The Qualifications of Our High Priest
By Allen P. Ross
The broad-backed hippopotamus
Rests on his belly in the mud;
Although he seems so firm to us,
He is merely flesh and blood.
Flesh and blood is weak and frail,
Susceptible to nervous shock;
While the true Church can never fail,
For it is based upon a rock.
The hippo’s feeble steps may err
In compassing material ends;
While the true Church need never stir
To gather in its dividends.
The ’potamus can never reach
The mango on the mango tree;
But fruits of pomegranate and peach
Refresh the Church from over sea.
At mating time the hippo’s voice
Betrays inflexions horse and odd;
But every week we hear rejoice
The Church at being one with God.
The hippopotamus’s day
Is passed in sleep; at night he hunts;
God works in a mysterious way,
The Church can sleep and feed at once.
I saw the ’potamus take wing
Ascending from the damp savannas,
And quiring angels round him sing
The praise of God, in loud Hosannas;
Blood of the Lamb shall wash him clean
And him shall heavenly arms enfold;
Among the saints he shall be seen
Performing on a harp of gold;
He shall be washed as white as snow,
By all the martyr’d virgins kissed —
While the true Church remains below,
Wrapt in the old miasmal mist.
The central point of the historic Christian Faith is that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, and that once He had made atonement by His own sufferings on the cross for our sins He was exalted to the right hand of the Father where He ever lives to make intercession for us. And this informs everything we do in the Church. Unfortunately, the modern church seems to be otherwise occupied. That T.S. Eliot wanted to remind us of this in his poem is clear; he wrote over it: “And when this epistle is read among you, cause that it be read also in the church of the Laodiceans.”
It is a great comfort for me to know that I have a Savior who intercedes for me before the throne of God. It is not by works of righteousness that I have access into the heavenlies, but by the grace of Jesus Christ who interposed His precious blood for me.
But it is more than a comfort; it is essential that I reflect on this regularly as I seek to carry out the work that the Lord has called me to do.
The passage in Hebrews 5 focuses on one crucial aspect of Christ’s saving work — His High Priestly ministry. My purpose in this message is twofold: to strengthen our faith in the Lord Christ through a better understanding of His priestly ministry, and to come to a better understanding of what our ministry as a kingdom of priests should be about. The verses we shall look at today introduce the theme by giving us Jesus’ qualifications for the office of High Priest.
- The High Priest must be appointed by God (5,6).
The writer to the Hebrews begins by establishing the point that no one can take the office of High Priest for himself, no one can exalt himself to such a position. It comes by divine appointment. Not only was that so with Israel’s High Priests, it was so with Christ as well. He was appointed to that honor by the Father.
We must underscore this fact that while Christ was appointed to the office, He considered it an honor and a glory to be our High Priest. It was not some fixed duty for Him to perform; it was an office and a ministry that He was pleased to have.
The text cites two passages from the Psalter to confirm the point of His exaltation. The first is taken from Psalm 2:7, where the LORD said, “You are my Son, this day I have begotten you.” Psalm 2 is a coronation psalm; its words are taken from the Davidic covenant in 2 Samuel 7, where the LORD God said of the Davidic king, “I will be to him a Father, and he will be to me a son.” Every son of David who came to the throne would claim this adoption to sonship, and then could hope to realize the point of sonship, inheritance (Ps.2:8). The writer to the Hebrews first applied this passage to Christ in Hebrews 1:5, where after the resurrection Jesus was exalted to be seated on the right hand of the Majesty on High. In fact, Paul explains that Jesus was declared to be the Son of God by the resurrection from the dead (Romans 1:4).
The point of this passage is the that because of the resurrection Jesus has been enthroned as our eternal King. And as our King He has all the rights of heaven at His disposal.
The second passage cited will show the significance of His having rights as the Son of God. Psalm 110:4 is quoted: “You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” Not only is Jesus Christ our eternal King, He is our eternal High Priest.
Melchizedek was the King and the High Priest of Salem, ancient Jerusalem according to the Chronicler. In Genesis 14 we read how he came out to bless the victorious Abram, and in turn received tithes from the patriarch. Melchizedek was the only man on the face of the earth that Abraham considered his spiritual superior. But this man was a mysterious figure: he appeared on the scene, and then disappeared. In Genesis, a book of genealogies, he is recorded without father and mother; he thus remains forever in our records a High Priest and a King of Salem.
