Priestly Profiles: Our Great High Priest

On two occasions the writer to the Hebrews uses the word “shadow”: once to describe the tabernacle (8:5) and once to describe the whole sacrificial system that operated under the Law (10:1).[1] The imagery behind this word is simple (at least until the commentators get their hands on it): we all know how shadows provide a two-dimensional projection of a three-dimensional object, how they reveal its outline, while leaving most of its detail and all of its colour concealed, and how rapidly a shadow can disappear with the slightest change in lighting. If it is simple, however, it is also striking when applied to the relationship between Old Testament types and their New Testament fulfilment. The sacrifices, sanctuary and the priesthood of the Law all seem to us to be substantial; they involved real people, actual animals and a tangible, three-dimensional tabernacle. If anything, these all seem more substantial than a heavenly sanctuary, spiritual sacrifices and a great High Priest that we can neither see nor touch.

To think like this is natural; that is precisely why it is wrong. Our own inclination, bolstered by the endemic materialism of our society, is to privilege what we can see, touch, smell, what is accessible to and experienced by our senses, to regard it as superior to and more real than what is unseen and spiritual. But Scripture overturns this natural hierarchy, telling us that what is seen is passing and partial, and what is unseen, permanent and perfect (2Co 4:18).

As we move to consider the priesthood of the Lord Jesus Christ, we must keep before us the truth that “the body is of Christ” (Col 2:17).[2] He is the substance that all the preceding shadows adumbrated, and His priesthood is the apotheosis of all priesthood. All the offerings and the offerers that went before and all the mediators who, in every age, moved between God and man were sketching the outline of His perfect and permanent priesthood.

When we think about the priesthood of the Lord Jesus, the epistle to the Hebrews must, inevitably, loom large in our thinking. Not only is this subject one of the main – perhaps even the main – themes of the epistle; it is also the case that the truth of Christ’s priesthood is mentioned only scantily in the rest of the New Testament. Indeed, it is fair to say that “the New Testament concentrates its descriptions of Jesus as High Priest almost exclusively in  Hebrews, with some recognizable but passing allusions in Revelation.”[3] That being so, any exhaustive consideration of the subject would amount very nearly to a commentary on the epistle to the Hebrews, an exercise that, though valuable, would be well beyond the scope of this series. Instead, we will trace some of the crucial features of the account of Christ’s priesthood as outlined in Hebrews and leave it to the reader to add flesh to the exiguous and unsatisfactory bones provided in this article and those that follow, Lord willing.

The writer of Hebrews does not delay in signalling the importance of Christ’s priesthood. In the two opening chapters of the epistle he outlines the wonderful truth of who Christ is. In chapter one the Son, who is “the brightness of [God’s] glory, and the express image of his person,” “so much better than the angels, as he hath by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they” (1:3-4), is uniquely invited to sit on God’s right hand until His enemies are made the footstool of His feet (v13). In chapter 2, the emphasis turns from the deity of Christ to His perfect humanity, as we are reminded how God’s purpose that “the world to come” would be subjected, not to angels but to man, to the Man, “Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death” (2:9). He is presented as the One who is triumphantly bringing “many sons unto glory,” “the captain of their salvation,” who will lead their praise to God (vv10,12).

There are hardly two other consecutive chapters in the whole canon of Scripture that reveal so much remarkable truth about the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. Given that Hebrews is, in terms of genre, a “word of exhortation” (13:22), or a sermon, it seems legitimate to imagine its first audience listening to the unfolding argument of chapters 1 and 2 and asking themselves, “Where’s he going with this?” And although it is difficult for us to read these familiar verses as though it were our first encounter with them, we should experience something similar as we trace the writer’s thought. Almost anything, it might seem, would be an anti-climax after the heights to which we have been taken.

But no such anti-climax emerges. Rather, his argument culminates in the tremendous truth towards which the writer was working all along: “Wherefore in all things it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people. For in that he himself hath suffered being tempted, he is able to succour them that are tempted” (2:17-18). “These first two chapters climax in 2:17-18 with a word of encouragement that announces the main theme of Hebrews – the eternal Son is the all-sufficient High Priest.”[4] The opening “wherefore” of verse 17 takes all that we have learned of who Christ is and what He has done and compresses it into the great fact of His priesthood, a fact, not of secondary or ancillary importance, but a vital, a glorious, and an essential truth.

The truth is not just that Christ is a priest, but that He has been fitted to be a “merciful and faithful high priest.” In fact, the writer goes beyond simply stating that Christ is fitted to be our High Priest. “It behoved him” is strong language; it conveys the idea that it was incumbent upon Christ, in light of His purpose to “bring many sons to glory,” to “be made like unto His brethren.” He did not become our High Priest because He became a man; rather He became a Man so that (amongst other reasons) He might be our High Priest, and that He might be merciful and faithful in that office.

Clearly, it is towards man that this Priest is merciful (a word that is used elsewhere in the NT in this precise form only in Matthew 5:7, “Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.”). “Faithful” could also have in view His faithfulness towards His own; in Paul’s writings, that is generally the emphasis. The word could be used to emphasise that this is a priest upon whom we can depend. However, Hebrews 3:2, which speaks of Christ as “faithful to him that appointed him,” makes it all but certain that it is Christ’s faithfulness to the Father that is in view here. There is, then, a beautiful balance presented here – this priest is merciful towards man, faithful to God.

It may be that the fact that He is a “merciful and faithful high priest” signals something about the uniqueness of His priesthood. The Old Testament priest was never described as merciful, but the adjective is used throughout the OT of God. Only Christ, the Son of God, could be both a merciful and a faithful High Priest. The Aaronic priest could not be faithful if he were merciful nor merciful if he were faithful. If it is the fact of Jesus’ humanity that allows Him to be a High Priest, it is the fact of His deity that allows Him to be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God.

Little wonder, then, that the writer calls upon his readers to “consider the Apostle and High Priest of our profession, Christ Jesus” (3:1). To “consider” means “to consider attentively, fix one’s eyes or mind upon” (Thayer). It is the purpose of this epistle that we should fix our mind upon Christ and, while he will be presented as the Apostle of our profession in chapters 3 and 4, the focus of our consideration will shift at 4:14, back to “Jesus the Son of God” as our “great high priest,” and will remain firmly fixed on the different aspects and implications of that priesthood until we reach the end of chapter 10. We will learn of the necessity of that priesthood, of its superiority, its order, its sanctuary and its singular sacrifice. We will be told of its permanence, power and provision that it makes for our frailty and our need. If we grasp anything of the truth of this glorious epistle, it will cause us to rejoice that the shadows have passed away and that we possess the substance that is found, and only found, in Christ.

[1] The same word occurs in Colossians 2:16-17, where the shadows of Jewish ritual are contrasted to the substance (“the body”) that is “of Christ.”

[2] Bible quotations in this article are from the KJV.

[3] Andrew S. Malone, God’s Mediators: A Biblical Theology of Priesthood, New Studies in Biblical Theology, (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 2017), 118

[4] Gareth Lee Cockerill, The Epistle to the Hebrews, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012), 86.