Jesus Is Greater Than Aaron (preaching resource for Lent 5: March 17, 2024)
This post exegetes Hebrews 4:15-5:10, providing context for the RCL Epistle reading on 3/17/2024 (Lent 5). This exegesis draws on commentary from Warren Wiersbe ("Bible Expository Commentary"), F.F. Bruce ("Epistle to the Hebrews in the NICNT") and D.A. Carson ("New Bible Commentary").
|Icon: Christ, High Priest (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
Moses did not lead the people of Israel into the ‘rest’ of the Promised Land. In fact, Moses was forbidden to enter in. Joshua led them into that physical rest, but he was unable to lead them into their promised spiritual rest (Heb 4:8). But what about Aaron, Moses’ brother, who was Israel’s first high priest? Is it possible that he and his successors in the Aaronic priesthood, with all of its sacrifices and ceremonies, could bring a troubled soul into God’s promised rest? The Jewish Christians who received this letter were sorely tempted to believe so, and to return to the religion of their fathers for rest from the severe trials they faced as Christians. After all, any Jew could travel to Jerusalem and see the temple and the priests ministering at the altar. Here was something real, visible and concrete. In times of persecution it’s much easier to walk by sight than by faith.
A central theme of Hebrews is Jesus’ unique high priesthood, which continues even now in heaven where he ministers on behalf of his people. Is this high priesthood of Jesus superior to that of Aaron and his successors? Yes, and the writer proves this assertion by making four points:
Jesus is superior in his person and position (4:14–16)
14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. 16 Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
Jesus is the “GREAT high priest” (Heb 4:14, emphasis added) as contrasted with Aaron who was merely the “high priest.” But in what ways is Jesus greater than Aaron and the other high priests who succeeded Aaron?
1. The greatness of his person
Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man (and continues to be—now fully God and glorified man). He is “Jesus, the Son of God.” The name “Jesus” means “Savior” and identifies his humanity and his ministry on earth. “Son of God” affirms his deity and the fact that he is God. In his unique person, Jesus Christ unites deity and humanity in himself. As the unique God-man he unites humankind to God and brings to humankind all that God has for them. How great is Jesus in his person!
2. The greatness of his position
Aaron and his successors ministered in the tabernacle and temple on earth. But Jesus “passed through the heavens” (4:14, literal translation). When he ascended to the Father, he passed through the atmospheric heavens and the planetary heavens into the third heaven where God dwells (2 Cor. 12:2). How much better is it to have a high priest who ministers in a heavenly tabernacle than in an earthly one!
But there is another aspect to Christ’s position: not only is he in heaven, but he is enthroned. His throne is “the throne of grace” (4:16). The mercy seat on the Ark of the Covenant in the tabernacle and temple was God’s throne in Israel (Ex. 25:17–22), but it was veiled from the common people who were prohibited from entering the tabernacle and temple. Moreover, only the high priest could enter the holy of holies, and then only on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16). But in Christ, every believer is invited, and even encouraged, to “approach the throne of grace with confidence”! What a great throne it is because our great high priest is ministering there.
Something else makes Jesus a great high priest: He is ministering mercy and grace to those who come for help. Mercy means that God does not give us what we do deserve; grace means that he gives us what we do not deserve. No Old Testament high priest could minister mercy and grace in quite the same way. When an Israelite was tempted, he could not easily run to the high priest for help; and he certainly could not enter the holy of holies for God’s help. But as believers in Jesus Christ, we can run to our high priest at any time, in any circumstance, and find the help that we need.
Because Jesus is superior to Aaron in person and position, two important conclusions are to be drawn concerning our response to testing and trial:
• We must resist giving up “the faith we profess” (Heb 4:14). The Jewish Christians were being tempted to turn away from Jesus (Heb 3:6, 14). It was not a matter of loosing their salvation, since salvation through Christ is eternal (Heb 5:9). Rather they were tempted to give up their public ‘profession’ (confession) of the faith. In returning to the Jewish faith, they would be telling everyone that they had no faith in Christ (see Gal. 2:11–21). This kind of unbelief would bring reproach to Christ’s name and have dire consequences for their personal walk with Christ.
