Christ Is Superior to Aaron
The tribes of Israel revered the Aaronic high priest. With the exception of Moses, he enjoyed greater access to and fellowship with God than any other Israelite. Although God bestowed him with privilege, position, and prominence, he nevertheless was imperfect and subject to infirmities and death—like any other man.
By contrast, Christ’s priesthood is superior. He is the perfect and eternal High Priest whose sacrifice and ministry remain, to this day, more excellent than Aaron’s. Hebrews 5:1—10:25 describes His ministry.
The Earthly High Priest
The author of Hebrews began by reviewing the qualifications and essential ministry of the Aaronic high priest. First, he was in solidarity with man: “For every high priest taken from among men is appointed for men in things pertaining to God” (5:1). To qualify for the position, the high priest had to be mortal, from the seed of Abraham and the tribe of Levi. His sole function was to represent men to God and God to men.
Second, he was neither self-appointed nor elected but, rather, divinely selected: “No man takes this honor to himself, but he who is called by God, just as Aaron was” (v. 4).
Some, like Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, arrogantly challenged Aaron’s divine appointment as high priest, claiming he assumed too much authority as Israel’s sole representative before God (Num. 16:1–3). So Moses brought Korah and his followers before the Lord with censers of incense and fire to determine whom the Lord had ordained. God overwhelmingly confirmed Aaron’s high-priestly call when He made the ground open and swallow Korah and all who had rebelled with him (vv. 1–32). Aaron’s rod then miraculously budded, proving further that he was God’s choice (chap. 17).
Third, the high priest also was to sympathize with men so that he could “have compassion on those who are ignorant and going astray, since he himself is also subject to weakness” (Heb. 5:2). Like his brethren, he possessed physical weaknesses, experienced temptation, sinned, and would one day die and give an account for his works before God. Being conscious of his limitations made him compassionate for (literally, “deal gently with”) the people he served.
His ministry involved offering sacrifices for his sins and those of the people (vv. 1, 3). There were five specific sacrificial offerings and five animals, along with incense, that the priest was to offer daily and on various feast days, in accordance with the Hebrew calendar.(See Leviticus 1—7.) On the Day of Atonement, the high priest alone was allowed to offer incense and blood sacrifices in the Holy of Holies for the sins of Israel (Lev. 16).
The Eternal High Priest
For Christ to qualify as a high priest, He needed to be human, divinely appointed, compassionate, and able to offer Himself as a sacrifice for sin. Jesus met all these qualifications. But, unlike Aaron, He is an eternal High Priest.
The author confirmed Christ’s qualifications by quoting from two Messianic psalms: Psalms 2 and 110. Using Psalm 2:7 he showed that, as the eternal Son of God, Christ was appointed High Priest by God the Father: “So also Christ did not glorify Himself to become High Priest, but it was He [God the Father] who said to Him: ‘You are My Son, today I have begotten You’” (Heb. 5:5). The phrase I have begotten You does not refer to the Son’s origin, eternal generation, or Incarnation because there never was a time when He did not exist. Rather, the author verified that, at Christ’s resurrection, Jesus was uniquely appointed as High Priest and declared to be so by God the Father. The same was never said of Aaron.
Christ’s priesthood is from a different order than was Aaron’s. Quoting Psalm 110, he called Christ “a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek” (v. 6, cf. Ps. 110:4). Melchizedek was a king-priest; Aaron was only a priest. No Israelite king dared enter the Temple to function as a priest without experiencing God’s severe judgment (cf. 2 Chr. 26:16–21). Like Melchizedek, Christ is both a King and Priest.
The Aaronic high priesthood was inherited and transmitted to many sons throughout the centuries. Melchizedek, however, stood alone. Like Jesus, he neither inherited his kingly priesthood nor transmitted it to successors.
Typifying the eternality of Christ, Melchizedek had no recorded ending, though Aaron had to be replaced upon his own death. Furthermore, the Aaronic priesthood ceased with the destruction of Herod’s Temple in A.D.70.
