Eternal Salvation from an Eternal Priest
We often appoint others to act on our behalf when we know we need help. In this passage, we see we need help in relation to God, and God has appointed Jesus as the eternal high priest to help us in relation to Him.
Hebrews 1-8 (WBC), William Lane
Hebrews: Evangelical Biblical Theology Commentary, Thomas Schreiner
Hebrews, John Owen
Years ago I tried to help a member of our church as she sought to care for her aging mother. One important part of that process for this member was obtaining power of attorney, which enabled her to act on behalf of her mother in relation to the bank in which her money was kept, and her mother agreed to let her do that. There are other scenarios where we make similar decisions. If you have to go to court, you will usually hire a lawyer to act on your behalf in relation to the court. You can choose to represent yourself, but there is an old adage that says, “The man who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client.” Instead, we typically choose to let someone else act on our behalf when we recognize we need help. We’re continuing our series this morning through the book of Hebrews, and as we come to chapter 5, we are going to see that we are people who do need help, not so much in relation to a bank or a court, but in relation to God himself, because we are in ourselves ignorant and wayward sinners. Have you ever thought maybe you should try the whole spirituality thing or investigate this God idea further, only to quickly realize you didn’t know where to start? Ever felt like it’s all pretty confusing, and maybe even a bit guilt inducing to really keep after it? Welcome to the club. We are indeed ignorant and wayward in ourselves. But God, in his grace, has provided the help we need in relation to him by instituting the office of priest, especially the office of high priest, and in this text we will see that there is one high priest in particular who fills that office eternally, and who has become the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him. Unsurprisingly perhaps, Jesus is the eternal high priest who brings eternal salvation to all who obey him. To understand that, we’ll look at the former high priests in verses 1-4, and then at the eternal high priest in verses 5-10. Our author is saying here that we won’t really understand what it means that Jesus is our eternal high priest until we understand something of what a high priest is, and so he begins with the former high priests before moving into a discussion of Jesus as our eternal high priest.
The former high priests
Our passage begins with the word “for”, which means it’s about to give us the reason for whatever came before it. Just before it, our author told us that Jesus is our high priest, and that we should draw near to him in prayer, expecting to receive mercy and find grace to help in our time of need. Why should we expect such help from Jesus? Because, verse 1 of our passage: Every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. In other words, you can expect help from Jesus, your high priest, because it is the job of every high priest to help people, to “act on behalf of men” as verse 1 puts it. Notice, though, exactly how it is that priests are appointed to help people: They are appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God.
If your aim in life is merely something like succeeding in your career, you probably will not find Jesus to be of much help to you. You wouldn’t generally go to a priest for that. But if you are dealing honestly with God, a high priest is what you need. Do you believe you need help in relation to God? Many assume they do not; they assume that if there is a God, they’re probably doing just fine with him. Of course they aren’t perfect, but they’re doing their best. God disagrees with that assessment. He is the one who instituted the office of high priest, and he did so precisely because he recognized that humans need help in relation to him because of a specific issue common to all humans: sin.
So, notice what the help is that every high priest provides to humans in relation to God: They offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. God instituted the priesthood in the time of Moses, about a thousand years before Jesus came, to address the sin problem in his people Israel, and the sin problem was basically this: Because the people were sinners, their service to God was tainted. They couldn’t simply offer their worship to him and expect it to be accepted. If someone who regularly wronged you offered you a gift, you might appreciate the gift on some level, but it would be tainted, wouldn’t it? You’d think, “Well, this is nice, but I know you regularly talk about me behind my back.” That bothers you because on some level, you have an internal sense of justice. In God, that sense of justice is perfect, and infinite. So we who do regularly sin against him cannot simply resolve to do nice things for him and assume those nice things will please him.
However, God, out of his grace, still chose to be in relationship with his people, and so he made a way through the priesthood for the people to offer him acceptable worship. The idea of the priesthood is that God would designate some of the people to be set apart for service to him directly, and they were then to maintain for themselves a kind of ceremonial purity that symbolized the purity God required of those who would worship him acceptably. He then agreed to accept gifts from the people if they were offered to him by these ceremonially pure priests. The people couldn’t offer their gifts to God directly, but the priests were appointed to act on their behalf in relation to God, to offer gifts for them.
