Jesus our Great High Priest

Feast Day: The 22nd Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45

“For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

In our readings this morning we are granted insight into a way of understanding the person and work of Jesus Christ. Namely, through the figure of the high priest. And we learn that Jesus is the high priest par excellence. He is the high priest of which the priesthood of ancient Israel was but a shadow and a type. This image of Jesus as high priest helps us to understand a critical aspect of his ongoing life and ministry that continues even now, specifically, that he has entered into the very throne-room of the Father in heaven and he lives there to intercede for us, to pray for us, to represent us.

The high priest had a particular role within ancient Israel especially pertaining to their cultic or religious life in the Temple. The author of Hebrews tells us that, “Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.” So, the high priest was a sort of bridge, if you will, between the people and God. Chosen from among the people to offer “gifts and sacrifices” to God on their behalf, especially sacrifices for their sins.

In ancient Israel when the Temple was still intact and the sacrificial system in effect all of this would culminate with a certain magnitude on the holiest day of the year, the Day of Atonement. By the way, this remains the holiest day for contemporary Jews as well, you may have heard it referred to as Yom Kippur.

The Day of Atonement was the one day of the year when the high priest would enter the innermost and most sacred place in the Temple where the arc of the covenant was kept, known as the “holy of holies.” According to Rabbinic tradition it was such a holy place that before entering the high priest would have a rope tied around his ankle so that, should he drop dead in the presence of the living God due to his own sin, then the other priests could pull him out. And here on this one day the high priest would ritually sprinkle the arc with the blood of a sacrificial animal in order to atone for the sins of Israel.

Furthermore, we read in Hebrews that the high priest, “is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness.” The high priest cares for the people, has compassion on them, because he himself knows their weakness, he shares in it with them, he comes alongside of the people and suffers with them and the sacrifice the he offers to God on their behalf is taken up along with his own sacrifice. And so, as I said, the high priest was a sort of bridge—chosen by God from among the people, able to sympathize with their weakness, representing them to God and God to them.

Hopefully now we are beginning to comprehend the importance of the high priest for Israel because it is here that the author of Hebrews points us to make the key part of his argument: that whole system at the centre of which stands the high priest is but a shadow of Jesus Christ who is the high priest. And as high priest Jesus is both like and unlike the priests of old.

He is like them in that he embodies the two qualities of every high priest. First, he is chosen by God. Not just chosen by God but is himself very God. He is the light of the world but he is, as the Creed instructs, “light from light.” In faith we proclaim that he was sent by the Father out of love and as such did not take upon himself the dignity of the role but rather received it from his Father who forever has begotten him. And he seeks never to glorify himself but only to glorify the one who sent him.

Second, he is able to sympathize with our weakness. The witness of the Church tells us that he was truly human, that he truly lived, that he truly was tempted as we are (though without sin), that he truly suffered as we do. He knows what it is to be clothed with weakness so when he represents us before the Father as he is doing at this very moment he isn’t looking down on us patronizingly from some great height. He can truly sympathize. He has been here. He knows exactly what it is like.

Hear me, whatever it is you are going through, whatever challenge you are currently facing, whatever suffering you may be presently enduring, Jesus Christ knows exactly what that is like and he sees you right now and he is standing before the Father in heaven offering up prayers for you and making atonement for your sin.

But Jesus is also unlike the old high priests. He is our high priest but in a totally unique way for as the author of Hebrews says he is, “a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.” We meet Melchizedek in Genesis 14. He was the King of Salem, which means “peace.” Moreover, the name Melchizedek means, literally, “King of Righteousness.” This obscure figure, the King of Peace, the King of Righteousness, appears in the Old Testament and greets Abraham—with bread and wine, interestingly—as he is returning from war. And Abraham gave him one tenth of everything he had.

But what is notable for the author of Hebrews is that there is no record of Melchizedek’s birth or death. As we read later on in Hebrews the author describes Melchizedek as, “Without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God, he remains a priest forever,” (Hebrew 7:3). So, when the author of Hebrews says that Jesus is a priest in the order of Melchizedek what he means is that Jesus’ priesthood has no beginning and no end.

Earlier priests lived and died but Jesus Christ lives eternally and therefore he is able to be that eternal bridge, coming alongside of us and representing us before the Father in heaven forever, without ceasing. He is that great high priest who does perfectly and eternally what those earthly high priests could do only in part and imperfectly. Therefore, you can rely on Jesus totally and forever. Do we dare put all of our faith and all of our hope on Jesus?

Just where is this eternal high priest now? Immediately before the passage we read the author of Hebrews tells us that Jesus, our great high priest, “has passed through the heavens,” (4:14). Ancient Jewish writings sometimes speak of different levels of “the heavens.” For example, when Solomon built the Temple he declared that, “heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain God,” (1 Kings 8:27). So one is left with the impression that within heaven—that is, God’s space— there are layers, with God’s own dwelling place being the innermost one.[1] Which is precisely what the holy of holies in the temple was fashioned after. And what the author of Hebrews is saying is, listen, having died and been raised from the dead Jesus then ascended through all the different layers of “the heavens” right to the very heart of it all, to the very throne of the Father himself. And in his human flesh he has, in a very real sense, taken us there with him.

Friends, Jesus Christ lives to intercede for us. He delights in doing this. The former priests would enter the holy of holies in the Temple one day a year. But Jesus Christ has gone into the Father’s inner room not with the blood of animals but with his own blood and he lives there, representing us, continuing the work that he accomplished here in his suffering and death on the cross, a work that was for us. His entire life was a prayer of love poured out for you and now that prayer continues forever before the Father in heaven.

This morning Jesus wants you to know that this is how he has come to serve you. He has gone into that most holy place and he is holding all of your suffering with his own suffering, all of your fear with his own fear, all of your weakness with his own weakness, all of your sin with his own loving obedience, and he is offering it up to the Father who is full of grace and mercy. O come, let us adore him.

[1] N.T. Wright, Hebrews for Everyone, 45.

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