To be a high priest, Christ needed to be human. So He took on flesh and became a man. The phrase in the days of His flesh (Heb. 5:7) refers to Christ’s entire earthly pilgrimage as a mortal until He was resurrected and glorified (cf. 2:14, 17).
As a man, the Lord “offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to Him who was able to save Him from death, and was heard because of His godly fear” (5:7). This reference must be to the Lord’s agony in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before He was crucified. It was there His soul was overcome with sorrow as He grieved in prayer over what He soon would face.
From which death was Christ praying to be delivered? He could not have longed for escape from death in general because He was born into the world for that purpose. He could not have feared death by crucifixion because He predicted He would die in this manner (Mt. 20:19). Nor could He have feared premature death in Gethsemane where Satan tried to destroy Him to prevent Him from becoming a sacrifice for sin. Christ had absolute control over His own death (Jn. 10:18). He was not praying to be resurrected from the grave because He predicted His resurrection while ministering on Earth (Mt. 16:21; 20:19).
Christ knew He must become a sin offering for humankind. Through His death, He satisfied the righteous demands of a holy God, making it possible for Him to provide salvation and forgiveness of sin to all who believe.
Christ prayed in the garden, “If it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will” (Mt. 26:39). What Christ feared was the excruciating agony of eternal separation from God the Father whose presence He had enjoyed since eternity past. The Father heard the Son’s “godly fear [reverence]” and granted His petition (Heb. 5:7). Although Jesus experienced spiritual separation from the Father during His death on the cross, He was eternally reunited with God the Father after His resurrection.
Christ is a sympathetic High Priest because He suffered in His humanity: “Though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered” (v. 8). To feel as others do, Christ had to experience life on a human level (Lk. 2:52). He faced all the trials and temptations that other men do; but unlike other men, He was completely obedient to God the Father (cf. Mt. 4:1–11). In fact, He said, “I always do those things that please Him [the Father]” (Jn. 8:29).
Christ also provided salvation through the sacrifice of Himself: “And having been perfected, He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him” (Heb. 5:9). Of course, He was not morally incomplete. But through His sacrificial death on the cross, He completed, or brought to fulfillment, the work of salvation designed in eternity past. He is the “author” (literally, “principal cause”) of our “eternal salvation.” Salvation is not bestowed universally on everyone; it is given only to those who put their faith in Him.
Through His suffering, obedience, and sacrifice, Christ is fit to be “called [designated or greeted] by God as High Priest ‘according to the order of Melchizedek’” (v. 10). Like Melchizedek, Christ is a “priest forever” (v. 6). Unlike the Aaronic priesthood, His ministry is permanent because He continually intervenes on behalf of believers.
The Exhortation to Hearers
We eagerly hang on every word, wanting the author to go deeper into Christ’s holy and heavenly ministry. He had much more to say about Christ’s high priesthood (v. 11) but was reluctant to do so for three reasons: his readers’ spiritual condition, spiritual capacity, and spiritual callousness.
First, they were “dull [slothful] of hearing” (v. 11). They had drifted from and become insensitive to the deeper teaching regarding Christ’s priesthood.
Second, they were infantile in their faith:
For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food (v. 12).
Although they had been believers for some time, they had not grown because they were lazy in their spiritual lives.
Unable to digest the solid meat of God’s Word, they needed to be taught the elementary truths of the faith. Such people are “unskilled in the word of righteousness,” for they are babes (v. 13). Babes in Christ lack the cognitive skills to perceive or rationally receive and understand God’s Word. Though beautiful to behold at first, they become spiritually grotesque if they remain babes for years.
Third, lazy believers are callous when it comes to discerning “good and evil” (v. 14). Mature Christians who study and apply both the elementary and profound truths of God’s Word possess the spiritual insight needed to “discern both good and evil” (v. 14). However, those who fail to apply what they have learned remain spiritual babes forever. To glorify Jesus Christ our High Priest, we must grow in the knowledge of God’s Word and strive toward spiritual maturity.