Christ's Superiority to Levitical High Priests
In Heb 5:1-10, the author begins to argue for the superiority of Jesus as High Priest over the High Priests from the line of Aaron; he does this by means of concentric symmetry:
Description of Aaronic High Priest (5:1)
There are two sub-units to this passage, reflecting the symmetry: 5:1-4; 5:5-10. In 5:1-4, the author speaks about the Aaronic High Priests, whereas in 5:5-10 he elaborates on Jesus as High Priest; the transition in 5:4 / 5:5-6 is the one point of agreement between the two types of High Priests: that neither assumes the high preisthood on his own. (Van Hoye argues unconvincingly that Heb 4:15-5:10 is a literary unity by virtue of the alleged inclusion archiera and sumpathêsai in Heb 4:15 and archireus in Heb 5:10 and epathen in Heb 5:8. [La structure litteraire de l'épitre aux Hébreux, 40]. This seems to be too tenuous of a conclusion. By contrast, J. Kurianal argues that 5:1-7:28 should be recognized as a discourse, with the acknowledgement that the paraenetic passage 5:11-6:20a interrupts its flow [Jesus Our High Priest].) His goal is to convince his readers that what Jesus effects by his death is better than what any High Priest has effected. The reason that he does this is not stated, but one should probably assume that the intended readers had somehow subordinated Jesus the Davidic Messiah to the Levitical priesthood. It is possible that they were willing to interpret Jesus as the Davidic Messiah, but also believed that the Levitical priesthood was an eternal institution, to which even the Davidic messiah must subordinate himself. (Such a belief would be perfectly understandable given the promises in the Old Testament of a eschatologically restored Temple and priesthood [ Micah 4; Isa 2; Jer 33:18; Ezek 37:26-28; 40-48]. In fact, it is the author who holds the radical view that requires justificiation.) It is even possible that the readers had subordinated Jesus as the Davidic Messiah to a priestly Messiah or at least held that he would share authority with a priestly messiah at the time of the eschaton. This eschatological priestly messiah would come from the Aaron's high priestly line. That some Jews believed that there would be two messiahs is clear from second-Temple sources (see T. Levi 18:2-14; 1QS 9:9-11; CD 7; 12:23-13:1; 1QSa 2; 4Q161 frags. 8-10. 25; 4Q285 frag. 5. 1-4; 4Q541; 4Q174 1.11-12; 4Q175) (see Messianic Expectation). Moreover, even though he uses him to prove Jesus' superority as High Priest over the Leviticial High Priests, the author's use of the figure of Melchizedek in his argument may secondarily have the purpose of refuting or correcting certain theological views about Melchizedek held by his readers. The author's statement can be read on two levels: what he affirms explicitly and what he affirms implicitly. Heb 5:1-10 introduces the topic of Jesus' high priesthood according to the order of Melchizedek, but a more complete discussion of the topic is postponed until Heb 7:1-10:18 (see Heb 2:17 for the first reference to Jesus as High Priest).
In Heb 5:1-4, the author describes the high priesthood as is set out in the Torah; his goal is to procure agreement from his readers in order to be able to move from that agreement to a conclusion about Jesus as a greater High Priest. In Heb 5:1, the author explains that the High Priest was chosen from among human beings (ex anthrôpôn) and put in charge of the things pertaining to God on behalf of human beings (huper anthrôpôn). The High Priest was a representative, being appointed to matters relating to God (ta pros ton theon). In particular, the purpose of his appointment was "in order that he offer gifts and sacrifices for sins" (hina prospherê dôra te kai thusias huper hamartiôn) (Heb 5:1). (The author uses the conjunction te kai ["and"], which is distinctive of his style [see Heb 4:12; 5:1; 6:19; 7:14; 8:3; 9:9; 10:33; 11:32].) The verb prospherô occurs commonly in the LXX Leviticus in the context of offering a sacrifice. The phrase "gifts and sacrifices" seems to be an idiomatic; the author intends the two words to be roughly synonymous (For similar uses the idiom, see 1 Kgs 8:64 (LXX 3 Kgdms. 8:64); Arist. 234; the phrase "offering of sacrifice" [dôron thusias] occurs in LXX Lev 2:1 to describe the grain offering). The purpose of the offering "gifts and sacrifices" is expressed by the prepositional phrase "for sins" (huper hamartiôn), meaning for the purpose of the removal of the guilt resulting from transgressions of the Law.