But, not only were the priests to offer gifts on behalf of the people, a task made necessary because the peoples’ sins tainted their gifts; the priests were also to offer sacrifices for the sins themselves. Sin not only taints our service to God; sin also incurs the wrath of God. That perfect, infinite sense of justice in God not only disposes him to reject our gifts; it disposes him to punish us for our sins. And yet again, in his grace, God appointed priests to offer sacrifices on behalf of the people, where the animal offered would symbolically bear the sins of the people and die in their place, that God’s wrath might not be poured out on his people. And for this aspect of the priestly work, God especially appointed the high priest spoken of here in Hebrews 5. There were many priests in any given moment before the coming of Christ, but there was only one high priest at a time. Moses’ brother, Aaron, was the first one appointed by God to this office, and he is mentioned by name in our passage in verse 4. The high priest was the only priest permitted to enter the holiest place of the tabernacle, the place where God promised to dwell among his people, and even he entered it only once per year, on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur (which is just the Hebrew words for “Day of Atonement”), to offer the sacrifice that symbolically cleansed the people of their sins.
The former high priests teach us that you and I need help in relation to God, and we need help in relation to God because we are sinners. We cannot simply resolve to do better and expect that to win us God’s favor, because even the good we would do in the future would be tainted by our sin, and the good we do cannot cover up for the fact that we have already sinned, and our sin deserves punishment. So God appointed priests to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. Before the coming of Christ, God’s people could expect to receive that kind of help from the high priest. And, furthermore, they could expect help from the high priest because, verse 2, he can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness. The proof of this is in verse 3: He is obligated to offer sacrifice for his own sins just as he does for those of the people. In Leviticus 16, when God was giving the instructions for the Day of Atonement, he made clear that the high priest had to first offer a sacrifice for himself, to atone for himself and his house, before offering the sacrifices on behalf of the people (Lev 16:11). Though he was symbolically holy, this sacrifice reminded him and everyone else that he too was a sinner.
And, therefore, he can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, which was just what God’s often ignorant and wayward people needed. Notice it does not say he can deal gently with the obstinate. Within God’s law there was a distinction between different kinds of sins: There were unintentional sins, which were sins committed out of ignorance or weakness. Today you might think of sins committed by unbelievers as falling into that category, sins you committed without knowing they were sinful, or the sins that almost happen to you without your premeditating them: You find yourself speaking angrily to your spouse, and as the words are coming out of your mouth you almost wish you could catch them and stuff them back inside you. You find yourself clicking on a website that in your more sober moments you’d never dare visit. Then there were sins done “with a high hand”, which were more premeditated and done in conscious defiance of God and his law. Today you might think of a professing believer in Jesus, who has been taught not to commit adultery, who says he believes Jesus died to rescue him from that very sin, who knows that’s the decision in front of him, and who chooses to do it anyway.
The point of that distinction in the Old Testament was not to say that one is sin and the other isn’t, or that one is deserving of condemnation, while the other is not. Both were called sin, and both required sacrifice to atone for them, but the priests dealt with them differently. Those who sinned with a high hand were to be cut off from the people, whereas, as we see here, the priests were to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he is one of them! The image we’re getting here, then, is that when someone sinned unintentionally, by ignorance or weakness, they should have confidence to go to the priest and trust that he will not punish them for it, but deal gently with them, and offer on their behalf the necessary sacrifice. That’s the kind of priest we need to help us in relation to God, one who can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, because ignorant and wayward is exactly what you and I have been, and, to some extent, still are.
How do you deal with the ignorant and wayward? The obstinate are to be cut off from the church through church discipline. But even with them we are to be patient in pronouncing such a judgment, and patient in hope of their repentance. And, not everyone is obstinate: People may be ignorant or wayward, and we are to deal gently with them. What will help you do so? We learn from this text that a greater awareness of your own weakness will help you do so. The high priest can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness. If you notice yourself being harsh with the ignorant and wayward, it demonstrates that you’ve lost sight of your own ignorance and waywardness.
In the movie The Departed there is a scene in which Mark Wahlberg’s character is being harsh with others. In response, someone asks him something like, “Hey who are you anyway?” and Wahlberg’s character replies by saying, “I’m the guy who does his job. You must be the other guy.” Isn’t that how we often approach people? The customer service rep on the phone, the cashier at the store, the employee we’re to supervise, the spouse to whom we’re married, the children we’re to raise, the church member we’re to love. But is it really true? Am I really the guy who does his job in God’s sight? No. I’m the ignorant and wayward, and yet he has dealt so gently with me. Consider that when you notice the ignorance and waywardness of others beginning to bother you. As the high priest was reminded of his own ignorance and waywardness every time he had to offer sacrifice first for himself, remind yourself of your own ignorance and waywardness by making confession of your specific sins a regular practice of your prayer life.
