This week we have looked at Jesus the lamb of God, and Jesus the king the Jews. Tonight we are looking at Jesus the High Priest.
At the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, the Magi offer three gifts to the baby Jesus, as the hymn puts it, “sacred gifts of mystic meaning”. Frankincense was the sweet smelling incense used in the worship of the temple. It was the gift for a priest, and that gift foretold the ministry of Jesus as High Priest. The word priest translates a Latin word which means bridge-builder. As we look at Jesus that’s a key image to hold in mind, that he is a bridge builder, the one who builds a bridge to bring God to man and Man to God. The Garden of Eden is the story of a perfect creation, where God walks with Man, and that creation being separated from its creator by sin and rebellion against God. Sin has opened up a great chasm between creator and creation, and there is nothing we can do to cross that chasm. The role of the priest is to build a bridge across that chasm, to enable Man to stand once more in the presence of God.
In the letter to the Hebrews Jesus is described as a priest for ever of the order of Melchizedek. Who is Melchizedek? In Genesis 14 Abraham entered into battle to rescue his nephew Lot, who had been captured by the army of Elam. On his return Abraham was met by Melchizedek, who was both King of Salem and priest of the most high God. This man, whose name means “king of righteousness” blessed Abraham, and in return for the blessing Abraham gave him a tithe, 10% of all the spoils of the war. By this tithe Abraham acknowledged Melchizedek as the priest of God.
Years later Abraham’s great-grandson, Levi, was singled out by God to be the father of the priestly tribe. When the law was given on Mount Sinai to Moses, the levites were identified as the servants of the tabernacle, with the family of Aaron becoming the priests. The priests were responsible for making intercession to God for the people by offering the sacrifices demanded in the Torah. Among the priests one was selected as high priest, and he entered into the Holy of Holies once a year, on Yom Kippur, the day of Atonement, to place the blood of the sacrifice on the ark of the covenant. By these sacrifices, offered daily and yearly, the sins of the people were temporarily covered until the Messiah would come to take away their sin permanently.
So Jesus the High Priest stands in succession to Melchizedek and the Levitical priests. Jesus’ priesthood differs from theirs in that he offered only one sacrifice to atone for the sins of the whole world. His sacrifice is once-for-all. Like the priests of the Old Testament he stands in the gap between us and God, making the necessary sacrifice. By that sacrifice we have been made righteous and are now able to enter into the presence of God. This mediation of Jesus is permanent and continual. While his sacrifice was once-for-all, his mediation for us continues. He communicates the will of God to us through his teachings and through the Holy Spirit.
Perhaps the most crucial thing for believers to understand today is that it is because Jesus is our High Priest that we can approach God with confidence. We no longer need to go through a mediator, because he is the mediator of the new covenant. The chasm of sin has been breached by his sacrifice, the Temple curtain is torn in two, and entry into the presence of God is the privilege and the right of all who believe in Jesus. Hebrews 4:16 says since we have a great high priest, Jesus, the son of God, “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
Verse 15 describes him as one who has been tested in every respect as we are, yet without sin, and because of this he can sympathise with our weaknesses. What an amazing thought, that God sympathises with us. Do we picture the majesty of God, the grandeur of God, the unapproachability of God, the holiness of God. Jesus shows us another side of God, a God of mercy, a God who sympathises with us, a God who has come down from heaven, taken human form, lived a human life and shared or experience sot that he can fully and completely identify with us. Because he has shared in the depths of all human pain, agony and suffering, he is able not only to sympathise, but to offer mercy and help in time of need.
As we look at the life and ministry of Jesus, those are the qualities we see, sympathy, mercy, help. He reaches out and heals the deaf, the lame, the blind. He forgives the sinner and restores him. He share in grief as he stands and weeps with Mary and Martha at the tomb of Lazarus. As high priest, Jesus has not only bridged the chasm between God and Man, he has revealed the true nature of God.
From the beginning of his ministry until his dying breath, he exercised that dual role of revealing the invisible God, and being a bridge to bring mankind into the presence of God. Even as he hung on the cross that ministry continued. When the penitent thief turned to Jesus he opened to him the promise of paradise. Some of his final words were addressed to his mother and his beloved disciple, entrusting the one to the other.
One of the great paradoxes of faith is that Jesus is both the high priest and the Passover Lamb, he is the one who offers the sacrifice to atone for the sin of the world, and he is the sacrifice who is offered.
The High Priesthood of Jesus not only bridges the gap between God and Man, it also radically redefines our concept of worship. Much of the Torah was concerned with the sacrificial worship of the Temple and ritual purity. All that has ended, because sin has been atoned for. Now St Paul instructs us to offer our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God, which is our spiritual worship.
The offering is no longer the lamb, the offering is our lives – every aspect of who we are and all we do becomes an offering, in faith, to God. Worship is no longer restricted to a building or a place. The offering of our lives never ends. As we offer our time and talents to care for the poor and needy, to visit the sick, to bind up the broken-hearted, we are offering spiritual worship, an acceptable service to God.
All of that flows from the fountain of living water from which we drink in our times of corporate worship. As we break the bread and bless the cup we enter into Christ’s sacrifice. We don’t merely remember, or re-enact it, it is much deeper and more profound than that. When we celebrate the Eucharist time and eternity stand still, and we join in that upper room to become part of Christ’s offering. He, our great high priest, presides at the table, and we, his disciples are united with him and in him, and sent out to continue our offering in the world.