“For every high priest taken from among men is appointed for men in things pertaining to God, that he may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins. He can have compassion on those who are ignorant and going astray, since he himself is also subject to weakness. Because of this he is required as for the people, so also for himself, to offer sacrifices for sins. And no man takes this honor to himself, but he who is called by God, just as Aaron was” (Hebrews 5:1-4).
Hebrews is the only New Testament book to refer to Jesus Christ as High Priest, and it uses this title for the Savior twelve times over thirteen chapters. Such an emphasis on the high priesthood is understandable. The first readers of Hebrews were Jewish Christians, and for Jews, no religious office was more important than that of high priest.
And yet, the Old Covenant with its sacrifices and high priesthood could not bring true atonement for sin. It was “. . . not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4). True atonement required a New Covenant and a high priest like no other; namely, Jesus Christ. In Hebrews 5:1-4, the inspired writer presents four qualifications of a high priest. In subsequent verses and chapters, he demonstrates how the high priesthood of Christ meets and exceeds each of these qualifications.
The first qualification: IDENTIFICATION. Every high priest was “taken from among men” and “appointed for men in matters pertaining to God” (5:1). This is an important qualification. For a high priest truly to represent his people, he had to identify with them. And to fully identify with them, he had to be one of them.
And so we read also of Jesus in Hebrews 2:17, “Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” And where do we find this merciful, faithful High Priest in the Gospels? Identifying with the lost and lonely; eating with the outcasts and misfits—this, while the Levitical high priests remained pompously aloof.
The second qualification: MEDIATION. The primary responsibility of a high priest was to “offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins” (5:1). It was necessary therefore that Christ “...also have something to offer” (Hebrews 8:3). He met this qualification in presenting an offering, but vastly exceeded it in what he offered; namely, Himself. “With His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal salvation” (Hebrews 9:12).
The third qualification: COMPASSION. As human beings, high priests also shared in human sinfulness and weakness. A serious consideration of their own condition should have made them compassionate toward “...those who are ignorant and going astray” (5:2).
Jesus, of course, had no sin; but Scripture teaches that He did carry our sins and experience all of our tears, sorrows, temptations, and infirmities. His eternal compassion as God led Him to become Man. His experience as a Man qualifies Him to be a merciful, compassionate High Priest. “For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).
The fourth qualification: COMMISSION. High priests did not appoint themselves; they were “...called by God, just as Aaron was” (5:4). Did Christ meet this qualification? Indeed he did; and, as with all other high priestly qualifications, he immeasurably exceeded it. Aaron was a sinful man. Jesus was the sinless Son of God. Aaron was appointed to the high priesthood in his lifetime. Jesus was appointed as High Priest from eternity. As the inspired writer explains: “So also, Christ did not glorify Himself to become High Priest, but it was He who said to Him: ‘You are My Son, today I have begotten you’ ” (5:5).
With the inspired writer then we gratefully proclaim, “For such a High Priest was fitting for us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and has become higher than the heavens” (Hebrews 7:26).
Jesus Christ, a High Priest like no other.
Mark Weis is pastor of the Church of the Lutheran Confession in North Port, Florida.