In the 5th chapter of the epistle to the Hebrews, the author enters into the great theme of Jesus as High Priest. Having alluded to it in several verses prior (most notably 1:3, 2:17, 3:1, 4:16), his attention is now focused near-exclusively on this and it begins with an overview of the Levitical-Aaronic priesthood. The first four verses of the chapter set the tone for what will follow:
“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.” Heb. 5:1-4
The author’s intention here is not a full-scale review of the Old Covenant priesthood, but instead to serve as a baseline for a priesthood ordained by God for the purpose of comparison and contrast with the Priesthood of Christ. Here we may observe several qualifications and duties of the Aaronic priests. First we see that every high priest is chosen and appointed by God. We’ll pick up on this again later, but for now let’s note the background for this concept of familial priesthood in Exodus 28 & 29, “Then bring near to you Aaron your brother, and his sons with him, from among the people of Israel, to serve me as priests…” Ex. 28:1.
Next, we see that their appointment was from among men. No angelic being would suffice in the representation of men to God. The reason, as we see in verse 3, is that, “he can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness.” These statements will serve as a point of comparison and contrast along with providing further basis for the incarnation of Christ, namely that He had to be made a man in order to represent them to God; likewise He had to remain God in order to represent Him to man. The two divergent streams of God and man are brought together in the person of Jesus Christ. Therefore the perfect Mediator, our Great High Priest, can only be the God-Man Jesus Christ (1 Tim. 2:5).
Returning our focus to the Aaronic priesthood we see that in their role on behalf of men and in relation to God that they offered gifts and sacrifices to Him, first for their own sins, then for their family, and then for the sins of the people (Israel). This statement finds its basis in Leviticus 16 which is largely in mind as Hebrews reviews the Old Covenant priesthood. This verse (5:3) informs us that the fundamental weakness and chief insufficiency of the Aaronic priesthood was that the priests themselves were sinners. How can a sinner effectively represent other sinners before an all-holy God? Simply put, they can’t. Therefore a greater Mediator is needed, one who is not beset with sin and does not half to make atonement for His own sins first. The office of priest under the Old Covenant was always pointing forward to a better priesthood, with better sacrifices, and a better Mediator.
Summarizing thus far we see that the Aaronic priesthood was by way of an appointment from God, chosen from among men, sacrificed not only for the people, but for themselves because of their own sin.
In verse 4, we return our attention to the appointment of the priesthood by God Himself, “no one takes this honor for himself, but only when called by God, just as Aaron was.” Note how this verse forms the frame with verse 1 to highlight the significance of the author’s point, namely that the priesthood must be by way of appointment or calling from God. This is an extremely important point given the understanding of the priesthood in our modern vernacular. Today we have priests in Catholicism, some forms of Orthodox Christianity (Eastern, Greek, Russian, etc.), Anglican, Episcopalian, and even Mormons all holding to some office of priesthood, though among these the most visible is the papacy of Catholicism. Each of these, and most notably the Catholic office of priest, has assumed their role. The priesthood which Christ is being compared and contrasted with above, namely that of Aaron, was clearly established by God. He called and appointed each man to the role of high priest, yet today we have men in modern time claiming their role as priest. What are we to make of that?
Thankfully, the Bible is not silent concerning man’s self-elevation into the office of priest apart from the Divine appointment by God. In Numbers 16 we get our first example. Here God’s Word informs us that Korah, along with several other men, stood up against the leadership of Moses with the following bold statement, “You have gone too far! For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” Num. 16:3 Korah had a fundamental problem with God’s establishment of leaders and roles within the nation of Israel, specifically the Aaronic priesthood. He, and the men with him, were expressing dissatisfaction with their own role and lot that God in His divine providence had allowed them. If God had so chosen, they would have been worthy only to collect the cattle dung from the Israelite animals, but in His grace even they were given a more noble position. Note Moses’ response,
“Hear now, you sons of Levi: 9is it too small a thing for you that the God of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to himself, to do service in the tabernacle of the Lord and to stand before the congregation to minister to them, 10and that he has brought you near him, and all your brothers the sons of Levi with you? And would you seek the priesthood also?” Num. 16:8-10
As we read in verse 1, Korah was from the tribe of Levi, those chosen to minister to God and serve Him in the tabernacle. However, from within the tribe of Levi was the family of Aaron, those who were specifically chosen to serve as high priest. It’s not difficult to see then that source of Korah’s discontentment and the basis for Moses’ response. As the chapter continues to detail the unfolding rebellion of Korah and the other men we find them burning incense (a priestly function) before the Lord at His command. In essence, God granted them the desire of their hearts or we might say He allowed their discontentment to go unchecked. Ultimately God judges Korah and those participating in the rebellion in a most public and terrifying way,
“And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, with their households and all the people who belonged to Korah and all their goods. 33 So they and all that belonged to them went down alive into Sheol, and the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly. 34 And all Israel who were around them fled at their cry, for they said, “Lest the earth swallow us up!” 35 And fire came out from the Lord and consumed the 250 men offering the incense.” Num. 16:32-35
And later in the chapter we are given the reason for this public display of God’s judgment as the men’s censors that contained the incense were hammered into a covering for the altar,
“to be a reminder to the people of Israel, so that no outsider, who is not of the descendants of Aaron, should draw near to burn incense before the Lord, lest he become like Korah and his company.” Num. 16:40
A second example of assuming the role of priesthood without the divine appointment from God comes by way of King Saul 1 Samuel 13:8-10
“He waited seven days, the time appointed by Samuel. But Samuel did not come to Gilgal, and the people were scattering from him. So Saul said, ‘Bring the burnt offering here to me, and the peace offerings.’ And he offered the burnt offering. As soon as he had finished offering the burnt offering, behold, Samuel came. And Saul went out to meet him and greet him.”
