Jesus as Priest

priest

In all, Jesus Christ fulfills three offices: Prophet, Priest, and King. Last time we took a look at Jesus the last prophet – the prophet like Moses. It’s no wonder our Lord wanted His people to celebrate Communion and to remember His broken Body; broken for you. Not only is Jesus the Law Giver, He is also the Bread of Life – the new Moses. Moses was raised up out of Israel – the fulfillment of God’s promise. Like Moses, Jesus is leading us, His people, into the spiritual promised land.

But not only is Jesus the last prophet, He is also our priest. If the job of the prophet is to speak for God; to deliver the Word of God to the people, then the job of the priest is to provide access to God for the people.  On Mount Sinai, God gave Moses the Law. This was how God’s people of that day were to serve Him – by simply obeying that Law. But there was a caveat. The people couldn’t pick and choose which points of the Law to obey and which ones to ignore: they were to obey all points of the Law. It was an all or nothing proposition. If you wanted to be counted as a child of God, then you were on the hook to keep the whole Law. If you did that, great blessings awaited you. But if you broke just one point of the Law, God would not bless you and you would lose the joy a relationship with Him.

Of course, everybody broke God’s Law. That was by design. It’s not that God was being mean or pulling some kind of cruel prank on His people, it’s that the people were to learn something. God knew all about the weaknesses of His people, and He made special provision for those who broke His Law: a sacrifice could be offered and the relationship restored.

For centuries this was how it worked. Under the Levitical laws, the people of God had access to Him through the sacrifice of sheep, goats, turtledoves, and so on. For now, it was the ritual kept the doors of Heaven open. But when Christ came, everything changed.

But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation. 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, thus obtaining eternal redemption. The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! (Hebrews 9:11 – 14 TNIV)

The old way

The “old way” was given by God to His people.

Now the first covenant had regulations for worship and also an earthly sanctuary. (Hebrews 9:1 TNIV)

The first covenant was given at Mount Sinai and was chock full of rules and regulations for worship, and the plans for an earthly sanctuary. How the services were to take place was outlined by the Lord and they were to be conducted in the Tabernacle. The Sanctuary, part of the Tabernacle, had two parts. When the priest entered from the outer court, he would first come into the Holy Place. This Holy Place contained the seven-branched candlestick, which illuminated the room, and a table which contained the “bread of the presence,” twelve loaves of bread which represented the twelve tribes of Israel.

From the Holy Place, once a year the high priest would pass through a veil, and enter the Most Holy Place, or The Holy of Holies. The was the very private room in which the ark of the covenant sat. It was the most holy object of the Jewish faith. And here, once a year, every year, the high priest would sprinkle the sacrificial blood on the lid or the mercy seat of the ark.

That happened once a year, but every day, day in and day out, priests would enter into and work in and around the Holy Place, but the Holy of Holies was the “throne room” of Yahweh. Only the high priest could go into that room; only he could approach the ark of the covenant. But, he could only do this once a year. He couldn’t go in any time he wanted to. And when he entered, he had to bring a bloody sacrifice with him. This blood was offered for his sins and the sins of the people.

On this very special Day of Atonement, the high priest used two goats for a very special ritual.  First, there was the “scapegoat.” Upon this unfortunate animal, all the sins of the people were laid. It was all symbolic, of course, and the goat – this innocent goat – was led out into the wilderness, where he would carry the sins of the people away from the camp.

Second, the other goat became the sacrifice. It was taught that “the life is in the blood,” and this was the central idea of the sacrificial system. This poor animal that had done nothing wrong, had to die so that it’s blood could be taken and sprinkled on the altar and, symbolically, sprinkled on the people. Remember, the life was in the blood – it was in that blood – and God and the people partook of the same life in the sacrificial animal. These two disparate parties were thus brought together, or united, in this manner. Through this blood, they were made one, hence the name of this sacrifice: atonement.

