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( <580501> HEBREWS 5:1-4).
We are now to enter upon the longest section of our Epistle ( Hebrews 5:1-10,39), and a section which is, from the doctrinal and practical viewpoints, perhaps the most important of all. In it the Holy Spirit treats of our Savior’s priesthood. Concerning this most blessed and vital subject the utmost confusion prevails in Christendom today. Yet this is scarcely to be wondered at. For not only has the time now arrived when the majority of those who profess the name of Christ “will not endure sound doctrine,” who after their own fleshly and worldly lusts have heaped to themselves teachers that tickle their itching ears with God-dishonoring novelties, but they have turned away their ears from the truth, and are “turned unto fables” ( 2 Timothy 4:3,4). Never was there a time when true Godfearing Christians more needed to heed that Divine admonition, “Prove all things, hold fast that which is good” ( 1 Thessalonians 5:21). Our only safeguard is to emulate the Bereans and search the Scriptures daily to ascertain whether or not the things we hear and read from men — be their reputation for scholarship, piety, and orthodoxy never so great — are according to the unerring Word of God.
Romanists, and with them an increasing number of Anglicans (Episcopalians), virtually set aside the solitary grandeur of the Priesthood of Christ and the sufficiency of His Atonement, by bringing in human priests to act as mediators between God and sinful men. Arminians are in fundamental error by representing the priestly office and ministry of Christ as having a relation to and a bearing upon the whole human race. Most of the leaders among the Plymouth Brethren have wrested the Scriptures by denying the priestly character of Christ’s death by insisting that He only entered upon His priestly office after His ascension, and by affirming that it bears no direct relation to sin or sins, but is only a ministry of sympathy and succor for weakness and infirmities. But as it will serve no profitable purpose to deal with the errors of others, let us turn to the positive side of our subject.
First , in Hebrews 2:17 we read, “Wherefore, in all things it behooved Him to be made like unto 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.” This, of itself, is quite sufficient to expose the sophistries of those who teach that the priestly work of Christ has nothing to do with “sins.”
Third , in Hebrews 4:14 we are told, “We have a great High Priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God.” Here again is a single statement which is alone sufficient to prove that our Savior entered upon His priestly office before His ascension, for it was as the “great High Priest” He “passed into the heavens.”
Supplementing our previous comments on Hebrews 4:14 and introducing what is to be before us, let us note that the Lord Jesus is designed a “great High Priest.” This word at once emphasizes His excellency and pre-eminency. Never was there, never can there be another, possessed of such dignity and glory. The “greatness” of our High Priest arises, First , from the dignity of His person: He is not only Son of man, but Son of God ( Hebrews 4:14).
Fourth , from the solemnity of his ordination: “with an oath” ( Hebrews 7:20,21) — none other was.
Seventh , from the perpetuity of His office: it is untransferable and eternal ( Hebrews 7:24). From these we may the better perceive the blasphemous arrogancy of the Italian pope, who styles himself “pontifex maximus” — the greatest high priest. “No part of the Mosaic economy had taken a stronger hold of the imaginations and affections of the Jews than the Aaronical Highpriesthood, and that system of ritual worship over which its occupants presided. The gorgeous apparel, the solemn investure, the mysterious sacredness of the high priest, the grandeur of the temple in which he ministered, and the imposing splendor of the religious rites which he performed, — all these operated like a charm in riveting the attachment of the Jews to the now overdated economy, and in exciting powerful prejudices against that simple, spiritual, unostentatious system by which it had been superceded.
In opposition to those prejudices, the apostle shows that the Christian economy is deficient in nothing excellent to be found in the Mosaic; on the contrary, that it has a more dignified High Priest, a more magnificent temple, a more sacred altar, a more efficacious sacrifice; and that, to the spiritually enlightened mind, all the temporary splendors of the Mosaic typical ceremonial, wax dim and disappear amid the overwhelming glories of the permanent realities of the Christian institution” (Dr. John Brown).
