The Greatest High Priest
The importance of what you are about to study on the high priesthood of Jesus Christ cannot be overstated. Christ’s high priesthood is mentioned briefly in Hebrews 2:17 and 3:1; but the subject is fully developed in Hebrews 4:14—10:25 and forms a major theological theme in the book of Hebrews, more so than in any other New Testament book.
Although verses 4:14–16 are brief, they should not be skimmed over because they present an important snapshot of what follows: (1) Christ is the believer’s great High Priest; (2) believers should hold tenaciously to their professions of faith in Christ; and (3) believers should be greatly encouraged because, through Jesus Christ, God has made a way they can go with bold confidence directly to the throne of grace and ask for help.
First the author showed that Christ is superior to the prophets, angels, Moses, and Joshua. He now proves that Christ’s high priesthood is superior even to that of Aaron.
Addressing Jewish people considering a return to Judaism, the author immediately establishes that Jesus Christ is the believer’s High Priest: “Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession” (v. 14).
The concept of a priesthood did not originate with the nation of Israel. During the patriarchal period, the head of each household functioned as a mediating priest on behalf of his family members, offering sacrifices to God on their behalf (Gen. 12:7–8; 13:18; 22:9; Job 1:5).
At Mount Sinai, God informed Israel that if the nation obeyed Him, it would become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6). The Israelites would have direct access to Him, along with the responsibility to demonstrate His holiness to the world.
But the Israelites sinned against God and broke the covenant He had made with them at Mount Sinai, forfeiting the privilege of becoming a Kingdom of priests (v. 5). Therefore, it became necessary for God to choose priests from among the people to represent the nation of Israel before Him.
While Moses was on Mount Sinai, God said to him, “Now take Aaron your brother, and his sons with him, from among the children of Israel, that he may minister to Me as priest” (28:1). Thus God chose the tribe of Levi to function as priests (Num. 3:5–13). The term priest (Hebrew, kohayn) means “one who officiates.” The high priest in Judaism was not an angel and did not possess supernatural qualities; he was a mere man with the same nature and passion of any other man.
In comparison, Jesus’ priesthood is entirely different. Jesus is identified as a “great” High Priest because He is the divine Son of God (Heb. 1:1–4; 3:6). For Jesus to be a High Priest, He had to take on the seed of Abraham and become a man like His brethren (Heb:2:16–17), yet without sin. He was sent into the world by appointment through the authority of God the Father (Jn. 17:18; 20:21); and after His death, resurrection, and ascension, He superseded the Aaronic priests.
Our great High Priest is not on Earth today but has “passed through the heavens” (Heb. 4:14). After His crucifixion, resurrection, and 40-day postresurrection ministry, Jesus ascended through the atmospheric and stellar heavens into the third heaven, to be seated in exaltation at God the Father’s right hand (1:3). There He intercedes for believers as an Advocate with God the Father.
The author exhorts Jewish believers, along with all believers, “Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession” and not waver in commitment to Him (4:14). Early Jewish believers would demonstrate their confession and possession of Jesus were genuine by sticking with the faith amid severe opposition and persecution.
Today Jesus is the only High Priest Jews and Gentiles alike have to represent them before God. His shed blood on the cross efficaciously atoned for the sins of mankind, and He is the only Mediator between God and man. By faith in Him and His finished sacrifice on the cross, any person can have his or her sins forgiven.
Although Christ returned to heaven to occupy His rightful position at the Father’s right hand, He is still very much aware of our plight and needs: “For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin” (v. 15).
During His earthly pilgrimage, Jesus Christ was fully aware of the problems that plague mankind. As He increased in wisdom and stature and grew in favor with God and man, He was tempted as we are. He became tired, hungry, and thirsty and experienced human limitations. He felt pain, love, rejection, joy, sorrow, peace, and fear. He endured poverty and persecution and was forsaken by His friends when He needed them most; even God the Father deserted Him on the cross.
