Priestly Profiles: Our Great High Priest

In the previous article in this series, we considered how, at the end of chapter 4, the writer to the Hebrews returns to the theme of Christ’s priesthood by emphasising its necessity. Having urged his readers to “labour therefore to enter into that rest” and warned them of the danger of falling “after the same example of unbelief” (v11),[1] he points them to the great High Priest who can be “touched with the feeling of our infirmities” (v15) and who enables us to “obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (v16). Having established the necessity of Christ’s priestly ministry, the writer outlines the nature of that ministry in 5:1-10. In this carefully structured series of verses, the writer highlights the comparisons and the contrasts between Christ’s ministry and that of Aaron. The teaching of these verses is rich, but pre-eminently they are designed to demonstrate the superiority and the legitimacy of Christ’s priesthood.

To appreciate the way in which these points are stressed, we need to pay attention to the structure of the expressions that make up these verses. When we do so, it becomes clear that they follow a chiastic arrangement. A chiasmus is a literary device in which words or concepts are repeated in reverse order, in order to emphasise a central point. In the case of these verses, that structure looks like this:

5:1-4: The Aaronic Priest

a. Sympathy

b. Sacrifices

c. Selection

Culminating in “as was Aaron” (v4)

5:5-10: The great High Priest

c′. Selection

b′. Sacrifices

a′. Sympathy

Culminating in “after the order of Melchisedec” (v10).

In expounding a passage like this, one is faced with the choice of working from the inside out, or from the outside in. In this instance, we will follow the latter procedure, as it will lead us towards the central emphasis of the passage – the legitimacy of Christ’s appointment as High Priest.


It was central to the ministry of the Aaronic high priest that he was “taken from among men” (v1). His humanity was essential for his service as a representative; taken from men, he could appear for men, in the things of God. But the humanity that qualified him for service also imposed limitations upon his service. He was limited, first of all, in his response. The rendering of the expression “have compassion” is too generous to Aaron and his successors. Other translations render the expression “deal gently,” and at the root of the expression is the idea of moderating strong emotion, or “restraint in anger.”[2] In his dealings with the failings of those in his care, the high priest was not to give expression to anger or frustration. The contrast with our great High Priest is marked: “Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered; and being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him” (v8). This verse is not suggesting that, as a man, Christ learned how to obey. But, wonderfully, it does teach us that, in His incarnation He learned, by practical obedience, what it is to obey. That obedience involved suffering and, as a result of that suffering, Christ is now “made perfect,” completely qualified, not just to sympathise but to empathise with our sufferings, not to restrain His anger but to provide everything required for our “eternal salvation.”

The Aaronic high priest was limited, too, in his remit. His ministry was for the benefit of “the ignorant and wayward” (v2 ESV), or “those that are out of the way through ignorance.”[3] The ministry of the Aaronic priest was for those who sinned through ignorance or thoughtlessness (9:7). Of course, the whole nation benefited from aspects of the high priest’s service, but, on an individual level, he could do little to benefit either those who had not erred, on one hand, or those who had deliberately sinned, on the other. By contrast, the remit of Christ’s ministry is “all who obey Him” – “their successful obedience substantiates the effectiveness of His ministry,” and none are too good or too bad to benefit from His work on their behalf.[4]

Fundamental to these limitations in the response and remit of the Aaronic priest was the limitation in his resource. Aaron and his sons were “compassed with infirmity” (“beset with weakness,” 5:2 ESV). Fragility, “a want of strength and requisite capacity” (Thayer’s), clothed this priest like a garment, pressing him down and hemming him in, restricting his service, no matter how lofty his intentions. How blessed to contrast this with the Son of God, who, in taking on humanity, took nothing of infirmity and who “became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him” (v9).


Israel’s high priest differed from ours not just in his sympathy but by his sacrifice. Notice that in verse 3 the writer is focusing specifically on the offerings that the high priest made for himself: “By reason [of his infirmity] he ought, as for the people, so also for himself, to offer for sins.” This was the real index of the high priest’s weakness. A man himself, and compassed with infirmity, he needed to offer sacrifices that would deal with the issue of his own sin before he could offer on behalf of the people. Likewise, in verse 7 the emphasis is not upon Christ’s offering for others but what He offered for Himself. We are explicitly told that these prayers and supplications were offered “in the days of his flesh.” While the whole thrust of Hebrews makes it clear that Christ entered into His priesthood formally in resurrection, it is clear that “the days of his flesh” were marked by priestly activity. His offerings did not take the form of animal sacrifices, but He “offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears.” There was nothing formal or external about these sacrifices – the strong crying and tears were wrung from the very soul of the Son of God. His offering was not required by sin but resulted from suffering. His cries were addressed to the God of resurrection, the One who was able to save Him out of death, and “he was heard in that he feared.” The Aaronic priest’s sacrifices acknowledged his failure; Christ’s demonstrated His faithfulness.


The benefit of the sort of chiastic structure that the writer has used in this passage is that it allows you to put your central argument where it belongs: in the centre. At the heart of these great contrasts between Aaron’s priesthood and Christ’s we find the core of the writer’s concern in this passage: “And no man taketh this honour unto himself, but he that is called of God, as was Aaron. So also Christ glorified not himself to be made an high priest; but he that said unto him, Thou art my Son, today have I begotten thee. As he saith also in another place, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec” (vv4-6). His Jewish audience would have happily acceded to the first of these statements. Aaron was not some priestly maverick who had arrogated to himself the functions and dignities of the priesthood. His appointment was divine in its origin; it was legal, not just in the terms of man’s law but of God’s. For an audience like this, the legitimacy of Christ’s priesthood was no academic or arcane matter; it would be the extreme of folly to abandon a God-given priesthood for a priesthood without legal basis. The importance of this point is reflected in the thoroughness with which the writer will deal with it in the balance of the epistle, but he states here what he will later expand: “Christ glorified not himself to be made an high priest.”

It is, perhaps, difficult for us to grasp how puzzling this would have been for a Jewish audience. For them, priesthood was an Aaron-shaped office. The objections that the author will deal with later in the epistle must have welled up in their minds. They would have to wait for them to be fully addressed, but the writer reveals a central element of his argument: Christ’s priesthood was “after the order of Melchisedec.” In the following chapter, we will learn more of what that means, how Christ is priest after an order that is both anterior and superior to that of Aaron, but for now the argument has to be put on hold until the readers have been rebuked for their spiritual and scriptural immaturity and warned once again of the dangers of departure.

In future articles, we will, in the will of God and with His help, trace the unfolding argument of the epistle, but for now, may we be renewed in our appreciation of the superiority of Christ’s priesthood and rejoice that in Him we have all the advantages of a human priesthood without any of its limitations.

[1] Bible quotations in this article are from the KJV unless otherwise noted.

[2] Paul Ellingworth, The Epistle to the Hebrews, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993), 275.

[3] Ellingworth, 276; see also Gareth Lee Cockerill, The Epistle to the Hebrews, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012), 234.

[4] Cockerill, 234.