In Heb 5:2, the author then adds that, since he is the same as those on whose behalf he serves, i.e., weak, the High Priest is able to deal moderately with those who are ignorant and wayward. In this context, the verb metriopathein has the meaning of "to have an indulgent attitude" and not its more usual meaning of to have a regulated restraint of emotion (Hering, The Epistle to the Hebrews, 37). The phrase "ignorant and wayward" denotes one group of people, and so functions as a hendiadys (one concept through two words): "those who are wayward in their ignorance." In the Old Testament, this class of persons is described as those who sin "unintentionally" (LXX akousiôs) (see Lev 4:2, 13, 22, 27; 5:15; Num 15:21-29) or "in ignorance" (LXX kat' agnoian) (Lev 22:14), in contrast to those who sin "with a high hand" (LXX en cheiri huperêphanias), for whom no atonement is possible (Num 15:30-31; see Num 15:32-36; Deut 17:12). In addition to offering sacrifices for "the people," the author in Heb 5:3 explains that the High Priest also must offer ("gifts and sacrifices") for himself for the purpose of sin (peri hamartiôn), on account of his own weakness (Heb 5:3). This is probably a reference to the Day of Atonement when the High Priest must atone for own sins before he sacrifices the goat on behalf of the people (see Lev 16 [see also Lev 9:7-14]; m. Yoma 4:2-5:7) (see notes on Heb 9-10). Finally, in Heb 5:4, the author stresses that the High Priest does not presume to take upon himself the honor of being High Priest, but receives it from God when God calls him to the position, as Aaron was called (see Exod 28-29; Lev 8; Num 3:10, 16, 17, 18). (By honor [timê] the author is referring to the responsibility of being High Priest [see Josephus, Ant. 3.190; Philo, Mos., 11.67].)
In Heb 5:5-6, the author argues that what is true of the Levitical High Priests expressed in 5:4 is also true of the greater High Priest, Christ. (In Heb 5:5, the author begins to refer to "Jesus the son of God" [Heb 4:14] as "Christ.") He begins with Christ's right to the appointment as High Priest: as with Aaron (Heb 5:4) (and all other legitimate High Priests) Christ did not glorify himself in becoming High Priest, but received it from God (Heb 5:5-6) (see Sir 45:20; 2 Macc 14:7 for the term "glory" [doxa] used of the functions of the High Priest). To prove this the author again quotes Ps 2:7, a psalm interpreted messianically in the second-Temple period: the Davidic messiah is appointed "son" by God and does not presume to take it himself (see The Messianic Interpretation of Ps 2 in the Second Temple Period) (see J. Kurianal, Jesus Our High Priest, 63-64). (For the messianic interpretation of Ps 2, see Ps. Sol. 17:23 = Ps 2:9; 1QSa 2:11-12 = Ps 2:7; 4Q174 = Ps 2:1; Acts 4:25-26 = Ps 2:1-2; Acts 13:33 = Ps 2:7; see also 4 Ezra 7:28-29; 13:37, 52; 14:9) (The author has already interpreted Ps 2:7 as messianic in Heb 1:5.) The author conceives Christ's status as son as an acquired status: Christ is proclaimed to be the son, i.e., Davidic Messiah (as Ps 2:7 says of the Messiah) after his appearance in history. But what does Ps 2:7 have to do with the high priesthood? In Heb 5:6, the author connects Ps 2 with Ps 110:4, another psalm quoted earlier as messianic (Heb 1:14 = Ps 110:1) (see Mark 12:36-37). Insofar as it is established that the Davidic Messiah is being referred to in Ps 110:1 what is said in Ps 110:4 must also be addressed to the Messiah. (On Ps 110, see J. Kurianal, Jesus Our High Priest, chap. 2.) Since the messiah in Ps 110:4 is declared to be a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek and since the messiah is also being referred to in Ps 2 as being appointed to this role by God and did not presume to take it for himself (although no common words for the messiah are found in both texts), what is said of the messiah Ps 2:7 can be imported into Ps 110, so that the appointment to the role of messiah (Ps 2:7; see Ps 110:1) is also his appointment to the role of High Priest (Ps 110:4), in the same way that Aaron was appointed High Priest. This is an instance of the application of the interpretive rule later called gezerah shavah ("An equal category"): an Old Testament passage that has verbal or conceptual similarities with another Old Testament passage can interpreted in light of that passage, so that meaning can be imported into the interpreted passage from the one to which is it verbally similar. In the case of Ps 2:7 and Ps 110:4, what is similar is that both texts are interpreted as messianic. This second citation of Ps 2:7 by the author (see Heb 1:5) and his bringing this messianic passage in relation to Ps 110:4, as described above, allows him the possibility of connecting his teaching about Jesus as the son (Davidic Messiah) with his teaching about him as the greater High Priest. Not surprisingly, the author subsequently names Jesus as son in relation to his role as High Priest (Heb 5:8-10; 7:28). It should be pointed out that the author implicitly criticizes the idea that the Levitical priesthood is eternal (see Exod 29:9; 1 Chron 15:2) in the sense of being incapable of being superceded salvation-historically.
