Jesus: Better than the Sons of Levi

Series: Hebrews

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Aug 19, 1998

Hebrews 5:1-10

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If you have your Bibles, I would invite you to turn with me to Hebrews 5 and we will begin in the very first verse.  As we have studied the Book of Hebrews together, we have seen in chapters 1 and 2 the theme emphasized that Christ is superior to the angels.  In chapter 3 we learned that Christ is superior to even Moses, the great lawgiver of the Old Testament.  And beginning in Hebrews 4;14, we enter into a section of the book where the author reminds us that Christ is superior even to the priests of the Old Testament, that He is greater than Aaron and all the Old Covenant priesthood. 

Last week we looked at Hebrews 4:14-16 and we concentrated on the two great exhortations in that passage.  We were reminded to hold fast to our confession and to draw near to the throne of grace because of the kind of High Priest that we have.  Now that theme continues this week.  Even though we are in a different chapter, we are still on the same theme.  The author is giving us more and more reason why we ought to hold fast to our confession and why we ought to draw near to the throne of grace.  He is going to pile reason after reason why we ought to have great confidence as we do so.  So let’s hear the Word of God beginning in Hebrews 5:1. 

Hebrews 5:1-10 

Father, we do thank You for this word and as we study our Lord, our Great High Priest, we pray that we would be moved to draw near to the throne in confidence and to hold fast the confession of Jesus Christ as Lord.  We ask these things in Jesus’ name.  Amen. 

We have already said that the idea of Christ being our priest is introduced all the way back in Hebrews 2:7.  It is also mentioned again in Hebrews 3:1.  The author first goes through a long section in which he calls us to perseverance.  Then after calling us to the awesome task of persevering in the faith, he begins to meditate on the kind of high priest in order to encourage us to hold fast the confession of Jesus as Lord, and in order to encourage us to draw near to the throne of grace.  We contrasted the last time we studied the awesome Mt. Sinai where the people were told stay away, don’t touch the mountain or you will be destroyed.  With the words of Hebrews 4:14-16, “draw near to the throne of grace.”  And indeed when we get all the ways to Hebrews 12, that contrast will be brought out explicitly in the glory of the new covenant religion where we are enabled to draw near to the throne of grace and to Mt. Zion is again made very apparent. 

But after Hebrews 4:14, the theme of Jesus as a greater High Priest and the theme of Jesus as our covenant mediator is repeated again and again and again.  This is the covenant section of the Book of Hebrews.  So that gets my juices going because I love covenant theology and we are going to get  into some of it tonight as we study.  Remember that we said already, beginning in Hebrews 4:14, the author of Hebrews has given us a range of arguments as to why Jesus is a better high priest than any of the high priests of the Old Testament.  For instance, we remember that Jesus, it is stressed, is a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.  That is said in the passage that we just read in Hebrews 5:6.  He is a priest forever.  He is not temporarily appointed.  He doesn’t have a one-year or a two-year appointment and then rotates off and then someone comes in and takes His place.  He is a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.  His priesthood is not temporary and it is not from the line of Aaron.  It is from the line of Melchizedek.

Secondly, we are reminded in Hebrews 4:14 that He did simply pass through this representative, symbolic curtain or veil into a human, earthly, temporal Holy of Holies.  He passed through the heavens.  He went into the real temple.  He brought about real fellowship with God, real sacrifice, real reconciliation.  Again, His passing through the heavens, His ascension was not merely an earthly sign or representation of fellowship.  It was actually the act which brought us back into fellowship with God.  It’s the act to which all the Old Testament priestly acts pointed.

Thirdly, we saw stressed in Hebrews 4:14 and again in the passage we read tonight in Hebrews 5:8, that He is the very Son of God.  He is not merely a human priest and He is not merely a holy man, He is the very Son of God.  It is stressed in Hebrews 4:15 and again in Hebrews 5:8, that He is of all together a different order in terms of His personal holiness.  He is perfect.  He is without sin.  His obedience is beyond the obedience of the Old Testament priests.

And then, finally, we say in that amazing word in Hebrews 5:7, that His prayers were heard because of His piety and we will talk about what that means tonight. 

