Jesus qualified as our high priest by participating fully in human sufferings, mortality, and death – Hebrews 2:5-18.
The priesthood of Jesus is one of the key subjects of the epistle to the Hebrews – He has become the “merciful and faithful high priest” for “his brethren.” The topic is anticipated in the opening paragraph of the letter, including the uniqueness of his priesthood. Unlike the Aaronic priests, the “Son achieved purification of sins,” then “sat down” in the “real” Tabernacle.
The discussions about his priesthood are part of the Author’s larger strategy of demonstrating the superiority of the “word of the Son” over every preceding revelation, which, though from God, were partial (“in many parts and many ways…”). Thus, his “word” is superior to the words given through the prophets, angels, and Moses, and his sacrifice and priesthood are superior to the sacrifices and offerings made by the priests under the old covenant.
Unlike the animal sacrifices of the Levitical system, his death did achieve the “purification of sins.” While the “blood of goats and bulls” might temporarily cleanse your body from ritual defilement, they could never “cleanse your conscience from dead works.” That took the “blood of Christ.”
In the ancient Tabernacle, the priests needed to enter the sanctuary daily to conduct sacrifices and offerings, and the high priest entered the “holy of holies” once each year to expiate the sins of the nation, but only after first sacrificing for his own sins. But the “Son” had no need to offer sacrifices for his own sins – He was like his brethren in every way, “apart from sin.” Moreover, he has no need to make repeated sacrifices since, “through the everlasting Spirit, he offered himself without blemish unto God.”
When the High Priest entered the “holy of holies” annually on the Day of Atonement, he only remained there briefly, standing before the presence of Yahweh, and he never sat down. In contrast, the “Son” entered the “real sanctuary” to expiate the sins of his people “once-for-all,” then “sat down,” where he remains to this day to
“make intercession” for his people.
Unlike the Levitical priests, Jesus was not appointed because he descended from Aaron. He was of the tribe of Judah, not Levi. Instead, his office was “after the order of Melchizedek,” and his appointment was based on the oath of God, not biological descent. Moreover, unlike the Levitical priests, the “order after Melchizedek” does not require multiple high priests over many generations due to human frailty and death. Since the “Son…abides forever” because of his resurrection life, he holds the priesthood “untransferable.”
So, what did qualify Jesus to attain such a high office? Hebrews presents his qualifications in its second chapter before later detailing the significance of his priesthood and sacrifice – (Hebrews 2:5-18).
The passage begins by citing the eighth Psalm, which celebrates the “crowning of man with glory and honor.” Either Adam was crowned originally with glory then lost it, or God intended man to become endued with glory and the plan was derailed by sin. Originally, the Psalm was not about the Messiah but the intended rule of humanity over the creation.
The role of man in the “coming habitable earth” is to fulfill the original mandate to “take dominion over the earth.” Prior to the work of Christ, humanity failed to fulfill that role. “But now, not yet do we see all things subjected to him.” The “not yet” indicates that the promised subjection is achieved by the Son (“Whom God has appointed heir of all things”).
But for now, Christians see Jesus exalted at God’s right hand. Just as Adam, he was “made a little lower than angels.” Unlike Adam, he was “crowned with glory and honor,” all because he endured “suffering and death” for us. And his death was “fitting,” the very reason for which he was “crowned with glory.” His suffering “completed” or “perfected” him, and his subsequent exaltation resulted from his faithfulness in death.
The epistle portrays the superiority of the “Son” as something achieved in his human life. He became superior to the angels, “having gone beyond them.” And because of his obedience, God exalted him (“You loved righteousness and hated lawlessness, for this cause has God anointed you with the oil of exultation beyond your partners”).
The next paragraph presents the reason why his death meant mercy for mankind. Having purposed to bring His children into glory, it became “fitting” to “complete” their champion through suffering, because he and mankind are “all from one.”