What it means to be appointed to a high priesthood according to the order of Melchizedek needs to be investigated. The meaning of the name Melchizedek is "King of Righteousness." He makes his only appearance in biblical narrative in Gen 14:18-20: "Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine and he was a priest of God most high. And he blessed him and said, 'Blessed be Abram by God most high, possessor of heaven and earth, and blessed be God most high who delivered your enemies into your hand.' And he [Abram] gave to him a tenth of everything." (See Melchizedek in Second-Temple Interpretation.) In the Genesis narrative, Melchizedek is said to be both king of Salem and a priest of God Most High. Abraham recognizes his priestly status by tithing to him. The only other reference to Melchizedek in the Old Testament occurs in Ps 110:4. (LXX Ps 110:4 is nearly identical to the quotation of the verse in Hebrews; the only difference is that in Hebrews the verb ei ("are") is omitted, as in the Hebrew original.) The figure of Melchizedek sees the unification of king and High Priest in one individual. (There are a few examples in the Old Testament of a king functioning as a priest by making sacrifices, which indicate that the offices of priest and king are not necessarily mutually exclusive [1 Sam 13:9-10; 2 Sam 6:13, 17-18; 24:25; 1 Kgs 3:4, 15; 8:5, 62-64; 9:25; 2 Kgs 16;12-15].) These two offices were separated in the Mosaic covenant and also later in the Davidic covenant. Moses led the people whereas Aaron his brother founded a high-priestly order; later, when God swore to David that he would establish his dynasty forever, the high priesthood belonged to the family of Zadok, who was a priest (from the line of Aaron). Melchizedek, in the author's view, prefigures the unification of two offices in one person, which should come to pass in the "last days." To be a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek is to be both king and priest. (It should be noted that in the Hasmonean period the high priesthood was unified with the office of king by popular acclamation [beginning with Jonathan]; this arrangement did not meet with the approval of many Jews, who believed that the high priesthood belonged to someone from the line of Zadok; previous to the interference by Antiochus IV, the High Priesthood was in the hands of the descendents of Zadok.) As will be explained later, the author's use of the figure of Melchizedek to interpret Jesus' salvation-historical significance may be due his intended readers' own view about Melchizedek.
In Heb 5:7-10, the author elaborates on his assertion that Jesus as the son is a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek; it is clear that Christ's high priesthood differs from the Aaronic high priesthood in significant ways (J. Kurianal, Jesus Our High Priest). He intimates that Christ's suffering and death are inseprable from his work as the greater High Priest. Syntactically, Heb 5:7-10 is a relative clause, whose antecedent is found ultimately in Heb 5:5: ho Christos (Christ); this relative clause has two main verbs: "he learned" (emathen) (Heb 5:8) and "he became" (egeneto) (Heb 5:9). There are also several subordinate participial clauses connected to each main verb. (For other christologically significant relative clauses, see Heb 1:2; 12:2.) He says that “in the days of his flesh” (en tais hêmerais tês sarkô autou), Christ offered up "prayers and supplications" (deêseis kai hiketêrias), as a High Priest to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence (for God) (The terms "prayers" and "supplications" are probably synonymous terms [see LXX Job 40:27; see also Polyb. 3.112.8; Isocrates, Or. 8.138; Philo, Leg. Gai. 226, 228; Jos., War 5.318; see the occurrence of "supplications" in 2 Macc 8:29; 9:18; 10:25; Sir 51:9].) Nevertheless, God did not save him from death, and this for a reason: his suffering was the means of his being perfected (teleiôtheis) (Heb 5:7). The author is no doubt alluding to the event of Jesus in Gethsemane just before his arrest (see Mark 14:33-36 = Matt 26:37-39; Luke 22:42-44) (see J. Kurianal, Jesus Our High Priest, 65-77; 219-33) (This is contrary to J. Scholer who sees a general reference to Jesus' earthly existence , [Proleptic Priests, 87].) The expression "days of his flesh" is a genitive of quality: his fleshy days or fleshly period of time. It refers to Christ's historical appearance, the period of time before his exaltation. The use of "flesh" to describe Jesus' historical manifestation implies Jesus' identity with the realm of human weakness and sin, although the author holds that Jesus was without sin (Heb 4:15).
