Hebrews 4:14-16 – Jesus as High Priest

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?

14 thoughts on “Hebrews 4:14-16 – Jesus as High Priest

  1. I have the high priest outfit – just like in your picture. I do it as a presentation – putting one piece of the outfit on a model at a time, and explaining each piece from the OT, and making it relevant to the New Testament and how Jesus was the great high priest, etc. I inherited it from my father, who was a Bible teacher, now in his 80’s. I’ve done the presentation several times and it is always well received and the audience is fascinated. My audiences have been informed Christians, but to less informed you would need to make clear OT Jewish priesthood vs modern day priest, etc.

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    • Where did your father get the outfit?

      I do find most Christians do not have a the understanding of the details the priesthood or tabernacle necessary to “get Hebrews.” Sometimes they have to unlearn some bad theology before getting into the book!

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      • Years ago a group of women with sewing skills at a church made it for my dad. They did top notch work – not only following the biblical descriptions, but the quality of material they used and the skill of their sewing.

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  2. It seems to me that the most OBVIOUS distinction that the writer of Hebrews makes is the one found in Hebrews 10:4. When he writes that the blood of animals “cannot take away sins” he is making a distinction that this is no ordinary priest and should not be associated with any kid of political figure. The author is not interested in the priest himself, but rather his actions. In a similar way today one could read that to say that Jesus is like a president who “provides for the general welfare.” We are not then referring to one certain image of a president, but rather the ideal way that a president should be seen. I think the obvious danger of this probably came in the delivery if this was in fact a “mishna” of some kind. It’s one of those issues that depends a lot on the way that the reader views the word. “Priest” could have certainly been something negative, but someone who takes away sins isn’t likely going to have the same bad image.

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  3. I think that the book of Hebrews distinguishes the recent high priest and Jesus, the ultimate High Priest, through a couple of means. The first that I would like to point out would be that Jesus is not described as a priest in the line of Aaron, but he is rather attributed to being a High Priest from the line of Melchizedek (Hebrews 7), which is interesting because that line is not from the original tribes of Israel. I don’t know if the line of Melchizedek is an actual genealogy that Jesus is a part of, or rather a title for a Priest that assumes both the roles of King and High Priest. The traditional line of the high priest is also under the authority of Abraham, the patriarch of Israel; the line of Melchizedek, however, is above Abraham, as shown by Hebrews 7:4-7, which shows that Jesus is above the whole of Israel as both the High Priest and the King. Another distinction, is that Hebrew only refers to the Tabernacle, not the temple. It is quite possible that the temple had developed a tradition of corruption and had became tainted, as shown in Jesus’s rebuke of the temple practices (Luke 19:45-46), and in an effort to evoke a time when the people were closer to God chose to refer to the tabernacle.

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  4. The priest, as you mentioned, is a mediator between the sins that humans commit and the atonement for our sins before the father. They are the ones who go before God and offer up our sins to be cleansed. Jobes in “Letters to the Church” points out that the priest must first make an atoning sacrifice for themselves, purifying themselves, and then once that was completed they were able to present the sacrificial blood in the temple (95). Jesus was fully human and Hebrews four mentions he is our priest, but because he is also God he would not have needed to present an offering to atone for his own sin because he had none. As nicholasewald pointed out Hebrews 10:4, that animals couldn’t take away the sin of the world. Messiah becomes higher than the other priests because he doesn’t just offer up the sacrifice he was the sacrifice. Not only that but, he is also higher than the other priests because they would only go into the Holy of holies one day a year, but the Messiah sits at the right hand of God being able to mediate for us constantly.

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  5. The purpose of Jesus coming down was to atone for the human race’s sins, but in order to do that one must be what they are representing, which in this case is human. The priest in this day was meant to be a representation of the people to God as mentioned in Letters to the Church (94). Hebrews 5:1 goes farther in saying that the High priest is not just the representation, but they are the one’s to bring the sacrifices for sin. Not anyone could be the High Priest because this meant standing in the presence of God, and in order to do so one must be pure. For priests that meant a lot of rituals, but Jesus did not need to do so because He was blameless as mentioned in Hebrew 7:25-27. To put a distinction between Jesus and the priests of the time is through lineage. The priest’s are from the line of Aaron, while, like Malchizedek, Jesus is not from that lineage (104; Ps 110:4). A key difference to distinguish was were they worked.As Letter to the Church mentions, it is possible that Jesus working in the outer courts was a way to “distance the priestly work of Jesus from the first-century temple in Jerusalem, with all its politics and corruption…” (109).

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  6. There was a huge reason why we needed Christ as our high priest. We needed perfection. Hebrews 2:17-18 states it nicely: “For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” We need someone with the ability to have complete access to God. The only way to have that is to be completely without sin. The only one without sin is God, so He made Himself flesh, i.e. Jesus, to be able to become our mediator. Our high priest does not need atoning sacrifices to commune with the Father, he sits at His right hand.

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  7. Reading this blog was quite interesting and moreover, quite thought provoking as it relates to comparing the high priest in the 1st century and Jesus being the “great high priest”. Hebrews 4:14-16 explicitly makes it known that our high priest has been tested and temped in every way, yet has not sinned. When we look at the priests in the first century, most if not all never went nearly through the events that Jesus went through. Jesus’ priesthood stands as the most iconic and sought after era of his time. The priests during the time of Jesus had or mirrored some of the principles that Jesus did. However, Jesus as a priest when he was alive, was his acts being more personable, like his parables and miracles. Jesus was distinguished quite differently than the political priests because Hebrews explains him empathizing with our weaknesses (Heb. 4:15). No other priest in that time could empathize with their peoples weakness’, other than Jesus. Because of this, I fully agree with Jesus being called “Great High Priest”.

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  8. I like to go to Hebrews 4:14-16. The high priests in the temple were known for being hypocritical and self-righteous. But Jesus was the “good” high priest, the perfect high priest. Because of His humanness, He was able to relate to mankind on every level and because of this, He as God was able to show immense compassion and mercy. I would even go ass far to say that because of Jesus’ station as the high priest this is why Peter refers to the nation of Israel as a nation of royal priests (1 Peter 2:9.)

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