The new way

For generations and generations, this was what happened. From the Tabernacle to the Temple, down through the centuries, these bloody yet meaningful sacrifices took place. The very fact that the Day of Atonement had to be observed every year showed its weakness. The priestly ministry ordained by God didn’t go all the way in meeting the need. It was inadequate. Everything the priests and the high priest did was all external and formal. It was right and proper for the priests and the high priest to do what they did – they were doing what God prescribed be done. It was right and proper that the people participate – they, like the priests, were doing what God told them to do – but it wasn’t enough. The meticulous observation of the law was, as the apostle Paul discovered, empty and altogether unsatisfactory.

If others think they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless. (Philippians 3:4 – 6 TNIV)

So, what was the point of it all? The law was to show the people that they needed something more and it served to prefigure a better system found in Jesus Christ. The old way didn’t fail the people; it succeeded in its purpose:

So the law was put in charge of us until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law. (Galatians 3:24, 25 TNIV)

But then, along came Christ!  When Jesus Christ came, He made the difference. His work on the Cross changed everything. What He did was superior in every way to the old way. The writer to the Hebrews gives a number of contrasts to show why Jesus’ was way superior:

Contrast One: the location.

But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation. (Hebrews 9:11 TNIV)

The priests did their work here on earth, in a localized place, for a certain group of people. Jesus did His work in the realm of the spirit. It’s true that Jesus was crucified and died on earth for everybody to see, but the work that set man free was all done in the heavenly Temple. His work was a spiritual work that met man’s greatest need. That need is universal – all men everywhere have a need only Jesus could meet. He needed a bigger tabernacle!

Contrast Two: the blood.

He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place… (Hebrews 9:12a TNIV)

The priests in the earthly Holy of Holies used the blood of goats and calves. Animals! They used the blood of animals to cleanse human beings. You don’t have to think about it too long before you realize that animal blood was wholly inadequate. Jesus Christ entered the heavenly Most Holy Place by means His own blood, shed on the Cross. His blood is the superior blood; the only blood that could enter Heaven.

Contrast Three: the once-for-all sufficiency of Christ’s work.

he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. (Hebrews 9:12b TNIV)

Jesus only needed to die and shed His blood ONE, single time for all men. Eternal redemption, by the way, is not unconditionally obtained, but made available to anybody who by faith claims it.  In most Bibles, the words “for all” are in italics, meaning they were added by the translators; they aren’t present in the original language. This tells us something: it’s all about what Jesus did. The emphasis in this verse is not on our need – which may be real and urgent – but on the finality of Jesus’ work. He entered once and only once into the heavenly Holy of Holies and He obtained eternal redemption. The priests did it continually; they weren’t good enough; their work wasn’t sufficient. Only Christ went in once for all, for all time.

There is a final contrast that relates back to the blood animals and the Blood of Christ.

The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! (Hebrews 9:13, 14 TNIV)

The inherent value of animal blood is essentially zero, but the inherent value of Christ’s blood is incalculable. And yet, this next-to-useless animal blood provided the smallest benefit to sinful man – outward cleanliness. The animal blood put the people in good standing in the community. But the blood of Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Son of Man, purifies sinful man from the inside out, making him acceptable to God.

And all this brings us to Hebrews 9:15 –

For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant. (TNIV)

Christ is the mediator – the High Priest – of the new covenant. This is an interesting verse that says something quite startling. Christ’s death was for sins committed under the old covenant. Another way to look at the issue is this: those who lived under the old covenant – all the Old Testament saints who took the earthly ritual seriously – were saved because they were looking forward to the coming of the great High Priest. God saved them on credit! The blood of all those animals did nothing for them. But their faith in something greater did.

Jesus Christ is the Great High Priest. That’s a term that may not mean a whole lot to us today, but it should. He did all the work to guarantee our free access to Heaven. His work was so complete, it never needs to be re-done. You can’t do His work. Your pastor or parish priest can’t do His work. Forgiveness of sins and your entrance into Heaven depends on you believing in what Jesus did and trusting that it was enough.

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