David was the first Israelite to sit and rule from Melchizedek’s throne. With the help of his general Joab he seized Jerusalem and made the city his capital. And it was King David who wrote Psalm 110 toward the end of his life, foreseeing not only that a descendant of his would be his Lord (“Yahweh said to my Lord”), but also that he would be a priest after the order of Melchizedek.
In Israel there could only be one High Priest. The descendants of Aaron remained in that position throughout Israel’s history — they were from the tribe of Levi. But the kings in Israel came from the tribe of Judah and could not take the priestly office to themselves while the Aaronic order of priests was in force. In order for another order to have the priesthood, the Aaronic line had to be done away with. Therefore, when Jesus offered the perfect sacrifice and announced from the cross, “It is finished,” there was no longer any need for the old priesthood, or for another sacrifice to be made. Jesus had completely satisfied and fulfilled the Law. Consequently, a new order of the Priestly office was established, one that was eternal, and that office was united with the kingly office in the person of Jesus. That is why Melchizedek is such a perfect type of Christ, for he was both king and priest in Jerusalem.
The point that Hebrews is making is that our High Priest is better than the old Aaronic order. It is not that the old order was worthless, for it was instituted by God. But this priesthood is better because it fulfilled all that the Law prescribed and therefore brought the old order to its intended culmination; it is better because it is a royal priesthood and therefore has the authority to carry out its program; it is better because it is an eternal priesthood and therefore does not have to keep making sacrifices for us; and it is a better priesthood because the High Priest is the Son of God Himself, who after making the perfect sacrifice rose from the dead and ascended into heaven to carry out His priestly work.
The foundational qualification of the High Priestly office was met by Christ, for He was appointed to the office by God the Father. That appointment was made from ages past, indicating that His priesthood was apart from time; and it was entered into by His resurrection from the dead, confirming that He lives forever as our High Priest.
- The High Priest must be identified with the people (7,8).
The second qualification for the priesthood of Jesus is that He was identified with the people. This second qualification authenticated the first, for the ability to sympathize with the people confirmed the appointment to minister for the people.
The text tells us that Jesus suffered “in the days of his flesh.” The verse could easily refer to His entire life on earth, but the immediate reference is to the event in the Garden of Gethsemane that brought His passion to a focus. The writer to the Hebrews has already said that He was made like us in every point except sin. Now he will focus on His passion.
The first thing the writer wants us to know is that Jesus’ prayer in the garden was answered. He says, “Having offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears to Him who was able to save Him from death and was heard for His godly fear.” The Gospel reading today in Mark informs us that earlier His heart was ready to break with grief; He threw Himself to the ground as He began to take on Himself the sin, the guilt, and the pain of the whole world. His prayer in the garden was filled with agony; “Let this cup pass from me” — if there is any other way than the suffering on the cross — “nevertheless, Your will be done.” It was not a sin for our Lord in His agony to pray for deliverance, for He was fully human. But He also knew that the “cup” the Father had given Him was death.
The text says that in His prayer to the One who was able to deliver Him from death “He was heard.” That clearly means that His prayer was answered. But He died. The solution to this apparent difficulty lies in the resurrection. He prayed to be delivered from death, but He submitted to God’s will and took upon Himself the sins of the world. His deliverance from death came with the resurrection. This was not only a different answer to His prayer, it was a better answer, for it raised Him from mortal flesh to His exaltation, and it wrought redemption for us. The text is probably making reference to Psalm 22, where this can be seen even more clearly. The first half of the psalm is the lament and prayer for deliverance from death. It is the cry of our Lord in the words of the psalmist: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The second part of the psalm is the praise given for the answer to the prayer: “I will declare your name in the assembly of my brethren,” for, it explains, “When he cried to him, He heard.” That part of the psalm is quoted by the writer to the Hebrews (2:12) as being fulfilled in Christ after His resurrection when He was exalted in glory.
So this first point establishes that Christ’s prayer for deliverance from death was effectual; and yet Christ submitted to the will of the Father in going to the cross. The prayer was answered in accordance with God’s will. Jesus needed to pray it to submit to the will of God; and He needed to be heard to gain divine assistance to “drink the cup.” If Jesus was to be identified with all the sin and suffering of humanity in such an intercession as His death on the cross, it would take the agony of the prayer in the garden and the divine assistance to enable Him to fulfill His mission.
