The Priesthood of Christ

The writer of the book of Hebrews repeatedly spoke of things under the law of Christ as being better than those under the Law of Moses. With Christ, we have a better hope (Hebrews 6:19-20; 7:19), better covenant (Hebrews 7:22; 8:6), better promises (Hebrews 8:6), and a better sacrifice (Hebrews 9:23-28). The writer told his audience, “Consider Jesus, the Apostle and High Priest of our confession” (Hebrews 3:1). The role of the high priest was to offer sacrifices for sins (Hebrews 5:1) and be an intercessor between God and man (Hebrews 7:24-25). The nature of Christ’s priesthood is one of the things that is better under the new law. Let us consider the priesthood of Christ.

Comparison with the Levitical Priesthood

Under the Old Testament system, priests were to come from the tribe of Levi (Deuteronomy 21:5; Hebrews 7:5). However, Jesus was not a priest under the Levitical order (the order of Aaron). He was “designated by God as a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 5:10). The Hebrew writer asked the question: “Now if perfection was through the Levitical priesthood (for on the basis of it the people received the Law), what further need was there for another priest to arise according to the order of Melchizedek, and not be designated according to the order of Aaron?” (Hebrews 7:11). The reason is “because of its weakness and uselessness (for the Law made nothing perfect)” (Hebrews 7:18-19). With Christ, there was a “bringing in of a better hope” (Hebrews 7:19). The final verse of the chapter compares the Levitical high priests and Christ: “For the Law appoints men as high priests who are weak, but the word of the oath, which came after the Law, appoints a Son, made perfect forever” (Hebrews 7:28).

The link between Christ and Melchizedek is designed to further show the superiority of Christ to the high priests under the Law of Moses (Hebrews 7:1-10). After returning from battle victorious, Abraham met Melchizedek – “king of Salem, priest of the Most High God” (Hebrews 7:1). Two significant things occurred at this meeting. Melchizedek blessed Abraham (Hebrews 7:1) and Abraham paid tithes to Melchizedek (Hebrews 7:2).

The Hebrew writer explained the significance of these two events: “But without any dispute the lesser is blessed by the greater” (Hebrews 7:7). Abraham was blessed by Melchizedek. Therefore, Abraham is the lesser and Melchizedek is the greater. Regarding the paying of tithes, the writer continued: “And, so to speak, through Abraham even Levi, who received tithes, paid tithes, for he was still in the loins of his father when Melchizedek met him” (Hebrews 7:9-10). The Jews, being Abraham’s physical descendants, held him up as their father (cf. John 8:39, 53); but Melchizedek was greater than even Abraham. Jesus was not a high priest after the order of one of Abraham’s descendants. He was “a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 6:20).

There are several things about Christ’s priesthood that are better than the Levitical priesthood. One is the high priest Himself. Jesus was “holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens” (Hebrews 7:26). In contrast, a Levitical high priest had to “offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 7:27). Those priests were “weak.” Jesus was “made perfect forever” (Hebrews 7:28). The high priest would enter the holy place to sacrifice. Jesus “did not enter a holy place made with hands, a mere copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, not to appear in the presence of God for us” (Hebrews 9:24-25).

Another aspect of Christ’s priesthood that is better is the duration of it. “The former priests, on the one hand, existed in greater numbers because they were prevented by death from continuing, but Jesus, on the other hand, because He continues forever, holds His priesthood permanently” (Hebrews 7:23-24). Because of this, “He is able to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:25).

One important difference between the two priesthoods has to do with the sacrifice. The sacrifices of both priesthoods are repeatedly compared in the book of Hebrews. While the sacrifices under the Law were able to “sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh,” Jesus’ sacrifice is able to “cleanse your conscience” (Hebrews 9:13-14). The old sacrifices could not cleanse the conscience because “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4). The Hebrew writer later said, “Every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins; but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God” (Hebrews 10:11-12). The high priests under the Law had to offer sacrifices “year by year” (Hebrews 9:25). Jesus only needed to make one sacrifice: “Once at the consummation of the ages He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself” (Hebrews 9:26).

Qualifications of Christ to be High Priest

One cannot serve in the role of high priest simply because He desires to do so. “And no one takes the honor to himself, but receives it when he is called by God, even as Aaron was” (Hebrews 5:4). There were certain qualifications that had to be met in order for Aaron, or anyone else under the Law of Moses, to serve as high priest. These qualifications were not decided upon by men. They were given by God. Jesus also “did not glorify Himself so as to become a high priest” (Hebrews 5:5). Instead, He was “designated by God as a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 5:10). Let us notice what it was that made Jesus fit to be our high priest.

He partook of flesh and blood – “Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17). In order to fulfill the role of high priest, Jesus had to be like His brethren. In what way did Jesus have to be made like His brethren?

Humans are made up of two components – body and spirit (James 2:26). Man is made “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27). This is not referring to a physical body because “God is spirit” (John 4:24). Jesus’ spirit existed long before His incarnation (John 8:58). He played a role in our creation (John 1:1-3; Colossians 1:16). Our spirits were made in His image. Therefore, He was already like His brethren in that respect. So He did what He needed to do to be like His brethren. He “became flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).

The Hebrew writer clearly indicated that the taking on of flesh and blood was the way in which Christ was “made like His brethren.” “Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil” (Hebrews 2:14). Jesus’ incarnation made it possible for Him to fulfill the role of high priest. He needed to partake of flesh and blood and offer Himself because “without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22).