Satan dogged Him throughout His life and with subtle cunning attempted to entice Him to sin. The Devil did all in his power to destroy Christ during His earthly ministry. No better words sum up His suffering than those of the prophet Isaiah:
He is despised and rejected by men, a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him; He was despised, and we did not esteem Him (Isa. 53:3).
The types of temptations Jesus faced are recorded in Matthew 4:1–11. The Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tested by the Devil. At His weakest moment, after He had fasted 40 days, Jesus was approached by the Devil, who used the same ploy he used against Eve in the Garden of Eden: He appealed to the lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and the pride of life (Gen. 3:6; cf. 1 Jn. 2:16). Satan’s entire purpose was to cause the Son of God to sin and, in so doing, destroy Him and His ministry.
First, the Devil appealed to the flesh, tempting the Lord to satisfy His physical desire for food by turning stones into bread (Mt. 4:3).
Second, the Devil appealed to pride, tempting the Lord to prove His deity by jumping from the Temple’s pinnacle, whereupon His angels would swoop down and miraculously preserve Him from injury (vv. 5–6).
Third, the Devil appealed to the eyes, tempting the Lord with power and dominion. He took Jesus to a high mountain and showed Him the kingdoms of this world and their glory, promising to give all of them to Him in return for worship (vv. 8–9). If Jesus had succumbed, He would have made Himself subservient to an inferior, created being and moved totally outside of God’s will.
In all three temptations, Jesus did not argue with the Devil or resist him in His own power. He overcame the temptations by accurately quoting passages from Deuteronomy.
Jesus was “in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). The word yet is not in the original Greek text. So the passage should read “without sin,” that is, “apart from sin.” In other words, sin was not a temptation to Him because there was nothing in Him to respond to sin.
The fact that Jesus did not sin is confirmed by Scripture: He “knew no sin” (2 Cor. 5:21), “committed no sin” (1 Pet. 2:22), and was “apart from sin” (Heb. 9:28). Sin was not inherent in Him because He did not possess the Adamic nature. The Lord could be tempted because He was human; but as the God-man, it was impossible for Him to sin. If God can sin, then He is not God. The same holds true for the Son of God.
Some people ask, “Since Jesus was sinless and it was impossible for Him to sin, was His temptation real?” Yes, it was very real because it came to Him from outside His being. However, He could not, and did not, yield to it. For example, a man in a small boat might attack a battleship and try to sink it with a bow and arrow. The attack and intent are real, but it is impossible for arrows to sink a battleship.
Having been tested by temptation, Jesus was touched with the feeling of our infirmities; He knows, understands, and sympathizes with the human condition. We now have a Man in glory as our High Priest who triumphed over temptation and functions as our Mediator, Intercessor, and Advocate.
Knowing that Christ is their High Priest in heaven who completely understands their plight and persecution, Jewish believers are encouraged to take advantage of Jesus’ availability. The author closed this section with a call to prayer and a reminder of the Lord’s provisions: “Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (4:16).
Under the Mosaic Covenant, Israelites were unable to go before God’s throne. They obtained access through the High Priest who was only allowed into God’s presence once a year, on the Day of Atonement. And he entered with fear and trembling. In contrast, Jewish believers are continually bidden to come into God’s presence with boldness, confidence, frankness, and free and open speech to pour out their hearts at the throne of grace. Notice that believers come to a throne of grace, not a throne of judgment.
They receive mercy when they confess their past sins, and mercy to help them face their current miseries. Grace is how God dealt with believers in the past when they received Christ. Grace also provides God’s enablement to meet their needs. Believers undergoing persecution today can take great solace, hope, and encouragement in the Lord.
No matter what the need, whether it be for forgiveness, wisdom, self-control to overcome a sinful habit, strength in one’s walk with the Lord, food, clothing, or what have you, you can make your plea at God’s throne of grace. The admonition is to go boldly, and you will receive abundantly.
What a High Priest! What glorious promises! What a privilege for believers! God’s throne of grace is open. Have you availed yourself of it?