Tonight as we look at Hebrews 5:1-10, the author is going to give us three more reasons to be confident and to draw near to the throne of grace, primarily because of Who Christ is and because of His work.  Notice again that Christ’s person and work are used over and over in Hebrews and in the New Testament as a whole, especially in the Epistles, as motivations for us in the Christian life.  Now theologians call the study of Christ’s person and work, Christology — the study of Christ.  Christology is constantly in the New Testament — a great motivation for Christian living.  A lot of times people ask, “Why would you want to get into the arid, intellectual study — delving into the Person and Natures of Christ?”  Because from the New Testament perspective, those are your greatest motivations to Christian obedience and they are your greatest sources of comfort and assurance in the Christian faith.  So let’s look at three sources of confidence which we learn because of who Christ is and because of what Christ has done. 

I. Confidence in God’s mercy because of Christ.

The first one you see in Hebrews 5:1-3: “We ought to have confidence in God’s mercy because of Christ.”  More specifically, we ought to have confidence in God’s mercy because Christ is our priest.  What we have in Hebrews 5:1-3 is basically a refection on the purpose of the high priest applied to Christ.  The author goes back to the Old Testament and he thinks, “Now what was the Old Testament high priest for?”  And after meditating on that, he wants you to apply those truths to what you know about Christ.

 Notice first that it is stressed that the high priest does not choose himself.  He is chosen by God.  Notice those words: “For every high priest taken from among men is appointed on behalf of men in things pertaining to God.  The emphasis there is that it is God who chooses the high priest and the application is that it is God who has chosen Christ to be our high priest.  By the way, notice that it is stressed that the high priest must be from among men.  He must be fully human.  In order to function as a high priest and represent men before God, it is necessary that the high priest be fully human.  The fact that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin and took on human flesh, a full human nature, is not just an incident or an accident in God’s plan.  It is essential to God’s plan that the Lord, the second person of the Trinity, take on humanity so that the God Man might be our mediator.  There were various people who denied the humanity of Jesus Christ in the early church — the Gnostics denied that Jesus was a human.  The dosetic heretics denied that Jesus was human.  And over against them, the early church said that if Jesus was not fully human, then we are still in our sins, because we must have a high priest who is full in His humanity if we are to have a representative before God. 

The function of the High Priest we see again in verse one, was to represent us before God, to make gift offerings and to make sacrifices of propitiation.  His function was to represent us before God and so the High Priest on a yearly basis, on the Day of Atonement especially, went into the Holy of Holies and offered sacrifices on behalf of the people’s sins.  Now the author is reminding you of the function of the High Priest; but he is wanting you to think immediately what Christ has done on your behalf as a priest.

 In verses 2 through 3, he goes on to make a very interesting application to the priest’s work.  Notice again those words: “He can deal gently with the ignorant and misguided since he, himself, was also beset with weakness and because of it he was obligated to offer sacrifices for sin, as for the people, so also for himself.”  

Here, the author of Hebrews encourages us to recognize that the High Priest is able to sympathize with us because He understands our weakness.  He uses the illustration of the Old Testament high priest.  He says, “Look, the Old Testament high priest knows what it means to sin ignorantly and to stray from God’s will, even though he knows what the will of God is that is taught in His word.  He is fallen, just like we are.  He is weak before sin.  He knows what sin is.”  In fact, in verse 3,  he says he doesn’t only have to offer sacrifices for sins of people, he has to offer sacrifices for his own sins.  And, therefore, he is able to deal gently with us, to treat us kindly rather than severely.  You know how that is.  If someone knows the struggle that you are going through, even if the struggle that you are going through involves you having sinful attitudes, someone who has had to go through the same struggle with you and has come out on the other side, still trusting in the Lord and obeying in the Lord, can be more gently and more sympathetic with you, bringing you through that particular struggle or process. 

Let me give you a reverse illustration.  In seminary, I had a New Testament professor who taught us Greek.  He was one of these guys who could pick up a language in about two months.  He was a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, he was a linguist specialist, he knew and read about 10 or 12 languages, and he did not have a clue what a dolt like me went through to try and learn Greek.  And so when I would ask Dr. Meyer: “Dr. Meyer, I don’t understand that.  Could you explain that?”   The way that Dr. Meyer would explain to me Greek principles of grammar and linguistics, he would repeat to me what he had just said louder than he had said it before.  He could not conceive of someone so ignorant as to not understand what he had said the first time.  What I needed was a guy who had really had a hard time learning Greek to help me in Greek.  And thank heaven, there was a student like that who had really struggled to learn Greek.  And Bob helped all the other students because he had this little system whereby he helped us get over our particular obstacles.  He understood what we were going through because he had had a hard time learning Greek.  This professor —  he didn’t have a clue. 

