Sermon: Jesus Christ the High Priest
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Scripture: Hebrews 9:11-14
These days, who do think of when we talk about priests? Nine times out of ten we’re talking about Roman Catholic clergy. Possibly Episcopalian clergy, because within their faith tradition, they’re often referred to as priests.
What about me? Would you consider me a priest? Generally speaking, as the common nomenclature goes, not really. Besides ‘reverend,’ what vocational title do we normally associate with clergy in most Protestant traditions? Pastor.
In the Jewish tradition, what vocational title is associated with their clergy? Rabbi.
By and large, these vocational titles basically mean the same thing in that they signify a clergyperson. However, from the perspective of function, ‘pastor,’ ‘priest,’ and ‘rabbi’ mean three different things. Each of those titles highlight a unique function within a clergyperson’s scope of duties.
The title ‘pastor’ is associated with the word ‘shepherd.’ When one functions in their pastoral role, they’re functioning like a shepherd, where the emphasis is on watching over, leading, and protecting the people under their care. This is why you sometimes hear a pastor refer to their congregation as their flock. Jesus understood that he was a kind of pastor to his people. In John 10 he calls himself “the good shepherd” and describes how he functions as such.
The title ‘priest’ points to a different role, that of one who comes before God on another’s behalf. Functioning in a priestly role, the clergyperson represents the congregation, often speaking to God on their behalf. The role of priest is also accomplished by performing the various rites and rituals associated with their tradition. So, even though you don’t think of me as a priest, I actually function as such on a regular basis. For example, when I offer my weekly “pastoral prayer” during our corporate worship, I function in a priestly role in that I talk to God on behalf of everyone listening to me. Theoretically, each of you should be able to affirm everything I’ve said in my pastoral prayer.
Did Jesus see himself as a priest? Well, in the sense that he interceded on another’s behalf, I’d say he probably did. In John 17, after a long teaching about his death, we read that Jesus then “looked toward heaven and prayed.” Up until then, he was talking to his disciples, but in chapter 17 he begins talking to God. In that prayer, he specifically prays for his disciples, saying, “I pray for them, for they are yours….Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name” (vv. 9, 11). And then a few verses later he prays for all believers of every time, saying, “My prayer is not for [my disciples] alone, but also for those who will believe in me through their message.” So, in this sense he often carried out a priestly role in his leadership.
Does anyone know the main vocational function associated with the title, “rabbi”? Answer: teaching. It’s my understanding that rabbis see teaching as a very important part of their clergy responsibilities. And of course, this was the role Jesus specifically assumed in his relationship with people. He was the rabbi/teacher who had the responsibility of teaching twelve disciples/students.
So, in the Gospels we see that Jesus functions in all three ways: as pastor, as rabbi, and as priest. But it’s the New Testament book of Hebrews in which his role as priest is specifically emphasized. But before we get into that, let’s take a moment to give it some context. And we have to go all the way back to the books of Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus to get this context.
You might recall that when God called Moses to lead his fellow Israelites out of Egypt, he complained that he couldn’t talk well, and could he find someone else instead. Interestingly, God didn’t tell Moses that he’d miraculously give him the gift of talking well but, instead, suggested that maybe his brother, Aaron, who did talk well, might come alongside him and speak to Pharaoh on his behalf. So, in that sense, Aaron functioned in a kind of priestly role.
Then later on, after the mobile tabernacle has been built and furnished, when it’s time to call forth the priests to perform the sacrifices, who does God call upon to do this? Aaron and his sons. So, they take on that important role, and Aaron becomes the first High Priest, or chief religious official within Israel’s religious system. Their important role of being Israel’s priests is passed down through Aaron descendants, and eventually it’s the Levites who are officially given that responsibility, because the Levites are the descendants of Aaron. The book of Leviticus, then, spells out all the details of the sacrificial system for the Hebrew people.
So, what was the main function of the priest in their religious system? They were the ones who received the offerings brought by the people and then offered them to God on the altar. The people themselves didn’t present their offering to God, the priest did. The priest acted as the intermediary. They made the offering on behalf of the people.
So, that gives us the first bit of context. But we need to back up into the book of Genesis to get the rest of the context for today’s reading from Hebrews.
Way back in Genesis 14, we’re introduced to a guy named Melchizedek. He’s only mentioned twice in the Old Testament; once in Genesis 14 and once in Psalm 110, which is only a passing reference to him. From v. 18, we learn only two things about Melchizedek. One, he was “king of Salem,” and two, he was “priest of God Most High.” In this context, “God Most High” is a clear reference to Yahweh, the God of Abraham, the God of the Hebrew faith. We meet Melchizedek when he comes out to greet Abraham after Abraham has been successful in battle. As a priest of God Most High, he gives Abraham a verbal blessing. And because he was a priest of God Most High, Abraham gave him an offering to then be presented to the Lord on his behalf.
But here’s the thing that makes this reference to him as a priest so interesting. Melchizedek was clearly a contemporary of Abraham since they meet face to face. But the Jewish Law, with its instructions about the Levitical priesthood and the system of offerings, wouldn’t come for another thousand years!!! That’s roughly how much time passed between Abraham and Moses. But remember I said that Melchizedek in mentioned in Psalm 110? Here’s the reference: “The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind: ‘You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek’” (v. 4). Who, exactly, has God declared to be a “priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek”? The person identified in verse 1, which says: “Yahweh says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right side until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.’”
