Jesus Our High Priest—the Anchor for Our Soul
Unlike our beloved Anglican cousins, Presbyterians don't believe that it is right to ordain priests into the church. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t think that we need a priest. On the contrary, we most desperately need a priest! Not a mere human priest, however, but the one great High Priest, Jesus Christ.
For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness. Because of this he is obligated to offer sacrifice for his own sins just as he does for those of the people. And no one takes this honor for himself, but only when called by God, just as Aaron was. (Heb. 5:1-4)
First, what is a priest? A priest is a go-between, someone who represents God before humanity, and humanity before God. A go-between is needed because God is holy, and we are not.
The Holy God hates sin with a passion and breaks out against it with fierce anger (remember the Flood, the Ten Plagues, the Exile...). But we are sin-full. In the West Australian town of Greenough, constant strong winds have bent the trees to grow right-angled to the ground. Humans are bent by sin to do what God has forbidden, and to fail to do what God has commanded.
Sinners cannot stand in God’s holy presence without being destroyed.
This is why Isaiah said “Woe to me! I am ruined!” when he found himself in the presence of the “Holy! Holy! Holy! LORD Almighty!” (Isa. 6:1-5). This is why the Beloved Disciple, confronted by the Holy Son of God, fell at his feet “as though dead” (Rev. 1:17).
Sinful humanity must come to God to plead for his mercy and blessing. But how can we? It isn’t safe to be around him, since we would be destroyed in his presence like a tissue in a bonfire, like a comet straying near the sun, disintegrated to ashes by the nuclear heat.
God on his side longs to bring us grace, forgiveness, and blessing. But how can he? His holy presence would destroy us, we who are fouled black by sin to our very core.
Two nations are at war, trying with might and main to obliterate one another. If there is to be any dialogue, any hope of reconciliation, a go-between is needed: traditionally, someone from neutral Switzerland. We need a Switzerland: a go-between to approach God on our behalf, to plead for his mercy and blessing; and someone who can come from God to us, to bring mercy and blessing. That is what a priest is. He represents sinful humanity before Holy God, and Holy God before sinful humanity.
A priest must have two qualifications.
First, in order to represent humanity, a priest must be one of us. He must know what we know, he must have felt and experienced what we have felt, to plead for us from a place of personal knowledge and encounter. Yet, though human, he must be sinless, so that he can enter Holy God’s presence without annihilation.
Second, in order to represent God, the priest must himself be divine. A true mediator between God and man must himself be—a God-man.
A priest has duties to perform.
In order to reconcile Holy God and sinful humanity, the priest must satisfy God’s demand for the execution of just punishment upon human sin. God can no more overlook and disregard sin than a human justice can overlook premeditated murder. If God and humanity is to be reconciled, human sin must be dealt with.
How can God bless sinful humanity, when he must punish us? God in his wisdom and grace has provided a sacrifice: a means by which our sin can be punished in another, in a substitute.
Just punishment for our sin can be executed upon the substitute, so that we may instead be blessed. The priest can make this sacrifice, and then bring evidence to God that the sacrifice has been made, and that sin has been justly punished. The priest brings the blood of the slain victim: “Look, here is the evidence that this person’s sin has been punished, that justice has been administered.”
God sees the blood of the substitute, and his holy justice is satisfied. The person for whom the sacrifice was made is no longer the object of his wrath: for his wrath has already fallen upon the sacrificial victim.
Then God sends the priest back to the people he represents: to pronounce God’s forgiveness and favor, God’s promises and reassurance.
The high priest was Israel’s only priest.
This was the awesome office and duty of the Old Testament priest: he was a mutual representative of Holy God and sinful humanity; he brought bloody evidence to God that Israel’s sin had been justly punished; he took God’s blessing to Israel, whose sin had been lifted.
The singular magnificence of the dress of the high priest showed that he was actually Israel’s only priest—the other “ordinary priests” merely served as his assistants. He wore a linen turban, with a gold plate engraved with the words “Holy to the LORD.” Over his heart he wore a breastplate, set with twelve precious jewels each engraved with the name of a tribe of Israel. On his shoulders he bore two stones engraved likewise with the names of the twelve tribes. Thus, he bore the nation upon his heart and shoulders, and the hope of all Israel rested upon him.