• We must come boldly into the presence of God to receive the help we need (Heb 4:16). No trial is too great, no temptation too strong, but that Jesus Christ can give us the mercy and grace we need, when we need it. “But he is so far away!” we may argue. “And he is the perfect Son of God! What can he know about the problems of weak sinners like us?” But that is a part of his greatness! When he was ministering on earth, he experienced all that we experience, and even more. After all, a sinless person would feel temptations and trials in a much greater way than you and I could ever feel them. Christ was tempted, yet he did not sin; and he is able to help us when we are tempted. If we fail to hold fast our profession of faith, we are not proving that Jesus Christ has failed. We are only telling the world that we failed to draw on his grace and mercy when it was freely available to us.
Jesus is superior in his ordination (5:1, 4–6)
1 Every high priest is selected from among men and is appointed to represent them in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins…. 4 No one takes this honor upon himself; he must be called by God, just as Aaron was. 5 So Christ also did not take upon himself the glory of becoming a high priest. But God said to him, "You are my Son; today I have become your Father." 6 And he says in another place, "You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek."
No man could appoint himself as a priest, let alone as high priest. King Saul invaded the priesthood and lost his kingdom (1 Sam. 13). Korah and his fellow rebels tried to make themselves priests, and God judged them (Num. 16). When King Uzziah tried to enter the temple and burn incense, God smote him with leprosy (2 Chron. 26:16–21). In contrast, Aaron was chosen by God to be high priest, and was duly ordained and installed in office (Ex. 28). He was chosen from men to minister for men. His main task was at the altar: to offer the sacrifices God had appointed (see Heb. 8:3–4; 9:14). Unless the sacrifices were offered in the right place, by the right person, they were not accepted by God.
The very existence of a priesthood and a system of sacrifices gave evidence that man is estranged from God. It was an act of grace on God’s part that he instituted the whole Levitical system. Today, that system is fulfilled in the ministry of Jesus Christ. He is both the sacrifice and the high priest who ministers to God’s people on the basis of his once-for-all offering on the cross.
The subject of ordination stated in Hebrews 5:1 is further developed in Heb 5:5–6. Jesus did not appoint himself as high priest. He was appointed by the Father. The quotation in 5:5 is from Psalm 2:7. This psalm was already quoted in Heb 1:5 to prove that Jesus is the Son of God. But the emphasis in Hb 5:5 is on the priesthood of Jesus, not on his deity. What significance, then, does this quotation have for the argument? The answer is found in Acts 13:33–34, where Paul quoted Psa 2:7 and explained its meaning. The phrase, “Today I have become your Father” refers to Jesus’ resurrection and ascension by which he rose from the dead in a glorified human body and ascended bodily into heaven to become our high priest at the throne of grace. When Aaron was ordained to the priesthood, he offered the sacrifices of animals. But Jesus, to become our high priest, offered the sacrifice of himself—and then he rose from the dead!
But God the Father not only said, “You are my Son” in Psalm 2:7; he also said, “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek” (Heb 5:6, quoted from Ps. 110:4). This psalm was also quoted earlier in Heb 1:13 to affirm Jesus’ final victory over all his enemies. When Aaron was ordained, God did not speak directly to him and declare his priesthood. But the Father did make this special declaration concerning his Son. Two factors make Christ’s priesthood unique and, therefore, his ordination greater:
1. He is high priest forever
No Old Testament priest ministered forever because each priest died and relinquished the office to his successor. The word “forever” is an important one in this epistle. At least six times the writer affirms that Christ’s high priesthood is forever (5:6; 6:20; 7:17, 21, 24, 28). And, since he is a priest forever, he gives his people salvation forever (7:23–28).
2. He belongs to a different order from the Old Testament priests
Old Testament priests belonged to the order of Aaron; Jesus belongs to the priestly order of Melchizedek. Melchizedek is mentioned in two places in the Old Testament—Gen 14:17–24 and Psa 110:4. His name means “King of Righteousness,” and he was also “King of Salem [peace].” But the fascinating thing about Melchizedek is that he was both priest and a king! King Uzziah wanted to be both a priest and a king, and God judged him. Only in Jesus Christ and Melchizedek were these two offices combined. Jesus Christ is high priest on a throne! The reason Jesus Christ can be “a priest forever” is that he belongs to the “order of Melchizedek.” As far as the Old Testament record is concerned, Melchizedek did not die (see Heb 7:1–3). Of course, because he was a real man, he did die at some time; but the record is not given to us. So Melchizedek becomes a picture of our Lord Jesus Christ who is a priest forever. But Melchizedek also pictures our Lord as a heavenly high priest. Jesus Christ could never have served as a priest when he was on earth because he did not belong to the tribe of Levi. Jesus was a Jew, born of the tribe of Judah. He became the sacrifice on earth that he might become the high priest in heaven. All of these truths will be developed further in Hebrews chapters 7–10.
