Reading Hebrews – Jesus Our High Priest
Rev. Doug Floyd
As we continue reading Hebrews, we return to the theme of the weary pilgrim. We are surrounded by weary pilgrims. Our city, like many other communities, is filled with people who drifted away from faith, from church, from the communion of saints. The simple dailyness of life’s struggle can weary us and cause us to withdraw from worshipping together. Some may continue to worship at home in one form or another, but many simply stop.
If faith remains, it can easily become a sentimental reminder that God loves us. Simply stirring up the emotions to make us feel good may not connect us to the deep roots of faithfulness and may be limited to temporary moments of warm feelings. How do you keep hope alive in a world of weariness, a schedule filled with distractions, or an ongoing struggle with family or co-workers?
The writer of Hebrews addresses a people who once had zeal for the Lord even to the point of losing jobs and land and even being arrested. Now many of them are growing cold in faith and losing the flame of love. He keeps pointing them to Jesus. A renewed encounter with the Risen One who lives and walks among us can awaken dead and dying love for God.
Last week, I discussed how idolatry can displace our faith and our love. We may still confess the Lord while following desires that lead us away from trusting Him and living in His love. Over time, idolatry can deaden the soul and even dehumanize a people. We must heed the words of Hebrews by returning to Christ. Only He can reorient and restores us.
Rowan Williams writes, “we can rightly speak of Jesus as the heart of creation, the one on whom all the patterns of finite existence converge to find their meaning.”[i] Each day we re-turn to our Lord Jesus Christ as the source of life, of hope, of all existence. For today is the day of salvation and each day is today.
As we follow the reflections from the passage in Hebrews this morning, I want to encourage us in the active habit of meditating upon Jesus Christ. This is the discipline of thinking about Jesus and how the Good News addresses us in our current situation.
Years ago, A.W. Tozer both exhorted the church to think and lamented the lack of thought among Evangelicals. He writes,
“What we think about when we are free to think about what we will – that is what we are or will soon become. The Bible has a great deal to say about our thoughts; current evangelicalism has practically nothing to say about them.”
There was a fear that thinking might deaden faith or oppose faith. But we need only look across church history to discover passionate Christian thinkers who saw thinking and heartfelt passion and faith bound together. St Anselm exhorts his readers,
“Shake off your lethargy and set your mind to thinking over these things [of Christ]. Taste the goodness of your Redeemer, be on fire with love for your Saviour. Chew the honeycomb of his words, suck their flavour which is sweeter than sap, swallow their wholesome sweetness. Chew by thinking, suck by understanding, swallow by loving and rejoicing. Be glad to chew, be thankful to suck, rejoice to swallow.”[ii]
Jesus addresses the whole person and calls us to Love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength. We are called to think about Jesus, to think about what His life, death, and resurrection in relation to this day and this hour. This thinking is an active form of worship that can unite the feelings and actions in worship and service of Jesus Christ.
With that in mind, let’s look at today’s reading, which opens, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” (Hebrews 4:12–13).
As at the beginning of the book, we are reminded that God is addressing us through the words of the prophets. Across the ages, the written Word of God bears witness to His Son Jesus Christ and penetrates our hearts and minds that we might truly listen and behold our savior Jesus Christ. The Word of God pierces, instructs convicts, exposes, and penetrates to the very core of the hearer. As we turn to behold the speaker, we behold Jesus, our Great High Priest who has passed through the heavens and addresses us even now from the throne of God.
The writer of Hebrews returns again and again to the theme of Jesus as our Great High Priest. While other texts may allude to Jesus as priest, Hebrews is “the first and only place the language of Jesus as High Priest appears.”[iii] Jesus is not simply a high priest, but the Great High Priest who brings to fulfillment this role for all time.
In ancient Israel, the priests were servants of the Lord teaching and offering sacrifices to keep Israel and the land holy, so that the people could fulfill their priestly function of blessing all nations. The priests and specifically the high priest had to remind separate from the people in many ways such as their clothing, marriage, and even routines of family life. The High Priest of Israel could not attend any funeral or exhibit marks of grief. He had to remain completely separate, that is holy and set apart. He could not even have skin blemishes or other conditions.
The High Priest oversaw the work of the priests while also offering atonement for the whole nation. He made sure that worship was offered according to the plan handed down on Mt. Sinai. While he was to intercede on behalf of the people, he had to remain separate, unblemished, and aloof from the people.
The writer of Hebrews tells us that Jesus is the Great High Priest, but this seems odd because Jesus is not aloof, dwells among the people, and even dwells with unclean people. What is going on? First, the writer of Hebrews does not suggest that Jesus is from the Aaronic priesthood.