The preposition apo (from) in the phrase apo tês eulabeias ("out of reverence") has a causal meaning. (The claim that in Heb 5:7-9 the author comes under the influence of Ps 116 [= LXX Pss 114, 115] seems tenuous since there are not enough parallels between the two texts [A. Strobel, "Die Psalmengrundlage der Gethsemane-Parallele Hbr 5, 7ff." ZNW 45  252-66; Schröger, Verfasser, 121-22]. For example, the fact that in Heb 5:7 the same verb is found as in Ps 116:1 [LXX 114:1] [eisakoustheis / eisakousetai] seems coincidental.) In Heb 5:8, the term "son" is used of Christ again, and the author makes the point that "in spite of being son" (kaiper ôn huios), he learned obedience through his sufferings. Christ learned to submit to God's will in his suffering, which would lead to his death. This is why he was not saved from death. The author makes use of a common word play in Greek: emathen (aph' hôn) epathen (tên hupakoên) ("He learned [from what] he suffered [obedience]) (see Aeschylus, Ag.: pathei mathos ["By suffering learning"]; Herodotus 1.207: ta de moi pathêmata...mathêmata gegone ["Sufferings for me have become my lessons"]; see also Philo, Rer. div. her. 73; Fug. 138; Spec. leg. 4.29; Som. 2.107; Vit. Mos. 2.280). This learning of submission led to his perfection ("He became perfected" [teleiôtheis egeneto]), his becoming qualified to be the source of salvation for all who obey him (see Heb 2:10: "through sufferings to perfect" [dia pathêmatôn teleiôsai]). (See W. Loader, Sohn und Hoherpriester, 97-111). In a sense, Jesus becomes the son or Davidic Messiah (Christ) through his obedience. As the author will later argue explicitly, as the High Priest according to the order of Melchizedek, Jesus does high priestly work by his own suffering and death (Heb 5:9). His obedience to God in suffering was the means by which he became qualified ("perfected") to be High Priest. His perfection is vocational or qualificational (Peterson, Hebrews and Perfection). It is probably no coincidence that the expression"to perfect the hands" (teleioun tas cheiras) is used to describe the consecration of priests (Exod 29:9, 33, 35; Lev 4:5; 8:33; 16:32; 21:10; Num 3:3). For this reason, the author says that Jesus as High Priest became the "cause of eternal salvation for those obedient to him" (tois hupakousin autô aitios sôtêrias aiôniou). (The verb teleiôtheis precedes logically and grammatically the main verb egeneto: "And having been perfected, he became etc.".) To be "the cause of eternal salvation" is synonymous with being "the author of salvation" (ho archêgos tês sôtêrias) (Heb 2:10). (Only in Heb 5:9 does the author use the term "eternal salvation," but it is synonymous with his use of the unmodified "salvation" elsewhere in the letter.) (The phrase "cause of salvation" used in various senses occurs in Polyb. 1.43.2; Diod. 4.82.3; Philo, Spec. leg. 1.252; Agr. 96; Virt. 202; Jos., Ant. 14.136.) The one for whom Jesus is the "cause of eternal salvation" is the one who is obedient to him: the author inseparably joins faith and obedience (see parallels to Heb 2:9-10). Finally, in Heb 5:10, the author concludes by saying that Jesus was designated by God as a High Priest according to the order of Melchizedek. The verb prosagoreutheis (being designated) denotes giving a new status to someone not previously possessed: Jesus becomes High Priest according to the order of Melchizedek, which the author later differentiates from another order or type of High Priest, the Levitical High Priest (Heb 7:11). (On the meaning of the phrase "according to the order of Melchizedek," see D. Anderson, The King-Priest of Psalm 110 in Hebrews, 54-59.) It should be noted that in 5:10 the author changes "priest" in Ps 110:4 to "High Priest" because of his interest in comparing Jesus to the Aaronic High Priests. It is likely that the author is attempting to refute the view of his readers that Jesus' suffering was irrelevant to his role as messiah; rather, their view may have been that Jesus suffered because of the blindness of the Jewish authorities, but God raised him from the dead and exalted him His right hand (see Acts 2:14-36).
Question for Discussion
How do you respond to the teaching about Jesus as High Priest? Has the church today or in the recent past lost sight of this teaching?
Last Modified On: