows what it’s like when you feel like the only thing you can muster up are some tears. And even more impressive than the high priests under the old covenant, he knows what it’s like to keep obeying and not give in to sin during suffering. That’s your high priest. He’s walked the road we have, and he therefore deals gently with us as we walk forward in our own loud cries, tears, and weakness.
And finally, Jesus deals with our sins.
Jesus has dealt with our sins.
If you are already drawn to love and treasure Jesus more because as our appointed high priest he is able to sympathize with us in our weakness and suffering and deal gently with us, then it gets even better. Jesus deals with our sins, just as a high priest under the old covenant was appointed to deal with sins. Better, he has dealt with our sins. We read in verses 9-10, “And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.”
First, when the text says that he was made perfect, it’s referencing that truth we just talked about in verse 8. All of his obedience in suffering was to make him ready, fully equipped (“perfect”) for carrying out his work as a high priest because ultimately he had to deal with our sins. And, as we remember from the old covenant, there is no forgiveness of sins without the shedding of blood.
But, unlike the sacrifices of the old covenant, Jesus as high priest didn’t merely offer a bull, goat, or lamb. He offered himself. And unlike those former sacrifices, his offering didn’t atone simply for a day or even a year. He laid down his life for us so that we might have eternal salvation, as the verse says. Brothers and sisters, because Jesus is our high priest, we can go through life free from condemnation. When the enemy notes our sins and failures, we can remind him that there is another who knows them even better, and he is the one who laid down his life for me and took it up again. When the enemy wants to condemn, we can remind him that the only one able to condemn has justified us, crediting to us the perfect righteousness of our great high priest.
And oh how crucial it is that we see this truth and walk in it. It is only the believer who walks each day knowing that in Christ he is forgiven and has eternal salvation who will walk in loving, joyful obedience to God. Now, I know that the enemy instantly suggests otherwise, telling us that such a glorious truth will cause believers to run toward sin. But that’s simply not true. Not only do I believe the testimony of Scripture is otherwise, but in my years of pastoral ministry, every single believer who has testified to me of meditating on the glory of the gospel and accomplishments of Christ for them has an instinct in that moment to recoil from sin, not run from it. And on the other side, the person who lives in condemnation not only gives up trying to obey the Lord ultimately but never feels free enough to love their neighbor. So I want us to know this as we’re gathered this morning: if our faith is in the crucified and risen Lord who has brought us eternal salvation, we have no condemnation before our God. And all that’s possible because Jesus is our high priest. So, let’s love our God and walk in obedience to the one who sent his Son to make us his. May we visibly demonstrate that as our response to him now as we come to the table. Amen.