1 For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. 2 He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness. 3 Because of this he is obligated to offer sacrifice for his own sins just as he does for those of the people. 4 And no one takes this honor for himself, but only when called by God, just as Aaron was. 5 So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”; 6 as he says also in another place, “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.” 7 In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. 8 Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. 9 And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, 10 being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.
Literature is replete with examples of broken, flawed priests, pastors, and ministers. A few examples come to mind. Think of Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory. Set in 1930s Mexico and the brutal persecution of the Catholic Church there, the story is about a deeply flawed unnamed priest that Graham calls a whisky priest because of his alcoholism. Even so, this priest is paradoxically the only priest who has not sold out and capitulated and taken a wife in order to avoid persecution. He is deeply flawed yet also struggling to be faithful. I think of Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence, which was influenced, as it turns out, by Greene and The Power and the Glory. There, a Portuguese Jesuit missionary priest is brutalized and persecuted alongside Japanese Christians in that country, finally officially renouncing his faith and yet seeking to hold on to the vestiges of it until the end. I think of Preacher Casey in The Grapes of Wrath who tells Tom Joad about how his hypocritical womanizing after preaching Jesus finally led him to conclude that sin does not even exist. And I think of America’s most notorious literary example of a deeply flawed, hypocritical preacher, Elmer Gantry, whose name has become a byword for all charlatan preachers.
And this barely scratches the surface. Time and time again one can find in our books and movies and television shows depictions of deeply broken priests and pastors. And these depictions inevitably demonstrate two very important truths: (1) human ministers are imperfect and (2) our hearts yearn for a perfect high priest. In fact, our very outrage at imperfect and hypocritical ministers reveals our great desire for and expectation of a high priest who is not imperfect and hypocritical. We grieve and rage over fallen ministers because we know our souls need a minister who is not fallen, who is not a hypocrite, who is not a charlatan.
And it is at this point that Hebrews 5 speaks deeply to our souls, for Hebrews 5 tells us that while, yes, earthly ministers are imperfect, we do have a perfect minister, a perfect priest, who has accomplished for us what no merely earthly priest could.
Theologian James Leo Garrett points out that “numerous theologians have utilized as an organizing pattern the ‘threefold office’ (munus triplex) of Christ, namely, as Prophet, Priest, and King. The concept of the threefold office is traceable to Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 263-c.339), but the Protestant Reformers made its usage commonplace.” Today we are going to begin unpacking the second element of the munus triplex: Christ the Priest.
Human priests are called but limited and imperfect.
We begin with human priests and their callings, roles, and imperfections.
1 For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. 2 He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness. 3 Because of this he is obligated to offer sacrifice for his own sins just as he does for those of the people. 4 And no one takes this honor for himself, but only when called by God, just as Aaron was.
The attributes of human priests are telling. This list of attributes is as good a historical snapshot of the priesthood of Israel as you are going to get! We learn from it that the priests of Israel:
- were appointed,
- served a mediatorial role between Israel and God,
- offered sacrifices for sin,
- dealt gently with fallen people,
- were themselves fallen people,
- offered sacrifices for their own sins,
- did not seize the priesthood for themselves,
- were called by God to be priests.
To be sure, the priesthood of Israel was important and it ought not be thought that all who served therein were raging hypocrites. Much with ministers today, some were faithful and some were not. Even so, all were imperfect. Their job was to stand between the people of God making sacrifice and intercession. But, to a person, it was necessary for them to include themselves in the assembly of sinners needing forgiveness!
While there are obviously differences between the high priests of Israel and what we call ministers and pastors today, I do believe there are certain implications we should draw from this today. First, we must note that we are talking about ministers who are actually called by God. Tragically, in our day, it cannot be assumed that all who claim to be God’s ministers are actually called by God into His service. There are many reasons for this, but let me offer one. John C. Fletcher wrote for The Washington Post that from 1960 to 1966 Protestant seminary enrollment in the United States grew by 3%. But from 1966 to 1971 it grew by 31%. Why? What was happening in 1966 to cause this astonishing spike in seminary enrollment in our country? The Vietnam War and the draft. For instance, from 1966 to 1972 around 30,000 young men in our country fled to Canada. But apparently many fled as well to the seminaries. In other words, in the late 1960s and into the 1970s the seminaries were flooded by young men, many of whom were not called and many of whom had no business being there. You might take a little bit of time to reflect on what that means for the American church today, this influx of the uncalled.