He was tempted in all things – The people under the Law of Moses could relate with the high priest because “he himself is also beset with weakness” (Hebrews 5:2). Because the high priest was like this, “he [could] deal gently with the ignorant and misguided” (Hebrews 5:2). It was necessary for the high priest to be able to sympathize with the people. He knew what the people had to deal with. He could relate to them and they with him.

Our high priest “has passed through the heavens.” He is “Jesus the Son of God” (Hebrews 4:14). Yet He is not so far removed from us in that position that He cannot sympathize with us like the priests of old. “For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with out weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus lived as a man and was tested and tried as all men are. Because he endured this, He can sympathize with us.

Some believe Jesus needed to come to earth and live as a man in order to find out what it is like to be a man and that without coming to earth, He would never fully understand what we go through in this life. Actually, Jesus understood all of that before His incarnation. He created the world and everything in it. He created us and our minds and, therefore, knows the way we think. His coming to earth and being “tempted in all things as we are” was not so that He could see what it was like, but to demonstrate to us that He did understand. If Jesus never came to earth, man could easily (though falsely) accuse God of not understanding the hardships we go through. But since Jesus came to earth, He proved to man that He can relate to him and showed how to live without sin in the process.

He was without sin – Jesus was “tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). The fact that He was without sin helped qualify Him to be our high priest: “For it was fitting for us to have such a high priest, holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens” (Hebrews 7:26). He “offered Himself without blemish to God” (Hebrews 9:14). This was necessary because He had to “appear in the presence of God for us” (Hebrews 9:24). If Jesus was not without sin, He could not have appeared in God’s presence because “God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5).

He was the Son of God – Jesus’ deity is connected with the Melchizedek priesthood: “So also Christ did not glorify Himself so as to become a high priest, but He who said to Him, ‘You are My Son, today I have begotten You’; just as He says also in another passage, ‘You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek’” (Hebrews 5:5-6). These two ideas are tied together. Furthermore, in speaking of Melchizedek, the Hebrew writer said he was “without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but made like the Son of God, he remains a priest perpetually” (Hebrews 7:3). The priesthood of Melchizedek foreshadowed the priesthood of Christ. He was “like the Son of God.” It would take the Son of God to be “a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.

There is another reason why Jesus had to be the Son of God (deity) in order to qualify to be our high priest. We have already seen that our high priest had to live as a man, be tempted, and remain without sin. What mere man could accomplish this? “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). It was necessary for the person of God to live as a man in order for that sinless sacrifice to be offered.

The Sacrifice of Christ

The high priest was to offer sacrifices for sins. While the sacrifices offered by the Levitical priests were able to “sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh” (Hebrews 9:13), they could not cleanse the conscience (Hebrews 9:14) or “make perfect those who draw near” (Hebrews 10:1). “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4). But the sacrifice of Christ was better than the sacrifices offered by the high priests of old. Jesus was able to “put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself” (Hebrews 9:26). He made a sin sacrifice “once for all when He offered up Himself” (Hebrews 7:27). Jesus’ death on the cross was the perfect sacrifice and the only sacrifice that could take away sins.

What was is about Jesus sacrifice that made it capable of doing this? We already noticed that Jesus partook of flesh and blood in order to be our high priest (Hebrews 2:14, 17). We see elsewhere that both Jesus’ flesh and blood had to be offered for His sacrifice to be of benefit to us. “By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10). “How much more will the blood of Christ…cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (Hebrews 9:14). “Without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22). These passages show us that Jesus’ sacrifice was able to make forgiveness and reconciliation possible because Jesus offered His body and shed His blood.

Yet some want there to be something more. They believe that if the offering of His body and shedding of His blood was all there was to Jesus’ sacrifice, then it would not be of any benefit to us. So they say that Jesus died a spiritual death while on the cross, becoming separated from God, in order to pay the price for our sins. The problem with this theory is that it is not taught in the Bible.

Some will argue that since the penalty for sin is spiritual death (which it is), then Jesus had to pay that price to redeem us. The problem is that this confuses the wages of sin with the price of redemption. “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). The context indicates that this is spiritual death. This is the penalty for our sins. But is spiritual death the redemptive price Jesus paid? Peter said we have been redeemed “with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ” (1 Peter 1:18-19). Paul wrote, “In Him we have redemption through His blood” (Ephesians 1:7). The price of redemption was not the spirit of Christ, but the blood of Christ.

The sacrifice of Christ was such that He only had to make the one sacrifice. Jesus did not have to make atonement “year by year” (Hebrews 9:25) or stand “daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices” (Hebrews 10:11) like the high priests under the Law. Instead, He “offered one sacrifice for sins for all time” (Hebrews 10:12). “For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified” (Hebrews 10:14).

The Benefits We Derive from the Priesthood of Christ

Why is it important to study a topic like the priesthood of Christ? The Hebrew writer mentioned at least two things we gain by having Jesus as our high priest that we could not have without Him.

Confidence – “Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith” (Hebrews 10:19-22). We can approach God with confidence. We can come before Him in prayer knowing He will hear us. “For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:15-16).

Hope – “This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and steadfast and one which enters within the veil, where Jesus has entered as a forerunner for us, having become a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 6:19-20). Because of the sacrifice of Christ, we can be assured that a reward in heaven awaits the faithful. Jesus is “to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation” (Hebrews 5:9). We do not need to wonder if our faithful obedience will be rewarded in the end. God in Christ has done all that is necessary to make salvation possible. All we need to do is serve Him faithfully and we can be confident of our hope of heaven.


When you subscribe, you’ll also receive 3 free PDF’s: Plain Bible Teaching on Blessings, the latest issue of Plain Bible Teaching Quarterly Review, and Social Issues.