But once more we could fain pause and admire the consummate wisdom of the Spirit of God as exhibited in the method pursued in presenting the truth in this Epistle. Had it opened with the declaration of Christ’s superiority over Moses and Aaron, the prejudices of the Jews had been at once aroused. Instead, the personal dignity of the mediatorial Redeemer has been shown (from their own Scriptures) to be so great, that the glory of the angels was so far below His, it follows as a necessary consequence that, the honor attaching to the illustrious of earth’s mortals must be so too. Moreover, at the close of chapter 4, the High Priesthood of Christ is presented in such a way that every renewed heart must be won by and to it.
There the apostle had announced not only that our High Priest is Divine (verse 14), holy, (verse 15), and had passed into the heavens, but also that He is One filled with tender sympathy toward our infirmities, having Himself been tempted in all points like as we are (sin excepted); and, moreover, that through Him we have obtained free access to God’s throne of grace, so that there we may obtain mercy (the remitting of what is due us) and find grace (the receiving that to which we are not entitled) to help in time of need. How we should welcome such a Priest! How thankful we should be for Him!
Having thus comforted the hearts of God’s children by assuring them of the tender compassion of Christ as the pledge of His effectual intercession for them on high, the apostle now proceeds to set forth more precisely the nature and glory of the priesthood of the Incarnate Son. He pursues the same method as was followed in the previous sections. As in Hebrews chapters 1 and 2, He has been compared and contrasted with angels, and in Hebrews chapters 3 and 4, with Moses and Joshua, so now in the present and succeeding chapters the order and functions of the Aaronic priesthood are examined, that the way may be paved for a setting forth of the more excellent order to which our High Priest belongs. “In the course of the section he makes it evident that whatever was essential to the office of a high priest was to be found in Christ Jesus, that whatever imperfections belonged to the Aaronical high priesthood were not to be found in Him, and that a variety of excellencies were to be found in Him of which none of the Aaronical priests were possessed,” (Dr. J. Brown). “For every high priest taken from among men is ordained for men in things pertaining to God, that he may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins: Who can have compassion on the ignorant, and on them that are out of the way, for that he himself also is compassed with infirmity. And by reason hereof he ought, as for the people, so also for himself, to offer for sins. And no man taketh this honor unto himself, but he that is called of God, as was Aaron” (verses 1-4).
Fourth , for he himself was not exempt from infirmity, so that he might the more readily succor the distressed (verses 2, 3).
Fifth , he did not presumptuously rush into his office of himself, but was chosen and approved of God (verse 4). Let us look at each of these more closely. “For every high priest taken from among men.” First, then, his humanity is insisted upon. An angel would be no fitting priest to act on behalf of men, for he possesses not their nature, is not subject to their temptations, and has no experimental acquaintance with their sufferings; therefore is he unsuited to act on their behalf: therefore is he incapable of having “compassion” upon them, for the motive-spring of all real intercession is heart-felt sympathy. Thus, the primary qualification of a priest is that he must be personally related to, possess the same nature as, those for whose welfare he interposes. “For every high priest taken from among men.” Bearing in mind to whom this Epistle was first addressed, it is not difficult for us to discern why our present section opens in this somewhat abrupt manner. As was pointed out so frequently in our articles upon Hebrews 2, that which so sorely perplexed the Jews was, that the One who had appeared and tabernacled in their minds in human form should have claimed for Himself divine honors ( John 5:23, etc.). But if the Son of God had never become man, He could never have officiated as priest, He could never have offered that sacrifice for the sins of His people which Divine justice required. The Divine Incarnation was an imperative necessity if salvation was to be secured for God’s elect. “It was necessary for Christ to become a real man, for as we are very far from God, we stand in a manner before Him in the person of our Priest, which could not be were He not one of us. Hence, that the Son of God has a nature in common with us does not diminish His dignity, but commends it the more to us; for He is fitted to reconcile us to God, because He is man” (John Calvin). “Is ordained for men.” This tells us the reason why and the purpose for which the high priest was taken “from among men:” it was that he might transact on behalf of others, or more accurately, in the stead of others. To this position and work he was “ordained” or appointed by God. Thereby, under the Mosaic economy, the Hebrews were taught that men could not directly and personally approach unto God. They were sinful, He was holy; therefore was there a breadth between, which they were unable to bridge.
