Question: "What was the biblical role of the high priest?"
Answer: The high priest was the supreme religious leader of the Israelites. The office of the high priest was hereditary and was traced from Aaron, the brother of Moses, of the Levite tribe (Exodus 28:1; Numbers 18:7). The high priest had to be “whole” physically (without any physical defects) and holy in his conduct (Leviticus 21:6-8).
Because the high priest held the leadership position, one of his roles was overseeing the responsibilities of all the subordinate priests (2 Chronicles 19:11). Though the high priest could participate in ordinary priestly ministries, only certain functions were given to him. Only the high priest could wear the Urim and the Thummin (engraved dice-like stones used to determine truth or falsity). For this reason, the Hebrew people would go to the high priest in order to know the will of God (Numbers 27:21). An example of this is when Joshua was commissioned by Eleazar, the high priest, to assume some of Moses’ responsibilities (Numbers 27:21). In the New Testament, we find a reference to the high priest having the gift of prophecy (John 11:49-52).
The high priest had to offer a sin offering not only for the sins of the whole congregation, but also for himself (Leviticus 4:3-21). When a high priest died, all those confined to the cities of refuge for accidently causing the death of another person were granted freedom (Numbers 35:28).
The most important duty of the high priest was to conduct the service on the Day of Atonement, the tenth day of the seventh month of every year. Only he was allowed to enter the Most Holy Place behind the veil to stand before God. Having made a sacrifice for himself and for the people, he then brought the blood into the Holy of Holies and sprinkled it on the mercy seat, God’s “throne” (Leviticus 16:14-15). He did this to make atonement for himself and the people for all their sins committed during the year just ended (Exodus 30:10). It is this particular service that is compared to the ministry of Jesus as our High Priest (Hebrews 9:1-28).
In understanding the role of the high priest, we can better comprehend the significance of Christ offering Himself for our sins once for all (Hebrews 9:26; 10:10, 12). Through Christ’s sacrifice for us, we are sanctified and set apart for Him. By entering God’s presence on our behalf, Christ has secured for us an “eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:12). As Paul has written, “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5).