But, no, we are not talking about the uncalled. We are talking about genuine ministers of God. We should see that God does call ministers and it is indeed possible for ministers to be good and godly men. To admit that all ministers are imperfect is not to admit that every minister is as wicked as they can be. God forbid! No, as with ministers so with all followers of Christ: we can follow Jesus and be people of integrity even as we struggle with our shortcomings. We can seek faithfully to bring these to the foot of the cross. And it is at this point where verse 3 is crucially important:
3 Because of this he is obligated to offer sacrifice for his own sins just as he does for those of the people.
I believe that where ministers go wrong is when they forget this fundamental fact: we are one with the people of God in our need for grace. We gather together at the foot of the cross. Ministers must not forget this. I tremble a bit now when I think back on something one of my preaching professors said in seminary. I remember the moment he said it because I immediately disagreed. He said that when we preach we should say “you” and not “we.” But, no, I think that is wrong. We should say “we.” We gather together at the foot of the cross!
And the church needs to remember this as well. I believe there are two extremes we must avoid. The first extreme is one of a naïve exaltation of ministers to an unrealistic position. Pastors are not perfect. You are not saved by putting faith in a pastor. You are saved by putting faith in Christ. The second extreme is the extreme of prayerless hostility towards ministers. Consider these Gallup findings from last year.
The trajectory of confidence in the church as an institution mirrors the decline of trust in pastors, according to Gallup’s annual ratings of professions. In 2018, pastors reached their lowest mark at 37% who say ministers have high or very high honesty. In 2019, that climbed back up to 40% before dipping back down to 39% in 2020.
This is tragic.
What, then, is the answer? The answer, I believe, is prayer. Pray for your ministers. Pray for our walks with Jesus. Pray for our faith. Pray for our families. Pray that we stay close to the cross and lead with integrity and courage. Do not lift us up but also do not abandon us in prayerlessness. Plead for us before the throne as we plead for all of you!
Human priests, human ministers are indeed called by God. We have a task to do. But we must place ourselves among the people of God in our need for grace.
Unlike human priests, our High Priest Jesus is perfect.
In certain ways, Jesus our High Priest is like His ministers and in other ways He is, of course, radically different! His likeness gives us comfort but His difference gives us hope! The writer of Hebrews reveals this to be the case. Consider:
5 So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”; 6 as he says also in another place, “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.”
Here is a similarity: Christ, like all earthly priests, was appointed. The Father sent Him to be our great High Priest! But immediately there is a difference. Jesus, we are told, is a priest “after the order of Melchizedek.” Here he is quoting Psalm 110:4. But what does this mean, that Jesus is a priest “after the order of Melchizedek”? It is interesting to note that there are actually very few references to Melchizedek in the Bible. The key text is in Genesis 14, then we have a reference in Psalm 110, and then, interestingly, we have eight references to Melchizedek in the book of Hebrews, of which Hebrews 5:6 is the first. The key passage, again, is Genesis 14.
17 After his [Abram’s] return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley). 18 And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. (He was priest of God Most High.) 19 And he blessed him and said, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; 20 and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!” And Abram gave him a tenth of everything.
Let us simplify this interesting matter by noting the following:
- Melchizedek was a priest.
- Melchizedek was also a king.
- Melchizedek blessed Abram (who would become Abraham).
- Abram gave Melchizedek an offering.
Melchizedek becomes, then, in the history of Israel a type of the great figure who was to come who would also be a priest and a King and have a unique role in the divine economy of salvation. We know now, of course, Melchizedek was a type of Christ who was to come. That is, Christ fulfilled what Melchizedek first modeled: devotion to God, priesthood, and kingship. In this sense, Jesus is in the order of Melchizedek.