Rather, he suggests that Jesus has been appointed priest by the Father in heaven by quoting Psalm 110:4,
“You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.” (Heb 5:6)
The holiness of Jesus is not external like the ancient High Priests of Israel. His holiness is internal because He is the Son of God. Jesus has been appointed High Priest “not on the basis of a legal requirement concerning bodily descent, but by the power of an indestructible life.” (Heb 7:16)
Just as the angels serve Jesus and just as the life and ministry of Moses pointed to Jesus, the role of the ancient High Priest was incomplete, pointing to Jesus as the fulfillment of priestly service. Thus Jesus is the Great High Priest that gives new meaning to the whole understanding of priesthood.
Jesus has entered fully into our weaknesses, suffering our sufferings, faced our temptations, and yet He was and is absolutely holy and pure. Thus he not only can identify with us in our weakness, he intercedes from our position of weakness even as He sits at the right hand of the Father.
When Jesus entered history, once for all, he did not serve in the Temple in Jerusalem. He entered into the lives of the poor, neglected, and common people of Israel. He served as a carpenter before entering His ministry. Jesus was not aloof, separated from death and pain. He could be found in the graveyard with the Gaderene demoniac, or at the Tomb of Lazarus, grieving with the family. He stepped into the middle of the feasts of the people from weddings to meals with Pharisees to lunch with the sinner, Zacchaeus.
Jesus enters fully into every aspect of human experience and yet, he is holy and pure on the basis of an indestructible life. When we behold Jesus in the Gospels, we are beholding the Son of God in the midst of the world. Fully God and Fully Man.
Just as the ancient priests and High Priests served to preserve true worship, Jesus is raising worshippers who worship in spirit and truth. The ancient priesthood functioned on behalf of all Israel so that the children of Israel could serve as a nation of priests, bringing the blessing of God to the world. They could not actually fulfill that high calling, but Jesus does. In Christ, the people of God become a nation of priests and kings, a royal priesthood bringing the blessing of God to the world.
We can get some sense of this priestly ministry by looking to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith. He is priest to all creation, to humanity, and before the Father.
Think for a moment of His relation with the created world. When he speaks of the kingdom of God, he suggests an ancient image of kingdom will finally be made manifest when the mustard tree provides refuge for all the birds of the field. The fully manifest kingdom of God will be a refuge for all creatures of the air, land, and sea. He calms the troubled sea in the words, “Peace be still.” He gives thanks for the bread and feeds a multitude. When Jesus interacts with his created world, it is blessed and becomes the vehicle of blessing. Mud opens blind eyes, water becomes a new birth, oil bears the healing power of God. Jesus breaks the bread and blesses the wine, offering his body and blood for the life of the world.
In the priestly mindset of Jesus Christ, creation begins to reveal a glimpse of the glory that God the Father set in motion on the first day of creation.
Jesus priestly ministry extends to humanity as He brings healing grace to the blind, the lepers, the lame, and the deaf. He reaches beyond the people of Israel to extend God’s blessing to the nations. He welcomes the Samaritan woman at the well, the Canaanite woman with a sickly daughter, and the Roman Centurion. He gathers those on the outside and brings them inside. The blessing promised to Abraham is flowing through Jesus to the sick, weak, sinful and heavy laden. He welcomes all humanity to the table of the Lord and offers his own life as a perfect sacrifice for sin. Christ makes a way for all humanity to come to the Father.
Finally, He brings perfect worship to the throne, interceding for us day and night. Every prayer we pray in broken words and from unclean tongues, His Spirit lifts these prayers to the Father through the priestly ministry of Jesus. These prayers and cries and songs become holy incense before throne of God. In Christ, all creation finally enters the song of worship before the Father in heaven.
The writer of Hebrews exhorts us to listen to Jesus, to hold fast to Jesus, to enter the rest of Jesus, to draw near to God in Jesus. He is not aloof. He is not beyond our grief. He is not uncaring. Rather, he knows our weakness, our suffering, our grieve, our temptation, our sin. Let us draw near to God in him, finding grace in time of need.
And let us go forth in Jesus as his priests for the world, bringing blessing, healing, mercy, and grace.
[i] Williams, Rowan. Christ the Heart of Creation (Kindle Locations 106-107). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
[ii] Anselm,. The Prayers and Meditations of St. Anselm with the Proslogion (Classics) (Kindle Locations 5486-5489). Penguin UK. Kindle Edition.
[iii] William L. Lane, Hebrews 1–8, vol. 47A, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1998), 65.