The High-Priestly Work of Christ


The key verse for the understanding of the functions of a high priest, whether in type or fulfilment, is Hebrews chapter 5 verse1, ‘For every high priest taken from among men is ordained for men in things pertaining to God, that he may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins’. A high priest, then, stands between God and man, and it is an essential condition of his service that he should have perfect contact with one and the other. The work is a special form of the mediatorial office. Paul speaks of the One Mediator between God and man, Himself Man, Christ Jesus (1 Tim. 2. 5), and refers to the intercessory ministry of Christ at the right hand (Rom. 8. 34); John delights to remind us that we have an Advocate (a Paraclete) with the Father (1 John 2.1); but the detailed working out of the implications of the high priestly type is unique to the writings of the Hebrews. He sees deep spiritual import in the oft-repeated command: ‘See … thou make all things according to the pattern shewed to thee in the mount’ (Heb 8. 5), and sees each material detail of the tabernacle and its service as being a visible and imperfect expression of the invisible and perfect heavenly reality, with Christ as High Priest mediating between God and man in the heavenly sanctuary.


This contact was exceedingly faulty in the Aaronic type, and could only be maintained in symbol. Natural man is unsuited to the divine presence, and the Old Testament saints rightly felt that the logical outcome of seeing God face to face was death. Even Moses confessed in the presence of God: ‘I exceedingly fear and quake’ (Heb. 12. 21). Aaron was not ‘at home’ in the holiest of all, and, even in the earthly shadow, could only tremblingly approach and lift the veil once every year. Moreover, he was not only a natural man, but personally a sinner and exposed to the wrath of God. For that reason, on the great day of atonement on which so much of the teaching of Hebrews is based, he had first to offer sacrifice for his own sins, and afterward, typically covered by the blood, he could begin to exercise his office on behalf of the people. The sinful, natural man was also mortal, and thus his ministry was necessarily cut short by death. ‘And they truly were many priests, because they were not suffered to continue by reason of death’ (Heb. 7. 23), and for this reason the Aaronic priesthood was hereditary so that there should be no break in continuity in the earthly shadow.

The weakness of the Aaronic type was felt even in the old dispensation, and in Psalm 110 there was the looking forward to a permanent priesthood associated with the Messiah. By this prophetic reference, the brief appearance of Melchisedec, the mystical priest-king, of whom no ancestry or descent is recorded, and who received tithes at the hand of Abraham, acquired new significance. The Hebrew christians to whom the letter is addressed, and whose thoughts were turning longingly back to the old ritual, are reminded that there was no finality about the Aaronic priesthood, even in the inspired thoughts of David, and are thus helped to see in Christ the perfect fulfilment of both types.

The Godward contact, so faulty in Aaron, was perfect in ‘Jesus the Son of God’ (Heb. 4. 14), whose very title thus given emphasises perfect humanity and perfect deity. For this reason the writer opens his treatise with a sublime demonstration of the full deity of the Lord Jesus, so that the faltering Hebrews might understand how much greater was the heavenly High Priest than the earthly one to whom their thoughts were returning. He is perfectly ‘at home’ in the sanctuary for He belongs there and, as of right, when He had purged our sins, He sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on High. Our hearts can therefore perfectly rest in His all sufficiency in ‘things pertaining to God’ (Heb 2. 17). In all things here He stands in contrast to Aaron, for He knows no limitation in regard to moral requirements, for His only contact with sins was when He purged them. Neither is there any failure of continuity for, having once offered Himself for sins, He ‘continueth ever’ (Heb. 7:24) in an unchangeable priesthood, and saves to the uttermost since He ever liveth to make intercession. ‘For such an high priest became us’ (answered to our need), ‘holy, guileless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and made higher than the heavens’ (Heb. 7. 26 ASV, see also v.27).


Aaron’s qualifications, which were so deficient on the Godward side, were perfect on the manward side. He could indeed ‘have compassion on the ignorant, and on them that were out of the way; for that he himself also is compassed with infirmity’ (Heb. 5. 2), so that, in the essential matter of understanding the people’s needs and appearing on their behalf, his very sinnership was a qualification.

What was easy and natural for the type was infinitely difficult for the Antitype whose very deity and absolute moral perfection as a man rendered Him unsuited to represent poor, weak, struggling, sinful humanity. How was He to be ‘touched with the feeling of our infirmities’ (Heb. 4. 15)? How could He enter into the experience of those who were immeasurably removed from His calm, sinless sphere? Only the full riches of divine wisdom and grace could supply the answer in the mystery of the incarnation, temptation and suffering of the Son of God. In Heb. 2. 9-18; 4. 14-16; 5. 7-10; 7. 26-28 we get glimpses of that tremendous and heart-moving process by which the Son of God, the Lord of all, could appear as a ‘merciful and faithful high priest’ on behalf of a halting and failing people. What wealth of grace and love that He should wish to ‘perfect’ Himself for such an office. We are staggered at the thought that such a process, unthinkable in human systems of religion, should have been ‘becoming’ or ‘seemly’ to the Godhead, doubtless as expressing divine nature in relation to man in a way otherwise impossible (Heb. 2. 10).

By incarnation the Son of Man really and in very fact partook of flesh and blood, that is, of human nature (Heb. 2. 14), for those with whom He was to be united in one family, and for whom He was to minister, shared in this nature, and in God’s purpose the infinite gap between God and man was to be bridged in the God-Man. This is the first great step by which He could stand at the side of men and appear for them in the presence of God.

The temptation of the Son of Man is a deep mystery, but holy writ assures us that it was a reality and that He was “in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin’ The reality and the potency of the solicitation to evil was made clear to Him in the attacks of the devil, of which the temptation in the desert is but a sample, though in His case the devil could never breach the protecting walls for, as Son of Man, His will was in perfect submission to that of His Father. In this way He acquired the power of being touched with the feeling of our infirmities from the standpoint of tested man (Heb. 4. 15).

‘Though he was a Son, yet learned obedience by the things which he suffered’ (Heb. 5. 8 ASV). Suffering deity learning in the school of obedience would be folly to natural religion, but the mystery has been revealed to us, and bows our hearts in worship more than any outward manifestation of divine glory could do. There was before Him in divine-human personality what was impossible to deity alone – a choice between a pleasant path, sinless in itself, yet not in God’s plan for that time; and another of supreme anguish which was in God’s will for the salvation of man. Thus, in Gethsemane, the supreme example of such a choice, there could exist ‘my will’ and ‘thy will’, an antithesis which was resolved by the perfect obedience of the Divine Servant Who thus ‘learned’ obedience as a practical reality of anguished choice.

The participation in flesh and blood; the experience of the impact of temptation; the dread discipline of suffering; the penetrating insight of love; all these have given our High Priest the same perfect contact on the manward side as was His by essential nature on the Godward side. This is what the inspired writer means by ‘being made perfect’ (Heb. 5. 9); obviously nothing could be added to the moral perfection of the Son of God and Perfect Man, but a tremendous process was involved in His representing sinners and interceding for them. This ‘perfection’ is now also His “that in all things he might have the preeminence’ (Col. 1. 18), and we rest with a worshipping joy, which serves to make the conscience the more tender, in His blessed ministry on our behalf of guarantee (Heb. 6. 18-20), of intercession (Heb. 7. 25) and of succour (Heb 2. 18) – a far greater Aaron and a Heavenly Melchisedec.


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