By Neil Earle
Quite often we in the Western world have problems with the notion of “priest” or “high priest.” It smacks of robes and gowns and complicated liturgies or as some call it “bells and smells" religion.
Then, too, words such as “propitiation” “oblation,” “expiation” or even “sacrifice” have such a Medieval unfamiliar feel to our ears. Yet the New Testament directs us to consider unabashedly one of the chief offices of Jesus the Christ as the Christian’s Great High Priest (Hebrews 8:1). “Fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess,” we are told in Hebrew 3:1-3.
Let’s do that in this brief study. Jesus as God’s faithful and infallible Hugh Priest is a major theme of the marvelously intricate Book of Hebrews. Hebrews is a sublime, even mystical, multifaceted treatise on the superiority of Jesus and His atoning work over any and all systems of religion, even those God himself had once ordained.
The original readers of Hebrews seemed to need this message more than others. They seem to have been Jewish Christians who were in danger of turning back to the Old Testament rituals contained in the tabernacle-temple system (Hebrews 10:35-39). Paul is correcting this tendency by showing the limitations of the Levitical priesthood instituted in the days of Moses and Aaron. Hence one key word in Hebrews is “better” – better priesthood, better tabernacle, better promises, better sacrifices. The incomparable Christ represented the infinitely superior reality to which the Old Testament shadow pointed (Hebrews 10:1).
So what did Jesus’ Priesthood involve and why is it so pivotal?
Hebrews 8:3 gets close to the answer when it states “every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices.” That much we know. A priest is someone who comes from among the people, someone appointed to intercede for the group, one who helps clear a path of reconciliation between a worshipper and his God through the effective use of prescribed offerings.
What makes Jesus the supreme High Priest? Because unlike the Jewish high priest he offered his own blood for our atonement (Hebrews 9:12). The priest was also the sacrifice. Jesus was sinless, and of a very different order than even the God-ordained Aaronic priesthood. He was faithful in all that God asked him to do. As William Barclay reminds us, Jesus’ self-offering was voluntary, rational and exceedingly moral: “The animal victim did not know what was happening; Jesus all the time knew what he was doing. He died, not as an ignorant victim caught up in circumstances over which he had no control and did not understand but with eyes wide open (Letter to the Hebrews, page 105).
The Edinburgh theologian Thomas Torrance explained how these truths tie together many other parts of Christian doctrine:
“Christ is priest and oblation in one. Atonement is Christ’s self-offering. That unity of person and work, of priest and sacrifice in him, means the final end of all ritual sacrificing. This self-offering of Christ is through the eternal Spirit and is therefore eternal. It is once for all – that is, once for all, both in the historical sense and in the eternal sense, but it is in the combination of the two senses that the finality of atonement is really consummated” (Torrance, Atonement, page 81).
By “both those historical and eternal aspects,” Torrance means to focus us on another aspect of Jesus’ dual role as priest and victim. He develops the twofold aspect of Jesus’ priesthood as the God-man, the One who reconciled heaven and earth. Jesus interceded for us God-ward as our high priest working out redemption on the cross. But Jesus was also sent among us from God as a perfect human being to render perfect obedience in the face of titanic pressure and qualify as the atoning sacrifice, the propitiation for human sin (Romans 3:25). This means we must also look at Jesus’ priestly work from the vantage point of life inside the Trinity.
“Propitiation” is a somewhat archaic word today but it essentially refers to an act whereby personal healing and reconciliation is effected between one or more offended parties. The powerful thing about the heavenly priesthood of Jesus is that he is both sent from God and also acceptable as representative of the human race. “Apostle” in Hebrews 3:1 means “one who is sent.” Jesus lived among us as the God-man, subject to all our temptations (Hebrews 4:15) but confirmed by his own determined will to be our reconciling sacrifice. God had elected Jesus to be our priestly representative before the world began (Revelation 13:8). He would be the only unblemished offering from among humanity.
