Jesus is Our Great High Priest
Temptation is always before us. Trouble is a regular part of our lives. What a struggle it can be to live and to hold on to our Christian faith. But we are not alone. The hymn writer reminds us where to turn – “To whom but you, who can alone for sin atone, Lord, shall I flee?” Our trust and confidence is in our Savior. He gives us strength to overcome temptation. He comforts us in trouble. He alone has secured our salvation.
The letter to the Hebrews focuses our attention on Christ Jesus as our Savior and leads us to trust only in him. The letter was written to people in danger of losing their faith. The first recipients of this letter faced the threat of persecution and a temptation to return to Judaism – to all the Old Testament ceremonies and to look at fulfilling the law as a way to earn God’s favor; these things put them in spiritual danger. The writer encourages them to cling to Jesus; not to go back to the empty forms of the law, to the burden of law. The writer constantly reminds his readers that Christ is better than the Old Testament forms, which only pointed forward to the Savior.
While we aren’t tempted to go back to Old Testament Judaism, and probably don’t really understand all that would mean – this letter still speaks to us today. Like those Hebrew Christians, our lives are filled with temptations and troubles. We too need the encouragement to hold onto Christ and to reject the emptiness and the burden of work-righteousness. Our sinful flesh still wants us to pat ourselves on the back, to think that we are pretty good people. The temptation is there for us to look to ourselves for assurances that we are alright with God. But salvation through the law is impossible and to try can only become a burden too big for us to carry. The only way of salvation is through the perfect sacrifice of our Great High Priest Jesus Christ. Last Sunday, we were assured that we have a certain rest in the forgiveness of sins and ultimately in the glories of heaven. That rest is ours and is established through a mediator – our Great High Priest Jesus. This morning, our reading directs our attention to that Great High Priest.
The Old Testament high priests served as a go-between to represent the people to God. At the heart of Israel’s worship was all the sacrifices which the law required. There were countless sacrifices which were repeated again and again – day after day, year after year. Those sacrifices didn’t actually pay for even one sin. Those sacrifices all pointed forward to the one sacrifice which Jesus, our Great High Priest, would make to pay for all sin. Many of those sacrifices were for individual sins. There were sacrifices for individuals for purification, for thank-offerings. All the sacrifices had to be made by the priests – so the people had to go through them.
By requiring a mediator, God impressed upon his people their sinfulness and the result of sin – sin separates from God. “But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear.” So the people could not bring their gifts and sacrifices directly to God, they needed a mediator.
But every time the people had to go to the temple and have the priest make sacrifice or intercession for them, in that priest they would also see a picture of the Savior to come. God speaking to the Savior in Psalm 110 in words of prophecy points to the priestly office of the Savior – The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind: “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.”
The Old Testament priests all came from the line of Levi. This wasn’t because Levi deserved it. Levi and his brother Simeon had taken matters into their own hands and had taken revenge killing a city of men when their sister was raped. Levi had been involved in the plot to sell his brother Joseph and then lied to his father with the story of how Joseph had been killed by a wild animal. It was God’s mercy that chose Levi and his descendants for this special position.
In contrast to the priests of the Old Testament who trace their ancestry from Levi is Melchizedek. Melchizedek is a priest and king who appears suddenly at the time of Abraham. We are given no ancestry of Melchizedek. Obviously, he didn’t come from the line of Levi, since Levi wasn’t born yet. He was a great-grandson of Abraham. Melchizedek blessed Abraham and Abraham paid honor and tribute to this priest and king – showing him to be greater than Abraham. In Melchizedek we have another shadow of the Christ. The Savior would serve as priest and king. The Savior too would not get his priesthood by natural descent, but directly from the Lord.
So we have a much greater High Priest to represent us. Jesus is our go-between. “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men.” Jesus’ work as our High Priest continues. He lives to intercede for us. What a comfort for us.
In fact, we are now priests and heirs of God through our Savior and Mediator, Jesus. The apostle Peter declares, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” The New Testament Church is the universal priesthood of all believers who may come before God with praise and prayer. We now have the right and privilege to go directly to the Lord with our prayers and praise. What a comfort.