The interesting thing about this is the author of Hebrews makes it very clear that Jesus (he has already said this in Hebrews 4:14-16) did not sin.  So how is it that He can understand our weakness?  He gives us the clue in Hebrews 5:8.  How is it that He understands our weakness?  Because He has endured suffering.  He has learned obedience through that which He has suffered, even though He was the very Son of God.  So Christ’s weakness was not sinfulness and it was not inheriting a fallen nature.  Christ’s weakness was found in the fact that the way that the Lord chose to prepare Him to be sympathetic to His people was to allow Him to be a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. 

You know, when you study the gospels, every range of human emotion is attributed to our Lord, except light heartedness and laughter.  I don’t think that is because our Lord didn’t have a sense of humor.  I think it was because He was a man from His very earliest years, who was acquainted with grief and sorrow.  And He was a man who was never very far away from the shadow of the cross cast over His own life.  And so the emotions that are described of Christ in the New Testament, thought they are tender and fully human, are predominately emotions which we experience when we are in the greatest trials and temptations of our life. 

There is a wonderful article written by B. B. Warfield, The Emotional Life of our Lord, that studies precisely that great point.  But Christ is able to sympathize, the author of Hebrews argues, because of His suffering.

Now what do we learn from this?  First, we learn that we ought to be confident in God’s grace because He has provided us a priest who is able to sympathize with us, who is able to represent us because of that which He has experienced.  There is no need of some sort of supplemental priestly mediation on our behalf because Christ is our priest and He knows fully what it is to enter in to our human experiences.  Very often people think that they need someone more human than the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, to relate to in their pursuit of God.  But Christ was just as human as we are, yet without sin.  The Lord Jesus Christ, through His suffering, is able to sympathize with us and deal with us gently.   

II. Confidence in God’s mercy because of the covenant.

You will see in verses 4-6 the second thing.  Here we are reminded that we ought to be confident in God’s mercy because of the covenant.  In this passage, we see a reflection on the calling of the high priest.  Again, this is stressed.  It is hinted at in verse 1; but it is said explicitly here in verse 4:  “No one takes the honor of high priest to himself, but receives it when he is called by God, even as Aaron was

Also, Christ did not glorify Himself to become a high priest, but He who said, You are My Son, today I have begotten You.”

Notice that it is stressed that in the Old Testament, it had to be God who called the high priest.  He had to be from the tribe of Levi. Aaron, himself, is directly appointed by God.  As God chose Aaron, so the Father also chose the Son to be high priest.  The point which is stressed in verses 5 and 6 is that Christ, Himself, is appointed to the task of being high priest by God the Father.  Now when we see that, we are seeing a glimpse of the eternal covenant of redemption.  We are seeing a glimpse into what was going on in the mind of God before the foundation of the worlds.  As the decree of God was being promulgated and as it was apparent in the very decree of God that there would be rebellion in the heart of Adam and fall in Eden, then the Father said, “Who will it be who will take the place of Adam?”  And the Son said, “I’ll take that man’s place.  I’ll come as the Second Adam.  I’ll represent all those who trust in the Lord.”  And so the Son, it is stressed, the Son does not appoint Himself to the position of our High Priest, it is the Father who appoints the Son. 

Think of those passages in the Gospels where the Son stresses that He has not come to do His will, but the will of the One who sent Him.  Think of those passages where He stresses that He has come to serve, not to be served.  Think of the passages in the Gospels where the Lord Jesus Christ said things like this: “It is my food to do the will of the One who sent Me.”  Over and over it is stressed in the gospel that the Son submits Himself to the Father’s will.  The Father and the Son in that eternal covenant of redemption had taken upon themselves the task of redeeming us from our sins.  And the Father appoints the Son as the mediator and the Son voluntarily takes the role of our mediator to stand in our place.  And the author of Hebrews in verses 5 and 6 gives us two Old Testament examples of this.  For instance in Psalm 2, when we read the words, “You are My Son, this day have I begotten You,” we are not to think of that primarily as referring to David the King and his being set up king over Israel.  We are to think of that verse primarily about God the Father appointing Jesus Christ to be our representative.  Then he takes you to Psalm 110 and to the phrase we see: “You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.”  What he does by mentioning that passage, He focuses in on the fact that Christ is not only to be Messiah, but specifically, Christ is to be a priest for us and to stand in our place.  And in this passage, it’s stressed that Jesus Christ has been appointed a high priest by God.  And again, we may be confident in God’s grace and confidently draw near because we do not have a human high priest, we have the God-Man.  We have a divine human high priest, Jesus the Son of God. 