Here we find King Saul’s intrusion into the office of priest as he fails to wait for the arrival of Samuel and assumes for himself the role of priest in making burnt offerings and peace offerings before the Lord. Upon Samuel’s arrival, he rebukes Saul for his disobedience of the Lord’s commandments (1 Samuel 13:13) and alerts him of God’s forthcoming punishment to strip the kingdom from him.
“But now your kingdom shall not continue…because you have not kept what the Lord has commanded you.” 1 Samuel 13:14
Finally, our third example of man assuming the role of priest apart from the divine appointment from God is found in the actions of King Uzziah again providing for us a witness of God’s attitude towards those who would attempt to undermine the authority of God’s commandments in establishing a particular lineage of priests.
“But when he was strong, he grew proud, to his destruction. For he was unfaithful to the Lord his God and entered the temple of the Lord to burn incense on the altar of incense. But Azariah the priest went in after him, with eighty priests of the Lord who were men of valor, and they withstood King Uzziah and said to him, ‘It is not for you, Uzziah, to burn inces to the Lord, but for the priests, the sons of Aaron, who are consecrated to burn incense. Go out of the sanctuary, for you have done wrong, and it will bring you no honor from the Lord God.’ Then Uzziah was angry. Now he had a censer in his hand to burn incense, and when he became angry with the priests, leprosy broke out on his forehead in the presence of the priests in the house of the Lord, by the altar of incense.” 2 Chronicles 26:16-19
Swallowed by the ground, deposed as king, and succumbing to leprosy are all realized consequences of assuming the role of priest, of the Aaronic order, when one has not been called and appointed by God. Following the author of Hebrews argument from the lesser to the greater, we may ask given our examples of those who assumed the priesthood under the Old Covenant, how much worse of an offense is it to those who assume the priesthood under the New Covenant now that Christ has fulfilled the priesthood in a far superior way.
How much greater of an offense is it to the person and finished work of our Lord Jesus Christ for a man to assume the role of Christ in acting on behalf of men in relation to God? Simply stated, it’s blasphemous! The office of priest in Catholicism, which includes the papacy, let alone those others mentioned previously, is nothing less than a blasphemous impersonation of the great High Priesthood in which Christ alone now resides. He alone is qualified to hold this position because of His incarnation, sinless life, sacrificial death, glorious resurrection, and exaltation at the right hand of the Father. How dare anyone attempt to usurp His authority and assume the role for themselves!
Every religion or so called denomination that puts a man into the office of priest for the purpose of acting as mediator between God and man undermines the authority, dignity, and majesty of Christ’s Priesthood, for which He has suffered, bled, and died for. Granting validity to this office by participating with, being accomplice to, or residing under the ministry of their intrusion is equivalent to blaspheming the name of Christ, for His name is synonymous with Great High Priest.
As we will see in the next section of verses, not just any old priest will do. We must have one of divine appointment, Christ Jesus alone.
Post script: 2 additional points must at least be mentioned in regards to this post. 1) Christ’s priesthood is of the order of Melchizedek, a superior priesthood to that of the Old Covenant; bearing in mind that the Old Covenant has reached its fulfillment in Christ. This includes the sacrificial system and Aaronic priesthood 2) 1 Peter 2:5 establishes the preisthood of every believer in the true Israel sense, not intending to usurp Christ’s role as High Priest much the same way that Exodus 19:5 intended the statement for the nation of Israel, but certainly held the office of Aaron in higher regard. This is no way means that those priests mentioned above are attempting to fulfill the role mentioned by Peter, instead in every way they are attempting to fulfill the role established by Christ.