Psalm 110 is what we call a Messianic psalm in that it points to the coming Messiah, who will sit at God’s right side. Christians, of course, believe that Jesus Christ is the Messiah. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and the Apostle Paul all quote Psalm 110:1 as proof of Jesus’ identity as the Messiah. The psalmist draws a connection between the Messiah and priesthood of Melchizedek. What was so special about the priesthood of Melchizedek? Only that nothing was known about his lineage, which is what they always said would be the case with Messiah. Even the author of Hebrews draws on this distinction, saying in 7:3, “Without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, resembling the Son of God, [Melchizedek] remains a priest forever.” Hebrews chapter 7 is where the author argues that Jesus is the fulfillment of Psalm 110, which makes him a priest of sorts.
More so, that Jesus’ Melchizedekian priesthood is superior to the Levitical priesthood. Why? Because, as Hebrews 7:16 puts it, “Jesus because a priest, not by meeting the physical requirement of belonging to the tribe of Levi, but by the power of a life that cannot be destroyed” (New Living Translation). In other words, Jesus’ priesthood is like Melchizedek’s in that it didn’t come from having a certain human ancestry, and it wasn’t dependent upon a human law, in this case, the Law of Moses. Jesus’ priesthood came with being the Messiah.
This now brings us back to today’s reading from Hebrews 9. Verse 11 says that Christ fulfilled the role of the high priest—and this is where the intermediary function of the priest really comes into play. In the Old Testament Jewish sacrificial system, once a year the high priest would enter the inner chamber of the Temple, called the Holy of Holies, or the Most Holy Place, with blood from the sacrifice and offer it to God on behalf of the entire nation, for the purpose of making atonement for their sins.
Like the Levitical high priest, Jesus, too, entered the Holy of Holies with blood for the atonement of sins, but it wasn’t an earthly temple he entered, it was the heavenly temple of his glory. And it wasn’t the blood of a goat or a calf he offered; it was his own. And it wasn’t upon a religious alter that he made his offering, it was the Cross of Calvary. As the eternal high priest, Jesus offered his own blood on the cross for the deep cleansing of our souls.
And herein lies another significant difference. According to Hebrews 9:13-14, the blood of a goat offered by the Levitical high priest had the effect of cleansing the peoples’ bodies from ceremonial impurity. It was a skin-deep cleansing. But the blood of Christ offered by himself had the effect of “purifying our consciences from dead works.” The Greek word for “consciences” denotes that part of the human soul which is created in God’s image. It’s the part of us which enables us to personally know God, to hear God, to be in relationship with God. It’s the part of us which comes into this world spiritually dead and disconnected from our Creator on account of sin. And it’s the part of us which comes to life when we come to faith in Jesus Christ. And the one and only thing that makes that possible is the shed blood of Jesus Christ.
In essence, the old system of making atonement for sins didn’t work in that it never really got to the heart of the matter. But when Jesus the eternal high priest in the order of Melchizedek went to the cross and shed his own blood, and then later entered the eternal holy of holies in heaven, that got to the heart of the matter. It addressed the true problem of the sin nature. Only Jesus’ blood can make a person truly right, or righteous, in God’s eyes.
The application for us is this: there’s a lot we can do to augment our salvation, but absolutely nothing can be done on our part to generate it in the first place. Salvation—a word which denotes being in right relationship with God wherein one is spiritually alive and forgiven of any and all spirit-deadening sin—is God gift to humanity. We can’t bring it about by living a good life, or being a really good person, or going to church every week, or giving away lots of money, or not living a sinful lifestyle, or receiving Communion every week, or even leading lots of people to faith in Christ. As wonderful as these may be, they get us no closer to salvation than if we lived a life of debauchery. And that’s because it’s only the sacrifice made by Jesus of himself, an offering made on behalf of sinful humanity, that cleanses the human soul and makes us truly whole.
Now, as I said, there’s a lot we can do to augment our salvation, things that will strengthen and deepen our faith, and things that will allow the light of Christ to shine within us, even to the point of drawing others to Christ. And by all means, I want to encourage every one of us to avail ourselves of such opportunities. That’s what we call discipleship. And it’s the call of every Christian. But the fact still remains, forgiveness of sins and blessings of eternal life are God’s gift to us, made possible through Jesus’ offering of himself on the cross as the Lamb of God, and made on behalf of all humanity as the high priest in the order of Melchizedek.
If and when you can internalize this truth, it will go a long way in releasing you from that uneasy sense that you’re not doing enough. Or that you’re not quite good enough. Or that you don’t have quite enough faith. Or that you could be doing more. Or that your faith could be stronger. When any of these perceptions of yourself have the effect of convincing you that improving yourself along these lines will make your standing with God better, then maybe you haven’t fully internalized this important truth yet. If you find yourself quietly beating yourself up for any of these things I just mentioned, the key to unlocking those spiritual handcuffs is to remind yourself as many times as you have to that you were purchased with the blood of Jesus Christ, and that alone makes you right in God’s eyes. Period. If need be, make it daily habit, if not hourly, of re-programming your brain to know and believe this deep and eternal truth. Jesus’ blood has made you whole. Let’s pray…