Listen to this phrase from an old Christian writer.  He said this: “Before we had a being in the world, we had a being in His heart.”  That’s exactly what the author of Hebrews is getting at.  Before we had a being in this world, we had a being in His heart.  Before we ever showed up on this planet, God had already set in motion a plan by which His Son would be our High Priest.  And the author of Hebrews says, “Now in light of that, draw near to the throne of grace.”  “Before the foundation of the world, I had appointed My Son to be High Priest in your place.  Draw near to the throne of grace.” 

III. Confidence in God’s mercy because of the deeds of Jesus.

One other thing we see in verses 7-10, we are to draw near in confidence in God’s mercy because of the deeds of Jesus as our High Priest.  Here in verses 7-10, Hebrews reflects on His high priestly work.  Notice the things that are said.  First of all it said in verse 7 that Jesus offers up prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears.  What is being stressed there is that even in Christ’s earthly ministry, He was interceding for us.  We have examples of that:  like John 17, the high priestly prayer which He prays on our behalf is an example how the Lord Jesus in His earthly prayers did not only pray for Himself but He prayed on our behalf.  It’s very interesting that phrase, isn’t it?  He prayed to the One able to save Him from death. 

Let me ask you this question.  Did He ask the Father ultimately to save Him from death?   No, He didn’t.  His final prayer was, “Nevertheless, not My will, but Thy will be done.”   So what is being reminded to you there is though this One could have spent His earthly energy praying for Himself, in fact, He was already giving Himself an earthly energy to pray for You, to intercede for you.  In John 17, you see precisely what Christ was praying to God for, for you.  Go back to John 17 and you put your name in where Christ is praying for His disciples, because that is precisely what he is doing.  He is praying for you.  Notice in verse 7 an incredible phrase is given to us: “He was heard because of His piety.”  Now when you and I go before the Lord God, you will hear me say it often, because I simply want to stress the grace of God in our prayer life.  You will hear me say it often from the pulpit that the Lord hears us because of the merits of Christ.  The Lord hears us because of His grace.  We are not heard because we deserve to be heard.  We are heard because of the grace of God.  That’s why the Lord listens to our prayers.  But in Hebrews 5:7, we are told that Christ’s intercession is heard because of His godliness.  In other words, we are being told that God the Father hears His Son because His Son deserves to be heard.  And I want you to understand how strong that makes the intercession of Christ.  When Christ comes to the Father, it is not the same kind of intercession as our intercession.  It is the intercession of demand.  Christ deserves to be heard.  For the Father not to hear the Son’s plea would be to go against justice because the Son has earned the right to be heard through His obedience, through His godliness, through His piety.

Another thing we see in verse 8.  We are told that He learned obedience through His suffering.  That is stressing to us that He is able to sympathize with us, even though He is sinless.  Even though He cannot be tempted from within because there is no part of His being that can be touched, where a foothold can be gotten by Satan; nevertheless He is able to sympathize with our weakness because of His suffering.  And because of these things, He is the fountain of salvation for all those who follow in.  And he has been designated to be our high priest, we read in verse 10, according to the order of Melchizedek.

Now let me just say one thing before we close.  Isn’t it interesting here that it is stressed that He is a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek?  This point is going to be picked up again in Hebrews 7 for a very important reason.  Jesus was of the tribe of Judah.  No Levitical priests were from the tribe of Judah; they were all from the tribe of Levi.  You have this question.  How can the Messiah be king and son of David and thus be from the tribe of Judah and at the same time be priest, because the priest could only be from the tribe of Levi?  The author of Hebrews is giving you an answer how that can be, because the Messiah is not a priest according to the tribe of Levi, He is a priest according to Melchizedek.  And so He is both the Lion of the Tribe of Judah and a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.  This passage reminds us that Christ in His priestly work earned our salvation.  We have said it before.  Salvation is by works; not our works, but Christ’s works.  And, therefore, for us, salvation is only by grace because it is for the work of Christ that God the Father spares us as we trust in Him.  Therefore, our salvation is sure because the Father will not deny His Son.  Let’s pray.

 Our Lord and our God, we praise You for the priestly covenant work of Christ and ask that you would help us to understand it more as we study it in Your word.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

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