The basic purpose of a priest is to mediate between sinful people and God. Priests were appointed by God to minister on behalf of human beings; therefore, they needed to be merciful and understanding of human weaknesses.

In Hebrews 5:5–10, Paul shows that Jesus perfectly fulfills those purposes: God appointed Him (Heb. 5:5, 6) and, too, Jesus understands us because He also became human and suffered (Heb. 5:7, 8).

There are some important differences, however. Jesus was not “chosen from among men” (Heb. 5:1, ESV). Instead, Jesus adopted human nature in order to, among other things, serve as a priest in our behalf. Jesus did not offer sacrifices for His own sins (Heb. 5:3) but only for our sins, because He was sinless (Heb. 4:15; 7:26–28).

Hebrews says that Jesus prayed “to Him who was able to save Him from death, and was heard” (Heb. 5:7, NKJV). Hebrews is referring to the second death, from which God saved Jesus when He resurrected Him (Heb. 13:20). Hebrews also says that Jesus “learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb. 5:8, ESV). Obedience was new to Jesus, not because He was disobedient but because He was God. As sovereign over the universe, Jesus did not obey anyone; instead, everyone obeyed Him.

Jesus’ sufferings and death on the cross are an essential part of His priestly ministry. Sufferings did not perfect Jesus in the sense that He improved morally or ethically. Sufferings did not make Him merciful. To the contrary, Jesus came to this earth because He always was merciful, which is why He had compassion on us (Heb. 2:17). What Hebrews means is that it was through sufferings that the reality of Jesus’ brotherly love, the authenticity of His human nature, and the depth of His submission as representative of humanity to the will of the Father were truly expressed and revealed. He was “perfected” in the sense that His sufferings qualified Him to be our High Priest. It was His life of perfect obedience, and then His death on the cross, that constitute the sacrificial offering that Jesus presented before the Father as our priest.

Genesis 14:18–20 and Hebrews 7:1–3 mention the character of Melchizedek, who was both a king and priest and was also superior to Abraham, since Abraham paid him tithe. Likewise, Jesus is king and priest (Heb. 1:3); unlike Melchizedek, however, Jesus was sinless (Heb. 7:26–28).

Hebrews 7:15 explains that Jesus was priest “in the likeness of Melchizedek.” (NKJV). This is what the earlier expression in Hebrews, “according to the order of Melchizedek” (Heb. 5:6, NKJV), means. Jesus was not a successor of Melchizedek, but His priesthood was similar to his.

For instance, Paul says that Melchizedek was without father, mother, genealogy, birth, and death. Some have suggested that Melchizedek was an incarnation of Jesus in the time of Abraham. But this thought does not fit the argument of Hebrews. Melchizedek “resembles” Jesus (see ESV), which implies that he was different from Jesus (Heb. 7:3).

It has also been suggested that Melchizedek was a heavenly being, but this would destroy the argument of Hebrews. If Melchizedek were without father, mother, beginning, or end, he would be God Himself. This poses a problem. Melchizedek’s heavenly, fully divine priesthood would have preceded the ministry of Jesus. If this were the case, as Hebrews says, “what further need would there have been for another priest to arise” (Heb. 7:11, ESV)?

Instead, Hebrews uses the silence of Scripture regarding Melchizedek’s birth, death, and genealogy to build a typology, or symbol, for Jesus’ priestly ministry (Gen. 14:18–20) and for the fact that Jesus Himself was eternal. In short, Melchizedek was a Canaanite king-priest who served as a type of Christ.