- (Hebrews 2:10-13) – “For it was fitting in him, for the sake of whom are all things, and by means of whom are all things, when many sons he would lead to glory, through sufferings, to perfect the Princely Leader of their salvation. For both he that makes holy, and they who are being made holy are all of one, for which cause, he is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying: I will declare your name to my brethren, in the midst of an assembly will I sing praise to you. And again, I will be confident upon him; and again: Behold! I and the children which unto God has given to me.”
The Greek verb rendered “perfect” means to “complete, accomplish, finish; to bring to an end.” The idea is not moral perfection, but instead, to bring something to its intended completion. This sense is confirmed by the later application of the same verb to Jesus: “And being completed, he became the author of everlasting salvation for all those who obey him.” Through his death, God qualified him for the priesthood. “Suffering” has his death in view, for God determined that he “should taste of death for every man” – (Hebrews 5:9).
Jesus “sanctifies” believers. Because he and they are all of one nature, he calls them “brethren,” which stresses his solidarity with them and anticipates the later statement that they are sanctified “through the offering of the body of Jesus.” Three citations from the Old Testament are placed on the lips of Jesus to stress his kinship with his “brethren” – (2 Samuel 22:3, Psalm 22:22, Isaiah 8:17-18, Hebrews 10:10).
Next, Jesus is presented as the faithful high priest. To become high priest, he participated in the nature and sufferings common to all men. The phrase “flesh and blood” is a Semitic idiom for human mortality, man in his mortal state. Since believers are subject to death, he “partook” of the same nature and fate.
- (Hebrews 2:14-18) – “Seeing, therefore, the children have received a fellowship of blood and flesh, he in like manner, took partnership in the same, in order that through death he might paralyze him that held the dominion of death, the Devil, and might release these, as many as by fear of death were all their lifetime liable to bondage. For not surely of angels is he laying hold, but of Abraham’s seed he is laying hold. Whence he was obliged in every way to be made like the brethren, that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the things of God, to expiate the sins of the people. For in that he suffered when tested, he is able to give succor to them who are being tested.”
The Devil had the “dominion” of death, or kratos, a strong word that denotes “hold, power, force, dominion.” The English term “tyranny” best captures the sense. Paradoxically, through his own death, he invalidated the “tyranny” of Satan. And Jesus is “laying hold of” the “seed of Abraham,” a clause that alludes to a passage from Isaiah:
- (Isaiah 41:8-9) – “But you, Israel, my servant Jacob whom I have chosen, the seed of Abraham my friend, you whom I have laid hold of from the ends of the earth, and called from the corners thereof, and said to you: You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you away.”
Because he endured the same tests as his fellows, he is well equipped to help men when they are “tested.” Under discussion is not humanity in general, but the followers of Jesus, which explains the term “seed of Abraham.”
The Son was obliged to be made like his brethren “in every way.” For him to become the “merciful and faithful high priest,” it was necessary for him to have the same nature and experiences as them. Solidarity with humanity is mandatory for the office of high priest since he represents men before God, therefore, he must be one with them. Under the Levitical system, faithfulness was vital to the proper performance of priestly service – (1 Samuel 2:35, Hebrews 8:3).
As high-priest, Jesus expiates the sins of his people (hilaskesthai). “Sins” is in the accusative case and is the direct object of the verb hilaskesthai. What he “expiated” were the sins that separated men from God.
The passage presents four reasons why it was necessary for Jesus to receive the same sentence of death as the rest of humanity. First, to experience death on behalf of others. Second, to bring God’s “many sons to glory.” Third, to achieve victory over the Devil and liberate believers from the tyranny of death. And fourth, to qualify him as the exemplary faithful and compassionate high priest.
Thus, it was his genuine human nature and his subjection to human mortality and death that qualified the “Son” to become the “priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” Unlike Adam, he did not trespass the commandment of God, so he was without “blemish,” otherwise, he was as human as the next man. But because he suffered as all men do, yet “apart from sin,” he is now fully qualified to be our “faithful and sympathetic high priest.”