And, to finish our description of the former priests, verse 4 tells us that no one take this honor for himself, but only when called by God, just as Aaron was. In Exodus 28, when God first instituted the office of high priest, he didn’t just tell Moses to choose whomever he pleased. God told him to appoint Aaron to the office. Since the job of the priest was to act on behalf of men in relation to God, they had to be appointed by God. It was an honorable office, but to take this honor for oneself would be a demonstration of pride. That could even serve as a simple definition of pride: Seizing honor for oneself that God has not given. Today in the church we do not have a special office of high priest for reasons that should become clear in just a moment, but we do have two offices instituted by God in the New Testament church: pastor or elder and deacon, and to these we can apply this insight as we consider who to recognize for those offices.
First, we see that our job in appointing elders and deacons is not simply to appoint who we please, but to appoint those who, as best as we can tell through prayer, God wants in those offices, and God has given us elder and deacon qualifications in scripture to help us do that. Second, we can see that the kind of people we should be considering for those offices are not those who are seeking honor for themselves. Often the best candidates for elders or deacons are those who feel some measure of uncertainty about their own qualifications. To desire such offices is not arrogant, but to definitively pronounce one’s own qualification for them, and to be unwilling to submit to the evaluation of others God has appointed to such offices, is an almost sure sign of someone who wants to take honor upon themselves. The former high priests did not do that; rather they only served in their office when called by God, just as Aaron was.
You and I need help in relation to God because we are sinners. So God, in his grace, instituted the priesthood, and his ignorant and wayward people under the Old Covenant could go to the priest and expect to receive help in relation to God because that’s the very thing the priest was appointed to do, because the priest was beset with weakness and therefore could deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, and because the priest was appointed to his office by God himself. You and I still need such a priest, and the questions we’re left with at the end of verse 4 are, “Do we have one?” and “Who is he?” “Where do we ignorant, wayward people go for help in relation to God?” And the answers we’ll see in verses 5-10 are that we do have such a high priest, Jesus Christ, and therefore, we go to him for help in relation to God. We’ve talked about the former priests; let’s talk now about the eternal high priest.
The eternal high priest
No high priest takes the honor of his office upon himself, but only when called by God, just as Aaron was. So also, verse 5: Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you.” This passage from Psalm 2 was first reference in chapter 1 of Hebrews, where it referred to Jesus’ resurrection, ascension, and enthronement in heaven, at which time he entered into the inheritance of his sonship, which basically entails his rule as king. This is where we get the title of Christ—“the Christ” in the Bible is the one anointed by God to rule. But now we see that the same one who appointed the Christ to rule, appointed him a priest. The author makes this connection from Psalm 2, where we see him being appointed to rule, to Psalm 110, which he also quoted from in chapter 1, and which was also addressed to the one God appointed to rule. And in Psalm 110, quoted in verse 6 of our passage, God says to the Christ: “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.”
Notice that not only did God call him to the office of priest, but he called him to be a priest forever. Neither Aaron not any of the other high priests received that calling. Even in verse 1 of our passage, we see a statement made about every high priest, meaning there were multiple of them, because, as our author will point out later, they were prevented by death from continuing in office. But, the Christ was appointed an eternal priest, after the order of Melchizedek. The author is going to tell us a lot more about Melchizedek later in the letter, but since this is the first appearance of his name in the book, I better give you a bit of background on him. And, well, there actually isn’t much background to give on him. He appears in the Bible in Genesis 14 as the king of Salem and was described there as “priest of God Most High”. Scripture never tells us when he was born, who his parents were, or how he became priest, nor does it tell us when he died and thereby gave up his priesthood. It simply tells us that he was priest of God Most High, and then never mentions him again until Psalm 110, the Psalm quoted here, and then never mentions him again through the rest of the Old Testament era. Nonetheless, the LORD himself does appoint the Christ to be a priest after the order of Melchizedek in Psalm 110, and God only has to say something once for it to be true. So the author picks up on that here to explain the priesthood of Christ: He’s not an Aaronic priest who is appointed in time and then dies, thus giving up his priesthood. He is an eternal priest, like Melchizedek.
