Online Bible Commentary
The Priesthood of God
Hebrews 5:1 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. 2 He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness. 3 This is why he has to offer sacrifices for his own sins, as well as for the sins of the people. 4 No one takes this honor upon himself; he must be called by God, just as Aaron was. (NIV)
The writer of Hebrews is continuing to claim the superiority of Christ throughout this section of the letter. Previously, he has claimed the superiority of Christ over the prophets, the angels, mankind, Moses, and Joshua. In the section from 4:14-7:28 he claims the superiority of Christ over the high priests. In this passage he gives the qualifications of a high priest.
When God gave the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai, He also started a human priesthood. This priesthood was God’s way of allowing men to come before Him. The priest would be man’s representative before God.
God decreed that priests would come from the tribe of Levi. Therefore, the tribe of Levi was not given their own land during the distribution of the Promised Land among the tribes of Israel. Only eleven of the twelve tribes actually received their own territory. The Levites were populated throughout the various tribes so that each territory would have their own priests to represent them. The priests were given land and a home. They were supported through sacrifices and offerings of the people they represented. Aaron, brother of Moses and the great grandson of Levi, was appointed the first priest (Ex. 28:1). Therefore the order of the priesthood was known as the Levitical or Aaronic priesthood.
The first qualification of the high priest was that he should be “selected from among men” (v. 1a). In other words, he had to be a man. His main function was to represent men before God (v. 1b). Much of his time was spent in offering “gifts and sacrifices (to God) for sins” (v. 1c), on behalf of men.
The second qualification for high priests was to “deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray” (v. 2a). The Greek word translated “deal gently” is the word “metriopathein”, which means “to moderate passions”, hence the form of the word “pathos” in the Greek. The word was used in Aristotelian tradition to mean to moderate passions so as to avoid extremes. The high priest was to remain calm and compassionate. The Greek word translated “ignorant” (v. 2b) is the word “agnoousian”. Think agnostic. It is one who has no knowledge of a particular subject. The Greek word translated “going astray” (v. 2c) is the word “planomenois”, which means “to wander”, to sin. The meaning is that high priests should remain calm and compassionate when counseling those who sin out of lack of knowledge. In Old Testament times sacrifices were only able to absolve unintentional sins. There was no forgiveness for intentional sin.
The high priest is to remain calm and compassionate with these people because “he himself is subject to weakness” (v. 2d), sin. So, he was required to offer sacrifices for himself, as well as for the people he represents (v. 3). The Greek word translated “he has” is the word “otheilei” which means “ought to”, and carries the meaning of being morally bound to offer sacrifices in order to fulfill his office as high priest. Verse three gives an example of a figure of speech called an “ellipsis”. It means that a word has been omitted that does not change the meaning of the sentence. It is done so as to give greater emphasis to the rest of the sentence. In this case, the second “sacrifice” is omitted in the second part of the verse. It would have read “as well as (sacrifices) for the sins of the people”, but the writer wanted to emphasize that the action was for the sins of the people, and did not want to emphasize the sacrifice itself.
The third qualification for the priesthood was to be appointed, or “called”, by God, like Aaron (v. 4). It was an “honor” to be in the priesthood. Men could not just choose the priesthood as a vocation. Also, they could not be appointed by a non representative of God. Years before, King Herod the Great had appointed men of the upper class in Jerusalem as priests. They were not qualified to be priests, because they were appointed by the state and not by God.
In summary, the qualifications for priests were that they were to be men, they were to be calm and compassionate, and they were to be called by God. They represented men before God.
But Jesus came and changed all that. He became the Great High Priest that all men and women could go directly before without the need of an intermediary. He represents us before Father God. His spirit lives within all Christians, in the form of the Holy Spirit. We can talk to Him at any time. He wants that personal relationship with us. He is our very own personal High Priest.