Jesus came from the heart of the Godhead – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – to carry out the Father’s will through the power of the eternal Spirit (Hebrews 9:14). This made him the Mediator, the Intercessor not only between humankind and God but also between the Creator and his creation. Jesus unites, figuratively, heaven and earth. From this vantage point he is able to ultimately restore the whole cosmos to the perfect rule of God (Romans 8:19-21).
Our High Priest thus stands at the center of God’s plan of redemption. But even this is not all.
In the Levitical system there was a veil separating the priests from the Most Holy Place. In there went the High Priest once a year to sprinkle blood on the mercy seat and to make atonement for himself and the people. But this was the smallest foreshadowing of what was effected by Jesus in his role as Great High Priest. “He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood having obtained eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:12).
God’s intention went far beyond bringing a measure of relief for a physical people in a physical tabernacle in a physical nation. Jesus’ work as High Priest involved the entire human predicament, where sin and evil have lodged themselves deep within us. It went deep to the heart of our rebellion, slothfulness and neglect. Needed was a cleansing of the inner conscience. “He entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in His presence” (Hebrews 9:24).
As Torrance puts it:
“The whole teaching of Hebrews pivots upon the profound fact that Jesus Christ actually entered into our existence and actually shouldered our sin. As such in the fullest solidarity with us he acted for us in his own person…[Now] God regards and accepts us in the person of Christ. Thus when Christ offered himself in sacrifice and consecrated himself, he so did that for us that we were offered to God and we were consecrated in him” (Atonement, page 83). Ephesians 2:8 says so beautifully that God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms.”
In the Levitical system the priest laidhands on the bulls and goats being offered to convey the idea of identifying both sacrificer and offering. Jesus identified completely with us – by becoming one of us, by taking his blood symbolically through the veil and, amazingly, taking us with him.
Christians are told they are the friends of Jesus Christ (John 15:14). At conversion we put on Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:27). He clothes us with himself (Romans 13:14). These are powerful truths based on the solid reality that our Intercessor and High Priest takes us with him vicariously into the presence of the Father “beyond the veil.” He has made our forgiveness and eternal inheritance possible and then, “He gave gifts unto men” (Ephesians 4:8) – including the church, the teaching ministry and the gifts of the Spirit for future ministry.
The Book of Hebrews more than any other in Scripture, portrays Jesus the High Priest perpetually interceding in heaven for his people – something he does every day, every hour because we are still full of weakness and sin.
Every godly priest needs compassion and insight. They must feel sympathy for the offerer and his condition and also point him to something better (Hebrews 4:15). Now in Jesus’ case this is explained by what is called Incarnation and Ascension. By being formed in the likeness of sinful man Jesus entered into our life’s experiences of birth, loss, trials, testing and eventual defeat and even humiliation (but for the resurrection). Thus Hebrews 2:17, “For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God…because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”
The Jesus who never turned down a cry of help when he walked the dusty byways of Galilee, that Jesus is in heaven today, Jesus who died now glorified, able to be appealed to as the great High Priest. “Son of David, help me” was a cry that resounded from the sick and afflicted throughout the Gospels. We have the same pressing need for help and healing today. God has promised that our faithful High Priest will come to us when the trials of life seem unbearable (Hebrews 5:16). Compassion? Jesus defines it.
Having been both God and man, our High Priest is indeed “touched with our infirmities.” As Gerrit Dawson writes, quoting William Milligan, “Though in heaven, He bears upon His Person the marks of Calvary. He bears also in His heart the memories of Cana of Galilee, of Simon’s house, of the spot outside the little town of Bethany where Mary wept beside her brothers grave and He wept with her” (Jesus Ascended, page 51).
Our High Priest in heaven has walked the hardest trails of life before us. Our confidence in his priestly role takes us with him in the Spirit through the veil that would otherwise separate us now removed (Hebrews 6:19).
To see Jesus is to see the Father. As Mediator between God and men, His incarnation, resurrection and ascension have led to his High Priesthood forever. Rejoice, O Christian. He is with us till the end of the age, a priest for all centuries, for all people, all seasons.