It is both solemn and striking to observe how at the very beginning, when sin first entered the world, God impressed this awful truth upon our fallen parents. The “tree of life,” whose property was to bestow immortality ( Genesis 3:22), was the then emblem and symbol of God Himself.
Therefore when Adam transgressed, we are told, “So He drove out the man; and He placed at the east of the garden of Eden cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life” ( Genesis 3:24).
The same terrible truth was pressed unto the Israelites. When Jehovah Himself came down upon Sinai, the people were fenced off from Him: “And thou shalt set bounds upon the people round about, saying, Take heed to yourselves, that ye go not up into the mount, or touch the border of it: whosoever toucheth the mount shall be surely put to death” ( Exodus 19:12).
There was the Lord upon the summit, there were the people at the base: separated the One from the other. So too when the Tabernacle was set up.
Beyond the outward court they were not suffered to go; into the holy place, the priests alone were permitted to enter. And into the holy of holies, where God dwelt between the cherubim, none but the high priest, and he only on the day of atonement, penetrated. Thus were the Hebrews, from the beginning, shown the awful truth of Isaiah 59:2 — “Your iniquities have separated between you and your God.”
But in the person of their high priest, through his representing of them before God, Israel might approach within the sacred enclosure. Beautifully is that brought out in the 28th chapter of Exodus, that book whose theme is redemption. There we read, “And thou shalt take two onyx stones, and grave on them the names of the children of Israel... and thou shalt put the two stones upon the shoulders of the ephod for stones of memorial unto the children of Israel: and Aaron shall bear their names before the Lord... And thou shalt make the breastplate of judgment and thou shalt set in it setting of stones... and the stones shall be with the names of the children of Israel.... And Aaron shall bear the names of the children of Israel in the breast-plate of judgment upon his heart when he goeth in unto the holy, for a memorial before the Lord continually” (verses 9, 12, 15, 17, 21, 29).
Concerning the high priest being “ordained for men” we are told, “Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness” ( Leviticus 16:21). “Is ordained for men.” The application of these words to the person and work of Christ is patent. He not only became Man, but had received appointment from God to act on behalf of, in the stead of, men: “Lo I come, to do Thy will, O God” ( Hebrews 10:9), announce both the commission He had received from God and His own readiness to discharge it. What that commission was we learn in the next verse: “By the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” He came to do what men could not do — satisfy the claims of Divine justice, procure the Divine favor. Note, in passing “ordained for men,” not mankind in general, but that people which God had given Him — just as Aaron, the typical high priest, confessed not the sins of the Canaanites or Amalekites over the head of the goat, but those of Israel only. “In things pertaining to God,” that is, in meeting the requirements of His holiness. The activities of the priests have God for their object: it is His character, His claims, His glory which are in view. In their application to Christ these words, “in things pertaining to God” distinguishes our Lord’s priesthood from His other offices. As a prophet, He reveals to us the mind and will of God. As the King, He subdues us to Himself, rules over and defends us. But the object of His priesthood is not us, but God. “That He may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins.” To “offer” is the chief function of the high priest. He offers to God for men. He offers both gifts and sacrifices; that is, eucharistic or thanksgiving offerings, and sacrificial or propitiatory sacrifices. “The first word includes, as I think, various kinds of sacrifices, and is therefore a general term; but the second denotes especially the sacrifices of expiation. Still the meaning is, that the priest without a sacrifice is no peace-maker between God and man, for without a sacrifice sins are not atoned for, nor is the wrath of God pacified.
Hence, whenever reconciliation between God and man takes place this pledge must ever necessarily precede. Thus we see that angels are by no means capable of obtaining for us God’s favor, because they have no sacrifice” (John Calvin). “That He may offer both gifts and sacrifice for sins.” The application of these words to the Lord Jesus, our great High Priest, calls attention to a prominent and vital aspect of His death which is largely lost sight of today.
