Why was it necessary for Jesus to suffer? And why was it necessary for Him to remain without sin? When did He become our high priest?
Summary of this article: The main point in the letter to be Hebrews is that Jesus is our high priest, serving in the true tabernacle in heaven. To become high priest, He first had to suffer, because He learned obedience from what He suffered. Being made perfect, He offered Himself without blemish to God; one sacrifice for sins for all time. After His resurrection, Jesus sat down on His Father’s throne. He then became our high priest, with the inauguration of the new covenant by the cleansing of the things in the heavens by His blood.
Although no other letter in the New Testament explicitly teaches this, the “main point” of the letter to the Hebrews, to which about five chapters are devoted (4:14-10:31), is that Jesus is our high priest in the true tabernacle:
“Now the main point in what has been said is this:
we have such a high priest, who has taken His seat at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a minister in the sanctuary and in the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, not man” (Heb 8:1-2).
The previous verse (Heb 7:28) identifies this high priest is as the Son of God .
Hebrews is one of the most difficult books in the Bible. Not only are the concepts complex; the highly symbolic and idiomatic language of the letter makes it even more difficult.
The purpose of this article is to give a simple as possible overview of Hebrews’ teachings of Christ as our high priest. The relevant material from the letter is grouped into sub-topics and discussed below in what seems to be a logical sequence.
Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations are from the NASB.
Jesus was perfected through suffering.
As will be shown below, Hebrews uses the phrase “made perfect” for people whose sins have been forgiven (for instance Heb 12:23). But Hebrews also describes Jesus as “made perfect”. He was “made perfect” through what He suffered:
Heb 2:10 “It was fitting for Him (the Father) … in bringing many sons to glory, to perfect the author of their salvation (Jesus) through sufferings”.
Heb 5:8-9 “Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered, and having been made perfect …” (5:8).
Heb 7:28 He was “made perfect forever”.
Because He was made perfect, He was able to offer “Himself without blemish to God” (Heb 9:14).
That Jesus was made perfect does not mean that His sins have been forgiven, for He never sinned (Heb 4:15). This concept may be unfamiliar to us because we very often think of Jesus as God, which is not wrong, but we often fail to think of Him as a fully human being that had to learn like any other human being. Hebrews teaches that Jesus became a human being in every respect: “He had to be made like His brethren in all things” (Heb 2:17). Jesus therefore indeed developed through what He suffered.
Hebrews, similar to the other letters of the New Testament, emphasizes Christ’s death, as we will see below. But Hebrews put more emphasizes on His life than what other letters do: specifically on His suffering, which also was His temptation:
Heb 2:18 “He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered“.
Heb 4:15 “He was tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin”.
Don’t miss this point: His suffering was His temptation. He was tempted to prevent or lessen His suffering, for He was able to that (Matt 26:53), but he patiently “endured such hostility by sinners against Himself” (Heb 12:3).
Through death, Jesus made purification of sins.
A question that arises, when reading Hebrews, is how people are saved, for Hebrews seems to say that people are saved through Jesus’ work as our high priest. But Hebrews also agrees with other letters that “through death Jesus made purification of sins” (Heb 1:3). Each of the verses quoted below refers to both His death and to dealing with sin:
Heb 9:26 “Now once at the consummation of the ages He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself”.
Heb 9:28 “Christ … offered once to bear the sins of many”.
Heb 10:12 “He … offered one sacrifice for sins for all time”.
Heb 13:12 “Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people through His own blood, suffered outside the gate”.
If this is so, what is the purpose of Jesus’ role as our high priest, which is so prominent in Hebrews? The relationship between His death and His work as high priest, in the redemption of the world, is discussed in a separate article.
After His resurrection, Jesus sat down on His Father’s throne.
This is a well-known New Testament teaching, based on Psalm 110:1. Hebrews often confirms this truth, saying that Jesus, after His resurrection, passed through the heavens (Heb 4:14) and “sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Heb 1:3, cf. 13; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2).
Jesus became high priest when He sat down on His Father’s throne.