What a comfort as well, to know that when we suffer, when we feel alone, when we face any trouble in this life – Jesus knows.
The writer makes the point that the Old Testament high priests were “able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness.” Jesus, the very Son of God, became a true human being – like us. What is more he too suffered and he understands and he knows just exactly how to help us. We can go to him in prayer and know that he will hear and answer. He suffered the very pains of hell so that we would never have to. He suffered so that we might instead receive eternal salvation. He will take care of all our needs. It is Jesus who joins us together with God and every blessing. It is Jesus who is now before the Father in heaven and intercedes for us. It is Jesus who is our Way to the Father and to eternal life and salvation.
The Old Testament priests faithfully followed the commands the Lord gave them. The law was a long list of regulations that had to be carried out. As our Great High Priest, Jesus obeyed the commands of the Lord. In fact, Jesus perfectly obeyed every last command that the Lord gave. He was perfectly obedient in carrying out all of God’s plan for our salvation. We see that willing obedience in Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before his crucifixion. That is where the writer of the letter to the Hebrews takes us – there Jesus “offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death.”
Jesus prayed, ““My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.” Jesus knew all that was about to take place. Remember that Jesus, the Son of God, is also fully human. Human flesh does not easily submit to such pain as Jesus would endure, especially if it doesn’t have to. And in addition to that, Can you imagine how horrifying it must have been for the Holy One of God, the perfectly innocent Son of God, to feel the shame and guilt of every human’s sin? But Jesus chose to be led to the cross. Jesus chose to place himself in the hands of his heavenly Father. “Your will be done,” Jesus prayed. He subjected his will and choice to that of God the Father.
What do we learn from Jesus’ prayer, from his obedience? First, we marvel at the amazing, steadfast love of God for all humanity.
But when Jesus said, “Your will be done,” he also gave us an example for our prayers. We want our will to be done. It is difficult to pray, “Your will be done.” It’s difficult to pray that when we feel the pain or sorrow of tragedy and difficulty. But God’s plan now is to bring us all safely to heaven. He will do whatever he must do in order to make that happen. Even our suffering and sorrow follow God’s plan to bring us to heaven. We can pray, “Your will be done, Lord, that my friends and my family might join me in heaven.” Then we trust God to carry out the plan, even if at times we don’t understand. If God planned in eternity to let his Son suffer in my place, how can God not have a plan that will bring me and all believers to heaven?
As we note Jesus’ obedience, we are also led to confess our disobedience. How easy for us to choose our own way. We often have trouble following God’s will when it means that our lives might be more difficult. How hard to follow the Lord’s will when it means sacrifice. How hard to always put the Lord first in everything. Sometimes God’s word tells us things that we don’t like to hear. Sometimes God’s word can bring ridicule from others. Following God’s will, means deny self and taking up our crosses and following him. At times it can be easy for us to disobey the Lord. We fail. We need a Savior.
And so Jesus went forward to die for us. Obedience meant that Jesus had to suffer. At first glance, it might appear that God didn’t answer Jesus’ prayers. He could have saved him from death, but Jesus died. But remember Jesus prayed that God’s will be done. That meant he had to suffer and die. God the Father answered Jesus prayer by sending an angel to strengthen him. We are told in the Gospel of Luke “An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him.”
And so Jesus completed the work he had come to do – the work of rescuing us sinners from death and hell. Our perfect High Priest, through his sufferings and death – “became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” Jesus’ obedience – his cross, his tomb, his resurrection was brought to completion and God’s plan of salvation was completed – made perfect, fulfill.
We by faith listen and obey. Jesus’ obedience has gained heaven for us – not our own obedience. Our obedience is a product of faith, an outward sign that faith is present. In fact the apostle John writes, “we obey his commands and do what pleases him. And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us.”
Jesus made one sacrifice that paid for all sin for all time. Our salvation is certain. What a comfort that is for us. What a comfort to have such a Great High Priest. Our Great High Priest, who suffered and died for us, rose victorious. He lives and he lives to represent us, to intercede for us now before God the Father’s throne of grace. What comfort and assure to have such a Great High Priest.