The sacrificial death of Christ was a priestly act. On the Cross Christ not only suffered at the hands of men, and endured the punitive wrath of God, but He actually “accomplished” ( Luke 9:31) something: He offered Himself as a sacrifice to God. At Calvary the Lord Jesus was not only the Lamb of God bearing judgment, but He was also His Priest officiating at the altar. “For every high priest is ordained to offer gifts and sacrifices: wherefore it is of necessity that this Man have somewhat also to offer” ( Hebrews 8:3).
Christ on the Cross was far more than a willing victim passively enduring the stroke of Divine judgment. He was there performing a work, nor did He cease until He cried in triumph, “It is finished.” He “loved the Church and gave Himself for it” ( Ephesians 5:25). He “laid down His life” for the sheep ( John 10:11,18) — which is the predicate of an active agent.
He “poured out His soul unto death” ( Isaiah 53:12). He “dismissed His spirit” ( John 19:30). “Hell’s utmost force and fury gathered against Him: heaven’s sword devouring Him, and heaven’s God forsaking Him: earth, and hell, and heaven, thus in conspiring action against Him, unto the uttermost of heaven’s extremest justice, and earth’s and hews extremest injustice: — what is the glory of the Cross if it be not this: that with such action conspiring to subdue His action, His action outlasted and outlived them all, and He did not die subdued and overborne in the dying, He did not die till He gave Himself in death” (H. Martin on “The Atonement”). “Who can have compassion on the ignorant, and on them that are out of the way; for that he himself is compassed with infirmity” (verse 2).
Passing now from the design of the Levitical priesthood, we have a word upon their qualifications, the first of which is compassion unto those for whom he is to act. “The word here translated ‘have compassion’ is rendered in the margin ‘reasonably bear with.’ A person could not be expected to do the duties of a high priest aright if he could not enter into the feelings of those whom he represented. If their faults excited no sentiments in his mind but disapprobation — if they moved him to no feeling but anger, he would not be fit to interpose in their behalf with God — he would not be inclined to do for them what was necessary for the expiation of their sins, and the accomplishment of their services. But the Jewish high priest was one who was capable of pitying and bearing with the ignorant and erring; for ‘he himself also was compassed with infirmity.’ ‘Infirmity,’ here, plainly is significant of sinful weakness, and probably also of the disagreeable effects resulting from it. The Jewish high priest was himself a sinner. He had personal experience of temptation, and the tendency of man to yield to it — of sin, and of the consequences of sin; so that he had the natural capacity, and ought to have had the moral capacity, of pitying his fellow-sinners” (Dr. J. Brown).
First , implicitly, to call attention to the failure of Israel’s high priests. It is very solemn to mark how that the last of them failed, most signally, at this very point. When poor Hannah was “in bitterness of soul,” and while she was in prayer, weeping before the Lord, Eli, because her lips moved not thought that she was drunken, and spoke roughly to her ( 1 Samuel 1:9-14). Thus, instead of sympathizing with her sorrows, instead of making intercession for her, he cruelly misjudged her. True, it is “human to err;” equally evident is it that the ideal priest would never be found among the sons of men.
Third , does not this statement of verse 2 show, once more, that the value and efficacy of his work was inseparably connected with the personal qualifications of the priest himself, namely, his moral perfections, his human sympathy?
Fourth , thus there was emphasized again the necessity for the Son of God becoming man, only thus could He acquire the requisite human compassion. “This compassionate, loving, gentle, all-considerate and tender regard for the sinner can exist in perfection only in a sinless one.
This appears at first sight paradoxical; for we expect the perfect man to be the severest judge. And with regard to sin, this is doubtless true. God charges even His angels with folly. He beholds sin where we do not discover it. And Jesus, the Holy One of Israel, like the Father, has eyes like a flame of fire, and discerns everything that is contrary to God’s mind and will. But with regard to the sinner, Jesus, by virtue of His perfect holiness, is the most merciful, compassionate, and considerate Judge. For we, not taking a deep and keen view of sin, that central essential evil which exists in all men, and manifests itself in various ways and degrees, are not able to form a just estimate of men’s comparative guilt and blameworthiness. Nay, our very sins make us more impatient and severe with regard to the sins of others. Our vanity finds the vanity of others intolerable, our pride finds the pride of others excessive.
