IV. THE GREAT HIGH-PRIEST
“Having then a great High-priest, Who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we have not a high-priest that cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but One that has been in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore draw near with boldness to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy, and may find grace to help us in time of need. For every high-priest, being taken from among people, is appointed for people in things pertaining to God, that he may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins: who can bear gently with the ignorant and erring, for that he himself also is compassed with infirmity; and by reason thereof is bound, as for the people, so also for himself, to offer for sins. And no man takes the honour to himself, but when he is called of God, even as was Aaron. So Christ also glorified not Himself to be made a High-priest, but He that spoke to Him,
You are My Son,
This day have I begotten You:
as He said also in another place,
You are a Priest for ever
After the order of Melchizedek.
Who in the days of His flesh, having offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears to Him that was able to save Him from death, and having been heard for His godly fear, though He was a Son, yet learned obedience by the things which He suffered; and having been made perfect, He became to all them that obey Him the Author of eternal salvation; named of God a High-priest after the order of Melchizedek.” — Heb. iv. 14–v. 10 (R.V.)
The results already gained are such as these: that the Son, through Whom God has spoken to us, is a greater Person than the angels; that Jesus, Whom the Apostle and the Hebrew Christians acknowledge to be Son of God, is the representative Man, endowed, as such, with kingly authority; that the Son of God became man in order that He might be constituted High-priest to make reconciliation for sin; and, finally, that all the purposes of God revealed in the Old Testament, though they have until the point in time been accomplished but partially, will not fall to the ground, and will remain in higher forms under the Gospel.
The writer gathers these threads to a head in chap. iv. 14. The high-priest still remains. If we have the high-priest, we have all that is of lasting worth in the old covenant. For the idea of the covenant is reconciliation with God, and this is embodied and symbolised in the high-priest, inasmuch as he alone entered within the veil on the day of atonement. Having the high-priest in a greater Person, we have all the blessings of the covenant restored to us in a better form. The Epistle to the Hebrews is intended to encourage and comfort people who have lost their all. Judaism was in its death-throes. National independence had already ceased. When the Apostle was writing, the eagles were gathering around the carcase. But when all is lost, all is regained if we “have” the High-priest.
The secret of His abiding for ever is His own greatness. He is a great High-priest; for He has entered into the immediate presence of God, not through the Temple veil, but through the very heavens. In chap. viii. 1 the Apostle declares this to be the head and front of all he has said: “We have such an High-priest” as He must be “Who is set on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens.” He is a great High-priest because He is a Priest on a throne. As the representative Man, Jesus is crowned. His glory is kingly. But the glory presented as an honor on the Man as King has brought Him into the audience-chamber of God as High-priest. The kingship of Jesus, to Whom all creation is subjected, and Who sits above all creation, has made His priestly service effectual. His exaltation is much more than a reward for His redemptive sufferings. He entered the heaven of God as the sanctuary of which He is Minister. For if He were on earth, He would not be a Priest at all, seeing that He is not of the order of Aaron, to which the earthly priesthood belongs according to the Law. But Christ is not entered into the holy place made with hands, but into the very heaven, now to be manifested before the face of God for us. The Apostle has said that Christ is Son over the house of God. He is also High-priest over the house of God, having authority over it in virtue of His priesthood for it, and administering His priestly functions effectually through His kingship.
The entire structure of the Apostle’s inferences rests on the twofold argument of the first two chapters. Jesus Christ is a great High-priest; that is, King and High-priest in one, because He unites in His own person Son of God and Son of man.
One is tempted to find an intentional antithesis between the awe-inspiring description of the word of God in the previous verse and the tender language of the verse that follows. Is the word a living, energising power? The High-priest too is living and powerful, great and dwelling above the heavens. Does the word pierce to our innermost being? The High-priest sympathises with our weaknesses, or, in the beautiful paraphrase of the English Version, “is touched with a feeling of our infirmities.” Does the word judge? The High-priest can be equitable, inasmuch as He has been tempted like as we are tempted, and that without sin.
