Understanding the institution of the Jewish high priesthood during the first century will help us better appreciate the force of the argument in Hebrews 5:1–10 for Jesus’ superior high priesthood. According to the Mosaic law, the old covenant priesthood belonged to Aaron and his sons, God Himself having appointed the Aaronic line as the priestly line (Ex. 29:9). While there were many priests in the old covenant religious system, there was also one high priest, and one of his chief responsibilities was to bring the blood of atonement into the Holy Place of the tabernacle once a year to cover the sins of Israel (Lev. 16). Aaron himself was the first of these high priests. By the time of David and Solomon, however, the high priestly line was the line of Zadok, one of Aaron’s descendants whom God had chosen to be the high priest during the united monarchy (1 Chron. 6:1–15; 29:22; Ezek. 40:44–47). Thus, the author of Hebrews stresses that the priest had to be chosen, appointed, called by God. “No one takes this honor for himself” (Heb. 5:4).
Our author speaks ironically here, for by the time of his writing, many high priests had taken the honor for themselves. Beginning with the Maccabean revolt (160s BC), it was customary for the Hasmoneans, who ruled over Judea for a time, and then the Herodians, who were client kings of the Roman Empire during the first century, to appoint themselves and others not from the line of Zadok as high priests. In fact, between Herod the Great’s ascension to the throne in 37 BC to the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, twenty-eight different men held the office of high priest. Many in the original audience of Hebrews thought that returning to this situation of non-Zadokite high priests not appointed by God would be better than following Jesus, but it is clear from the history that they would be returning to a priesthood that lacked divine authorization.
This was not so with Jesus. Hebrews 5:5–6 stresses that Jesus became the true High Priest properly—by God’s direct appointment— citing two key messianic psalms, Psalm 2 and Psalm 110, to prove this. We will speak more in future studies of the significance of Jesus’ Melchizedekian high priesthood according to Psalm 110 (Heb. 5:6). Psalm 2 refers originally to the installation of David and his merely human sons, who were adopted as God’s sons upon ascending the throne (Ps. 2:7; Heb. 5:5). It is fulfilled in the installation of Jesus, the eternally begotten Son of God by nature, as King of kings.