Blind to the guilt of our own peculiar sins, we are shocked with another’s sins, different indeed from ours, but not less offensive to God, or pernicious in its tendencies. Again, the greater the knowledge of Divine love and pardon, the stronger faith in the Divine mercy and renewing grace, the more hopeful and the more lenient will be our view of sinners. And finally the more we possess of the spirit and heart of the Shepherd, the Physician, the Father, the deeper will be our compassion on the ignorant and wayward. “The Lord Jesus was therefore most compassionate, considerate, lenient, hopeful in His feelings toward sinners, and in His dealings with them. He was infinitely holy and perfectly clear in His hatred and judgment of sin; but He was tender and gracious to the sinner.
Beholding the sinful heart in all, esteeming sin according to the Divine standard, according to its real inward character, and not the human, conventional, and outward measure; Jesus, infinitely holy and sensitive as He was, saw often less to shock and pain Him in the drunkard and profligate than in the respectable, selfish, and ungodly religionists. He looked upon sin as the greatest and most fearful evil, but on the sinner as poor, lost, and helpless. Thus, while Jesus, in perfect holiness, judges most truly, lovingly, and tenderly of us, He knows by experience the weakness of the flesh, and the difficulty and soreness of the struggle. What a marvelous fulfillment of the Priest’s requisite, that he should be taken from men! one to whom we can look with full and calm trust, our Representative, the Man Christ Jesus, possessed of perfect, Divine love and compassion” (Abbreviated from Adolph Saphir).
Those for whom the high priest was deputed to act are here described as “the ignorant and them that are out of the way.” These are not two different classes of people, instead, those words give a twofold description of sinners. It has been rightly said that “in the Bible all sin is represented as the result of ignorance, but of blameable ignorance.” “The way of the wicked is as darkness: they know not at what they stumble” ( Proverbs 4:19). “There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God” ( Romans 3:11). Every sinner is a fool. “Out of the way” means that men have turned aside from the path which the Word of God has marked out for them to walk in: “All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned every one to his own way” ( Isaiah 53:6). “And by reason hereof he ought, as for the people, so also for himself, to offer for sins” (verse 3). “There was none who could offer sacrifice for the sins of the high priest; therefore, he must do it for himself. He was to offer for himself in the same way and for the reasons as he offered for the people, and this was necessary, for he was encompassed with the same infirmities and was obnoxious as to sin, and so stood in no less need of expiation or atonement than did the people” (Dr. John Owen).
For scriptures where the high priest was bidden to present an offering for his own sin, let the reader consult Leviticus 4:3, 9:7, 16:6, 24. “And by reason hereof he ought, as for the people, so also for himself, to offer for sins” (verse 3).