On the last-mentioned point much might be said. He was tempted to sin, but withstood the temptation. He had true and complete humanity, and human nature, as such and alone, is capable of sin. Shall we, therefore, admit that Jesus was capable of sin? But He was Son of God. Christ was Man, but not a human Person. He was a Divine Person, and therefore absolutely and eternally incapable of sin; for sin is the act and property of a person, not of a mere nature apart from the persons who have that nature. Having assumed humanity, the Divine person of the Son of God was truly tempted, like as we are. He felt the power of the temptation, which appealed in every case, not to a sinful lust, but to a sinless want and natural desire. But to have yielded to Satan and satisfied a sinless appetite at his suggestion would have been a sin. It would argue want of faith in God. Moreover, He strove against the tempter with the weapons of prayer and the word of God. He conquered by His faith. Far from lessening the force of the trial, His being Son of God rendered His humanity capable of being tempted to the very utmost limit of all temptation. We dare not say that mere man would certainly have yielded to the sore trials that beset Jesus. But we do say that mere man would never have felt the temptation so keenly. Neither did His Divine greatness lessen His sympathy. Holy people have a wellspring of pity in their hearts, to which ordinary people are total strangers. The infinitely holy Son of God had infinite pity. These are the sources of His power to succour the tempted, — the reality of His temptations as He was Son of man, the intensity of them as He was Son of God, and the compassion of One Who was both Son of God and Son of man.
Our author is wont to break off suddenly and intersperse his arguments with affectionate words of exhortation. He does so here. It is still the same urgent command: Do not let go the anchor. Hold fast your profession of Christ as Son of God and Son of man, as Priest and King. Let us draw nearer, and that boldly, to this great High-priest, Who is enthroned on the mercy-seat, that we may obtain the pity which, in our sense of utter helplessness, we seek, and find more than we seek or hope for, even His grace to help us. Only linger not till it be too late. His aid must be sought in time. “To-day” is still the call.
Pity and helping grace, sympathy and authority — in these two excellences all the qualifications of a high-priest are comprised. It was so under the old covenant. Every high-priest was taken from among people that he might sympathise, and was appointed by God that he might have authority to act on behalf of people.
1. The high-priest under the Law is himself beset by the infirmities of sinful human nature, the infirmities at least for which alone the Law provides a sacrifice, sins of ignorance and inadvertence. Thus only can he form a fair and equitable judgment when people go astray. The thought wears the appearance of novelty. No use is apparently made of it in the Old Testament. The notion of the high-priest’s Divine appointment overshadowed that of his human sympathy. His sinfulness is acknowledged, and Aaron is commanded to offer sacrifice for himself and for the sins of the people. But the author of this Epistle states the reason why a sinful man was made high-priest. He has told us that the Law was given through angels. But no angel interposed as high-priest between the sinner and God. Sympathy would be wanting to the angel. But the very infirmity that gave the high-priest his power of sympathy made sacrifice necessary for the high-priest himself. This was the fatal defect. How can he present as an honor forgiveness who must seek the like forgiveness?
In the case of the great High-priest, Jesus the Son of God, the end must be sought in another way. He is not so taken from the stock of humanity as to be stained with sin. He is not one of many people, any one of whom might have been chosen. On the contrary, He is holy, innocent, stainless, separated in character and position before God from the sinners around Him. He has no need to offer sacrifice for any sin of His own, but only for the sins of the people; and this He did once for all when He offered up Himself. For the Law makes mere people, beset with sinful infirmity, priests; but the word of the oath makes the Son Priest, Who has been perfected for His office for ever. In this respect He bears no resemblance to Aaron. Yet God did not leave His people without a type of Jesus in this complete separateness. The Psalmist speaks of Him as a Priest after the order of Melchizedek, and concerning Christ as the Melchizedek Priest the Apostle has more to say hereafter.
The question returns, How, then, can the Son of God sympathise with sinful man? He can sympathise with our sinless infirmities because He is true Man. But that He, the sinless One, may be able to sympathise with sinful infirmities, He must be made sin for us and face death as a sin-offering. The High-priest Himself becomes the sacrifice which He offers. Special trials beset Him. His life on earth is pre-eminently “days of the flesh,” so despised is He, a very Man of sorrows. When He could not acquire the power of sympathy by offering atonement for Himself, because He needed it not, He offered prayers and supplications with a strong cry and tears to Him Who was able to save Him out of death. But why the strong cries and bitter weeping? Can we suppose for a moment that He was only afraid of physical pain? Or did He dread the shame of the Cross? Our author elsewhere says that He despised it. Shall we say that Jesus Christ had less moral courage than Socrates or His own martyr-servant, St. Ignatius? At the same time, let us confine ourselves strictly to the words of Scripture, lest by any gloss of our own we ascribe to Christ’s death what is required by the exigencies of a ready-made theory. “Being in an agony, He prayed more earnestly; and His sweat became as it were great drops of blood falling down upon the ground.” Is this the attitude of a martyr? The Apostle himself explains it. “Though He was a Son,” to Whom obedience to His Father’s command that He should lay down His life was natural and joyful, yet He learned His obedience, special and peculiar as it was, by the things which He suffered. He was perfecting Himself to be our High-priest. By these acts of priestly offering He was rendering Himself fit to be the sacrifice offered. Because there was in His prayers and supplications, in His crying and weeping, this element of entire self-surrender to His Father’s will, which is the truest piety, His prayers were heard. He prayed to be delivered out of His death. He prayed for the glory which He had with His Father before the world was. At the same time He piously resigned Himself to die as a sacrifice, and left it to God to decide whether He would raise Him from death or leave His soul in Hades. Because of this perfect self-abnegation, His sacrifice was complete; and, on the other hand, because of the same entire self-denial, God did deliver Him out of death and made Him an eternal Priest. His prayers were not only heard, but became the foundation and beginning of His priestly intercession on behalf of others.
2. The second essential qualification of a high-priest was authority to act for people in things pertaining to God, and in His name to absolve the penitent sinner. Prayer was free to all God’s people and even to the stranger that came out of a far country for the sake of the God of Israel’s name. But guilt, by its very nature, involves the need, not merely of reconciling the sinner, but primarily of reconciling God. Hence the necessity of a Divine appointment. For how can man bring his sacrifice to God or know that God has accepted it unless God Himself appoints the mediator and through him pronounces the sinner absolved? It is true, if man only is to be reconciled, a Divinely appointed prophet will be enough, who will declare God’s fatherly love and so remove the sinner’s unbelief and slay his enmity. But the Epistle to the Hebrews teaches that God appoints a high-priest. This of itself is fatal to the theory that God needs not to be reconciled. In the sense of having this Divine authorization, the priestly office is here said to be an honour, which no man takes upon himself, but accepts when called thereunto by God.
How does this apply to the great High-priest Who has passed through the heavens? He also glorified not Himself to become High-priest. The Apostle has changed the word. To Aaron it was an honour to be high-priest. He was authorized to act for God and for people. But to Christ it was more than an honour, more than an external authority conferred upon Him. It was part of the glory inseparable from His Sonship. He Who said to Him, “You are My Son,” made Him thereby potentially High-priest. His office springs from His personality, and is not, as in the case of Aaron, a prerogative superadded. The author has cited the second Psalm in a previous passage to prove the kingly greatness of the Son, and here again he cites the same words to describe His priestly character. His priesthood is not “from people,” and, therefore, does not pass away from Him to others; and this eternal, independent priesthood of Christ is typified in the king-priest Melchizedek. Before He began to act in His priestly office God said to Him, “You are a Priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.” When He has been perfected and learned His obedience by the things which He suffered, God still addresses Him as a High-priest according to the order of Melchizedek.
 Chap. viii. 4.
 Chap. ix. 24.
 Cf. chap. x. 21.
 Chap. iv. 15.
 εὔκαιρον (iv. 16).
 Chap. v. 1, 2.
 Lev. xvi. 6.
 Chap. vii. 26.
 Chap. vii. 28.
 Chap. v. 10, 11.
 Chap. v. 7.
 Luke xxii. 44. The genuineness of the verse is not quite certain.
 Cf. John x. 18.
 ἀπὸ τῆς εὐλαβείας (v. 7).
 Chap. v. 4.
 τιμήν (v. 4); ἐδόξασεν (v. 5).
 Chap. i. 5.
 τὴν ὑπακοήν (v. 8).
From the Epistle to the Hebrews by Thomas Charles Edwards, D.D., Principal of the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth. Printed by Hazell, Watson & Viney, Ld., London and Aylesbury in MCMIV. Digitally produced by Marcia Brooks, Colin Bell, Nigel Blower and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net. Lightly updated to the language of the 21st century by D. N. Pham. (c) 2013.
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To the Hebrews - T.C. Edwards
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