If you want to know who the Mayor of Philadelphia is, you have to keep current. Kenney is still in, but Parker is the likely successor, who should officially take office in 2024. But if you want to know who the high priest is that God has appointed to act on our behalf in relation to God, the answer is the same today as it was when Hebrews was first written 2000 years ago: Jesus Christ. Where can you go for help in relation to God? Jesus Christ. And to further demonstrate that Jesus is the Christ, that eternal high priest who did not exalt himself, but was appointed by God, the author leads us to consider the days of his flesh in verse 7. In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Does that sound like someone looking to take honor for himself? People looking to take honor for themselves don’t generally spend their days in the flesh offering up prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears. The very act of prayer when engaged in sincerely is an act of humility. In prayer we ask God to act, rather than acting on our own, and in so doing we acknowledge our dependence on God’s abilities, rather than asserting our own abilities.
Not only did Jesus spend his time in the flesh offering up prayers and supplications, but he did so with loud cries and tears, precisely because he occupied a position of humility in the days of his flesh, rather than a position of honor. The pharisees, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, also prayed, but they did not do so with loud cries and tears, because they were in positions of honor in the days of their flesh, shielded from the weakness of their flesh by their money and power. No one was seeking to put them to death; rather, they were the ones seeking to put Jesus to death! And so, the clearest example we have in the biblical accounts of Jesus’ life of him offering up prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears is in the Garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus was preparing to die on the cross. There he prayed with tears to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence, a reverence expressed in the words with which he concluded his prayer: “Yet not as I will, but as you will.” You see the pattern there in Jesus’ life? Rather than exalting himself, taking upon himself the honor of high priest, he humbled himself and submitted himself to the will of God, and for that reason, he was heard. God saved him from death, not by sparing him the experience of it, but by saving him from it once he was in it, when he raised him from the dead.
Another way of describing that is given in verse 8: Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. Though he is the one to whom God said, “You are my son, today I have begotten you,” he humbled himself to the position of one who must learn obedience. Now, in saying that Jesus learned obedience, it doesn’t mean he was previously disobedient, but then through suffering he learned to obey. It’s more like his obedience was unformed prior to his suffering. There are no sinless children today, but if you could imagine bringing a sinless infant home from the hospital, the infant’s desire in that moment would be to obey her parents, and yet, there just wouldn’t be much opportunity yet for her to exercise that obedience. It would only be as she grew up and her parents told her to share her toy with her brother, or when her parents told her she had to get out of bed by a certain time to get to school, despite the comfort of staying in bed, or when her parents told her she had to do her homework when she naturally wanted to spend time with friends instead, that she would progressively learn obedience. So Jesus, though obedient to God from the moment of his birth, learned obedience as he faced multiple temptations to disobey rather than suffer. If he had just listened to the voice of Satan and commanded the stones to become bread, he wouldn’t have had to keep suffering hunger as he fasted in the wilderness. If he had just stopped proclaiming the message God sent him to proclaim, he wouldn’t have had to keep suffering the hostility of his own people. And if he had just pretended that he was not the Son of God, he wouldn’t have had to suffer death on the cross. But he learned obedience through what he suffered, and his obedience was completed when he willingly did endure the suffering of the cross. His final act in life was to obey unto death, and in this way, he was made perfect, as verse 9 puts it.
Again, when you see the word perfect there, don’t think Jesus went from imperfection to perfection. Jesus was always perfect. But his work as high priest was not yet completed until he offered himself on the cross. If your boss gives you six tasks, and you do three of them perfectly today, there’s a sense in which you are perfect today. But you won’t be made perfect in the sense of verse 9 until you complete all 6 tasks. So also, Jesus was appointed a priest before time even began. That’s the idea of the order of Melchizedek: The forever priest is a priest without beginning or end. But just as the Son who is eternally begotten of the Father is also revealed to be that Son in time at his resurrection, so also the forever priest is revealed to be that priest when he offered himself as a sacrifice for the sins of God’s people on the cross, and then rose again, ascended into heaven, and presented that sacrifice to God there. In so doing, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.