Jesus is superior in his sympathy (5:2, 7–8)
2 He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness…. 7 During the days of Jesus' life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. 8 Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered…
Every Old Testament high priest had to minister to people who were sinners: those “ignorant and...going astray” (Heb 5:2). They should have been able to identify with such sinners, for they were sinners too as attested by the fact that on the Day of Atonement, they had to offer a sacrifice for themselves before they offered one for the nation (Lev. 16; Heb. 9:7). Sadly, our own sin often blinds us to the need of other sinners and we become judgmental rather than sympathetic. Not so with Jesus who shares fully in our humanity, yet is without sin. In this way he sympathy for us is in no way clouded or diminished. He is able perfectly to meet our need when we sin.
Jesus was prepared for this high priestly ministry during his walk on this earth (Heb 5:7–8) where he experienced the infirmities of human nature, yet without sin. He knew what it was to grow and mature (Luke 2:52), to experience extreme hunger and thirst, as well as weariness (John 4:6–8, 31). He also faced temptations to sin (Matt. 4:1–11) and persecutions from the hands of sinful men.
But how could the perfect Son of God “learn obedience”? In the same way any son does: by the experiences of life. We must remember that our Lord, in his earthly walk, lived by faith in the Father’s will. As God, he needed to learn nothing. But as the Son of God come in human flesh, he had to experience that which his people would experience, so that he might be able to minister as their high priest. He did not need to learn how to obey because it would be impossible for God to be disobedient. Rather, as the God-Man in human flesh, he had to learn what was involved in human obedience. In this way, he identifies fully and sympathetically with us.
Jesus’ preparation involved his experience of death. The writer of Hebrews focuses on our Lord’s experience in the Garden of Gethsemane (Heb 5:7; Matt. 26:36–46). Other servants of God have faced death and not expressed such great emotion; but no other servant ever bore the excruciating weight of the sins of the whole world. In the garden he did not pray to be saved from death, but out of death; and God answered (“heard” Heb 5:7) his prayer by raising him from the dead (the issue addressed in the Old Testament quote in Heb 5:5). Our great high priest understands our need, suffers with us and for us, and gives us the grace needed to face each trial.
Jesus offered a superior sacrifice (5:3, 9–10)
3 This is why he has to offer sacrifices for his own sins, as well as for the sins of the people…. 9 and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him 10 and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek.
This topic has already been touched on in Hebrews 9–10. Two important matters are involved. The first is that Jesus did not need to offer any sacrifices for himself. On the Day of Atonement, the high priest first had to sacrifice for himself; and then he could offer the sacrifices for his nation (Lev. 16). Since Jesus is the sinless Son of God, there was no need for him to sacrifice for himself. He was in perfect fellowship with the Father and needed no cleansing. The second matter is that our Lord’s sacrifice was once and for all, whereas the Old Testament sacrifices had to be repeated. Furthermore, those sacrifices could only cover sins; they could never cleanse sins. It required the sacrifice of the spotless Lamb of God for sin to be cleansed and removed.
Because he is the sinless, eternal Son of God, and because he offered a perfect sacrifice, Jesus is the “source of eternal salvation” (Heb 5:9). No Old Testament priest could offer eternal salvation to anyone, but that is exactly what we have in Jesus Christ. The phrase “once made perfect” does not suggest that Jesus was ever imperfect. The word means “made complete.” Through his experience of suffering, Jesus was equipped for his heavenly ministry as our high priest. He is able in every way to save, keep, and strengthen his people.
Does the phrase “all who obey him” (Heb 5:9) suggest that, if we do not obey him, we may lose our salvation? No, what is in view here is the idea of trusting in him to save us. In the New Testament to obey Jesus means to put our faith in him. And once we have done that, we experience his eternal salvation and as our high priest he keeps, disciplines and strengthens us, even through our times of doubt.
Clearly Jesus’ high priesthood is superior to that of Aaron and those who followed him in that position under the Old Covenant. Thus it would be foolish for anyone to return to the inferiorities of the Law when they could enjoy the superiorities of Jesus Christ and his New Covenant. This being so, why were these Jewish Christians tempted to return to Judaism? The answer is clear—they we not progressing in a mature understanding and experience of Christ. It is this immaturity that the author of Hebrews addresses next.