The book of Hebrews emphasizes the priesthood of Jesus more than any other book in the New Testament. In fact, much of the argument of Hebrews 5-10 is based on Jesus as the High Priest. Two words of caution before discussing Jesus as a High Priest.

high priestFirst, the “high priesthood of Jesus” is based on the ideal form of priest found in the Hebrew Bible, not in the high priesthood as it actually functioned in the first century.  By the first century, the High Priest more a political figure that a religious leader.  Control of the temple and the priesthood gave the office a great deal of power, and this power usually led to great wealth. It is unlikely, however, that the writer of Hebrews has this sort of power in mind.  He consistently looks to the idea image (“the shadow”) from the Hebrew Bible in order to describe the “substance” of Jesus.

By way of analogy, we could study the office of president of the United States as it is described in the constitution, or by the way various presidents have functioned as president over the more than two centuries.  James Buchanan, for example, usually is ranked at the bottom of the list of presidents by historians, mostly for his handling of the issues which erupted into the Civil War. We would not, therefore, want to describe the office of president using Buchanan as our example!

In the same way, the high priests who held office in the first century were politically motivated and not particularly good examples of the way a priest ought to behave in his office. What is remarkable is that the book of Hebrews does not condemn the current High Priest as corrupt, nor does he say anything negative about the worship of the Temple other than it has been completed in Jesus.

Second, the word “priest” has connotations in English which are not present in the function of a Jewish priest.  We are not describing a Catholic or Orthodox priest, but rather the Jewish priest.  This modern sense of the word is not particularly helpful in understanding the priesthood in the Hebrew Bible.  The priest in the Jewish Temple was the mediator between God and man. As such, the office of priest foreshadowed the ministry of Jesus who was provides access to the throne of God for those who have entered into new life through him.

But Jesus is not just the High Priest, but the “great High Priest.” This was a title give to the High Priest Simon in 1 Maccabees (13:42, 14:27). This Simon was one of the founders of the Hasmonean dynasty and the first to take the title of both King and Great High Priest. His first year in power was “the yoke of the Gentiles was removed from Israel” (c. 142 B.C., 1 Macc 13:41). This combination of priest and king was an attempt to consolidate power into the one “office” in Maccabean revival of the kingdom in Judah.

How does the author of Hebrews distinguish Jesus as a high priest from the politically powerful priests of the first century?