And once a year, on the Day of Atonement, he entered into the Most Holy Place of the Tabernacle, where the Ark of the Covenant was placed—between whose golden cherubim God was enthroned. He came on behalf of all Israel, bringing the blood of a sacrifice, a goat slaughtered on behalf of the people. Thus he communicated to God: “The sin of the people has been paid for. Your holy justice is satisfied. Forgive your people, and fulfill your covenant promises to them.” From God’s presence he returned to the people, to declare them clean from all sin (Lev. 16:30).
Though this ritual was spectacular, Hebrews says that Israel’s high priests were only a picture and shadow of the one true and heavenly High Priest: God’s Son, Jesus Christ.
How do we know that the Old Testament high priests were not the true and actual High Priest?
First, because they did their job not in God’s true throne room, but in an earthly tabernacle, a mere picture and representation of the heavenly reality.
Second, because the high priests offered the blood of sacrificed animals to God, and the blood of animals can never pay for the sins of a human being (Heb. 10:4). Thus, the sacrifices they brought were pictures of a coming future reality.
Third, because these high priests were themselves sinful! They could never safely enter the true presence of God.
Jesus, however, is the true High Priest.
The author of Hebrews states,
So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him,
“You are my Son,
today I have begotten you”;
as he says also in another place,
“You are a priest forever,
after the order of Melchizedek.” (Heb. 5:5-6)
The full significance of “the order of Melchizedek” will be explained later in Hebrews. Suffice to say that the true High Priest would have to come from an order quantumly different from that of the sinful earthly priests, and Jesus comes from this different order, the “order of Melchizedek.”
And Jesus proved himself to be a perfect representative of humanity:
In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek. (Heb. 5:7-10)
Jesus prayed for us:
Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. (Mark 1:35)
He brought petitions on our behalf:
“Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name.” (John 17:11)
“Protect them from the evil one…. Sanctify them by the truth.” (John 17:15-17)
“Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory.” (John 17:24)
And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. (Luke 22:44)
Even while they pounded spikes through his hands and feet, he cried:
“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)
And Jesus learned to be obedient to God:
[He] grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men. (Luke 2:52)
He suffered—not least in the crucible of his desert temptations—and his suffering taught him obedience and dependence upon God.
And so Jesus became a High Priest perfectly equipped to represent us.
The author of Hebrews goes on to declare the following:
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. (Heb. 4:15)
If, as I believe to be true, Hebrews is a recorded sermon, the preacher seems conscious right here that what he is saying is quite challenging. Perhaps the congregation was beginning to fade, thinking, “This is all so theological and theoretical: can’t we just get back to the simple basics!”
And so he says:
About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permits. (Heb. 5:11-6:3)
If we are not going to fall away from Christ, if we are going to make it, then we need deep and wide knowledge.
The reason is this: we are attacked on a hundred fronts with a hundred brutal weapons—untold trials and temptations attacking the mind, soul, and spirit. We can only resist these attacks if we know how to answer them.
If we feed on milk, we will remain defenseless infants, gurgling and kicking helplessly with our fat little legs. My son plays Rugby Union. It is a tough game, and he would never last if he lived off milk and baby food. He needs meat and solid food if he is going to survive the scrum, if he is going to tackle his opponents into the ground, and if he is going to break through to the try line. This is why Sunday preaching is so important, and Bible studies and reading and self-feeding.
This is the meat you need—to know that Jesus is your great High Priest.
Are you falling prey to discouragement and temptation? Are you falling over at every struggle? This is the meat you need—to know that Jesus is your great High Priest:
We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where our forerunner, Jesus, has entered on our behalf. He has become a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek. (Heb. 6:19-20)
We are ships in a black and towering gale. With Jesus as your High Priest, you are anchored behind the veil into the presence of God himself: anchored to his forgiveness, and anchored to his blessing, favor, and love. You are anchored there because Jesus is standing right there, representing you. He brings the blood of a sacrifice—his blood—evidence that your sins have been punished and dealt with. With Jesus as your High Priest you have absolute assurance that you are free from condemnation. And he brings to you, from God, abundant mercy, forgiveness, and life.
And because Jesus knows you—for he himself endured trials and temptations—he brings you exactly the help you need for each and every daily trial. Every trial. In Jesus Christ alone you have a firm and secure anchor for your soul.
Campbell Markham is a Presbyterian pastor in Hobart, Tasmania. He blogs at Campbell Markham: Thoughts and Letters.
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