When did Jesus become high priest? Was He also high priest in Old Testament times? The following indicates that Jesus’ life and death allowed Him to become high priest:
Heb 2:17 Jesus “had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest”.
Heb 9:11-12 “When Christ appeared as a high priest …, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle … through His own blood”.
Jesus, therefore, became high priest after His death, namely when he “sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high”. These are one and the same event. To understand Hebrews, one needs to get used to how the writer thinks. He knew the Old Testament extremely well, and the Old Testament passage that is most quoted in the New Testament is Psalm 110. Verse 1 of that psalm is interpreted by the New Testament as God saying to Jesus:
“Sit at My right hand Until I make Your enemies a footstool for Your feet”.
Then verse 4 adds
“You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek”.
The writer of Hebrews makes the assumption, since verse 1 applies to Jesus, that verse 4 also applies to Jesus. This is something that the writer of Hebrews often does, namely to link things that are not clearly linked in the original text. He, therefore, merges verses 1 and 4 into a single statement, which would mean that He became priest when He sat down on His Father’s throne.
But the writer goes further. Since Jesus, according to Psalm 110:1, enters God’s immediate presence, and since only the high priest was able to enter into God’s presence (Exo 25:22), the writer promotes the “priest” in Psalm 110:4 to “high priest” (see quotations above). This something else that we must learn about the writer of Hebrews: He continuously quotes from the Old Testament, but he does so with significant freedom. He adds or changes words and phrases to fit the point that he wants to make. But that is okay. The Bible is not inspired word for word; the writers are inspired with concepts, and they themselves must find the best possible words to express those concepts.
But it remains symbolic language. The earthly tabernacle, with all its ceremonies, was only a symbol of reality (Heb 8:5; 9:8-9; 10:1). For that reason, and because his Jewish Christian readers were familiar with the earthly tabernacle, the writer uses the earthly tabernacle with its ceremonies to explain the unseen but real events in heaven, which we only dimly understand.
Christ’s death enabled Him to become our high priest.
Hebrews 9 describes the inauguration of Jesus’s ministry in heaven. The first 15 verses form a unit. It starts with a description of the earthly tabernacle with its daily and annual ceremonies (Heb 9:1-7). It then states that these ceremonies are symbols of what happens in heaven (Heb 9:8-9), and explains what these symbols meant:
“When Christ appeared as a high priest …,
He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation;
and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, …
For … how much more will the blood of Christ … cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (Heb 9:11-12)
In other words, Jesus’s death permitted or qualified Him to commence His work as high priest; His death was a prerequisite for entering the holy place.
The second unit in Hebrews 9 (verses 16 and following) also starts by describing an aspect of the earthly tabernacle, this time the inauguration of the first covenant. This ritual was performed by Moses 1500 years before Christ when he used the blood of animals to clean the tabernacle (Heb 9:18-23). Hebrews then implies that the cleansing of the tabernacle by Moses was a symbol of the cleansing of “the heavenly things themselves”. The earthly “copies of the things in the heavens” were cleansed by the blood of animals, but the “heavenly things themselves” were cleansed with “better sacrifices” (Heb 9:23), namely “the sacrifice of Himself” (Heb 9:26).
To conclude then, in both units (Heb 9:1-15 and 9:16-24) Christ’s offering of Himself, as symbolized by His blood, enabled Him to commence His ministry on the new covenant in heaven. This is consistent with the conclusion of the previous section above, namely that Jesus became high priest at his ascension to heaven when He sat down on His Father’s throne.
Hebrews does not explain why the “the heavenly things” had to be cleansed. As stated above, this is symbolic language, but that does not mean it is meaningless. It means that it must be interpreted. It is often said and thought that the blood of Christ satisfies the demands of God’s righteousness. Such thinking is not accepted here. According to Heb 2:14, He died to render the devil powerless. And in Revelation 12 we see that the war in heaven against “the serpent of old who is called the devil and Satan” (Rev 12:9) was brought to an end by Christ’s death. “The heavenly things” were cleansed by expelling Satan from it. The See War in Heaven and Why Jesus had to die.