Here again we may observe the Spirit of God calling attention to the imperfections of the Levitical priests that the way may be prepared for presenting the infinitely superior perfections of Christ. But that is not all we have in this verse. It is the personal qualifications of the one who exercises his office which is now before us. Before Aaron could present an offering on behalf of Israel, he must first bring a sacrifice for his own sins, that he might be purified and stand accepted before Jehovah. In other words, the one who was to come between a holy God and a sinful people must himself have no guilt resting upon him, and must be an object of Divine favor. Thus, personal fitness was an essential qualification of the priest: in the case of the Levitical, a ceremonial fitness; with Christ, a personal and inherent. “And no man taketh this honor unto himself, but he that is called of God, as was Aaron” (verse 4). “The foregoing verses declare the personal functions of a high priest, but these alone are not sufficient to invest any one with that office; for it is required that he be lawfully called thereunto. Aaron was called of God immediately, and in an extraordinary way. He was called by the command of God given to Moses, and entrusted to him for execution; he was actually separated and consecrated unto the office of high priest, and this was accomplished by special sacrifices made by another for him; and all these things were necessary unto Aaron, because God, in his person, erected a new order of priesthood” (Dr. John Owen). “And no man taketh this honor to himself.” The expression “this honor” refers to the high priestly office, for one to approach unto the Most High, to have personal dealings with Him, to transact on behalf of others before Him, obtaining His favor toward them, is a signal privilege and great favor indeed. To mark this distinguishing honor, Aaron was clothed in the most gorgeous and imposing vestments (Exodus 28). Looking beyond the type to the Antitype, we may discern how that the Spirit is, once more, bringing before the Hebrews that which was designed to remove the offense of the Cross. To carnal reason the death of Christ was a humiliating spectacle; but the spiritually enlightened see at Calvary One performing the functions of an office with high “honor” attached to it. “But he that is called of God, as was Aaron.” This was the ultimate and most important qualification: no man could legitimately act as high priest unless he was Divinely called to that office. “The principle on which the necessity of a Divine calling to the legitimate exercise of the priesthood rests is an obvious one. It depends entirely on the will of God whether He will accept the services and pardon the sins of men; and suppose again that it is His will to do so, it belongs to Him to appoint everything in reference to the manner in which this is to be accomplished. God is under no obligation to accept of every one, or of any one who, of his own accord, or by the choice of his fellow-men, takes it upon him to offer sacrifices or gifts for himself or for others; and no man in these circumstances can have reason to expect that God will accept of his offerings, unless He has given him a commission to offer them, and a promise He will be appeased by them. This, then, from the very nature of the case, was necessary to the legitimate discharge of the functions of a high priest” (Dr. J. Brown).
What the apostle is here leading up to was the proof that God was the Author of Christ’s Priesthood. As that will come before us in the verses which follow, we pass it by now. “But he that is called of God, as was Aaron.” That which makes an office lawful is the personal call of God. A most important principle is this to recognize, but one which, in these days of abounding lawlessness, is now flagrantly ignored. The will of man is to be entirely subordinated to the will of God. Everything connected with His work is to be regulated by the Divine appointments. Expediency, convenience, popular customs, are ruled out of court. Nor is any one justified in rushing into a holy office uncalled of God. To elect myself, or to have no higher authority than the election of fellow-sinners, is to usurp the authority of God.
All ministry is in the hand of Christ ( Revelation 2:1). He appointed the twelve apostles, and later the seventy disciples, to go forth. He bids us “Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that He send forth laborers into His harvest” ( Matthew 9:38).
In the days of Paul it was said, “How shall they preach, except they be sent?” ( Romans 10:15). But in these days, how many there are who run without being “sent!” Men have taken it upon themselves to be evangelists, pastors, teachers, who have received no call from God to such a work. The absence of His call, is evidenced by the absence of the qualifying gift.
When God calls, He always equips.
Returning to the call of Aaron, we may observe that a time came when his official authority was challenged ( Numbers 16:2). The manner in which God vindicated His servant is worthy of our most thoughtful attention. The record of it is found in Numbers 17: Aaron’s rod budded and brought forth almonds. Supernatural fruit was the sign and pledge that he had been called of God. Let this be laid well to heart. Judged by this standard, how many today stand accredited as God’s sent-servants? When God calls a man, He does not send him forth on any fruitless errand.
It is a solemn thing for one to obtrude himself into a sacred office. The tragic case of Uzzah ( 2 Chronicles 26:16-21) is a lasting warning. Alas, how rarely is it heeded; and how grievously is God dishonored! There are those who decry a “one-man ministry,” and cut themselves off from many an edifying message from God’s true servants; but after twenty years’ experience on three continents, the writer much prefers that which some so unchristianly condemn, to the lawlessness and fleshly exhibitions of an “every-man ministry” which is their alternative. Again: how many are urged to become Sunday School teachers and open-air speakers who have received neither call nor qualification from God to such work! Again: how many go forth as missionaries, only a few years later, at most, to abandon the work: what a proof that they were not “sent” or “called by God!” Let every reader weigh well Hebrews 5:4. Unless God has called you, enter not into any work for Him. Let restless souls seek grace to heed that Divine command, “Be swift to hear, slow to speak” ( James 1:19).