The former priests were the source of a kind of salvation. They did act on behalf of men in relation to God, and they did offer the appointed gifts and sacrifices for sins on their behalf. And as a result of their ministry, the people were enabled to continue living with God in their midst. But eventually they and the people still died. Though those former priests were the source of a temporary salvation from the wrath of God in the world that now is, Jesus is the source of eternal salvation from the wrath of God in the world to come. Though that investment account, door lock, or friend group may be a source of temporary security for you in this life, only Jesus is the source of eternal security. He will never fail to save those who obey him. Though they die in the world that now is, they too will be saved from death when Jesus returns and they are risen to live with him forever in the world that is to come.
It’s interesting that God’s people are designated in verse 9 as “all who obey him”. Again, it’s the beauty of having a word from God, not just one we project: If I were writing verse 9, I’d have probably said, “all who believe in him,” but that’s not what the text says: It says all who obey him. Now, of course, that doesn’t annul God’s promise that whoever believes in Jesus will be saved (e.g., John 3:16). But it does show us that true faith is necessarily accompanied by obedience, so that those who believe in Jesus can just as easily be described as those who obey Jesus. Could you be described as one who obeys Jesus? I’m not asking if you could be described as one who perfectly obeys Jesus; none of us are that. Ignorance and waywardness remain in us to some extent; that’s why we need Jesus to help us in relation to God. If we perfectly obeyed Jesus, we wouldn’t need salvation from Jesus. And yet, verse 9 is clear that he is the source of eternal salvation only to those who obey him. So while you may not perfectly obey Jesus, you should only assume that Jesus is the source of your eternal salvation if you do sincerely obey him, though your obedience is always accompanied by the remnants of ignorance and waywardness. If that’s not you today, do not despair. There is still hope for you in Jesus, because he has been appointed by God to act on behalf of men in relation to God, and he too is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward.
So if you are here today and you are an unbeliever, Jesus is the priest you need. You cannot help yourself in relation to God. Perhaps you’ve heard the slogan before that “God helps those who help themselves,” but I can assure you that wherever such a phrase originated, it did not originate from the Bible. You cannot help yourself. You cannot simply begin doing good because all your good works are tainted by your sin, and none of them can make up for the sins you have already committed, which still deserve punishment. Instead, the biblical truth we see in this passage is that God helps those who cannot help themselves by appointing an eternal priest, Jesus Christ, who offered himself as the sacrifice for our sins on the cross, taking upon himself the punishment they deserved for all who would ever obey him. That means today, you can go to him and expect to find help from him in relation to God. Believe in him, and his sacrifice of himself on the cross will cover all your sins. Believe in him, and even your imperfect attempts to serve God going forward will be made acceptable to God by him.
Perhaps you have a sense of how grossly you have sinned against God, of how many years of your life you have wasted in service of your sinful passions. That’s good actually, but don’t stop there. Even then, do not be afraid to come to him. He deals gently with the ignorant and wayward. His promise is “whoever comes to me, I will never cast out” (John 6:37). I challenge you to find the biblical example of someone coming to Jesus admitting their ignorance and waywardness, who Jesus then treats harshly. It doesn’t exist. Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. He did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance. It’s not the ignorant, wayward, and weak to whom he speaks harshly; it’s those who know who refuse to acknowledge their ignorance and waywardness, those who insist on holding on to their ignorance and waywardness, those who think they can help themselves in relation to God, those who know who Jesus is and what he requires, but who defiantly refuse to obey him.
To you who do profess faith in Jesus today, you are no longer entirely ignorant. You know who Jesus is. Obey him. As you become aware of the ignorance that remains in you, don’t hold on to it. Sometimes people will avoid serious study of the Bible or seeking the counsel of those God has appointed in their lives to teach them the Bible because they actually want to remain ignorant, for fear that if they found out what the Bible really says, they might have to do something they don’t want to do, or give up doing something they do want to do. But ignorance intentionally held on to is no longer ignorance; it’s stubbornness, and you should not assume Jesus will deal gently with that. When you become aware of the ignorance that remains in you, ask Jesus to teach you through his Word, his Spirit, and the people in his church he’s appointed to teach you, and he will deal gently with you. When you see ways in which you are still wayward in your obedience to Jesus, don’t hide it, minimize it, rationalize it, or let it create distance between you and Jesus. Instead, draw near to him, confess your sin, ask for his help to obey going forward, and he will deal gently with you. His blood will wash away the guilt of your sin, and he will go to work in you, by his Spirit, to enable you to walk in renewed obedience, an obedience that though never perfect in itself, he will make acceptable to God as the eternal priest who brings eternal salvation to those who obey him.