The second thing the writer wants us to know is that “Son though He was, yet He learned obedience through the things that He suffered.” The point is that Jesus was qualified to be our priest because of His agony and tears. At no point was it easier for Him because He was the Son of God. He had to learn obedience through the things that he suffered. Think of it — never before had the eternal Son of God been forced to submit to a higher will. But that is what now happened. By “learned obedience” we would understand it to mean He submitted to a higher will.
One does not learn obedience apart from suffering. For example, if this summer you hear the bells of the ice cream man coming along your street, and you say to your child, “I command you to go out and buy an ice cream with this money.” That child will learn little if anything about obedience through that. But if the child wants to go play with his friends and has to clean up his room first, well, now we are talking about learning obedience!
Jesus was never disobedient. But in His great sufferings He learned what it meant to obey. He learned to submit to the will of the Father. And in that dark hour He took upon Himself every sin and every suffering the world had ever known. And thus, He is qualified to represent us to the Father as a High Priest who has been touched with every weakness and every infirmity we have.
III. The high priest must be consecrated (9,10).
The third qualification to the office of High Priest was consecration through sacrificial atonement. If Jesus’ calling to the priesthood required authentication through identification with the people and their needs, that identification through His suffering on the cross also became His consecration to office.
Verses 9 and 10 declare that Jesus became “perfect.” This has puzzled students of the Bible for some time. What does it mean that Jesus was made perfect? Whatever else this may mean in the book, it certainly includes here Christ’s complete preparation for the High Priestly office. But there is more to it; there is a clear connection to Leviticus 8 in the choice of words used here. That chapter in Leviticus records the consecration or ordination of the High Priest to his office, a consecration that centers on the “offering of ordination.” At the appropriate moment in the ritual of the service Moses put some meat from that offering in Aaron’s hands. In the Hebrew text this was simply called “sacrifice of filling” the hands (millu’im); it has been translated in English Bibles as the “sacrifice of consecration” to the priesthood. Now, follow me a little into the technical aspects of the text. The Greek translation of the Old Testament translated tis word “filling” with the Greek expression that means “made perfect, fulfilled.” Now the writer to the Hebrews by all accounts is very familiar with the Book of Leviticus. Where the Book of Hebrews uses “having been made perfect” (teleiotheis), it has the same basic Greek word used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament of Leviticus 8:33. The point is that when the writer to the Hebrews says Christ was “made perfect” by His death on the cross, he probably has that Old Testament passage in mind, and is therefore affirming that His death was His consecration, or if you like, His ordination to the office of High Priest.
Consequently, the writer adds, Jesus “became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey him.” The use of “obey,” meaning submit to His will, is a nice touch, for he has just said Christ learned obedience. But the point of it all is this: He is an eternal High Priest who was consecrated to His office by His atoning sacrifice that brought us eternal salvation. So with Wesley we can sing, “He ever lives above, for me to intercede.” Perfect Sacrifice. Eternal Salvation. Eternal High Priest. Perfect Intercession. Never can my salvation be suspended as long as He lives to intercede for me through the blood of His atoning death. Hallelujah.
There are three corresponding applications that I should like to draw from this passage:
- Our salvation is secure because it is accomplished by our High Priest. This is the summary point the writer is making. We have the perfect High Priest, fully qualified to enter into the Holy of Holies and sprinkle His blood on our behalf. He will always be there for me, and for you. And the High Priestly benediction (Num. 6) He now announces in its finality from on High: “ Grace and peace to you.” Wesley’s hymn that we sang today captures this security beautifully: “Five bleeding wounds he bears, for me to intercede; they pour effectual prayers, they strongly plead for me; Forgive him, O forgive, they cry, nor let that ransomed sinner die, nor let that ransomed sinner die.” Or another stanza: “Arise, my soul, arise; shake off thy guilty fears; the bleeding sacrifice, on my behalf appears; with confidence I now draw nigh, and Abba, Father, Abba, cry, and Abba, Father, Abba, cry.”
- We may pray with confidence. We have a High Priest who completely understands us. Every sorrow, every fear, every frustration, every pain, He Himself endured. He knows. He can sympathize with us. And every sin and foul entanglement and estrangement He also understands, for He took them on Himself as if they were His own. He knows us all too well; but He loves us, and intercedes for us, remembering that we are but flesh.
This ought to give us the freedom to pour our needs to Him, no matter what they might be. But you may say, “You don’t understand my problems; I was abandoned by my father.” But our Lord Jesus says, “So was I; I understand.” You may say, “But I feel rejected and betrayed by people I thought were close to me.” And Jesus says, “ I know, I did too.” You say, “On top of that I seem to take on other people’s problems and I have little time for myself.” And He says, “I took on the sins of the whole world.” And we can all write our own descriptions, but there is nothing we can experience that He does not understand. He is not only the sinless Son of God, but He is also perfectly human. That is why He is the perfect High Priest.
And so our Lord says to us, “You need to look to me for courage and comfort. I’ve been there. But I have overcome the world. I can help you through it all.”
- In Him we find direction for our ministry. Our Lord provides the pattern for qualifications for ministry. This was also true in Israel’s priesthood. The same qualifications of the High Priest applied to other priests: they had to be called by God to the ministry, they had to demonstrate their suitability for service by identification with people in real life and by meeting the needs of the people through self-sacrificing service, and they had to be consecrated to the office by the atoning sacrifice.
The same is true for the ministry today. Those who are consecrated to the ministry must be called by God, and that calling must be authenticated by the demonstration of suitability for service. We must get away from the idea of “ruling over” people to the idea of “suffering with” people if we are to emulate the priestly service of Christ. How much of the life of the people can you identify with? How much have you suffered on behalf of others in your preparation for ministry? How much agony in prayer have you endured as you struggle with the tension between spending yourself for others and saving yourself for the good life? How willing are you to intercede for others with your prayers, or with your life? If it is true of the Son of God that He learned obedience through the things that He suffered, ought it not also be true of us as well?
Throughout the Bible we see the patterns. Elijah was obedient to God’s calling and marched into the palace to declare that for their sins there would be a drought. And then God promised to feed Elijah by the ravens and give him drink from the brook. “But after a while the brook dried up.” How can you be in the will of God and have a drying brook?
Or again, the Israelites were to go three days into the wilderness and sacrifice to their God. So the LORD led them out of Egypt, and three days later they came to Mara, “Bitter Water,” and they were not able to drink. The murmured against the LORD. Through Moses the LORD healed the bitter waters and made them sweet, declaring “I am the LORD your healer.” It was more important for them to learn that He was their healer than that they should have a carefree and comfortable life.
So you start to respond to God’s call to minister. And along with every good thing you receive, you learn some other things as well. You learn to live on the poverty level and eat from Food Share; you take extra work to pay off some of the bills; you get tired and run down. Your family goes through a series of conflicts and crises. You become familiar with the emergency room at the hospital. And in the classes you take you are behind in. What happened?
Did you ever pray, “LORD, Make me just like Jesus Christ”? Heaven has heard you! And in the divine process of preparation for service, you learn obedience through the things you suffer.
You see, the people need a High Priest like Jesus. And people out there need ministers and spiritual leaders who can help them through all the problems of life — not because they read a book on it, but because they have been there. That is what makes them authentic leaders.
James Herriott was a veterinarian in Yorkshire before World War II. PBS made a popular series of his life, “All Creatures Great and Small.” He tells of a time when he was called out at two in the morning to help deliver a calf that was in trouble. It was the dead of winter. Dark, cold, damp. He was in this old, drafty barn, stripped to the waist, lying face down in the freezing dung and mud, pulling on the legs of this calf. As he struggled he remembered Veterinary school. The book showed how to do this. But in the picture the barn was clean, well lit, and bright. The vet was standing there in a clean white jacket, easing the calf out of its mother. How different it all seemed now. How he wished it had prepared him for all this.
The old farmer sat there and told him how the former vet would have done it. And after the calf was born, all the farmer could say was, “I didn’t think you could do it. Shall I get some warm water for drinking?” James said, “Yes, I would like that.” The farmer said, “Not for you; for the cow.”
James thought to himself, “So why do we do it?” Then he looked down at the newborn calf, a new life. It was the miracle that never grows stale.
The miracle of new life! Just to see it happen! To have a share in it! To help it grow! That’s what makes it all worthwhile! That’s why we do it!
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