20 – Hebrews 5:1-4: God’s Compassionate High Priest

Hebrews 5:1-4

“Every high priest selected from among men is appointed to represent his fellow men in matters pertaining to God. His ministerial priorities include offering gifts and making the necessary sacrifices for sins on their behalf. He must be able to sympathize with the ignorant, the misguided, and those who are wandering from the true path, realizing he himself has human weaknesses. Because of his sinful nature, he is required to offer sacrifices – both for his own sins and for those he represents. No one would dare to assume this position on his own initiative, but only when called by God, as was Aaron.”    (paraphrased) 

v. 1
Before the writer expands his theme, it is necessary to explain how Christ qualifies as a High Priest. The original recipients of this epistle may have had difficulty comprehending how the title and position of priest could apply to Christ. He was from the tribe of Judah not Levi. The writer begins his remarks concerning the priesthood by listing the essential qualifications of the office. He proceeds to show how Jesus perfectly fulfills each of them (vv. 5-10).

A human high priest is:

<> “from among men” – he has human frailties (v. 1).
<> “ordained to help men” – he stands in proxy for other men (v. 1).
<> “compassionate” – he understands his own shortcomings (v. 2).
<> “performing offerings for his own sins” – he must atone for personal sins (v. 3).
<> “appointed by God” – he is neither self-appointed nor elected by men (v. 4).

v. 2
Sin interferes with one’s relationship to God. Sacrifices offered by priests are required in order to restore harmony. But he who is appointed as a high priest must demonstrate compassion (metriopathein) toward others, for he also has human weaknesses. Metriopathein means “to deal gently with; to treat with moderation; to bear tenderly with others without becoming exasperated.” While not condoning sin, a priest should exhibit patience with gentle and sincere sympathy. He must be both human and humane. He must avoid extremes, being neither too severe or too lenient. Aaron displayed exemplary tolerance on several occasions, praying and interceding for the people (Num. 14:5; 16:22, 47). Priestly empathy grows from an awareness of personal human weaknesses. Prior to Christ’s resurrection, only an appointed human could represent others before God. Had the Son of God not become a man, He could not be our High Priest.

Angels cannot be priests, for they lack many human attributes and have no divine appointment. As divinely created beings, they can never appreciate the temptations humans face. Angelic beings are not “surrounded with infirmity,” nor can they freely communicate with men.

Levitical high priests have human failings. At Mount Sinai, Aaron lied when he told Moses he cast gold into the fire and the golden calf miraculously appeared (Ex. 32:24). Eli the priest cruelly misjudged Hannah (I Sam. 1:13-14). Caiaphas the high priest was involved in condemning Jesus to death (Jn. 18:24). Annas, another high priest, demanded to know who gave Peter and John the power to perform miracles (Acts 4:6-7). The high priest Ananias commanded Paul to be struck in the face (Acts 23:2). An appointment to the priesthood does not make one sinless. A long line of fallible high priests continued to minister until the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. On Calvary, Jesus simultaneously was the Lamb who bore man’s sins as well as the High Priest who offered the sacrifice. Jesus alone is “the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world” (Jn. 1:29). 

Sins of “ignorance” and sins resulting from “straying” may both be atoned for (Lev. 4:2-3 & Num. 15:24-26). Jesus cried from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk. 23:34). However, willful sinning is another matter (Heb. 10:26). “The man who acts presumptuously shall die” (Num. 15:28-30; Deut. 17:12). Whereas sins of ignorance were pardonable, sins of flagrant defiance were not. The Lord made a distinction between sins committed on impulse and those deliberately planned.

v. 3
Ordination into the priesthood was accompanied by great ceremonialism and special sacrifices to God (Ex. 29). The high priest wore elaborate garments to distinguish him from other priests (Ex. 39). It was the solemn privilege of a high priest to enter the innermost sanctuary once a year to offer atonement for sin (Lev. 16:34).

The life of a priest was strictly regulated. A priest could not marry a divorced woman (Lev. 21:7). He could marry only a virgin (Lev. 21:14). A priest could have no blemishes. He could not be blind or lame (Lev. 21:18). He could not have a broken hand or foot (Lev. 21:19). He must be physically fit (Lev. 21:20-21). There were even restrictions concerning members of a priest’s family (Lev. 22:12). Priests also judged civic matters. “By their word shall every controversy be tried” (Deut. 21:5).

Initially, priests were required to be descendants of Aaron (Ex. 29:9). But Roman rulers often appointed high priests and several often served in the temple at the same time. Tabernacle priests had the same moral weaknesses as other men. By the time Christ arrived, the priesthood had become extremely corrupt. Because of their human frailties and personal sins, priests were obligated to offer sacrifices for their own sins as well as for those of the people (Lev. 16:17). A priest stood in no less need of atonement than other Israelites. However, the spotless Lamb of God met all the necessary qualifications for priesthood, with one notable exception: as the only sinless High Priest, He had no need to offer sacrifices for personal transgressions.

v. 4
The high priest held the highest position in the land. He filled the role of the mediator required by God. No one dare assume this office without divine appointment. The Lord validated His selection of Aaron as high priest when He caused his rod to bring forth blossoms (Num. 17:1-8). Only when a priest is divinely commissioned to offer sacrifices for sin will God be appeased by them. This was graphically demonstrated when Korah and others presumptuously offered incense and the earth opened up and swallowed them (Num. 16:2-32). Fire from the Lord destroyed 250 others who offered incense instead of the priests (Num. 16:35). The next day, the people blamed Moses and Aaron for this and God sent a plague that killed 14,700 people (Lev. 16:49). On another occasion, when King Uzziah presumed to offer incense in the temple, the Lord smote him with leprosy (II Chron. 26:16-21). God demands people respect the office of the high priest. The sanctity of the Judaic priesthood serves as a warning for today: one should only enter the ministry when directly sanctioned by God.


Hebrews 5:1-4

1. According to Leviticus 21:20, a man was disqualified for the priesthood if:
A. he had a crooked back
B. he was a dwarf
C. he had a blemished eye
D. he had scurvy
E. all of the above

2. A man could not be a priest if he had a flat nose. True or False?  (Lev.21:18)

3. According to Leviticus 22:22, blind animals were not acceptable sacrifices. True or False?

4. What animals were unacceptable as sacrifices? (Lev. 22:20)

5. According to Numbers 16:20-22, what two men interceded for the people when Korah presumed he could perform priestly duties?

6. King Uzziah violated the laws of the priesthood. God punished him with leprosy for how long?  (II Chron. 27:21)

7. According to II Timothy 2:24, what characteristics must a minister possess?

8. In I Timothy 3:1-13, the requirements for Christian ministers are listed. Explain why God has placed these restrictions upon those in the ministry.


Maxim of the Moment

If you risk nothing, you risk everything. - Geena Davis