So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you” Hebrews 5:5
If it hasn’t been clear yet so far, I don’t personally pick the Scripture readings for our daily devotional. I use another resource, not for the illustrations or the ideas, just for the Bible passage — because I have no desire to pick amongst the thousands of passages every day, and I might be more likely to pick favorites each time. This way, we get variety. Unfortunately, it also sometimes frustrates me because I find the choices strange, or out of context, or too short, or too long — all the typical complaints of somebody who leaves the choosing up to others. So I’m trying not to whine about it, and I go with their picks, but like today it means I sometimes feel compelled to give you background information. I don’t think it’s easy to just jump into a single line out of Hebrews, or most other books.
So, with Hebrews, know that the book is written with a focus on, yes, the “Hebrews” or the Jewish people, and especially their customs/culture. Maybe it was written to the Jews to try to make sense out of Jesus as their Messiah; maybe it was written to non-Jews to connect foreigners to the Jewish backstory. Either way, that’s important. Hebrews digs deeply into old school Jewish things like the Law, festivals, rituals, priesthood, sacrifice, etc. Lots of what we think odd in the Old Testament, the bloody stuff, the rules and commands, Hebrews gets into, all with an eye on Jesus. How did Jesus fulfill the Law, and so on.
Hebrews 5 starts into the high priesthood. It was a position of honor, and had ancient roots. Back to the days of Moses leading the Hebrews out of Egypt, and God gave them the Law to guard them and teach them on the journey as a people, God also instituted a special type of leader. Sometimes there were prophets, like Moses, who spoke for God and wielded power on God’s behalf with mighty deeds; later, there were judges, people appointed to exercise wisdom when necessary on behalf of God to the people; much later there were kings, who took on a mix of these roles. And in the middle of it all, were the priests. From the start, the priests were the ones set apart from the people, to represent the people but also to be holy and to specially represent God. They were like a bridge between heaven and earth, entrusted with very holy things/places, like the Tabernacle where God’s presence lived in the wilderness, and later the Temple. They handled things like the Ark of the Covenant, and other tools/decorations/items connected to God’s presence. If you read in the book of Exodus how the Tabernacle and these items were constructed, you see there was great precision demanded. If you read how they were to be handled, again, great precision and care.
The idea is that God was doing something unheard of — promising to let his very presence (symbolized by this pillar of fire/cloud/power) live right in the proximity of the people. It was to be a comfort, a sense of safety, a sense of blessedness for such an honor, and I think a sense of intimacy. Moses would go and meet with God face-to-face sometimes. A truly amazing time, especially to the cultures in those days who saw gods as distant and invisible. It was truly amazing to the Hebrews because while God was near and loving and personal, their God had seemed just as invisible at times, and even more, terribly holy/powerful to the point of being dangerous. How could GOD be expected to be confined to a tent??? How could it happen and not have the people end up destroyed?
So, God gave them specific, specific instructions in the Law on what to build, and how to build it, and how to treat the Tabernacle/Temple. And the priests were the ones in the position of highest danger. When all was built and ready, it was the high priest who sprinkled everything with sacrificial blood (to atone for his own sin, and the sin of the people); it was the priest who had to dress just right, as a sign of obedience, lest God think he was taking it too lightly and must be struck down for it. I don’t want this to be a picture of a mean or squirrelly God, it’s just that God knew the power of God’s own presence. God knew that for this to work, nobody could act foolishly or carelessly even for a moment, or his own glory/majesty/justice/honor would have no choice but to act accordingly and that could mean someone’s destruction. The very presence of God will not tolerate evil, or sinfulnesss, or malice, or even wanton foolishness. These are God’s enemies, and it his nature to eradicate them. Thank God for that, that such things have no place in God’s kingdom. But in visiting earth, surrounded by those things, it was an EXTREMELY volatile situation. There needed to be special provisions to protect God’s honor and to protect the humans’ lives. So, the high priests bore all that pressure. To see to it that the people kept it together enough that they kept their lives; and to see to it that God’s honor and goodness weren’t challenged such that the holy places might be desecrated.
It’s significant because the book of Hebrews breaks this stuff down and shows us how it always pointed to Jesus. Remember, by the time Jesus lived, the Hebrews had twisted and manipulated the Law and the Priesthood for literally thousands of years since Moses’ day. To the point that the priesthood and Temple rituals were empty, a charade, something the rich/powerful were using to burden the people, and something that I feel sure infuriated God. So, no wonder Jesus came and had deep conflict with the priests and the Temple. No wonder Hebrews 5:5 feels the need to remind everyone how the high priest should be acting.
Hebrews 5:1-5 is a statement to realize that the high priest, for all the pomp and glamor we find with him in Jesus’ day, was always just another human being. No better than anyone else on earth. No holier or smarter or more gifted in any way. Chosen to be a representative of the people. A normal person so that he could relate to the other normal, sinful people around him. Someone who had to offer sacrifices for his own wrongdoing, too, before proceeding in the Temple. And persons chosen only by God, not earning it for themselves or taking it for themselves. Then in verse 5, the writer attaches these same ideas directly to Jesus. Jesus as one who was human like us, who could relate to us, and who came to represent us fully before God, to stand in God’s presence on our behalf. Jesus who, though he was God, was also chosen by God. Even though he was God he didn’t try to snatch the authority or the glory, but was humbler than any ordinary man. And then the other big difference being that Jesus was himself a sinless and perfect sacrifice.
The lesson is to tell us about Jesus’ character and to start to understand more why he died, and what it meant. But it’s also to show how humble and good and human but better-than-human Jesus is. This is showing us our God, and what a unique and excellent God. The God who went to the trouble to spend thousands of years beginning with Moses (and before) trying to teach human beings about his presence, and his majesty, and sacrifice, and holiness, through this elaborate system of the Law and priesthood. All so that one day much later, after it was thoroughly drilled into the Jews, a king might come from the Jews. A Messiah, who would fulfill everything they had ever been taught. The perfect sacrifice. The perfect priest. The perfect connection between us and God, reconciling us together forever, for those who believe. Today, realize that there is no faith system like this on earth. NONE. And see what it means to you, that this God, in Jesus, has done this for you.