The 16th century German pastor and reformer, Lucas Osiander, argued that this reference to Jesus as being in “the order of Melchizedek” is a reference to the comparisons between Melchizedek and Jesus, exemplified, Osiander said, by the following:
- Both were priests and kings.
- Melchizedek was the king of Salem (translation: “peace”) and Jesus is the Prince of Peace.
- Melchizedek blessed Abraham. Jesus blesses us.
- Melchizedek’s father and mother are unnamed. Jesus had no earthly father and, in Osiander’s words, “according to the divine nature he did not have a mother.”
Concerning the language of “the order of Melchizedek,” New Testament scholar Thomas Schreiner points out that the “word ‘order’…could refer to an order where there is succession or simply mean that Jesus is a priest like Melchizedek. The latter is probably in view here.”
The writer of Hebrews continues to explain Jesus’ priesthood.
7 In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence.
Most New Testament scholars see in this reference to Jesus’ “loud cries and tears” a reference to Gethsemane. This would seem to fit. Jesus did cry out “to him who was able to save him from death” and his “reverence” may be a reference to his prayerful trust in the Father: “Not my will but thy will be done.”
I believe that the next verse also suggests that Gethsemane is in view here.
8 Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.
This verse troubles some people but I do not believe it should. For starters, when the author of Hebrews says that Jesus “learned obedience” it simply cannot mean that He was ever disobedient. That issue was covered in Hebrews 4:
15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.
No, the idea of Jesus “learning obedience” is not a problem. The key is that He learned it “through what he suffered.” In other words, in Gethsemane and then on Calvary Jesus learned something in the sense that He exhibited an obedience He previously had not had to exhibit, for only now had Jesus come to the cross. I agree with the 16th century Gasparo Contarini who wrote of this:
He did not learn an obedience that he did not already know and to which he had no inclination. But he learned by experience and the acting out of obedience…
And again, the 16th/17th century Anglican, William Jones was correct when he wrote:
Although he was a Son, “equal with the Father,” Philippians 2:6, by his sufferings he learned what obedience meant. As Cajetan has put it, experimento didicit: he felt by experience what it was to obey.
I believe this is actually a beautiful picture! Your great High Priest learned full obedience in his humanity by being willing to give all that He had, His very life, for you! And our next verses state plainly the radical implications of this selflessness:
9 And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, 10 being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.
“Being made perfect” also need not trouble us. It simply means that when the incarnate Jesus finally went to the cross He completed the perfection of His obedience by finally doing what He had not had to do to that point. It may also be a reference to the completion of Christ’s saving work on Easter morning. The church father Theodoret of Cyr saw the phrase “being made perfect” from verse 9 as referring “to the resurrection and immortality, this being the completion of the incarnation.”
But we must not miss the second half of verse 9. Jesus, our great High Priest, “became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.”
Here we see the departure point between Jesus and all earthly ministers! Earthly priests offer sacrifices for the people and for themselves. But Jesus offers Himself as the sacrifice that is able to save us!
Human ministers stand as sinners pleading for mercy for the people and for themselves. Jesus hung between heaven and earth on the cross as the sin offering that saves us.
You have never had a priest like Jesus!
You have never had a minister like Jesus!
He is the perfect priest…and He is your priest if you have trusted in Him!
He, at this very moment, is making intercession for you at the right hand of the Father. We will see in Hebrews 7:25 that Jesus “always lives to make intercession for them.”
Your High Priest Jesus will never let you down.
Your High Priest Jesus will never cease to pray for you.
And your High Priest Jesus has made the way for you to come to the Father by giving His very life!
 James Leo Garrett. Systematic Theology. Vol. 1, 4th edition. (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1990), p.608.
 Ronald K. Rittgers, ed. Hebrews, James. Reformation Commentary on Scripture. Gen. Ed. Timothy George. New Testament XIII (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017), p.70.
 Thomas R. Schreiner, Hebrews. Evangelical Biblical Theology Commentary. (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2020), p.160-161.
 Ronald K. Rittgers, ed., p.72.
 Heen, Erik M., and Philip D.W. Krey, eds. Hebrews. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Gen. Ed. Thomas C. Oden. New Testament, vol.X (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), p.76.