It might feel something of a relief to have a shorter passage to study this week. The theme of Christ’s priesthood has been mentioned earlier in the letter (1:3, 2:17,18, 3:1), and it is a theme that especially comes to the fore in the key central chapters of the letter, but this shorter passage gives an opportunity to ponder this aspect of Christ’s ministry, which we may have given little thought to.
The previous section has essentially been warning against falling into unbelief, here is a positive encouragement to trust: that we have an eminently trustworthy high priest. The “therefore” could be seen to refer back to the whole of the last section (indeed the writer is picking up his challenge in 3:6), or it might link more specifically with what has come immediately before. 4:12,13 could certainly suggest why we need a high priest, since God sees us as we truly are and we will one day have to “give account” to him. The “faith we profess” essentially is Jesus, and we must hold firmly to him. That he has “gone through the heavens” means that he has been exalted to the highest place and entered into the true Most Holy Place, into the very presence of God for us. Because he is there for us we can “approach the throne of grace with confidence”, knowing that he perfectly understands and feels our weakness, and is able and willing to help. From him we can be sure to find mercy, which we need as God’s word exposes our deep-seated sin, and grace, which we need if we are to keep on keeping on till we reach the promised rest.
Here the duties and qualifications for someone to be a priest are set out. Their responsibilities were to represent the people before God, offering sacrifices for sins, and to minister God’s grace to the people. The requirements were to be called by God, for this must be his appointment, and to be able to sympathise with the people, knowing his own weakness and sin, so that he can “deal gently” and sympathetically.
Christ fulfils this to the nth degree. God appointed him, for just as he was appointed God’s exalted king, as Psalm 2 attests, so also God appointed him “a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek”. His exalted status does not mean though that he is so far removed from us and our experience that he is unable to identify with us, for he completely understands our weaknesses, our struggles, our sorrows – he has been there, tasted it all. He “learned obedience” not in that sense that he once disobeyed and learnt to submit to his Father, for he has always perfectly submitted to his Father, but by being “tempted in every way “ (4:15) and facing the suffering that meant, he came to appreciate fully what obeying God involves. That perfectly qualified him to be our Saviour and priest, for only as the sinless one could he be our saviour, and only by proving that sinlessness whilst sharing our weakness could he identify with us and be a merciful and sympathetic priest.