The Great High Priest
‘Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 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. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.’ (Hebrews 4:14-16, NIV)
In the last two Bible studies, we have looked at what it means to be priests of God – a royal priesthood or a kingdom of priests. If we are a priesthood, though, who is our head? Who serves as High Priest, ordaining us as priests and leading us in our life of service?
In the life of Israel, the Jewish priesthood held the primary responsibility for ordering the religious life of the nation, and conducting the sacrifices and worship of God, within God’s Temple. This priesthood was led by the High Priest, who was the most exalted religious figure in Israel. By the time of Christ, this office was held by a Roman appointee, who could equally be deposed at Roman will, but he was still a powerful figure, with not only cultic, but also judicial and administrative functions. Under Roman occupation, he was the Jewish ruler, though answerable to the occupying forces. Some strands of Jewish thought and ideology, such as that of the books of Maccabees, saw the High Priesthood and the monarchy as united in one person or family.
The religious role of the High Priest was crucial. He was the only person who could (at certain defined times of the year) enter the Holy of Holies where God’s holiness was thought to reside. This was not merely an extraordinary privilege, but also a weighty responsibility; he approached God in this way not on his own behalf, but as the representative of his nation. And his unique role required a uniquely stringent degree of ritual purity; unlike usual priestly duties, the High Priest’s role was not a shared responsibility, which others could cover. The priesthood and the Temple cult were central to Jewish religious life, and the High Priesthood was the most crucial figure of all.
And then, in AD 70, a Jewish rebellion led to the Temple being completely destroyed. Suddenly, there were no sacrifices, and no functioning priesthood. The Jews had rapidly to reconsider the essence and structures of their relationship with God, and different Jewish groups responded in different ways. One such group was the Jewish sect (not yet fully broken away) known as the Christians. It is possible – perhaps probable – that the Gentile portion of Christianity did not regard the Temple and its sacrificial cult as fundamentally important to them. But what of the Jewish Christians, such as the group of Hebrews to whom this epistle was written? How did they deal with the fall of the Temple? How did their theological thinking equip them to face life without the priesthood?
There are many ways of regarding Christ’s death and of understanding its effectiveness. Here is not the place to rehearse the imagery and atonement theories which have helped generations of Christians to comprehend the significance of the cross. But one powerful image has been that of the sacrificial victim – the lamb slaughtered at the altar. Hebrews also draws on this cultic, sacrificial context, but it focuses on the priest, not the victim. It emphasises in Christ, not the passive participant who suffers, but the active one, who places the offering on the altar – or rather, specifically, who enters beyond the veil into the Holy of Holies.
Christ, as the great High Priest, enters God’s presence on our behalf, just as the earthly High Priest would do at the appointed time. Here there are some crucial differences, however; his earthly counterpart would do so regularly, as the Law required, repeating the ritual each time. Christ, on the other hand, entered only once, with permanent effect. Furthermore, the mortal High Priest would enter on behalf of the people of God, who could not do so themselves; the ordinary business of living would not allow the levels of ritual purity needed, so the task was delegated to just one man. Christ, on the other hand, entered beyond the veil in order to open access to us, the priesthood or people of God. Being uniquely holy, he was pure enough not only to approach God’s holiness, but to open the way for us; his death and his priestly act confer holiness on us, so that we can follow where he leads.
So we have a great High Priest, whose status as the Son of God – whose very divinity, in other words – has enabled him to go through the heavens into the presence of God. But because he is able to sympathise with our weaknesses, and has been tempted as we are – that is, he shares our human nature – he is able to do this precisely as our representative. So through his incarnation and his life-giving death, Christ our great High Priest enables us to approach the throne of grace with confidence – confidence in our own holiness, not earned but given through Christ’s call and our own ordination into the priesthood which is the people of God!
Give thanks to the High Priest who not only approaches God on our behalf, but invites us to go with him into that glorious, holy presence!
The holiness which is given to us is indeed a gift of grace, which we could not and have not earned. But that doesn’t excuse us from trying, and from seeking constantly to grow in faith and holiness. Pray for God’s strength in this, and consider how, with God’s help, you might grow a little this month in purity of worship, remembering that the whole of your life is worship offered to God.
Priests followed a discipline of divinely appointed sacrifice, in response to God’s command. Browse the Bible, pray, listen to the word of God through other people, and consider what priestly task God is appointing you to carry out. You could try Micah 6:8 and Hosea 6:6 as a starting point. Make it a part of your daily prayer, constantly to ask, “What does God require of me?”